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At age 21 actor/director Joe Raffa is already making quite a name for himself on the independent filmmaking scene. His first directorial effort (which he also wrote and co-starred in) – You’ll Know My Name – has already been nabbed for distribution after a successful festival run in 2011.
He’s currently in post-production on his follow-up project called Six Degrees of Hell, a supernatural thriller starring Corey Feldman, Nikki Bell, Jill Whelan, Brian Anthony Wilson and Raffa as well; and Dread Central recently caught up with the up-and-coming filmmaker to discuss his experiences making both You’ll Know My Name and Six Degrees of Hell, why he won’t ever star in a film he directs again and why the dark side of storytelling is so compelling to him.
Dread Central: So tell us a bit more about what got you into filmmaking and more about the risky avenue you took in order to get your first film off the ground. Clearly the risk has paid off.
Joe Raffa: It was absolutely worth the risk! Yeah, I grew up loving movies and always knew I was going to make them someday so I went to Temple University for one semester to study film because it had always been a passion of mine. I started to realize, though, I wasn’t really learning anything inside the classroom so I dropped out and took that money and invested it in my first film. The reality is that when it comes to filmmaking, you learn so much more by actually doing it rather than just studying up on theory so I just decided to go for it. I’m not saying I’m completely against college- it’s just that if and when I do go back, it’ll be for something like history or law where studying theory pays off.
After that I spent a lot of time on a lot of indie sets in Philly so I made a lot of connections that way with the independent filming community there. I really learned a lot by doing that, too- where you should and shouldn’t put your budget’s money, a lot of different management skills and using your resources wisely.
For You’ll Know My Name I did use all of my savings, and then for the rest of the budget I raised money any way I could and reached out to everyone I knew for help. Thankfully, it all came together, and the fact that we got distribution for it is pretty incredible- I’m very lucky.
DC: Since you also wrote the film, where did the idea for You’ll Know My Name come from? It definitely doesn’t seem like your typical teen drama.
Raffa: I love character-driven drama, and I wanted to essentially make High Noon set in the Jersey suburbs with a bit of an Outsiders feel; you know, this whole idea of teen angst and wasting youth where we’re not seeing the usual kind of teens. These weren’t going to be bubble gum characters- I wanted to explore a world where you’re at the age where you think the whole world is ahead of you, but really these teens were trapped in this claustrophobic world without a future.
DC: How did you get involved with Six Degrees of Hell since I know this wasn’t a project you had written?
Raffa: Bruce (producer and creator H. Bruce Smith) actually wrote Six Degrees of Hell and sent it to me to consider for directing. I really liked the story because it has this great classic feel to it that was just fun- and that’s the kind of horror I enjoy as a fan. We wanted to make a horror film that was fun, something you can take your date to see, and at the same time we wanted to make sure it was emotionally involving and it makes you think on several levels, too. One of our biggest inspirations to the feel of Six Degrees was the original Fright Night; it’s got that lighthearted tone that also has some humor to it as well.
DC: Was it nice having Bruce to collaborate with for your feature film follow-up; did working together with him alleviate some pressure for you while making Six Degrees of Hell since he was also a producer?
Raffa: Every decision made on You’ll Know My Name was one hundred percent on me so it was nice on Six Degrees of Hell to have Bruce behind me and working alongside me, making it easier to do my job as a director. We were able to bounce ideas off of each other, and I had a lot of fun working with him.
DC: Tell us more about where you shot Six Degrees of Hell and working with your cast.
Raffa: We shot in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania, near the Pocono Mountains. The main location for Six Degrees, though, was the Hotel of Horror, which used to be a real hotel in the early 1900’s. I guess people started committing suicide and they had to shut the building down. It eventually became a haunted hotel attraction after some time, and it’s a pretty amazing place to shoot. It really added a whole different level of atmosphere- it was creepy and perfect.
Our cast for Six Degrees of Hell is pretty amazing- I had a great time working with all of them and alongside them as well. I grew up a fan of The Goonies and The Lost Boys so being able to have Corey involved in our project was so cool. Brian Anthony Wilson is awesome in this, too- he’s like the Steve McQueen of Philly actors; he’s been in everything (Limitless, “The Wire,” Bad Boys II), and I was lucky to have Jill (Whelan) involved because we’ve done a few acting classes together so I just asked her to come on board, and thankfully she said yes.
DC: What’s up next for you? Any plans to get back behind and/or in front of the camera again soon?
Raffa: You know, I don’t think I’ll ever star in a movie I’m directing ever again (laughs). Honestly, it’s not that difficult, but you also want to be careful when you’re directing that you’re not wearing too many other hats as well, which could cause the movie to suffer if you can’t always be focused on directing. I’ve been pretty lucky so far because I’ve been able to balance it, but you can’t always get lucky and staying focused as a director is key.
But I do actually have two stories I’m working on now; one is a lighthearted comedy and the other is another dark thriller. I’m not sure why exactly I love incredibly dark stories the way I do- maybe it’s because that’s the most fascinating side of human nature. But what does that say about me as a human being then? (laughs)
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