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INTERVIEW: Palookaville director Theodore Collatos on Joe Louis, surrealism, and Slamdance

The writer and director of Palookaville discusses his project with Bad Left Hook ahead of a premiere at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival

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Palookaville - Written and Directed by Theodore Collatos
Palookaville - Written and Directed by Theodore Collatos
Palookaville - Brokenhorse Films/Theodore Collatos
John Hansen joined Bad Left Hook as a staff writer in 2021 and co-hosts the "Prophets of Goom" podcast.

The Slamdance Film Festival has a long and proud history of debuting exceptional films like Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father and launching the careers of artists who would go on to shape both popular and artistic film.

The Russo brothers (Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame) premiered their first feature film, Pieces, at Slamdance in 1997. Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite, Snowpiercer) brought their earliest work to Slamdance. Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out, Looper), Greg Mottola (Superbad), Marc Forster (World War Z, Quantum of Solace), and many other notable filmmakers found a springboard to great success at Slamdance.

The most intriguing project in the lineup of the 2023 edition of the festival starting on January 20th, for a boxing website at least, is Palookaville. The creation of award-winning writer/director Theodore Collatos, Palookaville tells the story of a complex brother-sister relationship, where the brother ultimately believes he’s legendary heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

Bad Left Hook caught up with Collatos in advance of Palookaville’s premiere in the “Episodes” section of January’s festival. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

BAD LEFT HOOK: We’re talking because your project Palookaville premieres in late January as part of the Slamdance Film Festival. But, given what we can actually share with our audience and what you’ve told me about the origins of Palookaville, I think we should start by discussing Fight Science, okay?

THEODORE COLLATOS: Sure! That’s a project I did in anticipation of [Palookaville].

Fight Science is a short form documentary film you made following Chris Algieri through his 2016 fight with Errol Spence. Just in the most basic sense, how did that project start, and what brought you to work on it?

Well, I’ve always had an interest in boxing, but it feels like a very closed sport. I’ve always been interested in it, partly because I wrestled in high school, so I appreciate the one-on-one competition aspect. But, I could never really figure out how to follow boxing.

Then years ago when I was living in Chicago, there was a rental place that had a library of boxing. I tried getting into it through these tapes, and what really did it for me was that “Four Kings” era. They had tape of all the great fights between Hagler, Hearns, Leonard, Duran… And I was just blown away. I got into the skill aspect of the sport, and especially the character.

Because in a one-on-one sport, you really see people’s character. You see it in sports like basketball, but there it’s more of a team dynamic. You really, really see people’s deep character in boxing. That attracted me, but I had trouble figuring out how to follow it. Or, who to follow. There are so many belts; it’s extremely confusing.

[Laughs knowingly]

It’s still a bit challenging, to be honest with you. So, I was talking to my wife about the idea of Palookaville, pitching it around to my producer and other friends, and of the ideas I had, this was the one that stuck with people.

But, I felt like I didn’t really know enough about boxing to do something boxing-themed. What I knew of boxing came from [those classic fights], but mainly through movies. You know, boxing is its own genre in movies. On The Waterfront, one of my favorite movies of all time is Fat City, and so as a filmmaker you know of this genre of boxing-related movies. But I didn’t know enough to feel like I could authentically talk about it.

It is a very insular world, with its own language. I can relate, and understand being reluctant to presume too much about it.

Yeah, and when you watch a bad boxing movie? It hurts a little.

I had this opportunity to follow Chris [Algieri], who was working with my wife on a separate project connected to her work. And he was just so wonderfully gracious, and an amazing guy. He let me embed with him and follow him around.

I’m really interested in direct cinema, the cinema verite style, so that’s how I approached it. I told him and his trainers and team that this was all new to me, so I wouldn’t try to impose myself with any questions or anything potentially silly. I would just observe and learn.

It was a really amazing experience. I didn’t even know who Errol Spence was at the time, just knew him as a prospect. And I didn’t really know Chris personally until the end of the film, but he was very gracious with how he let me in. It was an amazing experience. I went to the fight, which I’m sure was heartbreaking for Chris, but was an amazing life experience for me.

That film did festivals, and there are a lot of interesting side characters in it.

Errol Spence in the 2016 documentary “Fight Science”
Errol Spence in the 2016 documentary “Fight Science”
Fight Science - Brokenhorse Films/Theodore Collatos

I know I saw Mike Coppinger of ESPN, back when I think he was still working for USA Today, among a few other people asking questions. And one of the unique aspects of covering boxing is the unique blend of on-site media at fight events sometimes.

One of my favorite parts of Fight Science was seeing Algieri very politely answer a series of questions from a… wide variety of people. Then, afterwards, he very candidly calls it “the lamest press conference ever.” It struck me, because I always worry that I’ll be one of the people asking a bad question that puts a fighter off that way.

Oh, it’s a tough situation. I didn’t want to talk to anyone leading up to the fight. The fact that these guys have to wear that media hat is impressive. It’s also a part of the Palookaville film, part of that world, the dual character where fighters have to deal superficially with media people and then go to battle.

Also, within a film, it’s a great way to ask questions without asking questions, because other people are [literally] asking questions. That worked out great for the film, and now in retrospect I’ve recognized a lot of people in [Fight Science] just as I’ve gotten to know more about boxing. I think I might have been a little more intimidated if I’d known who they were at the time.

Algieri is retired now, and he’s found a new role in the sport as an exceptional commentary analyst. We actually called him the Broadcaster of the Year in our very scientific and rigorous end-of-year awards podcast. Do you keep up with him at all, even just as a spectator?

Oh, yeah. I listen to him on DAZN. I listen to his Instagram feed. He’s a really smart, intellectual guy about the sport. And he’s extremely passionate about boxing.

You told me that your experience making Fight Science was one of the first seeds that ultimately became Palookaville. Can you talk a little about that original inspiration, and how that concept may have evolved over the past five or six years to become the finished piece that’s premiering next month?

The initial inspiration was the friendship between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. How that happened just boggles my mind. You’re talking about World War 2, and a lot of your readers probably already know that story [NOTE: For anyone who doesn’t, Wikipedia!].

I just can’t imagine how these two would become such friends, and how beautiful that is. That through their battles, they see each other’s souls and form that relationship, to the point where [Schmeling] is helping pay for Joe’s funeral. It was just so deep to me, and I thought that a general audience would have interest in that part of the story. That’s part of it.

Recently, while we were shooting Palookaville, my dad died. And a lot of this film, for me, is about the loss of a parent, and how to reconcile a sibling relationship without the framework of your parents. Sibling relationships are extremely dynamic in ways that aren’t explored a lot in film, because it’s so complex. In some ways, more complex than with a parent.

There are certain universal expectations of a parent-child relationship. But with siblings, when your parents are no longer there to create a family structure from the top down, it can be easy to lose each other.

Parent and child, there’s the age gap. You grow into your consciousness as a person over a long period of time, and a parent oversees that process. Then, in a way, at the end it reverses. When you’re talking about a sibling, especially half-siblings, step siblings, or somewhat estranged siblings, when the parent is gone, there’s nothing that forces you to be together in the same way.

The center of the film is really exploring that. Franqi [French]’s character is really trying to make known her love for her brother, and he’s kind of a more ethereal type of a person. That’s the heart of it, story-wise.

The one sentence synopsis for Palookaville is: “Things get turned upside down when JoJo wakes up believing he’s Joe Louis - one of boxing’s greatest legends.”

First and foremost, congrats on a fantastic description.

Oh, thank you. I’m really shy about it. I’m just like, “Is that good?” With everything you have to do [to finish and promote a film]... Is it really working?

It is. It’s working. I know from miserable experience how difficult it can be to try and write loglines and summaries that hook interest while being accurate and honest, but not pretentious or overly vague… It’s a really hard thing to do well. Can you claim it, or do you want to thank a producer or someone that helped with that?

Honestly, I just analyzed [guides and books] that help you write loglines. How to “punch it up.” I wrote it to be engaging, but something like a logline is not my area of expertise. So, it sounds a little funny to me, but I’m glad that it works.

It’s a hook. And you put out a good hook. There are a lot of mediocre ones out there that don’t really engage or actually capture your attention if you’re reading through a film festival guide. But yours, in a sentence, had me intrigued and left me with some obvious questions. Even without the boxing connection.

And Joe Louis as a character is just incredibly intriguing to me. He’s an American hero slash character that’s timeless beyond boxing.

Well, I wanted to ask you about that. Because, before I had a chance to see it, I was asking myself: “Okay, why would [this writer/director] pick Joe Louis?” And feels pretty perfect… Joe Louis is kind of the first guy who, because of those Max Schmeling fights, wasn’t just a black fighter to white audiences. He was actually able to be an American hero in a way that a guy like Jack Johnson couldn’t be.

But, Joe Louis also doesn’t have hours and hours of footage, like Muhammad Ali, where any actor playing him sort of has to do an impression to play the character convincingly. Joe Louis is both an ideal character, and also in this historical sweet spot for you.

He’s an enigma. And I was also really interested in an article I read about a guy who woke up from a coma and created a whole other character for himself. And it got to the point where his family, his wife and his parents, went along with it. I felt like that dynamic was very rich for a story. That, and other stories where you’ll hear about someone getting knocked out or having some head trauma and waking up speaking French, just those mysteries of the brain that are vastly misunderstood.

I thought it was a cool way to explore surrealism, relationship stuff, the ideas of identity and who you think you are versus who other people think you are. It felt aesthetically rich, because I wanted this film to be fun, too. It sounds dramatic and heavy, but I don’t think that’s the style of the actual film. I wanted to make it fun and engaging, with some what-is-this? Is it surrealism? Music video aspects to it? But then dramatic parts? And we’re meeting characters in real time, so we have some ambiguity and mystery about characters and their actions, what their goals happen to be in the moment. It was just a really fun project to make.

I don’t want to talk too much about plot, partly because people can’t watch this yet, and partly because I’ve only seen the first installment of a serialized story. So, let me ask you about style and tone instead.

This is set in New York, and it’s largely a very naturalistic style with occasionally stylized bursts of surreal visual work. You’re coming from a pretty extensive documentary film background, and I’m curious if incorporating those surreal elements was more exciting or a little scary for you.

I’ve played around with that before in my youth. I made little horror films when I was very young, playing around with smoke machines and fake blood, stuff like that. I wasn’t sure how it worked in a dramatic sense, but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to try and have fun and be free.

Because I have done a lot of documentary, and I like direct cinema a lot. When you’re doing that, you’re a vessel for what’s happening, and your job is to respect what’s happening in an objective way. This was the opposite of that. I’m throwing everything I love at the wall, dolly shots, character dynamics, color, mystery, intrigue… I was going for an aesthetic [like The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, classic science fiction films] that transfixes you, out of time almost.

I don’t want to say sci-fi, but something in the realm of memory and perception and psychology and philosophy. But then grounded through this idea of fighting, and how life is a fight for everyone.

Howard Lester stars in “Palookaville”
Howard Lester stars in “Palookaville”
Palookaville - Brokenhorse Films/Theodore Collatos

Let’s talk about your cast, because they did a lot of good work to keep it all grounded. Your lead character is played by Howard Lester. His sister is played by Franqi French, perhaps the most widely known performer in the cast because of her stand-up comedy work.

How did they wind up starring in Palookaville? Did you know one or both of them and cast them because of a personal relationship? Did you have a casting agent that connected you with them?

A lot of my past has mixed trained performers with “real” people. My first feature film centered around stand-up, and I love stand-up comedy. I think it’s an amazing artform that transcends all of us, because there’s nothing more honest or powerful than a laugh. And I like to work with comedians. I feel like they’re warm people, generally speaking. I also wanted this project to be all [experienced] actors. I didn’t want to mix real people in that environment. So, this was stretching beyond what I’d done before.

I didn’t know Franqi, I saw her [at a live show], and her story is so rich and deep. She’s interesting, and funny, and compelling. I just changed the whole story to include this amazing performer in it. I talked to her, she was into it, she loved the script.

I had written the script for a close friend of mine who dropped out just as Franqi was getting on board. When we talked about it, she told me “I have the perfect person: Howard Lester.” I met him via Zoom, and he’s just a butterfly of a talent. Together they had this great chemistry. To me, he’s like a silent film actor. He has a physical presence that invites love and humor.

I saw Edy Modica in a short she did, and I thought she was brilliant. I reached out to her via a friend, and the rest of the cast I knew personally. And it paid off. The performances are amazing. And it was fast, efficient, the shoot was easy-breezy compared to everything else I’ve ever done.

They aren’t the only ones in your cast with a comedy background. And, while this is a piece with a lot of humor, it’s very much a dramatic piece as well, not just a comedy-comedy. What is the process for you to make those natural relationships and dramatic elements come through with a cast of funny people?

Everything is built on relationships, right? If you’re making a film that you want to feel real, the relationships in that world need to be real. There’s a certain, almost documentary aspect to filming, because you’re always filming something that’s happening.

You want to build on those relationships. So, when Franqi had Howard in mind, already I’m leaning “yes.” Because if she thinks it’s going to work, it will work, because they know each other, and know how to play off of each other. The rest of it was combining opposites. Scenes where someone is quiet against someone who can’t stop talking, to create situations that are easy for actors to play. And fun! Because actors want to act characters. It’s harder not to have a dynamic within the scene for them to play with.

That’s what I’ve tried to do even in documentaries. To find the relationships between people with your camera. You float to the meaningful relationships.

I’ve seen the first episode now, and it obviously has a lot of places it can go… Do you have either more finished episodes or the roadmap beyond what screens next month at Slamdance?

Yes. [Long pause]

[Laughing] Well, that’s very succinct!

That was partly a joke, but also partly real. I thought it would be funny with you asking a long question to give that one word answer. And it felt appropriate because that contrast humor is a big part of the pilot.

Well, I’m laughing along with you. Though, I don’t know how much I care for you characterizing me as asking long-winded questions…

Ooooh! [Both laughing] Shots fired.

Palookaville isn’t something available to the public, at least not yet. But, you have done some feature length work that is. Would you like to shamelessly promote any of it by name, so I can link people to where they can buy or rent it?

If people find it themselves, that’s great. I do want to keep focused on [Palookaville] right now. My projects are so wide-ranging, all my films are very different, I don’t want someone to see [a different work] and just go, “Whoa… That’s so different [than what Palookaville sounds like].”

Any final thoughts you’d care to share about the film? Or, maybe some hot takes on what 2023 has in store for boxing?

I thought it might be funny to end by thanking Bob Arum, since this is a boxing website and that’s what boxers do after fights.

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