Published on September 18th, 2015 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Shauna Johannesen
Equally talented in the art of acting and writing across film, television, and theatre, Shauna Johannesen offers the best of both worlds to her creative projects, which have included credits like Motive, Cult, and Bedbugs, a short film that made waves at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. With this year’s festival only a few days away, Shauna Johannesen offered us some insights into balancing writing and acting, the film festival circuit, and her career highlights thus far.
Can you start by telling us a little bit more about you and what projects you have on the go right now?
Sure. Right now I’m working on a family drama called Common Grace which goes up at Pacific Theatre in January, and a screenplay called Trying, which is a Judd Apatow-style comedy about a couple trying to get pregnant. I’m also working as a dramaturg on Ron Reed’s play about the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien!
The 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival is coming up. Your short film, Bedbugs, which you wrote and starred in, screened there last year – along with other festival appearances. What can you share about the journey of creating the film and taking it through to festivals?
Films are incredibly collaborative things and you go in with a plan, but you don’t really know what’s going to come out until the thing is done. So it’s been an incredibly informative experience in terms of learning so much more about how films are made, how they evolve, and how everyone contributes to make a thing what it is. And I love Bedbugs. I love what a fantastic cast and crew I got to play with and how much support we got from Crazy8s to make this wacky little puppet film. So taking it to festivals just feels like gravy. Or whipping cream. Like you get to invite everyone in on the fun.
Having gained some experience on the film festival circuit, how are they beneficial for filmmakers and what challenges did you run into along the way?
I think seeing your work in front of an audience is extremely informative because you need to know if your story lands – if your jokes are funny, if your moments lead people on a journey, if people are connecting. You learn how well you succeeded in telling a story – or not. There are jokes in Bedbugs that I thought were funny and no one ever laughs at. Ever. That’s interesting to me. What should we have cut? Where did we need another beat? As far as festivals, it helps to meet people. It helps to win awards. It helps to see what other people are making and creating to spur you forward to the next thing.
In terms of challenges, I would say it’s expensive. Festival entries are expensive and going to festivals is expensive. And also it’s very time consuming to be spending so much time administrating. As a writer looking forward to the next project it’s hard spending a lot of time on emails and correspondence and uploading things to Dropbox when you’re not being paid for any of it. But it’s also a great problem to have, because it means people want to see your film.
You’re a prolific writer as well as being an actor. What inspired you to do both?
I think if you’re a storyteller, if you’re an artist, then that impulse can come out in different ways. I love bringing a character to life as an actor and connecting with my heart and mind and body to a story. It’s so physical and happens with other people – on a stage or a set. But I also love that as a writer I get to create the world, all the characters, and the whole journey myself. But the seed of it is the same. Plus, I like to write what I want to play as an actor and what I want to see as an audience member. It’s all about story.
If someone sees your name in the credits of a film as a writer or actor, what qualities do you want the audience to associate with you as a performer and writer?
I guess I want them to see truth. I want them to see something in the story or the character that feels true or authentic to them. And I hope I make them laugh at least once.
What have been some of your career highlights at this point in time?
Getting my first professional production of a full-length play in January is pretty exciting, for sure. It’s a play I really love, full of funny, broken, deeply human people and I can’t wait to share it. Working with Kristin Lehman and Louis Ferreira on the set of Motive was something I really loved because I think the writing on that show is stellar, and they’re two incredibly gifted, hard-working, and generous actors. And every time Bedbugs plays on the big screen and people genuinely laugh, it’s a career highlight. I could eat those laughs for breakfast.
You’ve written for stage as well as for screen. What are the challenges and rewards of writing for these two mediums?
I would say that one of the challenges of theatre is that you can’t visually cut away to reveal something or button a scene or build suspense – the actor has to do it with their performance and you have to construct it with your words. On the flip side, the challenge for me in film and TV is to not use words so much – to think more visually.
The reward of film and TV both as an actor and a writer is that you have something tangible when you’re done. You can watch it again and again. You can look at it. In theatre, the beauty and the difficulty is in its ephemeral nature. But you get to live the story with the audience in real time which is this beautiful, marvelous, kind of sacred thing when it’s done well. You actually breathe the same air and hold your breath together and affect each other. It’s alive.
What advice would you give to actors who are considering writing their own material?
Do it. Absolutely do it. But also, learn about writing. I studied writing for a long time. I’ve written a lot of stuff – and it’s hard. Sometimes you write things that are bad. Very bad. It’s hard to do it period, and it’s hard to do it well. So read the books on story and structure, then practice and get feedback. And don’t let wanting to play the part cloud your judgement about whether the story works or not. Then rewrite. And rewrite again.
Which books and authors have been influential to you in your career so far?
I’m most moved by stories that explore the depth of human experience. I connect most with stories that have some kind of existential longing. Stories that make me feel, think and laugh. I loved
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle. The Brothers K by David James Duncan. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
I saw Good People last year, by David Lindsay-Abaire and half-way through I almost jumped out of my seat because I realized “This play is about something.” And it was fantastic. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis, too.
And I love good television – I love The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Parenthood, The Good Wife. And I love seeing smart, funny women telling stories – they influence me. Elizabeth Meriwether. Tina Fey. Amy Poehler. Amy Schumer. Smart and funny. Gets me every time. I’m sure gonna miss Jon Stewart.
Where can we go to find out more about you?
Our thanks to Shauna Johannesen for speaking with us!
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