"For us, 75 is not just a movie, but a life-changing mission"
Interstate 75 is a central distribution artery of heroin making Cincinnati the second highest overdose capital in America.
In "75" the movie, we follow an interlocking story involving four families, an overwhelmed mental health care professional and two desperate lawmen over one tragic weekend in the Queen City.
Recently, the film won four awards at LAFA, including Best Picture, Best Narrative Feature, Best Editing and Best Director. The lead judge, Lisa Roumain, described it as "an arresting, devastating drama... You feel like you're watching an actual documentary footage, and it is horrifyingly painful at times".
We asked the director, Joe Zappa, to join us for an interview.
Joe, first of all, congratulations on directing such a powerful film. You come from a very creative family - your father, Paul Zappa directed Center Civic Opera in Covington and your brother, John is a famous jazz trumpet player and drummer. Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, do you feel you were influenced by them in any way to follow your art?
I think it would've been impossible not to be. They and my mom are huge readers and very creative. We've always had a lot of passionate conversations about music, movies, politics and history. And because John and I are pretty far apart in age, I had a lot of room as a kid to get lost in my own head, and I just devoured big, obsessive phases on my own, which eventually boiled down into every movie I could get my hands on. And if it weren't for my family, I wouldn't have been exposed so early to Abbott & Costello, Jack Benny, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. Very rarely did any other kids my age tend to watch, let alone gorge on movies earlier than Star Wars.
How did you first get involved in filmmaking? What were some of your first gigs?
After about 2 years of college, I decided I'd probably waited far too long to actually get involved in filmmaking itself, and I met some similarly hungry young film buffs working crew at a community media studio and found myself holding slates and boom poles on digital shorts on the smallest of scales. That was how I met Sahil Sharma, who co-wrote Clever Girl and 75. But before Clever Girl, I directed 4 shorts, which took me about 5 years.
Tell us about your collaboration with Writer and Producer Kip Bennett, whom you've previously collaborated with on Clever Girl and The Ladies Next Door. How did you start working together, what is your creative writing process like, and what makes you such a successful team?
Well, I feel very fortunate to have 3 producers who are fantastic, so I want to mention the other two before talking about Kip. Myra Zimmerman Grubbs and Sherrie Allyn. Workhorses, all of them, and they all have their own areas of expertise. You're probably asking about Kip because he's also a writer. I met him years ago. He was a sometime stage actor and composer making a living as a piano teacher. I still have many of the innumerable VHS's he unloaded on me when he finally made the switch to DVD. We're both pretty intense, and we have a pretty temperamental rapport during the writing stage of a project, but that's how we know we're cooking with gas when we're sitting in his living room carving out a script. What makes him a gifted producer is that he carries that passion into every last stage of getting the script shot and finding its audience. He has a way of relating to people that gives them the affirmation and confidence they need to feel committed to the long haul. He makes us all believe that it's not just a movie, but a calling or a life-changing mission.
No spoilers, but the movie deals with the widespread phenomena of heroin addiction, a very dark topic, not often discussed. How do you approach such a serious topic? What kind of research and prep did you to do during the early stages of pre-production?
It's crucial to remember that the research came after a flurry of first-hand experiences by virtually everyone involved, top to bottom, despite background or lifestyle, of losing a relative to overdose. Before Sahil wrote the original script, he and I interviewed, among others, Kip's mother, who had seen 3 different people spiral into death by overdose. What was important was resisting a certain pressure to make the movie as a pointed tool to somehow convince addicts to stop doing drugs and somehow make dealers feel pangs about their business. The research spoke to how internalized and reactionary the drug war is in an overwhelming amount of American minds, how we've been conditioned to judge addicts, and dealers for that matter, and to see them as the other, dangerously separating ourselves from understanding the human needs and desires that drive the problem. And separating ourselves from how tenuously we're all hanging on. Our first reaction to the infiltration of opiate addiction into white middle-class suburbs has been to suddenly forget that we've been alienating and antagonizing addicts for decades, and that it's now a tragic victimization by an all-new upsurge.
75 - Official Trailer
And how did you work with the actors to achieve such authentic performances, that feel so real?
Sometimes, the shooting happened so quickly that it became demanding to really develop a steeped memory of constructing a scene. But thankfully, nearly every actor came and gave well over a hundred. I got whiplash sometimes going from an actress whose energy generated off of challenging every line and action to two actors who work at their best and quickest when they go off on their own for a while. One actress's sole job was to die sleeping through a vomiting episode on her back, and was proud, thick-skinned and worked like an utter professional with a cast-iron stomach even though she had a cold. It makes me think it was the best way to make the movie. No laborious deliberations. Just pounding through the scenes, especially however uncomfortable or grim they were.
What were some of the references you used to communicate your directorial vision with the cast and crew? A few names that come to mind is TRAINSPOTTING and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM...
Of course, I love Trainspotting and Requiem, and have had a special place for them in my mind since I was very young, but I don't think I ever once looked to a frame of either of them during the making of 75. It's interesting for me, because I'm more than just a movie geek. I live to see as many great movies from all eras and parts of the world. But I've found, at least when it comes to the aim for realism, especially on a subject as close to home as it was for literally everyone involved, that the less they're reminded of their outer context as actors or filmmakers in or behind a staged scene, the more connected they continue to be to the stakes and to their truest feelings. We focused on where we were, what we were doing and shot from the hip. Meanwhile, especially in later stages, it became difficult to make it clear to some what the structure of the piece was developing into, so I would often discuss The Wire, first for how it avoids any artificial exposition, many key events or discussions happening off-screen while we remain strictly in the present-tense, and also how a tapestry of a city is created with the subtlest intermingling of a stratified ensemble of major and minor characters, not unlike early Iñarritú or Altman. Magnolia is easily an example, something Kip and I revisited not long before shooting 75. I feel like our film has more in common with Kids or Amores Perros than other films about heroin.
What was the most challenging thing about the shoot?
We were moving so, so fast. Just so fast. Constant company moves all over the place, over 100 people, often financing straight out of pocket. What made that particularly insane was that we had to tell various stories in a logically strict timeline. It was even harder because the characters aren't really going through a plot. They're mostly just doing what they normally do. Things come to a head because they're stuck in a complacent cycle. What took so many months was keeping the mounting tensions parallel while we sculpted away at it to get it to a brisk length, because as much as there was that I wanted to shoot---and much of it I did---the brisk length is just as vital to the effectiveness of the movie's structure.
You've brilliantly edited 75 and Clever Girl, but used an editor for your other works. In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of editing projects that you're directing?
I can try any and every transition or technique I want, no matter how nebulous or experimental. That and it makes the shooting process more improvisatory when we have the time and inclination. David James was heavily involved in the cutting and post of both projects because he was the DP, and we have a definite synchronicity when we work together, almost like we're a two-headed director. Then we rip into the footage. Charles Morris at our distributor Global Genesis Group had many key ideas on the theatrical cut, the version you presented. It was tough to say goodbye to certain things, but I think 75 in particular comes off in a way much closer to how my own mind processes a story than if I delegated those duties to an impartial specialist.
Looking back, is there anything you'd change in the film?
I won't be the first filmmaker to say I would've loved more time, but this was guerrilla-style on a pretty labor-intensive level. More time would have been great. Not just in regards to more takes or more rehearsal, but to the effect that there was a larger range of scope I wanted to incorporate, and I wish I'd had the forethought and preparation to pull that off. But timing was everything when it came to this project, so we did what we had to do.
What do you wish people knew about your work as a director?
That it exists. 75 is what I can do on a shoestring. Imagine what I can do with a shoe.
Tell us about your next projects. What are you planning for the short term and the long term?
I can say I have stories I have a stinging, urgent need to tell, but right now it's about keeping my ear to the ground for the right resources and people to align so that I have the chance to tell them on the financial and artistic levels they deserve.
How can our readers follow your work?
I tend to very regularly look up any and all actors, directors and writers on IMDb to see if they have any new irons in the fire. My production company, Brand Old Productions, has a website. If and when we get our next shot at telling a great story with great people, that will be the place to learn about it.
Is there anything you wish to add?
What you guys do at Los Angeles Film Awards is terribly important. You're not an insiders' prestigious rubber stamp. You promote and advocate for small, out-of-the-way, completely independent films in a way that maximizes the amount of exposure and recognition it's possible for you to give them, all while making it commercially viable to do so. And from what I've seen, there is not a bad or bad-looking selection in the bunch. It's a genuine honor to be in the company of these works. Please exist for a long time, and thank you for bringing our film and many others to more eyes and ears.