Amy Jo Johnson began her on-screen career in spandex twenty five years ago as a part of the cast of the original incarnation of beloved children’s television series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. For the longest time, her portrayal of Kimberly – a.k.a. the Pink Ranger – was her most notable contribution to popular culture. Over the past decade, however, that has begun to change. Although she still acts (most notably on Felicity and her Gemini nominated role on the Canadian series Flashpoint) and has established a musical career for herself as a singer-songwriter, it’s her current evolution into becoming a director that has the Massachusetts native turned Canadian citizen most energized.
After producing a handful of short films to get a feel for the form, Johnson makes her feature debut with The Space Between (making its red carpet Ontario premiere in Richmond Hill this Wednesday before expanding across Ontario on Friday, August 25th). Written and directed by Johnson, The Space Between tells the story of Mitch (Michael Cram), a middle aged, blue collar man who has his world rocked when he discovers a mysterious letter marked “return to sender.” In the letter, Mitch learns that his wife, Jackie (Sonya Salomaa) had an affair with teenage university student and that his newborn child wasn’t actually a miracle for the previously thought impotent father. Mitch snaps and takes off to track down the teen at his rural university, aided along the way by Emily (Julia Sarah Stone), a depressed, aimless young woman still reeling from the death of her mother. While Mitch and Emily continue their road trip, Jackie and her dysfunctional family (including Johnson in a supporting role as a lawyer with a crumbling personal life) frantically attempt to track him down before the distraught husband does anything he might regret.
We caught up with Johnson last week over the phone from the CFC Director’s Lab where she’s currently working on producing further film projects to talk about The Space Between, building bridges from her past careers to her current one, and why she’ll think twice in the future about writing a character that roller skates.
As someone who has worked on both sides of the border, do you find it a little more artistically freeing to be working in Canada? Do you think that a film like The Space Between could have been made in America in the same way that you made it here?
Amy Jo Johnson: As a filmmaker and an actor, I’ve been working in Canada for the past ten years. Filmmaking and writing is something that I’ve really only pursued in Canada. Honestly, I can’t really answer that question because I haven’t written or directed any shorts or features in the States. Even though I lived in Los Angeles for fifteen years, I still don’t know how to really answer that because I honestly never tried. From movies that I have seen, I think that something like The Space Between could be made there, but I don’t know how it would have changed or turned out. But I think so. I think it could be made there, but honestly as a filmmaker I don’t really have anything other than my Canadian experiences to compare it to. (laughs)
Did your moving to Canada and becoming a citizen here spark your interest in filmmaking, or was that something you had always thought about?
Amy Jo Johnson: You know, I always knew that at some point I was going to transition into this, or really to working behind the camera in some aspect. I was an actress for a really long time, and I never really found my confidence as an actress until really about the time I started doing Flashpoint. I think because of the age I was at and the fact that I had a child around that time, I just sort of decided that leaving Los Angeles was probably a good idea when I moved. At the time when I moved, I was feeling really insecure as an artist, and being in that environment wasn’t helping. I loved Toronto and how I was able to switch gears here. I found it just an incredibly nurturing city for emerging filmmakers, so I’m just really, really happy that I’m here to do something like this. Los Angeles was just so overwhelming that there was no time to think about anything that wasn’t right in front of you, or at least it was for me.
Here, I’m actually at the Canadian Film Centre right now in the Director’s Lab, and I’m loving it, but even before that I was mostly just blown away by the opportunities there are in Canada. There are so many grants to tap into and resources to take advantage of. The Space Between was also a part of a microbudget program at Telefilm Canada, and that taught me a lot. I’m really enjoying the learning that goes along with this transition.
This film was spawned from a short film that you had made previously. When did you know that this story could be a feature, and what was the process of expanding upon it like?
Amy Jo Johnson: I had done three short films, and this is my first feature. I have another feature that I’m going to shoot next year called Breaking Emma, and following than that I have Crazier Than You, which is a project that has always been my baby and kind of my dream project, so everything has felt like it’s leading to that. That one is about my mother, who passed away from cancer and how she sort of dragged us through a religious cult for twelve years. Crazier Than You was kind of always the end goal, but I started doing these short films and wanted to make a couple of features under my belt before tackling that one because that one really is my baby.
The first short film I wrote was called Bent, and within that film, there’s this scene that contains the seed of the idea for The Space Between. A pregnant woman confesses to her best friend that her baby’s father is not her husband, and at the end of the film, the friend wishes she has a bald baby because the baby’s daddy has bright red hair that’s nothing like the husband’s. That was really the idea, and I wrote The Space Between circling around this idea of infertility and the desperation that women go through and wanting to fix things. Obviously, the characters in the film don’t go about this in the best ways possible, but that’s where I got the idea.
In writing The Space Between, I just started falling in love with these characters, and I did it not only as an exercise to get closer to Crazier Than You, but as something that I knew I could be proud of, and it’s great to see how it has turned out and that it’s getting a release.
You’ve been touring and travelling with this film across the United States and Canada for the past several months leading up to the release. I’m sure for your previous work on television, you had been asked to make public appearances in various capacities, but how different does it feel for you when you’re making appearances for something that you made yourself?
Amy Jo Johnson: We’ve played twelve film festivals with this film so far, and it has just been an amazing experience. We actually played the film for the first time in Shanghai last year, which was unreal and awesome. From there we went to Whistler and St. Johns and to various other cities, ending actually in Bentonville at Geena Davis’ film festival, and that festival run was so great.
Because half the movie was crowd-funded through Indiegogo, I knew that a lot of people who were agreeing to help finance the film were people who had followed my career and been fans since my days as a Power Ranger and from shows like Felicity and Flashpoint, so I thought it would be a good idea to do a Comic-Con tour with the film. I had actually never done promotional appearances in that kind of capacity before that, so that was all new to me. We went to eight cities where I would make a personal appearance at the convention, but also have a screening of the film to promote it and show it off to the people who helped to make it through their crowd-funding support.
Early on in The Space Between, you kind of put in a passing nod to your old career by showing Mitch’s kid watching an old Power Rangers episode and using some vibrant pink in the early colour scheme. Do you think it took you a while to be able to include something like that in your work as a filmmaker, and how do you feel about building this bridge from your early career to where you are now as an artist?
Amy Jo Johnson: I don’t think it took long to build to making an homage like that at all. It was my first job as an actress, and this is my first job directing and writing a feature film, so it kind of felt like a natural connection to make. And, again, the people who helped support and make the movie had followed my career since that time, so I wanted to give a gift to them for helping me do what I’ve always wanted to do.
It’s wonderful to make that connection, I think. The audience for that show has supported me for so long, and they’re one of the main reasons why I’m now able to share this film and get it out to people. They helped sustain my career as an actress past that point, and now it helps me sort of accomplish my end goals. I love writing and directing, and I have such a passion for it, and that bridge has allowed me to do it. All those kids who grew up watching Power Rangers are now adults in their late twenties and early thirties, and they’re the perfect audience for me to create movies for and to tell stories to. It’s just this awesome coincidence that has been unfolding up to this point in my career that I feel lucky to be a part of.
For a microbudget film that was shot on a really tight schedule, this is a gorgeous looking film, not just for a first time filmmaker, but for anyone working under such budgetary limitations. What was it like finding these picturesque locations and capturing them for the film?
Amy Jo Johnson: Me and Jessica Adams, who is my producing partner, decided in April of the year that we started shooting that no matter what happened we were going to start filming on July 6th of the same year. We hadn’t even gotten the Telefilm money yet, and we just went full steam ahead, selecting places to shoot.
We filmed up in Guelph because we found most of what we needed there from the tree on the side of the road where Mitch and Emily meet to the university, where we actually stayed in the dorms. I also worked very closely with Kristin Fieldhouse, who was our DOP, and the other camera operators, to pool all of our ideas together. With this being my first feature, I was willing to listen to any visual advice within reason, and they were all so amazing to work with. I think because a lot of this film takes place in exterior locations and I wanted this vast sort of landscape shots, it just naturally looks good. Plus, these landscapes really blend nicely with these characters that are colourful and kinda quirky. It all fell together in ways that I’m really proud of.
Finally, I think one of the most memorable scenes occurs when Mitch and Emily are talking about their pasts while going down a country road. Mitch is on a skateboard and Emily is wearing rollerskates. I can imagine that’s a hard scene to shoot because of the motion and logistics of that, but did Michael or Julia know how to ride a skateboard or roller skate before shooting?
Amy Jo Johnson: (laughs) So… Michael Cram was actually a little skate rat when he was younger, so he definitely knew how to ride a skateboard, and that came in quite handy. The only real conflict with him was that I wanted to use a longboard, which I thought would be easier for shooting and stopping. He just said, “What?!? I can’t use a longboard! Only geeks use longboards!” And I just said, “Well, okay, we’ll just write in that when you return this longboard to this teenager that you’re going to make fun of the guy.” (laughs)
For Julia, no. Absolutely not. (laughs) I had sort of written in the roller skates without understanding what exactly that was going to mean until we all showed up on set and we had these really awesome looking roller skates. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but roller skates are a lot harder to master than rollerblades. We had a stunt double come in for Julia, and even she couldn’t do the roller skates! (laughs) Julia worked her butt off to pull that off, and clearly in the film she’s not a roller derby skater, so she doesn’t have to be super professional about it. You can just see that she’s good enough to kind of roll and coast, and that’s about it. (laughs) But yeah, note to self: roller skates are a lot harder than rollerblades.
The Space Between makes its red carpet premiere at The Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre on Wednesday, August 23rd at 6:00pm. It opens theatrically in Toronto (Carlton Cinemas), Kanata, Whitby, Sudbury, Barrie, and Kitchener on Friday, August 25. It screens on Thursday, August 29th at 7pm Fox Theatre in Toronto with Amy Jo Johnson in attendance for a Q&A. It will also be available on VOD starting on September 1.