The Directors: Jeff Johnson


11 January 2023
Kim Thomson

Jeff Johnson is a director represented by Truce Films in Australia. After cutting his teeth shooting music videos and festivals, in 2015 he won Rolling Stone’s Music Video of the Year, with co-director Max Miller, for Peking Duk’s ‘High’. As a commercial director, he’s worked on impactful campaigns for brands including Levi’s, Flybuys, and Respect Victoria. Jeff sat down for a chat about his love of bold visuals, cultivating trust with subjects, and the queer Christmas film he has in the works with Truce.

How did your relationship with filmmaking begin?

I’ve always been interested in storytelling. Growing up, it was about escapism. I grew up in rural Australia – in Albury–Wodonga. Through film, I was exposed to so many different, fantastical stories. I always loved Matilda and its magical realism. My parents bought me a video camera when I was about 11 and I would run around the hills with my friends, dripping in fake blood, making kind of cliché Blair Witch-style videos. So, I’ve always gravitated towards storytelling as a visual medium – and wanted to be a director from a really young age. 

What's your journey from that 11-year-old with a camera to now?

I studied Film & Television at Swinburne University and was looking for work in the field, so began shooting clubs and making movies for club nights – eventually getting picked up by an agency. In my 20s, I toured around the country with DJs and worked at music festivals, shooting everyone from Hardwell to Avicii and Nicky Romero.

From there, I went overseas. I worked for Ultra in America and shot a ‘living room’ tour in Norway with an English folk band that would do shows in people’s living rooms. They would put us up in their homes for the night, which, in retrospect, sounds like a weird indie movie…

I was a one-man show: shooting, editing – doing it all on the road. Shooting festivals taught me logistics and how to be ‘on’ all the time – you’re engaging with managers, artists, stagehands. It helped me navigate how to speak with people as well.


As a commercial director, are you drawn to certain themes or styles in your work?

I have two genres I mostly work in: the first being heightened, heavily art-directed comedy [as seen in Shingsta]. I love tackling things with a certain flair and flamboyance and using bold colours and fun performances. 

I recently did a campaign with WeightWatchers, who approached me because they wanted something that felt a bit more modern and current than what they've done before – and I have some background in fashion campaigns. So, rather than treating it as a health and wellbeing campaign, they wanted a lot more colour and more aggressive camera moves, to get to a more dynamic, contemporary place. 

I also did a fun campaign for Flybuys that’s in the style of an 80s aerobics fitness video. We kept the overall aesthetic really modern but pushed hard to pay homage to the 80s, in a non-cheesy way. 

I loved playing in that world – we built the set, came up with the dance and choreography, and got to lay down the lyrics with the talent.  Ultimately, we created a series of songs that just felt fun. As much as I know we're all here to sell a product – that doesn't mean it has to be dry! 

Aside from that type of work, I also work in a more docu-style – where I take a fashion-based approach to the aesthetic but still maintain a sense of authenticity through the performances and stories.

How do you approach the more realistic, docu-style campaigns that you’ve done? 

In documentary-style work – such as the Levi’s and Respect Victoria campaigns – what surprises me is that people can be vulnerable and open with me very quickly. I was socially awkward growing up and find that I still am sometimes in social settings but, when creating those kinds of pieces, being open and vulnerable yourself allows others to instantly feel comfortable doing the same thing.

With those campaigns, if we only had an hour-long Zoom meeting scheduled, I’d still spend time talking about my own experiences and sharing things that I’ve gone through. Ultimately, you’re asking someone to share their life with you, so if you don’t have the capacity to do that with them, then the result won’t be there.

You have to fast-track that sense of safety even if there isn’t much time to establish relationships: in a feature-length documentary or narrative, you have time to rehearse and build those relationships. But with ads, it’s such a fast turnaround you might only meet the actor for 10 minutes in a callback. It’s all about ensuring people feel safe and comfortable within those constraints. 

The more you do it, the more comfortable you are. With Levi’s, the campaign and contacts were queer-orientated so there was that instant mutual understanding with me. You can always tell when someone is disingenuous or false, so I’ve worked hard to just be myself.


How else do you foster a positive culture and sense of safety on set?

Jeff> It’s all about trying to be as authentic as possible – and to have fun, joke around. As a director, you have to be collaborative. If a DOP or production designer comes to you with an idea or new approach – it all helps build on the original vision. Ultimately, everyone on set is there to do the best job they can, no matter their role.

I always say to my department heads at the start of a project, ‘Hey, I want you to feel like you have ownership over this as well.’ I like to create an environment where I’m not a dictator but I’m there to help build it together.

You’re part of the Truce Films team. What most excites you about working with the company and any projects in the pipeline?

Jeff> Now that I’ve solidified what I want to do with my commercials – working with that bold, visually heightened aesthetic – Truce is really on board with approaching briefs in a way that will have that shine through. 

I’m also developing a narrative feature with Truce – it’s in super early days but it’s a Christmas film that involves a little gay boy and Satan. The boy’s only wish is to wake up straight on Christmas morning. Basically, he writes a letter to Santa but spells the name wrong – so Satan turns up. 

A lot of ‘coming out’ stories tend to focus on trauma, which is a common experience for a lot of queer people. But, as much as those raw stories need to be told, I’d like to head in a direction that takes those topics and characters and explores them in a way that’s playful and fun and surreal – that’s much more me. 


5A Glasshouse Road

Collingwood VIC 3066

+61 3 9645 7512



Suite 19, 20/40 Meagher Street

Chippendale NSW 2008

+61 2 9188 7823

instagram icon
linkedIn icon

2024 Truce Production Co. All rights reserved.

Privacy Policy