Johnny: Highway Outlaw 2 (Machinima) w/ creator Joe Sheldahl Interview

Today, I’m talking with “Nite Owl” Joseph Sheldahl, the guy who brought us Highway Outlaw, Superboy, and a bunch of other machinima stuff. He’s a director/screenplay writer, and, he’s a pretty good friend of mine, so, I figured I’d ask him some questions as I was showing you JOHNNY: Highway Outlaw 2. Of course, if you haven’t seen Highway Outlaw 1, CLICK HERE to see it before watching the video below.

SNERD: Joe,  Highway Outlaw and it’s sequel are both… pretty graphic, what inspired the storylines?

Joe: Well, for the first one, I was definitely aiming for a 70’s road-thriller, like Vanishing Point. Something that fetishized cars, and could have a badass soundtrack. From that, I spun idea wheels to give me a story that I could explain in only a couple sentences, and then just get right to it.

The second one came about fairly naturally at first. The main character has a grudge against this particular biker gang, and there was no way that was going to die quietly. Watching John Wick the day before starting the second one was also a huge inspiration.

SNERD: In the first film, the scene where Johnny beats up the car is something I appreciated, it seemed like an odd way to spend a few minutes of time, but, I totally understood where the character was coming from, I’d want to vent frustration too. How specifically did that scene come into play?

Joe: Well, I had to show some physical manifestation of his grief, boiling over into rage. In any given movie, the character usually drops to his knees and screams “NOOOOOO!”. Even if I could’ve made my “actor” do that, it would’ve been a bit cliche. Moreover, having him erupt into a fit of violence felt like a natural extension of his ‘silent’ nature. Like Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive.

SNERD: Some of my readers (most, probably) have no idea how machinimas are made – can you explain a time when something was difficult to film, and the lengths it took to get everything to work out?

Joe: Oh man, well, there’s a scene in the first short- at least in the idea phase, where the main character has to discover a particular dead body. I had a set location for him to discover it as well. But since I make these things alone, I couldn’t just ask a friend to pop in and die on this spot for me. So I had to try and get an NPC pedestrian to do it.

Which resulted in me trying to ‘herd’ the right NPC under this overpass, simply so I could hammer him in the head, and have my dead body. After trying and failing at this for at least a solid hour, I realized how creepy and absurd it was, so I rethought the entire scene- which I think was for the best.

SNERD: The tonal shift from the first to the second – it seems like the genre is shifting a bit from a revenge action movie style to a more over the top, almost kung-fu action style, is it going to continue to evolve, and if so, why? Are you searching for something, or is it intended?

Joe: I like sequels that evolve a little bit. Like Aliens to Alien, or Rambo II to First Blood. I think life is like that as well. I can’t say I’m searching for a specific tone, but loading more action and violence into the second one was absolutely a conscious choice. The one bit of unanimous feedback I got about the first one was that the driving sequences were a bit long. What better way to rectify that than by tightening the pacing with some action?

SNERD: Why is there so little voice acting? Is it a problem of finding actors? Or is it a style choice?

Joe: It became a stylistic choice, but one that was born out of necessity. In fact, both movies came to be out of the self-posed question “How do I tell a complete story, with minimal-to-no dialog?” Which led to the road-thriller idea, and so on. I would love to do a full on film with a full voice cast, but finding people willing to voice the characters is only half the battle. I still have to find actual games to inhabit the roles of other characters.

All of the villains in the movies are NPCs. And in the first one, the only other non-NPC was controlled and voiced by myself. So, more actors as well as more voice actors would be fantastic, yeah.

SNERD: What would you call the style of the Machinima? I like that it’s part music video part movie, but, it’s super cool. Are there other Machinima  that follow that style? Is it something you came up with alone?

Joe: There are lots of other Machinima’s out there that follow a very cinematic style. Plenty are even a great deal better than mine. A lot of them try to avoid using copyrighted music, so they can monetize their videos. I don’t care about that honestly, maybe I should, but still. If I want “Black Betty” to play over a car chase, then by God I will have Black Betty playing over a car chase.

SNERD: Why do you use GTA V to make your machinima instead of something else?

Joe: Well GTA V has the most comprehensive built-in gameplay recording feature I’ve ever encountered, as well as an amazingly detailed editing suite in the game as well. I record all the gameplay on the PS4 version of the game, as my PC can’t handle GTA V, so there’s really no other option for me. Also, there’s no other game as flexible as GTA V is when it comes to content and availability. I could shoot a post apocalyptic Mad Max movie in that game, or an espionage thriller, a disaster comedy, a sci-fi/horror, or a cop flick. Name one other game I can do all that in, AND on a console no less.

SNERD: The surprise of which mission Johnny decides to take – was that pre-planned? How did you decide to give him two options, and, which option to take?

Joe: Firstly, none of that was pre-planned. In fact, the original last act of the short was entirely different. Johnny gets a call from his informant giving him the locations of all the lieutenants in the Lost MC, and Johnny dons a mask to take them all down without leading them back to him. He wants out, but he also wants them dead. No retribution on him this time.

The ending ended up being a 7 minute motorcycle showdown on the highways, complete with shotguns and explosions. It was great stuff, and completely filmed and edited, but it didn’t click with me. The ending was too hollow, too abrupt. So I shelved it for a couple weeks and came back to it with fresh perspective. Which, in this case, was a new car in the game. I then thought about him going after the ONE main guy who’s caused him a lot of grief.

Him having the other option was supposed to be a non surprise. Like, oh, okay, he’s going to give up the bigger picture just for revenge. I didn’t even realize it played like a surprise until I watched the video with someone else. It was a happy little revelation for me.

SNERD: Any future projects you want to let us know about?

Joe: Johnny might come back again to finish things up with the Lost MC! Who knows? Stay tuned.

SNERD: Thank you for your time!

Joe: Thanks for having me!

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