Meet the Joe in ‘Craigslist Joe’

Tail Slate sits down with Joseph Garner, director of an intriguing documentary

Joseph Garner travels the nation in Craigslist Joe
Joseph Garner travels the nation in Craigslist Joe

Joseph Garner directed the new documentary Craigslist Joe which will open on August 2nd.  He had a home, a job, money, friends and family and he left them all behind for 31 days in December with a plan in mind.  He would depend on Craigslist to provide for all his needs except what he took with him.  A backpack, a laptop computer, a cellphone, the clothes on his back and a toothbrush.  His 31 day journey was documented by one cameraman who travelled with him as he journeyed out into the cyber-community.  I got a chance to sit down and ask him about his experiences, his movie, and some other thoughts on film and life:

Tail Slate: What’s your favorite film?

Joseph Garner: Wow, right out of the gate.

TS: Oh that’s an easy question.

JG: I don’t know.  Don’t you want to watch something different depending on your mood?  You might be in the mood for Magnolia versusAmerican Beauty.

TS: What I want to watch definitely changes depending on my mood but I still have one film that’s my all-time favorite.

JG: Which is?

TS: Lawrence of Arabia.

JG: Great, great film.  I wasn’t even thinking back to the classic films.  In recent history I love character driven films.  I don’t mind if there’s a huge epic, like older Spielberg films, no matter how big the film was he found someone’s story.

TS: Even in 1941?

JG: I thought John Belushi had some great character moments.

TS: I thought he did as well.  What are some of your favorite documentaries, the ones that inspired you?

JG: One that definitely inspired me was We Live in Public.  It was a film I saw at Sundance a few years back.  Just really interesting how the subject of the film was not the director but how he wanted to explore the notion of privacy rights and how individuals can come together and how they would change their actions if they were being filmed.  So he did these meet up things in New York.  Check it out.

TS: I will check it out. 

JG: I love everything investigative, like The Cove, something that sheds light on something I didn’t know about.  Or just like something that is obscure, like Exit to the Gift Shop.  I loved how he (Banks) turned the tables and flipped the camera around and was making the documentary about the guy making the documentary.  Shedding light on massive corruption.

TS: Hoop Dreams?

JG: I thought Hoop Dreams was great.  I worked for Todd Phillips who got started in documentaries before he did the Hangover movies.  He did one called Frat House before he did Old School that kind of like looked at the notion of brotherhood and kind of guys in situations like that.  I have a range of documentaries.  But if there are any you recommend I should check out…

TS: The Queen of Versailles. Just saw it, and highly recommend it.  What happened, if anything, of note on the days we don’t see on screen. 

JG: A lot of sitting in an internet café and trying to get things going.  You watched 90 minutes of it and it seemed pretty easy.  Seems like everyone was willing to try to help you out.  But for every one person that said “yes,” there were at least 200 who said no.

TS: That’s a pretty good ratio.

JG: It’s not bad.  You have to be persistent and I was.  I didn’t let anyone know I was doing a documentary.  It was just a guy looking to meet up.  How often do you look on line and see what’s going on with a stranger?

TS: Do you think people acted differently because they were in front of the camera?

JG: I guess there’s no way for me to know for certain.  But I think that I spent a number of days with these people and they were only on screen for five minutes or so.  After a certain amount of time, it isn’t like we had a crew or anything…

TS: So they might have been camera-aware at first, and then as you spent more time with them they relaxed and acted normally?

JG: Yeah.  I certainly wasn’t aware of the camera.  I told Kevin, the camera guy that no matter what amazing thing you might miss, there’s just no way to go back and re-do it.  You get what you get.  I never wanted that to come into the interaction.

TS: Did you ever feel afraid?

JG: I felt lonely, I felt depressed, I felt hungry.  I never felt like I was with anyone that could put my life in jeopardy.  Maybe that was me being a little naïve, maybe I just got lucky with who I met.  I also knew no matter how bad it got, if I had nowhere to sleep or went without food, this was a choice.  I wasn’t forced onto the streets.  Unfortunately for a lot of people, that isn’t a choice, they’re on the streets and that’s their reality.

TS: And you could have always bailed.

JG: I was not going to bail…

TS: I know you weren’t going to but if you absolutely couldn’t take it anymore you could have.

JG: I guess you could say I could have even though I promised myself I wouldn’t…

Joseph Garner (l.) in 'Craigslist Joe'
Joseph Garner (l.) in ‘Craigslist Joe’

TS: Don’t get me wrong, I admire the commitment you brought to the project.

JG: There was a clean out for me, I could have called my friend, said “I’m done.” But having that comfort zone, knowing I had my friends and family to go back to…

TS: I think it’s admirable you knew you weren’t going to give in to it, and that made your experience as close to homelessness as you could have gotten.

JG: As you can, but again I will say I still have no idea what it is to not have a home to go to at night.  I have friends and family and an apartment to go back to, so no matter how cold it was there was an end to it.

TS: I noticed that in a couple of places you were drinking in bars and clubs.  Who bought the drinks?

JG: Daisy in Chicago had a beer at her house.  I never got like drunk.  Where else was I drinking?

TS: There were a couple of bars.

JG: Right.  There was a bar in New York that posted an ad that there was a new DJ spinning, so no cover.  Someone I met there became a Craigslist connection and that guy bought me a shot.  When I stayed at people’s houses, they’d give me extra apples and the like.

TS: What internet film sites do you frequent (I knew he would not say Tail Slate, but maybe someday…)?

JG: Deadline, Indiewire, Cinemablend.  There’s so many.  I literally spend hours surfing and getting my news from various sites.

TS: Any romance during your 31 days?

JG: Yes.  It was not objective but I felt like to experience the website and all that it has to offer I had to be willing to engage.

TS: What was the most difficult moment?

JG: There was a physically difficult moment and a mentally difficult moment.  You want both?

TS: Please.

JG: The physical moment was in New York.  I was physically exhausted.  A couple of things fell through

TS: Was that when you were sitting on the sidewalk alone in the early morning hours and someone comes back and takes you to their home?

JG: Yes.  L.A. was tough to get things going, New York felt like the hustle and bustle it wasn’t small, while Portland has a small town feel.

TS: I love Portland.

JG: Yeah, Portland is great.  Great community up there.  New York, people have got things to do.  Some things had fallen through.  The guy who was driving me from Chicago to New York was only allowing me to stay one night at his friend’s house and I didn’t want to impose, no problem.  It was the middle of winter, I was freezing and hungry and just kind of had nothing to do.  I was exhausted and I found that one bar that was advertising on Craigslist.  I met that one girl there, kind of told her what I was doing, like hey, if you’ve got a floor I can crash on and she said no, that’s not going to happen.  So I said to myself I could get through one night on the streets, no problem.  People do this unfortunately every day.  She ended up coming back.  That inspired me to help others.

TS: What level of caution would you advise someone new to Craigslist?

JG: Same level you would do in taking safety precautions in doing things not on Craigslist.  Try to meet people in public places, try to let friends know where you’re going, exchange phone numbers.  You have to do a bit of character judgment, but it’s about establishing rapport, establishing trust.  There are going to be bad apples anywhere you go but you just try to be cautious of that.

TS: Did Daisy’s revelations that she is a dominatrix shock you?

JG: I never met someone who was a dominatrix before.  I never really understood that world.

TS: I think those of us who are NOT in that world will never really understand it.

JG: (laughter) I was fascinated by it to tell you the truth.  That she had a day job in a corporation, that she took this break dancing class, she wasn’t what I’d imagined to be the traditional dominatrix.

TS: She didn’t have enough leather on?

JG: She actually said that she got made fun of by more dominant dominatrices who said she wasn’t dominant enough.  She said I’m kicking the guy in the nuts, how much more dominant can I get?  What do you want me to do?  She took me through the dungeon where she works, it was interesting.

TS: Were you an active volunteer before you made the film in terms of giving of your time and effort, not just money?

JG: No.  I am embarrassed to say I wasn’t.

TS: I don’t think you should be embarrassed.

JG: But it’s true, because I just got caught up in my own life, trying to make it as a director and it’s grueling.  I could make excuses all day long.  The truth is I did not make it a priority.

TS: Is it a priority now?

JG: I’m definitely trying better.  I felt when I was making the documentary I was really in the spirit of volunteering.  Now I am trying to balance a life and really making an effort to volunteer more.

TS: I would never try to tell you what to do, but one way to get a better level of experience of what homelessness is like is to volunteer or work at a homeless shelter.  I used to work, at a job, not as a volunteer at a homeless shelter downtown.  A place called the Lamp Community.

JG: (Joseph borrows my pen and writes down the name of the Lamp Community)

TS: What happened to the bicycle?

JG: Matthew’s bicycle.  As you know from seeing the film I should have just dropped it off before I left Los Angeles.  After Travis’ car broke down we had it towed to a junk yard where Travis knew the guy and we left it there.  I was like Matthew lent me his bike and I’m sure he would be fine with it, but I wanted to give it back to him.  I wasn’t able to get back to the bike during that month.  However I called Travis and asked if he knew where his van was and he told me.  I looked it up and called the owner and said “there’s this brown van and the owner doesn’t care what happens to the van but I happen to have something invested in what happens to what’s inside the van.  Is there any way if you guys ever come down, you could bring that bike down?”  Six months later, and I’d already told Matthew and he’d said it was fine, and then a trucker is making a delivery and he brought the bike down.  So I could give it back to Matthew.

TS: Who are some of the people you met in the film who inspired you by what they’re doing?

JG: One was John in New Orleans

TS: The artist.  He was inspiring.

JG: You hear about Katrina and it’s forever ago, and you just assume it’s all done and people are back in their homes and it’s all good.  It’s not the case at all.  A lot of those people just moved on.

TS: Is Craigslist an engine for social change?

JG: I certainly think it can be.  They are hands off but I feel like the people on there  in that online community if they decide to band together they can make huge social change and I don’t think it needs to be limited to Craigslist either.  It doesn’t take money either  We have so much power in numbers and energy and we can decide to do better if we want to.

TS: So it could be the central community feel we used to have in America, but online instead of in the village square?

JG: I’m hoping it could be both.  We could start on line and bring these into face to face actions and make real change.

The interview ended there and I kicked myself for forgetting to ask him what his next project will be.  I’m sure there will be another, Joe is a director on the rise.  I don’t know if he’ll stick with documentary filmmaking or follow the path of Todd Phillips into features, but this is one director who is on his way.

Brian Milinsky

Brian Milinsky has served in the military, been an FM D.J. and an award-winning radio news reporter/anchor/writer/editor. He is presently a screenwriter and currently lives in Los Angeles.

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