Johnny Otto Takes It One Day at a Time
Johnny Otto is no stranger to the difficulties moviemakers face when trying to turn aspirations into reality. Armed with only a suitcase and a few hundred bucks, Otto took off for Los Angeles in 1990. Since then, he’s done everything, from hosting underground art exhibits to releasing a full-length album to creating award-winning animations with partner-in-crime Michael Morrison. This fall, Otto premieres his latest project, “Slimdunce,” an accomplishment he describes as “the single most amazing thing” he has created to date. In a world where cookie-cutter presentations overwhelm mainstream moviemaking, Otto has reminded us that movies are extensions of the moviemaker, not the other way around. “Slimdunce” features seven short films, all of which were shot in one day a week for seven consecutive weeks, a concept Otto derived from 24-hour film contests.
Otto took the time to tell MM all about “Slimdunce,” from its origin as the unexpected offspring of a deadline’s extension to the realization of a dream no amount of pinching has been able to end.
Michael Walsh (MM): “Slimdunce” was shot one day a week for seven weeks, similar to the style that 24-hour film contests would have you shoot it. What was your reasoning for this, as opposed to shooting multiple days each week?
Johnny Otto (JO): There was no reasoning. This was a totally unreasonable undertaking. It started when I had heard about Steven Spielberg’s show “On the Lot” and found out that the deadline was a week away. I wanted to enter a short film, but I didn’t have anything to enter so I put together an idea, shot it in an afternoon and stayed up all night editing. By morning it was done. That was Transmission Received. As I prepared to submit my first film I discovered that the deadline had been extended six more weeks. I had a vision of shooting six more films in the same manner that I created the first one. I told Steven Allen, an actor friend, and he thought my idea was great. That’s how it began. I ended up shooting on Sundays because it was the only day I didn’t have to work.
MM: How did you come up with this unique concept for shooting the film? Considering that you’ve decided to put seven shorts together for “Slimdunce,” is this a celebration of the 24-hour movie contest or a critique?
JO: Like most things that happen with me, I open my mouth impulsively and say I’m going to do something and then I am stuck doing it. I admire the 24-hour movie contest idea. It is brilliant. Anyone who can put together a film in a day should be admired. It is definitely not a critique. It is a celebration! Everyone who is serious about being a filmmaker should work on one of those films.
MM: Of the mini-films within “Slimdunce,” is there any that you consider to be the feature presentation, or are they all equally important to the project as a whole?
JO: They are all my babies. Every one of them has something special for me. The first two were the most difficult, however, because I was the only star in both of them. And I shot both of them. It felt a bit schizophrenic being in a room by myself, shooting myself and talking to myself. This was especially true when filming my second film, All Day I Dream About Socks. I had this sensation that if someone saw me filming those scenes, they would want to lock me up.
MM: Did the project evolve into something different by the time you were finished shooting the final scenes, or did everything come together the way you had originally intended?
JO: All of the films were based on concepts that I had developed, but were completely improvised by the actors so everything that happened on set was a surprise to me. I even surprised myself. There is a beautiful thing that happens when you allow actors to be free in that way. You just give them enough direction to go where you want them to go, but you let them figure out how to get there. I was fortunate enough to have amazing actors who gave me much more than I could have ever imagined.
MM: In addition to being a moviemaker, you’ve also showcased your work as a musician and an artist. How does “Slimdunce” stack up against your past accomplishments in any field? Is this the most involved you’ve ever been in a project?
JO: Putting these films together has been the single most amazing thing for me. I am in shock that they are actually finished and being well received. Music and art will always be special for me, but there is something magical about filmmaking; about letting people get a glimpse of these little stories that have been hidden in my head. It’s amazing to be about to take a wild, unformed dream and transform it into something real and tangible. Nothing compares to that feeling.
MM: For “Slimdunce,” you’ve had the luxury (or the burden) of getting to think about your next short each week. Did you allow yourself to plan each short in the time in between shoots or did you completely remove yourself from “Slimdunce” on off days?
JO: The days between shoots, Monday to Saturday, I had to actually work 40 to 50 hours a week, sometimes longer, at my “real” job. I did have some time to come up with ideas, but there wh\ere definitely a few times when I didn’t know what I was going to shoot until the night before. Once I started this journey and told all my friends what I was doing, there was no turning back and so I had a lot of self-inflicted pressure to some up with new ideas. It made me really admire the 24-hour film people. It ain’t easy!
MM: You’ve always had a knack for maximizing the quality of your productions regardless of budget constraints. How did you work your way around these limitations with “Slimdunce,” and what advice would you give beginning moviemakers who deal with the same plight?
JO: I had no budget at all. Basically, I bought tape for my camera and that was it. The way you work around this is by getting your friends involved and keeping your schedule tight. I am fortunate enough to have some very gifted friends. I got them involved, told them what I was doing and had them help. I also looked around me and saw what was already available for free and used that to my advantage. I actually think it is a creative advantage to have no budget to work with. It forces you to look around you and use your ingenuity. My advice is to grab a camera, shoot and make it fun for your actors. If you don’t own a camera then find a friend who does and isn’t utilizing it. If you can’t edit, learn. We live in a wonderful time where all the tools for making movies are right in front of us and are affordable. There are no excuses anymore.
For upcoming Slimdunce screenings or to learn more about Johnny Otto, visit www.JohnnyOtto.com for more information.