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Filmmaking, Fort Worth Style: Part 1

by Alec Jhangiani 6 Aug 2008 3:02 PM

Guest blogger Alec Jhangiani is director of programming for the Lone Star International Film Festival. Today he introduces us to Fort Worth filmmaker James Johnston and discusses mumblecore. James Johnston (source:vimeo) James Johnston, local filmmaker and co-owner of the Spiral Diner in Fort Worth and Dallas, spent most of last weekend working on a script. […]


Guest blogger Alec Jhangiani is director of programming for the Lone Star International Film Festival. Today he introduces us to Fort Worth filmmaker James Johnston and discusses mumblecore.

James Johnston (source:vimeo)

James Johnston, local filmmaker and co-owner of the Spiral Diner in Fort Worth and Dallas, spent most of last weekend working on a script. He’s committed himself to a mid-September completion date at which point he’ll meet with two creative partners for refinements. His plan for the weekend was to finish the first act, but he’s having trouble deciding when the first act is over, the second act begins. I caught up with him at the Fort Worth vegan restaurant he started with his wife, Amy McNutt.

Johnston started in film when he was 25. Like most of us, he grew up watching movies, but it wasn’t until his roommate and drummer for local band The Theater Fire, Nick Prendergrast, brought home a collection of student films from UTA, that Johnston was aware of a cinematic culture outside of Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, he saw the 1996 Oscar winning Sling Blade, and became hooked.

He soon found himself filling several roles on a small, local production Lullaby, written and directed by David Lowery, who remains one of Johnston’s principle collaborators. Through his job at MLD rental house in Dallas, he began to develop an understanding of the equipment involved in making a film. The access to professional equipment facilitated his first project in 2000, The Knocker, a horror-suspense film shot in the small town of Marlin just outside of Waco.

Johnston credits the use of professional equipment with the ability to experiment with visual styles that incorporated elements such as dolly shots and manipulated lighting that many amateur films cannot afford to include. Additionally, he immediately recognized the value of involving experienced people throughout the production process and taking advantage of their knowledge to avoid making common mistakes. The Knocker screened at the Deep Ellum Film Festival and Dallas Video Fest where it caught the attention of Jason Armour who the hired Johnston to direct a narrative feature he’d written called Mere Acquaintance.

Once again borrowing equipment from MLD, Johnston continued to develop his visual style, although he found he had trouble communicating his ideas to the actors. Despite the fact that these first two attempts at filmmaking will likely never see the light of day in their entirety, Johnston considers them crucial because of how much he learned about the process of making a film. It was also on these, and the countless other productions for which he volunteered in a variety of capacities, that he met many of the people he continues to work with today. In addition to Lowery, Johnston met Malaysian born writer/director Yen Tan, whose first feature Happy Birthday won the jury prize at the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 2002.

Eventually, Johnston and his friends, including Lowery, Tan, and Prendergrast, decided they had to elevate their film making to the next level. With the help of veteran DP Jim McMahon, they put together a full crew, pinched every penny, and filmed the 2005 feature Dead Room at MPS studios in Dallas for $12,000 and lots of favors. The film opened SXSW before going on to play at the Philadelphia and Cleveland Film Festivals and winning Best Narrative Feature at the Texas Film Festival. It also garnered a positive review in the Austin Chronicle and a profile in Filmmaker magazine.

Johnston credits the success of Dead Room with earning himself and his collaborators a recognition within the independent film world that would help them produce later projects such as Lowery’s 2006 short The Outlaw Son and Tan’s 2007 feature CiaoCiao, which Johnston co-produced, recently received a 5 city theatrical release with Regent Distribution who will also handle the film’s domestic DVD treatment.

Johnston has written and directed two films on his own, GDMF in 2006 and Merrily, Merrily in 2007.

Merrily, Merrily – Trailer from James M. Johnston on Vimeo.

He calls GDMF his attempt at making a mumblecore film, a movement that, although he has deep admiration for, admits he is not interested in participating in from a filmmaking standpoint. The characters that populate these films are commonly middle class, college educated, white males and females in their early to late twenties who seem to have trouble worrying about “matters more pressing than whether to return a phone call”.

According to a 2007 New York Times article, mumblecore began in 2002 with Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha-Ha. The movement, however, can certainly be likened to the style of John Cassavetes (“Slackavetes” is another commonly heard way to describe mumblecore, or D.I.Y., films) as well as Richard Linklater, so where exactly mumblecore begins and ends are blurry lines to say the least.

This is one reason that filmmakers perceived to operate and exist within mumblecore often resent the classification. As the legend goes, the term was coined during the 2005 SXSW film festival in Austin where a handful of the films were screened. Many of the films had been rejected by Sundance, and SXSW’s Matt Dentler had picked them up with the deliberate intention of screening films that other, larger festivals couldn’t afford to take risks on. Since then, Austin has been considered a major center for the genre.

Johnston feels that the titles used to describe the movement will soon fade. The films, which he describes as very personal and actor driven, without intentional visual styles, or even scripts, will hopefully remain. What he feels is most admirable about these films is the pure passion for storytelling that serves as the motivation for making them. What he does not identify with is the apparent reluctance to address any sweeping ethical or otherwise signficant issues and although it isn’t explicitly stated in the film, he hopes viewers of GDMF do recognize the issue it takes with the role of women in modern society. It is primarily this element, as well as the intentional visual style, that distinguishes GDMF from the mumblecore movement.

What strikes me most about mumblecore films is how their apparent triviality so accurately captures the relative oblivion that many remain loyal to during our post-collegiate years, even after it no longer serves us…if it ever did, that is. They precisely portray how distracting that nostalgia for the innocence of college, when new levels of intoxication and promiscuity disguised as intimacy were priorities, can often be and how it “masks quietly seismic shifts that are apparent only in hindsight”. As someone who feels to finally be exiting the “in-between years”, I can certainly testify that I spent a lot time wishing, and acting like, I was still in college rather than embracing the transition to adulthood.