‘Jesse James’ deals with themes of pride, how it can get in your way

By Brooklyn Kiosow, Co-Editor-In-Chief

A camera rig captures a shot of Jesse, played by Spike Mayer, sitting in his truck and contemplating driving away after having his passenger side window shattered. Courtesy/Josef Steiff

Josef Steiff has had an idea for a film since 1983. It came from a personal experience, as he was often told in school to “write what you know.” He said it is a good example of having an idea, but not being ready to tell it quite yet.

Steiff, a professor in the Cinema and Television Arts Department, wrote and directed the short film “Jesse James.” The film was officially released in 2020 and won an award in February at the Santa Fe Film Festival for Best of LGBTQ+ Film.

The award came after 20 rejections from other festivals and was both a shock and nice surprise, he said.

“By the time Sante Fe came around, I had reached a point where [I thought] maybe the film is not going to do anything,” Steiff said. “It would be tough subject matter in the best of times, but [during] COVID particularly, I would be looking for films that make me feel happy.”

“Jesse James” deals with an abusive relationship between characters Jesse, played by Spike Mayer, and Mike, played by Joey Bicicchi. While the film is only 20 minutes long, viewers quickly learn Mike is a veteran dealing with trauma, and Jesse is the target of his indignation. 

The film begins with young neighbor Scott trying to get Jesse’s attention while Jesse is lying on a lawn surrounded by clothes, with a deep cut on his eyebrow and a bruised lip.

Steiff said over the years he has come to love the short film, although he has worked on feature-length films in the past. After a few of his friends read the script for “Jesse James,” they told him it should be a feature-length film, but Steiff said he could not imagine it as anything other than a short.

“I like the intensity that shorts can bring,” he said. 

Other than one fleeting moment which takes place inside of Mike’s house, and the film’s closing scene of Jesse, the entire film takes place on Mike’s front lawn and front porch. Because of this, the cast and crew had to do a lot of work to maintain continuity throughout the film.

When it rained on set, they had to cover the sidewalks with tarp and blankets. And there were challenges to the film being 20 minutes in real-time.

Steiff said while the choice to have the film take place in one spot was not a conscious decision while writing the script, when filming, there were practicalities such as not having to move the camera as often that made sense. 

“I think in some ways the script from the very beginning was contained in that way,” he said. “I kind of imagined it from the very beginning all in the front yard.”

The film deals with the theme of pride, and “where pride can become toxic and get in your way,” Steiff said.

Mike has “few and proud” tattooed on his back in reference to the Marines, and Jesse has a pride flag sticker on the back of his truck. Mike even tells Jesse to “Swallow a little bit of that pride, would you?” when he is trying to get him to come back inside the house.

While the relationship is abusive and Mike continually tosses homophobic slurs at Jesse, there is a sweet bond between Scott and Jesse that juxtaposes the harsh reality of Mike and Jesse’s relationship.

Currently, “Jesse James” is only viewable through festivals and has upcoming showings at the Bare Bones International Film Festival in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in April; Vegas CineFest in Las Vegas in May; among others this spring and summer.

Steiff said most of the films he has worked on have some type of social theme to them, and “Jesse James” is no different.

“We wanted moments where you would feel like, ‘Oh, maybe things are going to be okay, or maybe they are going to get over this,'” Steiff said. “And other moments where it was clear that this was beyond being able to be fixed.”