Interview with Writer/Director Joe Duca

Today On What On What’s Good with Jovin Tardif, I am here with Award-winning indie writer-director Joe Duca. Duca just finished touring with his debut feature-length film, Evergreen (2020). His latest film Her Name Was Jo is set to be released on April 6.

Joe Duca
Award-winning indie writer-director Joe Duca

1. Can you tell us a little about the film ‘Her Name Was Jo’ that is set to be released in April 2021?

I’d be happy to. “Her Name Was Jo” is sort of a modern Tom & Huck story. It follows a ten-year-old girl named Jo. She spends her days along the Shenandoah River with her best friend Selma, fishing, scrapping for metal—surviving.

At least until her abusive junkie stepdad dies, at which point Jo decides, Selma in tow, to dump the body, steal the car, and set off across the country in search of her real dad, a once-popular folk singer living in Los Angeles.

We shot in 14 states across 18 days, with mostly family and friends as crew; it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. Plus, my family and I spent a lot of time when we were younger traveling the country in an RV so we could be with Dad for work, so the life on the road aspect tapped into a lot of cherished memories.

2. What was it like filming across 14 states?

Exhilarating and totally exhausting. We had to drive like 10 hours a day, and we’d only get a few takes, which led to a lot of fun moments, and a lot of stressful moments. I had to have a very specific idea of what to do when we arrived in a place.

A place I either hadn’t seen or only half-remembered, and because of that and the fact that we had less than half the time you’d want to shoot, this led to a lot of super cool discovery and improvisation.

Luckily, the girls were up for it. Some of the best scenes came from them figuring out how to accomplish what needn’t be conveyed in a scene, without anything I had written for them to do. But they truly stepped up.

As hard as that was, it was so exciting, the discovery of it, the adventure of it. And it extended beyond what was on camera. One time in Arizona, we didn’t have enough room at the hotel, so my brother slept on a pile of mattresses next to a dumpster. And by pile, I mean twenty-plus twin beds, princess and the pea type action, exposed to the elements. That was the sort of adventurous, come what may vibe of the whole experience.

3. Did the script change while you were filming?

Every single day. Not necessarily structurally, but definitely in terms of tone and specific dialogue. The locations and performances really informed the tone. Mary Cate’s instincts, in particular, deepened the script. She was originally cast as Selma, and it was her insistence that she knew the character, inside and out, that led me to give switch the actresses playing the leads two days before shooting.

What Mary Cate could do with six seconds of silence was so much more authentic than what I could do with six pages of my dialogue, and I had to adapt. I remember on the first day of filing, the trailer by the river, the river itself, Jo’s home, by its very existence, demanded a much greater degree of realism and seriousness than was in the script originally. It became a much more honest film, encountering real places in America that experienced real pain and loss and poverty. I had to honor that.

4. Describe the family support while making the film?

I can’t say enough about that. It’s definitely not the usual artist’s story of familial doubt and rejection. I wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without my family.

My sister (who played Selma) and my Dad helped me in writing the story; my Dad helped secure financing (let me just say, when I grow up, I want to be just like my Dad). From inspiration to execution, my family was there every step of the way.

The very inspiration was familial: my younger brother Michael, a musician, had just released his own album, and I wanted to follow in his DYI footsteps. I had been living in LA for two years, acting in some Buzzfeed videos and student film throwaways, and I was feeling down and out of inspiration.

My Dad had posed the question the previous Christmas, “Why don’t we just make a movie ourselves? Family-style Filmmaking. Write it around stuff we know and know we can get?” I’m paraphrasing, but that became the movie. My Dad produced with me, crafted props, my Mom cooked craft services, and my brother Michael and Daniel served as 2nd AD and Art Department, respectively.

5. Any fun behind-the-scenes stories while filming?

Mary Cate’s mom got appendicitis in Las Vegas. There was a fire in San Bernardino that kept us from getting to L.A. on time, we had to find locations on the day or steal them, half the crew got broken up like the Fellowship in “Lord of the Rings,” and there so much car trouble. Once we had to stop in the middle of the desert for a night while some kind soul fixed our alternator, and the girls swam in a makeshift pool. I’ve never been more grateful for a beer and a pipe. It was so much a true adventure. We didn’t have locations in California till an hour before call. The final scene on the beach, well, we winged it at sunset. We almost got booted from locations many times, and the girls came through with puppy dog eyes.

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Jovin Tardif
Jovin Tardif is a freelance writer, storyteller, interviewer, reviewer and conversation starter.