Plymouth native directs first feature film with local indie-rock band, Cloud Cult

‘The Seeker’ takes viewers through a visual and musical journey

By Kristen Miller
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Jeff D. Johnson, founder of Motion 117 Productions, has produced more than 65 short films for various commercial, nonprofit and music clients in the region. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Kristen Miller)

Filmmaker Jeff D. Johnson, a 1999 Armstrong High School graduate and founder of Motion 117 productions, loves telling people’s stories in a creative and compelling way.
“It’s about getting to the core of the message … and just trying to amplify beautiful things,” said Johnson, who uses his middle initial to delineate from the local politician.
Johnson started the production company seven years ago, but noted music was his first love.

After high school, Johnson pursued a degree in music education, but found that wasn’t the path for him. Rather, he ventured into marketing, which appealed to both the business/entrepreneurial aspect and the creative side. He even started his own acoustic rock band, “which, at that point, was everyone trying to a rip off of Dave Matthews,” Johnson laughed.

Soon after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Johnson began working at Varsity Theater in Dinkytown as a sound engineer for the live bands.
It was there where he met singer-songwriter Craig Minowa, of Cloud Cult, an orchestral indie-rock band from Minnesota.

Johnson described Cloud Cult’s music as a combination of electric guitars, drums, bass, keyboard, as well as orchestral instruments, such as the French horn, trumpet, cello, violin and trombone.

Additionally, the lyrics tend to be emotional with spiritual undertones, Johnson described.

“A lot of people have connected to Craig’s ability to be completely raw and vulnerable with the way he describes the most raw and vulnerable things in life,” said Johnson. That vulnerability in song writing is what makes listening to the music a cathartic experience for people, he said.

Johnson compared Cloud Cult’s music to being a really close friend, by telling the hard things one needs to hear in life, but also giving a big hug at the same time. “Music has this wonderful ability to be a buddy wherever you’re at in life,” he said.

His relationship with the band grew stronger as they invited him in 2007 to South By Southwest, an urban music festival in Austin, Texas. Not only would Johnson be the sound engineer for the band, he also would open for them and spend the next six weeks on a national tour.

Since then, Johnson has worked with the band as their production manager and audio engineer.

Part of that is collaborating with the band to challenge how they interact and engage their audience.

An example of this is a four-part documentary series called “Stories from the Road,” which Johnson directed while on tour with the band for its 2014 Unplug album. The series is about fans who have connected with Cloud Cult, sharing “really insanely difficult things, who come out on the other side very hopeful … it’s pretty inspiring stuff,” Johnson said.

That collaboration was brought to another level when Minowa presented to Johnson his idea for a narrative feature film to coincide with the debut of the band’s most recent album, “The Seeker.”

In May 2015, Craig provided Johnson with a three-page storyline for a full-length, dialogue-free feature film.

Filmmaker Jeff D. Johnson announces the release of his first narrative feature, “The Seeker,” a full-length feature film as told with the music of the local band Cloud Cult. (Submitted image)

Lyrically, Minowa “writes very cinematically,” Johnson said, so writing a story to fit those songs wasn’t out of line for Minowa. “It’s been a dream of his for a long time,” Johnson said.
“From what I know, there’s not many people who try to execute a narrative like this storyline without words,” Johnson said, but noted other artists, most notably Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

Released in June, “The Seeker” follows the story of Grace, from birth to mid-30s and shares the adverse and trying times she faces in life and how she chooses to respond, Johnson said.

The film takes viewers on a visual journey of Grace’s life, evoking emotions of happiness, sadness, hopefulness and resilience throug

hout the one-hour film.

For this film, Johnson “wanted to leave enough space for people to insert themselves into it” and force viewers to decide what was happening in the film, providing mystery with the imagery.
“There are ways we can elude to things without there being a direct interpretation of that,” Johnson explained.

Therefore, there is an impressionistic nature to the movie that evokes feelings with visuals and music, he said. In scenes, there might be moments that pause on pictures in the house or revisiting different settings, all the while trying to evoke a sense of feeling or place without “just plopping it on the table and entertaining you,” he said.

“Jeff was able to take a very symbolic concept and storyline, along with a miniature budget and translate it into meaningful and gorgeous cinematography,” said Minowa.

Through the Cloud Cult film Minowa hopes “to share an idea about the spiritual growth process that is not specific to any one religion,” he said. “I think a lot of people have a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to discussing big-picture topics like God and death…This film celebrates a life of living in awe of the mystery of the great unknown.”

With only one word spoken in the movie, the story is guided by songs from Cloud Cult’s latest album by the same name – songs like “Days to Remember,” “Everything You Thought You Had,” “To the Great Unknown,” and “You Never Were Alone.”

Johnson encourages those not familiar with Cloud Cult’s music to check out the film because of it’s story of humanity. “It is about us falling and rising, our quest to better ourselves in spite of ourselves – it is a story for anyone who has experienced anchored joy,” he said.

Created during 14 days of filming, “The Seeker” is primarily set near St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, and along the North Shore of Lake Superior, including a prominent scene shot in Gooseberry Falls.

Jeff D. Johnson in his Motion 117 Productions studio. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Kristen Miller)

Also familiar to many viewers is one of the main characters, Josh Radnor, who played Ted on the television sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”
Radnor, a longtime fan of Cloud Cult, was offered the part and “he literally just said yes … he knew nothing about the movie, he just knew it was a Cloud Cult thing,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, whose film and cinematography inspirations come from award-winners like Terrence Malick and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, his aspirations are to be able to take any still frame from the film, frame it and hang it on the wall as art.

“That’s how beautiful your movie should be,” he said, noting he’s proud of a lot of the still frames in the movie.

“I just really trust the people, who are going watch the movie, to really engage in it,” he said. “I think people are smart, and I think people are deep, emotional … spiritual and intrigued. My philosophy as a filmmaker is to try and engage that part of people and not distract from those things,” he said.

“The Seeker” is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vimeo.

For more information on Motion 117 Productions, visit motion117.com.