The Movie Waffler Waffling With <i>DOOMSDAY</i> director Neil Johnson | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With DOOMSDAY director Neil Johnson

Director Neil Johnson chats about his new time travel drama Doomsday, his background and future projects.

Like many before him, Neil Johnson started out as a music video director before turning his attention to feature films. Since his feature directorial debut in the late ‘90s, he’s helmed a plethora of home entertainment classics including Starship: Rising and To Become One. His latest film, Doomsday, has just debuted on DVD and later in the year, he’ll release Starship: Apocalypse.

Do you remember the first time you ever picked up a camera and filmed something?

When I was a kid I played with 8mm film cameras. I was always fascinated with lenses… and still am. I was doing music videos when I was 16, and before I graduated film School in 1986, I was already being employed as a camera assistant. On weekends I was off doing small documentaries and music videos for people. This is all I have ever done.  There never was a point of making a choice.  It was always what I was meant to do.  In 1987-1988 I started directing here and there. 

What about the first time you were paid for doing so?

When I was 21, I was directing TV commercials full time for a TV station. Kind of surprising now, looking back, but at the time, it seemed right. That was my first full time directing gig. As far as making any money for anything TV or film related… I remember someone once paid me to shoot a wedding. I wasn’t very good at that because I hate weddings.

What was your first feature? What was the experience like?

It was a film called Demons in My Head. I had made about 10 short films, and I realized that if I put them all together, then I would have a feature. This was still the age of 35mm film (the mid 90’s). People I worked with were already putting television commercials shot on video tape onto film. I decided that I should shoot a film all digital, cut it all digital, do the effects all digital and then blow it onto film at the end. From my experience this was the world’s first digital film… in as much as… it was shot in widescreen digital, edited on the first on-line non-linear editing systems in digital widescreen, with all the visual effects being done digital, and mastered on digital, and then released and projected from the digital source into a cinema. The film looked good, maybe too clean image-wise. I remember adding film grain to the picture to make it resemble 35mm. The film was released world-wide and I was told I was a fool for shooting digital… and then George Lucas and Rick McCallum approached me, wanting to know how I did it. It made me realize I was on the right track. After this my brain exploded creatively, and has continued to expand. I recall it being a bit hard because the D.P. and I didn’t always agree on things. I shot my second film myself, To Become One, which was way more dynamic than the first.
I got ripped off by the distributer on the first film. They sold the film off to the UK and in Blockbuster, I saw a copy on VHS in the Top Ten. I remember contacting the Distributor in the UK and asked if I could buy a few copies at wholesale. They didn’t believe that I was the guy who made the film. They threatened to call the cops if I didn’t leave their office. Not much has changed!

Do you think you’ve changed as a filmmaker since then?

I change with every film. I like changing styles and evolving. Every time you make a mistake, you learn and change things. Imagine being a painter who changes with each painting…. This is what I strive for.

When and how did Doomsday come about?

Doomsday was an interesting film. It came out of a low point in my life. My best friend died, as well as a few other terrible things happening. I was stranded in the UK for a few months, (I am British originally) so I decided to make a film from a script that had been kicking around. Darren Jacobs, who was starring in another film, Starship: Rising and the sequel Starship: Apocalypse (December 2015), helped me by finding some other amazing British actors, like himself. The film was shot with relative ease across England. It is probably one of my smallest budgets, but it represents a great freedom in being able to decide to do a film, and not needing anyone to green-light anything. In contrast, doing my recent two Starship films was a more painful birthing process. The films cost a bit, and myself, being the guy who did the world’s first digital film, wanted to do a film entirely on green screen, and have it finished in 4K resolution. These are massively epic stories, and a few have commented since that maybe these films are too epic for such a modest budget. The point is, I always try and improve my films. I know the films that are currently in post production, Rogue Warrior and At The Edge of Time are both miles above Starship and Doomsday in so many ways. I haven’t peaked yet… because I know what films are up my sleeve. I am a late bloomer. All first are painful to get off the ground, but after 14 births, you know what to expect.

How did you initially pitch it?

It was from a script I wrote a few years back. I didn’t have to sell it to anyone, I just decided to make it, and found some money, and went straight into shooting.  
Doomsday is a time-travel film set between now and 400 years in the future. It tells the story of a man who is thrust back in time, infected with a terrible disease. He is pursued by a hybrid human who destroys the cities of York and London in an effort to destroy him. It is the sort of film that, after people watch it, they want to watch it again… if you are into time travel.

It’s shot in the UK… with all British actors? Is that right?

I shot the film in the United Kingdom in 2012. It was London and Yorkshire, a large county in the north. If you have ever seen American Werewolf in London, we shot on the same moors. A place I have dreamed of shooting in. Very desolate and atmospheric. Shooting in London was strange. It was during the Olympics and there were police and hidden snipers with anti-missile guns all over. We shot in front of Big Ben, and I am sure we were in the sights of an armed soldier while we were shooting. We were discussing the destruction of London in the scene…  ooops!
It was all British actors, which made me very happy… Actually there might have been a couple of Australians thrown in as well.
It was 15 days with another 4 days of pickups…  had a nice helicopter rented for one of the days. Yorkshire is very picturesque. I didn’t see any werewolves.

How many hats did you wear on this particular film?

Too many hats. I did have a great crew from Yorkshire and London, but I like to do many things myself. There were quite a few producers on the film like Ben Trebilcook and Blake Edgerton and we all worked very well together.

Did you shoot digitally?

Yes… is there any other choice these days?

Has technology made your job easier in recent years?

What I dreamed of as a child is finally here. The good thing about being alive today is that once you learn the craft of doing effects, shooting, editing, etc, you can now be free to create almost anything. Look at how amazing modern films are. The complexity of film as an art form is transcending all things, except maybe computer games. Look at the latest Mad Max Fury Road film. What an amazing work of art. This film will resonate for years to come. Imagine a world without Star Wars or Star Trek. It would be horrible. I can dream now, and get closer to what is in my head, and this means the next few years will be glorious for me. I don’t make small films, even though my budgets are small. I shoot everything now in 6K and finish in 4K, which is probably a little insane for people. My upcoming film, Rogue Warrior will look amazing for sure.

Do you mind being referred to as a ‘science fiction filmmaker’?

That is a badge I would happily take to the grave. This is all I really care about.