As the turntablist and creative visionary for legendary rockers Linkin Park, Joseph “Joe” Hahn has spent the better part of his career rocking crowds around the globe. Having directed more than 30 music videos for the iconic band, along with a number of other projects, making his transition to the world of feature films was the next logical step in his creative growth. His directorial debut, ‘Mall’ (based on Eric Bogosian’s novel), is clearly most ambitious work to date. The film explores the world seen through the eyes of Jeff (played by a captivating and immensely talented Cameron Monaghan) and examines the lives of a group of disaffected suburbanites who find themselves at a shopping mall in the wake of a seemingly random shooting, and whose outlooks on their own lives are positively transformed as a result. The film boasts a star-studded cast featuring the talents of Vincent D’Onofrio (who pulls triple duty as star/producer/screenwriter), Gina Gershon (Showgirls, Killer Joe), Peter Stormare (Fargo) and James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom). Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Joe Hahn to discuss his influences, evolution as an artist, the challenges of breathing life into his first feature film to life and what the future might hold for this director on the rise.
What attracted you to the arts in your youth and later propelled you into it as a career?
I think it was originally just reading comics, storytelling and listening to music that got me interested in the arts. Like most people, I had an interest in music very early on. In high school, I got really interested in DJing. I found it very interesting, especially what a lot of DJs were doing at the time as far as scratching and manipulating records. It quickly became a focus for me and it was something I wanted to learn. In my later years of high school, I started playing around with it, buying record players and records and all that sort of stuff. Soon after that, I started pursuing art and went to The Art Center, which is where I met Mike [Shinoda]. He was working on a project that he was putting a band together for, a band called Xero at the time. That started with three songs that were on a cassette that we all learned and it eventually grew to become what Linkin Park is today.
Working with the band eventually gave you the opportunity to turn your focus to directing. How did that aspect of your career come about?
When I was younger, like I said, I was into comics and storytelling through pictures and a few words. I actually went to art school for about a year before it became too expensive for me. However, I was fortunate enough to start landing some cool jobs. I started working in special effects where I would design characters, creatures and doing storyboarding! The thing I learned in that environment was that we were being hired to come up with solutions to tell a story through these special moments. We were basically designing scenes for the director’s pitches and this really gave me the ability to do what they were doing. Flash forward to the band getting signed, we started making music videos and I just asserted myself into the process because I found it very interesting. We did a couple of videos with a couple of directors but I realized, to get to have our voice come across, I would have to direct it myself. That is when I started directing the music videos. It was cool because I was really able to experiment and find new ways of telling stories, especially in motion, and that kind of stuff.
What were some of your influences and how did that translate into developing your style?
I think style is something that happens over time, that is how I try to approach it. Some people may disagree and treat style as a way to brand themselves. The things I gravitate towards, being a lover of art and film, the inspiration comes from different places. It can come from stories, pictures you have seen, animation and a ton of different places. I try to stay as open minded as I can in the process and I love the opportunity for collaboration. I used to do a lot of storyboarding to articulate to everyone exactly how I wanted it and also to allow for a degree of improvisation through that. I enjoy doing that because it helps to establish the lighting, mood, costumes and the different vibey elements that will be used. It kind of goes on a case by case basis. If I need to articulate something super specific, I would draw something out but I always try to remain open to whatever it takes to move the process along. It’s all about building blocks and having an idea of what you want to do and mapping out a plan and how to achieve it.
Those videos and what you learned in the process, would ultimately lead to creating your directorial debut, “Mall.” What was it about this particular script that made it the right project to make your introduction to filmgoers?
Directing a feature film has been something I was evolving toward for a very long time. I hadn’t had the opportunity or figured out where to assert myself the best way until I came across this script. I loved it and thought, “OK. How do I make this?” It was really different and I knew I could tell the story in a way that was really cool. I also knew I could get some really good performances out of some really cool actors. I guess it was the excitement from reading the initial script and the challenge of getting it made that really intrigued me. That is where it started. It took a lot of hard work but I am really happy with the outcome!
The cast was great on the project and you definitely walked away with some great performances. What can you tell us about finding the right group of people to flesh out these roles?
One of the producers of the film is Vincent D’Onofrio, who is also a great actor. It was him who originally had secured the script with his relationship with the original content creator, novelist Eric Bogosian. He optioned the book and wrote it with Joe Vinciguerra and Sam Bisbee. When I met him, I told Vincent how I would tell the story. He said, “OK! I want you to do it!” That was pretty amazing! When it came to casting, I was pretty surprised because a lot of people really wanted to be a part of the project. I was very fortunate to be able to choose between a ton of really talented people for the roles. It was a creative challenge when it came to choosing certain characters, Cameron Monaghan playing Jeff is a great example. I met tons of kids who would have been great for the role but, when I met him, I knew the subtlety that he was able to bring with his performance made him the right one to play the character. After that, I feel like all of the other actors fell right into place after we started casting.
Were there any particular goals, aspirations or techniques you were eager to tackle with your first project?
Yeah. For me, coming from the music video world, the medium has allowed me to be experimental, even though I don’t do too many of them anymore because record labels don’t take them as seriously as they once did. It is almost like I have these visual ideas that I store in a little file in my head and I am eager to put them together in the right way. It becomes a matter of how these visual elements that I envision in my head come together and enhance the emotion in a scene. There is a technique called datamoshing, which you might see if you watch a digital feed being interrupted and it causes the image to distort. I always thought it was a cool technique because it accentuates one element interrupting another element. I felt it could be exciting as an almost spiritual, layered experience. I was interested in connecting the idea of something coming out of something else, something that isn’t bound physically to this world but that might be happening on another spiritual or mental plane. I tried to use that technique in the film, especially when some of these guys are tripping on acid and they are seeing life in a different way. I wanted it to have an almost transcendental feel to it where there might be something very scary or very enlightening about it. Also, there were a lot of other things used to agitate the view as Jeff was taking the drugs and seeing the world differently, showing that he is going down a dangerous path. I wanted those effects to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable in a cool kind of way.
I felt the music in this film also had a similar effect when it was incorporated. How did you go about incorporating the music into the story?
Some of the basis for the soundtrack built from the Linkin Park song at the start of the film. There are also three or four vocal tracks on there. I worked with Alec Puro and we identified songs that fit with major characters. After that, we would create themes for the other characters. Once we established those themes, it was just a matter of Alec and myself pounding out some cool music that felt really vibey and providing some melodic hits to pertain to what was going on with that character. It was a satisfying process putting it all together.
What is the biggest lesson you took away from your first feature that you will take forward to future works?
Wow! There were a lot of lessons! You definitely have to improvise as you are going along. On my next project, I will definitely start fresh and look at it as it being its own thing. However, with the nature of indie film or low budget film, you are trying to build something big by using only a few tools. I definitely had the tools but the main thing I found myself fighting was time, the film was shot in 18 days, and utilizing the resources I had to the best of my ability. The financial issues can also affect a process. Not having enough time and money can definitely be worrisome but, at the same time, I feel it creates an environment where you have to be more creative. At the end of the day, more money doesn’t necessarily equate to making a better film. I think that is part of what excites me about this process, you don’t know what the next day will bring. You can plan it out as much as you want but it is really how you conduct yourself and be a leader to your crew. By that I mean setting yourself up for success by empowering everyone to be creative with you. Part of the joy of filmmaking is working with other great people from the crew to the cast and everyone else behind the scenes whose names you see at the end of the movie when the credits roll. The project is a blank canvas when you start and then everyone brings something to it and in the end, hopefully, you have something really cool because people have let their imaginations go to a different place.
That is a really terrific way to view the process. Where do you see yourself headed in the future in regards to filmmaking?
Currently, I am developing a bunch of different projects. It is a little slow going because you have to nail all the story elements first and then convince people to help you make the film. I have a bunch of those going. As far as things that excite me about the future, I see technology moving so fast and giving us some really great tools. More and more, it is giving people at an entry level such great tools to create and it is really exciting. I also feel that live elements combined with traditional pre-recorded material may come into play as we move forward. There are things like virtual reality and biometrics that are improving by leaps and bounds. I am really excited to be part of those explorations as well!
Thank you so much for your time today, Joe. I really appreciate it and we will continue to spread the word on all of your projects!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate it! Talk to you soon!
‘Mall’ is current available on Netflix – Click here to learn more. Follow the ongoing adventures of Joseph Hahn on Instagram at www.instagram.com/mrjoehahn. Check out the official website for ‘Mall’ at www.mallthemovie.com.