Feature film "Mobster" exposes world of international crime and corruption
Mobster: Nuclear Weapons. International Crime Syndicates. Good vs. Evil.
Brian Eric Johnson’s feature film, “Mobster,” tells the tale of a major undercover investigation of notorious Israeli mob boss, Jacob Hadar, and the man behind the investigation, Agent Ron Zarger. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there are many gray areas in the war between good and evil.
The man behind the story, director and actor Brian Eric Johnson, started his career as an actor. After a while, Johnson decided to start directing his own films.
“Directing stems from the acting,” Johnson said. “I’m not someone who likes to sit around and wait for the phone to ring, so I started to create my own content.”
With his first feature, "Ranchero," Johnson chose to write, produce and act. In "Mobster," he decided to direct as well.
“I really believe in the collaborative nature of film and filmmaking,” Johnson said. “Everyone brings their talents together to create a better whole.”
Johnson said “Mobster” is a truly cautionary tale.
“Thematically, it’s a story about good and evil,” Johnson said. “The gangsters of yesteryear aren’t the mobsters of today. The crime syndicates today are international, they yield amazing power, they influence everything from black market arms deals to literally the world economy. A lot of it is some very scary stuff.”
Johnson believes there’s an authenticity to “Mobster” because of the actors’ backgrounds and experiences.
“I met the executive producer, Meni Aga, at a nightclub in Hollywood. Meni had recently moved to the U.S. from Israel and was looking to break into the film business,” Johnson said. “Meni and I started talking about making a movie. I asked him what type of film he wanted to make and he said he wanted to make a mobster movie. That was basically the origin of ‘Mobster.’”
Aga wasn't looking to star in the film, but Johnson said the casting fell into place while he was writing the script.
"As I started writing, I found myself basing the lead character off of Meni. He's a successful, international businessman with a very dynamic personality. I like to say Meni is a lover AND a fighter. He's experienced a lot in life and he embraces it,” Johnson said.
Johnson also said Meni brought authenticity to the film because he speaks seven different languages.
“All those things lended a freshness to the film and to the role,” Johnson said.
In addition to Aga, there were many other international actors cast in the film. According to Johnson, Hamzah Saman, one of the leads in the film, runs a casting agency called Arab American Casting. While the agency has actors from many diverse backgrounds, he has a small core group of Middle Eastern actors and was able to bring in many of them for “Mobster.” Johnson said there are over 50 speaking roles in the film.
The film’s international flair doesn’t just end with the actors. The film’s score also highlights the nature of the film. The film’s composer, Ninef Arsanos, is a classically trained musician and has toured the world playing violin.
“There’s a very international flavor to the music based on the different characters and Ninef’s own experience,” Johnson said.
“Mobster” doesn’t have distribution yet, and Johnson said it’s always difficult for indie films to find distribution, especially one without recognizable stars.
Johnson shares some wisdom with other filmmakers and artists, and believes they should adhere to the Nike motto, “Just Do It.”
“However you can make it happen, try to do your work, try to get your vision out there. There’s lots of stories to tell and somebody has to tell them.”
Brian Eric Johnson Puts a New Twist on Mobster Films
Not many first time feature film directors take on a project that includes a cast with 50 speaking roles and pushes a tried and true genre into a unique format. But Brian Eric Johnson is not like most first time feature film directors. So when the Sacramento, California, native decided to go behind the lens to helm Mobster, he chose to put a twist on crime films by shooting it in the found footage style that has previously been reserved for horror movies. In a recent one-on-one interview, Johnson talked about his path to bringing Mobster to the big screen and why he applied this unique point of view to his debut feature.
Johnson explained that although he often says he was first bit by the acting bug when he was in college, he can trace his interest back even further. “I did the little school plays when I was in elementary school. And my first lead role in a film was when I was 12 years old. My older buddy was taking a film class in high school and he cast me as the lead in his little monster movie.”
Between monster movies and his movie Mobster, Johnson has followed his passion for acting including parts in films like Internal Affairs and Assassins Tale. But after realizing that his ability to work was dictated by other people, he decided to take matters into his own hands. “I’m not a person who likes to sit around and wait for the phone to ring,” conceded Johnson. “So I started creating my own content. I started writing and I started producing plays, short films. So I wrote them, produced them and acted in them. I was creating vehicles for myself.”
And, of course, there was one other profession that was a natural step for Johnson to take in his career progression. As he noted, “I think of myself as a storyteller ultimately. I started interpreting stories as an actor. I started creating them as a writer. And I think a director is the ultimate storyteller because he gets to combine both those disciplines into a new whole. The directing is an outcropping of the acting and writing.”
With the experience of helming theater productions and short films under his belt, Johnson felt ready to make the leap to features. So when the perfect opportunity presented itself, he jumped at the chance.
As Johnson recounted, “The true genesis of Mobster started with me meeting the Executive Producer, Meni Aga, at a Hollywood nightclub. I was introduced to Meni by a mutual friend and I was told, ‘Meni wants to get into the film business and he’s looking to produce a movie.’ And I said, ‘Wonderful.’”
‘Ranchero,’ the film Johnson had recently wrote, produced and starred in was in release. So the quadruple threat felt confident telling Aga that he was the right man to help him realize his dream. Johnson told Aga, “‘Whatever you need, I feel like I can do that for you. I can write. I can produce. I can direct it for you.’”
Once Aga told Johnson he wanted to make a mobster movie, they got to work. “We started talking about money. So I looked at what we were trying to do it for,” recalled Johnson. “And that’s when the found footage aspect of it came into play because in found footage films you’re able to drastically reduce your cost due to shooting time and things like that… The found footage aspect was an idea that I had as something that was new and fresh for a crime mobster genre of film.”
The result of their collaboration is what Johnson describes as “the found footage lovechild of Scarface and Donny Brasco.” He clarified, “What I mean by that is it’s about an undercover FBI agent, who has infiltrated the Israeli mob, searching for nuclear weapons. But it’s shot in a found footage fashion.”
Movie buffs are familiar with the shooting style from flicks like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. The technique has rarely found it’s way into other genres. But Mobster as the perfect vehicle to incorporate the methodology according to Johnson, “The audience is given the point of view of the protagonist. In ‘Mobster’ there’s an undercover camera on the FBI agent who has infiltrated the mob. So you, as an audience member, feel that you’re right there with the action.”
When it came time to find the film’s main wiseguy, Johnson didn’t have to look any farther than his business partner. “When Meni and I first started working on the project together, it wasn’t necessarily his intent to star in it,” notes Johnson. “He wanted to make a mobster film and he was very focused on making the best film we could. But as I started to write, I started finding myself basing the lead mobster after Meni because of his lifestyle.”
Johnson continued, “Meni’s a very successful international business man. He’s traveled all over the world. I like to say that Meni is a lover and a fighter. He has a big life, a big personality and these were some of the characteristics I wanted for the lead. And as I continued to write, it became apparent to me that, ‘Hey man, you need to play this role.’”
As for himself, Johnson decided to take a lesser part so he could put more of his energy into his behind-the-scenes work. “Making films is a very collaborative art,” Johnson noted. “There are a lot of talented people who come together with their own ideas and ultimately that makes for a better whole. I felt it was taking on too much trying to direct myself, particularly in a lead role… I had to get myself in there somewhere but I took on a very small role in order to focus on the directing.”
Whether in front of the camera or behind, Johnson loved bringing the world of Mobster to the big screen. “I’ve always been a fan of mob films. I like the aspects of family, of betrayal. There’s crime, there’s passion, there’s big houses, big cars. It’s a very fun genre that I’ve always found appealing.”
To learn more about Mobster, follow the film on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and on the official website www.MobsterTheMovie.com.
The Fashion & Style of Mobster
The mafia-based found-footage film MOBSTER was written and directed by Brian Eric Johnson. The story is told by the point-of-view of FBI Special Agent Ron Zarger, the man appointed to bring down the west coast kingpin of the Israeli Mob.
With a large cast of newcomers, MOBSTER pulls the viewer into an action-packed drama with a unique mix of surveillance and point-of-view filming. It features original songs by international recording star Farshid Amin and an eclectic music score composed by Ninef Arsanos.
MOBSTER follows Special Agent Zarger who slips into Jacob Hadar’s inner mob circle. Hadar has focused his attention on a long standing feud with the Baja Cartel and has failed to see the saboteurs in his midst. With a deadly clock running down, Zarger must discover Hadar’s connection to black market nuclear weapons and stop him before the weapons of mass destruction are released upon the world.
How did you start your career as a director?
My directing definitely stemmed from acting. I like to think of myself as a storyteller. I started by interpreting stories as an actor. But not liking to sit and wait for the phone to ring, I began creating my own stories as a writer. Then I realized that a director gets to combine the two disciplines into a new whole; the ultimate storyteller. My first directing gigs were in the theater and then I did a couple short films. When the opportunity to direct the feature Mobster came along, I jumped on it.
How did the idea for a found-footage Mobster film come about?
I’ve been a fan of the found-footage style for a long time; all the way back to The Blair Witch Project. I feel that found-footage has a unique way of drawing an audience into the movie. But with few exceptions, horror has been the main genre of found-footage. So when Executive Producer Meni Aga suggested we do a mobster film, the wheels started turning. I thought, what haven’t we seen before, but would still feel familiar? Boom! Put a surveillance camera on an F.B.I. Agent and have him infiltrate the mob.
What makes this film different from other mob films?
Well, in addition to the shooting style, Mobster explores contemporary crime syndicates. I wanted to show people what was going on in the world today. Mobster deals with the Israelis, the Russians, the Mexican Cartels… All these organizations work on an international scale. They have the power and influence to affect the world economy. The film focuses on black market nuclear arms, but that is just the tip of a very scary iceberg.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of making Mobster?
A wise Cinematographer once told me that no matter how much money you have, you could always use more. We were trying to tell a studio-size story on a low indie budget; very difficult. But all challenges create opportunities. Not having the money to hire recognizable actors eliminated the urge to do so. Looking back at the film, the relatively unknown cast helps it maintain a sense of authenticity.
Meni Aga plays Jacob Hadar, the mobster. Had he ever acted before?
Meni had done some professional acting work in Israel before moving to the States. But this was his first role here in America.
How did you come to cast him in the roll?
Although Meni executive produced the film, he never insisted on playing the lead. He was more interested in the subject matter and making the best film that we could. But the more I got to know Meni, the more I found myself basing the lead character of ‘Jacob Hadar’ after him. Meni is a lover and a fighter. He’s a successful international business man with a dynamic personality. These qualities were perfectly suited for the role. Finally, I approached him and said he has to play ‘Jacob.’
Was it difficult to work with a first time actor as your lead?
Well, I’m a first-time feature director, so there had to be a leap of faith on both our parts. But we’re professionals. On set, Meni was an actor and I was a director. I think we collaborated very well. We’re both hard workers and each had a lot vested in the project. We trusted each other and that carried us through.
In the film, he dresses the way one would think a true life mobster would dress. For a relatively low budget film, how did you come up with the costume design in the movie?
The “what suit” in “what scene” decisions were made by our fine Costume Designer Amali Lebbos; but, the mobster’s suits were all part of Meni’s own collection. Meni has over 75 custom-made suits designed by Holland and Sherry. I think the mobster’s wardrobe has a great impact on the authenticity and production value of the film.
What film characters would you compare Jacob Hadar to?
Very humbly I’d say ‘Tony Montana,’ from Scarface. They are both immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing, and created thriving criminal enterprises. Both are flashy and volatile, but with a compassionate core.
Now that you’ve made a mob film, what type of project are you now working on?
I have both a comedy and a drama in development, but am focusing on a horror/thriller called The Damned. It’s the story of a man haunted by the evil spirit of a serial killer. Luis Robledo is set to direct with Barbara Carrillo producing. I’ll star from my own screenplay. We expect to be in production by mid-Summer.