From Grace to Grindhouse
From Grace to Grindhouse
A Q&A with Todd Morris
Of the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival
By Geoff Gehman
The Victorian Goth Girl is coyly coiled in the menacing, mesmerizing cobblestoned passageway of what could pass for a castle or a prison. She wears a billowy ball gown, a shoulder-to-forearm tattoo and a beehive wig that could be mistaken for a spiral of snakes. She casually carries an antique movie camera on a tripod that resembles a very long stake. Is she shooting a documentary on stalking Jack the Ripper? Will she use the tripod to impale the notorious serial killer, then ride the camera like a broomstick to the opening-night party of a fantastic film festival?
The spooky siren is the poster gal for the first Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival, a refreshingly rebellious lineup with a delightfully dark streak. Premiering June 8-11 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, it’s a banquet of 86 films from 15 countries–all made during the last three years–screened in 15 blocks ranging from “Love & Death” to “Local Heroes” to the inventively sleazy horror genre known as Grindhouse.
The operatic cast of characters includes angels auditioned in Los Angeles and Bangkok; two sisters seeking an ideal family through taxidermy; a black actor seeking a better career through whiteness; friends of a Quaker couple seeking a divorce; young women turned into monsters by a drug for menstruation, and the epically faithful stray residents of Centralia, the Pennsylvania town virtually abandoned because of an underground coal fire that can’t be extinguished. The opening-night centerpiece is “The Pine Barrens,” an ever-evolving documentary on the 1.1 million-acre New Jersey sanctuary for sources of pure water, endangered animals and legendary creatures. It will be accompanied by the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, named after the historic Barrens ghost town and rehearsal home for the traditional-electronic ensemble.
The festival is a dream for cinephiles and sociologists alike. It was dreamed up by Jim Thorpe residents Todd Morris and Jocelyn O’Neil, married filmmakers who are the parents of Wyatt and Cody, the latter born May 19. Morris, a producer of commercials, and O’Neil, who acted in imaginative stage adaptations of the Frankenstein story, received more than 600 submissions, a very impressive turnout for a first-time event in a fairly sleepy town. In the conversation below Morris discusses his favorite drive-in films as a youngster; his favorite moments as a director and guest at two French film festivals, and a favorite movie soundtrack he used to annoy a favorite friend.
Q: You’re the first non-musician I’ve interviewed for the “Full Volume” series, but I’m still going to ask you the first question I ask musicians: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned your world upside down and inside out?
A: I was really immersed in music when I was a kid back in the ’60s and ’70s. My brother is eight years older, so I inherited all his records. I was a huge Beatles fan in junior high and I also loved the Rolling Stones. Film was always my first love, so movie music was always a huge deal for me. I became obsessed with the soundtrack to the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” when I was 12. I recorded it off TV on my Sears tape recorder. I used to play it over and over and annoy the shit out of my girlfriend. Yeah, we didn’t stay together long back in the sixth or seventh grade [laughs].
Q: We discovered when we were setting up this interview that we both saw “Goldfinger” at the drive-in when we were kids in the back seat of an Impala—a ’65 for your family, a ’64 for mine. Tell me more about your drive-in dreams.
A: I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, in a little area called Plum Borough. Back then drive-ins were cheap entertainment for parents and their kids. This was before car seats and we just spilled out in the back with pillows. The two films that really stuck out for me are “Goldfinger” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” They always played a double feature back in those days and you’d end up seeing something like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” a year after it was released with a first-run feature. Of course you didn’t care if it was a year old; back then it was all a great novelty.
As you got older you’d go to the drive-in with your friends and sneak in a case of beer and if the cops caught you they’d punish you by taking your beer [laughs]. After I graduated from high school I was driving around in this convertible 1966 Cutlass—a piece of shit, if you could imagine—and we were celebrating with a case of beer in the back and cops pulled us over. Because we were kids they gave us a stern talking-to and took our beer. The punishment we imagined was a lot worse.
Q: The poster girl for the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival looks like a Victorian Amy Winehouse, a seductive witch who could easily use that old camera as a tool or a weapon. What image did you want her to convey? What message did you want her to conjure?
A: I wanted her to conjure the spirit of a film festival that’s dark, rebellious, entertaining and mildly controversial, something more diverse and dynamic than a traditional festival, which is too lofty and NPR for me. I love the dark side, as you can tell from many of the films we’ve chosen. I love to have people see stuff they’re not used to seeing. I love to push their buttons, to make them squirm. I love to stir the pot; I love to stir the shit.
Q: Is that why you have two grindhouse blocks?
A: Absolutely, and we could have had more if the festival were longer. We had to keep it fairly tight because we ended up getting over 600 submissions. We got stuff from all over the world and we wanted to keep our standards really high. Jocelyn and I were wringing our hands in the middle of the night, saying: Oh, we need this one; oh, we can’t fit this one in. Because we’re so critical and discriminating, I feel very good about our overall program. I stand behind the films we chose 100 percent.
Q: Did you and Jocelyn have any role models for your first festival?
A: It’s a total contrast to what we’re doing but I love the glitz and glamor of Cannes. I’ve been there seven different times; the last time I was there I was giving directions in French to French people [laughs]. I’d love it if our festival could eventually capture the pomp and circumstance of Cannes but also maintain a darker aesthetic. I’m thinking of Sitges, this very long-running, prestigious festival of fantastic films in Spain; Quentin Tarantino has been there many times. It’s a huge genre festival in Europe, where genre films are considered an art form.
Q: How did you and Jocelyn divvy up your festival duties?
A: I obviously chose all the grindhouse films. No shocker there; that’s not Jocelyn’s interest, or her forte. She was instrumental in picking the dramas, and we worked together on the Saturday “Action!” program at noon. One of her favorites is actually “Hard Way,” a sort of sendup of traditional American action films, with the twist that they made it a musical. Imagine guys and girls wearing dark SWAT jackets, killing the bad guys with machine guns, and breaking into song: How can you go wrong with that combination?
Q: Why did you select “The Pine Barrens” as the opening-night centerpiece? Have you spent a lot of time wandering through the Barrens? Are you a Barrens pilgrim?
A: Are you ready for a long story? I moved to New York in ’86 after I went to West Point for a year. After I said to hell with that, I went to Penn State and got into a fraternity, a totally different thing. After I got out, my friend, who lived in Brighton Beach, said, “Hey, crash with me until you get a job,” and I did. I got into film production as a PA in ’88 and I’ve been in the film business ever since.
Since I spent so much time in New York I was always looking for weekend escape places. Instead going to the snooty Hamptons, I’d go to the Jersey Shore, when it didn’t have the stigma of a bad reality TV show. Also, I was a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, who was a Jersey Shore legend, and I fell under his spell of “driving through the swamps of Jersey,” as they say. I was also dating a girl from Jersey and I’d go down to the Shore through the Pine Barrens to Asbury Park and Ocean Grove. I ended up loving the lore, the legend, of the Jersey Devil, the giant winged birds, all the ghost stories—they always stuck with me.
One of the festival’s jurors is Randall Sellers, who owns Sellers Books & Fine Art in town, and he has a connection to David Scott Kessler, director of “The Pine Barrens.” Randall thought it would be a terrific opening-night film and I agreed. It’s beautifully shot and really amazing; it’s obvious that David has put so much effort into this film. It’s considered a work-in-progress because he keeps changing it; every time you see it, it will be a little different. The element of live music, from the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, makes it even more special.
Q: Can you predict a sleeper hit, an underdog favorite? I’m looking forward to learning more about the uncomfortable side effects of bath salts, how Quakers handle the delicate dilemma of divorce, and how a menstruating drug turns young ladies into monsters who prey on prostitutes and their pimp.
A: The PMS teenage monster syndrome is obviously part of our grindhouse block, as are the bath salts. “Quaker Oaths” is a romantic comedy and a pretty solid crowd pleaser, one of the reasons I put it on Saturday. Of course there’s “Funeral Day” on Friday. It’s another dark comedy where everything is a little twisted. A guy who finds a tumor in his balls and freaks out decides to try to change his life on the same day as his friend’s funeral, skipping the funeral and running all over LA. All you have to do is watch the trailer to see that you can make a comedy about testicular cancer that’s a crowd pleaser.
Then there’s “Palacios,” the closing-night film. It’s an intense drama shot in beautiful black and white about an inner-city teen who is in trouble and hides out and ends up meeting a lonely woman who’s just lost her husband and they bond in an unlikely friendship. There are amazing twists and turns. The actor who plays the kid is actually a troubled teen who grew up on the streets. His performance is truly amazing; by the end Jocelyn was in tears. One of the horrible twists is that he’s actually serving time in federal prison on gun charges.
There are so many good shorts. “Henry” on Friday is part of the “My Art, My Passion” block. It’s an Austrian film about a boy genius who goes to an exclusive boarding school in the Alps, obsessed with the organ, and he basically goes to war with a boy who’s the teacher’s-pet organist, a boy who rules the roost. Many people might think that a film about the organ must be boring but, holy hell, it’s really intense and beautiful
Q: One of the 15 blocks is “My Art, My Obsession.” What is your art obsession?
A: It would have to be film. I think of making commercials as film production; every commercial I produce is a short film. Maybe someday I’ll get back into film and make a sequel to “A Gun for Jennifer” [where a woman leaves a violent marriage in Ohio and joins a New York City group of female vigilantes who abuse abusive men] and get close to that lofty goal I had back in the ’90s. Today “Jennifer” would be considered a grindhouse film; it definitely has cult status. It really took off in Europe; you can still see it in Paris in late-night shows at art houses.
It was amazing what that little film did for me. I finished it in ’96 and premiered it at the New York Underground Film Festival. It was picked up and shown at the Cannes market in ’96 and the next thing you know there were screenings all over Europe of our little crazy violent movie. We went to a festival in Cognac, France, where they actually put us up–me and my girlfriend-partner who starred in the movie–in Madame Hennessy’s chateau overlooking the vineyards and a maid served us breakfast in bed—these scrappy punk New York kids. We met [actress] Karen Black and because all the American directors were grouped together, we ended up hanging out with Curtis Hanson, whose “L.A. Confidential” is one of my favorite films of the ’90s.
Curtis actually invited us to the opening-night party in Cannes the next year for “L.A. Confidential.” The special invitation was Fedexed and we wore a tux and an evening gown and we were picked up in a Mercedes limo that drove us up the mountain. The French Foreign Legion guards were the security. They opened the door and asked for your ticket and if you didn’t have a ticket you ended up going down the mountain. We were on top of the mountain, overlooking the Mediterranean, with Curtis Hanson and Danny DeVito, with fireworks and sparks coming down on us, which doesn’t happen in the States because it’s too dangerous. Talk about magical; talk about a highlight for forever.
Todd Morris: The Scoop
He says that the poster for the Jim Thorpe Independent Festival features a composite of architectural sites, and sights, on Race Street, one of the town’s main drags. The cobblestones, however, come from Sicily.
He wrote, directed, produced, edited and helped score “Molotov Samba,” a feature film revolving around the tumultuous relationship between a Brazilian pimp and a Russian prostitute.
He appeared in “In the Belly of the Beast,” a documentary on the Fantasia International Film Festival, a Montreal smorgasbord for horror, fantasy and action movies.
He and Jocelyn O’Neil, his acting, producing, festival-founding wife co-wrote “Donor,” a short comic film about a New York City couple desperate to make a family no matter what.
O’Neil played the wife in the couple’s short movie “Brunch,” where a New York couple dine with their baby at an outdoor café increasingly immersed in chaos.
He and O’Neil first met in a Brooklyn speakeasy, “which is kind of ironic because she doesn’t drink and I do. We started dating, broke up, and got back in touch because she wanted to produce a short film [‘Brunch’] that I had written with her. I was footloose and fancy free at the time; New York is great for giving you a big case of arrested development [laughs]. If you work closely with someone on a film, it’s like you’re together in the trenches during war and the next thing you know we’re back together again and I’m taking her to the Jersey Shore, to Asbury Park and Ocean Grove. And then we started coming to Jim Thorpe, where I proposed to her in 2012 on New Year’s Eve. We stayed at the Inn at Jim Thorpe and we had an amazing dinner at Flow, when it was open as a farm-to-table restaurant [note: Flow will host the festival’s opening-night party] After that we moseyed down to the Molly Maguires Pub, where at the stroke of midnight I pulled out a ring and proposed to her.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs the ad line for Todd Morris’ vigilante film “A Gun for Jennifer”: “Dead Men Don’t Rape.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.