Camrus Johnson, writer and co-director of Grab My Hand: A Letter To My Dad, talks to us about the making of the animated short - selected for Exit 6 this year - the journey it's taken from personal project to festival favourite, turning his attention to live action short Blue Bison, and returning to filming on Batwoman in a post-Covid world.
We all make short films in the hope of grabbing the attention of the good and great in the film industry; world-renowned festivals, BAFTA's, Oscars, etc. It's a dream pursued by many but one that actor and filmmaker Camrus Johnson was part way to realising with his short film Grab My Hand: A Letter To My Dad when Coronavirus arrived.
Between filming Batwoman and making his own work, was the enforced lockdown a creative blessing or a productive nightmare?
"Honestly, it's been a massive mixture of both. I feel the first four months were pretty rough, because for a writer it's really hard to find stimulation if you're stuck in the same place every single day, getting stir-crazy is a very real thing. When you're curled on the couch every hour of every day watching movies and TV shows, eating the same food, and breathing the same air, it's really hard to think of new ideas and be creative.
"There was a moment where creatives were almost expected to be making more, because people kept saying things like, 'Shakespeare made one of his best plays when he was in quarantine'. I understand that when the world is falling apart people turn to art to pull them out of that, but I had to constantly tell my fellow artist friends 'if you are feeling sad or depressed, it's okay to not be able to make anything because you're not a supercomputer. You're a human being'. Not every artist can turn depression into art."
Johnson eventually found his creative thrust when several projects all arrived in a short period, each with their own deadlines, which helped to sharpen his focus. This lead to a lot of pitching over Zoom.
"Pitching has been going great. It's all on Zoom so far. One pitch I actually had a slideshow that I share-screened so that I could see them and show them the PowerPoint at the same time, but for the most part, it's just me talking like this.
"I actually love to pitch. I know that a lot of people hate it because it can be nerve-wracking, but for me, it's getting in front of people. It's acting, in a way. I'll go in there, off-book like the actor I am. It's really just me excitedly trying to tell someone why I like something so much, a TV show, for a movie, for a comic book, whatever it's going to be. It's just this really awesome project that people are really going to enjoy. I think that. I need you to think that.
"I also think I put less pressure on myself because I love the projects so much that it's less 'I need you to take it' and more 'I think this would be a great team up for this project but if you don't think that, I'll find someone else that does'. I do confidently feel that everything that I'm pitching will get made somewhere, I just have to find the right person for it."
One project born of sheer passion and enthusiasm was his short film Grab My Hand: A Letter To My Dad. It was a project that was never intended to have the public success it's having on the festival circuit today - Exit 6 included.
"Well, it's funny because the film happened by accident. I was working as a waiter at a restaurant back in 2017. I was not very good at it but in my four weeks as a waiter I had one customer that would come in very often, Pedro Piccinini. In my last day on the job I said, 'Hey, man, I'm leaving this restaurant and you're super cool and I just want to see if we can stay friends, what do you do?' He said, 'I'm an animator'. I told him I had always wanted to make an animated short film and he said 'Well, I freelance, so let's just do it'."
"I sent him three concepts, he chose one, and then we started outlining this other short film. Then my dad's best friend passed away. I asked Pedro if we could put that short film on hold so that we could make my dad a surprise short film as a memorial for his best friend. Since my dad is a military no-emotion-showing kind of guy, I wanted to give him something that he could watch and cry to whenever no one's looking. Pedro agreed, so I wrote a long, Pixar-style short, but he then said 'if you want this to help him grieve you need to strip this down completely. Why don't you just write what you're trying to say, record you saying it and then I'll just animate to that'? That's what we did and it ended up being a very simple, more heartfelt animated short."
When did he realise that what was intended to be a very personal tribute for his father would have such a wide-reaching, relatable appeal?
"Good question. Well, he came to visit me up in Vancouver when I was in the Batwoman pilot and luckily enough, we finished the short film while he was in town. We watched it together, we cried together, it was a very beautiful moment and after that, it was finished. We did exactly what we set out to do.
"I sent it to five of my closest friends just to say, 'Hey, here's the thing that I've been making for the past couple of months for my dad, what do you think?' All five of them cried, and they were a mixture of both men and women in different ages. It was fascinating because I had assumed that no one outside of my family would connect to it so well. I had never done the festival run before, so I just submitted it for everything. I didn't really have a plan, it wasn't in the plan. What do you categorise this as? Documentary? Animated short film? Narrative? I didn't really know.
"I was just submitting for everything blindly and then as I started seeing people reacting and actually accepting it, and I started winning awards, I knew I should start getting serious about it. I got a festival strategist, Katie McCullough of Festival Formula, and that's how I ended up at Exit 6 because she started telling me about all these other really cool amazing festivals with incredible audiences and connections and opportunities that I'd never even knew about so here we are."
Some of those audiences include some Oscar-qualifying festivals which has given Johnson hope that even more attention for the film may be waiting further down the road.
"Man, it's pretty crazy. When I went to the New York International Children's Film Festival I was not expecting to win the Special Jury Award and to be Oscar qualified, especially to win the award in the city that I was in when I started making the film in the first place. They asked me to talk on their animation forum and I was thinking 'I'm brand new to animation and now I'm talking on forums about it [laughs].
"I love that this film is getting me both emotionally and career-wise where I want to be. I feel very blessed to even have made it to the long list of Oscar-qualified films, but maybe to the shortlist and eventually a nomination. I want it so bad and obviously if it doesn't happen, it's okay but I'm going to be pushing for that as hard as I can because I think that would be next level."
Since making the animated short, Johnson has completed his first live-action short Blue Bison. He has been involved in many short film projects in his career. What lessons did he take from his time on these other projects and take into his own?
"I love these questions. I've acted in maybe 50 short films. In all of those, one thing I've realised is that even though it's a short, it's still a movie, so treat it as such. I know some short films, the vibe on set is almost like it doesn't really matter because it's not that big of a deal, and maybe that's because of the finances or whatever. It could be anything, but I think it always comes back to the producer's mindset. If you see this as being a very powerful message, as a piece of art, then it doesn't matter how long it is as long as you are focused on perfecting it.
"That's what I brought with me to the set of Blue Bison. I brought all the actors from my friends. I got a professional crew. We got an incredible set. When I got to set, I was not playing around. I joke. I was joking around, it was a good vibe on set, but when we got to work, we were working."
And of course, his experience working on major productions such as Batwoman was a very useful experience in terms of both knowing what to expect from a cast and crew delivering their work to a high standard, while being prepared for some of the pitfalls that occur on productions of any size.
"Absolutely, I went to the set of my short knowing ahead of time we were going to be behind schedule [chuckles]. There's going to be moments where we are slow and there's going to be moments where we only can have one take. That's just part of the job, especially because in this short film, we were very bold. We shot the whole 20-minute film in three days. Thankfully, it was all in three locations. I was smart enough in the writing of the film to make 18 of the 20 pages take place in one room, because one thing I also really enjoy is seeing people make one room interesting.
"We made the whole thing over one weekend and every day was a long day, but again, I was ready for that. My crew was ready for that. We all knew what we were getting into. We all knew that this was a very risky shoot schedule because we had a lot to get done when we had stunts and we had all kinds of stuff, but we did it."
Not only are his two shorts told in different styles, tonally they couldn't more different. Now, with the experience of crafting a story through both animation and live-action, does he have a preference in which medium his next projects take place?
"Honestly, I don't have a preference. I love them equally. I think animation is harder to break into. It's a very specific world. I think, in a way, you have to prove yourself. If you want to be in this world, what do you have to add to it? It's a very sacred, beautiful space so if you're going to come in here, what do you have to offer? I'm so very glad and blessed that Grab My Hand is my offering, my first push into that world because it shows I'm not just here to make something cute. I'm here to say very real things."
"It's funny because Blue Bison is the exact opposite of Grab My Hand. It's a live action vigilante thriller. It's a whole different vibe. It's a lot darker and grittier. The thing is, I love everything from Batman's Gotham, the dark and creepy streets, to a rich guy in a Bat suit beating up criminals. I like both sides of that world. It's hard for me as an artist to completely focus on just the Batman and not Gotham or just Gotham and not Batman. They both are one and the same. I feel that I need to keep making my dark projects in order to keep influencing my light projects."
With experience comes hindsight. What advice would Johnson go back and offer himself at the start of his latest venture?
"I would go talk to 'post-production Camrus' and tell him to chill. I would warn myself that right after we finish shooting, don't judge every part of the process by the rough cut, because that's what I did. I'm so new to it that when I see what I want in my head, and you give me a really rough cut, even though you see where that cut is going, all I see is the difference between that and what's in my head. I'd just get mad [laughter].
"It got to a point where my co-director wasn't even showing me the first cut of anything. He would wait for the second pass after some of his notes and then send it to me, because I would always just have so many notes for every part of the process, because I'm such a perfectionist for the music, for the colour, for the edit, for the sound design for everything. There was one thing in my head, and I need that one thing. If we're not there, then we're going to take as long as we need to get there.
"I guess that's what I would want. I would want to tell early Camrus, 'Listen, this is going to take a very long time, but just be patient because, at the end, you're going to be very proud of yourself'."
Before the end of our chat, I steer the conversation towards Johnson's imminent return to filming in Vancouver for Batwoman, and what he's expecting being back on set in a post-Covid world.
"It's bittersweet. I'm so incredibly excited to get back to work and I've been itching because acting is my main passion, my first love. I've been missing it for months. At the same time, sets are not going to be the same for a while. It's going to be a socially distant set. I think for some actors and for some crew members, they'll adapt to it a lot quicker than I will. I am the on set social butterfly. I say good morning to every crew member every day. I'm having conversations with everybody. I'm the actor where you're yelling, 'Yo, Camrus. You got to be on set right now'. I'm like, 'Oh sorry! I was hearing about Angela's baby [laughter]'.
"When I'm on set, I'm the happiest I ever am because it's my dream to be on set. I'm just so happy to talk to other professionals. That's the thing that people don't really realise when you're on TV, you are surrounded by people that are top of their game in a lot of ways. Whoever is doing your makeup each day has probably done makeup for a million movies, a million TV shows for a million stars and you like hearing about their personal lives and their careers. It just makes the job even better, because when I get to hear how much you love your job, it makes me want to do my job even better so that we can keep working together.
"It's going to suck that I can't get as personal for a while. I can't hug everybody like I used to. That's kind of sad, but at least we all get to be there together. That's the most important thing."
You can follow Camrus on Twitter: @CamrusJ