David Johnson – Complicated Characters

April 23, 2014

“I’m looking for complicated characters dealing with complicated issues.” So says director/writer David L. Johnson about what he looks for in a script.

Recognizing a Story That Moves

Filmmaker David L. Johnson

Filmmaker David L. Johnson

“Personally,” Johnson says, “I have no preference. I think a lot of directors get hung up on fitting into a genre, but the greatest directors have stepped out of their box on occasion. Although these experiments don’t always equate to box office success, I think it’s important to learn how to recognize a story that moves and to see the potential of what you as a director can bring to that narrative.”

Johnson, a graduate of Howard University and the American Film Institute, has been named one of ten black directors to watch in 2014 by Paste magazine.

Directing is a Process of Discovery

I wanted to know how Johnson directs actors through their character arcs. “I love directing,” he says, “because I love the process of discovery. There are some directors who literally tell the actor what to do and how to do it. When that’s the case, that actor was likely mis-cast.

“Good actors should surprise you with their choices and their interpretation of a character. At this point in my career I fully embrace improv when working with actors who can truly handle it. Many of my favorite movies right now were primarily improvised. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy. They’re both incredible stories that allow complicated characters to breathe within a relatively simple story.

“When working with a talented actor, I’m looking for a genuine connection to the character. I shouldn’t have to ‘bring forth’ anything. As a director, I feel it’s my job to guide that actor to an internal understanding of why they and the character are able to exist in the same space.”

Making a Web Series Work

Johnson recently directed his short film Good Together, which he is now turning into a web series. I asked him how he plans to do this. “Short form narrative is scary,” says Johnson. “Any writer or director who says otherwise is either a cinematic genius or just hiding their anxiety. Unlike feature films, shorts and web series give you a limited time to put all of your literary elements in place.

“A good web series gets their setup out of the way immediately, sometimes before the first character even opens their mouth. It should be short and straight to the point. If you can deliver an effective beginning, middle and end within 15 minutes (including your credits), I’d say you have a successful web series…assuming you’ve shot it and uploaded it somewhere!”

“Good Together is interesting because we shot the original short in a single afternoon, all improv with natural lighting. It wasn’t intended to be a web series at first. I just felt like shooting that day. I grabbed two friends who I thought could improv their way through the simple premise, and it turned out better than I had anticipated. Since their story is more about characters dealing with a single moment in their relationship, I immediately saw the potential to continue telling their story by exploring the singular moments in the relationship.

“I look at the web series as a chance to use a microscope on relationship and then blow it up for everyone to see. I’m working on developing the web series around new actors who will play couples at multiple stages of their relationships. Even though I recently moved to the east coast, I’m planning to head back to L.A. eventually to shoot more with the original actors. This concept lends itself to weekend afternoon shooting which is part of the reason I love it. Essentially in a year’s time, I could have 52 episodes of the series. Each episode is short, sweet and simple.”

Storytelling Magic

What can a director do to instill storytelling magic in a script as he brings it to the screen? “In my opinion,” says Johnson, “the best thing a director can do is to never forget why they fell in love with storytelling. Not just movies, but all stories. Books, comics, Saturday morning cartoons, Grandpa’s retelling of that story he’s told a hundred times…as a storyteller, you should find your common thread with story. Mine is character.

“I love to watch characters experience life and grow. That’s why I’m a ‘sequel-holic’. Even when there are multiple sequels to a story, I flock to the theater because I’m forever intrigued with how the character is changing and how the events of this story will impact the next. As far as the ‘storytelling magic’ goes, I think that may be the most beautiful part of our craft. My magic isn’t going to be the same as any other director’s magic. In a lot of ways, I’m still discovering what that magic is going to be and how I’ll wield it.”

Share Your Magic

“What I can say is that the only way for a director to grow is to share their magic willingly and often. Whether it’s a no budget web series or a $100M blockbuster, directors have to director. So like I tell most of my directing friends, since we all have cameras now, there’s no reason for us not to all be shooting now.”

shooting "Borderland"

Shooting “Borderland”

David L. Johnson is currently an associate producer with the Al Jazeera documentary unit in Washington D.C. One of his projects is Borderland, a four-part original series focusing on the reactions of six average Americans when confronted with the realities of illegal immigration while retracing the footsteps of dead border runners.

Find David L. Johnson on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

And check out David L. Johnson’s 2013 web series Off the Chain.