‘MysteryGuitarMan’ Joe Penna to Take Viewers ‘Beyond’
By Michael Varrati
Despite the fact I only first encountered filmmaker Joe Penna two weeks ago, our initial meeting takes place on a turbulent airplane sometime in the 1960s.
If that sentence confuses you, don’t worry…it’s all a bit of science fiction, timey-wimey smoke and mirrors.
I’m on the set of Penna’s short film “Beyond,” a multi-era tale of time travel and immortality that is currently a project in residence at YouTube Space LA. Penna, who is more commonly known to digital audiences as the MysteryGuitarMan, is in the final days of the shoot, and the current day’s action takes us into the cabin of the aforementioned 747.
Given the limited amount of time the filmmaker has to bring his vision to life, I ask Penna what challenges are present in creating a multi-era tale in such a short span.
“It’s been tough,” Penna concedes. “Especially with the budget we have. We had basically twelve entire sets that we had to design and build from scratch. It’s a time travel thing. It’s an immortality thing. So it’s important that we show all these eras. The 50s, the 60s, the 70s…the 500s! We found a couple locations, but if we couldn’t find them, we had to build them.”
…and build them they did. With the exception of a few exteriors and a sequence filmed in Penna’s own home, the bulk of “Beyond” was shot on the sound stages at YouTube Space LA. Due to Space’s enthusiasm for the projects it hosts, the decision to utilize the facility became a tactical advantage to Penna and his crew.
“We were going to rent the plane out ourselves,” Penna says, “but we mentioned it to someone at YouTube Space and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s something we’ve been trying to do! Get a plane!’ So, if we set up the context, they were willing to do the research. We were the ones who were able to pick the plane.”
Penna, an accomplished filmmaker whose previous short, “Instant Getaway,” garnered critical praise, is openly grateful about working with YouTube to bring his latest vision to life. Whereas some creators attempt to put distance between their online personas when crafting more traditional media content, Penna asserts that it’s all part of the same wheelhouse.
“I think that, for me, what’s nice about the digital space is that you can dictate the length of things you want to do,” Penna says. “I don’t have to make a show that’s 20 minutes long, and I don’t have to edit for time. I’m not hindered by constraints. Look at ‘House of Cards,’ a couple episodes were 53 minutes, a couple episodes were 44. Who cares? Just tell a good story. YouTube is the best way to do that. I’d love to do a feature film that goes up on YouTube or somewhere else in the digital space. If that’s not possible, then I’ll leave it up to the suits to figure out. I like to figure out what’s the best for each story.”
Furthermore, the filmmaker says that he isn’t necessarily interested in moving to a different platform, as he feels everything he needs is already provided for both he and his audience in the digital space.
“At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with your fans. The way I do that with my YouTube channel is by shooting whatever is in my head and giving it to them. I’ve done videos with product integration before, and had viewers say, ‘That doesn’t really feel like you.’ There’s just so much creative freedom. My channel’s up there and I can self-finance these projects. For me, that’s even better than going theatrical and going through a focus group.”
Set to debut on January 22, 2015 on Penna’s channel, “Beyond,” which also features a trans-media graphic novel element, seems tailor made to engage the filmmaker’s viewership on the level he speaks of. Penna shares with me that he utilized members of his audience to create the foreign-language translations for the short, which helped create hype and allow his viewers ownership of the material.
It’s a factor that’s important for Penna, as he’s asking his viewers who may know him for his more “poppy fare” (his words) to delve into something a bit more challenging. He tells me he didn’t want to craft the typical tale of time travel and immortality, but actually explore the weight such endeavors would inevitably carry.
“Immortality and time travel have always been super interesting to me,” he says. “People see vampires as these sexy beings, but if you think about what a vampire’s life would be like, everyone would be dying around them. They can’t sustain meaningful relationships, and would probably become very anti-people for long periods of time. You could ask them, ‘What did you do for the last 10 years?’ and they could say ‘Stayed in bed.’ At least that’s how I feel. I wanted to get a little more ground and explore those ideas of time travel and immortality.”
But even as Penna flexes his creative muscles and garners much praise, he doesn’t allow himself to rest easy on his laurels. The artist shares that he feels everything he does is merely preparation for what is to come next, and in that way, even getting YouTube to get him his plane isn’t enough to break his humility.
“Everything I do, I see as practice. All the videos I make on MysteryGuitarMan I see as practice for making short films, and the shorts I see as practice for making features. And features could be practice for something bigger. Who knows?”