Natalie Johns is an Emmy-nominated director who has devoted her life to sharing the stories of those without a voice. Her highly personal work has brought her profound understanding of the human experience—plus some compassion for herself along the way.
Do you remember your first week in LA?
Yes, I flew to LA on a Christmas Eve. I came here with my dog Nelson and Thalente, who is the young South African skateboarder starring in the film I made. I had been in South Africa shooting the first five days of the film’s backstory, and brought him over to the States. We were in New York for a week and then we packed up my house and we moved out here to do the film with him.
How was it being in LA with Thalente?
The idea for the project had been brewing for a year and a half. I’d been putting it together, finding funding, finding mentors, finding people within the skate world to support the project. It basically came about through a friend of mine from South Africa, who knew Thalente and was trying to help him. He was living on the streets, but he was this amazing skateboarder.
It was a long process. I was trying to figure out how I could support him and tell his story. At first, I thought he would stay with somebody else and I would just send a team out to film with him occasionally. But I realized the project needed me to be a lot closer—if we were going to do it, we'd have to do it together. Suddenly, the two of us were hanging out, me and this 19-year-old kid. I had gotten to know him over the course of a year, but we were now living together in LA and about to embark on this project.
I had a lot of different clients and projects at the time. But I decided that I was going to make this film, so I changed my life to come to LA and do it. It is kind of wild.
That's crazy! Why LA?
Because he’s a skateboarder. It was a film about his journey off the streets, to see if he could carve a life for himself in the skateboarding world. Los Angeles is the skateboarding Mecca.
So, what happened?
We did it, we made a film. We lived together for three years!
Wait...what? I thought this was going to be a week and that’s it?
No. He still lives in LA and he's still a part of my life. We sort of became best friends, brother/sister, mother/son, filmmaker/subject. He learned how to read and write, he got sponsored to skateboard, and he earns his living through teaching kids and professional speaking.
We launched the film I am Thalente in 2015 at the LA Film Festival. We won the Audience Award for it. It’s a beautiful film. Life continues, though, and more projects have come about since then.
What stands out for you during the making of this film?
So much. I go into people’s lives and spend some time with them, but I had never spent as much time as I did with Thalente. The film was a way for me to help him. I didn’t dive into the project because I wanted to make a film. I wanted to be part of his life and support him. I could see how talented he was. His worldview is amazing; it kind of blew my mind, so I really wanted to support him.
It was kind of like a symbiotic relationship. It stands out as the most personal thing I ever did. I would always be okay if the film never got made. It just so happened that it did, which was good and we kept going with it.
Do you believe your personal commitment made the film so successful?
Definitely. Anybody can have ideas, but the power comes from being able to see the idea through. It’s not about being the smartest kid in the room or the most creative. It’s so hard to have an idea, and then bring it to life and get everybody excited about it, because it's essentially your idea. Then to do the hard work to see it through, especially on a long-form documentary, which is constantly evolving. In the case of I am Thalente, which wasn’t very traditional in its form, it took an immense commitment to keep pushing, keep trying when something didn’t work.
It was also a great test in patience. I had to be patient with Thalente as he was figuring stuff out, because I was dealing with another human being’s life. It’s not something you can direct. Things happen in the timeline the way that they happen. It takes patience, it takes perseverance and it helped that there was someone on the receiving end of how hard I worked. That was the driving thing for me.
Was there a moment where you wondered, “Am I doing the right thing by taking him out of his world?”
I don’t think there was ever a moment when I thought I was doing the wrong thing by taking him out of that world. It was his choice to come along; it wasn’t me pulling him kicking and screaming. When we first met to talk about the project, which was a year before he came out to LA, I asked him, “Do you know what a big commitment this is?” I don’t think even I realized how much of a commitment it would be! But I told him that when you make a commitment to start something, you’ve got to see it through to the end. And he was ready for that.
Getting him out of South Africa was really hard and took longer than I thought. I thought we'd get him out in six months, but because he was a kid on the streets with no parents or documentation, there was nobody to give consent. He was 17 when we started the process, so he was a minor. As a random person, you can’t just go in and get him out, get his visas and identification documents, because it's illegal to do that. There were challenges—but I digress. The point is, he really wanted to do it. There were times where he felt like he didn’t belong here, that he didn’t fit in. He’s seen so much of the world and I think it's hard for him seeing so much in such a short span of time.
Does it blow your mind to think back to the journey you guys shared?
Yes. It was very hard for me to figure out what role I was playing in his life. We struggled most of our first year, because he was trying to figure out what he needed to be for me and I was trying to figure out what I needed to be for him. It was probably the most reflective process of my life. When I describe it, a lot of people who are parents will say, “Oh yeah, that’s like having a kid.” It's so complex; you think you know what's best and you just don’t. It’s a very humbling experience. I have to constantly ask, “Am I right? Why is that important? Why do I place value on these things?” It was very challenging, but a really beautiful growing experience.
I get close to people I work with. To do the work I do, I have to fall in love with them. When I know why I care about someone, when I find those things to love, that’s when stuff comes to light that enables me to create portraits of people and tell their stories.
How do you craft a coherent story from real people’s lives?
In any sort of creative art form, there’s a form of expression. There’s a theme, an idea, something that you're trying to get across. As a creative person, you always have to have that in your heart—that idea is your true north. But in the documentary process, you can’t be the person who knows it all. There is a lot of humility that comes into play when I'm creating and telling these stories. You might be able to tell a good story, but it’s about being able to listen and allowing that story to guide you. That is a beautiful point when you're making a film, when it suddenly starts to speak back to you. When you’re getting to know your subject, there is this kind of opening up that happens. You build trust.
So does your idea drive the story, or do you gather pieces and figure out the story at the end?
I still have an idea of what's important. So, my idea for I am Thalente started with a question that I was trying to answer. I wanted to know, “How do you go from living on the streets to being independent?” I couldn't answer that question, so the ideas kept coming. For example, “What are the things you need when you’re missing a dad, you’re missing a mom, you’re missing a house? What role was community playing? What role was skateboarding playing? How do we bring education back into the mix? How do you learn the things you need to be independent? How do you deal with the trauma? Which trauma do you need to deal with?” I just didn’t have answers to any of those things, so I did one thing at a time to figure that stuff out.
Do you think your work has changed your personal relationships?
Yeah. I had to figure out how to be a better person because of the emotional stress. It's hard to deal with. You have to find a tool kit that will help you manage that stuff. Maybe I needed to find it anyway, maybe it would have been a tough journey even if I wasn't doing this work because life just gets tougher and tougher….
It doesn't get easier.
Not only does it not get easier, but some things get harder. But you're also always trying to do something bigger, better and greater—you’re always pushing the boundaries of what you think you can do.
To be able to contain that extra stress, you’ve got to find a different way of being in the world. I realized I was obsessed with my work, so I had to figure out a balance between work and life. You have to think about how much time you’re spending on something or somebody else versus checking in with yourself, making sure you’re good and have what you need. That's the thing that changed for me.
Is it hard to separate between your work and personal life, because it's all “you?”
So, here's another way of looking at that. I agree with you that I am my work; it's an expression of who I am. But maybe it's not about the work itself, as much as it's about why you’re motivated to do it. It's not so much that you have to stop working and focus on your personal life—it’s about feeling motivated to be in people’s lives. I'm very grateful that I'm able to do this kind of work, but the motivation for me is to be a part of the world. To leave it a little better than what I came into.
So, you're saying if your motivation is good, then it doesn't matter whether it's work or personal?
Exactly. I feel like a little bit more joy can come out of every single experience when you’re motivated by contribution, support, love, or gratitude. It is a subtle thing to check in on your motivation. The happier you are with the world, the more capacity you have to contribute to it.
With the work that I do, my measure of success is often whether I can just get to the finish line. I think about that because you can have all these false expectations, like, “I need this film to win an Oscar.” You have to decide what your measure of success is.
With the Thalente project, my measure of success was not whether I could finish the film, but whether he could feel independent. There were a couple of moments for me very early on when he was really reading beautifully. We found this one woman who was so patient and so great with him. One day, she was getting him to read out aloud to get his confidence up. She made him stand outside of the house and yell to her what he had written. At the top of his voice, he shouted, “My name is Thalente Biyela. I am 19 years old and my dream is to be a professional skateboarder.” That was a moment of success for me.
The next big thing for me was when he got his first job at a skate camp. He packed his bags and went off for five weeks to work with these kids. I remember thinking that it didn’t matter if the film got made, because this was the reason I did it all.
Now that Thalente is on his own, what are you focusing on?
The project I’m currently working on is called Ordinary People. It’s a documentary about the criminal justice system. It dives into the underbelly of America, and all the things that are broken and hurting people.
The themes I’m exploring are, “What does the overuse of incarceration really look like in people’s lives? Do we really understand the lived experience of people? Can we deconstruct our ideas of who a criminal is and what they're going through? What lands people in these spaces and how do they get out?”
This film was so heavy, it sucked the life out of me. So I felt the only way to come through the other side was to put more beauty back into the world. I had to look at the darkness of it and I had to shine a light on it and expose it. But that’s why I want to create original stories—they are a way to put more beauty back into the world.
What advice would you give?
There’s a really good piece of advice that I wish somebody had told me. I used to suffer a lot from loneliness. But I learned that everything you think you’re missing in your life, you’re not. Let’s say you think you’re missing a partner. But when you really take stock of all the needs a partner could fulfill, you realize you’re getting those things from three, four or five other people. So, you have everything you need. When you focus on what’s not there, you’re not seeing what’s there.
That took me so long to realize. I could have thought, “Oh god, I’ve spent my whole life working on my career, I don’t have a husband or kids, I’m alone, I’m 40. Should I be further on in my career? Should I be more accomplished?” But I really looked at what I have: the ability to take care of myself and keep a roof over my head, to travel the world, to be independent, have amazing friends. It’s so important to come from a place of self-compassion, and just give yourself a break.
Learn more about Natalie's work.