Since the advent of VHS — and increasingly so with prosumer-level HD — cameras, the face of modern, low-budget horror has rapidly evolved. While it democratized the industry, it opened the floodgates for a sea of wildly varied films. Perhaps no sub-genre of horror has been as effected as the gore film. With the hefty costs associated with celluloid gone, micro-budget filmmakers could place a greater emphasis on effects, blood, and guts. Along the way, however, that emphasis grew and grew, reaching a point where films pretty much only about gore could now exist. A problem (well a problem for some) became what place does gore have in horror? For some, it is they aspects but others it can enhance a story but it is still the full package that matters. Today, gore cinema is (in this writer’s opinion) extremely hit or miss. So when a title pops up in these circles, I approach it with hesitation. It’s not a prudish thing, it’s just that heaps of gore with little else working for it has never been my thing. Around August of last year, one of these titles started getting rave support in that world. The film was called Pieces of Talent and it featured cover art depicting a screaming man covered in a viscous blood, arms protruding out towards him. I admit that, at first, I brushed it off assuming it was another anonymous, gore-centric, straight-to-dvd film. However, the praise continued and continued. It hit a point where I could no longer ignore it, I had to see what everyone was so excited about, I had to know…and I am glad that I did.
Pieces of Talent, the first feature from the North Carolina-based Joe Stauffer, is just the kick in the ass that indie horror needs. Its a micro-budget film but one that feels both aware of its limitations and adventurous in form. Best of all, Stauffer and co-writer (and star) David Long, understand the importance of plot and character development. The film is very different than may be expected given its initial advertising. Sure it has enough splatter to keep us all pleased, the real heart of the film lies in the story of a deeply troubled man desperate to create and share his art with the world. It has a believable psychology and, because we identify with its murderous lead, it is all the more frightening. What seals the deal, however, is that Stauffer uses his music video background to give the film a real sense of artistry. In light of the film’s recent (and overdue) Blu-ray release, we caught up with Stauffer to ask him about his and the film’s journey.
Diabolique: Prior to Pieces of Talent, you worked a great deal as both an editor and cinematographer on different projects. How was your transition into directing a feature length film?
Joe Stauffer: It was easy for me. Since the beginning I’ve been doing music videos, essentially directing and producing on my own little projects. You know, I played music for years and I kind of got sick of the whole ‘band thing.’ — although I do still make music for the films. So I started doing music videos and live videos as a way to still be involved in the community. I like going to shows, I just didn’t like dealing with the band drama [laughs], so it was cool. From there it grew into to more narrative based music videos and that, naturally, grew into short films. I shot a few features as a DP and editor but it took me a little while before I felt I was ready. I knew being a director of a film was a huge responsibility, a huge responsibility that I think a lot of overzealous young filmmakers neglect to see. You know they just go, “I’m going to be a filmmaker,” [laughs] but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to learn the ins and outs of every crew position and have a good grasp of what I would be directing.
Diabolique: Yea, I can imagine that being a crew and being told what to do by a director or producer will better prepare you for how best to not only direct your film but your crew.
Joe: Yea and I’ve been working with the same crew for years, we are like a family. There’s never any drama on set. It is always super cool. There’s minimal verbal communication because we know what all of us need to do. If a set could be relaxed, ours would be relaxed. [laughs]. There’s always that element of putting out a minor fire — Murphy’s Law, anything that can go wrong will, even if you have everything planned — but we like to think we are well prepared when we go into a project.
Diabolique: The transition from music videos to features is pretty common, especially with horror filmmakers. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that music videos allow for an unbridled amount of visual experimentation. Music videos actually welcome hyper-stylized forms that can then be adapted to narrative film.
Joe: Yea, I mean, since the the beginning I’ve always had a darker and grittier look. I can do polished commercial stuff but I like the more stylized look. In Pieces, some of the scenes are just dirty. I definitely would say that I grew a lot working with music videos and just coming from music. The rhythm of editing is something that is really important. A good editor has a natural rhythm that they play with. It’s a nuance, you can’t really put your finger on it. I’m sure you’ve seen a scene that is kind of just flat because the rhythm is not there, does that make sense? I think musically, a lot of that can come out visually. So having that background has just helped me in ways that I could have never imagined. And, yes, having that creative freedom to get as nutty as you want stylistically is so much fun. I love doing music videos. I love it. I wish that I could do more. It’s just that, at the end of the day, this is what I am doing for my living and I have to seek out projects that are going to be more conducive to…not paying the bills but [pause], you know, I can’t do them for free anymore, I guess [laughs] is what I am saying. I don’t want to sound like a douche [laughs] but you know what I mean?
Diabolique: Yea, I think that once you get your first feature out there, people understand that the reality of working for free isn’t really feasible anymore.
Joe: I still do a lot in the community. I am tight with the directors of the film program at Cape Fear Community College. So whenever we have a little project going along, I will have students come out and hang out on set and help out. To get their feet wet because that is something I didn’t have. I just jumped right into it, I never went to school for it.
Diabolique: You seem very much into community and this is an aspect that interests me about your filmmaking. Its about your team, your family. I think this is reflected in your promotion of the film. Since the beginning, you’ve been very open and out there. Your fans and friends refer not only to the film but to you. In a sense, you’ve created a community around it and I think that is why the film has been growing so fast. People love the film but they also love to support someone who they feel connected to.
Joe: I couldn’t be more happy and just appreciative than being able to have a conversation with somebody who has taken the time to appreciate something that I have put my soul into. That’s huge to me. I appreciate it so much and I would never devalue that in any way, shape, or form. A lot of the problem with the modern world is that lack of connection. That lack of personal connection, friendship, and conversation. Especially nowadays with the internet. The internet is a great tool but I think to some degree it has put a halt on some of our growth as a social creature, on the personal level. If you’ve seen the film then you know David [Long] is a hands on guy [laughs] and that is a reflection of me and David’s real feelings. We want this to be a personal experience and we hope that it is. We want to hang out and talk to whoever wants to talk about it. It’s definitely fun as hell for me to do that. I want to know what people think. I’ve been on the other end of it. I’ve been the person that reached out to someone and never gotten a response, or just gotten blown off with a rude response. Why do that? The movie fans are the people that we make this for. We understand the importance and respect it to the upmost, so we are going to do everything we can to always keep it as personal as possible. Even if we sell a bazillion copies, I will be mailing those things out myself and emailing everyone back. Screw that faceless corporation crap, man. [laughs] I’m just not that into it.
Diabolique: When I started hearing about the film a lot, I was hearing about it from a community who generally promote these outrageously gory film, micro budget films. Movies that often place a higher emphasis on the gore than plot or characters, which, for me, is not always my thing. So when I watched the film, I was pleasantly surprised to find a strong emphasis on plot and character development. Especially the psychology of characters.
Joe: I agree with you on that. I think a lot of times people tend to focus on the gore aspects and not necessarily on story. I’ve seen and experienced that a lot. When David and I were writing this, we wanted to keep it as real as possible. So, we always asked ourselves, ‘what would we do?’ You know, Charlotte doesn’t stick around, she tries to get the fuck out of there. It came easy because these were people who we met in real life, in some ways. David’s character existed years ago from a short film we did, which is in the extras, so we knew who David’s character was going into it. And, he’s just a brilliant actor, so we never had to figure out what David would do, we knew what David would do. He’s a happy dude and he’s into his art and he wants you to like it [laughs]. Knowing what his deal was opened up the door for just taking it a step further. When you are writing something, you can write whatever you want, but once you get on set your actors have to bring that to life. Because David was already alive going into it, that just made it so much easier. We didn’t try and overthink it, we just tried to feel it.
Diabolique: Is it safe to assume that you wanted people to like David, despite his position in the film?
Joe: Yea, I mean, he’s a nice guy. He really is a nice guy and that is the beautiful and frightening part of it. It’s all about creation and destruction. With David, if he loves you and you are a good person you don’t have to worry about anything. But he’s got his own agenda and he’s got his own projects, so if you are a douche canoe…you might end up out on the farm, I don’t know [laughs]. He’s not a slasher, he’s a lover. David is a lover at the end of the day. [laughs]
Diabolique: In horror, we almost always get these irrational monsters as killers. With David, it is almost scarier that we, as viewers, completely understand him and can see where, when, and how he can be flipped. The choice to have him being beaten up early in the film really pushes us to sympathize with him off the bat.
Joe: It’s that wounded animal thing. He’s a man. You can defeat him. He’s not that giant guy that you can shoot five times and he keeps walking towards you. I think the key to his character is his smile. When we were shooting if there was anything that didn’t quite feel right, it was because David wasn’t happy about it. He’s got a great smile. In real life, he’s my best friend and he’s like the nicest, coolest dude. So the good part of David’s character is the real David.
Diabolique: So, how do you feel about the response to the film?
Joe: I feel very pleased, fortunate that people are connecting with this film the way they are. Like I said, I respect the hell out of that and I will do everything I can to stay true to our audience. We want to keep making movies and we have a couple things coming up. It’s art. It’s a piece of art that we made, so we interpret it in a different way than any individual is going to interpret. So as far as someone getting something out of it, that is really hard to say, because everyone sees and experiences things in such different ways that there is no way we can put our finger on it or would expect to. It’s all art, it’s all subjective.
Pieces of Talent is now available on Blu-ray and DVD via https://piecesoftalent.com/