Among film philanthropic group Cinereach’s most recently announced grantees was the debut feature project by artist, short filmmaker, professor, and festival curator Liza Johnson, “Return.” indieWIRE spoke with Johnson in late May about the project, the unique perspective her art school background brings to filmmaking, and the role and influence her previous short work has had on approaching her first feature.
Johnson has been working as an artist for more than a decade, drawing on her background in the avant garde and counter cinema to create installation work as well as short film projects that have been exhibited internationally in museums, galleries, and festivals, including MoMA, the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Walker Art Center, the Centre Pompidou, the Berlinale, and Rotterdam. She sees a certain freedom in approaching narrative works from this art school tradition: “I never really studied the conventions of narrative film that in art cinema we try to avoid – they’re easy to avoid because, in a way, I kind of don’t know them.” Through fellowships and lab programs with the Sundance Institute, the DAAD Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, and others, Johnson has been able to better hone her narrative storytelling, while she credits her experiences making shorts to helping her understand the grammar, timing, and construction of filmmaking.
A couple of recent short projects, “South of Ten,” which premiered on Opening Night of the New York Film Festival in 2006 and deals with the post-Katrina Mississippi Gulf Coast; and “In the Air,” a portrait of a circus school in Johnson’s de-industrialized Ohio hometown, served as useful experiments that have informed her approach to “Return.” For both of the shorts, non-professional actors acted out scenes from their lives, in effect “making a fictional film in a documentary environment,” Johnson says. Shooting these projects like narratives, her aim was to work with real people to get at their everyday lives, but used the displacement effect of acting to get away from overused reality TV conventions and to achieve a heightened realism.
While “Return” features professional actors (Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, and Tim Blake Nelson), their experience and training allows them to work with Johnson to get to the realism and tone she’s seeking. In addition, she wrote the script for “Return” with her “In the Air” hometown in mind – a town in its own state of economic crisis, mirroring its protagonist – and with the same sense of temporality of the everyday shared by both shorts.
In “Return,” a soldier (Cardellini) returns home from a tour of duty only to feel at odds with her environment in a way she never expected. While the film may seem, on the surface, to share elements in common with other “soldier returns home” films, the subjective focus on the character’s experience of everyday life makes it a different kind of project. “I see [“Return”] in the tradition of films like ‘Safe’ and ‘A Woman Under the Influence,’ about strong female protagonists who don’t quite fit in with their world,” Johnson explains. Another, perhaps more unexpected, cinematic antecedent is “Taxi Driver.” While her protagonist is not a violent sociopath like Travis Bickle, both characters are implicitly influenced by their backgrounds as veterans, but explicitly followed after those experiences in their daily lives. Because of the centrality of their present day characters and experiences, audiences in both films wouldn’t necessarily constantly focus on the protagonists’ war backgrounds as the inciting reasons for the conflicts in their current predicaments.
Beyond this, the fact that the solider protagonist is a woman also distinguishes “Return” from other returning soldier films. In researching the project, Johnson spoke to a number of women soldiers in similar situations – “Expectations and pressures are different for women – dealing with rage is harder for them and not as acceptable as it is for men.” Johnson makes it clear that her goal is not to indict the genre, but simply to offer a different perspective.
Looking toward the future, following the completion of “Return” (which is scheduled to begin principal photography in the late Summer or early Fall), Johnson has speculative plans for smaller projects that also share commonalities with her previous short work but include transmedia elements. When asked about potential transmedia elements for “Return,” the filmmaker responded, “I want to be clear about what I’m doing at any given moment – this film is a film, not an installation. Maybe people will watch it and enjoy it on a cellphone at some point, but it’s not intended for a cellphone. That’s not what makes sense for this project, it needs to be organic.”
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter @1basil1 and @CanalStMadamDoc.