Interview of Jayson Johnson
Cult Critic: What drove you to become a filmmaker and a producer? What is it about filmmaking that makes you want to keep exploring this artform, and never give up on it?
Jayson: I think it’s the other way around... filmmaking chose me. From an early age there was something about TV and the people who were on it. But for me it was I wanted that feeling of arriving in a limo and walking the red carpet, signing autographs and taking pictures. Those people on the screen had this special aura to them; they were captivating, different and interesting. Different from the factory workers and drug dealers I grew up with; more interesting than my math teacher and better looking than any childhood crush I ever had. I knew back then I wanted to be on TV. My problem was I just didn’t know how. So, I tried all sorts of different things. I acted in plays, took drama classes, drew cartoons for the newspaper and even tried being a radio DJ. None of these were really my calling but each of these experiences helped me to become a better filmmaker. But it wasn’t until I started producing where everything came into focus. As a producer I learned the ‘art of the ask’ and getting things done. Then after producing several shorts and TV projects and seeing other directors drop the ball, I decided to start helming my own film projects. Lastly, I choose to carry on as an independent filmmaker because I’ve got to see this thing through. I can’t quit. I’ve already slept on floors, been chased by police, lost everything, been homeless, and much, much more. I believe there has to be a rainbow after all of this struggle and I’m determined to find it.
Cult Critic: You have worked on several short-film projects before your recent short fiction, ‘T.H.O.T’ it must have been quite a learning curve! Could you describe what you had learnt from your past experiences that helped you with your most recent project?
Jayson: The first project I wrote and directed was a series of skits called “The Jayson Johnson Show”. At the time I landed a job as a teacher's aide at a local college so I just started teaching myself filmmaking with a Mini DV camera I bought on eBay and the iMac’s that were in the computer lab. I used to just stay in that lab like it was my second home. Some nights I’d be in there until security came to lock up the place. I miss those times. Those were the days where I was just running on passion and I soaked up everything like a sponge. I lost track of time learning how to set up a scene, how to block characters, how to pull off special effects and advanced editing techniques. I wanted to learn it all and this was the perfect place where I could do it.
Cult Critic: ‘T.H.O.T’ was about how women are oftentimes defamed and sexualized simply because they want to find ‘the right guy’ and are open to dating different men frequently. Would you say that your other films tackle similar issues present in our society at large?
Jayson: I try to tackle large issues in my films. I think it’s important to connect with audiences on something they’re passionate about or can relate to. So, with ‘T.H.O.T?’ We thought (my filmmaking team) it might be good cinema to approach social issues like promiscuity, toxic masculinity, gossip, etc... This film also had a lot of firsts for me as well... this was the first time I directed a love scene, had nudity on set and worked with name talent so there were a lot of learning experiences on this project. After filming we interviewed with the top radio station in the Bay Area and were covered by some big publications so this also was new areas of experience to navigate.
Cult Critic: Like your 2018 short, ‘Lifeline,’ most of your short films revolve around the life of a struggling protagonist, trying their best to overcome grief. Would you say that your stories and characters are a representation of your personal life? Have you been trying to overcome grief yourself?
Jayson: Lol, Good catch! I never thought of that! I guess it’s true when they say you can’t fully hide yourself from the characters you pen in your movies. So yeah, I guess there’s some truth to that. I’ve been through a lot of trauma in life and had to seek therapy to fully heal from it. I’m originally from the Midwest and back when I was growing up there was a certain stigma that was attached to seeing a therapist. It was labelled as weak minded so for years I just carried on trying not to think about it until I finally sought therapy to heal. While I’m in a good place now I still do draw on those experiences of trauma to write authentic characters that are relatable to audiences. An audience can spot a 2D character from a mile away so I think it’s important for a writer to have life experiences to draw from. With me, my experiences are overcoming a lot of obstacles so that’s what I tend to write about.
Cult Critic: Before you were an established producer and a director, you had faced poverty, discrimination, and homelessness. What pulled you out of that murky world?
Jayson: I think faith in God and a willingness to work is my saving grace. The film industry is a “beat you to the ground and keep you their industry” if you let it, but you have to make the conscious decision to get back up and keep fighting. This is actually the mantra behind Strike Five Films. To keep swinging even after three strikes; you only strike out when you stop swinging so to all of the readers whenever things don’t go your way and life knocks you down (and it will!) get back up and dust yourself off to try again and again and again... you can never quit. Those who are victorious are the same people who never quit.
Cult critic: As a producer, you have worked on several projects from all over the globe. From your showreel, you had produced several South-Asian films as well! Describe your experience working with directors from a different part of the world, making films in a language you are not familiar with.
Jayson: Yes, I’ve had the good blessing to work on two South Indian Films, “Keep It Simple Stupid” and “Welcome to America”. Both of these films were filmed in Telugu and Tamil languages, both of which I don’t speak which made this a very interesting experience. For ‘Keep it Simple Stupid’ I answered a Craigslist ad and lied my way through the interview. I told Sesh Adivi and his mother that I was an experienced producer when the truth was I had only produced my own projects at this time. So, when I showed up to set I’d just point out 2-3 things that seemed out of order sending the crew scrambling. Then in that downtime I’d watch How to Produce Videos on YouTube to figure things out. I was running a producer scam in real time but I knew I’d be successful if I just got the chance and that proved to be right. And I love Indian people! They’re the best! This was the first time I had a chance to work with an Indian crew so there was a lot to learn culturally and cinematically. I think Indians are very optimistic people so we bonded over this. We looked for ways where we could get locations for super cheap or for free and how to get extras interested in the project. Working on each of these films was really hard work but I wouldn’t change anything about the experience. I loved the whole time I had working on these projects and miss the people involved on a daily basis. I see Adivi Sesh is a big star in India now and I’m thankful he gave me the experience when I was just starting out. I wish him continued success and prosperity. He’s a really good dude.
Cult Critic: You have worked with legends like Francis Ford Coppola, and have been a part of several high-budget productions. What sets an indie set apart from a big Hollywood movie set? Please describe your experience working with Coppola for our readers.
Jayson: I think all film sets are basically the same. At the core you have the location, filmmakers, talent, equipment, food/snacks, etc... The only difference between a small and big project is there’s much more money involved with the Hollywood styled production. So, everything is going to be elevated in these productions. For example, instead of fledgling talent you’ll have name talent, instead of pizza you’ll have catering, instead of novice filmmakers you’ll have talented, experienced filmmakers. The key in both of these experiences is to remain yourself and work really hard wherever you’re at. Do it for the love of filmmaking not because you’re trying to impress someone famous. Afterall we all put our pants on one leg at a time.
Cult Critic: Many filmmakers believe that it is harder to make a short film than a feature, considering that one must consolidate several plot elements together in an extremely short span of time, while also telling an interesting story! Do you have a similar opinion?
Jayson: Nope, I don’t agree with that at all. While I have yet to make a feature, I think that would be much harder than a short because you want to make sure you have an interesting collection of characters, plot, locations, etc... to hold an audience's attention for two hours. For shorts it’s much different; you only need to captivate an audience for ten minutes or less and then it’s over. But speaking of shorts, I see a lot of fledgling filmmakers mistakenly try to add too much dialogue, characters, special effects, etc... to their shorts. To me a short is just a snippet of a larger story. There’s no need to have a backstory and a ton of exposition in your short, just find an interesting angle and go for it. I learned this through trial and error. In my first short I had a lot of material making the run time 17 minutes which made it difficult for film festivals to program it. But as I learned the business end of filmmaking I learned how to trim unnecessary scenes that didn’t drive the narrative forward. I didn’t go to film school but I think they should spend twice as long teaching students the business end of filmmaking first. After All, ‘Business’ is twice as long of the word ‘Show’ in ‘Show Business’
Cult Critic: Are you planning to make a feature film in the future? What genre would you delve into? Will we get to see a new film anytime soon?
Jayson: That’s the plan! I wrote a counterfeit wine heist film called “Counterfeit Cabernets” that I’m looking for funding for now. I’ve always a fan of the heist film genre so this is my version of that. Hopefully we’ll be in pre-production around April/May of this year.
Cult Critic: While shooting your films, like most filmmakers you might have faced some problem or another. There could been an element that did not go according to your vision. Could you share your experience on how you to tackled such a situation?
Jayson: I think there’s the film you write, the film you direct and then the film you edit. In that process directors are lucky to get 70% of the film they envisioned. This could be due to a number of things going awry like money issues, actors and the dramas that followthem, crew issues, bad locations, you name it! When produced “Keep It Simple Stupid”, production didn’t have a lot of money so we needed to get a lot of locations for free or outrightsteal them. One of the times we needed a college campus so I had all of the crew and talent wear Cal Berkeley shirts and sweaters so we’d blend in as students. For the first two hours everything went to plan until someone called security. After they determined we were there without a permit the campus security tried to detain me so I took off running! I’ll never forget the campus police chasing me on a go-cart until I crossed the street and disappeared into downtown Berkeley. All this said, I guess it never really works out perfectly. You just have to have a Plan A, B, C, D and keep going until you have something to edit.
Cult Critic: Besides direction, and production, is there any other facet of filmmaking that fascinates you?
Jayson: I love getting the right team of creative filmmakers together for the goal of making the best possible project we can make. Through long hours, times of conflict and good/bad times we all see things the same way. We start as a team and end as a family. The roller coaster nature of making a film is like no other experience and once you experience it no other job will do.
Cult Critic: Your 2020 film, ‘Air Rangers’ is a documentary. Practically, a documentary film is a lot harder to execute than a fiction film. The narrative is not planned, and the editor must stitch together most of the story on the edit-table. How was your experience shooting and editing a documentary?
Jayson: I agree that docs are harder to produce than narrative. Everything has to go just right and even then it still may not be enough. That said, making ‘Air Rangers’ was a piece of cake. I grabbed when we shot it I grabbed one of my employees at the time and told them “we’re making a film!” He had wanted to be in ‘T.H.O.T?’ so it just made sense. Long story short, we shot the entire project in about an hour on my iPhone. Then I edited the project in between emails over the next few hours and the project was completely done. Looking back on this I do think my previous production experience made a huge difference. I storyboarded the shots ahead time, knew how we’d approach filming and understood the client’s specs for deliverables. This project reminded me a lot of when I started making video clips when I first started making videos in the computer lab.
Cult Critic: As a filmmaker, how do you tackle criticism and negativity?
Jayson: I’m learning how to deal with this as I go along. While I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection I have yet to tell me a film I made completely sucks. I wonder what that’s like? I think it’d hurt on the inside but at the same time I’d probably say “fuck that guy/girl”. Making a film is a miracle in its own right and there is no film that completely sucks. There’s at least one thing that’s good about every film. You might need to look really hard in some projects but it’s there. But I’m learning how to deal with it. It’s the elephant in the room when there’s people watching something you made. I get this nervous itch wondering what they’re thinking... hoping they don’t pull out their phone in complete boredom. I guess you can’t take it personally, you just have to rest on the fact you and your team put out the best possible project you could and let the cards fall where they may. Another way I’m learning criticism is by sending my films out to be reviewed. I sent “T.H.O.T?” out to five independent critics and got pretty good reviews. Mostly 4 out of 5’s and one 7 out 10 which I was kind a pissed about, but oh well.
Cult Critic: Who is your favourite filmmaker? What is it about their style that you like the most?
Jayson: It’s got to be Francis Ford Coppola with Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Fredrico Fellini and Steven Spielberg coming in second. What can I say? I love cinema and it’s hard to choose just one, but Coppola is the man! I really admire how his films just feel timeless. You could watch just about any of his films and they’d be more enjoyable than anything made today. I think what sets Coppola films apart is that he pays great attention to their characteristics and then he highlights the small nuances of those characters making them instantly relatable to the audiences. That’s why whenever someone is talking about the ‘Godfather’ someone will always mention Clemenza’s classic line ‘Leave the Gun, Take the Cannolis’.
Cult Critic: Do you have any words of inspiration for future filmmakers who are yet to take their first step in their journey in the world of cinema?
Jayson: Just do it. You don’t need anyone’s approval. Hell, you don’t really even need money these days. Just grab your phone and a few of your friends and figure it out. “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” (G.K. Chesterson) so it’s okay if your first film is shit. The next one will be a little better and so forth and so on. Throughout my journey I’ve learned the most talented people are almost never the ones who hold the trophy. The people who become winners in just about any field are the ones who are average but keep pushing themselves to become better. So be passionate, read a lot, practice your craft every day and when life knocks you down take a moment to reflect and then get back up and try again until you win.