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Crank picked Joe Russo’s MIDNIGHT CLEAR for the many ways it could be interpreted. It takes multiple watches to unpack all of them. It’s the kind of film that begs the question, “What would you do?” and focuses on how these characters are coping with that question in their lives. Watch MIDNIGHT CLEAR and other Crank’s Picks on our YouTube channel.
Crank: When did you start making films?
Joe Russo: I wasn’t one of those eight-year-old prodigies running around with a camera. Growing up in Connecticut, Hollywood was so far away, I never dreamed I’d be living out here and working in the movie industry. Truthfully, I’ve been in Los Angeles almost ten years now and it’s STILL surreal. No, I didn’t get serious about making films until I was in college at Arizona State. That’s when I started making my first short films and worked on my first Hollywood movie – Peter Berg’s THE KINGDOM.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a filmmaker?
I’ve learned so many big lessons over the years, it’s hard to pick just one, but I’ll try… Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned is you can’t control everything. No matter how many hours you prep and shot list, things can and will go wrong when you get into production, but you have to be able to adapt and persevere. Getting upset or angry doesn’t do any good. The clock is ticking, and there’s no time to waste. On MIDNIGHT CLEAR, we were piloting a piece of camera equipment and it didn’t work as advertised. The shot we used it for took hours out of our schedule. Once we got the shot, we knew we couldn’t use this gear anymore, or we’d never make our day – so we scrapped it and re-jiggered our schedule and shot list, and, amazingly, we started to catch back up.
Where did the idea for your short film come from?
My go-to composer, John Jesensky, and I are big fans of The Twilight Zone and Tales From the Crypt. We also love socio-political horror. We were looking at what was going on in 2017 between Trump and North Korea, and the story spilled out from there. Ironically, two years later, the same stories are back in the news, and MIDNIGHT CLEAR is as relevant today as it’s ever been.
How did you find your collaborators for this film?
I’ve been lucky enough to make several short films now, and even luckier that each one has been better received than the last, which means my collaborators almost always want to work together again. MIDNIGHT CLEAR was no exception. We got the band back together again – and I mixed my old collaborators with some newer ones from the feature I produced that year, NIGHTMARE CINEMA, and we got an amazing result.
How long – from start to finish – did this film take to make?
MIDNIGHT CLEAR moved fast. We came up with the idea in late August. In early September, I was having lunch with one of my favorite filmmakers, David Slade, and I told him about our concept. He said, given the political tensions, you have to make this short now, and you have to have it out by Christmas. We took his advice. We were shooting by mid-October and the finished short film debuted on Entertainment Weekly that December 21st – my birthday.
What is your filmmaking process like, and how does it possibly differ from others?
My focus has always been character and story first. Everything else – the performances, the visuals, the music, the sound – should be in service of those two things. Even back in film school, I felt like a bit of a pariah because I wasn’t enamored with “cool shots”. I’ve always believed one cool camera move or angle cannot make a movie good. In retrospect, with that philosophy, maybe it’s not that surprising that I would find success in screenwriting and development!
Tell us something unique about this short film.
When I’m in post-production, usually I’ll show anyone-and-everyone the edit for notes, but on MIDNIGHT CLEAR, I only showed people involved with the movie the work-in-progress cut. It’s the first time I’d ever done that, and there was a very big reason for doing it – we didn’t have our big visual effect for the ending until days before release. In fact, there was just a really bad cartoon drawing temped in, and I was horribly embarrassed by it. I had every bit of faith that my talented VFX artist friend, JJ Chalupnik, would deliver something great because he does all the big superhero TV shows, but did the story work without that shot…? It wasn’t until I showed BlackList writer Leo Sardarian. He encouraged me that the movie did, in fact, work even with just the cartoon placeholder – and I can’t tell you how relieved I was!
When speaking to first-time filmmakers, what advice would you give?
Read scripts and watch movies. I know it sounds so simple, but you’d be surprised how many people want to break into directing that don’t. Especially the reading part. I can’t tell you how much working in film and television development helped me here. I was reading screenplays every day. Good and bad. And not just scripts for movies that have been made. Get your hands on first drafts. It is the fastest and best way to learn story and character development.
What is your next project?
I just finished post-production last week on my feature-length directorial debut, a domestic thriller called THE AU PAIR, and I’ve got an action screenplay that I co-wrote with my writing partner that is scheduled to start shooting in January 2020. After that… we’ll see!
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m so grateful MIDNIGHT CLEAR keeps finding new life and new audiences on exciting new platforms like Cranked Up’s – and Crank picking it is especially meaningful since it unites MIDNIGHT CLEAR under the same banner as my feature, NIGHTMARE CINEMA! So much of the key MIDNIGHT CLEAR crew came from NIGHTMARE CINEMA that we always joked that ours was like the spiritual sixth segment to that movie, and now, in a way, it kind of is!
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About the Filmmaker
Joe Russo is currently in post-production on his feature-length directorial debut The Au Pair, an independent thriller that he and Chris LaMont co-wrote. Their co-written action feature Open Source is currently casting with Bruce Willis attached in a lead role.
The writing duo were the first to make The Bloodlist three years in a row with: The Last Will and Testament of Charles Abernathy (2018), which was also named to The Hit List; The Red Pill (2017); and Soul Mates (2016) which also made The Hit List and sold to producer Mark Burg (SAW 1-8).
In 2017, Joe directed the short Be Mine for Crypt TV. His short Midnight Clear debuted on Entertainment Weekly, was featured on Nerdist and io9, and was later released on Gunpowder & Sky’s digital platform, Alter. Joe’s award-winning short Take-Out appeared as a featured segment in the horror anthology feature film, Dark Deadly & Dreadful released on Amazon in 2018.
Joe produced the horror anthology feature, Nightmare Cinema, which was released by Shudder in June 2019 after headlining over thirty festivals worldwide. The film stars Academy Award Nominee Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) with segments from acclaimed filmmakers, including Joe Dante (Gremlins) and David Slade (American Gods). The movie was selected by Entertainment Weekly as one of “2019’s best horror films”. Joe is producing several upcoming projects with studios like Netflix, MGM, and Skydance including the “Hulk Hogan” biopic starring Chris Hemsworth and The Greatest Beer Run Ever, a book adaptation being written and directed by Academy Award Winner Peter Farrelly (Green Book).
Joe also produces the Fangoria podcast series Post Mortem with Mick Garris featuring in-depth conversations with genre legends like John Carpenter, Rob Zombie, John Landis, Roger Corman, Bryan Fuller, Michael Dougherty and many more.