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The producer and director dish their intense new thriller “Neon”

Jokers Pack w logo

This month we’re featuring two people as our Jammers of the Month: the producer-director duo of Roxanne Holman and Mark Blackman, whose production company, Joker’s Pack Productions, creates content for a wide variety of clients – from documentaries to event coverage and music videos – as well as developing their own original films.

Both noted filmmakers, the two have impressive resumés and have been met with critical acclaim. Mark, who has directed hundreds of corporate promos as well as numerous music videos and shorts, has travelled all over the world for his work – from the U.S. to Arabia and even the mountains of Nepal. Roxanne, selected for the Edinburgh International Film Festival Talent Lab 2013, has also worked on hundreds of projects, running Joker’s Pack’s extensive client services division. Among others, she was a producer on Soror, directed by our May Jammer of the Month, James Webber.

I sat down with Roxanne and Mark to discuss their career and production company, focusing on their exciting upcoming short Neon, a tense mix of romantic drama and action thriller.

NEON STILL 1

Can you give me a little background on your production company, Joker’s Pack?

Roxy: Joker’s Pack has been Mark’s filmmaking moniker for a really long time, since he was a kid. The logo was designed by one of his teenage friends. When I came on board three and a half years ago we incorporated it officially as a company name. I was at a production company and doing other short form content as a production coordinator and a producer, and Mark was a one-man-band sort of filmmaker in the corporate and commercial world, and it sort of got to a point of expansion of work and clients, and a point in our careers where it really seemed like a good idea to work together. We’d worked on some shorts and things before, so it was the right time to incorporate an actual company- in terms of we actually make a living from it as filmmakers. And of course we’ve got our second side, the drama side, which has really started to garner some speed now.

Mark: plus it’s kind of a brand thing, the logo was more important than the name in many ways. If I was finished with a film and happy with it I’d put the logo at the top as a kind of seal of approval. And there’s a line tonally we always try to hit with our work, and that’s the “brand” as you could sort of call it.

Tell me more about that brand – what kind of work are you typically drawn to?

Mark: they’re always a little dark, and very romantic, but the flip side of it – the darker side. How far would you go for someone? How far will love push people to test their extremes?

Roxy: the thing we say is a “relationship thriller.”

Mark: yeah. I’ve always been a fan of 70s cinema, like French Connection and Marathon Man, and what I’ve always loved is that they were real character pieces first and foremost, and the plot was secondary to that. Everyone remembers The French Connection, but only because of Popeye Doyle, and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, this innocent, naive guy who has no idea what the plot is, and as a result neither did the audience. From those stories a big thriller emerges, and that’s what I’ve always been drawn to.

Roxy: you can see that “relationship thriller” theme being in everything, really. The narrative music videos, and certainly Neon, they all have that element where they are thrillers, mainly later on. The things that we develop ourselves definitely all have that edge.

NEON STILL 3

What’s the general concept behind “Neon”?

Mark: it’s a tough one to pitch, because the story flips onto itself about half way through and turns into something else, but it’s effectively a very stylized romantic drama that turns into a semi-action thriller with a fantasy spin – as much as I hate the “f” word. It’s my least favorite “f” word, fantasy.

Roxy: I’m calling it our mini Hollywood movie in a short; what we’re trying to do is show something big in scale, but also the kind of films that we want to make. It’s about a mysterious man who is tracking a lover from a previous life as a younger man, but they’re not allowed to be together – for reasons that are revealed in the film. He essentially plots to kill himself, and thinks that’s his only way out.

Mark: meanwhile, there’s two guys driving across the city to confront him. It’s an interesting narrative because it goes backwards and forwards at the same time. There’s flashbacks. It was always scripted to be that, but it’s been developed even further in the edit. I think short films are either a feast or a famine; you either do a fantastic three-minute, very very terse piece, or you do a 15-minute “how far can we push this?” I like films that really push things out there in terms of structure, and really make you work, and Neon’s one of those films where you watch it and you realize everything he says has a second meaning. And if you watch it again, knowing the reveal, knowing the twist, that’s the intention. It’s the boldest thing we’ve made to date.

Roxy: it’s heavily in post-production at the moment – scoring and VFX mainly. But we’ll be launching the teaser online soon!

Short films are either a feast or a famine.”

Was there anything particularly challenging about making the film, from a production standpoint?

Mark: not really, no. This was the film I did the most homework on, I think I did about 20 passes of the shot list. I don’t storyboard. If you’re doing VFX sequences, absolutely, they’re useful, but I find storyboarding can be a bit limiting cause you put so much effort into them, you’re reluctant to let go of the work you put into the storyboard, and I like to have an atmosphere on set where if there’s a more elegant solution or something that happens to be there that you haven’t considered, you’re able to run with it.

I think on set, it was one of the easier shoots we’ve done in a way. We knew every second what we were working towards. There’s always little problems like we shot with 35mm lenses – same lenses they shot Aliens with, so awesome to use – and we had rain effects. We had logistical issues such as the hydrants we were supposed to plug into in East London, but all four had been completely seized up because they’d been neglected for so long. On the day we had to make that decision, do we really want that level of rain, or any rain? We could have the rain, but we had to pay a lot more money. And you make those decisions on the day, we don’t need it but it says so much for the tone of the film and the atmosphere, and it is a film that’s really intimate, the atmosphere completely supports all of that.

Roxy: again, little things that weren’t really in our control, and that was the only thing really. Thing is, we’ve made so many films, not just in terms of our shorts, but we make films all the time, day to day, for clients, and we’ve done it so much that making a short film isn’t difficult, if that makes sense, from a production standpoint and from a logistical standpoint. Everything’s a different challenge creatively cause everything has its own context, but production-wise we’re at the point where there aren’t many issues.

On set, it was one of the easier shoots we’ve done in a way. We knew every second what we were working towards.”

NEON STILL 4

How many projects would you say you work on every year?

Mark: drama-wise we try to do one or two shorts a year.

Roxy: that could include narrative music videos. So far we’ve done three music videos in the past six months, which all tend to be indie but the budgets are starting to increase. We don’t do music videos for money, it’s more just a bit of creativity and fun around everything else.

Mark: and they’re all narrative-driven in themselves.

Roxy: apart from “Kubrick”

Mark: that was the one that was, not the “least us”, but the least narrative, and we shot it in my kitchen, but that’s the one that ended up doing really well and we were like “how does that work?” But we do those. There are a lot of shorts this year. We’ve done Neon, I’ve shot another, and I’m signed up to do an absolutely kick-arse sci-fi action film in a few months, which I’m so excited about. It’s kinda like The Raid meets Mad Max, basically, but female driven. In terms of corporates and documentary work we turn over…

Roxy: maybe 100 to 150 a year between us.

And you do all the work for those – producing, directing, editing?

Roxy: a lot of them, yeah. I look after the production side of the company as a producer, so we have a lot of freelancers who do things: production designers, editors, production crew, DOPs, camerapersons. Mark works with me when he’s around and when I can book him, and he also works with other, bigger companies, doing all sorts of stuff. My stuff is directly with the clients. We sometimes do other work with bigger production companies who throw work our way, so it’s quite varied, but we do turn over a lot of films every year. We try to find time for our projects over everything else, but that can be a difficult thing sometimes.

What can you tell me about the features you’re working on?

Roxy: in terms of our slate, the first film we’re intending to produce is Teardrop, which is what Neon is throwing forward to tonally, visually, [in terms of] genre, to an extent, cause a lot of our films are genre in terms of thrillers, rather than really deep genre like fantasy, but we are definitely still genre filmmakers, and certainly sci-fi, action, horror, we’re more interested in them down the line as well, when we have bigger budgets. 

Mark: Teardrop is the one that we’ve been developing for the longest time. It’s a very intense action thriller that, again, extends out of a romance. The first 15 minutes are basically romance with undercurrents of other subplots that are bubbling under with darkness, and it basically goes into a full-tilt semi-realtime action thriller. It’s very bloody, very romantic. It wears its heart on a blood-stained sleeve, is the way I describe it. And it doesn’t spoon-feed the audience; it’s a worms-eye view – you know what the characters know and nothing more, and I love that way of explaining the plot. In an ideal world that’s the one we’re pushing for as our first feature.

And then we’ve got The Siren, The Captain, The Sea, which is a sort of psycho-sexual techno-thriller.

Roxy: [laughs]. Lots of made-up genres. 

Mark:It’s to be shot very naturalistic, still has moments that are stylized, but it’s got that sort of lurid, Argento color palette. It’s very much a bigger version of the “Kilburn” music video we did. It’s very sexually tense without being explicit. At its heart it’s about a mature student writing a thesis on sexual identity who becomes an unwilling pawn in a vengeance battle between two serial killers.

Roxy: it doesn’t sound subtle, but it’ll be more subtle.

Mark: the plot kinda bubbles up from drama rather than it beginning with, like, a hissing man. It’s not that sort of thing. But it does go down those roads. That’ll be a fun one to do.

Roxy: and the third one, The Charm, is a black comedy thriller about a woman who’s survived cancer twice, but all she really wants to do is die, and that’s the very, very simple one-line synopsis.

You’re working on quite a lot of projects.

Roxy: a lot of people say “you’ve got all of these films, maybe you should just concentrate on one?” Well, we are concentrating on one. But at the same time, I think you’ve really gotta have a mixture of concentrating on one and having a real plan and urgency for the first film, but you also have to have other things in development, ideally because when you get an opportunity and someone’s like “well, where do you go next?” you can go “well, we’ve got this and we’ve got this and we’ve got this.” Obviously it can be a catch-22, but the main thing for us is that we’re not struggling with ideas for things to go into development because we’ve already got all of these concepts.

Mark: you let them marinate in the background, and then let them develop over a certain amount of time. It’s interesting because [the story to] Teardrop was developed a few years ago and it has developed since then, and I think if we tried to push it a few years ago and it had got made, it wouldn’t be half the film it would be now. I think it’s important to not rush things out. You get a lot of films I feel that are kinda like half-baked or overcooked, so you get to a point where now you’re ready, now it’s time to do this, much like Neon. It’s massively important to let things breath and develop organically.

Neon-Guy Armitage-3353

Photo Credit: Guy Armitage

How do you balance all the projects you do?

Roxy: I think a lot of the time you feel like you’re not balancing it, so that’s something we’re doing now. Being so ready as we are for the first feature, that’s the main thing that we’re really concentrating on. Neon was something we were doing in the run-up to that, because whilst the features are actively happening, we wanted to make something else. It’s really hard to do, cause obviously you have different problems – some filmmakers have full-time jobs in some other industry; everyone has their own problems in terms of focusing on the creative side.

Mark and I obviously have different difficulties obviously, from a production vs creative side, and as much as I’m a creative producer and we develop things together, Mark needs different things to do his writing and be in the right mindset for that, whereas my struggles are more to do with how to open up our space and manage that. There are different difficulties based on what we are and what we do as part of our projects, but ultimately we’re getting better – starting to say “no” to certain things and not letting work take over.

Mark: but also being a bit chill about it – it’s a really daft thing to say, but you can kind of work yourself up in a frenzy with over-work, and I used to be a lot more worried, I’d take things to heart more and be a lot more stressy and you do whatever it takes to find yourself in a place where you can enjoy your quality of life a bit. We’re doing more work than we’ve ever done in our life at the moment, and I say “no” to a lot more stuff now, cause you can see the problem coming over the horizon and you gotta cut it down as fast as you can.

It’s just making sure that you’re honest with yourself. Can I take on this amount of work? Am I gonna have to compromise so much or am I gonna burn out? You just gotta be really clear with what it is you wanna do, and I think if I had done a first feature as I planned in my mid-20s, I’m not sure how good it would’ve been. Whereas now it feels right, the quality of the work’s at the level where I’m happy enough to say “let’s do it,” and it will hold, it won’t fall apart due to me being naive or arrogant. The short answer is “discipline.”

You do whatever it takes to find yourself in a place where you can enjoy your quality of life a bit.”

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming filmmakers?

Mark: the advice I would give now is be prepared to fuck things up quite a bit in the early stages. You only ever hear about your Xavier Dolans, your Quentin Tarantinos, they’re out of the gate with their first film revered and an absolute success story – but they’re like the top 1%.

Roxy: it depends on the person; it depends on all the elements of the industry.

Neon-Guy Armitage-2931

Photo credit: Guy Armitage

Mark: I always go into a production treating it like my last film, but also knowing it won’t be. There’s a duality there, but that’s how I go into everything now. Give it everything you’ve got as if it’s the last thing you’re ever gonna make, but also in the back of your mind going “but I’ll make other ones.” And it does make you go – if you do have to compromise, if you do have to suck it up and realize things aren’t working as they should do, it just takes the edge off of that a little bit, cause at the end of the day you don’t want to make one film, you want to make a career out of it. Some people want to make a career, some people want a legacy, I’m a bit of both, I guess. Just keep at it, basically.

Roxy: I think accepting that you’ve gotta do it [keep working with shorts] a bit. One of the things that’s different now [in the industry] is access to things, to kit, to people online, it’s not the same as just doing it yourself and I think some people think it’s really easy and get straight into it without that awareness and maybe do one [short] and go “oh, I’ve done it now, now a feature film, now TV,” and actually I think you just gotta keep doing it, cause I learn from the production I do, even the easy stuff. You never know everything, even when you do. Be aware of that, stay humble.

Mark: and be flexible as well. I never wanted to do corporate stuff – it was a dirty word when I was younger – but I’ve [now] shot documentaries up the sides of mountains in Nepal. You work out what you enjoy. There’s a lot of people who think they’re just gonna make Suicide Squad, but no, be open-minded to [other types of project]. The short I’ve just done, Ferried, is a very quiet, measured film and it’s not something that would be on the top of my list to do, but I did it cause I like to challenge myself. But your tastes change.

I always go into a production treating it like my last film, but also knowing it won’t be.

Do you have any favorite films of recent memory?

Roxy: we both have a new favorite film which we saw at Cannes, which is a French film called Grave, which translates into Raw.

Mark: it’s pitch-perfect with the comedy and the horror, and it kinda knocked us on our arse a bit.

Find out more about Joker’s Pack on jokerspack.com

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Jul 4, 2016

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