Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing the indie movie Captain Black at the 2018 Sunscreen Film Festival. I wrote a review of that movie which can be read here on OC Movie Reviews.
Moments after attending this screening I had the honor of sitting down for a one on one interview with Jeffrey S.S. Johnson, who not only starred in Captain Black but also wrote and directed it as well.
Captain Black is a dark comedy about Mike, a restaurant manager who finds a needed escape in the form of a comic book super hero, but then he is put to the test when he meets the mysterious girl of his dreams.
To set the scene for you, this interview was conducted late at night, on the patio seating outside the theater where the screening took place. It was an exhilarating time, for Jeffrey just watching his directorial debut play on the big screen and for me just enjoying another long day of seeing movies at the festival. Yes we were a little loopy, can you blame us?
Unique experiences like this is what working in entertainment is all about. What you will get here is two filmmakers casually speaking in their own language, and we had a lot to talk about while we enjoyed the fresh beach lined air.
Curt Wiser: In the Q and A you talked a little bit about how you were able to direct-produce and star in Captain Black. If you could elaborate on that please. Did you watch dailies, or did you trust other people on the crew to give you feedback?
Jeffrey Johnson: When we were filming, I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. So if the performance was okay in my mind and if it was okay for camera we would move on really quickly. And we didn’t hire an editor until about a month after we filmed. I was trusting my instincts, I was trusting my team, I was trusting my First AD and my DP [Steven Moses] to let me know what was better for camera.
CW: On other shoots, when you are only an actor, did you treat it differently?
JJ: I had less to juggle, so I could look at things like the line up of a shot. I realized very quickly in this process [making Captain Black], that I was working with a lot of talented people. I just wanted to honor their work and I didn’t want to be dragging people through the mud. I was happy to move things along as fast as possible.
CW: Captain Black is a strong debut for you as a Writer-Director. Have you always wanted to direct, or did you look at this as a way to showcase your talent as an Actor?
JJ: Oh that’s a great question. (You heard him, I didn’t argue with the man…. and I have this recorded. I guess we should get back to his answer to my great question.) I think I always figured I could direct, I liked to write and I love to act. They all just kind of coalesced together. I can’t wait to do it again.
CW: Tell us about the Captain Black comic books that were featured in the movie and could you tell us about that process?
JJ: Yeah, I’d love to because I’m so proud of it. My friend Shaun “Spanky” Piela. (I laughed at this nickname and the way Jeffrey said it with such reverence.) He’s a great guy, good energy. I’ve seen some of his artwork in a different movie. [That movie was Good Grief, which Jeffrey Johnson was among the cast.] So I just went to pick his brain and he really gave us some excellent artwork to play with. He designed, I think, five pages of original comic book artwork and three different covers and a back. He just took it and ran, got super creative. He checked in with me often, to make sure we were on track. His artwork was phenomenal, and it gave such an original flavor to the film.
[I did not get to ask how “Spanky” got that nickname. I let myself down as an interviewer, and you as the reading public. Please accept my apologies. My only comfort is the promise that I will do better next time.]
CW: Did you give him the dialogue for the speech bubbles in the comics?
JJ: No. In fact, in the original script, I didn’t have any of the speech bubbles. I didn’t know what he [Captain Black] was going to look like. I just liked the name Captain Black. He and I got a couple of beers, he had a sketchbook and we just started working on stuff. He’s become a very dear friend of mine too, which is nice.
CW: Tell us about the festival run you have had with Captain Black so far.
JJ: We premiered at DC independent Film Fest, then the Hollywood Reel Independent. Since then we have been in Myrtle Beach, Manhattan and here [Sunscreen Film Festival]. It was a pleasure to win the Best Director Award at Hollywood Reel Independent and Best Actor at the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival. We’ll see what happens from there hopefully much more to come.
[SPOILER ALERT: in this middle section the questions are relevant because of a major plot element of Captain Black. If you have not seen the movie yet, I hope you do…. then come back to hear the answers to these spoiler questions. I feel you will be glad I asked them.]
[To avoid these spoilers skip these next two answers and read on from where it says SPOILER FREE.]
In the movie the main character meets a young woman at a costume party dressed as Kit Vixen, the sexy love interest from the Captain Black comics. Mike, showing up as the Captain is of course a conversation starter. They hit it off and have sex in the garage, then just like that, she’s gone. Soon after this woman comes back into his life when he finds out she was only 16 years old at the time.
CW: Georgia Norman, the actress who plays the Maria/Kitt Vixxen character in the story, how old was she when you shot this movie?
JJ: She was 20, and it was weird because I don’t think legally I was able to ask how old she was, I could only ask if she was over 18. So I didn’t ask, we put out the casting notice that said, you must be 18. She [Georgia Norman] is a remarkable actress who could seemingly play someone in her late 20’s or play someone who was 16 years old. She really bridged that gap beautifully. She really delivered a bang out performance in this movie. That’s one of those occasions where I think, yeah that was what I was planning, but it’s a little bit better. Of course these kind of questions happen on set, “Well how old is she?” I heard through the grape vine how old she was.
CW: As a writer, I find the meaning behind character names to be interesting. I looked up that the name Maria, of Latin origin has different interpretations including Sea of Bitterness, Rebellion and Mistress of the Sea. Were you aware of this when naming the character of Maria?
JJ: Not so much those. I think I went with Maria because it spoke of a kind of purity.
[SPOILER FREE – from here out. See how those answers were interesting to read after seeing Captain Black? If you went the extra mile and came back to this interview, good for you, I hope it didn’t disappoint.]
CW: There were super performances all around I’d say. Which leads me to ask, since you are a seasoned actor, how did that affect your approach as a director?
JJ: I knew most of my cast and they were all terrific. So I had the mindset of hire the people you know you don’t have to worry about. I didn’t have to do a whole lot of emotional directing. All of their energy and interest was really inspiring.
CW: Did you do rehearsals for Captain Black?
JJ: No very little. We did a couple of table reads. (You probable know what this means. In case you do not, a table read is when before production starts all of the key cast and crew sit at a table and read the script out loud. Any feedback or possible issues can be discussed afterword.) We did blocking rehearsals on the day and that is about it.
CW: I was very impressed with the fantasy montage. In it you have some of the comic book illustration move and kind of come to life. Was that something that was scripted?
JJ: It was developed that way. It was scripted as, I think I wrote, “Silly green screen sequence.” And I wrote in that he would be riding a motorcycle and it would be matched up with the song. Then it was my editor’s [Timothy Snell] idea to drop in some of the comic book panels. Then it was my post-production supervisor’s [Straw Weisman] idea, to animate it. To start having those slow movements. It was one great idea, on top of another great idea. I wanted it to be silly and fun, I didn’t realize it was going to be as attractive as it turned out.
CW: Captain Black deals with many elements of culture, such as Comics and Cosplay. Were any of these things personal to you?
JJ: Not the Comics and the Cosplay. I worked in the restaurant business for 15 years, as a bartender as a server. I drew on a lot of my experience dealing with obnoxious customers. I’ve been at Halloween parties, where I’ve seen people hooking up with strangers.
CW: Since those elements like the comics and cosplay felt like pure fiction for you, how did they come out in the writing process?
JJ: You come up with an idea, you write it out and you say “Okay what next?” What if he says this, what if she does that?
(During Jeffrey’s answer to this question he mentioned that he is “not a seasoned writer, but I would just write something that was interesting to me.” This is the part in the interview where I sincerely point out that I thought the writing of Captain Black was very good, and that he was being modest.
An example I gave to support this was how the choice to have these two main characters enjoy dressing up in cosplay and meeting that way was a strong piece of storytelling. Because that has the subtext of these characters wanting to be someone else, if only for one night. The actions they take that night also reflect these two not behaving like themselves.)
CW: So what is next for you in your life or career?
JJ: I’m a very active voice over actor, so I’ll be doing that the next few days. I have written one family script with my friend Andrew P. Jones called Harriet Houdini. It is about a young girl who wants to be a magician, and it’s really sweet, we co-wrote it and we are hoping to shoot it later this year. I’m working on other screenplays, in the mean time I’m just enjoying this ride, having a blast on the film festival circuit.
(It should be noted that these two have collaborated before, they were both above the line on Darkness Reigns and Jeffrey Johnson was among the cast of Haunting of Cellblock 11 which Andrew P. Jones Directed.)
CW: Last question. Is there any question you wished you were asked in these interviews? If so now is your chance to answer it.
JJ: Oh man, that’s too bad because you already asked all the good ones. (I laughed at his joke, but in my heart took it as a compliment. It was a very nice thing for him to say.) I can’t stress enough, how much I love the team aspect of film making. It could be a team of two, or two-hundred. When you get people who are thoughtful, intelligent and just kind of open your eyes. I had a great piece of advice from the casting director Sherry Thomas, who is a friend. When I was setting this up [Captain Black] I asked her if not hiring a casting director is a mistake, she said no you know what you’re doing, but she said just be prepared to be surprised. That was really good advice, because there were a lot of times in this production where I didn’t know it was going to be that thoughtful, or that beautiful, or that deep.
I know what he meant. When I first sat down to talk with Jeffery Johnson that evening, I had no idea it would be that thoughtful, or that informative and entertaining….. and yet it was.