Column: How San Diego musician Ben Johnson gave his coronary heart, soul and little finger for his first movie
In his debut film, a rock and roll thriller called Fanboy, longtime San Diego musician Ben Johnson plays Fred Proehl, a drummer and over-the-top fan who loves a group called Xenos so much that he is ready to do so pretty much anything to say he’s with the band. The same could be said of Johnson, who was willing to do pretty much anything in the power of his novice to bring Fred’s crazy dream to screen.
In addition to directing Fanboy and playing its main character with loose cannons, Johnson wrote the script. He was also the film’s co-editor (with David Robles), casting director, casting director, location scout, and about a dozen other things. Like everyone else in his (mostly) non-professional line-up, Johnson has even performed his own stunts, and he has a broken pinky finger to prove it.
But when he looks back on the five-year journey that transformed the script, he made a film in a month that will celebrate its world premiere on January 14th at the South Bay Drive-In. Johnson rates this as his most important merit is not listed.
“I had nothing to do with making a film. I don’t even know how to use a camera. I don’t know what an aperture means. And somehow I made a movie, ”said Johnson from the Mid-City house he shares with his wife and young daughter. “I’m a rah-rah guy, and somehow I just got rah-rah people to do this movie. It’s crazy. What I lack in talent, I make up for with sheer determination. “
Fittingly, “Fanboy” is rooted in fandom. About six years ago, Johnson saw a short film by San Diego-based creative director and cinematographer Grant Reinero at Ken Cinema. He was so impressed by the film that he sent Reinero a text suggesting that they work together at some point. After starring in some of Reinero’s films, Johnson wanted to get bigger. Much larger.
“I said,” Short films are all well and good, but what do we have to do to make a feature film? “Said 50-year-old Johnson.” Grant made this complete list and I said, ‘You bring the cameras and I’ll do the other stuff.’ I didn’t know how much other stuff there would be. “
With two published novels under his belt, Johnson thought writing a screenplay would be a breeze. And it was. He went all-in on the “Write What You Know” approach and played for years in local bands like Tourettes Lautrec and The Long and Short of It. He began writing a script about a hard-working indie band whose biggest fan is going to be worst nightmare. A month later, in April 2016, the script was ready. Filming began the following September.
If the script was all about writing what you know, filming Fanboy was about having fun and saving money. Johnson designed fellow musicians John Cota, Alia Jyawook, and Arabella Harrison to play the members of Xenos. Johnson’s volunteer cast also includes two sisters-in-law, three nephews, and two nieces. His daughter is there. So does his mother, Ellen Lawson, a singer and actress who is the only actress who has a Screen Actors Guild card.
While the movie Xenos got on a low-budget tour, the production itself never left San Diego. As a co-owner and former bartender at the Casbah, Johnson was able to tap into the local nightclub scene, and the club’s crawling onlookers will likely spot the interiors of six local eateries, including the Soda Bar, Ken Club, Whistle Stop, and the Kasbah itself.
“My question was always,” What can we do for free? “Johnson said.” My other big goal was to make it as smooth and fluid as possible. Grant knows all about filmmaking and he was the guru of the whole thing. I just had to motivate people. It was like: ” We’ll settle down, we’ll film, and then we’ll make dinner. “
Given that Johnson was working on all of the other jobs, including his own, filming took almost two years to complete. But this guerrilla adventure was a breeze compared to what followed. Post-production of Fanboy, which included everything from editing to mixing sounds to endless hours recording steps, began in September 2018 and ended around Christmas. From 2020.
There have been many times Johnson wondered what in the world he’d gotten himself into, but there wasn’t a world he somehow couldn’t make it into. When tickets for the world premiere of “Fanboy” went on sale on January 14th, they went so fast that the South Bay Drive-In added a late show. But for Johnson, the long-awaited happy ending came during an early test run at the drive-in when he looked at the screen and saw that his dream was finally coming in sight.
“What I’m most proud of is that I finished it,” said Johnson with a relieved chuckle. “When I saw it projected onto the screen in the parking lot with just me in my car, I couldn’t even see it because I was crying. It was crazy. “
Tickets are still available for the performance of Fanboy on January 14th at 8pm at the South Bay Drive-In. Go to casbahmusic.com.