Making a Name: Interview with Joe Raffa

Joe Raffa (left) and David J. Bonner
in "You'll Know My Name"
Talking with filmmaker Joe Raffa for about a hour in early June in the immediate wake of his first feature film, You'll Know My Name, getting its summer DVD release, I got the impression that Raffa has the sense of filmmakers twice his age, a sentiment that is certainly shared in "The Making of You'll Know My Name," the key, 9-minute, extra on the DVD.

Joe Raffa aka Joey Rafs went to Temple University for a semester. He left, deciding to use the money saved for college to make a movie. Raffa loved telling stories and felt filmmaking was the most effective way. Yet, he didn't want to wait in a classroom for four years.

He wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay for You'll Know My Name at the age 19, just three years ago. Raffa told me that my review of his movie was the only one he saw that made reference to Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a film that was the inspiration and key influence for him here from tone to theme to even costume choices.

The structure of Raffa's movie and even some, specific shots also borrow from High Noon (1952), but Raffa was a real fan of films like The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (1983). Francis Ford Coppola directed both films, which were both about tough, middle to low-income teenagers who fight. This is essentially a premise to which Raffa's movie goes, but the realism that Coppola portrayed in his 1983 films, Raffa would argue, hasn't really been captured since. The possible exception could be the works of Larry Clark, but Raffa wanted to realistically portray suburban teenage life because we weren't getting it in any of the films that were coming out recently. You certainly weren't getting it in the Twilight films.

Raffa says quite frankly that he wrote the movie "out of disgust." He looked at some of the things happening around him and he didn't like it. With this movie, he wanted to hold a mirror up and show what was wrong. One thing that irked him was all the potential that was being wasted. Raffa said he saw young people hanging out and doing nothing all day when their efforts could be applied in so many different, positive ways. He said it seemed as if almost everybody had this sense of entitlement.

Chuck Connors as Chris
One character that Raffa created that exemplified this was Chris. In the movie, Chris is a former football star who rose to prominence fast due to his steroid use. Instead of putting in the extra work, he makes the choice to get the results he wants quick and easy because he feels he shouldn't have to work for it. He should just have it.

It's entitlement as also a kind of selfishness. The title You'll Know My Name is representative of the endemic selfishness that is possibly linked to a need for fame. It may not be Jersey Shore-type fame. It could simply be fame among a certain group of people, if not fame in one's particular neighborhood or town. This is definitely the desire for the movie's main character, Nick, whom Raffa plays.

Yet, Nick's desire for fame isn't merely for superficial reasons or for sheer vanity or arrogance. His reputation, such that it is, has been tarred. People literally can't say what his name is. He's referred to as some girl's boyfriend, a girl he's no longer with, and that's his identity in most people's eyes. It's understandable why he doesn't want that. It's rather insulting or emasculating that people would identify him that way.

The problem is that Nick's solution is to pick a fight with the toughest kid in town and try to defeat him in front of everybody. This will make him a hero in their eyes, despite the fact that it's in no way heroic. It's again what Raffa called a "negative choice," but Raffa's point here is to show how for these young people negative choices often make them heroes within their circles.

Alexander Mandell as Mike Santo
Alexander Mandell plays Mike Santo, the so-called toughest kid in town. Like most of the actors hired, Mandell came from Mike Lemon Casting, the biggest casting agent in Philadelphia. Raffa interned for Mike Lemon who brought 150 young adults in to audition, and out of the many who read for Santo, Raffa said Mandell won the role because the actor had a fearlessness about him. Mandell knew that he didn't have to be intimidating as his character. He just was.

Raffa, however, called him "a clown." It's not that Santo is literally a clown. I think Raffa wants the audience to see that Santo's hard-man, bad-ass persona is probably a veneer, an act. Mike Santo is the toughest kid in Gloucester Township, New Jersey, which is where this movie was filmed, no more than a half-hour or so from Philadelphia, but Raffa said Santo's toughness exists in rumor or possible hyperbole only. No one has actually proven it to be true or witnessed Santo's power. Again, it could be just a veneer, an act, one that everyone accepts, and if so, then Santo doesn't really have to do anything.

That is until someone comes along and challenges it, which is what Raffa's character, Nick, does, as Raffa himself challenges the culture that would foster it. Raffa also challenged himself at the age of 20 by taking on the task of both starring in the movie and directing it. It's a task that he perhaps wouldn't take on again. As an actor, he said, "It's hard to stay in the moment," while also having to step away to judge and give directions, a common complaint for many actor-directors. With this difficulty, the filmmaker would need a good crew to support him. He had a 85-page script and a $35,000 budget, which allowed for only 17 shooting days back in June 2010.

He says it went very smoothly, thanks in part to his crew whom you see in action on the DVD. Last year, I was on the set of Eric Walter's My Amityville Horror, which was shot in New York. While there, I met the director of photography or DP who came from working on Raffa's movie as well as a couple of the crew members he brought with him.

Charlie Anderson was that DP and Raffa said he met Anderson in Philly, when shooting another film. As with Walter's movie, You'll Know My Name was filmed using the RED camera. Raffa said he got lucky with his DP. Raffa loved how Anderson lit several of the scenes, including a pivotal phone conversation between Nick and Mike Santo. Raffa said of Anderson, "He makes the frame glow."

Raffa said he didn't want to tell the viewers what to look at, which granted is an odd thing for a filmmaker to say, but it's not without precedent. What he did was use long, wide-angle, one-takes without a lot of cutaways. He wanted the movie to work like a play where people just sat back and watched without a lot of edits or over-direction. Raffa's concern, however, was people would think it too slow.

In August 2010, Raffa began editing the movie. Normally, that's when the DP's job is done, but Raffa gave Anderson the additional role of coloring the film. After some sound post-production, Raffa finished the movie in November 2010. It premiered the following fall at the FirstGlance Film Festival where at screened in the Franklin Institute and won an acting award, so any concerns Raffa had about it being too slow might be eased by the fact that the acting performances are strong, especially from Mandell, Chuck Connors who played Chris and Davy Raphaely who Raffa describes as the comic relief.

Breaking Glass Pictures, based out of Philadelphia, picked up the movie and is distributing it on DVD. You can purchase it now through or via


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