Atlanta-based filmmaker ND Johnson is so many things. The black transfem writer and director quite frankly took me by surprise as they sat down to chat with me on the record for Horror Pride Month 2021.
In most interviews, especially if it’s someone whose career you’re not totally familiar with, there’s a sort of getting-to-know-you phase where you’re just sort of feeling each other out. Not with ND.
“I was thinking about the idea of being queer as a choice,” Johnson said. “People say, ‘Oh you chose to be queer. You chose to be gay; you chose to be this or that.’ I think a choice was made. I don’t think I chose to be what or who I am, but I did choose my happiness. I chose to wake up in the morning and look how I wanted to look and feel how I wanted to feel and be who I wanted to be and I wasn’t going to let other people’s opinions or judgments or social status quos decide what I’m going to be for myself.”
You have my attention.
“The American dream is built on that,” they continued. “Conform or die, and I choose death. Kill the conformity in me. It doesn’t help anybody. I also don’t think it helps straight people, though. I feel like straightness, or the need to adhere to this concept of straightness, has killed communities. It has massacred whole generations of people. I’m not into it.”
It was at that point, I knew that we were about to have one of the most honest conversations of the year, and I was totally here for it.
Now, every horror fan has a moment, usually in a film, that made them a horror fan. It’s that first scare; the first time the chill runs down your spine and you feel something akin to danger.
In this Johnson is like all of us, and the filmmaker recalled a couple of moments in her earlier childhood when she felt that initial creep. She is quick to point out, however, that she never doubted she was safe, mostly thanks to mom.
“I remember watching The Ring when I was seven or so,” Johnson told me. “I was so nervous that the girl was going to come out of the TV and get me and my mother looks at me and said, ‘If she comes into this house, she got the wrong motherf*cker.’ And I knew then my mom was going to protect me at all costs. I knew I was fine, then. Like, if she came to my house, she made a mistake.”
A little while later, Johnson saw the original Halloween for the first time, and well…they might have needed a little more assurance.
For the future filmmaker, it was not only Michael Myers’s perceived inability to die nor the boldness with which he carried out his killings. Unlike his contemporaries like Freddy Krueger, Myers was a quiet killer stalking his prey and that fed into the nightmares that would come following Johnson’s initial viewing.
“This is why I love horror,” she said. “I think horror is just a great way to analyze fears and shortcomings, but we’re too…egotistical might not be the right word, but we’re too self-involved. Horror creates an environment where you can displace those things. You can look at them and analyze. Humanity is dark. Like, not only does humanity do dark things, but people do really dark things. It’s difficult to understand that in regular reality. So the genre lets us explore those things.”
As Johnson grew up it was time to start making decisions about the future. A self-professed theater kid, she had her eyes set on being a playwright and writing musicals, but she had one problem. A lot of her ideas just seemed too big for a stage. Though she still wanted to write musicals and work in theater, there was an undeniable flexibility in film that spoke to her and she was soon on her way to the University of North Texas in Denton to study.
As she was finishing her degree, she decided that Atlanta was really the place where she wanted to be. Her eyes had been set on the Savannah College of Art & Design and so, she sold everything she could, pooled her resources, and moved in with a cousin in Atlanta as she prepared for grad work.
That’s when everything fell apart.
“I got a job at Waffle House and worked there for about six months until I couldn’t take it anymore,” they said. “Then I somehow got into organizing here. I’ve done a series of film internships and fellowships from organizing to digital marketing to PA-ing on film sets. This was the best decision I could have made for myself, and ultimately I wanted to be around black queer people and Atlanta seemed to be a hub for that. So, I’ve been here for three years and I’ve been making movies. I make them how and when I want to make them. Everything I’ve set out to make happen has happened.”
This brought ND Johnson to the present where she’s been working on making a film titled Sweetness which she is developing from a short proof-of-concept film of the same title that is making the rounds in festivals at the moment.
Sweetness blurs genre lines, confronting the relationship between men and transfems. The idea is one she’s had since attending college, but was unable to make it happen because her classmates would not commit to the film and its message.
“This is a project that begs to be told, especially for someone who deals with this subject matter so often in my personal life,” Johnson explained. “I want to see narratives that I do not typically see. A majority of the narratives around transfems are around sex work only or drug addiction or domestic abuse and violence where she ends up dead in the end or they’re playing corpses on Law & Order having cis-hetero men misgender them.”
Because of this, Johnson says, she’s not drawn at the moment to work in studios where too many people get to make decisions about what a film should and should not be.
“If I let a studio get their hands on my shit, they’re going to want to change it,” she said. “With Sweetness, it’s a very special project to me. I’ve created projects in the past where I told myself I couldn’t be sensitive about it. You give it to other people to create their vision. You just wrote it. I don’t want to do that with this. This is mine.
“What I want to see is black trans people being our own heroes in our story. I love a final girl. I don’t see why she can’t be black and trans. I want to confront things I’ve dealt with for years. There’s a ton of violence just for walking around being who you are as a black trans woman. I have been followed home. I have been questioned in bathrooms.
“What I would like to do in this horror film is show what people do, but also to encourage other transfem people to look beyond that. To learn to defend yourself. We’re taught to look to men for protection but when they’re the ones causing harm what are we supposed to do? That’s gaslighting. I want to explore that more, but ultimately, it’s really about learning how to take care of yourself. When you’re having your moments of terror, making sure you see the next day. So many girls haven’t. Part of that is because we were never taught to defend ourselves. Narratives like this one can help reshape the world.”
Funny thing is, I think ND Johnson is already doing exactly that. For more information about Sweetness, the film, CLICK HERE.