If the universe of “Star Wars” fanaticism has a “Patient Zero,” it would have to be Patrick Read Johnson. More than four decades ago, an unlikely series of events landed the then-teenaged Johnson in the Hollywood warehouse where “Star Wars” was being made – and he actually got a look at an in-progress rough-cut version of the film.
Being the first civilian to see any of “Star Wars” changed Johnson’s life and was the impetus for becoming a filmmaker himself. And it’s at the heart of Johnson’s longtime passion project, a shaggy dog of an autobiographical movie called “5-25-77” (named after the original release date for the first “Star Wars” movie), which shows in Raleigh Thursday, July 13.
“I never set out to make a movie about me,” averred Johnson, now 55 and a film teacher at the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. “And this movie is not really about me; it’s about a kid who drives off in a Ford Pinto at the end. I think it’s almost cautionary. The end of the story isn’t that he was a huge success, just that he got in the car and left.”
That disclaimer aside, the protagonist in “5-25-77” is also named Patrick Read Johnson, a maniacally obsessive aspiring filmmaker. And the film isn’t just set in Wadsworth, Ill. – the small town where Johnson grew up – it was also filmed there, with many of the real-life people various characters are based on putting in cameo appearances.
“We shot the movie in every real location except the high school, which some enterprising kids burned down out of boredom the year after I graduated,” Johnson said. “But the same architect designed the high school over in Waukegan, so we shot the school scenes there. Every other location – my house, the pool, kennel, hospital, theater – was the same as real-life.”
‘Most of this is true’
As the film’s introductory tagline puts it, “Most of this is true. The rest is even truer.” Still, “5-25-77” does take a few liberties. Jennifer Bodzioch Thomas, for example, served as the basis for a “Star Trek”-obsessed character in the film even though she’s not actually a Trekkie.
“That was creative license,” said Thomas, who lives in Raleigh nowadays. “But I told him that was fine so long as he showed me as I really was back then. And when I saw it, it was, ‘Oh my God, that is so me.’ It was like looking into a mirror.”
Johnson himself appears in “5-25-77” in a secondary role with little screen time. But it might be the most psychologically loaded aspect of the entire film: Johnson plays his own disapproving father, which he variously describes as “an exorcism” and “therapy.”
“My dad died a few months before shooting began, and we were on good terms at the end of his life,” Johnson said. “He’d reclaimed his humanity and jettisoned his biggest problems, starting with getting sober, and we bonded significantly. I needed him to read the script and he told me, ‘I know it was hard for you to let me read it, and it was hard for me, too. But it’s the truth.’ ”
Brush with greatness
After leaving Illinois for Hollywood, the real-life Johnson had some solid success writing and directing movies, including 1990’s “Spaced Invaders” and the 2001 television movie “When Good Ghouls Go Bad.” But long before filmmaking became his livelihood, Johnson was busily making movies.
As shown in “5-25-77,” Johnson turned his family homestead into a low-tech film-production backlot. He enlisted friends and families as cast members and repurposed every household item in sight as props for his Super 8 home-movie productions. Mostly he made sequels to films that moved him, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” (which served as Johnson’s original filmmaking road-to-Damascus experience when he saw it as a child) and “Jaws.”
While Johnson’s father wasn’t thrilled about this, Johnson’s long-suffering mother served as his champion. And in a remarkable turn of events, she somehow got American Cinematographer magazine editor Herb Lightman on the phone and convinced him to let her son come out for a visit to talk about how to break into the movie business.
That was the impetus behind young Patrick’s fateful trip to Hollywood. As recounted in “5-25-77,” with well-traveled character actor Austin Pendleton playing Lightman, it’s also when Johnson had his brush with “Star Wars” greatness.
“Except for the hallucination of getting there, the Hollywood sequence is pretty much like a tape recorder,” Johnson said. “Steven (Spielberg) actually did offer me a Pepsi. The whole thing is seared into my DNA, so I’ll never forget it. And in playing Herb, Austin portrayed a kind soul trapped in a bitter body. The scene of him and Pat together in his office is probably the best one in the whole film.”
His favorite film
After returning from Hollywood, the onscreen Johnson counts down the days until the rest of the world will get to see “Star Wars” on May 25, 1977. And while nothing quite goes according to plan, Johnson does get to where he needs to be as far as running away to join the circus in Hollywood – including making this film.
The roots of “5-25-77” go back to the late 1990s and a proposed movie called “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which Johnson describes as a latter-day version of “American Graffiti” set in the 1970s. After telling one of his producers about his formative “Star Wars” experience, Johnson was persuaded to make that the focus of his film.
“I was obsessed, and ‘Star Wars’ came at the right time for me,” he said. “But it was also the right time for everyone else. In the ’70s, divorce became not only acceptable but fashionable. There were millions more broken homes than in any previous generation, with all these disaffected youths hating and fearing their dads. We lost Vietnam and the president was a crook, but grandfather was cool and so was the dude down the street who could fix cars and talk to girls – Obi Wan Kenobi and Han Solo, basically. So divorce, Vietnam and Watergate made the perfect petri-dish virus for ‘Star Wars’ to explode. That explains me.”
Most of “5-25-77” was filmed more than a decade ago, with “Freaks and Geeks” star John Francis Daley playing the teenage Johnson with period-appropriate ’70s hair. The film has had a long and winding road since then, with different versions showing at festivals as Johnson struggled to get it into theaters.
Not quite a decade ago, a theatrical release was in the works and proceeding apace until the Great Recession hit, which shelved the film. But it will finally be in theaters this fall, at long last. Johnson is still tinkering with the final cut while screening it here and there in the meantime – including this showing in Raleigh, with a question-and-answer session afterward.
It’s the sort of film that a certain strain of artistic misfit might find inspirational. Madison Hall sought Johnson out after seeing a rough cut her first year at School of the Arts, and became one of his most enthusiastic students.
“We met up and had a heart-to-heart about growing up and how movies impacted us,” said Hall, a rising junior from Raleigh who is majoring in editing. “His movie really touched me because I know what it’s like to be that weird kid obsessed with movies when nobody else is. I think it’s a really heartwarming story, and Patrick was a really, really good teacher – so enthusiastic about absolutely everything.”
As for Johnson, after all this time, he has enough perspective to be able to make a confession: “Star Wars” is not his favorite movie.
“Yeah, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ is actually my favorite,” he said. “ ‘Star Wars’ was a kick in the pants, a catalyst, and I saw it 28 times the first month it was out. But ‘Close Encounters’ was the one that moved me to tears. That one, I saw 34 times the first month.”