Director Joe Leonard Talks Fox’s ‘Star,’ his beginning and more

ATM: Take me back to who you were at 10 years old.

JL: This is a great question. I was a curious and artistic kid who did a lot of drawing. I loved photography and art. There were a lot of visual inspirations. I had bad vision and could not see very well. I had to get glasses. I managed for a few years to trick the ladies in the school office. I memorized the eye chart. I knew the letter to read back and forth. I ended up getting glasses. It was kind of magic because all the trees had leaves on them, and I could see each one. There was not a blur.    

ATM: If a person looks at life in a blurry way, then their memories are also blurry. Like looking at life in a clear way, then your prior images are clear, at least the recent ones.

JL: This is interesting. They were probably similar. I do not know. Memories are blurry anyway when closing your eyes and try to think of something. Sometimes they are very crisp. This is a funny question. It must have been a little bit because this is what I have seen. If I squinted, then I could see well. My eyes just got worst each other. I tried to sit in front of the board in school. It was a big part of why I was interested in drawing. It was in front of me. I could see it very clearly. This was secret. I did not let anyone know. I got caught and wore glasses.

ATM: What was your viewpoint to film between the ages of 15-18?

JL: At 15, I liked Star Wars and The Never-Ending Story. I love movies. I had a friend whose parents were Cinephiles. They had a bunch of VHS tapes. There were not DVD. They had the Godfather, Raging Bull, and others on VHS. They were great 70 movies. Quentin Tarantino Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was out during this time I was 18. I got inspired by all the film during the time. I also had an awakening because I got exposed to the 70 cinemas. I became obsessed with movies and wanting to make movies.

ATM: Did the story summaries added more to society or an actual mirror what was happening in society?

JL: Raging Bull is about a boxer who mistreats everyone in his life. He ends up self-absorbing. It is a difficult movie in terms of adding to the conversation and to the world. It had a real style of a character and a person who existent. This had not been done before. Artistically it was amazing. The content opened as storytelling because people were making these kinds of stories. Everyone makes the choice to want the movies they make and feel the way they want to feel about it. It showed a lot of prejudices and the mindset of the time.

ATM: How does being a St. Louis native help you with the attributes you bring forth on your job?

JL: I am even and steady person. I do not get shook up to easy. This is because of a certain demeanor. This is a bit of the Mid West in me and my parents. I am not someone from the big city. I am from the coast. I have a different perspective on the world than they do. I have a different experience than the folks. This is also interesting and talking about where you are from.

ATM: Are you aware of 20th-century philosopher Michel Foucault?

JL: No, I am not familiar but tell me.

ATM: He was a philosopher who wrote most of his work and believe in the relationship between power and knowledge. He believed these two elements were in capitalism in the ways of social control. In your episode, power and knowledge could be a form of the higher-ups forcing social control.

JL: Xander and Cassie There is literally physical violence. He has power over their relationship because it is abusive. She is accepting and living with it throughout their relationship. She flips the script on him in this episode. At the beginning of this episode, she tells him she will not work with him and that it is over.  He shows up putting a bag over her head and then beats her up. He says this as a means of still having the power and having force. “This is how I am controlling you in this relationship and for my business interest.” Later in the episode, Casey shows up at this warehouse with a gun. She does not shoot him or use force, but she takes the power back. She does her best to break his heart. She is successful.  

Carlotta had a son. Her stepdad was the father took away the son and told her a lie. He did this so she would have to protect their secret. It was something she was ashamed of. She did not meet him, and the child did not survive. This was story or lie she was told. She lies was believed all through her life to this moment. She unravels the lie to be in her power and feels more complete as a person. This lie is something that kept her in line with her father and silent about the abuse that happened. It kept her from a lot of experience she would have had in life if she does not have the abuse. This also worked for knowledge. This is neat. I love the philosophy aspect because it makes sense.

ATM: There is a power struggle in all human connection. This could be in an unhealthy and healthy connection or relationship. It cannot stay neutral for too long because it gets boring.

JL: Whether you realize it or not, when you are neutral you are floating and going with the flow. There is another person who said this named Elie Wiesel. “You have to take a stand in life.” There are so many females on this show going through so many kinds of struggle in the attempt to be in their own power, not in someone’s control to escape the system. The foster system in Star’s case. The gilded cage in Alex’s case because of her father’s stardom and wealth. Her mother’s alcoholism. For Simone, it is the story of being raped as a kid by her foster father. These characters taking to reclaim their power and overcome their situations.

ATM: Describe the emotional affects you went through as an editor.

JL: The empathy you feel when watching a performance on the finished television or when the actors are performing. It hits me hard. If the actor gives a great performance, then I can cut it together in a way that keeps the energy and passion of the performance. I try to keep the feeling going and make it powerful.

ATM:  What is your perspective on diversity and gender bias prevalence in editing or directing?

JL: It is great there are a lot of female directors in general. It has moved strongly for directing. This is amazing. Everyone can do more to keep these perspectives to build the diversity of the directors doing television. However, for editors, it is not great right now. There is not a lot of diversity in editing. It is getting a little better within 10 years. There are more female editors. It is difficult because the path of becoming an editor is not clear. A lot of editors get training at school. They spend time working on jobs for very little money to cut their chops. This is not something that everyone can do. It is something the bums me out. There are not many African American editors. There are some and they are good. The assistant editors and editors coming from different backgrounds are not prevalent.

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ATM: Editing is taught at film school and conservatories. It was taught to you at Tisch School of the Arts. There should be different ways to explain it. The general perspective is going on Adobe Premiere and pushing the cut button. There is a lot more to this job than this narrative. If it was expressed in a more interesting way, then people would understand it. All sectors of entertainment are important. It should not just be directing, acting, and producing.

JL: Technology has gotten so easier. You can make a film and edit on your phone. It is better than the equipment when I was growing up. It was the case of begging, borrowing, and stealing cameras and equipment just to learn it. Anyone can learn how to cut on Adobe Premiere. It is impossible to get the software and learn it. This is the thing about editing. The more time you spend, the more of the understanding you get of the complexity of it. It could be taught in a meaningful way to kids while younger. Kids can be making movies for cases on their iPhones in middle school. You could really captivate a lot of talent moving forward. It is a certain time of the person who wants to obsess over something and cut it to get it right. If this person is nurtured and given opportunity, then it is a pathway moving forward.

ATM: Human mind stories information better and in a more advanced way at a young age. It is much easier to adapt. It can even be as earlier as elementary school. They can grasp the artistic nature of editing. They can implement in schools. Instead of writing a paper, they can just do a video clip and edit it. There are so many educational ways editing can be implemented, especially education.

JL: I am interested in the educational aspect of it. My five-year-old daughter who can already do it. She can take a video and put it in iMovie. She can put it on the phone and add music, titles, and little voiceover. She is already grasping this and able to do it. It can do it earlier. There are a lot of applications. Think of students making their own documentaries instead of a paper on a subject. It is a tool and a fun magic process once you really get into it. You can get lost into it.

ATM: A lot of institutions complain about students being on their phone. But this should be used to their advantage. Start creating material and grade them on it. Turn a negative into a positive. Talk their language.

JL: It used to not be any entry to the industry. You do not have the opportunity. The school did not have an audiovisual lab. You were not open to it. This excuse does not work anymore. Everyone has access in their pocket or on their laptop. It is the fact of getting the word out and the training. You have to train the teachers and have people coming in that can use it. You have to get them fired out.

ATM: Where do you see the star in you?

JL: I am not much of a singer or dancer. I like to find a nice way of working in the editing room. I like when I say action and the actor does something, I never asked them to do. This is neat and the other cool thing I do other than being a dad. These are the little moments that are special and fleeting and quick. This is where I feel I am adding to what is happening. This is from witnessing, being patient, and open to it. I am participating in something that is cool. I am adding my voice.

ATM: What is the rejuvenating nature of being a father and editor?

JL: You have a new episode every month to cut. You have finish one and move on the next one. You must rest your mind and brain to get ready for the next one., The great thing is being on the weekend and spending it with my kids. It is about catching up with them and not thinking about movies or television. These two things balance their way out. It is always fun to finish an episode and come home for the weekend.

ATM: Where do you see the elements of when you were ten years old in your life now?

JL: I am still curious and dazzled with the things that are visually inspiring and emotional. Inside I got a good amount of curiosity about the world. This is what I tap into when I am working.