Is there a place in the Indie Film Eco-system for a good story well told? Artist strive for this goal, but can audiences unite around something not built around a big concept, big cast, or controversial element? Perhaps the bigger question is can a filmmaker even take the risk of trying to answer this question?
TRUE ADOLESCENTS (starring Mark Duplass & Melissa Leo — two of the most watchable folks out there) opens today in NYC and got a good NY Times Review to boost it. Writer/Director Craig Johnson guests today about why and how he took that dare.
In her SXSW festival review of my first feature film, TRUE ADOLESCENTS, starring Mark Duplass, critic Karina Longworth said:
“In recent years, there’s been a vast gulf at SXSW between the tiny films critics and bloggers love and champion throughout the year (as in, virtually every other film Mark Duplass has been involved with) and the big movies that studios introduce to the audience in Austin which then become certifiable hits (as in, Knocked Up, or last year’s SXSW opening night film and eventual sleeper blockbuster 21). In scale and intention, True Adolescents feels squarely in the middle of those poles. I’m interested to see what its future brings, if it ends up drifting to one camp or another, or if it actually manages to bring the disparate fates together.”
Two years later, as my film is finally being released to the world, that “vast gulf” between SXSW indies and big studio comedies seems as vast as ever–and I don’t believe that TRUE ADOLESCENTS ever found footing in either camp. Which I think is a good thing.
You see, I made a “tweener” film. By that I mean I made a film that has the story and structure of a Hollywood dude-coming-of-age comedy but the look and feel of a scrappier, more naturalistic character portrait. It’s a marriage that I believe works, and the critics almost universally agreed. But it did render TRUE ADOLESCENTS an ungainly creature in terms of finding it a home. Beyond the misfortune of debuting in 2009, the year EW critic Owen Glieberman referred to as the “nadir” for Sundance indie film distribution, it boasted no A-list stars (Melissa Leo had not yet blasted into the Oscar stratosphere) rendering it too small for the studios. But it also didn’t have the kind of micro-budget, buzz-worthy “under-dog” status of many of the tiny indies championed by critics at SXSW.
So here we were, with a film about adolescence, that was kind of awkward itself: too small for some, too big for others. After many false starts, dead ends and “almost” situations with distribution we eventually found a home with the newly-minted Flatiron Films arm of NY-based distro company New Video. But over the 2 years it took to find distribution, I had many opportunities to reflect on what exactly the film was and what it said about me as a filmmaker.
I grew up in the 80s, a child of Spielberg and Lucas. My film universe was a literal universe populated by aliens, Jedis, gremlins, poltergeists, ghostbusters and the occasional band of Goonies. These were the only films that mattered to me as a kid. I knew my parents saw other stuff (something where guys in white shorts ran along the beach set to triumphant synth music) but I couldn’t care less. Then my mother brought home a rented VHS copy of Lasse Hallstrom’s MY LIFE AS A DOG and my little movie world was blown open. The Swedish coming-of-age classic about a young boy who spends a summer with his eccentric relatives in the Swedish countryside was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Strange, haunting, naturalistic, funny but dark, with a frank depiction of childhood sexuality, it opened my eyes to what a movie could be. Not to mention it was subtitled. From that point on I was officially a movie buff.
I ended up going to grad film school at NYU where I became obsessed with all the usual suspects: Renoir, Vigo, Demy, Welles, Ashby, Altman, Forman. I struggled to get into Bresson and Tarkovsky but dammit I respected them. I ripped-off my favorite directors in my short films and wrote a couple genre screenplays for practice. For the TRUE ADOLESCENTS script, however, I drew on my personal life and, for the first time I felt I had written something that really was my sensibility; a fusion of my interest in honest, natural, character observation (an interest picked up later in my film-obsessed life) fused with a classic coming-of-age narrative (drawing on my childhood love of Hollywood and genre). I wanted to make it, and through a mixture of hard work, luck, collaboration, a little bit of talent and a lot of good timing I managed to do it. It got into SXSW and we were, as my pragmatic dad would say, “hoping for the best & preparing for the worst”. While the worst certainly never manifested, neither did the best. And it became reality-check time.
Whether we admit it or not, every first-time film director secretly thinks our film will set the world on fire. The reality is, maybe two films per year actually do. Even though I was vaguely aware of this reality, I thought I would be the exception–it’s human nature. So when you find yourself in the position I’d read about often in Filmmaker magazine (the frustrated indie director who made a good feature but is struggling with distribution) you find yourself saying “sheesh, am I that guy?”. And the cold, hard answer is: yes. I am. But so is everyone in this game. Even Todd Solondz. The trick is to know yourself, to remain true to your instincts and to stand by your work. As for how your work is perceived, I take my cue from the Sondheim tune “Move On” from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE:
“Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision, they usually do. You keep moving on.”
I am deeply proud of TRUE ADOLESCENTS. It perfectly captures my sensibility which I believe does straddle an indie and Hollywood world. And what’s wrong with that? My favorite directors work within the studio system and yet maintain their distinct voice, filmmakers like Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuaron, Gus van Sant and Ang Lee. This balance between commercial instinct and personal vision is what I aspire to in my own career.
Though it’s taken two years to distribute TRUE ADOLESCENTS, the film kick-started my career immediately. I got a manager and agent directly after SXSW and just last week I moved from NYC to LA to write for 20th Century Fox. I am also cobbling together financing for my second indie feature as director. If my film hadn’t been such a “tweener” I’m not sure I would have been in this position. So here’s to the “tweener” film. May it help usher in an era where the lines between Hollywood and indie filmmaking become a little blurrier. I swear it can happen. It did, once upon a time. Lest we forget, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is a Warner Brothers film.
TRUE ADOLESCENTS premieres July 29th at the reRun theater in Brooklyn and runs through August 4th. Star Mark Duplass will be at both the 7pm and 10pm screening on the 29th along with director Craig Johnson and producer Thomas Woodrow. You can buy tickets HERE.
TRUE ADOLESCENTS TRAILER:
TRUE ADOLESCENTS marks Craig Johnson’s feature film writing and directing debut. He is currently writing a project for 20th Century Fox and preparing his second feature as director, THE SKELETON TWINS, which he co-wrote with Mark Heyman (BLACK SWAN). He holds an MFA from New York University’s graduate film program, where he was awarded a Clive Davis Award for Excellence in Music in Film.