What originally brought you to Prescott?
It was 20 years ago, 1997, and Angie and I were living in Chicago. We’d just gone through a really bad summer, like people-literally-dying-from-the-heat bad, and it was followed by a really bad winter, like people-literally-dying-from-the-cold bad. It had a biblical, apocalyptic feel to it. One night, I was talking to my brother John, who was going to Prescott College, and that got the process started. Then Christian Smith, who was also in Prescott, urged us to come out and sleep on his couch. My brother, John, helped me score my first job jockeying a video camera at the race track. So, anyway, we left Chicago in a U-Haul and got here with $36 between us. Angie gave me some of that $36 and sent me to Basha’s to get the cheapest lunch meat and the cheapest bread and mustard. That’s what we were going to live on. In my glazed state from the drive, I saw a guy with a handgun on his hip in the store. In Chicago, when you see someone strapped in a grocery store, that means someone’s about to kill a trifling girlfriend or the cashier, so I dove behind the cantaloupe. There was this little old lady, and I was about to warn her when I saw she was strapped with an even larger caliber weapon. That’s when I knew I was in a different place altogether.
You recently finished your last Prescott Arts Beat radio segment. You’ve been doing that for at least a decade. Why put it to bed now?
It was 13 years. I was a one man staff and I was doing it as a volunteer position. I’ve been doing more and more with local film, so it just seemed like it was time to step back and pursue something else. I gather the radio station is looking for someone to fill the spot, so if you’re interested. … It was great getting to know different people in the arts community in Prescott. I’ve met so many artists in the Quad City area. I’ve even gotten to interview some famous artists and entertainers who were either passing through Prescott or the Sedona International Film Festival. Paula Poundstone, Ed Asner, Elliott Gould, and David Strathairn were all really impressive. The nice thing about interviewing people like that wasn’t that they were famous so much as the fact they’ve had so many bad interviews over the years with morning zoo types that they seemed genuinely grateful and surprised that I super researched them ahead of time and integrated that material into my questions. It wasn’t just, “So what’s Steven Spielberg like?” They realized I had an interest in their stuff, and we made personal connections. … Doing something like the Buckey Awards, which I did for three years, I think we were able to celebrate and recognize people that normally don’t speak up. I wanted the nomination itself, not the award, to be meaningful. It’s funny, the website for that still gets all these disproportionately large number visits because all the nominees are listed there. I remember the last year when Linne Thomas won outstanding artist of the year. She’s kind of shy and it really touched her. I’m just happy to help out people.
You and your wife, Angie Johnson-Schmit, have worked on film projects via your own Ganesha Filmworks and Burns Unit. What are you up to these days?
Right now, we’re in post-production on a web series we got hired to do for Kevin Goss based on a character he created. We’re two episodes into a five-episode run, but it’s all in post production at this point. That’s as Ganesha Filmworks. With “Witch Child,” a Burns Unit project, we’re still in post. We went into extra innings on that one because all the sound work and music. Matt Jackson had been working on that but passed during the production. Not only did we lose the man doing the work, but also all of the people he knew that he could’ve brought in to help. We had to basically teach ourselves how to do the work. We find people who can give us a little time here and there for work in a studio for free or deferred money, which aren’t the best terms when you’re trying to get something done. Just to be really clear, we’re taking our time and really trying to have “Witch Child” on a level playing field. It’s not a low-budget, we’re-just-having-fun kind of thing; we want to have a product that’s sellable. So many people have invested time and money into it and we want them to see a return on it. … In terms of the sound issues, we ended up working with Steve Mann, a retired sound effects editor who happened to retire in Prescott. He not only lent us his resources and skills, but also several decades worth of sound effects he’s made. He also really schooled us on how to make something that you can sell for money that’s more than a pittance. Sound is a big part of that. He explained that when he was working on Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” they went back and re-recorded three-quarters of the audio. And it wasn’t because it was recorded badly; it was because they wanted to make sure it had a consistent feel when they took it to market.
What kind of help are you looking for these days?
We’d love to work with people interested in film work, with people who know how to record sound and make sound effects, people interested in editing film, and people interesting in doing video effects. We recently found a 15-year-old kid in Phoenix who’s really good at video effects. His dad is a friend of a friend, which is how we got in contact, and he plans on going to college for video effects. He sent me something he’d worked on, and it was good, so I sent him some video from Witch Child — a video we shot in Arcosanti of someone holding their breath underwater looking like a ghost and a video with actors’ reactions that we shot in Congress — and asked him to put them together. And he did it really well. Now, he’ll show up as a freshman in college with an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) credit. I wish I’d had something like that as a kid when I was applying to schools.
You’ve done a lot for the arts in the community via “Prescott Arts Beat,” as the last director of the original Tsunami on the Square, as the founder of the Buckey Awards, and via Coyote Radio Theater. Why make the switch to creating art yourself?
Well, I’m 52-years-old. It was my last year of Tsunami when Angie asked me what I wanted to do next. I hadn’t thought about it. I finally decided if I was going to do something with film, I’d better start doing it pretty quick. Now’s the time if it’s ever going to happen. So, we did “Dead Votes Society,” a horror comedy. During the course of that, Angie found out she really likes doing film work, which was out of the blue for her. When I’d talk to her about film before, like any spouse, she’d just roll her eyes at me, but during Dead Votes Society, that changed for the first time. It’s something we can do together. I’m glad I came to this at 52 and didn’t have to go through that auteur phase. That’s a young man’s game — that “my artistic vision” thing. Being in my 50s, my ego’s not on the front burner. I’ve been kicked in the teeth enough times to know what’s important and have gotten to a more Buddhist place where I just want the idea to work. It’s not so much my idea; on set, if someone has an idea and it serves the work, that’s what’s best.
You’ve leveraged a lot of resources and connections you made covering and promoting the arts here. What’s that been like?
It’s been really neat. In Prescott, there are so many starving artists at one level or another. People here are used to helping each other out and trading favors. Having people do music for the “Witch Child” soundtrack is a great example of that. The soundtrack is all local musicians. We reached out, offered the spots, said we couldn’t pay anything, but are making a virtual album via Bandcamp so the bands can directly profit from its sale track by track. It’s also neat to have Storm of Perception on there. It’s so great to end a horror movie with a metal song. It just kind of sends you out of the theater with this sense and feeling of dread. … When you’re making a movie, you find yourself needing props out of the blue. Suddenly, you need a fog machine, for instance. Most people have those Halloween fog machines, but they’re pitiful. So, we put out the call for a fog machine via Facebook and Ryan Jenkins responds. He’s done sound for Tsunami on the Square before, and he has a professional-level fog machine that’s been used at concerts. So we borrow it and shoot the scene in a garage out in Diamond Valley. We hold down the button for literally two seconds and the room is completely filled with fog. We couldn’t see anything. We opened the door and this huge cloud billows out up into the air. We had to call the Fire Department to let them know there was no fire, that we were just making a movie.
Contact Andrew Johnson-Schmit via Facebook.