Case Study: The Work of Matthew Johnson, the Ultimate Low-Budget Filmmaker

matthew johnson

Cinema Bandit is devoted to supplying young and new filmmakers with resources, articles, and interviews to help artists develop themselves creatively and professionally.

Sometimes a director’s line of work can draw you in and makes you apart of the bandwagon anxiously waiting for the director’s next project to come out so you can blow all of your money away seeing the film over and over again.

Matthew Johnson is a director from Toronto, Canada. He has been in the independent film scene for over a decade. The first film of Johnson’s that I watched is the 2013 film The Dirties. The film is about two best friends who are making a film about getting revenge on bullies at their high school, only for one of them to actually decide to take action against them by planning a real school shooting. Johnson plays the lead role of Matt, as well as acts director and writer. The Dirties is an exceptional film that takes a dark look at bullying in school.

When you look at a film like The Dirties, you think of those people who are obsessed with fame and are longing for it. The character is just that. He is someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that his name is seen and heard, even if that means he has to do the unthinkable like killing his classmates.

The budget for The Dirties was about $10,000. That wouldn’t be enough for the licensing rights for the additional music that was added to the film, which cost around $45,000. A lot of the film’s finances came out of pocket. The budget was spent on food and rented props. They never paid or location or permit.

By shooting in a found footage style, Johnson eliminated the need for lighting and stylistic camera moves. It’s almost as if the audience is a part of the everyday lives of the characters, and through the unknown character which is the one person recording, and the acknowledgement that, yes, the film we are seeing is a film and the characters are aware of that – we are able to see a full picture of the characters, their problems, while still maintaining that found footage style.

The icing on the cake is that this is Matthew Johnson’s directing debut. I’m amazed by the amount of dedication and hard work that was brought into The Dirties.

In his next film, Operation Avalanche, NASA has failed to make the deadline for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, so they keep it a secret. NASA comes up with a plan to shoot down the Apollo 11 capsule and blame it on the Soviets.

“A found footage movie, in the same way The Dirities was a found footage movie – so a found documentary,” Johnson told Adam Johnson of YourMovieSucks.Org. In this interview, he also confided that since his crew was less than 23 people on the set of his new show Nirvana the Band the Show (which was his largest crew ever) cinematographers had to work as camera operators, and there was no gaffing team. Though smaller crews can often be easier to work with, the less people you have, the more roles people have to take on. Directors might also double as craft services, producers may double as assistant directors. 

Much like The Dirties, the characters are playing themselves. An interesting fact about filming is that Johnson went into NASA to shoot on site. He told NASA that he and his crew were “making a student documentary.”

Operation Avalanche had a higher production cost than The Dirties, with an estimated budget of $1,250,000. Had NASA known that Johnson was filming a narrative film, I guarantee you that production cost would have been higher. NASA isn’t cheap here people.

What’s great about finding new filmmakers is that we get to see new stories and styles that we have never seen. I would have never taken a glance at Operation Avalanche if it weren’t for my curiosity of what tricks Matthew Johnson can pull out of his hat much as he did with The Dirties.

So in conclusion, Matthew Johnson is able to make low-budget films, utilizing these key factors:

  • working with friends, figuring out what works in collaboration
  • Johnson is aware successful indies utilize what they have, and don’t try to work on a Hollywood level
  • Choosing the write your screenplay with what you have at your disposal (especially evident with The Dirties)

Daniel Zuaro is a graduate of Buffalo State College with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Production with a minor in Film Studies. He has always loved studying film that he wishes to pursue a career in which he can write about film or even teach about film and its history. He is a Long Island native who loves music, spending time with family and friends, food, and his cat Harvey Milk.”


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