So actor Joe Sykes and independent filmmaker Bret Wood respect and admire each other’s work. No secret there. What’s less well known is their shared taste for risk taking.
“Bret Wood is the epitome of Atlanta DIY,” Joe said in a recent interview. “He has a passion for his projects that invigorates the entire Atlanta independent film scene.”
Wood says he cast Joe in his 2010 film The Little Death after hearing good things about Joe’s work in the local theatre scene. “After working with him on that project, I kept up with his stage appearances—most memorably in Steve Yockey’s Wolves—and was looking for an opportunity to collaborate with him again.”
That chance came with Wood’s latest project, a tough, contemporary piece set on the muggy beaches of the Alabama gulf coast. This time Wood has cast Joe as the vengeful loner at the center of the film known only by the cryptic hashtag #TWD2D.
“Joe is an asset to the project in many ways,” Wood says. “Beyond his deep commitment to the role, and the compelling performance he has been delivering, he is a constant source of energy and morale-boosting throughout the long and sometimes arduous shoots. Anyone who has been on set is now familiar with the booming sound of Joe’s contagious laughter.”
Joe’s excited to be involved in Wood’s film. “The style of the film is a throwback to 70s exploitation films—in a fun way,” Joe says. Wood, an independent filmmaker, documentarian, film curator and preservationist, is also an authority on Hollywood exploitation films. He co-authored the book Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation Film with his wife Felicia Feaster and he’s written and edited other works that focus on exploitation films.
“Revenge thrillers were a popular thing in the 70s,” Wood says, “and usually were presented as spectacles of violence that allowed viewers to cheer for the systematic slaughter of the bad guys. In my world, I want a central character who is troubled by the acts of extreme violence that he’s compelled to perform… and wrestles with the whole idea of ‘justice.’”
Playing that character presents an exacting challenge. “It’s hard to win over an audience… and that has to happen here,” Joe says. “The guy is empty on the inside. Essentially, he’s been a killer and a survivor. There’s so much violence in his history, it’s hard to have anything good inside of him. My challenge is to create a path, an arc, for this character. We want people to feel sad for him when he commits these acts of violence.” But, Joe says, the challenge is a good one. In fact, it’s what he likes best about acting. “Creating original work, original characters, that’s been my strength and what drives me.
“Within the world of the film, the human element has got to be strong enough to create a type of morality, even an unconventional morality, that survives the violence. Despite Wood’s homage to ‘70s exploitation films, this is original work; it’s taking risks.”
Joe Sykes with fellow actors Alice Lewis, John Schmedes and Rachel Frawley
Joe is blown away by the visual work that Wood and his crew are doing. Wood uses destruction and carnage to create evocative scenes saturated in rich colors. “This film is going to be pretty.”
Remote beaches of the Alabama gulf coast may be stunning but they hide tortures for cast and crew, including swarming insects and jellyfish. “African Queen swarms,” Joe says. “We brought bug spray but nowhere near enough. We were so grateful to the woman who rented us one of the dock buildings. She brought us bug spray and brownies. And the brownies were really good too. I was nervous when we saw the jellyfish. The trawler captain just said, ‘Some people get stung; some don’t.’ Course he wasn’t going in the water.” In the end, the crew moved up the beach.
“In addition to mosquito swarms and the threat of jellyfish stings,” Wood says, “Joe endured more than his share of cuts and bruises in the making of #TWD2D… not because of a lack of safety precautions, but because he is so committed to the role and wants to completely inhabit the body of the character and walk in his shoes… even if that meant being dragged off the side of a shrimp trawler, fully-clothed with bound wrists.”