Spotlight: An Interview with filmmaker Johnny L. Watson Jr.
1. Johnny, congratulations on winning Best Drama for your fascinating web series, 'A Cry in the Dark'! Before we chat about the making of the web series, let’s talk a bit about you and your not-so-typical filmmaker background, spending time in the streets of multiple states (New Jersey, New York, Detroit MI, Chicago IL, and Charlotte, NC)... Please tell us a bit about your background, and what would you like the readers to know about you before we start this interview?
Johnny: First and foremost, thank you so very much for the compliment, it’s very much appreciated. So, thank you again. (smiling).
Well, I don’t even know where to start at. First, I was born in Charlotte, NC and soon after I was born, my mother and father and me, we left Charlotte a short time later and moved to New Jersey. We stayed up there until I was 4 or 5. They basically taught me at a very early age on how to survive in the streets, so that way, I won’t have to worry about depending on anyone accept myself. After that, we left there and moved to Chicago, we stayed there briefly and then we headed to Detroit. And that’s where my life changed basically. I was speaking to a young lady friend of mines one day who also stayed in Detroit and this is what was said. “One thing about Detroit, if you’re strong, Detroit will humble you.” Meaning this, Detroit is not for everybody. The State, city will break you down, it will humble you and make you cry Uncle. If you can survive Detroit, you can survive anywhere.
So, the most part in what I am saying and what I want for people take away from my experiences; know what your child is doing, don’t let the streets raise your child. Always be involved with what your child is doing. I can not express that enough, if you let the streets raise your child, you then will lose your child. 2. You’re the author of “The Scream That No One Heard", where you share your life experience from your gang-banger days, as well as the drug dealing and chronicles of your time spent in prison. What was it like to share all these very personal details about your life in such detail?
Johnny: I can sum that up in one word. Horrible. However, I do know how these interviews go, so, I’ll give more details. I never thought in a million years that my life would turn out like it did; however, I am grateful that it did, because now I have a way of telling not only my story but, the story of many others who also lived the type of life that I lived. I never thought that I’d be a drug dealer, I use to frown on that type of lifestyle, until things changed as I got into my teen age years. I first started stealing first, then it gravitated into selling of drugs. And what did it for me was, after I left Detroit, I had made a promise to my mother to not to get into any type of trouble. I tried awfully hard to keep that promise and then, like I said earlier, until I got into my teen age years, when I started noticing girls.
When I noticed that girls were into the bad boys, I was like hell, if that’s all that it took to attract beautiful young girls, I started back my bad boy habits. And after high school, that’s when it really picked up. And that’s when it started happening, the beautiful girls who were into bad boys, started noticing me. And with my father being basically an absentee father, I mean he was there, only when he was drunk, out of money, he soon would return home. He didn’t know in how to be father; alcohol was his family. I mean he loved me, don’t get me wrong when I say that. But, he didn’t know how to love and be a father. I mean, he wasn’t no Father Knows Best kinda father, so, he was just man with a title.
And again, prison life, well, it was what it was. Like the saying goes, you do the crime, eventually, you will do the time. I often blame the cops and everyone but, it was all on me. And the things that I had seen in prison, well, let’s just say, prison life is not for everyone. In closing, I have no problem in sharing that with everyone. They say experience is the best teacher, I want to teach young men and women before you do the crime, think before you act, because your action will have a reaction and it will follow you for the rest of your life.
3. You clearly had a lot to deal with before- but writing also brings another challenge- a creative one! Was it hard to dive into writing, and did you encounter any ‘writer’s blocks’ or uncertainty about your choices?
Johnny: Before I answer that, let me give you a little bit more details about how the book came to be.
I had an accident back in 1999, and I talk about it openly. And, after the accident, I had amnesia after the incident to where I was dead for 5 minutes and, due to lack of oxygen to the brain, that is what caused the memory loss. However, as I say… The old Johnny must have known that something was going to happened to him, because he kept a journal of his life all the way up until the accident. If it had not been for that, no telling where I would be. Not only for that journal but, to family and friends that stood by me and help me regain some of my memory.
So, one day while I was at work my wife at the time, had come across my journal on our computer and she read it. When I had gotten home, she told me that she had read my journal and told me that she had read it and suggest very strongly that I should make my personal journal into a book, because everyone needs to know about your life story so that others won’t make the same mistake as your parents did with you.
After her and I divorced, that’s when I made the book public. And did I have writers block, no, not really. I mean I took a break here and there because of some personal issues that I was dealing with. Eventually, I did manage to come back. In short, I didn’t suffer any writer’s block. 4. When did you establish your production company, J&R Films LLC?
Johnny: Hmm, I would say about 3 ½ years ago. 5. The logo for the production company - J&R Films LLC- features a powerful statement: “Filming a World Unknown”. Can you elaborate on that, as well as your company’s mission and vision for its projects?
Johnny: Hmm, wow. What we’re trying to accomplish is this. There is whole entire world out there full of people with stories to tell, whether if it’s bad or good, someone, somewhere has that incredible story that has to be told, we here at J and R Films, LLC, if that story reaches us and we feel as though that story needs to be shared, we will work to try to make that happen.
6. Why did you decide to film the story of ‘A Cry In the Dark, and what were you hoping to achieve by telling the story to the audience?
Johnny: The story needs to be told, so that parents needs to understand in WHAT not to do when it comes to raising your child.
And what we’re trying to achieve by making such a movie, we’re trying to show Film Investors that even though that we’re a small Independent Film Company, we know what we’re doing here, look at all of the awards that we have we’ve won thus far and still going. And thanks to you LAFA, you’re the very first one that believed in us and gave us a chance, so thank you for the opportunity.
What we want is a chance, we have many, many other projects that we can produce, all that we need is that opportunity to prove to you that, we can be as big as all of the other major film companies out there. Let us prove it to you. 7. Can you talk about your collaboration with the producer and director Rhabi Rites? How did it come about and what was it like working together on this web series?
Johnny: (Pausing before answering…) Well, I must be honest, so here goes. We met just over 4 years ago and when she find out that I wrote books, she wanted to know more of the books that I had written and that’s when I told her about My self -bio “The Scream That No One Heard.” After she read the book, she confronted me and told me that this would make a great web-series and that’s how it started
8. How did you prepare for the shoot, and how long did it take to shoot everything?
Johnny: First off, I want to say thank you for all of the actors that was involved with this project, if it had not been for them, none of this would have been possible. All of them did an outstanding job in bringing my life to the film.
I would say, it took about two weeks, because of different locations that we had to do. We mostly snuck in on a few areas of the city without permission, but yeah, the whole cast and crew was awesome in what we did to make this happen. 9. The web series follows the character of Trix as he is trying desperately to find himself - wanting to please his father, who himself was a member of the Black Mafia in Charlotte, NC, and being accepted by his street brothers. Part of what makes it so great is the writing and the real-life experience this story is based on, but also - the ensemble of actors was truly wonderful! How did you cast Corey "Mr. Petty" Jones - as Trix, and co-starring Christshun Jones as Big C, and Raven Hooker as J-Crow?
Johnny: Well, there were many who wanted to play the role of Trix however, well before I get into that, I want to say thank you to the cast whole played a part in this, they did an outstanding job.
So, with that being said; Mr. Jones he and I talked on the phone and I was telling him some things that happened with my father and I and when went into the role of Trix over the phone, he just blew my mind away, he got the part right then and there, I couldn’t see no one else at the time to play the part accept for him.
And for Christshun Jones, he and I have a similar pass sort of speak, so with him playing Big C, he was great for the part even though he never acted before. He’s my younger brother from another mother (laughing). And the role of J-Crow, we wanted to do a different take, so we said why not have Ms. Hooker play J-Crow, only one other person in the movie industry that really did a good job playing a bad guy in a gangster movie was the young lady who played Kisha in New Jack City. That what made it a good twist.
10. Did you have much rehearsal time prior to the shoot?
Johnny: Yes, yes we did, we rehearse whenever we could get the chance, due to the fact people had jobs that they needed to do and they would come to rehearsal right after, which made it awfully hard, because they were beat. That just shows in how devoted they had to making this film come to life. 11. Was there any improv on set?
Johnny: (Laughing) Oh, hell yeah. The young lady who played Trix love interest Wanda Summers and Corey, they had once scene that we had to delete, because this was supposed to be a R rated film, not triple X…lol, when we seen that , we all was like, woah, where did that come from. We all started looking at the script to make sure that we didn’t overlook something. (still laughing) There was a lot of improv on the set that we should’ve kept for our own personal viewing. 12. Did you encounter any big challenges while shooting the series?
Johnny: Oh yeah, the park scene when the cop came up on Trix and Mel smoking a blunt... they were really getting high, I was like woah, we’re out here in a public park around children and parents, are we really gonna do this?
And then when J-Crow and Trix was together in the park and she pointed at a car, the people in that car actually stopped because they wanted to know what was going on, so we had to explain to them that we’re shooting a movie. And there were a few others, but we managed to get by them.
13. Skymount Studios also took a big part in the making of this movie, providing VFX, Production Design, and Editorial. Can you talk about your workflow with them?
Johnny: It was amazing in working with them, they did an awesome job in everything, camera angles, lighting, everything. They really did an outstanding job. It was really a joy and honor in working with them.
14. In your opinion and experience, what makes a good team? Do you find any correlation between your past experience in a gang.. to working with a film crew?
Johnny: When everyone is on the same page and we’re able to communicate with each other as adults and it’s the same way in a gang sort of. In a gang, you have two leaders maybe three depending on the size of the gang. On the film side of things, you have the Executive Producer, and you have the Producer and then the Director, Ms. Rites was playing both sides of the coin, the producer and Director and everyone else was the crew. They listened to what we had to say, and they did it however, what is different is, the only gang banging we did was on the screen, not in real life. 15. How did you go about the cool and very fitting music choices in the show?
Johnny: Oh, BlackInk34, I think that Corey Jones introduced us and put us together. He did an awesome job with the soundtrack; and the other music, some of that came from Skymount Studios which again, they did a great job in putting it in there.
16. Alongside your win here at LAFA, A Cry In The Dark has earned many other accolades and is currently nominated in the Swedish Film Festival, Delta International Film Festival, Red Moon Film Festival, and more. You must be very proud! What were some of the highlights for you in the festival circuit yet?
Johnny: The WIN! Of course, and getting recognize by our peers and hopefully by some financiers and investors so that we can come back and do a remake of The Cry In The Dark and really do an outstanding job. However, not only were we nominated for The Swedish International Film Festival, but we also won: Hollywood Blvd Film Festival, Red Moon Film Festival, NYC Independent Film Festival, Lightbox Film Festival, Delta International Film Festival, Crown International Film Festival, EdiPlay International Film Festival, Seattle Independent Film Festival and Magic Silver Film Festival. And yes, I am very proud and humbled by everything that has happened with my team at J and R Films… I cannot thank them enough for everything that they have done to make A Cry In The Dark a success. And especially My Social Media Assistant, without here doing what she’s been doing, I don’t think that none of this would be possible. And with that being said; we already have a Hollywood actor who is dying to play the role of Trix, we just need a bigger budget than what we have. So, with the wins that we’re getting, can you imagine what we can achieve with Hollywood Actors, can you say Oscars, that’s our goal, winning an Oscar.
17. What are you currently working on? Are you developing any new projects?
Johnny: We have plenty of other projects in the wait. One I know of for sure that we want to do, I cannot go into details about the whole thing, but trust me, when we put this one together, that’s another Oscar win for us. Because once we win the first one, everyone or all of the Hollywood elite will be wanting to work with us. And then we have another one that just came up that we’re very interested in doing, we’re in discussions now. 18. What do you wish for yourself in the future, in terms of career and work, but also on a personal level?
Johnny: (you can see him thinking). Hmm, well, we know that it can be a reality but as of right now, we want to be on the same level as all of the other film company’s out here, Lionsgate, Warner Bro. etc. Once we get to that level or close to it, we will be totally honored and humble with every win that we get hell, we’ll be happy with just being nominated. That would be awesome achievement. 19. If you could work on a dream project, what would it be? (story-wise, cast-wise, style…)
Johnny: Oh wow, that is a tough question to answer. Because I have many films television shows that I would love to work on or to do a remake of however, like the old saying goes, never do a remake of something that is great. That’s why some of the movie industry are not touching some of the classics, like Claudine, with James Earl Jones and Dinah Carrol. Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, see those are classics, I think that with the right cast, I think that with some of the classics that I’ve listed would be a great remake however, I would be scared to do so, because you just don’t try to do a remake of a classic. Not knocking this film, it was okay however, I would have never taken on the task of redoing Superfly, no way, no how. That was a huge mistake.
And as far as the cast that I would love to work with in doing any type of great movie, the cast is a huge list, of course Denzel Washington, Vola Davis, Forrest Whitaker, Columbus Short, Kerry Washington, Halle Berry, just to name a few. I would love to work all if not some of these great actors and I am pretty sure that I left off some more, but these are just some that I could think of right off the top of my head.
20. Is there anything you wish to add or someone you'd like to thank?
Johnny: Well, first and foremost I would like to say “Thank you to My Almighty God, my creator, because if it had not been for Him to send me back in 1999, none of this, I mean none of this would have been possible. Because He knew that my job here wasn’t done and that I had a story to tell. And I want to say Thank you to my late Father, Johnny L Watson, Sr. If it had not been for him, I would not have a story to tell. The Scream That No One Heard would not be here nor would A Cry In The Dark, so thanks my Ole Man, I wouldn’t be sitting here doing any of this. And then there is My Moms, who I love with every fiber in my body. When I hear the phase of A Strong Black Woman, the image of my moms appears in my head. Because she is a strong Black woman, she endured a lot in dealing with my father and then me, watching him and me come back from the dead, me in and out of the hospital. Without her always being supportive of me, good or bad, she still had my back. I would give up my life for her, that’s how much she means to me, without her, there wouldn’t be no me. So, I want to say thank you Mom for everything, love you! 21. Where can our readers follow more of your work? (Website, social media links, etc)
Johnny: We’re on Twitter: @RfilmsJ, Instagram: jandrfilms0 (Jandrfilmsllc.com FaceBook @A Cry In The Dark Web Series