Savage Youth … A Glimpse at the Midwest Rust Belt Despair

Michael Curtis Johnson’s Savage Youth is a docudrama that grabs you with the opening scene and doesn’t let you go, even after the closing credits.


Geoffrey Orthwein, who did all of the film’s color grading (more on that later), prepared us about as well as he could; but when we viewed the true-to-life film, we thought even Shakespeare would have thought Romeo & Juliet was a gentle downer on youthful love and despair.


Making the rounds of film festivals, we found ourselves thinking that Hitchcock would have been scared out of his wits watching Savage Youth … and depressed by the young people’s dead-end lives.


Savage Youth is one of those rare films that indie filmmakers produce because they simply must do it. The story behind Johnson’s film is almost as interesting as the project itself.


Living in Los Angeles, the filmmaker read about the murder of two young men in his hometown paper, the Joliet Herald News.  He returned to Joliet, IL to see how the town he grew up in was handling the crime.


Over the next few days, he:

  • Watched the father of one of the killers cry when his daughter was sentenced to live in prison
  • Listened to a victim’s mother weep as her son’s coffin was closed.



How could an American tragedy like this emerge in the country’s heartland?


The victims were black, the accused are white.


It couldn’t be a random hate crime because the victims had known their killers.


The accused were devotees of the horror rap group, the Insane Clown Posse.


One victim was rumored to be a small-time drug dealer and the other had been arrested on a weapons charge.


One killer had wanted to save the teeth of his victims.


The only thing that could be agreed upon was that the accused were the last people to see the victims alive and that the father of one of the accused was sleeping downstairs when the murders took place.

Piece by piece, the tragedy became a have-to-do script for Johnson – a group of young people who probably never had a chance to get anywhere except to prison or six feet under.


“My hometown is like many American rust belt cities,” he noted.  “It’s rural, urban and suburban; all at the same time. 


“I grew up here, experienced my first love affair, made life-long friends, developed my values and creative voice;” he continued, “but in the ensuing years, the Midwest pleasantries had given way to growing aggression and desperation and were plagued by segregation, poverty and neglect.”


Johnson felt driven, compelled to tell the story.


Since the only people who knew the truth were either dead or not talking, Johnson had to piece together the tragic story of what brought the six youths to the point of unspeakable violence.


Based on hours and hours of painstaking research on social media – MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram –  Johnson came to know the victims and the accused as real, flawed human beings.


An aimless rapper falls for an aspiring graphic artist, while a frustrated high school senior convinces his friend to start slinging drugs.


Horrorcore hip-hop, drugs and broken hearts mixed with a decaying, racially divided rural town set the stage for the tragically compelling film about the powder keg between adolescence and adulthood.

Six very talented young actors – Jason (Will Brittain) a rapper in a group with three friends Lucas (Sasha Feldman) and Hyde (J. Michael Troutman) as well as Elena (Grace Victoria Cox) and Stephanie (Chloe Levine) and Sasha Feldman (Lucas) collide with Gabe (Tequan Richmond) who expands his business with Mike (Mitchell Edwards) – deliver startlingly real, raw, and occasionally tender performances.


After six weeks of intense shooting, Johnson called on Orthwein regarding the editorial, colorist project.  Orthwein has performed editorial duties on a number of independent films and co-directed Bokeh, a well-received indie film.


“Michael caught me at just the right time,” said Orthwein.  “We were in the midst of the pre-production and scripting stage of our next film and I was ready for a break from the more tedious parts of a film project – planning and budgeting.


“I know Mike has a great eye, with a keen sense of finding beauty, even in a bleak world,” Orthwein noted. “He and Magela Crosignani (the cinematographer) created a series of quietly beautiful images following this tragic story. After seeing the initial cut, I knew it was a project I wanted to be a part of.”


He explained that Johnson wanted a cinéma vérité, realistic feel to the film. One which added scenes that resemble a play combined with joltingly intense and emotional scenes that would slowly take the audience to heightened level of sadness when the final credits rolled.

Grading – Geoffrey Orthwein took a break in the pre-production of his next film project to handle the editing and colorist portion of Michael Johnson’s “Savage Youth.”  Critical to his smooth post activity were the OWC ThunderBay Mini and recently purchased Thunderbolt 3 Dock that helped him move content quickly during the workflow process. 

Working with RAW footage, the certified editor/colorist did all of the DI (digital intermediate) work in DaVinci Resolve from an OWC ThunderBay Mini. He took the locked picture, cut in Final Cur Pro X, and conformed the edit in Resolve. The entire edit was conformed to original camera media, the editorial LUT’s were removed and all footage and resources were organized on the OWC ThunderBay Mini.


Since Johnson and Crosignani had used Arri Alexa cameras to capture the content, Orthwein carefully followed best DI practices so the filmmakers had the flexibility of distributing Savage Youth in high-quality digital or film formats.


The conform from Final Cut Pro X was nearly seamless, with only a few scaling adjustments to be made on a handful of shots. He incorporated the preferred working LUT’s from Crosignani into the project and went to work.


To actualize the story for Johnson, he carefully color graded the film, altering and enhancing the film’s color. This included color correction and the generation of artistic color effects to carefully tweak the content to optimize what had been captured by the camera.


“Color is the ultimate expression of the film.” Orthwein emphasized, “You can use color to carry the component elements of framing, sound, editing and performance to communicate the narrative on a visceral level. The sticky, grime of a humid midwestern summer, the cold isolation of the morning after, or the all-too-real consequences of jealousy, anger and misunderstanding become palpable in the color grade. We were able to convey the color meaning, how it affects the mood of the work and how the audience interprets the film.”


Throughout the DI process there was a regular backup process. With all the primary media on the high-performance ThunderBay Mini, there were hourly backups of project files copied to two external sources … just in case.


“It wasn’t that I was worried about the ThunderBay Mini. There’s never a bottleneck during the grading or for any of my projects. But of course, you make sure there’s always a backup or two,” Orthwein stated.


The finished film blends atmospheric filmmaking with classic dramatic storytelling and blends Brechtian theater with visceral realism.


It is film about a marginalized generation you won’t soon forget–one that encompasses human tragedy with just a flicker of hope.

Andy is Owner and President of Marken Communications Inc. a Marketing and Communications Consultant, located in the San Francisco area in August 1977 to Present.Marken Communications is a full-service agency that concentrates on business/market planning, positioning, development, and communications. The 30 year agency has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Experience includes strategic and market planning and execution with communications and Internet firms including AT&T and CERFnet as well as in storage, storage management and video solutions with firms including Philips, InterVideo, Ulead, OWC, NewerTech, Sonic, Corel, Matsushita, Pinnacle, Dazzle, Cyberlink, Mountain Computer, Nikon, Plasmon, NTI, ADS Tech, Verbatim, Mitsubishi and Panasonic.
Andy Marken
Broadcast Beat - Production Industry Resource