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This new movie features all your favorite San Diego bars

San Diego musician and filmmaker Ben Johnson is shown with "Fanboy" co-star Arabella Harrison.
San Diego musician and filmmaker Ben Johnson stars in the rock ‘n’ roll thriller “Fanboy,” which has its world premiere on Jan. 14 at the South Bay Drive-In. Arabella Harrison, left, co-stars.
(Tim Fears)

Ben Johnson’s ‘Fanboy’ filmed scenes at The Casbah and Soda Bar among others. It premieres Jan. 14.

In his debut film, a rock ‘n’ roll thriller called “Fanboy,” longtime San Diego musician Ben Johnson stars as Fred Proehl, a drummer and over-the-top fan who loves a group called Xenos so much, he is willing to do pretty much anything to be able to say he’s with the band. You could say the same thing about Johnson, who was willing to do pretty much everything in his beginner’s power to bring Fred’s crazy dream to the big screen.

In addition to directing “Fanboy” and playing its loose-cannon lead character, Johnson wrote the script. He was also the film’s co-editor (with David Robles), casting director, casting director, location scout and about a dozen other things. Like everyone else in his (mostly) non-professional cast, Johnson performed even performed his own stunts, and he has the broken pinky to prove it.

But as he looks back on the five-year journey that turned the screenplay he banged out in a month into a film that will be making its world debut on Jan. 14 at the South Bay Drive-In, Johnson figures that his most important credit is an unlisted one.

Head cheerleader.

“I had no business making a movie. I don’t even know how to use a camera. I don’t know what an F-stop means. And somehow, I made a movie,” Johnson said from the Mid-City home he shares with his wife and young daughter. “I’m a rah-rah guy, and somehow, I just rah-rahed people into making this movie. It’s nuts. What I lack in talent I make up for in sheer determination.”

Appropriately enough, “Fanboy” is rooted in fandom. About six years ago, Johnson saw a short film by San Diego-based creative director and cinematographer Grant Reinero at the Ken Cinema. The film impressed him so much, he sent Reinero a text suggesting they work together sometime. After appearing in a couple of Reinero’s films, Johnson wanted to go bigger. A lot bigger.

“I said, ‘Short films are all well and good, but what do we have to do to make a feature film?’,” the 50-year-old Johnson said. “Grant made this exhaustive list, and I said, ‘You bring the cameras and I’ll do the other stuff.’ Little did I know how much other stuff there was going to be.”

Since he already had two published novels under his belt, Johnson figured writing a screenplay would be a snap. And it actually was. Going all-in on the “write what you know” approach, he took his years of playing in such local bands as Tourettes Lautrec and the Long and Short of It and got started on a script about a hard-working indie band whose biggest fan becomes its worst nightmare. One month later, in April of 2016, the script was done. Filming started the following September.

If the screenplay was all about writing what you know, filming “Fanboy” was about having fun and saving money. Johnson drafted fellow musicians John Cota, Alia Jyawook and Arabella Harrison to play the members of Xenos. Johnson’s volunteer cast also includes two sisters-in-law, three nephews and two nieces. His daughter is in it. So is his mother, Ellen Lawson, a singer and actress who is the only cast member with a Screen Actors Guild card.

While the film has Xenos on a low-budget tour, the production itself never left San Diego. As a co-owner and former bartender at the Casbah, Johnson was able to tap into the local nightclub scene, and club-crawling viewers will probably recognize the interiors of six local joints, including Soda Bar, the Ken Club, the Whistle Stop and the Casbah itself.

“My question always was, ‘What can we do for free?’,” Johnson said. “My other huge goal was to make it as smooth and flowing as possible. Grant knows everything about making movies, and he was the guru of the whole thing. All I had to do was keep people motivated. It was like, ‘We are going to set up, we’re going to film, and then we’re doing to dinner.’”

Given that Johnson was working around everyone else’s day jobs, including his own, filming took almost two years. But that guerilla adventure was a breeze compared to what followed. Post-production of “Fanboy,” which included everything from editing to sound-mixing to endless hours devoted to recording footsteps, began in September of 2018 and ended around Christmas. Of 2020.

There were many times when Johnson wondered what in the world he had gotten himself into, but there was not a world in which he wasn’t going to somehow get it done. When tickets for the Jan. 14 “Fanboy” world premiere went on sale, they went so fast, the South Bay Drive-In added a late show. But for Johnson, the long-awaited happy ending came during an early trial run at the drive-in, when he looked at the screen and saw his dream finally motoring into view.

“The thing I am the most proud of is that I finished it,” Johnson said with a relieved chuckle. “When I saw it projected on the screen with just me in my car in the parking lot, I couldn’t even see it because I was crying. It was nuts.”

Tickets are still available for the screening of “Fanboy” happening Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. at the South Bay Drive-In. Go to casbahmusic.com.


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