Teaser Clip and Interview: Teddy Collatos on His Slamdance-Premiering Palookaville
Filmmaker Teddy Collatos ventures into episodic territory with Palookaville, a comedy series that follows a young New Yorker named JoJo (Howard Lester), who suddenly believes that he’s the famous (and long-deceased) boxer Joe Lewis. The 17-minute pilot episode, set to have its world premiere at Slamdance, explains how this case of mistaken self-identity came to be.
Comedian Franqi French plays JoJo’s sister Squirrel, who unceremoniously kicks him out of her apartment after he trash talks Night of the Living Dead. In desperate need of cash, he cons an Alex Jones-listening Brooklynite and heads over to his friend Monica’s (Edy Modica, recent 25 New Face) apartment, which is filled with little else besides infant cries and parental bickering. Later that same day, JoJo suffers blunt-force head trauma after a random encounter with a drunk dude on the subway, and Joe Lewis is instantly reincarnated.
Collatos answered a few questions for Filmmaker over email, revealing how he scouted the episode’s various NYC locations, settled on the comic-laden cast and the complex origins of the word “palooka.”
Palookaville premieres in-person at Slamdance on January 22 and screens again on the 27.
Filmmaker: The relationship between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling is fascinating, and I was surprised I hadn’t really heard of it before. Granted, I’m no sports aficionado, but it seems as integral to American history as, say, Jesse Owens winning gold at the 1936 Olympics in Germany. What compelled you to frame a series around these figures through a modern-day lens, particularly when it comes to Joe Louis?
Collatos: For me, it’s an absolutely beautiful mystery how these two during WWII, the most divided of times, would develop a relationship through fighting and world war. It blows my mind the pressure both fighters must have felt from their countries, the whole world was watching, and the ability to not be forced into hating each other personally. If this was in a movie, it would be completely unbelievable! In this case, nonfiction has created a fiction over the ages. In a time when we’re continually being fed a media diet of division, I found it compelling. Joe and Max’s friendship transcends sport and life. It’s just stunning.
Filmmaker: I know that you previously directed a documentary short about the sport called Fight Science, which features former champion Chris Algieri. How did your work on that film, and your broader doc background, help you in shaping Palookaville?
Collatos: I think it gave me the confidence to authentically speak about boxing, something I hadn’t known much about before that documentary experience. My experience directing documentaries have supported how I approach actors in my dramatic work and untimely leads to great performances. I think all filmmakers should experiment in all genres.
Filmmaker: The culture and landscape of New York City is itself a prominent presence in Palookaville, featuring Brooklyn’s bare-bones rooftops, polite conversation with bodega employees and, of course, unexpected subway encounters. What elements of the city were particularly important for you to convey, and how did you go about scouting specific locations?
Collatos: I wouldn’t be the first to say New York City is the most explosive, overwhelming city in America, and a great place to explore characters and surrealistic situations that may or may not be real. As a backdrop, you can create any world you want, because there is no defining experience of NYC besides your own. As far as scouting locations, NYC is a living artistic canvas, and when you live here and allow yourself to experience the city, you notice these incredible neighborhood corners that have so much vibrant visual identity. And by that I mean we used my apartment, my roof, my local bodega and grocery store, stole scenes from the MTA and I found a beautiful, infamous tunnel.
Filmmaker: Many of the pilot’s actors have worked extensively in the field of stand-up comedy. However, even from the first episode, you can tell that this series will also deal with heavy emotional subjects, including issues of mental health, familial tensions, scheming for baby formula, etc. How did you go about striking that melancholy-comedic balance while incorporating Palookaville’s fantastical and surreal elements?
Collatos: My first feature was about a stand-up comedian. Personally, I think comedy is the greatest theatrical art form. It’s fast, biting and elicits the most honest human reaction—a laugh. You can’t fake a laugh. Some people can fake cry, but you can’t fake laugh.
So this is Howard Lester’s debut as an actor, but he’s a seasoned stand-up comedian. And Franqi French was one of Variety’s Top 10 Comics to Watch, won NBC’s Stand-Up Competition and is a regular at The Comedy Cellar (check her out). Of course there’s also Edy Modica, who’s brilliant! I was totally spoiled with talent on this shoot.
Most comedians, in my experience, are warm and open people who can think abstractly with words and ideas fluidly. You know the one thing not many dramatic actors have in their toolbox? A comedy mask and a tragedy mask. Comics are wonderful people to convey drama, because beneath the pain is a smile. And beneath the smile, there’s often pain. Both shine through in any situation. They’re also wonderful at play and can shape-shift in tone and style with little explanation. They just dive headfirst into the film fun and are willing to do anything, even if some may feel it’s unflattering. Straight up courage.
Filmmaker: How did you land on Palookaville as the name for your series?
Collatos: A Palooka represents an everyman or, in boxing, a journeyman, with the darker aspects of the term being punch drunk (CTE)—an issue the NFL and fight leagues are continually avoiding responsibility for—or an insensitive term for harmed prize-fighters. Symbolically, someone who’s fought the good fight and is damaged because of it.
Etymologically speaking, Palooka or Palookaville’s origins are mysterious. The term was brought to the popular consciousness in the 1930s comic strip Joe Palooka which depicted a heroic boxing champion who saved damsels in destress and fought the Nazis. Joe Palooka in the strip was an idealized representation that popular culture morphed into a label defining someone, who thought they are as talented as Joe, but were actually fooling themselves. Like, “ Look at this guy, he thinks he’s Joe Palooka!” It was also a term of endearment, like “Get over here and give me a hug, you big lovable Palooka!”
In the 1934 film Palooka, it’s a naive working-class fighter who’s used by the mob and made to take a fall. I think this film set up the lineage that exists today about a guy who must make the moral decision to throw a fight or not. My favorite Bogart film The Harder They Fall reiterated this theme of an idealist who doesn’t have the talent to win and is used by the corruption of the system. On the Waterfront, Rocky, Pulp Fiction, or my favorite Fat City all have Palooka’s as main characters who have a moral choice to make. In the case of Rocky, he’s a heroic working-class character who famously doesn’t care if he wins or loses, he “just wants to go the distance.”
To me, Palooka-ville is a cartoonish, mythical state of mind. Of the bruised, the disillusioned, the all-of-us who are fighting through life… someplace that exists in our souls, somewhere we’re always struggling against or escaping from, where your fate is sealed, your dreams are dashed, a place I have been before and I’m sure you’ve been too.