Joseph Strickland On Filmmaking and Inspirations


When did you realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Growing up, I was able to watch a lot of classic movies ranging from the 1930's film noir masterpieces to old monster movies. I loved everything from the Golden Age of Hollywood era. After watching movies by Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and so many other legendary filmmakers, I knew that someday I would create something for the big screen.


When did you make your first film and what was it like to work on your first film project?

After watching the Jeffery Dahmer trial on TV, I was curious as to why his childhood wasn't examined, detailing his upbringing and the circumstances surrounding his youth. The whole thing intrigued me, and in 1992 I began to write out a screenplay, titled "Dual Mania," that was to be inspired by his life. I then decided to make this suspense thriller my film directorial debut, and to shoot it in my hometown of Chicago. At the outset, I didn't realize how much hard work it takes to make a feature film. And even after several years of extensive research with mental health professionals and over a dozen screenplay drafts, I was still surprised, on the first day of shooting, that each day would turn out to be a 14- to 16-hour workday. But I thank GOD that I was blessed to have a great team of creative collaborators working with me, starting with Cat Ellington, whom I met in Chicago after returning from Wisconsin. I first hired her as a production assistant, but then I promoted her to the position of executive casting director after I noticed that she had a great eye for spotting talent as we were looking over casting choices for the lead and supporting actors. After many false starts and struggles to find the financial backing to begin production, the making of "Dual Mania" was, overall, a great experience that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.


What kind of films inspired you as a director?

I was inspired by films like "Metropolis" and "M" by Fritz Lang; "Psycho" and "Vertigo" by Alfred Hitchcock; "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange" by Stanley Kubrick; "The Conversation," "Godfather I," "Godfather II," and "Apocalypse Now" by Francis Ford Coppola; and "Blue Velvet" by David Lynch.


What genre of filmmaking are you trying to create in your work?

I tend to be drawn to the thriller genre and all of its the subgenres, including film noir, suspense, and psychological. I am attracted to the duplexity of the seemingly normal appearances that most people put on for public display as a front, all the while shielding a darker embodiment behind the false masks. Such individuals pique my interest and curiosity, and the thriller genre is a focal point for this sort.


Please name three of your most favorite directors?

Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polanski.


What were some of the challenges of making an independent film for you?

One of the biggest challenges to making an independent film is not only the lack of funding but also finding the right collaborators who have the same passion and strong commitment that I have for the project. We were running into financial situations where the money was there but suddenly fell through at the last minute during principal photography. And lastly, finding the proper business partners who have enough film experience and a willingness to take on a challenge. Because let's face it, there aren't many feature films directed by African-American filmmakers who choose to turn a spotlight on opioid abuse, institutionalized racism, and mental health.


What was it like for you to pursue a career in the film industry and some of the greatest obstacles that you dealt with?

I got my start working on a student film called "Daily Mass" and doing extra work on big budget films. The latter was my way of getting on film sets to see what the crews were doing so that I could become more familiar with the various jobs needed to make a film. I also worked at a Chicago cable television station as a director, producer, editor, set designer, lighting director, and cameraman so that I could experiment and learn different techniques for ideas I was working on beforehand. Trying to get work as a production crew member is tough for anyone in this industry, but it can be especially daunting for a minority, specifically African Americans. And the same thing goes for someone looking to write scripts. It's all about who you know and whether or not an opportunity present itself to you. in many cases, it doesn't. So I decided to start my own film production company, Vital Vision Productions, and set my sights on writing, directing, and producing independent feature films and other visual projects.


Do you recommend film schools or does making a film teach you more than a film school?

In my opinion, going to a film school or learning the craft of filmmmaking on the set can work either way. For some people, film schools offer students the ability to learn structure, theory, production interaction, etc. But there are also times when working on film sets and getting involved with productions can be just as invaluable, if not practical, because people tend to find out that learning from mistakes, listening to mentors and building connections with future collaborators can have a powerful impact on not only their lives but also the ones around them.

How challenging is it to distribute indie films and find an audience for indie films?

It can be a difficult road ahead for a filmmaker if he or she does not have a plan in mind when an idea for a story starts to take shape in the early stages. In my opinion, creative people must first think of who the target audience is for their project, and then they would need to concentrate their efforts on attracting a distributor, or producer, who can shepherd their project along and work together with them to create a list of financiers to forge a film business plan. Only then can anyone pursuing a dream in filmmaking actually make their project a reality.


How can cinema improve the world and make it a better place?

I believe that cinema can help shine a spotlight on certain people, cultures, and ideas that normally would not get any attention from the major studios. Cinema can also be used to dispel stereotypes, misinformation, propaganda, and untruths by showing some form of truth, or by telling a story as truthfully as possible. I can remember seeing the film "Claudine," starring James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll, and being moved to tears as a result of its storyline, which featured a Black family in an urban neighborhood struggling to stay together. In the same vein, I saw the film, "The Bicycle Thief," and was moved just as deeply emotionally. So cinema can have a powerful impact on an audience by showing people their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears, their courageousness, their humanity.


Why do you make films?

I make films because I love storytelling. I love the whole process of sitting around a campfire or table and telling stories that fascinate people. After I began drawing at an early age, I soon wanted to tell more of the backstory of my drawings and oil paintings so I began to write out short stories. Soon thereafter, I moved on to writing screenplays since I already created storyboards to accommodate the stories. From there, I had a natural inclination to take all of these elements and put them together; hence, the concept of filmmaking. Creating films stems from an impulse to tell stories visually. And I'm naturally drawn to that.


What is your next project and what are you currently working on?

I'm in development on my second feature film, tentatively titled "The Crimson Sun." It is about a family that has to travel across the country to visit relatives due to an unfortunate tragedy. It's about how violence at home can spill out into the community, and how long-held secrets sometimes refuse to lie dormant as they have a strange way of emerging out of the darkness.


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© Toronto Film Mag I 2020