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An Amerikan Revolution Part 1: The Fall of Amerika

June 9, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Jay Nolan

Filming on the set of Amerika. From the Left and front, lead actor Jay Thomas, Cinematographer Jay Nolan, and Director Mika Johnson. Photo courtesy of Maya Coleman

A film revolution is quietly taking place. You probably haven’t heard of it. It is not being shepherded in like any technology by James Cameron, or announced to eager audience members like FCP X. It is being produced by regular folks, eager students, and dedicated dreamers. It is being done without million of dollars, without actors demanding attention, without producers slashing scripts and without product placement. It is an environmentally friendly project. It is a film revolution for the people, by the people. It started as an indie film, and has quietly grown… not horizontally or vertically, but in ideal, to an ongoing project the likes of which indie film has never seen.

Our story begins in Prague in 2004, when American Independent filmmaker Mika Johnson began writing his first feature film. He was inspired by his wife’s experiences and stories growing up in Japan. Amerika: a Notebook in Three Parts followed the story of a young Japanese hostess (Kat) escaping to America, following a trail of postcards across the country in search of her long lost father. Johnson puts it best: “After Kat leaves Japan, her journey west takes her deep into the American dystopia, where poverty, urban ruin and environmental collapse are inescapable- where the American Dream ticks away like a financially and morally bankrupt time-bomb. But as fantasy and reality begin to overlap, and all the archetypal energies of America’s history rapidly unfold like a bizarre dream, Kat finds herself at the crossroads of a nation’s destiny.”

In this two part series, the story of Amerika will unfold. It is a story of an indie film that didn’t make it, at least not yet or in its original incantation. And it is a story of the grander movement that rose from that idea, and could change the way you think of filmmaking. Welcome to Amerika.

It must be stated at the beginning that Johnson resisted any article that focused on himself. He considers himself a collaborative artist and the work that he produces is the effort of many people. All of this is true, but for the ease of reporting, we will focus on Johnson’s artistic vision. Johnson was working as a filmmaker in NYC in 2009, and had his idea for the feature Amerika well developed. During a trip home to family in Amherst, OH, where Johnson grew up, he met Jeff Pence, a Professor of Cinema Studies at nearby Oberlin College.

Johnson: “Like a lot of filmmakers, I’d travelled a lot, lived in a number of places, but wanted to return to where I grew up and make a film there, because there was something I wanted to recapture about that experience and the people there. Because I had no funding, Jeff and I came up with this idea for a collaboration whereby students would get to work on a month long project, for credit, as crew on a test footage shoot for Amerika, with the actors I’d cast; meaning, it would be a production workshop for everyone involved, including myself, with the hopes that we’d have some material that showcased enough of the story to push the project into production in 2010.”

Oberlin also offered additional bonuses that suited Johnson’s filmmaking ideals: “Oberlin is one of the most progressive small towns in Northeast, Ohio; and the local community embraced what we were trying to do and helped us out, not for profit but because they wanted to participate based on what we were trying to accomplish.” With organic farming, bio-fuels, and co-ops being the status-quo in the community, Johnson also pushed to make the process as green as possible. Instead of hiring a craft service, the lead actor doubled as head chef, and the crew enjoyed communal vegetarian meals every day.

“The Last Indian Killer.” A scene from Amerika.

Johnson didn’t let limited funds and a crew with limited expertise keep him from shooting the style or shots he wanted: “I wanted the camera to do ‘this.’ In the professional world, we’d rent a very expensive piece of equipment that only one ‘expert’ knew how to operate. But in my world, that translated to finding a steady board, with two intersecting planes, that did exactly the same thing, albeit with a certain amount of effort and experimentation. Or C-clamping a 2” x 4” to two ladders and attaching a screw that the camera could mount on for an overhead shot. Constraints force you to invent, especially if you’re stubborn like me, and refuse to let go of how you’ve envisioned a particular shot. If I had any impact on the students I worked with, I like to imagine one of them out there, pushing a car in neutral for a perfect tracking shot. In the middle of winter no less! It’s fun when you’re forced to work that way and all the more fulfilling when the shot comes out perfect, which it can. That’s magic.”

During January, Johnson and his crew (yours truly DPed) produced about half an hour of the total script, enough to cut 2 and 7 minute trailers and begin marketing. Johnson hoped to use the materials, as well as the production processes – environmentally friendly, socially inviting, and community oriented – to draw in producers and funds to make the complete film.

And that is where Amerika stopped – or so it seemed.

Johnson sent out hundreds of emails and press releases. He launched a “groundbreaking multi-platform blog” for the film in several languages, with activist-based essays by multiple writers. In 2009 he made a video starring the lead of Amerika that was a plea to Yoko Ono to join or help the project based on a shared dedication to art and humanitarian issues. When Ono came to Oberlin College in 2010 Johnson attempted another outreach. He was told to take the video offline by Ono’s lawyers. In late 2010, a kickstarter campaign was started. Johnson believes it failed because it just showed the trailer and some basic information, but failed to capture the process that made the project special.

Johnson relied on local non-actors for his talent, which led to new possibilities with “The Amerikans”

After months of trying to drum up press and attention, Johnson finally began hearing from producers. But Johnson did something few indie filmmakers will do: he turned them down.

Johnson: “We’re trying to make a feature film about the fate of America and we’re committed to shooting it in places hit hard by the recession in Ohio; we’ve cast half non-professional actors, invited local participation, worked hard to make our production as green as possible, and created an online activist initiative to communicate the film’s message of awareness and cultural rebirth, which in the story is communicated symbolically.

“As one might expect, most producers insisted we abandon that model, recast, and conform to something formulaic. But again, that’s not an option since our process and story are one and the same. The message of Amerika is that things must change or we will self-destruct, as both a country and species. So as a culture, we need new myths, which impart new values; and we need new practices, since our present way of life is not sustainable. Amerika‘s approach, production, and story exemplify those understandings at every level so we’re willing to wait till the right person comes along.”

A scene from “Amerika”

At the time of writing, the right person has not come along. Johnson is almost 7 years into the project, and he will not give up yet.  Johnson: “Since day one, Jeff and I structured this collaboration with the college and community and we both felt we’d come too far to simply give up or move on. So by November 2010, we had neither a budget nor a producer nor a name brand actor to bank on. But we had a whole community of local people and students behind us. So the question for us was: How do we translate our inspiration into something that will push the project forward?”

Because Amerika was never intended to be a film hanging in some void, but a collaborative artistic effort by students, professors, and locals, Johnson had room to move and create. Look for Part 2: Rise of the Amerikans, to learn how Johnson adapted his vision to continue making films.

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