Unveiling Success: An Exclusive Interview with Emerging Filmmaker Jayson Johnson
In this exclusive interview, we delve into the fascinating journey of Jayson Johnson, an emerging filmmaker from the West Chicagoland suburbs. From his humble beginnings as an actor in an ultra-low-budget film to establishing his own production company, Jayson has faced challenges head-on and used them as stepping stones to propel himself forward.
Throughout the interview, Jayson shares how his experiences, including periods of homelessness and setbacks, have shaped him as a filmmaker and as a person.
HI, WELCOME TO ABOUT INSIDER! THANKS FOR TAKING THE TIME TO CHAT WITH US! CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF, WHO IS JAYSON JOHNSON IN YOUR OWN WORDS?
Jayson Johnson is a DIY filmmaker from the West Chicagoland suburbs. It’s kinda of weird for me to say I’m a filmmaker because I really don’t know what I’m doing… I mean I didn’t go to film school, didn’t come from a creative family and will happily watch an older film (70s, 80s & 90s) over a modern made film any day of the week. Hmmnnnn, on second thought I guess that does make me a filmmaker after all.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY AS A FILMMAKER? HOW DID YOU GET STARTED AND WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO PURSUE THIS CAREER?
By the time I got into college I had like 10 jobs and had been fired from pretty much all of them. One job I lost my ID badge and when the security guard asked me to sign in I wrote down I was Mike Tyson and ended up getting fired that afternoon. I say all of that because I always knew I didn’t want to have a regular life. I loved the glitz and glamor of what I saw on television and wanted something that closely resembled that but didn’t understand how a kid from the Chicago suburbs could attain it. But then it came to me after a long study session at 2 AM. I saw a casting call for an ultra low budget film. At this point I had never acted before but somehow knew this was my calling. A few weeks later I auditioned and got one of the parts in the film and have been on a movie set ever since.
I remember thinking that once that film, “Empire of Danger” came out there’d be other acting opportunities but that wasn’t the case for me. I’d go out on casting call after casting call and get rejected on the spot. I was frustrated because I was passionate about this industry but no one was giving me a chance. The breaking point came after I drove like 100 miles for an audition and some fat dude eating Doritos on the couch said I’d never make it. I decided right then and there that I’d make my own films. I already knew what it was like to get fired so I’d start my own production company where I was the boss so I’d never have that feeling again.
YOU MENTIONED EXPERIENCING UPS AND DOWNS IN YOUR FILMMAKING JOURNEY, INCLUDING BEING HOMELESS AND FACING SETBACKS. HOW DID THESE EXPERIENCES SHAPE YOU AS A FILMMAKER AND AS A PERSON?
I have a take that might be triggering, but I genuinely believe that everyone should experience homelessness, or as it is often referred to as “houselessness,” at least once in their lives, even if it’s only for a single day. Now, I understand this may sound controversial, but let me explain.
When I found myself without a home, it became a pivotal moment of self-reflection. I had to confront myself in the mirror and accept responsibility for the situation I was in. I realized that I had played a part in getting myself into that mess, and it was up to me to find a way out. It was a turning point that made me discover an unexpected resourcefulness within myself.
During that time, I had to juggle multiple jobs while relentlessly pursuing my dream as a filmmaker. Balancing these responsibilities was no easy feat, but I discovered an inner strength that I hadn’t realized existed. Within a month, I managed to transition from sleeping in my car to renting a room. Looking back, those days when my back was against the wall, not knowing if someone would knock on my car window at 3 AM, have given me a profound understanding of why the van life community is so significant. Living off the grid, disconnected from conventional norms, became a masterclass in survival—a lesson that has undoubtedly shaped my journey as a filmmaker.
The experience of homelessness taught me resilience, adaptability, and an appreciation for the simple things in life. It forced me to navigate through challenging circumstances and find creative solutions to everyday problems. These skills have become invaluable assets in my pursuit of success in the film industry.
OUT OF THE NINE SHORT FILMS YOU HAVE MADE, WHICH ONE HOLDS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT MEANING FOR YOU AND WHY?
All of my films hold a different place in my heart so it’s hard to choose one. It’s kinda like a parent choosing which one of their kids is their favorite. It’s not an easy task but I guess if as long as we’re choosing I’d go with the first project I ever did, “Black Rodgers”. This was the first time I attempted to include anyone else in my filmmaking career. I wrote the script, made the costumes, props and casted actors for the project. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing but pretended like I was a seasoned filmmaker. I cut my teeth on this project as I took on every role in the project including being the lead actor. Last year I went back and watched “Black Rodgers” for the first time in years and let me tell you, it’s terrible (lol). There’s so many continuity errors, bad audio, instances where actors look directly at the camera, you name it. But all that said, this film is significant to me because I set out to be a filmmaker and finished my goal. This was my starting point and I can always look back to how far I’ve been able to come.
HOW DO YOU STAY MOTIVATED AND FOCUSED ON YOUR GOAL OF BECOMING AN ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR, ESPECIALLY DURING CHALLENGING TIMES?
For me, it’s all about embracing a daily routine that keeps me focused and driven. I firmly believe in the power of consistency. Each day, I rise and retire at the same time, establishing a sense of structure and discipline in my life. But it’s not just about the morning and night; it’s about what happens in between.
As a filmmaker, I make it a priority to do at least one film-related task every day. It could be as small as sending off a cold call email or jotting down ideas for my next project. The key is to keep the momentum going, to keep pushing forward. You see, in this industry, the triumphs may be fewer and farther between than the challenges we face. But it’s in those valleys that we must find the strength to keep moving, to keep pursuing our dreams with unwavering determination.
To stay motivated and inspired, I turn to the wisdom of accomplished individuals who have overcome their own struggles. Listening to motivational tapes from extraordinary individuals like Steve Harvey, Tyler Perry, and Les Brown has been a game-changer for me. Their stories resonate deeply, as each of these greats has faced hardships along their journey. Yet, they persevered, staying committed to their craft and ultimately achieving remarkable success.
AS A BAY AREA FILMMAKER, HOW HAS THE LOCAL COMMUNITY AND ENVIRONMENT SHAPED YOUR FILMMAKING STYLE OR APPROACH?
The Bay Area’s creative environment and stunning natural backdrops, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, picturesque coastlines, and lush forests, have shaped my filmmaking journey. While it may not be on par with Los Angeles as a film mecca, the Bay Area’s innovative spirit and proximity to the tech industry have fueled my exploration of new techniques and technologies. Incorporating cutting-edge tools, I strive to push the boundaries of traditional storytelling.
Moreover, the Bay Area’s diverse community has been a constant source of inspiration. Interacting with people from various backgrounds and cultures has expanded my understanding of human experiences, enriching the narratives I create. The community’s passion for social issues and activism has motivated me to address relevant themes and promote positive change through my films.
Again, while the Bay Area may not have the same level of film industry infrastructure as Los Angeles, its creative atmosphere, proximity to innovation, and diverse community have greatly influenced my filmmaking style and approach. I embrace the region’s unique advantages, drawing inspiration from its breathtaking landscapes, engaging with its people, and using film as a medium to drive meaningful impact
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE FILM INDUSTRY, PARTICULARLY FOR INDEPENDENT FILMMAKERS? ARE THERE ANY CHANGES OR DEVELOPMENTS YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE IN THE INDUSTRY?
I was just watching a news clip where Hollywood is introducing a bunch of new diversity regulations for films to qualify for Academy Award projects. While I think inclusion in the film industry is a good thing, forcing it onto creatives is a mistake. Maybe this is another one of my controversial takes but I think the best actor/actress should get the role instead of defining race/gender qualifiers a producer or director need adhere to when selecting talent or film professionals for their project. This just seems forced and disingenuous to me. As a Black filmmaker I don’t care what the color of your skin is. Can you do the job? Are you a great talent? These are the things I take into consideration. Again, I’m not against diversity here but I do feel Hollywood is regulating themselves to death. If you look at the viewership of the Oscars over the past three years it’s amongst the worst ever. They’ve clearly lost their way and the more Hollywood sticks to this path the more irrelevant they’ll become. I can definitely see Dubai replacing the Hollywood award show scene if this continues.
As for independent filmmakers, I’m optimistic they’ll be an opportunity wave for us much like there was in the 70’s when new wave film legends like Spielberg, De Palma, Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola burst onto the scene. At least I’m hopeful of this. There has to be a point where audiences get tired of lackluster reimagined 80/90’s remakes and superhero flicks.
WHAT’S SOMETHING WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOU THAT MIGHT SURPRISE US?
Two things. I worked for Francis Ford Coppola for four years and secondly I went to culinary school and have cooked meals for talent/crew on 8 out of 9 of my projects.
ANY UPCOMING PROJECTS/ROLES YOU CAN TALK ABOUT?
Yes! My next project is a feature film called “Counterfeit Cabernets” a story about a wine vintner who gets in over his head with a gambling debt to a notorious gangster, so he concocts a plan to auction off counterfeit wine to settle the tab.
I drew inspiration for this story from wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan, who was featured in the documentary ‘Sour Grapes.’ I couldn’t believe it when I found out that over 20% of the wine out there is actually fake! I thought that was a crazy statistic so I started writing and soon after formed a non-fiction tale inspired by that story.
Since writing this screenplay I’ve submitted it into eight competitions and five have officially selected this project. I think I have a good project on my hands and am now hoping to get the word out about it as I go into fundraising.