An Interview with Johnny Vonneumann


Please tell us about yourself. How did you get involved in filmmaking?

I was born into the film business. My family has worked in the distribution/exhibition side of the film industry since the 1920’s. I went to the university to study film. After I graduated, I went to work for producers: Dino De Laurentiis, Howard W. Koch, and Sam Spiegel. Over the years, I was able to create a portfolio with a knowledge base of production, distribution, marketing, and exhibition. Sam Spiegel called distribution/exhibition the non-creative side of the business, and I agree.

Twenty years ago, I realized the film industry was going through a major revolution, which would impact production, distribution, marketing and exhibition, and its general audience.

Anyone could become a filmmaker. All the tools are now available. The audiences were dwindling because their attention was becoming more fragmented. The film industry became less interesting and less original. So, I concluded, it is time to get ahead of the curve and unhinge myself from traditional standards of filmmaking. Be original. Make films without a budget or a crew. All I had to do is invest in my talent. However, there had to be self-imposed strict guidelines — like Lars Von Trier & Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme 95 movement.

I call my films documentary operas. They do not have scripts or actors. I call myself the cinematic tourist. As I travel, I shoot images that I find interesting. Subconsciously, I am crafting a narrative. My documentary operas reveal that narrative. Each frame is a composition, a layering 4-10 of my own filmed images. All my images, still and moving, are shot on location.

I do not use special effects. The films are constructed, using fades, opacity, and color saturation. The storyline is eventually sculptured by the score —what I call the narrative spine —which is selected way after filming. The score of An American in Europe came to me 18 months after I returned from Europe. The score of Americans in Japan, my latest documentary opera, was selected just 5 months ago, over two years after being in Japan.

Did you attend film school or study film at university?

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in mass communications and film.

What keeps you motivated despite the fact that filmmaking is a laborious job?

Most of the films I make are less than 12 minutes. It takes me about a year to make one film – 1,200 hours altogether. So roughly it takes me about 100 hours to create 1 minute of my film. Passion.

Do you think the role of a producer is vital?

Yes, the producer is the initial compass. The producer will point the filmmaker to the direction they should go. The producer is the museum tour guide. It is up to the filmmaker to determine which objects (& ideas) are worthy enough to incorporate into the project. The producer can point & explain. However, the filmmaker must decide.


How do you think the industry is changing?

Within the film industry, there have been five shifts. All of them were initially rejected by the film industry and the studios. Inevitably, they were forced to accept them.

1. Sound

2. Color

3. TV

4. Home video

5. Streaming

Initially all of Hollywood's revenues came from movie theaters. No movie theaters, no Hollywood. You know how the story ends.

Who are your favorite filmmakers?

I have many. I would say over 300. I have seen over 7000 films. The one who influenced me the most is Stanley Kubrick. I will always be in his shadow and that is fine with me.

How are children influenced by movies?

Movies are shared dreams or shared nightmares. It is up to the child/adult to decide.

The script is the most important to make a film. Do you think all filmmakers focus on that?

Yes, they do and should. Filmmakers take a lot of input. Filmmakers listen to the producer. They believe in the screenplay. They direct the actors. The filmmaker is the output, their focus is the output.

What inspires you to work?

Getting to your finish line. And only you know where that is.

Who’ve been your influences within the industry?

Filmmaking is all about influence. So, to be blunt, everyone.

If you had an unlimited budget at your disposal, what would your dream production project be?

My films have no budgets. What would my dream project be? Each film I make is a dream.

What are you most proud of in your professional experience?

Having audiences experience my films.

Do you think directing a film is the toughest job while making a movie?

It’s really the easiest, but it is made so very tough because it’s about ego and money. They are very difficult to manage.

What advice would you like to give to aspiring filmmakers?

When I was starting out, I asked that question to Walter Mirisch, founder of The Mirisch Company. He said to me, “Stay on the track.” He was right. Stay on the track, just keep telling yourself: stay on the track.

What are the films you admire – that you have found to be profound? What films have moved you in an entertaining way?

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Dr. Strangelove.

2001> profound.

Dr. Strangelove > entertaining

What projects are you working on next?

Americans in Japan - release date 2022. And after that, A Father and Son Go Fishing, shot in New Zealand. Release date late 2022, early 2023.