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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 09.30.14]

Last week, shortly before leaving for Iceland where his movie is playing before making its Canadian premiere, Two Step (review) director Alex R. Johnson took some time from his busy schedule to chat with me about his feature film debut. Over the course of our conversation we talked about breaking into the industry, how projects falling apart can actually lead to great things and we touch broadly on some of the nuances of Two Step which plays tonight at VIFF.

Quiet Earth: Congratulations on the movie. I had a chance to see it the other day, and it kind of blew me away. It was not at all what I was expecting from reading the little log line and from watching the trailer. I kind of thought I knew what I was getting myself into and then from the opening scene I'm like, "Okay, this isn't at all what I was expecting."

Alex R. Johnson: Thank you very much. Thank you, I appreciate it.

Before we talk about the details about the movie, I'm kind of curious to get a little bit of background about who you are and how you came to filmmaking. I know that you've made a couple of short films and you've produced some material, but did you always want to direct? How did you come into it?

I went to the University of Vermont, and they didn't have a production program. They had one production class, and I took it over and over. I took it once and audited it like two or three times. And then I worked on an NYU thesis film. That was back in '92 when I was in college. And I met all these kids, and I moved to New York, and I worked on thesis films for a year or two. That was sort of my graduate school, kind of pre-9/11 I would go sneak into the universities, sneak into Columbia, sneak into NYU, that was also sort of pre-internet, I guess. They had all the bulletin boards up of people needing help on films, I'd just write down all the numbers and I'd volunteer, and eventually I started working.

My first real job was at Maysles, Maysles Films. They did Gimme Shelter and Salesman. I kind of veered off into a producing track at that point. You sort of don't realize it's happening when it happens, and at the time you're just trying to make a living in New York and primarily documentary work, commercial doc work. And suddenly I was EPing at a boutique doc company. But all the while, I've always written, and I always, I envisioned myself mostly or at least as a screen writer. I think I had dreams of teaching theory and writing a screenplays and smoking a pipe. I think that may have been my early, my 19-year-old dreams of a big, uncomplicated future. And then so I was always writing and writing shorts and specs. And then I finally saved up enough money and borrowed enough film and got some short ends collected from hundreds of different jobs, and I made my first short, Thanksgiving [watch it here]. That was I think 2002, and the pragmatist in me, the producer in me told me, "Okay, if you have total connection with the actors, if it doesn't work out we'll reassess things." But it was fun, it was a blast, I thoroughly enjoyed it and just wanted to do it more and more and more.

I was firmly in the producing world and about forty-three, about four or five years ago. I had screenplays at the Hamptoms Screenwriters' Lab, I had a screenplay at IFP Emerging Narrative in New York, and you just keep waiting to get selected to be lifted up out of the muck and told your work is good. And I was sick of waiting. I just told everyone that I worked with that I'm going to make a hard push to really just be a director.

It became complicated with some of my work. And I just started reaching out to bands trying to direct music videos, and somewhere along there we tried to make a different film from this one that's called Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You.

It was a very difficult film to get going so low budget for the money that we were able to scrape together, and we kept getting name actors attached, but most of the film takes place in the Andes in Ecuador, and it's difficult to convince name actors to come down to the Andes for no money with an untested director. And the whole process was very frustrating waiting for agents, waiting for weeks. I was just so frustrated with everything, and the whole while I was writing Two Step.

Once it was ready I convinced all the parties involved that this is shootable, it's in Texas, we're here, if you guys want to do it, let's do it. And I needed everybody from the same to be involved because again, the producer and I put together a team that would make a film that looked far more expensive than it cost. I needed my DP, I needed his camera, I needed his talent. I needed my producers and their contacts. So everybody said yeah, investors said yeah, and so we switched and we made it. And we premiered at SXSW by 2014. I didn't start writing it until after SXSW by 2013. From like writing to premiere was less than a year. So it was a quick one.

It always amazes me how these projects come together. Two Step is such an accomplished film. It seems like it would have been something that's been brooding forever. I'm really curious about how you came up with the idea. I read that you didn't start writing this until you moved to Austin. We know the technical part but creatively speaking, what was it about your move to Austin that finally got you to put this on paper?

Well, the one thing that I had sat on for a long time is grandparent con. I had seen something - I want to say I was a teenager, on "20/20," so we're talking like 1986. It was something about the con, and it always stuck in my head as something that was interesting, and I kept thinking about a way to work it into a script. And then I moved to Austin after 18 years in Brooklyn, and the joke I always make is the two things I did most in my first few months here was Google pictures of spiders to make sure they weren't poisonous. Everything I saw. I had a contractor I was talking to about bugs and how scary they were, and he said, "Yeah, that's Texas critters. All of them will bite you and some of them will kill you." So I was Googling spiders and obsessing over the fact that I only have one door now.

In the apartment buildings in New York, I always lived in an old building. I never had a doorman building. I always had that 100-pound door that could chop your hand off if you didn't move it in time. So I had the front door, and there's this second door lock like three feet there in the foyer, and then your door. I started to get obsessed a little bit about the home invasion thing. So that's how it started. I knew that I wanted to do the grandparent con because there are so many layers. When you really sat there and studied it and thought about it there are all these sad layers to it. In order for it to work the grandparent has to be so desperate for conversation that he or she falls for it. And then if the grandkid finds out about it later, what do they think about their relationship when they realize how distant they are that a grandparent can be conned by someone pretending to be them?

It all came out of that and from a massive frustration with tying to get the other film together. I kind of wanted to try to do something also that kind of felt that it wasn't part of the condo-ification of Austin. Just something a little timeless. Almost what other people that don't live here would think of when they thought of Austin. It all sort of came together, and I don't really write with a structured outline. Everything I do is pretty heavily character-based, so I just really, really, really have to understand the character - as much about the character as I can. I have a thin idea in my head of where I want to go, but I don't do note cards or anything like that. And then once you have the characters that you really can flesh out, you start writing it, and if you're lucky they really start to do things seemingly on their own, which is sort of what happened with this. It's like you start files and file log and you go to places and then it just kind of comes together, but it came together very quickly, so I was lucky on this one.

I'm a little concerned that you said that you have to get to know these characters really well because Webb is a really bad man. A really, really, really bad man.

He is. But he's flawed, he just wants love. I think that James Hébert did an amazing job with him, and I'll take this time to just say- part of the reason why the film, a major part of why it worked is there are so many amazing performances above and beyond what I expected. But James… it was important to him that Webb had another level to him. That he was not just a complete badass. And I think he managed to do that, just little glimmers of maybe getting a view into his humanity into why he could potentially be like this, but he's a bad guy. He's a bad dude. I didn't hang out with anybody like that. Maybe I saw them from afar and let my imagination take me somewhere as to what kind of person they were. But no, I didn't have run-ins with them.

You mentioned James, and your entire cast is really excellent, but he really is above and beyond. From the moment he appears on screen you kind of have this one idea of what kind of person/character he is, and as the movie develops he just gets progressively worse to the point where you're like "This is one of the worst people I've ever seen on screen. Somebody kill him already."

It makes me so proud to hear you say that. James played a lot of bad guys. I think that we gave him something a little extra to chew on here, but he likes to say, I think his Twitter says "the nicest bad guy you've ever met." I think that's what it says on his Twitter. He's a complete sweetheart and he was certainly James between takes. He wasn't that man the whole time. But yeah, he just got into it. He found it.

I think a lot of people felt that they could shine here, and they took it as far as they could. I love Ashley, who plays Amy. I think she's just spectacular. Jason Douglas as Duane- we would get such a crowd around the monitor whenever he started talking. And you know Beth Broderick's fantastic. We were so lucky to get her. She was the first person we cast. And then Skyy Moore, young, innocent Skyy More as the character James. He was great. He had to put up with a lot, and he was very patient with us. I think the movie gives everybody some time to shine, and I hope it does what it's supposed to, you know? I really want to see these guys get discovered on a bigger level.

Earlier you mentioned the timelessness and the movie really feels that way. From the payphones and the old cars and just the way people are dressed, it's not like they're dressed old, but it just feels like it's out of time. Was that something purposeful or was that just the way that things turned out?

No, it was purposeful. And I think it was a) primarily purposeful, and b) a lot of things just with our budget and our time and everything we kind of lucked out. We had like five cars we were trying to get for Duane's car, and only one of them returned our call the day before, and it's the one we got. It's difficult to do a period piece with a super low budget, so we thought we could kind of confuse you a little bit and just have an 90's answering machine with an 80's phone and clothes kind of that didn't seem to be specifically from an era, and cars from all different times. It was difficult to try to get, because we didn't really have massive amounts of block. We tried to control traffic, but the most contemporary thing is a bus wipe in it. A bus that comes through, and it's definitely contemporary, but we tried to not have cars driving by in shots and things like that. And the cell phone thing... it's funny there's a few films out on the festival circuit this year that don't do the cell phone thing. And occasionally I get asked if the cell phone is the enemy of the thriller or of the plot or the narrative. It can be, but we just wanted to create a world where you could conceivably have a cell phone, but we just didn't do it.

It's not obvious. It was just this thing that sort of twigs in the back of your mind when you're watching the credits. It's just this extra little layer to everything else which I really appreciated.

I'm glad.

You talked a little bit about when you were trying to make the transition into directing and reaching out to bands and making connections to do music videos and that kind of thing. And I assume that that's how you sort of became involved with Andrew Kenny. And I'm wondering how he became involved with the project because the soundtrack is really important, and it's really wonderful. It's very textured, very quiet in places, it's kind of foreboding. It works really well overall.

Yeah, actually Kenny and I have known each other for 10+ years. We met back in Brooklyn - to clarify he goes by Kenny. His wife and my wife were roommates in Brooklyn, and we started courting our respective future spouses literally the same week. And so we were both at the apartment a lot, and waiting for the shower sometimes. So we got to know each other pretty well, and I asked him to do the score to my previous short, the last short I did which was 2008 or so, which was called Pickup and Return [watch here]. It was a great experience.

I'm a huge fan of his. I love the last Wooden Birds records, and I'm a huge American Analog Set fan. He's a really talented guy. I convinced him to do it, and he had expressed interest in doing it kind of casually. So when the script was ready I gave it to him and wanted to know what he thought. He basically said that as long as I'm not looking for a string section or a horn section that he'd be into it. And we just worked well together. When you're working on this budget too, gosh, you sort of need other people- you need people to be talented, you need people to be qualified, but it really helps when you're both like, "Hey, we're both doing this for the first time." You kind of just make mistakes with each other and speak in layman's terms and really speak from the heart. And so it just really worked out.

I thought he did a spectacular job. Way above and beyond. And we did take him a little out of his safety zone I think in terms of what he's used to doing orchestration wise. There are scenes where you take the score out of it, it just feels - I mean, that's what a score's supposed to do - it really feels flat without it. It really drives it, and there's a portion of the film that I really wanted to feel like a death march, and the key to that is his score driving us through it. He's a great guy, super funny, super talented, and again, I hope people with lots of money ask him to score their films because he's great.

Can we talk for a minute about the opening credit sequence? It’s fantastic!

I'm glad you appreciated it. One of the things you struggled with in the beginning is, without giving too much away but we do have a shift in genre. I try to put clues throughout the first twenty minutes or so that something… that a storm is a-coming. But I thought that out of the gate let's do something kind of stylized and noir-y and try to make people realize there's going to be blood in this film.

I've had people come up to me and say, "I would never have come to see this movie if I knew what it was about, but I'm so glad I did." I'm going off topic here I guess, but we tried to only show what we had to. If you really, really, really, really, really hit pause here and there, there are a couple gruesome shots, but we really do use film and sounds together to create more of a mental image of what's happening than showing it. There could be blood, but it's not going to be spurting arteries at the camera.

I really like that Two Step feels very real. Like there were no superhuman feats, there aren't people that get stabbed and then walk around for twenty minutes before they die. Stuff happens, and then the consequence that you would expect in real life actually happen.

Yeah, and that was one thing that sometimes actors wanted to do more, and we wanted to keep it a little smaller. Sometimes I describe this saying it's sort of like one degree off from reality because of all of Texasisms and things like that. Because obviously people don't speak that much in all of the Texasisms, analogies, and things like that. But in order for that to work everything had to seem real and natural and fit into it. And I think what you're talking about folds into it as well. If anything ever felt awkward or forced the whole fragile, little southern gothic world that we created starts to fall apart. So everything had to seem genuine for that to work.

So what are you working on next?

Well, I decided to try to make the other movie again.

The dream that never ends. I love it.

I just came back from LA and was meeting with producers and managers and trying to finally become official. I didn't have representation up to this point but I think I'm decided on that, and they really want to make the Ecuador film. So it's funny, I just had my first script notes phone call a little earlier today. It's certainly a different vibe than when it's four people in my garage making a film. But yeah, so we're going to try to make that. We're going to put that together, and I'm writing one other Texas script. We're just going to keep going.

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