Local movie makers discuss the art of Navarro County filmmaking
By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette
Robert Johnson sits down at one of the local downtown coffee shops to discuss the release of his newest film, the mystery-thriller Night Night, directed by Niki Koss. The film saw release on Apple TV in November, and has since been running the indie film circuit, with an early December premiere in Dallas.
A resident of Corsicana since 1987, Johnson is not your average filmmaker, his wide-ranging career paths being unique for Corsicana. By day, he’s the local Chief of Police for the Corsicana Police Department. When that regular work week ends, he works as a screenwriter, producer, and actor for independent films shot locally throughout Navarro County.
Night Night was filmed in Corsicana during the first months of 2020, taking four weeks to shoot and wrapping just before the COVID-19 pandemic required businesses to shelter in place. The movie made the area as much of a featured star as the human actors, showcasing several locations around town. Johnson does this out of a personal love for Corsicana, a support that has been mutually beneficial.
“Corsicana has taken me in as one of their own,” Johnson said. “Even though I grew up in Fairfield, I still consider this my hometown.”
Written over a weekend, with the first draft completed within 48 hours, Night Night is a personal project for Johnson, drawing elements from people and events he’s experienced. The screenwriter wanted to create a movie “with a little bit of art in it,” using visual inspirations going as far back to when he was a kid. A recurring item in the film is a small stuffed monkey that repeats the titular “Night Night,” and is an actual toy from Johnson’s childhood.
As a police officer, Johnson also draws upon his 36 years of experience to make sure the script’s procedural elements are accurate and explainable for the audience, from cyberstalking to accident procedures.
“You have to try and bring it down,” said Johnson, noting he fact checks all scientific elements. “We have to take an extremely complicated thought or procedure, and we have to bring it down so that if somebody’s in the sixth grade, they can watch it and they can understand what’s going on.”
“(The audience is) there for entertainment, not a science lesson,” Johnson said.
Johnson chose to have Koss direct the project, having maintained a long friendship with her through numerous film collaborations. The actress’ personal style brought a distinct style and color to the visuals.
“The colors match the mood of the scene,” Johnson said. “The artwork matches the mood of the scene. The music matches the mood of the scene. So we wanted all of that stuff to work together, and all of (the audience’s) perceptions to work together to create that overall feeling of what’s going on.
Night Night’s subject matter deals guilt, grief, and gaslighting, delving into themes ranging from psychological trauma to drug addiction. Some of the story elements, however come from an “unreliable narrator” where moments are presented in a dreamscape manner, or in some cases, paranormal.
“I think that was the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “To do it in a way that is smart and cerebral. People have to think. You don’t want it spelled out.”
During the interview, Johnson called Amber McNutt, who regularly collaborates as executive producer on Johnson’s projects.
“Producer is just a fancy word for ‘You do everything,’” Johnson said with a laugh.
In reality, executive producers deal with the financial, legal, distribution, and marketing aspects that go into creating a film. Night Night is their second partnered production.
McNutt joins in the conversation over the phone. Johnson and the producer/actress have been friends for ten years, having built a working relationship out of mutual respect for the other. Their friendship allows both to counterbalance the other’s strengths and weaknesses. McNutt’s CPA strengths have been vital for ensuring these films see reality.
“I feel like I grew tremendously from start to finish with this project,“ McNutt said. “From the second Robert approached me and said ‘we got a script,’ and we had a wonderful young lady he wanted me to meet who he had spoken to about being director.”
“I met with them and the energy from the first moment was so good and so positive. It was uplifting and exciting, and I will never forget that very first meeting at my kitchen table. We had so much fun.”
That positive (and caffeinated) energy was maintained throughout the production, forming a movie family based on care and affection for everyone involved with the project. Those benefits extended to Corsicana with production regularly frequenting local businesses during production.
With production wrapping just before pandemic-related shutdowns took place, Night Night did not face any challenges related to shooting scenes.
“The timing was a blessing,” McNutt said. “We could have been in the middle of it when the sickness started. But we finished.”
The resulting downtime did provide some unexpected benefits, allowing production to ensure the film was as “perfect” it could be.
“It did kind of help because during editing we were stuck at home and couldn’t start any other projects,” McNutt said. “We really did put our full attention on this one, and our editing got done more quickly than it would have had the pandemic not hit.”
“Also for our color and our sound, they sort of didn’t have a lot to do either, so I feel like we got more attention, and I feel like we got it done more quickly than what otherwise would have happened.”
While the production team hoped the film would be released right as pandemic restrictions relaxed, the film eventually made its debut last November on streaming services and has toured the country via specialty theater runs.
“I feel a flood of emotion every time I watch it,” McNutt said. “Just little memories pop in my head in every single scene. I kind of giggled to myself throughout the movie about things that happened on set, and just the excitement, and oh gosh, Robert was so excited.”
“Things like that are what I think about when I watch the film.”
“We were so proud,” Johnson added.
The pair are already looking ahead to expand Night Night’s story, in addition to several other projects in the pipeline.
“We like what we do, and we have success in what we do, and people are calling us,” Johnson said.
As the interview wraps up, Johnson candidly mentions that he was on his way to meet his family at the local theater to watch one of the more recent Marvel movies. While Johnson enjoys creating his own stories, he keeps a greater love of the cinematic experience in his heart.
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