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HomeIndustry SectorFilmJake Johnson on Making His Feature Directorial Debut with Self Reliance

Jake Johnson on Making His Feature Directorial Debut with Self Reliance

It’s been a big year for actor Jake Johnson, who stepped behind the camera to make his first film. After premiering at the SXSW Film and TV Festival in March, Self Reliance was picked up by Hulu. In the time between the premiere and the film’s streaming debut last week, Johnson lent his voice to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the latest popular entry in the extremely successful animated franchise.

Above the Line spoke to Johnson about directing his first film, as well as the opportunity to work with his costar Anna Kendrick, whose own directorial debut, Woman of the Hour, also opened at a prestigious festival last year. He broke down the surprises of this new industry role for him and the warm reception that the film has received.

While it has indeed been a great year, Johnson did have to say goodbye to his latest TV gig. The actor best known for New Girl saw Season Two of Minx premiere on Starz just one week after the SAG strike started, and a new life following its earlier cancellation by Max was cut short. But Johnson has a good attitude – and he’s determined to find a way to change things in the future for fare that he believes should be supported.

Above the Line: I had the chance to see your film at SXSW almost a year ago now. 

Johnson: Oh yeah? Fun. There have been a lot of changes to it. You might want to see it again.

ATL: What’s changed? 

Johnson: So we made the movie, we put it up and it got a really warm response and audiences seemed to really like it. Hulu came in and was very excited to buy it. I felt like I’d learned so much about the movie in terms of seeing it in front of that audience, so I added a couple of scenes in the third act. I added a little bit more levity. The editor, Ryan Brown, and I went back and just reworked some scenes, made some tweaks, and I think the movie is way stronger. We put it in front of new audiences and the response has been way greater. What I really love about making a movie is that it doesn’t have to be over until it’s over. And MRC, which were such excellent partners, and Hulu and Party Over Here, when I asked to do reshoots, it costs money, and we had already sold. But Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg were instantly on my team pushing to help. The director of Jury Duty, Jake Szymanski, when I told him, he said, “Just don’t quit. Keep pushing. That’s the director’s job.” It feels like a really great honor to now have this version of the movie out. Even though I love the SXSW version, it just feels like it took a big jump forward.

ATL: What made you want to direct in the first place?

Johnson: I think I wanted to direct, because I’d spent so many years on different sets with guest directors on TV, and you see how so many different people run a set and the vibe of the director, the way the director treats people, from the crew to the cast to everybody, it resonates through everybody. The majority of my job is being under somebody else’s tone in terms of being on set, and there’s a way that I like to work and there’s a joy and a lightness. I like jokes. I like people enjoying being at work, and so I wanted to do something where I could try to control that tone and see how it felt.

ATL: This is your first feature, but not your first time directing.

Johnson: Yeah, I did New Girl. I did some commercials in the past. I love directing commercials, because it’s like a sprint. You get a whole group together, you do one fun commercial and then it’s over. You get to cast unknown, really funny people, like Daryl Johnson, who plays Malcolm in the movie, the brother-in-law, I’d seen him in a commercial years ago. I think a good commercial actor is so good, because they can hit a laugh in thirty seconds. So, yeah, I had done that, but this was a big jump.

ATL: Did anything surprise you about being on a film versus those other experiences? 

Johnson: Yeah, the marathon aspect of it, and how long post-production was. In TV, you shoot for five days, you prep for a week, you do your director’s cut, and then [Showrunner] Liz Meriwether comes in and does the rest. In a commercial, you prep for a week, you shoot for a day, you do your cut in a day, and it’s over. This movie was two years of my life. It’s a huge time commitment, and I didn’t quite realize that, because I’ve done other indies with Joe Swanberg and Trent O’Donnell that we self-financed, that we did faster. But it’s not that much of a time commitment.

Johnson with Anna Kendrick in Self Reliance (Hulu)

ATL: You have a great cast here, including Anna Kendrick, who also made her feature directorial debut this year. Did that timing overlap at all, and did you teach each other anything?

Johnson: It did. We talked a lot, which was really nice. It was great to have her, because she’s an old friend. We had done Drinking Buddies together. I had actually gotten COVID in the middle of shooting, and we had to shut down. When we came back, my first day back was with her. Mentally, I wasn’t quite there yet. So it was really nice to be able to lean on her and talk things out with her. We did all the hotel stuff. She’s going to be a monster director, and she’s going to have a big moment. I think in a bunch of years, we’ll look back on Anna Kendrick as a big director. When you work with her, you get it, because she’s smart and she kind of gets it. Not kind of. She gets it. It was really nice to have her to be able to bounce things off.

ATL: Your film is oddly specific, like how they can’t be killed if there are other people around. Where did this idea come from, and how did it evolve over the course of making the film? 

Johnson: I wanted a big high-premise idea. I like stories that have big engines. There was a version of this movie we were going to make in Chicago for very cheap, but I wanted to make sure that there was a lot of story rather than characters talking. I personally get bored pretty easily, so I need a lot to twist and turn, and I like games. I like rules of games, even if they change. My buddies nicknamed me “Rulebook” for a while. I wanted to create something where there were clean rules at the beginning, and then there was a comedic turn. The comedic turn was, what if people were trying to kill you, but nobody believed you were playing, but the people who didn’t believe you were playing were the ones you needed to survive. And that felt like enough of a comedic engine to get me to the Anna Kendrick character.

ATL: How did Andy Samberg get involved? 

Johnson: I started working with Ali Bell, she’s the executive at his company. I’ve known her since her time with Ivan Reitman. She was the real pit bull behind this. Her notes, her development, her belief that we could get financed. So she then sent it to Andy, and Andy and I had a Zoom during the pandemic, which was honestly just really fun to talk to people during that time. Then we started talking about this movie, and if he would be willing to come in and do it. Then we wrote bits together, and Akiva and Jorma Taccone helped pitch. I think his scenes are so unthinkably funny. I’m a huge fan of his.

ATL: You also have some other great names in the cast like Emily Hampshire, Natalie Morales, Mary Holland, and Christopher Lloyd. Those seem like pretty big gets.

Johnson: Yeah, for sure. Chris Lloyd was a killer. He was so good in it. Natalie Morales was so good in it too as Theresa, and she came in with so many ideas. It’s really nice hiring actors who are directors like her, because she gets it all, and she gets what I’m trying to say and what we’re trying to do. We can rewrite together, and on set, she just brought a lot to the table. It was a really lucky one to have everybody coming in as a shooter.

Kendrick, GaTa, Johnson in Self Reliance (Hulu)

ATL: Was there any role that was particularly difficult to cast?

Johnson: Yeah, the Charlie character, played by GaTa. We really kicked that one around a lot, because, tonally, it’s such a wild performance, and it’s a really hard part of the movie. We weren’t sure what to do with that, and then we saw GaTa’s audition tape.

ATL: At my SXSW screening, I remember the ninjas eliciting the most laughter from the audience.

Johnson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t understand how much audiences love Eduardo Franco. I just didn’t know. I knew we loved him, but when we were at SXSW and he appears – we felt this with other screenings, too – audiences just get happier. He’s one of those people that audiences are happier when he’s on screen, so one of the things we did in our reshoots, or in our additional photography, was we bring him back. So he has another big scene in the movie now. He’s too loved to not bring back.

ATL: What was the journey like to get to SXSW? 

Johnson: The journey to make the movie was intense. You’ve got to write it. You’ve got to cast it. You’ve got to prep it. I wanted to shoot in LA. I wanted to shoot on the east side of LA, in Highland Park and Altadena, and the areas that I find the prettiest. Editing it was tricky. The score that Dan Romer does was great. I’ve been to SXSW a lot. It’s my favorite festival. It was the only place we submitted this one to, because, if they didn’t let us in, I didn’t know what we were going to do. SXSW is such a great mix between music and movies, and if your movie’s fun and meant to be a party, which is how I see the movie, even the thriller aspects. It was described to me from a friend as a stoner comedic thriller. And I was like, :I like hearing stoner as the first word. You’re not wrong.” That feels to me very SXSW.

ATL: Now it’s headed to Hulu. How do you think it’s going to do there? What would you recommend for people that haven’t seen it yet? What should they go in with expectation-wise? 

Johnson: None. Don’t watch the trailer. Don’t read anything. Sit back if you’re somebody who likes to drink or smoke or however you like to do your evening movies, or a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy. It’s meant to be a fun ride, and my big hope deep down, apart from any messaging in it about being with people, is that people enjoyed their ninety minutes and felt entertained.

Johnson with Andy Samberg in Self Reliance (Hulu)

ATL: It has been a very big year for you, with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse doing very well. What is it like to have these two films at the same time? 

Johnson: Being part of that franchise has been one of the great honors of my career. Just being near that talent and being near something that is as loved as that, and playing a character like Peter B. that means so much to so many people, has ended up really meaning a lot to me. There are jobs you get that you don’t necessarily appreciate until they’re over, but what’s nice about this one is that it continues to go. I’m not taking it for granted. When I get called in to record, I’m as excited as the fans, and when I’m seeing things, I’m understanding and feeling what it’s going to mean to people when they see it. It’s pretty awesome, and I hope to do Peter B. as long as I can.

ATL: You were in another project that sadly has not had the same kind of success. Minx was a victim of very bad timing when it premiered Season Two this July. How are you feeling about that show right now? 

Johnson: I feel really sad. Idara Victor, who plays Tina, was at the premiere party, and we were sitting by the bar talking, and we were having the same old fights we always have. She thinks Tina was right to break up with Doug, and I think Tina was wrong to break up with Doug, and they were a heck of a team. We were doing the same joke arguments that we do on set, and then we both just got really sad, because we don’t want to stop. But what that taught me, and what a lot of this is teaching me, and it’s why I’m doing my podcast, the “We’re Here to Help” one, is that that show did not get cancelled because it was bad. The show’s good. People liked the show. Those who watched it watched it. That show got cancelled, because not enough people watched it on the streamer that it was on.

You’ve got unthinkably good writers. You’ve got Ellen Rapoport as a showrunner. You have a great cast, you have a killer crew. Blake [McClure], our DP, was shooting some of the most beautiful stuff you’re going to see, and I’m getting tired of a corporation being able to tell us all we’re done working. So I’m really trying to find ways that, even if they decide that their numbers don’t work, I want to make sure that I can continue working with people and doing stuff that they don’t control when the lights go off, because that feels very old world. The new world, I’m feeling, is more and more, “How do we go direct to people who care about product and make things that they like, and we’ll all decide when it’s over,” meaning the people making it and the people watching it.

ATL: Many people think of New Girl when they think of you. Do you like that association? 

Johnson: I love the association. I feel similar to New Girl that I do with Spider-Verse. The amount of people that show has touched is such an honor, and the relationships from that show don’t stop. Zooey Deschanel came to the premiere party, which was on a Tuesday night; she and Jonathan [Scott] drove across town to come. When people do stuff like that, it really means a lot. I gave her a hug, and one of the first things I thought when I was driving home from that night was, “I’m sure glad we spent all those years together.” We’re almost like cousins at this point. The fact that people are still discovering that show, and the fact that show has meant a lot to people during certain times of their life and they feel like they know these characters, honest to god, when you say, “How do I think it’s going to do on Hulu?” Well, New Girl is on Hulu, so I think it’s going to do pretty well, because I think that audience will hopefully check it out. Not only do I like being associated with it, but I have so much gratitude for the fact that I am associated with it, and it feels like an honor.

Self Reliance is available to watch now streaming on Hulu.

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