Filmmaker Interview: “Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates”

One of the “Dark Toons” being shown by Rooftop Films this Friday, May 28th, is a new take on the death penalty titled Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates and directed by Max Joseph and Chris Weller. While the subject matter is intentionally extreme and provocative, the style is playful and the argument thoughtfully presented. Rooftop Films spoke to Max and Chris about how they achieved this delicate balance.

Rooftop Films: Give a brief description of your film for those who haven’t seen it.

Chris Weller: Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates is an animated proposal for an alternative method of capital punishment that would allow us to give the healthy organs of executed convicts to those that are waiting for a transplant.  Since the death penalty is something that is currently practiced in this country, why not try to do something positive with it?

Max Joseph: The argument is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, however it seems to provoke people on all sides of the discussion.  Some people love the idea, some people find it amoral and disgusting while others believe that it is a sarcastic condemnation of the death penalty. I guess to each his own.

RF: How did this issue first come to your attention?

MJ: It was an article by Graeme Wood in the “Provocations” section of GOOD Magazine, the conscientious media company that Chris and I were working for.

CW: Graeme Wood’s article…presented a new perspective on a controversial issue. I have had plenty of debates about the death penalty over the years, but they are generally ‘should we have it or not’ type conversations and this article put a new twist on it.

RF: How did you decide how to present this material visually?

MJ: We used the imagery from Graeme Wood’s argument, trying to clearly illustrate his points.  Chris is a magician at coming up with simple images that illustrate complex issues.

CW: One thing I have always kept in mind while making videos for Good is a general aesthetic of ‘Sesame Street for adults’– entertaining and playful, but dealing with complex world issues. My main visual influence for this project was Shel Silverstein. The style is also a very linear evolution my own early animation (more so than a lot of my recent motion graphics work) when my only equipment was a pen and paper, although now I do everything with a computer.

RF: Does this film have a stance of the death penalty?

MJ: The film seeks to make a cogent and extreme argument for harvesting the organs of death row inmates, but we really just wanted to get people talking about the death penalty in general.  We are anti-death penalty but wanted to film to make as good an argument as possible.  It is meant to provoke a response and for that response to spark a discussion.

CW: We typically strive to be objective with these informational-style videos.  In staying objective (with this one in particular) we allow the viewer to be interactive with the material in a way by not telling them what to think. They then can apply what is proposed in the video to their own broader opinion on the death penalty, thus sparking a multi-layered debate. That way the viewers are more likely to stay focused and discuss both sides of the issue instead of getting sidetracked and attacking (or praising) us for picking a side. The author of the source article is very much against the death penalty and wrote the piece to provoke a larger discussion on why we still have the death penalty at all, and I feel that we preserved that provocation in our adaptation of his material.

RF: I imagine the reactions to the film have been very strong. What sort of feedback have you gotten? What surprised you, what pleased you?

MJ: A lot of people love the idea and totally agree with it. That surprised us. Other people were completely horrified by the idea but could not totally dismiss the logic of the argument.  Some people started extrapolating further, if we actually did harvest the organs of death row inmates, would desperate recipients put a greater pressure on state governments to execute a greater number of inmates and faster? That was interesting and added a new wrinkle into the equation. I don’t think Chris or I would want a killer’s heart transplanted into our bodies–however I think if it was between taking the killer’s heart and dying, we’d both choose the heart.

CW: The first thing that comes to mind is when I first posted the video on my Facebook page; it wasn’t long before I had an uncle on the west coast and an old friend from middle school going back and forth debating the morality of the death penalty. That conversation was mirrored by hundreds upon hundreds of comments on YouTube from people all over the world, so I guess we hit the right nerve. It was exciting to hear people weigh in from countries that have abolished the death penalty, as we in the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily get to hear that perspective in our day-to-day conversations. It was a thrill to screen the short at Sundance this year, too.

RF: At Rooftop Films, we always program short films thematically, and we had a heck of a time figuring out where to put your film. Would we put it before a feature about a serious political issue? Would we put it in our program about technology? In the end, we settled on “Dark Toons,” a program we described thus: “Though the films in this program are certainly ‘dark’ – from fantastical nightmares to criminal horror shows – many also explore our tenderest concerns, including making new friends and bidding farewell to old ones, losing love, entering unknown worlds, and facing our mortality. They may all be somewhat bleak in nature, but the films ultimately ache with hopefulness and desire.” We think your film fits well. What do you think?

CW: Wow, I’d say that is pretty spot-on. I’m excited to see the rest of the films in the program; those themes tend to resonate with me.

MJ: I think the film fits nicely in this category. Animation is one of the best ways to tackle really dark subjects matter without getting too heavy-handed and self-righteous.  Because it is a cartoon and not live action, the viewer knows right away that what they’re seeing is not real. On its surface animation is always part fine art, and just like with fine art, people are willing to let it carry them to a darker and more taboo place than they would with live action.

RF: Are you both full-time filmmakers? If not, what else are you up to?

MJ: We are both full-time filmmakers. Chris is a full time animator and I am a full-time writer/director.

CW: I have been actively working animation-related jobs for the last 6 years. I started out at a few different small studios, learning a wide variety of skills from working on an animated TV series, visual effects for IMAX 3D National Geographic films, and compositing for commercials and video games. I’m currently working as a hired gun, making animated videos like this one for a variety of clients.

RF: Tell us about your next project.

CW: In addition to a fairly steady slate of freelance work, Max and I are putting together a pilot.

MJ: The the pilot is for a dark and intense animated web-series about a group of young orphans trying to escape from an island-prison. We hope it’s as cool as we think it’s going to be.

RF: What excites you about having your film at Rooftop?

MJ: Receiving the newsletters and now feeling part of the rooftop community.  That and seeing the film on a roof in NYC.

CW: It is always strange and exciting to screen something in a theater that was initially made for one person watching on the Internet. I’m honored to be included with the other films in the program; the ones I have checked out so far are excellent.

See “Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates” and other Dark Toons THIS Friday, May 28th at Rooftop Films.

Tickets and more information here.

Graeme Wood’s article was perfect, because it presented a new perspective on a controversial issue.

I have had plenty of debates about the death penalty over the years, but they are generally ‘should we have it or not’ type conversations and this article put a new twist on it.