A movie can set up a lot in a few fast moments before the opening credits: this is who to care for, this is who to fear, this is who will love, who will hurt, who will die. The first moments of a movie can foreshadow the end, or they can tell you what came before.
A sixteen-year-old girl moves alone to New York City with the dream of becoming an actress. Her mother believes in dreams like these, so she lets her go. In New York City, the girl lands an agent who sends her on her first audition—to play the part of Meryl Streep’s daughter. The role goes to Claire Danes, and this is the way it always goes. She reads for a dance movie—she is not a dancer. She reads for Juliet—she is too tall. The girl does not become an actress, but she learns how to lose an agent, and how many days of solitary silence it takes to forget the sound of her own voice. By her eighteenth birthday, she’s back home in Virginia. She’s a waitress living in the woods with her parents.
Here, in the Virginia woods, is where the opening credits start, where the names of the stars appear. But there are no big stars in this picture. The girl before the opening credits, who by now you should care for, if she did her job—that girl is me. But I’m not a star, and I don’t have top billing in this story. In this story, another name comes before mine, and it’s the sort of name that appears before the title. I could have put it up top on this page to begin with, but I chose not to. I’m the one who gets to tell the rest of my story, and since this part is about moviemaking—and movies are made with tricks—I chose to deceive you. But I will reveal it now.
In the beginning, it’s 2001, and I’m back home in Virginia, living with my parents and my fifteen-year-old sister in the house I grew up in. The house sits on a hill, surrounded by forest. It’s the very end of the summer. You can’t see the river through the trees, but you can hear it.
Here’s a shot of me: a pale girl with long, brown hair.
Here’s a shot of the house on the hill.
Here’s a shot of the trees changing colors.
A title appears on the screen: John Johnson’s Virginia Mountain Scream Queen.
Fade to black.
Fade in on my mother clipping an ad for me from the local newspaper: on Saturday, in a playground on the other side of the mountain, in the little factory town of Waynesboro, Darkstone Entertainment will hold an open audition for an “Independent Low-Budget Horror-Western.”
When the day arrives, I put on my boots and my jeans and my denim jacket. I climb into my rusted-out Volvo wagon, and drive away from my mother and father and sister, away from our home in the woods. I drive twenty miles deeper into rural Virginia, up and over the mountain, to the Waynesboro playground. Beside the swing sets, I find a concert stage. Beside the concert stage, I find an audience of cowboys and Civil War reenactors who introduce themselves as producers and investors. Among them is a young man with dark hair and green eyes, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a vintage fedora—John Johnson, director and star.
John Johnson says he shot his first movie at the age of eight. In his twenty-two years, John Johnson tells me, he has made over fifty “no-budget” horror movies.
I tell John Johnson that I’m an actress from New York City.
John Johnson wants to know—can I ride horses?
I grew up with horses.
He hands me a Civil War–era dress. He asks me if I’ll put it on for him.
I hold the dress up to my body, and John Johnson’s casting director, Melissa, appears beside him. She whispers something in his ear, and I wonder if she’s his girlfriend. She turns to me and asks me if I will follow her.
Melissa leads me to a spot behind a wall and turns her back to me. She tells me to take off my clothes and try on the dress. When I step out from behind the wall, I’m in costume.
I follow Melissa back to John Johnson, who is waiting by the stage. She tells him the dress is too tight in the bust. He looks me up and down, and assures me the dress can be altered. Then he gives me a script. He asks me onto the stage with him to read for the part of his love interest.
And I read with him. I take his direction. I read for him, and I put my heart into it. And when it’s over, John Johnson smiles, and I climb down from the stage.
I change back into my own clothes, and I say good-bye to Melissa. I thank John Johnson and the cowboy producers and the Civil War reenactor investors. And I can feel John Johnson watching me as I walk away, across the playground to the parking lot. I drive back over the mountain to my parents’ house in the woods, where I smile as I tell my mother that I think I did well, and she smiles as she tells me she has a pretty good feeling I will get this one.
The next day the phone rings. It’s John Johnson calling to offer me the part of his love interest.
There’s no up-front pay, he tells me, but there will be points on the back end.
I don’t know what “points on the back end” means, but I decide this is the way it must be in Independent Low-Budget Horror-Westerns. I ask him—has anyone else signed on? Anyone that I might know of?
He tells me Conrad Brooks has a cameo, a veteran of the Ed Wood movies, an actor from Plan 9 from Outer Space.
I’ve never heard of Conrad Brooks or Ed Wood or Plan 9 from Outer Space, but I’m ready to believe that this means something.
Then John Johnson wants to know—how do I feel about nudity? How do I feel about my breasts in a sex scene?
And I know just what to say: I’ll have to read the script first. I’ll have to get back to you.
After we hang up, John Johnson emails me the script. I read it, and my mother reads it, and I read the script again. The movie is called John Johnson’s The Just. It’s a tale of love, betrayal, and vengeance in which a cowardly soldier (John Johnson), with the help of a phantom cowboy and an escaped slave, must stand up to a band of notorious gun-slinging outlaws.
My character’s name is Liz, and she’s a waitress in an Old West saloon. And to be her, to be Liz, I will need to love John Johnson’s character, and I will need to be loved by John Johnson’s character. I will need to suffer. I will need to cry. I will need to fight back.
I decide that I’m up for this.
My mother agrees. Just don’t show your nipples, she warns me.
I pick up the phone. I call John Johnson back. I tell him: I accept the part. I will do the sex scene. I will not show my nipples.
John Johnson agrees to my stipulation—it must be that he does not want anyone else but me. John Johnson, maker of over fifty no-budget horror movies, has chosen me over all the other actresses who must have also auditioned on a Saturday in a playground in a little factory town in the Virginia mountain valley.
Two weeks later, I’m riding horses western saddle. I’m wearing corsets and firing pistols. I’m an actress, and I’ve found my director.
Cut to one month later: I’ve moved out of my parents’ house, and I’m living with John Johnson in his double-wide trailer at the foot of Afton Mountain. The iron mountain water stains my hair red, makes my skin smell like hardboiled eggs. The trash man won’t come up the rutted-out driveway, so John Johnson keeps the trash on the roof, where the bears can’t reach it.
I find all of this terribly romantic.
A montage: Snow falls on the trash on the roof of the double-wide trailer. By day, I lounge on John Johnson’s little red bunk bed while he edits me together in John Johnson’s The Just. By night, I lie on John Johnson’s couch, while he plays me five features, one television show, and forty-four scrappy video shorts, starring John Johnsons ranging in age from eight to twenty-two—and featuring all the screaming women who have come before me.
Then, one night while we’re sleeping, there’s a dream sequence—John Johnson’s dream, not mine. In it, I’m naked in a hot tub. My breasts are the size of watermelons, and, like balloons, they’re floating on top of the water.
I know this dream because John Johnson tells it to me the next day. He says he likes my much-smaller breasts the way they are—that he likes me the way I am—but his dream made him realize that if I had a boob job, I could take over the horror industry. I’m just a boob job away from becoming a scream queen.
John Johnson loves the horror industry, so I take this as a compliment.
The reason he loves horror, he says, is because all other genres can exist within it. There can be drama-horror, comedy-horror, fantasy-horror, action-horror.
There can be a love story within a horror story.
John Johnson’s The Just, starring Mitch Toney, David Harscheid, Rebecca Taylor, David Simmons III, and John Johnson, premieres at a discount movie theater in Staunton, Virginia. The exclusive one-night engagement sells out to mothers, fathers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, friends and friends of friends, parents of friends, ex-boyfriends and new girlfriends, fellow waitresses from restaurants, cowboy producers, and Civil War reenactor investors. I wear a long, black lace dress and fire-engine red lipstick. John Johnson wears his fedora and his best Hawaiian shirt. My mother arrives with her hair curled. My father arrives in a tuxedo.
The theater goes dark, and since John Johnson does not watch his own movies, he slips out back to go for a walk, leaving the seat beside me empty.
John Johnson’s The Just begins, and for the first time I see myself on the big screen, and for the first time I understand what it means that the movie has been shot on a home video camera. Night scenes are so dark that they’re just disembodied voices over a black screen. David Simmons, the actor who plays the escaped slave, has no discernible facial features—he’s only a faint outline of a man in a poncho and a wide, floppy hat.
And of all my many scenes, there is only one—the sex scene—where I find myself convincing, where I know that I am any good at all.
Two-shot: I kiss John Johnson’s character.
Medium-shot: I unhook my corset—nipples hidden under my long, brown hair.
Close-up: Innocence. Longing. Love me. Take me.
The movie ends. John Johnson returns to receive his audience, and the lights come up on my mother, my father, my sister, my grandmothers, my aunts, my uncles, my friends, their friends, their parents, my ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend, my fellow waitresses from the restaurant, the cowboy producers and Civil War reenactor investors. In the lobby of the discount movie theater, I am hugged by them all: congratulations, what an accomplishment, this is only the beginning.
I assist John Johnson with two short films whose titles he does not put his name before, because they are short. In Darkness, I’m an innocent young mother murdered by a demon. In Cryptic, I’m a ghost of a mute woman who’s lost her lover. The shorts are good enough to be accepted into the first annual Blue Ridge-Southwest Virginia Vision Film Festival in Roanoke, Virginia, in the spring.
John Johnson decides he’s ready to make another feature. He does not read, but he thinks he might like to make a Dracula movie that is true to the book. He has me read Bram Stoker’s novel for him, and I decide I want to be the character Mina Murray.
Mina is a writer. She has “brains and foresight.” She’s seduced by darkness, but she overcomes it. I tell John Johnson that the book is amazing—epic, romantic, gothic, and full of adventure. John Johnson tells me we will make the most faithful retelling of Dracula the world has ever seen, but we will set it in modern times, so the movie can be made for under two thousand dollars. He calls the movie John Johnson’s Alucard—Dracula backward.
John Johnson tells me I am the perfect Mina, but that if we want to sell “our movie,” it would help if I showed my left breast.
And I agree to show my left breast. Because I want so badly to be Mina. Because I am devoted to John Johnson, and John Johnson is devoted to making John Johnson’s Alucard, a movie he is calling “our movie,” and I want to sell “our movie.”
Since “our movie” will have my left breast in it, I want the movie to be better than John Johnson’s The Just. I want to help John Johnson make John Johnson’s Alucard the very best a two-thousand-dollar movie can be. John Johnson thinks this is a good idea, and so after he casts himself as Quincy Morris, the American cowboy martyr, he makes me his new casting director, and I wrangle together one hundred-plus hopeful non-union actors who are willing to work for free.
But John Johnson’s two-thousand-dollar budget doesn’t include paying himself, either, so right when we’re about to start shooting, we get evicted from his double-wide trailer. And since I am devoted to John Johnson, and my parents are devoted to me, they let us move into the basement of their house in the woods.
This is where we are when I turn nineteen, when production on John Johnson’s Alucard begins and the actress playing Lucy Westenra discovers that she’s pregnant. John Johnson is not confident that we will be able to finish our three-and-a-half-hour movie before her second trimester, so I must recast.
I’m having a very hard time finding a beautiful blond actress for John Johnson until my younger sister gives me the number of her friend Mariah, an eighteen-year-old waitress, dancer, and aspiring actress. So I invite Mariah to audition for Lucy, my character’s best friend—John Johnson’s character’s love interest.
Mariah is perfect. She’s even better than the original—beautiful and sexy, dimply and enthusiastic, and more than willing to work for free. I think she’s really great, and John Johnson really loves her. She won’t do nudity, but John Johnson agrees to this stipulation because he has no choice. There isn’t anyone else.
Two weeks later, we’re all playing our parts. We’re making John Johnson’s Alucard together.
A month later, my father gives John Johnson a tiny, windowless office, in a building he manages, as an effort to get him out of the basement. So John Johnson moves out of my parents’ basement and into this office, and then he leaves me for Mariah.
But I am his Mina—I’ve exposed my un-augmented left breast—and there are countless hours of footage of Swannanoa, a Virginia mountain castle, already shot, and there are one hundred-plus hopeful actors I hired myself who have been working for free for months. So I finish our movie, and John Johnson rewards me for my dedication—he asks me to be his producer.
A producer finances, supervises, coordinates, and controls the execution of a story. A good producer does all of this while remaining as dedicated as possible to the creative vision of the director. John Johnson has Mariah now, but he wants me beside him—he wants me to control the execution of his vision. So I take the power John Johnson has given me—the only power I have left—and I learn how to wield it.
I move out of my parents’ house and into my grandmother’s house to be closer to the Darkstone office, and before John Johnson finishes editing John Johnson’s Alucard, we begin planning our next project. I turn twenty spending my days and nights with John Johnson, watching every straight-to-video horror movie we can get our hands on, and I learn from these examples that if we want our movies to make money, we need to have a lot more sex, nudity, and gore. And we need a very sensational premise:
Four fedora-and-trench-coat-clad demon hunters are trapped in a haunted hospital with a gaggle of wannabe sorority girls pledging in their underwear.
John Johnson’s Shadowhunters stars John Johnson as Hudson, the demon-hunting Byronic hero, and while Mariah does not have a part in this movie—she is not willing to be in a movie in her underwear—I do. I play Sera, a sullen sorority pledge whose looks are deceiving, who turns out to be much more than she appears.
As casting director and producer, it is my job to initiate John Johnson’s nine other sorority girls, to prepare them for the winter shoot in the unheated, abandoned hospital. So in an empty room in my father’s office building, beside the windowless office John Johnson sleeps in, I form a circle with the women. I tell them to strip. Then I help them choose the most flattering and character-appropriate bra-and-panty sets possible.
I do this for John Johnson, and he sells his first movie, to the shock-and-horror distributor Brain Damage Films. John Johnson’s Shadowhunters lands on the shelves of Hollywood Video, Best Buy, and Movie Gallery. It eventually makes it onto Netflix, and even hits cable television—in Thailand.
The relative success of John Johnson’s Shadowhunters helps John Johnson attach his first scream queen, Brinke Stevens (The Slumber Party Massacre), which helps me raise enough financing for John Johnson to remake one of his fifty no-budget horror titles—John Johnson’s Skeleton Key, a comedy-horror movie (not to be confused with The Skeleton Key, starring Kate Hudson). This financing also makes it possible for John Johnson to hire another scream queen—Debbie Rochon, of Troma’s Citizen Toxie: Toxic Avenger 4.
The premise: A down-on-his luck tabloid reporter, Howard (John Johnson), travels to the town of Nilbog in search of a two-headed, five-legged goat. There he does not find his goat, but he finds a town overrun with monsters.
A few outtakes from John Johnson’s Skeleton Key:
Spiderella (Brinke Stevens) sits topless on a chair I have taken from the dining room of my parents’ house, while I paint spiderwebs across her breasts. She is small and sweet and perky, as are her breasts, and John Johnson was wrong—I do not need a boob job to be a scream queen.
Late one night, on location, John Johnson asks me to get down on my knees to clean up the pig guts he’s used to effect the disembowelment of another aspiring actress.
Here, on my knees, with my hands covered in gore, I realize how unhappy I am.
In 2005, at twenty-one, I leave John Johnson. I move back to New York City with the dream of rekindling my sixteen-year-old dream.
But in New York City, my Darkstone reel is unconvincing, and I’m unable to find another agent. I do not become a serious film actress. I become a cocktail waitress in a bowling alley in Port Authority Bus Terminal, a cashier in a dumpling shop in the Flatiron district, and a shot girl on East Fifty-Third Street and Second Avenue.
But then one afternoon while I’m crossing West Houston, something happens: I find myself, for the first time, enjoying the experience of walking alone down a New York street in springtime, and, for just a moment, I realize that I’m happy to be where I am.
Four days later, John Johnson visits New York. And again, alone and lonely become one and the same for me, and I do not know why I left Virginia to become a cocktail waitress, cashier, and shot girl.
A month later, I’m back for the premiere of the long-awaited John Johnson’s Alucard, posing beside Mariah on the Darkstone green carpet outside the theater at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and before I know what’s happening, I’m moving out of my apartment in New York City, and I’m moving back into my grandmother’s house across from the Darkstone office. Before I know what’s happening, I’m escorting John Johnson to his very first horror convention—Horrorfind Weekend in Maryland—where pale men in black T-shirts line up at the Darkstone Entertainment booth with Sharpies to collect our autographs.
One year. Three John Johnson movies. They all start with the letter D:
John Johnson’s Deceptors—Ghostbusters meets John Johnson’s Shadowhunters meets John Johnson’s Skeleton Key. John Johnson plays a sex-crazed con man. I play a love-struck princess turned beast dog. Mariah agrees to do nudity, so John Johnson gives her two parts: a naked succubus without eyes and a naive victim of a sex-crazed con man.
John Johnson’s Darken—The Last Unicorn meets John Johnson’s Deceptors meets Die Hard. John Johnson revives his role of the romantic lead with an eighteen-year-old actress. I turn twenty-two, begrudgingly producing John Johnson’s Darken, and John Johnson makes me a villain. Mariah’s father plays a villain, too. Mariah plays a torture victim.
John Johnson’s Democ—Blade Runner meets John Johnson’s Shadowhunters meets Trancers meets an eighties computer game. John Johnson plays the lead—a zombie-hunting gangster playboy. But the part I want (the lounge singer who seduces John Johnson’s character) requires nudity, and since I’ve decided I will no longer do nudity, I take a cameo, and Mariah choreographs a dance for the opening credits, and then she plays the heroine.
After wrapping John Johnson’s Democ, Mariah’s mom gives me a book—The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women—and I start taking meetings with another Virginia production company.
The summer John Johnson and I make our final movie together, I’m house-sitting for my parents while they’re on vacation, so John Johnson and I begin prepping John Johnson’s The Jester—a movie that can be shot entirely in the house my father built, which is as old as I am.
And so with my parents gone, I sleep in their bed, while the actor who picks his nose (who John Johnson casts as my love interest) sleeps in my old bed, while John Johnson sleeps with Mariah in my sister’s old bed, while extras sleep in sleeping bags in the basement, where John Johnson and I once slept, while my parents’ half-feral cocker spaniel howls at the woods for my parents to come back. While my mother and father tour Venezuela, evil jesters catapult themselves from the treetops onto the roof of my childhood home, self-taught West Vir-
ginia stuntmen light my gravel driveway on fire, and women scream naked and bloody in the bathtub where my mother once bathed me.
When my parents return four weeks later, the movie is shot and the horror is over.
A month before turning twenty-three, I move out of my grandmother’s house and back into my home in the woods.
Here, in the Virginia woods, I use John Johnson’s equipment to produce and direct a short film of my own called Never seen by waking eyes. I do not act in this film—I give the lead to one of John Johnson’s actresses. I do not have the words yet to write my story. Since I’m a moviemaker, I use images.
A girl is lost in the forest until she meets a man. She follows him through different dimensions, through different nightmares, until she finds herself standing alone in a spotlight, on a stage before an empty theater.
The girl looks out and sees a shadowy figure standing in front of the exit. She watches the figure disappear through the door, and she runs after it, off the stage, through the empty theater. She hesitates before pushing the door open and stepping out into the light.
Outside, the girl finds herself back in the forest, standing face to face with her old self. In the end, she sees who she was before she met the man. And she smiles.