Film professor continues directing career

A scene from 2018 film “Savage Youth” shows actor Sasha Feldman portraying the character Lucas. The film is the latest directing work by Michael Johnson, assistant professor of film and digital media production.

Some professors create presentations for their classes. However, some choose to switch their computer-made productions for work behind a camera.

Michael Johnson, assistant professor of film and digital media production, has directed two feature films so far, with his second one, “Savage Youth,” debuting at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last month.

Slamdance began when a group of filmmakers created their own festival in 1995 after the Sundance Film Festival did not accept their works. It has since featured the works of various independent filmmakers.

“Savage Youth” follows six teenagers involved in horrific drug and romance-related struggles in a small racially segregated town.

Johnson said the film is based on true events that took place in his hometown of Joliet, Illinois. He said he followed the case the film is based on for several years as a form of research for the movie.

“I was sort of fascinated by the story in this Capote-esq type of way,” he said. “I went to the arraignment of the accused. I went to the funerals of the two young men that were murdered. Over the course of a few years, I actually kept up with (the trial).”

The film stars actors Grace Victoria Cox (“Under the Dome,” “Heathers”), Tequan Richmond (“Everybody Hates Chris, “General Hospital”) and Will Brittain (“Kong: Skull Island”), and featured Michael Peluso, a producer on “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice,” on its production team.

Junior Molly Maine said the film proves Johnson is well qualified for his professor position.

“It’s great to have a professor who’s actively working in our industry, not only actively working, but winning awards at festivals,” she said.

Johnson said his film career began a little differently than most directors.

“A lot of people start off knowing that they want to be filmmakers,” he said. “I never did that. I always liked movies, but I never really thought about doing it until (I was an) undergrad.”

Johnson said he did not realize he wanted to have a movie career until he took a film appreciation class at Eastern Michigan University and watched the 1960 Italian film “L’Avventura.”

“It was one of the first experiences that I had where I really started to see film as a sort of language, this different way to communicate, where it was a lot more about the way you tell a story as opposed to the story you tell,” he said.

Johnson went on to receive a post-bachelor’s degree in screenwriting from the UCLA Professional Program in Los Angeles, followed by an MFA in directing from the American Film Institute Conservatory.

His thesis film, “Flotsam,” earned him the Bridges/Larson Directing Award.

From there, he wrote and directed several shorts before making the leap to directing.

Johnson released his debut feature, “Hunky Dory,” in 2016. It follows a glam rock-singing drag queen whose life is changed when he must take care of his 11-year-old son after an unexpected visit from his ex-wife.

Throughout his career, his features have screened and received awards at more than 50 international film festivals.

Sophomore Nicholas Sullivan said he appreciates the work that Johnson is doing outside of being a professor.

“Not only is he good at teaching, but he has his own side work like being in the field and present in the (film) industry,” he said. “It makes me happy to know that one of my leaders has his own accomplishments outside of just teaching.”