One fateful day in the ’90s, Joseph Graham saw Clerks. “That can be a movie?” he thought to himself. “It’s just fucking idiots talking shit. I can do that.”
Kevin Smith’s freshman flick offered added incentive, but “Joey” Graham was a major movie geek from day one. Harmony Korine, David Wain, Darren Aronofsky, David Cronenberg, and Rocky movies represent a sampling when you ask about his favorites. Also helping was the fact that his dad had a video camera early; Graham doesn’t remember his family not owning one.
He played around with those cameras a lot as a kid, and by the time he made it to Katy High School he was “constantly shooting dumb things” he and friends had going on, including but not limited to backyard wrestling. “We all thought we were Jackass at some point. ‘I’ll videotape you pushing over that port-o-potty.’” he laughs. “I was not the person participating in the crimes, just recording them. “
As a Radio-Television-Film major at UT Austin, Graham contributed to the making of a modestly successful short, Abstinence Man and the Orgy of Death. “It was sort of a porno take on zombies, but with no actual sex in it.” he explains. The 10 minute film offered him his first taste of festival success; it won an audience award, and perhaps more importantly, taught Graham something about himself. “In college,” he says, “I realized that I’m a pervert.”
Following graduation in 2005, he took the well-traveled filmmaker path to L.A., did some interviews and didn’t like it. “It rubbed me wrong. I was also 21, kinda baby, I didn’t stick it out there,” he remembers. Returning to Austin, Graham worked waiter jobs while trying to get on productions, any productions, cutting his teeth on a lot of short films and commercials. He was also sending out a lot of resumes — complete with the word university spelled wrong — which he admits might’ve worked against him. He continued going where the work was, landing in San Antonio as editor for a little production group, cutely named Shootz.
In 2008, salvation came in the form of the Houston Astros. Graham had cut some sports highlight videos for high school athletes to use as reels/resumes for colleges. A friend recommended trying out for open Astros production gig, and it was Graham’s indifferent attitude that landed him the job. “What impressed them was that I wasn’t impressed with anything. They put my name on the video board, ‘Welcome to Minute Maid Park, Joseph Graham.’ They were like, ‘What do you think?’ and I was like, ‘Cool, I guess.’” He lucked out because management was looking to hire creative people who weren’t necessarily huge sports fanatics, individuals who could think outside the box about ballpark entertainment.
Five years later to his starting day, Graham put in his notice with the Stros after being assured he’d “get that MLB pension money.” For a few seasons, he headed a small production department for the Houston Dynamo. His goal was to win Best Show in Soccer, a feat he accomplished in his second year.
While establishing himself as a reliable sport production guy, Graham never took his eye off the creative ball. Short films he made during this time include a fake trailer for a non-existent Mario Paint movie, a project he cites as a favorite. The now-defunct G4 video game channel had a competition through Fantastic Fest, and Mario Paint was Graham’s entry, ultimately playing on tv and giving Graham the chance to get uncomfortably close to Olivia Munn.
It was around this time that Graham met the man who would become his business partner, Justin Petty. “He didn’t walk in in slow motion and become the love of my life immediately,” Graham reflects. “But we got there.” “JP” had an idea for a sketch that they might shoot together. “It involved me masturbating and putting a gun in my mouth, so I was game.” Graham laughs.
The duo formed The Straight Guys, dedicated to making sketch comedy shorts, Graham’s favorite being The Gourmands, which centered on wealthy elitist men drinking piss. It was juvenile stuff, Graham admits, “but we were in our early-to-mid twenties, so I feel like it’s ok.”
Eventually, an official production company called The Monster Closet followed, with Graham and Petty as its heads. Seeking to shed a bit of the nonsense, the men strove for “a separate thing that’s less about our dicks, that’s a little more professional and can explore creativity in a different way.”
Music videos seemed like a natural avenue for the fledgling operation, and the rich musical landscape of H-Town was game. At the time, Graham was fascinated with local rapper Fat Tony and says he “stalked him on twitter” for a while. When Tony tweeted out that he was shooting a video right then, Graham rushed to the location. Unable to work up the nerve to approach his music idol, a dejected Graham got in his car and was leaving, until his then girlfriend ordered him to turn around. She approached Tony herself and conveyed her bf’s desire to work with him. Eventually, the Monster Closet-produced video for Tony would make it onto Pitchfork, and as Graham says, “It helped us both out a lot.” The partnership solidified, Monster Closet and Tony would go on to work together on a handful of other videos.
That first victory yielded other benefits. Kam Franklin of The Suffers reached out via email. She had seen the Fat Tony videos and wanted to secure the company’s services. It was another good creative fit, and the Monster Closet team worked on a few Suffers videos, including one so touching it made Graham’s mom cry. “I had only repulsed her up to that point.” he says.
Sometime in 2015, Petty brought Graham about 10 pages of what was intended to be another short. Graham liked it, describing it as, “absurd and silly, but also with an existentialism vibe going on.” Still, he felt it lacked a beginning or an end and that making it would be an exercise in futility.
He asked Petty to come back with another 10 pages. Then asked for more, until they found themselves with about 50 pages/minutes worth of material. Not a short film and not long enough to qualify as a feature, Graham figured they “may as well keep adding shit,” and the project developed over the course of a year.
Eventually, they had something, and thought that perhaps they’d make a trailer and raise money for the rest. But production on what would be Monster Closet’s first feature length film started with a rush when Fat Tony, who’d agreed to play a key role in the film, announced that he was uprooting to L.A. in the summer of 2015. The crew just kept shooting and before they knew it, a year and a half had passed and the movie was done.
Whereas Kevin Smith maxed out credit cards making his magnum opus, Nothing Really Happens was pretty much made on no budget. “We didn’t save up for this.” Graham says. He points out that the film is really Petty’s baby — JP is credited as writer, director, shooter and editor. But Graham helped develop the story, was there for every day of production, and as he notes, a producer wears a lot of hats on small scale films.
So, what is the movie about? Even Graham struggles to describe its strange plot, though he feels comfortable placing it in the sub-subgenre of “surrealist comedy thriller.” The story follows “the son of a Mattress Mac (type), who is a bit lost in life, and seems to be losing his mind,” Graham explains. “Spoiler alert — there is more going on than him having a normal white guy existential crisis. There’s someone manipulating his personality.”
He admits the process of submitting to film festivals can be frustrating. The quirky film found a fan in the programming department at Slamdance, who loved it but couldn’t get colleagues on board. Optimistically, Graham views this as a good contact going forward, and he stresses that aspiring filmmakers have to be prolific at a time when technology has made the job easier and led to more competition.
Last week, Graham was in London to introduce and promote his Houston production company’s weird little baby at an indie festival called Sci-Fi-London. The Brits were quicker to pick up on the movie’s quirky appeal than their yankee counterparts — The British film Institute gave it a glowing review and named it their fave of the fest.
Encouraged by the love, Graham hopes that by early 2019, Monster Closet will be shooting its sophomore effort. “None of us have kids yet,” he muses. “So I think we’re going to fucking do one again.”