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Documenting Personal Experiences: A Conversation with 'Johnson' Creator Deji LaRay

Deji LaRay reflects on developing and writing his television show Johnson and the process behind pitching and selling the show. And most importantly, writing a show about the shared experience within the Black community, notably the shared experiences and relationships between Black men.

There are those rare instances in life when you have the opportunity to speak with a creative tour de force about the craft and business of screenwriting that leaves you uninhibitedly inspired to get out and create something of your own immediately. I had just that experience after my conversation with multi-hyphenate filmmaker and Johnson creator and writer Deji LaRay. His self-motivated nature and respect of his craft is palpable. 

During our conversation, Deji reflects on developing and writing his television show Johnson and the process behind pitching and selling the show. And most importantly, writing a show about the shared experience within the Black community, notably the shared experiences and relationships between Black men and touching on important subject matters very rarely found on mainstream television. Plus, Deji shares invaluable advice for writers and creatives - be sure to take note!

[L-R] Derrex Brady, Philip Smithey, Thomas Q. Jones and Deji LaRay in Johnson. Photo courtesy Bounce.

[L-R] Derrex Brady, Philip Smithey, Thomas Q. Jones and Deji LaRay in Johnson. Photo courtesy Bounce.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What was the inspiration for this show and cast of characters you’ve created?

Deji LaRay: I would say the early stages of Johnson was just kind of documenting personal experiences. I've always been a writer, even in middle school and in high school, I would always write a lot of short stories. I started writing my first screenplay at 15 in the 10th grade - took me a couple of years to finish it, because at that point, you don't really have the right kind of discipline. I read this book that said, ‘Your first screenplay is going to be horrible. It's going to be educational for you, and it's never going to go anywhere.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, hell no. I'm not spending all this time writing this script for it never to go anywhere.’ I don't even know where that script is, I don't even know what floppy disk it's on, I have no clue if the script is lost, I might have a hard copy in my mom's basement. [laughs] But I'm saying that to say just kind of documenting my experiences, friends of mine experiences, writing short stories, about things that were relatable to me was the very early stages.

And then just being an avid television watcher, and just really seeing that there weren't a lot of characters on TV that reflected who I was, or reflected the type of men that were in my life. There were a lot of great characters - one of my favorite shows is the Wire that was on HBO. But none of those guys were truly like me, you know. And so I just wanted to create characters that were very relatable characters that people can look at and even though they have flaws, even though they're still trying to figure it out, they're still inspiring and people can still be proud of them. Those are the kinds of messages that I get now about these characters.

The objective was to try to represent specifically Black men on a large scale - how can we create characters that are niched as unique, but also very vastly different? But also have them be best friends, different in their way of thinking, different in their perspective on everything from religion to politics to marriage, but also have them be best friends. And that's kind of how my friendship group was in college. These are the kind of friends that I could party with in Vegas, and then talk stocks the next day - we were very diverse. And if one person wasn't knowledgeable on this topic, another one was and so it was just like, ‘Hey, this can be interesting. This could be a show. This could be something that people want to see,’ because I would study the appetite that people would have when they would make comments on social media and things like that about a show that shows us in a better light, or a more relatable light. And so I was like, ‘This is it.’

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Obviously, I'm writing other projects at the time, I have other features and TV shows, and it's like, ‘Well, this one feels very timely.’ So I came up with a name and the name is Johnson and it's called Johnson because Johnson is one of the most common surnames for African Americans in the United States. Actually, it goes back and forth between Johnson and Williams. One year is Johnson the other year it’s Williams. [laughs] So that was it - I gave them all the same last name. There's no relation. They met each other in grade school and have been friends ever since.

Sadie: I also appreciate that you’re flipping the script on stereotypes especially with men, and then also the Black community - we don't see them having these conversations about relationships, fatherhood, mental illness, all these things. We’re you pulling from people you knew and specific personal experiences with your friends when developing your characters?

Deji: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head, when you say ‘we don't see this type of interaction with Black men in the mainstream.’ But obviously, it's normal for us. This happens every single day, whether it's at my kitchen table, with my brothers and my father, or at the barber shop, hanging out with your friends, barbecues, on the phone, the same way everybody else expresses themselves, we express ourselves in the same way. 

We have a lot of the same concerns, we're vulnerable, we have pride, we're very complex people, obviously, and we don't really see that on television. And I think the reason why we don't see it on TV or haven't seen it that much, is because I think historically, we've kind of been portrayed as being one-dimensional, being a specific character, they're in their story for a reason, but not really understanding the backstory of this character, or not really understanding his motivation, where he comes from, what he wants, his objective, he's there to serve the purpose in the story. And that's how we're used to seeing ourselves. And I think Black women are taking leadership when it comes to showcasing themselves the way that they want to be seen over the past 5-7 years with, I mean, it started before that, but like this renaissance of shows that really show the synergy between Black women, it's very inspiring to see. I feel like Black men, we need to play catch up, and we need to have more shows to show the specific nuance of brotherhood, who we are as individuals, how we are and how we interact with each other, how we interact with our significant others, how we interact with the world - so it's very interesting.

[L-R] Thomas Q. Jones and Deji LaRay in Johnson. Photo courtesy Bounce.

[L-R] Thomas Q. Jones and Deji LaRay in Johnson. Photo courtesy Bounce.

People say these kinds of shows are, ‘It's about Black men just being themselves.’ I think it’s a little more than that. It's very dramatic, but also a very funny show. It's suspenseful at times. It's just really, really cool to watch. And so, to answer your question, yes, these are conversations that I've experienced, these are conversations that I've had, these are also experiences that I've been through and seen my friends go through.

And then, of course, there's a TV element to it as well. You have to write for TV, so not all of it is based on true life, but, you know, I'm sure it's true life for somebody, because nothing is super over the top. Everything's very relatable and grounded. I think that's what draws people into this show - that it’s very grounded. We're not jumping out of helicopters and saving this person and doing that - it's not superhero stuff – it’s every day, Black men who have an honest way of living, or they don't have a job, or they're trying to figure things out with their girlfriend or wife or dealing with relationship drama and issues and things like that. It's very relatable.

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Sadie: What was the writing process like for you writing the first season?

Deji: I was going to say the first season was the easiest, but actually it's not. I would say that with the first season, I had a lot of time. Because remember, I wrote this before we got a deal. Obviously, you spend the time developing these characters, so it doesn't conflict with acting because you don't have a deal. The show wasn't in progress. You're writing these characters and developing these characters and sitting at coffee shops and cafes, at Insomnia Cafe in Los Angeles, back in the day when it used to stay open super late - wherever you can, and you continue to craft out the specific nuances of these characters in the story. And then you get a deal. And you have all of that heavy lifting done as to the story you want to tell who these guys are. But of course, there's other characters you got to create within the world. And now you have to write screenplays.

Deji LaRay. Photo credit: Ben Cope

Deji LaRay. Photo credit: Ben Cope

I'm very self-motivated. The intention was not ever for me to say, 'Hey, I want to write all of these episodes.' I think it happened because you're waiting on the green light. And you're waiting on the green light, and you're waiting, and you're waiting. And while you're waiting, why would you just wait and not write? If you have the confidence that this is going to move forward, whether it's with the current potential home that you're at now, or if it doesn't happen there, it's going to happen at some point in the near future, but you have a really strong opportunity right now. So why not be prepared? Luck is being prepared when the opportunity arrives. So, I wanted to be prepared. I just started writing

Next thing, I'm done with Episode Two, then Episode Three, then Episode Four. And then by the time we got the green light, I think I was finishing up Episode Seven - we had been in talks with some other writers. And now we were finally able to afford to hire them now because we had the official word. And so, I brought writers in for Episodes 8-10. And then for season two, the same is true. You're moving forward, but things aren't 100% official, so I just got to work and just started writing in my own spare time. Literally, I'm writing right now, we don't have a greenlight for season three yet. I'm just writing, I just continue to write, whether it's five pages a day, seven pages a day. And you know what, season two, I literally got through every episode. So, I actually wrote all 10 episodes in season two, not by choice, but just by sheer fact of not taking any breaks in writing and actually just getting through it.

Sadie: That's incredible. Going into season two, did you find it easier - especially having a better grasp on character voices and maybe what messages you want to include in each episode?

Deji: Yeah, I think season two was easier. I don't want to say better, but it's elevated in a lot of ways. I think the writing is stronger. I think the voices of the characters are very, very defined. And for me, it was easy because we hit a stride. I knew exactly what the characters were, I knew how people would react to this type of storyline or this narrative coming from this character. I know that this is something that this character can say, but this character can't say it. Just because of his essence, just because he has a different essence it's going to sound different coming from this character, but we need to get this message out. So let this guy say it, he’s going to say it in a way that's more digestible or something that his character would say. And so, yeah, a lot quicker decisions. Obviously, it was less time to do it, but it happened, it was just such a flow. And it was just so organic. And I think the reason why it was so organic is because I live this every day - always brainstorming on concepts and ideas, even before this call and after this call, I write down ideas. I think, for this type of show that I am so connected to, I will say in real life, it does come a little bit easier. I'm able to know exactly what I'm going to write beginning, middle and end before I even start on the scene. It just comes very natural for this type of show.

Sadie: When you’re bootstrapping and taking an independent project like this and pitching it, to getting it sold - what was that process like in getting it ready to go and then attaching executive producers like Cedric the Entertainer?

Deji: It's a very tough business. I am a writer, but I also consider myself a filmmaker. And so, with filmmaking, you have producing, you have executive producing, you have to task yourself with getting the project made. There was a point of time when I was literally just writing, writing, writing, writing, writing - I'm looking at my laptop, and I'm like, ‘I have six features, three television shows, all ready to go at what point am I going to get some of these produced?’ I was able to get a feature produced. And then, out of all the projects that I had, I felt like Johnson was, like I said before, the most timely, and the one that probably would cost the least, because of the type of character driven show that it is - half hour dealing with everyday life relationships. No super crazy sets, four lead characters, but a pretty nominal cast. And so, I decided to go with that one.

And obviously, with the type of content it is, like I said before, and how we've been depicted historically, you hit some hurdles, some of those executives, probably subconsciously felt the same way, like, ‘Who would be interested in hearing what they have to say, because we haven't really seen that that much on television?’ There's been some cool films actually, that has done and has done it well. But we didn't see much of it on TV. And so, I got to work on this on this show and I told myself, the best way to showcase who these characters are, and why the show is special is for me to shoot the pilot - I have to shoot the pilot. Because the concept is cool, but this show is about the characters - 1,000%. And the way that somebody reads that and interprets that no matter how well the voices are crafted out, no matter how well the character descriptions are, everybody's going to have a different interpretation, for the most part on something that's just so character driven.

I wanted to really show people what the show was, because a lot of the show is also the chemistry between the guys. And the chemistry necessarily isn't going to 100% jump off the page, depending on who's reading it. If you haven't experienced this type of conversation, this type of dialogue, this type of interaction, whether it's the way we're talking, whether it's something that can be seen as being endearing for us, but then for you and your culture, like it doesn't really translate, you have to see it. So, I shot the pilot. I had a mutual friend who introduced me to Thomas Q. Jones, who is now my producing partner on the show. We have a production company, and I was talking to him about being an actor on the show. He was a former NFL player, now he was in the business, and he was doing some really great things. He was in some great TV shows and films, and I thought he would be a good person to be on the show. He connected to the character in the scripts and the world immediately. He felt just as strong and as passionate as I did. And so, he wanted to be a producer on this. And I was like, ‘OK, well if you want to produce, I'm trying to shoot this independent pilot to show people what the show is, and this is the price tag - it's not cheap.’ He wrote a check for half the budget.

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We shot the pilot at the end of 2017. I started shopping at the beginning of 2018. And there was interest from a lot of different places. Some will be like, ‘Hey, what if you had a character like this? Or what if you added this? Or this is a great concept just needs a little bit of this,’ and I was already super confident with the show. And you know, as well as I do, when you get the same note over and over again, you have to take that seriously. But if it's something that is not within the vision, and it's just one person's opinion, you have to take it with a grain of salt. Take from it what you can, but if it's not for you, then you don't have to take that note. And so, we just kept shopping. 

It eventually landed in the hands of Reesha L. Archibald, over at Bird and a Bear Entertainment - she worked with Cedric the Entertainer and Eric Rhone. And she gave it to Eric Rohn, he immediately was like, ‘I need to have these guys in my office today.’ So, myself and Thomas got a call at like 7am, we were at the office at like 9:30am, had a meeting with Eric went down and met Cedric because he shooting in the neighborhood at the time - we went to set had a conversation with Cedric - they both had already seen the pilot, they loved it, they understood the value and they wanted to represent it and come on board and be collaborators on the show with us. And so that's what we did. We worked on it a bit and started shopping around and eventually landed a deal with Bounce. There was a new executive there named David Hudson, who loved the concept, he understood it. And we got the deal at the top of 2020.

Sadie: What a journey! I'm curious, when writing these characters or even episodes, were there any voices are storylines that were maybe difficult to approach or perhaps therapeutic by getting it out on the page?

Deji: There's a few storylines that are a little more difficult than others. This show is about controversial topics within our community, well, within everybody's community, but a lot of it is specific to our community. And there's one storyline in season two that is developing throughout the entire season. It's introduced in an early episode, I feel like it was introduced in season two, Episode Two and then it kind of develops and then it comes to a head at the end of the season. And that one deals with religion, which is huge in our community. It more so deals with organized religion, that's a very tough topic, because people feel very strongly about it, rightfully so. And so, you have to approach that with care and caution and make sure that everybody's perspective is being heard, and that you're giving the right message. There are no agendas with it whatsoever. But it is one of the many topics that is actively being discussed in our community. We wanted to address a certain aspect of it. Without giving anything away, that's definitely one. But what we try to do is we try to find the humor, with all of these experiences and topics that we deal with on the show.

There is a message that you receive from the show, or at least not necessarily a message but different perspectives that are offered for you to take from it what you will. And then also you don't want people to think that you're talking about them. I've gotten that too, ‘Oh, hey man, that kind of feels familiar.’ Well, everybody goes through this, you know. It's just one of those things where you got to be kind of careful not to be super specific about certain experiences that you might have seen, especially if it's something that everybody goes through.

Sadie: It's a very fine line. But it's also kind of nice to know what you’ve written really resonated with someone. And that these stories are universal - the art of storytelling. Any advice for those who are who are writing a TV show and trying to get it off the ground?

Deji: Well, if you're a writer, and you haven't really sold anything yet, and you don't have a super ton of experience, I would say, once the project is done, that unfortunately, I think in this business, a lot of people aren't super eager to read material from first time writers. This can be your fifth screenplay and if none of them have been produced, you're a first time writer, right? People are not super eager to read in this town. There are a lot of bad scripts that are out there. You have to make sure that your script goes through the work, you have to get coverage, you have to get people to read it, you have to make sure all of the questions are answered to make sure that it’s good.

Once you make sure that it’s good, my personal opinion is that you have to have some sort of visual representation for your script. Now, that doesn't mean go out and shoot a pilot like I did. Everybody can't afford that. For me, I'm a filmmaker. I was able to direct my pilot, I also edited my pilot, self-financed - things like that. If you're a writer, and you're not a director or an editor and things like that, that can be very daunting, that can be very intimidating. I'm not saying you have to do that. But a visual representation can come in the form of a deck, a really well crafted, beautiful deck that you can put together that has visual representation of the characters, as you tell the synopsis of the story, you're having illustrations and images, even through the storyboards, you can just pull images that speak to the world, how the world looks, what other films have you seen that are kind of you want it to be shot like, this type of world and this type of lighting - pull some of those images and put together a really nice, beautiful 10-20 page deck that represents your project. As soon as they open it up, they see it the same way that they will see my independent pilot. And I think that way, you'll be able to draw people in a lot quicker, because if I'm an executive, I saw a deck and it's beautiful, and it's well done, and it looks great, it's going to make me more inspired to read the feature as opposed to just getting a script. So that's my advice is to have some sort of visual representation.

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If you want to do more than that, shoot a scene. Find the most important scene, the most gut wrenching, heartbreaking, inspiring scene that you have and try to shoot that scene, simply, because if it's just about the character, you don't have to do too much just shoot the scene and just show the chemistry. Especially, if you want to be a part of it after you sell it. If you want to be a director, if you want to be a producer on this, then you kind of have to do that. It's kind of your responsibility to shoot a scene, it's kind of your responsibility to shoot something, because why would anybody give you a chance to direct this if they haven't seen anything that you you've directed? So go out and shoot something so you can say, 'Hey, here's my calling card. I can direct. Look how beautiful this is.'

Catch up on Season One and Season Two of Johnson on Bounce.


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