BlackStar Film Fest 2021: Raven Johnson on Navigating Complex Terrain in “The Trucker”

If “The Trucker” is laced with the element of surprise throughout, it is due in part to the fact that Raven Johnson couldn’t possibly expect what happened from one day to the next, starting with the very first day of the shoot.

“We flew in from New York and landed in South Dakota and my brother was supposed to meet us there,” recalls Johnson, who brought in her crew comprised of fellow film students at NYU. “And it was like, ‘Is he going to be here? Is his truck going to be here?’”

To say that Johnson’s brother Boye Wantoe showed up would actually be an understatement, boasting a personality as outsized as the big rig he drives for a living, though as “The Trucker” shows, there may be career opportunities outside of that. He may not be asked to demonstrate much range, but he takes audiences on quite a journey in Johnson’s compelling short, going about his usual business over a long-haul job across the Midwest where his Liberian accent is bound to stand out as much as the bold tracksuits he wears. His natural pizzazz runs in the family when Johnson’s narrative is anything but routine as the film follows the driver in and out of roadside dive bars and truck stops where casual racism is an occupational hazard yet being working class is primarily how he’s seen, a preconception he shrewdly uses to his advantage, for better or worse, when not much is expected of him.

Although he’s steady behind the wheel, “The Trucker” has its share of twists and turns and Johnson navigates them beautifully, telling the story of a complicated man and the arduous landscape he has to traverse every day. Remarkably, while the writer/director knew where she was headed with the short, she went into production without knowing exactly how she’d get there, relying on a cast comprised of nonprofessional actors and going where the day took her, giving the film an adventurous spirit that’s as captivating as its grand scope. On the eve of the film’s premiere at the BlackStar Film Fest, Johnson shared how she let life take over the film to give it such vitality, the power in getting close to her subjects and turning the spotlight on people and places that are often overlooked.

How did this come about?

It was actually my thesis film for NYU graduate film, and I was thinking with limited resources, how can I make a small film that feels big? My brother is a professional truck driver, so I asked him if he’d let us use his truck and what I really wanted to think about is this idea of black spaces and white spaces. I was raised in Minnesota and I [wanted] to have this character — this Liberian immigrant — who is living their day-to-day life, and as an audience member not know where this film is going, [wondering] what’s going to happen to him. I asked [my brother] if he’d act in it as well and he said yes, so we took off two weeks and went to South Dakota with my six-person, mostly female crew from New York and drove from Sioux Falls back to my hometown Brooklyn Park, which is in Minnesota.

It’s such an interesting group of places you go to in this – did you know the route?

I credit all to my producer Raines [Plambeck], who I met at NYU and just through scheduling, I wasn’t able to leave New York, so she went ahead and drove through South Dakota, looking for all these places — everything there from the bar scene to his drop-off scene. We were in Sturgis, which has this famous motorcycle rally, but it was offseason and even the opening house shot, that all was just down the street from the AirBNB that we stayed at that she found. [She was] basically meeting with the community and asking, “Hey, can we use your spot?”

It was very much a run-and-gun type of shoot and we had actors cast that were traveling to the city, but then I don’t know what was happening on the planet, but everyone had car problems. One [actor] coming from Vegas couldn’t show up, [their car] just broke down and another person, a snowstorm just took them off the road, so basically everyone who appeared on screen was a last-minute cast decision like, “We’re literally here, who can we ask to be in it?” Shawn, at our last dropoff, that’s our production designer [Daniel Ornitz] that stepped in, and the prostitute at the truck stop – that’s our producer Raines, so all these people were just stepping in.

At the bar, all the people in that scene worked there. We came when it opened and we were just seeing if people were going to show up throughout this day. Even the woman who played Sheila [a key character in the film], I’m like, “Hey, we have this part and our other actress couldn’t make it and we hope you could do it,” so I had no idea what she was going to look like when she showed up. And I realized the woman who was originally cast to play that role would not have had that quality of looking like she’s from this world, so every face that you see and every action is actually from this life and the script changed from day-to-day just based on what we had. Everything else we shot in Minnesota in my hometown, so [the ending] is at this abandoned mall where I used to hang out as a teenager and even the route that he takes home, that is the Interstate that I’m so used to taking to get home myself, so that felt really special to me.

Was it exciting to work with nonprofessional actors, your brother included?

Always. I feel like you never know what you’re going to get with nonactors, so it’s always exciting and my family is very supportive of my filmmaking career. Even my last film [“Tween”], my cousins and my aunt were the leads in that film, so working with family is a familiar experience for me and actually getting non-actors in that space of under the lights, I feel everyone discovers how boring and repetitive filmmaking can be, like asking continually to hit a mark or say your line again. But it was really funny how my brother loved the spotlight. He’s a natural charismatic person and made friends with everyone at the bar — when we left, they’re all having a drink together, it was pretty amazing. You could tell where he was just like, “Yeah, I’m kind of getting tired. Do you really need another [take]?” [And I’d have to explain what was happening behind the camera, like “Oh now, [the shot is] a little different and we’re a little tighter on your face,” but it was really exciting, bringing him into my world.

Did he provide his own wardrobe? He’s very stylish, if so.

Yeah, that was all his clothing and I feel like he bought new outfits for this. [laughs] It was a conversation he was having with our production designer/costumer Daniel Ornitz. The film takes place in three days, so there’s three main looks, and my brother showed up with all his tracksuits — that’s how he dresses all the time, just check his Instagram, there’s total color in all his outfits — but Daniel decided to put that red, white and blue tracksuit design on him when he enters that bar, and we just would’ve not thought of that collaboration without the pressure of everything else going on. I feel like they became best friends on that set, and there were just so many outfits to choose from his wardrobe.

This sounds obvious, but you really get the feeling of how he moves through the world from the camerawork. Was filming pretty intuitive or were you planning a lot of it out?

I credit all that to Lorena [Durán, our cinematographer]. I tried to write a very visual script, having words that indicate some type of camera movement that I could just hand off to a DP, but I’m not a cinematographer and I don’t pretend to be. I feel like film in general is such a collaboration where I have my part and I had a lot of discussion with Lorena, but at the end of the day, it was her putting something on the screen and doing something that she felt I was trying to say. But I felt that’s exactly what I wanted. That’s how I saw it. Obviously, there would be some tweaks here and there, but for the most part, she just knew where to put the camera in the best way.

This could’ve been there from the start, but part of why the film is so intriguing is you only give glimpses throughout of what this trucker’s life is like without weighing down the story. Was it difficult to find that balance in the edit?

Yeah, I edited a version of it and then I had to pass it off to my other editor who took it back a little bit more because I love working in portraiture. My philosophy about filmmaking is the tighter you are to a character, the more you can just do anything in a way as long as it feels true to that person. So from the beginning in the script, there was a lot of just wanting to see this guy in his life and I feel like we don’t get enough movies about the midwest, also [with] a truck driver, there’s all these assumptions people make about that profession, so allowing everybody’s preconceived notions to do the work was always the idea.

What’s it like getting to the finish line?

It feels great finally having people watch the film because I sat with it for so long because of the pandemic. I feel like any time you make a movie, you’re kind of like “We did *something.* I don’t know what we did, but it was *something.*” We’ve only had one screening so far, and Blackstar is our second, [which I] wish I was in Philly to watch it live and in person, but just feeling the reaction and seeing it resonate with people just makes the whole journey just worth it because we don’t make movies to play alone in our closet. The opportunity to have an audience is just amazing.

“The Trucker” will screen at the BlackStar Film Festival on August 5th at 2 pm EST as part of the Shorts: Denouements program, available anywhere virtually.