Sometimes, this job does get a little difficult.
Not complaining, mind you. I’m just noting that sometimes covering the entertainment beat does get tough. It’s not always “All the swag and preview music, film, books, etc. that you can eat” that it might seem.
Case in point: The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, a thoroughly entertaining independent film by Paul Bunnell. In many ways the culmination of a lifelong dream, Johnny X is a chimera, a mixed genre film that effortlessly draws viewers in while the effortless direction, whip-smart acting and twisted tale it offers keeps them mesmerized. It’s one of those films that, every time you think you know what’s coming, what an actor is going to do or say, everything takes a totally unexpected turn.
It’s also one of those films that is hard to sum up in a manner which truly encapsulates and does justice to everything about it in but a few words other than the usual “highly entertaining, and a lot of fun!” (Which Johnny X certainly is, but I digress.)
Bottom line: All of the above can really make my job difficult—especially when it comes to things like summing up a film, or book, or whatever. So, I figured I’d let Paul Bunnell, the main creative driving force behind Johnny X, help out on that front. Judge for yourself if he didn’t do a great job of it.
How do you describe The Ghastly Love of Johnny X to those who haven’t yet encountered it?
I generally refer to it as the only sci-fi dark comedy musical romance you will ever need to see.
From the start, it’s readily apparent that you’ve drawn from a variety of film genres to create something pretty unique, yet somehow familiar. So what aspects of those particular kinds of film appeal to you, and who are some of the directors and their films that exerted some kind of real influence on Johnny X?
While putting together Johnny X I tried to come up with something that had never been done before—at least not in the way I was attempting. I am a fan of many classic films—especially ones shot in black-and-white anamorphic—but only a few had a direct influence on Johnny X.
Those films and their direct influences include the concert scene in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, the set design in Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone, the set design and music score in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein and pretty much anything having to do with West Side Story.
Now, just to be clear, Johnny X isn’t just an homage or a postmodern ironic statement, or even an old fashioned send up in any way or form, right?
That is correct. It's basically a movie set in modern times but with a particular slant towards the 1950s and '60s. You might call it an alternate universe type of thing. I designed the movie to have dramatic overtones with a sprinkling of comedy throughout.
Another thing about Johnny X that’s impossible to miss is that you shot it in black and white and using actual, physical film. Why? What options did using that visual and technological approach offer you as a director practically, compositionally, etc.?
From the get-go I knew black and white would be the only way to go for this project. It's like casting the perfect actor for the part.
I knew the look of the Johnny X universe had to be in black and white, otherwise it would just seem too real—and I wasn't going for real. I wanted to create a cinematic world you could visit that didn't have the distractions of the real world. So to me, black and white was the logical choice.
Has the fact that Johnny X is in black and white affected in any real way the number of screens it’s appeared on, or does that not seem to be a factor?
Not so much the screens, but we do seem to be having a difficult time selling the film to foreign markets. They're hoping to discover a color print hidden away in a vault, but they never will since there isn't one.
The film was shot on black and white stock and would need to be colorized to make it happen. It was a bold choice to shoot the movie this way but a necessary one. Could you imagine a world where only color movies existed? Or where great films like Woody Allen's Manhattan or Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein were only available in color? I was warned against shooting my movie this way, but if I had listened to the naysayers the movie would never had gotten started, let alone finished.
Well, how and when did this all start? What were the circumstances of Johnny X's conception, and who was involved?
The idea came to me around 1997 after a few failed attempts to get a project green lit. I thought about the 1959 movie Teenagers From Outer Space and what a wonderful title that was. I began writing with a friend of mine and then added other writers to the mix. We changed the name of the movie to The Ghastly Ones—another previously used title—and then finally to The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, which was inspired by an un-produced screenplay called The Love of Heinrich Hate, which was written by my friend George Clayton Johnson of Twilight Zone fame. The musical aspect was added very late in the writing process when I decided to take out most of the dark elements of the original story.
How long did it take to write the script? And exactly who else was involved, and what did they bring to the party?
In addition to the four credited writers—Steve Bingen, Mark D. Murphy, George Wagner and myself—there were a few uncredited minor contributions by Eponine Sallee, George Clayton Johnson and Robin Izsak.
For the process, each of the four credited writers completed a draft. I edited those and then the four of us re-wrote the re-writes until there was a script I was ultimately happy with. There are at least ten different versions of the script floating around.
The process took a couple of years until I approved the very first shooting script.
How hard was it to cast the film?
When casting I look for personalities that are close to the characters they are playing. I started filming with actors in 2004 and had cast pretty much every main role, with a few exceptions.
Some of the actors in Johnny X are actually friends I thought would be perfect for the part, like David Slaughter (Marty) and Morris Everett (Paul) in Johnny's gang. Les Williams (Chip) was a longtime friend of my wife's and was perfect to play the soda jerk. For the others I had casting calls and auditions.
And how did Reggie Bannister, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Williams get involved with the project?
My process is usually more about getting to know the person than having them read lines. Reggie Bannister was a friend of mine and appeared in my 1994 movie That Little Monster, so naturally I asked him to do a part in Johnny X and he said yes.
I met Kevin McCarthy at a classic film festival in 2003 and approached him about playing the Judge. After a great deal of waffling he said yes.
For the role of Mickey O'Flynn I really wanted my friend George Chakiris (Bernardo in West Side Story) to play it. He kept hesitating so I looked elsewhere and by good fortune met Paul Williams at a screening of Phantom of the Paradise. After arranging a meeting he agreed to play Mickey, but the financing wound up taking for another few years. By that time he was too busy and had to pass. I was hugely disappointed until he agreed to play Cousin Quilty.
Were Kevin, Reggie and Paul’s part’s written with them in mind?
No. They were cast after the script was fully completed.
And where did Will Keenan and De Anna Joy Brooks come from? They both turned in really strong, striking performances.
Will Keenan was suggested to me by my associate producer Ramzi Abed. Keenan was the first and only actor I met with to play Johnny X. He matched the look I was going for and wound up giving a great performance in the film.
De Anna Joy Brooks was chosen after an extensive casting call process. She completely nailed the character during the audition. No one else came close. She was perfect—so perfect I plan to work with her again in my next movie, Rocket Girl.
Given all of the above, it’d be easy to assume that this was one of those truly rare, once in a lifetime kind of projects—especially for someone like yourself, who lives and breathes film. Would that be a fair assumption?
Yes. It has always been my dream to make a "real" movie on 35mm film. We had it all: Panavision cameras, Super Technocranes, huge sound stages, well-known actors, large crew. A dream come true—and one I never took for granted.
Yet, it wasn’t a totally untroubled shoot, was it? I mean, there was that unexpected, somewhat extended suspension of filming thing What happened, why did it take so long to get things back up and running, and how difficult was it restart the whole project while making sure to match the previously captured footage?
My wife and I started shooting the movie in 2004 using a small amount of money we had borrowed against our house. Based on previous film shoots I thought I could make the entire movie for less than $100K.
Boy was I wrong! We ran out of money by the end of 2004 after only ten days of filming. We cut together a production teaser and began to show it around... for the next six years! After knocking on every door and exhausting every resource I felt it was over. But just when I was about to give up, my long time friend, Mark Willoughby, came along and said he would give me the money to finish it. It was that simple!
Getting everyone back after six years was a problematic. Schedules had to be carefully arranged since many of the original cast had long moved onto "day jobs." For a while it seemed as though I wouldn't be able to make it happen, so I devised a backup plan to use photo doubles and wrote a shape-shifting scene into the script. Luckily I never had to use those scenes since I was able to work out a schedule that allowed everyone to come back.
The planets definitely aligned for us in 2010. I think if we had gotten the money any later we would have scrapped the original footage and started again. Amazingly, the actors all looked pretty much the same during their six-year hiatus. I think the black and white helped hide the time shift.
What do you get from doing things like Johnny X?
A sense of having done something of quality. Something that will most likely have a life far beyond mine. Shooting on 35mm and preserving an archival print at the Library of Congress will certainly give it every opportunity to be enjoyed by future generations. Perhaps one day it might even be considered a classic of sorts. Time will tell.
What do you hope that viewers get from it?
No messages. No political agenda. Just 100% escapist entertainment and a great time at the movies!
Well, where can readers to learn more or nab a copy of Johnny X for themselves?
It's currently available on DVD and VOD from Strand Releasing. It’s also on Amazon.
Anything you’d like to add before I let you get back to work?
Only to thank you for your interest in The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, and for taking the time to write about the film.
Completely my pleasure, Paul.