John Oak Dalton
John Oak Dalton
Western Wayne News Podcast

By day he works locally in higher education as a leader in communications and marketing, but John Oak Dalton has a not-so-secret other life as a movie screenwriter, producer and director whose work is viewed and followed by cinema fans around the world. In this episode of the WWN podcast, Kate talks with John about how he got started in his film career, the way technology has changed the movie-making process, and why he loves creating cinematic works that maintain a Midwestern sensibility.


John Oak Dalton: I’m John Oak Dalton, and I’m a screenwriter and director of B movies.

Kate Jetmore: From Civic Spark Media and The Western Wayne News in Wayne County, Indiana, I’m Kate Jetmore. As a native of Richmond, Indiana, I’m excited to be sitting down with some of our neighbors and listening to the stories that define our community. My guest today is John Oak Dalton. In 1999, Dalton sold his first screenplay to the direct to DVD Market and sold more than 40 screenplays over the next 20 years. In 2018, Dalton directed The Girl In The Crawlspace, a feature film of his own writing. He continues to direct and to write screenplays for other directors in the B-movie genre. Welcome, John. Thanks so much for sitting down with me today.

John Oak Dalton: Oh, thank you so much, Kate.

Kate Jetmore: It’s a pleasure. Listen, as always, I did a little research before we connected today and I turned up a little gem. It turns out that you and I were both extras in the movie Hoosiers, so a little trivia for you and a little trivia for our listeners.

John Oak Dalton: I have never been asked anything about Hoosiers ever, and I’ve never met anyone who actually also was in Hoosiers. So what scene were you in, and how did you get there?

Kate Jetmore: Well, this was… I must’ve been a sophomore, I think a freshman or sophomore at RHS, Richmond High School, and our drama club piled onto buses with our best iteration of fifties clothing, and we piled onto a couple of buses and drove to Knightstown, and I don’t remember specific scenes. All I remember is that they were basketball games, and we were crowd members in the basketball games. So how about you?

John Oak Dalton: I was a freshman at Ball State University and also went to Knightstown, I was there for three days. And the scene that I was there for is when Dennis Hopper comes in drunk and embarrasses his son at the game. They’re playing the Verdi Hornets and I’m in the Verdi Hornets cheer block on the other side of the… So yeah, it’s a really memorable thing and it is a funny little bit of trivia.

Kate Jetmore: It is, and it’s such a small world. I have to ask, given why we’re talking today, if that was the moment when you got bit by the film and TV bug?

John Oak Dalton: Oh gosh, really I started as a young kid and my brother and I made Super 8 films. I had a friend that had an early video camera, we made movies with that. I wrote plays. I was involved with radio drama. I like to draw comic books. I was into every aspect. And by the time I got to college, I was actually majoring in telecommunications at Ball State University at the time with a film emphasis and was also working in television at Channel 49, which is where the Bob Ross show was made, WIPB. So it was a long time love, and I just nurtured it in some form, really, my whole thinking life, really.

Kate Jetmore: Wow. Yeah, it sounds like you had some very clear goals and we’re taking some very practical steps toward those goals. I have to ask, because you mentioned [inaudible 00:03:42], you mentioned Ball State, you mentioned TV, any David Letterman connection in there?

John Oak Dalton: Actually, I won a David Letterman scholarship in 1987, which was one of the first years of the David Letterman scholarship. I was the first person that ever won one with a screenplay, which I think is pretty common now. But I actually typed mine on a typewriter, an electric typewriter, and back in those days. And I finished it the day that it was due, which I kind of pulled an all-nighter, so it was kind of a funny… So I kind of blazed a trail there in that it was the first script or screenplay to win a David Letterman scholarship.

And back in 1987, there were still a lot of faculty around that had been there when David Letterman was there, and his mother came to the award ceremony and his lawyer was there. And back then David Letterman would just write you a check and there wasn’t kind of the things that there are today. And you also got tickets to the show. And my wife and I went in the spring of 1988. And to kind of give you a frame of reference, Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons was on there, they’d just won the NBA championship. And Chris Elliot popped out of a hatch in the floor and Larry “Bud” Melman was on there, and I think that the musical guest was Terrance Trent Darby, which that-

Kate Jetmore: Wow.

John Oak Dalton: … That’s a throwback.

Kate Jetmore: That is a blast from the past.

John Oak Dalton: Yeah, so back then one of the faculty would just give you the phone number of David Letterman’s assistant. You would just call and ask for… They would never do any of these things today, but that’s how it was back in 1987.

Kate Jetmore: Wow. So it sounds like your focus at the beginning and for many years was exclusively or mainly writing. Did you also have directing in the back of your head at that point?

John Oak Dalton: Yeah, it was just difficult to articulate it when I was younger. Technology has changed so much that there wasn’t really entry points. I didn’t feel like at the time… I learned when I worked in television later that we really held the keys to the kingdom, but that’s really changed a lot obviously with digital, with streaming. It’s become a lot more democratic than it was when I was coming up through the ranks, so there’s a lot more entry points than there used to be. So I think it was kind of a dream, but I really didn’t know how to articulate it as a young person.

Kate Jetmore: Say more about the democratization of the field, do you think that’s been a positive change?

John Oak Dalton: For me, certainly. I do think so because it allows people to show things that exist in what is called oftentimes the great flyover country, between LA and New York. And my films that I’ve directed, for certain, but also some of the ones I’ve written for other directors, I try to keep that Midwest sensibility. I don’t pretend like the movies I directed take place anywhere besides Indiana, Ohio, the Midwest region. It allows people to show some different points of view. In the greater scheme of things it also allows underrepresented or marginalized voices to have a chance to be heard and seen.

Kate Jetmore: For sure. Well, John, I have to admit to not being a huge fan of horror movies, and I think that basically boils down to the fact that I don’t like feeling scared. So I’d love to ask what it is that you love about horror movies, whether it be watching them, writing them, or directing them.

John Oak Dalton: It’s interesting because I really didn’t come up with horror movies as a young person. I liked a little of everything. But it was like Japanese rubber monster movies, and I liked Soviet era science fiction movies, and I liked Kung Fu theater. And I liked a little bit of everything. And then when I went to college and was studying film, I really got into French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. And so my interests were pretty diverse, although I saw horror movies, but they weren’t my main interest. I think what really happened was there’s a lot of entry points for new people in the horror genre, and that was just kind of where I broke in and I wouldn’t say got typecast, but certainly was offered more and more horror films, although I’ve done some other things as well. But it’s been a good space because you find out really quickly that horror fans are very loyal and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth, and they’ll be your fans forever.

I think the caveat being, if you decide to try to get into horror because there’s an easy on-ramp and you’re cynical about it, and you’ll decide, “Well, I want to make Schindler’s List part two, but I can’t do that right now, so I’m going to make a bunch of horror movies just to make some money.” The fans will smell a rat and they will definitely call you out on it. But if you’re a true fan, if you’re doing it for the right reasons, if you’re doing it to entertain people, if you’re articulate in the genre, which I have become over the years, then they’ll be there for you for life. And that’s been really enjoyable to go on the convention circuit and meet people and that they know your work or they want to talk to you, it’s neat.

Kate Jetmore: Well, that was actually going to be my next question. I’d love to hear more if you’re willing to share about what your relationship is like with your fans. Because the way you’re talking about them sounds like this is not an abstract thing, this is not a group of people who you’ve imagined sitting in a dark movie theater watching your movies. It sounds like these are people that you have met and know.

John Oak Dalton: Yeah, I think… I sold my first, as you indicated, I sold my first screenplay in 1999, and I’ve always had a pretty open internet presence. I kept a blog for many, many years back when blogging was a big thing, and I’m active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. And so I think I’m easy to find, and I am receptive when people want to write to me. I’ve also been doing it for a long time now, so I have a pretty big portfolio of choices, and some of these have had longevity and some of them drop into a well and never get heard about again. But yeah, I try to be receptive to fans and it’s a long game. You never know when someone else is going to get on the rocket and be successful and you’ve been kind to them or help them [inaudible 00:11:14] so you just never know.

I have a good friend that I met years and years ago who just started emailing me. He was probably in high school or college, just trying to figure out how to break in, and he and I had an email correspondence for years, and now he writes for Lifetime, he’s doing much, much better than me. That’s his real job now. So it’s just a long game. People you meet can really become successful, and it doesn’t hurt to be kind to people. I learned a long time ago from another B movie friend, you really can’t advance other people ahead of yourself, there’s just not enough bandwidth. But you can certainly pull people along with you if you get on the rocket. And so that’s what I try to do, I just try to be open to fans because you just never know what might happen to them or what opportunities might come out that.

Kate Jetmore: Well, and there’s that word again, B movie. I think we all have sort of a sense of what B movies are, but how would you define what a B movie is?

John Oak Dalton: I think the original definition was like an A-list movie was a top of the bill movie in the old-fashioned double features, and the B film was a lower budgeted type film, often more genre driven. And I would say that’s probably still a good way to describe it is a B film is usually a genre driven film that’s low budget, oftentimes has exploitation elements to kind of drive the narrative. They can also… I think, personally, a B film can also take more risks and be more experimental, be more challenging because we aren’t fettered by Hollywood rules.

Kate Jetmore: What about budget? When I was introducing you, I mentioned the movie that you directed in 2018, The Girl In The Crawlspace. Take that for that movie, for example. What was the budget on that movie?

John Oak Dalton: Well, I self-financed that film. At that time I had gone probably a year or two and not really been offered anything I wanted to work on as a writer or anything at all, really. And I just decided that I would write a script for myself that I didn’t care what anyone else thought about. And I wasn’t writing for anyone. And then I decided that I could probably shoot it myself with my background in television and so on, that I could shoot it myself and shoot at my own house, use my friends, shoot it over a couple weekends.

And I financed it out on my own savings. So it was a very, very low budget film. My original plan was to just go to conventions and sell it at a [inaudible 00:14:25] table like a lot of people do. I was very, very lucky that my producer and director of photography had a connection with a distribution company and got them to watch it, and they picked it up and then all of a sudden it was in Walmart and Family Video and on every kind of streaming platform, and that was very unexpected to me.

So I guess the moral of the story is make something you want to see and then you know if there’s an audience for it. But yeah, I started off very, very low budget. It was easy for me to do that because I relied on friends and my own house and things. And my wife cooked all the meals and so on and so forth. The second movie, when we turned in Girl In The Crawlspace, my second movie, Scarecrow County, basically the distribution company right away was like, “Okay, what else you guys got?” And then my two movies were released in ’20, they were shot in ’18 and ’19 and then released in 20, which appeared to usher in the apocalypse as we saw. My first movie-

Kate Jetmore: It’s all your fault-

John Oak Dalton: Kind of. One of the last things I did before Covid hit, in all seriousness, in February of ’20, I was working for my day job up in Chicago, and I knew that my movie was coming out the day I was driving home in Family Video, which was still open at the time. So I mapped a route from Chicago to home using a map of all the Family Video locations on their website. So I could stop at eight or 10 Family Videos and go in and say, “Hey, I’m an Indiana filmmaker. My movie comes out today, will you please stock it?” Most of them already had it, and some of them wanted to take pictures or wanted me to sign it, but I was hand selling my movie.

And that was basically the last thing I did before Covid hit. And then my second movie came out that October. And so me and Tom Cruise and everybody else had to wait a couple years to do anything else. And then when we came out of Covid, the distributor called me and they actually financed my third movie. So I was really grateful for that. So I don’t really know what’s next. That one… It’s called Smart House, it’s coming out in the fall, I believe. So yeah, that’s been the trajectory. Making a movie just for myself and paying it out of savings, to them financing my third movie, and I hope it keeps going in that direction.

Kate Jetmore: Yeah. As you describe it, it sounds like one project leads to the next, sort of the dots get connected. And actually the word that comes to me is flow. And I wanted to ask you about the word flow, because again, as I was Googling you, preparing for this interview, I read an interview that you had given… Well, actually, I don’t know if you had given the interview in print or if it was a transcript of a written interview. But in that interview you were referring to the writing process and how sometimes you sit down and read one of your own screenplays and your reaction is that you don’t remember writing what you see on the screen, or what you see on the page. And I’m wondering if you can share with us a little bit about what I would call the flow state where you’re sort of channeling the muse, or channeling those voices and pinning them down on the page. What can you share about that?

John Oak Dalton: I think that a lot of people think that writing is 100% art, but really there’s a lot of craft. You have to… If you sit in your underwear in the woods waiting for the muse to hit you, you’re going to be waiting a long time. But if you sit down and discipline yourself and work every day… I get up at 5:30 and try to work an hour before work every day. If you don’t watch the Colts game and you do some writing or even reading, so what’s… Or watching other films to know what’s up. But you have to work at… There’s a craft element. And I think early on, I remember my first screenplay I’d sold, which was a Bigfoot film called Among Us, and it played forever. It was on the Canadian Sci-Fi network, which is called Space TV. It was on space TV in the middle of the night for years. So I had Canadian people writing me asking about it for a long time.

I went to help on the shoot because I had worked in television, so I wanted to go out and help. And while I was there… This was in the early 2000s, which was a really… Like today right now, there’s a huge burst in desire for content. And at that time it was because of the DVD, because DVDs were becoming so big, they needed content so badly. And while I was out there, the distributor basically reached out and said, “Could this production company make three more movies next year?” And the director turned to me and said, “Hey, can you write three more scripts this year?” And I was like, “No, I don’t think I can write three scripts in a year.” So I did two rewrites and wrote a third from scratch. But now 20 years later, twice I’ve written three screenplays in six or eight weeks. I wrote two screenplays in June this year for a British company. So part of it is you get up to speed. Part of it is sometimes the requirements that you write at a feverish pace. I don’t do things like a lot of writers do.

I don’t write outlines. I don’t write scene breakdowns [inaudible 00:20:28] index cards. If I can kind of get in my mind who the characters are, and then something I’m interested in talking about or something I want to explore and research and then turn it to a movie, that’s what I usually do. I don’t do a lot of the things that a lot of writers do. So I’ll sit and move furniture around in my mind for a couple days and then I can just start. But there have been a couple times I’ve written at such a feverish pace that I really don’t quite remember what exactly I did. And that’s a good luxury because if you can put it away and come back later, if you have the time, then sometimes you can look at it with fresh eyes and make another pass at it that makes it better.

But a lot of times you don’t have that luxury. When I wrote the two in June for a British company, both those films are shot now. They’re done. They haven’t come out, but they’re-

Kate Jetmore: Wow.

John Oak Dalton: … They’re both done. And in both cases, I took over for-

Kate Jetmore: That’s fast.

John Oak Dalton: Yes, in both cases I had to take over for a writer or a director because something had happened. So that was… I would normally not have to work that fast. So it is funny. Yeah, I’ve just become… Because I’ve spent a lot of hours sitting at my little desk in my chair instead of doing other things, I’ve been able to become pretty disciplined.

Kate Jetmore: It sure sounds like it. I want to circle back to the elephant in the room that you mentioned earlier, which is Covid. And as everyone on the planet knows, Covid changed everything and the movie industry’s no exception. Obviously streaming has just exploded, it’s available everywhere. And for lots of people, seeing a movie in a movie theater, which used to be the only way we ever saw movies is something they… Or I should say, we don’t really do all that much anymore. So I’d love to pick your brain about the power of the big screen at a time when everyone has 24/7 access to video on their phones.

John Oak Dalton: Well, I grew up in an era before all of this, before even VHS, so it’s always going to be magical to me. I do like to screen my movies if I get an opportunity. And in this case, with my new movie Smart House, I was able to screen it at a great venue in Iowa City called Film Scene, which is kind of adjacent to University of Iowa, I was invited there. I was invited to screen in Chicago at a venue, and then I kind of had a friends and family screening in Dayton, Ohio a few weeks ago. So you can’t mirror that experience of seeing any film, not just your own film, in a crowd. But as a filmmaker, it’s helpful because you see what lays an egg and what works and what people laugh at.

Kate Jetmore: Well, also it sounds like… My question really stemmed from the difference between the big screen and a tiny screen, but what you’re saying is also really interesting, which is the difference between watching it alone and watching it with other human beings. Watching it in a crowd.

John Oak Dalton: Yes, it’s a collective experience, that’s how it was built. I’ve had screenings of the same film, and some of them… Times it was warmly received and sometimes it wasn’t. And it can take a collective consciousness as an audience, and you can really get your measure sometimes if you’re sitting there with everybody else looking at your work. But I still love the experience. I don’t get to go as much as I used to. I watch a lot more movies on streaming. But it’s interesting because I feel like I’ve been through three kind of waves of content creation. And one, I was not really writing at the time, but I was aware of in the eighties when the mom and pop video store boom came and there was such a hunger for VHS content and many of my contemporary filmmakers, people my age, that’s how they broke in, was shooting for the direct to video market.

Then in the early 2000s, which I was a part of this, the demand for content on DVD was explosive. And then just a few years ago… Streaming’s been around a while, but you don’t see movies of my level really on places like Netflix and Hulu. They kind of had the market cornered, and I couldn’t figure out a way that B-movie people, true B-movie or independent film people, or micro cinema people, whatever you want to call them, that there was a way for us… For us, there was not an entry ramp for us. But that has really changed because there’s a million apps now.

Practically every film I’ve ever worked on is on Tubi, T-U-B-I. And two years ago, I never even knew there was a Tubi, and now it’s one of the biggest streaming platforms. But you look at things like the horror one Shudder. There’s also… Philo’s got a ton of people’s content. There’s a film I worked on that I wrote for another person that’s on some sort of a Roku app. So anyway, there’s so many places now that… Now that it’s sort of been decentralized. It didn’t help that Amazon… Or it helped us, I should say. Amazon used to pay a lot more pennies on the hour, and they changed their dynamic. And I think that kind of led to more of these apps popping up that are very much in what’s called the long tail, which basically my entire career is in the long tail. Which is the idea that basically a million people want to see the new X-Men movie, and maybe there’s a couple hundred thousand that loves Spaghetti Westerns of the late sixties like me.

And then as that starts to go down, there’s 1,000 people, or 100 people, or 10 people, or whatever that are waiting for my new movie. But when you get out a long tail like that, your audiences are very, very loyal. Everybody loves the new X-Men movie, but are they really loyal? Or the new Star Wars, are they really loyal? But as you start to go down that bell curve and you’re way out in the long tail, that’s where you find your hardcore fans of anything, whatever you want to say. And so that’s where I exist, and that’s what a lot of these apps now are catering to. And so it has changed the game for a lot of people. There’s a lot more entry points on streaming than there used to be.

Kate Jetmore: Well, it’s fascinating to hear how your career has developed and unfolded, and especially hearing it sort of in the context of how the world has developed and unfolded, and technology has developed and unfolded. So I want to thank you so much for sharing with us today, John, it’s been a real pleasure sitting down with you, and I want to wish you and your family all the best.

John Oak Dalton: Thank you so much. It’s been so interesting to be on with you and to kind of talk at this level. Thank you.

Kate Jetmore: Thank you, John.

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