In Conversation With: Alex R. Johnson

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Alex R. Johnson is a producer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based in Austin, TX. In 2014, his debut feature, Two-Step, was nominated for the Audience Award – Narrative Spotlight at the SXSW Film Festival. Two-Step stars Beth Broderick, James Landry Hébert, Skyy Moore, Jason Douglas, and Ashley Rae Spillers; it tells the intersecting stories of James, a directionless college dropout, and Webb, a career criminal wreaking havoc after his release from prison. The film is now available on Video-on-Demand and Netflix. In 2015, his second feature was announced as an Austin Film Society grantee, and Johnson was invited to the society’s Artist Intensive. Alex R. Johnson spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about capturing Texas’s unique flavor, working with local stalwarts, and the many years of effort needed to bring his first movie to fruition. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

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Sean Malin: Your film had its World Premiere at South by Southwest’s film festival in 2014, but only recently has it started to become available elsewhere and get national press. What has its path looked like over this last year and change? Where’s Two-Step been before it hit Netflix and Video-on-Demand?

Alex R. Johnson: In my garage *laughs*. The truth is that a lot of South by Southwest 2014 films, not just mine, are coming out around now. Yet a lot of the 2015 films are out already. I think it says a lot about where [filmmakers] are with distribution, and it is changing every year. Going into 2015, the film companies saw that giving out cash works for certain festival movies, if you can get press for the films to help get them “out there.”

SM: As a member of the press, that looks to be true to me. I’m receiving far more media screeners this year than in the last several, not just from festivals but also from academies and critics’ circles.

ARJ: Because we didn’t have any huge stars in Two-Step, it was hard at first to get a distributor’s attention. One person actually said to me: “Boy, it’s a shame you don’t have any really big stars in your film because it’s such a good film!” I was like, “Wait, are you slamming it or complimenting it?”

SM: That’s the ultimate backhanded “congratulations.”

ARJ: I have always felt that all we needed [to get distribution] was to get the film in front of an audience who would react. In the meantime, certain big distributors would call and say, “Everybody loves the film except marketing – we don’t know what to call it,” and we would hear that over and over and over. Then we had the people who came to us saying, “We do a lot of South-by stuff, so we’re probably just going to put it up somewhere.” They weren’t going to do anything “special” with it. So I thought I was going to have to put it out myself before the company [that’s handling its distribution] called. When they called, we talked about Blood Simple [dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1987] for half an hour, and it was good. They felt like filmmakers who produce and therefore connected with the movie. Once that happened, there was just the normal back-and-forth with contracts, which can be a slow and definitely frustrating process. But it all worked out.

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SM: Earlier this year, you had theatrical screenings in Austin at the Violet Crown Cinema and in Los Angeles, where you got nice press from the L.A. Times. That’s so rare for a debut independent feature without any massive superstars attached. Were you worried when you learned it had secured distribution that you’d go from excitement about landing theatrical release to having your film pulled out from under you and torn to shreds, a lá Hard Eight or something?

ARJ: No, you know, that was never on my mind. It’s not something I expected to deal with at this level of production. And there were so many other things right in front of me that I had to deal with that even the idea that we would get here never reached me. *Laughs* In terms of finishing it, and reworking it, it wasn’t like anyone was going to come in and mess with it like it was some kind of artisanal pickle instead of a film.

SM: Right – it’s not like Whole Foods saying to its cooks, “This pickle hasn’t been made the way we prefer it to be made! Go again.”

ARJ: Exactly – it wouldn’t be worth it for any distributor, not at this level. Certainly other folks have had to deal with that before; and when distribution grows for Two-Step, we might have to have a different conversation.

SM: Definitely, not just “might.”

ARJ: Probably, yeah. For now, we’re allowed to just see what happens with the film as it reaches bigger audiences. It’s always fun to see it with a new audience to know who’s able to stick around. Some people will come up to me after screenings to talk, but I’ve also seen some people walk out of it saying, “Hey, it’s not about dancing at all!”

SM: *Laughs* That’s one of the problems with independent features that don’t have a huge marketing machine behind them: you get viewers who think they’re in for the next Step Up 2: The Streets [dir. Jon M. Chu, 2008] and instead they find…

ARJ: It’s just like, “Guys, look at the poster before coming in.” People do get very passionate about it, though, on both sides. Sometimes they feel really passionate because they feel like they’ve discovered it, so they put it on others’ radars and tell them how good it is. Then at the next screening in the same place, we get twice as many people there. It’s in our kind of situation where flying under the radar works to your advantage a bit, I think.

SM: Although the movie is an under-the-radar kind of movie, some of the actors in it have cut their teeth already. Beth Broderick, who I know almost exclusively from growing up with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has a lead role, and Ashley Rae Spillers has been in a ton of Austin indies. Wasn’t she in Arlo & Julie [dir. Steve Mims, 2014] at SXSW the same time as your movie?

ARJ: It’s actually required that SXSW premiere several films with Ashley in them, at least three per year.

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SM: These aren’t Hollywood stars exactly, but they have renown in the Austin media industries and strong professional training. They’re regional stars in the way people like Sonny Carl Davis and Gunnar Hansen were, or Chris Doubek, Heather Kafka, and Jonny Mars are now – people who appear in local indies, three projects at a time. When you went casting around for Two-Step, was it important to find regional actors?

ARJ: When we began the casting process, we were already three years in to trying to make a different film, and it was a tough sell. It would have been my first film, and it takes place in the Andes. So you can see why it was hard to sell: if it encumbers your life and it won’t make any money, it’s going to be tough. We had a “name” attached to that, but because we didn’t have the money yet, it became a real pain-in-the-ass. I was also writing Two-Step out of the frustration of trying to get the first film made, and I had written it to be shootable. I asked the producer, “What can we do with what we have? I want this to get done.”

And because we had created this sort of character-heavy world [for Two-Step], one that was just a degree off from reality, I felt that if any of the roles felt false, or that any of the dialogue hit incorrectly, even one scene could pull you right out of that world that we’d pulled you into. So it had to be natural, natural, natural – and that meant I needed local actors. So for that, we went to Beth Sepko-Lindsay [of Beth Sepko Casting].

SM: Her reputation precedes her. The Linklater films, of course. Friday Night Lights had some of the best casting on primetime television in my lifetime.

ARJ: She’s pretty amazing. It sounds a little bit like false praise, but everyone she brought me sounded just like the characters. There were just too many good actors. I definitely believe that we got the best people for their parts, but I was amazed by many of them. I had gone into casting thinking we might have to supplement a few parts if we found a couple good people, but there were so many great actors, and often they were the first people she’d bring me. I had seen Ashley in Loves Her Gun [dir. Geoff Marslett, 2013], and she had this amazing scene where she’s drunk at a bar. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, she’s so good,” she just went above and beyond in that moment. So we chased her down for this – she’d just moved to L.A. – and we were like, “Guess what? You’re coming back.”

SM: How did casting go for the actors that you were less familiar with?

ARJ: Jason Douglas [who plays “Duane”] floored me at his audition. There was a great audition with Brady Coleman, who ended up playing the lawyer, “Ray Mance.” He was so good at the audition that he convinced me this whole thing was going to work out. He just filled me with confidence. It was the first time that I had really heard the lines in the pentameter that the text was in, and he had everything down. I was like, “Yes, it’s working, it’s working!” As with all the actors, he had all the lines down, but if they had a line they grew up saying in Texas that felt better for them, we’d say, “Go ahead and use that one.”

SM: Can you give me a good example of a line or a situation where you’d written things a certain way, only to have your collaborators’ renditions be more authentic or natural?

ARJ: Beth’s character calls Skyy’s character “Sugar” a lot. With “Sugar,” Andrew Kenny – who is from Texas and who did our score – asked if he could make a recommendation after reading the script. The script had her repeating something like “Honey,” but he suggested, given the character’s age and everything, that she say “Sugar” instead. Jason Douglas also had a few phrases that we swapped out for what I’d written.

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SM: There’s a funny moment where [Mr. Coleman’s] character is on the phone with the protagonist, and he’s got his cowhide leather boots and a bolo tie on in his office, and he’s eating Whataburger. That detail is just perfect – like he’s dressed to the nines for his professional work day at his law practice, cowboy hat and constitutional law degree in hand, yet he’s still having Whataburger in an office outside the Capitol building. That’s pure Austin.

ARJ: It’s really funny to hear you say that. Whenever I show the film to people in California or outside of Texas, they freak out and go, “You had [Brady] eating Whataburger!” That detail really sticks, I guess. But we just wanted the actors to be comfortable with it all. Brady also worked some legal dialogue into the script because he actually is a lawyer.

SM: The actor who played the lawyer is a real Texan lawyer, you’re saying? It reminds me of Richard Linklater’s film Bernie [2012].

ARJ: Yes, he’s a real lawyer, and guess what? He played Jack Black’s attorney in Bernie. So you’ve definitely seen him before.

SM: For me, Brady Coleman and Ashley Rae Spillers – the actors themselves – embody this kind of distinct regional flavor that a lot of critics have noted in your movie. There’s this truly Texan taste that puts it one degree off of, like, Southern Gothic or Faulknerian drama in that Cape Fear mode and closer to Eagle Pennell’s films. Even in your B-roll, the soundscape is so authentic: the cawing and sight of thousands of grackles poised on a telephone poll is something I have seen every day while living here.

ARJ: When I first moved to Austin, I became obsessed with grackles, quite frankly. And the people here don’t like them, they are always telling me how much they hate them. I loved the image of “birds on a high wire” and you hear that sound all the time.

SM: Intimidating birds. I see at least 500 sitting on the electrical unit outside my house every morning.

ARJ: People are afraid of them, but grackles are so fascinating. They go to the highest point in their general area just to watch the sunset. They watch the sunset – that is so bizarre. That was one of the first things I noticed in Austin, so I had to get them into the film.

SM: In terms of creating atmosphere and tone with that kind of detail, the inclusion of the grackles or Brady Coleman carrying a knife in his cowhide boot, I’ve heard people refer to the movie as a film noir. Would you agree with that? What do you think about that classification, or the Southern Gothic kind?

ARJ: I was trying to go for a “crime film” that took elements from films noir that I liked, I think, but we didn’t go for the “femme fatale” scenario and some of the other genre conventions. It’s not perfectly what I think of as “Texas Noir” – it’s more of a “Southern Crime” film, one that’s sort of all over the place, in a good way. I do love Southern Gothic and Southern noir, but I was trying to make Two-Step a determinably Texan film more than anything. I was going to watch a lot of those films leading up filming. Ultimately, though, I decided to stop doing that and to start just watching Texas movies. I just wanted the state to be in my brain, from Giant [1956, dir. George Stevens] to Blood Simple, to make sure it was firmly in there.

SM: You and I both moved to Austin from other places, but we’ve been here for a while. You worked professionally in New York for some time, and I’ve worked as a critic in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sydney. In making a “Texas movie” in Austin, did you feel like you were looking in from the outside, or do you feel like you were a part of the filmmaking community here from the start?

ARJ: Coming from New York, I’ve been spared the extra scrutiny that California folks get when they come to Austin. It definitely feels like there’s a little of: “So where are you from? Oh, New York? That’s okay.” I’ve definitely heard some…stuff *Laughs* about Californians moving here. There are folks in my neighborhood in Austin who’ve been here for thirty-some years or more, and there are some that are completely new. As someone who has been here awhile, you know that many people on the national and local level are watching Austin grow into a sort of boomtown. It’s the ones who have been here thirty years or more that will talk to you, though; not so much the new people. I think Austin’s really changing. I hope it doesn’t, but it does feel like something is on the way out. We’ll see.

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