Getting a motion picture financed in the best of times is a feat; but in times likes these, it’s tantamount to defying gravity. So when the stars aligned and producer/director Paul Bunnell, along with cast and crew, descended on the Ventura Theater for five days to shoot a handful of key scenes for The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, the elation was palpable and somewhat contagious.
“It’s the last movie of its kind,” became lead actor Will Keenan’s mantra as he waxed enthusiastic about the project. Keenan, who became somewhat of an accidental cult hero for his role in Tromeo and Juliet in the ’90s, signed on for the indie project six years ago, along with most of the cast; but when the stock market went south, production was necessarily halted.
Bunnell, a nostalgia geek born and raised in Burbank where the smog is thick with movie-making molecules, refused to let the project die. Every year he would get in touch with cast members to make sure they still looked the same, so that when the financing came through (because it would), they could slip with ease back into their respective roles.
And for the most part no one changed, although many progressed on their career paths or changed careers entirely.
“A lot of people were telling me to finish what I had, or colorize it, or make an extended trailer,” said Bunnell. “And they kept saying, ‘Why on 35 mm and why in black and white? Who wants to see a black and white musical?’ But my instincts told me this would work this way.”
Finally, a longtime friend with no previous intention of becoming a film producer decided to get behind the project, and the rest is almost history. Production resumed late last month, and the cast happily reassembled in the spirit of seeing Bunnell’s dream to fruition — some even taking a breather from other obligations to git ’er done. B-movie star Reggie Bannister (Bubba Ho-Tep, the Phantasm series) who plays concert promoter King Clayton, is thrilled Johnny X is on its way to completion. “Everyone is so happy to be back,” he says.
So why is it being touted as the last movie of its kind? Besides the fact that black and white genre musicals aren’t exactly trending, Bunnell managed to buy out Kodak’s last stock of black and white 35 mm film for the project, which is being shot in widescreen format.
“Ever since I was a young boy, I wanted to make a real movie. I’ve made a lot of movies, but this is my first 35 mm feature film. Of course, when I was a kid, there was no digital video, so I always had it fixed in my mind that 35 mm was the way to go. I feel that it’s shortchanging the audience to do a movie like this any other way,” Bunnel explained.
And for Bunnell, the audience’s experience is paramount to the success of the film. “I feel if you make it the highest quality you can, give the audience the best production, the best value, then it’s going to be a success. Though we’re on a tight budget, I’m doing my best to put the money on the screen.”
Creed Bratton, cast member of the hit TV show The Office and guitarist for The Grass Roots in the 1960s, plays rock star Mickey O’ Flynn (the Man with the Grin) and keeps everyone on the set amused. The quick-witted and charming actor says he hasn’t seen a film project like this in a long time. “It’s like Rocky Horror meets Ed Wood meets Glee.It’s really fun.”
While fun seems to be the operative word during shooting — makeup girls in pink Converse sneakers kidding with each other about the cast (which they say is the nicest they’ve ever worked with), and co-stars bantering like the pros they are — making a movie is serious business, and the degree of talent, camaraderie and professionalism exhibited behind the scenes of Johnny X is impressive. The sound editor jokingly remarks that “It takes a village to make a movie,” but the truth is often said in jest. At any given moment there are 20 people with 20 different skill sets doing precisely 20 different things, and somehow it all comes together in one perfect take. Rinse and repeat. Someone (tongue firmly in cheek) exclaims, “It’s the magic of moviemaking!” but, to the onlooker, it really is.
Bunnell was deliberate about locations, and apropos of the last movie of its kind, he chose the Ventura Theater, one of the last standing historic theaters in California, as well as the storied Occidental Studios in Hollywood, the first movie studio of its kind. Offices above the theater were converted into dressing rooms and production offices, and the balcony area gave extras a place to watch filming while they waited for their big moment.
Martin Pierron, a 27-year-old actor, film buff and aspiring filmmaker, traveled two hours from Chino with DVDs he wanted autographed by Keenan, to be an extra in the film. “I really believe in the spirit of this project,” he said.
Indeed, if there’s a recurring theme to the saga of the making of Johnny X, it’s the sincerity and purity of Bunnell’s vision and the bounce-back (the title of Bratton’s latest CD, which he gifted the extras with) from a cruel economic downturn, against the odds. Many people don’t realize what a hit Hollywood took when the economy crashed, but many people lost their studio jobs, and countless productions were halted. Les Williams who plays Chip the soda jerk, lost everything and moved out of state temporarily to regroup. The actor/producer secured a good day job that he can do remotely, allowing him to work from the set.
Williams discussed his fondness for the project and the director, Bunnell, saying that he hopes it gets the attention it deserves. “I hope it actually helps Paul fulfill his dream. I would love to see it go into several film festivals,” he said.
Heather Provost, who found success on Broadway as a producer while Johnny X was on the backburner, happily reprised her role as one of the ghastly gang members to finish the film for Bunnell. “You see that kind of passion and it lights something in you,” she said. “You want to help him out, you want to finish it.”
Though it’s been a long time coming, Bunnell is aware that the timing might actually be better now. There’s a lot of bad news coming from all directions, and movies have historically been the great panacea for dark days. He recalls the depression era when “we were making these Busby Berkeley musicals, these glossy, glamorous productions with people in tuxedos. Psychologically, people want to forget the world conflicts and threats, and maybe remember when times were simpler.” And the plan is for The Ghastly Love of Johnny X to be what Bunnell calls an “old-fashioned, feel-good but contemporary movie.”
As for their time in Ventura, everyone had nothing but good things to say. “Ventura was incredible, a very filmmaker-friendly town,” said Keenan. “I found myself thinking, ‘I could live here!’ ” This is good news for those in City Hall who are making a focused effort to attract film production. A fairly substantial cast and crew, many with family in tow, spent their time and dollars here in local lodging, restaurants and retail stores. One woman was showing off a ring she’d just purchased downtown. Provost, who went shopping in full makeup, said people were very friendly. Bunnell and his wife — the film’s costume designer — said they loved filming in Ventura. “It’s clean, the people are pleasant and there are lots of nice shops. We’ll definitely come back.”
To view the movie trailer, visit www.johnnyxmovie.com, and to get updates on the film’s progress, join the film’s Facebook group.