"The Strange Thing About The Johnsons" Director Ari Aster Talks To Shadow & Act About His Provocative & Controversial Short Film

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by Emmanuel Akitobi
November 28, 2011 12:16 PM
48 Comments
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A little over a week ago, Shadow and Act introduced many readers to a short film that had the internet abuzz with all types of mixed emotions.  It seemed that most who viewed director Ari Aster's The Strange Thing About The Johnsons had a strong reaction to it, and a personal opinion regarding the film's meaning.  Well, S&A reached out to Aster and he has provided answers to a lot of the questions our readers had about his film.

S&A: Where did the concept for your film originate?

Ari Aster: It was actually an idea that sprouted between me and a few friends (one of whom plays the son in the Johnsons) the summer before my first year at AFI. We were talking about topics that are too taboo to be explored, and so we arrived at taboos that weren't even taboos because they were so unfathomable, and the most popular was that of a son molesting his father. "That should never be made into a film!" So, it began on that level, but from there it evolved into something very different.

What led you to decide on using an all-black cast?  Was it a gimmick, complete colorblind casting, or an impromptu decision, maybe?

The actor who plays the son is a close friend who's starred in most of my films (including all of my pre-AFI student work) and he was there from the film's conception. I cast him because he was right for the role and I wanted to work with him. At that point it was obvious that we were casting African Americans. The color of the Johnson family's skin is totally incidental. It's of no consequence to the story or its execution.

Did the casting of black actors in a film with such a provocative theme lead to any reservations about going forward with the project?

Not really. Again, the color of the family isn't important. We certainly assumed that casting black actors in a film that tackles such transgressive themes would create something of a stir, and it would be a lie to say that we weren't hesitant, especially as many people were advising us against the decision. But the longer the dialogue continued about whether it was okay to cast the way we wanted to (without making a discernible statement on race), the more exciting that argument became. There is no intended commentary on the black experience and I would never claim to have any insight into that.

Were there any concerns on your part regarding how viewers would perceive the film?

Were we concerned? Not really. Were we aware that this would be polarizing? Of course. We anticipated some backlash, especially in the beginning (when the idea was still fresh to us), but I lived with this premise for so long that I basically forgot how disturbing it was. Once we committed to the project, the challenge wasn't to find new ways of keeping it shocking or outrageous for 30 minutes; it was to tell the story as dramatically as we could, and to keep true to our original intentions without overstepping our own boundaries of taste. We also had to fight to raise the budget ourselves, so convincing people to donate money to this "role-reversing incest whatsit" was more difficult than releasing it to an anonymous group of people.
I also have to say that we were on our festival run and the movie was unexpectedly leaked onto the internet, which caught us completely off-guard.

Did the actors in your film have any reservations about any aspects of your film?

No. They had questions when they first came onto the project - many of them were the same questions that I'm answering here - but they were all totally on board. I think the actors saw it as an opportunity to play something different. If the film works, it's because of their commitment.

There has been much debate on our site, and all over the Internet, about the meaning and intent of your film; can you explain whether The Strange Thing About The Johnsons was intended to be humorous or dramatic?

Why not both? I see the film as a satire of the domestic melodrama (a la Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray), so it draws more from movie cliches and genre tropes, especially from films dealing with abuse or family dysfunction, than it does real life. But it was a challenge for us (and something that we always kept in mind) to transcend the absurdity of the premise and to actually consider the implications of such a thing. In a lot ways the film serves as a nightmarish cautionary tale on liberal parenting, a sort of worst-case scenario for a father who's granted his son too much freedom and respect, but there's also the suggestion of culpability on the father's part, so the film skips a lot of the causes and focuses primarily on the effects of an insidious, inverted dynamic.

In the end, we just wanted to make a film that was compelling, visceral and unique.

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48 Comments

  • Abton | December 26, 2012 11:53 PMReply

    I feel as though economic status played an integral role in this film. An affluent black family whose patriarch is an emotionally sensitive poet so disempowered by his spoiled son that he will not refuse the sons sexual advances? This story illustrates how perversity and depravity tend to become stranger and stranger depending on class status, or at least that is how it read to me. Mainly because, as we have seen statistically, most reported serial killers are middle class white men (crimes that fulfill a personal desire), whereas most black prisoners tend to engage in crimes of survival (maybe illegal but definitely pragmatic). So by removing the need to survive, implementing the concept of a living a leisurely life and maintaining that atrocities occur regardless of social standing, a film maker has to become innovative regarding what atrocity he chooses to explore. If the father had been physically or sexually abusive to his son, we would walk away bored, commenting "oh another lame movie about violent black patriarchal men". This way, the plot leaves us completely dumb founded and probably a little upset - but that's the point... Good art seeks to evoke visceral emotion. That's not to say we can't make positive black narratives, but subversive stories should also be values for their content even if it makes us angry. For people who have experienced trauma, films like this can be extremely cathartic as they refuse to keep such matters private and provide survivors with a sense that they are not alone in the world. If you want to pretend that horrible things don't happen in the world I have no idea why you'd turn this on.

  • Rhone | August 1, 2012 12:39 PMReply

    I was rather offended by this film "The Strange Thing About The Johnsons." By the end of it I had to conclude that this film should have been titled "The Strange Thing About The Mind of Ari Aster." For Aster to show Black characters in such a helpless pathological light only furthers stereotypes and ideas about men and families being pathological because they are Black. Based on this interview, I know that Aster does not believe this, but for him to say that "the color of the family is not important" shows his insensitivity to the historic ways films in America has been meant to support ideas of white superiority and Black inferiority since the original and still most commercially successful film, "Birth of A Nation." Unfortunately the most successful films in the film industry are those that pathologize Black men like The Color Purple did with Mister, like Waiting to Exhale did with cheating husbands; like Precious did with the father of Precious. I feel that Aster is following this very unfortunate path of showing villainous pathological Black men in order to be "pathbreaking" or "popular" which is just a cover I think for going with the flow of advancing white supremacy. Aster had to give more agency to the father in owning up to his role in his son's sexuality, rather than showing him as a helpless victim to his son's advances. This film was being provocative just for the thrill of it, rather than dealing in a realistic meaningful way with incest. -RF,

  • Yo | July 21, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    Nightmarish, my thoughts exactly. I like how the camera conveyed that far fetched, nightmarish dynamic. Like when the father was going down the stares and the son began to confront him. During the whole dialogue you could not see the son. All you saw was the dim lit living room and the nervous body language of the father. It was like the son was the boogie man, you could not see him but you could feel his menacing presence...........that was brilliant camera work. Or how the camera winded down the stares in this dizzy dream like fashion. Again the lighting was awesome. I love it when films frame every scene like an artistic photograph. As for the movie being a comedy or drama...............I agree with the director when he says, why not both. I have experienced enough sadness in my life to understand that there is a A LOT of comedy in tragedy. Our emotions are complex. So I like the complexity of having something horrific juxtaposed with this whimsical, all American, prosperous setting. That is the best kind of art.

  • YO | July 21, 2012 3:46 PM

    Reminded me of Kara Walker's work. Although, I think Kara Walker ( though I use to be a fan) art work comes from a place of perversion and lust..............where as this movie comes from another place.

  • fmint63 | March 7, 2012 3:39 AMReply

    before like for you perfectionists

  • fmint63 | March 7, 2012 3:37 AMReply

    incredibly awsome never seen anything like it befor. If you continue to do work lik Cocoon Man you will have no problems taboos NEED TO BE BROKEN! This is going on right NOW in every walk of life.

  • Egolite | February 18, 2012 11:28 PMReply

    This film is a disaster

  • fmint63 | March 7, 2012 3:41 AM

    disaster, take off your rose colored glasses! and your freaken head out of the sand.

  • Kato Cooks | January 11, 2012 1:38 PMReply

    The film is disturbing, provocative and remarkable. I particularly enjoyed the nuanced performance of the mother during the bathtub scene. It worked and without explicit, graphic images to cheat the imagination. Kudos to everyone involved.

    I didn't see the film as a statement on one ethnic group or another, just a film that featured a black cast. I see, from the interview, that I was correct. I'm eager for your next venture. I involve myself in these projects through Kickstarter (in post-production on Steve Nguyen's Hibakusha presently), typically, but please take my email address for anything else remotely similar to this one.

  • ANONYMOUS | December 4, 2011 2:47 PMReply

    Sicko.

  • Kaye | December 3, 2011 9:44 PMReply

    Inadvertently, the choice of a black family made me pay attention to the subject matter more. I am a black woman, and this is not the type of abuse or depravity you hear about in the black world, though you would not be surprised if your white friend next door was abusing his white father. One would probably shake his/her head and go, "White people are into all KINDS of crazy shyt!"

    But when an unknown type of depravity is portrayed by a race that is not necessarily known for this type of thing, it highlights the depraved actions more. I didn't think about race too many times during the movie. I thought about it when the bad weaves popped up. I thought to myself, "they couldn't find another wig for the cute lil girl? Lawd!" or "That mama is not old enough for this ugly looking grey wig" But that is when I thought about it.

    The subject matter itself didn't make me think about race at all except to think that choosing a black lead probably dictated a black family. If he would have gotten all creative and tried to equalize the race effect by having a black daddy, a white mama, a hispanic wife, a chinese in-law, and so forth, I think that would have been totally authentic and detracted from the disturbing subject matter.

    And the point WAS to disturb the hell out of us. I think satire is a bit too sweet of a word to use alone in describing this short. I and thinking more along the lines of 'depraved nightmarish satire'. :/

  • Kaye | December 3, 2011 9:47 PM

    i meant to type UNaunthentic. sorry guys :)

  • Steve | December 3, 2011 1:19 PMReply

    Who are you guys the Thought Police?

  • Reality Check | November 10, 2012 12:05 PM

    Its a comment section.

  • akua | December 2, 2011 8:44 PMReply

    finally got to stay up longer than my son and got to watch this film. Well I was disturbed, but mostly really sad. It's an ingenious idea for a filmmaker to turn something like (the run of he mill) incest on head, but a complete cop out for a Jewish boy not to bring it in closer to home. Now that would have been powerful, commendable, got loads more column inches and showed him to be a film maker with guts and vim! But no he had to join the long line of filmmakers who in a single film get to prove themselves to be non betrayers, by making negative films about black people and insuring that they get money to make a feature. It's a way for a filmmaker to say. 'Hey money guys, look! I will never rock the boat. I'll just keep heaping out the same old, same old, with SOME good lighting and interesting shots' The audience needs to become sophisticated to these kinds of people.

  • Steve | December 3, 2011 1:08 PM

    Bro, what are you talking about bro?

  • Jennifer Edwards | December 2, 2011 12:21 AMReply

    I would like to have a part in one of Ari Aster films

  • bj | December 1, 2011 9:41 PMReply

    for ava

  • Burt | December 1, 2011 1:43 PMReply

    Read the last sentence of the Interview. It is clear that he did want to say anything with the film. If he did that would have been part of this interview. I would say this is a great amazing fantastic stepping stone for any film maker/film crew member. Eventually though, people are going to want something that is more than a good fuck. I wouldn't watch this again. And I would reccomend it to someone if they were bored and needed some time to kill.

  • Bklyn Negress | November 30, 2011 10:26 PMReply

    I thought the film was very well done. I liked it and I will tell others.

    For the past week or so, I've been reading the blogosphere chatter about this film and, I've decided one thing we can do to reduce negative stereotypes about black folks is to monitor the comments section on blogs that target the black community. I'm not talking about the typical moderating to ensure commenters are respecting community rules, I think there needs to be an real intervention---Drop Squad style

  • Trill | November 30, 2011 3:44 AMReply

    A truly visionary student film -- there's no debating that.

  • Darla & Mark | November 30, 2011 12:10 AMReply

    He looks like a serial killer.

  • misha | November 30, 2011 1:49 PM

    He certainly looks like one strange fellow.

    As far as his film goes, I thought it was garbage. Tis all.

  • Darkan | November 30, 2011 11:41 AM

    I was wondering when someone would comment on his photo. Man...

  • Micah | November 30, 2011 2:59 AM

    A gay serial killer. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  • Bani Productions | November 29, 2011 2:59 PMReply

    1) I liked the movie.

    2) There is perversion in all communities and all races. No topic is exclusive to any one race.

    3) Those upset would not have been if the cast was all white because they are probably used to depravity being portrayed by white characters and regular violent crimes of necessity (drugs, gangs, turf wars, African political unrest etc) portrayed by blacks.

    4) If we demand diversity in creative projects in the media, we have to also accept diversity in stories. Black people are not perfect people and neither is any race in the world. There is complexity, variety and depth to who we are and what we do. And if you are not ready for that, stick to fairy tales where the bad are very bad and the good are stupidly so. Me, I think Goldilocks deserved to get her trespassing behind seriously whooped.

    5)This is in no way in the same category as Tyler Perry.

  • Jay Dub | December 5, 2011 8:52 AM

    WELL SAID Bani P. We ask for diversity and creativity in the portrayals of us, and when we get it, so many of us get mad and upset. Then again, that's par for the course. Not everyone(black) is going to like everything(black). I think we're taking the story too seriously and aren't really considering the statement the director is trying to make. I wonder though, if Ari were black, would we still have a problem with the film? Or, if it were the daughter doing the molesting rather than the son? Whatever the case, i think it would be wonderful if more creative stories like this could be done by black filmmakers.

  • Micah | November 30, 2011 3:04 AM

    Bani, I respect what you are trying to say and I feel we may share many of the same frustrations with Black Cinema but this film was just rough. I crave diversity and enjoy dark subject matter but even if this film did have a white cast, it would still be too much for many of us. This is not statement about the quality of the filmmaking techniques. I'm just saying most us are scarred by what we saw of this film and need to consoled after seeing it. Just saying.

  • itsnotover | November 29, 2011 9:27 PM

    In a nutshell!!!

  • Zeus | November 29, 2011 4:51 PM

    Completely agree. Especially with this point, "If we demand diversity in creative projects in the media, we have to also accept diversity in stories. "

    Many talk diversity in stories but some are too "sensitive" to REALLY handle that when it comes to black casts.

  • cinexa | November 29, 2011 10:41 AMReply

    I started out laughing , I thought it was a comedy. Then it all started to shift and by the end, it was just sad. It makes you think, who was the original aggressor and how complicit was the dad. It was a very disturbing movie overall. I think the story could have been expanded slightly to show what happened Prom night, maybe a flash back as the mom was talking to add context. The acting, directing and cinematography were all top notch. In light of all the allegations coming out about collegiate sports coaches, I found this a dark strange twist on abuse.

  • J. | November 29, 2011 3:46 AMReply

    The acting, directing and cinematography in this film are well executed, but the writing is just as weak and illogical as the Tyler Perry films that Shadow and Act constantly bashes. I am of the opinion that it's exploitative and irresponsible to make light of the subject matter of abuse. What the viewer gains by the end of the film is equal to what one gains after viewing an episode of The Jerry Springer Show - mild but ultimately empty entertainment. The people who think this is great art must also be of the opinion that episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful should be on a 24/7 loop on millions of screens in The Louvre.

  • Steve | December 3, 2011 1:16 PM

    Why are you trying to act like you aren't both J. and B?

  • B | November 29, 2011 1:57 PM

    100% co-sign everything you said. And I'll add: Aster's "this is liberal-parenting gone wrong" explanation is utter bullshit. Blaming some instances of incest and familial rape on liberal parenting: that's near the top of the list of the most idiotic things I've ever heard.

  • Julien | November 29, 2011 2:54 AMReply

    Very interesting film. Disturbing and shocking but also surprising. And the performances were riveting.

  • numa | November 29, 2011 2:37 AMReply

    This film reminds me very much of Antichrist in that the tone and story is so utterly horrific that you find yourself hoping wishing thinking that perhaps it is a joke - then you feel sick and offended that perhaps it is.
    I was deeply bothered though moved by the performances especially Angela Bullock who exercised a beautiful restraint throughout which is not commonly seen.
    I accept Asters responses in general - the film is ahead of it's time in a sense- it is still painful to see a black family in this light even if these complexities do exist behind closed doors.
    I do believe Aster underestimated the weight of this but as an artist I don't believe it was for him to water it down or second guess.

  • Fitnah Free | November 29, 2011 2:29 AMReply

    Are you fucking serious? This is maddening. How does anyone see this as a comedy? Yes its disturbing and yes i see the artists trying extra hard to made depravity art. but if anyone thinks its comedic you are a lunatic.

  • Taylor Banks | November 29, 2011 5:42 PM

    How can you not see at least some comedy in this the fact that the concept is completely absurd even makes it funny. I didn't laugh through the whole thing but there were absolutely comedic parts to the film. To only see the film in one way makes you a lunatic and quite frankly a little ignorant.

  • CareyCarey | November 28, 2011 3:42 PMReply

    Buy or sell? Well... I am buying his explanations. As he said, he had worked with the "son" who is his friend, so it's natural that the entire cast would be black. Also, did he expect any "controversy" and "push-back"? Well, it's safe to say that if lived in America he most assuredly knew controversy would visit him. I am also buying his take on the subject matter being colorblind. On a side note, Emmanuel, your posts and style of posting are much appreciated.

  • Hateretha | November 29, 2011 11:06 AM

    No surprise here.

  • Kia | November 28, 2011 3:33 PMReply

    Thanks to Emmanuel and Ari for allowing us some insight. I like that Ari made the core of the film a real issue, liberal parenting, which is color blind and I'm sure some will disagree.

    @Gigi Young
    Agree with you on that point about white filmmakers leaning towards color blind casting/crewing only if it's a "friend". Not always the case, but it's certainly seems so. I've fortunately experience both ends of the spectrum.

  • Monique | November 28, 2011 2:58 PMReply

    Well, I saw what Mr. Aster was trying to accomplish with the film and I enjoyed it. Disturbing but better made than comedies disguised as dramas...like Precious. I would love to hear from the cast as well. Great job, Emmanuel!

  • Quentin | November 30, 2011 1:36 PM

    Agreed...

  • Taylor Banks | November 29, 2011 5:46 PM

    I agree completely! I laughed at Precious and this film and I commend Mr. Aster for his execution very well done.

  • Gigi Young | November 28, 2011 2:28 PMReply

    Thanks for this!

    This (and to a same extent, the ABG web series and McQueen/Fassbender collabo) proves that black folks need to be buddies with non-black filmmakers, writers, producers, etc. Folks, regardless of race, work with their friends (Judd Apatow!), and if the up-and-coming white movie makers don't have any black friends, they won't ever think to use black folks in major roles, either behind the scenes or in front of the camera.

  • Darkan | November 28, 2011 12:54 PMReply

    Huh!!!??? His response was just as wack and empty as Tyler Perry's response on why he cast Kim Kardashian. Please let this man and that intentional, shock for the sake of it, attention seeking, demonic film drift off into obscurity!!! :-( Anyone that doesn't believe this man premeditated the attention he is garnering by making this lurid shock fest, I got a Brooklyn Bridge to sell you!

  • kaye | December 4, 2011 12:00 AM

    I think the film was supposed to be attention seeking? :/

  • Quentin | November 30, 2011 1:35 PM

    I hope you were this impassioned when you saw any of Lee Daniel's films and the many other indie films that seek attention.

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