by Andrew Nogay
Assistant Web Content Manager
Caleb Straus and Dustin Johnson were in a bit of a bind back in 2007. Straus had quit a theater job that wasn’t going anywhere and took up substitute teaching, while Johnson was going through a divorce. It had been a few years since the two best friends had graduated from Texas State, Straus as a theater major and Johnson as a graphic designer, and their backs were up against the wall.
“Our lives were just sort of in the dumps. [Dustin] and I are the kind of people to react, and that usually means creating something,” Straus said when I recently interviewed him, and they did exactly that with a feature film called It’s Over.
It was an idea that Straus and Johnson had been kicking around for several years, and Straus’ girlfriend, now wife, convinced them to just make it.They had nothing to lose, and over the course of several months they made the film under their the heading of their self-run production company, Snout Productions. For them, art was a way to get their lives out of a hole.
“A lot of it was an accident, as life changing things can be.”
It’s Over was released in 2009, and it’s sequel, The Storybook, was released in 2012. Straus and Johnson always planned on the post-apocalyptic theology-inspired series being a trilogy, and work began on the final part of their vision, It’s Over: Nephilim. It was in production when tragically, Dustin Johnson died in May of this year.
“Your mind goes to the darkest places,” Straus said. “Twenty four hours before I got that news we were talking and chatting and texting. He redesigned the Snout logo and sent it to me. He was working on some effects for the film…everything was hunky dory. It was a really sudden and mysterious thing.”
Straus and Johnson had been best friends since they were kids. They played in a band, EMZY ENZY, in high school, which was the impetus for the creation of Snout Productions. It was originally supposed to be a record label, but the film making bug hit them and Snout Productions became an outlet for all of their artistic output.
The It’s Over movies came about mostly through Johnson’s fascination with spirituality and mythology, due to his religious upbringing. The films deal with the struggle with heaven and hell in the aftermath of the apocalypse. It’s not quite fantasy, not quite sci-fi, but something that is uniquely Snout Productions. Thematically much of their music as EMZY ENZY deals with the same sort of ideas. However, Straus feels like for Snout to continue, a change in direction might be needed, since Johnson was the main influence on the mythological aspect of their art.
“One of the challenges I have is figuring out where he ends and I begin,” Straus says. “There’s probably going to be a shift. You always risk alienating fans when you reinvent, but hopefully anyone with a heart will see that it’s necessary.”
Over the course of the It’s Over trilogy, Johnson and Straus served as co-creators, co-directors, co-editors, co-writers, basically everything cooperative you could do in a film, they did. Straus’ wife is also a key member of the team, both in front of and behind the camera, but making a feature film is still a huge undertaking for any three person team with limited resources, let alone three.
The budget and production values for the It’s Over films have gotten steadily larger. When they started, Straus estimated that about 30 people worked on the film, the vast majority of which were extras. He and Johnson were the main people working behind the camera, and both acted in important roles. Compare that to their last film, which has a director of photography, another production company backing it, and enough people working on it that had Straus admitting that he didn’t know everybody’s name working on his film. Still, the DIY ethic that the first film had is kept in tact.
“It’s kind of fun, figuring out what you can do with less,” Straus explains.
Since Johnson’s passing, the burden of everything has been placed on Straus’ shoulders, and he admitted the stress hasn’t been positive for him. In fact, he seems nearly nostalgic for the times of the first film.
“That’s the thing about your first film: it will always be the worst film you ever make because you don’t know what you’re doing, but you will never have that kind of fun making a film again. There’s no pressure, there’s no expectations.”
Like the first two films, It’s Over: Nephilim will screen at Texas State, probably in January. Straus and Johnson had used their alma mater as a resource for their films, primarily as a way to find people to be in it. Straus said that Snout Productions and Texas State have a strange connection of sorts, so of course Nephilim will screen there. When we talked, he was still in the middle of finishing editing the film, which he was less than excited about.
“I’m just trying to get it together, in the very short amount of time I have.There’s probably going to be some sleepless nights, but the idea is to finish everything, finish the movie and dedicate it to him. That’s his legacy, what he left behind. That and his daughter.”
Straus is also trying to pull together a screening in Austin January as well. He originally planned on a December 12th date for it, which is right around when Johnson’s birthday would’ve been, but unfortunately too much of the cast and crew couldn’t make it. Of course, the movie being made at all is a fitting way to honor Dustin Johnson. Really the meaning of the It’s Over movies goes beyond the mythological struggle between heaven and hell.
After all, what is art? You could say it takes whatever meaning the artists gives it. The first film of the trilogy was a way for two best friends to get out of a rut. This last film? Maybe it’s a way to remember a friend.