Tomorrow evening, the Oak Cliff Film Festival will kick off at the Texas Theatre, and director Paul Bunnell’s 1950’s throwback film, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, will open the festival. “Johnny X” follows Johnny and his group of fellow, rebel aliens who are banished to earth. This 1950’s drive-in movie era love letter is sure to have something for everyone.
Go, See, Talk spoke with Bunnell this week about the making of Johnny X, and where his inspiration for this highly unorthodox rock-a-billy tale came from. For those not familiar with it, check out the trailer below as well as the highlights from our interview…
Paul, this film has so many elements that make it feel like a tribute to the cult classics of the 1950’s sci-fi film era, yet a completely different and unique version of those stories told from a modern day perspective. Were there specific films from that time period that helped to inspire you, and where else did the inspiration come from for the film? Are there certain filmmakers you feel an affinity with or admire?
I have always been a fan of old movies. Many of the films I watch are in black-and-white. Some of my favorite black-and-white movies include Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Touch of Evil (1958); Psycho (1960); Manhattan (1979); Stardust Memories (1980); The Elephant Man (1980) and Ed Wood (1994). Two of those movies (Manhattan & The Elephant Man) were filmed in anamorphic (wide-screen) and were referenced for Johnny X. My all-time favorite director is Alfred Hitchcock and my favorite Hitchcock film is Vertigo, which happens to be in color.
One of the most notable differences between The Ghastly Love of Johnny X and those earlier black and white sci-fi films is that this one is a musical (so awesome). Can you talk about that decision a little? Have you always been interested in writing a musical, and how long have you been working on this project?
The script was heavily revised and re-written during the span of six years and was not originally a planned as a musical. In the beginning there was going to be just only one song. I brought songwriter Scott Martin on board to write that song for the Mickey O’Flynn character (Creed Bratton) to sing during the concert scene. It turned out so great I decided to add another one — a full blown musical number for Johnny’s gang to sing during the Diner sequence. That song also turned out well so I asked Scott to write more songs for various parts of the script I felt were weak. We took the original dialogue from the script and converted it to lyrics. The finished film has six musical numbers with my favorite being “These Lips That Never Lie”, sung by De Anna Joy Brooks as “Bliss”.
As for the duration of the project, I shot some test footage (which appears in the film) in 2002 and began shooting with a partial cast in 2004. We took a few years off to find more money and came back in 2007 to shoot more second unit stuff (background plates). It wasn’t until 2010 that we secured enough financing to fully complete the movie, at which time we added several new cast members, including Creed Bratton, Kate Maberly and Paul Williams. Following our picture wrap was almost a year of post- production (visual effects, sound and music), which finally brought us to a cast & crew screening at the Alfred Hitchcock theatre at Universal Studios on September 1, 2011. Nine years duration total!
How did the decision to do a musical effect the casting? Were you able to use the voices of all the actors who had singing parts in the film, or did you have to edit some of them with voiceovers?
As casting began I knew we were going to have some musical numbers so all the actors were given a sample song to sing in their audition. We kept their singing abilities in mind since I wanted them to use their own voice without the aid of singing doubles. I wanted the vocals to sound natural and not overly slick. I’d say the singing parts came out quite well considering many of the cast members are not professional singers, with the exception of Katherine Giaquinto (“Bobbi Socks”) who happens to be an opera singer.
You shot on Kodak 35mm Plus-X black and white film in anamorphic format. I read this was the last film ever shot on the Kodak 35mm Plus-X. How did this effect filming; did you run into any issues using a film that has been discontinued?
When we came back to finish the movie in 2010 a friend asked how I was planning to finish in black-and-white since Kodak had just discontinued their famous Plus-X film stock. I was shocked and immediately contacted my Kodak Rep to find out if this was true. Sure enough it was. Luckily there was some Plus-X still available in Kodak factories but it was going fast. It seemed that every filmmaker was buying up whatever they could get their hands on. I placed my order and Kodak searched far and wide to meet the necessary amount of film I felt we needed to finish shooting the picture with some rolls coming as far away as France.
You’ve been involved in a lot of different aspects of filmmaking: acting, writing, producing and directing. When did you first become involved in the film world, and how does this film compare to the work you’ve done in the past; how have your experiences differed depending on what role you were playing in the filmmaking process?
I started making super 8mm films as a kid back in the 1970s. From that time on I have always striven to achieve a career as a film director. I also worked in various other movie jobs over the years as an actor, cameraman, Disney Studios mailroom messenger, Warner Bros, VIP tour guide, movie extra and photo double for Steve Carell in The Office and the Get Smart movie. Each of those jobs gave me an invaluable education. It was kind of like film school.
Any current projects you are working on, and can we expect to see you directing more feature-length films in the future?
Absolutely… I am currently developing an “Untitled Paul Bunnell Project” with a team of writers, which is sure to please fans of Johnny X. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s going to be a really fun movie. Filming begins in 2013 and will be shot on 35mm color stock for all my film purist friends. So yes, the best is yet to come!