Interview: Michael Johnston Talks SLASH and the Thrills of First-time Feature Film Experience
Anyone who has watched enough movies in the past five years has undoubtedly come across a fair amount of coming-of-age stories. And yet, I’m willing to bet you’ve never seen anything quite like Slash, a decidedly non-mainstream but wonderfully recognizable take on the interrelated processes of growing up and embracing your own voice.
Written and directed by Clay Liford, this offbeat gem destined for cult status frames the coming-of-age formula through the lens of erotic fan fiction and further tweaks it with a dash of sci-fi fantasy and a trip to comic con. If that sounds risqué, sleazy or possibly gratuitous, rest assured Liford’s latest is carried by a smart script that deftly balances humor with sensitivity. Led by the profoundly affecting performances of up-and-comers Hannah Marks and Michael Johnston, the film is singular yet highly inclusive and life-affirming. Or as Michael Johnston himself puts it, Slash is “really, really weird, but in a very good way”.
In between the film’s Belgian premiere at the Razor Reel Flanders Film Festival and its December release I got to do a Skype interview with Michael Johnston, who stars as Neil, an introverted teen who gradually comes out of his shell when he meets Julia (Marks’ character).
Read on for the young actor’s involvement in Slash and his love for the filmmaking process.
ScreenAnarchy: How did your participation in SLASH come about?
Michael Johnston: Well, it started out like any other job really. I got the audition to play Neil in Slash, got the script and I started reading it and … I must say that from the point where I first read and auditioned to the actual movie the script changed a lot. But when I started reading the script I just thought ‘wow, this movie is really honest in how it deals with coming-of-age’.
I didn’t feel too comfortable taking on this role at first; I was hesitant because it was just really extreme, but I finished the script and just thought 'what a cool story' … it’s definitely a movie that you don’t see very much, it was really different, so that automatically drew me to the film. And I auditioned and then I didn’t hear anything back for almost, it seemed like, months. Honestly when I got the call that they were interested in me for the role it may have been eight months later.
Were you aware of what Slash fiction is?
I heard of it before. Mostly because I’m on a TV show and I’ve actually had Slash fiction written about my character …
That’s TEEN WOLF you’re referring to?
Right, right … Yeah. [Laughs.]
Clay Liford wrote the screenplay of SLASH, and I read in an interview with your co-star Hannah Marks that she’s also very passionate about writing. I was wondering whether you are similarly attracted to the written word or whether there were any other traits that made Neil a relatable character for you?
Oh there were definitely a few things that I could relate to with Neil. I wouldn’t say writing is one of them. I mean, I write a little bit, but I think I’m more of a reader. And then I write songs, sometimes; I’ve been working on music. But I think one of the things that drew me to Neil is … well, Neil in Slash is very inexperienced.
Throughout the course of the movie you see a lot of firsts for him: it’s probably his first kiss, his first time with a girl, his first time at a convention and honestly, for me, the movie itself was a lot of ‘firsts’ as well. I had just moved to Los Angeles not too long before I booked Slash, so a lot of things were really new for me. It was kind of my first time out on my own, and in the movie it’s also Neil’s first time going out on his own. It was my first lead in a movie and, I think all of that – actually me experiencing a lot of firsts – made me really connect with Neil.
What is the main takeaway from one of your first lead roles in a movie? What was the main thing you picked up on set during the filming of SLASH?
Well, this was actually my second movie. The first one I did was a horror movie called Bornless Ones. I was one of the leads but I didn’t really have any lines because my character was paralyzed for most of the movie so, yeah, sometimes I’d like to think of Slash as my first lead just because it was the first time I was actually carrying a project.
With Slash I learned what a collaborative effort it is to make a film and especially when you’re the lead. When I had the opportunity to play Neil it involved me going to set every day and obviously if you’re the lead of a movie, you’re gonna be on set a lot. You’re not gonna get a lot of breaks, you’re gonna be in almost every scene, you’re tired. I have to be on top of my stuff, have to know my lines, I have to be there for my cast members …
On Teen Wolf I’m recurring on the show and I have a few lines here and there and I can just learn my lines and go to set. But with a movie and being a lead in a movie I think I just learned how important it is to read the script over and over and over again and make decisions about my character. The other thing is we don’t film the movie in order, it’s not like we shoot the first scene in the movie on the first day so I have to know where my character is when we’re filming the scenes, you know, we might have filmed one of the last scenes in the movie right at the beginning.
I would just say it was an incredible learning experience as an actor; just seeing how it actually works on set and what a collaborative effort. I remember I had a moment when I was on set and I was just surrounded by the crew, the director, my co-stars, and I was just thinking: ‘wow, all these people are here working together for me … they’re doing it for me, and I’m doing it for them, and we’re all doing something that we’re deeply passionate about’. And I just think it’s really amazing and really beautiful.
It made me really appreciate movies even more … it made me see how amazing my producer, Brock, and how amazing the director, Clay, are.
The way you’re talking about the film is actually very similar to what Clay also mentioned in that it was a collaborative, professional environment with everybody working towards a common goal. I imagine it was a learning experience but also simply a fun set to be a part of?
Oh for sure. It was really fun, I mean, some of the scenes in the movie are so ridiculous, interesting, funny and weird … it’s great doing some of these scenes and then there were some that were a little bit harder like, you know, kissing Michael Ian Black in the parking lot …
Well, now that you bring it up …
Here’s the thing. On that day, I knew it was gonna happen, I didn’t know it was gonna happen when it did. Clay kind of surprised me … He was like ‘all right, here we are, now kiss him’. And I was like ‘wow, wow, wow! I need a minute! I need some gum and …’ [Laughing.]
We were actually right outside a parking garage, sort of near a park, and there were people walking by who weren’t part of the set, and I was so worried that everyone was staring at me … I thought it would be really weird, but it was fine and so professional. And I love that scene in the movie. It’s shocking in a way, but I love the reaction we get from audiences with that scene. It turned out really well.
Many reviews of SLASH have talked about this scene in particular as one of the key moments and one of the most touching scenes in the film. Very easily this could have become something creepy because it dares to go there, much like the larger erotic fan fiction angle, but it manages to do so in a way that’s recognizable. It’s a self-conscious and awkward moment for Neil who’s exploring and trying to find himself but it’s never cheap. It has a warm quality to it like the entire film does.
And that’s also part of what drew me to the film. I wouldn’t have wanted to do a film that was creepy or weird, but you’re right, it does dare to go there but in a way that brings to light the humanity in the characters. It’s really nice to have this finished product and feel like I have related to a lot of different kinds of people.
I really wanted to make sure that I accurately represented Neil, especially with everything that he’s going through. I had to be very careful and make sure that I’m playing this role right … Some of what I did was, I went on YouTube before we did the movie and I would look up videos of young people who were coming out and people who talked about how they’re not sure about their sexuality and how it’s not black and white.
I wanted to make sure that I accurately represented anyone that might relate to the character and I was pleased to see, at Q&A’s after some of the screenings that I attended, that there were people who came up to me and were like ‘hey, I really related to Neil, I was just like Neil when I was younger’ or ‘I’m going through a really similar thing’. What a rewarding thing to hear as an actor.
In part, I think, the degree of relatability also stems from the grounded performances. There’s tremendous chemistry between all cast members but especially perhaps between yourself and Hannah Marks.
I love Hannah. She’s so talented. She’s been acting since she was very young. She’s been at it for a while and I’m pretty new to it so I had a lot to learn from her. When I first met her … I actually didn’t do a chemistry read with her during the audition or anything. When I first met with her we were getting into a shuttle to take us to the airport and they picked me up first and when I got to her house to pick her up she got into the car and I put my hand out to shake hers … and she was like ‘no’.
Instead she gave me a big hug and was like ‘we’re gonna have to get really close’! Instantly, right away, we were really good friends and we had such a great time working together. We did so much work behind the scenes and in between days of filming, when we were put up in a hotel; we’d be in each other’s rooms, talking about the scenes we were gonna do the next day.
Another really cool thing about Clay and the producer was that they’re very collaborative … Hannah and I were always able to say ‘you know, this seems a little odd, maybe we can try this or that’ and they really listened to a lot of our ideas. A lot of them made it into the movie. That was really cool, and I really loved working with Hannah.
You currently have another film in post-production, called THE MAESTRO. Is there anything you can already tell us about this project?
I played a small part in the movie. Actually, I only filmed for a day. I play one of the lead character’s sons … it was a lot of fun because it was a period piece. I got to play an Italian character and got to do some accent work. That was something I really wanted to do. I think it’s gonna be a really cool film. The people working on that film are really passionate about it.
It’s very different from SLASH or from TEEN WOLF.
Yeah, I really wanna do as many different things as I can. I definitely don’t want to be typecast into always playing characters like Neil. Of course I enjoy playing a character like him – I’ll take anything I can get! – … but I wanna do so many different things and that was like ‘I get to dress up and do an accent?’ ‘Heck yeah! Bring it on.’
You’re a professional actor but you still find a lot of enjoyment in making the films and getting those first experiences, exploring the world of filmmaking.
Absolutely. I love what I do and I wanna do it more and more and more. I can never get enough and I always want to have a script. I even enjoy auditioning, it’s part of the work. Auditioning is the hardest part because you face rejection, and most of the jobs I audition for I don’t get … That’s just how it is, but I love reading scripts, love telling stories. It’s always been that way. I’ve been doing voiceovers since I was very young, for cartoons and such. […]
Making a movie is so different from making a TV show. It’s a great experience, almost like summer camp. You get to go and you get to tell a whole story from start to finish and you meet all these people, and basically live with them for a couple of months and then it’s over. You just hope that you run into them again … What an amazing experience. I don’t think there are many other jobs that are like this. I call it my job but it’s also something I absolutely love to do. It’s always been my dream.