Neil Johnson, takes time of the set of The Time War to talk with indieactivity on his films, his collaborators, his love for actors, the film industry and the choices he made that led him up to this point in his life and career.
You have been quite a prolific Director with over a dozen films under your belt! Why do you think your films are out there and distributed, when so many other filmmakers struggle for distribution? What sets your product apart?
I had been employed full-time as a director for nearly a decade before I did my first feature, so I guess I had quite a bit of training and experience before I dove in. There are many people in the world who have “day-jobs” and moonlight as a director on weekends and holidays. For me it has always been a profession and not a hobby, though with the current state of events it may as well be a hobby! It is a film business, and although it is high-level art, it is also a craft, and you have to know what the world wants to buy.
Sometimes I would love to do straight drama or an art film, but it will be hard to make a living in 2017, unless you are one of the lucky 0.001%. To be honest, I watch people bumble-around making films, especially Science Fiction films, and it is easy to see why they will never be able to sell them. You can be a good writer, or a good cinematographer, or a good director, or an amazing actor, but unless your subject matter is what sells in the current marketplace, you are throwing your money away. People ask me for advice, and then never take the advice… so they fail… after 15 feature films, I am just starting to figure it out.
I have noticed that my films have two lives. They get released, and sell initially well, then there is the backlash, where people say “it is the worst movie ever made”, (Like they do with almost anything) but after a few years, the films get a fresh life, because the audience start to realize that there are hidden layers, and then they become more liked. My work gets better year by year, unlike most high-levels who peak early… I am peaking very late.
Sci-Fi seems to be your genre of choice. Have you also directed other genres? Do you only direct your own projects, or are you up for hire as a Director on film and TV projects otherwise?
I have done quite a lot of comedy over the years – mostly television and I did play a bit with horror films in the early years, but I am most happy doing science fiction. This is what I was born to do…. Character based Sci-Fi is what makes me the most happy in life… and I am in love with great visuals. People describe my films as paintings, and it is true, I do look upon as paintings as far as framing, and use of color. Big Epic Biblical Paintings.
How “hands on” of an approach do you take to directing, and how has that changed over the years? Can you give us an example?
People get very stale on set and are forced to play by the rules that a director shouldn’t do this or that… and that is fine when you have a crew of 50 plus people, but because I have worked in the industry for so long, I know everyone’s job enough to know when they are doing things wrong. I can only hire those who are better than I am. My films have improved because I have learned more, and so, I get in the thick of things.
Film sets are often hell-bent on spending and wasting money. The more money spent, the more time is wasted, so I would rather get in and make sure the job is done fast. I do not know if my directing has changed over the years. I have always had a vision, but I have learned finally how to get what I want, especially from actors. It is a great joy to work with amazing actors.
When an actor is PROPERLY TRAINED, (and I do not mean by reading a book or doing a weekend class), then it can be a true joy to play with them on set and see what we can find. When it becomes apparent that an actor has not had much training and is faking it, I have to be clever and trick them into giving a good performance. It is not nice when the director can out-act the actor, and this has sometimes been the case.
What does a great actor bring to the table in bringing your scripts to life? Can you give us an example?
I like it when actors can find the hidden messages in the script. I also like it when they can enhance the written word beyond anything you can imagine. Two examples: I worked with Doug Jones (Pan Labyrinth & Star Trek-Discovery) on a low-level Sci-Fi comedy (as a hired director). I was able to play with him and try to find gold within the moments of this low-level production. It was actually fun, because despite the lack of professional clarity on set, we had fun, and recorded some amazing stuff.
Sadly, the “producers” cut the show themselves (and they had no training in editing) – and all the magic was lost in their terrible assembly. I was glad to get my name removed from the production (and they owe me a few thousand dollars). However, I have a great memory of working with someone VERY special, despite it all.
The second example is more interesting. I was directing one of my own recent films, “At The Edge of Time”, and decided to shoot some extra scenes. I got together with Tracey Birdsall and we came up with a background cameo character of a time travel version of herself with an eye-patch. In the film, there were already eight versions of the same character from different realities, but this one, created almost on a whim was amazing the see on camera. There was something strong, yet sad about this glorious leader of a great army with an eye-patch, dressed all in black. Therefore, we did another scene, and another, and another, just for fun.
After a while, the character grew into a wonderful C-storyline. We shot more and more…. and eventually this character morphed into five hours of finished on-screen time, and a whole new story was born from an odd idea we had one afternoon. It was like the character was always there, and her story needed to be told. She had been blowing around in my head since 1995.
Finally she came forth in the upcoming Film/TV series called “The Time War”. I use the term TV series, because this whole time travel saga is now at 8 hours long. We shot for 228 days, based upon a whim where we played with a background character. And that is the true fun of collaborating with actors.
Do you collaborate with all actors this way?
Hell no! There are often 3 types of actors I have discovered:
The Wanna-Be Actor: Actors who can’t act but think that they can act because they have done a theatre drama course for 6 weeks, and they think acting is just “being overly emotional”. They can be fun to work with but the real challenge is trying to get them to be real for a few moments on camera. These actor types can sometimes be red carpet whores: all they want is to stand on the red carpet, be photographed, and be “discovered”.
The Whore-Actor: They are usually reasonably well-trained, but they stopped learning after the extensive course or acting school, and they think they know it all. They are as nice as they can allow themselves to be on set, but once they get paid, they run off to the next paying gig and never even spare their producer or director another thought after they have their paycheck.
They don’t turn up to premieres (or they turn up to the premiere and stand on the red carpet, promoting their own “half-assed web series, or a T-shirt design they have come up with” and then don’t watch the film. They never say thank-you, even though you have put them in the biggest role of their career. Sometimes they are alcoholics who like to preach Jesus or Buddhism. Sadly they are the majority. They are the self-centred ass-like people that give Hollywood it’s bad name. I saw one “actor” who would run around the back of the studio and either snort cocaine or smoke Marijuana depending on the type of scene he was doing. I mean… seriously??? This is supposed to be a profession!!!
The Professional Actor: … who is truly in love with the art of what they do and never stop learning. These actors usually win Oscars and are know the world around. Actor types 1 and 2 think they are on their way to becoming number 3 but they just can’t see past their own egos, which is why they could never win an Oscar.
Now, let’s be clear, in reality NOT ALL actors fall into any of these categories, but many do. And this is from my perspective. The biggest constant problem with any actor is ego. Before I hire an actor, I stalk their social media… when you see someone presenting themselves with humility, honesty, and professionalism, then I think this is appropriate. If I see them with an abundance of strange selfies, and ego crap… I know that this is a person that cannot be entrusted to carry a great character role.
I want truth, honesty, hard work professionalism. I want an actor to turn up knowing their lines backwards… I want them hungry and eager, and NOT distracted by posing. I don’t want to hear name-dropping all day, and lies, and attitude and pompous self importance. Is there anyone out there like this?
I say these words because I love actors and enjoy working with them more than just about anything. I just want the best person for the role and I want someone who wants to be on set for the RIGHT reasons.
You are currently in post-production on The Time War, which seems to be epic in proportion and widely anticipated. What do you think sets The Time War apart? Can you tell us a bit about this film?
How do you describe a film that is currently 8 hours long??? It is a TV series perhaps, or two films, or three? I stopped thinking with restraints against the story about a year ago. After losing just about everything in my life that was dear to me, after being betrayed and ripped off by supposed friends and colleagues, I said *#%$ it! I will NOT do what society, or the press, or distributers demand of me. I will make an epic tale under my sensibilities and ideals. I don’t care if anyone likes this film or hates it. It is a massive story of the daughter of Adolf Hitler and how she tries to stop her father from manipulating time and trying to become a god (small “g”). It shows how a person who strives to save the world can sometimes become as great a monster as that which they fight.
I didn’t dare think that any actor could be capable of pulling this off… I have encountered THOUSANDS of actors, and maybe only a dozen or so would be capable of this… Tracey Birdsall was the perfect fit for this titanic role. It nearly killed her, it certainly sent her to the hospital. You contrast this to an actor who cannot turn up to set because they need to do a television commercial audition. I am honoured to work with Actors like Tracey Birdsall, (the female equivalent of Sean Penn) and disgusted at the trash who have dared called themselves actors. Acting is a professional that carries great honour and great weight. Great actors with great words can inspire people to move mountains, and can change humanity.
Your latest release, Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter, was raved about in the press and received numerous awards on the festival circuit. What do you think the magic was in that film? Was it difficult to film in those harsh locations and environments?
The harsh locations were truly harsh. 125 degrees Fahrenheit plus on some days. There was a point where most of my crew didn’t (and still don’t) want to work with me anymore. And I understand this. When you are getting a meagre pay-check to serve someone else’s vision, that’s understandable… but in the end…. All that was left was a couple of loyal souls baring the desert extremities. This is how you learn who your real friends are… the moment the pay-checks stop, people who have call themselves friends/colleagues slink away.
The awards are truly nice… and there have been some big ones, but this is not a place to boast or name-drop. The magic came from months and years of hard work, and throwing out over an hour’s worth of content.
You’ve been referred to as a “punishing director” in a prior interview by your lead actress (Tracey Birdsall). How does that make you feel? Can you give us an example of why you’ve earned that moniker, and if you deserve it?
I think she now hates me. I did push her hard… too hard… but what can I do about this? It is easy as a director (especially in television) to just take what an actor gives, and then, maybe work on stressing a couple of words differently. I step back, look at the soul and the emotion behind the words and try and find out ways to speak truth through the words. Sometimes this may mean a complete overhaul of the scene, or climbing a mountain for 2 hours to get 3 lines of dialogue. The effort must be made to make every line of the script alive. That can seem like punishment at times to the actor.
What Directors do you find inspirational?
Obviously Stanley Kubrick (we share the same birthday)… I watch his films hundreds of times over and learn something new every time. Ken Russel is also a favourite and David Lynch. George Lucas is truly incredible. I wish he hadn’t retired. Anyone who has worked with Peter Jackson (Christopher Lee, William Kircher) has commented that I am just like Peter Jackson. I don’t know why people say that, but then he is a fine director to be similar to. My style is sort of different to his… I don’t aspire to anyone except the best director I can be, and I seem to be improving so there is hope.
Tell us a bit about Neil Johnson the human, not just the director?
He doesn’t exist anymore. He is a director 24-7. Nothing else. I have forgotten who he once was… he used to surf, he used to do many things, but he died around 2012 or 2013. When people try and destroy you, have you falsely arrested, deported, who poison you, steal from you, sabotage your car, hold a gun to your head, blackmail you, or (attempt to) sexually harass you… you get a thick skin. Between the age of six and ten I was sexually harassed weekly by a male neighbour. At the age of ten I learned to fight and the abuse ceased. I could find him now and beat the crap out of him or worse…
You think that revenge could be justified, but then you think: the true test of a man is to stand away from the lower-class scum, not to seek revenge, but to be successful, and to indulge your creative side, until it bleeds all over the screen. Many have tried to destroy me, but I stand alone; tall, resilient, ready to fight beyond the primitive lusts and jealousies of fools. I have one focus, and that is good for me. Three years ago, I was given the opportunity to have one of the bad people in this world prosecuted and probably thrown in jail by the District Attorney’s office. I chose the high ground. I focus on my films and ignore the ass-wipes.
Looking at your slate of films, it seems like it’s easy for you. Do you ever run into major problems, and how do you handle it on set?
Easy????? No. I do Sci-fi. This is the hardest thing to do. If I did drama or comedy, it would be easy. If there are problems on set, I remove the problems as fast as possible. I fire people who cause dramas. My only regret is NOT firing someone soon enough.
What’s next after The Time War?
Maybe directing a Star Wars film? Wouldn’t that be nice? I am already used to dealing with people’s anger and hatred… Otherwise bigger, more epic films than what I have previously done. I am sitting on a few titanic scripts that no one could even define. The world of filmmaking has evolved to where I can finally make what is in my head. I cannot step down, only up…. Eventually I will lose my balance and fall to my death. If death is nothingness, I am ok with this, as long as I leave a legacy of one or two great films, and as long as my daughter lives on, then I have succeeded in something.