Photography by: Sam Hanson
By: Zeke Hanson
Michelangelo Buonarroti said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” If you don’t know who that is, he was the ninja turtle with the orange mask. The man’s an artist with nunchakus, but he also did some cool things with a chisel and a paint brush. His mastery over his craft is what makes him a timeless legend. His struggle to become relevant to himself is what made him an artist. He didn’t work outside the box. He built up the walls that defined it.
From the outside looking in, art is complicated. If you look at a finished project from a talent you respect, it’s daunting. You weren’t there to see the leap of faith that led them down the path to finish the piece. At that moment it wasn’t about technique, style, influence, or types of brushes. It was simple. Complete it. Get it done. Or nothing.
It’s that way with a lot of things. It’s certainly that way with film. Sitting down in a theater, all you see is the finished project. Whether you like it or not is truly irrelevant. They finished it, and you saw it. They got it done. That’s intimidating. But, the rules of a film set aren’t complicated. All of the equipment, job titles, and hours boil down to two things. Work Hard. Be quiet.
Honestly. That’s what it comes down to. Sure, there’s other stuff, but the hours are long and the days are frustrating. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Director, the Lead, or a visiting significant other. Unless you have a camera pointed at you and there’s dialogue under your character’s name in the script for the pages (sides) you’re currently shooting…your only job in that specific moment is to shut up. Right there and then, that’s your job title. I don’t care who you are, that’s your only job. It says it right under your name on the business cards you have but don’t pull out because that would make noise and you don’t do that…because you’re damn good at your job.
Everything else on set can be learned, everything but common sense applied to self-motivated drive.
It is quite simply complicated.
Just like any job, people take advantage of you. Most people start out glossy-eyed and charming, but the longer they hang on the more used they become.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see people coming up like Joe Hiatt. He’s a fresh face from a small midwestern town, but he’s creatively tenacious with a breathing appreciation for the arts.
He’s also quiet.
Joe is currently a theater and English major at the University of Sioux Falls. When he’s not studenting theater or learning the lit, he’s writing, reading…or he’s acting. I know what you’re thinking, nobody actually does what they went to school for…welp, if that were a rule, Joe would be an exception to it. But…there is no rule, so if that’s really how you feel, go back to school and for God’s sake do something you love to be good at.
Like most actors on an independent level, Hiatt is a millinery…which means, he doesn’t just wear too many hats…he makes them. “Yeah, actually, it’s pretty interesting,” Joe, explains, “not only am I the actor, but I’m also my own agent at the moment. I don’t have one, so it’s really been about all the connections I have, and I’ve only worked with one director: Dalton Coffey. It’s just the friendship I’ve formed with him, and I guess he likes me enough to keep writing projects for me.”
A light didn’t beam down on Joe. It wasn’t a lucky ticket he found wrapped in a candy bar. Hiatt took initiative and reached out. “I first connected with Coffey when I was a junior [in High School] because my uncle had had a small role in one of the short films that he’d done.” Joe says, “I found out about that short film because my uncle was like, ‘hey, I’m in this movie’ and I had no idea that this was happening in Sioux Falls, so I reached out to him [Coffey], intending just to meet for coffee and get to know him a little bit. Our conversation went really, really, well and he ended up four months later writing a short film, and asked me to read for one of the characters, and I got the role. Then we just continued the relationship of getting coffee every once in a while, and talking about projects that we want to do and doing some projects together.”
Coffee, the drink, is good. Work, with Coffey the Director, is better. Those meetings and like-minded conversations lead to a feature film called Poor Mama’s Boy. “I made the connection in Sioux Falls,” Joe says, “but all of the actual project was in Arkansas. After the feature film Poor Mamma’s Boy came out, we had an article on IndieWire and I was getting emails for projects, not a lot, like three, to read…I guess that’s not a lot.”
Here’s the thing about math. It’s hard. And if most creatives were good at it, they wouldn’t be creative, they’d have jobs that paid them with insurance and a 401k. But here’s how it adds up. Three reads for auditions after an indie feature is a lot. That number three is a good number because it’s bigger than zero, and it means that you get to play in the sandbox again. That number three, without an agent or outside representation, also means that the people reaching out took the time, were inspired by what they saw enough to dig, and reached out to you personally for a read.
“But…,” Hiatt explains, “I ended up having to turn all of those projects down just because their plans for shooting were going to be right when I was starting college, and I still want to have that education part of my life.”
Saying no can be as much a strength as it is a fear. In this case for Joe, it was a strength. He was just starting school and as much as for his acting craft as well as the directors of those projects, the match just wasn’t a good fit. “You kind of have to accept some things sometimes.” Joe says with a sage wisdom, “but also I was at such a pivotal moment when I was starting college that I was like, this isn’t something that I want to put all of my energy into at this time.”
Foxhole people are a thing. The people you put in your foxhole matter, because if you are stuck in the hole with someone who’s going to tank your project and you can’t sleep knowing that you can’t trust them to do their part…you’ve gotta put them down. This is creative warfare. An honest answer means you have foxhole potential. Joe wears that on his sleeve. Or, I guess more appropriately, on his back. He casually wears a jacket with a bullet hole in it. “It’s a fake bullet hole,” Joe justifies, “I got this jacket because it was part of my costume for a short film that I was in, that took place in 1957 [that’s also the title of the film short 1957]. It was a jacket that fit that time period really well, but where the costume designer for that short film got this jacket was a film website that sells props and costumes from movies. So, this jacket actually is from the movie the Bourne Supremacy and was actually worn by Matt Damon.”
Sure. It’s a movie prop. It’s not like Matt Damon tossed it to Hiatt like Mean Joe Green accepting a Coke. Maybe Damon didn’t walk out of a night club in The Rundown like Schwarzenegger as he passes Dwayne Johnson on his way out saying “have fun.” But who’s to say he doesn’t down the road. Because in 1989 a film called The Field of Dreams came out and no matter how you feel about the movie, there are two rabid uncredited extras in that film by the names of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. And when Joe does make the transition to wide theatrical releases, that story about the jacket is going to seem very appropriate.
To make it better Joe still probably won’t want to share it even then. Why? Because this Dead Poets Society shirt wearing, coffee slinging, Godfather quoting theatre major is also impossibly shy when he’s not in character…and even then, it could go either way…as long as both of those ways are good. “With the role I played in Poor Mama’s Boy, I definitely can’t relate, my life experience is very far from what the main character Wesley’s life experience is like,” Joe says. “What I know as an actor is that your greatest tool is your imagination and I feel like, I read the script, the script was great and I really just understood the character. There were definitely challenges to the role, like there is with everything, but I just felt like I did the work, I understood it, I was that character, and I guess because Wesley was so quiet, I can really relate to that because I was the shyest kid for the first 12 years of my life. I was basically mute throughout middle school. So, I guess I understood part of where that silence was coming from. I think the more shy and more nonverbal acting is actually what I’m discovering is a strength of mine. I can still hold a presence without having to say anything on camera. At the same time, I’m really excited to explore a role someday that’s the opposite of that, where I’m pushed into the more [Chatty Cathy].”
Possibly with everything, but certainly cinematically, power lies in the suggestion. That’s how good filmmakers, good artists, take a stand against mediocrity.
After “Quiet On The Set,” the most used and abused phrase while filming is “One More Time.” It’s not supposed to be a lie, but it always is…until it isn’t. You’ve got to get out of your head and get into the head of your character. Overthinking wastes time, and because of that everything takes time. “On a film set you spend more time sitting and waiting than you actually do filming.” Joe says, “There’s a great quote [Jimmy Cagney] that’s, ‘What you’re paying me for is the waiting; I do the acting for free.’ In those times of just sitting and waiting for them to change camera angles which can take a really long time because you have to adjust where the lights are, where everything is, so I would just go and sit in a corner by myself and, it sounds kind of sad, but it got me really into character.” He isn’t moping, or brooding though, “I would listen to music,” Joe says, “music was a huge part of getting me into that headspace as well, so I had a play list on Spotify that was all I listened to for that month of shooting. I would just go, turn it up, and get away from people. That music was a trigger for me to be in character and stay in character.”
What makes Joe a force isn’t that he’s a talented actor. That certainly helps, but it isn’t the foundation. He had a supporting role in a short film called Don’t Say Hello, “which is about a dysfunctional family and it’s about the sibling relationship with me and my older sister who lives in New York and I look up to her because she got out of the Midwest…and in my eyes, ‘made it’,” says Joe. “So, I really look up to her but she’s not the greatest role model. Then it ends with it being my turn to go off.” What makes him dangerous is that he’s not waiting for the phone to ring. Not waiting for another creative to call him and tell him it’s time to go to work. In the next few months Hiatt is working on a couple other shorts. “One I’m helping my friend make his short film and I’m just going to help out any way I can, if he needs me to hold a mic I’ll do that,” says Hiatt. “Then, hopefully, Directing my own short film.” Joe’s writing that one right now, currently titled Raging Through Arabia, and hopes to start shooting it before the end of the year. He also just finished performing in a play last Winter called Red, where he played the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. It’s a two man play about Rothko and his relationship with his younger assistant. Joe says, “Mark Rothko is definitely a challenge but this one [the Assistant] would also be a challenge and it would also be a great character as well that I’d love to play one day.” John Logan wrote that one act, but for this project, Joe Hiatt produced and starred in it. He also just finished his own senior project, where he produced and preformed the lead in the John Patrick Shanley play ‘Prodigal Son.’
One Act plays are great for that. The length can vary depending on the need of the story. Sometimes in film people get caught up in making a feature just to do it, not because the story calls for it, but because they want the credit for having made a feature. Joe has examples of both the too long and the too short. “I do really like the short film Spinners, which baby Timothée Chalamet is in,” says Joe. “He plays a guy that stands on the corner and twirls a sign. The short film is good, but I feel that there’s so much more that I wish I knew. It’s very cut to the chase. Very staticky. But it’s such an interesting profession that people have in America that, I’m like, ‘this would be cool to follow.’ With the story worked out more, I think it would be a great feature.” The feature that would have made a better short film, in this instance, is a 1990 Billy Murray film. “There’s this movie called Quick Change, where Bill Murray plays a bank robber,” Joe hesitates, “the thing is, is that it made a great feature as well.” The film just needs a quick flense, that’s all, a down and dirty, hard ten count. With a name like Quick Change it should be short.
Of all the classics out there, one of my favorite lines is from a film that Matt Damon doesn’t get a lot of credit for and is by no means is considered a classic. The film is We Bought a Zoo (2011). Whether you’ve seen it or not, doesn’t matter, the quote is, “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
If you’re new to the industry and are looking for direction and advice or whether you’re on the other side and have that in spades to give…if only you could get off your jaded, curmudgeoned, overworked and underappreciated high horse. Through so many of these interviews, it never ceases to amaze me that someone sat down and reached out, or…and just as common, that someone took the time to respond. For a creative industry that boils down to a form of communication, we could all use a little more of it. Twenty seconds. We’ve got this.
When Joe isn’t working, classing, acting, writing, Directing, meeting people for coffee’s that lead to meaningful relationships…he plans to start a Theatre Company.
Get on the get and pay attention.
Poor Mama's Boy is available on Amazon.
Bleeds: Desert Island or Fight Club…
Joe: I haven’t seen Fight Club…
Bleeds: First of all…you need to watch Fight Club and then we’ll ask you about Fight Club, then slap you…because YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB! But you don’t talk about it for different reasons than we aren’t talking about right now.
Desert Island [for real]
Bleeds: You’re stranded. You can’t take people with you, even though, they might fit in a box. And you can’t say, “Okay, I’m going to bring the encyclopedia with me.” You get three items total. No possibility of rescue. I guess you can bring a human, begrudgingly. 3 items. Stranded on a Desert Island. Death is imminent. What would you bring?
Joe: 3 items to entertain myself or just to survive?
Bleeds: You have clean water. That’s all you have.
Joe: The complete works of William Shakespeare.
Bleeds: Damnit, okay. That’s in a volume, I’ll allow it.
Joe: I would say a knife, but I can make a knife.
Bleeds: How would you make a knife without a knife?
Joe: Rocks…I guess.
Bleeds: What if it’s a sand island?
Joe: You know on Survivor…did you ever watch Survivor?
Bleeds: Oh yes.
Joe: You know when they were gifted those underwater spear things to get fish…
Bleeds: A harpoon?
Bleeds: You would bring a harpoon. That’s very smart.
Joe: I need to eat. I get really hangry when I don’t have food.
Bleeds: I’d be like, there are coconuts, I’m fine.
Joe: But coconuts are hard to open.
Bleeds: You need your rock knife. Or the harpoon! 3rd item!
Joe: I’d probably bring…Oh God, I was going to say a notebook, but then I’d need a pen.
Bleeds: You could write in blood. You could write in urine. It’s invisible ink. Don’t ask me how I know.
Joe: I would bring a notebook and then make a pen.
Bleeds: Make a pen! Maybe somebody who was stranded previously left a pen behind. Or surprise, you have one in your pocket. Through an oversight, we did not stipulate that your pockets were empty.
Joe: Then when people find the island; they can hear about my stories.
Bleeds: And find your decomposed body.