In Self Reliance, Jake Johnson’s Thomas, still reeling from a two-year-old break-up and generally disillusioned with life, agrees to participate in a reality television show for the dark web where, for 30 days, people will try to murder him. The loophole that Thomas gloms on to is that he can’t be murdered when he is in close proximity to someone else. What follows is 90 minutes of Thomas trying to convince family, friends, and strangers that, one, this show is real and, two, that they need to stay with him 24/7. The feature also stars Anna Kendrick.
For Johnson, who is best known for his work in front of the camera on series like New Girl and in indies like Safety Not Guaranteed, inspiration came in the form of surreal Japanese reality shows and the pandemic where, as he puts it, reality became increasingly subjective.
Ahead of the movie’s debut at the SXSW film festival, Johnson talked to about his decision to direct the movie and why it was so important for him to film in Los Angeles, even if it meant shooting for fewer days.
Was the plan always to make this your directing debut?
I wasn’t interested in directing it when I first started this process. I first thought of it as a three-season TV show. I actually pitched it back to Netflix back in like 2017. It was a very different version of it, and then pulled it back and rethought it. Then it was during the pandemic that I thought that this movie actually kind of felt the way the pandemic felt to me.
What was that feeling?
It was the idea of truth becoming subjective, and [all] realities seeming to have valid points. Truth is major and we had two different opinions of what was happening. If you believe in the truth of the pandemic, which I did, it was then such isolation from all the people I cared about. I wanted to make a movie where each side could be right. If you believe the game is real, or you believe the game is not real — it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story.
At what point did you decide you would direct?
I got a couple of drafts into it and I realized that I was writing it with direction in mind. My screenplay had too many camera shots. I thought this is getting too annoying for giving it to a director.
What were you most anxious about when it came to directing for the first time?
There was a ton of anxiety, and at each stage. There was anxiety and prep, so we ended up doing storyboarding a lot of it. There were a lot of extra meetings that the crew didn’t need, but I needed them. The editor, Ryan Brown, and I, we’ve watched every daily and edited each scene three or four times. He didn’t need to do all that.
Did you seek out any advice?
I sent the screenplay to so many different people. I’m a big believer in asking others who have done it what they think. And I’m a big believer in asking people, ‘”If you watch this movie, what would you gossip about in the car and say was bad about it? Just tell me now.”
What did production look like?
It was 19 days of shooting. It was a madhouse. I really wanted to shoot it in L.A. and we didn’t have a tax break. But, I don’t like Atlanta for L.A. I don’t like Vancouver for L.A. I like Los Angeles. I wanted to shoot in East L.A. I wanted to shoot in Highland Park and Alta Dena — parts of L.A. that I think have so much character. If we would’ve shot in Atlanta, we would’ve had 25 days. But I thought it’s worth it to squeeze the days in and go hard here. Man, L.A. is special.
I really love Los Angeles. In the end title, it’s a stupid thing, but you have to say where you shot it. I asked if we could put in the word “beautiful” before Los Angeles. This movie is my statement on what it felt like to be in the pandemic and post-pandemic. And one of the things that happened in the pandemic that really fired me up about writing this is a lot of people started taking shots at L.A. and New York and big cities. And it was a lot of people from our business who were fleeing and talking about how happy they are now that they live in the country. Or how they’ll never go back to that shithole. And I thought like, “Man, I didn’t see it then and I don’t see it now.” It’s like if you don’t like it, then leave. But I think it’s pretty fucking great here. There’s magic in these streets.
How was it also starring in your directorial debut?
It’s tricky. I think it would’ve been probably more enjoyable to not star in and just direct it. Or just to star in it and have somebody else directed. But with an indie this size, it’s a really hard piece to fill. The reason I just thought I’m gonna do it and direct it was— I’ve done so many different pieces of development in my career that fall apart for one reason or the other — that I was like I’m just gonna fill as many of the holes myself so that someone’s schedule doesn’t hurt us. If we get somebody who’s perfect, the financiers like him, Anna’s comfortable with them, and we got a movie and then all of a sudden they say like, “I just booked this huge action movie out in Poland.”‘” I’m like, you just killed us, man. I’m never gonna say no to my own project, so I’ll just do it.
We have seen lately a lot of movies and shows get caught up in the tumult or corporate overhauls, and renewals have been walked back, or finished movies have been shelved. As a filmmaker, what is it like to be working in that environment?
I think it’s honestly fine. What I really think of this time is 10 years ago, when I was first kind of in indie films, the opening weekend really mattered. And then that first weekend where it was available for like VOD or streaming that mattered. Nowadays, you just take that away. So if they say, “We’re not releasing it for six months.” Well, somebody else will. I feel like now you’re making content with the hopes that people find it, but when they find it, it’s an individual journey. I have never watched Sopranos as embarrassing that is that as that is. But I was with some friends, we were all out to dinner and somebody was talking about an episode of Sopranos that blew ’em away and everybody at the table was laughing about it. Then I sat down a month ago and I started watching it and I just finished.
For me, Self-reliance, once it finds whatever streamer is gonna stream it, eventually those who are gonna find it are gonna find it. Whatever the name of the company that’s streaming it? Who cares! It doesn’t matter. If there was a new place called fireplace.com, great. Let’s try that. If somebody wants to see the movie, they’ll get a subscription there and they’ll watch it, and if they tell their friends then others will. And then when that contract ends, another place will have it. Whatever the current wave is, whatever the hot place is, it means nothing to me. If you have a movie and the people wanna see it, they will. And if it has to go on jakejohnson.com, then I’ll get the website.