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INDIE SPOTLIGHT: 'Take Out Girl' Director/Co-Writer Hisonni Johnson

Script's Editor Sadie Dean interviews 'Take Out Girl' director/co-writer  Hisonni Johnson about his filmmaking journey starting out in Milwaukee, surrounded by a crack epidemic and gang violence, to picking up his first camera, moving to Los Angeles, and creating universal stories for people by the people.
Take Out Girl, Hedy Wong as Tera. Photo courtesy 1091 Pictures.

Take Out Girl, Hedy Wong as Tera. Photo courtesy 1091 Pictures.

Take Out Girl is a movie with girt and style and most of all story with strong characters that keep you clinging to the idea of hope. It's a film that leaves you with a message about society and the people that inhabit it, who are looking for opportunities to better their lives. The film stars co-writer Hedy Wong ("Laff Mobb's Laff Tracks," Chinatown Squad), Ski Carr ("Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Blue Bloods"), Lynna Yee ("Fresh Off the Boat"), J. Teddy Garces ("Days of Our Lives," "Zane's the Jump Off"), Lorin Ly (Raskal Love, "One Day"), Dijon Talton ("Glee," "How to Get Away with Murder") and a cameo by rapper $tupid Young.

To give her family a chance at a better life and save her family's failing restaurant, Tera Wong, a desperate 20-year-old Asian girl, parlays her Chinese food delivery expertise into a profitable drug hustle.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with director/co-writer Hisonni Johnson about his filmmaking journey starting out in Milwaukee, surrounded by a crack epidemic and gang violence, to picking up his first camera, moving to Los Angeles, and creating universal stories for people by the people. Hisonni is a rare breed of filmmakers, who has incredible entrepreneurial spirit and passion for people and story above all else. 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Where did your filmmaking journey begin for you?

Hisonni Johnson: My filmmaking journey began for me at age 12. I'm from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is the most segregated city in America. And I had the unfortunate luck of living in zip code 53206, which is the place where more people are incarcerated than any other county in America. And gang violence was at an ultimate high. When I was 12, the crack epidemic was within my neighborhood, and I had a lot on my mind to say the least. But I actually hopped a bus, went to the suburbs to spend some time with my gymnastics teammates. And we got bored. We pulled out a camera and we started messing around. And before you know it, we were coming up with stories and shooting scenes and coming up with lines. We started at 1 p.m. but when we finished it was like 3 a.m.. So, the first time in my life I wasn't worried about getting shot by a stray bullet. I wasn’t worried about the cops bothering me. I wasn’t thinking about how crappy it was to be a Black man. In this situation, I wasn’t worried about how I was going to eat. It all went away.

Sadie: That's incredible. From there, how quickly did you move over to Los Angeles or just outside of your hometown to chase that dream?

Hisonni: Believe it or not, I didn’t leave for LA until I was 23. But I made films every year. From age, I want to say 14 to 20. I made a feature film every year with the same group. And what we did is we would make a feature film, and every summer we would rent out a movie theater and play it there for a whole weekend. And it was a dinner theater and the local news covered us one summer and we started selling out. We got to keep the box office and the movie theater got to keep concessions, and of course the rental fee. And so that one weekend every summer me and my best friends didn’t have to take jobs. And I hit about age 23, I was wondering why I wasn’t doing it. And I found a job in LA and three days later I left Wisconsin.

Hisonni Johnson

Hisonni Johnson

Sadie: The rest is history. That's amazing. How do you approach your writing and directing knowing that you're going to edit and shoot it yourself? Is there a lot of pre-planning that you do with storyboards or beat sheets?

Hisonni: Um, nope. [laughs] This will be controversial, but I love it - I’m an intuitive filmmaker. I leave it to emotion. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like all of those things can happen. That's why I love writing the stories I shoot because the script is a storyboard if you wrote it. [laughs] If you wrote it, you know where the inserts are, you know when it's a tracking shot. For me, it's as clear as day when I write because the way I write it indicates the way it’s supposed to be shot.

In terms of editing, writing and editing are the same thing. And I love the challenge of writing something that is supposed to be concrete, because you shot what you shot. But if you're clever enough as an editor, you could change the context of the scene completely, in pacing and where you put certain lines. Moving a line that is supposed to be at the end of the scene to somewhere in the middle can change the scene completely. And I love that challenge. I also think editing is my strongest skill. For a long time, I made money editing films that people messed up. [laughs] I have so much confidence in myself as an editor. I don’t feel pressured and that's actually my saving grace.

From a cinematography standpoint, I think I just looked at things from the perspective that everything should be shot accordingly for what it is. I haven't dipped into surrealism or emotional realism. Yet, I do think the way they probably should feel. That becomes so blatantly obvious, you know, how to do things, how to set things, what the mood is, but they’re all complimentary.

[INTERVIEW: ‘High Ground’ Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson]

Sadie: Shifting gears to co-writing this with Hedy Wong, and directing her in that lead role, what were the advantages for the story and that collaboration?

Hisonni: The advantages were immense. And I'll tell you why. The whole writing together – the project was hers. Essentially, I read her first draft. It was beautiful. But she wasn’t the lead character. And when I met her, I found her personality to be so unique and screen-worthy. My thought was to make her the lead. So, obviously, some changes needed to happen. Whenever I would get stuck or had a hard decision to make, I’d call up Hedy and we’d talk for about five hours, and we just kept brainstorming and talking about the implications of these choices, talking about how these choices essentially were made from her real-life or were made in her real life. And each conversation would end with, “Yeah! That’s it! That’s it!” And then I’d hang up and I’d go back to writing because it would just charge me up.

And we did that for about three weeks until we had a first draft from me. And we cleaned it up for grammar, and we kept going over the script for about a year. We didn’t finish the script until about a month before we shot. And the key part about it and that process made her and I so goddamn close, because our communication skills got better, we knew how our minds worked.

Hedy Wong

Hedy Wong

I learned about her family, because at some point I requested, “Can I sit down with your mom? This character is going to be based on your mom, I want to sit down with your mom.” We sat down with her mom and at one point in that meeting, I asked a question, I don’t remember what it was, but her mother answered, and Hedy just started crying. And we were in Las Vegas, at some buffet having Dim Sum, and I have two women just crying in front of me and I'm feeling like the worst person in the world. [laughs] Hedy translated because her mother doesn't speak English, she translated the answer through her tears. That experience together and working toward this singular goal and learning more about each other made it a priority more than anything else.

Sadie: It definitely pops out on screen that family bond that you created. It feels like we're sitting with an actual mom, daughter, and son. And also, the dynamic between the brother and sister, like the little nuances, they know how to push those boundaries with each other. I thought that was really well done.

[INDIE SPOTLIGHT: Interview with ‘Together Together’ Writer/Director Nikole Beckwith]

Hisonni: And the beautiful part about that no one anticipated, including us, was how universal everything was. I’m an African American male directing the film about an Asian American woman in her early 20s. If I went to a studio and tried to get this picked up, it wouldn’t happen. If you aren't exactly that thing, your perspective wasn’t valid. But what we discovered is that look, if I tell stories about African Americans, it is my duty and my job, I feel like I’m educating. I’m exposing highlights of my culture and my experience that people may not have known. But when I did this, I grew an appreciation for something I didn't know and got to share that with everybody else. So, one went from educating to a general appreciation from one situation and we became closer because the things we put into the script are things we’re all affected by. Like watching your mom suffer with a bad back problem, and that happened in my life. My mom had a few decompression surgeries when I was a kid. I took seventeen to eighteen days off from a semester to stay home to cook meals for her, and clean her, and just keep our house running, while also trying to maintain my grades at school. If you take anything from this at all, is that Black, White, Asian, Latino, we’re all a lot more alike than you think.

Sadie: And I love that you have all walks of life in this and that it has this very universal story, the theme of hope and trying to make the best of what you have, but also trying to get out of these areas that don't have these opportunities that you're seeking. Similar to your story, with you leaving your hometown and coming out here to make it better for yourself.

Hisonni: Very much so.

Sadie: What was the casting process like?

Hisonni: The casting process was really cool. I wrote the role of Lalo for an actor named Ski Carr. And that was because, I think I’m discovering this right now, I think my style is to find people with one-of-a-kind personalities. Like really, really extreme personalities. And Ski Carr is the most unique human I’ve ever met. He’s a former Soul Train dancer turned actor. He's got more swagger than any other human being I've ever met before in my life.

Sadie: He's just cool on screen. [laughs]

Hisonni: [laughs] I know! Yeah, he’s like that in real life. I wrote the role for him and I hit him up. We’ve been working together for 10 years now. He's always there for me. This was important, and I told him, “If you don’t make time to do this, there's gonna be some random dude doing a bad impression of you.” He thought about it for a minute and was like, “I’m in brother, I’m in.” And J. Teddy Garces, the gentleman that plays Hector, he's like a brother to me. Our journeys are intertwined. And I'm hoping that one day we both can be accepting great awards and making enough money that we could feel we’re going to be doing this for the rest of our lives. Him and Ski make the energy feel right. They let the less experienced actors know that they're going to be OK. They’re here for you.

Hedy obviously co-wrote it. Lorin Ly is an actor I almost worked with 10 years ago on a feature film. And that film fell through, but I’ve been waiting to work with him for 10 years. He’s that great. I spent a year looking for the mother. Lynna Yee is one of the most incredible talents I could find in my career. Because to find an Asian woman who looks old enough to play someone's mom, is very hard. Usually, that woman does not want to be on her feet all day. And then a 50-year-old woman, she looks 20. Like, how do you do this? And I found Lynna. She was easy enough to age up, but she does not speak Cantonese, she speaks Mandarin. She learned Cantonese for the film. She doesn’t speak Spanish. She learned Spanish for the film. She doesn't have a back injury, she just played that. And she doesn’t have an accent. She just did it for the film. The fact that this woman has never really had any significant roles, it shows that there are cracks in the Hollywood system.

A lot of the other actors are Las Vegas locals. I was lucky. I couldn't have been more proud. I got my producer Melissa Del Rosario in there because we needed extra people. We had actors who just didn’t show up. She plays like seven roles in the film. And my girlfriend is in the film, everybody’s in the film. You might be in there somewhere. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Yeah, I'm in the warehouse, cutting up the drugs for you guys.

Hisonni: [laughs]

Sadie: The amount of talent on screen and behind the screen, it's amazing. Any filmmakers that you've been inspired by through your filmmaking journey?

Hisonni: In particular, I had the great luck of being mentored by a master photographer named David VanderVeen. I was about 13 years old, he sat me down and showed me this film El Mariachi by Robert Rodriguez. And he knew I was into filmmaking, he showed it to me, and he told me the story of how Robert Rodriguez made that film. He said, “You could do that.” And ever since, using that example as my way for not giving up. When everybody’s gone, and the cameras have stopped rolling, somebody forgot to pick up the water bottles, and I'm that guy and I gotta sweep up the room, I gotta pick up the water bottles, take out the trash. Like I feel kind of bad for myself and then I would think about, ‘What would Robert Rodriguez do?’ Kind of like, “What would Jesus do?” [laughs] What would Robert Rodriguez do? [laughs]

But on screen, I think Steven Spielberg he's the greatest filmmaker that has ever lived. If you look hard enough, when we don’t see Tera until one of her most pivotal lines, that’s my homage to Raiders.

Every time we get the sundown on the horizon and Tera is riding her bike across, that’s an homage to Spielberg, he always has the sunsets and sunrises. And then just the way I tried to move the camera because Spielberg moves the camera better than anybody else. Those are the two that I’m always trying to aspire to and learn from.

[INTERVIEW: ‘The Water Man’ Screenwriter Emma Needell]

Sadie: Any advice for first-time filmmakers who are multi-hyphenates like yourself?

Hisonni: I think my advice to other filmmakers is that that these skills are complementary, and that your crew appreciates you for having an understanding of what it is that they do. Morale and empathy are the fuel of an independent filmmaker’s belief. If you understand someone else's job, you understand how hard it is, you understand how to manage that person’s morale on set. You know when they’re tired. You know when they’re over it. You know when their feet hurt. And you can capture the way you want your set to accommodate. Again, the emphasis of having done those jobs is what allows you to inject a little humanity into this Hollywood machine. And ultimately when you're making an independent film, it’s people over product. And if you don’t put the people over the product, you won’t have a product or at least not one you would want to show.

Sadie: I definitely like that idea of empathy for your fellow filmmakers as well. It's very important and it makes morale so much better on set.

Hisonni: Yeah, very much.

Sadie: Thank you so much for taking the time today to chat with me. Hedy is incredible, as well as everyone in the cast. Wishing you all bigger projects in the future.

Hisonni: Sadie, thank you so much. I cannot tell you how important that voices like yours let people know that I exist and that my work exists. I appreciate it greatly. And I really hope I get to do this again soon.

1091 Pictures will release TAKE OUT GIRL on VOD and Digital on May 18, 2021

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