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If you’ve attended SXSW in the past three years, then you’ve already seen the work of Joe Nicolosi. Prominently known for shooting some amazing bumpers for the SXSW Film Festival, his shorts—among them a look at a production company specializing in cat videos, a Lego version of CSI, Star Wars as retold by someone who’s never seen Star Wars and a faux-indie Mario Brothers trailer—have gone viral time and time again, proving that Nicolosi knows how to reach an online audience.
I talked to Joe about growing up in the suburbs, making his infamous SXSW bumpers and the three things it takes to be a successful moviemaker.
Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out you wanted to be a moviemaker?
Joe Nicolosi (JN): I first got started when I was a kid. I had a lot of Legos and a camera that could do decent stop-motion. I loved the James Bond and Police Academy movies, so I would constantly shoot these Lego movies with this character I made called “Adventurous Bob,” who would go on wacky adventures and wear his life jacket on backwards to keep his back warm.
I grew up in Rockland County, New York, which were basically boring-ass suburbs. It was an hour train ride into New York City, and there’s a million things to do there but the only thing to do where I grew up was sit around in diners and drink coffee or sit around in basements and watch The Evil Dead, and we did a lot of both of those things.
MM: Were there any films or directors in particular that influenced you early on?
JN: I was always inspired by the guys that seemed like the “one-man bands,” like Robert Rodriguez, and one of the reasons I later came to Austin was because filmmakers there were making cool, badass, entertaining movies seemingly outside the traditional Hollywood movie system.
MM: Did you go to film school in Austin?
JN: No, upstate New York. I had an education in theater and writing, which is still invaluable to me. My film school education, however… their program was for experimental, non-narrative filmmakers/artists that do shows in galleries, and all I wanted was to do movies that were fun and funny, and I felt like a leper in that program. I graduated in 2006.
MM: What did you do after school?
JN: Immediately came to Austin. My plan was to live somewhere I could make my movies and make money on the side, and the cost of living here seemed to be low enough that I could reasonably live here and… still make movies. I got an editing job right out of college, and I worked there for nine months then got a job in the editing department at the Alamo Drafthouse for about two years. Then I worked as an editor for the SXSW Film Festival for about a year, making their Internet content.
MM: So at this point are you still making your own movies?
JN: Yeah. I really wanted to do a Star Wars-meets-Slacker kind of Web series, so I made a few episodes of that. And I made some live-action shorts, too.
MM: Some of your shorts have had a lot of success online. What was the first video to really blow up?
JN: My friend Amanda had never seen Star Wars, so I asked her to tell me what she thought they were about, then I animated over the recording and put it up online. It was insane: I posted it in the morning and by noon it was on the front page of Digg and StarWars.com, and there was no way to deal with that immediate attention.
MM: You are probably most well-known from doing some of the amazing SXSW bumpers in the past few years. How did you first get involved with them?
JN: They needed a video to show people how to use the shuttle system, so I volunteered to make it. They liked it, and [festival director] Janet Pierson told me to pitch some bumper ideas. I didn’t really know what a bumper was, so I pitched 40 and they all got rejected. Finally I just wrote one script I thought was really funny; I shot it, they approved it without any changes, and that was my Stay Indoors bumper from 2010. I originally made it to be a “Midnight bumper,” but they started playing it at the Paramount… before stuff like MacGruber.
MM: And the next year you made all of the bumpers, right?
JN: Yeah. Janet said she wanted to do something that messes with indie film… I was poking around [with] this version of Mario Brothers for IFC, and that one totally blew up. The first Friday of SXSW I was already getting e-mails from Fox Searchlight.
MM: What’s the average budget for your bumpers?
JN: Anywhere between $300-$500. I shoot super low-budget; I’ve never had more than a couple hundred bucks to make a short. The DSLRs are my best friend, and I don’t cut corners when it comes to sound recording/mixing. I’m an editor by trade, so I’ll shoot for hours and know the one little bit I need.
MM: What are some of the biggest challenges in making those bumpers?
JN: I definitely want it to be the kind of thing where you could watch it over and over every day and there will still be little things you don’t pick up on. I have a very short attention span, so if I’m taking people’s attention and showing them something, I want to honor that agreement and give them as much entertainment as possible, especially at a film festival where it’s a captive audience. I do my market research and come up with a bunch of ideas and pitch them to all of my funny friends.
MM: What’s your directing process like? Especially for something like a bumper, where there isn’t a fully developed narrative, how do you go about working with actors?
JN: I know what the big picture is, and I always see these bumpers as a small window into a bigger picture. For the Mario bumper, I sat down with the actor that played Mario and we planned out an entire feature film. Blocked out an entire 90 minute movie scene-by-scene, so wherever we are shooting this fake trailer, we have a backstory to work off of. Or in The Line, both those actors only had like four lines, but we had sketched out their characters with them, where they were, the kind of day they were having, why they’re there… It gives the audience an easier way in if they can recognize these characters.
MM: What about for shooting, especially since you’re a director/editor?
JN: I know exactly what I need when I’m shooting. I storyboard everything and I know what shots I need and how long I need them. So I don’t do a lot of setups. But I do a lot of takes, because I like to have a lot of variety in the editing room.
MM: What do you want to do next?
JN: I’d like to move away from bumpers and start making some festival shorts. I have a manager in L.A. sending me projects all the time. I’m doing another Lego short for a large Website, I’ve got a budget and everything. They asked me to do “The Wire,” so I’ve been working on that all month. I’m also writing a feature called Knights of Comic-Con, and I’d like to direct it. But it’s probably an $80 million movie at least, so for now I’m just using it as a writing sample.
MM: Do you think film school is worth it?
JN: I don’t know. I hear about other peoples’ film school experiences and it sounds awesome. I got more out of my school’s theater department, because they had directing and acting classes and I learned how to form stories in writing… In terms of actual film school, you really just have to make stuff. Just be a factory of films, and even though I didn’t make a lot of stuff for my film school I was always making stuff on my own, and I got more out of those than anything else.
MM: Any advice for young aspiring moviemakers?
JN: The biggest thing is the ability to work really hard and long hours. I’m in my office seven days a week ’til midnight or later. I think you need three things to be a successful filmmaker: Talent, which is raw; skill, which develops over time; and hard work. And since hard work is the only thing you can physically control, you have to push yourself to the next level.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of 21, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.