T.C. Johnstone is a director and director of photography who has worked on a variety of projects including television (ABD, CBS, NBC, Discovery, CNN), independent films and a documentary with author and pastor Rick Warren. After producing his first feature 10 years ago in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, he moved to Santa Monica, California and began working as a DP and documentary director. In 2007 he created Gratis 7 Media Group, a non-profit based in Austin, Texas with the goal of mobilizing directors and pastors to create positive change through film. He has spent recent years working in Rwanda, Africa, on Rising from Ashes, documenting the story of Rwanda's first national cycling team.
Hometown: Santa Fe, NM; Santa Barbara, CA; Middleburg, VA
Current City: Austin, TX
AHD: “Rising from Ashes,” a six-year directorial undertaking, is set to screen April 6th and 7th at the Dallas International Film Festival. Can you introduce us to the feature length documentary?
TC: Rising From Ashes is the unlikely story of two worlds colliding in the hills of Rwanda, Africa when cycling legend Jock Boyer and five riders start the first ever Rwanda National cycling team. Cautiously optimistic, they all take a step of faith that changes their lives forever.
AHD: How did you get your start in film, and how did you end up spending 18 months as Pastor Rick Warren's documentarian?
TC: I never went to film school. At 27 my friend showed me a digital video camera and an Apple computer that he bought to make videos for a youth program we worked for called Young Life. I went home that night and bought a computer and camera just like his off of eBay. A few months later a high school friend told me he wanted to make a movie. I “borrowed” a copy of a screenwriting program from a friend and wrote a script. We had no idea what we were doing; we were so naive. We shot that movie with 100 of our high school friends. It took 25 straight days, 14 to 16 hours a day. The movie was horrible. It didn’t matter, we formed a family and it gave us confidence to dream. Fast forward, I have a fantastic mentor John Russell who taught me the core of what I do now. It’s all about light, story and relationships. We shot commercially for the Four Seasons Hotels for a couple of years and then I moved to L.A. From there I ended up going to Africa to shoot a story on Rick Warren. I didn’t really know who the guy was when I went over there. I read a few chapters of his book but that was about it. He’s very disarming. When he got off the plane he was wearing flip-flops, a Hawaiian shirt and kaki shorts. He carried his own luggage and looked like a cast extra from Magnum P.I. We just hit it off on that trip and became friends. I liked what he was doing with his affluence and influence. He was very intentional about what he was doing with his life. We ended up spending 18 months together traveling around the world, over 40 countries or something like that, shooting a documentary. The story was about his global initiative the “Peace Plan.”
I learned so much during that time. I remember countless nights on international flights just asking him question after question. I love learning. We would talk about business, faith, leadership, marriage you name it. It’s been a huge gift to have him as a mentor.
AHD: This year AHD has focused on the theme of beauty and justice. Your life changed on a shoot with Warren in Rwanda. What did you see in that broken country that opened your eyes to the task of making "media with meaning?"
TC: There is something very powerful when we live life following our passion and purpose, not knowing the outcome. The first time I was in Rwanda I heard Rick say, “what’s in your hands?” It was his way of saying we all have something to offer the world. For years I felt a sense of emptiness in the stories I was working on in LA. I wanted to tell stories that provided people hope and encouragement. This was the first time I felt like what I was doing had meaning. That seed has grown into what Gratis 7 is today: movies with meaning.
AHD: Challenging documentaries aren't always box office toppers. What unique obstacles do you face fundraising for films that seek to contribute to the common good?
TC: I’m not convinced that funding is the issue. We live in a country of incredible generosity. I don’t believe there is a lack of funding but a lack of good ideas with solid business plans. When it comes to donors, we don’t just want thier funding, we want them to join us in making the movie. Filmmaking is fun and there is a place for almost everyone to use their gifts and talents. We would much rather build something together with our donors. By making movies as a family, we have created lasting friendships that far surpass the films we make. We have a very specific business model that works for our team. We don’t take huge un-calculated risks and our films are balanced with the experience we have with that genre.
AHD: You're scheduled to talk film and finance at an AHD panel discussion in conjunction with DIFF, and you enjoy similar speaking engagements around the country. What message do you most like to share with aspiring filmmakers?
TC: More then anything else I find myself going back to the basics:
- Light, story and relationships.
- I believe good things happen in the light.
- A good story well told brings hope and meaning.
- There is nothing in the world more valuable then healthy relationships.
AHD: What was the most challenging aspect of the six-plus-year commitment to “Rising from Ashes?”
TC: I’ll pick three:
- As my mentor and friend Peb Jackson once taught me…stay in hand. Never fold too soon. Great things happen when you stick with it.
- The history of Rwanda was much easier to deal with before I became close friends with the cast. As I got to know them it became harder to shoot the film objectively. I really had to fight that. That’s one thing I’m proud of. I felt I told the story honestly.
- It takes a village. There is a great team behind every director. In my case was my producer Greg Kwedar. This film would have never come to be without that guy. And for me personally, my wife. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
AHD: Why is it important, in anything creative, to tell stories of redemption?
TC: We all need hope; it’s like air. We all need a second chance in some area of our lives.
8. How can we learn more about “Rising from Ashes,” catch a screening, and follow your work as you continue to make films with a mission?
Rising from Ashes will be screening at the DALLAS International Film Festival as well, check out the DIFF screening guide (please link) for more information:
- Saturday, April 6th at 12:00pm
- Sunday, April 7th at 2:45pm