November 7, 2006

Creating a Cult Classic

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Daze: How did you go from writing blurbs for Cornell Cinema to writing the “cult hit of the summer?”
John: I always wanted to do something in film, which is why I worked at Cornell Cinema. I bought this big, blue child molester van with no windows from my neighbor for about $1200 and drove across country to California — it took about three months to get there. I had 500 bucks in my pocket, which was enough to move into this hotel in Little Moscow in Hollywood. I got a job teching, which led to a job working at USC as a production coordinator for about three years. From there, I got another job working as an assistant at DreamWorks, and one of my bosses then was a producer named Craig Berenson — he read some scripts of mine and really liked them. He had actually read a script five years before in which one of the subplots was about some snakes that got loose on an airplane. The script wasn’t really that good but I said (to Craig), “What if we make the whole movie about snakes on a plane?” and he said, “yeah, okay” so we pitched it around, developed the story line and finally we sold it as a pitch to MTV Films, which had a production deal with Paramount. Just when we were about to get green-lit to go into production, September 11th happened and that was devastating for so many larger reasons than just the movie. When I saw it on the news, I wasn’t even thinking about the negative effects it would have on the movie, which of course it did. Paramount put the film to turn around, which meant that they weren’t going to do anything with the script. Luckily, one of the executives who was working on the film, Don Granger, left Paramount to become a producer and co-president of Mutual Films — he bought the rights, asked me to do a few rewrites and we sold it to New Line. After that, everything started happening really fast.
Daze: Did you always know you had this passion for film?
John: First and foremost, I’m a writer more than anything — I was an English major here at Cornell — but something about the movie industry always intrigued me. In high school, I was one of those kids who was always watching independent movies and weird foreign films. At Cornell, I took some film classes, got involved at Cornell Cinema and that really fueled my desire to work in the film industry.
Daze: How do you feel about creating a movie that’s been labeled by mainstream media as being “So terrible, it’s fantastic?”
John: (Laughs) Well, they say any publicity is good publicity so I don’t really mind it. I think there was a lot of that sort of feeling before the movie was released because all people had to go by was the title. There was a lot of internet hype, but Newline didn’t release any trailers until pretty late in the process. Once the movie was released, one thing that surprised us was that the reviews tended to be really favorable. Even publications that I didn’t think we would get any positive feedback from — The New Yorker, The Village Voice — were actually giving us three and a half stars. So, I think all those people who thought that the movie was going to be “so bad, it’s good” were proven wrong.
Daze: How do you feel about the world of Hollywood in terms of fostering new ideas?
John: First and foremost, Hollywood is a business — always has been and always will be. I think now we’re in a period where it’s much more commercial. In fact, all of the studios have been bought out by corporations and amalgamated with television. You have a company like Universal Studios which is owned by NBC which is owned by GE and they’re making movies. The business has become much more corporate, and corporate people are not risk takers. If they make Deuce Bigolow Five and make a profit, they’re gonna do that instead of taking a chance on a movie that could become the next Napoleon Dynamite.
Daze: What advice would you give to Conellians interested in getting into the entertainment industry?
John: Well, the first thing I’d say is to think long and hard about it because it is very very hard to get into, almost impossible. I’m incredibly lucky and fortunate that I was able to become a professional writer and get a script sold so early in my career. If you really have a story to tell, try it, but have a backup plan. Unfortunately, there’s not really one path to success — believe me, just going to film school does not guarantee anything creatively. Every waiter in Hollywood has a script he’s trying to sell.