Indie Filmmaker Jon YonKondy Employs VHS and the Shot on Video Method to Capture His First Full-Length Feature: The Coming-of-Age Film SUSQUEHANNA!
The poster for YonKondy's SUSQUEHANNA. Dig those analog aesthetics up front, mang.Tell us a little bit about yourself and your filmmaking. How and when did you get involved with making movies? Unfortunately, I didn’t fall in love with filmmaking until my sophomore year at Penn State. I took this intro to cinema class, and it was like I got hit over the head with a hammer. Film was at the confluence of everything I was interested in: photography, architecture, journalism, art history, music, etc. It combined all these elements, creating something even more powerful. I worked in the industry for a bit before I got into USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for my MFA, where I finished in May of 2014. I like to joke that I have a masters in manipulation and lying – which is essentially what filmmaking is. You learn how to shape reality to suit your needs. And you learn where all the switches are to make a person laugh, scream, shiver, swoon, etc. I graduated as one of the top directors in my class, where I was awarded the opportunity to co-direct a feature film that James Franco was putting together as a class. We did an adaptation of Don Quixote. Horatio Sanz from SNL, who plays Sancho Panza, cried for me on camera. I even directed the bulk of James’s cameos – and I was scared shitless! Say what you will about James, I think he’s kind of a cinematic philanthropist, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in a student-produced film. And, from what I understand, it’s going to be a financial success -- which is pretty damn incredible. We had our premiere at Palm Springs and the film should be available to the public in the next few months. I also just signed on to direct a zombie vs. vampire horror film set in an abandoned Pennsylvania hospital for this summer entitled Nanticoke. Should be a lot of fun!
Horatio Sanz, James Franco and Jon share some smiles on set. Radical, man.Your latest project is a shot-on-video full length feature called SUSQUEHANNA. Why did you decide to make this film? Susquehanna is a film I’ve been trying to make since I first realized I wanted to make movies. Set in 1995, it’s a warts-and-all portrayal of a young kid (Tommie) being exposed to ‘adult life’ for the first time – you know: sex, drugs, and rock-and-fucking-roll. He gets a killer Dyno BMX bike for his birthday that allows him to tag along with his badass older brother and his buddies. When he falls for one of their girlfriends, shit starts to hit the fan. Susquehanna was my opportunity to go back in time and make the movie I never got a chance to make as a kid. The way they teach you how to make movies in school is very structured and formulaic. This was my opportunity to say ‘fuck the rules’ and experiment. I kept getting asked: ‘Do you really want your first feature to be a $1000 movie shot on VHS with all-amateur kid actors?’ As I’m learning, saying ‘hell yes’ was the best decision I ever made. I’m extremely thankful to the core group who made it possible – especially my exec producer Joe Van Wie, my co-producer/1st AD Lindsay Barrasse, and my cinematographer Dave Corigliano. For reasons I’ll discuss, I’ve taken to calling Susquehanna a ‘cinematic experiment’. The film really turned out to be a one-of-a-kind viewing experience. I’ve even been told that it has ‘cult potential’ – which is really fucking amazing and makes me feel like I’m doing something right with my life decisions for a change!
Some classic camcorder aesthetic blended with a beautiful shot from SUSQUEHANNA. Is that a UFO, man? Killer.You were born and raised in NEPA, where the film is set, so it has a bit of an auto-biographical tone to it from what I understand. What type of film can people expect to experience with SUSQUEHANNA? I’m proud to come from a small coal town right between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Most people hate the area and are dying to escape. But, if it wasn’t for work, I’d never leave. I love the gritty, blue collar culture, the rust and pollution, and the shitty weather. It’s the type of place Hollywood never showcases. But it’s real – and there’s a certain beauty in allowing a place like that to take an honest breath on camera, free of the slick, high-gloss bullshit that usually accompanies coming-of-age dramas. The original Susquehanna script was a straight-up autobiography. As I got deeper into the actual pre-production of it, I realized that, to tell the story successfully, I would have to take a different approach. In the end, Susquehanna tells the true-life story of my young lead actor, Tommie Davis, as much as it does mine. This is a kid who’s had a real tough time growing up – and the film reflects that.
A look at Tommie, our main character in SUSQUEHANNA. Dig the hat. Dig the candy.Talk a little bit about how you met your main character Tommie. All of your actors in SUSQUEHANNA are amateurs. Why did you choose to go with this kind of cast? At the time of principal photography, my brother was engaged to Tommie’s mom. He lived two houses down and would wander over every day that summer, usually wanting to play those stupid fucking Facebook games on my laptop. We developed a relationship where I was like his big brother or cool uncle. I knew that any scripted dialogue I’d cram down his throat would be awful because he wasn’t a trained professional. I opted instead to create an atmosphere on set where this awkward, yet surprisingly charming and funny, kid would be free to express himself on camera. I knew that if I allowed the audience to get to know Tommie the way I knew him, I’d have a protagonist so full of honest hopes and fears and faults that any audience would be in his corner. I tailored the script to include events that he was familiar with – and even threw that out the window half the time in favor of a structured improvisational approach. I’d set up scenarios and conflict and use my three very-strategically-placed camcorders to record it all. No impulse was off-base. The rough-and-tumble group of friends he starts rolling around with are entirely amateurs as well. I cast his actual brother as his older brother. I then used his actual girlfriend. I peppered the cast with ‘actors’ that weren’t really acting at all. They’ve been on probation. They’ve been locked up for shoplifting. They’ve been smoking since they were 12. I did my best to allow them to be themselves. We tried to count all the f-bombs in the movie, but we got lost at about a hundred or so. The local high school principal even approached me about having a screening of my seemingly innocuous coming-of-age drama. I shuddered. I doubt he’d want his students to hear a 16-year-old talk about butt-fucking Christina Applegate while chain-smoking Newports.
A peek at some of the cast from SUSQUEHANNA. Newports? Check. Black cat? Check. Now where's Christina Applegate?Why did you opt to shoot entirely on VHS? Can you talk about the different dynamics and aesthetics you found when you took a cinematic approach to using a home camcorder? VHS is really given such an undeserved bad rap. I love being able to show or remind an entire generation of filmmakers what their priceless moments looked like before they were shot on smart phones. I rediscovered my parents’ old consumer-grade 1988 G&E CG 9806 camcorder in the summer of 2013. Since I could shoot the movie much more quickly on multiple cameras, I started accumulating the same models off eBay for like $25 a pop. When they arrived, half of them just wouldn’t even turn on. I also spent a large chunk of the budget on new batteries, which were $20 a piece. So, I ended up shooting much of my first feature film on the very same camera my parents used to shoot my home movies on when I was Tommie’s age. Pretty cool, right? There’s something about VHS that really sells the 1995 time period. When I remember the moments that inspired the film, they don’t exist anymore as some slick HD image. It’s hazy and grainy. The highs clip. The darks are murky and don’t really reveal everything. It’s over-saturated, pastel-y, and infused with whatever emotion I associate with that memory. I love VHS because it’s as much of a memory as my past. It was the perfect medium for this film. And a straight up dramatic narrative hasn’t really been tried on VHS like this before. The camcorders themselves have a manual focus on the barrel, which was nice. For a quite a bit of film, we’re super long-lens, zoomed-in to the max. That kind of low depth-of-field look is quite cinematic and was rarely executed well on those cameras. It also had a tungsten/daylight option, but I really wish the model had a manual exposure feature. When we had these things up on 15-foot jibs, sliders, and shoulder-mounts, tricked out with on-board monitors and etc., it was a quite the sight to see.
The three camcorders that made SUSQUEHANNA happen. Ain't they pretty, Tapeheads? DAMN VHSTRAIGHT, THEY IS!You told me about some interest in the film from high profile film festivals. Do you think the shot-on-video style helped sparked their interest? Do you think that the different, ostensibly retro approach bolstered the appeal to the festivals? A programmer at one of the top film festivals in the country recommended Susquehanna to two A-List festivals in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. They reached out to us, wanting to see the film – something that is rather rare and reflects the probable level of success this film is going to have on the film festival circuit. Quite a bit of the attention we’re getting is probably due to the shot-on-video aesthetic. I know a lot of people are going to say it’s all a gimmick. But what makes this film so remarkable is how well the VHS compliments the cinema verite approach and the subject matter. I know the people who shot the first short film on an iPhone. It helped launch their careers. If I become ‘The VHS Guy’, I have no problem with that what-so-ever! Are you planning on releasing SUSQUEHANNA on VHS when it hits home video formats? I’d love to – will you guys buy it?
Another taste of some of the radical analog atmosphere in SUSQUEHANNA. And nice ride, mang.Where can we keep up with you and news on SUSQUEHANNA? Throw us a like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/susquehannathemovie. Also: www.susquehannathemovie.com. And we should probably get a Twitter account. Soon. I hate Twitter. We’re honestly not sure when the film will be available to the public – which is a good thing. Our world premiere should occur at some TBD festival by June, and then it will go on a bit of a tour. Hopefully by the end of the summer. Anything else you’d like to shout out to all the Tapeheads here in Lunchmeat Land? I’d just like to thank you all for keeping this medium alive. I’m amazed how passionate you guys are – I had no idea! And buy my movie when it comes out! I’ve never had to actually sell a movie before – so any type of support you could give us would be greatly, greatly appreciated! Oh! And ‘Susquehanna’ refers to the Susquehanna River that runs alongside my little hometown -- been getting that one a lot lately! Pronounced ‘Sus-qweh-hannah’. Iroqouis for like ‘wide muddy river’ or something.
Knowledge is power, Tapeheads! So what’s the video verdict here? Would YOU be interested in seeing this flick on Limited Edition Analog Glory? VHShout it out in the comments below and let Jon and his crew know! They wanna make it happen, man! Personally I think this is such a radical and welcomed change for the shot-on-video platform. There are so many angles of fantastic filmmaking that can be applied within the aesthetic-rich and budget-beating aspects of the SOV arena, and this film is poised to prove it. Bring on the anti-digital diversity and invention, always! You know we can dig it. And you can dig updates (and view the trailer) for SUSQUEHANNA via their Facebook and Official Website to stay informed on the pending VHS release and when we can expect it to hit our VCRs. One thing’s for sure: here in Lunchmeat Land, we’re always ready for another slab to feed our magnetic machine, mang. And we hope you are, too.