An interview with AJ Johnson


Ethan Heldman, Staff Writer

A.J. Johnson, a member of the LJCDS class of 2014, became involved in the arts at the start of his high school career and later on went to New York University to study music production and filmmaking. Last year he talked to the Independent Filmmaking Class via Zoom.

So what was it like studying film at such a prestigious school like NYU?

“NYU was a really great experience for me. I had not spent a lot of time in New York City before making my decision to enroll, but I quickly fell in love with the city and the program I was in. I applied to the Department of Dramatic Writing mainly because, at the time, I wanted to focus on becoming a better screen and television writer. I was fortunate because the program let me hone my writing skills while also taking classes within their other departments, so I wasn’t tied to just one thing. I was still able to use their cameras and take classes on producing and editing, which was great. About halfway through the program I also started taking classes in NYU’s Clive Davis music program, and I eventually graduated with a concentration in music production. That was also really helpful because I was able to write and direct music videos for artists and friends I had met on campus.”

Did the LJCDS film program really help you see why you wanted to study film and to help you get ready for a college program?

“LJCDS certainly helped make me the artist that I am and helped get me into the right program. I learned so much studying in Ms. Bravo’s Studio Art and Film Classes, and I retained skills from Mr. Fayman’s graphic design and photography courses that I still use today. When I was in high school, art class was the one place where I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. It was entirely up to you to make something compelling or unique, and every teacher I had within the art department was very encouraging. I always knew that I could show up with some strange piece of artwork that I had been working on for weeks, and that it would be received with genuine interest from my teachers. They just wanted to see us succeed and wanted us to keep making art. I honestly could not have asked for better teachers, and I’m so glad I had the ones I did.

Ultimately there’s no secret recipe for getting into a big art school, and at the end of the day the name of your school really doesn’t matter because it’s more about work that you put out as an artist. There are tons of great artists I know who got rejected from the biggest schools, and they still went on to be extremely successful. But Country Day definitely helped develop the work ethic and passion necessary for getting into those types of programs.”

Are you working on anything at the moment or have you worked on anything big in the past?

“Currently I’m working on my own production company. It’s called Studio-VII and it’s a full scale production studio that specializes in music projects. I have spent a lot of time working on music production and music videos, and it has really become my main focus. Over the past few years I have been very fortunate to work on some cool projects. Before the pandemic I was able to work on a film project with the Foo Fighters, as well as direct and write a music video for the actor Austin Crute. I also spent the last few years working under the producer Fernando Garibay, who is best known for his role producing Lady Gaga’s album Born This Way. I was connected with him through NYU, and I learned a lot about songwriting and production working under him. Right now I’m working with musicians in Los Angeles on some upcoming songs and projects.”

What movies or shows or directors inspired you to create films?

“One of my favorite directors is Spike Jonze. I’m a huge fan of his work and I am constantly inspired by him. He works with a lot of my favorite musicians as well, so that certainly plays a part in my admiration for him. I saw his movie Her when I was in high school in 2013 and was immediately hooked. I’m also a big fan of Charlie Kaufman, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers. Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Boogie Nights– the list goes on and on. But one of the greatest influences on me is actually animation. I’m usually fascinated by anything on adult swim and I grew up watching South Park at far too young of an age. I think people sometimes forget how great these shows are at storytelling. We actually studied Dan Harmon’s Rick and Morty pilot script at NYU because his version of the dramatic arc is totally unique compared to the conventional three act structure.”

What’s your favorite line you’ve ever written for a film? What’s your favorite shot?

“My favorite line in a script that I wrote is probably one I did for an animated comedy in high school. It’s not because I think it’s the most clever or beautiful line, but it’s because it’s the one I recite the most with my friends and it still makes us laugh. I was working on this bizarre story about a character who worked as a panda mascot for an amusement park and gets fired. The only place that ends up hiring him (because he continues to wear his panda suit) is a pizza restaurant that is a front for money laundering. The owner of the pizza place doesn’t want anyone actually buying pizza from his restaurant because it’s mostly a fake storefront. So he names it  “No Public Restrooms… Pizza” to try and deter any potential customers. Whenever my friends are out in town and get denied use of a bathroom, we’ll just say “no public restrooms… pizza.” It always makes me smile, mainly because it’s just so stupid.

I’d say my favorite shot is this one of Austin Crute in a music video I wrote and directed. In this final scene he’s holding up a birthday cake for a younger version of himself, and our child actor Stephen nailed the moment with his facial expression. It always makes me laugh because he made us promise that we would let him eat the entire cake after we were done shooting. We also were lucky and had a great cinematographer on set who did a lot of work for the New York Times too. I thought it came out pretty nicely.”

Finally, Do you have any advice for young filmmakers?

“My advice for young filmmakers and artists is to stay dedicated to your craft and to continue to work at it every day. I know that advice probably sounds dull, but it’s really true. Repetition and work ethic is key.  So many talented people give up on art because they don’t experience immediate success, or they feel as though some people just have innate talent that they will never have. But people tend to forget that you always learn more from your failures, especially with filmmaking. I had to work on a lot of dysfunctional sets to understand how to make mine better. One of the most important things is to keep working at it and develop a strong work ethic. Keep writing scripts and keep shooting movies with your friends, because with practice you’re only going to get better.”

Photo credit: Austin Crute (Signs)