By Julia Dixon Evans
Thursday, January 7, 2021
“Fanboy” is a new film by San Diego musician, writer and filmmaker Ben Johnson. It centers around a fictional band, Xenos, and Freddie, the unhinged “fanboy” and a talented drummer. The film, which premieres Jan. 14 in a one-night set of four (mostly sold-out) drive-in screenings, was filmed at a variety of San Diego live music venues, and is a welcome but bittersweet love letter to the music scene that’s currently on pause during the pandemic.
The project is four and a half years in the making. It began after Johnson, who is bar manager at The Casbah, worked on a few short films with Grant Reinero, Demetrius Antuna and Brian Desjean. They all wanted to make a full-length feature, and given that they’re all involved in the music scene, it seemed fitting to set the story in the world of underground music. Johnson started writing in the spring of 2016.
“What I wanted to tell was what people would do for even the smallest slice of fame,” said Johnson. The band, Xenos, struggles with the first few shows of their tour. Duane, the drummer, makes mistakes, and can’t carry the band on stage. Meanwhile, Freddie — the “fanboy” — befriends the rest of the band and snakes his way into their inner circle.
A parallel plot unfolds as we watch a rookie detective take on a homicide case on her first day of her new assignment.
“It’s about the extent that one would go to grasp fame, kind of their last grasp. And it’s to show and disseminate our world — which is the live-music-going-to-shows-underground-rock scene — and disseminate that into mainstream culture via crime drama,” Johnson said.
The story quickly digs into themes of aggression, violence and male toxicity, particularly when veiled by chivalry. “Freddie thinks he’s doing the right thing,” Johnson said. We witness Freddie from the very opening scene undergo a series of acts of violence in a perceived form of vigilante justice.
“There’s definitely a trigger for each one, and the trigger is his heart being in the right place, but the way it triggers him and what he does to deal with the situation is obviously way far beyond how anyone should really deal with those certain situations. If you see injustice, you don’t go and try to annihilate the person immediately who is doing any kind of these smaller injustices” Johnson said. “He is unhinged, but to him it makes perfect sense. And he doesn’t see himself as toxically masculine; he sees the world as so out of joint that he needs to correct other people’s behaviors.”
An early conversation between the band and a bartender reveals that Freddie has a history with derailing his own success in bands through violence, too. “He’s a guy that almost made it too,” Johnson said.
Xenos, the fictional band, is cast with people Johnson has played in bands with in the past. Xenos features Brenda (Alia Jyawook), Gilberto (John Cota), Sally (Arabella Harrison) and the original drummer, Duane (Thomas Kitsos). Jyawook and Harrison are music teachers and helped Johnson write the original songs the band performs throughout the movie.
Even beyond the band, the film is a who’s who in San Diego music but never feels gratuitous — not even the somewhat absurd cameo of Pall Jenkins as a litterbug. The choice of casting local musicians or concertgoers was partly out of necessity (“I don’t really know any actors,” Johnson admitted) and partly to build an authentic band.
Freddie creepily chips away at Duane’s already waning confidence in his drumming skills, as well as the band’s trust in Duane, and the two actors pull off a convincing, unsettling rivalry. And when Duane abruptly quits the band, it’s Freddie’s big chance at fame. It might even be Xenos’ chance too.
The performance scenes are visceral — packed with the twin awkwardness and energy of playing small venues.
Grant Reinero, the director of photography, said that the lack of production budget was a silver lining — particularly with the sets in small clubs. While many are labeled as being in fictional cities as the band continues its tour, they’re unmistakably our local music venues like Soda Bar, The Casbah, The Whistle Stop, Bar Pink and more.
“The windowless simplicity of these venues made it easier to control light, and allowed for us to achieve continuity over the course of the filming. The minimalist interiors contributed to the film’s comic book compositional style and reduced the time and effort typically required for set design,” Reinero said.
Though fictional, Xenos recorded original songs for the film in studio with Demetrius Antuna, who worked on the original score of the film. In addition to the performances of the fictional band, Antuna’s soundscape plays a more insidious and ominous role — and steps up the darkness.
Antuna began pairing each character with a particular instrument or sound that would add a thematic influence when that character was central to a scene — for example, whenever Freddie joins a conversation, Antuna used a tibetan singing bowl to add an undercurrent of wind.
“And whenever Freddie starts acting psychotic you hear the Tuvan throat singing swell up in the background. This throat singing gets very intense when he gets angry, and takes over everything,” Antuna said. And scenes involving the detectives were accompanied by double bass and vibraphone.
“The idea was to make the viewer feel as if they were experiencing something strange, something wicked, something not of this world, not of their own mind or reality,” Antuna said, citing broad, multidisciplinary influences on the score like Ray Bradbury, David Lynch, and vintage noir jazz.
As the film is finally released to the public, there’s a lot to mourn: the lack of live music or nightlife during the pandemic, the loss of income and livelihoods of many in the music community involved in the production, and the absence of a full release party and performances.
It’s also been almost exactly a year since musician Alberto Jurado of the band Death Eyes passed away in January 2020. Jurado, who was adored by many in San Diego, delightfully portrays the role of the band’s merch guy in the film.
“He commanded the camera just like he commanded the stage,” said Johnson. For him, remembering Jurado shows him what is important: not the relentless quest for fame, but taking care of loved ones and the community, and he hopes this film is a part of Jurado’s legacy.
“I think there will be some tears of joy when people see Alberto up on the big screen, almost a year to the date that we lost him,” said Antuna.