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Categories: Interviews

The award-winning director dishes his hilarious new western-themed comedy.

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Sam Johnson is a London-based director known for his films Jasmine’s Revolution, which premiered at BFI and won best of fest at Cork Film Festival, and Billy the Kid, a short funded by Creative England and made in partnership with Beatbullying which was an audience best of fest pick at its debut festival at Palm Springs.

The film, a charming and hilarious comedy which featured at our last Jam Session and has won 10 international awards, follows – big surprise – a kid, named Billy, who fancies himself a cowboy. The comedy part comes, of course, in that this kid is a modern kid going to a modern school wearing full cowboy gear and carrying a bullwhip.

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With lots of references to old westerns – John Wayne especially – Billy the Kid is ultimately a warmhearted tale about standing up to bullies and being yourself, and features witty dialogue, entertaining western-style action sequences, and a fun central performance from John Bell as the titular Billy.

Cinema Jam talked with Sam to learn more about his career and the making of Billy the Kid

Tell me a little bit about your film background and how you got your start in film.

I actually didn’t start making films until my late teens. Before that I was convinced I was going to be a hybrid footballer/actor/prime minister. Then in the latter part of my school career I joined the Abingdon Film Unit, a film collective run by renowned British documentary filmmaker Mike Grigsby and Jeremy Taylor. Under their tutelage I took my first painful steps in film.

I studied film at King’s College London. Though it was an exclusively theory-based degree, it proved to be a wonderful introduction to the craft – writing 5000 words analysing 3 minutes of films like Casablanca is a real make-or-breaker. But I loved it.

After leaving university I made a very concerted effort to experience as many aspects of the film industry as possible. My first job was in the art department on an Australian horror called Blackwater, about a man-eating crocodile, and I also worked in the locations and AD departments on films like X-Men: First Class and Skyfall before becoming a director. I firmly believe that the more you know about the process, the better equipped you are to deal with everything a shoot may throw at you.

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You made “Billy the Kid” in partnership with Beatbullying. What is your involvement with them?

Beatbullying came on board late on in the development phase. They very rarely backed projects, but felt that Billy represented an opportunity for them to articulate the themes of bullying to children in an accessible way. During our pre-production we raised money for Beatbullying via our crowd funding campaign, and they screened the film during anti-bullying week and at various schools around the country.

From where did you take inspiration for the film?

My first short film dealt with issues of identity. I was keen to develop these ideas, but in a broader, more entertaining way. I grew up on films likes of Indiana Jones, The Goonies and Stand by Me, and I was eager to make something lighthearted myself. I love how those films felt wonderfully un-sanitized: the bullies or the bad guys are actually terrifying, the threats real, and their humour frequently dry and insightful.

At the time I also new that I wanted to make a film about bullying – something I feel very strongly about – and was particularly interested in the notions of code and honour. That led me to westerns. I was thinking about John Wayne’s quote “a man’s got to have a code” and concluded that the idea of displacing the misunderstood nomadic wanderer, the knight-errant, to a rural British school might be fun! I liked the idea of a genre-binding piece, and actually pitched it to Creative England, who funded the film, as an action-comedy-fish-out-of-water-western.

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What did John Bell bring to the role of Billy?

John has been working as a professional actor since he was ten years old, so while he was still only sixteen when we filmed, he was about twice as experienced as anyone else on set! He’s built up a formidable portfolio of work – from Doctor Who to The Hobbit – so, unusually for a child actor, we had very few apprehensions about casting him.

In the run up to the shoot, our producer David Wade organized for John to have specialist lasso and bullwhip training. David and I joined in with the training – for research purposes, obviously! – and we were really impressed by the way John approached his work. He has amazing focus and commitment for someone so young. While we were making fools of ourselves, he was quickly and diligently mastering the skills he would use in the film. Using a bullwhip is a lot harder and more dangerous than you might think.

On set, we had a lot of fun.  He’s already got amazing poise and control for someone so young, so we had lots of fun trying different things, rarely wasting a take. He’s a very talented young man, and I’m looking forward to working with him again in the future.

What were the biggest takeaways / lessons learned from making this film?

With Billy the Kid, I think the lighthearted nature of the film rubbed off on the production. Aside from the fun we had shooting the comedy, we were filming in the summer with all the cast and crew living together. Billy was the happiest set I’ve been on – to the point that it often felt as much like a holiday as a film shoot.

The film has elements of action, comedy and drama, as well as the overarching Western elements, so there was plenty of opportunity for myself and the team to really test ourselves. Every day seemed to bring something new, but the action scenes in particular were very demanding. On a couple of days we had 70 people on set, and we were intent on doing our stunts and effects authentically in camera. It was a challenge, but an incredibly rewarding one.

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What have you learned about the film and your work from the way audiences have reacted to it?

More than anything else, I think my experiences with Billy the Kid have given me a stronger sense of the types of films I’d like to make. Billy has seemed (mercifully!) to be a crowd pleaser, and I’ve taken great pleasure in watching the way audiences have reacted to it – from Palm Springs to the Isle of Man. So clearly I need to make more action-comedy-fish-out-of-water-westerns.

What other projects are you currently working on or do you have planned?

I’ve got another short I’m prepping for later this year. It’s an ambitious action-comedy that’s set in a garden centre in the Cotswolds. I’m also developing two features (one of which would be a continuation of that short), and I’ve just started a production company with my brother, who is a brilliant photographer, and a producer friend of ours. 

Do you have any favorite films from recent memory?

I actually saw the short MIA by Maria Martinez Bayona – which played along with Billy at Cinema Jam – recently at the NFTS graduation show. Second viewing reinforced my opinion that it’s one of the best shorts I’ve seen. It’s a wonderful surreal dream of a film, only matched by the quality of the production. It’s a beautiful concept beautifully realized. It was really interesting been on the panel with Maria. I’m a fan!

At the other end of the scale, I recently saw Cop Car, by Jon Watts. Aside from being right up my street in terms of genre and tone, it was also a wonderful example for young filmmakers of how to make a low budget feature. It’s tight and inventive, imaginatively using its financial limitations to its advantage. Off the back of it’s success, Watts has just been signed up to direct the new Spiderman, so clearly he’s doing something right.

Find out more about Sam’s work on his website.

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Jun 10, 2016

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