Alex R. Johnson had worked in film production all of his adult life, but the brass ring — the opportunity to direct a feature film — always seemed out of his reach.
He wrote and directed short films, directed and edited music videos and produced a feature film.
People were supportive of his goal to do more, but now in his 40s, “I realized no one was going to grab me and lift me up and say ‘Where have you been?’”
So three years ago, he and his wife, young son and 65-pound pit bull mix moved from New York to Austin, Texas.
“Austin was one of those cities that was on the magic list of cities that would make everything better,” he said. So much of what he had been writing was about escaping New York, “so it was good to be inspired by a location and a tone and a vibe of a place.”
After attending the 2013 South by Southwest film festival in Austin, he began writing “Two Step,” a gritty, character-driven film noir that opens in Los Angeles on Friday. The movie, which he shot in just 17 days, premiered at the 2014 festival and earned a nomination in the Narrative Spotlight category.
Skyy Moore stars as James, an aimless young man who visits his beloved grandmother in Austin after he is kicked out of college. He’s barely there before she dies and he inherits her estate and house.
James is quickly befriended by the benevolent neighbor Dot (Beth Broderick), a former ballerina with a good head on her shoulders. But James’ happiness is short-lived when the vicious Webb (James Landry Hébert) is released from prison, where he had been running a scam calling seniors, pretending to be their grandson and asking for money. Webb is desperate for money, so he decides to call on James’ grandmother, whom he had successfully tapped before.
“I love noir,” Johnson said. “I always have, since I studied film theory in college at the University of Vermont.”
It’s no surprise that Joel and Ethan Coen’s noirs are at the top of his list.
“I kind of watch ‘Fargo’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ endlessly and find new things every time,” he said.
“Two Step” is a slow-burn noir. Johnson takes his time introducing characters before the violence erupts.
“I feel sometimes you need to think about the audience and engaging them,” Johnson said. “I think caring about the characters is a very important part of that. I knew it was going to get violent, and I didn’t want it to be showy violence. I wanted you to care about these people before it happens, so when the violence does happen, it has weight. You don’t want some of these people to get into the situation they get into it.”
Broderick (“Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Fly Away”) said she’s done so many indie films, “I knew this guy could shoot a movie. You get a feeling.”
The actress said Johnson was straightforward and collaborative.
“He really let me take Dot in any direction I wanted to,” she said. “I didn’t want her to be a typical Southern woman with big hair. I wanted her to be a real Texan and a real older ballerina because you never see a woman my age who isn’t a mother, who is just a person with her own life.”
Johnson created Dot because he didn’t want to present a completely dark world in “Two Step.”
“There needs to be some light here and there,” he said. “I love the character of Dot. I honestly think I had more fun writing that character than I had writing any character.”