[The following story includes spoilers for Hulu film Self Reliance.]
With Self Reliance, Jake Johnson just wanted to create a film that people would be excited to watch and share with their friends.
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In his feature length directorial debut, which he also wrote and stars in, Johnson portays Thomas, a man stuck in a rut, who agrees to partake in a dark web reality television series he knows nothing about for the opportunity to win $1 million.
The premise of the game is that his character must outwit hunters who are attempting to kill him, but there is one loophole: The hunters can only attack when he’s alone. So, he asks his friends and family to commit to spending one month with him, where they cannot be apart.
When none of his family believe the game is real, Tommy adopts a random man on the street named James (Biff Wiff) and says he’ll pay him to spend every second of the next month with him. He also posts an ad on Craigslist, asking if anyone else who is playing the game would be willing to hang out together, so they can both be protected. Enter Anna Kendrick’s Maddie.
“What would happen if you stripped the gore from Squid Game and added the charm of New Girl mixed with the eeriness of The Truman Show? You’d get something like Jake Johnson’s quiet and quirky directorial debut Self Reliance,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s arts and culture critic Lovia Gyarkye wrote in her review.
Johnson was involved in every step of the filmmaking process, from the script to the casting, choosing his team to directing and starring. He gave his all to Self Reliance and really enjoyed several aspects of it, but when it comes to trying his hand at helming another project, he’s not quite sure.
“I’m not going to direct for a while if I were to do it again,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It feels like it’s a marriage, and the marriage of Self Reliance and myself is still going on. So, I’m not ready to talk about another marriage. It feels insane to me. So, I might at some point, but I’d have to fall in love with an idea, because you can act on something and not love it. You can’t do that with directing. It’s too much time. It’s too much fight. It’s too much staring at dailies that you better really care about the movie you’re making, or your day job’s a nightmare.”
Below, Johnson unpacks what it was like pulling triple duty on Self Reliance, putting out personal asks to all the actors he wanted to work with on the film, what inspired the script, his thoughts on a possible New Girl and more.
So, you’ve acted in movies that you’ve written for before. What was it like adding directing to that mix for your feature-length directorial debut?
More than kind of anything what I loved about directing this one was hiring all the different department heads, so like Adam Silver, my DP, Grace Ali, the head of set design. It was really nice. Then the cast, to be able to pick everybody, and then let them run wild. Sometimes as an actor in things, even if I’ve produced it, everybody’s not my hire. So, you’ll like somebody, but you’ll think, “Oh, I thought that was gonna look better.” And I’ll go, “But that’s not my job.” So, I just have to stay quiet there. Or, “I don’t like the way they’re shooting this. Like, if we’ve got, you know, this person and this person, and they’re both so funny and they can both improvise, why are we doing this in tight singles? Either put them in a two-shot or cross-covered so that they can live through it.” As an actor, even suggesting that stuff is annoying because that’s not your job. And so I have to bite my tongue a lot.
Biff Wiff, for example, in my movie, who plays James, I think is one of the funniest people on planet Earth. And I think his instincts are perfect. The scene where Maddie and I are at the restaurant, and we first meet — Anna Kendrick — originally he was supposed to leave when I see Anna, and he goes “You safe?” and then she and I were gonna be alone in the coverage, and he was gonna be gone. But because he’s so good, day of, I said to the DP, can we just keep him over my shoulder and then keep it two-shot with him in it? In case, in the scene, I want to just improvise and ask him what he thinks. And it ended up being a huge part of that scene. So I think that’s what I love most about directing, being able to make those decisions.
You mentioned the casting. That was actually one of my questions. How involved were you in the process?
I was involved with kind of all aspects of this one. I didn’t want to not think about it. So, every member of the cast was somebody either I had been a fan of, like Boban [Marjanovic,] the 7-foot man, I had reached out to on instant messenger. The cowboy was obviously Remy from New Girl, and I’ve wanted to work with him since then. I like him so much. Anna Kendrick, I knew her. Andy [Samberg], I’m obviously a fan of. Chris Lloyd, I’ve been a fan of since Taxi. GaTa was somebody who I saw in an audition tape, and then I watched his performance on his show. Mary Holland is somebody I’ve always wanted to work with. I love her work. Eric Edelstein, the bouncer, is somebody I’ve been working with for 20 years. It’s kind of like the list just keeps going on.
Did you just reach out to them like, “Hey, you wanna be in my movie?”
It depends. So like Mary Holland, I sent a text to her saying, “I wrote a part with you in mind, would you be interested in doing it?” I did the same with Eric. Daryl Johnson, who plays Mary Holland’s husband in it, I’d seen in a commercial 10 years ago and found his information through a friend because I found out he was in Drunk History. So, I got in touch with him and said like, “Would you be willing to read with me?” He said, “Yes.” Other people auditioned. Emily Hampshire, I didn’t know, but her audition was so great. So, it was just a really unique, great experience casting this movie.
The cast was incredible.
I think so too. Shocking. [Laughs]
You also star in the film. So you pulled triple duty on it. How did you balance acting and directing?
It was a grind. It was more of a grind than I expected because you have playback, and you can watch, but we shot the whole movie in 17 days. It was a sprint. So we didn’t we didn’t have the luxury of like… most movies, you got six weeks to shoot it. So, we had to move fast, but I also had to kind of watch playbacks. I depended a lot on Ali Bell, one of our producers — she runs the Lonely Island — and Joe Hardesty. The AD of the movie, Anna Borden, she was an AD and a director for Minx. She directed an episode. So, she was actually my first hire, because I’m like, “We both know you’re more of a director than you are an AD. I need an AD for this, but really, I also need like a co-director.” She helped out a ton.
The big ending scene where I win, well, that all changed a lot in post because we ended up cutting a bunch of stuff out of that. There’s a take where it’s really close on my face that we use a lot of. That was the last take of that coverage, and it was Anna Borden saying, “I would just do one more where you’re pretty excited. You’ve been pretty low-key,” and I thought, “I don’t need it.” But when we were meeting on the movie, I said, “When I’m tired, and I think I got it, please push.” And so she said like, “I just think in post, you’re gonna want it.” We used all of that take. If we didn’t have it, it wouldn’t have worked. Those little moments, the amount of people you realize as a director who save you. You’re like, “Wow, if she didn’t say that, we would have moved on,” and she pushed. I was like, “What an amazing help.”
Self Reliance has been No. 1 on Hulu since it first dropped on Friday. How do you feel about that?
Honestly, I feel really happy because I was trying to make a really small indie that was fun to watch. I wasn’t interested in just making another… I’ve made a lot of movies that people don’t watch. And, you know, it might get well received critically, but it’s not something that people are telling their friends to watch. And so I really was trying to make something that was fun and something that people would actually enjoy watching. So, the fact that people have tuned in and the fact that we’re number one for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, it’s a big weekend. I feel really excited that we won the weekend.
Talk to me a little bit about the script. How did it come to life? What story were you trying to tell?
There was a Japanese reality show that I saw back in the day about a comedian who was selected to participate in the show, but he didn’t know anything that the show was about. He was all excited because he’s going to be on TV, what an honor. They put him in an apartment, and he’s all excited. Then, they take off all his clothes, and he’s a little less excited. Then they tell him there’s cameras everywhere, and he’s a little bit freaked out. And then, he realizes there’s no food, and the only way he can eat is if he wins from coupons or from radio shows. He struggles, and he suffers, and the more he suffers, and the crazier he behaves in his loneliness and suffering, the funnier it is for the audience. And that idea blew me away.
This idea that we like to watch people suffer, and while people are going through really hard things, secretly it’s funny to us. So, that idea was the beginning of this and how to keep that light and fun but tell that story. So, I’d written a version of it in 2017 and pitched it to Netflix. They passed as a limited series. I got my feelings hurt, and then the pandemic hit, and all the themes from the movie all of a sudden, I felt like were coming true. Squid Game had come out and was a big hit. I thought, “Man, I think now because of the pandemic and because of the success of Squid Game, I think I can get this movie financed.” So I finished it, sent it to Ali Bell over at a Lonely Island, and MRC came on and they were unbelievably good partners, and we had a blast making it.
How much did you work with Lonely Island? Did Andy play a part beyond just acting in it?
A lot of people are vanity producers, where they put their names on things and they don’t do anything, and I wasn’t sure with the Lonely Island what kind of [partners they’d be]. I knew Ali Bell, who’s a lion. She’s the pit bull in the movie, so I was happy to work with them with just Ali. She used to be Ivan Reitman’s producing partner. I worked with her on No Strings Attached back in the day. She’s no joke. But then Akiva [Schaffer] was really involved with the script, and then Jorma [Taccone] was giving notes, and then in post, Andy would sit in on the edit bay with us, and Akiva was with us. Akiva cut scenes for us. We could send him, quite literally, the dailies, and he was cutting versions. They were with me and fighting if I had a vision.
We went to South by Southwest, and Hulu came in aggressively and bought it. At that point, we weren’t for sale because we were originally a Paramount movie, but they came in hot enough, so we decided to sell, but then I realized in talking to audience members that my movie wasn’t finished. It was a really weird spot because everybody wanted to have celebration dinners because we had sold, and there was a profit, but I had been with people at South by Southwest, and what they were saying that they were missing, I believed them. So, I felt like it was not done yet.
I talked to Jake Szymanski, a buddy of mine who just did Jury Duty, and I was emotional. I was like, I don’t know what to do because everybody thinks it’s over, but it’s not done. And he said — because he knows Andy and them — he goes, “Talk to them.” He goes, “You’re the director. Don’t stop fighting.” So I said to Andy and Akiva what I wanted to do. Without a second, they said we 100 percent support you. So, we were offering to self-finance the reshoots, and then MRC came up, heard the pitch and said, “Let’s do it.” So we literally just went backwards, financially, redid some scenes, re-cut some stuff and I think the movie’s way better now. They didn’t need to do that. MRC didn’t need to do that, but it was a bunch of people who were really trying to help me make the movie I wanted to make, and I have nothing but gratitude.
Care to share what some of the reshoots were, or do you want to keep that to yourself?
The whole third act, I re-cut. I made it a little bit lighter. I made it more fun. The editor Ryan Brown, who’s great, came back. We added the scene with the ninjas when they come under the bridge. That was a reshoot. That wasn’t there originally. That scene used to be like two minutes longer. We made a lot of just little tweaks and changes, and then Andy was not in the limo. So, it was originally written for someone to be in that limo, and then with the 17-day shoot, we just ran out of money and time. So we thought, “We can’t have another half-day with a full actor, but we can throw a camera on somebody’s shoulder just drive around.” So, it used to be me alone, and then that whole ending sequence where I won we re-trimmed and cut that and then we re-did some of the order at the end. So massive changes. Rescored a lot. Dan Romer came back in and did a bunch of work.
What made you want to try your hand at directing a feature-length film?
I’m not going to direct for a while if I were to do it again. It feels like it’s a marriage, and the marriage of Self Reliance and myself is still going on. So, I’m not ready to talk about another marriage. It feels insane to me. So, I might at some point, but I’d have to fall in love with an idea, because you can act on something and not love it. You can’t do that with directing. It’s too much time. It’s too much fight. It’s too much staring at dailies that you better really care about the movie you’re making, or your day job’s a nightmare. So, I don’t have that idea. I don’t know what story I’d want to tell next. This was the movie I wanted to make, and I think the reason I really wanted to do it was more I wanted to kind of honor the younger version of me who wanted to make a movie like this, that was a really weird tone. I wanted to combine Jacob’s Ladder and Bottle Rocket. I just wanted a weirdo fun indie to exist that I was part of because those are the movies that, when I was 18 and 19 and thinking movies were cool, I would have wanted to be in.
So, you mentioned reuniting with Jeff Kober. Mary Holland was also in New Girl. What was it like working with both of them again?
Mary Holland, I’ve worked with a few other times since. She’s just a killer. I view her like a Phil Hartman type as an actor. She can kind of do everything. I think she’s so talented. I think in a couple of years, it’s going to be one of those great gets, where people are going to go like, “Oh, she was in Self Reliance,” when more and more people see her talent. Jeff Kober, I loved him as Remy. That three-way we did with me, him and Zooey [Deschanel]. That really helped figure out what that show was for us. The showrunners at the time, [Dave] Finkel and [Brett] Baer, told Jeff Kober, “Just touch Jake all over the face because he’s uncomfortable with it” and didn’t tell me. As we’re doing it, the whole crew was laughing because everybody knew that I don’t like a random man touching my face. Them telling him that set the tone of like, “This show is meant to be fun.” And so being back with Jeff was just… it honestly felt like he was like a security blanket for me.
You mentioned maybe you wouldn’t direct again anytime soon. What about writing?
What I’m doing a little differently right now is kind of connecting with talent in terms of like other actors and people, and we’re kind of writing stuff together, and we’re developing a little bit more that way. It’s not that I’ll never direct again, but I won’t do a feature for a little bit. I would love to do a pilot. I’d love to do a commercial here and there. It’s really fun to have a crew that you’ve put together. I like the job of directing, that we have this mission to do. We’re trying to make it in this so much time. I like coming in under budget. I like being ambitious at certain points and fast at other points, all that is really fun. I think now I’m just figuring out what’s kind of next. I’m having tons of fun doing the podcast We’re Here to Help, and I wasn’t expecting to have this much fun. I thought I would already be deep into the next thing, but that’s really scratching a creative itch right now. So, I don’t really know what’s next.
I mean, that’s OK, right?
I think so. [Laughs]
You reunited with Mary and Jeff, were there any conversations about bringing in anybody else you worked with in New Girl?
I think it would be hard. Everybody from New Girl, I obviously love. We all are shockingly supportive of each other. It was such a big show for all of us. Lamorne [Morris] literally did a video for me for the AMC screening. He didn’t have to do that. He wasn’t paid anything. We just took a hike, and I said like, “Hey, man, I’m doing this thing, will you do it with me? Because if it’s together, not only will I know it’ll be funny but a lot of people will see it?” And he did. Zooey Deschanel, on a Tuesday night, drove across town with Jonathan [Scott] to come to the premiere party. They could only be there for a little bit, but they popped in, took photos, gave everybody a hug and left. That kind of behavior is really sweet, and it really does mean a lot, especially the deeper you get into this game. They’ve all come on done the podcast, I would do anything with them. But for a movie like this, it’s hard because we would be distractions for the movie. So, if Zooey was in as Maddie, first of all, I think she’d be great. She’s a great actor, but people would be like, “Ahhh, where’s Schmidt?!” So, I think the time will hopefully come where we’re all on set again together doing something — if that’s a reunion, if that’s whatever it is — but we always all make each other laugh. We all enjoy each other’s company, and we all can’t believe the thing that we were a part of is still alive for people. So, it’s always about finding what it is, but I hope to be on set with each of them again.
That was actually one of my questions, also, if you all would ever consider a reboot or some sort of remake.
Who knows? I don’t think any of us would be the one that says no, about the idea of all working together again. I think it means a lot to all of us. It would have to be very good. The saddest thing would be to do something, and then the fans go like, “Eh.” I don’t think any of us want to use New Girl and that fanbase as a cash grab because it means a lot to a lot of people, and it means a lot to us. But if there was the perfect thing, and when Liz was pitching it, we were all laughing, and Trent O’Donnell, our you know, our most senior director was on board and the crew was there and it felt like the show, you know, I think everybody would be excited.
You mentioned Minx earlier, and unfortunately, it just got canceled again. Would you be interested in pushing for it to find another new home?
There’s been so many breaks. So, if it was shopped, I think this idea of doing eight episodes once every 18 months is too far and few between for audiences. I think the reason that a show like New Girl connects with people, especially on streaming, is that there’s 148 episodes. So, if somebody were to pick up Minx, pick up 30 [episodes], and let us actually make a show and have a few years to do it. But the idea of shopping it around for someplace to do eight episodes. It just becomes, in my opinion, unrealistic to find an audience, but I could be wrong.
Were there any ideas of where you all wanted to take Minx in season three? Have you all been able to talk?
We’re all still connected. It’s a great group. I love all of them, but I wasn’t one of the writers. So, I kind of left that up to Ellen [Rapoport] and Ben [Karlin]. We had a great staff. I knew that, selfishly, I was not done playing Doug Renetti. I loved the character. I really wanted to see what else happened, but if a network makes a decision, good for them.
You said you’re not sure what you’re going to do next, but is there someone you still want to work with who would be a dream collaboration for you?
I’d really like to work with Charlie Day. I think he and I would be very funny together. I’d like to work with Aubrey Plaza again. I haven’t worked with her in a long time. I think she’s a killer. I’d like to work on stuff that’s really funny. I know I want to get back to the world of funny people being really funny with the only goal [being] making everybody laugh. I’d like to be in stuff and with people where we’re shooting it in the way comedies used to just be shot, and we’re just having a lot of fun, and it looks good, and it feels good, and everyone’s cracking up and the crew’s laughing. So whatever that is, I’d be excited to do.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Self Reliance is on Hulu now.
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