Jake Johnson on his Diabolically Fun Directorial Debut “Self Reliance”

Would you watch a reality show where someone is actively being hunted for a million-dollar prize? Morally, the answer is no. In Jake Johnson’s directorial debut, Self Reliance (streaming on Hulu), he believes the answer is yes. The concept for Johnson’s new film is one he developed years ago after watching a Japanese reality show (​​Susunu! Denpa Shōnen) where contestants were placed in bizarre situations and filmed.

“And then in the middle of the night, members of the production would sneak in and replace batteries,” he laughed. 

That bizarre contrast between behind-the-scenes production and what viewers are actually shown on screen was such an intriguing aspect to him that Johnson incorporated it into his own film. 

Johnson wrote, directed, and stars in the film. He plays Tommy, a man who finds himself courted by Andy Samberg (playing himself) to participate in the biggest reality show on the dark web. It’s as ominous as it sounds. Tommy is told from the jump that there will be people trying to kill him, but only if he’s alone. So long as he has someone, anyone, by his side, and he keeps them there for a month, he’ll win a million bucks.

Johnson said he’s been working on screenwriting since he was 17 (“as dorky as it sounds”) and so a lot of the ideas in this film were similar to earlier versions he’d created as a teenager. Directing is a feat in itself, but launching your directorial debut in a film you’re also starring in was “trickier” than Johnson imagined. 

“It’s not something I would jump back into because it’s manic,” he explained. “And as you’re directing, everybody that I was in a scene with — it’s my job to give them notes. It would have been better if I had been, like, fifth lead,” he laughed. “I should have been Eduardo Franco [who plays the P.A. Ninja in his film], and Eduardo Franco should have been Tommy.” 

L-r: Maddy (Anna Kendrick) Charlie (GaTa) and Tommy (Jake Johnson), shown. (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Johnson said he was fortunate to have “allies” surrounding him on production that he could lean on for guidance. 

“Anna Borden, the AD [assistant director] of the movie, she directed episodes of Minx, so she came on and did me a favor to AD [this film], so I really leaned on her direction,” he said. “Ali Bell, our producer, she’s the executive from The Lonely Island, I leaned on her creatively. And Adam Silver, our DP, [director of photography]…I could say to him after a take, ‘How’s it looking?’”

Much like the film’s concept, Johnson said the characters morphed and evolved along with the individuals playing them. The cast is stacked with comedy heavyweights like Samberg and Anna Kendrick, but Johnson said it was Biff Wiff’s unhoused character, James, that was a casting dealbreaker for him. 

“He was the first person we locked in because if we couldn’t find the right guy for that, I didn’t want to make the movie,” Johnson said. “The glory of the performance is Biff Wiff. Because if you get the wrong actor to do that, it’s too heavy. It’s sad.”

James/Walter (Biff Wiff), shown. (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

James’s character also reminded him of another character from his past. 

“I see a big connection between James in [Self Reliance] and Tran in New Girl,” he said. 

For the family dynamic in Self Reliance, however, Johnson based it on “the feeling” he got around a lot of families in Chicago — the no-nonsense attitude. 

“Where they just say really honest, kind of in your face — a midwestern family that’s not into whatever phase you’re going through,” he joked.

Self Reliance was shot in only 17 days, but Johnson said the post-production was more difficult than he anticipated 

“Putting the puzzle together while dealing with notes from all the different people,” he explained. 

Johnson said he’s an actor first and foremost, so while he’s not eager to jump back into directing film any time soon, he’s open to directing other projects. 

“I would love to direct a pilot of television, and I’d love to do a commercial,” he said. “I love being a director in terms of a crew, but a film is such a beast. It’s not something you casually jump into. Some of my most fun acting jobs, I’ve casually jumped into.”

Self Reliance is streaming now on Hulu. Check out our full video interview here:


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Featured image: Self Reliance — When a middle-aged man (Jake Johnson) is invited into a limo by famous actor Andy Samberg, his dull life takes a thrilling turn.  Johnson is offered a chance to win a million dollars in a dark web reality TV show, where assassins from all over the world attempt to kill him for 30 days. The catch? He can’t be killed if he’s not entirely alone, leading him to recruit an unlikely team to help him survive. Tommy (Jake Johnson), shown. (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)


Andria Moore

Andria is a freelance entertainment and digital culture reporter based in DC. She is a regular contributor for BuzzFeed and Insider, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Lily, and Modern Luxury Magazines.