Friday, December 13, 2013

Burlesque Assassins Director Jonathan Joffe of Canada Interview

Xara in Burlesque Assassins - Director Jonathan Joffe

This story was first published June of 2012 in the Best of Frankie Tease Magazine Vol. 1 ebook still on iTunes, Amazon, Kindle.

Canada’s highly anticipated period-piece film showcasing actual current burlesque stars from all over the world, started simple: a man and an idea. Now, the Director is currently busy scheduling screenings all over the world. After a few minutes chatting with Jonathan Joffe of Canada, Oh Canada, I came to the conclusion he has done his homework. See what this Calgary up-and coming writer and director had to say about this project, the amazing talent he worked with on the film, and why it’s the perfect time for a burlesque spy film. 

FT: When did you first conceive of the story for Burlesque Assassins, and where did it originate?
JJ: As I started to see burlesque grow in the media and the public eye, I thought it would be a great idea for an easy sell. And the more Burlesque performers and organizers I got to know, the more I realized that the thing to do was to do not just a movie about [he pronounces it "aboot"] burlesque performers, but a movie that would appeal to what burlesque performers would want to do in a movie, which I thought was to be spies.

FT: How did this particular fiction story get chosen as your first feature film?
JJ: Um, I've written quite a few screen plays, I had several options waiting to go. I pitched this one to the Canadian funding agency which is called Telefilm. I think even though it's a very difficult first feature, because it's a period piece, and it's action, and there's people from all over the world in it, so it makes it difficult to do, on a low budget. But the Telefilm very wisely recognized how important it is to have a community like the Burlesque community behind us, and they recognized the opportunity for a small Indie film to have a support network that meant the film would get seen across Canada, U.S., Europe and Australia, all of that, which was a real kind of ace-in-the-whole. Once they came on board, you know - you don't say no to a project once it gets started like that. We would have loved to have easily four times the money that we had, but it was still too good an opportunity to pass up for both a career level, and a creative level as well. It's just such an amazing project to be on.

Armitage Shanks in Burlesque Assassins

FT: It looks like a nexus of all the things we love in vintage.
JJ: That was the hope. There are a few things I wasn't able to get, I would have loved to have had zombies in there, or you know, there were more performers that I wanted to have in there, that I couldn't have, we ran out of time and money.

FT: What was the reaction to a racy material, like partial nudity, in the storyline? What was the Canadian market's reaction to having Burlesque in your film? Was it an issue in getting support?
JJ: It's interesting there's a misconception that people have about Canadian funded films, that isn't just outside of Canada but inside as well. They are exclusively art house films, or dramas. But, when you talk to Telefilm, while they are interested in films succeeding in many ways, and that can be awards, and that can be critical acclaim, they also, they very much want to see films succeed financially by finding an audience inside and outside of Canada, and they want to see film-makers succeed and move on to move their careers forward. So, in fact, the racy subject matter wasn't an issue at all for them. In fact, they saw the opportunity that having a Canadian film-maker take on this International topic and the serendipity of having Roxy D'Lite (Burlesque Queen 2010) the Canadian Burlesque star at the same time. She actually wasn't the Queen of Burlesque when we got the project going, that happened after. They still saw that there was this world-class Burlesque star from Canada who could be in the film and the Canadian tie-in. There was no resistance what-so-ever.

The Best of Frankie Tease Magazine Vol.1: Jan. - June 2012, Las Vegas

FT: Hat's off to you Canada. What was your relationship to or knowledge of Burlesque a few years ago, when this project began?
JJ: My knowledge of Burlesque when I very first started the project in early 2009, was very limited. I had, of course, an ongoing interest in retro culture, pin-up culture, and the icons of the burlesque world like Bettie Page, Tease-O-Rama, and also I'm a swing dancer, and I love Jazz and Rockabilly. But to me, my knowledge of the scene was pretty limited. So before I committed anything major to the film, I went to the Toronto Burlesque Festival in 2009. This was sort of a research trip to see if I thought if there was anything worth pursuing here. What a life-changing trip. I went from someone who thought maybe they would be interested in doing something with Burlesque, to someone who the last three years of my life have been entirely centered around that community. It happened for three reasons. The first reason was, I loved the show. Burlesque is so beautiful, and the talent level blew me away. The second reason was I loved the people. A Burlesque festival just feels like the world's best International house party, a feeling of coming home, even though I arrived not knowing a single person. I left that weekend feeling like I made friends that will last a life-time, and they have lasted.

Kitten Deville in Burlesque Assassins

I'm in contact with people I met the first opening night of that festival, I sat behind two random beautiful women, who I didn't know. I said 'hey I'm new to this, do you know anybody?". Those two women are in the film, and it's Kellita, and Kitten De Ville. The third thing that is so spectacular about the community, is it's an art community that understands the importance of the business aspect of things. That was part of the reason that it was so important to me. At it's core, a film is both an art and a business. Everybody involved needs to understand that. So because of the nature of Burlesque and the fact that you're putting out money and packing in an audience and promoting, there are people who could inherently get what I'm after.

FT: How did you meet Johnny Summers and the Vagabond Opera who are involved in your film?
JJ: In two very different ways. A friend of mine of many years in Toronto named Shannon Martin works in the music industry and she got me in contact with Vagabond Opera, as well as a Calgary band called the Ramblin' Amabassadors who appear in the film as well as have their own music in the film. Johnny Summers was an entirely different thing. I was trying to find someone who could do that kind of swinging dirty jazz, that is horn-heavy, and can emulate the Burlesque style Jazz of someone like Sam Taylor, and went to a swing dance in Calgary and they were the band. Johnny Summers had an eight-piece band and my swing dance instructor knew him and we were introduced. When Johnny came to the sort-of interview about composing for the film, I knew he was the guy. He brought his trumpet, and five different kinds of mute. So that's it, he understood. He didn't come with a synthesizer, a cd. It was a very interesting experience, and he put a lot of hard work into composing the music for this film.

FT: I'm impressed with your selections. Where was the film shot?
JJ: Calgary, Alberta Canada. It's very difficult to shoot a film that takes place in the 1950's in a city that was built in the 1970's-one of our many challenges. We couldn't move the cast and crew to locations very far from the area, so we had to have some very creative set decoration. We're hoping we did a fantastic job with limited resources. We're hoping we can do a second one with an even better location and have more fun.

FT: So there is a sequel planned?
JJ: There is a possibility. We have to make enough with the first film, to fund a second one.

FT: When will the film be in wide release in U.S. or other countries?
JJ: The film premiers on July 18, 2012 around Canada. Then after that, the film's theatrical marketing strategy is to let individual Burlesque producers host screenings. We have quite a few scheduled already, all over the world. Australia, the UK, Europe, and the U.S., and possibly a couple screenings in Asia as well, depending on how things go. We started approaching people a few weeks ago, so it'll be a while before we know all the dates. People just need to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and go to our pages and see when screenings are coming. It's not Hollywood, you can email us and say I live in Dallas, Minneapolis, Fargo, what's going on? (It is now as of the time of this article on demand at

FF: What is your favorite moment in the film now that you've seen the finished version?
JJ: I would say my favorite part of the film would be - that's a good question - I'm going to go with, it has to do with my personal taste in comedy. There is a scene where Bourbon Sue is fighting a group of henchmen. That would be my favorite scene.

FT: How has all your body of work of short film and documentaries prepared you for this full length feature action film production?
JJ: Like any job the more you do it, the better you get at it. Every film adds something, and of course I met cast and crew on those films, some of which would go on to be a part of Burlesque Assassins. That was of course incredibly important. I have TV, documentaries, and short films, like anyone in film you take all the jobs you can get. One of the things that's really prepared me is I run a workshop in Calgary called Upstart. One of the difficulties in being a Director is you may only work a few weeks out of the year. The same is true for Actors. So, it's very difficult to compete with Actors and Directors that have many many hours on set. So this program allows us to be practicing as Actors and Directors every week. I've personally Directed well over 100 scenes there. So that means the amount of time on set means I can quickly come up with solutions to problems, or I can think on the fly and change things quickly, or accommodate when something is not going right. That was important because the film was very low budget and you need to be able to run the marathon, which is also an obstacle course.

Vegas's own Renea LeRoux and Director Jonathan Joffee

FT: How did you accomplish casting such a relevant (to current burlesque stages) and high quality cast of stars?
JJ: I made three trips to Burlesque festivals. Toronto Burlesque Festival 2009, New York Burlesque Festival 2009, and the Amsterdam Burlesque Festival 2010, to cast the film.

FT: You're the casting Director?
JJ: Yes. I also had a lot of help from the community who I could go to and ask, "I love all of these people, who do you think would have the time? Who has an acting background? Who would look at this project as a fun time, and who would be stressed out in a major way?", because they're going to have to enjoy it. Being the casting Director for your own film, I'm thrilled with the way the cast came together. Something you can hope for, but we never expected was the relationship that the cast and crew formed. Because we were working 12-15 hour days, many days in a row and half of them living together - people were spending all their time together. They lived together in a house, because we couldn't afford hotels, so we rented a house for a month and all lived together. At the end of the day, everyone was exhausted and they would all go together to drink, and hang out. All I can tell you is the cast formed a very strong relationship, and occasionally an intimate relationship.

FT: Any final thoughts?
JJ: I would just say the film would not have been possible without the support of the Calgary film community and the support of the International Burlesque community.

You can now see the film Burlesque Assassins directly from their site via streaming (Distrify) or you can buy the DVD. Visit

This interview was by Frankie Tease