John-Luke Montias’ “‘Off Jackson Avenue’ is an interwoven crime story set in New York City involving a Mexican woman (Jessica Pimentel) who has been tricked into sex-slavery by an Albanian pimp (Stivi Paskoski) and must find a way to break out; a Japanese hit man (Jun Suenaga) who is in town to do a job for the Chinese mob and must finish his assignment despite the fact that he is haunted by his recently-dead mother’s ghost; and a local car-thief (John-Luke Montias) who must go on one last stealing spree to raise enough money to buy a tire store and go legit. A smack-bang tale of ambition, survival and fate, ‘Off Jackson Avenue’ reminds us that there are still some parts of New York City that you won’t find on any map.”
“Off Jackson Avenue” opens at the Quad Cinema in New York this Friday, July 17.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I started out as an actor, but got tired of waiting for the phone to ring. I was working as a bartender in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York in the late 90’s and would hear many crazy stories from customers night after night (whether I wanted to or not). At a certain point I realized “I gotta do something with this…” So I started writing. A few months later I had the screenplay for “Bobby G. Can’t Swim.”
After scraping together some money to start shooting, it was time to look for a director, but I didn’t know any film directors that I could approach with a no-budget project like this. It then occurred to me that I could maybe direct it myself. I took a crash course in filmmaking at NYU’s School of Continuing Ed and we shot “Bobby G.” shortly thereafter.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Yes, I am trying to learn as much as I can about the business-side of the industry. I want to be able to show prospective investors exactly how their money will be spent, and why they should trust me with it.
How did the idea for “Off Jackson Avenue” came about?
There were a few different factors that led to “Off Jackson Avenue.” Just prior to writing the script, I had suffered some very tough losses in my family. Lots of illness and death in a short period of time. I think I felt kind of ass-whooped by the universe. I guess the script is a reflection of that. None of the characters have an easy time.
I also wanted to do a multi-character ensemble so that the weight of the story didn’t rest on just one character. I didn’t want my producers and me to find ourselves in a situation where we’d made an offer to some “name” actor only to sit around for months with bated-breath waiting for the person to read the script. I wanted tough, committed actors who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. I was very fortunate to get them with the help of Mary Clay Boland and Catherine Zambri, who cast the film.
Last but not least, I wanted to work with Jun Suenaga, who has been a good buddy for years. I kept threatening to write a part for him, finally I figured it was time to put up or shut up. The funny thing is that his character spends half the movie driving around in a car. When I emailed Jun the script he shot me back an email “JL…we have a big problem. I don’t have a driver’s license and have never driven a car.” Okay. Suffice to say that driving lessons were quickly arranged, and Jun was actually on Learner’s Permit when we shot the film.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
We did as much rehearsing as possible because we would be shooting on Super 16 and I wanted us to have the kinks out before we got on set. As you see in the film there are some very violent scenes, stuff that could be considered “action” scenes. These were the ones we worked on the most, even before the film was cast. To begin with we filmed the scenes with video cam using our friends as stand-ins. We’d film from various angles, and then see if it would cut together. The toughest action scene was the big smash-up at the end. That area is in Long Island City, and the only day the streets are empty of cars is Sunday when all the businesses are closed. So for five or six successive Sundays we went out to that spot armed with video camera and worked on creating the scene. Picture three grown men on a cold Sunday morning. One of them is rolling on the ground like he’s just been hit by a car, the other is following the action with the video cam, and the third is watching the street to make sure no trucks are coming. The glamour of filmmaking.
My goal in making this film was to to tell a story that would be entertaining for the audience, as well as challenging.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Developing went quickly and smoothly. We had a few very kind investors backing us. Filming went smoothly. Festivals were a whole other story.
I had been out of the festival loop since 2002 when “Bobby G.” was out and about. We had a good run with that film on the fest circuit, winning several awards along the way. I figured with “Off Jackson Avenue” it would be the same thing, but this was not the case. “Off Jackson Avenue” turned out to be a very tough film for fests to program due to the violence. A producer friend even ventured that programmers were very possibly watching the film until the six-minute mark where Olivia gets beaten up…and then popping the dvd out! I’ll never know. Hell, they may very well have watched the whole thing and decided “This film sucks!” We eventually did get into several good fests, and I give kudos to those fests for having the guts to program us.
If the violence/genre aspect is what may have made us a tough program for fests, it is also what allowed us to hook up pretty quickly with a strong sales-rep, Multivisionnaire, who will sell the film here and abroad after the theatrical run. And note that the theatrical run is something we are handling ourselves. We wanted to keep the rights and work as many avenues as possible.
How did the financing come together?
I knew a few folks who had expressed interest in putting some money into a film, and I called them on it. Simple as that. I made it clear to them that they might never see a dime back. I also pointed out that they were allowed to write off the whole amount of their investment from their federal taxes courtesy of the Section 181 tax-break until the film made a profit. I think that helped.
Who or what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Of course, I dig the usual crime-pic guys, Scorsese, Ferrara, Tarantino. I love Spike Lee because that dude is a New York filmmaker if there ever was one; he is a huge inspiration. I am a big fan of director Peter Yates, who directed “Bullit” and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Don’t even get me started on those two flicks. And how could I leave out the New Wave Frenchies? Godard! Bresson! Or the American New Wave directors from the early 70s, like Hal Ashby for instance, and his beautiful film “The Last Detail.” There is so much to draw from.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
Always wanted to to a sports film. Hockey specifically. I’ve been playing the game my whole life and there are what…four or five hockey flicks ever made? That’s not right. I actually already have an outline for a heist-flick set against a minor-league hockey backdrop. Now I have to whup it into shape.
What is your next project?
It is a script called “Mother’s Day.” It deals with a guy from Brooklyn who is on the run from some bad guys, and must hide out at his mother’s place upstate for a day. The mother has moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Complications ensue…especially when the bad guys catch up. This is very much a black comedy. We are in talks with talent.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent film for me means a film with no set distribution when you shoot it. I can’t help but laugh at some of the movies that billed themselves as independent over the years. If you have that safety-net of guaranteed distribution while you are shooting, then you are not an indie film.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
When writing your script, first figure out what is already available to you in terms of locations, vehicles, talent, money, etc., and write accordingly.
Know somebody with lots of money? Hit them up. Don’t be afraid. And if you don’t know anybody with money, then write a script that can be done for next to nothing. If there’s a will there’s a way. DO NOT bankroll a project yourself using credit cards or such. It is not the 90’s anymore, you cannot make a film for 50K and sell it for six-figures these days. It won’t happen. Don’t put yourself in that kind of debt.
Learn as much as you can and stay up to date. There is a wealth of info available to filmmakers via the internet these days, take advantage of it. You can of course learn tons from this very site, indieWIRE. Filmspecific.com is another great resource for filmmakers. Get an IMDb Pro account, it is invaluable in researching talent, finding out who reps that talent, and what kind of money they will work for.
Lastly, make your movie. Don’t talk about making it. Make it.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Without a doubt, the moment I am most proud of in my career so far was when my 98 year old grandmother got to see my first film, “Bobby G. Can’t Swim,” in a theater in Paris, France where she was living. She has since passed on, but that she got to see the film in her hometown, in a theater, meant the world to me. When I was shooting “Bobby G.” I never in a million years could have imagined a situation like that happening. I guess that’s part of the fun of making movies, you never know what the hell is going to happen.
For more on “Off Jackson Avenue” and to watch the trailer, check out the film’s official website.