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Interview With Curt Johnson


Curt Johnson: Lights...Camera...Animals

Late in 2006 I formed a routine where I would ravage MySpace for indie films. Most of the time I would not even look at the film's subject or synopsis, I would just request a screener.. As you can guess films started piling up on my floor in droves. One after another I would read the title and insert the film into my DVD player. One night a filmed named "Your Mommy Kills Animals" had made it's way to the top of the stack. From reading the title I made the pre-mature assumption that it was going to be an indie horror. And to be completely honest the time was 1a.m. and the plan was to watch half then and watch the other half the next day. "Your Mommy Kills Animals" was not an indie horror film at all. The film I became subject to was one of the best multi directional documentaries I had ever seen. I fell in love with what I was watching and even more than that I knew it was something very special. That night I stayed up until 6a.m. working on my review for the film, you can read my review here. I can say that no documentary had ever moved me like "Your Mommy Kills Animals". Before retiring to bed, with my brain still rattled, I sent Curt a message on MySpace to share the review with him and let him now how his film made me feel. This opened dialogue between the two of us and what I found in addition to an extremely special film was also a very unique director who has high goals with a down to earth attitude. Here is my interview with Curt Johnson.

CD: Anyone who subjects themselves to "Your Mommy Kills Animals" is going to walk away from the film recognize that the film displays an extreme amount of courage. Where does a person get the kind of courage it takes to make a film like this?

CJ: I think anyone who makes films, especially indie films, is showing quite a bit of courage already. Going into this project, I had no idea of what to expect. I'd have to credit the Drudge Report with inspiring the film because of a story they were carrying about the FBI calling animal rights activists the number one domestic terrorist threat to the U.S. It just made me wonder what that was about, and I just figured it'd be a very straight forward film showing lots of puppies and kittens. Man, was I in for a surprise!

I think the 'courage' to make this film came more from ignorance about the subject and not knowing what I was getting into. If I knew then everything I'd be going through to get this film made, I honestly don't know if I would've jumped headlong into it the way I did. I try to not educate myself too much on the subjects I choose so I don't go in with an opinion and can learn as I go to keep the film as objective as possible.

CD: So you read about it on the Drudge Report, you become intrigued, where did you go from there to put this film together?

CJ: I had 2 other projects I was putting together and for some reason the timing just felt right to get going on this project. I've learned that if I have to think too much about whether I want to do a project, it means that I'll wind up getting bored so if I feel an immediate need to do one, I just jump in and hope it works out. Another documentary I'm shooting now is on heavyweight champ Baby Joe Mesi, and at that point we were waiting to see if his boxing license was going to be reinstated so I had a small window of time to jump onto the animal rights project.

The first thing I did to put the film together was e-mailing the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) website asking for an interview along with all the other groups that were pretty known like PETA. I didn't realize then that this was an underground group so I must've looked pretty naive to them, but they responded and got the word out about the film. It was then I realized how connected the movement is because within a day of the e-mail I got a call from someone asking me about the project. Then suddenly I was being sent a huge amount of underground footage from groups in the movement and anonymous people to use in the film, and I'm really grateful for that since it really adds to it.

I wanted to be honest with everyone and let everyone I interviewed know that the film would be taking a real objective viewpoint and talking to people on both sides. Sadly, today the word 'objective' doesn't seem to mean anything but a slanted view on a subject so that made it a little tough to get people to trust that we weren't out trying to make a slam piece on anyone. After getting inside I could understand the paranoia many groups were feeling having an outsider suddenly come into their world with a camera and crew following them around. This was a true learn as you go film and since it was only myself and a 2 man crew, I was setting up interviews on the fly because so many people were very nervous about the film.

CD: "Your Mommy Kills Animals" speaks very loudly as a film. The film treads some dangerous territory from multiple sides. During filming were did most of the resistance come from?

CJ: At first it was really easy getting interviews set up, and on that first leg the crew and I were all set for 29 days of back to back interviews starting in San Franciso and going all the way around the country ending in Arizona. It was one of those, 'wow, this is way easier than I thought it would be.'

Then after about 2 weeks, the tide turned really quickly and three organizations turned me down within 20 minutes of each other. It was weird since no one would give me an explanation why the turnaround. Then suddenly I lost 14 interviews in 3 days and at one point I thought the movie was over, especially when I was getting e-mails from people telling me that word was out not to take any part in the film. At that point I had 15 hours of interviews, but having all those people pull out actually made the film much more powerful since we wound up focusing on the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) trial which weaves in and out of the film.

At the time it's happening, you get really pissed and frustrated thinking it's all over, but it always seems that when you get roadblocks put in your way, somehow you wind up getting pushed into the right direction. That's what I love about doing docs is that you have a general idea when you start, but they take a life of their own once you get going.

I think what made people so nervous being up front and telling everyone I was interviewing people on both sides and would be keeping my opinion out of the film. Looking back now if I'd gone in telling both sides that I was just trying to make them look great and the film would be one-sided, etc., it would've been easier to get interviews, but then you wind up fucking yourself for future documentaries since no one can ever trust you again.

I interviewed mink farmers and I could understand them being nervous that I could be an animal rights person trying to make them look stupid. Then on the other side, I came into the animal rights world out of the blue, and from their perspective I could've been an undercover person trying to infiltrate their groups. I didn't know the film would wind up being so controversial when it started so it's understandable why people were so on edge when the crew and I kept popping up everywhere.

CD: I think its safe to say that the turbulence swirling around you while making the film can be strongly felt. At times I felt like either side could have crumbled in on you, especially since you left the film very open. Was there any point where you felt that you and your crew were in possible danger?

CJ: The turbulence hasn't ended yet.

The crew and I never felt any sense of danger, but knowing that you're being watched wherever you are is pretty creepy. One time in Seattle I was on a boat with a friend and got a phone call from someone asking about the film and before they hung up, they told me to enjoy the boat ride. Man that was really freaky since I couldn't see anyone even close to us out on the water.

CD: Today you can find a documentary on almost any subject you can think of. Documentaries don't really have the best success rate. Most of the time, for me at least, I watch one and I'm left with a "meh" feeling. I don't know if it's because of lack of content, if the director's agenda comes out in front or a mix of the two. Where do you think a failed Documentary usually derails?

CJ: Well there are many great docs out there that just didn't get the right marketing push behind or distributors just didn't realize how to sell it and it never got picked up. The more unique the story is the tougher the sell it'll be, and since it seems like everyone's doing a doc, finding it place in the market for it is even tougher. As any of us in this industry know, you've got to be a little masochistic to go through what we do. If it's not getting the right distributor, it can be having an investor who suddenly tries to take control of the project. That happens a lot and I've been lucky to have an amazing team of lawyers who know how to protect my films, and I strongly suggest that to anyone in the indie field!

The docs that leave me feeling like 'meh' are usually obvious agenda pieces. I learn so much more from people I disagree with, and when a film doesn't have any dissenting opinions, I'm always left wondering what the other side would have said and why didn't the filmmaker get their opinion.

One of my favorites last year was Dave Chappelle's Block Party since it just told a great story where you got pulled in and really enjoyed it. I think it's a lot like a feature film with docs in that sometimes you get too attached to the subjects and want to put everything in even if it doesn't move your story forward.

The rough cut of YMKA was 2 hours 10 minutes and I knew it had to be cut down way more but wasn't sure where since the Greg Browning, my amazing editor and I had been going 8 weeks on it. I went to LA and showed it to a wide range of people so I could see it through them to see what needed to go. When I got back we were able to cut out over 25 minutes and some of the things were hard to take out, but like with writing, you're always going to have to cut stuff out you're attached too...most of the time it's not relevant to the film just more of an emotional attachment.


CD: A film like "Your Mommy Kills Animals" is going to leave some viewers with a confused look on their face when the credits roll. The film doesn't take a definitive side. What would you say to a viewer who may be confused by this?

CJ: It's been interesting since the film has been screened for over 3,000 people now and no one has said that. Audiences have said that both sides make very valid points and they've enjoyed the film since it lets everyone speak equally. People who are in the film on both sides have been extremely supportive that the film is objective. One thing that let me know that the film was objective was that I've heard the same complaint from both sides in that we let the other side talk too much. I take that as a big compliment!

Patti Strand with the National Animal Interest Alliance watched it a few months ago and said that she was pleasantly surprised by this film since animal rights films tend to be more one sided. She felt that it could be very good for the movement since it doesn't try to slam any side but shows all aspects within it.

People can see on www.myspace.com/yourmommykillsanimals some of the animal rights activists that saw the film were just as supportive and gave video testimonials. People like Richard Pryor's widow, Jenny Pryor, the Barbi Twins and Michael Bell (who was the voice in the original Transformers cartoon).

CD: When you started pre-production for "Your Mommy Kills Animals" what was the goal of the film in your mind?

CJ: I really didn't know how it would go. I thought is was a look at the animal rights movement showing all sides and it wasn't until nearly the end of the interviews that I realized that this was going to be a pretty intense film and much bigger than I ever anticipated. When you're in the rush of doing interview after interview you just don't know what you have until you get into edit. Luckily, I've got an amazing editor, Greg Browning, who is able to understand how I work. I know what I want, and he's able to help really flesh it out and I've already got him booked for the next 2 films because he's invaluable to me. And you can see him on the movie's website too.

You can lay out a rough game plan of what you're trying to do when you start a doc, but it will always gain a life of its own and grow. I wish we could have done a mini-series since we had over 70 hours of interview footage that we shot. That doesn't include the over 300 hours of footage given to me by various groups. The DVD extras are going to be pretty good. When you wind up having Tippi Hedren on the cutting room floor, you know that�s a lot of good footage!

CD: How important is if for a documentary filmmaker to remain unbiased, no matter how strong their personal beliefs may be on a subject, when making a film?

CJ: That's a tough one to answer because I can only speak for myself. Everybody has their own way to make a film, and it's not for me to say this is the right or wrong way to do it. I can certainly see why people would rather do one-sided docs since it�s much easier to get cooperation from people when they know you're only showing they're point of view. That doesn't make those films less enjoyable though.

I just prefer to keep myself out of the process and let the subject and the people I'm interviewing make the story what it becomes. I'll always credit Albert Maysles film "Grey Gardens" for getting me to want to do documentaries in the first place and the way he let the people tell their story without any interference from him. That's more exciting to me because you never know what will happen. In YMKA, people on both sides really opened and up and were comfortable talking and it shows in the film. I'm just thankful people can be that comfortable around me.

That's what I loved about Metallica: Some Kind of Monster because Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky showed the good and the bad that was happening with the band. If they had only showed a happy band working together and making a Grammy winning album, it would've been just another MTV type piece, but those guys are able to get people comfortable enough to just be themselves. That for me is the best kind of documentary filmmaking.

CD: When you start a documentary on a subject that you don't know much about it seems to me that the film could go in so many unplanned directions. How do you keep the film on the planned track, or is their no real planned track and you just let the film create itself?

CJ: I'm a control freak, but when I'm working on a documentary, for me it's been best to let it evolve on it's own.

When I'm interviewing people, I never go in with a paper full of questions since the person will wind up being distracted looking at the paper wondering what's on it. I've had some interviews where I told the boys in the crew that I had no fucking clue what I was going to ask right before and then the camera's rolling and somehow we just start talking. When I was going through all the raw footage for YMKA there were a few interviews where I had the flu and felt like shit, but it was a total surprise when they turned out so well.

I know that won't work for everyone, but it feels right and luckily I keep getting some great stuff. Now the editing room is a whole different story trying to put it all together and find your story!

CD: You mentioned above that the fire for "YMKA" was lit by a report you read on Drudge. Where else do you find inspiration for your documentaries?

CJ: Most of the time ideas for my projects come just from talking to someone or seeing something on TV or in the press that gets my curiosity going. With documentary's, it's just my natural inclination to ask why and if it stays with me for a couple days, I'll pursue it further and take it from there.

The boxing documentary came from a roundabout way. I was watching a boxing movie one day and was curious about one of the actors and then wound up doing an article for ESPN Magazine about boxing. Then it turned into a documentary project. I just hope I keep asking 'why' all my life.

Producer Don Murphy "Natural Born Killers", "Transformers" has also been a good mentor in showing me not to give up, and if you believe in a project just keep going after it no matter how many people try to hold you back. Sadly, I've learned that that's very true, and you have to just keep believing in yourself and even when people tell you no, you don't that for answer.....unless you're on a date. Don's given me some great advice which I'll always be grateful for and I have so much respect for him since he's been put through so much with his projects, but he never gives up. Now that's a real producer.

CD: You've had previous projects win an Oscar, you are about to turn some heads with "YMKA" along with already getting early Oscar buzz, what�s on the plate next for Curt Johnson?

CJ: The documentary I'm nearly finished shooting now, "Pets On Your Plate" which turned out to be a pretty interesting one and will surprise a lot of people. It's in the vein of "Erin Brokovich". And the boxing documentary I've been shooting and one more documentary right behind that. Then I finally get to get back to a couple features; one�s my first 'family' movie, but my kind of 'family' movie which will be shooting in Montana along with a horror picture. I love horror films and the opening credit sequence of YMKA definitely shows that. I�m also developing "Ricky" with Chris Oxley, an action adventure superhero film. We call it our white trash superhero, but I�m sure distributors won�t want to try that kinda sell for it.

In this industry, knowing that the next few years are blocked out with projects is very VERY reassuring.

CD: When it is all said and done what would you like for people to remember most about Curt Johnson as a filmmaker?

CJ: This'll probably come out sounding bad, but I've never been one to give a shit what people think about me personally. In this industry, the people that hate you today will love you next year if you can do something for them.

I'd rather people be able to look back at my films and see some cool moments in time and hopefully enjoy them. Having people see your work and get into it is the best. YMKA was shown to people I respect in the industry like Graham Yost, Stan Lee, Larry Flynt, Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman. Hearing back how much they liked it just brought out the total geek in me. I know it's all ego, but having people's who�s work you really like and admire check out what you've done and enjoy is so cool!

CD: If you had the opportunity to direct a music video from the past or present what song would you choose?

CJ: Funny enough, I've been approached by several music groups asking me about directing videos for them. That's exciting since I haven't done that in many years. I've been wanting to find some great groups whose music I really like work with.

I get bored when I see most of the videos that are getting churned out just to have something to go with a song. My music tastes are all over the board and it would be great to work on videos in different genres.

I would've loved to direct the video for the Police's song "Wrapped Around Your Finger". I remember that song coming out when I was in high school and kept telling my friends that it was a song about S&M...at that age they thought I meant M&M's and couldn't figure out why I thought that. I love how the song is about someone thinking they have this power over you and then suddenly realizing that it was the other person who had it all along and not them.. Whenever I hear that song, I see the video the way I would've made it.

More present, although they were bigger in the 90's was the Bloodhound Gang. I loved the videos they did along with their songs and that would've been a blast to work with them.

"Your Mommy Kills Animals" had a limited number of screenings at the end of 2006 which has garnered it much deserved Oscar buzz. "Your Mommy Kills Animals" will continue limited screenings until the early Summer of 2007 when the film will have it's official opening. Don't wait until then, keep up with all the screenings and the latest press on the film by visiting www.myspace.com/yourmommykillsanimals.

 

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