Two days after my 20th birthday, I registered my website – and Daniel Johnson Films was born. That I was so young when I first started this website is both surprising and not surprising at all. It was 2004 and I was making short films for the web, even though YouTube hadn’t even been invented yet. I would upload the short films directly to the website. They weren’t playable on the site – you’d have to download them onto your computer, a process that could take hours and hours. Of course, downloading the films was worthwhile because my early short films were truly masterful.
Okay they weren’t masterful. My first ever short film was called ‘A Murder of One’ (named after a Counting Crows song). I made it when I was 17 (in 2001 – before the birth of my website). and it starred my friend Rashed, who worked with me in Tesco, and featured an end-of-film cameo from my brother, David. The film was a horror film – Rashed was home alone and terrified due to watching heaps of scary movies on his own. To get past his fear he did what all sensible people do — and headed out into the pitch black garden to find his cat. Yeah it was not one of my best storylines but it was what it was.
The film ended with a terrified Rashed looking in the mirror, and seeing my brother’s face right next to him, about to attack. It didn’t make any sense but hey, I tried.
My second short film ‘In Your Eyes’ was written hours after a Tarantino marathon. My non-linear storyline was inspired by both ‘Pulp Fiction’ and an episode of Dawson’s Creek (Season 3, Episode 20: The Longest Day). Rashed was once again the star of the movie; as were my Tesco colleagues Kam, Katharine, Jean and David. The storyline? Rashed kills Jean with what is very clearly a toy gun. The killing is witnessed by various people and we see it from all of their angles. At the end, David kills Rashed. Why? Because the twist is that Jean was David’s sister. Yep this really was masterful.
I am not entirely sure what my filmmaking career was between 2004 and 2009, but I know it was full of joy. I filmed some bands – which was fun, but I wasn’t particularly skilled at it. I also filmed some weddings. One particular wedding, there was one specific request from the bride; make sure you get the shot of the ring on my finger.
I got every shot apart from the one of the ring on the finger. I missed the moment. ‘We can do a reshoot’ doesn’t go down as well at weddings as it does in short film shoots.
In 2006 I made a film called ‘Mix CD’ – an ode to making a mix for a girl. This was a great film for me as it was when I met a singer/songwriter called Jeremy Mayle – who has been a collaborator and close friend ever since. The film was also in the short film corner at Cannes which for someone in their early 20’s feels absolutely like ‘making it’. The only downside to this film was realising I had pretty much entirely lifted the premise from the movie ‘High Fidelity’.
In 2008 and 2009 I spent time in New York City. Looking back, I’m amazed by my braveness. I was new to travelling alone and there I was in New York making films.
I didn’t have a budget to make any films, and also I didn’t know anyone apart from my friend Donna. But still, I made them. I wrote a short script, ‘Crazy Love’ – and set out to film it. The camera in my possession at the time was a tiny little bad quality camcorder, but I was determined to make a film with it. I auditioned actors in cafes on the Lower East Side and then, over a day or two, we went out and filmed it on the streets of New York.
The next year I returned to NYC and made a moody film called ‘Alone’. Hardly anyone liked this film, but I always had a soft spot for it – maybe because it was so personal, capturing both the excitement and sadness of being alone in such a big city.
The below clip is not a film, but an assortment of memories, edited together back in 2010.
The films I made in these years were all experimental; made purely for fun. But I was developing a voice. When you read autobiographies of the big writers and filmmakers, they seem to flow seamlessly from nowhere to having ‘their voice’. I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward. For me, I look back nostalgically at my early 20’s as a time when I had access to my ‘voice’, and a level of creativity that I don’t always feel now. I’d advise any young person making films to dive into it whole-heartedly; express yourself and all your weird ideas. As you get older, and feel you need to have a certain professional, respectable reputation, it’s harder to have carefree access to your creative voice. I’m still trying to get back there, but it’s not easy.
‘Daniel Johnson Films’ was always about an idea, a feeling. A feeling that you didn’t need wealth or a big budget or a University degree – you just need yourself, an idea, and a camera.
Of course, I now know you need more than yourself. As I look back at the friends who collaborated on films under the ‘Daniel Johnson Films’ banner – I see amazing friends who have gone on to have amazing careers and lives; some in the arts, some elsewhere.
When I feel down about my work or creativity, it’s usually when I’m too focused on success. When I think about the friends I’ve made and the things we’ve collaborated on, I feel joy. That feels like the real purpose of the work. To have a life where you collaborate with amazing people. Creating the work is important, but even more crucial is creating memories.
I went back to New York in 2013 and made a short film called ‘Emilie and New York City’. It was a simple idea; filmed in one day; but I felt like I’d moved from being an amateur to being a professional. It’s not that the film set the world alight, but it captured what I wanted it to capture. It felt like I wanted it to feel. I was proud of it.
As any creative will know, being proud of your work is the hardest thing.
The years have gone by and I’ve continued to create. Short films, two web-series, and have built a showreel creation service for actors which has helped so many actors in their careers.
Despite being busy with the showreels and numerous other projects – I know in my heart that what I want and need is a return to the early creativity for creativity’s sake.
I am guilty of saying to actor friends ‘let’s make short films’ far more than I actually make short films. It’s part being busy; part fear, and partly just the nature of growing up. You pay bills, save for a mortgage, and it’s easy to lose your playful side. The part of you that makes a film that will almost certainly be terrible.
But that’s the most important part of you. The part that takes risks, takes you out of your comfort zone. I’m pretty sure that’s where you meet the most people and have the most fun.
So, I’ll say to you again:
Let’s make some short films.
And this time, I really mean it.