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The Bunker: Joseph M. Monks - Director

Joseph M. Monks - Director

[2vs8]: Personal tragedies in life may hinder most, but not you... you have learned to overcome this. please tell us about your career, hurdles and to finally direct "The Bunker"?

Joseph M. Monks: I started out in comics in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s co-creating a pretty popular underground title, Cry for Dawn. The company broke up, I stuck it out for a while before the comic boom busted in the mid-1990s, and began writing more freelance fiction and day-jobbing with a publishing company in Manhattan. I still kept my hand in the comic book industry, though, because I liked it, and loved the travel, conventions, store appearances and signings. The fans were great. When I lost my sight in early 2002, I got on the phone with illustrator Bernie Wrightson, who I’d worked with on several projects. He’s a frequent collaborator with Stephen King. He and I had been talking about a hardcover, featuring my horror fiction and his artwork. I told Pam, my wife, we’d be ready to publish by that Christmas, and the book came out right on time. In 2003, I fell into a deal where two Japanese publishing companies wanted to get a famous Japanese model into an American-produced TV pilot. The director couldn’t sell them on any of his properties, so he got in touch with me. They bit on a story from the antho I’d published with Bernie, and offered me the opportunity to write the script. The end product was a TV pilot that never aired, but did get produced. From there, it wasn’t that big a stretch to tackle The Bunker, my first feature. Originally, the director of the pilot was supposed to do it, but he couldn’t because of scheduling conflicts. I thought that was going to be a negative. I was totally wrong about it, and I’m glad I decided to make the leap and do it myself.

[2vs8]: What special steps and provisions did you take to sit behind the camera in the director seat?

Joseph M. Monks: Lots—and I mean lots—of research. I wasn’t naive. I didn’t want to produce the kind of movie you buy at horror conventions from two guys who took a videocamera out into the woods and shot their girlfriends running around topless with ketchup and a killer in a clown mask. I researched everything. The camera I would use, the computer editing software. Microphone and lighting techniques. I used to be a pretty decent still photographer, so I knew the lingo, could talk the talk, so finding somebody to take my ideas about the lighting—I built the light rig myself—was a key step during pre-production. I don’t think there was an aspect to film production I didn’t study for months before we scheduled principal photography.

[2vs8]: How do you feel while making the film "The Bunker." Walk us on one of your favorite shooting days?

Joseph M. Monks: Like any production, we had issues the first day. Started about two hours late, had equipment problems, needed to re-light, you name it. But nothing I wasn’t prepared for. Now, Terry M. West, my male lead, is one tough-looking guy. He towers over Saskia Gonzalez (my lead actress). They’ve only met today, and they shoot their first two scenes great. But, the third scene? This one is where Terry really lays into Saskia, going berserk in the bunker set, throwing things, he’s just maniacal. And, before the scene, Terry takes me aside and says, “Joe, I have this line I want to ad-lib.” And, he tells it to me. Now, I have to make a decision. Do I let Terry hurl this blistering ad-lib at Saskia on the first day of shooting? Heck, I have no idea how she’ll react. Will it throw her? Will she freak? Will she change out of costume and tell me, “That’s it, I’m out’a here?” It’s a risk. But I liked Terry’s idea. So I told him, “Do it. And don’t tell her. No warnings.” So, we run the scene, and he goes into his rage, and Boom! He hits her with the line. Like a trooper, she runs with it, hits her cues like the pro she is, and bingo—we had it. First take. My script supervisor is sitting next to me, speechless. Everybody but me and Terry are slack-jawed. But it worked. And it’s one of the highlights of the film. And that’s the kind of thing that makes a day that started out lousy one of the best shooting days we had, because it’s that kind of excitement--something unplanned that gets pulled off flawlessly--that you live for. It’s like a golfer sinking a 60 foot putt on 18 after a horrible round. He wants to play another nine, and he’s going to be out there the next day, teeing off, hunting for that feeling again.

[2vs8]: "The Bunker" score is being offered by "Howlin' Wolf Records" before the film is available to the public, do you think this will build more buzz and what were your first thoughts when you heard?

Joseph M. Monks: My first thought was, “We gotta celebrate!” Robert’s score for The Bunker adds a whole different layer to the film. It’s a throwback to when film scores were meant to be an integral part of the film, not just sound filler and stingers and things you only hear when the killer is stalking a victim or a cat is about to jump out of a pantry. I can’t stand that. I wanted music that was, for all intents and purposes—a character, just one  that wouldn’t show up in the cast credits. Robert delivered, so when I heard the score would be released, I thought, “I’m not the only one who recognizes, even without the film, this stuff is *that* good.” It’s definitely going to help promote the film and generate buzz. So will Robert, because I have the feeling other directors are going to be knockin’ on his door real soon, wanting to use him on their projects.

[2vs8]: How did you and composer Robert Feigenblatt come together from the first meeting to the final score piece?

Joseph M. Monks: Robert and I were introduced by a mutual friend. Luckily, we live in the same town, so we set up a dinner meeting, talked film all night, and I decided to give his stuff a listen. The sample clips he played, from his original musical Ebenezer Scrooge to clips from various other work of his, I knew I had the right guy. I think as we worked together, and he played me each piece for each scene, there were maybe three small changes I asked for. Plus, I am no musician. I can try and describe things, and hope a real musician knows what the hell I’m talking about. Robert was like a sniper. I babbled about something I wanted to hear, he came back with something that was just what I’d asked for. Doesn’t matter that I don’t know a bassoon from a trombone, he knew what I was going for. By the time we did get to the final piece? I even knew what a contra-bassoon was. How can you beat that?

[2vs8]: You are being build as the "first" completely blind feature film director... first how does this make you feel and second should it matter because you still have vision, without necessarily seeing it?

Joseph M. Monks: It’s nice to break new ground. I’m proud of that. My film’s gotten great reviews, so I feel I was successful in not embarrassing the whole blind community by producing a cinematic Hindenburg. Because that was always a possibility. Does it matter? I think it matters only in terms of, “Hey, that guy could do it. Why not me?” I’m hoping soon, as I make more films, the blind thing will be less of a story. It’ll be all about the work, and that’s the vision that truly matters.

[2vs8]: What hopes do you think it might be as an "encouragement or bright light" to others who personally struggle to succeed in life?

Joseph M. Monks: If people out there feel that maybe now, because it’s been done, they’re willing to give it a shot? Good.  If that door’s open a little wider because I walked through it, come on. Follow me. Gimme a hand knocking it off the hinges. I won’t lie—being blind sucks. But it’s the hand I was dealt. Some folks have been dealt a wheelchair, or deafness. Doesn’t matter. We play the hand with the cards we get, and we try and make the most of it. I’ve gotten e-mails, people thanking me for being an inspiration, a woman who stopped me at a recent film festival where I received an Achievement in Cinema award, who pumped my hand and thanked me for making her feel that even though things were going rough for her right then, she knew she could go forward and succeed. That people feel that way because they read my story or heard me speak or met me at a convention and it’s obvious I’m just some guy, no different than most, who accomplished something a little bit unique and it helps? That’s fantastic.

[2vs8]: Would you like to be that voice for those who need it?

Joseph M. Monks: When people talk to me about being inspirational, or having that kind of impact, it’s terribly humbling, and it’s always a little uncomfortable. I appreciate it beyond words...but I’m just plugging away doing what I want to do. I’d be beating down these doors and trying to make a go of this even if nobody knew I existed. So it feels awkward sometimes, people saying thanks for something I’d be doing anyway. But I do understand that that’s how it is, so I’m happy that the story is out there, and people can read about what I’ve done, and they can put that to use. Incentive is a beautiful thing. If I can offer some to somebody else, that’s awesome—happy to oblige.

[2vs8]: Tell us about "The Bunker" where did the idea/development come from and where would you like to see it go?

Joseph M. Monks: The Bunker was a failed short story concept, which I tried turning into a comic book script (also a failure), and then a file just gathering virtual dust in a hard drive. It didn’t work for some reason in prose, didn’t lend itself well to a comic, but after I got the gig to write the Flowers on the Razorwire TV pilot, suddenly, I had an outlet for it. I’d been toying with the idea of this wild-child, sort of a Roger Clinton/Billy Carter type, but a kid, the daughter of a New York city congressman about to announce his bid for reelection. She gets kidnapped off the streets of New York as a runaway, so the politician needs to pull out all the stops to try and get her back before the story gets out and a scandal ruins his career. The movie’s more of a thriller than a straight-up horror film, although plenty of horrific stuff happens.

Insofar as where I’d like to see it go, I’m realistic. It’s a pretty decent debut, especially for a microbudget feature, forget about the blind thing. So I know it’s not Citizen Kane, but I think if it gets in front of the kinds of people who like indie films, subscribe to IFC, and don’t expect to see AVATAR every time out, it’ll find its audience and be enjoyed.  All I’m hoping for is that whoever watches it comes away saying, “That was worth my time.” or “I had fun.” That’s enough for this outing. Next time, with a larger budget and more tools to work with, I hope to really raise the bar. But for now? So long as folks have a good time and see it for what it is, that’s enough to make me happy.

[2vs8]: What is next, what is your next project?

Joseph M. Monks: Two of my screenplays are currently in development. Commodity Films, who’s distributing The Bunker, is working with me on a screenplay entitled The Crate, which is also not a straight-up horror film, but more of a gritty, urban fantasy. I think that one’s a heck of a lot more accessible than The Bunker, so it would be a nice follow-up piece, as it’d appeal to a much wider audience. The other film is entitled Casey’s Attic, and that’s more of a rollercoaster-ride horror film, in the vein of some of the classic ‘80s fright fests. Supernatural goings-on, teenagers in danger, high school angst, and a lot of blood. That project is something Commodity Films and Sometimes, Dead Is Better Films are both working on, and seeking financing for.

[2vs8]: When you were younger something someone told you... that you still remember, but it was a creepy not good memory?

Joseph M. Monks: Early on in high school, I got lucky. My 9th grade English teacher had all sorts of problems with me as a student. She hated the fact that I liked to use semicolons—and knew how to use them properly. All she wanted was to teach the trite, boring, four-paragraph essay, Hemmingway’s short, choppy sentence structure, and that was it. We did not get along. Eventually, she dropped me from advanced English, and I wound up in a class with a real pro. A HS teacher who could have been a professor at any college. After the first week, she calls me up after class and says to me, “What the hell are you doing in here?” That was Marjorie Harris, who I dedicated my first book to, because she became my mentor. But during that period prior to me getting booted, I got sent to a guidance counselor because what I liked to write was horror. Today? I probably wouldn’t even have graduated, some frightened teacher would have called the cops on me long before I sniffed a diploma. But anyway, this one guy is talking to me, trying to decide if I’m a psycho, and he hits me with, “You know, when you spend time looking into the darkness, the darkness looks back into you.” At the time, I’m what? 14? I had no idea he was paraphrasing Nietzsche. I just thought, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” But later? Yeah, it did seem like a creepy kind of warning. And I’m sure that’s what he was trying to convey. “Stop doing what you’re doing. This horror thing is no good.” Luckily, I didn’t listen. I love the genre. Doesn’t mean I sit around the house morose and maudlin, listening to old Cure CDs and The Smiths on rotation. (Though I love both bands and am a huge fan of gothic music). I have a good time with it. I like scaring people. I’m no different than the engineer who designs a thrill ride for an amusement park. I just prefer using dark fiction to do it instead of a 70 MPH adrenaline jolt. I owe a lot to Marge Harris for recognizing I wasn’t a nut job, and had potential. She made me believe there was a future in this, not just a forest worth of trees being sacrificed to the god of Smith-Corona for my work. I still remember the creepy feeling of the Nietzsche line I was fed in high school. I’m just glad I found it motivational more so than allowing it to turn me away from what I knew I wanted to do with my life. 


youngelfman said...

Awesome interview! Can't wait to hear more about Joseph M. Monks and THE BUNKER. Without a doubt I will be first in line to get a copy of THE BUNKER when it is in distribution. I have his book STUFF OUT'A MY HEAD ...very cool. I feel like this guy is a real on the go, wheels always spinning, creative force and we will be enjoying a great deal more from him!

TexaGermaFinlaNadian said...

Neat interview with him! Just wanted to stop over real quick and say thanks for linking up to the hop once again this weekend. Hope you had a great one and maybe even found some fun new reads :) All the best!

youngelfman said...

I recently had the chance to meet Joseph M. Monks while in Louisville, KY at the Fright Night Weekend horror convention. He is a super cool, nice guy and it was awesome to meet him in person and get to chat. I am also excited to see what follow-up projects to THE BUNKER he has in the works. Joe was there in good company as John Carpenter was at the convention as well.