Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
Joseph Pepitone: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Life at home was good. My parents were hard working middle class people and I always got along really well with my brother. It was a pretty normal childhood. Well, normal might be stretching it.
Film Courage: Which of your parents do you resemble most?
Joseph: It’s a pretty even split. I wouldn’t say I’m more like one or the other. Depends on the situation and how I react. I definitely was not adopted.
Film Courage: Did your parents lend support toward creativity or encourage another type of career/focus?
Joseph: My parents always encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do as long as I really went after it and didn’t half-ass it. They wanted me to be a lawyer, but I think they thought they had a smarter kid then they really did. The fact they thought I could do it was encouragement enough.
Film Courage: How would you describe yourself?
Joseph: I would like to think I’m a loyal person. That is very important to me.
Film Courage: Can you recount the first story that Billy and you developed as kids which showed promise even as children?
Joseph: When I was in third grade, I had to do a writing assignment. My brother helped me with it and we came up with a story called Upside Down Brown. It was about a kid whose body was completely upside down. He died at the end when it rained and water went up his nose and he drowned. Because he was upside down of course. Not sure if that showed promise because I didn’t get a good grade. I think my teacher found it a little to morbid, but what does she know about art.
Film Courage: Did you go to film school?
Joseph: No, St. John’s University.
Film Courage: When did you begin doing stand-up comedy? Why did you stop? What were your sets about?
Joseph: I started in college and stopped about 5 minutes later. I’m kidding. I did it for a few years but I didn’t put the time into it that you need. To be successful you have to be doing sets every night. I started working in television and just couldn’t give it that kind of time. My sets were basically anything I found absurd and ridiculous. I never got into a groove where I found my voice. I think the films I write now are my stand up outlet.
Film Courage: Who in your life would you like to thank and for what?
Joseph: Wow, there are a lot of people. My wife, obviously. She has a front row seat to the craziness. She puts up with a lot and really is my partner in everything. My parents set me up to go on this path and my brother has been a great collaborated and partner. Plus there are close friends that whether they know it or not have been inspiration for a lot of the material I write. A lot of the writing comes directly from conversations we have had. And my kids. Everything I do is for them.
Film Courage: What inspired the story for The Jersey Devil?
Joseph: After I had finished writing my first film Stuck in the Middle, which takes place in Purgatory, I thought a different take on Hell would be a great companion piece. I have a weird fixation with the afterlife. There is an infinite amount of material with the unknown. And living in Jersey, I thought that would be the perfect backdrop.
Film Courage: How long was the idea floating around in your head before you started writing it?
Joseph: Not very long. I got the idea right after Stuck in the Middle and went right into it. My brother and I try to have a lot of scripts and ideas stored up and ready to go.
Film Courage: How long did it take you to write the first draft? What about rewrites?
Joseph: The first draft always goes quick and is always terrible. It was about two weeks. But I usually use that draft just to get the story on paper. I don’t write outlines. I just write the story as it comes to me. Then I go back and write and re-write. The re-writes take a while because I’ll agonize over each scene and line.
Film Courage: How many people did you share the script with during the writing process?
Joseph: Just my brother. I’m not big on feedback from anyone else. I feel that it is our idea and no one else is going to know our story and characters better than us. I don’t want to be swayed. If it goes wrong, at least it was totally our fault and I won’t regret listening to someone else. I’m stubborn that way.
Film Courage: How long have you been planning the film? What went into the pre-planning?
Joseph: I wanted to shoot it right after we finished Stuck in the Middle. But I knew we needed it to be bigger and better than Stuck. So I put it on the back burner for a couple of years. Turned out to be the right move because I was able to meet a great group of producers who made it a much better production. Once they were on board we were able to get locations, hire the cast and shoot within a three-month period.
Film Courage: How long did it take to finish it?
Joseph: We shot it in under a month.
Film Courage: How did you calculate what the budget was going to be?
Joseph: This is an area I’m not good in. I was told there would be no math in films. I thought we could make it for the same amount as Stuck in the Middle, but we would have run into the same obstacles. We didn’t have a set budget. When we got all the investors on board we worked around that amount and made that work.
Film Courage: When and where can people watch The Jersey Devil?
Joseph: The Jersey Devil will be available on October 27th. It will be in stores like Best Buy and Barnes and Noble. It will also be available on VOD services. But you can pre-order it now on Amazon. So, I recommend that.
Film Courage: Biggest misconceptions about New Jersey?
Joseph: Well, Jersey does bring on some of the bad stereotypes itself. But the entire state isn’t the corrupt cesspool the rest of the world thinks it is. There are some really nice areas and communities. Jersey City is a perfect example. I had not been to Jersey City in years before we shot the film and I was amazed at how much it had been built up. Mayor Fulop and his team have done a great job building it up. And Springsteen is from Jersey so how can it be bad.
Film Courage: What’s your biggest Achilles’ Heel on set and how have you challenged it?
Joseph: Anxiety. When you are making independent films you always have time constraints. You might only have that location for a few hours and you have to get it all in. So I get very anxious and I want to get the scenes done quickly. So sometimes if a take is good enough, I’ll settle. That is not good for the final product or for the actor. They may need a few more takes to work it out. My DP Cory Green doesn’t settle, so we usually got we wanted. My AD Scott Coscia and Michael Billy also kept things moving along to make sure we didn’t piss off anyone by going over.
Film Courage: What is the mindset from your first film versus later films?
Joseph: With Stuck in the Middle, we were just hoping to make a coherent film. We were so green but it turned out to be a really good film. Going into The Jersey Devil, that wasn’t going to be good enough. We set out to make a great film. My biggest goal was not to make any of the same mistakes I made the first time. I felt we had all the right people in place for this one for that not to happen and the final product proves that.
Film Courage: Can you provide 7 tips for keeping investors well-informed and up-to-date?
Joseph: During pre-production there is a lot more going on that we can give investors updates. We can notify them about casting hires, crew hires, shooting schedules and locations. During shooting most of our investors also had small roles in the film so that definitely kept them informed and involved. They also were obviously invited to the set everyday to see how it was going if they wanted. During post-production there is not a lot of information to give and editing is a long, drawn out process. When screenings, festivals and parties were set, the investors were the first to know. I also tried to keep them involved in the distribution process but there was a lot of waiting and not much news I could pass along. But I was really excited to tell them about the impending release. Not sure if that was seven, but there you go.
Film Courage: You’ve said previously that you’re not “good” at crowdfunding. Why?
Joseph: I’m not a good salesman. I really believe in the films but I’m not comfortable asking people to invest in my vision. Asking people to put up money for what is essentially 100 pieces of papers from the writers of Upside Down Brown is a hard sell.
Film Courage: How have you been able to secure online distribution with your multiple films?
Joseph: With Stuck it was a lot of banging on doors and just getting the film in front of as many distributors as possible until we found the right fit. For The Jersey Devil, our lead actor Keith Collins has a great relationship with Bob Shami at Shami Media. They have distributed several of his films and really got them great coverage. They saw The Jersey Devil at a film festival and we eventually made a deal. I’m really excited to be working with them.
Film Courage: How have you funded most of your films?
Joseph: Stuck in the Middle was mostly funded by friends, family and myself. People I was close with. For The Jersey Devil, it was a domino effect. I brought in friends who brought in people they knew and they brought in people and sponsors. I had people I have known since high school like John Camera, Charles Anastasia and Larry Salvato and people I didn’t know at all like Dorothy Fucito and Debbie Philips invest and work on the film. We were able to get a nice group of investors who really got involved in the film and rallied around it.
Film Courage: Have you ever put your own money in a movie? Would you recommend this to other writers, directors, producers?
Joseph: Yes. Stuck in the Middle I put in my money. More than I originally planned. I recommend it because you can have control over your story. If you are footing the bill, then you can make the movie you want to make. I don’t recommend it if you are not going to set a budget, like I did and expenses keep coming up. Apparently the cast and crew want to eat during a long day. Divas.
Film Courage: What happened on the worst day of production (for any film you’ve been a part of) and how did you correct it?
Joseph: There have been a few moments that were bad but we always turned it around and made it work. During The Jersey Devil we were hit with two blizzards in the same week. The train to get most of the cast and crew to the location shut down and they had to walk a pretty good distance in about a foot of snow. But they all got there and we didn’t miss a day of shooting. But I think the worst was during Stuck in the Middle when some equipment went down and my co-director and I just froze. Production came to a halt. We didn’t have a Plan B…or C. But an actor in the film who happened to be playing Jesus, (and I will name names) Eric Etebari, is an accomplished director and he just grabbed the camera, figured out a plan to keep us moving and got us through the day. Basically Jesus saved our film!
Film Courage: How do you find producers to invest in your films?
Joseph: If you are doing good work and making good films you will get people interested who want to be part of your team. That is what happened with The Jersey Devil. Stuck in the Middle was a great experience for those who worked on it and when the producers told potential investors about the success of it, they wanted to be a part of what was next.
Film Courage: Is there a strength that Billy possesses which you defer to him and vice versa?
Joseph: Billy is a much more descriptive writer than I am. He tells very detailed stories and sets up great scenes. He has written a few novels that are terrific reads. He has one out now called Lake of Fire that we’d love to make a film out of. I think my strength is in the dialogue. I have the conversations in my head as I’m writing and it just feels real. And yes, I hear voices but its ok because they are funny.
Film Courage: You been involved in entertainment for 20 plus years. Aside from a passion for writing and producing and directing, what helps sustain you?
Joseph: Writing and making the films doesn’t feel like work. It’s just fun and that’s all I really want to do…have fun. I love being around creative people who are all bringing something different to our story.
Film Courage: You’ve written several films with your brother, Billy. Can you share how you to successfully work with someone so close to you personally?
Joseph: We just have so much in common that it just comes easy to us. We very rarely disagree on content. It’s Shared-Brain Syndrome. That’s a real thing. Our writing process is he gets up early and writes and then I’ll pick up where he left off at night. And the writing remains cohesive.
Film Courage: How did you pitch the script for The Jersey Devil to your actors?
Joseph: I used a few of the same actors I worked with on Stuck In the Middle. I wrote parts especially for Keith Collins, Penelope Lagos, Jack Mulcahy, Stephen Fontana and Evonne Walton and asked them if they wanted to give it another go. They all said yes because obviously they have deep seeded self-hatred to want to go through that again. But I was happy to have them on this because I knew I’d get great performances from all of them. Chris Mulkey who was working on Boardwalk Empire at the time and had just finished Captain Phillips was our biggest name in the film. He is friends with Jeff Quinlan, one of our producers, and Jeff was able to get Chris the script and get him on board. The lure of playing God I’m sure helped. Our other producers were able to get the script to actors they had worked with and they all responded positively.
Film Courage: Where did you shoot the film/secure the locations?
Joseph: We shot the entire film In Jersey City. Two of our producers, Michael Billy and Jarl work closely with the community and the Mayor’s office. This helped us secure great locations like City Hall and the Loews Landmark Theater where we also had our premiere. The city really accepted us.
Film Courage: What camera(s) did you use for The Jersey Devil? How many shooting days?
Joseph: We used the Black Magic that my DP Cory Green owned. We shot it in 15 days.
Film Courage: Are you also submitting it to festivals? Are there any other plans for distribution?
Joseph: We won three awards at the Atlantic City Downbeach Film Festival – Best Comedy Feature, Best Actor (Jack Mulcahy) and Best Supporting Actor (Edvin Ortega). We also were runner-up at The Ridgefield Film Festival. Now we are just gearing up for the release on October 27th. We may do some special screenings to create more buzz around the release date.
Film Courage: If you could do one thing over in your life, what would it be?
Joseph: I’d probably avoid a few car accidents. Other than that, I think I might have liked to move out to L.A. when I was younger and get into films a little earlier.
Film Courage: If you were to have a tattoo that sums up your life’s philosophy it would be….
Joseph: Be Happy and Stop Whining. But it would be inside a skull or something with fire because that’s badass.
Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?
Joseph: We are in post-production of a horror/thriller we wrote and I directed called Clean Cut. And then we hope to start Phoenix: The Resurrection in early 2016. That’s one we have had for a few years and were waiting on the right time. We have the right team in place now and we just need a few more investors.
Joseph Pepitone is a Director/Writer/Producer with twenty years experience writing for several major television networks and has won two New York Emmy Awards. He is the co-writer and co-director of the Award-Winning independent film Stuck in the Middle. Along with his brother Billy, he has written the upcoming comedy The Jersey Devil, which he also directed. He is scheduled to next direct Clean Cut and Phoenix: The Resurrection which he co-wrote with Billy.
Check out Joseph’s prior Film Courage post: