Film Courage: I was watching this documentary last night and it had me thinking about maybe your situation and that is these filmmakers [in the documentary] had been accepted into this prestigious program and they thought they’d just try applying to the school. When they got the acceptance letter it felt as if someone was almost playing a joke on them.
Justin Warren, Filmmaker (Then There Was Joe): Absolutely.
Film Courage: Then [beforehand] we were talking off-camera that sparked this question. So was this something that something you went through when applying to leave was it Hendrix College?
Justin Warren: Yeah, so basically I applied to film school kind of as a built-in excuse to not pursue my dreams (if that makes sense).
So I was just like I’m going to apply to USC [University of Southern California] film school and no one gets into there. I’m going to apply, get rejected and then I can say I tried and go about my life. I was going to work at like a gas company in Arkansas. That was what I was going to do after graduation. And I ended up actually not doing that and I worked as a youth director for a little while.
I applied to USC in the middle of planning my wedding basically.
Film Courage: Oh…wow.
Justin Warren: I got a response one day, literally an email that said…the subject line was “RSVP For Admitted Student’s Day,” because I guess they sent the email in the wrong order.
And I was like “Admitted student’s day? What does that mean?” And then a few minutes later I got an admissions decision thing so I found out kind of in reverse and I was so confused. I did…I thought someone played a joke on me.
I found out I got into USC about two weeks before I was going to get married. I was so stunned and I was talking to my wife and was like “So I’m not going to go.” And she’s like “No, no, no…you have to go.”
My wife was in the middle of pharmacy school at the time. She couldn’t just pick up and leave what she was doing. So that meant she pushed me to say yes and to purse my dreams.
So we got married and then literarily two weeks later after we got married I moved to Los Angeles to start film school. It was pretty wild. It was amazing because (and it’s a testament to how amazing my wife is), if she hadn’t pushed me to say “Yes go pursue your dreams,” I probably wouldn’t have done it, I probably wouldn’t have.
“I’d never been to California at all. So it was almost like a fish-out-of-water experience.”
Film Courage: And how long until she joined you here [in California]?
Justin Warren: We were apart for two years. For the first two years of film school I was just out here by myself in a long-distance marriage which was pretty wild, but it worked out great.
Film Courage: Wow…I think that would be tough for a lot of people to be separated for a long time like this…and plus had you been to Los Angeles before?
Justin Warren: No, no…I’d never been to California at all. So it was almost like a fish-out-of-water experience. I got here and I remember one of the first things was just showing up at LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] is scary.
Film Courage: It’s scary!
Justin Warren: It’s terrifying. You are like “Wait? Whoah! This one terminal is the size of my entire airport where I am from.” And cars circle [around the airport] and keep circling.
Film Courage: Yes! It’s called ‘panic attack circle.’
Justin Warren: Exactly and I stepped out of the airport and suddenly felt like I was on a completely new planet.
And then what was weird was I remember when I got to school, the crosswalks counted down from 30. And back where I am at home, they count down from 10 and I was like “What is this? It’s going to take me 30 second to get across the street?” And in a lot of places it does.
So it was very strange and I remember the first time I parked my car in the parking deck at USC, I didn’t have that skill where you are like “Okay, let me remember what row I’m on.” And I just parked my car and went to class and when I came back, I couldn’t find my car and me and my friend spent like four hours in the parking deck looking for my car (this is an eight-story parking).
Film Courage: I’ve been there.
Justin Warren: I had now idea where my car was. That was one of my first experiences out here.
Film Courage: And people drive pretty fast, too (in that parking garage).
Justin Warren: Yeah, absolutely.
Film Courage: Well, the second part of that question goes to the fact that these same people [in the documentary film we’re referring to] who were accepted and thought someone was playing a joke on them, they got in. Then they were in this setting where they were getting peer feedback and had never been through a process like this before. It was actually quite upsetting them.
Justin Warren: Totally.
Film Courage: And it kind of broke people (at least some of them).
Justin Warren: Absolutely.
Film Courage: I was just wondering (maybe you can talk in general terms) how that was to get feedback?
Justin Warren: Yeah, it’s a weird experience. And I say this all with love and stuff for USC because it’s my alma mater and I love it with all my heart. But the feedback process (especially in film school) is like unnerving in so many ways because it’s almost like tearing down people’s work is almost like sport. It’s like “Yeah, you think you’re good? Well, check this out.”
And at the end of the day it’s all out of love even thought it’s really hard, harsh love. It’s all about making work better. But coming from me, I’d never really experienced that before. I remember the first time we played my dailies, there was a room of like 50 people in it. And I’ll never forget this…this one…the first comment that I got, somebody raised their hand and said “It doesn’t look this movie was directed my anybody?” And I was like ohhhh….[cries out in pain]….yeah…that’s what I’m in for. And the funny part was they were kind of right because you just couldn’t tell any intention in my work at the time, you know?
But that was the tone of how rough the notes process moving forward throughout school.
What’s weird is after that class I actually went and cried in the courtyard. I went and I was like “I’ll be right back, guys.” And I went and I wept and I wept bitterly. I had a moment after I wept and I realize “Oh, I’m still here…I’m still here. I can try again.” And it seems like that process sort of…it sharpened me if you will. And now I absolutely love people’s feedback on my work. I love it and now (I’ve had this with my first feature) I’ve had people literally walk up to me and say “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” I’m like “Okay. That’s fine.” And it doesn’t really bother me anymore because I know my work ethic. I know my intentions as the director. I know what I am trying to do. So it helped me in the long run. And now actually I love it because I think the notes process, the feedback process only sharpens your work and makes it better if you know what your intention behind the work is. So I love it.
Question For The Viewers: What part(s) of Justin’s story can you relate to the most?
JUSTIN WARREN was born in Little, Rock Arkansas in 1987. He started making movies at the age of eight, making his own stop-motion animated Star Wars films. He graduated from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas with a B.A. in Theatre Arts and Dance, where he took the lead in numerous stage plays and won awards for his bold playwriting. In 2008, Justin and his family were featured in the 2008 CNN documentary “Black in America” with Soledad O’Brien which was broadcast globally. In 2014, Justin graduated from the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts with an M.F.A. in Film and Television Production. In addition to writing, directing, and co-editing his own films, Justin has also written, performed, arranged, and engineered three albums of original music. In 2018, his first comedy feature film, Then There Was Joe, made its World Premiere at Jeff Nichol’s (Mud, Midnight Special, Loving) Arkansas Cinema Society to sold out crowds. The film is currently screening around the country on the festival circuit and received a glowing review in the L.A. Times, which declared Justin as having a “bright future” in Hollywood. You can visit him online at Justinwarren.me.
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