Q&A: Liza Johnson

Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio Curator

May 28, 2020

Lee Brown, Liza Johnson, and Robert Sparks on the set of In the Air

Liza Johnson's short In the Air, our Out of The Box presentation for May, has been extended by popular demand through June 7! In the decade since the filmmaker completed the 2009 work with help from the Wex Film/Video Studio, she's completed three feature films and directed episodes of some high-profile television series. Below, Film/Video Studio Curator Jennifer Lange shares a Q&A with Johnson from when the film first screened at the Wex in 2009 and a new conversation with the artist from last week. It includes updates on the young acrobats featured in In the Air and on Portsmouth, Ohio, where the film was shot, as well as what Johnson's been up to while she's at home.


A young aerial artist in training rehearses in a scene from Liza Johnson's short film In the Air

Daphnay Bauer in In The Air

How did the idea for In the Air come about?

Almost two years ago I spent some time in Scioto County, Ohio, researching a feature film script I’m shooting this spring. I grew up there, but I haven’t lived there since high school, and I thought I should get up to date. I met Pegi Wilkes, the director of the circus school, and she introduced me to a lot of fabulous people from all over the county, who go to different school systems, are all different ages and types, who can do amazing things with their bodies. The thing that really compelled me to do the movie was the sense of atmosphere or community that happens at the school—it’s very special, and made a big impression on me. 

What was the collaborative process like? How did it inform the structure and narrative of the film?

We had a series of workshops with a core group of circus students. We agreed that it would seem fake to just tell a sentimental story about how great the circus is-- in fact, the students had been on a regional tv news magazine recently, and that segment had focused on the work the circus does with physically disabled students. We all agreed that their work with physically disabled student IS amazing, and heartwarming, and something to really be proud of. But there are other aspects the students wanted to show. People really enjoy the atmosphere of the school because it's a reprieve from things that are hard in everyday life.

Teenage life is hard everywhere because you're not really in charge of yourself yet, even though you feel like you should be. Plus, Portsmouth is like many other places in the U.S. right now that have been really slammed by the new demographics of economic crisis, methamphetamine and prescription opiates. So there are a lot of things that can be especially hard in people's everyday family life.  But we also didn't think it seemed right just to make a movie about how things are hard or annoying. We thought that the only way to really explain how special the circus atmosphere is would be to dramatize that environment in relation to the things that are boring or challenging about the rest of everyday life. 

So everyone submitted ideas, often from their own lives, about things that are really fun about the circus school, or elements of conflict or annoyance from the rest of life. Then I remixed these ideas so that no one had to act out their own particular joys or traumas-- we all were working collectively on a group experience, but not necessarily reenacting biographical experiences. The things in the movie could happen or have happened, but not necessarily to the exact people who are acting them out. 

In South of Ten (2007), which was shot in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast (and which we showed in The Box in September 2007) you also worked with local, nonprofessional actors. Can you elaborate on this strategy and what it lends to your approach to filmmaking and storytelling?

When I went to Mississippi with Anne Etheridge, everyone we talked to had been interviewed on TV, or at least they had seen a great deal of TV coverage about Hurricane Katrina. People had strongly internalized sense of what you were supposed to say to be a "hurricane victim" on television. People are smart, and everyone knows how to fit into the common conventions of news reporting in order to make your voice heard. But at the same time, the atmosphere and tone of everyday life there was really intense, and seemed really important to me and very different from anything that could be represented through those conventions. The people who made the film with me agreed that other aspects of life after a catastrophe were also important, even if TV doesn't care about them so much: waiting, being overwhelmed, working.

Some familiar formats, like news and documentary, value the interview because it supposedly represents the first-person perspective of people who are important witnesses or players in events. But this is only true in the realm of language. In the body and the three-dimensional world the interview doesn't show you anything about what it feels like to be moving a house back onto its foundation, or to be flipping through a field. For me it's interesting to try to find ways that the same kind of important witnesses or players can testify to their experiences, but in some of the other registers that film and video make possible—for example, the physical, the kinesthetic.



Trisha Schmidt does a split in a scene from Liza Johnson's 2009 short film In the Air

Trisha Schmidt in In The Air

Have you stayed in touch with Pegi and Cirque d’Art Theatre? How is the school doing? What changes have you seen in Portsmouth? 

Yes, although we’re in touch too infrequently! The school is going strong, and they’ve got a whole new crop of students and they were able to buy their own building, which has been financially stabilizing.

Lee and Autumn and Trish and her family have all come to visit me at different times. I also am able to keep up with some of the people through social media. I’m really proud of a lot of the film participants. One person has become a terrific writer, and a lot of people are new parents, and a lot of people have gotten meaningful jobs giving back to the community. 

It’s hard to make a lot of general statements about changes in the town, and there’s no way to represent the whole group from our film to define those changes in one single way or with one tone. There’s been a lot of national reporting on the opioid crisis that has been centered there, and people have a lot of feelings about it. I personally find that the Sam Quinones book Dreamland—named after the Portsmouth swimming pool—is a terrific piece of long-form journalism. He is so non-judgmental about all the people he met everywhere, and really linked everything to economic forces, which I find really helpful. A lot of the other ways that people discuss the crisis make it seem like just a bunch of bad personal choices by individuals, and I prefer this structural way of thinking about it. 

Last winter the Cincinnati Enquirer did a big exposé about the sex traffic in the town, which was a story that truly failed to understand from my direct observations. I knew there was a lot of sex work but I thought it was more of a freelance business model. I had a big emotional reaction to that one. I was most recently in Portsmouth one year ago for my mother’s funeral. When we were at breakfast right before we went to bury her, we actually ran into the main sex trafficker in a restaurant. That was one of the worst moments of my life. I didn’t have the energy to be confrontational but it also made me feel complicit and disgusted to hold my tongue. 

The New York Times has been in town a lot, which most people have mixed feelings about. I thought some of it was profound—once they made some really smart points about the links between economic depression and emotional depression. Another time they did a big interactive piece about every person in one graduating class from Minford High School. They went back there so often that eventually they did a piece about what the community members positive things like new businesses and recovery efforts in the town.

A lot of people believe that because the town was out in front on all the bad parts of the opioid epidemic, they’re also out in front on the recovery, and are leaders in treatment and in community health programs. I definitely noticed this recently during a coronavirus Zoom reunion with some friends from high school. Some of my friends who still live there had very conscious strategies for trying to support young people, through the circus, or theater, or basically any activity that can help strengthen peoples’ sense of themselves. They had very self-aware commitments to trying to make that happen for their own kids and for other young people who are coming up there. Some people are not as optimistic about whether the town is a recovery leader, but it still seems pretty clear that the kinds of connections, social bonds, intimate friendships, and structured love and care like they have at Cirque D’Art is pretty powerful against all the things that can be alienating in these times. 

At the time of our last interview, you were casting for that feature film you mentioned, which became Return (2011), starring Linda Cardellini. And since then you’ve been busy directing two more feature films, Hateship Loveship (2014), notably starring Kristin Wiig in her first dramatic role, and Elvis & Nixon (2016), starring Michael Shannon. You also have done a lot of directing work for television on some great shows (Barry, Silicon Valley, Feud: Bette and Joan, American Horror Story, to name a few). I know feature films and TV have very different cadences and offer different challenges and opportunities. How has the mix of work informed your vision as director and as a writer?

I guess the biggest difference is that all of these projects are longer than In the Air, so they have a more plot. It also was necessary for me to get more infrastructure and apparatus to make longer work. In the Air is about the most ambitious project I could create on a personal scale, using your support and some grant money and some earned income to support the crew, who were all working for a lower wage than they deserve.

Return probably has the most in common with In the Air in that I did a lot of direct observation for that project. When I was writing I worked a lot with one friend whose life story and efforts to stay married after he came back from his military deployment became the basis for Linda Cardellini’s character. 

In the work I’ve been doing for television, it is really fun to work with very trained actors to create a character, but it’s not necessarily more fun than we had working on In the Air. Even in fiction people actors are still trying to find some emotional truth—it’s just coming from a different source, I’d say. The best shows I’ve worked on are really collaborative. Less in the writing, the way that we planned many of the In the Air scenes as a team. But in the performance. The most fun shows I’ve worked on really take the collaboration seriously in the performance. 

You have also continued to make time for projects that are more collaborative and involve non-professional actors, like Karrabing! Low Tide Turning (2012), which was made with Elizabeth Povinelli and the Karrabing Indigineous Corporation in Australia. Do the strategies of working this way sneak into your current work in feature films and television? Do you still try to make time for these kinds of projects? 

I would love to work more in this way. I can’t do it right at the moment because it’s completely dependent on encounters in the world, and on working with groups of people who have some common experience or common intentions. Right now as we are sheltering at home, I don’t have any encounters in the world in this way, and group activity is all online. But I hope that soon we’ll be able to have engagements with the world again—so much depends on it!

Filmmaking is an activity that can't really be done solo, necessitates some level of proximity, and requires advance planning. The thought of making a film seems utterly impossible in these times (unless you’re Tyler Perry and own your own campus/studio). You live in LA now and are both teaching film (at UCLA) and trying to make your own work. Do you have any insight or advice for filmmakers about making work during these challenging times?

Culture doesn’t stop in times of crisis. That might be one of the greatest lessons I learned from the Wexner Center, where I was an intern in 1996. I was assigned to work for the artist Gregg Bordowitz, who has proven that point many times over.

Right now with my students we’ve been watching a lot of small-format work that people have made in their homes, like the films Jafar Panahi made under house arrest, or Moyra Davey’s essay films that she makes at home by choice. It’s really helpful to remember that you can always make work—maybe not every single type of work that you ever wanted to do, but no one can stop you from making meaningful ideas in one way or another.

There are a lot of different opinions in Hollywood about how and when work could resume. I am preparing a film that will shoot “as soon as it’s safe,” and for that we may rewrite the location or other aspects of the film to conform with safety. I’ve also been writing some logistically complex, historically-based costume-heavy projects that can’t be made until it’s truly safe to work collaboratively again with large teams of people.

And I’ve been making contact prints in the garden every day, because it takes five minutes, and it makes me go outside and look at what’s happening right around me. That way no matter what other bad news or Zoom distractions happen, at least I did one thing every day. 

Top of page: Lee Brown, Liza Johnson, and Robert Sparks on the set of In the Air; all images courtesy of the filmmaker

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