TONYA’S TALKS: A CONVERSATION WITH THE PREPPIE CONNECTION DIRECTOR JOSEPH CASTELO
At the March VIP screening, we were thrilled to have the film, THE PREPPIE CONNECTION. One of the stars, Logan Huffman participated in the Q&A with film critic, Ben Lyons and I. I had the opportunity to interview the director, Joseph Castelo and get a behind-the-scenes look at his 8 year journey to make this film and how he came to realize that this true story of a drug smuggler, is really a universal theme of how we all seek to belong and be loved.
TONYA: What brought you to this project?
JOSEPH: I attended boarding school in 1984 and I’d heard about the scandal of other students. Later I met students who were waiting on the shipment from South America and it was then that I realized how big of a scandal it actually was. The story was sort of covered up and forgotten but I never lost interest.
TONYA: When we screened THE PREPPIE CONNECTION, the audience were amazed at the authenticity of 80s, the Ivy League environment and attitude. I understand you were in prep school during that time. Did you draw on your experience when you were writing this film?
JOSEPH: Yes, it was drawn from my personal experiences at an elite boarding school in 1984. Every song is a lesser known alternative song from the early 80’s. All of the clothing is vintage to the early eighties – there is nothing store bought. The location itself was over 125 years old. Even the synthesizers for the score were analog and early eighties. We looked through year books and our production designer was meticulous in reproducing the look and feel of an eighties boarding school. Our goal was not to create the sort of cliche “pop retro perspective” that one associates with the eighties. I wanted it to look and feel how I remembered it. And we even worked with the notion of how one remembers their youth into the look of the film because for me the film is a memory.
TONYA: You directed, co-wrote and co-produced THE PREPPIE CONNECTION. What creative freedom does having all 3 roles give you and what are the challenges?
JOSEPH: It was interesting to produce while directing. You definitely have a better understanding of how the production’s money is being spent and you are more aware of where your limitations are with regards to time, crew, locations etc. because you are involved in the decision making. I enjoyed the challenge of doing all three jobs on this film but I think I will simply direct on the next one!
TONYA: During the Q&A, Logan Huffman shared that this film took 8 years to come to fruition. Tell us about that journey and why it took so long.
JOSEPH: Independent film can be a roller coaster ride of euphoric highs and heart breaking lows. This film came together and fell apart many times because of actor’s availabilities, financiers not able to come to terms with one another. It is all so precarious and I was lucky that it finally came together. I actually had Rooney Mara, Dakota Johnson, Miles Teller, and a number of other actors attached but when I look at the movie now I cannot imagine anyone playing the leads other than Thomas, Logan, and Lucy. And even if it took eight years I am so grateful that I ended up with them.
TONYA: I understand that Derek Oatis, who the film was based on, saw the film. What’s it like having him watch his life story? Did he advise on the film?
JOSEPH: He said that it was a jarring experience for him. It was difficult for him to relive it and he admitted that it opened some old wounds. But ultimately I think this film and thoughtful reflection on those events will allow him to finally move on. I am grateful to have been a part of Derek’s journey. He advised me from the beginning and he shared his stories, records, and court transcripts with me and my co-writer Ashley Rudden.
TONYA: As the story unfolds, you go between rooting for Tobias Hammel (Derek Oatis) and being furious that he’s making these decisions. What did you think of Derek Oatis when you first heard the story and how did your opinion of him change?
JOSEPH: I’d first heard of Derek and the Choate story while in boarding school in 1984. As the story traveled by word of mouth – no social media at the time – Derek was portrayed as a criminal because of the impact of the scandal. Once I met him, my perception of Derek changed when I finally understood why he did what he did. The identity crisis and culture shock that he experienced when he was suddenly immersed into the world of an elite boarding school overwhelmed him. And like many people in situations where they feel alienated he wanted to belong and the cocaine was the vehicle to assimilate. In many ways, I feel like this film’s story is a microcosm of America’s identity crisis in the eighties and when cocaine hit our shores everything changed about our culture.
TONYA: The acting was spot-on and the sense of ensemble was clearly felt by the audience. As the director, how do you build that sense of cast unity? Do you allow for the actors to go off-script and improvise or do you like the actors to stay true to the words…like Aaron Sorkin?
JOSEPH: Performance and the cast dynamic is the most important aspect of the creative process. When I’m on set I’m watching the actors and their interactions because relationships on set can lead to narrative discoveries. And I absolutely want my actors to improvise and discover things about their characters in real time. The scene in the hotel room where Ellis confronts Toby about “making a play” at Alex was completely improvised. I’d heard the cast warming up and improvising and my eavesdropping proved inspirational. We went with two cameras and simply followed the actors and let the scene develop.
TONYA: We were so fortunate to have Logan Huffman here for the screening and Q&A. What struck me about Logan was how extremely kind and humble he was. What was it about Logan that told you he could play such a mean guy?
JOSEPH: Logan Huffman is a shape shifter. He has the uncanny ability to change his energy and become the character he inhabits. It’s not craft so much as it is magic with Logan. He is a unique individual and a great person and I think that because he is so compassionate and giving he’s able to understand characters like Ellis. He truly wanted the audience to at least empathize with Ellis at the end of the film and I think that the last shot of Ellis – his face wracked with pain – evoked empathy at least from some. Ellis was in so much pain and Logan worked with that.