In Session: Joe Gietl

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ALBANY – Everywhere you turn within the 518 community, there’s a veritable overflow of creatives working on their projects; projects that follow them through the night and into the early hours of the morning. Where the roads of endurance and passion meet is often where you find some of the most creative output. This is certainly the case for local filmmaker, Joe Gietl, whose episodic series, The Fledgling, is about to enter another phase of promotion, as the sizzle reel is currently in post-production. I had a chance to sit down with Gietl this past week to discuss his work, and more. What follows is our conversation.

Photo credit: Deverill Weekes.

Lucas Garrett: Joe, thank you taking time today to discuss the upcoming project you’ve been quite busy with, The Fledgling. You’re working with Chris Gaunt, whom we spoke with not long ago. How did you two meet?

Joe Gietl: Hello! There was a Times Union article that gave our IndieGoGo campaign some notice. Chris came on board after that; Chris and I met ten months ago and sat down, having lots of discussions on films that we loved, and our mutual love of cinema. We started talking through the different projects that I’d already written or was in the process of developing. We narrowed it down to three choices. One of the choices was The Fledgling; it was an elephant in the room being the most ambitious one.

LG: Tell our readers about the project, The Fledgling.

It’s a seven-part miniseries that I began writing over COVID. It took me about two years to complete it; I first thought it was going to be a feature-film, then it was a four-part miniseries. It was clear there were aspects that needed to be fleshed out, so it turned into seven episodes. Chris gave me a decision to make. He said, “On the count of three, what do you want to make? If you could do any of these projects, what would you want to do?” I said Fledgling. It was a great exercise, because it was this idea that I couldn’t put down. It was like something that you don’t want to date it, you want to marry it.

The only good thing about COVID is that I had that time to write it. It was a real challenge, like climbing Mt. Everest, but it was one of those ideas I couldn’t let go of – something kept propelling me to the finish line. I had many people along the way who were helpful with notes … giving feedback. Spencer Sherry, the basis of our working relationship starting, was trading ideas back and forth. That’s how I got on board with his film, The Monkey. One person that was very vital asset to me during the initial development of this project was James Abrams. It was great to have somebody to talk to.

Other people, like my team from Westfield Films, Jim Powers and John Stegemann. More recently, my good friend, Cameron Mitchell, has been an incredible asset to the sizzle reel for The Fledgling that we just made. He came on as a producer. This sizzle reel will be for the IndieGoGo. People buy with their eyes, and I wanted to show them what it was in a condensed format.

I took a scene from the pilot – a moment that was special to me – and built an entire thing around it. Right now, we’re in postproduction phase. I just received the score from my composer, Mark Baechle, who is an orchestrator on Star Wars: Endor. I was very fortunate to meet him at the Adirondack Film Gala during the summer. I’m very excited to be working with this incredibly accomplished composer.

Chris and I went the extra mile – and I can’t say this enough about Chris: how he’s worked the entire project with me. Not just financially being there, but being there on a daily basis with all the calls, emails, and all the different things that go into making something at this level. Even though we’re not making the pilot, we operated at a really high level for what it was. We brought actors in from L.A. and that gave me a lot of good experience on having a better understanding of what the next level is like.

We hired Juliet Landau to play the lead role of Bianca, as well as Anastasia Veronica Lee to play the other lead role of Charlie. Lynda Suarez played Nurse Hadley, and Chris Gaunt played Headmaster Father Donovan. Landau was in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as Drusilla, among many others.

Even though Anastasia is only twelve-years old … she’s an incredibly gifted child. It’s like a needle in a haystack when you’re trying to find a child actor that embodies… it’s like when you’re trying to find Harry Potter, or Eleven from Stranger Things. It’s not an “if” but a “when” in my mind, with her. She can do anything she puts her mind to; if you give her a note as a director – she makes my job incredibly easy – she’s like a sponge the way she can implement direction. She’s so beyond her years. Seeing Juliet and Ana playing off each other was a surreal thing, having spent the last two years writing it and now seeing it in action. The preparation that Chris, myself, Cameron (Mitchell), John (Stegemann), Jim (Powers), Lakota Ruby-Eck, and the whole team put in paid incredible dividends. I’m a big advocate of that much preparation: going in with shot lists, lighting tests, camera tests. This is our calling card for something much bigger.

We ended up using Cooke Speed Panchros, which is a nearly one-hundred-year-old lens. They have beautiful imperfections in the frame, and it’s the type that I think Kubrick used to shoot on.

LG: Oh nice!

JG: It gave the work a creaminess about it that is the perfect calling card for the film.

LG: You’re very clearly passionate; anyone reading this can catch a glimpse of that! Filmmakers like you, Chris, and everyone else you mentioned have a sense of great belief behind this project. For the potential audience of the work, what is something you’d say about the synopsis of this episodic work, that would make someone say, “Oh, yeah! I really want to see this!” What is something about this project that would really drive someone to see this?

JG: That’s a very good question. The greatest strength of The Fledgling is that it’s not just one thing: it has something for everyone in it. It’s a road-trip, a vampire road-trip miniseries, where there’s also a conspiratorial element to it.

The log line is: “When orphan Charlie finds out her father is alive, she sets out on a cross-country road-trip to find him with her guides, the ancient vampire couple, that made her into a fledgling. Together, they travel the roads of a dying America, all the while pursued by a sinister organization growing closer in the rearview mirror.

LG: That does sound interesting.

JG: Thank you. I operate on instinct of what I want to see. That’s a big part of it; I try to put myself into the theater. Can I see myself watching this show? A lot of it is also about character; finding out who they are and letting the story unfold in the way where it starts to become them telling me what they have to do, or making decisions that I find interesting.

I think The Fledgling has a lot of hooks to it. It’s a vampire story, but the vampires are almost a vehicle to tell a very human story. It’s not like the type of vampires you see where they’re revved up with all these super powers. It’s more of a coming-of-age story, that also explores questions that I was pondering at the time. What is the ethical dilemma of bringing a child into the world, especially when it’s forever? The main character, Bianca (Landau), is thrust into a decision that revolves around that. The guilt one might feel: is it a gift or a curse?

LG: That sounds like a very unique take on the whole vampire genre. That’s what I want to get into, more. As I progress more and more into the arts, the whole process can be very hard to make something new, but also make it familiar and part of an overarching body of work within a genre. Whether it’s music, or whether it’s film, I think there needs to be a unique factor to anything that we make as creatives. It definitely sounds unique to me. We’ve talked about the passion behind the film, and with whom you’re working. How did you come to be involved as a filmmaker, and who are some of your creative influences?

JG: That’s a tough question! I’ve always been a big Robert Altman fan. I think my style has become more and more informed by some of his improvisational work. It’s counter-intuitive to the way I work as a bit of a perfectionist. But it’s really good for me as a director to be able to make quick decisions. As someone who’s indecisive and hyper-focused, it’s like learning a new skill, and I believe I’ve grown in that regard, through watching the way he works so freely, if that makes any sense.

LG: Mhm.

JG: Koreeda, who made a film called After Life. Andrzej Zulawski, who is one of the most underrated filmmakers to ever live. He made a film called Possession. He has such a kinetic energy about his filmmaking that is so singular. The Coen Brothers. David Lynch…

LG: I love David Lynch!

JG: He’s one of my biggest influences. (Ingmar) Bergman. (David) Cronenberg. Scorsese… it spans the gamut! For episodic influences, it’s the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul universes. (Vince) Gilligan did a great job reinventing the material. I can’t think of another example of a spin-off being as great as the original show.

I wanted to make a movie like those that inspire me as a kid, with that adventure feel, like with Spielberg, or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Specifically, with The Fledgling, it’s a love letter to the great adventure films of my youth; the films that made me love movies in the first place. It’s a story where the characters have real stakes and real problems, where the practicalities of life on the road as a vampire are taken into account the ways they have to adapt and survive. It’s a story about growing up and finding ourselves forged through the fire of a long journey. It’s about family and how the ones that are supposed to look after us aren’t always there. Sometimes the ones who truly love aren’t who we expect.

On a more philosophical level, I wanted to explore my own insecurities about fatherhood; parenthood; about God and faith, and the ethical dilemma I feel about bringing a child into the world. It’s a story about the angst of youth and how those difficult times can feel like forever, when they aren’t, even for vampires. What would be important to you? What would no longer matter? How would you keep love alive when it never truly perishes?

LG: Those are pretty cool concepts!

JG: The one vampire movie I should mention is Only Lovers Left Alive, by Jim Jarmusch. That’s a vampire movie where they’re very human and it’s an example of a timeless relationship and how they navigated that; the way they have standards for how they conduct themselves as vampires – resisting urges and things of that nature. Almost a drug addiction undertone to a lot of it, too. It’s treated as a disease rather than how you might normally see it portrayed.

LG: Thank you, again, for sitting down to talk today. Are you working on anything besides The Fledgling?

JG: Another thing I’m working on is a documentary called Mariah: Acts of Resistance. It’s a film about two artist activists (Adam Delmarcelle and Heather Snyder Quinn) who hacked into New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art using an augmented reality app called Mariah. The app is named for Mariah Lotti, a 19-year-old girl who died of an opioid overdose in 2011. When you hold your phone up to various artifacts in what was, up until recently, the Sackler Wing (Perdue Pharma), it reveals within the AR realm/cloud a more truthful narrative regarding the Sacklers while simultaneously hearing stories from Mariah’s mother, Rhonda, about her life. It was a very powerful experience to be a part of – I believe it could end up either being a full-documentary or docuseries where we explore the opioid epidemic…

LG: Mhm.

JG: …the ethical implications of AR – small team of people was able to do this! The Sackler family’s role in this entire thing, and much more.

LG: Well, thank you, Joe, so much for going over all of this. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

JG: Lucas, it was so great to speak with you. Thank you for taking the time! Have a good day!

LG: You, too. Bye.

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