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SXSW Interview: “True Adolescents” Director Craig Johnson

SXSW Interview: "True Adolescents" Director Craig Johnson

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

“True Adolescents”
Director/Screenwriter: Craig Johnson
Cast: Mark Duplass, Melissa Leo, Bret Loehr, Carr Thompson, Linas Philips, Davie-Blue
Synopsis [courtesy of SXSW]: This coming of age story stars Mark Duplass as Sam Bryant, an aging Seattle rocker with no job, no record deal, and no place to stay until he finds some room at his aunt’s house in the suburbs. He’s also the last guy anyone would pick to take two teens camping for some quality dude time.

“True Adolescents” is screening in the Narrative Feature competition.

Please introduce yourself…

My name’s Craig Johnson and I’m 33. I grew up in Bellingham, Washington and studied theater at the University of Washington in Seattle. Prior to moving to New York in 2002 to go to film school, I worked at a science museum where I taught kids about liquid nitrogen, boa constrictors and lasers. Since moving to New York, I’ve taught filmmaking to high school kids and worked as an editor while putting together “True Adolescents,” my first feature film. My favorite animal alternates between the blue-ringed octopus and the proboscis monkey depending on my mood. I currently live in Brooklyn.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I was a movie freak as a kid and wanted to be an actor for a while. Around high school I became more aware of what a director actually does and, during college, decided that “what I really want to do is direct.” After college I was futzing around as a writer, director and actor in fringe theater in Seattle and really feeling like I was spinning my wheels. So I applied to grad film school, got into NYU, made some short films and, most importantly, wrote a bunch of feature scripts. That writing practice was invaluable. I not only learned how a feature script functions, but I got to get a lot of under-nourished-or just plain bad-ideas out of my system.

“True Adolescents” was the fourth script I wrote, and, once I had a draft I was happy with, I did a reading of it at NYU which went over really well. The chair of NYU, John Tintori, saw the reading and hooked me up with my tremendous producer, Thomas Woodrow, who managed to raise the money we needed within 8 months of our first meeting. So many incredible people got involved with the project early on, including Gil Holland, Emmanuel Michael and Stu Pollard, that I was in constant state of disbelief-I mean, was this really happening? At the end of the day, people believed in the script and Thomas Woodrow and, by association, me. I’m making it sound like it all came together easily. There was, of course, a lot of sweat and struggle and self-doubt along the way. But, in some ways, it was dream scenario.

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

Growing up, I had a lot of friends who were boy scouts and I would often tag along on their camping trips. There was always a big mix of personalities on these trips-funny outrageous kids, uptight kids, whiners, bullies, closeted drama kids, class-president types and, of course, the responsible scoutmasters in charge of all of us. A few years ago, I thought “wouldn’t it be funny if a couple of these kids were on a camping trip, but were stuck with an adult who was even more immature and less prepared to go camping than they were?” So the idea started as a flat-out comedy premise. But then, probably because I was dealing with my own angst having just turned thirty, it became much more about the guy in charge of the kids and his struggles with his unrealized dreams of rock stardom. By focusing on this character, who is brilliantly played by Mark Duplass, the whole thing became much more fleshed-out and “real.” Though it’s still quite funny, I must say, especially the interactions between Mark and the teens.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

Casting is everything for me. We scored Mark Duplass fairly early on, and then cast Bret and Carr, the two teenage boys, out of LA. Once we had that threesome, I knew we had a movie. The fact that we got Melissa Leo to play aunt Sharon was the ultimate icing on an already stellar cake. On set, I tried to create an environment where the actors could be as natural and spontaneous as possible–which meant allowing them to put the lines into their own words, to completely improvise here and there, and to make sure I wasn’t meddling too much. My approach as a director is very much an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach–meaning I trust the actors and crew to do their jobs without me micro-managing things. However, when I needed to make adjustments, I wasn’t shy about swooping in and doing so.

My DP, Kat Westergaard, really understood that we were making a performance-driven film. She allowed the actors the freedom to deliver nuanced, organic performances while still making the film look beautiful. We were shooting in some stunning locations in the Pacific Northwest and what’s amazing about Kat’s work is that she captures that beauty without it ever getting in the way of the performances or the story. It all feels like a natural, organic whole.

The final piece of the puzzle was finding an editor who really understood the film. My editor, Jennifer Lee, came from the comics world and has an amazing sense of visual storytelling. Along with Thomas Woodrow, whose artistic eye I deeply respect, the three of us worked together in the editing room to make sure the film was as good as it could be. Needless to say, I try to embrace the collaborative nature of filmmaking-I find it usually makes the film better.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Beyond the usual finding-the-money challenges, the biggest challenge was battling that deep, hard-to-define voice inside, telling you that what you’re doing is crazy and will never work out. It is a privilege to be able to make a film and, perhaps as a defense mechanism, I secretly assumed disaster would befall us and it would never happen. For example, on our second day of shooting the camera truck caught on fire due to a battery charger short and I remember thinking “Well. That’s it. It’s over. I knew this was too good to be true.” But my producer calmed me down and then Melissa Leo gave me a pep talk encouraging me not to waste the day, that we should rehearse and move on as usual. We did, while the intrepid camera department fixed up everything, and we were back shooting the next day. It restored my faith, not only in myself, but in our ability, as a crew, to make this thing happen.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I think anyone who manages to make a feature film can consider themselves successful. It’s just a really, really hard thing to do and you have to take a lot of risks and make a lot of sacrifices along the way. Personally, I want to continue making films that are funny and human and real. Ideally, I’d like to find that “sweet spot” in American filmmaking that directors like Alexander Payne, Richard Linklater and Gus van Sant have found–that ability to make films both inside and outside the studio system while still retaining their “voice” as directors. Ultimately, though, if I am able to keep making films at all, I’ll be happy.

What are your future projects?

I have a comedy script I’m developing with Furnace Films-the same creative team that did “True Adolescents.” It’s called “Alex Strangelove” and it’s an unexpected twist on the typical high school movie. I’m really excited about it.

I’m also working on a thriller-comedy about killer, land dwelling, mini-octopus creatures and the small town family that has to save the day. It’s called “Nasty Little Suckers,” a title of which I’m extremely proud.

My third project is an attempt to dig myself out of unfathomable student debt. This project will be a muti-part epic that I plan to be working on for the rest of my natural life.

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