Teens often struggle with questions of where they fit into society as they try to remain true to their beliefs, particularly when their peers target them for their distinct qualities. Those who feel targeted often reach out to someone who does share their same beliefs and values, and will do whatever it takes to protect them from unwarranted attacks. The new drama ‘The Dirties,’ which marks the feature film writing-directing-producing-acting debuts of Matthew Johnson, shows the drastic measures one best friend will take against the bullies in his school, prompting the examination the effects intimidation has on students.
‘The Dirties,’ which is now playing in theaters and on VOD, follows best friends Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), who live in a world of endless movie references and hijinks. It would be perfect, if not for the cruel bullies at their high school who make their lives hell. While working on a movie for class, the lines between fiction and reality blur together in this horrifying look at high school bullying.
Johnson generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Dirties’ over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director-actor-producer discussed how he and Williams became close in real life while filming the movie, and their true personalities were reflected in their characters on screen; how he enjoyed having Kevin Smith, who’s releasing the drama through his new Kevin Smith Movie Club distribution company, debut the film’s trailer at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con; and his hopes the movie will bring comfort to people who feel like they’re alone and bullied.
Question (Q): You wrote, directed and starred in ‘The Dirties.’ Did you always have the idea to also act in the movie as you were penning the script, and do you feel that writing and directing the film influenced your acting at all?
Matt Johnson (MJ): Well, I don’t think there would have been another way to do it; the movie is so much about me and my own life, and Owen and his own life. Thinking of this movie, in terms of writing and directing and acting, I think they were all one in the same thing. By acting in the movie, that allowed me to write what I was doing, and direct from inside the seat. They were all related.
Q: Speaking of Owen, he plays Matt’s best friend, Owen, in the film. What was your working relationship with Owen like on the set, both as co-stars and as a director and actor?
MJ: Well, I didn’t know him very well before we began shooting. But as we began working through things on set, we became exactly like the characters in the movie. So what you see on screen is exactly what our relationship was like in real life. He’d be mad at me most of the time, and I’d try to convince him to do stupid things. We tried to capture it as realistically as we could as it actually happened.
Q: ‘The Dirties’ was the first feature film you starred in, written, directed and produced. What was the overall experience of being a first-time filmmaker on the movie, and were there any lessons that you learned on the set that you’ll bring to your future projects?
MJ: Yeah, I think most of the lessons that I learned on this film were actually carried over from the web show that we all together made just before (‘The Dirties’). We shot it in the same style and with the same people. We learned tricks on how to shoot in public and how to improvise scenes and how to shoot without a script. Those are things I kind of learned already, and I hope to use those skills as often as I can.
Q: ‘The Dirties’ was the winner of Best Narrative Feature and the Spirit of Slamdance Award, after it had its world premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. What was your reaction when you found out the movie won the awards?
MJ: It was very gratifying, and we were quite lucky. When we showed up, we thought everyone would hate the movie, but when it turned out that they liked it, we were very happy.
Q: Kevin Smith made ‘The Dirties’ one of the first films debuting through his new Kevin Smith Movie Club distribution company, after the movie premiered at Slamdance. He later premiered a trailer for the film at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con in Hall H. Were you able to attend Comic-Con, and what was your experience like there?
MJ: That was a really amazing experience. I was able to go, and it was my first time in San Diego. I was there with Kevin, and when the trailer premiered, my heart was in my mouth. I was really feeling amazing, and it was one of the best days of my life. That day, I also found some back issues in the back issues bin I had been looking for, so it was a doubly good day for me!
Q: With Kevin distributing the film, is he one of the filmmakers who has influenced your career? Are there any other particular filmmakers who you admire and look up to as a writer and director?
MJ: There are a couple of directors I can think of who influenced me when I was quite young. I like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who directed ‘The Red Shoes’ and other beautiful, musical films. Also, I admire the Wachowskis (who wrote, directed and executive produced ‘The Matrix’ trilogy).
Q: Are you interested in working with Owen and Evan (Morgan, the film’s co-writer), on another project in the future?
MJ: Well, we all really had fun with each other, so I think we’ll continue to work together as long as we can. But everyone has their own lives, and everyone else is married. They recently got married after the film received distribution, and I was the only person who didn’t get married. Owen and Jared (Raab, one of the film’s producers) are married. They’re spending a lot of time with their wives. Hopefully we’ll have time to make another film together, if I can convince them to get out of the house. (laughs)
Q: Since October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and the film is now playing, do you hope the movie can bring awareness about bullying to children?
MJ: I hope so. When we first started making the movie, we didn’t expect it to get much attention. Now that it has received attention, we’re flattered that our experiences in school have been so universal, and people seeing the film have connected with the story in a lot of ways. So I hope it will bring comfort to people who feel like they’re alone, and show them that there are other people like this who are doing things to help themselves out of being bullied.