Joseph James is an actor and filmmaker with a long list of projects with an eye towards the fraternity. Having already produced several films with overt Masonic tones including The Masonic Map and Templar Nation, James is on the cusp of his latest release with his film The Freemason, taking us again into the mysteries upon the silver screen. In this installment of Sojourners, James gives us an insider’s look at the making of his latest Masonic feature, The Freemason, replete with all the tinsel the fraternity can bring to it. Of all his skill and craft, James brings an earnestness to his filmmaking imbuing his work with his love for Freemasonry.
Greg Stewart (GS) – Let’s start with the basics; who is Joseph James? How long have you been a Freemason and what bodies do you belong to?
Joseph James (JJ) – Several of my great grandfathers were Freemasons. When I was about 14, I became interested in Freemasonry and started reading about it. At that time, there was not a lot of information online about how a person could become a Mason, so I didn’t know how to proceed, but it was always something I wanted to do. After growing up in Utah, I moved to Portland about 2004 in order to expand my clothing company. I had a car that needed some repairs. I noticed the mechanic working on my car was wearing a bright blue Masonic ring. It was perfect opportunity for me to ask him if I could become a Mason. He introduced me to one of the oldest and most established lodges in Portland, and I’m now a life time member of that lodge. I joined the Scottish Rite and am now a 32nd Degree Mason. I also joined the Portland Al Kader Shriners and served as the Temple Outer Guard in the Divan before moving to Hollywood with my wife and newborn son. I am a member of multiple lodges in several states, and I am a member of the York Rite and a lifetime member of the Grotto.
GS – If you remember, what initially interested you in the fraternity?
JJ – Besides learning that I had ancestors and relatives who were Masons, I was impressed by the fact that so many great men and leaders were Masons. Men I truly admire, such as the Founding Fathers, great entertainers and philanthropists. I was interested in doing charity work. I also wanted to learn some of the secrets of Freemasonry going back to Solomon’s Temple and the Knights Templar.
GS – Did your ideal of the fraternity prove to be the case upon joining or was it different? What was your initial impression with it?
JJ – Yes, becoming a Mason was just as enlightening and challenging as I thought it would be.
My initial impression was very positive. My mentors were a 33rd Degree Masons named Bill Larson, Clyde Brown and Webber Harrington (all of them have since passed away). Clyde and Webber were also members of the Grand Cross Court of Honor. Larson was one of the only members in Portland who knew all 3 Lectures given during initiation. He challenged me to learn them. I was able to memorize the EA and Master Mason degree. Bill and I did the lectures together for many candidates. Everything I learned from Bill and the other Masons fortified my positive feelings towards Freemasonry.
GS – I’ve known you for some time (back to the MySpace days of social media I’m guessing), and back when you made a run on a reality TV program. Since then what have you had going on? Every now and then I’d see you pop up on line working on one project or another, so it’s obvious to me you’ve made it to some degree. How is it you came to make your new film, The Freemason?
JJ – I really enjoyed performing as an actor in the 32 degrees of the Scottish Rite. People I worked with told me that I was a good actor and that I should consider trying to pursue a career in that field. I auditioned for a film called Extraordinary Measures, which was being shot locally in the Portland area, and I booked a role as a background actor. I was in several scenes with Brendan Fraser. That’s when I decided to become an actor. My wife and I packed up everything we owned in a U-Haul and headed to Hollywood with our newborn son. In Hollywood, I landed small roles in everything from feature films to live television, short films, TV pilots and reality TV. Working on set for up to 15 hours a day convinced me that I wanted to produce feature films and be an actor as well. Utah has a great movie history, going back to the classic westerns of John Wayne up until today’s Sundance Film festival.
Since I grew up in Utah, I knew that every kind of landscape and terrain is available to film makers at a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood production. So my family and I moved back to Utah, and I started working on my first film, The Masonic Map. I wrote, directed and starred in that film. In my second film, called Templar Nation, I hired a professional screenwriter and two experienced actors, Erik Estrada (Chips) and local actor Richard Dutcher (God’s Army). I was able to hire Sean Astin to work on my latest film, The Freemason. I funded all of the films myself and I have employed hundreds of amazing, talented professional here in Utah.
GS – So what was your driving motivation behind making this film?
JJ – I wanted to create the most comprehensive, in depth film about Masonry ever made. I wanted to show as much of an actual initiation in a real Masonic lodge as possible. I wanted to share with the world some of what Freemasonry is really about. We were able to film much of the movie in the historic Salt Lake City Masonic Temple, in the actual initiation rooms. I want public and potential candidates to break through the barrier of uncertainty and join. Most of them do not know that we cannot solicit new members, therefore thousands of potential Masons never join simply because the don’t know how.
Some of the of the most influential Freemasons here in the U.S have seen the film and feel that every Mason should see this film as well as people who are considering joining.
GS – I found it interesting, the elements you put into the movie. Do you think it went too deeply into the “secrets” of Masonry?
JJ – Bill Larson (a well-respected 33rd Degree who delivered the E.A, F.C. And M.M degree for many years ) taught me that the two most important things we must never reveal: the tokens and the passwords. The parts of the ritual we show in the film are compelling but incomplete–the entire ritual is not shown. I believe our non-mason audience is very curious about our initiation rituals as well as the 32 degrees in the Scottish Rite.
We were respectful but tantalizing, so that anyone with a true interest in Masonry would learn just enough to want to learn more.
I admit that we also dipped into some of the speculation we’ve all heard about Masons influence regarding politics, banking, the military, law enforcement as well as wealthy business owners etc, as a dramatic tool. I feel like we didn’t say anything that is not true or anything that would leave a bad or incorrect impression of Masonry. The feedback I’ve gotten from Masons all over the world that have heard about the film or seen the trailer gives me confidence that we found the right balance between showing too much and not enough.
GS – I like the quick abstract in the film of the history of Masonry is when Cyrus and Detective Leon Weed (actors Randy Wayne and Sean Astin) are reconstructing the crime scene. Their exchange almost feels poetic when talking about the fraternity. Where did that come from?
JJ – Sean Astin gets the credit for that. We were at a warehouse shooting [the scene] from the original script. Sean said that he [had] a great scene in his mind and that we needed to write it out and film it before the end of the day. He wanted to know more about the initiation so that we could help the general public understand the initiation ritual more clearly. He told me to go buy a book about the initiation, so I drove to a local bookstore and bought a copy of a book that revealed some of the ritual but it did not cross the line. He and I then wrote out that scene in 2 hours, filmed it and added it to the film. I will never forget a quote from the director of photography, Thor Wixom, after the scene he said “that is now my favorite scene in the movie”.
In writing that scene, Sean wanted to help non-Masons understand the physical orientation of the rooms in the Masonic Temple and what that meant. He also wanted to express the strength of the Masonic vows when there is a reference to being killed if you reveal sacred information. And also, there is an element of Cyrus beginning to catch on to the real motive for the murder.
GS – Later on in the film, Cyrus and the Grand Master have an exchange that really dramatized the power of the 2b1ask1 proposition. What was the thought behind it?
JJ – That came out of my experience becoming a Mason.
Most people think that the Masons recruit people or that you have to have a family member vouch for you. Some people also believe that you have to be a certain type of person (successful or wealthy) to become a mason. No one seems to believe how simple it can be, as simple as asking. I do believe that when people realize that, it may lead them to do as the film says: Ask One. And from there they may become Masons.
GS – It feels like you came at many of the issues of Masonry, even the notion of women Freemasons as Rana (playd by Alex McKenna), the daughter of a Mason, having resentment (almost an implied jealousy) over his activity in it. In a broader stroke, it feels in many ways that you encapsulated the process of the beginning, middle and end of becoming a Mason, even as it’s interjected into the plot lines. It really feels like a part of the story. Did that take a lot of time to construct? How did you go about weaving the two together (the story and the Masonic ritual elements)?
JJ – We wanted make sure people understand what critical role women have in Freemasonry. For instance, there are Women’s only branches of Freemasonry such as The White Shrine, Jobs Daughters, The Bethel etc. These organizations do a lot of charity work and they have their own initiation ceremonies as well. I have also talked to people who are involved in Co-Masonry which has both women and men as members. The famous statement, “behind every good man is a good woman” When I was in the Divan for the Portland Shriners, the women were just as organized and effective at raising money for the Shriners Hospital as well as coordinating events and running the day to day operations for Blue Lodges, The Scottish Rite and The Shrine.
GS - Without giving anything away, the end takes a distinct and dark turn. I have to say it was almost disturbing given the sentiment it encapsulated. Was that the end you had in mind when you started shooting?
JJ – The ending in script and the ending we decided to go with were different.
There was a district difference but If I elaborate on it so much it might reveal to much about the plot. The final scene was also written by Sean and me the night before we shot it. Sean and I wrote it during an all-nighter after we had already completed a 12 hour workday. He called me to his hotel and we sat up all night talking about it, acting it out, working it over and over again…At 5 am we were both exhausted mentally and physically. However, the final scene was not finished yet. We needed to eat, so we went to a local Denny’s at 5 am, and there we were, Sean typing furiously on his laptop as customers walked past and looked him over, no doubt wondering, “Is that Sean Astin, and what the hell is he doing at Denny’s in Salt Lake City at 5 am?”
After we finished eating the new ending was finished. The sun was up and went back to the set to work another 15 hours with out any sleep. But it was worth it. Most of the people who have seen the film think that ending is not only shocking but it also it ties everything together giving it a sense of closure. The feedback we have receive is that Sean’s performance is authentic and stunning. If I give any more details than that it might reveal the plot. We also shot the original ending which will be available on our “Extra Bonus Features” along with some special features and a 30 minute behind the scenes look at the making of the movie.
GS – I have to ask, did Astin (or anyone on the set) express any interest in the fraternity as the film wrapped?
JJ – Yes, there were many inquiries. By the end of the film, most of the cast and the crew were much more interested in Freemasonry and wanted to know more. Sean said that he wants to continue to learn more and more about who we are.
GS – When you made the film, did you start your own production company or did you fire them to produce and make the film?
JJ – Each time I make a new film I start a new production company.
GS – Where any of the other actors or production folks Freemasons?
JJ – Yes, my friend Howard drove all the way in from Montana to help with the production. He was there during my initiation in Portland, Oregon. There were also several other Masons on the cast and the crew that helped along the way but primarily the cast and crew were professionals who make movies for a living.
GS – Let’s pull out to a wider shot, what do you see as the potential of Masonry in film?
JJ – I’m hoping that it emerges as a worldwide foundational film that can unite brothers from various countries. I will be dubbing it into different languages so that people who do not speak English can still watch it. I also see the potential for the people who want join to watch it and gain a deeper understanding if the principles and history that have kept Freemasons around the world connected for a greater cause such as charity work as well as preserving history that could possible go back as far as Solomon’s a Temple in Jerusalem. Freemasonry is a force for good in the world and I hope that people who see the film will recognize that the movie explains and defines what Masons stand for.
GS – I’ve always had half dozen ideas on quasi-Masonic stories or scripts in my head. Do you think there is subgenre of movies waiting to be made about Freemasonry?
JJ – Yes, the history channel and the discovery channel etc. have put together some solid documentaries and re-enactments of Masonic history as well as the Knights Templar who were almost eliminated under false pretenses on Friday the 13th, 1307. Many of our founding fathers were 3 dimensional, intelligent people whose lives were greatly influenced, but not controlled by masonry.
GS – Do they always need to be the protagonist, or is there space for them to be the antagonist too?
JJ – Nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, and certainly not every man who is a mason has lived up to the highest standards we set for ourselves. Certainly, some have used their knowledge, prestige or influence improperly, or even in a bad way. Any organization with millions of members across the globe will always people who are not contributing positive actions and who are not helping their organization in any way.
Regarding a 90 page script for a feature film, the story is not going to be very interesting or complete without opposition to the protagonist, and certainly that opposition can come from a Mason. I don’t think we can all be painted with the same brush, either good or bad. Mason are all individuals, and we are all “rough ashlars” trying to become “perfect ashlars”. It is a lifelong journey. I am definitely a rough ashlar, however I am always attempting to become closer to a perfect ashlar even though it is not possible.
GS – What are your thoughts about Freemasonry seeping into television programs such as Sleepy Hollow or Vanished (2006)? From your perspective, is this a good thing for Freemasonry?
JJ – One of reasons I decided to make movies about our Fraternity is because there have been false allegations, myths and outright lies about who we are and what we stand for. It has been that way for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. I think that Freemasonry has been portrayed in negative light in books, movies, and TV shows for a long time it will continue. The reason why is because to truly understand Freemasonry you have to experience it and meet the Masons who run our lodges and temples, [the people who] raise millions of dollars for charities and who are normal, average people who enjoy helping other and connecting with new friends, business associates and others with the same goals preserving our history and while moving forward into future.
One thing that does concern me a little is that movies always have elements to them that are not real and in most cases, the Freemason are a prime target for others to speculate without evidence and portray our organization in way that is simply inaccurate. There will always be some distortion regarding what we as masons are really about.
GS – So what’s next? Where can we find the Freemason when it’s released?
JJ – The film was just released as an “Exclusive Pre-Worldwide Release” so that the supporters and fans who have been waiting for months can be some of the first people in the world to own the DVD.
The film will also be released on iTunes, Hulu, Amazon, Vimeo on Demand, and possible Netfilx and Redbox. For now, the best way to order the DVD is to go to our website www.thefreemasonmovie.com where we also have special deals on full size theatrical posters, a 30 min “Behind The Scenes” with bonus features including deleted scenes and trailers, sn interview with Sean Astin, Richard Dutcher (Grandmaster Sheldon Lombard) and myself.
GS – Will it play in any theaters that we could come an see it?
JJ – The film was in theaters for a short time. Now we are having public and private screenings for any group or organization interested. Interested parties can contact me directly at email@example.com
GS – Any guesses for when we can expect it on the online providers?
We have just made the movie available on Vimeo OnDemand, iTunes, and the DVD can be purchased through thefreemasonmovie.com or on Amazon. A link to the Vimeo OnDemand can be found on our homepage. We’ll be releasing a special edition in the coming weeks that features bonus materials and subtitles.
GS – And lastly, a question I like to ask our sojourners is who or what influences you to do what you do?
JJ – My objective when I started making these films has remained the same the entire time. And that is to simply inform the public about the nobility of our ancient fraternity and to dispel false perceptions.
Big thanks to Joseph for taking the time out to sit down and talk with us about his new film. I watched and liked it and think other people will too. The Freemason is definitely not what you would expect from a Masonic murder mystery and it definitely kept me guessing up to the end. I, for sure, am looking forward to your next project.