Spirituality, Brought to You by Zombies and Aliens: The Sixth Wall Interviews Filmmaker Julio Ponce Palmieri
By Ariel Nishli
At 1:00 PM, filmmaker Julio Ponce Palmieri looks fatigued. It’s understandable, as the burly man, sporting a hint of restrained menace, has stayed up all night. Palmieri works as a seasoned bouncer at one of Toronto’s most exclusive nightclubs, a job that demands he play the part of enforcer holding the respected velvet rope.
Yet when the man starts to talk, what comes through those tired eyes is a gentle, surprisingly energetic spark, like that of a child athlete engrossed in a story about his winning soccer goal. Looks can be deceiving, a truism that describes the greatness behind Palmieri’s Internet TV series 2012, recently honored in the 16th annual Webby Awards.
THE SIXTH WALL (T6W): How does your job as a nightclub bouncer translate into your role as a filmmaker?
JULIO PONCE PALMIERI: Well what happened was when I was 21 years old – a long time ago – I actually ended up going to school for hospitality. Due to the fact that I was out of school, I went into the nightclub industry hoping to become a manager. I started out as a bouncer in 1995, and that’s been my job ever since. I stumbled upon filmmaking by meeting Edward James Olmos [Battlestar Galactica, Miami Vice, Blade Runner] one evening when he showed up at the club. We talked briefly, about him being a Latino; we spoke in Spanish and he introduced me to his son. He mentioned the word “script” to me but I had no idea what he was talking about. It was a casual encounter. I never saw him again. I went home after work – this was in 2000 – and searched “what is a movie script?” I printed three scripts, rented the movies, and watched while I read. I said, oh this is what they mean by narrative, dialogue, etc.! I tried writing one on my own and it snowballed from there.
Edward James Olmos
T6W: How serendipitous. What was that first script about?
JULIO: First thing I heard was that you have to write about what you know. It was very interesting because everything kind of comes full circle. The first script I wrote about was about bouncing. It was about a group of bouncers who end up having to rat out one of their own because he got involved in the wrong kind of business. I got a request from a guy in LA who was very interested in it. He said an A-list actor was looking for that type of material. I ended up meeting with this producer and he signed me up for a two-year deal. He was very helpful with several of the scripts I wrote in that time period. It was a fellah by the name of TJ Mancini, deeply connected with Vin Diesel, who recently produced his own online series, The Ropes about nightclub bouncing.
T6W: Were you writing traditional feature films at that time?
JULIO: Online series weren’t that popular back then. I never got around to getting my first feature script produced because of budget demands, so as the years went by I started making my own films. A lot of trial and error in the beginning but once I got the hang of it, a lot of fun.
T6W: These were short films?
JULIO: I started out doing a couple of shorts, and made my first feature in 2005. Made a few shorts after that and did my second feature in 2007. Made my third feature film in 2009, called Rabid Rage, which cost me $400. It actually went theatrical in Guatemala, playing alongside Michael Jackson’s This is It and Megan Fox’s Jennifer’s Body.
T6W: What does a $400 budget go towards?
JULIO: Food! I eat a lot! What I did was write a script I knew I could produce. That’s how I operate. I custom tailor scripts to meet my production abilities. With Rabid Rage I basically wrote a story that needed a handful of characters set in a forest. I shot for ten days and once I had the footage, I edited it myself. I basically just needed money to eat. I support my filmmaking career with my job until I can finally do it fulltime.
T6W: How did you get the idea for 2012? It seems like there might be some culturally relevant subject matter there. And what made you decide to make it a short-form Internet TV series?
JULIO: I’m originally from Guatemala. I immigrated to Canada with my mother when I was around 15. I always had that cultural influence from Guatemala, always loved the Mayans, the ancient cities and all that. I ended up writing a feature script. My intention was to shoot a feature film. It was just one of those things where I ultimately felt the genre needed a big name. What I did was take some actors with me on a trip to Guatemala and shoot some scenes down there. As the years went by and the script lost momentum, the web series format became more and more popular. During one random meeting with Alex Freitas, my co-producer on 2012, he showed me how he learned to create special effects. I asked him to come on board a project with me. He was pretty nervous so what I did was ask him what he could do in terms of VFX, and wrote it into the script knowing it could be done. Then he came on board. It was just the two of us – no money, no crew, and a lot of pizzas.
T6W: How did you first hear about KoldCast?
JULIO: A filmmaker friend told me about it. I started following KoldCast on Twitter, and got in touch with David Samuels [KoldCast’s CEO], who said he’d like to see the show. Then it snowballed that way. The way they promoted the shows and how they were set up was great. You bring your own fan base with you to KoldCast, and then it gets shared with many other shows’ fan bases. It’s a strong community.
T6W: What is it about the end of the world that interests you? How did you come up with this take on an apocalyptic crisis?
JULIO: The cultural significance was first. It also allowed me to combine genres of an alien invasion and zombie apocalypse. There wasn’t a show out there that combined them both with a specific purpose. For example, Fallen Skies is about aliens who want to take over the world, but why? And in The Walking Dead, zombies take over the country, but there’s no reason for it. So I combined the genres and gave it a reason – 2012 – the end of the Mayan calendar, the misconceptions and differing theories. I obviously took it to an exaggerated place and made it as grim as possible, but there are a lot of new theories about enlightenment and a new age of creation, a new beginning. I focused on the negative.
T6W: So the Mayan mythology served as the backstory, the engine so to speak, for a more conventional story of zombie and alien invasions.
JULIO: There’s also a very religious, ethical undertone behind the alien invasion, the fact that they’ve been citizens of earth at one point. Now that they’re back, they find a race of selfish, greedy humans who’ve gone against the scriptures. There’s a bit of a message for us to use the end of the world as a sign or deadline for an awakening, to become aware of what’s wrong with the world so we can change it. My thing is not being prophetic in any way, it’s just more of a wake up call to tell the world, hey, we’re behaving like zombies and losing sight of the important things. We need to follow certain ethical guidelines in order to evolve.
Click to watch the first episode of SciFi series 2012, “Arrival”
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T6W: Is it important to you as a filmmaker to infuse your stories with a social message?
JULIO: In a lot of my stories, especially in my shorts, I choose to tell a social or spiritual message, so that the audience can think about what they’ve seen as opposed to just saying, oh that was pretty cool. I like to leave the audience with something to think about. In my other show on KoldCast, Machiavelli’s The Prince, there’s a philosophical question being raised. I do use the medium to send a message.
T6W: It’s clever because explosions, zombies, and aliens make it easier for people to receive those messages. If you were preaching it wouldn’t work at all.
JULIO: Last thing I want to do is have my films feel like documentaries. I’m fortunate to have found talented actors to help carry them. I also have a great time doing it. It’s never been under pressure or a negative influence. It’s like playing a soccer game. You want to ensure you win, but you’re really out there to have a great time, and everyone cheers at the end.
T6W: Seems like you found your calling as a filmmaker!
JULIO: I think so. There are scripts on the shelf that can’t get made until I come up with the budget to pay big name actors, but that’s what I love about Internet TV series. Right now it’s becoming more popular, and there isn’t a necessity for a huge star. They are getting into the format more often though. It’s going to be a bigger area of competition.
T6W: Well you’re now getting some recognition in the space as well.
JULIO: Yeah, we were just named an honoree in the 2012 Webbys, alongside Mortal Kombat, which was an inspiration for me. That series was amazing – all the makeup and special effects. It inspired me to get involved in this format. To be there with them was such a wonderful honor. It was a slap on the back, saying keep going!
T6W: What does this honor mean for you going forward?
JULIO: There’s really no impact just yet, but it’s a great thing for the resume and a sign that I’m on the right track. I enjoyed the concept of 2012 and thought other people would too. After seeing the numbers on KoldCast and now with the Webbys, I felt validated. It’s a motivator to know my concepts are working and that I’m doing the right thing with my career in film.
T6W: Were you surprised to hear the news?
JULIO: I knew we were competing against bigger Hollywood productions with budgets in the hundreds of thousands and even millions. Nobody knows 2012 has no crew or money.
T6W: That’s the amazing thing with Internet TV. People are becoming adept at working within enormous budget constraints to create innovative shows.
JULIO: 2012 was made by two passionate guys who could wolf down a lot of pizzas, battling it out every single night, as colleagues and friends.
T6W: So, December 21st 2012. Do you believe that’s truly the end?
JULIO: I think every culture in the world has a – let’s call it a new cycle. Hindus have the Kali Yuga. We’re currently in the Kali Yuga, the age of destruction. We’re going to enter into the Yuga soon, according to the Hindus. I believe the Mayans, because they were so learned in astrology, found a time period when a new cycle would take place. I think the date just represents when there will be a change within the spiritual consciousness of the world. It’s not gong to happen overnight. You can’t build a house overnight. You have to lay it down, brick by brick. I think that date indicates the start of something better. It’s the first brick.
T6W: So not the end of the world as we know it?
JULIO: No, it can’ t be. Then there won’t be anybody around to watch my show.
Click to watch the second episode of SciFi series 2012, “Discovery”
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Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this blog.