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Ones to Watch: Amber Grace Johnson

Amber Grace Johnson is a storyteller, she’s a people-person, she’s the woman in charge. Since interning at MATTE Studios in 2014, she’s professionally worked in film on projects ranging from Prada to Mercedes Benz. Most recently, she directed Jorja Smith’s  “Be Honest”  video featuring Burna Boy, that’s amassed over 18-million views and picked up two United Kingdom Video Music Awards [UKVMA] nominations. Based in NY, the director is self-taught. Her presence is powerful, and her movements and speech are quick and direct; she’s got a no-nonsense kind of attitude, but still manages to put you at ease. With inspiration ranging from Satoshi Kon’s anime, to the photo work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, she’s the type of person who is constantly looking to be stimulated. When speaking to her, you feel there isn’t a book or film she hasn’t laid eyes on (or at least planned to. ) We chatted with the director about what she does in her free-time, how she carved out her path, and why it doesn’t matter if you’re liked. (Look familiar? She happens to be the sister of Orseund Iris’ Alana Johnson…talk about a killer pair of twins.)

Let’s talk about your background. Is there a first movie that you saw that made you say “this is what I want to do,” or did you go to school for filmmaking?

I never went to film school. I don’t have any classical training. As a kid, we watched a lot of movies with my father. His favorite was Luc Besson’s Fifth Element. It also became mine. In my eyes, Leeloo was the epitome of the woman I thought I wanted to be. Watching movies gives me something that I can’t find anywhere else. Takes your insides, plants them into another, and you get to see what they see. I’ve been riding off of that feeling.

Much to do with my dad, I’ve grown a fascination for people. A wild man that talks to everyone and anyone. Skipping formalities, acting like they’ve lived past lives together. A share yourself with a stranger mentality.

It wasn’t until 2017 when I directed my first video that I fell into it. I was given the opportunity to share Teddy Quinlivan’s coming out as transgender story World Meet Teddy. I wanted to be as tender as possible, her story was in my hands. Teddy’s strength and the shared intimacy was beautiful to me. Even more so, the reaction of others who shared similar truths or the inverse, those who converted. I’m after the idea that if I could make even just one person feel something anything that’s magic.

Was there a moment at that you felt your career path take a change of course?

I don’t believe I’m there yet. I have a lot I want to do in this lifetime and I feel like I’m just scratching the surface in film. I want to learn more, do better, be better. I’ll let you know when I feel the tide has shifted for me!

How did you get involved with Matte in the beginning as an intern? 

In 2014, I made a spreadsheet with an overly ambitious wish list of 10 places I wanted to work (i.e. Vice, Milk). One class shy away from graduating at a city college called Baruch, I had already spent my entire time in school taking up five extensive internships. I was hell-bent on getting a real paying job to survive in New York. But none of that mattered. At that time, everyone had to work for free.

On some deep dive internet stalk, I landed on a creative cool kids start-up called MATTE. Right away, I picked up the phone and called. Brett Kincaid, one of three founders, answered and asked me when I wanted to start interning. I said I’d be there in less than an hour. I felt lucky.

Flash to 2018, I spent four years alongside my MATTE family learning, failing, growing, evolving. From intern to senior creative whatever you want to call it. It was like a crash course in creative and film advertising. Max, Brett, Matt (the three partners) felt like older brothers, they put a lot of trust in me and gave me some special opportunities.

When you were trying out all those internships, was there ever a time you were investing in other paths or was it always film-related?

I’ve worn a few hats since I left high school–  creative direction, strategy, creative producing, sales, business development, waitressing, editorial, account management, social media, trend forecasting, stints writing for Nylon and Trendland. Mostly things I hated until I found film. Do not get me wrong, all of these jobs have proven useful. Process is everything!! Thanks to all of that, I can write one hell of an email, synthesize an idea and turn into an elevator pitch, and convince you that I agree with you.

There is such an intense focused idea of ‘a woman in film’, how does that make you feel? Is it stifling? Do you feel like you have to represent a lot of different people? 

This is a hard question.

As filmmakers, it’s our responsibility to represent everyone. Carefully, with integrity and understanding of your subject, especially if you can’t identify first hand, you owe it to work twice as hard. Art is a chance to respond, and usually becomes an extension of yourself.

Truth is no one’s free until we’re all free. Thank you to women like Alma Har’el (Free The Work) who push culture forward. Right now it feels like we’re in this weird time that understands the need for representation yet I find there’s a bizarre trend of co-opting cultures and minorities as part of a larger advertising scheme.

I know many women would agree with me when I say I don’t like the idea of being hired because of being female. I’m looking forward to a time where everyone’s work speaks for itself. Where everyone has a fair shot to create off their talent alone. I think we’ve come a long way but probably have a bit longer to go.

So you’re not with MATTE anymore?

I left in December 2018 to chase a dream as a freelance Director. Since, I’ve done my first music video for Jorja Smith and Burna Boy, a PSA for Free the Work and a few short love films (in the works) for a brand I admire.

What advice do you have for people looking to go into this industry? What were the benefits of being with the company that you’re with now and how did you choose them?

I’m speaking from a place that’s very much a work in progress. I’m in my infancy with a lot to learn. Being a Director isn’t glamorous. It’s a lot of painstaking follow through. It takes a lot of fighting for your vision and collaboration. Once you’re engaged in a project– you’re cuffed to the very end. I compare it to two things I’ve never done; giving birth or marriage. Some projects are brilliant, others far from but you decide what it has the power to become. When it comes to non-commercial work, I would say if you believe it needs to be made, then you should probably go make it. People love what other people are passionate about.

Some things that work for me (a checklist)– Do everything with intention. Create from a pure place. Remain curious. Live open. Absorb everything I feel, see, smell, hear. Listen more. Be able to create with nothing. Fight the fear of being less then. Remember that your imagination is as big as you let it be. Get as weird as you possibly want because there’s only one person that’s gonna do it like you do.

A big part of being Director is knowing yourself really well but at the same time not knowing yourself at all. Trust your work yet be malleable to explore what could be.

I signed with Object & Animal in July and couldn’t be happier. When you are ready to sign, make sure it’s with people who have your back and who you want to break bread with.

So, what are the things you care about?

Real people and their circumstances. I love any hero story in the eyes of the underdog. Individuals who become the woman or man of their own dreams. It’s close to home, reminds me of family and loved ones who were dealt a heavy card. But really, I want to make work that manifests themes across mental health, womanhood, redemption, socio-political issues, love and sex, culture. All of it really.

Do you want to focus on fiction? Are you working towards working on a feature film?

I’ve been directing for almost two years now. Mainly in commercial, music, some short doc. My goal is to get my feet wet in narrative and see where it takes me. I am chomping at the bit to create something purely cathartic. That being said, I’m in the process of writing and directing a short. Independent features is a dream for sure. I’d say the way that Spike Jonze does it so well is inspiring.

In film, you never really know what project is coming next. How do you deal with that free time, during a period you might not be working, and turn it into something productive?

Funny you ask, this is something I’m actually building a recipe for. This can be challenging for a person who needs 24/7/365 stimulation and doesn’t know how to slow down. For eight months straight, I kept my head down in project after project. When I came up for air, I was ready to keep going fast. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

What I’ve come to realize is just because I’m not prepping, on set, or in post doesn’t mean I’m not working. I’ve been teaching myself to enjoy process. That my identity as a Director isn’t going to be formed overnight. I forgot that in order to create you need inspiration, real-life ammo to draw from.

In between pitches and projects, I like to fill myself up with inspiration. Give myself as much influence as humanly possible. I make it a point to avoid looking at contemporary’s work. We live in a time where a lot of it’s starting to look the same and it’s actually a bit scary.

On my time off, I want to write. But in order to write, I need inspiration. And so I watch a lot of movies. I like to dig into Criterion Collection, Mubi, Film Grab, Metrograph’s selection. I love anime because it makes my mind explode with wonder. Rules don’t exist there. Right now Satoshi Kon has my heart. He’s perverse and x-rated compared to the Miyazaki films I’m used to. I love discovering new but mostly old photographers– ICP, Magnum, World Press Photo. Books and music. Right now, I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and on old soul binge listening to Frankie Valli, Otis, Etta James, Jackie Wilson. I just saw Andrew Bird at King’s Theater and haven’t felt that inspired in a really long time. Not sure if it was the mushrooms but I saw full scenes play out in my mind. I also like to engage in deep conversations with people you see but don’t know every day. You learn a lot by asking questions.

From there, I try and write. I recommend giving yourself deadlines for passion projects that you’re making excuses for. Should probably take my own advice. :)

Is there a specific story that you were inspired by recently?

Too many. My entire phone’s notes section is random snippets and braindumps from the strangers I meet, quotes from movies I see, etc. If you listen closely, most people’s lives are like a movie. Things that have made lasting impressions lately…

World Press Photo – A book that comprises the best works in photojournalism each year from over 70k submissions across 125 countries. The stories behind the photographs will move you.

Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) really did something for me. In a genre of its own, blending fantasy while going head on into hard things. I can’t believe someone’s brain can think like that.

Sam Levinson’s Euphoria. The show deals with trauma with such care, and he really put himself into his work. Also visually insane.

More than movies and books, I’m inspired by real-life people. Characters that make me want to dream up scenes and endings. Like the almost retired Jersey-born airport bartender living in Florida I just met before boarding last night. I’ve never met anyone even remotely like him, straight out of a Safdie brothers movie. My friend Bjorn’s life. She was just telling me about her dad. When he first met his mother (now ex-wife), he hired a translator because he said “he needed to know had to speak to an angel.” Weird stuff like that, I live for.

How do you run your set? How would you describe your ‘bootcamp’?

I wrote a bit of my to-do list.

As a director, you are your team. Honestly, you are absolutely nothing without your collaborators. I like to make sure they understand the vision. Know what you want, and be an exceptional communicator. Don’t be indecisive. Trust you work. It’s your fault if they can’t understand you. It’s a vulnerable thing, creating together, so be soft. Find the most obscure, unique and unlikely references. Do not look to your contemporaries for your own point of view.

I like to hire a cinematographer whose made for the job. In film, prep is everything. I’ve become pretty psychotic about my shot list and references. Establish the visual universe with your DOP. Ask for feedback and ideas. Be prepared as possible going into your shoot, because every minute costs $$$. But also don’t be so stiff. Invite room for off the cuff freestyle direction. This can really be where the magic happens.

Most importantly, as a Director, you are your energy. Don’t spoil a set because shit hit the fan, cause something didn’t go your way. This will happen, so I try and make it work in my favor and embrace the problem. What I really like to do is try and make everyone feel really good on set. Have fun.

Do you think you will stay in New York? Or maybe go to LA?

I have no idea what I want to do in a week from now and I really enjoy it that way. Truth is I’d love to live all over. I’m trying to set myself up for a life that allows me to be everywhere.

Is there anything you want to talk about that we didn’t get to?

Don’t be so concerned about being liked. It can be hard in a world of mirrors but try to avoid indulging in ego-driven work. Develop an identity derivative of real life.

Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.

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