Meet Upper Midwest Emmy Award Winner Joe Carlini

by | Mar 2024

Joe Carlini

Joe Carlini. Photo: Chris Emeott

Joe Carlini shares how he reached the Emmy stage.

When Joe Carlini won his first Upper Midwest Emmy Award for Second Chance U, he felt like he was on top of the world. Rightfully so.

The 2006 Woodbury alumnus followed his dreams, worked hard and saw everything come full circle in 2014 with the prestigious award. “It was incredible,” he says. “I went through a lot to get there … it definitely wasn’t easy.”

The two-time Upper Midwest Emmy Award-winning director/writer has been nominated for the award 10 times. Best known for his films, Second Chance U and Everything is Wonderful, and most recently, Josiah, Carlini says he has a lot of stories to tell and looks forward to what’s to come.

“There are so many things I love about film. I love watching a story unfold and falling in love with the characters,” he says. “I do a variety of stuff. For me, if I think it’s a good story, I’m willing to put my time toward it and put a lot of energy into it.”

But let’s back up. Carlini’s success certainly didn’t happen overnight and was fueled early on with his roots in Woodbury. While he has plenty of stories to tell, his is worth sharing, too.

Early Exposure

Carlini’s parents, Jodi and Greg Carlini, and grandfather, Ulysses, all have backgrounds in TV, giving Carlini exposure to the industry early on. Storytelling was a way of life for Carlini’s family. “There’s such power in storytelling,” he says.

Not knowing that his path would lead to film, Carlini admits to struggling during his time at Woodbury High School. He found it difficult to focus and had little interest in his courses. That all changed when he went to film school at Minneapolis Community & Technical College and University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “I was fully engaged and fully invested,” he says. “It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.”

Because he hadn’t made any short films in high school, Carlini admits he felt like he was behind the rest of his peers. Anxious to jump right into feature filmmaking, Carlini says he knew making short films was essential to learning.

“They’re the stepping stones of how to tell a story visually with a camera,” he says. “You have to learn how to edit; you have to learn how to add sound and music. There are so many components to it.”

Knowing he had catching up to do, he got to work creating about 30 short films before building the confidence to make and release his first feature, My Senior Year, a coming-of-age high school love story.

Carlini quickly learned feature films are quite complex, oftentimes operating with little-to-no budget. “It takes a very particular person to make a feature film,” he says. “They’re very hard to raise money for and see all the way through. It’s a tremendous amount of work … a lot of times you’re starving just to see the film through.”

None of this discouraged him.

Eventually, Carlini knew his experience was polished, and in 2014, he moved to the top production hub of the world: Los Angeles.

Snapshots Through Joe Carlini’s Career
Joe Carlini (middle) with his mother, Jodi, and friends from Suburban Community Channels in 2014.

Joe Carlini (middle) with his mother, Jodi, and friends from Suburban Community Channels in 2014.

The Big Leagues

Getting settled in L.A. came naturally for Carlini, who already had friends and connections in the industry.

“I was so inspired and so hungry [for success] that I’d easily approach people and introduce myself and tell them what I was doing,” he says. “It was exciting. It was a new chapter in my life. It was an adventure I was ready to take on.”

Shortly after the move, Carlini won his first Upper Midwest Emmy in 2014 for Second Chance U, a story about a junior college basketball team, and then another Upper Midwest Emmy in 2015 for Everything is Wonderful, a story about Carlini’s grandfather. “I worked so hard and went through a lot to achieve these goals,” he says. “It was incredible.”

While Carlini will tell a story if it’s a good one to be told, he says as he matures in his career, he finds the most enjoyment in stories that have realism, truth and substance.

“I like something that has layers to it and isn’t just surface level,” he says. That’s how he feels about Josiah, his latest film to receive an Upper Midwest Emmy nomination.

Josiah tells the story of Josiah Kouts, who died in 2018 at age 25 of an opioid overdose. The documentary includes the accounts of his parents, siblings, friends and community members.

Carlini came across his story in a newspaper article that Kouts’ mother wrote about her son and his addiction, and he was instantly intrigued and knew the powerful impact telling this story could make.

“I went all in on it,” he says of making the documentary, much of which he did for free. “The Kouts family lives in Stafford, Arizona, and became like family to me. They didn’t hold anything back on Josiah’s addiction and how it destroyed his life. They thought if they could save one life, it was worth the cause.”

During the first screening of Josiah in Stafford, about 1,000 community members filled a local school’s gymnasium. Carlini recalls watching everyone around him become emotional during the film, resulting in a standing ovation during the closing credits.

“I knew I was connecting with people’s souls … with their hearts,” Carlini says. “That was a powerful feeling for me. It was just such a heavy moment … I believed in it from the start and knew I just had to get it to the finish line.”

Joe Carlini

Next Up

With plenty of room to add to his trophy case, Carlini says he’s excited for the future, hinting there are some big projects on the horizon.

And while he wouldn’t reveal any details, he did offer a little teaser that he’s collaborating with a fellow Woodbury alum, who was also Carlini’s roommate.

“Let’s just say this next chapter in my life is going to be really big,” he says. “There’s a lot of stories I want to tell while I’m on this Earth. I love inspiring people and giving them hope.”


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