Punk Globe Interview
by Ginger Coyote
The following interview was done with up and coming film maker Eric Johnson. Eric took an idea, wrote a screenplay and made a movie. We at Punk Globe support young filmmakers and hope you will enjoy "Tweek City."
Punk Globe: Eric, can you give the readers some background about yourself.
Eric Johnson: Well, let’s see. I grew up in LA. Moved to Santa Cruz for college where I majored in film and then after college ended up in San Francisco where I managed a sound stage, worked as a grip/gaffer, acted a bit and partied a lot. I wrote a screenplay about the scene up there and then came back to LA with the delusion that someone in Hollywood would throw money at me to make a scatological black comedy about a schizophrenic speed addict.
Well, that didn’t happen and I quickly fell in debt while writing a couple more screenplays and finally took a job at Sony Online Entertainment as a writer for the online versions of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Thankfully, that was 1997 and during the dotcom boom they couldn’t throw money at me fast enough. The whole time, I continued to act and direct and when 911 cost me my job I put all the money I had saved, put it on Tweek City and spun the wheel. Four years later and it’s still spinning…
Punk Globe: So "Tweek City" is your first release. Is it true that the movie is based loosely on a friend of yours life?
EJ: It was definitely inspired by the scene I was in and a couple close friends in particular. But while they helped inspire the main characters, the story is completely fictional and there are probably many more of my own experiences in the film then from other people.
Punk Globe: How long did it take you to write the film? Did you do a lot of re-writes?
EJ: It was a long journey. I moved to SF and promised myself that I wouldn’t leave until I had written a screenplay. I started with the most basic plot. After thirty pages, I threw almost everything out and didn’t look at it for a year. I started again and finally came close to finishing a draft. But I still didn’t have an ending. I took off and drove across the country and when I got back, I settled down in LA, sat down and finished the first draft – that was 1993. My first draft was called Shit Happens. It was very different from the script that I shot 10 years later. Every couple years, I’d come back to the script and develop different ideas. I made minor changes all the way up until the month before we shot. Then, the editing process was like starting all over again…
Punk Globe: I remember running into you at Al's Bar and telling you that we should have a part in your movie and low and behold a year later you emailed us about filming.
EJ: Yeah, I saw you around 1992 in San Francisco and thought you guys were the perfect band for the character Jerm to be fanatical about. I loved that you were a full on punk band but had a total sense of humor. When I realized that I was going to have to make this motherfucker myself, I jumped on the internet and found out that not only were you still going strong but that you had moved from SF to Hollywood. That blew my mind. So I tracked you down at Al’s and the rest is history. You were just about the first people I approached to become involved.
Punk Globe: How long did casting take for the movie and who did you hire to help you as a Casting Agent?
EJ: Patrick Baca was my casting director. He was a great collaborator. I had never done formal casting sessions before and he really helped me get my bearings. He was on board for months but the actual auditions went on for four weeks.
Punk Globe: I remember referring my pal the ultra talented Amy Carlson ("Law and Order Trial By Jury") and I mentioned the film to Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite") and he wanted to do the film but he had an obligation for a film with Nick Nolte.
EJ: Amy was fantastic and gave a really moving audition. I’d love to have the opportunity to work with her someday. I always felt Jenna and Bill do the things they do, due to youthful confusion and thoughtlessness. To Amy’s credit, she came off as more mature and together then Jenna. As for Jon, I’d take the film w/Nick Nolte too!
Punk Globe: You were trying to get Jeremy Piven for the role of Jerm. I thought he would have been great as well as Jon Gries but Keith Brunsmann was good also.
EJ: We made a lot of pie-in-the-sky offers for all the principal roles but those never felt real to me and none of them materialized. When Keith read during the call back he just brought a blast of the greatest energy and it was immediately apparent that Giuseppe loved him too. Keith is so generous as an actor and he really supported Giuseppe in the same way that Jerm supports Bill. Casting has as much to do with chemistry as anything and if Jerm and Bill weren’t believable as best friends the whole film would have sunk.
Punk Globe: How many actors did you see for the lead Bill Jensen?
EJ: Well over 100.
Punk Globe: Giuseppe Andrews was great as Bill. I remember his work from "American History X" and of course "Detroit Rock City"?
EJ: His best scenes in American History X are in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. He’s had character roles in a slew of huge movies from Independence Day to Cabin Fever but he never had the opportunity to carry a film until Tweek City. I like him as an actor because he is totally genuine and unique and incapable of artifice. A lot of the actors who auditioned for Bill would get so caught up in the speed clichés – chewing their fingernails, talking really fast, etc. Giuseppe just came in and delivered the lines in his own way. When he was uncomfortable with a written word he used the word that felt natural to him. He was just totally different in an unforced truthful way.
Punk Globe: Who made the decision to film in video and film? It had some rippling affect for the movie.
EJ: I always knew that I wanted different looks to represent Bill’s different perspectives but I didn’t figure out exactly what formats I would use to get the looks until I brought on my DP Barry Stone. I had decided that due to the budget, I was going to shoot primarily DVCam but I wanted Bill’s self-image to look like his favorite 70s films (Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, etc.) because Bill sees himself as a 70s anti-hero. Barry had a Super-16mm camera and suggested we shoot those sequences on grainy Super-16 which I could afford to do since there was no dialogue in those sequences. I could go on and on about what we used and why but I’ll just say we used several different cameras, all for very specific reasons.
Punk Globe: How did you hook up with Caitlin, Barry and Yule? Caitlin and I email a lot I think she is brilliant.
EJ: I found Caitlin up in SF. It was so hard to get a line producer with experience to commit. I had 50 locations, 35 speaking roles and I really didn’t have any money. Caitlin came on and said that she could do it but we’d have to keep the production lean and mean. So that’s what we did – tiny crew and almost no equipment. Barry is one of the top DPs in the Bay Area and I didn’t really think he’d come on for the meager wages I offered but he loved the script and immediately jumped in with both feet. When he came on board, it made everything so much easier. His name carries a lot of weight in the Bay Area and it gave Tweek City a real boost. Yule originally came on as a 2nd AD as a favor to my AD (assistant director). He’s brought films to market before so we talked afterwards and I brought him on as another co-producer along with Caitlin.
Punk Globe: Exactly how long did it take you to film the entire film?
EJ: 20 days.
Punk Globe; You filmed in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But how about the Drive In scene? Luis Saguar was so good as the older Latino Man at the ending of the film.
EJ: The Drive-In scene was shot out in Marysville, CA -- totally in the middle of nowhere. You would not believe how hard it is to find an intact Drive-In. I love Luis. He came in with no rehearsal, no real time with me and nailed that part perfectly. It was so cold that night that Giuseppe (who was naked) had to sit in the car with the heater blasting after we got the master shots and Luis performed all his singles alone. He was also great as Draculino.
Punk Globe: I know the scenes we shot were at The Velvet in San Francisco which used to be the legendary Mabuhay Gardens. You show a lot of scenic sites in the film. I know at the premiere at the Dances With Film festival there were a lot of comments about nostalgic SF landmarks in the film.
EJ: I’ve never seen a film that portrays the side of San Francisco that I’m familiar with. You always see the Golden Gate Bridge and Russian Hill and Fisherman’s Warf but you never see where people actually live like the Tenderloin, or 16th and Mission. SF is gentrifying so quickly now that I really wanted to capture whatever was left of the city I loved in the early 90s.
Punk Globe: I also remember the house you shot the party scene at was in Bernal Heights down by the Safeway Store.
EJ: Yeah, that place was great – exactly like the places I hung out when I lived there. I think it was my assistant cameraman that hooked us up with that place.
Punk Globe: Adam P formerly of Thought Crime also helped with location spots right?
EJ: Adam was the best. He offered a bunch of places but the key location he helped me land was Ramon’s apartment, directly over Dr. Bombay’s on 16th Street. That was a key location in so many ways. First of all, it was right around the corner from where I had lived so it had the exact same layout as the scene I had written. Second, it was right over 16th St. where Bill has his big meltdown so we made it our headquarters for that entire day. I owe Adam some major props.
Punk Globe: You used music by White Trash Debutantes, Visitor 42 and Third Grade Teacher in the film. Who else do you have on the soundtrack?
EJ: Of course there’s Dean Friedman singing his classic, McDonald’s Girl. I love Deano. He has written some of the great, undiscovered classics of the 70s. All the psychotic Klezmer music at the wedding came from the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars. The acid jazz piece at the art party was performed by the Alec Haavik Quartet with my lifelong friend Robert Weiss on drums. Enablers perform a song and, of course, Ave Maria is sung by this amazing kid in England named David Meredith.
Punk Globe: You also make a cameo in the film as an Artist am I right?
EJ: That’s right. Unfortunately, that was the very first dialogue scene that we shot. So here I was on the first day of my first feature trying to direct my first scene and I have to act. I was a little distracted. But I ended up happy enough with my performance.
Punk Globe: Who did you get to help edit the film?
EJ: A friend of mine hooked me up with Sharon Rutter who, among other things, edited Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction. She lived in the Bay Area, had her own experiences with the speed scene and totally understood the subculture I was talking about. But she got hired to a TV pilot so I assembled the first version exactly as I had written it. Then Sharon came on and cleaned things up, we struggled on version after version trying to work in the flashbacks (which I think she did brilliantly) and debating over what to cut, how much to cut -- a really vigorous creative process. We basically lived with each other for about six months. At some point she had to move on to another film at which point I worked with another editor, Quincy Gunderson, for a while and finally I finished up and moved on to the sound design – which took another six months. I was basically like a pregnant woman going through two years of totally intense labor. I’m amazed I didn’t die before the baby was born.
Punk Globe: When the film premiered in Santa Monica, California in May you got a good review from The LA Times, congratulations…
EJ: Thanks! I know reviews shouldn’t mean anything but they do. It makes it so much easier when I’m telling someone that I made a movie. Instead of telling them the whole fucking plot, I can just go, “Yeah, you should check out the trailer on my website. I also posted a great review from the LA Times.” By the way, go check out the trailer and the review at www.tweekcity.com!
Punk Globe: I felt the film flowed well and although the subject was dark the film kept a sense of humor as well. "Tweek City' has strong similar ties to "Freeway" with Reese Whiterspoon, Amanda Plummer and Kiefer Sutherland.
EJ: Thanks. Believe it or not, I still haven’t seen Freeway! Not only have you made that comparison before but when you go to IMDB it says that if you like Tweek City you should also go see Freeway. I need to rent it. (Note: I've seen it now. Cool movie.)
Punk Globe: You are now waiting for other Film Festivals to answer right? I know Caitlin feels Europe will love the film.
EJ: Yeah, I’ve made a bunch of submissions. We’ll see. I’ve been told that a film has about 18 months to play festivals and find distribution so I’ll be trying to get it out there wherever I can. I always thought Europe would be more inclined to accept a movie like this. I hope I’m right. This country is just so fucking puritanical – both religiously and artistically.
Punk Globe: Any more local showings for people who may want to see the film?
EJ: Unfortunately, I don’t have any scheduled right now but I always post updates on the website and people who are interested should sign up to my email list. Hopefully, I’ll have a Bay Area screening in the next couple months and then another LA screening before the end of the year. Also, sometime, I’ll be putting together a DVD, hopefully with the support of a distributor.
Punk Globe: Congratulations on a good film shot on a low budget Eric.
EJ: Thanks, Ginger.
Punk Globe: You also were involved with shooting footage for the West Memphis Three Awareness Day" Thanks so much for your involvement. I wish Jeri Manthey had been able to come. Tell the readers about the project you are working on with her.
EJ: We have a mutual friend who wants to shoot an entire feature film in a weekend – totally improvised. We’ll see how that goes. We’ve worked together for years in different capacities so I’m helping him with the actors, trying to provide some structure for the improv and doing a little producing.
Punk Globe: Tell us what you think of of "The Comeback ?"
EJ: It feels so true that it’s uncomfortable – my favorite kind of comedy, and you‘ve gotta love Mickey.
Punk Globe: Any future movies in the works?
EJ: I have a script that I’m rewriting which satirizes the American electoral process and another that I’m starting to write drawing on my experiences in the gameshow industry.
Punk Globe; Any last comments Eric? Thanks so much for taking time to answer these questions.
EJ: Thanks for helping me get the word out on Tweek City and let’s hope that when Karl Rove goes down he brings the whole house of cards along with him.