In the midst of lockdown, these two resilient artists persisted and are thriving.
Bridget Johnson (BJ) is very interested in the spiritual sides of things, having just made moon water the night before the interview. She explains excitedly about how one of her screenplays features astral projection as a story element. Yet, she’s most excited about telling her unifying supernatural narrative from a strong queer female perspective, which is the key focus for her production company Dare to Dream Productions.
Toni Nordone (TN) has tried making moon water with her mother during the quarantine, although she admits that she’s still learning on the spiritual side of things. Toni is always thinking about different ways to bring LGBTQIA+ representation on-screen. She’s working on her own shorts and experimenting with the form while also planning a collaboration with her mother, who’s also openly queer, to start a production company that strives towards LGBTQIA+ representation.
These two wonderful up-and-coming queer femme Chicagoland filmmakers recently had the chance to sit down and speak to one another about their dreams, philosophies, and process.
Bridget Johnson (left) and Toni Nordone (right) | Zoom
BJ: So, you mentioned that you were on set yesterday?
TN: I'm actually working on a micro-budget LGBT feature called American Parent. It’s about this struggling lesbian couple. They've just had a kid and they're kind of trying to balance that and trying to find work after the pandemic. I was hired on as a key PA, but since it's a micro-budget project, I also ended up being a Grip and an AC, which was really fun.
BJ: That sounds like a great story. For me, I struggle with finding good LGBT films because there's a lot that are just about coming out or about being gay and there’s no plot about anything else. I just watched Fear Street on Netflix with my dad and my step-mom. One of the couples has that typical dynamic of one girl’s out and one girl's not. It was just too cliché and like every other lesbian storyline out there.
TN: That's really unfortunate because there are people that can write those queer stories and I feel like they don't get the recognition that they should. I think the industry is trying to force representation. As a result, they're not caring as much about what the plot of the story is. They're just trying to reel those audiences in by being like: “oh, well let's make these characters gay”.
BJ: I did a study for one of my bosses about representation. Most lesbian films are directed by straight white European men.
TN: Exactly. They shouldn't be writing experiences into their characters and their writing if they don't understand it. That's where the disconnect is.
BJ: Definitely. Yeah. Another huge thing is that most LGBT stories are all about young people. I really want to see a horror film that stars a wife and another wife, but it's like they're in their fifties or sixties, so that little kids can see that and be like, “wow, you know, this is normal. This is healthy. And, we could be happy.” With a lot of LGBT films, they're just not happy.
TN: Exactly. I feel like it's a constant cycle of trauma when you can have representation in other ways. There's also a lot of people in the community that unfortunately do have a lot of trauma. But, I feel like those films aren't necessarily helping those people. The films just talk about the negative aspects of the queer experience.
BJ: That's a very good point.
TN: Thanks. We could do so much better. That's why it’s great having people like you, who are trying to make production companies and LGBT films and taking initiative. Like, if you won't do it, then we'll do it. We'll have representation. One way or another, people need to see these stories and these experiences written by and created by actual queer people.
BJ: Yes, exactly. I love that. And we're going to yell: “we're young and we have a lot of years ahead of us and we can definitely bring about the change.” I'm excited. I feel like the industry is going to change for the better.
DP Amy Limpinyakul (center) shows playback to Director Bridget Johnson (left) and actor Claire Asmus (right). | Dare to Dream Productions
BJ: What kind of films do you make?
TN: Since the pandemic, I've really been making a lot of experimental-psychological-horror films that delve into the psyche of a person. I use symbolism in my work because I think it's a good way to spread awareness about mental illness being explicit. That's why I like experimental film - I feel like you can really do that in a way that's raw and authentic.
BJ: Yeah. I like that, especially since experimental is such a different genre. You can experiment with combining different kinds of artistic mediums, like mixing fine art with film.
TN: Right, right. That's what I love about it. I feel like that's really cool for people to take inspiration from fine art. I want to make more LGBT films as well that are created in the same vein.
BJ: Do you think you'll stay in Chicago or go out to LA?
TN: I'm debating it because I love Chicago so much and I definitely want to stay here for a bit after I graduate. But, I also want to do the semester LA program that Columbia offers and just feel the city out.
BJ: Yeah. I'm in the same boat. My goal is to hopefully move to California and build out my production company even more. But, if it's not for me, I might go to Europe, honestly.
TN: Awesome. And the fact that you already have a production company, it's amazing considering you’re so young. How did you get started with that?
BJ: I wanted a production company when I was really young, but my dad was like: “no, you're not going to start your business at age 17.” So, I waited and started building a vision board of who I wanted on my team and what kind of stories I wanted to tell. Then, right out of high school, I got an LLC started and made my website. We are currently doing a lot of commercial work. One of my favorite companies that I've worked with is this New York makeup brand company called We Are Fluide.
TN: Oh wow. I like it already.
BJ: Yeah. I love the name. It's very gender-neutral makeup. While we do work with brands and take on a lot of commercial work, we also do a lot of short films that are like LGBT-centric feminist pieces. I've been doing that for a couple of years. My goal is to have an office space and actually be making features. I would love to have a little meditation room. Some companies have 14- or 16-hour workdays and I don’t want that. I want to run my sets a little differently, probably stopping after 10-hours or so for people’s mental health.
TN: Yeah. Even on this really small indie set I’m working on, they've been trying to do like a maximum of 10 hour work days. It’s been so nice. I feel like it just creates so much more of a better set environment. I have time to just take a minute and catch my breath before tomorrow.
BJ: Exactly. If everyone's feeling more energized, like you were saying, then the project will be better for it. So who’s directing the film you’re on?
TN: Emily Railsback. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia and she recently did a few features/short films like Our Blood is Wine and Fear Not. Her production company is called Burnt Sugar Productions. She’s really great and her crew is too - I've really liked the way that she runs her sets. I think with indie films, people are passionate about what they're doing and it makes for a completely different environment.
BJ: It's definitely a different feeling. It just makes you feel like you're actually making an impact on the world when you're working with the right people.
TN: I'm glad that you're thinking of taking time to care about your crew and focus more on the passion and representation in the piece.
BJ: Thanks. Yeah. It's good to have goals like getting into certain festivals, but it shouldn't be your main priority.
TN: That's definitely what I want to do with my production company and films that I create. I'm working on starting another one with my mom actually. She has an LGBT clothing brand and she's trying to kind of get that going, but also wants to have a production company on the side making short films on LGBT people.
BJ: That's awesome. Please keep me updated. I also want to see your experimental films and if you ever want to collaborate, give me a call!
Toni Nordone modelling a Black Contrast Cap Sleeve Raglan top | thesameinside
BJ: Did you graduate yet?
TN: I'm currently a junior at Columbia College in Chicago. But now that everything's kind of opened up, I'm hoping to start things on the side. A lot of the things I've done so far are for class, but I still try to be really creative and do what I can, even though it's an assignment.
BJ: You know, you can make some really cool stuff in those class assignments too.
TN: That's what I like about them. Did you go to DePaul?
BJ: Yeah. I just graduated.
TN: Oh, congrats. That's awesome.
BJ: Thank you. It's terrifying because COVID really messed a lot of us up.
TN: Yeah. But you did it. You graduated in the middle of the pandemic and the chaos, which is an accomplishment for sure.
BJ: Thank you. You were online too, right?
TN: Yeah, it was rough. We went in and shot some projects at our production stage where it was just me, two actors, the professor, and my AD over Zoom. It was very limiting but, at the same time, the experience did teach me so much more about production so that if I ever wanted to do things on my own, I now knew how to. I recently finished a class project for my directing class and it was based on mental illness and experimental film.
BJ: That's great that you guys got to go in. One positive of being a film student during the pandemic was that we got to work with actors from all over the world, because everyone was quarantined. I don't know if I would’ve gotten that opportunity if I was directing in person.
TN: I feel like actors are hard to find and if you know people that you can work well with, then it makes the experience better for sure.
BJ: Do you think that, in the future, when you direct films, you’d work with the same people?
TN: I feel like it depends. My friend Rachel Meltzer - I love her so much - has acted in a few of my films. I worked with her on my first directing film and I just loved the way that she took direction. I actually wrote her a script and had her in mind for a specific role. I also started a production company but it's not official. It's called Existential Films and it's an Instagram page and a website. But, I’m just starting, you know?
BJ: I love the name!
TN: Thank you! Films that make the audience question things interest me.
BJ: I love that. To me, the purpose of life is to ask these deep questions and to get people to think, because we live in such a mundane society, we do the same thing every day, and it all becomes like a routine. But then, when you do meet those people that are asking these deep questions, it makes me feel more alive.
TN: Yeah, for sure. There's just so much that we don't think about and there's so much out there in the world. I love that a lot of people take that and put that into art because it's such an integral part of humanity, who we are, and the world we live in.
BJ: It's kind of interconnected since film is so creative and based on your own intuition.
TN: Exactly. That's my number one goal: creating things that people can think about and relate to. I think a really big part of art in general is about being able to spread a message. The central question, for me, is: are there people in your audience that are going to say: “oh, I relate to this character. I relate to the situation and feel impacted by this.”?
BJ: I think that’s the purpose of film: connection.
The Girl at the Library (2017) | dir. by Bridget Johnson
The Talk (2021) | dir. by Toni Nordone
Bridget Johnson (she/her/hers) (IG: @moviemakerbridge12) is a Chicago-based Director and Writer who specializes in creating thought-provoking films that inspire audiences to follow their dreams and ask life's biggest questions. Her production company, Dare to Dream Productions (IG: @dtdproductions), focuses on creating compelling content with inclusive casts and crews that elevate marginalized voices. In her free time, you can catch her skating down Chicago streets, reading tarot at a cafe, or finding her next inspiration for a script.
Toni Nordone (IG: @tonin0801) is a film student based in Chicago. She is an aspiring director, cinematographer, freelance filmmaker. Originally from New Jersey, she has started her career in Chicago’s film industry just recently working on both student and professional film and commercial sets. She works and is seeking opportunities as a Production Assistant, Grip, AC, Director, and occasionally a Camera Op. She is currently involved with the Midwest Film Festival as a Social Media Coordinator, with Camera Ambassador as a former intern and now Day Player, and works as a Brand Ambassador/Model for the LGBT clothing brand “The Same Inside”. She has also created her own sort of “production company” where she can post her creative projects called “Existential Films & Photo” (IG: @wearethesameinside). When she isn’t working non-stop, she can be found taking photos around the city, admiring the views on outdoors, or doing some sort of physical activity to get the creative juices flowing.