Indie spirit: Get to know ‘Feral State’ filmmaker Jon Carlo
Jon Carlo has seen and done it all. The Oakland native spent his early childhood moving around the globe from Israel to Argentina before settling in Toronto. Carlo moved out to Los Angeles in 2008 with the hopes of becoming an actor, and he found success as a bit player on hit shows like Parks and Recreation and Transparent. It was during this time that he realized he wanted something more, however.
Carlo tried his hand at screenwriting and made it into the final round of the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. His first screenplay was released as 2018’s First We Take Brooklyn, which starred Harvey Keitel and was directed by Danny A. Abeckaser. Carlo re-teamed with Abeckaser for the crime drama Mob Town, but he decided to take the reins on his latest project, Feral State.
Feral State is Jon Carlo’s directorial debut. The film was recently acquired by Vertical Entertainment for North American distribution and is set for a 2021 theatrical, digital and VOD release.
Film Daily had the pleasure of talking with Jon Carlo about his writing career, his new film, and his acclimation to directing. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your journey into filmmaking. What did you do before joining the entertainment business?
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry. As a kid I was obsessed with movies, but growing up I never really believed it was a possibility. In college I was a pre-med major, and the plan at the time was to be a doctor. Things began to shift for me my senior year, where on a whim I decided to audition for a play.
To my surprise I got a cast in the lead role and on opening night I caught the proverbial “bug” everyone talks about. Being on stage in front of an audience gave me an adrenaline rush I never felt before and that was it. I was hooked.
I began taking theater and creative writing classes on the side, and still graduated with a degree in Psychobiology, but I knew that I would never be truly happy unless I followed my passion. I decided to move to LA and immediately began auditioning and taking acting classes, but being in LA was a major shock to say the least. It took a couple years for me to adjust and to understand that the odds of making it in the entertainment industry were next to zero. But I keep trudging along.
Then I started booking work, mostly commercials and TV shows, and although I was thrilled, something didn’t quite feel right. After my 400th audition for nameless roles such as “waiter #3” and “man on street,” I realized that I could either keep up my current trajectory and roll the dice hoping to book a lead role in something someday, or write it myself. That’s when writing became an obsession.
Is there any film or TV show that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
As a kid I loved the big budget Hollywood blockbusters, but watching those movies felt more like an escape than an education. It wasn’t until I read the book Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez that I began to feel like filmmaking was even possible. I then dove into the world of indie movies and became obsessed with the indie world.
Do you have any experience with mentors? If so, do you recommend them for up and coming filmmakers?
I think mentorship is essential in any craft. The problem is that these days it’s not very common and really hard to find a working professional to take you under their wing. I was blessed to meet Danny A. Abeckaser (director/producer/actor) who took me under his wing and hired me to write my first produced screenplay.
For most screenwriters, their job essentially ends once the script is submitted, but Danny allowed to be on set everyday, and it was that experience that really taught me the ins and outs of filmmaking. Although I was just a fly on the wall, I absorbed as much as I could while being on set.
Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker? If so, do you think you’ll always be an indie filmmaker?
Currently I am an Indie Filmmaker due to budgetary constraints, but the goal is to eventually move up that ladder. There’s something uniquely pure about making an indie movie, which I hear goes away once you get to the bigger budget movies, but I can’t say for sure because I’ve yet to make something considered “Big Budget.”
All I can really say is that when there’s no money, the people on set are there for the passion, and that makes all the difference.
Walk us through your creative process.
This is tricky because every project requires something different. But from a macro level, at the end of the day my job is to tell a story. That process begins with the words on the page, but then must also be expressed in all the different departments that make a movie. Film is a unique medium because it combines so many different art forms.
Costume, music, lighting, camera movement, these are all tools a director has at their disposal to tell the story. So I guess, I’d say always ask yourself what is the story? What am I trying to convey to an audience? And then take that message and include it on every single decision you make on set.
Do you listen to any particular music to help you create?
Music is key for me when writing a script. I love listening to movie scores and soundtracks, and will specifically choose certain moods and genres of music to help inform the writing.
What are five films you think everyone needs to watch in their lifetime?
On the Waterfront, I Origins, Sicario, Arrival, True Romance.
What was the first project you worked on, and what did you learn from the experience?
First We Take Brooklyn was my first experience as a screenwriter seeing my script come to life right in front of me. We were blessed to have the Oscar-nominated actor Harvey Keitel on the project, and seeing this legendary actor speak the words I wrote was an outer-body experience.
It was definitely the most profound experience I’ve had and has taught me that the script is the blueprint, and without a rock solid blueprint, the end result can and usually will have major problems down the road.
What made you want to create Feral State?
I have to preface this with saying that Feral State came about in a way that is extremely rare and almost never happens. I was given a budget first before there was any script written… And this almost never happens.
Once the money was secured, I went down to central Florida which was pre-determined as the film’s backdrop, and basically drove around seeking the story through what I saw and who I met.
Before I knew it, the plot just popped into my head and then I just started writing down what I saw and the resources that were given to me.
Feral State is your directorial debut. How did you prepare to take on a bigger role with the project?
I think I’m an extremely stubborn person, in the sense that once I decide to do something there’s really no turning back. This can be frustrating at times, but I think that it’s also the one trait I have that has gotten me to where I am today. I didn’t let myself ever think that I didn’t have what it takes to be a director and so dove head first into the project.
I truly believe that anyone is capable of achieving anything as long as they fully commit and just put one in front of the other until you reach your destination. That’s kind of what happened with Feral State. I just broke the movie down into tiny little pieces and began accomplishing small tangible goals.
What was it like working on set for Feral State?
I always say that any day on set is a good day… However, Feral State was by far one of the most challenging projects I think I’ll ever have. We had so many obstacles, and literally anything that could go wrong went wrong. From lightning storms, to rabid dogs, ticks and lice, I mean so much went wrong that there was a moment where we thought we wouldn’t be able to finish the movie on time.
That being said, I had the most amazing cast and crew who were so passionate and committed to the project that we all came together and refused to give up. This movie was purely a labor of love, and there’s absolutely no way I could have finished it without every single person involved.
What makes Feral State different from other crime films in the same genre?
I think Feral State is very unique because it doesn’t really fall under one particular category or genre. It’s a thriller that has a lot of heart, there’s action but also family drama, it’s set in the Deep South but doesn’t espouse any politics. At the core, I think so many people will relate to the film because it’s about the underdog fighting to get on top.
You wore a lot of different hats while working on Feral State. How did you juggle all those responsibilities?
I’m still trying to figure that out. I think in hindsight, it’s not a good idea to take on so many roles. I wrote the movie, I directed it, I produced it, I was a one-man post production department, and I even negotiated the sale of the movie. In this case, I just had no other option, and so this project literally taught every single phase of filmmaking from start to finish.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
The goal is and always has been to just keep making movies. I’ve been so blessed to have been able to make a movie every year for the past 3 years, and so in five years I hope to be making good movies that are also commercially and critically successful. It would be nice to have a bit of a bigger budget, but as long as I’m on set making movies I’m a happy man.
If any director could create the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
I’m obsessed with Denis Villeneuve. I think he is by far the most talented director of our time. Every single movie he’s made has blown my mind in so many ways.
What has been your biggest success and failure so far in your career?
This movie Feral State is by far the great achievement of my professional life thus far. In terms of failures, I can’t really say because although many things have gone wrong, and will probably continue to go wrong, I don’t classify anything as a failure.
You either win or learn. The only time you lose is if you don’t learn from a situation, and so as long as I keep learning and growing then nothing negative that happens will I ever consider a failure.
What part of the filmmaking process is your favorite, and why?
That’s a tough one. I think just being on set, behind the monitor with my crew is the greatest feeling in the world. Filmmaking is this massive machine that’s made up of hundreds of tiny moving parts, and so being on set while this machine comes to life is definitely my favorite part.
What indie filmmakers should we have on our radar?
I love discovering new talented filmmakers and watching these incredible indie films. They inspire me and push me to be better and to work harder. I’d say in the last few years I’ve been most inspired by The Duplass brothers, Taylor Sheridan, Brit Marling, Chloe Zhao, Mike Cahil and Drake Doremus.
What’s next on the docket for you?
I’ve been developing a really cool horror film set on a cannabis farm that I’m hoping to get going next.
How has COVID affected your work so far?
It has been an interesting time. It is really so unfathomable that this happened, and I know so many people who’ve been adversely affected by COVID, and even lost lives to this horrible pandemic. It’s really hurt the industry as a whole, and it has been a shame to see everything halt in many ways.
For me, I basically wrapped up this film right before the pandemic shut down hit, and so the lockdown gave me a little extra time to edit and to fine tune the movie. As the world was shut down, I was locked in an editing suite cutting and re-cutting Feral State which I think really helped me keep my sanity and gave me something to look forward to every day.
Do you think the film industry will be able to bounce back after COVID dies down?
I have no doubt that the industry will bounce back, because storytelling is programmed into our DNA. Will there be changes to how movies are made and sold, probably, but at the end of the day, humans have a craving for story, and with all the amazing new platforms out there, I think the film industry will not only bounce back but will experience a new golden age.
What advice do you have for up and coming filmmakers?
There are so many amazing books and documentaries out there about the craft of filmmaking, and so I’d say if you love making movies, then study the people and the projects you love the most. I know first hand how daunting it feels to even imagine making a movie, but all I can really say is to get up and do it.
Everyone now has a 4K camera in their pocket, and editing software on their computers. There’s no excuse to not get some friends together and shoot something. It’s also important not to be discouraged. Your first 10 projects might not be good, but you will learn invaluable information every time you get out there and do it. So stop making excuses and just get out there and shoot something.