Working alongside your best friend in any industry is rare, let alone in the film industry. But for Writer/Director Em Johnson and Actor/Producer Katherine Waddell, co-founders of First Bloom Films, their ongoing creative collaboration happened organically on set.
“From working in that environment where we were both behind the scenes and doing business/creative work for a set, we realized that we actually work really well together and that we have the same values and interests in terms of business and running that business and also creating,” said Johnson. “And we ended up going to a few film festivals together for a short film that I had done, and we just like struck up a great conversation. We’re like, ‘Are we doing this?’ We kind of just were besties after that.”
Johnson and Waddell founded First Bloom Films in 2020, and following a successful festival run, their first feature film release, Balloon Animal, is now available on video on demand. A coming-of-age story, the film follows Poppy (played by Waddell), a young circus performer and balloon animal creator. Her father and circus ringmaster Dark (Ilia Volok) wants to expand Poppy’s role and responsibilities within their traveling circus, unaware that his blue-haired daughter is pondering about living life beyond the big tent.
Balloon Animal was written and directed by Johnson, executive produced by Waddell, and produced by Monica O’Hara and Ruvi Leider. The film also stars Michael David Wilson, Danielle Baez, Erin Rae Li, and Karla Alfonzo-Smith.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with both Johnson and Waddell over Zoom to learn more about the making of Balloon Animal, from crafting the story and preparing for their 12-day shoot (!) to what they hope the audience takes away from their film.
I read on the website for First Bloom Films that the goal/mission statement is to secure opportunities for women in the industry, be it on the screen or behind the camera. I love that. How meaningful is it to have this company and be able to use it to create those types of opportunities that otherwise may not be there?
Katherine Waddell (KW): It’s everything. It’s literally why we got into it, you know? Em and I came up in the film industry together, and we had a ton of terrible experiences because of the fact that we were women or just because we were new to the industry. And it was one of those things where it’s like, “Why? Like, what is the point? Like, why is it cool to be mean? Or why is it cool to be belittling? Or why is it cool to have this really weird artistic persona that kind of makes you an a–hole?” So when we started delving deeper into our working relationship and started to create First Bloom, you had to sit down and figure out your mission statement. And that’s what was important to us, is making a safe space, an opportunity, an environment where women could thrive, and where anyone—regardless of gender or race or anything on our set—would also be welcomed with open arms and like, not have to worry about working with other a–holes.
That’s awesome. How did you decide on Balloon Animal as First Bloom’s first release?
Em Johnson (EJ): I think it was something where we both wanted to play to our strengths. I write really good drama and coming-of-age style stories, which Balloon Animal is, and Katherine really wanted to act in something of that nature as well and have a little bit of control over who that character was when we were building the story. And so Balloon Animal came about from a visual that Katherine had initially, which was a girl with blue hair who makes balloon animals. And it took us a while to figure out what that story was. But over the course of a year, a year and a half, we came to a solid script. And it was something where both of us felt super confident that we would be able to be successful with this film because we were comfortable with the style of it and what we would be portraying.
I wanted to ask about how the idea started with the girl with the blue hair. At what point in ideating and working on the script, did you say, “We’re going to put her in the circus and build out,” like was it finding the setting first or figuring out the journey she was going to go on?
KW: I think we had some iterations where maybe it was just like a company that she worked at that did balloon animals. But Em and I at least always try to think outside the box or try to make our work unique in some way. And the environment of a dilapidated circus was sort of perfect for us to kind of build out this world and for Em to really focus on character and story.
EJ: I think it was also a little bit of a challenge where a circus isn’t an easy thing to shoot; it isn’t an easy thing to do in a low-budget setting either. I think for us, while we were playing to our strengths and trying to be as comfortable as we could, we also wanted to push ourselves to show something different, something unique, like Katherine said, that people maybe hadn’t seen before. Especially in something of this size, like this indie film space.
Once you had a finished script and the cast was in place, how long was your production?
EJ: Twelve days. It was really quick.
EJ: [Laughs] Every time we say that people have like a panic attack.
It’s just that you hear of people being like, “We only had 20 days, and we got it done.” What did your production schedule look like?
EJ: It was hectic, and it took a lot of planning and also some compromising on my end in terms of what we were shooting and what we could shoot, and how many shots I could get. It wasn’t limiting. I didn’t sacrifice that much when it came to making the film. I feel like I got the majority of what I wanted. But I think in terms of shooting it in 12 days, the prep work was necessary. So we spent a lot of time rehearsing. It’s great that Katherine basically grew with the character from its ideation because, without that, it might have been more difficult for her to really take on that role as much as she wanted to. So she was automatically comfortable. There was not much rehearsing needed for her.
But all these other characters, we spent hours in rehearsal. For the camera department and the PD, we spent a lot of time at the space itself planning things out, choreographing certain shots, just so that when we were on set, it wasn’t a question of, “What do we do?” Everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing whenever we switched to the next scene. And we really listened to each other. I also think that’s super important. Everybody was listening to what each other needed, and because of that, we weren’t struggling or stressed, or freaking out. We were able to have smooth sailing for the majority of that time.
KW: We also had amazing producers who, as they put it, “war-gamed it,” where they prepared for like every scenario that could possibly happen, especially because when we started shooting, it was still kind of height pandemic times. Like vaccines were just starting to roll out, so they thought of everything, and we barely had any overtime. Things would go so well that they would be able to like surprise us with treats. Like, they brought In-N-Out one night.
EJ: It’s morale, you know?
KW: They brought a coffee machine. I think it’s also a perfect example of how amazing everyone’s teamwork was.
And you also were pulling double duty on the film playing Poppy and being an executive producer. How did that go as far as having to step into two different types of roles in the film?
KW: Well, it was always going to be about time management. Em and I have worked on Balloon Animal from its inception; it’s our baby. So I was doing all the producing work for development, like getting the script done with Em, getting the lookbook, getting the pitch deck, the budget, going out and trying to find funds, trying to build the team, and the right team. And staying with that up until a certain point where it’s like, “Okay, we have hired other producers to take over for me for production, and now is the time to sort of let go and focus on character.” I do think that, like Em said, I was very lucky in the sense that I got to spend so much time with Poppy beforehand. She already was in my body, so when the time came, the switch wasn’t that hard. I’m not entirely sure if I ever kind of turned off my producer hat. [Laughs] It is our film company, you know, so it’s not just the movie; it’s also how the set is running is representative specifically of Em and me. And I take that very seriously, but it ended up being fantastic because our producers, Monica O’Hara and Ruvi Leider and Ben Plotkin—they were outstanding.
EJ: And they came from commercial backgrounds, so they knew how to work quickly and efficiently, which was beneficial for us.
Something that struck me while watching the film is, you know, there’s this saying of “running away and joining the circus,” and you’ve got Poppy who’s like, “I think I’m gonna walk away from the circus,” to go live a more “normal” type of existence and experience. Why was it important to showcase a character that doesn’t shy away from expressing doubts as far as what lies ahead for her and isn’t afraid to start over?
EJ: I think it was really important for us to show the independence that our main character has, but also her passiveness a little bit. I’m a fan of passive characters. A lot of people aren’t, but I feel like she was going with the flow so often and also just picking up the slack for everybody else that those moments when she was able to take her life in her own hands were such lively moments, and they had so much more emotion attached to them. It was important for me to be able to showcase that when you find your independence, you do become alive, even if you don’t know what you’re doing in that independence, but the idea that you’re free from the shackles of maybe your family or your job or whatever it is that’s bringing you down, you can feel at peace even in that uncertainty.
When writing the script, how did you approach the relationship between Poppy and her father? Because there’s frustration, but I think there’s also a lot of care still there. What were you kind of pulling from when putting their relationship together and sorting out what that was gonna look like?
EJ: I think, at least for Dark’s character, I wanted somebody who was a father initially. Like their core is father, but they dress it up like, you know how you get dressed at a circus and you wear costumes? He dresses it up with his masculinity, his top hat, you know, he’s the head of the circus, the big guy. At his core, he’s still a father, but I think he’s a stunted father. So it was basically one of those things where I feel like their roles were reversed almost, where Poppy was the parental figure taking care of her child. But then there were other moments where I felt like he really encompassed that fatherly role, and she was more of that rebellious child. It was a really fine line and a nice balance that we had to play with.
I don’t wanna spoil the ending [laughs], but I feel like you give the audience a lot to think about. And even more so if you watch all the way through the end credits and you catch that last shot of Poppy. What are you hoping people take away from the overall film?
EJ: I hope people watch the film and they just take what they need from it. Again, it’s kind of a universal story. The finding independence and family struggles and how you approach striking out on your own and what that looks like. It’s common for a lot of people to deal with that journey in their life. And I hope that if people watch it, they can resonate with those ideas and her journey.
Your film is gonna be available next Friday for people to get to see that maybe didn’t get to catch it at one of the film festivals it was at; how excited are you for an audience to be able to stream it at home?
EJ: I’m so excited. Mostly because this has been such a long journey, and we’ve been working on it since the end of 2018. It’s the fact that we’ve even gotten here is so impressive to us. As indie filmmakers being able to get distribution, get into 26 film festivals, and win awards, it feels great. And now, to say to people, “Hey, you can watch my film on Amazon Prime,” that feels really great. It’s a good accomplishment, and I am super happy and content with the process and what we’ve been able to do with the film.
KW: It’s definitely like a dream come true. We were just hoping to get into one film festival, right? [laughs] We were like, “Don’t set your hopes too high. Let’s be realistic. The industry is tough. One film festival will be a dream come true.” So, like Em said, to have come this far, it’s just astronomical for what we expected.
Lastly, being that my site is called Probably at the Movies, what’s the last movie you watched in a theater?
EJ: A Good Person.
KW: Yeah. Together we saw A Good Person.
That’s a great film.
EJ: It was really good. Love Florence Pugh, and she can do no wrong in a film, essentially. She’s just so good at what she does. It was a simple film, but I think it was executed really well.
Balloon Animal is available now on video on demand. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.