When Amy Jo Johnson attended the premiere of her film, Tammy’s Always Dying, at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, there was no telling that eight months later its official public release would be celebrated over Zoom, rather than in theatres. But embracing the unexpected seems to be a running theme in Johnson’s career.
You may recognize Johnson from her acting work; the Massachusetts-born filmmaker starred as Kimberly Hart, a.k.a the Pink Ranger, on the TV series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, acted alongside Keri Russell in the beloved ‘90s drama, Felicity and was a series regular on the CTV police crime show, Flashpoint.
Now, Johnson is a dual Canadian-American citizen who calls Toronto home. Tammy’s Always Dying, the second feature film she’s directed, is set in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s a dark comedy about a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship tarnished by the same things that mend it: alcoholism, mental health struggles and mortality. Johnson spoke to us about her personal connections to the script, working with Felicity Huffman and what she’s planning on wearing to her virtual premiere party for Tammy’s Always Dying.
Tell me about how you got on board to direct Tammy’s Always Dying.
I went to the Canadian Film Centre’s Director’s Lab and Joanne Sarazen, who wrote Tammy’s Always Dying, was in the writer’s lab at the same time. She was actually writing the script then and did a reading of it during our course there. I just fell in love with the script in a really cathartic way. I identified with so many of the characters – my father suffers from depression and alcoholism. He is a male version of Tammy in a lot of ways. I asked Joanne if I could make the movie and she said yes. Myself and Jessica Adams, who produced it, raised all the money and I got my manager in Los Angeles to get the script into Felicity Huffman’s hands. I think the script was just written so well that she loved it, so I met with her in New York. As soon as Felicity came on board, everything was sort of green lit.
Felicity completely transformed as Tammy. What was the prep like for her performance and how did you collaborate?
She signed on [to the film] fairly early on. I met with her in July 2018 and by the beginning of August she said yes. Then we [starting filming] around the end of October/beginning of November. One of the first things she said when I met with her in New York was, “I’m going to have to decide if I’m doing this movie or not quickly if you’re shooting in November, because I have a lot of work to do [to prepare for the role].” I was like “Oh wow, what is she going to do?” She really worked on that accent. At first it sounded a bit like [it was from] Rochester, New York, which was really great for me to figure out, “Where is this movie taking place?” [Laughs] Then when I found the bridge in Hamilton and we realized we were going to be shooting there, I was like “Let’s just make it Hamilton.” The backdrop fits perfectly. And it’s a Canadian movie – it really is. Joanne Sarazen has said this to me before, and she’s so right, that poverty in the U.S. is very different from poverty in Canada. I think we’re more taken care of in a lot of ways [in Canada] and the movie does reflect that.
Speaking of that bridge, it’s such an integral part of the film and almost functions like a character. How did you go about finding the one in Hamilton?
In my head and reading the script I was like, “What is this bridge, this overpass?” Then I was on Google Maps and sort of searching around Hamilton because I knew we’d be shooting in that area and I stumbled upon this walking bridge that goes over train tracks. I hopped in my car and I drove straight to Hamilton, to that bridge. I was like ‘This is it. This is the bridge. This is the character.” I was in love with it aesthetically and it just fit perfectly.
Canada is definitely represented in this film, including some obvious visual cues like Canadian money and Canadian products in a grocery store. Being a dual citizen, you have the option to shoot movies in the United States as well. Why do you think it’s important to shoot Canadian films in Canada and have that visibility?
I moved my life to Canada in 2005 and I became a citizen in 2015. I was a permanent resident for a long time. Flashpoint brought me to Toronto, where I just fell in love with the city. Right after Flashpoint ended, I decided to pursue a career in filmmaking. I’ve just found being in Toronto, being in Canada has been the exact perfect place for me to be because there’s so much help. I just find it a very nurturing place for emerging filmmakers. I went to the Canadian Film Centre and my first feature was a micro-budget Telefilm movie. Funding Tammy was from Crave, CBC, Telefilm and Ontario Creates – this melting pot of all these different funding grants from these really supportive, amazing organizations in Canada. In the States I never would have necessarily been able to raise that money and make this movie. So it’s incredibly important to me that Tammy’s Always Dying was set in Hamilton – Joanne wrote a story about Canadian women. I’m very happy that I moved up here in 2015. I just love it here, I feel so lucky that I had the guts to sort of move my entire life to a place where I knew no one.
What were some challenges you faced when making Tammy?
For me, every filmmaking process is just constantly troubleshooting and being able to roll with the punches. For sure that happened all through every part of the shoot, right up into the middle of the editing room when I got all these texts about what was happening in the States with Felicity. [Editor’s note: In fall 2019, Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in jail for her role in a college entrance exam cheating scandal.] You just have to keep moving and thinking on your feet and just make the best of things. When we were shooting the film in the fall, every day we were figuring out how to get through some major obstacle – like the porta-potty exploding in the street [laughs]. Things like that.
Many people know you for your roles in Power Rangers and Felicity. What made you decide to transition more into directing?
When I went into acting, I never really thought too much about directing. I liked to write a lot, but it was during my time on Flashpoint where I really found my confidence as a person. I think it was from having my daughter and also just the environment on that set; the people I was surrounded with were very helpful to me. It was during that time where I wanted to give it a shot and as soon as Flashpoint ended, I directed my first short film. I was like, “Wow. This is what I’ve been searching for. This is where my passion lies.” Now I really have no interest in acting anymore. I love directing and writing and filmmaking so much – far more than I ever loved acting.
Tell me about the plans for the virtual premiere.
Tammy was supposed to be released in theatres on May 1. Obviously, that’s not happening right now with everything that’s going on in the world. We put so much hard work into this and I’m so grateful for our experience at TIFF, which was incredible. But I wanted to figure out a way that we could still celebrate the film and celebrate it with people who have supported my career since I was a Power Ranger. So I thought of doing a Zoom premiere party. I asked my friend Greg Grunberg, who was on Felicity with me, to host it and have Joanna the writer and Anastasia the lead in the film be there. Now we have this contest where you post a picture of what you would wear to the premiere and tag us. Then we’re going to pick 50 people to come celebrate and chat about the film and make something special out of the occasion. I think it’s important that we figure out how to celebrate during this time, these small things that happen to us in our lives. Figuring out how to celebrate in a new way while we’re all going through this is important for people’s spirits and hope.
That’s such a fun idea! I have to ask what you would wear to the premiere.
Well, I bought a bunch of outfits when the film was at TIFF this past year so I think I’m just going to recycle one of those. Maybe even the premiere outfit that I wore. I’m going to go for it. I’m going to get all fancy and have some champagne… I’m gonna do’er up.
As you should! As a filmmaker, how do you think the current pandemic will change the industry and how does that tie into your plans for future projects?
Who knows really where this is all going. Two weeks ago, the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC) put on this Zoom webinar with director Jean-Marc Vallée and Tim Southam, who is an amazing director as well as president of the DGC. It was incredible. I just laid on my couch and listened to Jean-Marc Vallée talk about how he makes films. I didn’t know about Zoom before all of this, so I’m really interested in these masterclasses – these different ways of learning and webinars through Zoom. I’ll be doing a lot of that over the next few months.
Are you working on anything currently?
I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve been writing music and I’m also in the middle of writing a screenplay called, Somewhere, Someone. It’s a fictional epic love story about somebody who was on one of the planes that landed in Gander during 9/11. I’ve been working on that and I went to Newfoundland this fall to do some research. I’ve been picking that up every morning and plugging away, trying to write that story.
Is there anywhere else you’re interested in filming in Canada?
I love B.C., it’s so beautiful. I’ve worked as an actress out there and I’d love to shoot there at some point. Even Quebec; I lived in Montreal for a while. I’ve written a screenplay called Breaking Emma, which is very loosely based off of my move from Los Angeles to Montreal on a whim. So I’d love to shoot that movie in Montreal.
Are you watching anything right now?
I’ve been watching a lot of TV. The Morning Show – Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon are wonderful in that. I’m also really into Jason Bateman’s directing, those first two episodes of The Outsider…wow. That was spectacular. And Fleabag. I was late to the game with that too and I just binged that whole thing.
Who would your dream collaborator be (Canadian or not)?
I know who I’d want to mentor me on a film and that would be Jean-Marc Vallée. I’ve heard about his different styles and the way he shoots and I feel like I have a similar instinct to go that way. I would love to be guided a bit through the process.
Tammy’s Always Dying is available to watch on demand on May 1.
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