An Interview with Bill Johns – By Jordan Garren

Recently I had the chance to see indie film maker Bill Johns’ first feature-length film: MADNESS. This twisted tale concerns an emotionally abused teenager who slowly spirals uncontrollably into a world of insanity and murder. Though the film has the proper setup for an 80s style slasher flick, Bill took the road less traveled and attempted to turn this horror story into a psychological thriller. The end result is a mixed bag, but one thing is for certain: Bill is a talented film maker with a style all his own. Though I wasn’t a big fan of MADNESS, I was very impressed with the polished look of the film, which was mainly the handiwork of Mr. Johns who wrote, directed, produced, edited, and even did the visual and makeup effects! If this film is any indication of Bill’s abilities, then I have high hopes for all of his future projects!

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 First off, thanks a ton for doing this interview Bill! Before we get into MADNESS, could you please give myself, and all the readers at Rogue Cinema, a brief overview of your career, your inspirations, and how you got started in the film biz? I recall you saying that you never attended college during one of our conversations, so just where did you learn the art of film making?

Well, Jordan, I began making movies on my dad’s old regular 8mm wind-up camera and did a couple of fun shorts before graduating high school. I guess I’ve always wanted to be a film maker, and what really sunk the hook was Star Wars, it really inspired me. However the realities of life and living, loves and losses, always kept my dreams just out of reach. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I decided to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to achieve my dream.

Prior to making MADNESS, a collection of your short films was released on DVD, namely "The Short Film Career of Bill Johns." Of the six shorts contained on the DVD, "Psyclone" is the main one that caught my eye. Apparently that particular short was originally intended to be your first feature length film, correct? And out of curiosity, what was the plot for "Psyclone" and will it ever be resurrected as a feature film?

Yes. PsyClone was on the front burner. However, even though the script was getting great reviews and feedback, the funding for a 35MM production never came through and so I decided to come up with a movie that (if I had to) I could do for almost nothing. This would hopefully give me the credibility to take on a larger production and get PsyClone back into full production. Oh yeah, the plot. Well, to use the Hollywood method for film descriptions, it’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde meets Altered States.

With the sudden death of "Psyclone," you bounced back rather quickly and wrote a script within three weeks, and soon, MADNESS was born. Your feature film debut has been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining," and also has some scenes that are eerily reminiscent of the home videos made by the perpetrators of the Columbine school shootings. What other films and/or real-life events helped inspire the storyline for MADNESS?

It’s odd, there aren’t any exact headlines lifted for the film, but when I described the plot briefly to a colleague, he immediately said, "Oh, you mean like that guy who… " and I’ve heard now several scenarios that parallel the film. I think what I was going for was a sort of warped explanation of how someone can go from just being a troubled teen to a serial killer all in one night.

You managed to round up a cast of beautiful women, including Cleveland singing sensation Jami Ross. How did Ms. Ross become involved with your production and what was it like working with her? Yikes! And she was only sixteen years old at the time of MADNESS’ filming?! I thought she was at least eighteen. Man do I feel guilty! Hahaha!

Actually she was fifteen…. (yeah, gotta put those thoughts away … hahahaha!)

Jami auditioned for one of my shorts called "Left for Dead," but was too old for the part plus she had braces. I did remember her though and knew she had real talent. Anyway, the call went out for Madness and I specified 18-22 year olds, so even though she really wanted to audition she didn’t come because she thought she was too young.

Well, in the scheduled auditions held throughout Cleveland we still hadn’t found our lead, Megan, so my co-producer Andy Schofield and I were about to take a road trip to New York when [Jami’s] Dad called. He told me how much she really wanted to audition and why she didn’t, but could I just take a look at her anyway? I said sure, it’s always good to practice and do auditions because you learn from each one, but I had no intention of casting her.

She came in to read and blew me away. Her youth gave her all the naivete I was looking for in Megan and her delivery was years beyond her age. Just in case though, I changed the script and mentioned that she was a prodigy in college, but it really wasn’t necessary. Everyone thinks she’s at least 18.

 Now here’s something that’s sort of been bugging me since I’ve watched MADNESS. The movie features a demented killer, trapped in a house with beautiful (and somewhat ditzy) girls. It’s obviously the perfect setup for a good ole fashioned slasher flick, but rather than take that route, you decided to make your film more like a psychological thriller. Was this always your intention, or did you decide at the last minute to avoid making a paint-by-numbers horror film?

You actually hit it right on the head, Jordan. It is definitely not the typical formula horror film. I really had no interest in making that kind of film, but it was a huge risk to handle it the way I did. It’s a very mental piece with some elements of horror, but not a slash-a-minute gore-fest. It’s a slow descent into Madness.

Hence the film’s title of course! 😉 So, MADNESS takes place mainly in a gorgeous mansion, that gets blown sky-high at the film’s finale. First off, where did you snag such a nice pad to film at and secondly, did you utilize CGI to create the big explosion at the end?

Of course the explosions are CGI although the owner winked at me every once in a while whenever we’d mention burning it to the ground. You see, it was fully insured and had been up for sale for quite a few months already with no serious offers. In fact that’s how I found it. We had been looking for a furnished model home that would maybe let us film at night since they were only showing the home during the day and I kept passing this neighborhood that looked like it must have a model in it. I drove around and saw the house for sale. On a whim and expecting a quick rejection, I called the realtor and asked if she’d run it by the owners. To my huge surprise Holly called and said we could meet about it. Now here’s where the quality of my previous work helped convince the owners that we took our art seriously and would create a decent looking product at the end. They opened their doors, often leaving us the keys for days at a time, and just let us do whatever we wanted. It was unheard of and amazing to have so much cooperation.

Wow! Thank goodness for the owner’s cooperation. I don’t think MADNESS would’ve looked half as good if it wasn’t shot in a huge mansion. Snagging that house most definitely raised your production value! Moving on then, we both know where I stand in regards to MADNESS, but how has your film been received by other reviewers, critics, and the general public (who may have seen your film at its theatrical premiere)?

Well your review and the one on are perfect examples of how subjective this business is. Extremes to say the least. However, among people who know me, no one has ever said they hated it, but when they only talk about how good the film looked, or how hot Jami was, or how well edited it was, it becomes obvious that they didn’t care for the story.

Looking back at MADNESS, is there anything that you personally would have changed, or were there some scenes or ideas that you wanted to incorporate into the film that never made it into the final cut?

The film is very, very close to script, so there’s not much missing at all. The one major thing I felt I didn’t do well is create the proper tension for the kill scenes. They’re fairly realistic, but they happen almost matter-of-factly, without a lot of running or screaming… well, kinda like real life. And maybe that’s horrific enough.

 The last time I spoke with you via e-mail, you mentioned that you’re still looking for a distributor for MADNESS. Just out of curiosity, have you (hopefully) succeeded in finding a distributor, or does the search still continue?

I’m just beginning the search for a distributor, so if you know someone over at HBO or Warner, or Blockbuster, or Hollywood Video, have them drop me a line.

If I had any connections to any one of those companies I’d gladly put in a good word for you Bill. However, the biggest "industry connection" I have consists of a long-time friendship with the owner of a local "mom-and-pop" video store. Hahaha! Well, Bill, now that MADNESS is completed, what’s next on your plate? Are you going to make a few more short films or dive into another feature length production?

The next one will be another feature that picks up where Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" left off. At the end of the novel, Mina and John Harker have a son and call him Quincy after the American who dies trying to help kill Dracula. In my story, Dracula did more than just bite Mina and Quincy is not really Jonathon’s son. It’s inspired by my short film, "Too Good to be True."

That sounds awesome Bill! Truthfully, I’ve been waiting for a decent vampire/Dracula flick to come out and this could be just what the doctor ordered! (Please keep me updated on this project!) Well, that’s all the questions I have for you now Bill. Before we close things out, do you have anything you’d like to say to our readers?

You can always find a job, but don’t wait too long to fulfill your dreams.

Right on Bill! There’s no time like the present to begin fulfilling your dreams and ambitions! Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview Bill, and good luck with your next production!