Raven Johnson navigating complex terrain in “The Trucker” – The Moveable Fest
If “The Trucker” is graced with an element of surprise throughout, this is in part due to the fact that Raven Johnson couldn’t have expected what happened overnight, to start with the very first day of filming.
“We came in from New York and landed in South Dakota and my brother was supposed to meet us there,” recalls Johnson, who brought his team of fellow film students to NYU. “And it was like, ‘Is he going to be here? Is his truck going to be here? ‘ “
To say that Johnson’s brother Boye Wantoe showed up would actually be an understatement, with such a disproportionate personality as the large platform he drives for a living, though as “The Trucker” shows, there may be career opportunities outside of that. He may not be asked to show great reach, but he takes audiences on a journey through Johnson’s gripping short, going about his usual business in a long-drawn-out job through the Midwest where his Liberian accent must stand out as much as the daring tracksuits he wears. Its natural vibrancy reigns in the family when Johnson’s narrative is anything but routine as the film follows the driver in and out of dive bars and truck stops where occasional racism is an occupational risk, but being the working class is primarily the way he’s seen, a preconceived idea that he skillfully uses to his advantage, for better or for worse, when little is expected of him.
Although he is stable behind the wheel, “The Trucker” has its share of twists and turns and Johnson navigates them beautifully, telling the story of a complicated man and the arduous landscape he must traverse each day. Remarkably, while the writer / director knew where she was going with the short film, she went into production without knowing exactly how she would get there, relying on a cast made up of non-professional actors and going where on the day. took her, giving the film an adventurous spirit as captivating as its far reaching reach. On the eve of the film’s premiere at Blackstar Film Fest, Johnson opened up about how she let life take over the film to give it such vitality, the power to get close to its subjects and shine the spotlight on the film. people and places that are often overlooked.
How did it happen?
This was actually my thesis film for the NYU graduation film, and I was thinking with limited resources, how do I make a little film that looks big? My brother is a professional truck driver so I asked him if he would let us use his truck and what I really wanted to think about was this idea of black spaces and white spaces. I grew up in Minnesota and have [wanted] to have this character – this Liberian immigrant – who lives his everyday life, and as a viewer does not know where this film is going, [wondering] what will happen to him. I asked [my brother] if he played there too and said yes then we took off two weeks and went to South Dakota with my team of six, mostly women from New York and went from Sioux Falls to my hometown of Brooklyn Park, which is in Minnesota.
This is such an interesting bunch of places you go – did you know the route?
I credit everything to my producer Raines [Plambeck], whom I met in NYU and just through planning I couldn’t leave New York, so she went ahead and walked through South Dakota, looking for all these places – everything , from the bar scene to its drop-off scene. We were in Sturgis, which has this famous motorcycle rally, but it was the offseason and even the opening session, that everything was just down the street from the AirBNB where we stayed that she found . [She was] basically meeting the community and asking, “Hey, can we use your spot? “
It was really a run-and-gun type shoot and we had actors driving around town, but I don’t know what was going on on the planet, but everyone was having car issues. One [actor] coming from Vegas couldn’t show up, [their car] just broke down and another person, a snowstorm just pulled them off the road, so basically everyone that appeared on screen was a last minute decision from the cast like, “We’re literally here. , who can we ask to participate? ” Shawn, at our last depot, he’s our production designer [Daniel Ornitz] who stepped in, and the prostitute at the truck stop – that’s our producer Raines, so all these people were just stepping in.
At the bar, all the people in that scene worked there. We came to the opening and we just saw if people were going to show up throughout that day. Even the woman who played Sheila [a key character in the film], I’m like “Hey we got this part and our other actress couldn’t do it and we hope you can do it” so I had no idea what she was going to look like when she showed up . And I realized that the woman who was originally chosen to play this role wouldn’t have had this quality of looking like this world, so every face you see and every action is actually of this life and the script has changed from day to day. day just depending on what we had. Everything else we shot in Minnesota in my hometown so [the ending] is in that abandoned mall where I used to hang out when I was a teenager and even the route he takes home is the highway I so used to take to get home at home myself, so it felt really special to me.
Was it exciting working with non-professional actors, including your brother?
Always. I feel like you never know what you’re going to have with non-actors, so it’s always exciting and my family supports my career as a filmmaker tremendously. Even my last movie [“Tween”], my cousins and my aunt were the protagonists in this movie so working with family is a familiar experience for me and getting non-actors in this space under the lights I feel like everyone is finding out how boring and repetitive cinema can be like continually asking to hit a mark or repeat your line. But it was really funny how my brother liked the spotlight. He’s a natural charismatic person and he befriended everyone at the bar – when we left they all had a drink together, it was pretty amazing. You could say where he was just like, “Yeah, I’m a little tired. Do you really need another [take]? ” [And I’d have to explain what was happening behind the camera, like “Oh now, [the shot is] a little different and we’re a little tighter on your face, ”but it was really exciting to bring him into my world.
Did he provide his own wardrobe? It is very elegant, if it is.
Yeah, that was all his clothes and I feel like he bought some new outfits for it. [laughs] It was a conversation he had with our production designer / costume designer Daniel Ornitz. The movie is set over three days, so there are three main looks, and my brother showed up in all his tracksuits – that’s how he dresses all the time, just check his Instagram, there’s total color in all of his outfits – but Daniel decided to put that red, white, and blue tracksuit on him when he walks into that bar, and we just wouldn’t have thought of this collaboration without the pressure from everything else. I feel like they became best friends on this set, and there were so many outfits to choose from in her wardrobe.
It sounds obvious, but you really get the impression of how he moves around the world from the camera. Was the shoot intuitive enough or did you have a lot of plans planned?
I credit it all to Lorena [Durán, our cinematographer]. I tried to write a very visual script, with words that indicate a certain type of camera movement that I could just pass on to a cinematographer, but I’m not a cinematographer and I don’t pretend being. I feel like cinema in general is such a collaboration where I have my role and I had a lot of discussions with Lorena, but at the end of the day she was the one who was putting something to the fore. screen and did something she felt I was trying to say. But I felt it was exactly what I wanted. This is how I saw it. Obviously there would be a few tweaks here and there, but for the most part, she just knew where to place the camera in the best way.
It could have been there from the start, but part of the reason the movie is so intriguing is that you only give a glimpse into this trucker’s life without weighing down the story. Was it difficult to find this balance in the editing?
Yes, I edited a version of it and then I had to pass it on to my other editor who picked it up a bit more because I love working in portraiture. My philosophy on filmmaking is that the closer you are to a character, the more you can do anything in a way as long as it feels true to that person. So from the start of the script there was a lot of desire to see this guy in his life and I feel like we don’t have enough Midwest movies, too. [with] Truck Driver, there are all these assumptions people make about this profession, so letting everyone’s preconceptions do the work has always been the idea.
How is it to arrive at the finish line?
It’s great to finally have people watching the movie because I’ve been sitting with him for so long because of the pandemic. I feel like every time you make a movie you’re like, “We did * something. * I don’t know what we did, but it was * something *”. We’ve only had one screening so far, and Blackstar is our second, [which I] I would have loved to be in Philly to watch it live and in person, but just feeling the reaction and seeing it resonate with people makes the whole trip worth it because we don’t make movies for play alone in our closet. The opportunity to have an audience is simply amazing.
“The Trucker” will screen at the Blackstar Film Festival on August 5 at 2 p.m. EST as part of the Shorts: Denouements program, available virtually anywhere.