A New Kind of Relationship: indieWIRE Interview With “The New Twenty” Director Chris Mason Johnson
posted on March 19, 2009
by Brian Brooks
Chris Mason Johnson’s “The New Twenty” follows five New Yorkers - some gay, some straight - as they navigate shifting relationships on the cusp of turning 30. The film screened at a wide range of festivals, including Outfest, where it won the best actress award for Nicole Bilderback, and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, where it won best first feature. indieWIRE spoke to Johnson about the film, which is being released this weekend through Wolfe Releasing.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved since you started out?
Actors, absolutely. They are our gods and goddesses. Growing up in L.A. I used to go to movies at the Nuart and the old Fox Venice - classic revival houses - and I had crushes on Bettie Davis and Cary Grant, then later Juliet Binoche and Monty Clift. I loved the crazy, tense, hyper-sexualized, super-framed formal manipulation of Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Sirk. I loved the sloppy humanist party vibe of Renoir, Mazursky, LaCava, sometimes Cukor. I understood that directors didn’t just set up the camera, they created the tone. And they were surrounded all day by actors, which seemed like a nice job to me.
As a teenager I started acting and that led to dance and dancing became a career. I didn’t really plan it - although I did train hard - and I danced in major companies in New York and Europe (Feld, Frankfurt, Lar Lubovitch), at one point alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov. But you know what’s bizarre about dancing? You are mute. And I wanted a voice. So I left dancing early and went to college; I wanted to study film and also just become an educated person. I was starved for conversation. The irony is: dance prepared me well for directing. There’s a strong connection between the two. It’s all about the movement of bodies in relation to each other. Sometimes the “body” is a camera. And sometimes the “movement” is a cut. Multiple layers of movement intersecting. It’s the MOVIES.
At college a writer-director alum advised me that if I wanted to direct, I should study acting. It was good advice - because there actually IS a technique to acting and it helps to know it if you want to direct. It’s especially important with independent film, where bad acting is harder to hide. I think a director who knows acting - or at least cares seriously about it - can help even a great actor become better. Cukor was famous for that. Obviously, Stephen Daldry is amazing at it. So I studied acting and made several short films before making “The New Twenty.” You learn a LOT making a first feature. The second is already easier. I just finished a new screenplay called “Skirt.” It’s a comedy of gay marriage with two women and a man, a very contemporary triangle. And it does not have a cop-out heterosexual ending!
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I’ve explored a lot of them: development (I was Head of Development at Open City Films in the mid-90s), writing, directing, producing, editing, marketing. What I want to do now is work on my craft and polish my skills as a writer, director and editor. Editing is really the third phase of “writing” a movie. I did most of the editing on my film, but under a pseudonym (Adam Raponi - my Italian grandfather’s surname). I’m coming out of the editing closet!
Please discuss how the idea for “The New Twenty” came about.
From a conversation about this insanely ribald, sex-saturated bachelor party that my friend and co-writer Ishmael Chawla and some others threw for one of the guys getting married. And of course, I was not invited to it. It would have screwed things up in a major way to have an out gay man at that event, for obvious reasons. Ishmael and I were part of a circle of male friends - some gay, most straight - and I was intrigued by these new lines forming in our social lives that weren’t represented in film yet. About this new mix of gay and straight. And the limits of it. In “The New Twenty” I depict gay/straight friendships that are free of the homosexual panic jokes and unrequited love conflicts that usually dominate the screen. Also, of course, there’s a bachelor party that goes horribly wrong - probably because I wasn’t invited to it. Oh wait. That was real life. I get them confused.
The first draft of my film was a 10-million dollar social satire period epic that took the dotcom bubble as its subject, sort of like “Bonfire of the Vanities” meets “Bright Lights, Big City” by way of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni.” But I didn’t have 10 million, I had half a million. So I scaled it down and focused more on the relationships. As it turned out, the financial culture crumbled around us and the film does now have a period feel. It says “2006” at the beginning of the movie and two of the characters are investment bankers, one a venture capitalist. I was trying to show how some friendships are held together more by momentum than real intimacy, and the Wall Street backdrop was good for that theme.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
My approach formally was: give the film a sensual, fluid feel. I love the kinetic style of Bertolucci, Scorsese, Fosse, and also those three contemporary men of the theater who make amazing movies: Daldry, Mendes, Luhrmann. So I wanted my camera to move. We didn’t have a Steadicam, of course. We did lay dolly track more than is usual at this budget level. But mostly it was my amazing DP David Tumblety (“Sweet Land”). He was the human dolly. I would say: “Okay, Dave, let’s do the human dolly.” And we would map out the blocking of the camera in relation to the actors, like a waltz. The master of that style is Max Ophuls in “The Earrings of Madame de…” That is some AMAZING dolly work. Every filmmaker should see it. He understood how to move the camera in relation to bodies that are also moving.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Well, everyone faces the same challenge in independent film: you don’t have money and you need some. So my producing partner (Aina Abiodun) and I raised it incrementally. It was a difficult process, but there were some wonderful surprises when individual investors came through for us. As for distribution: we got invited to Outfest and Wolfe Releasing/Wolfe Video saw us there, at the world premiere, and made an offer that beat out another offer from a bigger company. They love the film and we love them: they are honest, efficient, good-humored, hard-working, and very clever about evolving distribution models.
What other genres or stories would you like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
My next project is a comedy of gay marriage, called “Skirt,” which I’ve just finished writing. It’s in the comic spirit of Preston Sturges or 30 Rock and the issues are very NOW, so I’m hoping I can attract some great comic actors who are sympathetic to the politics. I think Leslie Mann is amazing and would be perfect for one of the leads. Leslie, do you want to read it? And there’s a great role for Ryan Reynolds, who I think can do no wrong. Does he still do indies? Also I have a psychological horror script based on a short story, called MORRO BAY, to be shot in the California town of the same name. Finally, in my dream-career future, I will direct a musical. It’s a natural fit with my dance background and it’s a great genre, not often done well.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I would give a specific but broad definition: any movie that is funded and produced outside the studio system, regardless of whether it’s distributed or acquired by a studio. Problem is, that leaves us with some “independent” films that cost millions and have stars, and some that cost nothing and have unknowns. So that definition doesn’t make much intuitive sense, even though it makes economic sense. I don’t have a solution to this semantic problem!
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Two things. The first is film related: getting the Best Director/First Feature award at Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. It’s a great festival run by very nice people, and they were especially fond of my movie. It was heartfelt.
The other is a scene out of my own real-life dance movie: I was an understudy for the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. One day this really tall dancer (Rob Besserer) threw his back out and I had to go on for him last minute. One of the things he did in this Mark Morris piece was run across the stage with Baryshnikov sitting on his shoulder. I am not a big guy, but there was no one else to do the role! So I lifted Baryshnikov onto my shoulder in the wings (and he said, with that great Russian accent of his, “You are strong!”), and I ran across the stage with him and did the rest of the dance okay. At a party afterwards he toasted me with champagne and said: “Tonight, you are the hero.”