East Bay filmmaker Jayson Johnson looks at the ‘alt-right’ through a cinematic lens

by Nevin Long

Every artist has a process, a ritual they go through before working.

Some meditate. Some eat a ritual meal. Others listen to a specific kind of music.

Jayson Johnson, director of “Redress,” erupts in trademark laughter at a recent interview at his El Cerrito home. Johnson hopes his latest project can serve as a conversation piece in dealing with issues of race and extremism. – Photo: Betty Rose Livingston, SF Bay View

Director Jayson Johnson, whose credits range from Bollywood films to Lego commercials, prays and eats peanut butter. Lots and lots of peanut butter.

Standing opposite a painting evocative of Jackson Pollock which he created, the 40-year-old Batavia, Ill., native gave a toothy grin and showed off a jar he had just purchased three days prior.

It was over half gone.

“That’s a lot, right?” Johnson said, laughing.

Johnson relaxed persona and easy laugh belie the seriousness with which he approaches films like “Redress,” his most recent. Indeed, the film is a departure from the rest of his filmography, which trends toward the lighthearted.

But after a recent brush with racism, he began to get interested in more serious subjects. His car had broken down when he was shouted at.

“Some guy told me ‘Go back to Africa,’” Johnson said.

That night he couldn’t sleep, and instead sat up searching the internet for answers. His curiosity was piqued by the “alt-right,” a far-right political movement known for its racism, white nationalism and right-wing populism. One final article talked about a potential rise in domestic terrorism.

It was then that Johnson decided he had something to say, and the result was “Redress,” a cinematic short about one man’s descent into violence and hate.

The film takes an unorthodox trajectory, one that Johnson says was intentional. His main character, Jake, though hateful and potentially violent, starts out a respectable family man. Johnson says he felt he needed to give his audience something to which they could relate, rather than a cardboard cutout.

“Everyone is a bad day from doing something they would never dream of doing,” Johnson said.

In writing the role, he thought of a friend from back home, who went from clear headed and lucid into a rapid, downward spiral of crack addiction.

The “Redress” lead character Jake (left), played by Jason Kyle, becomes “racialized” after an encounter with a white supremacist, played by Mick Hodder. – Photo courtesy Strike Five Films

“I just saw his descent go way down,” Johnson said, “and I started to think, ‘Why would a clear-headed, level guy, family guy, go into something so low as to put a pipe bomb in something?”

It just made sense to Johnson that the trajectories were so similar. Johnson hopes that by giving his audiences characters with which they can feel an affinity, he might be able to cause people to second guess some harmful courses of action.

Johnson hopes that perhaps someone will say to themselves “I was going down that path and someone intervened, and now I no longer believe that.”

“Everyone is a bad day from doing something they would never dream of doing,” Johnson said.

Though he now hails from the predominantly middle-class town of El Cerrito, Johnson remembers a childhood in Batavia that wasn’t always so easy.

“We grew up on the seedy side,” Johnson said, “All my friends were into all kinds of trouble.”

But Batavia wasn’t all bad. Johnson fondly recalls playing G.I. Joes and ninja tag with his friends in a local cemetery around the ages of 6 and 7. It wasn’t long before he began writing backstories for his Joes and giving his friends stage directions.

“We always had these creative things to do as kids because we didn’t have much,” Johnson said, “and I think out of that came the idea of storytelling.”

By 10 or 11, a seed was planted, but it would take time to germinate. Johnson became captivated by the 1985 Martha Coolidge comedy “Real Genius.” Johnson became obsessed, watching the film nearly every day, studying not just plot and character, but the film’s technical aspects as well.

Still, the leap from Batavia to Northern California was one that would take a while to happen. Johnson had no idea how it would happen as he had no contact with anyone in the film industry.

“We always had these creative things to do as kids because we didn’t have much,” Johnson said, “and I think out of that came the idea of storytelling.”

“Most of my role models were drug dealers, people that robbed banks,” Johnson said.

So he got practical. He went to culinary school and became a chef, but soon began to tire from the late nights and bad hours. Eventually, almost through happenstance, he found himself back in school at Eastern Illinois University. It was there he began working for the campus TV news station.

He also began cartooning for the campus paper, but between drawing cartoons the editor found objectionable and filming subjects which had nothing to do with the stories he was assigned, it didn’t take long for Johnson to be shown the door.

And, after a brief run as a bartender, he found himself in the Bay Area and soon took a job as a wine steward for Coppola Wines, the Napa venture of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, another job he was ill-suited for.

He was, however, able to make a move to Coppola’s mailroom, a job which brought him into contact with the mixing team for American Zoetrope. He then parlayed that contact into an internship on Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film “Marie Antoinette.”

He knew the approach might leave some people cold, but after getting some sage advice from fellow director Terry Zwigoff, who told him just to be himself, he decided he had no choice but to be fearless in the production of “Redress.”

Jake, played by Jason Kyle, peers through the rear window of his car at his intended victims. – Photo courtesy Strike Five Films

“I don’t want to sell out because I’ve worked too damned hard to get to this point,” Johnson said.

He recognizes that some people might not find this approach palatable, but that he says to do otherwise would be to create something less than art.

“When you can tell the truth when you cover something, and you can put your head on the pillow at the end of the night and you know you did the right thing, I think it’s all worth it,” Johnson said.

And that is what Johnson says drives him – a search for truth.

“I want to try to be fearless to the point where my truth doesn’t get watered down by what other people, critics, might think,” Johnson said.

Nevin Long, a San Francisco State University journalism student, is an intern with the Bay View. He can be reached at nevin@sfbayview.com.