Writer-director Sam Johnson spoke to Solzy at the Movies during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival about his new short film, Earthy Encounters.
Thank you for joining Solzy at the Movies today. How are things treating you?
Sam Johnson: Hi Danielle, I’m great! Thanks so much for the interest in Earthy Encounters –
Earthy Encounters has a sense of adventure that tonally matches up with Steven Spielberg’s classic, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Sam, how did you come up with the idea for the screenplay?
Sam Johnson: It goes without saying that Spielberg and that New Hollywood era was and remains a huge inspiration for me (and a great deal of filmmakers!). Certainly, it greatly influenced Earthy Encounters’aesthetic and themes. Without generalizing too much, I think sometimes in the UK the family films we produce can lack scale and a sense of wonder. Those are the things that really drew me to cinema in the first place. So with Earthy Encounters I wanted to take the best of British – and particularly the rural setting I grew up in – and blend it with some of those quintessentially cinematic qualities. I guess I wanted to make a movie, rather than a film, if that makes sense!
More specifically in regards to that Britishness, Earthy Encounters is a kind of modern twist on The Secret Garden – which was one of my favourite books growing up. Cinema is littered with examples of otherworldly, extra-terrestrial magic, but I loved the idea of finding the magic in the mundane. Of the spectacular, unexpected power of nature.
This film features Jessica Barden and Finns O’Shea in leading roles. How did they become attached to the film?
Sam Johnson: We actually went through a fairly extensive casting process for Earthy. Not a great deal of this kind of material is made in the UK, so we were delighted to find that it was something that young British talent wanted to get involved in. Jess and Fionn are two of the most exciting actors of their generation (both are rightly experiencing meteoric rises at the moment!), so their casting was ultimately a fairly simple decision. I can’t speak highly enough of them both.
Has there been any thought to expanding the project into a full-length feature film?
Sam Johnson: While it was very important to me that the short existed and worked in it’s own right, I’ve actually been developing the feature length version of Earthy Encounter since the genesis of the idea. So in that regard, the short does represent something of a proof of concept. The feature version – which I think of as The Secret Garden meets E.T. – is very large in scale and ambition. It’s the type of family action adventure I grew up on. As such, Producer Collie McCarthy and I set out from the beginning to create something that showcased our capacity (and inclination) to operate at that scale. Obviously, that’s no mean feat at this level – so credit must go to Collie for pulling together the production he did (including being the first short film ever to shoot on the Arri Alexa 65 camera). We’ve had some exciting developments with the feature, so fingers crossed it won’t be long until Earthy Encounters the feature is on a billboard near you.
How did you get into filmmaking and who are some of your influences as a filmmaker?
Sam Johnson: I was lucky enough to be part of a film club – The Abingdon Film Unit – in my last few years at school. It’s an extraordinary enterprise run by Jeremy Taylor and the late Michael Grigsby. Jeremy is that one teacher you still speak about years later. He was always incredibly supportive, and I credit him with drawing me away from my planned career as a hybrid Footballer/Astronaut/Prime Minister (for now). I then read film theory at Kings College London – mixing afternoons watching Italian Neorealism with evening trips to the cinema to watch the latest Transformers. The course gave me a brilliant grounding in the foundations of the medium. My influences are slightly eclectic. Mean Creek made me want to be a director. I love animations (particularly for the way the good ones use cinematic language) and obviously Spielberg and the other great purveyors of family films are my enduring touchstones.