A Little Money, a Long Way: An Interview with Joseph Cashiola

a man in a flannel shirt is riding a bike in a kitchen and smiling
Director Joseph Cashiola is finishing up post production on his film "A Thing as Big as the Ocean."

Joseph Cashiola says that there has to be “exploration” in his life, or he’s not happy. This is the result of traveling around in an Army family as a kid. Fittingly, Cashiola, 27, continues on a self-taught, road-tested, and successful spiral into independent filmmaking and is not short on ideas.

In September, 2008, the strength of his work earned Cashiola, and his partners at Four Birds Pictures the prestigious Independent Feature Project (IFP) $50,000.00 Independent Filmmaker Finishing Grant for his first feature, A Thing as Big as the Ocean. The film was one of 11 films selected for review during the IFP Narrative Lab in New York for its storyline, which depicts two strangers dealing with “their issues,” as Cashiola told The Frederick News-Post (September 11, 2008), after Hurricane Katrina.

Cashiola prefers to witness the world, its tragedies, and characters from behind (for now) a digital lens. His day job in a carpentry shop, assembling trade show exhibits is also uniquely tied to his perspective, and helps him understand the scenic elements of his films.

Now nearing the end of post-production, Cashiola is readying the film for a festival run and expects editing to be complete within the next two months.

Fresh off the plane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Cashiola spoke with The Independent at One-World-Café in Baltimore, to discuss filmmaking, family, music, and his general rules for life.

How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker?

Self-taught would be the biggest descriptor. In 2003, my brother was living in Chicago and said, “You should move out here, we’ll start a band and make some movies.” I moved, and with a friend of ours, we all worked at a scenic design shop. I’d been talking with a painter about making a documentary about a bar called the Gallery Cabaret. There was one guy in particular that hung out there who had tuberculosis, he was in his late 70s, and a vagrant, but was in the Folk Music Hall of Fame and wrote songs for Doc Watson, we were interested in. Dan [Mejia], the cameraman for Ocean, bought a Panasonic AG-DVX 100, but the project fell through, so he suggested I write a script. My brother, Ross, and I wrote Pitch and Tone (2007), which was a 53-minute film. It’s an odd time, but it was a good exercise in how to assemble, and go through the leg work of getting things ready to be filmed. There was a large cast in that, too, which felt like a big accomplishment. We showed that at the Marfa Film Festival and South Side Film Festival.

Then, in December 2006, my friend Nick was assisting on a movie called, Good Dick that was at Sundance last year and asked me if I wanted to go. I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t go, but I did write the script for A Thing As Big As The Ocean while I was house-sitting for him, and unemployed for two months.

You have a degree in creative writing from La Salle University, so, are your films written, or visual concepts first?

They’re definitely written first, and character-driven. I storyboard a little bit, but for the most part, it’s impromptu acting and scene construction. In school, I wrote short stories, but film is more than that since you have to share the idea with a lot of people. With scripts I like to have the dialogue and basic scenario of the scene down, like for A Thing As Big As The Ocean, shot on the road [in 2007], we had an idea of the mood of the scenes but did not know where they would actually be, so the important thing was for the actors, Jeff (“Lemmy”) and Thai (“Darlene”) to know the characters so they could be these characters — a recovering alcoholic in his 30s, and a young African-American girl — in any setting.

Is there one overarching theme in your work, from your first, 10-minute film, Toast, to now?

I would say searching, wandering, even chance. I think it’s a manifestation of my own impressions of the world. Since my father was in the Army, we lived in Europe for four years and I, more so than my siblings, have not felt a particular idea of home tied to one place, so that wanderlust is something I am exploring in my own way, as well.

Is that part of the excitement of filmmaking for you — that you might never find what you are looking for?

That’s the interesting, elusive nature of filmmaking. You have an idea, you write it down then you share it with actors, they interpret it, and so there are different stages of trying to be exact. I think the one thing I have found in making films the way we have so far is this idea of “fellowship,” and that is very satisfying. We were in New Orleans for one month and volunteered demolishing homes and salvaging wood. We did that for three weeks, and filmed for less than a week, so our experience was way down-to-earth.

Working with your brother and best friends, what keeps you together, not riddled with conflicts that artistic relationships can produce?

I think just a general desire to be creative on rewarding projects. In Chicago there was a community of artists who were multitalented in that they all played music, made visual art or were actors or some combination, and I still view [filmmaking] as a project, but if there’s another kind of project, like a music project then it will get the same attention. I think diversity can really help, so my goal has been to participate with creative people, not necessarily professionals. Experience is something I look forward to so if it is a challenge then it’s something I want to do. However, I like to move by slow degrees in each project rather than think some person is going to fall out of the sky with 6,000 million dollars for a movie. I’ve got a net, but the challenge is to stay motivated about the larger workings of getting our film screened and released.

Now with 50K “falling out of the sky,” to finish Ocean, how do you use that money and stay on your creative track?

We’ve been trying to make smart decisions with that money and we’ve spent the majority of it. This project’s coming to an end and once it’s finished, I’ll feel more comfortable about writing my next couple of ideas. It’s a lot of work for a few number of individuals. There’s no one to pick up slack. It’d be great, someday, if someone could, but now, it’s intensive.

Do you think Ocean will always be relevant?

I think the root of anything has to do with whatever the story and characters are, so the story stays more relevant than the filmmaker or the style, or at least that is my hope. The digital aspect of filmmaking is great and invites an exploration of our society, tied to other digital image capturing things like cell phones and cameras on the streets of Baltimore. It’s taking that idea and exploring society in a more subjective way. Some people are always striving for objectivity, and I don’t know if that’s the way to go. I think this digital invasion of our worlds is totally relevant to now, so in the long run, it is relevant to the span of my film – the lifespan of digital media.

In your opinion, what makes Ocean important for people to see?

Approaching the subject of New Orleans, we didn’t want to treat it too heavy-handed. We wanted it to be a subtext for the two characters. The focus was more on people dealing with tragedy rather than trying to explain how the tragedy came about because we can argue about why and what exactly happened, but at the end of the day, people have to deal with the realities of these tragedies.

Was there an idea you had as a kid that hasn’t yet turned into a film?

There’s one film my brother and I have been taking about making for years, and I think if we’re ever going to make a film, this would be it. We’ve made other things, but kind of in preparation for one day making this film about travel and discovery through the eyes of kids, derived from our own experience living in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. This idea that an Army family is correlated to a modern family that is moving a lot, and is tied to larger events. Plus, I met a lot of people and things like race, gender, or age, didn’t matter because we just wanted to get to know people. Don’t rule anything out is a general rule for life. I’m trying to not shoot on digital forever, either. I’d like to someday shoot on film. I’ve been really into this idea of how light reacts to everything in the world and film captures light in a different way than digital cameras do.

Have your parents contributed to your filmmaking?

Our parents have always encouraged discovery and been very supportive about art making. My brother’s a sculptor, my sister and little brother are both painters, and they’ve always been supportive about us doing things that are going to develop and satisfy elements of a “soul.” We were raised Catholic, but my parents, now, are quasi-Buddhists. It is inspiring, that my parents are still exploring, and not ruling anything out in their own lives.

What makes you nervous about making a film?

Working with friends and people I respect and anchoring them because ultimately there’s a hope we’ll have a creative history together and I’d like to think that is at the core, more so than any one project. When we finished shooting, I was still in Chicago and things blew up between me and Dan, and in some ways our friendship ended, but, sometimes we have to distance ourselves from a project, to reconnect on other levels.

If you were to become “famous,” would it change the way you live, or make films?

I hope it would affect the way we make films in a good way, by allowing greater mobility and depth when approaching a subject and more tools to explore it. I feel like a lot of people use fame to distance themselves from the world. The good effect is to allow yourself to become more in tune with stuff. There’s a line in A Thing as Big as the Ocean where Darlene pulls a wad of money out of Lemmy’s shirt and wants to go to Vegas and spend it and she asks him, “You’ve got all this money what else you going to spend it on?” and the line is, “I don’t know, stuff.” It’s one of my favorites. If it works right, the look on his face says stuff is this pervading clutter of life, and what matters is continuing their timed relationship.

I think it’s interesting though, we got money from IFP and last year [Filmmaker Magazine] put out the 25 New Faces in Film and 24 of them went to Columbia, NYU, or schools in California, and I thought, these aren’t independent filmmakers, these are beginner-level professionals of an industry. Werner Herzog is a filmmaker I’m interested in. He moved to the US, worked as a welder, saved money, bought a camera, and just started making his films.

Any advice for novice filmmakers that come out of your experience versus the NYU experience?

If you’re making something for the first time, shoot digitally because you can make more mistakes. Johns Hopkins and I are talking about my teaching a class to get Hopkins kids away from their six-block radius, to explore Baltimore, and I think that’s just a general rule, with a camera, to feel a sense of purpose. YouTube is a good metaphor for the negative aspect of video, which is anything goes. I think people should be critical about what they’re capturing. I met with the programmer from Sundance in New York, and the first question she asked me was, “Why do people even make films anymore?”

Is there anything in the works, other than finishing Ocean?

I’m trying to go to West Texas to write a script. The story is set in West Virginia about an older man that has had a younger daughter and his son has a daughter and by circumstance, the families come to live together. It’s an idea about gender roles, with coal mining as the background and the destruction of the environment for our needs as a subtext. It’s a look at the world right now, kids coming into awareness, and seeing the process affect their lives. I would like to rent a house in West Virginia for 2-3 months and have everyone stay to digest the characters and landscape.