Joel Soisson has fulfilled virtually every role that one can experience in the film industry, on set behind the camera, and in the office. Soisson’s latest endeavor, My Best Worst Adventure, is one that he both wrote and directed, and based on the reviews so far, it is clear that he put all of his experience into practice on the new feature film.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Soisson about the challenges of working in Thailand and with a young cast and wild animals, as well as some of the memories about two very high profile projects that he worked on in the past, in this exclusive interview.
What was the genesis of your latest film, My Best Worst Adventure?
Joel Soisson: The short version is that I’ve done quiet a few horror and action movies in Thailand, and when I was in Bangkok one time, a producer who grew up in Thailand told me about her life there as a child. She grew up near the Cambodian border in a very rural part of the country and she said that one of the things that they did for fun was race water buffalos. While racing, they would get tossed off, trampled, with hooves and horns flying, but they were just loving life.
So I wanted to make a version of Sea Biscuit or Black Beauty using the water buffalo sport and at the same time capture the world and spirit of her experiences. It’s a story about a girl facing her own demons and coming of age, as she becomes part of this alien world.
The majority of your cast is comprised of young actors. What was it like directing the children and young adults in the film?
Soisson: A lot of people get nervous about everything, not wanting to stumble, but I think that the bigger danger is in becoming complacent. I ended up breaking a lot of old showbiz adages on My Best Worst Adventure such as: never work with children, never work with animals, never make a film in a different language. I was ready for a catastrophic fall if necessary.
Our lead actress never acted before and skipped school to come to to the audition because she was looking for something to do. I knew she was perfect for the role and some of the people around me were saying “How do you expect her to come to the set if she doesn’t go to school?”. She was the character that she portrays in the film.
The two leads in the film never speak, so it was all about capturing how they responded visually to each other and the camera. It allowed the inner lives of the characters to come alive.
And the animals did their part too.
The film has some stunning natural visuals. How did you go about capturing the natural setting of Thailand?
Soisson: That’s a fun question. If you’re making a monster movie, and you have a rubber suit, you have to have people that move in it to bring it alive. If you use CGI, you create it all with guys wrestling each other in green pjs. If you are creating an alien world, it is easy to make computer generated mountains or a world with two suns.
In My Best Worst Adventure, we didn’t have any of those options and we ended up using all of the natural elements. For the day shots, we didn’t use any lighting, we just used the sun. I have to give credit to our D.O.P. (Vardhana Wanchuplao) who learned how to wait for the sun to be just right and we had to make our scenes fit the day.
It was really a transformative moment for me.
You were a line producer on A Nightmare on Elm street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Are you surprised that the film has taken on a life of its own so many years later?
Soisson: Most of the films that get made are like disposable napkins, but some of them endure and they are not always the one that you expect. I have enormous respect for line producers. The traditional line producers are like the field marshals, like the generals, who lead their troops onto the battlefield, and are not the ones back in the tents looking at the maps. They are the only producers who get the applause at the screenings because they are with the crew and production the entire time.
I’ve worked on films before with 20 producers and I’ve never met any of them. Today, the line producers have been devalued and people sell producer credits to crowdfund their projects, so you can have 98 “producers” on a picture.
I was a real line producer on that film and it was one of my favorites. There was a lot riding on that film, and if it was a failure, New Line would most likely have folded, but it turned out to be a success.
Years later, I was interviewed for a documentary about the Nightmare films and I was asked “Did you know that Freddy’s Revenge was the first mainstream gay horror film in history?” I didn’t know, the director didn’t know, the writer didn’t know, but the star Mark Patton knew. When you look back at it now, the subtext about coming out, literally coming out, was pretty clear. We should have known, but I am also proud to have moved the ball if it was the first horror film to do so.
You also produced Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure which went on to become an 80s classic. Did you know at the time that it was going to be a big hit?
Soisson: Yes, no, and yes. Before it went into production, it was on the 10 best unproduced scripts list and it is really a movie about its time. I was that age myself at the time that the movie was meant for and it really tapped into a humor that we all shared.
I remember when Bill and Ted was screened for a group of executives and they reacted with absolute horror. They wanted nothing to do with it and sold it off to a Nelson Entertainment for very little. Not finding the financing to buy it myself was the probably the biggest mistake I ever made. It was sold for pocket lint.
But, those guys at Nelson, to their credit, knew they had a little gem on their hands after they tested it in New Jersey and the audience loved it. It was the type of experience that you often have in a theater where how you respond to a film is how the person next to you responds to it, and they all laughed.
I remember one executive saying to me before it came out: “Your movie is not funny because San Demas is not funny. Burbank is funny.” So I guess that should be the big takeaway for filmmakers; set your movie in Burbank if you want it to be funny.
You’ve worked in just about every aspect of the film industry. Which aspect do you find the most rewarding?
Soisson: I would say writing in general. Writing is a solitary exercise, unlike producing or directing. You get to dream big and set the traps for unsuspecting producers. You don’t have to worry about how to perform the stunts, how to find the right environments, how to handle the actors. I have likened it to the adage that the writer creates the problems, the director enhances the problems, and that the producer solves the problems. The producer has to be the mother bird, satisfying the screaming children.
I consider myself a failed cinematographer, which was what I initially set out to do, but some of my best memories come from when I was just starting out as a production assistant. I remember one time I was working for producer Sandy Howard on A Man Called Horse and me and another P.A. had to drive a pick-up truck full of explosives across the Mexican border in 110 degree heat, looking for a guy named Pedro to help set up the explosives for a special effects shot.
We went into this little bar and asked around for Pedro while the car was outside baking in the sun and loaded with explosives, waiting for the truck to go up in flames, but we found him and it got done, and we each were paid $75 bucks and went to bet on Jai-Alai and get drunk. I miss those days.
My Best Worst Adventure is now available on Video-On-Demand services.