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David Leslie Johnson

10 Screenwriters to Watch

Most fledgling scribes find anything to keep the landlord away, churn out as many specs as possible, then hustle every industryite they can find in the hope of being taken seriously as a writer.

David Leslie Johnson decided on a more old-fashioned path: He apprenticed with a master, then diligently developed his craft until the boss felt it was time to help him transition. Johnson’s patience, discipline and humble approached paid off — after years answering calls and freshening up coffee cups, he’s now a go-to scribe for high-concept studio thriller assignments.

In 1993, Johnson was fresh out of the Ohio State U. film program when he heard that a pic called “The Shawshank Redemption” was about to start shooting in his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. He promptly moved back in with his parents and scored a job screening dailies for the film’s director, Frank Darabont. The two hit it off, and the following year, Darabont lured him out to Hollywood to be his assistant.

“My first break came from Frank, absolutely,” recalls Johnson. “For the first five years, I was constantly giving him scripts, all of which he read. “Then I (along with Brett Z. Hill) came up with a treatment based on a pulp novel series called ‘Doc Savage’ for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Frank decided to go to bat for me. He went to Castle Rock and basically said, ‘I vouch for this guy, and if he screws it up, I promise to fix it.’ ”

“Savage” ended up stalling in development, but the experience did score Johnson an agent and some admirers. A decade and a handful of unproduced assignments later, Johnson saw his first produced script, horror thriller “Orphan,” hit multiplexes this month.

And the work keeps on coming. It includes two projects for Vertigo Entertainment — an adaptation of Oz ghost story “Lake Mungu,” set up at Paramount, and Hitchcockian thriller “The Colony,” financed by Participant — plus a modern-day take on Little Red Riding Hood for Appian Way.

“What stands out about David, beyond just his great talent, is his professionalism and how collaborative he can be,” says Appian’s Jennifer Killoran, who’s developed two projects with Johnson. “He can take one of my simple concepts and transform it into something great. He’s one of the most imaginative writers who I have worked with, and the ideas that he comes up with are just unbelievable.”

AGE: 39

HOMETOWN: Mansfield, Ohio

INSPIRED BY: Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. “They represent my two passions: the blockbuster adventure movie and the horror novel,” he says. “‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Misery’ are two films that really hooked me into becoming a writer.”

UP NEXT: A second pass on Appian’s untitled Little Red Riding Hood update

REPS: Agent: Chris Smith (Paradigm); attorney: Howard Abramson (Behr Abramson)

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