17th Berlinale Talents | 2019
Michael Curtis Johnson
Writer, director and University Professor Michael Curtis Johnson's short films have screened at film festivals all over the world including Slamdance 2018 with SAVAGE YOUTH.
Hi Michael thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the Berlinale?
Not set yet. I should probably start packing. I'm a large man. I can only get two or three outfits to fit in a suitcase with all the fabric it takes to cover me. And I have to bring a coat, too.
Are there nerves ahead of the festival?
Good nerves. I’m excited to meet new and interesting artists working in film. It would be nice to meet some future collaborators. Where I live in the States is pretty isolated filmmaking-wise (besides my film students). Berlinale Talents is a great opportunity to engage other independent filmmakers from across the globe.
What does it mean for you to be part of the 17th edition of Berlinale Talents?
It's a gift. It means a lot just to be invited. I applied multiple times in the past decade and I feel like the committee finally took pity on me. I've had a lot of friends and colleagues go through the program. All of them look back fondly on their time in Berlin.
How important are opportunities like this for filmmakers?
My career has relied pretty heavily on institutional support. From IFP, the Biennale College, US in Progress - Wroclaw and now Berlinale Talents, I really couldn't continue to make films without opportunities from organizations like these. Most of the time with independent filmmaking you're struggling to pay the rent or find time to work. To have a full week to focus on the creative process with talented colleagues and mentors is luxury beyond my wildest dreams.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work, what was it about filmmaking that interested you so much?
Fassbinder said, "Every decent director has only one subject, and they make the same film over and over again." His subject is the exploitation of feelings. My films are about performance. Not just in terms of actors, but how we all learn to perform in our own lives. It's about the way we present ourselves to the world. The armour we put on every day and the way the world perceives us.
"...go out and make all those same mistakes for themselves."
As a screenwriter what inspires you?
I'm inspired by characters more than ideas, plots, and worlds. I'm usually just rehashing some overdone plot and trying to throw unique characters into it.
Do you remember what the first scene you ever wrote was?
In Kindergarten, I drew a picture book about a tiger that escaped from a zoo. It starts killing other animals, then it starts killing people as it tries to get back home. Then it gets shot before it ever can. I still feel like I'm writing stories about characters trying to break free from cages.
Do you ever find yourself getting too attached to a project or are you able to walk away once it is done?
We literally delivered my second film Savage Youth today to the distributor. It took more than 6 years to get here. It's weird because if someone asked me, "Knowing what you'd have to do to get this completed -- the emotional drain, the friends you'd lose, the financial struggles and the time with your loved ones you'd have to sacrifice -- would you still have started?" Probably not. But I somehow don't regret it at all. It's like every moment I was "in it" I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
What are some of the easy mistakes a first-time filmmaker might make?
You wait for someone else’s permission to make your film.
How important is the collaborative process in what you do?
I can't create anything without other artists. I can't paint a picture, write a poem or play a song. All my strengths as a filmmaker are creative relationships.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
I was a little too cerebral with my filmmaking initially. I tried really hard to be Bressonian. I thought I could design every element of every frame and get my performers to just "be." Once I started working with great cinematographers, producers, editors and actors, I decided that directing is way more about reacting than anything else.
What are you currently working on?
I'm directing a project written by actor Will Brittain (whom I worked with on Savage Youth). It’s a character-driven genre film that subverts traditional ideas of masculinity.
And finally, as Professor at the University of North Alabama what is some of the advice or tips for you offer your students?
All the advice I give comes from the lessons I've learned making just about every mistake in the God damn book. Very little advice I have has to do with my successes. I encourage them to go out and make all those same mistakes for themselves.