Film student Johanan McDowell discusses his ambitious new project 'Red'
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For 11 months, Johanan McDowell was in an unmelodious hell of Kanye West’s design.
From July 2015 to May 2016, the synth assault that opens West’s 2013 album Yeezus on the song “On Sight” was all that went through the film student’s head.
“It was that exact noise that I heard at that time. That was all I heard,” said McDowell, a sophomore media study major. “Even when I wasn’t listening to that song that was all I heard. That little snippet, imagine that for six to eight months. Hell!”
This was not a unique experience for the young filmmaker. Much like his idol West, McDowell hears his visuals before he sees them. West’s “On Sight” has influenced McDowell’s latest project “Red.”
His uncertainty about himself and his future has made him who he is today.
“I view visual mediums as hearing pictures. I don’t really think about what I see; I think about what I hear,” McDowell said. “This picture behind us, what I see with my eyes is people talking, but what I hear is the disgruntled sometimes conversation of these old men or the laughter going on in this side of the picture.”
McDowell always had an interest in film, but first seriously considered it as a career after he was accepted into the Cinema School in the Bronx. An offshoot of the Ghetto Film School, the Cinema School is the nation’s first film high school and is a selective academy.
The aspiring filmmaker is from Brooklyn and commuted two hours to the Bronx every morning to go to school.
McDowell came to UB to study film and, like many students, had trouble adjusting to college life, coupled with pressure from home.
“Before I came here, I felt like I needed to grow up a lot,” McDowell said. “I was pressured to grow up really fast. I was pressured to be this person that I did not want to be. I was pressured to be this mega talented creator, but like I don’t know who I am yet.”
The artist’s friends and family contributed to that stress.
He loved the support he got and was always encouraged to chase his ambitions. But sometimes it was too much.
“It was coming from home. It was coming from people at home asking me ‘How’s college doing? How’s college doing?’” McDowell said. “I’m OK when it comes to the work. But when it comes to me [as] a person I’m not doing well. I don’t know how to operate in this new world and no one prepared me for this new world.”
From the pressure came the constant cacophony of Kanye’s “On Sight.” From that cacophony came “Red”.
The project tells the story of Red, a young creator who also takes the form of a giant red digital rectangle in the place of a human body. Red wants to keep creating and finding himself when he finds his inspiration –a female rectangle, Pink – stolen from him.
“‘Red’ was inspired by me wanting to go back to that time when I was five years old. Like [a] little five-year-old with a little coloring book, drawing inside and outside of the lines. It’s messy, but it’s coming from the heart,” described the creator,” McDowell said.
“Red” has the aesthetic of a particularly artsy Adult Swim series, a conscious choice on McDowell’s part.
It may appear childlike, but McDowell takes inspiration from very respectable sources. The monolithic design of Red comes from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” by Stanley Kubrick, one of McDowell’s favorite filmmakers. Kubrick uses the monolith as an agent of human evolution throughout history.
Jonathan Joy, an MFA candidate and media study instructor, premiered “Red” in his class.
“If his inspiration was a film from the late ’60s, he can examine what a monolith means in 2016 and whether it is physical or digital,” Joy said. “I’m enthralled with the idea of this digital object speaking about physical space, being a representation of the human body or the human race. In a way, it’s a commentary on the current social climate.”
The project is still in its infancy, currently taking the form of a couple-minute teaser. McDowell is unsure when the project will be completed or what form it will take, but has high hopes for “Red.”
“By the time I’m 30 or 40, the idea will be fully realized and I can pitch it to Fox or Warner Bros. and say, ‘Let’s make this.’ I think the idea 20 years down the line will still be 100 years ahead of its time,” McDowell said.
He may sound arrogant, but what else would one expect from a man who cites Kanye West as his biggest influence?
“If you watch his interviews, you’re like, ‘Wow you’re actually pretty smart.’ Weird as hell, but really smart,” McDowell said. “I mean, what genius isn’t weird? Even I’m really weird, like what am I doing right now? Every highly creative person is.”
McDowell hopes to hone his craft on other, more commercial projects while still injecting his artistic touch.
He recently worked with the Student Association to create the referendum video.
“It’s a very American type video,” he said. “It really exemplifies the American dream by just the way I edited it. There are little things I did with it to make it into more of an artistic work. You’re not really supposed to do that in a commercial video and you do it and you really get away with it. And I’m showing people the video and I’m like, ‘You guys don’t even realize the most avant-garde sh*t I just did.”
It’s important for McDowell to continue to produce in order to practice his craft and define himself better as an artist.
McDowell is also in pre-production stages on a series with his friend Charles Carter, a senior media study major who originally approached McDowell with his idea for the project.
“I've known him for about a year now and he's very creatively passionate about all film in general,” Carter said. “That's why I brought him on to the project.”
The series, called “Lonestars,” will center two young men living in Buffalo whose lives intertwine amid the social change going on in the city.
McDowell speculates that filming will begin in next April or May as he continues to create and meld his commercial and artistic interests.