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Jana Johnson Ready for Center Stage

January 27, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ After years of voice training and acting classes, countless waitressing jobs and timid dreams of being onstage, Jana Johnson decided that 1997 was the year to overcome her fear of performing.

And what a payoff.

She produced and co-stars in ``Los Enchiladas,″ which was selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The film, shot in St. Paul, Minn., is a comedy about a fictitious Mexican restaurant of the same name and what happens when its sleazy manager walks out before Cinco de Mayo, the busiest day of the year.

Sundance, the nation’s top showcase for independent films, is a dream come true for Ms. Johnson and ex-boyfriend Mitch Hedberg, a rising young comic who wrote and directed the film.

``He played around with the concept of a Mexican restaurant,″ she remembers. ``We’re both from Minnesota and find the lack of authenticity in ethnic restaurants there to be a source of humor.″

The film’s Midwestern setting is part of what impressed the Sundance judges.

``‘Los Enchiladas’ had a freshness from its regionality,″ says John Cooper, associate director of programming at Sundance and one of five people who selects films to be shown there. ``These characters are universal but they bring a Minnesota-something to the film. A kind of craziness. After all, look who’s their governor.″

Now Ms. Johnson, 29, a native of Lake City, Minn., is trying to snag a distribution deal for the film.

She’s also happy that she’s getting recognition in front of the camera.

``I’ve worked on the outside of this industry for so long,″ says Ms. Johnson, who has booked rock groups such as Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins into local Seattle clubs and traveled the country promoting Hedberg’s career. ``This film is my chance to finally switch the focus to me.″

Of her performance, Cooper says, ``She was pretty impressive. One of the great things about Sundance is that they’re looking for new talent. This film had lots of new faces.″

Although Ms. Johnson and Hedberg recently ended a nine-year romance, they maintain a business relationship. Enough perspiration and $100,000 of hard-earned cash and credit _ theirs and that of friends and family _ went into the project to override any potential falling out.

``She’s talented in her own right. She was an asset to the whole situation,″ says Hedberg, who has appeared on the ``Late Show With David Letterman″ and was a smash at the Montreal Comedy Festival. ``Jana did all the legwork and all the organization. She was able to keep things in order when they were falling apart.″

Since 1991, Ms. Johnson and Hedberg, 30, lived variously in Florida, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York. She studied voice and acting. He wrote, sought development deals and did stand-up comedy. They moved to New York in June 1997. Hedberg was writing a screenplay, and Ms. Johnson thought it was time to give acting a shot.

To support their artistic pursuits, the pair had worked in franchise restaurants; Ms. Johnson as a waitress, Hedberg as a cook.

Their restaurant experiences form the plot of ``Los Enchiladas.″

``There are always certain characters that are at every restaurant,″ Ms. Johnson says. ``It seems as if there’s always one cook who takes his job way too seriously and wears the full chef regalia. And they’re working with a bunch of kids, who are just making some money to go party.″

By summer’s end, the screenplay was complete. They decided it would be less expensive to make the film in Minnesota, foremost because their families live there, so they were unlikely to starve.

Hedberg used some money leftover from a TV development deal that never got off the ground to begin filming.

That’s where Ms. Johnson’s crackerjack organizational skills came in.

She began making calls from New York to the Minnesota Film Board, which provided lists of local crew technicians. Once the directors of photography were hired, everything else fell into place.

After three weeks of pre-production, ``Los Enchiladas″ was shot in St. Paul during 22 days in September and October 1997.

The actors were culled from the vast community of local stage-actor groups. ``They would work all day at their jobs, then show up for 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. shoots,″ Ms. Johnson recalls.

After a year of post-production, a rough cut of ``Los Enchiladas″ was submitted on video to Sundance this past autumn.

Just two days before Thanksgiving, Hedberg got the word from Sundance. He called Ms. Johnson at her New York apartment.

``Yup, we’re in,″ he told her.

``It was the best day of my life,″ Ms. Johnson remembers. ``When my future husband proposes to me, he better have something special up his sleeve, because it’s going to take a lot to top that one.″

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