- Charles Leisenring
- FIERCELY D.I.Y.: Filmmaker Justin Warren oversaw every aspect of "Then There Was Joe," which he described as a "love letter to brotherhood."
There's a slapstick scene in a video explainer for the film "Then There Was Joe," a 2018 comedy from Little Rock-born filmmaker Justin Warren. Now a Los Angeles resident, Warren is walking at the Old Mill, the bucolic concrete gristmill in North Little Rock that makes a cameo in the opening credits of "Gone With the Wind." He gives the viewer a short primer on Arkansas, noting the usual suspects: Walmart, Bill Clinton, Razorback football. Then, just as he's adding a footnote about Arkansas having "the largest concentration of KKK members on the face of the planet," a robed figure in white with a pointy hood walks past in the wooded background. Warren, who's black, does a sort of "gee whiz" gesture with his arm and says, in a chipper tone, "I've missed this place!"
It's true. He did miss it. In fact, when Warren — whose homemade stop-motion featurettes from childhood are excerpted just after that opening at the Old Mill — decided to make his first movie, he left LA and returned to Little Rock. He even recruited his family to star in the film — his brother, Jamie, and his father, former Little Rock school official James "Butch" Warren, who would play themselves in the very home where Jamie and Justin were raised.
"The whole experience was designed to kind of bring my family together," Warren said. "I've always had a difficult time connecting with my brother, but I knew that if I were to make a movie, that would be an opportunity where we could actually talk." His idea was to write a film, script things he and his family might never say to each other in real life, laugh about it, attain catharsis. Cinema therapy, right? All of the payoff from those role-playing exercises on the therapist's couch, with none of the awkward setup to muddle through. "Hopefully, in the process, [Jamie] could come to see himself in a different light," Warren said. "I could see myself in a different light. That was the entire point of the movie."
That didn't happen, though. Instead, the day Warren finished the script, he dialed up his brother to talk about how to proceed, only to find the number had been disconnected. Shortly thereafter, he learned Jamie was on the run, dodging the police. It was, of course, disappointing for many reasons, not the least of which was that the screenwriting process had been long and tedious, and Jamie had been involved in fine-tuning the script along the way. It was a "painful moment," Warren said, but that's not to say that it was necessarily a shock. "In a strange way, I was prepared for it," Warren said. "That was the most we had ever spoken on the phone. In the past, his number was always changing, and disconnected frequently." Jamie is — as Warren puts it in the "Then There Was Joe" director's statement — "well versed in ghetto-fabulous living, but flourishes at the country club. ... If you told me he charmed his way into President Obama's Cabinet," the statement continues, "I'd totally believe you. He's absolutely brilliant. But he does dumb things."
That charisma is at the heart of "Then There Was Joe," a comedic study in opposites that unfolds as the lives of two radically different brothers, Ben and Joe, based on the Warren brothers, intersect. In it, Ben's bar exam studies are waylaid when he's tasked with keeping Joe — who's been released on bail after being arrested on charges of attempted robbery in a bowling alley full of third-graders — out of trouble until his court date. The parallels between "Ben"/"Joe" and Justin/Jamie aren't exactly elusive. Jamie hung out on the corner of Oak and 15th streets, a spot The New York Times referred to in a "Bangin' in The Rock"-era article about teenage gangs in small cities as "the territory where rival gangs cross paths." Justin Warren's extracurricular activities, he says, were hanging out at The Cathedral School downtown, "being in plays and playing basketball in velcro tennis shoes."
Plans for the movie didn't halt after Jamie's disappearance: Warren had already raised money for the project, and his degree in film from the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts meant that a feature "statement" film was a logical next step. But, sans a Jamie, Warren needed a "Joe." Comedian Ray Grady was the second of around 200 people to audition for the part of the wild-child older brother. "He had a charisma that was turned up to 11," Warren said. "It was one of those things where everybody in the casting room couldn't take their eyes off of Grady. And the only other person I've met who has that effect on people is my brother."
Filming was "mostly a slog," Warren said. He was determined to milk every ounce of expertise he could out of making his first film, and taking the hard D.I.Y. approach meant things were tedious and took longer than expected, even with the help of a few close friends at the soundboards. There's a "behind the scenes" video blog Warren made to record the post-production process about adding sound to existing scenes. In one episode, he wanders down a hallway addressing the camera, saying, "I'm recording my own ADR right now, which in many ways is [expletive bleeped in the video] stupid, but I just refuse to pay studio time for it. Because I can achieve the exact same thing as a big studio does in my [he opens a door behind him] closet."
"I tend to make things pretty hard on myself," Warren said. "I think it's because when I do something, I like to experience it from all sides. ... There were numerous times I was approached by friends, who have sound studios and things like that, who were like, 'Dude, we'll help you. Just give us the movie.' And I was like, 'NO! Must. Experience. All. Of the pain.' "
This weekend, Warren will return to his alma mater, Hendrix College in Conway, for two screenings of the film, which he described in our conversation as "a love letter to brotherhood." When "Then There Was Joe" premiered to a sold-out crowd at the Ron Robinson Theater in February as part of the Arkansas Cinema Society's "Homegrown Film" series, brother Jamie was in attendance. He'd gotten out of prison on a work-release program. Jamie stood when prompted during the post-film Q&A session, assuring the crowd that the story was "only about 20 percent true." His first viewing of the movie he'd helped create was one in which, as Justin Warren put it, "all the verbage had been cleaned up, all the smudges had been erased."
And what if Jamie hadn't bailed in the first place? "I truly, genuinely don't believe we would be where we are," Warren told me. "I wouldn't change a thing about how it all went down. It's done nothing but bring our family closer together." Jamie is a barber now, and he and Warren talk on the phone every day. Warren credits prison time for giving Jamie a chance to reflect on his legacy and for the chance to "slow down his life a little," but it's clear the arrival of "Then There Was Joe" hasn't been insignificant, either.
"In the movie," Warren told me, "Joe paints. And my brother had quit painting for seven, eight years. And he saw the movie at the premiere and he started painting again."
"Then There Was Joe" screens at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31, in the Mills Center for Social Sciences at Hendrix College. Tickets are $10, and can be found at buytickets.at/hendrixcollegestudentoutreachservicessos. A Q&A session will follow each screening, and a reception for ticket-holders kicks off at 10 p.m.