Filmmakers On The Rise - Q&A With Jonothon Mitchell & Madison Hatfield
Jonothon “Jono” Mitchell and Madison Hatfield are rising in Atlanta’s film industry as writers, actors, and overall creatives. Widely known for their short film, Jenna Gets an Abortion, and feature film, Pageant Matierial, the pair is known for having unique, thought provoking, emotional stories that increase the standards for films of the unrepresented voices overall. Both creatives have dedicated countless hours to share some of the most personal moments in their scripts and on screen that have resulted in multiple awards such as best feature film (Atlanta Underground Film Festival), best LBGT film (Macon Film Festival, Women’s Comedy Film Festival), and the celebration of courage award for their film Pageant Material (Kansas City LBGT Film Festival).
Hatfield is an Atlanta native who fell into the comedy sketch scene as a high school science teacher. There was nothing to demonstrate to Hatfield that being a performer and writer was a career option. She eventually started to pursue her performance skills more seriously and began professional training, improving at various theaters, and performing sketches with Eternal Slumber Party, leading to various lead/principal roles on her extensive resume and being represented by both Stewart Talent in Georgia and Rooster Films/Voltage in California.
Mitchell had pursued film and performance as a kid and is formerly known for his series work, “Dear Jono” and “Stupid Morning [Expletive]” on Adult Swim. Currently he has over 30 short films, thirty web series, and owns Problem Attic Productions which is a film production and consultation company in Atlanta Georgia. Both Madison and Jono undoubtedly have great success before them, so Oz caught up with the pair to discuss their climb within the industry and how new coming filmmakers can find success as well.
“Not every story is for every person; there's nothing wrong with that and there's nothing wrong with you.”
First, could you tell us a little bit about your background in the Georgia film industry, how you got started?
Madison: I'm from Atlanta. I was born and raised here, I left for a little bit to go to college in North Carolina and then I came back. I don't have much of a film background at all! [laughs] I was a high school science teacher for four years when I came back to Atlanta as an adult and I just got into the comedy scene here, I was doing a lot of improv and sketch and I realized I wanted to pursue that more seriously. I really got started more on the acting side and then got into writing when I met Jono as an actor.
Jono: Filmmaking is something that I always wanted to do, I started writing scripts when I was fourteen and my first produced script came when I was 16 years old. A group out of Rhode Island made and sold it on DVD which was really wild and I just continued from there. I’ve been making my own stuff since 2010 and, when I moved to Atlanta in 2014, I started connecting with other local filmmakers making independent content. I got a job at Adult Swim and worked there for five years as a production coordinator and I was also moonlighting as the host for one of their main streaming programs for about four years. I was acting too, part time, when I met Madison shooting a movie called Papa Is Dead in South Carolina where we played husband and wife. We started writing together three days after we met, which was the movie Pageant Material and we shot it six months later, which was crazy but ultimately a lot of fun.
Was filmmaking a long pursued passion or something you accidentally found out you were good at?
Madison: Growing up I always knew that I loved performing and writing, but my high school didn't have a stage or theatre program ... I thought of [performance and writing] as a hobby so I majored in biology and education and became a science teacher. I did love doing that; I think teachers are the most important people in our society, but I started to realize a few years into that path that there was something calling to me that was louder and deeper, and worth trying. There are some aspects that I have fallen into such as particular projects but I think that the drive to tell stories has been inside me for a really long time.
Jono: It’s something I always wanted to do as a kid. I can remember devouring movies over and over and when I found out scripts were online I would just read as much as I could. The first movie I wrote was in 8th grade. I remember trying to shoot movies with my friends on this camera my mom got me that would record directly to this DVD and there was no way to edit it! It was like shooting a Tik Tok because you only got one shot at it. Storytelling and writing has always been in my bones. Sharing and creating art is something that has always been really important to me.
What were your biggest hurdles and when did you feel like you were starting to gain momentum in your work?
Madison: It’s a lot of “no” … being told that you are not what people are looking for. It’s hard to be a new voice in an industry that values established voices, faces, and names. People have to say “yes” to you to reach certain levels in this industry and have access to certain resources. It takes a lot of resilience to take constant “no’s” and get up the next day and still write, audition, and film shorts with our little crew because this is what I want to do. It was hard as a recovering perfectionist to accept that not everyone will say “yes” or be pleased by the work you do but at the end of the day you have to please yourself. It’s still a skill that I'm getting better at every day.
Jono: I will never forget riding in the car with Melissa Simpson (of Film Impact Georgia) to the premieres of Pageant Material at Dad's Garage and seeing a line around the block to get in. The first set of tickets sold out in ten minutes and they put more tickets up a week later and those sold out as well. That year at the Atlanta Film Festival, Pageant Material was the only film to sell out both screenings. That is when I knew what I was doing was right. I think the major hurdle I and most independent filmmakers run into is always going to be money and finding the finances to make things as good as you see them in your head. It's hard to track down money and have money. So I try to work smarter not harder and write for what I have and to write for things that are already available to me in order to spend as little as possible.
What projects have you worked on together that you’re most proud of?
Jono: I think that I am proud of everything equally in different ways. I'm proud that Pageant Material even exists. It almost killed me, but made me stronger and I will approach every film I make now with a new set of eyes because of that experience. I’m proud of Jenna Gets an Abortion because it feels like the work of the city. So many people believed and put so much faith and work into it. I watch it and it feels so removed from me that I can't believe it is my work. But what is my work? We have spec scripts and one is a horror film and I'm proud that we have subverted genres and did something we never did before. I'm just proud it's all in the world; we made it from nothing.
What is your approach to developing a story?
Madison: Jono is an idea factory and wakes up with seven ideas, which is something I love. We usually write separately but try to come up with an outline first. Once we have nailed down the major parts of the story together we then get on Writer’s Duet and one person will be writing and the other reading and editing … It's been different ratios for who is doing what but trust is a huge element because I trust Jono will take my words and make them better and I trust that we can write something that sounds like one cohesive voice.
What do you like most about each other's writing styles ?
Madison: I love that Jono will come up with these really specific jokes and I think specificity in comedy is the secret sauce. I think a lot of times people think you have to tell a joke that everyone is going to relate to, but Jono has written such strange specific jokes usually inspired by things that have happened to him and inevitably they are the pieces of the script that people can't stop laughing at.
Jono: Madison can tow the line between heartfelt and comedic better than anyone I've ever known. She can so effortlessly walk this tightrope of making you laugh one moment and making you cry the next. The characters she writes are vibrant and enduring even at their worst and it's amazing to me to see unexpected characters be funny and true to themselves even in their worst moments.
I see that both of you are also acting in your own and each other's projects. Can you tell us the different approaches/ techniques you have with portraying the characters vs writing them?
Madison: I think I do less work than Jono. I'm afraid of developing a character too much with writing backstory and getting super deep with a character before I put them on paper. I tend to over analyze everything so I prefer when writing to just “poop it out” and get it out as quick as I can. I learn the characters as I am writing them and the revision process is when I make sure the character is who I want them to be.
Jono: How I approach characters with acting and writing are exactly the same. I look at who they are, I talk to myself in their voice as I'm driving, I say lines out loud to myself to see how they sound and I continue to do that until I find their voice. I'm a little obsessive and compulsive. It's very fun for me to understand every single step that brought them to where they are.
Which one do you prefer, being in front of the camera or behind?
Jono: Writing. Period. End of sentence. To me, acting is really stressful. To live outside of yourself or being this version of yourself that you aren't all the time. I find it more comfortable and free to put things on the page and then completely step away from them. I find that when you are acting for the camera, you always take a little bit of it with you. A part of the characters will always be inside of you because you were able to be inside of them.
Madison: I have a harder time with this but if I was forced to choose, life or death, I think I would choose writing. I think that there is an opportunity to build a story from the ground up instead of being this single piece of a larger puzzle, but I love performing because it makes me a better writer ─ to know the experience of the actor. What am I giving the actor in this script? Is it too much? Is it not enough? Having that perspective is always useful. I also like making people feel things and the actor gets to be the face of that emotion, which I am continually attracted to.
What are the hardest things about the production of film (pre production, production, or post production) and how do you overcome them?
Jono: Every phase has unique challenges. Pre-production you will never feel like you had enough time. You will always feel behind. In production there will never be enough time ─ like you’re running a million miles an hour and you are going to reach the finish line before you are ready. In post production there is too much time. [laughs] There's too much time to be picky and obsess over things because you have seen it so many times it's hard to take a step back and look at it for what it is. It's how you handle your time, how you approach it, and how you use it to the best of your ability … I learn more and more about time in every production and the lessons learned are never applicable to the next one but the best thing you can do is be as prepared as possible, make it the best it can be with what's available to you at the time.
Madison: I'm continuously learning so much about the business side of filmmaking because I was very new to the whole thing. It is preposterously expensive. It is amazing to see how much it costs when you want it to look the way it does in your head. It makes you realize why there are dynasties in Hollywood. How you fund your work is really challenging. How often can you ask your friends and family to help you? How do you find people who have enough income to make a dent in your budget? It's really uncomfortable but there are grants available and organizations that want to help beginning filmmakers, not only in Atlanta, but all over the world; all you have to do is reach out and do the research. There's a lot of great information out there.
I also noticed that you both have film that could be perceived as a bit controversial such as Jenna Gets An Abortion and Pageant Material. What was the inspiration for these films?
Jono: For Pageant Material I was in Gaffney, SC shooting this movie about living in a small town and I didn’t feel like there was an accurate picture of what it feels like to grow up queer in a small town. I wanted to show a queer story that was a celebration of joy even in the moments of pain through a lower class small town America ─ through the lens of what I grew up in. I wanted to find a fun way to present it and as Madison and I were spitballing it. I just wanted him to be a drag queen but make it a Cinderella story as well. It just evolved into something so beautiful and honest but also absurd and silly and slapstick. There are parts of the movie that I actually forget exist and, when I rewatch it, it blows me away for being so funny and heartfelt and so true in a queer way. I wanted to show that following your dreams is universal and not unique to the queer community. I wanted Rodney, the main character, to be relatable to everyone because following your dreams is what everyone aspires to do; he just happens to want to put on a wig and make-up to do it.
Madison: Jenna Gets an Abortion is a direct response to Governor Kemp signing the heartbeat bill into law on May 2019. It was hard enough for him to unfairly take that election from us. To have overseen his own election, to be put into the governor's mansion and one of the first things he did was try to take away the rights of many female identifying people in his state. I got really depressed about it, thinking about the people who need that kind of care. We started writing in May and we were shooting by September and we premiered in April. It was a very fast process but it was urgent. Jenna Gets an Abortion is a celebration of the Atlanta film community and them standing with us having a voice by supporting this protest film that is also funny and sweet. It is reflective of the joy and style that Jono and I want to do forever, but it is based in a lot of pain and fear while looking at a world we could very well be headed towards.
Did you get any pushback or judgement (positive and/or negative) for the film that affected your trajectory in any way?
Jono: The most controversial thing about it is that abortion is in the title. We tried hard to not make it an after school special … Whether or not she has the abortion is not the most important thing in the film, it is whether or not she has the choice to do it on her own and how we portray that. I did get a couple death threats which were honestly less than I thought we would get when premiering the film, but for the most part the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And for Pageant Material there was no issue at all. Isn't that great? But I used to host a show for Adult Swim live, in real time and people would call me and say much worse, so I was prepared for it honestly.
What can we expect to see from Madison and Jonathan in 2021?
Jono: There's so much! Madison and I have just made a short film called If I’m Good. She wrote it, and a friend of ours Jonathan Pawloski directed it, and I starred in it. We are in post production for that. We were able to shoot that in the middle of a pandemic which was scary but it happened. We are also working with executive producer Stephen Beehler of RoleCall Theater here in Atlanta and producer Jordan Brown on a feature film called Retreat which we hope to shoot in February and March. There are also other things in the works that we can't tell you yet, but please know that it's very exciting!
Madison: We are very grateful that Jenna Gets an Abortion, being release online, helped us to get a team of literary managers behind us. We are really excited to be working with the Gotham Group in Los Angeles and it's been such a journey and a dream to have some enthusiastic, capable, experienced people who believe in our work as writers and filmmakers … The great joy, of course, is having the film exist forever, but second to that is the hope that what you do will help get you to the next step forward ─ which is to share your work more widely. It has been a really amazing thing to happen in a year that's been filled with alot grief and sorrow.
“I think that one thing all filmmakers need to realize to set them on the best path possible is to not be afraid to let the seams show. it can be a little rough around the edges starting off because it's the only way you're ever going to grow and learn.”
- Jonothon Mitchell
What useful advice would you give to filmmakers who are launching their careers in the Georgia film industry?
Jono: Go out and do it. Stop waiting. You carry a camera in your pocket all the time. Go and make a movie if it's what you want to do; there's no reason to let quality, time, or anything stop you. I think that one thing all filmmakers need to realize to set them on the best path possible is to not be afraid to let the seams show. It can be a little rough around the edges starting off because it's the only way you're ever going to grow and learn.
Madison: My advice is related to figuring out the stories you want to tell. We are never going to please everybody. Not everyone is going to like us. Not every story is for every person; there's nothing wrong with that and there's nothing wrong with you. It is specificity and truth that is the invitation for human connection, and trying too hard to please everyone just won't feel human enough for people to connect to. I want to always encourage people to know themselves and know the story they want to tell and trust that people will respond to it.