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Checking in on The Sky Is Red documentary with Julia Johnson

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Checking in on The Sky Is Red documentary with Julia Johnson

Ultimate fans everywhere have been buzzing about the trailer for a new documentary that promises to tell the untold story of racial, class, and gender equity in the sport of ultimate frisbee. We talked to The Sky Is Red documentary producer Julia Johnson about her background in ultimate and filmmaking, and the next steps for this much-anticipated documentary.

Savage: What's your role in developing The Sky is Red documentary? 

Julia Johnson: I was approached about this project after Lili (Gu) and Brittany (Kaplan) had already been initially connected. They each had two different ideas about some type of video project, both about ultimate and touching on different topics that we now showcase in The Sky Is Red, including gender equity, the history of women in ultimate, racial equity, and class equity, and how all those things play together within the ultimate community as well as the part they play in the larger sports culture.

We pulled on elements from each and strengthened what already overlapped and took that frame of mind and found the stories we wanted to highlight and tell in this film. As the EP and originally the only producer on the project, I sit in on most of the creative story meetings, and have the space to provide feedback and provide input into any of the decisions as an equal third. Due to the nature of the filming schedule and the need for someone to take on all the logistics, that fell toward me and more of the creative work fell to the two directors, but now that we are off the road we are restructuring and all developing this project together. It is very much a development process despite having filmed most of it already, and it will be through the end.  

Savage: Who else are you working with? 

JJ: The two other main people on this project are Brittany Kaplan and Lili Gu. They are co-directing, and Brittany is also editing. Lili is helming any treatments or writing that needs to be done. The three of us are producing the film together, and I am currently an Executive Producer on the film also. We all of course wear many other hats as well in this process large and small. In terms of filming, we were very fortunate to be joined on the road by Tim Toda who was our DP (Director of Photographer) and Mia Greenwald who did production sound and has done all our graphic design as well. 

Savage: What's your background in film and ultimate?

JJ: I began playing ultimate my freshman year of college at USC. My dorm mate dragged me to practice, and soccer wasn’t going to start for a few weeks. Let’s just say I never made it to soccer tryouts. I knew of ultimate frisbee as a sport from growing up in Atlanta and my brother played in high school, but it took me a while to connect my brothers “ultimate” to the “ultimate” I had started playing. After going to a few practices, I never looked back and jumped pretty full force into the sport and the community. I played four years at USC on the Hellions of Troy, including captaining, and I have played club with LA Reign, LA Viva, and San Diego Wildfire. I currently play for Seattle Underground.

I studied Film and TV Production in college along with business law. I learned pretty early on that production and specifically producing was where I wanted to land. I have worked producing a number of things from shorts to music videos to events to live TV, but this is my first foray into a feature film. I currently work on staff, full-time on a production team for an advertising agency in Seattle while continuing to work on TSIR on my lunch breaks and late into the night.  

Savage: You raised nearly $77K on Kickstarter... Were you surprised by the response? What will this kind of budget allow you to do?

JJ: I don’t think surprised is the right word. I very consciously worked to manage my personal expectations during this process. Of course I was hopeful that we’d raise as much money as possible, but at the end of the day Kickstarter and fundraising in that way is not how projects get the money they need in totality. It is 100 percent necessary to get the project off the ground, and it is as much a way to gather a following and spread the word as it is to get liquid money up front. I am so thankful for every single person that has shown us love and sent us money they were able to donate. In fundraising and working on grassroots projects like this, it’s really important to trust in the work you are doing, but not to the extent of being too hopeful and thinking you’ll get money that you don’t get. I live by the motto “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

We wrote this on the Kickstarter page but in order to get this film completed we need at least $600,000. For the 16-week tour alone we spent about $150,000. We would never have been able to go on the road like we did without the amazing support of our Kickstarter participants, and I do want to be upfront about what it takes to get a project like this through to completion. We surpassed our original set goal on the Kickstarter platform, and that was amazing. Deciding what that goal should be was a really hard part of a lot of conversations between Brittany, Lili, and myself. In the end, we settled on $65,000. It felt great to end up surpassing that goal, and I had to really be grateful for that without letting the idea that it was only step 1 of our financial needs cloud the success in our campaign. 

Savage: Why do you think so many people stepped forward to contribute to this project?

JJ: It’s really easy to say that our project needs to be completed so people’s stories can be shared and that we as filmmakers are doing important work. I think it’s harder to recognize that this is just one vehicle that can help our community and the greater sports society on righting a lot of inequities and that it isn’t “the answer”. No one knows what is the “right” answer. We can all just contribute to the process in ways that we can, and at the end of the day, for me as a filmmaker, that means touching people through empathy and through sharing stories and experiences with an open heart and an open mind. I think people in the community believe in us and our project. I think they trust our team to approach it with the perspective of everything I said above and most importantly giving agency to the people who are sharing their stories with us and being vulnerable. 

Savage: At what point are you in filming now? How is it coming along?

JJ: Right now we are doing a lot of production work that got put on hold while on the road. This includes the less glamorous work of production like accounting and contracts and more fundraising and planning. We will need to film a few more scenes, revisiting our main subjects and capturing the passage of time since we saw them a year ago, but the bulk of our filming is done. Once we get the funds, we will then be able to rendezvous as a group and shoot the remaining scenes with our subjects’ schedules. 

Savage: When will the film be released? 

JJ: The short answer is we hope to have it done and on the festival circuit by 2021. The long answer is that it totally depends on funding and a lot of other variables in and out of our control. All of the three leads work full time because we need to be able to support ourselves, and so while we devote as much time to this film as possible, we are very dependent on funding. 

Savage: Anything else we should know about it? 

JJ: You can check out our new website that we dropped with the trailer at AND we are very much still appreciating and in need of monetary donations. You can head to our website to donate as well via PayPal or contact us at for mailing checks or alternative ways to help, including connecting us with any other donors.