If the title of Alex R. Johnson’s feature debut “Two Step” suggests it was easy to get there, let him assure you it was not.
“I had a classic career where I was a PA and driving trucks in New York, then suddenly I’m a coordinator, then a production manager, then I’m a producer and [you] don’t realize how all of this stuff happens, but it was right there where I started to write my own stuff because I wanted to veer away from the producing angle,” says Johnson.
Rising up through the ranks of production no doubt contributed to the polish of Johnson’s first feature, a delightfully nasty little piece of work set in Austin, Texas involving James (Skyy Moore), a college student who has been left a small inheritance by his grandmother and is visited upon by Webb (James Landry Hebert), a recently paroled scam artist looking to resume making his living preying on the elderly and pretending he’s their kin. Even without the presence of a brassy former ballerina (Beth Broderick) as a neighbor to keep an eye out for James as he finds his footing in his new digs, “Two Step” doesn’t lack for zest as James and Webb eventually tangle over the money James has been bestowed, the rich characterization of each of their circumstances adding as much tension to the proceedings as Johnson’s tight and taut plotting.
In any sense of the term, it is long way to come for the writer/director who had planned to direct a thriller in the Andes (a film he assures is still to come) after building up quite the resume in documentary world in various capacities. As “Two Step” makes its way into theaters and VOD, Johnson spoke about the inspiration for the film, fine-tuning Texas lingo for the film’s tangy repartee, and how all his experiences on a film set helped him as a director.
You actually relocated to Texas not long before making this. Was it an influence?
Definitely. I’d been in New York eighteen years, and I was getting in a rut of writing scripts that mostly were about characters that were trying to escape New York. My family and I ended up moving. The scam [in the film] was something I had known about for a while. It was actually an [episode of] “20/20” that I watched with my grandmother when I was teenager. I just always held onto that, and then when I got to Texas I started obsessing a little bit about home invasions, mostly because I’d been living in apartments for the past 20 years. You have the kind of illusion of safety with all the different doors before you get to your own door.
I just remember sitting there with my wife, looking at the front door and being like, that’s it? That’s all there is between the world and us? So the script grew from there. I knew I wanted to have something with a home invasion because I was obsessing about it, then researching scams, I discovered that that particular scam was actually prevalent in Texas because it’s so close to the border. I had been in Texas maybe six months when I started writing it.
Since you just mentioned doors, one of the things I was fascinated by in the film was the angles you shot from, particularly side profiles. How did that scheme come about?
Obviously, when you get into the kitchen, and the tight spaces where some of the film lives, you just try to find the best shot. What I found is when the character James is in a bad situation, when we were tight, it just made me feel more connected to him. I remember we were wide [frame] and even with all the horrible stuff that’s happening, I was frustrated it was just showing the violence and it wasn’t really making you feel what I wanted you to feel. Then we put that 50 millimeter lens on [the camera] and it all changed, so that really stuck with us for a lot of the shoot. It was a lot of working in tight spaces with a limited budget and just finding the most intriguing options in terms of what we could get.
Did your background in producing come in handy as a director?
I think so. This is going to sound so artistically wrong [since] everyone says, “Don’t think about production or budget when you write. Just go with your art.” Well, that’s nice for everyone with deals, but when you’re trying to actually make something, especially at this level, it’s super important to think about that. I’m still trying to write and tell the best story I can, but I also understand the cost and production and turn-around, so I want to make sure that what we do is doable.
Coming from docs [helped], too. I started at Maysles in ’94 as a [production assistant] and then I always had one foot in the doc world, [working] for Henry Corra and Peter Sillen and Braden King, who at the time was doing docs. Knowing what you can do scaled down took some planning too, and it can sometimes be pretty spectacular if you think it through and just utilize what you have as much as you can.
It’s interesting because I would think from that background you might strive for some sort of ultrarealism, but I really liked the atmosphere that you create is that while it’s contemporary, you have a hard time placing it. It’s one of those realities that can only live in the cinema.
Yeah, I would tell some of the actors when we started talking about the project, I would say this world is one degree off from reality. Yes, there’s some heavy characterization and some chewy Texas-isms, but the performances have to feel real because it is this slightly off world, like you said, that can only happen within cinema. If anything fell flat, then the whole thing would deflate.
There are so many great characters here – did you have a favorite to write for?
I just fell in love with Dot when I wrote her. It was a year after moving to Texas and she’s this classic south Austin lady, approaching middle-age hipster. That may bring to mind the wrong image, but it’s that the tradition of this cute Austin/weird thing that’s a bit hippie, and it was great seeing what Beth Broderick was able to do to elevate it. Then I loved giving Duane the chewiest lines I could give him and Jason Douglas just killed it, and I loved writing Webb too, but it was really the collaboration between [James Landry] Hebert and me when we were in the moment… it was really exciting to see that go beyond what I wrote on the page.
Beth Broderick has said you gave the actors a lot of room – why that was important to you?
It was because if any of these Texas-isms, or any of dialogue in general felt false, it wasn’t going to work. I felt like one line in one scene in an otherwise great film would untie the knot, so I wanted to make sure that everybody felt [real], which really started with casting. These are almost entirely Texas actors, so when they would have trouble with a line, I would just say, “What do you want to do? Is your intent the same as what I’m trying to do here?” And then I’d just hear what they have to say and then we’d mix it up. You want those actors to feel completely comfortable. If you’re giving them these heavy character lines, it’s a lot to ask of them if they’re not feeling it, to expect them to do it just because you wrote it that way.
There’s such a rich history of hard-boiled Southern noir. Were you feeling the weight of all the Jim Thompson and others that came before?
Yes and no. I watched a lot of Texas films before we went into production, so after I wrote it and we were gearing up for production, I watched everything from “Giant” to “Blood Simple” and “Giant” isn’t necessarily noir, but I just wanted to have that mythical feeling that Texas can bring to things to be in the back of my head. Because I’m not a Texan and I haven’t been there for long, I did rely on some cinema in terms of just listening to rhythms and patterns [of the language] —not for specific dialogue, but just trying to find that pentameter of native Texas speak, then tried to make sure that the dialogue could fall into that. In terms of the tradition of noir and Texas and crime, certainly “Blood Simple” hangs heavily since that film has always stuck with me since I saw it in theaters a million years ago, but there was nothing overt.
From what I understand, music seems to be a big part of your process Were you actually thinking about that before even shooting a frame of this?
Yes, I was. In fact, the luxury of being friends with Andrew Kenny, who did our score and had done the score for one of my shorts, was that we would meet early before even pre-production started. He would read the script and I’d basically tell him what vibe I was looking for in terms of what I needed from the music. Also, I took a lot of his other work and used that to cut [the film] to, so [it was] in the same language and it wouldn’t be so foreign when we got to the composing. The last third of the film, I needed to feel like that death march almost — I wanted the music to push a character towards their doom and I think Andrew did a fantastic job of that.
I read that you grew up in Ecuador and still tend to your family’s farm in the Andes. How do you even get interested in filmmaking from there?
I studied theory at the University of Vermont and I had romantic visions of teaching theory, writing articles for Film Comment and having a screenplay get produced every couple years. Then I realized that the world doesn’t operate that simply. [laughs] I worked on an indie in Vermont called “Where the Rivers Flow North” [where] I was just the office intern and I fell in love with it and then moved to New York. I used to march into NYU with a backpack and try to look like I was a student and go down to the bulletin board. I just worked on as many thesis films as I could and eventually I got into the production end at Maysles and that started my professional career on the producing track.
I’ve always been interested in film and the farm has just been in the family for years. I try to go down every summer, and the farm is hopefully the location of my next film. That was actually the first film we were trying to make – it’s a thriller about American ex-pats in Ecuador. We had a lot of name talent that wanted to do it, but I found that the scheduling was just maddening and it took about three years before we switched all our energies to “Two Step.” Hopefully, that’s going to get that made next. It has the very romantic title of “Any Rough Times are Now Behind You” which I’m going to hold onto until I’m forced to change and it’s important to me.
With your first one under your belt, is directing a feature what you thought it would be?
For a first feature, certainly. It’s more of an endurance test when compared to doing shorts. If you’re a producer for your whole life like I have been, [directing is] like when your mom drives you to school every day and you’re in the passenger seat. You think you know how to get to school, then one day you start driving yourself and you’re suddenly like “How the hell do I get to school? Where is it?” It’s familiar, but at the beginning, it was very disorienting.
I remember I was very stressed when I did my first short. My second, I loved every single minute of it and it gave me the confidence to know that I could handle myself in a feature, which I can’t tell you how much I loved. It’s exhausting, but there’s something magical. Obviously, there are handcuffs and annoyances with the budget, but there’s something also wonderful and bonding about it. You have those kind of special experiences on these low-budget things and maybe you have them on bigger budgets — I would love to find out and come back to you and let you know.
“Two Step” opens in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema on August 7th and in Austin at the Violet Crown on August 27th.