Interview with Sam Johnson, Director of Comedy Billy the Kid at ASFF 2015

Sam Johnson’s laugh out loud film Billy the Kid, supported by Creative England took home the York Youth Award at ASFF 2015, an initiative to introduce young students to independent cinema. In this heartwarming short film, 15-year-old Billy learns that fitting in to a new school can be hard, particularly when you were bullied out of the last one for living your life as a heroic, lasso wielding cowboy. We speak to Johnson about working on blockbusters to shorts.

ASFF: Billy the Kid is whirling through the festival scene, how does it feel to have won the York Youth Award at ASFF 2015?
It was a wonderful conclusion to an amazing festival! I only wish I’d been funnier in my speech. The Billy the Kid team and myself have been so excited with how the film has been received on the festival circuit. Wherever the film plays, the most rewarding screenings tend to be those on home soil. Aesthetica was our UK premiere, and it was a lovely opportunity to properly celebrate all the hard work with those who helped create it.

Billy was developed through Creative England’s inaugural ishorts scheme, via the BFI NET.WORK – it’s their talent development team’s annual short film scheme to discover new directors from the English regions. They provided £5000 in production investment and ongoing development support and mentoring. Creative England were at the festival with a selection of their Year 2 ishorts, so it was great to be able to share the success with them (which we did with much vigor)!

ASFF: It must have been a privilege to have talented child star John Bell cast as Billy. What was it like working with him?
John has been working as a professional actor since he was ten-years-old, so while he was still only sixteen when we filmed, he was about twice as experienced as anyone else on set! He’s built up a formidable portfolio of work – from Doctor Who to The Hobbit – so, unusually for a child actor, we had very few apprehensions about casting him.

In the run up to the shoot, our producer David Wade organised for John to have specialist lasso and bullwhip training. He has amazing focus and commitment for someone so young and he’s already got amazing control for someone so young, so we had lots of fun trying different things, rarely wasting a take. He’s a very talented young man, and I’m looking forward to working with him again in the future.

ASFF: Billy the Kid is a literal portrayal of an individual having the confidence to not conform to the crowd, and consequently gives an inspiring anti-bullying message. Do you hope that this message resonated with younger viewers during ASFF?
The film was developed through Creative England’s ishorts, but we also worked with the charity Beatbullying. So the anti-bullying message was a very important part of the development – and it’s a theme I feel very strongly about. Since releasing the film we’ve shown it in schools and at anti-bullying week, trying to add our little bit to the conversation.

The hope with Billy was to make a film that entertained audiences – particularly younger ones – but hopefully educated them in the process. I very much hope this was the impact it had at ASFF. Certainly getting the nod of approval from younger viewers with the York Youth Award is a good start!

ASFF: You’re filmmaking portfolio is extremely varied, ranging from advertising films to blockbusters like Skyfall. How did you find the experience of creating a comedic short film?
After leaving university I made a very concerted effort to experience as many aspects of the film industry as possible. My first job was in the art department on an Australian horror called Blackwater about a man-eating crocodile, and I also worked in the locations and AD departments before becoming a director.  I firmly believe that the more you know about the process, the better equipped you are to deal with everything a shoot may throw at you.

I’ve taken the same approach with my directing career. I think many young directors are eager to find their ‘niche’ as soon as possible, but I’m very conscious that I’m learning. As such, I’m keen to explore different styles and genres. The common denominator for me is making films that move audiences.

With Billy the Kid, I think the lighthearted nature of the film rubbed off on the production. Aside from the fun we had shooting the comedy, we were filming in the summer with all the cast and crew living together. Billy was the happiest set I’ve been on. On a couple of days we had 70 people on set, and we were intent on doing our stunts and effects authentically in camera. It was a challenge, but an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m currently developing a more ambitious action/comedy, as well as a drama – so I’m going to keep experimenting!

To see a film about the making of Billy the Kid click here.

1. Sam Johnson, Billy the Kid (Creative England/ BFI)