I recently got the chance to talk to Aaron Ball about his role in ‘The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X’. Here, Aaron talks about how he got involved in the project and what it was like working with the crew on-set…
Hey Aaron. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X’.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
Wow. That’s a loaded question. There are a lot of things happening with this movie, but if I had to sketch the plot, I would say it is basically about Johnny X, a young rebel – (think James Dean in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ or Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’), played marvellously by actor Will Keenan who happens to be an extraterrestrial. He and his rough-and-tumble gang – (think ‘West Side Story’ – yes, there are full-on musical production numbers in the film!) are tried for low crimes on their home planet and sentenced to Earth as punishment. Only an unselfish act will exonerate Johnny and his gang, allowing them to return home. Perhaps now’s a good time to mention that there is another extraterrestrial character who is an American rock star icon – (played by real-life former rock star Creed Bratton – of the American version of the television show ‘The Office’ and one of the founding members of the classic rock band “The Grass Roots”) – who is brought back to life – (after he dies, of course) through the use of a resurrection suit that Johnny steals from his home planet. And perhaps I should also mention that Johnny’s ex-girlfriend “Bliss” – (played by the amazing singing actress, newcomer De Anna Joy Brooks) steals it from him! So, you see: lots going on here. Even though the movie doesn’t take place in any specific time – (there are some intentional anachronisms throughout), it definitely has a late-fifties/early sixties vibe and really captures the look and feel of some of the great American sci-fi films of that era. It was shot on the very last of Kodak’s black and white Plus-X stock, the same film stock that all of those classic sci-fi films were shot on as well as the more recent classics, ‘Manhattan’, ‘Raging Bull’, ‘Schindler’s List’, just to name a few. This, to me, is the film’s legacy. It will go down in the history books as the last of the great classic black and white films. It really does represents the last of an era in cinematic literature.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
Another loaded question! There’s a lot of back story here, because the story of my character in ‘Johnny X’ is also the story of how I came to Hollywood as an adult – (this is my first adult role in a movie). In the movie, I play a character called “Mr. Projector.” Mr. Projector is a character I created back in late 2005 as a creative response to having acquired some years before an enormous collection of 16mm educational films from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s – (how I acquired them is another story entirely, and the subject of another interview!). You see, after WWII, our government became obsessed with finding solutions to the Baby Boom problem. With so many children coming into the world after the return of soldiers to their families – (or just starting new ones), there was a very real concern that having millions of teenagers running around in unprecedented numbers having sex, doing drugs, and being disrespectful to everyone around them would lead to chaos and a complete societal breakdown. One of the ways the U.S. government found to address this potential threat to society was to fund the production of countless social guidance films that they flooded into the public school system. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these films have been lost to us over the years, as most schools ended up disposing of them once the films became outdated – and of course, as technology pushed us away from film and into video. I ended up with many of the last surviving prints of many of these films and wanted to showcase them for their cultural and historical importance, as I felt (and still do) that they represent, for better or for worse, what our national government wanted us to know fifty-to-sixty years ago. Of course, much of the content of these films is propagandist in nature, and though at the time, the subject matters of these films were serious concerns for America, in today’s more realistic and informed climate, many of these films are laugh-out-loud hilarious! Some are very campy. My idea was to create this character, Mr. Projector, who looked as though he’d stepped right out of the late fifties or early sixties, and whose entire body of knowledge was limited only to what the government wanted us to know and believe in our immediate post-WW II society. I developed a video podcast – (“Mr. Projector”) to showcase the films and the character, and eventually, through that, and through my selling of certain films in my collection to collectors across the country, I attracted the attention of Hollywood director Paul Bunnell. He loved Mr. Projector and thought the character would be perfect in the film he was working on – (‘The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X’). Paul wrote Mr. Projector into the film as the announcer of a late-night television talk show – (hosted by the talk show host character “Cousin Quilty,” played by the amazing Oscar-winning actor and songwriter Paul Williams). It’s a tiny little part in the film; however, I’ve been assured that Mr. Projector will make a return (in a somewhat larger role) in Paul’s next feature ‘Rocket Girl’ (in glorious COLOUR!) which goes into production next summer. There’s even been discussion of a Mr. Projector movie, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy about the details!
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
As I mentioned, Paul Bunnell and I come from a pretty tight group of film collectors, and it was my dealing in 16mm educational films and the creation of Mr. Projector that brought us together. Paul had already begun work on ‘Johnny X’ back in 2004 – it wasn’t until I was brought on board in 2007 that he actually wrote Mr. Projector into the existing script. As originally written, the character actually had more business than what ended up in the final cut (there was a television commercial that Mr. Projector delivered from behind a podium that was never filmed, for example).
How would you say this film is different and unique?
It’s the last classic feature to be shot on black and white film using almost all of the old-school Hollywood film-making conventions (35mm rear screen-projected plates for the car scenes, period-style movie make-up specific to black and white films, etc.), it’s an old-fashioned sci-fi flick, it’s an action picture, a drama, a comedy, a thriller, AND a MUSICAL. I’d say all of these aspects plant this film firmly in the “different and unique” category!
The film stars Will Keenan, Creed Bratton, De Anna Joy Brooks, Reggie Bannister, Les Williams, Jed Rowen, Kate Maberly and Paul Williams – with Paul Bunnell onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
I have loads of memories of working with this amazing cast and crew. I was actually there for every take during production – (except for the footage that was shot years prior to the 2010 shoot), as I was also directing all the behind-the-scenes footage for the film – (all the cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes production footage). Since I conducted all the interviews as Mr. Projector, audiences will have an opportunity to see much more of my character on the bonus material of the DVD and Blu-Ray release than in the movie itself. I have to say that the entire cast was delightful and at the top of their games the entire time. Many of us have developed life-long friendships. This film really was responsible for building an extended family of terrific artists. This never would have happened had it not been for Paul Bunnell’s tenacity in getting the film made over such a long period of time and despite some pretty big obstacles and challenges. Paul really was the glue that held everything and everyone together, and his professionalism made the production a really great experience. I also have to single out some actors who I’ve grown quite close to: Dave Slaughter (who plays “Marty”) and Jed Rowen (“Sluggo”) are always a delight and very good friends. We bonded because of our mutual love of cinema and our emotional attachment to the film. We knew we were involved in making film history during production, and knowing and feeling that just made everyone do their best. Everyone respected Paul and the production. I also have to say, it was very easy to fall in love with De Anna Joy Brooks (“Bliss”). De Anna is so incredibly talented – and quite the comedienne! Lots of hijinks on set with her! Kate Maberly (“Dandi Conners”), a lovely British actress – (‘The Secret Garden’, ‘Finding Neverland’) was a dream to work with, and getting to know Creed Bratton (“Mickey O’Flynn”) as well the legendary Oscar-winning songwriter and actor Paul Williams was fantastic! Both immensely generous and legendary talents with gigantic hearts!
Let’s talk a bit about you Aaron. What made you want to get into the industry in the first place?
I grew up in the motion picture industry. My father, John Ball, was a production designer/art director working exclusively for Charles B. Pierce, an independent film producer/director who made some pretty outstanding B-pictures throughout the 1970’s. My first role in a major motion picture was as the small child who, along with his family is terrorized by the Fouke Monster – (a big-foot type creature) in the swampy backwoods of Fouke, Arkansas – (I’m originally from that part of the country) in the break-out blockbuster of 1972, ‘The Legend Of Boggy Creek’. That movie, Charlie’s first, was actually one of the biggest grossing films in the U.S. that year and really put Charlie on the map. My father and I were involved in the making of quite a few films spanning that entire decade. It lead to a life-long passion for cinema. I was making short films with my Super-8 movie camera when I was eleven. Movies are in my blood. I’ll always be involved.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
First, go to the movies! ALL the time! I’m very old-fashioned in my love for film – (I like actual film – the tangible variety), and I like film that uses style and pictures mostly to tell its story. I also think that you can only really “get” what your supposed to get out of film by seeing it in the theater on the big screen. There’s much lost in translation when you watch a film on a T.V. or portable device of some sort. Of course, nowadays, unfortunately, it’s quite rare to see a film that is actually intended for big screen presentation; but for those that are, you must spend countless hours of immersive experience watching them in the theater. Second, learn as much as you can about film history. See as many of the important films as you can. Understand why they are important and how they inform subsequent films. I would also recommend enrolling in a good film school for all the nuts-and-bolts of what it takes to make a film – it’s the ultimate exercise in project management and professional networking, so it’s also very important to start building connections with others in the industry. Join a film club, seek out your local film exhibition organizations, get cozy with your local historic movie theater – (if you’re lucky enough to have one). These are all ways to get involved. Movie making is a vast empire of an industry employing an enormously diverse breadth of skilled artisans and craftsmen.
What’s currently on your I-Pod right now?
Well, though I am a sometime-movie actor, I’m primarily an opera singer! So, the majority of what’s on my I-Pod is opera. I have thousands of opera recordings, both live performance and studio recordings. Right now, I’m listening to a great deal of art song and German Lieder in addition to some amazing operas. I’ve really been obsessed with Erich Korngold for a while now, so I’ve been doing a fair amount of listening to his brilliant operas, Die Tote Stadt – (I sing the role of Fritz in that opera) and Das Wunder der Heliane as well as to his lieder. In other genres, I’m very fond of artists who aren’t afraid to shake things up and really imbue their work with a fresh, new perspective. I’ve been a huge fan of Nick Cave’s since the mid-1980’s, so I’m often listening to the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums. I also have most of the available recordings from The Birthday Party, his early band. I have some Jacque Brel recordings that I’m listening to. I’ve always been fond of Kate Bush, and dust off those albums occasionally. Oh, yeah, and Joni Mitchell is my songstress muse – always have her available on my I-Pod…also the entire collection of Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook albums is on there. Can’t travel without Ella. I’m also fond of some of the newer commercial bands. I like James Mercer – (The Shins/Broken Bells), and I dig some of the more innovative work coming from The Mars Volta and Radiohead. Too much music! Too little time!
If you could choose a literary character to will into existence, who would you choose and why?
I can’t just choose one, so, here are three: If plays count, I would say hanging out with Algernon Moncrieff from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance Of Being Ernest’ would be insanely fun. Mainly, because I think it would be cool to have a guide to show me the ins and outs of Bunburrying. I also feel like Algernon would channel his creator, and I would like to follow him about all day simply to be entertained by the resulting social absurdities and to take notes on every little maxim and quip that he says, though I’m sure I would grow weary of it by the time lunch rolled around…. So, after lunch, I would probably want to will Howard Roark from Aynn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ into existence. I would like to draw some inspiration from him about mold-breaking as an artist and technician (and see what kind of living space he could design for me after a consultation and assessment of my personality and interests!). Of course, our conversation would become so profoundly philosophical that by dinner, I’m sure I would develop a side-splitting headache! So, I would like to call into action a third character for a little late-night relief: Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’!
If you could have dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
I’ll name three deceased people whom I’ve never met, because I have dinner all the time now with people I greatly admire!
- Dietrich Fischer-Diskau – (he’s one of my favorite singers, and just to hear him talk about his career and art – anything! Of course, he just passed away recently. I was heartbroken.)
- Alfred Hitchcock – (one of my all-time favourite film directors. Would love to hear his take on the meal and wine pairing as well!)
- Tennessee Williams – (one of my favourite dramatists, and someone with whom I think I would have had a great time connecting).
What’s coming up for you in 2012/13?
I just performed my debut public recital in Los Angeles, ‘Haunted: Songs Of Love And Loss’, on 18 Nov, so I’m still riding high from that! I am singing the role of King Balthazar in a terrific production of Menotti’s opera ‘Amahl And The Night Visitors’ with the Brentwood Presbyterian Church Cancel Choir and UCLA Student Chamber Orchestra in December; and next March, I will be singing the role of André Thorel in the U.S. West Coast premiere of Jules Massenet’s powerful and little-known 1907 opera Thérèse as part of a campaign to spark interest in a new annual opera festival coming to Orange County in California, the Orange County Opera Festival. The amazing tenor Kevin St. Clair is spearheading this important project, which will revive important lesser-known operas, as well as present some of the staples of the repertory in a festival setting. And next summer, Paul Bunnell’s next film ‘Rocket Girl’ goes into production. I also keep myself busy with concerts, and continued vocal training in addition to my regular post as soloist for Brentwood Presbyterian Church, which is very much where my heart is here in Los Angeles.
Thanks for the interview!