Posts Tagged ‘Phil Johnston’

“To reach audiences, writers have to take chances. They must confront the awesome challenge inherent in peddling their fantasies. All writers, in particular new writers, face the overwhelming likihood that what they write will come to no fruitful conclusion.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

“There’s always that existential question: If you write a script and no one reads it or no one makes a movie from it, are you really a writer? It’s very complicated.”
Screenwriter Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids)

(Richard Walter Interview Part 2)

The Screenwriting MFA at UCLA has trained so many talented screenwriters that it is continually listed among the best places to study.  But for every graduate like Oscar-winner Alexander Payneg (Sideways) there is a group of graduates who have yet to earn a living as screenwriters. Some are working in various jobs on films and TV programs, some are teaching, and some are working regular jobs and writing spec scripts at night. That led me to today’s question for the Chairman of the Department, Richard Walter.

SS: You’ve obviously seen some incredible talent come through UCLA, they’ve won Academy Awards and written blockbuster Steven Spielberg films,  but not every graduate from the program goes on to have a successful screenwriting career. What do you think separates those who succeed and those that don’t?

Richard Walter: “Well, in a word I would say stamina. Another word is patience.  Life’s all about time. Time is really the great divider. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul.  You’ve got to give your life to this.  That’s not a cynical, brooding, or pessimistic view. I can’t imagine what would be more glorious to give a life to besides creative expression.

I mean, we literally traffic in our imaginations—we swap out our daydreams for money.  Writers when we get paid at all, we get paid a lot of money what other people get scolded for, which is daydreaming.  It’s worth giving it the time, because to succeed is such a phenomenal blessing.

It’s also so human, it really distinguishes us from the rest of creation.  Beavers don’t do this, termites and plankton don’t write —And if you’re not creative in some aspect of your life you’re not really fulfilling your destiny and your nature.  So you just have to stick with it.”

Though screenwriter David Seidler (The King’s Speech) didn’t go to UCLA he is the poster child for sticking with screenwriting. You can view the 73-year-old’s Oscar acceptance speech on You Tube.

And speaking of UCLA grad and Omaha-native Alexander Payne, he was one of the producer’s of the movie Cedar Rapids currently in theaters. (The movie is the first produced script by Phil Johnston who was born in Minneapolis, raised in Wisconsin, and worked as a weatherman in Iowa. He had sold some scripts but was having trouble getting produced and is quoted as saying, “Someone told me, you’ll make a great living as a failure.”)

Related Post: Preparing for an Oscar Speech (David Seilder—Style)

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This week I called one of the most respected make-up artists in Iowa for an upcoming shoot and I found out she’s booked into August. Turns out she’s working in Des Moines on a feature with Forrest Whitaker (Oscar winner for The Last King of Scotland) and Adrian Brody (Oscar winner for The Pianist).

That’s some major talent hanging out in the state. Think I can get them to do a cameo in a short film I making next week? The film they are starring in is called The Experiment and also features Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings). Wood happens to originally be from Cedar Rapids. One of the fellows helping me on my film next week went pre-school with Wood so I’m kind of in the ballpark.

And speaking of Cedar Rapids, I just read in Variety  yesterday that Alexander Payne (Oscar -winning screenwriter of Sideways) will produce a film called Cedar Rapids that will begin filming in October. The script was written by Phil Johnston and Ed Helms. Helms who also plays Andy on The Office (and co-stars in The Hangover) will also be among the comedy cast for Cedar Rapids.

No word on whether Cedar Rapids will be filmed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (and the script probably wasn’t written in Iowa), but I thought it was worth a mention.  (And I’ll throw in a little Cedar Rapids trivia for you…Orville and Wilbur Wright went to elementary school there, as did professional golfer Zack Johnson and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner. And American Gothic painter Grant Wood was a teacher in Cedar Rapids.)

No one is going to confuse Cedar Rapids for Hollywood, or Iowa for California, but it’s nice to know we’re a blip on the radar. And this is a growing trend.  Susan Sarandon (Oscar winner for Dead Man Walking) was in Iowa last summer filming the yet to be released Peacock, which stars Ellen Page of Juno. And Ray Liotta (no Oscar, but he did win an Emmy) was in the Des Moines area a few months ago filming a movie called Ticket-Out (a film that actually takes place in Kentucky).

If you’re writing screenplays set in Iowa that has to give you a little hope. And if you’re writing screenplays set in Kentucky our film incentives can help you out as well. The key thing wherever you are is to keep writing. The incentives and the Oscar winning talent only follow a script that is so good that people are willing to invest their time and money.


Scott W. Smith

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