Justin Johnson is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker whose first feature, Double Digits: The Story of a Neighborhood Movie Star is showing Thursday night at the Tallgrass Film Festival. Its subject is little known Wichita filmmaker Richard “R.G.” Miller, a man who's made countless films in the area since 1979, many of them starring his closest friends and many more, it seems, featuring action figures.
Miller’s unique vision inspired Johnson to make the documentary film. Over the course of several years of correspondence and close work together, the two have become friends. None of that would not have happened if not for Miller’s difficulties with delivering one of his early films to Johnson.
Around 2010, Johnson was working at a New York-based startup company that ran a DIY film network called Indy Mogul. Miller was a fan of the network and decided to submit one of his films to the network. When he couldn’t get his video to upload, he decided to send a copy of the film—on DVD—to Indy Mogul’s legal department. The company’s lawyer watched the film and immediately contacted Johnson.
“As soon as he saw it he knew I had to see it,” Johnson recalls. “I was really impressed and knew that I just wanted to learn more.”
The two struck up a correspondence and Johnson soon flew to Wichita to begin documenting Miller’s process. “I think he thought, ‘Oh, here’s this guy from New York emailing me. This is never going to happen,’” Johnson says. “But I was dead serious about it.”
It took nearly three years for shooting to begin but when the two finally met they were fast friends.
“Within the first hour that I showed up Richard had told me his entire life story,” Johnson recalls. “Just while we were sitting on his front lawn.”
That story involves Miller’s struggles with drug addiction and his eventual incarceration, it also includes the loss of his brother and his mother.
“I just consider myself lucky to be the person that created the container to present Richard’s story to the world,” Johnson says. “Anyone could have turned on a camera and captured him because he is so earnest and honest. I just feel very lucky that it was me.”
Johnson says that it was Miller’s ability to tell big stories in small spaces—most of his films clock in at the 30-minute mark—that impressed the most.
“So many people will talk a big game or write a big script and never complete it,” he says. “What’s so incredible about RG is that he not only writes these scripts that would take $100 million to make, but he finishes them.”
Johnson’s respect for Miller extends to the elder filmmaker’s personal life. “Richard, even though he’s not a man of great wealth, he’s really been very helpful to a lot of people in his family,” he says. “When I needed to interview his cousin or his brother, they’d drop everything because they love Richard so much that they couldn’t wait for the opportunity to talk about him.”
Miller’s ability to do so much with so little—to oversee every element of his own films—proved to be an inspiration to Johnson as a filmmaker.
“This was my first feature film,” he says. “It was so much harder than I thought it would be. I would have these moments of total frustration and then I would watch a part of the film where Richard is saying something really inspiring about not giving up—he just has so many great quotes in this film for any creative person—and it became almost as if the film itself was inspiring me to finish the film.”
Now that it's starting to make its rounds on the festival circuit, and will be available on iTunes in December, Johnson is hopeful that Miller will get his due as a filmmaker.
“My dream is that an actor like Matt Damon would see this and say, ‘Oh my gosh! These films are incredible! I’m going to fly down to Wichita and be in an RG art film.’ That’s my dream: To have movie stars come down to Wichita and be part of this incredible world that he’s building from his studio apartment,” Johnson says.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.