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Jamie J Johnson Interview

Director Jamie J Johnson’s latest film is the Junior Eurovision documentary Sounds Like Teen Spirit, in which he follows around the teen and pre-teen competitors as they try their hardest to win the 2007 title. Here he talks with View’s Matthew Turner about picking his favourite kids, getting backstage access for the competition and what everyone’s been up to since the film.

How did the film come about?
JJ: Basically, I was watching the adult contest the year that Finnish latex monster band Lordi won and when they won I thought, 'Wow, this is beyond pantomime and would make a brilliant subject for a feature doc,' so I pitched it to BBC Films and they liked it but they already had four Eurovision projects in development. So then I said, 'Well how about the Junior one?' and they said 'Hmmm...' so I started researching it and then I was just kind of like, 'Why has nobody made this film yet?' So that's kind of how it started.

So how did you find the different kids after that?
JJ: Basically I flew round with a camera and a sound recordist and we went to all the countries that we could – I think I went to about seventeen – all the countries that were having the heats, as it were. And then we'd sort of film with the kids before the national final and then interview the winner and then try and sort of go to the house of the winner to see what their home situation was like the following day. So that was the sort of casting process to see who we might then follow to the Rotterdam final.

So how did you narrow it down from seventeen to four?
JJ: Well, I know this probably isn't the most stringent method of selecting them, but I just basically chose my favourites out of all seventeen countries. I just chose the ones I sort of wanted to hang out with, so that was basically how they were selected. We didn't pick them based on who we thought might win or anything like that.

I was curious as to whether you'd seen [US Spelling Bee documentary] Spellbound?
Yes, I have very much seen Spellbound.

Did you talk to the directors at all?
JJ: No, I didn't, actually and I would have liked to. I think it would have been probably helpful if I had. There was another film called Taxidermy: Stuff the World, by a British director, about the World Taxidermy Championships. And I'd sort of seen both of those and I watched both of them quite carefully. Because I was just shitting my pants, basically -excuse my language- before I went out to each country of the kids that we'd chosen, because I was like, 'Oh my God, I don't have much time with them and what if we don't get anything that's any good?' And you know, in Spellbound, what would they have needed to do? So I kind of broke it down and did almost like a shopping list based on, you know, they went to this kid's house and they did an interview in their bedroom and they did them at school and blah blah blah. So I tried to work it out and just cover bases like that. And then I sort of threw all of that stuff away slightly, when I got out there and just realised you can't really control anything, actually.

So was there much that was cut out of the film or did you pick the kids you wanted and trust that you'd get everything from them?
JJ: Yeah. Even saying it now, it does seem mental, but that's kind of what we did. We didn't follow any additional characters and then drop them or anything like that. Because I know in Spellbound they did that – the DVD has three extra spellers on it that didn't make it into the final film.

How difficult was it to get permission to film backstage at Eurovision?
JJ: We had to fly to Holland. I'd managed to wangle filming at the previous year's contest, which I shot as a sort of trailer. I did a little three minute trailer and a sort of 27 minute taster from that, so we took that as a 'This is how we're going to treat the subject' and it had the war stuff in it and it had the humour and the tone, so we had to present it to all of the Eurovision Steering Committee, which is 36 heads of each country's TV and they all sat down and ummed and ahhed and then said, 'Yeah, alright then.'

So we did have Access All Areas but at the same time, the Dutch crew in Rotterdam had spent probably millions on the show, at the end of it and they didn't want us getting in the way, so they were quite tight in terms of us getting on stage and where we could put cameras and so on. So it was quite difficult and there were a couple of hairy moments where we thought we weren't going to be able to film on stage during the votes. And I knew that that was a key thing, that was our key scene that it all builds up towards in some ways. But luckily, our producer, Liz Carlson just got super-charming on them and managed to turn things around.

Did you know that Bab was going to be presenting the Belgian points or was that a happy surprise?
JJ: We only heard about a week before and at that point we didn't really know what our edit was going to be, but I had a rough outline that had her as the character we'd start with, so when we heard she was going to be presenting it was like, 'Oh, actually, this might all tie in quite nicely now...' But it was great to see her face like pop up, forty foot high.

Are you still in touch with the kids?
JJ: Yeah, I'm in touch with all of them apart from Mariam, just because she doesn't speak English and doesn't write English well enough to email either. But I hear about her through a couple of Georgian friends that we met while we were making the film. But yeah, all the others, we email and Facebook each other and so on. We have the odd Skype conversation. And Bab's doing well – I email her dad and he lets me know when she's got a new release coming out or whatever.

So what are they all up to?
JJ: They're all mainly just being kids still. I think Bab has some kind of mini record deal, Trust are recording an album on their own, just using Mirek's computer in his loft, which is pretty cool. Marina is still doing Bon-Bon but she's just being a teenager, she's just kind of buying booze to go to parties and causing trouble and probably driving her mum mad. She's all right though – her mum's got a new boyfriend and Marina likes him, so that's good. And Mariam's doing well – there was an opportunity for her to move to [Georgia's capital] Tbilisi and for some reason they didn't take it, but I'm not entirely clear on what happened.

Have they all seen the film?
JJ: They've all seen it apart from Mariam, which is kind of disappointing. Opportunities kept coming up that didn't quite happen, like, for Toronto, they wanted to fly her over for the premiere and she couldn't come because it was straight after the conflict. So we're still hoping we can get her over for something but if it doesn't happen soon we're just going to send her a copy. But I know she's seen the trailer and clips and has heard all about it. I feel bad now, I'll have to send her a copy.

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Content updated: 27/05/2018 09:00

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