"The Dirties," opening Friday in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto, as well on VOD via Phase 4, follows two friends who, while filming a comedy about getting revenge on the bullies at their high school, begin to actually plan a real school shooting.
When Kevin Smith got wind of the film, he came on to present it through his Kevin Smith movie club and called it one of "the most important films of year." It also took home awards at this year's Slamdance film festival. But Johnson said the film almost didn't get seen.
"We were accepted to Slamdance two weeks before the shootings at Sandy Hook and had only submitted to Slamdance and Sundance," he tells Variety. "When Sandy Hook happened we thought for sure we would get pulled (from the lineup) and that we would be that. The festival called and the complete opposite happened."
Johnson and his writing partner Josh Boles wanted to write a school shooting story they could relate to, so they decided to look at bullying and how to humanize people who commit such violent acts.
"A lot of inspiration for this film came from our memories of what we saw as a kid when Columbine happened and understanding what was going on," Johnson says. "This film is kind of closure on Columbine for a lot of us and how we reacted to it then and how we react to it now."
While the subject of school shootings is a big part of the film, Johnson says the bigger motivation bullying and how it plays into society.
"We took the film to a European festival and the audience there was much more intrigued by the bullying in it and a lot of those adults didn't understand the concept of it," Johnson said. "Then you talk to the students over there and they disagree and say it does exist, but that people don't want to talk about it."
"The Dirties" has gone on to win more festival prizes as well as a glowing review from the New York Times. But the support Smith has shown has particularly helped boost interest, even though it doesn't involve comicbooks or horror.
Though bullying and shootings are undeniably serious subjects that might put off some filmgoers, the New York Times review stresses the pic's comedic elements that, along with Smith's endorsement, could help boost interest.
"My goal is for when people go to see this film is that they walk away surprised at how they view the main characters," Johnson said. "I want people to look at these kids in a different way and not just as the monsters they turn into after they commit these violent acts.
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