Derek Wayne Johnson ’06 has always felt like an underdog.
“I’ve always had an affinity for the common man who rises up to become a champion,” he said.
“I guess my own life, growing up in the pineywoods of East Texas dreaming of Hollywood success, seemed like a pipe dream to some. But I knew early on that’s what I wanted to achieve.”
On his way to realizing that dream, it was only natural that the former SFA filmmaking student, now a Hollywood director, writer and producer, make a film chronicling the life and work of a relatively unknown filmmaker who championed the underdog in films like “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid.”
“John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs,” produced by Johnson’s production company, AJ16 Entertainment and released in August 2017, took three years to complete. The documentary examines the life, career and films of the Oscar-winning director of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” and includes exclusive never-before-seen interviews with Sylvester Stallone, Ralph Macchio, Martin Scorsese, Burt Reynolds, Jerry Weintraub, Talia Shire and many others.
“Making this documentary changed my life and my career in many ways,” Johnson said. “Not only did I get to meet my hero, John Avildsen, but I also got to befriend him, be mentored by him and make a movie about him.”
Born and raised in Carthage, Johnson began making short films at an early age. He spent the first 12 years of his life growing up on Lake Murvaul just outside of Carthage, where his imagination ran wild and his interest in filmmaking began.
“I absorbed movies from an early age,” he said, “re-watching VHS tapes over and over that my grandfather recorded for us from his giant satellite dish and circling upcoming movie titles in the TV Guide and recording them when they finally came on weeks later.”
Weekly visits to the video rental store also proved to be extremely influential.
“The first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater was Avildsen’s ‘The Karate Kid Part II,’” he said. “I was 3 years old, and I was mesmerized.”
Movies like “Rocky,” “The Karate Kid,” “Se7en,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Poltergeist” had a big effect on Johnson growing up.
“Storytelling and crafting movie ideas was just something I was good at. It felt natural,” Johnson said.
The 2001 Carthage High School graduate won several filmmaking awards as a high school student. In his senior year of film school at SFA, Johnson wrote and directed his first feature film, “Within Us.” After receiving his Bachelor of Arts, he got his start in Texas and Louisiana by directing independent feature films such as “Broken Blood” and “Scrape.”
Johnson studied Avildsen’s films as well as those of John Hughes, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Steven Spielberg. Later, he studied the films of William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Donner, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan and others.
“I guess you can say I have a lot of filmmaking heroes and influences,” he said.
Originally unaware that SFA had a filmmaking program, Johnson planned to study radio/TV and then attend film school in Los Angeles. Meeting William Arscott, a former Regents Professor at SFA, changed all that. Johnson describes studying filmmaking with Arscott as “life-changing.”
“Simply put, the man is a legend and a force of personality that students who’ve been taught by him all appreciate and love,” he said. “He really cares about his students and their filmmaking futures, and his hands-on approach of ‘grab a camera and make a movie’ is far beyond most film school techniques.
“I made a lot of mistakes at SFA that helped prepare me for the real world of the film industry,” Johnson said. “I believe film school is where the majority of your mistakes should be made.”
Brad Maule, lecturer of acting/directing and filmmaking, who is known for his longtime role as Dr. Tony Jones on the soap opera “General Hospital,” started teaching at SFA during Johnson’s senior year and had a major influence on his career, as well, Johnson said.
“He taught me a lot about the Hollywood system,” he said. “Both he and Professor Arscott remain close friends and mentors of mine to this day. I fully support SFA and the film program. It’s the best film school in the world, in my opinion.”
Johnson didn’t realize until he was older that Avildsen had become his favorite filmmaker. He studied the way Avildsen framed shots, his editing techniques, his characters and performances, his use of montage and music, and of course, his “riveting climaxes.”
“John was in my life for five years, yet his art was in my life since I first saw ‘The Karate Kid Part II’ at 3 years old,” he said. “I’m very proud to have been mentored by my hero, and I hope I can give back to some hungry filmmaker one day like he gave to me.”
The two filmmakers came from very different backgrounds.
“John had a silver spoon in his mouth from birth, and I grew up as a small-town country boy,” Johnson said, “and yet, we both loved the same type of films and have a knack for the underdog story.
“I’ve experienced a lot of tragedy, heartache and rejection in my life, including the terrible loss of my little brother in a car accident. (Johnson’s production company, AJ16 Entertainment, was formed in honor of his late brother, Adam: AJ for his initials and 16 for his favorite sports number.) But, something kept me going. Something inside of me made me want to be the best I could be.
“John Avildsen achieved greatness when he won the Oscar for ‘Rocky,’ and winning my own Oscar is something I aspire to do,” he said. “One day I asked him if I could hold his Oscar, and he said ‘yes,’ gave it to me, and took a photo of me. I was smiling from ear to ear. He told me, ‘Get used to it, kid. You’ll have your own one day.’ Man, that was such a wonderful moment, and that statue symbolized my burning desire to make it in Hollywood like John did.”
Avildsen passed away from pancreatic cancer in June 2017.
Currently, Johnson is directing two documentaries simultaneously. “40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic” with Sylvester Stallone is a unique documentary about the making of “Rocky” using Avildsen’s behind-the-scenes footage, home movies and rehearsal footage from the set. He also is in production on “STALLONE: Frank, That Is,” a documentary about the fascinating life and career of Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated singer, musician and actor Frank Stallone, brother of Sylvester. The film includes interviews with Frank, Sylvester, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Zane, Joe Mantegna and many more stars. Johnson will be making his return to narrative films with an untitled feature-length drama set for production in 2019.
Johnson’s producing partner, Chris May, also is an SFA film graduate, and another SFA alum, Chris Collier, is one of the company’s executive producers.
“I’m very proud to have worked with fellow Lumberjacks on ‘John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs,’ and we plan to make more films together out here in Hollywood,” Johnson said.
“John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs” was released on Digital Download, Blu-Ray and DVD Aug. 1 on Chassy.com, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Comcast VOD and many other platforms under Adam Carolla’s distribution company Chassy Media.