“Miscommunication under bizarre circumstances.” That's how this week's Dazed Visionary and New York-based filmmaker John Strong describes his work. It's pretty accurate: Strong specialises in nerve-shredding story-driven work that pushes the boundaries in all the right – and wrong – ways. Each film for his takeover this week exemplifies that approach, from his hyper-violent music video collabs with San Francisco grunge rockers The Oh Sees to his beautifully-crafted narrative shorts, which gruesomely illustrate what happens when social niceties go horribly awry. (Bedwetting is involved.)
Dazed speaks to Strong about his hilariously inappropriate first film and his ambitions to craft a satirical Santa Claus epic.
DD: How did you first get into filmmaking?
John Strong: In my 8th grade US history class I was required to do a presentation, in any medium, on an important moment from our nation’s past. Most of my classmates chose to do posters since it required the least amount of effort but I chose to do a video since I thought I might be able to make it entertaining... I ended up creating a 10 minute blooper reel (accompanied by an overbearing Blink 182 soundtrack) entitled The Underground Railroad, starring myself as all three main characters: “slave master”, “slave helper” and “slave”. It is the single biggest piece of shit ever made but for people to see and hear it was mind blowing! That kind of power is unparalleled for a 13 year old. Especially an unpopular one...
Dazed Digital: Tell me about Guilty, the film you made for Dazed.
John Strong: Guilty is based on some personal... research. A few years ago, after a very drunken evening, I crashed at my then-girlfriend’s place before waking up in a puddle of my own urine... For about 15 minutes I felt like I was rummaging through the ruins of my life for an answer that didn’t exist. Overly dramatic, sure, but when you’re in the middle of an embarrassingly grim situation, complete with massive anxiety, it’s excruciatingly difficult to think rationally... That misconstrued thought process is what ultimately became a template for the narrative: a small, uninterrupted, fleeting moment to deal with what feels like an extraordinary issue but is only made one worse by the character’s inability to communicate.
“Even in the midst of all the obscenity, I believe my characters are still cursed with the one identifiable quality of being human"
My shooting star came the day before we were set to film when I got a text from one of my actors (I won’t say which) who told me that they wouldn’t be able to make it to rehearsal. Turns out, they were sick and ended up pissing themselves in the same bed as their partner that morning... Who needs rehearsal when you’ve done your research?
DD: You write, direct, produce and edit. How do you juggle all those roles?
John Strong: The trick is to do as much pre-production as possible so when you show up on set and you’re quietly freaking the fuck out, you’re able to hide it a bit better while also giving off the illusion that you kind of know what you’re doing... It’s as rewarding as much as it is insanity inducing. Luckily, I now have wonderful producers who I get to share the insanity with!
DD: A lot of your work contains some kind of shocking or explicit material (e.g the masturbation in Don't Look At Me), but it's always underplayed. What draws you to that content?
John Strong: Being shocking and explicit is a fun way to grab an audience’s attention but the ultimate goal is to find something familiar in very unfamiliar situations. Even in the midst of all the obscenity, I believe my characters are still cursed with the one identifiable quality of being human... So while I personally have not inserted a large vegetable into my rectum, gone on a murder a spree or had a nervous breakdown at a karaoke bar, I believe there is plenty to empathize with.
DD: You've also done a lot of music videos. How different is making a film versus a music video?
John Strong: Making a music video, unlike making a film, is equivalent to working with a pre-determined score, which, as you can imagine, has a tremendous influence over what it is you eventually create. Not only do you need to abide by a specific structure, you even know how long it’s going to be before there’s ever an idea! It can be an incredibly taxing process but it also gives you the opportunity to stray outside your comfort zone and dive into things you wouldn’t normally consider.
Given an unlimited budget, what would you make and why?
John Strong: A darkly, satirical epic on the inception of Santa Claus. It’s the basis of everything: capitalism, morality and all the things in between.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing