The Cockroaches of Joe's Apartment

by John R. Dilworth

Author John Berger has observed that the only other living things that will survive alongside human evolution will be those which humans eat (like cows and chickens) and the cockroach. As Ralph, the lead cockroach in John Payson's unconventional feature film, Joe's Apartment has prophesied, after the bomb drops, roaches will rule the world. The idea of using the most universally loathed insect as a means to examine the landscape of human relatedness to other humans and the world they inhabit, questions the belief of human vitality and longevity. As a species, we are extremely vulnerable to our environment and the condition of the environment is directly related to our degree of vulnerability. We are living in an apartment subject to nature's will of continuing our lease.

Joe's Apartment
The cockroach buddies in Joe's Apartment created by Blue Sky Productions
© Geffen Pictures

Joe's Apartment was inspired by Payson's 1992 short of the same name that aired on MTV. It represents the cable network's first venture into feature films (the second is the to-be-released Beavis and Butt-Head this fall ) and continues a trend of developing material already designed for one medium for all mediums. (Does television programming make for feature film material?) The film was written for the screen and directed by Payson who, at the time of the original short, was MTV's director of on-air promotion and animated I.D.'s. After devoting over a year to writing the script, the film spent another year in production, including shooting the live-action, stop motion and CGI elements. It stars Jerry O'Connell (Sliders) as Joe, Megan Ward (Party of Five) as the love interest, Lily, and Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), the corrupt Senator with a fetish for his daughter's costume jewelry among other things.

The film tells the story of a young man who moves from the Midwest to the Big Apple and lucks into a rent-controlled, tenement apartment in the East Village, whose tenants include 50,000 cockroaches. The building, however, sits on the site of a proposed prison. Joe falls in love with a privileged girl who loves flowers and whose father (the Senator) is involved with criminals who want to tear down the building. With the aid of the cockroaches the building is turned into a veritable paradise and the lovers live happily ever after.

An Uncompromising Point of View
The real stars of the film are the cockroaches--from the opening title sequence where a cockroach is perched on the very top of the Statue of Liberty's torch to the final display of human care the cockroaches display for Joe. In what turns out to be a genuine voice demonstrating man's indifference to other living things, especially insects that infest your home, Payson presents an uncompromising point of view. "Oceans Becoming Watery Deserts" reads a Geneva newspaper headline. And there are countless other examples of how human existence on the planet has decidedly changed the way all life co-habitats. In Joe's Apartment, the cockroaches turn out to be the most uncivilized of civilized beings. They represent a community committed to the survival of the species, but not through the elimination of other species as the human species is famous for. The film characterizes the insensitivity and necessary obviousness of human existence through various demonstrations of shootings and muggings that occur right in front of Joe. There is even a scene where Joe, after stumbling out of a burning building, is lying on the street smoldering and two pedestrians walk right over him, unimpressed. Joe soon learns that it is part of a normal day in the city--something one lives with. And living with that kind of violence and inhumanity is better than living with bugs in your home.

Joe's ApartmentJoe's Apartment
© Geffen Pictures

Early on in the film, the distrust and resentment the roaches feel toward humans is clearly established. "Another stupid human," says one cockroach. But the roaches do not discriminate--they are not racist. They fully embrace Joe after he eats a stale piece of toast where a cockroach once stood, accepting him on the understanding he is not one of them, but is similar enough to be one of them.

Despite their difference in size, Joe and the cockroaches live quite well together, discovering the new opportunities their relationship offers. This theme was made famous by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, which Payson pays homage to when Joe finds himself tied down by the roaches the same way Gulliver was by the Lilliputians. And it is a direct comparison between the interpretation of "little people" and cockroaches that Payson is making. The terms virtually mean the same. Both species are squashed and the less seen the better. Are the poor and low income families living in tenements not seen as undesirable insects subject to the desires of housing committees lobbied by developers wanting to profit from gentrification of a neighborhood?

Rebirth and Hope
Payson, who continues to live in New York's East Village believes strongly that good things grow from rubble. Near the film's end, a once promising garden that was destroyed is suddenly transformed into an even better paradise. A fantasy element only possible through the cinema, it underlines the director's sense of enchantment with rebirth and hope.

The cockroaches in Joe's Apartment are avatars for humans. They watch a TV program called Alternative Life with Charlie Roach. Charlie, a cockroach, hosts a table discussion with a city pigeon, a squirrel and a rat. The discussion breaks down and feathers and fur begin to fly, prompting the host to implore, "Can't we all get along ...?" (a little reminder of the Rodney King incident that continues to illustrate the self-righteousness of those with power and influence over the less well off).

Payson keenly observes the lack of understanding that exists between different cultures. When it comes to human behavior, contemporary TV shows rely on pulling aside the curtain of truth when it comes to human behavior. The irony here is that city animals and insects live hard lives as well, but do not exceed the interest of television executives.

It is interesting to note the characterizations of the cockroaches in the film. They are predominately male, healthy and heterosexual--they shout macho phrases and thrust their pelvises in the hopes of getting a woman's attention. They cannot only talk, but can also sing and dance (nearly every style of music is covered from funk and country and western to gospel). It is like visiting a cockroach Animal House. The roaches live to have fun, and to them life is one long party. Many of the party scenes amidst decomposing waste, empty beer bottles and dirty socks represent a standard of living that is associated with the poor, and the poor in this case have no fear of the future. In many ways, the scene can be compared to the oil paintings of Brueghel, where 16th century pagans celebrated life in much the same way the roaches do in Joe's Apartment. Interestingly, the Black Plague, long believed to have its origins in the poor communities of Europe, was spread by insects and rodents.

Joe's Apartment
Joe's Apartment
© Geffen Pictures

Payson's cockroaches are examples of smart and successful living. They are incredibly resourceful, supportive and adaptable. When Joe attempts to flush them down the toilet, the roaches begin surfing the wave. And it is this observation of turning a bad situation into a good one that reinforces the theory of survival of the fittest, challenging the belief that the human race is the dominant one. Ironically, it is the cockroaches who aid the survival of a human (Joe) when he is threatened by others of his species.

Anatomically Correct and ...
Technically, the execution of the cockroaches is very well done. In a decade when special effects dominate the box office, Joe's Apartment stands alongside the best, including Twister and Independence Day. The CGI animation of the insects was done by Blue Sky Productions in New York. Chris Wedge was the director of animation and his team worked from storyboards created by Payson and Dan Shefelman. The design of the roaches required actually reproducing the anatomy of a cockroach. Small liberties were taken to give the designs more flexibility when animated, but the final composited product results in convincing the audience they're not watching CGI.

With 14 artists, Blue Sky created 200 shots requiring CGI--the longest shot took one-and-a-half months to complete and it was only five seconds long. In order to scatter hundreds of cockroaches at one time, the company created a program that enabled them to duplicate a cockroach as many times as needed to follow a determined path, called flocking software. Also of note are the two stop motion shots created by Peter Wallach and Fly Films in New York. To fill in the total effect, "roach wrangler" Ray Mendez brought in several thousand live cockroaches.

As Federico Fellini has said, "A good picture has to have defects. It has to have mistakes in it, like life, like people." Joe's Apartment is the first film of a young director who thinks and feels, and the first film of a company exploring new markets. Payson survived a creative and management task few are capable of and many are willing to attempt with less spirit. The results are unpredictable and promising. Payson wants to make people laugh and have a good time watching his films, just as his cockroaches do. What more can one ask of humans?

John R. Dilworth is a New York based independent filmmaker whose recent short animated film, The Chicken From Outer Space, was nominated for an Academy Award.

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