in the Air
Like a lot of independent filmmakers, Timothy B. Johnson is a multitasker. When he was contacted at Lifetouch Video Creations in Minneapolis, Minnesota last week, Johnson was working on a program that would air later that evening. During our conversation, he briefly had to leave the phone to record a short voice-over. Contact him on any given day, and he may be shooting a music video or an NBA game. With all the jobs that come his way, Johnson demonstrates a remarkable sense of focus.
In addition to the 12 years heís put into Lifetouch, heís done a variety of jobs on feature films. He was a second-unit director on Roger Nygardís Trekkies and had previously worked as a grip on Nygardís short film Warped. The two have joined forces again with Six Days in Roswell, a comedy-documentary that follows comic and UFO enthusiast Rich Kronfeld as he attends the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell incident. Nygard produced and edited the new film, while Johnson makes his directorial debut. True to form, both are doing double and triple duty. In addition to directing, Johnson worked as a grip on location and is now touring with the film at various festivals (including the USA Film Festival and the AFI Los Angeles Film Festival) and other engagements. Six Days in Roswell heads to home video in October and DVD in November, and Johnson is putting the final touches on his next movie Twin Cities. The movie was shot on High Definition video, even though Johnson is enamored with film itself.
Dan Lybarger: Richard Kronfeld wears his Captain Pike costume from Star Trek in both Trekkies and Six Days in Roswell.
Tim Johnson: Thatís the connection, you see. We spun off Roswell from Trekkies like a TV spin-off. We met Richard Kronfeld and found out he was going to Roswell. We said this would make another documentary. We found out about this fiftieth anniversary. Roger [Nygard] and I put our own money into it.
DL: You donít bring this out in the film, but Kronfeld is actually an experienced performer and writer.
TJ: Heís done performance art, weird videos, and funny stuff here in Minneapolis. He was just perfect to follow and let his personality drive the movie. In real life, heís so neurotic and dry-witted. He was so open to let me tag along and be his shadow.
We shot for the fiftieth anniversary. We started editing the thing and said, "We just donít have enough punch here." We went back for 1998 and shot a few more filler things, so we actually souped it up by going back a second year. The majority of the film is the fiftieth anniversary.
That fiftieth anniversary was kind of like a Woodstock of alien fanaticism. It drew so many different types of people. They had enough people show up that there were more media than participants in certain events, like the pancake-eating contest. It was a zoo. There were people from Japan and England. A lot of the UFOlogists and big scientists were there like Stan Friedman and Whitley Streiber, writer of the book Communion.
DL: What did you do on Trekkies?
TJ: I was second unit shooter-director. I shot over twelve minutes of that movie. I did it all voluntarily. I had no idea it would be sold to Paramount. I could have wasted my time. I put 10 days into it because it was made independently. It was made for about $250,000 and sold for an incredible $1.250 million. Neo Arts and Logic Pictures [who backed the movie] made a good profit. I had no ownership. I was only a shooter.
Had I not volunteered for Trekkies on my own time, I would never be able to put on my rťsumť, "second unit director-cinematographer for a Paramount feature released in the theaters." I tell young filmmakers today, "Volunteer with the right people who will treat you well later." I built this relationship with Roger Nygard ten years ago as a grip when I was nineteen years old. If I hadnít done that, I wouldnít have known him.
DL: For Six Days in Roswell, didnít you put a lot of your income into the movie?
TJ: My life savings is tied up in Roswell, and luckily at all fourteen festivals Iíve gotten terrific reviews, at least three out of four stars. Iíve never had negative reviews. What Iím happy about is that Iíve built a great rťsumť item. Even if I donít make a ton of money, if I break even, Iím happy. Thatís my hope. You can put that in print [laughs]!
DL: Instead of the usual angle on the subject on aliens, this movie seems to be more of a portrait of the town.
TJ: We wanted a more whimsical, fun look rather than a serious sci-fi secret cover-up like youíd see on the Discovery Channel. My inspiration was Waiting for Guffman. [It] was a total farce. Had I not seen it, I never would have done it. Had I never done Trekkies, I never would have done Roswell. Itís truly out of my passion for comedy.
There have been plenty of serious documentaries but never a fun one. It was very clear when we would shoot a scene and we would set it up again so we could get a second angle. There are plenty of moments where I manipulated the scene to get more comedy value out of it, especially the Minnesota scenes. I prefer calling my movie a docu-comedy. Iím not going for a straight-shooter documentary here. The majority of the stuff from Roswell was real. A lot of the Minnesota stuff we had fun with. The gun scene, thatís not real. The electric company that [Kronfeld] works for, thatís a setup. Itís my transition into actual American filmmaking [laughs].
Most of the Minnesota stuff was manipulated, except for the fact that Richard actually collects the A/V equipment and had the Captain Pike chair long before we shot Trekkies. The [Raspberry] parade is for real. He actually drives [the Captain Pike chair that covers all of Kronfeldís body except for his head] in the parade. But to add more comedic value, we had the Raspberry guy tow him. Itís very Minnesotan.
DL: You even had [Minnesota Governor] Jesse Ventura.
TJ: He was still running. It was before he won. Huge regret. I wanted to shoot more with him, but he was marching in the parade. I wanted to interview him. I knew he was famous from the movie Predator. I literally ran up to him with the release form and said "Would you sign this?" so I could get him yelling, "Hey, Jesse for Governor!" I regretted not shooting more now that heís so famous! Heís in it five seconds. No one knew, but all that marching in parades helped him win.
DL: Roswell, The Musical is Guffman-esque.
TJ: Roswell, The Musical is so successful now that it two Web sites. We were there for the premiere showing. Itís a lot better now they tell me. Thereís nothing manipulated [by me] there. Itís 100-percent documented.
DL: Even without the aliens, Roswell appears to be an interesting town because of its proximity to Los Alamos.
TJ: Itís ironic that our technology exploded right after the nuclear bomb: microchips, transistors, everything. These people would theorize we got the technology from the spaceship crash. There are some people who even say we have an ambassador [from outer space] right now that nobody but the government knows about.
Some people theorize they came here because weíre growing up, weíve learned how to manipulate atoms. They saw that from far away. Itís like we were mice growing up to be smart, and the aliens said, "Hey, whatís up?" Iíve heard it all. Itís a lot of fun.
DL: How much footage did you shoot?
TJ: We shot thirty-seven hours and cut down to eighty-one minutes. We shot it on film, which is really expensive. I really regret not having two cameras. We couldnít afford it. Those super-16 cameras are very expensive to rent.
Our poor camera guy was loading magazines in 100 degrees. Itís not like shooting videotape where you can pop the tape and go. With film, itís a little more delicate. Like I said earlier, I ran out film when I was shooting Jesse Ventura. I was going to ask him more questions during the parade, and the film ran out.
[Six Days in Roswell] looks gorgeous projected at 35-mm. Itís real film; itís not video. I love film. Iím a fanatical film collector. I have a 35mm projector in my house. I love movies so much that I put a projector in my living room with a ten-foot picture and DTS sound. Iím so proud to own a print of my own movie, that I directed. Itís something to hold it in your hand, fifty pounds of film. I can stretch it out for two miles and look at every frame.
It was run-and-gun, backbreaking, sweaty filmmaking like in a war. My crew did it for free. Theyíre going to get paid if I ever run a profit.
DL: Even the churches in Roswell have devoted themselves to the alien theme.
TJ: Everybody cashed in on the free publicity and the influx of the population. What an opportunity to get some alternative views! My favorite section of the movie is the Faith section. The billboard [that depicts a praying spaceman] reads, "Every knee shall bow." We were floored as we drove by. We had to film that. The Christians built conferences around how this is demonic. The movie is about people searching for something in their lives, whether itís aliens or whatever they want to believe. People are filling their lives. There are some Star Trek fans that are so devoted that itís a modern mythology.
DL: I loved some of the opposition voices you presented, particularly the "pro-Government" protesters.
TJ: We wanted to get more of that, but it was hard to. Most of the people in the town were visitors, so it was mostly people who believed versus those who did not. Itís a balance. We have both. There were some protesters for the government, not against, whereas everybody else is mad at the government. These guys just wanted to stir things up.
Itís ironic that at the same time we were testing nuclear bombs, the crash happened. The government made a mistake. They admitted it was a UFO and two days later said it was a crashed weather balloon. Had they said it was a weather balloon the first time in the press, nothing would have happened. Why did the government say in its first announcement it was an actual flying saucer? Thatís why the controversy exists, and fifty some years later, itís become mythology, a cult.
DL: How have the people in Roswell reacted to the movie?
TJ: Roger just got back from showing it. He got a terrific response. People were laughing; they were so sick of serious, hard core "In Search of . . ." documentaries."
DL: Besides UFO enthusiasts, who are some of the other unusual people youíve worked with?
TJ: My association with Neo Art and Logic [the company behind Trekkies and The Prophecy trilogy] led me to shoot a documentary called Sex, Death and Eyeliner about gothic kids and the L.A. scene. That has shown at a few festivals. Itís not sold, either, but itís another phenomenon that I went into, and my job on that was director of photography. I volunteered my time, not knowing if this would sell.
I was hired by a religious group to go to Medjugorje two years ago. Medjugorje is in Bosnia. I was hired by a religious group to photograph an actual Virgin Mary apparition. Thereís been a miracle happening there for nineteen years where these missionaries see the Virgin Mary every day. I went to interview some and talk to pilgrims. It was just as fascinating as Roswell because itís something you can't see, you canít touch, but people believe in. Thatís my wide range of jobs Iíve had. Iím going back there in two weeks to teach them how to shoot their own video now. I respect their beliefs. My camera didnít see it, but they said they did. Iím happy for them just like people who said theyíve been abducted. It doesnít happen to me, but Iím happy for you.
Click here to read Dan Lybarger's review.