Fast Forward Friday with Madeline Johnson

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed award-winning screenwriter-director Madeline Johnson. Her debut short film Juneteenth was an official selection of the Prague Independent Film Festival, the Budapest Short Film Festival, and the Crown Heights Film Festival – as well as winning a Platinum Reel Award at the Nevada International Film Festival in the student competition. Her newest short film Beyond our Mountains won Best World Director at the Austin Revolution Film Festival and continues to play on the 2018 festival circuit.  She is currently finishing final drafts of two feature scripts and developing an interactive web series. To learn more about Mattie go to:

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

I am currently working on an interactive series, tentatively called America’s Freedom. Through this project, I am exploring what racial reconciliation could look like in the U.S.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

Honestly, I feel inspired to tell this story because I’m trying to answer a question I wish we had an answer to. Over the past two years in particular – although this is a conflict we’ve been navigating for generations – I find myself and others wondering what it would take for the U.S. to actually achieve racial justice and reconciliation. I really wish for so much better for us all.

I think a lot about what America’s legacy could be and what it has been so far. I find there’s a gap between the legacy we wish to leave and reality – and what matters most is the legacy we actually leave behind us.

I think a lot about America’s past and what we can do now to give ourselves a better future. In general, I think a lot about how the past, present and the future we dream for ourselves, can co-exist in the same decisive moment.

This project had a distinct jumping off point about a year ago when my friend showed me an article about a diverse, mixed-race, eco-friendly community who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina prior to the end of the Civil War. A significant portion of the community were ex-slaves who freed themselves by escaping into the swamp.

I was fascinated by it. It amazed me to hear about a diverse community who lived together, but who disbanded after the end of the Civil War. I found myself asking so many questions about them and wishing I knew more. I was also surprised that I had never heard about this. I had even studied Ethnic Studies in college, but I still had never learned about this. I wondered if this community had wisdom we could learn from today.

For this project, I found myself pulled in so many directions – into the swamp, into my father’s family in West Tennessee, into the mass incarceration crisis of today. While each deserves their own story in their own right, I found myself feeling like the answers that I want could only be explored through incorporating them all together. I wondered whether I was trying to do too many things. But I think this story really does need to be told with all of those touchstones in place. I want to see what happens when we intercut the past into today and when we intercut our dreams when we are making decisions right here, right now.

Finally, I am so excited about the interactive portion of this story. Our technology is changing, allowing us to interact with audiences and tell stories in new ways. Honestly, we are living in an age where the news is so proximate; our newsfeeds are flooded with our own echo chambers. It really feels like we are actors living in a larger story. So I decided to craft the story to empower audiences to truly participate in our communal narrative and questions.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

Oh my – such a hard question. Honestly, most days I find myself being filled from many wells.

James Baldwin and Toni Morrison are the first to come to mind. I find myself in awe at the truths they are able to reveal about race through narrative.

I also listen to a lot of podcasts with Krista Tippett. I find the interactions between her and her guests help me feel more whole myself and tap deeper into the healing truths I want to share.

Regarding film I was impressed with Moonlight, for artistic vision; The Handmaid’s Tale, for bolding telling a story of injustice focused on women; I Am Not A Witch, for narrative and cultural complexity and depth, for directorial vision;  and Capernaum, for the director’s trust and courage to work with non-professional actors and to let them guide the narrative.

While writing for this project, I’ve also been listening to a lot of blues – Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, hip-hop, Hamilton, Gregorian chant and Japanese drumming. Somehow these fuel the energy I need to write this story.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist? 

My film career is where I feel closest to the real Mattie. That feeling is so tremendously special and is such a source of healing; I find there a lot of energy for my work.

The feeling of knowing I’m doing precisely what I’m meant to be doing is very fulfilling. Honestly, even though this work is so hard, it doesn’t feel like I have another choice. Of course, there are other jobs that I can do and that I enjoy. Film is not the only work I find meaningful. But even though this career path is difficult and unknown, it doesn’t matter to me how hard it is. I wouldn’t choose something else.

One way that I keep myself motivated as an artist is to think about my film career like it’s a pilgrimage. Who knows how long the journey is, what type of terrain is ahead, what kind of support I’ll get along the way, etc. With that analogy in mind, I decided it’s foolish to make this journey without giving myself the right support and mindset. I always joke to myself that I’m making this pilgrimage in an RV.

What that translates to in real life for me is making sure that I have a stable income, giving myself flexibility and as much time as possible to do my film work, taking care of my health body and soul; and connecting with friends and family who support me.

Another thing that keeps me motivated is managing my expectations. I read an article a year or two ago about a writer who aims for 100 rejections a year in order to have a moderately successful year. This comes in handy especially when applying for grants, festivals, etc.  I’ve also thought a lot about how statistically it was easier for me to get into Yale, than it is to earn some of these achievements. So I’ve learned not to take the rejections personally. Rather, I accept that I need to aim for about 100 rejections myself in order to move forward. By keeping my expectations low, I can receive all of the progress with deep gratitude.

What inspires me most as an artist is thinking about the impact stories have within ourselves. Before I decided to pursue film, I thought seriously about becoming a civil rights lawyer. I really wanted to change the world. But I found myself frustrated by the limits of law. I think a lot about how we may have abolished Jim Crow laws, but the U.S. still has vestiges of Jim Crow hearts. What inspires me the most is to constantly pursue telling stories that will touch our hearts.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

I also have two feature scripts I’ve written that I am in the process of editing. One is inspired by my work in the criminal justice field about someone turning his life around. The other is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which I wrote with my mother. I’d still love to see these come to life one of these days.

I also have a short film Beyond Our Mountains, which I wrote and directed in Kosovo out on the film festival circuit. The story centers around an Albanian-Serbian couple navigating a difficult choice. In this film, I am exploring the process of healing; the interactions of our past, present and dreams for the future with the choices we have at hand; and the difference between what we want to have happen and what does happen. For this film, it was an honor to work with many talented artists in Kosovo and N.Y.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

On the last day of shooting Beyond Our Mountains, I was walking in Pristina to meet the crew. It was early morning and I was walking down the Dragadon steps – a tremendous number of stairs that connects pedestrians from one area in Pristina to another. The sun was just rising, switching from hazy fog to dawn. As I walked down those stairs, I was bathed in dawn’s sunshine. Even though I was tremendously tired and hadn’t slept in weeks, I felt so full of energy. It felt like I was walking into my future.

And honestly, even though I didn’t know what would unfold the next year and I still don’t know what will unfold in the coming years, I choose to move forward with the certainty that I am going to make it.

A few months ago, I saw a photo of Ava DuVernay wearing a t-shirt that said, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” I think about that a lot. I feel so tremendously grateful to be able to live my dreams. I hope I am making my family proud.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

I’d be knee deep in a swamp in North Carolina shooting the pilot episode of America’s Freedom.

I’d be writing my feature.

I’d be starting my own production company that focuses on telling untold stories with a social justice focus.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

Funding and time have been two of my biggest obstacles in achieving my vision.

Additionally, I sometimes struggle with negative self-talk. Sometimes I can be tremendously and unforgivably hard on myself. My perfectionism can really break myself down such that it’s hard to move forward with the work. I’m learning good techniques for dealing with this – for getting out of my own head and out of my own way – and just letting myself move forward with the work.

Finally, I’d say one of the biggest obstacles has also been knowing my own vision, although there is a blessing to this as well. Honestly, it has taken some time for me to recognize what it is that makes my work special and distinct. But while this is a challenge, I still believe this is an exciting part of the journey as well. While I hope to continue to discover my own vision, I also want to discover my own expansiveness, so I can bring my talent to lots of different films. I really feel like every story is different and so I want to strengthen my skills so I can tell each one in the way they really deserve to be told.

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

It helps to spend time with friends and family.

I also practice Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I write Morning Pages every morning and I try to take myself out on an adventure every week. I love trying new foods, seeing new things, going new places, and all of that newness really opens me up and gets my creative self running.

I also find that in order to be creative, I need to take prodigious care of myself. On writing days, it helps to go for a run, meditate, text all of my friends, eat lots of healthy food, drink tons of water and tea, and look and dress in a way that makes me feel proud. When I feel good about myself and take care of myself, it helps me work. Sometimes that requires taking care of myself emotionally, especially if my work brings up hard emotions. I need to self-soothe and allow myself to be a learner who is trying her best. These practices help me stay connected to my creative self.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

Negative self-image. I wish I had trusted myself earlier. If I’m being honest, I feel like I’m on a healing journey to love myself fully and let myself be free. It’s a process.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

Such a tough question! I’m not sure!

One piece of art that I have spent a fair amount of time wondering about is this Tranquil Zen Garden of Kyoto. As the original designer did not leave an explanation, this rock garden and its meaning is mysterious. Many people have wondered why it is laid out as it is, including myself. I have a soft spot for art that encourages us to continually wonder without answer. Somehow, I feel like the art gives us more this way, revealing more and more about ourselves and the world around us through our own wisdom and insight.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

I’ve always been a Jane Austen fan. Jane Austen was a pretty irreverent woman and I admire her astute and frank perception and writing.

I also admire Martin Luther King, Jr. While he has become a bit idealized and consequently de-radicalized recently in U.S. culture, I find inspiring his ability to see beyond who America was/is to see who we deserve to be. I admire his steadfast pursuit of justice at such a tremendous cost.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

For loving people so deeply, they feel more free to be their full selves. For loving myself so deeply, I am free myself. For helping us to see a way forward toward love, healing  and justice.

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

Tenacious. Persistent. Creative. Smart.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

I scroll endlessly on Facebook. I am a sucker for expensive meals. I turn the heat up really high.  On bad days, I splurge on Starbucks chai tea lattes.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

I don’t think I’d say anything. I’d just listen. I’d want Mattie to know she’s deeply loved and valuable. I’d do anything she wants.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

Oh my! You are asking Mattie to dream big today! If I could live anywhere, I’d love to have an apartment in Manhattan, perhaps a brownstone in Harlem. I’d also love to have an apartment in Paris.

But honestly, I never really thought of settling anywhere. I always think of my life as an adventure life, going wherever I find it meaningful and valuable to be. But I will say these days, the idea of having a home of my own is becoming more tempting. While I love flexibility, I also love the idea of being able to welcome people into my own warm, loving space.

Q: What is your idea of success?

Oh my! I’ve got so many dreams!

I think my idea of success is being able to do what I’m meant to do in the world. I’d love to have enough financial security to work on my art. I have worked hard to balance my life so that I can do that now. But I’d love to be able to achieve this with even more financial and creative freedom in the future.

Honestly, I’d love to rise up in my career in a way that changes our industry and the world for the best. My idea of success is not even to achieve top awards  – although I’d like that too. I’d love for our entire industry to be different – to be a safer space for women, people of color, LGBT folks, people with disabilities, etc. to tell stories. I’d love for us to achieve parity in work and salary. I’d love to establish a whole community of badass folks who give back to communities and transform society.

I also think that outside of my career, I’m on a healing journey that signifies true success to me. I want to feel safe and proud in my own skin and ideas. I want to feel like I’ve truly set myself free and I’m able to be who I want to be in this world.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

Tea, adventures, seeing the people you love truly happy, good food and that feeling in your soul of content pride and peace.

Somehow from this place, I’d love to give back to the world, encouraging others on their own pilgrimages toward love and freedom.

Q: Final Thoughts?

Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity! It’s such a blessing.

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