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“Did Mark Wahlberg Just Give Me the Job?”: Reinaldo Marcus Green on Good Joe Bell at TIFF 2020

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in Good Joe Bell

It’s been seven-and-a-half years since Jadin Bell, a high school student from La Grande, Oregon, committed suicide following a period of intense bullying. Harrased by fellow classmates for being a gay young man in a deeply conservative town, Jadin’s suicide made national news. It also inspired his father, Joe, to set out on a cross-country roadtrip (on foot!), spreading an anti-bullying message to any good samaritan who would listen. On October 6th, 2013, Joe Bell would also tragically lose his life, being hit by a semi-truck while in the midst of his improbable journey.

Good Joe Bell, the second feature from director Reinaldo Marcus Green (a former 25 New Face of Independent Film), recounts Joe’s trip as well as the final days of his son. A story about the effects of long-term grief and mournful regret, the film, while heavy, is primarily concerned with the difficulty involved in being a parent who wishes the best for their child without knowing how to provide it. As played by Mark Wahlberg, Joe is both old school and progressive, the type of father who allows his son to try out for cheerleading as long as he practices in private. The fact that he lost his life while effectively repenting to his son is just an additional burden the surviving Bell family continues to bear. 

As Good Joe Bell made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, I spoke with Green about how he was sent the script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, his initial meeting with Wahlberg in Boston and why the open roads of Utah provided the perfect location for this road-heavy movie.

Filmmaker: Your first feature, Monsters and Men, came as a result of an extension of a short you made, Stop. Your second feature, Good Joe Bell, had a very different path to the screen. How did it come your way? Were you itching to direct someone else’s script?

Green: Not necessarily. Like most writer-directors, my plan was to write my own second feature. But with the release of Monsters and Men, the film started to get out there a bit and I gained some industry awareness. It was actually my agent who sent me the script for Good Joe Bell. I’m repped by the same agent who reps Cary Fukunaga, and Cary was really the one who brought the story [to my attention]. He read the initial New York Times article about the Bell family and went to a few producers, and eventually to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana to write the script. Cary put in several years of research, traveling to La Grande, Oregon to meet with the Bell family and meet many of Jadin’s friends. He did the bulk of the work, but I didn’t know that when I received the script! My agent sent it to me and all I knew was that Cary was to be a producer on the film and that he and I had both attended Tisch at NYU (he graduated before I went in). 

From there, I learned about the Bell family history, with most of the research coming as a result of the script by Larry and Diana. I felt like a kid in a toy chest, ripping the box open and diving in. It’s an incredible, emotional story, and…I don’t know…my brother, Rashaad, and I had lost our dad a few years ago, and that experience really affected me as I read the script. I knew that if I was emotional reading it, viewers would hopefully be emotional watching it. That’s when I called my agent and asked how I could be a part of the project. I met with the producers first and they said that I had to meet with Mark [Wahlberg]. I was living in Italy at the time, and I remember flying from Italy to Boston to meet Mark for about one hour.

Filmmaker: That sounds like the ultimate “Mark Wahlberg meeting.” 

Green: I met with him in a hotel for an hour, and at the end of that hour, Mark gave me his hand and his phone number. Walking out, I was like, “Wait, did Mark Wahlberg just give me the job?” I didn’t really know what was happening. From there, Mark and I became friends, and I came to realize that he was really devoted to the film. We FaceTimed pretty much every day until the film was completed. Mark travels every (or every other) day, always somewhere on some plane headed to some city, but he would answer my calls from anywhere. He would even answer from the dentist chair or a cryo chamber or wherever. He’s a very accessible person. I was like, “Wait, I thought he was inaccessible?” Here he is answering his phone at crazy hours of the day (he usually wakes up between 3 and 4 AM) and he showed an incredible level of commitment and devotion to the film. He told me that Joe Bell was his most important role to date. It was an honor to work with him.

Filmmaker: When making a film based on a true story, how do you keep the tone focused? By that I mean, you have to tell the story of Jadin honestly while also simultaneously pushing back against the inherently overt sentimentality that may accompany it.

Green: That was part of the challenge of telling this story. How do we not make it overly sentimental? The events that transpire in the film are obviously heavy, but how can we take the viewer on a ride so that they can digest it? We didn’t want to be too heavy in our messaging but still wanted to get the messages across. Similarly to Monsters and Men, I had to find new ways to do that. Rather than be didactic, I remained objective in where we put the camera and how we let scenes unfold.

This is also a testament to the performances and the screenplay. Larry and Diana handled it very well where they could, hiding certain moments of exposition and doing it through humor or moments where they could connect and have fun. You’re able to get these powerful scenes and messages across in a way that hopefully feels human. The way to draw out real reactions is to put real people in real situations. The success is a testament to the cast and crew and the script. But yes, sentimentality was definitely something that we had to be careful of due to the subject matter and events in the movie.

Filmmaker: There’s a scene early in the film where the father and son bond over the Lady Gaga song “Born This Way,” and it’s surprising in how organically good-natured and pure the moment feels. Are those the kind of moments you’re speaking of? Finding subtle but poignant moments of good-natured interactions?

Green: Yeah, and it’s complicated, right? When it comes to Mark’s character, there are moments in the film where you think he’s being a really nice guy and then he quickly shows you another side of himself. That was part of Mark’s attraction to the role, that Joe’s not a perfect human being, that he has lessons to learn throughout the course of the film. That’s part of the question the film asks: what part are we playing in this type of story? Are we allies or do we remain on the sidelines? Are we complicit or are we taking a stand? We’re asking ourselves each of these questions, as a culture, right now and I tried to pose them in the film. Mark’s character is the perfect vessel in which to do that, because here’s a guy who thinks that he’s doing the right thing. Joe lives in a small town and is doing everything he has to do to protect his child. But then his son is there to remind him that, “Yeah, well….maybe there’s another way to look at this. Maybe there was another way for us to have engaged in conversation. Maybe I didn’t feel safe coming to you about certain things and maybe I felt ignored.” That’s what makes the moments where they actually do bond (in the “afterlife,” if you will) that much more heartbreaking. Perhaps those moments could have happened while they were both still alive, but we give them a chance to rewrite their history.

Filmmaker: The film has several flashbacks throughout the film and I was really taken by how they’re interwoven into the narrative. Yes, the flashbacks feature some important, “big” moments, but they feel tonally entwined in the larger story you’re telling. Visually as well, it all feels cohesive and fluid, which makes sense given where the story ultimately takes us.

Green: It’s always challenging when you’re dealing with flashbacks, and I knew, coming onto the project, that half the movie was going to be a flashback. That was a huge challenge right off the bat, but I think audiences are becoming more sophisticated in how they take in information. Although we have several “reveals” in the movie, the movie doesn’t revolve around those reveals. I never tried to hang a lantern on any of that stuff. If it happens organically, and if you’re affected by it, great. If you aren’t, that’s fine too. The movie is not about twists. It’s about the core relationship.

We tried to keep the flashbacks as organic as everything else. We didn’t treat them any differently than we would any other scene. However, the obvious thing we had to think about was how do we enter a flashback. For instance, the viewer might observe Jadin thinking about something and then we’re quickly taken into his POV or we’re in Joe’s POV. It was crucial for us to figure out what the best in-point and out-point would be when it came to portraying those memories on screen. In the original conception, some of those sequences were longer and drawn out, but we shrunk them down to get us back to the “road portion” of the story faster. There was some trickery we had to figure out in the edit in regard to that, but we felt pretty confident in where we landed.

Filmmaker: In a sense, the film is very much a roadtrip movie on foot, one that feels rustic and rural (or a journey through a less commonly photographed America). Were you taking any roadtrips in pre-production that doubled as location scouting?

Green: We shot this movie in 27 days and it was pretty run-and-gun for a while. We had a lot of locations to shoot but didn’t have a lot of time. Joe Bell’s walking journey had him travel from La Grande, Oregon to, I believe, Colorado (where he passed away), but as a crew, we couldn’t move around as much or cross several states for production. We needed to find a centralized location that had the topography of each of those different landscapes, so we shot the film in Utah and made it look very much like Colorado and other rural areas you can find in the United States.

We knew of the specific areas Joe had crossed and wanted to at least give our shooting locations similar textures. Utah offered a nice balance between north and south, the ability to make it look like we were traversing several states and various lands. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to go on the real roadtrip Joe partook in. I would have loved to. If this wasn’t an independent movie with an independent budget, maybe we could’ve traveled the real journey and slept at those real places. 

Most importantly for me, though, was being able to travel to La Grande with Mark and meet Lola Bell, to sit with her and really see what life was like in the city. That was probably the most important part for my research phase, meeting Lola and meeting her sons and making sure that we received their blessing before making the movie.

Filmmaker: Regarding the locations though, were you thinking of extremely wide shots to establish these landscapes? Different lenses for these rural canvases? 

Green: Yes, although we certainly have some visual effects added in. We had to go back to get some additional photography for some of the wider shots we weren’t able to get during physical production. We went back and got the expansive wides that you see at the end of the movie, then patched those shots throughout the film. We didn’t have the time to get it during production. But everything you see with Mark and Reid Miller on their travel featured very real locations. We found a great motel, a great drag bar, etc.

The physical “road stuff” was done on the best roads our location scouts could find. The steep mountains you see in the film were probably not that steep (we added a few visual effects to implement additional depth). Bringing Mark and Reid physically closer to the road itself, seeing Joe Bell carrying his tent and walking amongst those physical spaces, really added something to the film. But for most of those shots, the camera and crew are right off to the side of the actors. 

Much of the credit should go to our DP, Jacques Jouffret. In addition to numerous other projects, Jacques worked as a Steadicam operator on Sean Penn’s film, Into the Wild, a movie I really love and one that was a huge reference for me when making this film. It’s incredibly textured. We decided on an ultra wide format, and while I’m sure he can talk to you about the more specific technical aspects, we used super wide lenses to capture the expansive landscapes. 

Filmmaker: Does shooting on location in that type of rugged terrain enhance the camaraderie shared amongst your crew? Monsters and Men was shot in Brooklyn, a vastly different setting than the rural world of Good Joe Bell.

Green: Oh, 100%. We were lean and mean. We were in shuttle vans for most of the shoot. We’d pop out, get a shot, hop back in and drive to the next location. Oftentimes we’d just be intent on shooting two or three road shots, but of course, every time you set up, you have to deal with passing cars and the license plates that reveal the state we’re shooting in, etc. It was very run-and-gun, get the shots, pull the file, take the card out, put the card back in and start rolling again.

Restraints always bring a crew closer together. When you make movies that way, they feel more intimate. We weren’t a huge Hollywood crew. We didn’t have trailers to retreat to. There was no talk of “heading off to take a nap for lunch.” There was none of that, and I think it shows in the performances. If you put actors in real spaces, they can react off of their surroundings. They’re really walking on the side of the road. Sometimes we’d be holding traffic to get the shot and sometimes we weren’t, but physically being there plays into the reality of the performance.

Filmmaker: Now that you’ve had the experience of working on a true story authored by writers other than yourself, have you found that you’ve become a stronger director? Does working with someone else’s material enhance your craft?

Green: Totally. Larry and Diana are incredible writers and I can’t do what they do! That’s not to say that I’m not a good writer, it’s just that when you meet Larry and Diana and the Steven Zaillians and Aaron Sorkins of the world, you take those scripts because they’re written by people with a wealth of knowledge and experience. They write characters extremely well and it becomes a part of their DNA. If I can direct a script of theirs, I can learn a lot from the experience and can take that into my future storytelling endeavours. 

Filmmaker: In what ways?

Green: There’s something to how Larry and Diana have their characters make decisions and how the viewer feels like they’re making those decisions right alongside them. That’s a skill I can really learn from. It’s a testament to Larry and Diana doing it over and over again, and successfully at that. Larry’s a novelist, and while not all of his novels have been adapted into screenplays, he writes several books a year, or he has over the course of his career. Larry and Diana are natural storytellers and my job, as a director, is to ask how I can make it mine. Writing and directing Monsters and Men prepared me for focusing on gray areas and using objective storytelling that I think works in that film effectively and using it on a slightly larger scale with an established movie star this time around.

How can I take words that are not mine and make them my own? How would I say them? What feels real to me? Larry and Diana weren’t precious about anything they wrote. They know their words are going to be shaped by the director, that I’m going to take some and change others. They weren’t precious or against my changes. The original script was approximately 150 pages and that would make for a two-and-a-half-hour movie. As you know, the finished result is a 90-minute film, so we obviously had to make a bunch of changes in order to shape it into the story I wanted to tell. I think we did it and I think we did it collectively with the producers and especially the cast. I enjoy improvisation on set and the cast brought another layer to the project. It all complemented the foundation that Larry and Diana had set up. They gave us the blueprint, then we made the house ours. I think the finished result is a strong property.

Filmmaker: Monsters and Men had a strong, lengthy festival run prior to receiving a traditional theatrical release. Do you anticipate the experience with Good Joe Bell being any different given the pandemic and the virtual screenings at TIFF? I assume the potential audience is much wider as a result.

Green: Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, but I think this is a huge opportunity for the film. Again, I feel like we’re the lucky ones, as we get the opportunity to screen our film while there have been so many real lives affected by this global pandemic. The fact that we have an opportunity to screen at a film festival at all is a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel for us. Traditional theaters haven’t been able to fully come back across North America yet, so online screenings are the way to go. 

I’m also excited for our cast. We have some new faces in the film, like Reid Miller who plays Jadin. Without having a physical environment for the festival this year, it could be tough for him to get noticed, so I’m happy that he’s going to get a chance through these virtual screenings. And of course, Mark is Mark, and he’s fantastic in the role, and I hope people will respond to his performance and see what he gave to the film.

Getting as many eyeballs on your film is obviously the goal of any filmmaker and so going virtual (given everything going on in the world) feels like the right path to take. What better way to do it than with TIFF, where they’re not taking as many titles this year and thus a window may open for a dark horse film like ours to come in and strike a nerve?

I’ve been watching a little bit of the US Open this week and there are obviously no fans in the stands this year. Novak Djokovic was just disqualified and is out of the tournament and that’s opened up the opportunity for there to be a new Grand Slam champion. I feel like we’re in a similar space with our film, where it’s like, “Look, it’s anybody’s festival this year.” There’s always an opportunity if you believe that there is. That’s the mindset we need to have going into the fall.

Filmmaker: A discussion of the US Open is perhaps an appropriate place to begin our next conversation when your third feature [King Richard, currently in production) comes out next year.

Green: Oh good! I think you’re going to love it. We’re back in prep now and it’s been a real honor working with Will [Smith]. He’s been very dedicated to the role and it’s been great to see. We shot for three weeks and then had to go on hiatus due to the pandemic, but we’ll be resuming the shoot toward the backend of October.

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