Interview: Michael Jai White Talks Outlaw Johnny Black
It’s been a long wait but this week Michael Jai White’s long anticipated Western Action Comedy Outlaw Johnny Black will finally be released. He wrote, directed and stars in the movie.
Plot: Hell bent on avenging the death of his father, Johnny Black vows to gun down Brett Clayton and becomes a wanted man in the process. He goes into hiding, posing as a preacher in a small mining town that’s been taken over by a notorious Land Baron.
Michael stopped by to chat with us about the film.
We’ve been waiting so long for Outlaw Johnny Black to come out and now it’s finally here. Where did the idea come from initially for it?
Well, I grew up with movies, similar to this movie that the whole family could see; they had morality and in westerns, I love western movies anyway. When we did Black Dynamite, the intention was to do some other movies in that blaxploitation era. We wanted to be authentic to that as well as westerns in general.
Can you talk us through the process of bringing the film from script to reality?
Well, so for me, just like with Black Dynamite, I did a mock trailer first. If you’re showing the end result, the thing that everybody decides on if they’re going to see a movie is always the trailer. My tactic is to basically show that end result and even the investors themselves say, “Do I want to see this movie or not? Yeah, I want to see that movie”. So, they know that I have the image of what it needs to be. If I know what the end result is going to look like, then I know how to fill that movie with that.
I believe the film was partially crowdfunded. How did you find working with that?
Yeah, so I created the trailer. It was a paper cut. I designed it on paper, made stick figures and everything else. I shot the trailer in one day, because I was using existing footage from other westerns. What kind of shot me in the foot is that people who saw that one-day shoot, they thought it was a finished movie. People thought they were crowdfunding for a movie that was already done (laughs). When I’m like, even at the end of the trailer, it says, crowdfunding campaign, but people still were like, “oh, say, when is this movie coming out?” I’m like, “no, no, it’s not”. So, officially, people got it, and I got money to do the gap financing and we completed it when we got all the money to shoot the movie. So, that’s how that happened but really showing the end result, got the money to get the movie done. Just recently, a few days ago, I put out something called A Tale of Two Trailers on my YouTube channel for people to see the process to really understand how I in fact, got the money and everything else for Outlaw Johnny Black.
What do you think the enduring appeal is of westerns with audiences? People like to say, the western is done but people keep making westerns and people still watch them. I know I do…
Yeah! There have been westerns that were bad attempts, right? So, they’re trying to say the western is done. I mean, people are gonna have a negative default setting anyway; I’m not gonna let that detour it (laughs). But there have been amazing westerns and there have been some terrible ones. I mean, most recently, Old Henry. Anybody who loves westerns, I urge you to see that.
Yes! It’s an amazing movie.
There’s been some really great ones. But I think the alchemy is there for those movies. To do a Western correctly, it has to resonate the same kind of timeless quality that the Lee Van Cleefs and Charles Bronsons and those people had. In doing this movie, I cast people who had that resonance. I mean, you got a guy like Randy Couture and Cowboy Cerrone. Well, you could put Randy Couture in the same frame as Charles Bronson because back then Charles Bronson and all these people were veterans. There’s something that resonated from them. But you can say that same thing about Randy Couture, or Cowboy Cerrone. They’ve gone through something as fighters that they resonate a weight to them. And you have people like Glynn Turman and Anika Noni Rose; they have all that timeless quality that they just belong in a western genre. They don’t make you suspend your disbelief, or they allow you to do that, actually but it’s an alchemy that’s very, very particular. Because some of these movies I always say, they don’t work because I feel like if one of your stars just stepped out of Starbucks, it just doesn’t work for me (laughs).
Yeah. You mentioned some of the cast there. I thought Chris Browning was immediately hateful as Brett Clayton. Why was he so perfect for the role?
Yeah, Chris Browning is an actor and a friend that I just think, here’s a guy who was one of the best actors I’ve ever met, I’ve ever worked with and talk about life experience; that guy has that in spades. I just knew he would resonate, like nobody else in that role. I get a chance to work with people and see what they’re about. I get a chance to really put people on screen that will really pop, and you have no problem believing that they are the character that they are portraying.
I really enjoyed the music for the film; how did you create the right musical score to match the film?
Unbelievable luck! Dave Hollander, the same musical director, who worked on Black Dynamite happened to have been focusing entirely on Italian spaghetti western music; he spent time in Italy, got to know the family and Ennio Morricone, the greatest Western musical composer ever. And he amassed some of the best talent throughout Italy for this type of music. I happen to be doing a western and so I was able to spend the downtime during the pandemic, spotting all of his music and creating a musical tapestry for the movie that felt like it was composed entirely for the movie. But I had so much time to sit with 1000s of songs, and really create the exact moments to highlight that exact music moments throughout the film that made me feel that I was watching a movie circa 1971. So, that’s one of the things that the pandemic afforded me the opportunity to do.
You’ve directed a few movies before this one, but what have you taken away from directing Outlaw Johnny Black?
Being able to sit with the footage and I basically edited this movie at home. The movie was edited because we were during the pandemic; I had time to know every frame that I wanted to leave and come into. I edited the movie by numbers because I was sat with my material. So, moving on from here, I think I will do the same thing with any other movie I’m directing because the last time you hand it over to your editor, and trust their judgment, and you kind of do a shorthand, because you don’t have that kind of a time. I never thought I’d be spotting in the music for an entire movie myself. I never would have done that. But now, I learned that I have the ability to do that. Moving forward I’m going to probably repeat the same process. But yeah, without the pandemic (laughs).
Yeah, hopefully. Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from the film?
Well, the test audiences have walked away from this movie saying that they’ve never seen a movie quite like it. That it’s equal parts of faith based and blaxploitation/action and romantic comedy. That became what we’ve been using for the teaser that we basically say that in one of the teasers – as faith based blaxploitation romantic action, Kung Fu action, romantic comedy dramas go, it’s right up there with the rest of them. That came by way of exiting audiences. I don’t fall in love with my own stuff, right? I take it in, I write it to the best of my ability and when people like yourself, walk away giving it five stars that means the world to me; that’s the thing that I hope other audiences are walking away with.
Thanks as always for taking the time to chat with me and best of luck with the film.
Thanks so much; take care.
Outlaw Johnny Black isOnly in Theaters from September 15, 2023