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Meet Joe Puente of Utah Filmmakers™ Association

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joe Puente.

Hi Joe, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I’m originally from California—born in Los Angeles—but I’ve been a resident of Utah since high school. I served in the U.S. Navy as a Cryptologic Technician, stationed in Central America and along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Today, I live in Salt Lake City with my wife and our dog, Maisie.

Walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today…
It probably started when I was 7—the year that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out. My family did not take us out to the movies very often but my older brother, Robert, took me with him to see “Raiders” on the big screen.

While I loved the movie—second only to “Star Wars,” of course—I was even more impressed by seeing how it came into being in a “Making of” a documentary that aired on PBS. Despite being broadcast in the middle of a pledge drive, I sat through every unwelcome interruption, not wanting to miss a single moment of the program once it came back on.

To the local affiliate’s credit, they would always restart the documentary at a timecode several seconds prior to the one where they chose to interrupt it for the pledge break.

There are two things that stand out in my memories. The first was seeing behind-the-scenes footage of Harrison Ford, rehearsing before a take, saying, “Pow! Pow!” as he pretended to fire his prop weapon—just like a little kid my age would do when playing. The second was seeing how movie shots were planned out by storyboarding—a process that required simple tools that were readily available to most children anywhere: a pencil and paper. I was soon storyboarding my first action-adventure movie concept, “The Diamond Saga!”—which has since languished in development limbo as I moved on to other projects.

As a child, I fondly remember flipping back and forth between two sections of the Sears catalog when it arrived in the mail. The toy section—for Star Wars action figures, of course—and the camera section, where I’d look at the 8MM film cameras and projectors. I had no idea as to how they worked, but I knew that somehow I could use them to tell stories that could excite people.

I was in high school when I got my first video camera and that’s when the dream about making movies turned into trying to actually make them. If there was a high-water mark for my filmmaking career at that stage, it was probably the campaign video that I produced for a candidate for student body class president—who would eventually go on to become the Governor of Utah.

Even during my five-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy, I had a camera rolling in my off-hours. It was during my last six months in the service that I wrote, directed, and edited my first feature film—technically speaking, in that it barely met the 75-minute minimum duration to be considered a feature. “Barracks Rats”—the first project from “Section One Entertainment”—premiered at the base social club at NSGA Winter Harbor, Maine, on May 20, 1998; not long before I was honorably discharged from active duty with the intention of pursuing filmmaking as a career.

For most of the 20th century, becoming a filmmaker was an aspiration that was difficult and expensive to achieve. There was no clear path for most people to figure out how to do it without already having some sort of connection to the industry. Like many filmmakers of my generation, I was inspired by the tenacity of writers/directors like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and others in their cohort of the “Independent Cinema movement.” It did not take the path less difficult to navigate but it offered some hope that we could find it eventually.

In 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” changed everything. I both love and hate that film. Even though I’m not that much of a fan when it comes to the horror genre, I loved that movie because it was a departure from the way most films were made, it was ambitious—breaking established rules of traditional filmmaking in ways that serve its story and tone—and its initial production budget was microscopic by industry standards, even at the higher end of reported estimates. I hate “The Blair Witch Project” because after it came out, everybody who owned a camcorder thought that they could be a filmmaker too. Of course, once most of them realized that they didn’t have any ideas, they said, “I guess I could just make a ‘Blair Witch’ parody.”

Working with the tools that were available to me, I submitted my first project to the Sundance film festival in 2000—a mockumentary about the darker side of the travel-time game, “Slug-bug.” It was NOT selected but I did receive an official rejection letter that December, which is framed and on display in my office—proof that I’ve been rejected by the best. Affirmation that I’m doing… something. Sundance no longer sends out rejection letters. If you get in, they’ll let you know.

If you don’t, you’ll know for sure when they announce their screening schedule. If I recall correctly, 2000 was the first year that Sundance received more submissions that were shot on video than on film. It wasn’t just because of “Blair Witch,” it was the start of a technological shift that would make the path to becoming a filmmaker much less expensive but a lot more crowded.

In 2002, wanting to find others like myself with a desire to collaborate on film projects and to figure out the path together, I started a nonprofit called the Utah Filmmakers™ Association with Lawrence Gardner—an old-school filmmaker from California—and his wife Lana. While Lawrence worked with us on film projects—and even donated some equipment to the cause—the organization’s efforts were mostly carried out by me.

Over the next several years—primarily in rural Sanpete County in central Utah—I kept pretty busy with Utah Filmmakers™, producing short films, as well as a quasi-documentary/variety show called “Section One TV” for the local telecommunications firm CentraCom Interactive. I also oversaw several community-based projects including high school workshops, guest lectures at Snow College and Weber State University, screening events, after-school programs, a 4-H club, etc. I also managed to find work in films, including a small role in John Moyer’s feature-length comedy, “Mobsters and Mormons” with Mark DeCarlo, and a number of Utah-film icons like Scott Christopher and Frank Gerrish.

In 2009, I decided to move to Salt Lake City and see what I could do there. I started to attend networking events like Sue Rowe’s Utah Filmmakers Meet and Greet. I was also going to more auditions and doing a fair amount of background (“Extra”) work.

While Utah Filmmakers™ still existed on paper—it even rebranded itself a few times—operationally, it went on a hiatus. There were already a few different organizations in the Salt Lake region that were meeting most of the needs of local filmmakers in the same ways that I had in central Utah and the last thing that I wanted to do was reinvent the wheel.

Spy Hop Productions, established in 1999, was already working with kids wanting to become filmmakers—as would East Hollywood High School in 2011. The Salt Lake Film Society operates our two local arthouse theaters—Broadway Centre Cinemas and The Tower Theatre—so people already had access to venues to see independent films and to screen local productions. And the Utah Film Center was serving the community through its own cultural, festival, and educational programs.

In an effort to be better informed about local filmmaking projects, I had joined a number of different forums on social media that were all set up with goals similar to those of Utah Filmmakers™—primarily, to bring people together to make movies. After a while, I started to notice something that became kind of annoying: I would see the same posts from the same people multiple times in my newsfeed. That was because all of these groups consisted of mostly the same people. Talk about reinventing the wheel!

I decided that instead of clogging my social media experience with repeat posts, I should just pick the one group with the most members and stick to that one. At the time—circa 2009—it was a Facebook group called “Utah Filmmakers and Actors,” started by Ben Hawker in 2007. It had around 2,000 members—more than any of the other “Utah film” groups—and I became a pretty active member. After about a year or two, Ben reached out to me—noting the degree of my involvement—and asked if I would be interested in being a group admin. I was happy to help.

In the meantime, I was still auditioning, doing background work, helping out on local productions as both actor and crewmember, and attending those networking events. Then I started to notice something… Whenever I was an extra, I usually saw the same people on the film crews but I rarely saw any of them at the local networking events—and vice versa.

One year, I was hired by Ben Fuller—curator of the Channel 801 screening series and a Managing Partner at mediaRif for over a decade—to work on a commercial campaign for the Utah State Fair. On our way to shoot some B-roll footage, Ben said to me, “Joe, you’re one of the few people that I know who has their foot in the local film industry as well as in the local film community.”

With that one sentence, Ben helped me to understand why I didn’t see the same people on the set that I saw at the networking events. The local film industry and the local film community were largely two SEPARATE groups of people. The working crew members weren’t at the networking events because they were too busy working in the actual industry. The majority of community filmmakers at the networking events usually had day jobs in other sectors, and while they would prefer to be making movies full-time, they were having trouble getting their foot in the door—mostly because most of the other filmmakers that they knew were in the same situation.

That’s when I figured out what the Utah Filmmakers™ Association’s new mission should be: Helping community filmmakers to become industry filmmakers. Of course, that was something that I was still trying to figure out for myself. Having made a lot of the same mistakes, as most novice filmmakers do, I started with what I knew and reached out to the professionals in the Facebook group. I asked them, “What is the most important information that you need to see when someone says that they’re looking for help on a project?” The number one item, of course, was whether or not it was a paid gig. That and other info like where and when the job was taking place—and for how long?

Since I was now an administrator in the group, I put into place some basic rules for posting about film projects based on this input from industry professionals. There were plenty of debates about “unpaid” projects—they still crop up from time to time—arguments for paying one’s “dues,” questioning the ethics behind the practice, the effects it has on the industry, etc.

Ultimately, I figured that a reasonable compromise would be that the bare minimum requirement for project posts was that whatever was being offered as “Payment” be at the very top of those posts—that way, the professionals in the group know which posts they can safely ignore since they need to make a living. I’ve since seen this practice implemented in other forums.

I think it was at this point that membership in the group started to grow. It now had a clearer set of goals. By establishing some simple guidelines for what was considered to be “on-topic,” and—most importantly—informing the members that they all have a role to play in how useful the forum can be for them.

As membership numbers continued to rise, it got to the point where people just assumed that I was the one that had started the Facebook group. Whenever that came up, I reminded them that it was Ben Hawker that started it, he just asked me to help him as an admin. I eventually asked him if he would be on the board of directors for Utah Filmmakers™ since the group had basically become so closely identified with me and the organization. He agreed and eventually, the name of the group was updated from “Utah Filmmakers and Actors”—which always felt like a mouthful to me—to simply, “Utah Filmmakers™”—a term to which we’ve ascribed a broad definition that includes actors and anyone else involved in any aspect of filmmaking in Utah.

The trademark symbol at the end of the name actually sparked an interesting discussion but the organization had, in fact, registered the trademark with the state of Utah. It also helped to distinguish the group—still the first and largest of its kind—from the myriad other “Utah” + “film” groups that were out there… though none of them have the same levels of membership and activity as the original.

With that, the focus of the Utah Filmmakers™ organization became more in line with its name: ASSOCIATING Utah filmmakers with one another and seeing what can be done to bridge the local film community—filmmaking enthusiasts, novices, students, etc.—with Utah’s film industry. We’ve since started a number of programs to help build that bridge in the form of UFA™ Mentors, Utah Filmmakers™ Associates, and the Utah Filmmakers™ Resource.

Throughout this time, I’ve continued to work both in front of and behind the camera and used any compensation that I earned on the projects of others to fund my own filmmaking endeavors. Any film that I produce is under the banner of “Section One Entertainment,” the production arm of the organization—named for the gentlemens’ partnership I had established with my friends in the Navy to produce “Barracks Rats.” It’s through those productions that I try to apply the skills that I’ve learned and to develop additional tools and resources that can then be made available to other Utah filmmakers.

The best example of this is probably my short film “Excursus.” Produced in 2014 on a budget of around $5000, it premiered at the “Section One Expo” in the Nancy Tessman Auditorium at the Salt Lake City Main Library. It was publicized as a showcase for a number of excellent, locally produced short films. It concluded with “Excursus”—co-produced with my girlfriend at the time, Danica, and directed by UFA™ Vice President Mario DeAngelis. The event concluded with a twist ending of sorts.

As I write this in 2022, this year marks the 20th anniversary since I started Utah Filmmakers™. I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out, so I find myself feeling surprised whenever someone reaches out to me for assistance or advice. If I find myself stumped by a question, I do get a twinge of embarrassment and anxiety fueled by a sudden attack of “Imposter Syndrome.” Then I take a beat and remember that filmmaking is a collaborative art form.

It requires people from different backgrounds with varying skill sets to work together and share their knowledge to create something unique. I think I’ve reached a point where I think I’ve grasped the fundamentals and I needn’t feel pressured to know everything because I’ve established relationships in our combined film community and the industry that has helped me to acknowledge and accept my own limitations, and to not be afraid to reach out to others to find answers, solve problems, and to just create.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
At the time that I started my professional journey, I may have deflected any questions about my struggles. For a lot of people—creative professionals in particular—I think that it can be difficult to distinguish between personal and professional struggles. As much as anyone may want to find that optimal balance between working and just living their lives, one always affects the other.

This is especially true of my signature struggle, the one-two punch of depression and anxiety. What can be especially frustrating is that the professional obstacles that those maladies can present to an individual are both internal—the effect they have on the individual—and external, in the form of the societal prejudice that can make potential employers and colleagues hesitant to work with them.

I’m grateful that in my lifetime, some progress has been made in regard to destigmatizing mental illness. What was once spoken of in hushed tones, even within the medical community, is starting to be identified by more of the general public for what it is: an illness. Something that is diagnosable, treatable, and should be regarded no differently than any other medical issue.

As more people have become educated about it, it’s becoming more acceptable as a topic of discussion; thus more people have come to recognize it in themselves and to seek treatment for it. Unfortunately, the prejudice surrounding it still exists. So much so that being informed doesn’t necessarily engender sympathy.

The unwillingness to talk about mental illness has persisted for so long that many of those who struggle with it still feel ashamed and afraid to discuss it. In a society that ostensibly values honestly, the pressure to be secretive can make one feel guilty for not being honest with coworkers, friends, and family. This can make one feel isolated, which can aggravate their depression, and it becomes an endless cycle.

This shift in perception—a work that’s still very much in progress—has made it possible for those with mental health issues to feel a certain degree of safety when it comes to taking part in the discussion. Offering a perspective from a place of personal experience can be enlightening but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to erasing prejudices.

To offer an example that I wrote about in a blog post

“… When I find myself in a position of collaboration with others in a more creative capacity when the work can be drawn out over several weeks or even months, there are benefits to being frank about one’s struggles with conditions like anxiety and depression. The nature of the work in creative fields like filmmaking and television production requires a level of intimacy and trust between colleagues that is not usually experienced in other industries. Despite that fact, I have experienced some pushback from a few individuals.

“A number of years ago, I was developing a local television project and experienced a severe anxiety attack at the END of a shooting day. I was alone and not even on location but knowing that the episode was the direct result of my experience on the production, I felt that it was important for me to discuss the situation with my production team.

“One of the writers on the project made it fairly clear that they didn’t want to be privy to this information, to be aware—to use their words—of my “mental defect.” This person’s lack of understanding, sensitivity, and eloquence (ironic, for a writer) were on full display. That they subscribed to the stigmatized view of mental illness was clear but they also suggested that my openness about my mental health wasn’t professional.

“I could not disagree more. Awareness can ensure preparedness. If someone deals with a medical condition that has the potential to hamper production, then I think that person has a professional obligation to disclose it to those they work with. This was especially the case for me since I occupied an “Above-the-Line” position on the project, fulfilling creative, executive, and administrative responsibilities associated with it.”

Such experiences have informed my support of efforts to end the stigma associated with mental illness, especially those of my friend Brian Higgins and his program “Mental Healthy Utah”—part of his own nonprofit organization, Create Reel Change.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about Utah Filmmakers™ Association?
The Utah Filmmakers™ Association (UFA™) is dedicated to enabling aspiring filmmakers to learn and embrace industry standards, to understand the requisite business aspects of the craft, and to approach their desired vocation with the core values of professionalism, integrity, and respect.

To that end, Utah Filmmakers™ actively promotes vocational training & mentorship, champions the continued growth and development of Utah’s filmmaking infrastructure, and endorses established agencies, programs, and organizations that provide the knowledge, tools, and resources needed to enable local filmmaking enthusiasts to become professionals in Utah’s film industry.

The UFA™ facilitates these efforts through online forums, collaboration with other nonprofit and business entities, and practical application of industry standards through the creation of original content with its production division, Section One Entertainment. The organization endeavors to bridge the local film community with Utah’s film industry.

What makes you happy?
My wife, Danica, makes me happy. She’s brilliant, funny, sweet, and she understands me. I’m very grateful to be in a relationship where honest communication is our first priority—neither of us is a very good liar anyway.

Whenever there’s a problem, or things just feel off, we try our best to address it right away and not let it fester. To acknowledge our frustration with circumstances or even with each other so that we can get at the root of the problem and find a solution. This is probably why the teaching of “The Way of Absolute Candor”—introduced with the “Qowat Milat” on “Star Trek: Picard”—really resonated with us… well, with me anyway.

I think we might adopt this into our existing collection of family mottos which includes “You’re not the boss of me!”—which sounds antagonistic but, at its core, is just about respecting each other’s autonomy and rights to make our own choices even after consulting each other—and “No secrets, just surprises,” which basically means that if anything is being concealed, it’s not for the purpose of being deceitful, it’s just about timing; ideally for a pleasant surprise, though sometimes, it’s just about choosing an appropriate time to discuss something serious.

I’ll probably never be able to top the best surprise that I gave her, especially since she was heavily involved in the planning stages while completely unaware of my intentions. I recall telling her one evening, “I need to produce a short film.” She just looked at me and said, “Okay.” And I thought to myself, “That’s how I’m going to propose to her.”

 

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