Texas filmmaker James M. Johnston is quite up-and-coming! In just a few years several of his short films have been featured at dozens of festivals including his latest project Knife, which premiered at the 2011 Sarasota Film Festival and screened in his home state during the 2012 SXSW.
Johnston also produced the short film Pioneer, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, and was recently selected as a Sundance Institute Feature Film Creative Producing Fellow.
Dread Central had the opportunity to sit down for an extensive chat with Johnston about his latest directorial effort, Knife, and learned more about his atmospheric rural Texas tale centered around an unnamed man (Charles Baker) who must face the dangerous consequences of the rising anger inside of him.
During our interview we heard from Johnston about his blossoming career as an independent filmmaker as well as more about his latest short film and how the 70’s inspired his approach on Knife. Read on for the highlights from our interview with Johnston, and for more information on his work, make sure to click here.
Dread Central: So let’s start at the beginning; I would love to hear a little bit about what got you into your filmmaking career.
James M. Johnston: Well, I didn’t really get started in films until I was around 25. I’m 37 now, and one of my friends who was going to school for photography was taking some film classes and he brought home a VHS tape of black and white films done in 16mm that some kids had made at the college. That was the first time that I ever realized you can just go make films by yourself- you don’t have to move to L.A. like everyone says.
See, I grew up in a very blue collar family; we didn’t watch classic films or foreign films or anything like that. We just watched TV and stuff on video. My whole life I had been writing as I was trying to be a novelist like every other kid; Stephen King was my idol and I thought I would be the next Stephen King, but that was never what fully interested me. What interested me were the visual details, but I couldn’t really draw so at that moment it was like a real epiphany watching that little VHS tape of 16 MM shorts.
So I just jumped headlong into it. I didn’t go to film school or anything, but I started volunteering to work on local productions that were happening and one of those end up being with my good friend David Lowery. He wanted to make a film and put out a crew call, and I was basically the only person who kept showing up every day; we became very good friends because of that. So that was about 12 years ago, and we have been working together ever since.
Dread Central: And how about your short films and projects before Knife?
James M. Johnston: Yeah, well the first film that I made that really sort of launched me into the film festival world was called Dead Room; it was an omnibus film that was myself and three other directors and we each directed a segment. The concept was about a room that you can go in and talk to a dead person; we had some simple rules in place, like it had to be someone you had a relationship with and you couldn’t try and bring back like Hitler or Elvis. It was essentially a relationship drama, and that premiered in 2005 and it did really well for us. It played all over the place, and we even won an award for it. That award launched us into the film festival world, and then after that I just kept making short films. I did a short called Merrily, Merrily which is about a 13-year-old girl having an existential crisis, and I did really well out on the circuit with that short. Then in 2009 I produced a film with David Lowery that he wrote and directed called St. Nick, and that did really well, too; we played all over the world with that film and even got distribution.
Then in 2010 I produced a short with David and my other producing partner Toby Halbrooks called Pioneer staring Will Odom. It premiered at Sundance, and it just took everything up a notch for all of us. It won the Grand Jury prize at SXSW and at seven other festivals, and because of that last year Toby and I got a creative producing fellowship at Sundance; then David got into the writer’s lab at Sundance so our team is being vetted by Sundance, which is helping us push that into whatever our next project is.
Dread Central: And how about Knife? It has this retro feel to it which I really dug; it’s pretty ballsy to make a short without dialogue, too.
James M. Johnston: In general I am a big fan of 70’s era filmmaking; I mean I love all sorts of films and I’m old enough that when VHS and VCR’s came out, it was expensive to own them so you would go on the weekend and rent the VCR and a stack of tapes and take them home for the weekend. And the more I got into film, the more enthralled I got with the 70’s era of filmmaking- like (Martin) Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, (George) Lucas and all those guys.
So I’m really keen on that look and that feeling so when I sat down to write this script, I knew it came to me as a film without dialogue, and the more I thought about it, I write as a director (not as a writer) so when I’m writing I am thinking about the visuals mostly. Usually I have to sort of go back and tighten up the story and make sure the dialogue is good, but in this case I didn’t have to do that because the visuals were the story.
So Knife is a rough story; it’s about revenge and it’s that sort of classic Southern Gothic film so I knew it was going to need that gritty 70’s look to it. It couldn’t look too clean or crisp; it had to have a rough feel, like if you just found it on a VHS tape from the 70’s; and that’s why I approached it that way.
Dread Central: Did you storyboard everything out? How did your preparation process change for Knife in comparison to other shorts you’ve worked on before?
James M. Johnston: You know, I didn’t storyboard but I knew what I wanted to shoot. Like I said, I can’t really draw so I was able to write it out in a shot list and talk it out with my director of photography about what I wanted from each shot and each scene. So yes, we did a lot of planning for those visuals, but I didn’t have actual have storyboards to work with.
And also I am a big fan of those big happy accidents that a lot of filmmakers crave so I feel like if you over-storyboard, then maybe you are locking yourself in to those boxes. I think it’s better when you say, ‘Here’s the idea that I want; let’s start setting up and maybe something really interesting will happen that you didn’t think about before.’ My shooting style allows that to happen, and I’m a big fan of that.
Dread Central: Clearly, you’ve got a great handle on short-form filmmaking; any plans on taking the helm for a feature soon?
James M. Johnston: Definitely; I have been producing features for a while now, too, so I’m ready. I have a couple of different scripts that I am working on to direct- one that is completed and then another script that deals with the theme of revenge, although in a completely different way than Knife does. I am a big fan of genre films that circumvent the traditional trappings of that genre, and I think that’s where I’m headed with the features that I will end up making and producing as well.
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