Interview with Director Mark Johnson

American director Mark Johnson first studied film and Japanese then did his Masters of Fine Arts in Directing in New York. In the mid to late 90's he directed several short films and his first feature length film, "Hold the Door", is being screened twice at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.

Orcasound: Is this your first time in Montreal?

Mark: No, I was here last year for a wedding, but I've been in town for a week so I got to see more of the city this time.

Orcasound: Have you been enjoying your time at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema?

Mark: Yes, very much. My film was screened once earlier this week and then again today. I attended the first screening and Claude Chamberlan (Festival founder) introduced me and I introduced my film. Afterwards I was able to meet with some of the attendees and also I discussed my film, at length, with another director attending the festival.

Orcasound: Do you welcome questioning of your film? Why you did something? Why a character acts a certain way?

Mark: Yes, it allows me to learn about the film and rethink things through. It becomes part of the process of becoming a better filmmaker.

Orcasound: I noticed while reading your bio that you previously had only made shorts and "Hold the Door" is your first feature film. Can you talk to us about the differences between making a short and a feature film?

Mark: With a feature you have to worry about fleshing out your idea. The arc of the story and the characters comes into play. While making a short you just think about depicting your idea in the moment.

Orcasound: You were the writer, producer, director on this film and those are three big jobs. How did you juggle them all?

Mark: I had a co-producer Curtis Brien, who once we started shooting, handled all the logistics of the film allowing me to concentrate on the directing.

Orcasound: Was the script a fully developed script or were you changing it as you went on.

Mark: We changed very little of the actual dialogue what we did change was how shots were going to be set up or look.

Orcasound: While watching the film it seems like you really thought out every word and because there was very little dialogue you were very specific about the words you chose to use.

Mark: Yes, thanks! I had a definite idea about what I wanted the characters to say and sound like, so we changed very little during shooting. We focused more on how the film looked.

Orcasound: Yeah, it's beautifully shot of that Washington Heights area of New York. Did you have any trouble with finding locations or getting access to them?

Mark: Thanks for saying that! No, we (Mark, Curtis Brien and director of photography Chad Davidson) did quite a bit of pre-production scouting of locations and discussed locations and the look. Once we agreed we moved on and did not have any problems filming there.

Orcasound: Architecturally you really showed how that area of the city looks and it almost becomes like a character in the film. The look was very important with what you were trying to say with the film.

Mark: Yes, because of the 'quietness' of the picture the way it looked was very important. We even thought a lot about the different rooms and apartments that different scenes would happen in.

Orcasound: The long halls of the apartments, especially Hector's, leading off into different rooms increases the tension. You are always wondering what is going to happen at the end of the hall and in the room as the camera pans along them.

Mark: Yes, the set was important but most of that tension comes from the actors. They were wonderful to work with. That was one of the fun things about the shoot in getting to know these young people and becoming friends with them. We plan to keep in touch even though the shoot is over.

Orcasound: So no tales of divas on the set and you want to work with these actors again?

Mark: No, definitely not and I certainly would like to work with them again.

Orcasound: I also read that you just by chance found your lead actor on the train one day.

Mark: Yeah, I saw Manuel (Guzman) on the A train one day. He was with a friend and they moved on to another car and another. Finally, six cars later I caught up with him and we talked. I told him I wanted him to come for an audition for the picture and he was really hesitant so I did not think he would show up. He did and he was great! Manuel had no experience as an actor so I really had to convince the producers that he was the one. He really had the look I was looking for for this character.

Orcasound: You knew he was the one. He's very still, his body does not move very much yet he has that wild hair in the film which kinda lends to the spiritual side of the character.

Mark: We had auditioned many young actors for the part and they all were very confident and muscular; they were all very good, but it just wasn't how I had envisioned the character of Eugene.

Orcasound: Again another example of how the film looked visually was a large part of the story. It was important to really look and not just listen to this film.

Mark: We did spend a lot of time on how the film looked.

Orcasound: Who are your influences director-wise?

Mark: Well, I think I had influences when I studied film in school and they have changed now. Now I am influenced by people like Polanski…

Orcasound: Interesting you should say that because "Hold the Door" was referenced as being a Polanski styled film.

Mark: That is a big compliment for me because I love the way he depicts his characters. The tension he creates in his films.

Orcasound: Is that your favourite genre or the one you feel most comfortable in? The thriller.

Mark: Yeah, I think so.

Orcasound: Your film is obviously an intellectual one not a Hollywood summer flick.

Mark: I like making films about people and how they behave and think. The investigation of human behavior is what I as a filmmaker am interested in. I have been writing a screenplay that is about human interaction and behaviour.

Orcasound: So you are working on a new film?

Mark: I got an idea for a film about a year and a half ago and have been writing it since.

Orcasound: Are you one of those lucky people who continuously gets ideas for films. Is it a continual process for you?

Mark: Definitely not! I have to work at it. Nothing develops in a linear fashion. I write parts and then go back over it and add to it or change parts. Until it is near being finished it is even hard to describe the story.

Orcasound: Can you tell us what the film is about?

Mark: Yeah, it's hard to do as I said it evolves continuously. But it is basically about a married couple…more about the wife who thinks herself to be in love and happily married, but begins to question that.

Orcasound: Let's go back to "Hold the Door". What were you trying to say with this film? It's not a simplistic film. It's got a few layers and we have to do a bit of work as a viewer. What were you hoping that the viewer would get out of the film?

Mark: I think it is a film about human behaviour and showing the differences. Many people question me about why Eugene reacted that way and why he put up with Hector's aggressive behaviour. The point was to show difference. Eugene was able to deal with Hector's behaviour and even to forgive it. That was a major theme of the film – forgiveness. I also wanted people to not just see Hector as a violent young man, but to investigate what was behind the behaviour.

Orcasound: Do you see yourself as a philosophical writer? Maybe you will write a romantic comedy, but it won't be of the traditional. It'll have more thinking and more nuances. Or do you see yourself doing a traditional romantic comedy?

Mark: No! I certainly am more interested in human behaviour and interaction rather than a simplistic look at things or situations.

Orcasound: What do you think about film nowadays? Are you worried about its future due to changing technology?

Mark: I still hopeful and encouraged. Even though there might be a reluctance for people to go and watch film at a theatre I think there are still opportunities. I think because of new technologies there are even wider choices out there in terms of different lengths of films being made.

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