josephmonk

The Story Behind the World’s First Movie Directed by a Blind Person

What it’s like to lose your sight, but not your vision

When the cast and crew showed up to the first pre-production meeting for the 2011 indie horror film The Bunker, they thought the shoot would be like any other — long days, lots of takes and a healthy quantity of fake blood.

But, as they crammed themselves into director Joseph M. Monks’ living room, they soon found out that wouldn’t quite be the case. They wouldn’t just be making a movie over the next few days, Monks informed them — they’d be making history. The Bunker, he explained, was about to become the world’s first-ever film directed by a blind person.

Though almost nobody in the room knew it at the time, Monks couldn’t see a thing. He’d lost his vision in 2002 following an uphill battle with diabetic retinopathy, a degenerative disease that causes the blood vessels in the retina to swell and distort. Nevertheless, he assured them, he was more than capable of directing a film.

Almost immediately, three or four people dropped out of the production (a handful of others left shortly thereafter). Nevertheless, Monks and the remainder of his bare-bones cast and crew were able to squeeze out a feature-length horror film in just a few days, a product that he both directed and acted in, sight entirely unseen.

Monks is the first to admit that The Bunker isn’t exactly an Oscar-worthy film. It’s a low-budget indie thriller; a gruesome, Grindhouse-style story of kidnap and torture shot in a mixture of unpermitted locations and his own living room. Yet while it shares many of the same thematic and aesthetic qualities as any underground horror film created during the halcyon days of standard def, it still feels uniquely unsettling. Considering what it must be like to live in darkness at the same time you see another kind of darkness oozing from the screen adds a more nuanced layer of alarm rarely experienced in films where the integrity of the director’s five senses isn’t in question.

The film itself is only part of the story, though. Beyond The Bunker is a compelling narrative of reclamation, tenacity and an absolute refusal to give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s also one that’s been woefully under-told — despite there never having been a record of another blind director working in any genre at the time, big distributors passed on the film and Monks’ story was never picked up by the mainstream. Though he’s had success as a comic writer in the years since losing his sight, Monks and the story of the The Bunker live on in mutual and relative obscurity, criminally slept-on examples of novel forms of filmmaking and allowing disability to work for, not against you.

I found out about Monks through a friend of a friend late last year, and was instantly captivated by his story. How was it possible, I wondered, to direct a film without the one thing every director in the history of film has relied on? Or as Monks poetically puts it, how do you lose your sight, but not your vision? Similarly, had losing his sight given him a different perspective on fear and what’s “scary”? And maybe most of all, why had no one heard about The Bunker?

For answers, I went right to the source — Monks himself.

When you went blind, you could have easily given up and stopped working in visual mediums like comics or film. What made you keeping going?
Stupidity? Obstinance, maybe? The day it all happened, I didn’t talk to anyone but my parents. I gave them a shout and just said, “That’s that. Lights are out. Don’t freak out or anything, we knew this was coming,” even though we weren’t actually sure until that final surgery. I’m sitting there, painkillers are wearing off, and I took that day to just think. No calls from friends, no neighbors, no nothing.

The next afternoon, I got on the horn with Bernie Wrightson, a good friend who also happened to be a legend in comics. We’d worked on a couple of things together, but we’d been tossing around this idea for him to illustrate an anthology of my short stories. I told him, “Bud, I think the time is now,” and he said, “Damn straight. Send me the stories and what you need as you get ‘em done. We’re doing this.”

That turned into Frozen Meat, a creepy, eerie comic that was edgy enough to fit into my storytelling style, but mainstream enough for the big-gun reviewers in the industry to take a look at. When that came out and reviewers were praising it and congratulating me on this comeback of sorts, it was enough to keep the ball rolling.

Quitting just isn’t my thing, though, so even without that, I was always going to try and find a way to work in some sort of visual medium.

Not quitting is one thing, but jumping from comics to film is another. How did you know you were ready to start directing a feature film?
I’d actually had some previous experience writing scripts and doing pilots while blind. I’d written a pilot for a TV show — which got produced, but not picked up — so I felt pretty familiar with the process, even though I couldn’t see.

When the opportunity to direct The Bunker came around, I started wondering, Why can’t I do this? Nobody had done it before, so, why not me? The absolute worst thing that could happen would be that it would be terrible. Was that really that bad?

I talked to some of the guys I knew from the TV show about it — Terry West, who was my lead actor, and Ed Polgardy, who played a sergeant in it — and we decided we’d give it a shot. People were excited about the idea — I’d called around to pretty much every entertainment publication like Hollywood Reporter and Variety and asked if they had any record of having written about another blind director before. They all thought I was joking, but it turned out none of them had — as far as they knew, there’d never been a blind director. That definitely gave me some steam.

What made The Bunker the ideal film to make history with? Why chose something so gruesome?
It wouldn’t have been if I had the chance to go back and change it, actually. I would have done everything differently. Originally, I wrote it as a narrative for a comic, then a short story, but it really just wasn’t coming across in those formats — it had too much movement for something still. I even pitched it as a TV pilot — along with seven other stories I was maybe more excited about — but the company that optioned it thought it would do better as a feature-length. It definitely wasn’t my first choice.

Horror has always been my thing, though. It’s my genre, and that’s what I love most. But if a studio had asked me to do a romantic comedy or a teen drama on Oxygen, I would have been completely down, too. The Bunker just kind of materialized as the film I’d be directing.

How did losing your sight change your perspective of what’s “scary” or what counts as “horror”?
When you wake up one day and you’re in the dark, and you’re forced to accept it’s going to be that way forever — dark — you start to rethink the shadows. I spent my whole creative life trying to depict what was now my everyday surroundings. If I was sitting in my office working and my cat decided to hop off his favorite shelf at 3 a.m….? That kinda thing changes your perspective some, sure. I think I may rely a little more on the claustrophobic aspects of a situation, either in a story or screenplay, because tight quarters affect a lot of people. The Bunker’s whole design is based on that. Finding little things that make people uncomfortable that work to enhance jump scares and dread-building. Those are things I tend to slip in more now than when the lights were on.

Take me inside the process of directing The Bunker while blind. What was it like? How were you able to direct your actors without seeing them?
I had to come up with ways to make things work on set for my team, so I spent a lot of time during pre-production coming up with workarounds. I considered how I’d want to be directed as an actor (I’ve popped up in a couple of things), and went from there. The best way I’ve found thus far, though, is to get my actors on set/location, and then walk through the scene with them, with me in their role. I try not to do everything as they would, but I’ll do a basic walk-thru with the blocking and dialogue, and then let them rehearse with the scene outline in place. It isn’t a perfect solution, but in most cases, that’s been my best tool.

I know when a scene went how I wanted it to by how it sounds. When I went blind, my hearing didn’t get better, but I did have to pay more attention to it, and it’s become the thing I rely on most. I pay attention to the little differences in how sound bounces off certain things. Like, if I’m walking down the hall in my house, I can listen to my footsteps and know when I’m passing a door frame because the sound echoes differently than it does off the wall. I use that same skill for directing.

We installed a phony floor on set of The Bunker that would creak when people would move around on it, which is how I was able to hear where the talent was and more or less what they were doing. I could hear when their voices or their footsteps echoed off certain things, or I could count their steps. That’s how I knew where they were — and that’s how I knew if I take went well.

In what ways did being blind change how you told the story?
I can’t say it changed how I told the story, mostly because I approached it like I wasn’t blind and just fought to get what I wanted. But if there’s something that stands out, I invested significantly in sound equipment. I had heard enough bad indie film sound to know that it’s one of the things you can’t overcome in post, so since I rely on sound so much, the dough we spent may have been more than necessary, but well worth it.

Also, I knew my lead actors, so I knew I could trust them. So when we were shooting, I’d just sit back and close my eyes and rely on them making me feel the emotions I wanted. I just let the performances wash over me, because if they could sell me on what I’d already written, I knew we had it. With the exception of a couple of things that interfered with takes that we couldn’t control, I let emotion and performance dictate which takes I was happy with more so than a better master shot or close-up.

Speaking of sound, it tends to be a really underrated aspect of horror films — we’re used to having things jump out at us or seeing some sort of visual cue that builds tension. How did you use sound design to create a sense of fear or uneasiness?
Elizabeth Smith, my editor, and I spent a couple of weeks on the sound design alone. I also went against what a lot of filmmaker friends and beta-watchers said concerning spots in the film where there’s no sound at all and made sure there was just room tone in a lot of the shots. Everyone says that with today’s audiences, you can’t risk a few seconds of silence — you need a score, a soundtrack or some background noise, or they’ll drift. The attention span has gotten that short. But in trying to manipulate mood and heightening the sense of dread in a claustrophobic environment, sometimes room tone and the visuals are enough. One distributor who offered to rep us in a foreign territory said he couldn’t remember a movie with that many silent gaps since 2001: A Space Odyssey. It kinda made me feel the risk we took was worth the reward.

How did your reliance on your DP and the rest of your crew change from sighted to blind? Since you already knew what it was like to see, was it easy to relay visual directions to your production team?
For certain elements, yeah. For others, no. When we first sat down together, it was a really long meeting as we figured out how to make it work. We had to figure out who would be my eyes and make sure we were all on the same page more so than what people do on your average indie film production.

There’s one scene where the lead actress is in the bunker, and it’s incredibly, incredibly silent. In that moment, she’s supposed to be having a realization that’s she’s been kidnapped, so the scene relies heavily on her facial expressions and body language, which I, of course, couldn’t see. I had to discuss that one with my DP and my script supervisor at length beforehand to make sure we were all on the same page about what she’d be doing with her eyes and her hands to carry herself through the scene.

There was a lot of team-building like that behind the scenes, especially with the blocking. We’d walk through the scenes together, and decide like, “Okay, she’s going to come through here, and she’s feeling this, and then he’s going to grab her by the throat here, and so on.” But at a certain point, the ball had to be in their court. I needed to be convinced, while I was sitting there unable to see, that the scene was really happening. That added a whole other layer for them — it wasn’t just, “Oh, I have to convince some people looking at a screen that this is happening.” It was, “I have to convince a blind guy that this is real.” Needless to say, there was a lot of trust there.

Were there any challenges to making the film that occurred because you were blind?
Other than normal production issues, which could really happen to anyone, there weren’t a lot. There was one cameo I have where my character is supposed to stop, bend over and pick up a lit cigarette, which was kind of necessary to explain that some other characters had just left the scene and I was coming into it. I burned myself on it numerous times, which might not have seemed like a shock to most people, but it was to me.

Also, when we were shooting on location in spots we’d just found, you know, 35 minutes earlier, I had very little spatial awareness of the area so it wasn’t always as fluid as it might have been for someone with sight.

Those seem like minor hiccups that weren’t prohibitive in any way.
You know what? The differences between having vision and being blind are pretty nil. That’s not to say it’s easy. It isn’t. But in most every day instances, the workarounds to not having sight are, well, easy. For example, I play guitar in a band sometimes. Most guitarists move around the stage when they’re playing. I’ve figured out that if I keep one foot rooted in the same place, I can still face the crowd and not fall off the stage.

On set, where there are so many existing processes and conventions in place that are the same shoot to shoot, you know what to expect, so there’s not that much guessing involved. You just pick it up.

You also jumped out of a plane while blind, and I’ve heard you’re somewhat of a daredevil. Is there anything that’s scary to you, or are you one of those people who uses fear as a “catalyst for growth”?
I would have jumped [out of a plane] with sight, too, I’d just never had the opportunity. Next month? Hang gliding — the tickets are already bought. I took on an MMA expert with training swords at a convention and scored a few points, and while serious injury wasn’t likely, the challenge was more than enough to get me on board.

I like pushing the envelope, and I definitely think it helps when it comes to storytelling. I’ll admit, it’s entirely possible I have some hidden death wish or something — if anyone out there runs a helicopter bungee-jumping business and wants to comp me a jump for his commercials, give me a shout — but I’m not convinced it isn’t just about the thrill of the scary moment. Horror novels, movies, real-life craziness? It’s never mattered to me. When something generates that indescribable feeling inside of you, that’s addictive, even to a square like me who’s never smoked pot.

Despite how interesting and impactful your story is, and the fact that The Bunker is the first-ever film directed by a blind person, both you and your film seem to be chronically under-covered in the media. Why do you think that is?
Even now, even after we released the “making-of” documentary [a behind-the-scenes doc about The Bunker], and even after there have been all these scenes from it online, a lot of people can’t wrap their head around the fact that it wasn’t a stunt or that it wasn’t artificially done. That’s why I never hired an assistant director — I never wanted someone to go, “Oh, that guy must have directed it, and Joe must have just been standing around telling him what he wanted.” That’s also why we shot so much behind-the-scenes footage (there’s probably 40 hours of it) — to prove that a blind person really did do this.

When we went to AFM [American Film Market], we sat down with a rep from Paramount. He was a really nice guy, but he looked at the film and said, “Why would I even believe this?” I mentioned the hours of behind-the-scenes footage, but he wasn’t convinced it hadn’t been done before, even after I told him I’d called every publication to confirm I was the first.

I think that’s part of the reason it hasn’t gotten that much press. Although I’ve spoken at festivals and answered questions from crowds, I don’t think a lot of people believe that it ever happened. That was the biggest uphill battle after the film was made — getting people to talk to us.

How much of that do you think has to do with the lack of visibility disabled people have in film?
There’s been so much well-deserved recognition of gay or bisexual people, people of color and other marginalized groups in film recently, but I keep wondering why no one wants to acknowledge blindness or other forms of disability. When you’re the only person in history that’s done something, you can’t help but sit there like, “Fuck, how do I make people pay attention?” How often do you see something in Hollywood that’s never happened before?

There was even a program director for a blind film festival in Germany who regularly showed films with blind or handicapped actors, and even he was like, “A blind director?!?! I don’t think that’ll ever happen.”

All that said, how do you feel about never being able to see the final product?
If I had one of those crazy “you can go back in time for 24 hours” Twilight Zone moments, I wouldn’t watch the whole film. But there are two really, really intense emotional scenes I’d want to actually see. Other than that? I’ve spent enough time with it.