Fuck fracking. Or at least that’s the tone of the short film KNIFE by James M. Johnston. Businesses are fracking all over the place now: Off the coast of California, in New York’s West Village, and in hundreds of small rural towns all over the states, ruining tons of shit in the process. It’s enough to make one mad or make an 11-minute wordless film depicting a young man’s aggravation and desperation in the face of the devastating changes it causes.
The film is efficient, telling it quick and to the point with a bit of flair. There’s a party, a shirtless man and woman, fighting, evil laughs, an explosion, a knife (of course), and a murder. The story deals with one man's struggle to understand why his family’s home and livelihood are being taken away. Big industry frackers moved into town and tore down all of his childhood memories, laying pipe in his fields and building monstrous homes in his woods. The film washes over you in a haze of 16mm images and evocative drones and guitars. The man wanders his city and sees the changes that are tearing him apart as much as the town itself. Although the industry men are depicted in a somewhat grandiose fashion with evil laughs and harlot women doting by their bedsides, it’s all conveyed through the eyes of this young man who can’t see beyond his own cruel vision of them. They stole his life and ruined all he knew. So yeah, hate them and hate them hard.
When your memories and life are being stripped away under the guise of progress, it tends to piss some people off. Anyone making money will tell you “change is good,” but then they’ll never say at what cost. KNIFE depicts the cost that each party must pay and through Johnston’s eyes. It can be pretty steep.
James M. Johnston is a filmmaker from Fort Worth, Texas. He was a 2011 Creative Producing Fellow at the Sundance Institute and was recently named to Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch list with his producing partner, Toby Halbrooks. His work as a producer includes the award winning films St. Nick (2009), Pioneer (2011), and Yen Tan’s award-winning film Ciao (2008). Johnston also produced Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the film Pit Stop by Yen Tan, which premiered at Sundance in the NEXT section.
Johnston's also directed short films that have played at festivals around the world. His most recent film, KNIFE, was the recipient of a production grant from Rooftop Filmmakers Fund. Johnston also co-owns two successful vegan restaurants with his wife, Amy McNutt, called Spiral Diner & Bakery. They are in the process of opening Fort Worth’s first art house cinema called The Citizen Theater. Currently, Johnston is in development on his feature directorial debut titled Seize the Body, which was recently accepted to the Austin Film Society’s Artist Intensive Narrative Feature Workshop. Johnston is in heavy prep for the August 16th release of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, but was kind enough to answer a few questions about his short film.
VICE: There's a major line dividing our country right now between blue and white collar, as well as the 1 percent and 99 percent. What drew you to the subject and do you think our plight will end with violence or can it be resolved diplomatically?
James M. Johnson: I was drawn to this subject very specifically because of what's happening in my own backyard. I live in Fort Worth, Texas, where fracking and gas drilling is a big industry due to the Barnett Shale. I heard about all these cases of private companies being allowed by city and state government to use eminent domain. They seize property in order to lay pipelines to deliver their private goods to the public market. At first they ask permission and try to strike a deal with you, but if you say no they basically just override you and take it anyway. The thought of that just made me so angry. That feeling of being helpless against a big corporation and the government working together is infuriating.
In the grand scheme of things, a diplomatic resolution is the only way things can get better between the two Americas. Violent fantasies can be cathartic in a lot of ways, but I don't think it's a solid plan for change. However, the more people are pushed the more lashing out seems to be the only means for escape.
KNIFE is in the same Southern Gothic/working class vein as many of the other films you've produced. What is it about this culture that excites you?
Well, I was born and raised in Fort Worth and come from a very typical working class family. The people I grew up with and the environment surrounding me had a necessary impact on my inner creative process. Growing up, I was always on the edge of this underbelly of society doing whatever they wanted and existing in their own culture and handling things according to their own codes of justice, honor, and survival. As a kid, these things had such an impact on my imagination. I've never quite shaken it. Even in the case of upstanding citizens, there's a lot to explore in the culture of working-class Texas. When it comes down to it, I know a lot more about that than I know about the middle and upper class.
What in God's name made you decide to make a non-linear film with no dialogue?
This story is partially inspired by a song from the band The Theater Fire that two of my best friends are in. I would listen to this song they played at live shows and these images would flood my head. I kicked around the idea of pitching a music video to them. But the story just grew in my mind and got too big to be a simple music video.
Since the story came to me as images, I just decided to keep it that way and see if I could impart some sense of narrative without dialogue. Even though I had something I was trying to say about a particular issue I still wanted to tell a good story and do something I felt was interesting. Shorts are the best time to experiment as a filmmaker and figure things out. So, I took the liberty of giving it a try for better or worst.
P.S., the song that inspired the film has recently been recorded and will probably be on their next album. It's called KNIFE as well. It is written by Don Feagin.
P.S.S., one of my best friends that is in The Theater Fire, Curtis Heath, wrote several of the original songs that are on the soundtrack of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and also did the score for KNIFE.
How come the lawyers and rich people are all such dick bags? They're almost cartoonishly evil.
I just decided to stick very strongly to the point of view of the main character. To him, there isn't another side of the story worth exploring.They are just a bunch of rich assholes trying to fuck over his family.
What are you working on now?
I'm finishing up a feature script called Seize the Body (co-written by Todd Connelley). It's a revenge film about a father whose estranged son dies under shady circumstances. When he goes looking for answers it pits him against the local "cowboy mafia." And of course, the story is grounded in the world of the Texas working class!
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as an art and film curator. He is a programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and screens for the Tribeca Film Festival. He also self-publishes a super fancy mixed-media art serial called PRISM index.