Thursday, July 13, 7:30 p.m., $10
North Hills Stadium 14, Raleigh
The wheels of Hollywood turn slowly, and the term “development hell” is regularly thrown around to explain why a project hasn’t become a finished film. But Patrick Read Johnson, a faculty member at the North Carolina School of the Arts, waited an especially long time to see his semi-autobiographical comedy 5-25-77, which screens at North Hills in Raleigh tonight, on the big screen. Its release comes thirteen years after he started filming.
“Did I set out to make a film that would take thirteen years? No. Am I glad it took that long? Yes,” says Johnson, who previously directed such films as Angus, Baby’s Day Out, and Spaced Invaders, and wrote the story for Dragonheart. “It’s a better film for it; it’s a better place in the world for it to arrive.”
5-25-77 takes its title from the release date of the original Star Wars. As a teenager in small-town Illinois, Johnson’s homemade movies actually got him a meeting with John Dykstra, who showed him some rough footage from the unfinished Star Wars, making him one of the first people to see it. The film focuses in part on a fictionalized Johnson trying to convince his small, uninterested town that the movie’s opening would be a momentous event—even as he struggles with a friend and a love interest far less interested in leaving the place for Hollywood.
Johnson compares 5-25-77 to another George Lucas film: “It’s American Graffiti on the night Star Wars came out,” he says. (Graffiti’s producers, Fred Roos and Gary Kurtz—the latter also produced Star Wars—also served as producers on 5-25-77).
Why the delay? “We were about 75 percent through shooting when one of the investors literally defaulted on his investment,” Johnson says. “We had to shut down—the movie went dormant for a year. We cut together a sizzle reel of what we had and screened that for some people who brought us the money to do the rest of the film.”
In the time it took to finish the film, the actor playing the young “Pat Johnson,” John Francis Daley, went on to costar in Fox’s Bones before becoming a successful writer and director in his own right; his most recent credit is for cowriting Spider-Man: Homecoming. “He went from a guy who was between Freaks & Geeks and his next gig to this amazing writer and director,” Johnson says. “It kind of fits the zeitgeist of our film.”
Johnson was finally able to screen his film in several theaters in time for the fortieth anniversary of Star Wars on May 25, and the screenings go on as he finalizes a theatrical and VOD release. He’s excited for the Raleigh screening, where he’ll appear for a Q&A afterward.
“North Carolina really helped me finish the film,” Johnson says. “My students at the School of the Arts were such amazing talents that, as they graduated, I said, I’ve got to work with them again! So, last summer, we shot a new title sequence, and got a number of UNCSA graduates to come in and help. It was a real merging of my teaching and my filmmaking—just an extraordinary experience.”