Get To Know: Filmmaker Phillip Johnson


Van Buren: Do you prefer filmmaker or film director?

Johnson: Filmmaker (even though I wear many hats, camera, editor, sound and lighting, producer, and writer) – Hopefully I will outsource most of that for larger projects and continue wearing many hats for smaller personal projects.

Van Buren: Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Johnson: No, it was not until scripts for narrative films came into my head, and over time I felt rather than pitch them the usual way by sending scripts, I rather shoot them. The funny thing is that I am more advanced as a documentary filmmaker than a narrative one, but I plan to add that to my portfolio soon – by the end of 2018 I want to have my hands on some short narrative projects and a pilot for a series well underway.

Van Buren: Tell me about the films you’re working on?

Johnson: Currently they are documentaries under the banner of River City Sketches, I am incubating 5 films of which 2 or 3 should become full-length feature films. They are stories of communities:

Our Town – is the history of Laclede Town, a housing community that had a 30-year life span from the mid 60’s to the mid 90’s it had a Utopian start, but ended ingloriously much the same manner as Pruitt Igo and Mill Creek Valley.

From the Streets to the Throne – is the story of redemption of Eugene Teddy Willingham a former North St. Louis Gang banger whose harrowing street life led him to gun battles, drug wars, gang life, and prison. His interaction with former Mayor Freeman Bosley pointed him a way out, but it took many other battle scars before he found God in prison and now lives a life as a successful businessman, family man and community leader.

From Community to Chaos ironically was the very first documentary project that I conceived. It traces the 50-year period of the gradual decline in North St. Louis, which looks at the contrast in the African American community in the 40s, and 50s that had aspirations for a better life, to the descent into crime, unrest, and decay.

From Privilege to Protest is another individual story of a transformative life. Basmin Redder (pronounced Baas-Mean) was born Brenda Moore raised by a highly successful African American physician, Alva Moore, her childhood was one of privilege and opportunity. However as a young adult her life took many twists and turns, which included curious and mysterious interactions with the late superstar Prince Rogers Nelson. All those twists and turns led her to harness her creative talent as well as become engaged in the activist community.

Hello Am I on the Air? Is a story that looks at the history of All Sports Radio in St. Louis, which had its roots at KMOX under the late Robert Hyland. Local Legends like Jack Buck and Bill Wilkerson, and Bob Costas – make KMOX a sports radio powerhouse in the 70s and 80’s. By the 90’s the All Sports radio format took form bringing new talent, and new formats. This film will capture those behind the mic, the stories and stars they covered as well as reporters who covered sports media and the many callers who have gotten their sports fix via sports talk radio.

Van Buren: What’s harder: Getting started or being able to keep going?

Johnson: Getting started, once you start you feel an innate responsibility to finish what you start. What makes getting started hard especially with limited resources, is the analysis that one makes on what it takes to make a film, and what resources you have relative to those needs.

Van Buren: When inspiration is waning, when you feel creatively tapped out, what do you do? How do you stay motivated?

Johnson: I believe these films were gifts given to me to produce, so I feel a spiritual duty to push through. The subjects of these documentaries, I feel honored that these stories are being told, some feel like it’s over due, I want to honor their passion for the story that is being told.

Van Buren: What do the films say about the world we live in?

Johnson: That the world is a mosaic. All five of these stories say something different about our community. If you put your head on a swivel and pay attention, somewhere there is a story to be told. I remember what Teddy Pendergrass said, “Life is a song worth singing” it produces stories worth telling.

Van Buren: What emotions do you feel your films will bring forth in viewers?

Johnson: The full range. In the interviews that I have produced, there has been laughter, tears, humility – the arc of these films are multidimensional so the emotional impact will reflect that.

Van Buren: How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?

Johnson: One can say, there is always more that can be said, I think you go into film with a goal, check marks, but with documentary film making research is always finding new angles, and interview subjects open up new avenues to explore, you just have to follow your gut and compare your starting goals with your finishing goals and make the call.

Van Buren: List five or more keywords to describe your film(s)?

Johnson: St. Louis, History, Community, Transformation, Thoughtful and Thought Provoking.


Phillip Johnson, author of “Barry! A Citizen Blogger’s Commentary on the 44th President”, is also a social entrepreneur as well film maker. Husband, lifelong St. Louis Resident, born in the Ville neighborhood. His most recent film “Fire this Time” was produced in 2015 on the Ferguson Protest movement.

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