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Fri 5 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Dream weaver

Craig Johnson moved to Dubai five years ago as a company manager. Today he is about to direct his first film.

When Craig Johnson moved to Dubai five years ago, he was the manager of a courier company. Today he is about to direct his first feature film. Madeleine Collins found out how.

"So what happened?" I pose my question to Craig Johnson in the sumptuous surrounds of the Grosvenor Hotel lobby, the same spot I was due to interview him in four weeks ago.

Back then, we were set to meet to discuss his film Expats, which gained widespread publicity in August when he did a public casting call in UAE newspapers. Until he sent me an email to cancel.

He'd just found out the film script hadn't been approved by the Abu Dhabi National Media Council, and the project was as good as shelved. Then last week, I got another email. "After some fighting, I got my approval," it read.

So here we are, and fortunately, it turns out the answer to my question isn't quite as dramatic as I'd anticipated. "It was all a storm in a teacup" says Johnson, with a sigh of relief.

There were no such dramas as taboo subjects or censorship issues - probably because Johnson says he was "very careful at the beginning not to offend or disrespect where I am". Apparently, it all came down to a few lines in the script and the changes required were simple. I'm a little skeptical considering an earlier phone conversation we had, but I go with his explanation.

Touted as the first English speaking feature film to be made in the UAE, Expats tells the story of three married couples who uproot their lives in their native countries - England, India and Australia - and move to Dubai. "People used to chase the American Dream now they're chasing the Arabian Dream," says Johnson. "Some succeed and some fail and this is their story."

The story, it turns out, is also Johnson's own. Now 36, he moved to Dubai five years ago after a six month stint in Saudi Arabia, where he relocated to from his native New Zealand. Back then he was the manager of the Riad branch of DHL Courier Company. Today he is a film director. Only in Dubai?

His original plan for Expats had been ambitious, to say the least. The casting call said the film would be made in September and be ready in time to be premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December.

Having worked in a Hollywood film company for three years, when I read this I was confused. Script to screen in three months is near impossible. I wondered about the quality of the film.

"Yeah, too ambitious," concedes Johnson, with a smile. The original announcement could be explained by Johnson's lack of experience in the film industry. He's never studied directing yet is directing Expats, and he's never studied screenwriting, although he has sold a previous script to Hollywood.

Experience, or not, it's all a learning game in the creative world. And this is a man who makes things happen.

Johnson had his main cast set for Expats when he originally got the thumbs down from the NMC. He also had investors in place - an unfortunate case of ‘that was then and this is now'.

"Time has marched on since I first announced filming in August", he says. The change in the economic climate forced some original investors to pull out but he says he has enough to keep it going, although he'd "like more".

Back to Saudi Arabia - an experience he says was like living in a "very glamorous jail" - and Johnson's wife Laura was preparing to move over with their baby daughter Charlotte when he called to tell her he'd made a dreadful mistake.

"We left New Zealand to get ahead. We couldn't afford for my wife to stay at home and look after our daughter there. Like all expats, we came to the Middle East to make money."

Coincidentally, this was around the time of the revolt in Saudi Arabia, and as a result, Johnson was moved to Dubai.

Once there, he realised DHL wasn't his future. "I've been in sales all my life - I've sold everything - ball bearings, booze, advertising, electric fences, and I quickly realised I had to get into selling property."

That was in the good old days of the property boom and his success resulted in him owning his own company, which he now employees a manager to run so he can finally pursue his filmmaking dream.

"I've always loved to write from school, but I never had the fortitude to keep on doing it or courage of my convictions," he says. "When I was 16, a friend's father said: ‘work out what you really want to do in life because 40 years is a long time if you don't'.I listened to that and promptly went out and got a job in a ball bearing company. Those words ring more clearly in my mind every year I work, than they did back then."

"Woody Allen once said ‘write about what you know'" he tells me. And so he did. He wrote Repping - a comedy about two roving salesman (it's "Sideways-esque" says Johnson) - while on the road.

The story of an old jaded sales rep paired with a new young sales rep, it reveals "a whole secret life that goes on when you're selling on the road, which I wrote it from personal experience," he says, rather mysteriously.

He doesn't seem like the shifty type. In fact he's extremely down to earth and today looks more like a businessman than a director in his open-necked shirt and suit trousers.

"Repping was the first thing I wrote and wanted to send out to the world," he goes on. "I sat on it for a year and when I got to Dubai I sent it to Hollywood and it was optioned." The film is now in pre-production, has a budget of around $12 million and Demi Moore is attached, according to Johnson.

"That gave me confidence. I was really very fortunate and it inspired me to keep going. Writers have very fragile egos and if someone doesn't what you write you feel like crying for a month and going to bed for a week, and I've done that a few times," he smiles.

The heady rush of selling Repping to Tinseltown rubbed off pretty quickly though, when Johnson realised the new owners were making substantial changes to his script.

While he says he was aware that when a screenplay is optioned the writer loses all rights to it, the process was a "very much a learning process. I cashed the cheque, took the money and ran. But when I saw they were changing it I began to get precious about it. It was pretty sobering."

Despite relinquishing creative control over Repping, he will still get a net return on anything it makes, so says he is wishing for its success. "But I thought, okay, that's fine but next time I'm going to make what I write. I want to have control of how it looks, so I'm going to direct it."

And so Johnson went back to Allen's advice. Consequently, Expats centres around married couples; a slightly strange decision considering this only represents one side of life in Dubai.

So why set a film featuring all married people in the singles haven dubbed the New York of the Middle East? "Because it's what I know. I can't write with any credibility about the single scene," he laughs.

Instead Johnson focuses on the "stress and strain" of uprooting his young family to the Middle East. "I came with a nine month old child and we had another one soon after.Apart from having a maid, to come here and raise small children and not be able to lean on your family, it's hard, really really hard. It's lonely and tough and it makes you want to go home. You know at home it's safe and people love you.

You don't have that luxury here; you have to get on with it. Add to that all the frustrations and how tough it is here, and that's why I wrote Expats."

The film now has a budget of three million dirhams and Johnson is working with Boom Films Production Company in Media City to put together a production schedule, with an eye to start shooting "touch wood, in January or February".

The locations are in place - "being a small movie we can be nimble and move quite quickly" - and the main characters, all professional actors who are coming from the UK and India, are waiting for the word to get on a plane.

The film features an ensemble cast in a similar vein to Crash and Traffic, says Johnson. "We follow the lives of the couples over the course of three years. Where they are, how they're feeling about Dubai, where they are in their lives personally.

We go behind the closed doors of their relationship, and see what Dubai does to those relationships. The story is more about the people than the place.

Two of the couples are fresh off the boat, and their stories intertwine resulting in a climatic ending where everyone's lives depend on the decision of two of the characters, says Johnson.

"Some characters love it, some are non-plussed, and some hate it. One desperately wants to go home, and his wife says ‘what are you going to do there when we get there, what the miracle thing that's going to provide for us.'

"Everyone moans about Dubai, but not too many people are leaving. Where are you going to go, what are you going to do? That's the wrestling match when you're married and have children. Especially as a man, you have to grow up real quick. You have to put your childish dreams away and provide. I wrote a lot of this from my own experiences."

Some might say childish dreams include writing and making a film. But Johnson is achieving his dreams, and says he is already working on his next screenplay, "a real epic" set in New Zealand, "which I hope will be my Oscar winner".

But of his adopted homeland, he is still curious. "When some people go to other countries they call them immigrants, but when people come to Dubai they call them expats, because there's a sense of temporariness about it.

"Every one of us has an exit strategy - we're all going to be here for ‘X' amount of years. We're just here to milk it and then go. And many times people say, ‘oh yeah, you'll be here for twenty years', and you think ‘no way!' I've been here for five years and said I'd be here for two. I have an exit strategy, but Dubai has been very, very good to me and it keeps on winding me in and giving me opportunities.

"I still don't know what I'm doing here sometimes, but there must be a point to it. Maybe this film is it."