116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Joe Clarke, 32, is living his dream.
The North Liberty filmmaker packed up his car and headed west three years ago to make movies in Hollywood.
And Hollywood is noticing.
About two years in the making, his latest full-length feature film, 'Alta Vista,” is traveling the indie film festival circuit, landing spots in one of his favorite festivals, as well as one of the industry's most prestigious festivals, both in April.
The film is a departure from Backrow Studios, which Clarke helped establish in the Corridor in 2010 with friends from the University of Iowa. The venture now has offices in both Iowa and Los Angeles.
Previous projects include 'Up on the Wooftop,” a holiday fantasy featuring a talking dog; 'The Wedge,” a comedy about a pizza delivery guy who gets caught up in a bank heist; and 'Spiral,” a psychological thriller stemming from deep fears that bubble to the surface and send a bachelor party into a tailspin.
Named for the boulevard where Clarke lived when he first moved to Los Angeles, 'Alta Vista” revolves around a screenwriter struggling to deal with his father's death, 'while getting himself tangled in Hollywood's underworld.” It's a mix of fact and fiction.
'This is definitely my most personal story. I used very real emotions from my personal experience of my father passing away about three and a half years ago,” Clarke said, 'and I kind of fused that with the story of a screenwriter who makes his way through Hollywood.
'I meshed fact and faction to create a story that I hope connects with people and is relatable. I've been told that it did - the journey of processing death and what that means to people.
'I really opened myself up to be as vulnerable as possible for this project. I feel like the production elements is what really takes it over the top - everything from the camera to the sound amplified everything. And that's what's most exciting for the process - taking your ideas and using the cinematic elements to boost those.”
Writing, directing and starring in the film wasn't a new triple-threat either for the kid who bounced around the Midwest before landing in Sioux City for high school and Iowa City for college.
'I grew up making movies and I always felt comfortable - like a 10-, 12-, 15-year-old jumping in front of the camera just to make movies with friends and family,” he said. 'I kind of come from that background.
'I took an acting class for like three seconds out here right before filming, and I got completely destroyed - it was a very humbling experience. I learned a lot.”
He said he took 'the Eminem approach” from 'Eight Mile,” where the rapper/actor basically played himself in the 2002 movie.
'I just didn't want to blow the movie,” Clarke said. 'I wanted to commit, and I feel like the commitment comes across on screen. As far as the atmosphere of directing at the same time, I'm a very even keel, collaborative person when it comes to being on set.”
He sought feedback from his crew of Iowa and Hollywood pros behind the cameras and sound equipment, and also used some Iowa actors, and even shot some scenes in the Iowa City area.
'It was a very collaborative environment, and that's how I usually operate,” he said. 'That's like the Iowa way in a lot of ways. There's no ego, there's no pretentiousness. It's just people who are very passionate about storytelling and wanting to do good stuff. And we have a great group that has that as their pillar to operate.”
He and his crew finished the film's final cut in December, and a week later, 'Alta Vista” debuted at the Culver City Film Festival in Los Angeles, grabbing 'best score” honors for composer Alex Kachingwe of Iowa City. In March, it was screened in the Golden State Film Festival. It's also headed to the Creation Film Festival on May 31 and the Zeitgeist Film Festival from June 4 to 6.
In between, 'Alta Vista” returns to Clarke's home state as part of the Dubuque International Film Festival, running from April 18 to 25, then it's back to California for the Beverly Hills Film Festival, running April 28 to May 2.
While acknowledging that the Beverly Hills festival is a top-flight industry event, Clarke also is excited to have his film showing in Dubuque, where that festival is returning to an in-person event, after going online in 2020.
'Hopefully that'll be at least a foot in the door to pave the way for future (in-person) festivals, because being there and meeting other filmmakers - just kind of celebrating film - is always a blast,” Clarke said. 'Hopefully, (in-person festivals) come back sooner rather than later.”
The Julien Dubuque holds another soft spot in his heart.
'That's one of my personal favorite film festivals, just because the whole town is a part of it,” he said. 'And it's much more of a unique atmosphere - a lot of different venues and the whole town participates in the event itself, which makes it really exciting.”
He's contemplating coming to the event.
'I've been strongly debating it,” he said. 'I love that festival. I need to see how this next week or two plays out, but I'm definitely considering it. It's a really cool atmosphere, and it would be the first time I watched (his film) with a group of people, so I'm definitely considering it.”
Even though Backrow Studios has made seven feature films, music videos, documentary shorts and commercial freelance projects, traveling the festival circuit is relatively new territory for Clarke. His films have appeared in festivals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines and Dubuque, but 'Alta Vista” is branching out.
'I've been making movies for a long time,” he said, 'and this is the first time I've really played the film festival circuit game. And it's pretty interesting. It's kind of the Wild West - and even more now, with the state of the world and everything. ...
'I email festival programmers and tell them, ‘Hey, we're starting to get good reviews and we're starting to gain steam in these different spots.' Sometimes they respond, and say, ‘Cool, congrats, sounds good,' and I just hope for the best from there.
'It seems to be a very open-ended thing, but to be perfectly honest, I did not think we would be at this point we're at now. So in that regard, I'm just embracing it, and whatever happens, I'm totally fine with it.
'It's been a wild ride already, and so the fact that we're here, I'm totally cool with whatever happens.”
At a glance
' What: 'Alta Vista,” full-length feature film from Joe Clarke and Backrow Studios
' Where: Screening during the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival, April 18 to 25 in Dubuque; julienfilmfest.com/festival
' Film details: backrowstudios.com/altavista
' Studio details: backrowstudios.com/
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