Professor breaks onto big screen

While most students on campus know Liza Johnson as a professor of art and chair of American studies, many are unaware of her increasingly successful presence in independent film. As both a talented filmmaker and writer, her short films and experimental videos have been screened in multiple international film festivals and fine arts venues, with her latest installment being presented at the Toronto Film Festival. Her involvement in narrative cinema, however, was not an immediate one.

Johnson’s training is in avant-garde film and video. She has been, for many years now, the main person on campus to teach production practices, such as documentary and fiction formats. “For several years, I have been making projects that have a little bit more of a cinematic syntax,” Johnson said. “We did several projects in what you might call a documentary environment, with non-professional actors, but we shot them like a movie with several kinds of reverse angles and the grammar of narrative cinema. At a certain point, if this were going to get more elaborate, this would be narrative cinema. So, that is what I have been doing for the last five years. I just finished my second feature film.”

The shift to narrative cinema was unexpected and gradual for Johnson. “It was my work with non-actors that started to have the form of narrative cinema,” Johnson said. She became captivated by this aspect of film, one that was similar yet different from her usual work. From this, she started to dive deeper and begin developing this kind of work more. “I started writing screenplays and working with Sundance, which have these laboratories that support screenwriters and directors. It has been a pretty organic transition, except for the economic underpinnings and exhibition context that are wildly different for art and cinema.”

Her second feature film, titled Hateship Loveship, is an adaptation of a short story by the Canadian writer Alice Munro. The film is about a caretaker (Kristen Wiig) who is sent to a new household after the death of her employer. While at the new estate, a teenage girl in the household tricks the caretaker into thinking that the estranged father (Guy Pearce) is in love with her. The main conflict, as Johnson explains it, centers on the upbringings of the caretaker. “The caretaker comes from a background where her aspirations are usually not supported. But when the girls trick her, she really has to put herself at risk for her desire,” Johnson said of the film.

Johnson is grateful for the balance that the College provides for her. “It is actually really helpful [to work as a professor],” Johnson said. “I have a stable job with which I can take artistic risks, without the fear of going broke.” This opportunity is a luxury that very few in her field can afford. In addition to the economic support that she receives, her teaching serves as a therapeutic treatment and getaway from the difficulties and stress that filming can have on someone. “Teaching allows me to escape and go outside my problems and interact with people on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “Williams has helped me with the schedule of shooting by being as generous as they can be with the flexibility of my teaching schedule.”

After the screening of Hateship Loveship at the Toronto Film Festival, Johnson is already looking at future projects. Earlier in the summer, Johnson auctioned a non-fiction property about a group of teenager girls. Nevertheless, she is excited about a project that Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, The Iceman) has brought to her. “I have a project that Michael Shannon brought me, whom I have worked with in my other film, Return,” Johnson said. “He is a great actor and this would be a really fun project to work with him.”

As she continues to work on her various film projects while teaching the studio arts seminar for juniors, she reveals her advice for any Ephs wanting to get involved in the film industry. “The advice I constantly tell people is to study areas that you find interesting,” Johnson said. “People are always wondering how to ‘break in’ or do the right thing that will be successful or to imitate things that were recently successful. But at that point it’s too late. As a liberal arts student, you have the chance to generate ideas before they become received wisdoms or established genres or worn-out conventions. Things that interest you are likely to be interesting to other people, too.”