• Interviews

New Filmmakers, New Voices: Joe Raffa and ‘Downeast’

Emerging filmmaker and screenwriter Joe Raffa is fast becoming known for character-driven storytelling with a penchant for exploring the dark corners of the human psyche. Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey to Italian parents, Joe discovered his passion for storytelling at a young age. His family, which continues to own and operate a small Italian ice business, served as his introduction on how to lead others and run a business successfully, a skill which he later applied to film sets. Joe enrolled at Temple University to study film, dropping out after the first semester to make his debut film, You’ll Know My Name. The 2011 drama, which was written, directed and edited by, and also stars Joe, effectively served as his crash course in filmmaking.

His new film, Downeast, set in the underbelly of Maine, follows Emma Maddox (Dylan Silver) as she returns to her hometown following the mysterious death of her brother. She reconnects with his best friend, Tommy (Greg Finley), and uncovers a web of secrets the town has been keeping. Raffa’s other projects include Dark Harbor, starring Joel McHale, and a documentary, Alice is Still Dead, which he wrote and produced. He also created an anthology digital series, Spades, which originally premiered on Amazon Prime and is currently available on YouTube.

So let’s start with Downeast. You wrote and directed it: can you talk about how it came together and why this subject matter?

I was working for APS films and we were shooting a film called ggg. And one of the actors that auditioned for the antagonist, Greg Finley – who was absolutely phenomenal but he just wasn’t quite right for the role – was from Maine, where we were shooting the film. Our cinematographer and producer are also from Maine, and Greg brought this idea to us that he’d been living with for many years. I was honored that he trusted me enough to write it. It’s a film about people that feel trapped, which is something I think we can all relate to right now during COVID. And it almost feels like a modern-day On the Waterfront, and I’ve always been attracted to films from the past, like On the Waterfront and Rebel Without a Cause.

I notice you didn’t give yourself a cameo. Did you consider doing so, or do you prefer to keep acting and directing separate?

Yeah, I like to keep it separate. I can be more attentive to the other performers if I stay behind the camera. Also, Maine is such a specific city, so I wanted to populate the film with as many locals as we could when given the opportunity. I thought it added a lot of charm and character to the film.

You left college to make your first film, You’ll Know My Name. That was a brave move and it obviously worked out for you, though I imagine your parents might not have taken that decision well at the time?

I was going to Temple University for film, but it was very clear to me after my first semester that I felt that I could move myself forward in my career if I just went ahead and used the money I saved for college to make my first film. Luckily, I had very supportive parents. There was definitely a conversation, though, and I didn’t make the decision lightly. My family runs and operates a small business in South Philadelphia that was family-owned and operated since 1932, so we kind of have an entrepreneurial spirit about ourselves, which I definitely find in me. I think if you go to school for film if that’s the setting that really helps you discover the filmmaker and artist you are, that’s great, it just wasn’t for me. Making my first film, I learned so much about how to lead people, how to collaborate, how to bring the best out of others. It was my crash course and I am really glad I did it.

And you also do documentaries. How do you choose your projects?

The last project, Alice is Still Dead, was brought to me by Edwin Stevens. And it was such a personal film, it was an unflinching look at grief after a murdered loved one, and it was from the family’s perspective. When it comes to choosing projects, especially projects like that, I think the jury is still out on how talented I am, but nobody can deny my passion and my work ethic. So, for myself, in order to set myself up for success, I have to be extremely passionate about the project I’m working on. And that was one of those films I felt very lucky to be a part of, I felt very passionate about it, because I think it’s such an important story to tell, especially for people who are dealing with grief, especially for people that lost a loved one and they don’t know how to move forward, they don’t know how to find their “closure.”

You obviously gravitate towards darker subject matter.

Yes. I like asking questions that we are afraid to ask ourselves. Questions like, how do we forgive somebody when they do something traumatizing to us? Do we control our own destiny? Are we victims of our circumstance? In life, I am pretty happy-go-lucky and I like to cultivate a fun atmosphere when we shoot these films, but I do tend to explore the darker parts of human nature, for sure.

Are you writing anything now, or are you still busy with Downeast?

Since COVID hit, I have been writing as much as I can, and I have been writing with other writers, co-writing projects and writing myself. Again, I am still exploring darker subject matter. I wrote a Sci-Fi film that’s kind of like a Stranger Things-esque project and I also wrote a horror film which is like Get Out for vegans. So, we are having fun.

Had your career not flourished; did you have a plan B?

I did not. And I think that helped push me further. I think it’s very easy to become discouraged in this industry, especially as an artist. You go through these years where you feel like you are not making any progress, and I think if I had a plan B, I might have fallen back on it a little too soon. I think hungry dogs run faster, so I was glad that I didn’t really have anything to fall back on: it pushed me to try to accomplish what I really wanted to accomplish.