Phil Johnston’s screenplay for CEDAR RAPIDS was selected for the 2009 The Black List and went on to debut at Sundance with an ensemble cast featuring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Sigourney Weaver.
The WGAE spoke with Phil about GRIMSBY and ZOOTOPIA, his writing process and A Confederacy of Dunces…
How did you break into the industry as a writer?
I went to the University of Wisconsin and studied journalism. I was a TV news reporter for 8 or 9 years all over the Midwest: Omaha, Des Moines, Rochester, and Minneapolis. Before I turned 30, I started wondering if that was really what I wanted to do. I loved telling stories and I loved meeting different people, but the idea of TV news was becoming less appealing to me, for maybe obvious reasons.
I was sitting on my couch one night in Minneapolis and realized – almost like a bolt of lightning – I’ve always loved film. My wife and I brainstormed and she said, “Why don’t you go to film school and quit news?” So I did, at 29-years-old. I went to Columbia’s MFA program in New York and that was how I got into screenwriting and directing.
What was the first union-covered project?
The first thing I sold that probably got me into the union was a TV show that never got made called LIFE IS SUPER. The first thing that actually got made was CEDAR RAPIDS. I think I’ve had a career like a lot of people where you sell things: sell pitches, write movies, write TV shows – I did three or four before anything actually got made. I’ve now had a string of things over the last few years where a lot of what I’m writing is getting made. The existential battle is at least partially over when you write things and it actually gets made.
You have two films coming out this month – The first one is ZOOTOPIA, which is actually your second major animated film.
Honestly, writing for animation is no different than writing for live action, except you can expect to rewrite the movie hundreds of times. Over the period of years – at Disney and Pixar anyway – you go through a process of remaking the movies as they are drawn with a storyboard initially. You can test out your story and your characters many, many, many times before you put out the final product, actually before you even start animating. It’s a luxury in that you get to test things out and see how characters are bouncing off each other, see if the story is tracking and resonating. It’s a great luxury and it’s also hugely frustrating – you can imagine – because you’re rewriting so many times.
As we all know writing is rewriting, but when you do it so many times it’s sometimes easy to lose focus on what the original idea or what the things that attracted you to the material in the first place were You’re working with story artists, animators, and so on. In that regard, it’s probably a little bit more like television in that you have what amounts to a writer’s room, but with story artists who are interpreting the words and the images and acting as the first directors of the film in some ways.
I came on to ZOOTOPIA pretty late in the process, when the story was undergoing a fundamental shift. I worked very hard to make sure the film’s tone and themes were pushed far enough for adults to enjoy, but not so far as to make it inaccessible to kids. In the scheme of things, I came on pretty late in the game, but we did a lot of work which was done over a fairly short period of time, and was very aggressive and stressful.
Were you working on ZOOTOPIA at the same time you were working on the other film coming out this month, THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY?
You could not have two more radically different movies. One is for my parents and kids to see and one is for my dirty-minded friends. I’ve been on GRIMSBY for a lot longer. I don’t think WRECK-IT RALPH had even come out when I pitched Sacha Baron Cohen the idea. We started working on it probably in 2012. It took a long time to get up and going. The early drafts written – I think it started shooting in 2014 – so it was a very long period of post-production and re-shoots. This sentence doesn’t make sense to me. I was involved with it toward the end, but not nearly as intimately as I was in the beginning.
I was able to go off and do ZOOTOPIA while GRIMSBY was being cut. I was involved but the heavy lifting on my part was done by then.
What was the writing process on THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY?
Technically, Sacha, Peter Baynham, and I are considered the team on GRIMSBY. We worked together. I did the early drafts with Sacha. Then Peter came on. In that process, there were a bunch of other people, too. Anthony Hines was there a lot of the time, he’s a producer on the film, but did a lot of on-set writing, helping the improv and stuff like that. There are a lot of other people who contributed, people like Adam McKay were there a lot. There are a ton of people who contribute jokes and ideas to Sacha’s process.
Ultimately it was me, Peter, and Sacha who were called the “team,” but I think that’s minimizing the contributions of a lot of other people, including the improvisers who are paid actors who are also there improvising on set.
These are two films that both had big teams working on getting the scripts together.
It’s hugely challenging, but it depends entirely on the team of collaborators you’re working with – and depending on what your role is. Obviously with Sacha’s movie, he’s the ultimate decider. You’re kind of working as best as you can to satisfy what he wants, and that’s not to take away from my role or anyone else’s, but you’re working for a very singular individual there.
On the Disney films, the thing I always try to keep in mind is “What would the characters actually do?” “Who are my characters?” “What do they want?” “Would they behave this way?” “Are we letting the story dictate how the characters behave or going at it the other way?”
That is how I prefer to do it. Where a character in my mind becomes a real human being, even if it’s an animated animal. It becomes a real human being, whose emotions and feelings I understand, and therefore I’m not letting the story tell me how they behave. The way they react is going to influence how this story goes. I try to always keep that in mind. You know what the characters want, what they need, what’s in their way, how it’s going to impact them.
Later in the process I think a lot more about theme and I challenge the people I’m working with. Sometimes I get a little nasty about it. There can be a lot of arguments and a lot of heads bonking together.
Ultimately the movie is going to tell you what it needs to be as long as you keep asking those questions. “What does the character want?” “What is the theme of the film?” “Are we servicing the movie or are we servicing a joke?” “Are we servicing a plot point?”
I always will fight to keep it on-point, I guess. I think that’s an important thing for people in any room to do, without becoming a dick. You want to know at all times what the movie is about, and if you’re all on the same page with that, it’s going to be a much more harmonious collaboration.
Are there a scenes from ZOOTOPIA or GRIMSBY that you felt you really translated from the page to the screen?
In GRIMSBY, there’s a particularly repellent scene that unfortunately I have to cop to. It was in there from the very early pitches too – and I had a friend of mine storyboard it. You’ll know the scene I’m talking about when you see the movie. It actually turned out as well or better than I ever could have imagined. I hate to admit it, but that’s true.
In ZOOTOPIA, there are a couple of scenes that I didn’t have anything to do with – that were already done when I came on – like the scene with the sloths in the DMV. It’s such a perfectly executed scene.
As far as the scene that I wrote in ZOOTOPIA, the emotion that plays in it is some of the stuff I’m most proud of. Nick the fox, played by Jason Bateman, has a backstory that shows the emotion of his character in a way that is both organic to the story and fairly subtle. I think it explains the psychology of this character in a way that really resonates. I’m very proud of that one. I think it translates very nicely on screen as well. It’s not the sexiest scene in the movie by any means, but it has some emotional resonance.
What is your writing process? What kind of environment do you like to be in when you write?
I have an office at home. I usually get up at about 6:30 and hang out with my two kids and wife for a while in the morning, make lunch, take one of the kids to school. I’ll start writing at 8:30 or 9. I write standing up in the morning. I usually will sit down around 2:30. I sort of make myself stay in the office from 8:30 or 9 until 5:30 or 6. There’s a lot of wasting time on the Internet during the day. I’ll shut off email and Internet a lot of the time and then give myself a break every couple of hours. I’ll go for walks in the middle of the day. I have a little trampoline in the backyard I’ll go jump on. That kind of thing.
One of the big differences about L.A. versus New York – and I miss a lot about New York – is simply that I don’t see people that much on the street here. I will sometimes go and write in a coffee shop with headphones on just so I can experience humanity.
When you’re putting together a script, do you have a certain methodology that you like to work within?
Initially on a feature, I’ll break it into eight sequences. It’s a method I learned at Columbia from a teacher, Malia Scotch Marmo, who wrote HOOK and some other great movies. Frank Daniel, who started Columbia’s film program, is one of the early adopters of it. You break the movie into eight sequences. The first act has two sequences, the second act four, and the third act two. It’s really just a nice organizing principle so you have signposts.
I suppose it’s a structure like – I’ve not read McKee or Syd Field – but it’s probably a similar breakdown of the three-act structure. It’s good for me to have that kind of loose outline before I dive in. With an animated Disney film, we have to pitch the movie so many times that it has to be much more precise than an outline for an original screenplay. If I’m working on something – like I’m writing a spec that I’m going to direct right now – I’ll allow myself more leeway and sort of dance within the lines a little bit more than having such a rigid outline. For a studio film with a three-act structure, the eight sequences is how I approach it.
Do you write differently when you’re working on a film knowing you plan on directing it?
I always write as if I were directing, because the intention was always to be a writer/ director. I had a script out of film school called JEREMY ORM IS A PERVERT. It was setup at Think Film, before they went out of business, that I was going to direct. It was sort of a weird left turn that I ended up becoming a writer for studio movies that I wouldn’t have imagined in a thousand years. I thought I was going to be doing smaller indie features, writing and directing. Alexander Payne is a hero. The Coen brothers and Todd Solondz. That was the model I thought I would be following. I think the goal now is to have my feet in both worlds. In the next year or two, I intend to be writing and directing my own stuff.
You were asked to write what is probably one of Hollywood’s greatest “lost” projects, the film adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.
I think it is going to get made. I do. The experience on it was extraordinary. I guess even if it doesn’t get made it’s good to put on my tombstone that I tried, along with a lot of other interesting people.
I was working on it for Scott Rudin, who is so good at making me a better and a smarter writer. The way I initially approached it was that I transcribed the entire book into Final Draft so I could learn the rhythms of Toole’s writing style. I had a 551 page Final Draft script – a transcript of the book, basically. From that then I just winnowed it down to the bits that I thought would be relevant to the plot that I needed from the book. Then I threw all that out and started from scratch, using pieces of the book and biographical things from John Kennedy Toole’s life, working those into the Ignatius-Irene relationship.
If nothing else, it made me a much better writer and I’m extraordinarily proud of the script that exists.
Again, whether it gets made or not, I don’t know. I hope it gets made.
What are you watching or reading that you would recommend to people?
I’m just catching up on the books I was supposed to read last year, so I’m reading City on Fire right now. I just finished Purity, both of which I like. I’m watching BETTER CALL SAUL, which has such great, subtle writing. The pacing of it is so fantastically different than anything else on TV. I love that show. I’m trying to watch Lubitsch and a lot of Billy Wilder because I’m thinking about what I’m directing. I have a good mix of old and new. What’s great about MAKING A MURDERER – the town I come from is like 30 miles from where that took place. It made me weirdly nostalgic for Wisconsin. So sort of a wide variety of things.
Can you share a specific line or piece of dialogue that you wrote that you personally love and why?
It may not be my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but it’s fresh in my mind. It’s something from ZOOTOPIA. It’s the main character, the bunny Judy Hopps wants to be the first bunny cop ever in the history of this city, Zootopia. Her dad has a line that says, “It’s okay to have dreams, honey, just as long as you don’t believe in them too much.
I like that because it’s such a horrible thing for a parent to say. It speaks to how much he really loves his daughter, but is afraid for her and is trying to protect her. He doesn’t know how to articulate that in a way that actually makes sense. It informs her character, who she is – a young rabbit – and tells you every obstacle that is in her way: that she’s never done this before, no one really wants her to do it, her parents – while supportive – are also deeply negative about it. It’s also pretty funny. I like it because it’s a funny character piece. As a kid who came from the Midwest, I can relate to that kind of passive-aggressive thing that someone might say to you.