Photos by Scott Patrick Green
Director Michael Johnson (center) works with his cast on the set of The Wilderness of James.
Taking on the three-headed beast that is South by Southwest can be daunting, especially for first-time feature filmmakers. With the festival’s enormous amount of music, film and interactive talent, it’s easy to get swallowed up and forgotten.
But with The Wilderness of James, Portland native Michael Johnson won the battle handily, earning rave reviews from media outlets like The Hollywood Reporter, as well as filmgoers.
“It was definitely an honor to screen at South by. We had some really good screenings and we got really good feedback from audiences,” says Johnson. “I think everyone feels really good about it.”
James is indeed writer/director Johnson’s feature film debut. It’s a coming-of-age story about an isolated teenager, James (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is struggling to deal with the loss of his father. His bizarre fascination with death begins to worry his mother (Virginia Madsen), who forces him to see a psychiatrist (Danny DeVito). As tensions mount with his mother at home, James begins to explore the wilderness of an intoxicating city, Portland.
The film started out as a short story penned by Johnson, entitled Charm.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays the title role in the film.
“I don’t think I was planning on turning it into a feature script,” he says. “I started with a short story about James and then became fascinated with him—why he behaved the way he did. I wanted to flesh it out further, and it became the screenplay.”
After finishing the script in 2011, Johnson handed it off to his friend Glenn Howerton, an actor best known for his role as the narcissistic “Dennis” on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
“Glenn read it and really responded to it,” explains Johnson. “It was something very different for him and he wanted to be a part of it.”
Howerton became an executive producer on James, and he and Johnson immediately got to work putting the film together.
“The first thing we did was get the lead, Kodi, before any production company was involved,” says Johnson. “That was the most important thing to us.”
Director Michael Johnson and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Johnson describes Smit-McPhee’s audition: “Kodi grasped and latched onto the material like I couldn’t believe. We were all so impressed by his thoughtfulness and perspective at such a young age. After meeting Kodi it was done; nobody else could play James. Kodi was the first onboard, a major help in giving the project credibility and a life.”
The next step was to shop the script out to production companies. They received an immediate response from several companies, including eventual partner Super Crispy. For the next five months, Johnson, Howerton, and Super Crispy producers Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling worked and reworked the script, “making it as good as it could possibly be,” says Johnson.
James was shot over 22 days in Portland, where Johnson grew up (he now splits his time between Portland and Los Angeles). Although he had never shot a feature here before, Johnson had done music videos and a lot of commercial production when he worked at Portland-based company Kamp Grizzly, so he knew who to call to get the job done.
“It’s a really small production community here in Portland; we all know each other,” explains Johnson. “I was able to get hooked up with the right people fairly quickly and get on track. I talked to a lot of people who have made great movies in Portland, who have helped pave the road for how to get something done here.”
Director Michael Johnson (center).
The city itself plays a major role in the film, as James explores the eccentricities and wilderness of his surroundings.
“Portland is such an integral part of the story,” says Johnson. “We had to shoot it here.”
It also helped that the production was able to utilize the Indigenous Oregon Production Investment Fund (iOPIF), an incentive program that provides rebates of 20 percent of goods and services and 10 percent of Oregon labor.
“Vince (Porter) at the film office was extremely helpful from the beginning,” says Johnson. “He really walked me through the steps to apply for iOPIF. He was great—nothing but helpful.”
Johnson also credits his Portland-based crew—some of whom he’d worked with before and some of whom he hadn’t—with making the entire experience a success.
“They are all people that I’d work with on future features,” he says. “Independent films are tough because people aren’t getting paid a ton, not like commercial work. But people really get behind the project; they really rally behind it.”
All those crewmembers rallying around James were certainly cheering the film on at South by Southwest in March, and are, like most of us, eager to see what’s next for hometown hero Michael Johnson.