SXSW Interview: Director Alex Johnson and Actors Ashley Spiller & Jason Douglas Talk ‘Two Step’

Alex on his feature directing debut: "It’s a long time coming"

two-step-posterHours after his feature film debut, Two Step, premiered at SXSW, writer/director Alex  R. Johnson got the word: Variety’s review came out and they loved it.

When I talked to Johnson and the cast the next morning, they were all still incredibly happy about the review… and a little tired from their late night partying. But who can blame them? I know I’d be.

The film is about a guy named James (Skyy Moore) who, after just been kicked out of college, goes to visit his only remaining relative, Grams, who dies shortly after he arrives. As he’s getting Gram’s affairs in order, James finds out that she’s been swindled by a hustler (Webb, played by James Landry Hebert), pretending to be him. James decides to go after Webb, but before he does, guess who show’s up at the door for more money? Webb.

Check out the interview with Johnson, composer Andrew Kenny and actors Ashley Spiller and Jason Douglas where they talk about the review and making the film, the script and how Spiller and Douglas got their roles.

For the full interview, check out the YouTube video below!

Alex Johnson: We got a Variety very late, so it went into the evening.

Yeah, I saw that. “A slow burn thriller with rich Texas flavor’.

Alex Johnson: It was pretty good, yeah.

That’s nice. So you’ve gotta be pumped up for that, right?

Alex Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. I started to cry. This is… I’ve been in production for 20+ years. Commercials and trying to make a living and doing my own thing and trying to make movies here and there. We tried to make another film before this for about 4 or 5 years and it just wasn’t happening and then we focused on this one, we were able to get it done. But it’s a long time coming. So it was very rewarding to see that. I lost it a little bit.

So what’s the difference? Why didn’t that happen and why did everything click with this?

Alex Johnson: People at this table.

Andrew Kenny: Good answer.

Alex Johnson: The other film was about the same budget, which is low. Not gonna say what it is, but it’s low. And it takes place mostly in South America and we got some name talent very interested and when it came to signing on the dotted line and coming down to Ecuador with me for 4 weeks, suddenly the phone got really quiet.

So I get it. I haven’t made a feature film and it’s a lot to… I mean, these guys had to trust me and they just didn’t have to go down to the mountains in the Andes where I’m just like, “Yeah, ok, so you get a bunk bed, you’re not gonna get your own room. It’ll be great though. Don’t drink the water.”

Jason Douglas: That can be our next big show.

Two Step Director, Alex Johnson
‘Two Step’ Director, Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson: I think it’s gonna be. We’re gonna need more money for that and I realized we were gonna need more money for that, so I just started to focus on this one.

But also getting this off the ground was really about moving to Austin and the attitude here. I’ve been a producer for 15 years, I’ve been in production for 20+ and in New York when I started making the shift to directing and I started talking to people in the industry and they’d very politely be like, “Yeah, I just… I just don’t know if that’s the right move for you. We like you as a producer, we like you doing what you’ve been doing.” And here it was like, “Great, man. Let’s do a movie.” And it started. I mean, I wrote this script… I didn’t start writing it until after last year at SXSW. Like a week after…

That’s quick. Wow.

Alex Johnson: So I had the idea in my head, but I didn’t actually start typing it until April.

When you write, do you sort of have people in mind or how does that kind of work?

Alex Johnson: Sometimes, but not having an endless budget, if you do that you might just pigeonhole yourself. I just wanted them to be interesting characters. And I fall in love with my characters… it’s one of the saddest things when the movie is done, when I finish writing it. Because sitting down and writing it every day is just kind of like, “Ah, these guys are so awesome. I love these guys.”

Jason Douglas: Honestly though, man, there was so much in the words, so much of the character is just… it’s in the pages and working with these guys on such a really nurturing set was really a gift as a performer.

But there’s a lot of approaches to doing a role. You can do, you know, research the role and get into it in different ways, but really the number one most important thing is great writing and it was there. It was there from the top. I mean, and you love that. As an actor you read a script for the first time and you can kinda tell, you know, a few pages in, “Ok,” you can kinda see. But this kinda grips you by the lapel and pulls you into it right off the bat and you’re like, “Man, I wanna play. I wanna play.”

It’s just amazing to hear conversation about how quickly it was written or how quickly it was done, because it really feels like a textured, from the beginning, it feels like a really textured piece. And we had a great, you know, great sandbox to play in, for sure.

How’d you guys get involved?

Jason Douglas: Well, Alex was a really genius when he contacted Beth Sepko who’s really, I think, one of the premier casting directors in the state of Texas. She’s Emmy award winning casting director. She worked on Friday Night Lights and she’s very deep roots and she’s really done a great job cultivating Texas talent for at least the last 10 years. And when Beth calls on a project you know it’s legit. She brings her own kind of… if it’s a Beth project it’s gonna peak your interest.

Alex Johnson: One of the greatest moments in casting was just after he left the room. Because he came in and I feel like you were doing nights on Revolution or something at the time and I don’t even know if you had a chance to read the whole script, but he came in and just killed it. Just killed it. And it was like… he left the room and I just turned… I turned to Beth, my response was something along the lines of “Holy fuck.” You know? And it was just like, “Wow. Ok.” So we’re gonna be ok. It was just one of these things where it was like every time someone came, like Brady Coleman came in. He was the first person to come and he plays Ray Mance the Lawyer. So it’s just like… to hear the words.

Because my whole thing would be, to get sidetracked, but the whole thing with the way it’s written is there’s a lot of analogies and the whole kind of Texasisms and things like that. And if it didn’t, what I told these guys, if it didn’t feel natural or it wasn’t working, let’s just skip it. Because if that stuff doesn’t sound completely natural, then it’s gonna be forced.

But Brady was amazing, and it was the first time I went, “Oh, this is gonna work.” And then Ashley I had seen in a film at SXSW by last year and heard that she had the gall to move to Los Angeles since then. I thought she was local. And we saw some other people and I kept asking about Ashley and we finally reached out directly to her and she was generous enough to put something on tape. But the thing that I love about Ashley in the role is we saw a lot of people that were as exactly written, kinda like battered, stressed, and the thing about Ashley is that she’s got this other comedic timing, and she should talk too, but I knew that I’d get something unexpected. Little tiny moments of just a little glimmer or a little twitch or a little off smile that some of the other people weren’t gonna do. And that’s why I was so happy to have her.

Ashley Spiller: Yay. No, I just, you know, they reached out to me and I had the same experience with the script. I mean, he sent it and the first… he sent it to me once and I was in the middle of another movie shooting it in Texas and I was like, “I can’t.” And then they sent it again and that was really intriguing. I was like alright, and so I sat down to read it one day and I was like, “I’ll read the first half. I have to go do something,” but then I couldn’t leave. It was like I sat down to read it and I just kept reading and reading and reading and just got so engrossed in it because it’s a story that it comes alive off the page, it really does. You’re just in the world immediately.

And now seeing it, such justice was done because you do, you’re reading it, you’re in the world, and now it’s out there and it is what you read. It’s better even, which you didn’t think it could be.

But, yeah. No. I loved the role of Amy. She’s a complicated character, she’s a little bit of everything. She’s got her weaknesses, she’s got her strengths, but I think where I come in, when you meet me in the story I’m finally trying to use that strength and have found it a little bit.

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