Monday, November 16, 2009

Feature on James Johnston

Although this is another new and unusual format to the blog, we thought it might be a good story to share with all the readers. James Johnston came to Virginia Tech and spoke about his experiences as an Independent Film Producer and Director. Here is my article I wrote for our online newspaper on his experiences and advise for future filmmakers.

From a rap artist to a chef to a maker of music videos, James M. Johnston has traveled a different path to becoming an established independent and feature filmmaker. The Department of Theatre and Cinema hosted Johnston on Wednesday afternoon in the performance arts building. He spoke about how he got into the film industry, experiences as an independent film artist and gave advice for upcoming filmmakers.

Johnston’s overall theme of the presentation was that he is more interested in being a creative artist than a Hollywood film icon.

“ I want to make films as an artist not as a paycheck,” said Johnston. “I feel like I have something to say and [I want to produce] what matters to me as an artist and not what is hot at the time.”

Professors Paul Harrill and Ashley Maynor chose to have Johnston come speak at Virginia Tech. Both say they know him personally because of their travels to various film festivals and respect for his work.

“The short-films he's made as a writer-director, as well as the feature films he's produced, have been made in Texas with small crews and small budgets. Yet, they have more humanity than most movies made with 10-times the resources,” said Harrill. “We place an emphasis on self-reliant filmmaking at Tech, so he's a filmmaker that we want our students to learn from.”

About 15-20 cinema students showed up to the presentation eager to hear what Johnston had to say, as well as, a couple of Associated Movie Producers (AMP) students.

There was no sign of Johnston five minutes before the presentation until all of the sudden a tall man with gold shoes and a long beard stepped into the room. The mysterious man was then introduced as James Johnston.

Johnston began the presentation by explaining how he got into the film industry. Johnston started out his career as a want-to-be hip-hop rap artist at 18. It was not until a friend brought home a video of independent short films that he even began to consider work in the film industry.

“The thought never even crossed my mind that people could make films outside of Hollywood,” said Johnston. “Seeing [these films] really changed my life and I started getting into film and dove in head first.”

Johnston then advised the audience that volunteering for low-budget films was his next step in learning about the film industry. He worked every job imaginable from catering to lighting, personal assisting and eventually directing and producing.

Johnston explained that, in order to start out as a filmmaker, you often have to have additional jobs to make money and pay the mortgage. In fact, most paid filmmakers who are known in the industry still have other jobs on the side.

In Johnston’s presentation, he proceeded to show two of his short films called "Merrily, Merrily" and "Receive Bacon". He used the films to broadcast promote some of his work and also to explain the importance of editing and peer sharing.

When asked about peer feedback on films Johnston said, “Some of my friends' films are not the type of films I make but [when they review my film] they know what I am going for as a creative filmmaker. You will know your group when you find it and [that group relationship] becomes like creative soul mates.”

Johnston’s final points in the presentation had to do with his thoughts of what it is like to be a producer. He explained that in the independent film world the role of the producer is very different than in Hollywood.

In Hollywood, the producers are the bosses and own everything, but with independent films it is a partnership with the director and is overall more artist-driven.

As far as current projects go, Johnston said he produced with director David Lowery for his recent film, "St. Nick".

“When David brought 'St. Nick' to me it was just an outline, but I knew exactly what he wanted to do with it,” said Johnston. “I told David, ‘Hey look there is a certain way we are going to do this with a budget we can afford.’”

Now that St. Nick has played at many film festivals and has won many awards, it has become known all over the world. Virginia Tech was the first Virginia and academic premier of the film. The film premiered in Pamplin Hall in the evening after his presentation.

Only time will tell what new projects and films Johnston will work on in the future. But one thing is for sure and that is Johnston loves “working on anything creative and getting [his work] out in the world.”

Notes from Ashley:

Websites for St. Nick:

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