Joe Kelly Talks Poughkeepsie, A Movie About Second Chances (And Time Travel)

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Joe Kelly, an acclaimed comic book writer and member of the writers' collective Man of Action Entertainment, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support a short film he hopes to direct, titled Poughkeepsie.

In the film, a dying Alzheimer's patient -- someone who has lived a life full of regret -- believes he has the ability to travel back in time and tries to rewrite his past before time runs out.

Kelly recently joined ComicBook.com to talk about the project.

You can back Poughkeepsie on Kickstarter here. You can check out a few additional comments from this interview here.

Obviously as a comic writer, you have a good deal of control over the finished product, but there are a lot more voices on a film set. How has it been transitioning into filmmaking?

I did a short film about eight years ago and it was kind of my film school. I went to school for writing but I didn’t learn to shoot there. I didn’t go for directing. But I had gotten the jones a while back to try and direct something and it was perfectly fine.

Then I sat with it, learned a little more about the craft, learned movies in a different way and I love putting these things together. I was particularly inspired by Anders Walter; he won the Academy Award for Best Short two years ago. It’s a beautiful short called Helium. Watching that short and his other work, I was kind of re-inspired and a lot of festival shorts are super-short. They’re five minutes or eight minutes. But most of his are like 20 minutes long and they feel like a complete story.

I sort of felt like I had matured as a storyteller. Even though it’s in animation, the kind of work we’ve done as producers, you’re really seeing something through all the way to the end. So having a little more confidence, building a long-term project and then my own kind of movies and what I like in movies and about visual storytelling, they were things I didn’t really have in my arsenal the first time around. So I wrote this and felt like it was a story I could do and that I could have a little more sense of control over — not in that maniacal way I hope because I love collaborating, but I have a really strong vision.

And then touching on themes that I really like to write about, so it does share a kinship in a way with I Kill Giants even though it’s a very different type of story. There’s that sense of a universe giving somebody a gift, and what do they do with it?

Because you're a known entity -- people recognize your name, you've worked in TV and you've got an adaptation of I Kill Giants on the way, besides the obvious time you spent in superhero work -- do you feel more pressure to make this Kickstarter work, like it would be harder to go back a second time if it doesn't?

That’s a good question. I actually it’s funny I thought about that kind of the day I launched the thing, that one of the things to me that’s interesting about the Kickstarter, is that it’s a little bit of a litmus test.

You hope that you get the word out to enough people so that then you can go, is there an audience for the product that I want to create? I’ve always been the same with any of these stories. I remember giving interviews a long time ago talking about Superman, Loeb wanted to tell me sales numbers and I didn’t want to hear sales numbers because I didn’t care. I believed they would find their audience and if I started worrying about ,”Will this make X amount of people happy?” it would throw me off.

If we don’t get funded, that doesn’t mean the story’s broken. They don’t know what the story is. But it may mean that not enough people necessarily want to see this story done by me or not enough people would check this story out.

What kind of sensibility are you going for? When I read the synopsis on the Kickstarter site, it sounds a bit like Safety Not Guaranteed.

I love that movie actually, it’s funny you brought that up. For me, part of it is just the nature of the short film and what you can pull off. I knew I wanted it to be something that had effects but I knew I wanted it to be very subtle. When I started thinking about the kind of story that thrilled me, I like broken people and I like second chances and I like the fantasy that the universe might give you a second chance.

I started to think about some of the older folks in our family who are experiencing some dementia and stuff. It’s terrifying no matter how you think about it, but if you make a living just using your brain every day, it’s an extra layer. So I started thinking about it and thinking about characters and the idea that my daughter has been doing a lot of studying of neurology and the brain and stuff, there’s so much we don’t know that happens.

This is a long way of getting to the elevator pitch which is that it’s the story of an Alzheimer's patient who, when he starts to zone out, he’s having memories of his past -- but those memories are more than just memories: he can have an effect. What starts to happen are little things at first. He had a granddaughter who’s the only person in his life who really cares about him, and he has a memory of when she tried to dye her hair. He was not a nice person, and he gave her grief about how it looked, but when he goes back to it a second time, he just tells her, “You know, it looks nice.” And when he comes back to his senses as an 80-year-old, she’s a blonde. She writes it off as Alzheimer's, but did he change the past or did he remember her wrong? I love that kind of thing.

So, once he feels that he’s got this ability -- he doesn’t think of it as a super power, just some weird thing that’s happening -- there’s a significant horror that happened in his life where he lost his daughter rand he knows that if he can fix that, if he can just save her, that maybe he can go out and have done something right with his life. He’s got this awful wife who’s so mean, and he kind of deserved it; he was a mean person. It’s not a typical protagonist, he’s a dick. He’s a raging a--hole, and you see glimpses of it, as you do often times with older people who have mellowed out.

So that’s really what the story is about; he gets a second chance, and can you get those second chance? Can you ever really go back? I guess it is a way to sort of deal with the end of life and specifically this type of end of life and the question of can you go with grace, especially if you have a life of regret? Those are the heavy themes of the story.

The granddaughter, her name is Elaine, she’s somewhat malleable because of the direct influence that George, the old man, had. But she really is trying to overcome forty years of regret and forty years of bad behavior and that doesn’t just get fixed. I like the reality of you have to deal with the consequences of your action one way or another — especially if you’re somebody who’s on death’s door, you can’t cheat the ledger. You’ve got to pay up. But then again, there's this idea of grace. In those moments of clarity that people have where they know what’s happening to them and they can still find peace, some of them, they can say “I know I was a s--t father, but I’m sorry." Those little gestures can carry a lot of weight. I think there’s an element of that tot be explored as well. These are the kinds of stories that most people are not going to tell in Hollywood. So we can do it in graphic novels, which is cool, but it's so subtle that for me, it’s almost too subtle for a graphic novel. it needs motion, it needs the cinematic elements.

Do you already have a cast in mind? Did you kind of write thinking "Oh, this is a so-and-so type?"

When I write for features, I definitely don’t write with specific actors in mind just because for me the characters kind of become their own thing. I know people that do and it works for them.

But that said, we’ve already started the process of reaching out to actors. One of the biggest challenges for this is that I’d really love to obviously get somebody with some recognition to play George because the movie really hinges on that performance, but what we'd really like to do is to create one of those really cool moments where Tarantino would pluck somebody you haven’t seen for years almost out of obscurity and put them in a really cool role. That to me would be a really cool thing.

We’ve got a short list of people that we’re reaching out to. You never know: sometimes people want to do something cool, kind of independent, small. There are types that we’re reaching out to. A type of George would be somebody that you would go, “Oh, I remember him. He was a badass in blank,” now he’s 75 or 80. That’s the type of actor we’re looking for.

We’re actually going to start casting pretty soon actually because the goal is to move forward and act as if it’s all happening. we’re really gunning for it and if we don’t get the funding this way, that I’ll try and get it another way but if we’re able to start locking some actors down then that helps the project. So the more than we can bid the better.