Jake Johnson describes his new film “Self Reliance,” which he wrote and directed, as “‘Jacob’s Ladder’ with some laughs.” The film is a comedy with real stakes: Johnson stars as a man who winds up in a game where he’s trying to win a million dollars while hunters try to kill him. The twist is he discovers that the hunters can only attack him when he’s alone. But when none of his friends or family believe the game is real, Johnson’s character must figure out how to survive on his own.
There are scary moments, but more often it’s also really funny. And the audience screening it on Saturday night at the South by Southwest festival in Austin rocked the Paramount Theatre with big laughs throughout the film’s tight 85 minutes.
“I love ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’ I love it so much. I do get some laughs,” Johnson said after the screening. “And I thought, what if you fill it with really funny people and you’re actually personalized, but it’s scary, and you’re not sure what’s happening and you’re along for a ride.”
Johnson said the initial idea was inspired by Japanese reality shows from the late 90s and early 2000s, including one where contestants were forced to stay in a room and live off coupons.
“I thought, who would be somebody who’s playing? The idea went away and then the pandemic came,” he said. “And when the pandemic hit I felt like truth became subjective. I was missing everybody. I thought I’m gonna try it right now and if the world comes back, I’m going to try to make it.”
The entire film was shot in just 19 days — a stat that elicited gasps from the audience.
“The whole vibe was, let’s just really go for it,” Johnson said. “Because we were just climbing out of the pandemic. So the actors, everybody’s vibe was so good. Everybody in post worked so hard. In indie film, there’s no money, there’s no time. Everybody was tired. But everybody’s attitude was so in it. It just felt like such a great team and it was a joy to make.”
The film features off-the-wall moments from the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Andy Samberg and Wayne Brady — as well as an Ellen DeGeneres celebrity impersonator. When asked if he reached out to DeGeneres, Johnson realized he hadn’t.
“God, I never gave it a thought until here,” he quipped.
The cast also includes Anna Kendrick, Emily Hampshire, Natalie Morales, Mary Holland, Biff Wiff, Boban Marjanovic, Gata, John Hans Tester, Bjorn Johnson and Makini Manu.
Kendrick was also on hand for the screening. “I’ve known Jake for 10 years now,” she said. “I just really trust him and I knew that the tone was gonna be nuts and really hard to balance.” She said she told Johnson, “I think I texted you the day before it started filming, that if I show up and I’m in the wrong movie, just like drag me kicking and screaming into the right tone.”
Ali Bell, Joe Hardesty, and Johnson produced the film, while exec producers are Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. And in an age of 3-hour movies, “Self Reliance” clocks in at a tight 85 minutes.
While at SXSW, Johnson also accepted a directing award at Variety’s Power of Comedy event on Friday night. (Kendrick also received an award at the event.) He currently stars in “Minx,” which returns for a second season on Starz (having previously run on HBO Max, which canceled the show in a fit of budgetary housecleaning last year).