Filmmaker Neil Johnson is one of the busiest filmmakers in Hollywood. Year after year, Johnson cranks out movie after movie – all receiving widespread distribution and cool repute. But more than that, the director of the new film Doomsday is the world’s first digital filmmaker.
Neil, you have a very long list of credits to your name but is there one film that, you believe, really made your career?
Considering most people call my films “the worst movie ever made”, I don’t think that movie has come as yet. I know there are films that I am personally fond of, and that is Humanity’s End (the director’s cut) and maybe also Doomsday. These are not my best films, but they seem to resonate with people, after the initial fan-boy abuse has dissipated. I think my films improve with each release, so my best film is yet to come. Though people seem be responding well to Starship:Apocalypse (December 2015) I have a vision that is not yet satisfied. Ask me again in 2018 and the answer will be different.
Is it fair to say you were one of the pioneers of digital filmmaking? You were doing it long before the big guy by the looks.
Yes, I did the world’s first digital film, to my best knowledge. Back in the 90’s when 35mm film was golden, there were young people like me who couldn’t afford film stock. In 1992, I remember arguing with someone about how, one day, everything would be edited on computer… it seemed impossible. In the 70’s, I was offended by Vinyl records. I found the medium to be insignificant. I found 35mm film to be archaic. So, I decided that I should shoot a film all digital, cut it all digital, do the effects all digital and then blow it onto film at the end. From my experience, this was the world’s first digital feature film. It was shot in widescreen digital, edited on the first on-line non-linear editing systems in digital widescreen, with all the visual effects being done digital, and mastered on digital, and then released and projected from the digital source into a cinema. The film looked good, maybe too clean image-wise. I remember adding film grain to the picture to make it resemble 35mm. The film was released world-wide and I was told I was a fool for shooting digital. I remember being at the Screen Producers Association in Sydney and being almost spat-upon by people because I dared do a film all-digital. Then at this event, George Lucas & Rick McCallum approached me, grilling me on how I did it. It made me realize I was on the right track. I am still doing digital but now I am doing everything is being done on 6K resolution, and this makes me happy. At the end of the day, what you shoot on makes little difference. The real art is making interesting characters who have adventures. These days I tend to be doing everything practical as much as I can. My films over the past couple of years, Starship 1 and 2 were mostly green screen, and this nearly destroyed me.
You produce films outside the studio system. What are the benefits of doing that?
Well, when the budgets are super tiny, then there is a LOT of freedom, and these are the most fun things to be doing. With my larger budget films, there are still approvals that need to be in place from investors, distributers, sales agents and even high-level actors. Film-making is a collaboration between actors, writers, directors, producers, editors, etc. I don’t think it is any different than the studio system, except there you get paid more and can usually make a better product. The real trick is choosing who you collaborate with. Even in the studio system, there are a few people who have no idea how to make a good film, but to me, there seems to be some amazing talent in the studio system, that I can only dream of working with.
How have advances in technology made your job easier?
Hell yes!!!! I can finally dance the dance of joy, because what I dreamed of is finally here. The good thing about being alive today, is that once, you learn the craft of doing effects, shooting, editing, etc, you can now be free to create almost anything. Look at how amazing modern films are. The complexity of film as an art form is transcending all things, except maybe computer games. Look at the latest Mad Max Fury Road film. What an amazing work or art. This film will resonate for years to come, like 2001 did. I remember being in the cinema watching 2001 as a young boy, and when the film ended, some goof-ball yelled out “Thank god it’s finished”. Yet for me, it was almost a religious experience. The film looks primitive by today’s standards, yet it still can affect people in dramatic ways because it has a reason to exist. Imagine a world without Star Wars or Star Trek. It would be horrible. I can dream now, and get closer to what is in my head, and this means the next few years will be glorious for me. I don’t make small films, even though my budgets are small.
Your next film, Doomsday is due out shortly. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Doomsday is a time-travel film set between now and 400 years in the future. It tells the story of a man who is thrust back in time, infected with a terrible disease. He is pursued by a hybrid human who destroys the cities of York and London in an effort to destroy him. People are already complaining that it is not as big budget as my other films, but others are saying how refreshing a film it is. I know people like to watch it more than once to see what is really going on. It was shot in 2012 in Yorkshire (North England) and London. I would have finished it sooner but my bigger budget Starship films needed to be released first.
You also have a sequel to one of your earlier hits, Starship Rising. What can you say about it?
We shot Starship 1 and 2 together. Again, this was 2011/2012 and technology was not where it is now. I dreamed of making a film along the lines of Foundation or Dune mixed with Star Trek 2 and a dash of Game of Thrones. Most people in my budget level are trying things way more modestly. Starship nearly killed me. That being said, having just finished Starship: Apocalypse (released December 2012), I am happier with this film than the first. Once we all get to know the characters, I was able to start having fun. There is more comedy and character stuff in film 2. Every journey has its first step. I have just finished shooting a film called Rogue Warrior (Robot Fighter) with Tracey Birdsall. The film takes place in the same universe as the Starship films but is in its own pocket of the universe. Set mostly on Earth, it has a Force Awakens/Mad Max vibe, which, when we shot the film, neither of these properties were known at all. I think film-makers make things as a reaction to the world around them. We all want to see more this practical, and we all want to see people going through their adventures and achieving greatness. Rogue Warrior will be a great step forward for me.
You mostly direct your own material. Have you ever gone up for a large-scale studio project where you’d be the gun-for-hire? Does that even interest you?
I would LOVE this. As long as I could collaborate with someone who knows more than me (and this shouldn’t be hard to find). I love the growth of characters and story and development.
You’ve collaborated with Christopher Lee; any memories of him you’d like to share?
There are so many stories… he was really a wonderful man. Yes, I was the guy who put him in a music video signing with Rhapsody of Fire, a famous heavy metal band. When he announced to us that he wanted to sing, we were all a bit dubious and then he burst out in song in the middle of the restaurant. He had an amazing baritone voice. The man was VERY opinionated and let his feelings be known. He was very offended by actors who were pretty boys and had no substance. He was very complimentary about Johnny Depp and would talk about how much in awe he was of his talent. They were very close. He would sit for hours (literally) and tell me stories of things from his life. He touched upon the fact that he hunted Nazis during WW2, but often he would not go into detail about these times. You could tell there was a lot of pain and hardship dwelling in his soul from what went on in those days. Many times he would should lift up his finger and show everyone what Errol Flynn had done during a sword fight. The top of his finger had been neatly sliced off during a rehearsal. I remember he would give me advice on women. I was having dramas with my German girlfriend at the time, and he pulled me aside and told me: “You know, I have been happily married for many years, but in my experience, French woman are the best. They know how to treat a man properly.” He would often share jokes with me. Being that we are both British, we shared the same humor. Most of the American and Italian people around us didn’t get the humor so we kept making jokes with each other. He always gave a secret wink, when all others thought he was angry at me. He liked taking the piss out of people. The last time I saw him was at Abbey Road studios, and he agreed to record some voice over work for one of my up-coming films. He was frail at this time, he wasn’t the giant of man he once was. But I never forget what he did for me. He understood that passion that I have for my films. I am small compared to those that he’d worked with, but he showed me good humor. I miss him, as I am sure those he was closest to, miss him even more.
Doomsday is now on DVD