Michael Glover Smith: SAVAGE YOUTH is based on the true story of a crime that occurred in your hometown of Joliet. How did you conduct your research and to what extent did you feel a moral obligation to tell the story authentically?
Michael Curtis Johnson: I attended funerals of the victims and the trials of the convicted. I did an exhaustive amount of creative research, but a journalistic approach didn’t really appeal to me. I didn’t reach out to anyone directly involved. I was more interested in how they portrayed themselves through social media and how they were perceived by the public to see if we could find something real beneath their social personas. I wanted to explore how we all play characters in our own lives. It was important for us to tell the story morally, but I don’t think that means staying completely true to the events as they unfolded. I didn’t want the victims or the convicted to be defined by a single day in their lives. That’s not fair, even if it’s factual. SAVAGE YOUTH isn’t a docudrama; it’s a melodrama. I thought about the work of S.E. Hinton a lot while developing it. No one would argue that her work is realism, but it feels true to me. Like Hinton, I believe youth can be savage, but it can also have moments of tenderness and grace.
MGS: You shot SAVAGE YOUTH before the last Presidential election although it wasn’t released until after Trump took office. The film deals with race and class divisions in a way that makes it feel like a commentary on Trump’s America. Have you thought about how the film would’ve resonated differently had the election gone the other way?
MCJ: The most redeemable true crime stories to me aren’t about politics, they’re about people. They might seem seedy and unsavory, but they can tell you so much about the human experience. I certainly didn’t want to make an overt political statement. Of course we were exploring certain themes, but we were doing it through character. Having said that, I know the way I view the film now is different than when we were making it. I spent the first half of my life in the Rust Belt and the second half in Los Angeles. When I’d leave my coastal utopia to come home, I felt a palpable tension. I always knew I wanted to make a film about that feeling. I actually tried to make a film exploring similar themes with the same title back in 2010 that never came to fruition. I also didn’t know how worn out the word “savage” would be now back then. While there’s no direct correlation whatsoever, the actual crime that inspired the film was committed just days before Obama was sworn in for his second term and the hope honeymoon was over. At the time, I felt something festering that really informed my approach, but I didn’t intellectually, or even consciously, understand it. I was in Poland of all places the month before Trump was elected screening a rough cut of SAVAGE YOUTH when someone asked me what I thought might happen if Trump won the election. I completely dismissed the idea of Trump ever winning. Even after shooting the film, I still hadn’t looked at it through a political lens. I’m still in a bubble in some ways. I still see the characters in our film as real kids and not concepts.
MGS: One of the most impressive aspects of the film is how all of the characters are equally sympathetic even when they’re at odds with each other or behaving in reprehensible ways. Was it important for you that viewers connect with all of the characters and was that a difficult balancing act to pull off?
MCJ: I don’t like bad guys vs. good guys. Heroes and villains are creatures of plot and I’m more a fan of story. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always telling stories that have been told before and showing character archetypes that we’re familiar with, but I don’t label any character and usually let the characters guide me as opposed to directing them towards specific plot points. I feel like when you do that you don’t have to choose sides and the audience doesn’t need to pick a tribe either. I just aim for empathy.
MGS: The lead actors are all phenomenal. The chemistry between them is crucial in a story like this where deep friendships and romance are being depicted. What was the process of auditioning and rehearsing with these actors like?
MCJ: One of our producers (Charlene Lee) was also one of our casting directors. She found actors that were not only talented, but were brave enough to sign on for difficult material. We didn’t have any rehearsals. Everyone in the film is playing a role. None of them are just playing themselves. They’re young, but they’re pros. The acting process is a complete mystery to me. I like to watch performances unfold and react. The actors made the chemistry themselves. Grace (Victoria Cox) had this way of adapting her performance for whoever she was working with that really mirrored the empathetic but impressionable character she plays on screen. Before we got on set, I saw Tequan Richmond as this classic Cary Grant sort of actor and Will Brittain as a Marlon Brando method-type. But when they got into the scenes together, they’d adjust to each other and collaborate. They’d dance. Their respective processes were invisible. Mitchell Edwards has such a stoic star presence about him but can still portray such warmth. Sasha Feldman, Chloe Levine and J. Michael Trautmann are possessed. I don’t know how the characters they create come out of them. Performance is magic and I don’t want to see behind the curtain. My other producing partner (Michael Peluso) made it a priority (even more than I did) to shoot SAVAGE YOUTH in Joliet. In the end, being there had an alchemic effect on the cast that I never could have imagined.
MGS: I loved the way you used the audio of Walt Whitman reading his own poetry over the beginning and end of the film. What was the logic behind that decision?
MCJ: No logic. It wasn’t conceived until the editing process. Originally the sequences were written as character voice-overs. We could never get the voice-overs to work. The characters just seemed too self-aware to me. I wish I could have pulled off that David Gordon Green GEORGE WASHINGTON or Terrance Malick BADLANDS thing but I’m not that good. I don’t know if I’d call Whitman hip hop, but there is something that’s so visceral about his words that you don’t even need to understand them to feel what he’s saying. We tried to do that with some of the rap sequences and some of the more theatrical dialogue passages. The characters might as well be rapping in tongues, but I hope the audience still feels for them.
Michael Curtis Johnson will be present for a Q&A following the Chicago Premiere of SAVAGE YOUTH at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on Saturday, June 9th at 8:45pm at the Logan Theater. Ticket info here.