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Cannes Facetime: Director/Producer Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson has many films under her belt as a producer, but is stepping behind the lens in a different capacity this year,  making her feature directorial debut with “Carrie Pilby,” based on the bestseller YA novel by Caren Lissner and starring rising star Bel Powley as the title character. Film is being sold by Radiant Films Intl. at Cannes. Carole Horst

Your film has more than the usual women in key positions. Was that a conscious choice?
My producers and I have definitely made an effort to hire women whenever and as often as possible, on this film and others we’ve produced. But we also recognize that real change will come from telling stories in which the protagonist is female. Men and women seem to relate to Carrie Pilby equally, and our film is definitely about Carrie’s journey, so we shouldn’t have to limit ourselves to making films about women for women to be heard. We do need to generate more female driven material though. Consistently and frequently. Women have always been storytellers, yet almost all of my artistic influences growing up were male, and that’s just wrong. Nor is it reflective of the world we live in.

The head of your sales company, Mimi Steinbauer, is a woman, too.
The sales agents have to speak a language that we don’t. And the women can really pitch it better — even though it’s called “Carrie Pilby,” they have to convey that it’s not just going to appeal to women.

This is your first feature as a director.
I started out assisting directors and producers on features straight out of college. I’ve always straddled the two disciplines, producing and directing, but when I was given a scholarship to study directing at AFI, I realized that directing was my true passion.

How did the film come together?
Producer Suzanne Farwell and I met many years ago and had always talked about finding something for me to direct and her to produce. Suzanne introduced me to the novel “Carrie Pilby,” and I fell in love with it immediately. It’s really difficult to find female-driven stories that aren’t limited to a female audience, and the novel of “Carrie Pilby” has a very broad fan base. Suzanne and I brought on producer Susan Cartsonis and together we started a Kickstarter campaign to raise financing to hire a screenwriter to help us develop the script.

How did the financing come together?
We knew the financing for our film, as would any film with a female protagonist, be cast contingent, so we spent about a year putting the ensemble together. For us, creatively, we knew we wouldn’t make the film if we couldn’t find the perfect Carrie Pilby. The day we saw “Diary of a Teenage Girl” our search was over. Bel Powley is so incredibly talented. She can manage comedy and drama equally, which is rare for any actor but especially hard to find in someone so young. Every day on set was sheer joy because I knew what we were getting was exactly how I had seen the character through three years of development.

What’s next?
I’m reading everything I can, and watching everything I can. There is so much great product out there, especially on cable … inspiration at every turn. I just hope somebody picks me for their team because I really want to play. I bring something unique to the table just by being female, but hopefully a generation from now this interview will seem very, very dated.

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