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Director Joe Raffa discusses storytelling roots and upcoming premiere of new film ‘Downeast’

Joe Raffa
Photo: Jasper Lowe

Joe Raffa learned at a young age that storytelling was his thing.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in southern New Jersey, Raffa was always writing stories when he was a kid. 

“I always wanted to be a storyteller from the time we got our first computer. I always wrote stories, and my father encouraged to type them up on Microsoft Word,” said Raffa. “I would save them on a floppy disk. I had a floppy disk organizer, and I was so happy that I could carry around a world of ideas.”

Once Raffa was handed a video camera, it solidified that he wanted to make films for the rest of his life. He initially went to college at Temple University to study film, but found out soon afterward that the classroom setting wasn’t really for him.

“I think when I decided to drop out of college and make my first film, I was going all in and investing 100%. College felt like an institute where I can study and earn a degree, but once I spent a semester wanted to invest in film,” said Raffa. “The classroom wasn’t for me, if that’s the right setting for you to learn, that’s great. But as soon as I dropped out, I never felt like turning back.”

Raffa took the money that he would have used for college to fund his first film, “You’ll Know My Name.” The 2011 film was a retrospective of what it is like to be a teenager growing up in south Jersey. Since then, Raffa has written and produced films such as the thriller “Dark Harbor,” which stars Joel McHale (“Community”) and premiered at 2019 Catalina Film Festival, winning dozens of awards including, Best Feature at the Black Hills Film Fest and Best Thriller at the Garden State Film Festival; as well as the documentary “Alice is Still Dead,” offers an intimate and unflinching look into the story of a murdered loved one from the family’s perspective. Raffa also created the anthology digital series, “Spades,” which originally premiered on Amazon Prime and is now available on YouTube.

Raffa’s latest film “Downeast” is set in Maine and follows the story of Emma Maddox, played by Dylan Silver, who returns to her hometown years following the mysterious death of her brother. As she reconnects with his best friend Tommy, played by Greg Finley, Emma begins to uncover the web of lies the town has been keeping, and has to decide for herself if she will also fall victim to the town’s unsettling ways.

Raffa met Finley while he was making “Dark Harbor.” Though Finley didn’t fit for the project, Raffa thought he was such a great actor that he wanted to work with him, and with his collaboration, “Downeast” began to come to life.

“Myself and Ed Stevens, who is my cinematographer on ‘Downeast,’ were working on ‘Dark Harbor’ a year and a half prior when I met Greg Finley. I thought Greg was phenomenal but he wasn’t right for ‘Dark Horse’,” said Raffa. “Greg had an idea and was passionate about making a film in Portland. We met and talked about the idea, and he trusted me enough to write the screenplay. I developed the script and story, which focuses on the relationship between Tommy and Emma, crime became a backdrop.”

Joe Raffa (l) and Greg Finley (r) on set of “Downeast.”Photo: Jasper Lowe

The film touches on several themes surrounding drugs, loss, love and redemption. “Downeast” was entirely shot in Maine, which Raffa fell in love with after visiting the Pine Tree State while making “Alice is Still Dead” with Stevens years prior.

He took me to Maine and I fell in love with Portland. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world up there,” said Raffa. “Ed has such an eye for cinematography, and bringing him to Maine is a match made in heaven.”

The film wrapped right before the shutdowns, which Raffa says he is fortunate that they were able to focus on post-production during 2020. Releasing the film was something that Raffa had to take into consideration.

“The paradigm has been evolving over years with streaming, companies that are traditionally theatrical are moving to streaming,” said Raffa. “We knew regardless it would be hard to find a home for the film. We had a lot of options. With the pandemic, it made us see how the pandemic changes distribution. With the film business, you need to learn to be flexible.”

“Downeast” is set to premiere at the Garden State Film Festival on March 27. The screening will be virtual and accessible to ticketholders online. 

Raffa is always happy to have his projects debut in his home state.

“I always love going home. I have so much support from family and friends,” said Raffa. “To have an excuse to share my film with them, it’s special. That’s where my career started.”

From those who have seen “Downeast,” Raffa has received positive feedback about the film. To Raffa, he hopes that the film is more effective in telling the story rather than if audiences like the film.

“It’s a film that is morally ambiguous, people will have polarizing ideas about it. I try to reframe my mindset from wanting it to be good to, ‘Do I think is this effective, is it something a viewer can relate to? Can someone look at a character and affected by it one way or another,” said Raffa. “I just want to thank people for giving it time and attention.”

For tickets to the premiere of “Downeast,” visit www.gsff.org. To learn more about Joe’s work visit: https://www.apsfilmsllc.com/.

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