Sam Johnson in Film & TV

09/12/2015

iShorts Graduate Sam Johnson on ‘Billy The Kid’, Regional Filmmaking & the Importance of Starting Now

I actually didn’t start making films until my late teens. Before that I was convinced I was going to be a hybrid footballer/actor/prime minister. Then in the latter part of my school career I joined the Abingdon Film Unit, a film collective run by renowned British documentary filmmaker Mike Grigsby and Jeremy Taylor. Under their tutelage I took my first painful steps in film. 

The first bit of advice I can ever remember receiving was from Mike. I was 17-years-old, deep in the edit for my first documentary. I was convinced it was a masterpiece, and there were a few beautiful shots of the sunset that I was particularly fixated on. Gently though, Mike explained that it was important that I never had any gratuitous shots in my films - that there was never anything in there that didn't serve the story. The sunset shots went, and the film was better for it. That piece of advice still anchors my work today.  

My first short film dealt with issues of identity. I was keen to develop these ideas, but in a broader, more entertaining way. I grew up on films likes of ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Stand by Me’, and I was eager to make something light-hearted myself. I love how those films felt wonderfully un-sanitized: the bullies or the bad guys are actually terrifying, the threats real, and their humour frequently dry and insightful. 

At the time I applied for iShorts, I knew that I wanted to make a film about bullying – something I feel very strongly about – and was particularly interested in the notions of code and honour. That led me to westerns. I was thinking about John Wayne’s quote “a man’s got to have a code”, and concluded that the idea of displacing the misunderstood nomadic wanderer, the knight-errant, to a rural British school might be fun. I liked the idea of a genre-binding piece, and actually pitched it to Creative England as an action-comedy-fish-out-of-water-western. 

I met Celine Haddad at the London Film Festival, where my previous short was playing. She mentioned the upcoming inaugural scheme, and by that point I had ‘Billy the Kid’ fairly developed. I’d already started looking for funding, and new that historically it had been very hard to get funding for shorts – so iShorts came at an amazing time for me. What appealed to me as much as the production money was the development frame-work. I was excited to hear what professionals made of my work, and how I could improve and develop. I can recall ravenously noting down all their advice, even during the selection process! 

We simply couldn’t have made ‘Billy the Kid’ without ishorts. It’s quite an ambitious piece, with elements of action, comedy and drama – as well as the overarching Western elements. We had a very large cast and crew, with over 70 people on set for half the shoot. That alone was expensive but we also had some challenging action scenes that we were intent on doing authentically in camera. The iShorts support allowed us to bring in a brilliant stunt coordinator, and organise specialist lasso and bullwhip training for our lead John Bell. We were also able to get aerial footage and VFX work to finish things off. The funding gave us the chance to create the professional production environment that we absolutely needed, and couldn’t have shot without. 

The regional element of iShorts felt perfect for me. I was born and raised in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. So far all my drama work has been set there, and a number of the projects I’m developing take the area as their setting or focus. I feel a strong connection to the place, and really consider myself a regional filmmaker. Over time, I hope it gives me a bit of an identity as a filmmaker, in the same way someone like Richard Linklater is associated with Austin, Texas, or John Ford with Monument Valley. 

Having someone to speak with openly and honestly about the script (which your friends and family will never do!), is an incredibly rewarding and illuminating experience. It’s painful at times, but the very best way to learn. A particular piece of advice that stuck with me was from Peter Parker, my development mentor. He stressed the need to make sure you get enough close-ups and extreme close-ups when filming. It seems so simple but, as Pete warned, on a short with a small budget you can often only fit a certain number of camera set-ups into your schedule (and frequently not as many as you would like!). It’s always worth considering ‘if I was only allowed one close-up in a scene, where would it be?’ 

As for advice to other emerging filmmakers, more than anything I’d say don’t wait to make things. There are times when I’ve held back from doing certain projects because I wasn’t sure it was ready, or I was worried it wasn’t going to be good enough. The reality is that – particularly as a young filmmaker – you’re never ready, and (in your mind!) it will never be good enough. So don’t hesitate. I also think the most rewarding part of filmmaking is the collaboration. I’d recommend finding people you enjoy working with, and then trusting them to do their jobs. It’s a mistake to think you can do everything on your own, and a waste of the brilliance of the people around you. 

I’ve benefited hugely from the support of the iShorts scheme. It provided me with a framework and a platform to produce and showcase my work. Just having Creative England’s seal of approval made our production a more attractive proposition to potential cast and crew.  On a personal level, it was a huge boost that experienced professionals liked and chose to fund my work. It’s given me confidence in my writing and directing, and the belief to keep progressing.  

Finally, Billy the Kid has played at twelve festivals so far (not that I’m counting) and won awards in America, Australia and here in the UK. In many ways it’s kick-started a number of the crew’s careers, and we can thank the iShorts programme for that. 


Learn more about director Sam Johnson by visiting his website. To find out more about Creative England’s opportunities for filmmakers visit our Film page or follow the team on Twitter.

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