Iowa grown films cropping up in Hollywood
For Joe Clarke, becoming one of the best Iowa grown filmmakers is just as rewarding as conquering Hollywood.
"You look at last year's films and there were a ton of blockbusters which were made by Iowans," said Clarke. "Joe Russo on the 'Avengers', (Scott Beck and Bryan Woods on) 'A Quiet Place', (and Jeff Tomsic) on 'Tag'— are there other Midwest states that have such an impact on the film industry right now as Iowa does?”
Prestige television, too, has help from the Hawkeye state. Daniel Weiss, one of the show runners for HBO's blockbuster "Game of Thrones," graduated with an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Though not yet as heavy a hitter as the Russo brothers, Clarke has made his fair share of films. Since 2018's "Spiral"— in which a bachelor party takes a turn for the bizarre— he's produced a documentary on former WWE wrestler Rob Van Dam called "Headstrong," and is currently working on his next film, "Alta Vista."
The "Headstrong" Hero
"Headstrong" wasn't supposed to be a documentary, but then nobody gets a concussion on purpose.
“Originally it was going to document a seven-day road trip where I was doing stand-up comedy," said pro-wrestler Rob Van Dam, who recently made a surprise appearance on the July 22 Monday Night RAW Reunion.
The seven-day trip started soon after Clarke finished work on "Spiral." Since the tour was starting in Iowa and he was in town, he and his camera were pulled for shooting.
But before the tour could hit the road, Van Dam suffered a concussion. Originally, he planned to tough it out, hoping the symptoms would fade with time as they had with previous head injuries .
Viewers of the match in which he was concussed probably wouldn't be able to pinpoint when it happened, Van Dam said.
"It's the softest hit you can imagine," he said. He's taken worse hits than that for decades.
But this time, the symptoms — double vision, concentration issues making it hard to track time — persisted. Finally, he went to a doctor.
"The big 'F' word in wrestling, is ‘fake,'" Clarke said. "But when you see this, you start to question that."
For Van Dam, the realities of wrestling include the sheer physical toll the sport takes on the body. Matches might be scripted, but the bumps, bruises and injuries are no less real than they are for any other type of athlete.
“I thought it was part of the job," Van Dam recalled. "In the mid 90s when I was in ECW, every night when I’d wrestle (people) like Balls Mahoney, he used to take great pride in how hard he’d hit me with a chair and I’d take pride in how hard it hit me in the head. I just wanted everyone in the crowd to be impressed by it… and we didn’t fake it."
Those blows to the head play in montage during the film; injuries of years past interspersed with a diagnosis.
"The viewers are learning at the same time I’m learning," the wrestler said. "I invite everyone into my very personal life and it ends up being a much bigger and better project than I originally planned.”
The story of Van Dam coming to the conclusion that the sport he loves may have done lasting damage to his body and mind is a focal point of the film now, but almost wasn't included.
“When I made this movie I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to edit out everything about the concussions because I hate that," said Van Dam. "I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me.”
Through watching and re-watching the film, Van Dam has come to appreciate that it sheds light on a problem in his profession. He knows the new generation jumping into the ring needs to be more cognizant of the dangers. He's working on ways to stem the brunt of the brain damage delivered to those wrestlers as well as himself, because he still sometimes gets back in the ring on occasion.
“I’m defiantly a lot less careless," he said. "There are ways I can take a chair that are safer, I can put my hand up (so the chair doesn't hit my head)."
Una buena vista de "Alta Vista"
"Headstrong" was still on Clarke's mind when he moved to L.A. in April of 2018.
Though he wouldn't finish the final cult of the documentary until November of that year, and didn't release the film until this past March, he started working on his next project the day after he arrived on the west coast.
"Maybe the day of," Clarke admitted.
"Alta Vista" is a return to fiction for the director, but has hints of biography built in. The protagonist, played by Clarke, moves from Iowa to L.A., in this case because of his father's death. After heading west, the character finds himself ensnared, sinking into Hollywood's underworld.
Knowing he'd be filming in both Iowa City and L.A., Clarke cast himself in the main role to ease production. For Clarke's former roommate and longtime collaborator, Tyler Thirnbeck, this created the unique experience of acting across from his friend.
Thirnbeck currently lives in Chicago where he pursues stand-up comedy. But he was happy to head to Iowa to help Clarke out with "Alta Vista."
“I think he’s just brilliant," said Thirnbeck. "He’s got a strong passion for film making and I haven’t been on too many types of sets before, but he makes it a point to have fun, to get the work done and he’s very interested in getting other people’s creative input into the story.”
Also returning to help on the project is cinematographer Benjamin Handler, who also worked on Clarke's past films like "Spiral" and "Up on the Woof Top." Handler has seen a little bit more responsibility behind the camera with this project.
“We have such a small team that it’s easy to do the work," said Handler, referring to the close knit group of Iowa filmmakers in the team behind the film. "The core group is small enough that if we can all make it work we can make this cool stuff and we don’t have this huge bureaucracy that a major film would have.”
A new team member this time around is Elwie Apor Harris whose character appears in the Iowa City scenes, which are set in places like Colonial Lanes and Oakland Cemetery.
Though this is her first time working with Clarke, it's far from her first time on a film set.
Apor Harris moved to L.A. when a friend moving encouraged her to move at the same timewith her. Apor Harris did and, though she didn't go there planning to be a film actress, found herself falling into roles with background casting.
What made her love acting though was staring as an extra in the 2010's "Starstruck," where, through a series of happy accidents, she ended up being center stage for a few seconds in the film.
But with her mother and stepfather still in Iowa, she eventually came back to Coralville. Cue two more happy accidents (by way of working at J.C. Penny and singing karaoke respectively) and Apor Harris found herself performing in Coralville City Circle shows and acting in Clarke's most recent film.
Though it was only a few days of shooting for a minor role, the small cast and crew created a close knit environment she felt immediately comfortable in.
“Those guys are amazing, they’re incredibly respectful professional," said Apor Harris. "They have such a vision. It took me beyond — not even (just) back — to when I was heavily into acting in movies. This is why I fell in love with this whole process.”
This week, Clarke is shooting in L.A., having filmed Iowa City scenes earlier in the year. While it's unlikely you'll see "Alta Vista" on a billboard next to "A Quiet Place 2" or the next Marvel movie, Clarke and his crew are following their passion. While their films might not be blockbusters yet, Clarke has his course set.
“It’s interesting to me that you wouldn't traditionally think of tying it close to Hollywood," said Clarke. "But Iowa is dominating Hollywood in a lot of respects. Forget Hollywood, forget L.A.; I’m trying to keep up with the Iowa directors.”
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet