Grow backwards. A conversation with Joe Simon / by Justin DeMers

Joe Simon has spent most of his adult life trying to be a kid again—and inspiring others to do the same. 

Call it the Benjamin Button effect: he grows as a filmmaker by growing backwards as a person.

If this picture had audio, you'd hear Joe screaming, "Look! I'm on top of a car!"

If this picture had audio, you'd hear Joe screaming, "Look! I'm on top of a car!"

Owner of Austin production company The Delivery Men, Joe bought his first camera in 1998 (from a Best Buy, using an employee discount no less) to make BMX videos, as he'd been riding professionally since 1994. 

It wasn't until 14 years later when, after more than a decade of running through the full gamut of project types, Joe launched The Delivery Men with friend, writer and producer, Hussain Pirani. The company gave Joe and Hussain full control over the production of their films, and with it the freedom of diversity.

Yet, if one were to watch Joe's many films, a pattern would emerge. 

Each film comes from a place of total, compulsive childishness: celebrating the energy and joy in doing exactly what you want.

Despite every neuron in your brain screaming otherwise, that’s not a bad thing.

Being a kid is about the restlessness of curiosity, about being precocious and wild and finding a way to enjoy life for the beautiful mess of possibilities it presents.

It’s that kind of fearlessness Joe sees as the main motivation that’s carried him through his career as a filmmaker.

Kids...they just don’t care what people think about them or what they’re doing. They’re just doing what they’re doing because they’re doing it. And that’s it.  

We find something very refreshing in that. After all, what may be keeping us from some truly amazing stories is that we’ve spent too long acting like a bunch of adults.

Since Joe’s been doing what he’s doing for the sake of doing it for over a decade now—and loving every day—this has meant SXSW tour guides, not-for-profit promotions, and irreverent jeans commercials, as well as the occasional wedding film or BMX epic to keep his priorities in check. Whatever's fun, right?

So, with that in mind, the self-professed “class clown” offered us some advice on how to relive all the fun you once had, so many years ago, figuring out that brand new camera for the first time.

Here are 4 childish behaviors we hope will inspire you to go out, find cool things, and remember what it's like to be a kid again.

1. Kids are always learning.

For any filmmaker, a lack of technical knowledge about your craft can sometimes seem like an insurmountable obstacle. 

When Joe began, he made a series of “user guides” and “quick tips!” videos. Their purpose was to both test out some new skills and emulate the same videos he watched to get his bearings when he was first figuring out how his camera worked.

In some ways, Joe’s videos were a reaction to the early filmmaking community's tendency to keep knowledge and resources close to the chest. But when people finally started responding to his instructional films (due in no small part to his sense of humor), he saw what kind of power community could wield when working in tandem.

He learned, above all, that sharing his know-how only helped encourage others to share theirs.

You learn that once you actually start sharing stuff, and letting people in, that you actually learn more...So it’s kind of a two-way street. Every time I teach I learn just as much as they learn from me. So, it’s always a learning process.

An adult can often feel stymied, too far behind the curve to ever get started. A kid, instead, gobbles up information from wherever it comes, with no real concern for what he or she doesn’t know.

2. Kids are always exploring.

It all started with BMX, really.

A bike to me is freedom...

...the freedom to go wherever I want, do whatever I want, there’s no rules in a sense. You’re just going around town, looking for these new and different things that you haven’t seen before...when you find that new thing it’s so exciting, it’s so much fun to be able to then ride it. It’s that new excitement that drives you to keep going and find the next thing.

Joe may refer to it as ADHD, but that freedom has given him the confidence to grab a camera and find adventure in the process of filmmaking.

...Exploring to find the next project. What is the next thing that will excite you? That’s where the diversity comes in: I have to have that excitement. it’s almost like an addiction—filmmaking or shooting photographs or any of that—it’s the process that leads you there, and finding that discovery, and then creating, and then you go into the editing process and it’s the whole thing over again.

About a year ago, Joe traveled to India for no other reason than to do so. He brought along his camera—as if we’d expect otherwise—and captured a wealth of untold stories.

A lot of people don’t really go on adventures. They don’t get out there and get out of their comfort zone. When I go on these vacations or these trips, I like to go to places that people don’t normally go.

It was a personal journey for him, yet he still cut the footage, made a short film, and shared it on Vimeo. He describes it as “A story of grown-ass people enjoying life.” In other words: shame on us "grown-ass people", because we've forgotten that a big part of enjoying life is about pushing it into the unknown.

Being a kid is about the restlessness of curiosity, about being wild and finding a way to enjoy life for the beautiful mess of possibilities it presents.

Being a kid is about the restlessness of curiosity, about being wild and finding a way to enjoy life for the beautiful mess of possibilities it presents.

I want people to see: take chances. Go out and see things you normally wouldn’t see. So many people have never left the US that live in the US and it blows my mind that they just don’t travel...By being so closed-minded, you don’t experience those cultures and those people and see that everybody is a human, and we all are basically all exactly the same.

I think it’s a good experience for everybody. It’s inspirational.

Adventure is a way to remember that rules can be broken, and that the best stories we can tell are those we have yet to discover.

For most kids, adventure is their bread and butter, the only way to catch a first glimpse of just how big, broad, and beautiful this world is.

3. Kids are always open-minded.

Since, in “The Great India Adventure”, Joe calls himself a “great traveler”, we asked him the best quality a traveler can have.

A traveler just needs to be open-minded. ...Open-minded to accept whatever is going to happen...you just have to be open-minded to take everything as it happens and just roll with the punches.

Easier said than done. So Joe referenced one of his time-lapse films, “A Day in Rio De Janeiro”.

I’ll want to capture the beauty of what I’m doing. But sometimes if you’re actually going out and filming stuff, you’re not able to be in the moment because you’re there, filming it, real time, constantly and constantly. You set up a time-lapse for 30 minutes, you’re able to then set up the camera, you’re done with it, and then you can hang out at that beautiful location, have a drink, whatever...actually take it in for 30 minutes.

It may be blasphemy coming from a filmmaker, but Joe believes a camera can sometimes take the place of actual experience.

It’s the existential failure we face as grown-ups: looking forward to remembering an experience, instead of just letting the experience unfold as it will.

People take so many pictures nowadays...and it’s all they’re doing: they’re going wherever they are to post that picture on Facebook or whatever. That’s actually making their memory worse, because by taking that picture they’re not processing the moment.

4. Kids are just that: kids.

Which is just one way of saying: a kid can’t be anything but a kid.

Similarly, Joe Simon can’t be anyone but Joe Simon. And this attitude has allowed him to shape his career as a filmmaker into one where he gets to tell exactly the stories he wants to tell.

Maybe that’s simplistic advice, but through just being himself, making films that fall all over the emotional spectrum, Joe learned exactly the kind of films—as well as the parts about filmmaking—he was most passionate pursuing.

It helps people find their path, I think, because if you don’t learn the different processes, you can’t really find out what you’re passionate about and what you really care to do within filmmaking. 

Over a decade into it, he’s capturing the stories that mean most to him.

Enjoying what he’s doing, every single day, is more than a means to an end. It’s the end itself.

When we convince ourselves we’re officially grown-ups, we become locked into a firm way of being: risk and curiosity take second place behind stability and comfort.

But for all filmmakers—from those with an established reputation to those shopping for cameras at Best Buy—taking to our craft with a youthful spirit can uncover something purer in our storytelling.

If we’re not afraid to act like kids, the stories we tell will come from somewhere more authentic than we could have ever imagined.

Now try to dig up some memories. Think of one moment from your childhood you wish you could have filmed and share in the comments below. You may find some inspiration in storyboarding your youth.