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SYS Podcast Episode 373: With Writer/Director Jacob Johnston (transcript)

This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 373: With Writer/Director Jacob Johnston.

Ashley: Welcome to Episode #373 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I am interviewing Jacob Johnston who just wrote and directed a horror film called Dreamcatcher. He started out right out of college working as an intern at Marvel and helping manage the artists in the visual development of various characters and items in the Marvel movies, and then he worked his way up from there getting a background in this. Now, as I said, he is writing and directing feature films. So stay tuned for that interview. SYS’s Six-Figure Screenplay contest is open for submissions, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest.

The early bird deadline is March 31st, after that it goes up by $10, so there’s just a few more days. If your script is ready, definitely submit early. We’re looking for low budget shorts and low budget features. I’m defining low budget as less than six figures. In other words, less than $1 million. We’ve got lots of industry judges reading scripts in the later rounds. We’re giving away thousands in cash and prizes. If any of this sounds interesting or you wanna sign up and enter your script, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.

These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they are very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention on the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast, show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #373. If you want my free guide, How to Sell a Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks, along with a bunch of bonus lessons.

I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter, and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.  So a quick few words about what I’m working on. I feel a little bit ridiculous saying this every week, but we really are almost done with The Rideshare Killer now. The editor has everything, he’s putting together the final pieces. I was literally finalizing the credits, the opening credits and the closing credits. I was finalizing that this morning. So I think we’re basically done unless there’s some sort of unforeseen issue down the road.

And those always do crop up, whether it be some sort of a QC issue. At some point we’ll run this through what’s called some sort of a quality check. And one of these post houses here in LA will do it. And you get like an official, but this is needed for distribution for any kind of like real distribution where you’re gonna actually get shown on potentially a TV broadcast network, even in another country, another continent, whatever. They’re going to require this QC report. And it just checks for stuff, missing drop frames and stuff. So there’s always the little things. And I did have on my last film, The Pinch, there actually was an issue that they found. Just some drop frames, and we had to go back in and just finesse it a little bit. The editor had to go back in.

So there is always issues, but the bottom line is we should have a cut of the finished film here pretty soon, and we’re going to start submitting to distributors. We’ve been submitting now to film festivals here for a couple of weeks. So again, all that seems to be moving forward. I’m excited to just get this finished, get it out into the world. And again, hopefully we’ll get into some cool festivals and find a distributor. We’re trying to submit more to festivals sort of the latter half of this year. So we’re really hoping COVID is sort of in our rear view mirror, certainly by September, October, November of this year. So we’re hoping that some of these festivals will be in-person events that we can attend. We’ve submitted obviously to audit genre festivals.

We have sort of as a horror thriller film, so we’ve submitted to those sort of genre festivals. But we’ve also submitted to a good number that are just here in Los Angeles, whether that be horror festivals or not. Just any kind of festivals we found in Los Angeles, we’re going to submit to. Again, those will be fun. If they do have in-person events, we’ll be able to attend those. And who knows, maybe we can get some of the SYS listeners to some of those events as well. Anyway, that’s the main thing that I have been working on over the last week. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer, director, Jacob Johnston. Here is the interview.

Ashley: Welcome Jacob to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.

Jacob: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ashley: To start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?

Jacob: Sure. So I was born in Oklahoma, but we moved around a lot when I was a kid, first because my dad was in the military, and then when he got out, due to his job. So I kinda moved around quite a bit, but I spend a lot of my life in Kentucky. So when people ask, I typically just say that. But came out here to California in 2008 for film school and to Chapman University. Actually was able to get through college in two years, and my first job out of film school was at Marvel Studios where I had been interning an animation. But then it actually, there opened up a spot in the live action development world, which is where I really wanted to go. And, you know, 2010, the studio was still, I won’t say small, but they hadn’t done what it is, you know, it wasn’t what it is now.

So it was a real blessing to be able to be a part of something that was still growing in a lot of ways. And I spent almost seven years there over about 13 films before leaving. And I had worked for this startup production company called Crypt TV, that was Eli Ross and Jack Davis’s company. And it was kind of like an incubation place where we would create short form content. We would find writers and filmmakers all over the world, and they would finance these short form pieces of content between two and ten minutes long short films, and then hopefully be able to grow those IPS and take them to studios or networks to sell and package. And then obviously after I left there, it was really just focusing on writing and directing full time. And here we are with Dreamcatcher.

Ashley: Yeah. So let me just ask a couple of questions, follow up questions on all of that. And I think that’s an excellent point, as Marvel Studios took off, you were able to kind of ride that wave a little bit. I’m curious about, you have a lot of credits to say visual development coordinator and visual development producer. What does that actually mean? Like what do you actually do on these films? And I’m kinda just curious how that ultimately is gonna play into your background as a writer director. But maybe you can kind of explain that title to us.

Jacob: Absolutely. And it really started because I actually chose to make production design my emphasis in film school, because when you’re a junior, at least a Chapman, you have to pick directing cinematography one of the five key positions. And because there were only three other production designers in my senior class, I found… and there were 65 directors. I looked at it and I was like, I think it’s so important to know how to tell the story visually without any… I felt that the experience was translatable on a narrative level. Maybe I’m not gonna direct a thesis film, but I can still work on five or six thesis films as a production designer, really glean a lot of experience, on set experience. And I think you know if you look throughout time, if you’re looking at translatable jobs in this industry, it’s like Robert Eggers Catherine Hardwicke, Joe Johnston, these people who were art directors or production designers who turned directors.

I think it happens more often than not. Maybe cinematographers too, but I do believe that you see a lot of production designers moving to that direction. So going into Marvel, they were creating a new team that was going to be conceptualizing in-house all of the key characters, a lot of the key props, or like what we would consider like iconic, like comics… what things from the comics that would need to be translated into film, this team was gonna be conceptual in all of that. And it was like three people when I first started, and by the time I left, it was like 17 to 18, and now I know they’ve grown even more. But I was… when I was the coordinator, it was just like the normal coordinating duties, ensuring that things got done, got finished on time and like managing phone calls and calendars and all that stuff.

But when it became into a more producorial role, it was being in all of the development meetings with all the other key crew members. It was being in conversations with the writer and the director and going to costume fittings. And like, it really was about hoping, helping to maintain and create this shared visual language throughout all the films. Because when you’re creating this shared universe, it’s really important to create some sort of continuity between them. So our department at all points knew what was going on in every single movie. So we were kind of one step ahead to ensure that like, “Oh, we got to create a new Ironman suit, and it’s got to do this, this and this. Let’s start thinking about it now.” Or like, what is magic in the Marvel cinematic universe? Creating that. Like, what does that look like? How does Ant Man shrink and grow? Things like that, where it was like, we just figure out the mechanics as well as the design elements.

Ashley: Got you. I’m curious too about something you said which I think is another excellent point. You went into the production design, there was only three production designer majors and there was 65 directing majors. How many of those 65 directing majors are directing feature films now? I think obviously there might be some, but certainly of… what are your odds actually better? You know, one out of three of these production designers is directing features. And how many of these 65? And I always think it’s interesting when people recognize that sometimes taking a little sidestep is actually the best way forward.

Jacob: A hundred percent. I think it’s, you know, I think that the thing too though, is in film school, they try to engrain this mentality, that it’s like, if you don’t go this path, then it doesn’t happen. And I think if Hollywood shows us anything, it’s that like what you were saying, sometimes you have to sidestep multiple times. And as long as you’ve got the wherewithal and you don’t lose the creative vision of what you wanna do, it doesn’t really matter how you get there as long as you’re not gonna lose the steam along the way. And just continue to stretch that muscle, that creative muscle, whether that’s in art direction, whether that’s in directing what you, if it’s music, videos, if it’s short films, just make sure that you’re not just hoping that one day someone’s gonna knock on your doors and be like, “It’s time to go direct your movie, hope you’re ready.” You know.

Ashley: Yeah. And the value of that thesis film, I totally agree with you. You’re probably better off. Because then when you have 65 directors, that’s 65 films that you potentially have, you can go work on as a production designer, as opposed to having that one thesis film, which may or may not even be all that good.

Jacob: Absolutely.

Ashley: So let’s dig into Dreamcatcher. Again, those were some fantastic points. I hope people are really listening. But let’s dig into Dreamcatcher and talk about that a little bit. Maybe to start out, you can just give us a quick pitch or a log line. What is this film all about?

Jacob: The film’s about two estranged sisters who kind of come back together after three years and end up going to this underground music festival, and some bad stuff goes down and it kind of trickles out into this two day maelstrom of emotional chaos and then also physical violence. So it’s, I have to be kind of… it’s tough. It’s a tough pitch because it’s, I think it would be easy to just go, “Oh, it’s a slasher film.” But I hope that when people see the film, they’re like, “Wow, no, this has got more of like a St. Elmo’s Fire meets Scream.” You’ve got the character development, but you’ve also got kind of the fun thrilling set pieces of a slasher.

Ashley: Got you. And where did this idea come from? What is sort of the Genesis of this story?

Jacob: So I knew the producers, Brandon and Krystal for about five or six years. And we had had this shared love for ‘90s, you know, car and thriller type stories, because those had a very specific structure in their writing. Like if you look back at the ‘90s, even late ‘80s, there was something really innovative and beautiful. And maybe it started to get repetitious after a while because it was just like everybody copying the same formula, but every now and then you’ve got these ones that kind of like broke out. But what was so great about it was, you’ve got these reprieves of character development throughout, and it wasn’t just like death scene to death scene to death scene. So I knew them for a while.

I knew we had a shared taste and they had called me kind of out of the blue. And they were like, “Hey, we have the financing to make a film. We want to do kind of a love letter to the ‘90s. We want it to be an ensemble piece and we’d love for it to be with music in some way.” Those were kind of the parameters. And then they just let me go play in this like sandbox of creativity to conceptualize the story.

Ashley: And how did you meet Brandon and Krystal?

Jacob: We met in the backyard at a barbecue back in 2015 and they were coming off producing a film with West Craven. And so that’s kind of how the conversation about ‘90s genre fare got started. And we just… it was just kind of like one of those, “Yeah, we have mutual interests.” And they’re great people.

Ashley: Got you. And how do you pitch yourself? I mean, obviously now, you have a lot of experience in this visual producing, but how do you convince people? On IMDb it looks like you had done one short where you had written and directed it. But how do you convince these folks? You meet them in a backyard barbecue, you just strike up a conversation. How do you convince them that you’re capable of taking all this money and turning it into something that’s actually worth doing?

Jacob: I think it’s passion. I honestly believe that like it’s no different than when you go pitch at a studio. If the passion is there, yes, you have to make sure you have the technical ability to do and perform the actual execution of making one of these movies. But I do believe that if you can convince somebody that you understand this world, that you understand how to create a character, how you… like the ability to speak to somebody’s psyche, it’s more important than trying to pitch some plot. A great example is when we were doing Guardians of the Galaxy. And we were looking, they did a big director search and we brought in all these different people and we heard their pitches and stuff. And when James Gunn came in, he was very casual, cup of coffee, and he’s like, I want to talk to you about the characters.

I want to talk to you about the guardians. And it’s like, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not trying to sell this huge fantasy that’s maybe disconnected or doesn’t all add up. It’s really if you can distill the story down, you can be passionate about it. And people just, it’s contagious. That’s how I think you can convince somebody. And you’re gonna get a lot of passes. Like I did probably 35 music videos besides that short film, to build a reel of content. But it’s like you… and you can show that, great. You know how to work with a cinematographer, you know this stuff. But it’s really I think how you talk to people and trying to appeal to their sense of storytelling as well and finding a mutual connection.

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So let’s dig into Dreamcatcher and the writing of the script. What is your writing process like? Do you typically write at home, do you have a home office? And when do you typically write? Are you a morning person, night person? What does your writing schedule look like?

Jacob: I love getting started in the morning. There’s just something about the energy of waking up and really wanting to dive into something and using the first couple of hours as an exploratory period. I don’t typically, unless it’s like a specific, like, “We need you to do a treatment.” I don’t typically do just like an outline or a treatment. I really just dive in. And I start writing scenes and trying to figure out the character voices. Once I’ve kinda got the voices of the characters down, I kind of backpedal and try to find out who they are that way, and then I go rework the scenes. Because I find in my own process that if I’m too locked in to an outline, or I’m too… I overthink the whole structure of the script.

So I think it is good to have a broad strokes understanding of plot mechanics, but as far as the actual narrative drive and kind of scene to scene, I like to explore it organically. And it can take a little longer, but I think the same time, what you end up with is something where it doesn’t feel contrived. It kind of feels in this world where it’s like, “No, it’s just got a good flow to it. And you’ve really taken the care and consideration in making sure that your characters feel flushed out, because I do believe you get a lot of notes like…

Ashley: You mentioned that you don’t do a lot of outlining, and then you go and you do a… you just start writing scenes and eventually it starts to form itself. How much of that early writing ends up in the final script? And I’m really just kind of curious to hear, like, what are those scenes in that dialogue? What are those actually like and how much do they ultimately pertain to it, or is that just sort of your process of working through the characters and the dialogue and that sort of stuff?

Jacob: I think it’s about half and half. I think that there’s, you know, there’s some… because the conversations are typically still about like plot points. It’s not kind of like a casual conversation. I try to weave in, here’s what I need to move the story forward. So I would say it’s probably a 50/50. Maybe 75/25 in certain… you know, it depends on the genre. Like in something that’s I don’t… if I’m writing a period piece, sure, it’s gonna take a little longer, ‘cause I got to make sure the syntax and all of that is right. But if it’s something that’s a little more modern and a little less high stakes, I think you can probably say about 50/50.

Ashley: Got you. And I’m curious, just in terms of your development process. It sounds like Brandon and Krystal, they showed up, they basically had financing in place, and then you start writing this draft. How did that development process work? Were there ever moments where maybe Brandon and Krystal had other ideas? And how do you work through those types of things, just when people have differences of opinion?

Jacob: It happens more I think in the actual execution of the film. There was a lot of questions in terms of like, “Well, why are we doing it this way, or why is this person standing here?” And on the screenplay level, it was a lot of trust, which to be honest, you don’t get a whole lot. Especially if you get more, you know, we were in a fortunate position we only had two producers and one exec. So I only had to really answer to three people. And typically in a bigger film or even like a bigger indie film, you answer to nine or 10 people, it becomes tough because everybody wants something different and you have to stick to your guns in terms of knowing the story, but where are you’re willing to make concessions, I do think it’s, you can’t go in knowing that the movie is gonna be exactly what it is in your head, because someone’s always gonna have an opinion.

And it might make the story better. But thankfully in Dreamcatcher, I wrote the first draft in nine days, and then we spent about a month and a half doing just punch ups and changes. But it was more of a collaborative environment. It was more like, because we had a shared taste and a mutual understanding of what we needed and wanted the story to be, it was kind of like the best idea wins. Where it’s like, “Hey, what if we tried it this way? Hey, what if we did this?” And to me that makes the rewrite process way more exciting and accessible, because you’re excited to dive back into the material. You don’t feel chained to it. You’re kind of like, yeah, let’s explore that. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s still a great exploratory period.

Ashley: Yeah. And that’s definitely the right attitude. How can people see Dreamcatcher? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?

Jacob: Yeah. So US and Canada is March 5th. That’s gonna be VOD. And I think Drive In some places. But it will be on every VOD platform. And I don’t know the international rollout plan, but yeah, March 5th for domestic.

Ashley: Got you. And what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll roundup for the show notes.

Jacob: Yeah. I have all of those things, but really the only thing I’m active on is Twitter. And that’s just Jake_squared.

Ashley: Perfect. Perfect. Yeah, we’ll put that in the show notes. Jacob, I really appreciate you coming on the show with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your feature films as well.

Jacob: Appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me.

Ashley: Thank you. Will talk to you later. Bye.

Jacob: Bye.

Ashley: A quick plug for the SYS Screenwriting Analysis Service. It’s a really economical way to get a high-quality professional evaluation on your screenplay. When you buy our three pack, you get evaluations at just $67 per script for feature films and just $55 for teleplays. All the readers have professional experience reading for studios, production companies, contests and agencies. You can read a short bio on each reader on our website and you can pick the reader who you think is the best fit for your script. Turnaround time is usually just a few days, but rarely more than a week. The readers will evaluate your script on six key factors- concept, character, structure and marketability, tone and overall craft, which includes formatting, spelling and grammar.

Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend, which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas, this is a great way to do it. We will also write your logline and synopsis for you. You can add this logline and synopsis writing service to an analysis or you can simply purchase this service as a standalone product. As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program.

Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service. This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.

On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing Ben Hozie, who just wrote and directed a film called Private Chat, spelled PVT Chat. It’s about a guy who becomes obsessed with a cam girl and then runs into her and meets her, and it’s that sort of a story. He’s a New York film maker and he comes on next week to tell us about his career, how he got into the business, worked his way up and now is making feature films. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show. Thank you for listening.