NUNN ON ONE MOVIES Craig Johnson talks directing 'Alex Strangelove'
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times

Alex Strangelove.

Alex Strangelove is the story of teenager Alex Truelove, played by Daniel Doherty, who is in the process of losing his virginity. Life with his girlfriend becomes complicated when he meets a gay fellow at a party. This new movie is directed by Craig Johnson with Ben Stiller's Red Hour Films as producers. It was released June 8 on the streaming Netflix platform. 

Many may know Johnson from past works of movies like The Skeleton Twins and Wilson. He studied filmmaking at the Tisch School of Arts and is married to television writer Adam Roberts. 

Windy City Times: Hi, Craig. Where are you from?

Craig Johnson: I grew up in Bellingham, Washington. It was a little college town about an hour and a half north of Seattle. I was a theater kid and went to college in Seattle. I went to all of the school plays, but was always obsessed with films. I knew that was what I wanted to do so I moved to New York to go to film school at NYU. 

I picked up a camera there and made a short film. My first feature was called True Adolescents. It was my thesis for film school. That movie allowed me to make other movies. 

WCT: You made a few films before Alex Strangelove. Were you building experience before the gay endeavor?

CJ: I actually wrote the first draft of this script 10 years ago. Movies always take so long to get off the ground. It took a while for people to make this one quite frankly. No one rejected it outright on the premise of it or the subject matter. It was just hard to make a high school movie with no roles for movie stars. That was always the excuse and there was certainly truth to that. 

Over the years I would constantly update it. Our culture has changed with LGBTQ kids in high school. The script got richer as people became progressive and became more open to kids coming out in high school. It made the conflict in the story a little more interesting. It is okay to come out in high school now so it is more about the personal conflict of coming out. 

WCT: Was it inspired by your life?

CJ: Yes. It is very autobiographical. I describe it as the sexual confusion of my teens and my twenties crammed into one kid's senior year of high school. It is amped up a bit with old school high school movie hijinks. It does come from a personal experience of coming out at a different time, also coming out incrementally and being very confused. 

WCT: Personally, I connected more with Alex than Simon in Love, Simon. 

CJ: Well, thank you. It is exciting that we can even have this conversation with my movie and Love, Simon coming out within months of each other. We maybe even made these two movies at about the same time and we have two mainstream high school movies about a kid struggling with sexuality in existence to talk about. 

WCT: I love monkeys—just like Alex!

CJ: Alex is, in many ways, my surrogate. I was a kid that was obsessed with strange animals and all manner of monkeys, including the proboscis monkey. 

WCT: How fun was it filming the gummy-bear scene?

CJ: It was probably the most fun scene to shoot once we got the visual effects to work. It actually took us days. We had to delay that scene on the schedule because our gummy puke never looked right. It took so long to get the right mixture of gummy chunks. Do we use gummy bits or color rubber? Is it too thick and chunky? It took forever to get right. When we finally did it was so satisfying to blast those two kids with the gummy puke.

It was like a giant plunger, like a big syringe that we blasted it out from. I am not sure the actors would say it was much fun, but it was for me!

WCT: Why release the movie on Netflix and not in the theaters?

CJ: This movie would not have happened without Netflix. It was a joy working with them. They allowed me complete creative freedom. That was from the beginning. 

I was concerned they might put pressure on me to cast certain kinds of kids in this. They told me to cast whomever was best for the role. That is music to a director's ears and not something you often hear when casting movies. Netflix was just incredible. 

I'm not too broken up that it won't have a theatrical release. It is a movie for everybody, but especially young adults. People are consuming stuff on Netflix these days, even more so than going to the theater. 

WCT: Isabella Amara was in your movie Wilson. Is that why you cast her in Alex Strangelove?

CJ: I had already written the role but thought of Isabella. She is who the character Gretchen is and based off of my friends in high school. 

WCT: What advice would you give future filmmakers?

CJ: I would tell an aspiring filmmaker to work hard. If you have a little bit of talent and continue to work, with a little luck and timing, it will happen for you, but it will take longer than you think, maybe even 10 years longer. 

It is putting your nose to the grindstone, writing scripts, and making short films, throwing them up on Vimeo. When I was young and starting out we didn't even have YouTube. Launching a movie on our iPhone was not an option. 

You just have to keep making stuff and get better. Don't take anything you do too seriously. If people hate it, then great, just make something better next time. 

WCT: Did you learn something from The Skeleton Twins that carried into this film?

CJ: I learned to be as honest as I could be after The Skeleton Twins. If you show warts and all people will embrace the characters, because they will see themselves reflected in them. So often in movies the edges are shaved off of difficult people. I learned that people respond to difficult people because we are all difficult in our own way! 

I find myself attracted to prickly characters, who aren't perfect, but are trying to do the right thing. That was what Skeleton Twins was about. Because that movie was embraced, I decided to bring in more difficult characters for the rest of my career. 

WCT: What are you working on next?

CJ: I am always spinning a few plates. I am working on a documentary the rock band The B-52s. It will be produced by Fred Armisen. I have never done a documentary so it is new territory. 

I am also working on an adaptation of the novel The Art of Fielding about a college baseball team in the Midwest at a small liberal arts college. It is a wonderful book by Chad Harbach.

Catch Alex Strangelove on Netflix.

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