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Joe Clarke’s Backrow Studios is stepping into the front row, with “Alta Vista” now streaming online.
“After three long years, we are finally excited to be releasing ‘Alta Vista’ into the world,” Clarke, 33, said in announcing the deal.
While he’s reluctant to reveal the budget for the film, he’s hoping to recoup his investment through the rent and buy options on his website, backrowstudios.com/ and through Amazon.com and other streaming sites.
One of his most ambitious projects to date, “Alta Vista” is a mix of fact and fiction about a screenwriter struggling to deal with his father’s death (fact), while getting himself tangled in Hollywood’s underworld (fiction).
Clarke thinks his father, Donald Patrick Clarke, who died in October of 2017, would be proud of the final product.
“He always told me never to quit when it came to filmmaking — to keep going — and so that's always been an inspiration for me.”
Calling his father one of his best friends, Clarke said: “I definitely used that emotion from our connection and our relationship. I think he’d be really happy with where I'm at and what I'm doing. ... I feel like my dad's almost an Obi-Wan type presence, so that's very comforting.”
Watching the film, which has been garnering top awards at indie film festivals in London and California, doesn’t trigger grief for Clarke.
“I view it as a different time and place of where I was at,” he said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “From a creative standpoint, I'm a different person, and when I watch it now, I tend to focus on what can we do better? Can we keep improving?
"It doesn't really trigger a reality to me. It's more like, ‘Oh cool, I feel like I'm watching a movie right now.’ And so now I want to bottle that up and press it to the next level. I studied the camerawork and the soundtrack and the sound design — it's those production elements that gets me excited. I'm kind of looking past the story elements in a lot of ways.”
One of his favorite experiences was watching it with five friends in a Los Angeles theater.
“We were laughing throughout it and doing commentary. We were the only ones in the theater,” he said. “It was so much fun because it was very light-hearted.”
That was a very different experience than he had watching it with an audience in April at his favorite film festival, the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.
“That was a little bit more serious,” he said.
Seeing audience reactions helps his process, letting him know where viewers are making connections, bringing “real-time” feedback he can carry forward.
“It's always different,” he said, “but ... there's always a couple scenes when people get really quiet. I can tell it's working in those moments because they're really glued and their attention is on the screen and it's like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really grasping me.’ Those are the moments I try and hang onto in the back of my mind for future projects.”
A 2010 University of Iowa graduate, the Sioux City native founded Backrow Studios that year with fellow UI cinema students, and settled in North Liberty. While moving to Hollywood in 2018 made sense for advancing his career, Clarke discovered that making movies there is harder than making them in Eastern Iowa, where part of “Alta Vista” was filmed.
“Shooting in Los Angeles, for the majority of it, presented a lot of challenges,” he said.
In Iowa, films are still “a novel thing,” so getting access to sites, actors and crew is easier.
“You can have folks (in Iowa) that are more supportive because that might not be their direct line of career,” he noted.
So shooting a few scenes in Eastern Iowa was “awesome,” he said, “because we could walk into Gabe's in downtown Iowa City and just basically run amok. They didn't care at all. And filming in the cemetery in Iowa City was super easy — just fill out these papers and have at it.
“It was amazing and awesome to have that kind of support, whereas in L.A., it was hard to get people to commit for more than a day.”
Still, he managed to make the right connections and film on a more relaxed timetable than the usual short and intense schedule used by many independent filmmakers. He’s learned that keeping everyone on the same page is the key to success.
“Every time that you make a feature film, it's almost like its own crash course in filmmaking school. It's a school of hard knocks,” he said. “We've learned so many things over the years from trying different things.
“I think what makes the projects keep getting better is that you get the experience and you fail and make so many mistakes that get embedded in your mind that you carry on to the next project. I think it's just that experience of going through it time and time again that you almost fail up.”
And with more projects in the works, he’s ready to keep the cameras rolling.
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