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INTERVIEW: Writer, Director, And Producer Grant S. Johnson On "Nighthawks"

Nicole Barylski

The film is making its Long Island premiere at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. (Courtesy Photo)

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center will present a special advanced screening of Nighthawks, a thriller starring Chace Crawford, Kevin Zegers, and Janet Montgomery, on Saturday, September 28. The evening will include a post-film Q&A with the film's writer, director, and producer, Grant S. Johnson, as well as members of the cast and crew.

We recently caught up with Johnson to learn about Nighthawks, the film's stars, his next project, encounters with secret societies, and more.

You wrote, directed, and produced this project. Let's start at the beginning; what was the story's inspiration?

GSJ: The story's inspiration was that I grew up in New York, on the Upper East Side, in this milieu and like some people, but not most people, I felt that even though I was from the Upper East Side and I knew the area like the back of my hand, I knew the Met like the back of my hand, and I felt very at home here, I didn't feel comfortable among the other kids who were from this area. I just kind of always felt like a bit of a fish out of water. I went to a classic New York private school called Riverdale. I was just always not happy there, just always felt like I wasn't really from where these kids were from. I just felt they were kind of on a different stratosphere and the way they showed their money off and the way they carried themselves... Eventually, I did transfer to a school in Westchester, which was a great experience. I'm happy about that.

But, it was really that feeling of you're in New York City, the greatest city on earth, and you feel that you're just trying to fit in and you don't, you're not really getting it. And, you know, I think if I made a movie about that, it wouldn't really resonate because people would be like, oh, well, this kid's from the Upper East Side and he doesn't fit in. So what? So, I decided let's make a movie that's going to be a little bit more wide reaching and make it about someone who's moved to New York, and very truly is not from the city, and really has trouble getting his footing. That's what happens with Chace's character, Stan. In the same vein, there was a film I grew up watching and loved called Metropolitan by Whit Stillman from about 1989. He too went to a New York private school, Collegiate, and he had, I think, a very similar experience. Or at least all of his films would tell you that, Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, would tell you that he had a similar feeling. I felt that his films were very based on the end of the debutante era in New York, but I grew up after that, and in a sort of different era of New York, and I wanted to capture that as best I could.

So is this an idea that had been brewing for a while then?

GSJ: Yes, absolutely. When I graduated college, I met with a producer who was willing to put in a little bit of money into a movie. Originally, I wanted to make what basically Nighthawks was, but we knew it would cost too much. So we made this fraternity film about my experiences visiting a friend at his Ivy League fraternity a bunch of times. A similar milieu, similar sentiment, and the movie's okay. It has its good parts and bad parts, but I learned a lot about what I wanted to do on Nighthawks and how to do it properly. I think Frat Star was a really good learning experience, so I could make Nighthawks as good as I think it is.

And then visually, bringing the story to life, could you speak a bit about that?

GSJ: I've always been interested in the arts, I was an art history major in college, I grew up watching movies my whole life, I worked at the Met throughout college. So for me, the visual part of a movie is extremely important. I knew I wanted it to look great, but I also knew that the better it looked, the more intimidating it would be to our lead character. He's not just walking into a dive bar. He's walking into these really elaborate, beautiful bars or nightclubs, or this private society nightclub. I knew the better they looked, the more intimidated he would be. I was really keen on hiring a great cinematographer. I think we did that with this guy, Alex, who is from Long Island. It's fascinating that he was able to execute everything we're talking about. He was actually able to execute it, not just with the way certain shots looked in the scope, but also the lighting and understanding different lighting has different meaning. We, in the film, have a few different light colors that work their way through the film and have different meanings the whole time. For instance, when Stan goes to Up and Down, that first nightclub, it's all these kind of greens and reds, and it's kind of off putting to him. But when he gets into that nice little bar, Paul's Baby Grand, we have these kind of nice soft lighting where he feels very comfortable. And then he goes to the Nighthawks club, which has all this crazy lighting, and it's just a whole 'nother world to him. We definitely had a visual language that we followed, and our production designer did a wonderful job.

When penning the story, did you have any actors in mind?

GSJ: It's interesting. While Chace had never played a role where he's insecure and doesn't really realize he's good looking - because, of course, Chace is always cast as very handsome, I always thought of him for it. I did grow up watching Gossip Girl and I felt that he was the one character on the show who was redeemable. I felt that with all of these very snobby kids, despite the fact that his character was from a wealthy family, and that his father was a criminal, I felt that Chace's character was redeemable. You felt sorry for him; you didn't feel like he was a spoiled brat. I thought that was impressive, because the show otherwise made everyone else feel very blatantly spoiled. So, I always thought of him when writing the role because I thought this could be really interesting for him to not only play down his looks, but play a role of someone who truly is insecure, when they really have no reason to be. So, I always thought of him. And I got a lot of pushback on that. When we got to set the first few days, he was doing as good a job as I thought he was going to do. Then after four days, he took off and did such a better job than I could have ever imagined anybody doing with the role. He worked his butt off.

I wrote the role of Oliver for an actor who had been in Frat Star, Tyler Weaks. For me, it's the hardest role in the film. It's very nuanced, very subtle, very unusual. I knew he could do it. So I really wrote it tailored to his talents.

Otherwise, when I wrote Marguerite, I had been thinking of a known actress. But it's interesting that when CAA, the first person that they introduced me to was Janet [Montgomery]. After four minutes of Skyping with her, I knew she had the part and I was not familiar with her before Skyping with her. Right before I Skyped, I think I watched some of her TV shows just to get an understanding of who she was. I remembered her from Entourage, but not very well. Four minutes into Skyping with her, I just knew she had the part. We had a few months before we filmed, so as she was cast I molded the role a little bit more for her. I think she does a great job and I think she's really a versatile actress.

While dissecting a crime that takes place, the film floats between Stan's (Chace Crawford's character) conscious and subconscious, making it difficult to decide just who to trust and what the truth is. Could you talk a bit about that?

GSJ: Well, that's a good point. I think that was really important for me from the get-go was to tell a story with a slightly different narrative structure. I felt that there had been a lot of movies about a night out in New York, Eyes Wide Shut, Metropolitan, The Game, and they all have already done what they've done. I didn't want to just do that again. I thought about how do we tell an interesting thriller, in a new way. I liked the idea that this crime that the whole movie revolves around, you don't really know that it's revolving around it for a while, but it is. Everyone involved in the crime was complicit, and then it ended up being a pretty timely topic as we filmed the movie two years ago, because the Harvey Weinstein thing broke a week before we started filming.

But, I liked the idea of Stan not even knowing he was complicit, because he didn't do anything wrong, really. But he was just being naive. But he did deep down know that something bad happened, but he was just being too naive to be open about it. I loved the idea of not just making our protagonist complicit in a crime by the end, but really figuring out how to get into a subconscious for him to figure out what he's done. And it becomes a big catharsis moment for him when he's figured out what his role was in all of it. It took a lot of prodding, he clearly buried it deep down, he clearly has put his blinders on and sided with Chad for a while.

Have you ever encountered a secret society like Nighthawks?

GSJ: Yeah, mostly through the universities. I'd say if anything, it's more British related. I've never been to the ones in England, but I've had some very close friends who have belonged to ones at Oxford or Cambridge, and they've told me all about it, which I thought was helpful. But, in New York, there definitely are some that I've encountered over the years. It's been a long time since I put myself in a position like Stan did to find out about such a thing. But yeah, they do exist.

They're not on as grand a scale as the Nighthawks club, because then they'd be found out. They're usually these parties that move. Like one week, they'll text you the day and it'll be at this location. Then five weeks later, they text you it's at this location and they're more sporadic that way and kind of pop up. But the same kind of look and same kind of folks. It's not like The Box that's there every night. It's this burlesque club, you know what you're getting, and everybody knows what The Box is around here.

It's more like, what if The Box or something that people hadn't heard of, people didn't know what to expect, and people really wanted to get in and wanted to submit themselves to whatever to get in. That's what I was going for. While I don't think anything exactly like that exists, I definitely took from a few places of things that I do know exist.

What else are you working on at the moment?

GSJ: Besides Frat Star years ago, I had some musicals I was involved in that had their time, one of them did very well, called The Band's Visit, and now I'm working on a film called Come To Life. It is a family action adventure film, very different than Nighthawks. Most of the film's animated. I can't talk too much about the plot, just because I've signed NDAs. But what I will say is that there's a company called Westbrook Studios who is producing the film and that's Will Smith's company. And Will Smith will be a producer of the film. I wrote it, I'll direct it, and I'll produce it. That's a much bigger project. That's going to take up the next few years of my life.

When does Nighthawks come out?

GSJ: Nighthawks comes out October 3 and it comes out on a bunch of different platforms. Right now you can pre-order it on Apple TV and iTunes. But on October 3, it will be available on Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, DirecTV dish, and more.

I'm excited about that. Filming a movie is the easiest part of it, it seems. It's funny how it happens. It reminds me of when I pitched in college. What I always found was that, I was a starter so I pitched once a week, and you spend all those hours at practice and in the gym and traveling, really so you can pitch one or one and a half hours a week on a mound in a game. I figured out in college I was spending 40 hours a week on baseball, and only one of those hours was actually on the mound, in a game. A lot of pitchers say that game day is their favorite day because it's the one day they're not in the gym or going to practice. It's like the one time they're actually having fun. I understood that and similarly here, filming this movie, while I think a lot of people might have taken longer to film the movie, we were able to do it in just 21 days. 21 days in the grand scheme of this project is nothing because I wrote the first full draft of it three years ago. We filmed it two years ago for 21 days, and now here we are two years later and it's coming out. The amount of work that it takes to get the movie to get to the filming stage, and then editing, and then music, and then getting it distributed, it makes the filming part seem so small, which is really odd.

I'm just excited for to come out.

Well, it definitely had me on the edge of my seat.

GSJ: That's good, thanks. Were you surprised with Chace's role?

I actually just saw him in The Boys. It seems like he's taking on different roles, which is nice to see from him.

GSJ: So, he got The Boys role, actually kind of through Nighthawks. Kevin Zegers' wife, Jaime, is an agent at CAA who represents Chace. After we filmed Nighthawks, and everyone like Kevin saw how great Chace was, Kevin came across the script to The Boys and said to his wife, hey, Chace has to play this role. And that's how it all started. Seth Rogen and Seth Rogen's partner really liked Chace and that's how he got the part.

Tickets to Nighthawks are $15 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $5 for WHBPAC Film Society Members.

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. For more information, visit whbpac.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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