5AM

Filmmaker Spotlight: John Painz


HollyShorts Alumni John Painz, Owner of Words From Here production company, brings his personal experience with agoraphobia to the screen with his feature Stuck. Stuck dives into the debilitating anxieties and challenges that build John’s confinement for the past two years and how he surmounts to facing the outside world.

Synopsis: Stuck follows John, an agoraphobe who hasn’t left his apartment in two years. After his therapist quits on him, he is replaced by Dr. Claire Morning, who, with the help of some interesting therapy, challenges John to leave his apartment in 30 days.

Tell me a little about yourself:

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of my younger years in Syosset, on Long Island. My dream, when I was a kid, was to become a comic book artist like Bill Sienkiewicz or Dave Mckean. My dad got me into comic book collecting and drawing became my favorite past time.

I loved movies. Loved, loved them (Schwarzenegger films in particular), but I watched them strictly for entertainment sake, and never sat down and dissected them in any real way. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started paying attention to the styles of different directors, especially David Lynch. His film Wild at Heart is my all time favorite film. That is not to be confused with what I think is the best film ever made.

After high school, I went to the School of Visual Arts and landed in the Illustration department. Fortunately or, unfortunately, once college was over I found myself doing graphic design for a paycheck. I couldn’t get any work in comics, so, that paycheck turned into a career. I was a graphic designer for fifteen years until I turned my sites to filmmaking.

What was the lure to your desire of filmmaking?

In 1999 or so I created Words From Here, which was a website that was born out of the first Project Greenlight. I felt at the time that the web needed a community-based site for screenwriters to get reviews and resources for their work. So, with a forum and a site and all that, a bunch of us got together and started reading each other’s work. I had contests once a year and gave out some donated prizes. A few of the winners got optioned, which was great. But after about five years I got burnt out because I wasn’t charging people. Just offering help and all that. So I shut the site down for about four or five years until late 2010 when I met my producing partner Julie Sisson. I re-configured the site and name as a production company. It was around that time that the bug to create something new was rearing its head. I re-tooled a feature called 8 for Vegas, about a pool team that traveled from New York to Las Vegas to try and win the grand prize of a national pool tournament. I was in a pool league when I first wrote the feature (it’s also how, years later, I would meet Julie, actually), and thought a sports comedy slash road trip film would be fun.

Ultimately, the lure of filmmaking was in my continued love of storytelling. Didn’t matter if it was while illustrating a comic, or writing a novel or a script. I love all of those formats. But, as the DSLR revolution was taking place, I had the opportunity to try my hand at something I’d wanted to do for a long time.

What experience have you had with agoraphobia?

I have been dealing with agoraphobia on and off for the past five years. There was a six month stretch in late 2009 where I couldn’t leave the house without having a crippling anxiety attack. It made for a very difficult time and was followed by some severe depression. I’ve been dealing with anxiety issues for the past 15 years or so, but after a long drought of unemployment, not leaving my apartment became a daily routine, and it evolved into a much larger issue.

After six months, I had no choice but to fight through it when I got a full-time job. It was a very stressful time, but the combination of anxiety, no money, and depression forced me to take a long look at how much energy I was giving over to these issues. A lot of what is talked about in the script is personal philosophy. I didn’t do any research for the therapeutic measures that take place. I started writing and worked my way through them with what I thought might help people who were suffering talk about issues that affected their lives.

I wanted to come up with some unique ways to not only keep the main character interesting, but also get the viewer out of the apartment. I felt that was one of the keys to the success of the script. So, I used the device of multiple characters talking into a video camera. While we stay in the main character’s house for a significant amount of the film, the additional characters not only helped the pace along, but solidified all of the potential difficulties people might have with this debilitating disorder.

If you had unlimited funds and resources how would that have changed your story if it would have?

In this hypothetical world, I would have shot a different script. In fact, I doubt Stuck would have ever been written, and that would have been a shame because I’m quite proud of it. If it had to be Stuck, I honestly wouldn’t have changed much for a first feature. Maybe an additional camera, some more lighting. I would have also liked to have paid my cast and crew more. They dedicated a lot of time to the project, and I couldn’t have done it without them.

Tell me about your process from page to screen?

In 2013, I had set a goal to shoot a feature the following year. I knew the scripts I had wouldn’t do, as they were big budget films. I had never written with budget in mind before, so I grabbed a piece of paper and I wrote ASSETS across the top. I made a list of everything I could get my hands on for free. First thing was my apartment. My cat. A hallway. Lobby. Central Park. An office… and so on and so forth.

As I looked at the list, story ideas began to emerge. After a while, I figured there was really only one reason a person wouldn’t leave their home, and I started forming a story about an agoraphobic character. The script came quite quickly in my head after that. I wrote the first draft in a week and sent it off to Julie and our co-producer Lynn Mancinelli. I got some great feedback from them both and started in on a second draft. Then a third.

Since you’ve directed, written, edited, and acted in your feature. Which role do you find the most rewarding?

The entire project was rewarding as a whole. This project couldn’t have been better for a first feature. 80% of the film takes place in one location. We had a minimal crew, and no more than three actors at a time (and only for one scene). We were able to take our time and not rush, so the film was not overwhelming for being the writer, director, editor and lead. I’m not sure I would ever do that again, especially with a more complicated script. Besides 5AM, I’d never really acted before. But, the character was essentially me, and I felt that I could balance all of the roles I was responsible for, and still have the essence of the character with me at all times.

But if I had to pick one, it would be as editor. It was a crash course in storytelling. There is the tenet of there are three times you make a film. When it’s written when it’s shot, and when it’s edited.’ Well, being responsible for all three of those things, it was a great relief to be able to think like an editor while being in the first two phases. I learned about pace, shaping performances, the art of compromising and simplifying, while writing and directing the film. Then, in the 5 months it took to edit Stuck, we removed an entire plot line and two scenes and were still able to get an 85-minute film out of an 82-page script. You see all of these pieces before editing and you know it will fit, and then you cut a part and see a streamlined story you didn’t think of before. You hear about it happening on big budget films, but until you experience it… it was really amazing.

How did you go about funding your feature? 

We started out our fundraising adventure for Stuck with an Indiegogo campaign. We had used them in the past for two seasons of our web series 8 for Vegas, and knew that we were going to shoot Stuck with whatever we raised. I had planned to finance some of the films, and asked friends, family, and the general public to help however they could. My cast and crew were very helpful in spreading the word. In the end, we had three people donate a significant amount of money, and all received Executive Producer credit.

What are you working on next? Possibly a comic book series?

I would love to work on a comic series, but my main focus is now movies. I have a fantastic script in the works that I can only describe as an urban nightmare. I was trying to figure out what our next film would be, and I harkened back to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and how much the two films utilize New York City as a character. Having lived in the city practically my entire adult life, I started cultivating some wonderful locations that could be used and came up with some doozies. So, I shared the idea with my two producing partners Julie Sisson and Lynn Mancinelli, and we’re all very excited. We’re hoping to start shooting in September. The film is yet untitled.

What advice do you have for your fellow filmmakers?

Kubrick said, “Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.” So, ok, you don’t need film anymore. This is where Coppola comes in. “Suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart…and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camera recorder, and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form.” I think we’re now at the point in the last decade or so where this is a reasonably consistent reality.

When Julie Sisson and I worked on our web series, we received some money from a friend. He handed me the check and said, “Look, this project, it doesn’t matter if it sucks. You’re just starting out, and that’s ok. Just make sure you finish it. I’ve met too many people who’ve said they were going to do this and that and never did a thing, they just talked. Just make sure you finish it.”

A project doesn’t have to be great to have taught you a valuable lesson. We live in a great time for filmmakers. Don’t worry about the grand payday or the fame or any of that shit. Worry about finishing what you started. Get it out there, find out what you did wrong and how you could fix it, then try another project. You should look at each project as a stepping-stone and understand that each production is going to present its own challenges.

Being a director means you’re the captain of the ship, and as soon as you start in with the screaming, yelling, or the melodrama or what-have-you it affects every single person down the line. It’s one of the worst things you can do to change the mood of the entire production. It affects performances, levels of involvement, attitudes… everything. Figure out a way to get out of a bad situation without making it worse, and then sort your issues out on a one-on-one basis.