Many directors have projects that they are deeply and very personally passionate about. Sometimes these films get made and sometimes they fall through the cracks even after years of obsessing with them and tinkering with them. Director Patrick Read Johnson should know. He’s spent the better part of a decade diligently working on his own, the autobiographical 5-25-77.
In addition to a making a film about his growing up in the sleepy hamlet of Wadsworth, Illinois and becoming obsessed with making movies, he certainly has no shortage of stories to tell outside of the film. He created the cult comedy favourite Spaced Invaders, directed the John Hughes penned baby vs. kidnappers opus Baby’s Day Out, and was the director of the underrated 90s teen comedy Angus. He was able to make friends and work with many of his childhood idols, even if his career wasn’t as successful. With his major studio productions and collaborations leaving somewhat of a bad taste in his mouth, Johnson went back to his roots to create a film about his younger self and a time before he had his dreams and expectations tempered the hard way.
Even with a smaller independent production, Johnson has still seen his share of problems and despite first making its festival debut in 2008, there’s still a bit of work left to complete the film and a distribution deal to still be agreed upon. This weekend, Johnson brings his thoughtful and inspirational labour of love to the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival after touring the film last year under the Hearts of Dorkness banner and re-cutting the film along the way based on crowd reaction. It was an epic journey for a film about an epic life that spans Johnson’s birth as a filmmaker. From the first time he saw 2001 to making his own Super 8 movies to actually going to Hollywood and seeing how things work first hand and finally to the titular day that would change his life forever, Johnson (played here by Freaks and Geeks alum John Frances Daly) lays bare what it was like to grow up in a small town as an awkward teenager with big budget dreams.
Before bringing his film to Toronto this coming Saturday afternoon (February 16th) at 3:15pm for a largely teenage crowd to appreciate, Johnson sat down with Dork Shelf for an epic conversation about his past work – working with John Hughes and passing on Home Alone, working with George C. Scott and Irvin Kershner, the troubled post-productions of Baby’s Day Out and Angus – and where his latest film currently finds itself.
Dork Shelf: This is a film that I think a lot of people, especially creative people, will be able to identify with because it really takes a look at how we personally interact with the art around us and how it shapes and forms who we become in life. I definitely saw a lot of myself in the film and how I reacted when I was younger to the kinds of films, and music, and art I always gravitated toward.
Patrick Read Johnson: Thank you so much. It’s really gratifying to hear that. When the movie connects, it really connects and I’m always gratified to hear when people get it. I tried to capture both a time and a place that were very special to me and that feeling you were just describing. Somebody once said – and I’m killing myself for not remembering which great artist once said this – that all art is the attempt by the artist to recapture that first thing that moved them greatly. And those times, those people, the friends, the family, the place, the night skies, all of it, all that stuff in the movie is what created me, you know? It’s where I came from; it’s who I am; it’s what I am.
All I was trying to do… I had moved back to Wadsworth, Illinois from Hollywood and I was just steeped in all these ghosts and memories and people and places and imagery, and it just kept begging me to do something with it so I had to make a movie.
DS: Now I remember first reading about you starting work on 5-25-77 back in 2001. How long did it take from you first scripting it to the point that you are at now and at what point in your career did you first get the idea to go ahead and make this movie?
PRJ: What happened was that I had moved back to Wadsworth from Hollywood in 1999. I had a few school aged children and my ex-wife, and I had just personally had it up to my eyeballs with Hollywood. The experience of making a few big Hollywood films really did not sit well with me. Even though I am proud of some of what was achieved, the overall experience was just so difficult, so draining, and so disheartening that I just brought my family back home to Wadsworth and I bought my parents old house that I had grown up in and that was in 1999.
I had been working with (producer) Gary Kurtz for some time before leaving on some other projects that I had been doing at Universal, and Gary had heard the story of how I was essentially what could be called “fan one.” I don’t want to give too much away, so you can decide what to give away in your article. And he encouraged me after I got back to Wadsworth when I was saying that I wanted to do something small; something like American Graffiti, and he just said “You have an American Graffiti story. It’s your story.” I said “I guess so, but I’m not sure anyone wants to see The Patrick Read Johnson Story.” (laughs) It’s not like I was famous or anything.
And it was a story that I had to keep personal and keep in my name because if it was a fictional story it wouldn’t be as easy to buy into it as much. The fact that it’s true makes it a little bit more believable. If you had written this for a fictional character you would say “Uh-huh. Oh yeah. That would never happen.” So it was already pretty incredible.
So right then in about 2001 was when I started really bearing down and starting to put this down, and scribble down all these memories, and tried to craft them into a script. And it took from 2001 until 2004 to get financed and get up and running and get ready to shoot. We had cast members come and go. At one time Carrie Fisher was going to play my mother. Christopher Lloyd was going to play (American Cinematographer editor) Herb Lightman, but for various reasons these things never happened. Bob Balaban was actually going to play Herb Lightman at one point, and it was actually written for him, but the scheduling of it just never worked out. But Bob was actually really instrumental in getting us Austin Pendleton to play him, who I was already a huge fan of anyway, and I think even Bob would agree that Austin’s perfect.
I mean, the only thing that killed me is that I wish we had more of him. (laughs) I would love to do a whole movie just about him, and his story is actually an amazing one where he was a World War II combat cameraman coming back to Los Angeles, trying to get jobs directing little teeny B-movies, and how it sort of worked and sort of didn’t, and then how he started writing articles for American Cinematographer magazine. Then one day the editor died and he was asked if he could just take over temporarily in about 1950, and he always said that he had his movie career and he was just going to pursue this temporarily, and 20 years later when I met him, he was still doing it. It was kind of bittersweet.
And Herb’s still alive, by the way. If I had the budget, I would bring him to the festival this weekend. We brought him to the Hamptons festival. He’s 87 years old now and four-feet-nothin’ tall, and just a crackerjack fun guy. You get a hint of what that’s sort of like in the movie
But anyway, to get back to your question (laughs), in 2004 we started shooting, but we were only able to shoot about 75% of the movie because one of the primary investors fell short of what he promised and we literally had to shut production down with everything shot except the Hollywood part of the film. So there was no Herb Lightman or any of the other things that happened there… (fake coughs)
So what I had to do was cut the film together without that, which is literally a big hole in the middle that just literally says “Patrick goes to Hollywood”. (laughs) Might as well have just said “POINT OF MOVIE MISSING.” (laughs)
DS: So it was just a grindhouse kind of film with a reel missing.
PRJ: (laughs) Yeah, exactly! And I cut it together and I was fortunate enough that what was there – the Illinois or American Graffiti portion of the movie – was enough to raise enough another $750,000 which allowed it to finish shooting it, and get it into post, and get it into good enough shape to the point where the William Morris Agency saw it and wanted to represent it and said they would try and sell it and get it into a bunch of festivals and blah blah blah blah.
And that went down a certain road and they wanted to make some changes based on distributor reactions, and then it got into The Hamptons International Film Festival in 2008 and we won a nice little award there. They were great screenings and it was all going quite well and then suddenly the economy just fell apart. The independent film finishing funding group we had been working with was no longer interested in giving anyone money, let alone us. Then William Morris merged with Endeavor and a lot of the people we knew and were dealing with were out of a job. We were orphaned. It was just me and my little movie sitting in boxes in Wadsworth again all of a sudden. And there I am trying to move on with my life and there I am with this movie about my life just sitting there in boxes.
Over the next couple of years I was just working on it as we could. Whenever we could get money and draw funds together to do more things in post, because as you can see since you’ve seen the film that we still have some significant things left to do in post. And it’s literally just been made with devotion by the few people who have still been left standing and are still around. I mean, everyone has been working on it, and the investors have been incredibly patient.
And that’s really great because we didn’t pre-sell anything. All the territories are still available. We didn’t pre-sell TV or DVD. We didn’t do any of that, and it’s all being funded by private money, so there’s no real delivery date that we have to hit.
And one of the charming things that we’ve been finding out – especially during the Hearts of Dorkness tour last year – was that we noticed that the film has aged. It’s a period piece, so it’s supposed to feel aged, but now it feels a lot more like the period it was actually from. John Francis Daly really looks like a kid! So people have responded saying “Wow! This film really benefits from feeling like it was shot in the 70s!” And I respond back with, “Well, you’re close!” (laughs)
It’s just one of those things where there’s all this pressure from bloggers and pundits asking why it’s taking so long, and I just say that’s it’s because it actually can! The movie is not hurt by being almost ten years old. If it were a movie that were set “present day” and it was ten years old we would be in big trouble. (laughs) It would be all “Yeah! That’s an interesting car!” or “That’s an interesting song!” But this is a period piece already. I’m actually really delighted that it’s allowed me the chance to shoot and cook the movie with a lot of experimentation and a lot of learning.
But Morgan Flores was with me Hearts of Dorkness tour, basically following me with a documentary crew and an editorial department in a beat up, hulking trailer we called Large Marge chasing after me in a Ford Pinto across the country. It really gave me a chance to really screen the best cut of the film that we had at the time, which was the Hamptons Film Festival cut. But it was a cut that I wasn’t really satisfied with, but we were able to really take it out not to the places where you usually test movies, but everywhere. We were out into Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, all over the place, and along the way we were recutting the film after every screening based on crowd reaction from the audience, and that just lets you know so much more about the film, and without the luxury of time we would have never gotten the opportunity.
By the time we got to California for our Santa Monica screening I had brought it up to Lucasfilm to show it to them, we had gone from a movie that people had appreciated and clapped at the end to a movie where people were cheering about four times during the course of the film. So I was really grateful for that time.
DS: One of the things that I noticed looking back on some of your frustrations with your prior studio films that you worked on – and you also show it here within the film as a reflection of yourself – is that you seem to share the work ethic of a James Cameron or a George Lucas where you like to work with everything for as long as you can to a point where it feels right. When did you first start developing that quality as a filmmaker?
PRJ: Unfortunately for some of my studio partners it was from day one. (laughs) It wasn’t a response to Hollywood. And by the way, I had great opportunites with people like John Hughes who God rest his soul gave me a tremendous chance to make the jump from making a two million dollar movie called Spaced Invaders to the big budget Baby’s Day Out. And that was after I had passed on Home Alone. (laughs)
DS: Wait. You PASSED on Home Alone?!?
PRJ: (laughs) I did. I did. I think because I had just made Spaced Invaders, and as much as I loved doing it, and as proud that I was that Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy saw it and loved it and they got Jeffrey Katzenberg to see it and buy it and put it in theatres, and as proud as I was of my team and what we did for about two million dollars, it was not what I had set out to become in Hollywood. I didn’t want to be a young, kid’s comedy director. I wanted to be Stanley Kubrick. I wanted to be George or Steven. I wanted to be Franklin Schaffner. I didn’t want to be the teen comedy kind of guy. I didn’t even want to be a science fiction comedy kind of guy. And even on that film I kind of worked it and worked it and worked it to the point where people were asking me when I was going to be done with this. And I would just say “Well, if you’re going to make changes to the movie, I’m going to make sure they are made well. Unless you just want to release my director’s cut. Is that an option?”
But in answer to your question, Stanley Kubrick is my superhero, obviously as you can tell from the film and how my character talks about wanting to become him in the movie, and here’s a guy who couldn’t care less when things needed to be done. It was never about when it was going to be done and it didn’t matter if it was never done. It had to be done to a point where he could say “Ah! I love this.”
Now Hollywood’s not really interested in that, but for better or for worse it’s an assembly line of some sort that requires that product be able to go through. I had to try to make things work within those boundaries. There are a couple of executives that I worked with at some of the studios before who loved the script for this film… and I honestly thought that I might as well take a chance since I had worked with a few studios and I had done some things that turned out okay and some people liked them and this one was a small film with a pretty simple premise… and I got great responses, but most of them were of the same sort of thing: “Patrick, we know you.”
One executive who will remain nameless said “I would make this movie tomorrow and I’ll give you $15 million to do it, but you’ll have to add a couple of car chases, more sex scenes, some drug use. It basically has gotta be like Road Trip.” Then he goes, “BUT, I know you, and I know you won’t do that, and I won’t make that movie. So why don’t you make it, and then show it to me, and then I’ll buy it because I know I’ll want it so badly when it’s done.” (laughs) So that’s the plan. To go back to him and say “Oh! Hello there! Remember that movie you wanted to turn into Road Trip? Well, this is what I have!”
DS: Is it hard for you personally to make the film about the youthful version of yourself who had sort of seen first hand what the studio system could be and distance yourself from what’s happened over your career to write a character that’s the pure and innocent version of yourself?
PRJ: That’s a great question, and one of the decisions I made early on and I carried it through not only from the writing and through the shooting and post-production, and even when I talk about the movie is that I never even in the movie say “I.” In the movie I always say “Pat does this” because I decided that the only way I could do this with any degree of truth and honesty about who I was and without having to have the character of Pat shoulder any kind of my cynicism was to treat him as a person who still exists back in 1977 and who has no idea what’s coming. I didn’t want to be the person who says “I wouldn’t have done this” or “Hey, it’s me and this is how it happened.” I wanted to be making a movie about a guy who really, scientifically speaking, in a quantum mechanical sense, is still back there in 1977, walking around dreaming that he’s going to make it to Hollywood some day I didn’t want to ruin it for him. (laughs) I really wanted to separate myself and say that I was directing this movie about another guy who wouldn’t recognize me as him. If he met me now, he would say “You’re not me. There’s no way.”
It’s really important for me for it to be like that, and Pat in the movie isn’t this cute little superhero that’s always easy to love. He’s sometimes awkward, and full of himself, and a little arrogant, and tunnel visioned like most young filmmakers are. I wanted to really capture that and keep it, because out of that you can also get the glee, exuberance, and “nothing can stop me” vibe that I also wanted to capture, because Lord knows between then and now I often thought that ANYTHING could stop me. But in the end, looking back at that character and before I got in that car and drove I realize that I took a lot of strength from that guy, and I kind of want him to get in the car because anything can happen. It could just be part of another timeline where things could have turned out even better.
DS: One of the things that you have that’s sort of beneficial that you might have that others can’t really say through their time working within major studios is that you were able to clash with two major industry titans, which were John Hughes on Baby’s Day Out and producer Dawn Steel on Angus. What were some of the more valuable lessons that you learned from those moments?
PRJ: (deep breath) You know, John was one of the funniest and smartest guys I had ever worked with anywhere near Hollywood and he knew how to tell a joke and how to tell a story and he knew how to get right to the simple, fun core of things. He was so observant about the little, fun details of human interaction, and I remember one time getting into a big argument with one of the production people. There was a big production meeting with John kind of sitting there and I was arguing with one of the other producers about who was right or wrong about the physics of something to do with the baby going up and down on a girder of a building, and it was just getting into a big ego-fest. Who knew more about physics? Who knew more about production? Who knew more about effects? It was just ridiculous.
And John says, “Hey, Pat. Come here. Let’s take a walk.” And he takes me outside and just says “Patrick, just make the fucking movie.”
What he meant by that was to not get caught up in letting people know you’re the director. They know. And some of them like it and some of them don’t. Some of them will respect you and some of them won’t. You’re not going to win them all over. Just make your movie and say what you want. Don’t ask for permission. Not everyone has to agree with you.
One of my insecurities as a younger filmmaker was thinking I needed the approval of the entire cast and crew on every decision; like I somehow needed to convince them, even if it was weeks later and I would say “You know that thing we did? It was right, you know that, right?” (laughs) And the thing with John was that he taught me that you would certainly like a consensus and you would want everyone to be happy, but ultimately it is only on your shoulders to not second guess yourself to death. And that’s something in the studio system where there are so many opinions and demands and orders and edicts coming down from above from various executives and players and the creative side and the producers, that it can become this horrible scenario where you’re wondering who it is you’re trying to please.
At the end of the day what I learned was that I HAVE to please myself first. Then at the end of the day with whatever I had done would be the best possible work I could do for the people I am working for. Then I also had to make the decision if I really wanted to be working for other people, and the answer at one point and certainly in 1999 was that, no, I did not. Because the last two times I did it was on movies that I was only partially happy with and there were lots of hurt feelings and harsh words, and that’s not why I got into the industry. I didn’t want to be in the industry. I wanted to be in the business and what Pat didn’t know in 1977 is that you were never going to be able to make movies your way unless you went way, way out into the periphery of Hollywood. Or you become Steven, or George, or Stanley, or Jim Cameron, or J.J. Abrams or something like that. That’s the only way you can make what you truly want in a firmly unfettered way. You become those guys or you go away and you do it outside.
DS: I know this had to be your idea since you are a massive Star Wars fan and since you brought up Schaffner , but you cast Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner in a bit part in Angus to work alongside George C. Scott in a scene. How did that come about?
PRJ: It was entirely me, and what happened was that it was about a week before we supposed to shoot that scene and I still hadn’t figured out who was going to be in that scene and I knew it was going to be a cameo of some sort. I even at one point considered putting myself across from George C. Scott in that scene, but I wasn’t really the right age and I try not to take even the smallest roles in my films because that’s someone else’s rice bowl and some actor could easily get a day rate from that.
Then I thought about who I could get and how could it be relevant not only to me, but also to George, and it hit me that he had been directed by Irvin Kershner in a movie called The Flim-Flam Man back in 1965 or something, and I thought “Oh my God! I wonder if they had even seen each other since then!”
So I knew Irvin through Gary Kurtz and my manager at the time, Melinda Jason, who was also managing him. Irvin and I had become acquaintances and had talked about various things, and he was of course a superhero of mine since The Empire Strikes Back, so I thought he would be perfect. He had a great voice and even though it was a bit part with no dialogue at first I thought I could throw a line in there or something.
So I called him up and he says (doing impression of Irvin) “Hello?” And I said “Hey, It’s Patrick,” and he said “Ay, what’s goin’ on kid?” And I said “Would you even consider taking a day out of your copious spare time, hahaha,” – because I knew he was developing another movie at the time – “and could you come in and possibly do a silent bit across from George C. Scott.”
He goes, “GEORGE?!? Oh God, I haven’t seen him since The Film-Flam Man!”
(laughs) “Great, so all you have to do is go to Pasadena next Friday” – or week or whatever it was, And he goes “Just tell me where to be and what time and send me a map and I’ll be there! Of course I’ll do that!”
And then on the say – and it was a beautiful day, the leaves were falling and everything was all set – and George comes out of his trailer and says (in George C. Scott voice), “Well, who am I playing chess with today?” And I said I had a pretty special guest sitting over at the table and I said he could go down and introduce himself, and he goes “Okay! I’ll go over there!” I think he figured it was some guy just there for a paycheque and he sits down and goes:
“So what’s your na…” And he just freezes and then he goes, “OH MY GOD! IRVIN KERSHNER!”
So everyone was smiling and laughing and suddenly everyone is just there having the time of their lived. And there I am just thinking this is so great, and for the rest of the day they are just laughing and telling stories. And not only are they having a fun time, but they were making everyone feel so great.
But it also puts George in such a good mood that he had this one soliloquy in the movie that we kept and every time we tried to shoot a take, either a lawnmower would start up or an airplane would go over, and it just went on and on and on take after take. And if this was a normal day after thirteen or so takes he would probably have started to lose it, but because Irvin was there that day, I think it was on the 15th take, he’s about 95% of the way through his speech and all of a sudden Dawn Steel’s cell phone rings. (laughs) And I’m sitting next to him, and she just looks so embarrassed and kind of starts slinking away, and here I am just thinking “Oh, man, he’s going to lose it.” Instead, he just turns slightly, and he cups his hands to his head like he’s holding a phone and he just says:
“Sweetie, I told you never to call me here! This is the war room!”
And on top of all that, Irvin the whole time I’m directing them, I’m sitting behind the monitor and watching them and their performance and finally he goes, “AH! What the hell are you don’ back behind that stupid video monitor? Get over here and look at us act! Just sit next to us. Watch us. Look at us. The cameraman knows what he’s doing! Get over here!” So from there on out the monitor became this thing that I only ever used to check frame. Back then I never looked at anything through the monitor except to check the composition, and it was a lesson. He said “You can’t learn anything watching that stupid monitor. You gotta see our faces and see what’s really happening.”
Now here’s the kicker to the whole thing: So, the day is over and Irvin is getting out or wardrobe and make-up and I just wanted to thank him because it was so great to have him come over, and he said “Oh, not a problem! I wanted to do it and I wanted to see George and I wanted to see you, and I’m just glad that my flight made it in time!”
And I said “What?”
And he said, “Yeah, I was in Budapest working on a movie!”
And I was just like, “You flew to Pasadena for a one day, silent bit, day player rate, nothing cameo for me and George?
He says, “Of course! (pause) Well, see ya soon kid!”
And that was it. He flew back from Budapest just for that. It was such an honour. It was so great.
DS: Also, speaking a little bit about Angus, that was a movie that also had kind of a troubled history and it was your only sort of teen film – and for what it’s worth I think it was one of the films that taught me that a teen film didn’t have to be a bombastic, over the top romp, and I also hope that some day there will be a way to see the actual full version of the film that you shot – and now you are making a much more personal kind of teen film. What did you learn from that film that you took and applied to this one now that you had more time and control?
PRJ: I think the main thing was to this time really trust my instincts because the best moments in Angus and the moments that work are the ones where I fought, and fought, and fought, to bring it to where I thought it needed to go. Jill Gordon, who had worked on The Wonder Years and My So Called Life, had written a wonderful script, but when I got involved it wasn’t really in fully useable shape.
For instance, the ending that it has now didn’t exist. Originally it was Rick (James Van Der Beek) punches Angus (Charlie Talbert), and Angus just gets up and says “I can’t punch you, but I can do this!” And he grabs him and he gives him this Bugs Bunny styled kiss and everyone laughs and they all start dancing, and that was literally the end scene of the film aside from him still getting to kiss Melissa (Ariana Richards) and he gets to walk her home, but that was the whole confrontation.
And, you know, I get that ending in “teen movie world,” and so I talked to Jill and I told her what I felt, and then I talked to Dawn, and I must have gone through about thirteen drafts of that script just from my own notes and going through and just adding new material and lines and trying to change things and just bring it just a little bit away from teen comedy and into teen reality, at least in my opinion.
I was lucky that Jill was very, very gracious in that she was willing to let me change things without any ego, and Dawn seemed to like where I was heading with the whole thing, but that ending was always so special and so important to me. Yes. It ends with a big Jimmy Stewart styled speech. And what’s wrong with that? Some people hate that kind of thing and groan about how he goes off on this big speech, but how many times have you wanted to be able to do that? Especially in high school. You want to be able to stand up to somebody and say “This is who I am and this is how I feel. You can’t crush me. You can’t destroy me.” And it just seemed that after all that had been given to him by the people in the movie, especially his grandfather, were all of this inspiration.
(One of the things) that I tried to add to that movie were the science experiment – which had previously just been this off-screen thing that you never saw – with this Petri dish and the blue liquid and the red dot as the aberrant or deviant element and how if it can survive long enough that it would actually change the system, which was the whole point of the movie.
And that dovetails nicely with the fact that originally Angus’ mother (Kathy Bates) wasn’t a widower. His mother was possibly a lesbian and her ex-husband was openly gay, and we had shot all of that where Angus would come to his father and talk to him.
DS: And the father was played by Larry Drake, right?
PRJ: Yeah! And then thanks to one disastrous test screening in Orange County where some joker got up and shouted “THE DAD’S A FAG!” New Line got cold feet and cut it out of the movie, when that was really the heart and backbone to everything that had happened originally. It was basically like gutting the whole movie, and I was never happy about having to let that go and I still think the movie suffered because of it. That was why on this one, the goal and the aim was to keep everything within that sense of reality and not second guess anything. It’s great that Angus ultimately found a small, passionate audience, but that wasn’t the movie I had set out to make.
It was something that could have been really great if I had time to work on it, too, because even in the editing there wasn’t really enough time to make what we had left over fully work. Again, I’m glad to have the time to work on this one. On Baby’s Day Out that was kind of a similar thing because we were originally supposed to have a release date in September of 1994 and it got bumped up to July 4th weekend because James Cameron said he wanted more time to work on True Lies! And this was a totally different movie, but 20th Century Fox had already booked all these theatres and there wasn’t anything else to fill the slot but our movie with a baby in the lead! (laughs)
DS: Didn’t that movie come out up against The Lion King?
PRJ: Oh yeah! After that opening weekend I got a call from a Fox executive, who will remain nameless, who said to me “Who knew The Lion King would be that big?” (laughs) It clearly wasn’t because everyone had already seen Baby’s Day Out. (laughs)
DS: So you and John Hughes essentially took a $50 million bullet for James Cameron?
PRJ: (laughs) I hope that James Cameron reads this and sees it like that.
DS: Getting back to your most recent project, how did you decide on John Francis Daly to play you in the film and how hard was it for you to cast yourself in a way?
PRJ: It was surprisingly easy, and since John has a great sense of humour, I’m sure he’ll appreciate this story.
We originally had one fairly notable actor lined up, who will remain nameless when we were first getting ready to shoot in 2004, and it was someone that I really wanted to work with and someone who I thought could really also benefit from being in the film. I believed he was right for the film and the right tenor and the right tone and the right type of kid. He could really sell it, and I thought it would really help to revive him, as well. And then him and his people come back to us three days before filming is supposed to begin and says “We’ll do it… for 50% of the profits.” To which I had to say “Are you going to put up 50% of the budget, because if not, no.”
This was never a movie that was based around stars and for a movie of our size to stop three days before shooting commences, they often never start back up. They just fall apart because it becomes like herding cats. You’re trying to wrangle all of these incredibly talented people that are all working well below their regular rates because they like the project, they like you, they like this script, and they want to do it, and you have this whole menagerie coming together and it’s all going to fall apart the second they smell that the money’s not working and they are going to have to wait six to eight weeks while we recast.
So my extras casting director was saying to me the whole time – even when we had this other actor – was saying “John Frances Daly! John Frances Daly!” And I couldn’t even hear her because I was all locked up dealing with everything else with this other actor, so the say that this all finally happens she comes in and says “John Frances Daly.” (laughs)
And I said, “Wait, you’re talking about the little guy on Freaks and Geeks? The little dude?” (laughs) And she says, “Yeah, but that was quite a few years ago.” (laughs)
So I told them to send me a picture of him, and they send me this headshot, and it’s a headshot of John with what he calls his Jew-fro, and he’s got this curly hair – and least it used to be, I don’t know what it’s like now – and this headshot looked so much NOT like the character, and I’m just thinking, “Oh God, he’s such a good actor, but I don’t know how he’s going to do this.” He doesn’t look at all like me, but he’s going to be working with old films, and old photographs, and things that we were trying to match it all up close enough so that you would never know that it wasn’t him in these old, archival films of mine that we have in the movie.
But I knew he was good, and I knew he had a wig and that we had great wardrobe and make-up, and I believed in him, and he read the script and we talked and he really wanted to do it, and I literally only met him in the wardrobe fitting the night before shooting. But the beauty of working with John – even though he was essentially backing into this and we had only met each other briefly – was that we had no time to prepare or rehearse anything. We couldn’t even go over the script. Nothing. We just had to start shooting.
When I started shooting the thing that impressed me from day one was his work, but I wasn’t still convinced that he could play me. While I was very proprietary with the casting, I was trying to keep it as close and emotionally resonant to what I felt. I felt like he was doing it, but I never really noticed it until I sat down with the film in the editing room and looking at the dailies with others. I was noticing too much the physical differences and his hair, but what was happening was that he was nailing lots of little details that I wasn’t even seeing because I was having my own blinders on. Later on people would be looking at him and saying “How did he know that you used to do that?” because there were a bunch of people in the film that I used to go to high school with. My production designer Dawn Ferry had been someone I had gone to high school with. The theatre manager at the end of the movie was the actual Bill Holmes grown up, and the nurse towards the end was the real Robin standing next to her onscreen counterpart.
So all these people were around, and they said John was nailing me and what I was like. What I found out later was from the moment that he met me and the moment he arrived when we called cut and we were getting ready to set up for a new scene or something and the rest of the young actors would go off to craft service or go off to play the guitar or hang out or do whatever they want to do, John would spend a lot of time just watching me interact with people. He would watch how I gesticulated and what my facial expressions were like and how I conducted myself, and he was really doing his homework every day that he was on set without me knowing because I was never watching.
It was really great because by the time we were cutting the picture together I knew that was Pat Johnson. It made things so much easier in the editing room to go with the flow and what he was doing with the character and I really appreciated that he worked that hard.
DS: How much do you have left to go on this film and what are you plans for when it’s all done?
PRJ: The only thing that’s really left to be done, honestly, is to ultimately do the final digital intermediary high definition cut of the film. The print that we are going to be screening in Toronto is kind of a hybrid of high definitions and some standard definition material because it’s kind of a road trip cut. It’s still a work in progress, which is actually kind of fun because you can actually see in a film about filmmaking these multiple format changes and framing changes. The Wadsworth stuff all kind of takes place in this Super 16 1:85 framing and that changes once Pat goes to Hollywood. We shot in every kind of format possible. It’s really an homage to filmmaking formats and techniques.
We have to finish gathering all of the material ultimately in the highest resolution possible, and then we have the effects to finish, and there’s actually been a really interesting phenomenon on that front. Of course there’s a lot of unfinished effects here that look like they were done in Pat’s garage, but we’ll get those all sorted out once we get towards the completion.
But now, sometimes we’ll get groans from the audience saying “No! Don’t fix ‘em! That’s the way they should be! That’s what we love!”
DS: I kind of like the more rugged version of the film that I saw. It kind of adds a little bit to the fun. It’s like how one of the characters in the film say that it doesn’t always matter if you can see the strings holding up a flying saucer. It’s part of the charm of it.
PRJ: It’s funny that you say that because there’s actually kind of been a movement to go back and do what I wanted to do in the first place. A lot of these effects were really just going to be temporary inserts for what we would eventually do, and I came to realize that with the ease that you could do things on a Macintosh I could do all these motion graphics, and 3-D mark-ups, and quick composites, and all these filters, it was changing things. And if I get a little more money and I can go back and do it, I’m going to go through and do things a bit more like what we did with models and miniatures like we did back on Spaced Invaders. I wouldn’t have had a computer back then. I would have had models on tabletops and cars on wires, and now I feel like going back and taking the effects DOWN a notch so they feel like they’re more period appropriate.
Like in this movie there’s an alien planet fantasy, but it’s all done with motion capture graphics at this point, but I would love to do it now just with models in a garage. Because with models that Pat actually has, I built all that myself for the movie, and I did that force perspective mock-up from Close Encounters that you see replicated here. I built all those models, and to me there’s not enough of them. To me it would be a lot of fun to go back and do them the way I REALLY would have done them in 1977 with wires and models and tabletop miniatures so you almost expect the character to appear over the top of his own situation and you expect him to be overseeing his world as his own miniature and personal world. So that may happen. I don’t know if it will, but I would be interested in trying that.
Then after finishing the digital effects, all we have to worry about is the music budget. We’ve got the entire catalogue from 1975 to 1977 in there, so… At a certain point we will have to make choices about what’s necessary and what we’re willing to pay for, but if a studio obviously picks up the film it won’t be a problem to keep any of the music that we want. I’m sure they could get some kind of sweetheart deal.
It also helps to have someone like Alan Parsons doing your score. He’s been my friend for a while, and he’s got a lot of connections, so he might be able to help us out to some degree, but I have a feeling that by the time it all shakes out I’m going to have to lower my appetite just a little bit. Frankly, I think though that maybe pulling it back about 20% might make it feel a bit more like that actual era, though.
Once we gather the funds to complete all those last bits of post-production, we already have a number of distributors who say that they would put the movie out in theatres. But it used to be when a distributor said that the would say that they had a finishing fund or a post production department that could help, but most smaller distributors and even some of the larger studios now just aren’t that invested in actually being able to finish a film. They don’t have the people. They don’t have the technology base. They basically want to buy a film to put it out there and program it. It’s very hard to find distributors that would pay to finish a film, so we’re kind of in this weird limbo where we have a film that’s almost complete that distributors would like to put in theatres, but they’re not willing to throw money at it until it’s done. They’re willing to throw money into prints and advertising, but things at the distribution level are all they know how to control and they don’t have the resources to throw into post. I’m trying to pull those two worlds together, and I hope and think that the experience at TIFF Next Wave will hope to achieve that so we can get the film out and back up there.