Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Out of the Box

Local filmmaker James Johnston on on-the-job training and shooting in one room.


James Johnston describes himself as a film geek, though he doesn’t look the part. The Fort Worth filmmaker is solidly built, with a long scraggly beard and several tattoos on his large forearms. (In lieu of wedding rings, he and his wife got matching tattoos and have new ones drawn every year on their anniversary.)

These days, he has many irons in the fire. He’s looking for a distribution deal for Deadroom, a collective effort in which he and three of his friends (David Lowery, Yen Tan, and former Fort Worth Weekly contributor Nick Prendergast) all wrote and directed their own segments of the film, each involving two-character conversations in a single room. “We shot on an insane schedule. We each had about nine hours to shoot, and we had to take the sets down and rebuild each time we changed directors,” Johnston said, admitting that the movie has problems while praising it as a learning experience. “We’ll never limit ourselves like that again. You need to give yourself time to do what you need. I was lucky because I filmed my segment after everybody else had gone, and I saw the pitfalls that they went through.”

Learning on the fly is something the 31-year-old Johnston is used to. He only began his career six years ago, as a volunteer on other directors’ sets. “It’s a way for people who haven’t gone to school,” he said, referring to his lack of film-school education. “I’m not the type who’d get anything out of film school, and I don’t mean to say ‘fuck film school.’ It’s just not for me. I’m hard-headed that way.”

(His wife Amy McNutt, did earn a film degree from the University of Southern California but now makes a living as owner and operator of Spiral Diner, where Johnston frequently helps out.)

He and his friends now form a tightly knit support group, and Johnston recently finished producing Lowery’s next project, The Outlaw Son. Johnston may even cut his own version of the film — Lowery is sending the raw footage to his friends and encouraging them to edit their own versions. In addition, Johnston is going about obtaining financing for a short film entitled GDMF, which he has already cast and hopes to start shooting in March. It’s part of a planned trilogy of shorts that he’s thinking about putting together to form a feature.

He warns other filmmakers that the work involves a great deal of sacrifice in terms of money and social life. “The only way to do it is to do it,” he said. “You can’t write a script and wait for someone to come along and make it into a movie. If you write something and you realize it’s going to cost $500,000 to make, you need to put it aside and write a script that can be made for $50,000.” It’s worth it, though, he said, especially if the story means something to you.

“So many people think you have to start making B-horror films, but you don’t have to stick to genre pictures,” he said. “Don’t be scared to get personal. You need to be willing to put yourself out there.”

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