Filmmaker Series: Daniel Johnson
I’m Dan. I am a writer and director. By the nature of the type of work I do, I am also a producer and editor. I grew up on the borders of London/Essex, and currently live in East London.
What initially got you into filmmaking?
Around the age of fifteen or so, I began focusing nearly all of my attention on watching films and reading screenplays. I didn’t really know it then, but it was the beginnings of becoming a filmmaker.
By seventeen, I was making short films. I was working part time in Tesco at the time, and was making films with colleagues. I knew from that age it was what I wanted to do. I had a knack for it; since that day it’s been the only thing I am really any good at.
Who are your biggest influences and why?
Billy Wilder, Cameron Crowe, Spike Lee, Nora Ephron, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen.
I have always loved writer-directors who have a unique, personal vision. The names above I particularly admire because they have bodies of work that lasted for many, many years, and each of their films were uniquely them.
When you watch a Nora Ephron film, you can feel her attention to detail in every shot. It feels like home. This type of filmmaking is becoming increasingly rare but it’s what inspires me and what I aspire to.
How important is film as a medium and art form in the world, today?
That’s a good question. The history of cinema is hugely important, and has shaped so much of culture.
Modern cinema is still important, but I’m not sure it shapes the culture as much as television or gaming or, and I hate to say it, social media.
There is still nothing better than sitting down in a cinema and watching a great movie, but the art form feels a bit under threat, for so many different reasons.
Do you have a set process when making film?
I like to work with as little equipment as possible, with as small a crew as I can get away with.
As a writer, I tend to create scripts that are character focused, that can be done on very low budgets.
When I started out, this was just a necessity, because I didn’t have the resources. Now it’s very much a preference. I like the fact that I can write a script today, and be on set tomorrow morning with actors.
My process is very much about having creativity as the goal, to create something I believe in. The process is very much about simplicity.
Another two filmmakers I admire are Mark and Jay Duplass. Their early feature films like ‘The Puffy Chair’ and ‘Baghead’ were perfect examples of low-budget, creative feature films.
What has been your favourite film to work on and why?
I did a four minute short film in 2013 called ‘Emilie and New York City’. It was just a four minute zero-budget short with two actors, but it captured a feeling I had, both in myself and in my feelings about New York City.
There was no-budget, no crew, and it’s a film hardly anyone has seen, but it was my favourite to create.
"Emilie And New York City"
Written & Directed By Daniel Johnson
Which genre do you enjoy working in?
I love comedy. And I love the kind of slice-of-life indie films we saw in the 90’s and early 2000’s - that’s my sensibility in terms of what I watch and what I try to make.
Is filmmaking your primary source of income?
Filmmaking has been my only source of income since 2012. I worked a job at the Olympics (I hoped to race competitively, but was a few seconds slower than Usain Bolt), and at the time I knew I was beginning to do okay with filmmaking - so was able to take that leap to leave the random jobs and focus on filmmaking.
I think how I achieved this, was to find my niche. One of the things I did in the mid to late 2000’s was create showreels from scratch for actors. Not many people were doing it at the time, and those who were, were just replicating scenes from TV and film.
I would - and still to this day - create scenes from scratch, focused solely on what suits actors and will get them cast. This really became a niche for me. Now, many people do the same thing, but where I’ve been around a long time and have created work of a consistent level, I am fortunately in that I am trusted to do this kind of work. I’ve created reels for Guildhall Drama School and more recently, Arts Ed, which has helped solidify my reputation doing this work.
And most importantly, casting directors like what I do, and it gets actors work.
What is your definition of success?
Feeling the joy of creativity.
What advice can you give our readers, should they wish to pursue filmmaking?
Create films you love, in your own vision. They’ll suck at first, but we all improve.
I am still trying to make my films more and more ‘me’. It’s hard but I think it’s the only way to get work, to show your uniqueness.
Do you ever suffer from creative burnout? How do you combat it?
All the time!
I am aware my answers here contradict each other but go with me.
One thing to do is reconnect with things I love. Like those influences I mentioned earlier - if I watch a bunch of Chaplin films, for example, I reconnect with a piece of me.
Or I do the opposite. Read a book in a genre I wouldn’t normally go to (for me that would be sci-fi, or horror), or go for a walk in a place I don’t know.
Burnout for me happens because I write a lot, and I’ve used up all the words I know. It’s crucial for me to both reconnect, but also, to connect with new ideas I know little about. Oh and, as the phrase burnout would imply, sometimes you just need rest. Watch some football or whatever it is you like to do. Get a Ryanair flight for ten quid to a new place. Anything that makes you forget about creativity will, in the end, help creativity.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have just recently decided to create a few new short films - very much going back to how I started; having an idea and running with it. I’m excited to create things purely for fun and seeing if I can get them into some cool film festivals.
What are your hopes for the future?
To keep writing and creating. I used to think the dream was writing and directing feature films. I’d still love that, but with the tides changing in terms of how content gets consumed, I’m happy to see how the industry changes. There is always going to be a place for self-expression, I am just happy to be creating.
Lastly where can people find you?
My website: www.danieljohnsonfilms.co.uk
Instagram : www.instagram.com/danieljohnsonfilms
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