Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 09/20/21

Joel Soisson’s new Adventure. Perhaps the most prolific producer-director-screenwriter you’ve never heard of, Joel Soisson scored a major success by producing the 1989 cult comedy classic Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and has been working pretty consistently ever since. His own Hollywood adventures have had him producing, directing and writing numerous horror movies (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Phantoms, Piranha 3DD), including several genre franchises for Dimension Films/The Weinstein Company (Children of the Corn, Hellraiser, The Prophecy). That working relationship came to an end when the company fell on much-publicized hard times and folded.
Reflecting on his career, Soissen has lamented “I’m locked into making low budget movies that are not meant to be permanent. They are not meant to be revisited at in ten years. They are not meant to be paragons of art or social commentary. They are just meant to entertain somebody for 90-minutes and then they go on about their day…There’s a chapter in William Goldman‘s last book entitled, ‘Sequels equals whores’ movies.’ Because there’s nothing original about them. It’s about money over passion. You’re working a concept until nobody will pay you anymore. I don’t think any producer in history has done as many sequels as I have.”
Soissen has interrupted that cycle by writing and directing My Best Worst Adventure. Streaming now (on Vimeo, Charter Spectrum, Cox Communications, Comcast Xfinity, Overdrive and Vudu), the independently produced film (by Ray Huber and Kaew Tavoranon) presents an unusual coming-of-age story set in Thailand that clearly has more on its mind than turning a quick buck. Soissen spoke with me about his personal journey, including how he broke into the movie business, his big Bill & Ted success, his time spent working for Bob and Harvey Weinstein, his decision to take a career detour and his advice for young people breaking into the film industry today. Our conversation follows the trailer below.

JWK: You sorta broke out producing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and went on to produce, write and/or direct a slew of movies, including several in the horror category. Now, you’re the writer and director of a much different film called My Best Worst Adventure. Tell me about that film and how you decided to take a leap into a much different genre. 

Joel Soissen: I think one version of it might be just simple exhaustion with just doing so many genre films and finding that, if you’re not careful, you start repeating yourself in your motifs and the same gags and the same riffs. I just needed to find a different way to get excited about making movies.
This happened to come along when I was filming a little horror thriller in Bangkok called Cam2Cam. I talked to the producer one day on set and she told me about her life growing up in the north of Thailand in this little tiny town…They had this crazy sport where they raced water buffaloes – like getting on top of them and these little kids just holding onto the scruffs of their necks and hanging on for dear life as these things stampeded at the speed of a racehorse. It was just absolutely like suicidal craziness and yet I guess most of them lived to tell the story.
I wanted to try to actually tell the horror story from a completely different vantage point, sort of cloaked in the clothing of a coming-of-age story and I took this traumatized 13-year-old girl from LA and she gets sent off to live with a quirky grandmother in…Thailand and sort of struggles emotionally and physically for survival in this very alien environment. (It’s) like you were dropped on an alien planet and forced to cope.

JWK: The movie seems to have a sort of horror element that I missed in the trailer. Can you summarize the story for me?

There’s this young girl named Jenny who has actually suffered a horrible loss in her life with her mother being taken away from her by disease and she had never spoken a word ever since. She’s a complete frustration to her stepfather (as she) never responds to any attempt to help her. She’s just closed off and alone and, finally, out of exasperation, he just sends her away to maybe just some shock therapy (of) living in a completely different environment with her grandmother – and things only get worse from there.
She meets this other boy. He’s actually really mute and they kind of go off on this adventure together. They run away from school. They get lost in the jungle. They ultimately prevail against that kind of adversity only to find they’re back in a school and dealing with an even bigger threat which is the bullies in their own school. It all culminates in this sort of defining buffalo race at the end of the film that is, at heart, kind of like Seabiscuit, Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, National Velvet kind of film that I grew up on. It’s sort of a race to win back their own personal dignity.
The movie itself is largely told without dialogue. It’s almost a throwback to a silent movie because the two lead characters never speak a word.

JWK: So, it’s definitely not a horror movie in the sense of other films you have been associated with. How is making a movie like this different than making one of those films?

I always liken it, as a creative process, to taking two different paths to making a film. Genre films are very much determined by the plot because you have to have this action will lead to that action will lead to that action and, ultimately, somebody blows up or loses their head or the bad guy gets knifed at the end or gets burned up or whatever. It’s all just like our characters have to follow that path to the eventual conclusion or it just won’t work, whereas, there are so many what I consider, actually for me, more satisfying films that are character driven – where you create a character that is so rich and it’s so in its world that you kinda almost, as a writer, sit back and let them dictate where you’re gonna go with it. Some of my favorite movies are constructed that way.
I got the chance to do it on this one by, basically, stepping away from the normal gristmill processes of making genre films and exploring a different way of making movies. We made it in Thailand with an all-Thai crew. We shot almost all of the daylight scenes without a single light plugged in. We used the sun as our way of navigating through every day’s work. Where it was in the sky determined how we blocked the action. (We let) the character who, especially with this young girl (Lily Patra), we found a natural…We let her sort of draw (the audience) into the movie and it was magical. I mean I’ve never gotten this great a response in festivals or in the critical sphere. We’re still 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s just been immensely gratifying and (as) someone of my advancing age in the business, you gotta learn some new tricks and some pretty solid ones at that.

JWK: Is there a message that you hope people will take from the film?

Yeah, there really is. It wasn’t meant to be topical I guess would be the word. I think it is because, you know, this is an incredibly divided world we live in right now, even in our own country…The hatred of anybody that’s different is just growing and is palpable. It’s sort of what this story is about. You meet a whole lot of people who are scary and dangerous and alien and some of them actually do very, very brutal things in the movie. It’s a family film but we’re kind of unsparing in (showing) how cultures deal with their own.
At the end of it, I’m proud to say, every one of those characters is, in one way or another, redeemed. You see that they have value, that they hope and that their motivations – even if they’re wrong – they are people who themselves are suffering and need help. You end up taking away (from) the movie how close we all are in the way that we think and feel and react. That was really gratifying as well to see people sort of cop onto that.

JWK: So, are you saying your writing took you to that message without you, in the beginning, realizing that’s where your story was going?

I was originally intrigued by the fish-out-of-water nature of it. My own experience is slightly parallel to my (characters) in the sense that I was in an alien environment. I didn’t know the language. I was somewhat put off at times from the food to the attitudes to the nature of how people conducted themselves and yet it didn’t take long until I realized how I was the one who needed to learn.

JWK: When you say that, are you talking about while you were in Thailand?

While I was in Thailand making the movie. You know, I came in like the Hollywood jock that was gonna teach the locals how to make movies and they ended up teaching me which is really the arc of the story as well. If you look at what people do with nothing, it’s a hell of a lot more work, intelligence and inspiration than us who just make 73% of a movie with all of the bells and whistles and technology that money can buy and then the rest of it we just fix with CGI in the post production process. There’s not a frame of CGI in this film. This is real. The nature is real. The set is real. Everything. I just love the fact that they kind of took me back to what I first loved about making movies.

JWK: What was your first movie?

Interesting you ask that because, as I was mentioning, this film is in many ways a silent movie because the two (lead) actors never speak and they’re forced to tell the story through their own emotions. The first movie I ever did as a writer was a films called Hambone and Hilly that starred Lillian Gish. I don’t know if that name rings a bell.

JWK: It does. I believe she was a silent movie star.

Yeah, one of the three top ones of her day. She would have been Meryl Streep and three other superstar ladies wrapped into one. I’ve gone back lately and watched some of her films and just became blown away (by) how much artistry it takes to express yourself without the artifice of words. It almost made me feel as if talkies came along and sort of spoiled it in a way – like everybody could talk their issues out and you don’t have to explore what’s going on behind the eyes as much anymore.

JWK: Having made a movie like this, do you feel like you want to go back the genre movies – or is this the direction you want to go now?

I totally decided this was the direction I wanted to go and then a fellow called me and said “I have this movie that I want you to write and produce” – which is totally a genre movie. It’s sort of a…comedy remake of The Magnificent Seven which I’m out here shooting as we speak in Oklahoma. So, I’ve made a mockery of my career life plan – as we so often do, I guess. I’m gonna do this – and one more actually that is a…genre film in South Africa – but THEN absolutely! I’m going to be marching on into my dotage making movies that really matter emotionally and spiritually.

JWK: Your first big success was as the producer of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. What was that experience like – and did you expect Keanu Reeves to go on to become such a big star?

I knew Keanu Reeves had something pretty magical. Sometimes charisma just jumps off of a person in an audition.
(As for) the movie, I thought the script was brilliant. That’s what drew me to it. The highs and lows that followed the making of the movie were fun at times but catastrophic toward the end when we showed the final cut. The studio just completely didn’t get it…The humor was not something that was accessible, I guess, to the older set. It’s basically a movie that celebrates stupidity. Everybody at the time was trying to wage war against stupidity. They were all executives that are my age now. You know, you sit next to someone in a theater who’s hating on a movie and you’re not gonna like it either – especially a comedy. When nobody laughs, it’s pin-drop silence and all you can hear is sighing. It’s awful.
So, they actually crushed the film and a little upstart company came along and scooped it up and they had the vision to actually test it – (to) put it in front of a real audience of people of the age group that you’re looking for – and it tested through the roof! So, we went through this complete high-and-low trajectory that was amazing. It was a full bipolar experience that I’ve never experienced in quite the same way since.

JWK: You also worked with the Weinstein brothers. What was that period of your career like?

I did probably 20 or 30 films with Bob and one with Harvey.The first film I actually did for the Weinsteins was a film with Harvey and he promptly fired me off it for reasons I’m not quite sure of – probably something to do with not wanting to tow his ethical line or lack thereof. Yeah, I was probably a charter member of the “I don’t like Harvey” club. I have to admit that, as much as I found him to be kind of a poor excuse for a human being, even (then) I did not ever suspect he was capable of the predations that he’s…been accused and convicted of – which just makes me nauseous. The only other thing that gives me pause and little bit of sadness is Bob Weinstein, his brother. They were partners for a number of years and then, probably for the last five – maybe even ten – years that I worked with them, they weren’t speaking. They were estranged for reasons I will never know.

To hold one brother accountable for the misdeeds of another is, you know, a dangerous premise and I fell victim to it a little bit. I quit working with the Weinstein Company and it was well over a year that I didn’t call or contact Bob at all for fear that somehow the other foot was gonna drop and it was gonna seem like he was complicit in some way. But that never happened and yet, with the fall of the company and the fall of the Weinstein name…it just took him down in a way that I think was inherently unfair. Yes, he had some issues. He was a little bit imperious at times and had some anger-management issues and could certainly offend people. I’m not here to defend every aspect of his personality but he’s a human being – and he’s not a predator. So, I finally came around to realizing that I wasn’t holding true by my own ethics by staying clear of him, by spurning him. I’m working with him on a number of projects now and I count him as a friend. He’s been chastened. He, obviously, doesn’t have quite the – I’d have to call it – arrogance, maybe, that he had when he was at the top of his game. I’m not sure there are many people that don’t have a bit of that arrogance when they get that high up in the field. That said, experience has clearly, clearly humanized him. That’s my little rant and I’m glad you allowed me to make it. Just be careful who you take down by association.

JWK: You were also involved in the Bravo edition of the reality show Project Greenlight that documented the making of the horror comedy Feast from screenplay to its 2005 theatrical release. What was it like being part of that show?

At its best, it was amusing. I’m not one who loves being in front of the camera. That’s the one job in a film – that and makeup – that I’ve never done. I got involved in that film because I was asked to produce the movie that came out of the pressure cooker of finding these people and making a movie about it then winding up on the jury with Wes Craven and my partner Michael Leahy and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and all those guys. It was kinda fun because what you do – for those who don’t know what it was all about – (would-be) directors submit reels – little, little shorts – and you attempt to find the best director and the best screenplay and you pitch a movie and you go out and…you try to make a film. You try to make it good. You’re dealing with neophytes and they document that…and then we, the producers, are supposed to be these sort of dour people that are, you know, trying to maintain order and civility in all of this. So, we’re the straight men in this comedy of errors. It was an interesting experience and interesting mostly to me in what it taught me about reality television and why I don’t watch it anymore.
JWK: Briefly, that did it teach you about reality television?

That you should take the word “reality” away. In many respects, it’s (hardly) more real than scripted television…Now, whenever I see a Survivor/Bachelor relational type of reality series I just know how much of it is just putting words in people’s mouths and telling them to act this way.
JWK: Overall, looking back on your career, what would you say the moral of your particular story is?

I have threaded two moral compasses when it comes to making movies. On the one hand, I will do anything that does not involve murder and bloodshed to get a film done. You have to feel like it’s a crusade in order be willing to knuckle down and do all the hard work that goes into making a film. So, my personal credo is just to say “Yes” to anything – but the other half of me goes “You have to maintain your moral compass. You can’t demean yourself in your personal life or in your work life in a way that exposes you to degrading yourself or other people who have to degrade themselves…And I see that around me so often that it’s kind of nauseating. I think it’s one of the things that gave rise to the Me Too Movement. A lot of it originated in the film industry and it makes me a bit embarrassed to be a part of it. I mean not to be a part of the degradation but to be functioning in that universe because it needed some sunlight. It needed some cleaning up and I think largely that has happened and that it’s continuing to happen.
JWK: Do you have advice for a writer, director or producer aspiring to break into the industry today?

I do. Whether it’s good advice or not, I leave to others to decide.I got into this industry by simply being around a film set and, particularly (with) the producers, I (made sure) I could help do whatever they needed. I’m sorry for this little rant (but) the thing that I find even more prevalent in today’s youth is it seems like so many people come out of school determined to get what they need. You can’t start off with “I want,” “I need” (and) “This is where I see myself going.” You gotta start off by going “What do you need?” “How do I help you?” “How can I get your agenda done?” That’s everything.I’ve humbled across town delivering lunches and urine samples and whatever it took to make the people above me lives more convenient and also help expedite the getting of the film made…It’s part and parcel of this thing. You’re there to serve at first. I said “Yes” to anything that wasn’t personally degrading. If (they) needed this, I (was) there to do it. So, I ended up helping out on every department on a film. I was serving snacks and running (errands) and (doing) camera stuff…A person that knows everybody’s job can help facilitate (the production) when something goes wrong. Sooner or later, they’re gonna call on you to do more and more things because (you’re the) guy that knows where all the bones are buried. If you want to know how to get crosstown in 14 minutes, you hire that guy. If you want to know how to get a tent set up and operational in less time than that, this is the guy. It’s just like you become that go-to guy. That’s where a little of your career steering starts to happen.I got my first job writing because I was sitting around a producer named Sandy Howard who one day said “I’d love to do a little movie about a dog that gets lost in a New York airport (and) takes this incredible journey across the continent to reunite with his elderly owner.” And I go home and I write two pages (and say) “Oh, I think I can tell you a little yarn that you’d be amused with” and handed it to him and he said “Okay, you’re writing. Go ahead. Get started.”
JWK: So, that was the start of your writing career?

Yeah, it’s being at the right place at the right time – and making that right time for yourself.
The one other little thing that’s changed over the years that I would say is don’t go immediately to LA thinking that Hollywood is the place you need to base out of. I’m in Oklahoma shooting a film right now because they have tax and rebate incentives that make it so much more financially feasible to make a more there than in California. So, this place is full of productions that are looking for locals that they don’t have to fly in , pay to stay here and put up in hotels (and who) know what they’re doing. That’s where you should be. You should be looking at what we call the “incentive states.” You can find them on the internet.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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