Leif Johnson is an extraordinary talented director and filmmaker, with over ten years experience working in video production. He initially started his career as editor of in-flight content cutting together DVT exercise videos before moving onto news and entertainment features for local TV. Now, at 35 years old he has directed several adverts including Nestle, Vauxhall, Vype, L’Oreal, Ebay and Microsoft.
Leif is also involved in helping ad agencies with their charitable work such as, Water Aid, RBL, NCDV and the campaign to rebuild the Glasgow School of Art. Recently he has transitioned to making films.
“I’m from Manchester. Arguably the UK capital in the eyes many Mancunian’s. Manchester is rich in culture as it is ignorance at times, which is part of it’s charm I guess. Growing up in Greater Manchester was pretty tough. My parents were divorced, I got a daily bullying at school and to top it off I was diagnosed with dyslexia and found the educational system in the 80’s relatively unsympathetic to my condition. As a young boy I retreated into a fantasy world made up of all the amazing characters and scenarios I came across in the left field films I would come across. My mother was pretty open minded and encouraged my odd tastes. We watched silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton which then moved onto Hammer Horror, then Kung Fu and Manga films,” said director Leif Johnson.
Leif Johnson says for NY Elite that his love for filmmaking started when he was a young child. Action films were a big influence on his early career. He is now working on a new short film called “Kowloon Killers,” starring Tien Hoang (lead actor and fight choreographer), Jan Le and Hai Le.
“Money was tight at home and I worked in a kitchen to pay for a hi-8 camcorder. This camcorder was what kickstarted my love of film making. I found that I was pretty handy at shooting and cutting short films with my friends. I’m heavily influenced by Hong Kong action cinema and low budget slasher gore filmmakers from the 80’s such as Sam Raimi, John Carpenter and Dario Argento. I saw their unique styles shine through the mediocrity of Hollywood cinema through the 90’s. Sam Raimi’s crazy camera movements and beautiful dutch angles or John Carpenters captivatingly simple and sinister soundtracks. I learned that lighting a scene can fun by watching Dario Argento’s Suspiria. My main influence above all is Jackie Chan. He showed me an incredible work ethic and a uncompromising love and dedication to film making,” added Leif Johnson.
NY Elite interview with Director Leif Johnson
NY Elite: What projects are you currently working on?
Leif Johnson: I’m currently shooting an exciting short film that encapsulates all my favorite aspects of storytelling in a fun fifteen minutes. It’s called ‘Kowloon Killers’ and based in Hong Kong but shot mainly in England. It’s in Vietnamese and Cantonese and has some breathtaking fight choreography and wonderfully stylized cinematography. The soundtrack has a dark Witch House vibe as well as an even darker sense of humor throughout. The stunt team and actors are charismatic and bring a lot of the charm to the screen. There’s a real hotbed of Asian talent in London and I think that world wide this should be recognized more. I heard the remake of Monkey Magic is a Caucasian cast! Why? It’s very upsetting that the studios can’t move on and embrace other ethnicities and casting appropriately.
NY Elite: What is the new film “Kowloon Killers” about?
Leif Johnson: I wanted to shoot something in a different language and be as authentic as possible. The lead actor and fight choreographer Tien Hoang is from Vietnam and I wanted him to be confident acting in his native language. I also wanted to shoot something that was based in Hong Kong and had the feel of a John Woo film. I love John Woo and how he cuts his action scenes together with such poetry. So this is the plan! The story was focused on the Vietnamese inhabitance in Hong Kong and how they have had to get involved with organised crime to get by. It’s a seedier look at Hong Kong. The darker neon lit streets coupled with a moody soundtrack and awesome action scenes.
NY Elite: What is different about being in the director’s chair with this project?
Leif Johnson: This is different in that I’m just as much a producer on this as I am director. I wanted everything to be right and being the control freak that I am I ended up organizing pretty much most aspects of this production. It’s been hard but when you’re looking at the monitor during the shoot or reviewing rushes you know that everything in that frame is exactly how you wanted it to be. Plus the budget has been challenging and I wanted to make sure expenses didn’t suddenly increase without being involved at the start and being able to come up with solutions.
NY Elite: How did you go about casting for the film? Which actors stand out and why are they perfect for the role?
Leif Johnson: The casting was easy. Tien and his team are great martial artists and the rest of the cast are mutual actor friends who work in London. My girlfriend Lisa Ronaghan is an actor and is extremely funny. She has a scene that will have you in stitches. She plays a demanding American tourist with a cringeworthy vocal fry. Sorry.
NY Elite: Who are the film’s stars?
Leif Johnson: Tien Hoang he plays Hung. He’s worked as stunt performer on films such as Dr. Strange and Now You See Me 2. Jan Le plays his bad ass sister and Hai Le (no relation) plays a double crossing coward who is the catalyst for everything that unfolds in throughout the narrative.
NY Elite: What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you?
Leif Johnson: When I was younger I would have a very simple and straight forward answer to that. Now I’m a little older its hard to answer that question. I find good aspects in most films. I think that a film even being completed is astonishing in itself. But to hopefully answer the question I love film that has a unique quality to it that comes from one person. There’s so many big budget event movies like the Marvel films that could be directed by anyone. But if you see a film that instantly screams the style of the director, well then that’s my kinda bag. Just watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon. His films are a perfect example.
NY Elite: What special technique do you use to help guide actors?
Leif Johnson: I love working with actors. They are a rare breed and all unique people. I believe in giving them freedom to be in the moment and make natural decisions. If you over direct and stifle their creativity you end up with a poor performance. Their’s no such thing as too much rehearsal before the shoot. Get their input and take on board small changes to dialogue etc. They need to own the role and understand the person they are playing better that you do. When it comes to the day of the shoot they know exactly what to do. It’s just a matter of tweaks here and there.
NY Elite: Have you thought about acting in your movies or in general?
Leif Johnson: Ha! Hell no! There’s a big difference between knowing what you want from a performance and performing it yourself. That said I do get excited and act out the roles to help the actors understand. I’m pretty physical when on set/location like a massive kid.
NY Elite: Top 3 favorite films/plays you have been involved in?
Leif Johnson: Technically not a film but a directed an advert for the Vauxhall Viva car. It was all set in the 60’s and had the look of the Carry On films. It’s how I met my girlfriend. I’d also say the YouTube shorts I’ve shot with Tien and his team have been the most fun I’ve ever had. Tien and I shot a short in two days to see if we could do it called Resolve with Jean-Paul Ly who is an amazing actor and stunt performer. He has a Cambodian film coming out called Jailbreak. I’d say Kowloon Killers is going to be my new baby and even though we’re half way through production as I write this I’d say it’s my favorite.
NY Elite: Do you express yourself creatively in any other ways?
Leif Johnson: Music! I was in a band called Death to Spies in Manchester and I thought myself how to play bass at the point of starting the band. I then learned how to produce music off the back of that. I have a few albums on Spotify under the name Luxure XO. Coming from Manchester you are surrounded by music and its hard not to get sucked in by the creative buzz around the city. New Order, The Smiths, The Fall are just some of the bands I loved growing up with. I think the love of music is a big part of being a director. I find inspiration in sound and listening to music helps me conjure up ideas and visuals.
NY Elite: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career in filmmaking?
Leif Johnson: I’m still very much on that journey. One day I’ll be a full time film director and break away from directing adverts. But what I have leaned is that being a director is the oddest thing in the world. You need to be focused yet on top of everything happening around you. You need to have one on one relationships with key players in the cast and crew yet know what everyone else is doing. The most challenging thing is knowing when to stand your ground but also know when to compromise. It’s stressful but ultimately rewarding.
NY Elite: Any plans to direct another movie?
Leif Johnson: Yes I’ve two films in the wings. A thriller/horror called Gehenna about a man’s journey at the point of death. Then I’m gunning for a feature I’m writing called Ku that’s going to be like Mr. Vampire meets Big Trouble in Little China meets Tetsuo Body Hammer.
NY Elite: NY Elite: What can we expect from you in 2017?
Leif Johnson: Well Kowloon Killers is going to be doing the rounds and I can’t wait for people to see that. Then it’s straight onto preproduction for Gehenna. I’m also shooting a bucket load of short action scenes with Tien’s stunt team throughout the year also. It’s so much fun.
NY Elite: Where can everyone keep up with you to learn more? …social media…website
Leif Johnson: My website: http://www.leifcontent.com/