Luke Johnson has made the movie of the future. And in the future, it turns out, movies will be low-budget—though bearable when experienced through beer goggles.
Johnson’s film began as separate documentaries he compiled between 2002 and 2003 for university classes, chronicling his friends’ bawdy sojourns on 18th Street NW. Johnson merged his footage with 2,000 photographs and other student endeavors—logo designs, a pirate film—to create Choose Your Own Adventure: Adams Morgan and the Childhood Friends.
Initially conceived as a portfolio showcase, the film instead became a memorial to times and mixed drinks, past. “It’s a very sincere portrait, almost like a love letter to three friends, that reflects when we were actually going out every Friday night,” says Johnson, 27, who teaches digital media at the School for Arts in Learning and lives in Mount Pleasant.
True to its title, the movie allows the viewer to decide the course of action using his DVD player’s remote control. The film begins with the choice of whom to hang out with: Johnson’s childhood pal Chris Gerlach, middle-school buddy Brian Leedy, or cousin Andy Ryscavage. The viewer then clicks on diverging plot choices that pop up throughout the film. “I have looked into getting it patented,” Johnson says of the process, “but I think it’s one of those things where the applications are too broad.”
When Johnson screens his film at the Black Cat’s Backstage one Tuesday night, the room is, to judge by the catcalls, teeming with Johnson’s acquaintances; the few interlopers who’ve wandered in are filled with enough, um, spirit that they don’t seem to mind the prospect of enduring a stranger’s digital scrapbook.
“We were considering a cross-country showing,” says Gerlach, who traveled from North Carolina. “Unfortunately, those plans were a little grandiose.”
After the bluesy sounds of Eddie and the Posse wind down—Eddie being a guitarist who used to play on Johnson’s stoop—Johnson picks a random audience member to come to the projector screen and start the adventure. That man chooses Ryscavage as his guide, kicking the action into, well, low gear.
Ryscavage is asleep when “you” (the viewer) enter his apartment. You wake him up to get ripped. The evening’s first decision arrives after a few drinks, when Ryscavage lets it drop that he’s got a magic bicycle and wants to fly you around D.C. “Do you wanna head for the door and get the fuck out of here,” Johnson shouts, “or do you want to go on a magic bicycle ride with Andy?”
“Wooo!” cries the audience. “Magic bike!”
This choice ends up with both characters mangled in a horrible crash—the result of riding, Johnson intones, with someone who’s been drinking.
Experiments with Leedy’s character aren’t any more fortuitous. He tries to ditch you, and you suffer a fatal ass beating at the hands of an Adams Morgan street mob. In another try, an audience member chooses Gerlach, who, after a few drinks, proffers Plan A or Plan B.
“Plan Bay!” shouts the audience, mixing the two.
You move to Gerlach’s apartment, where you read a letter from his ex-girlfriend while he’s in the bathroom. The film quotes an actual Dear John, set to violin music: “You suggested cooking dinner for my parents….[H]owever, when I e-mailed you earlier this week that my parents would be coming into town, you voiced no interest in seeing them.” The story ends with you leaving Gerlach’s apartment in disgust over his insensitivity. “There are ways to win,” Johnson assures the crowd.
A few clubgoers examine the DVDs for sale on a table near the door. They’re $20; Johnson later lowers the price to $15.
Somebody eventually makes Gerlach’s character go home because he’s bringing down a party, and the film ends in success. But not before the crowd learns that our hero’s high-school nickname was Crazy Nips and that he keeps on his computer desk a beer, some Vaseline, and a framed photo of his granny.
“I don’t necessarily see it as a starring role or anything,” says Gerlach.—John Metcalfe
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.