Not unlike the ordinary-guy protagonist in many an American comedy, Phil Johnston worked for nine years as a regional TV news and weatherman in the northern Midwest. “I didn’t know a fucking thing about the weather,” he admits.
After realizing his passion was “a different kind of storytelling,” Johnston applied to Columbia U.’s MFA film program and moved to New York in 2001. Through connections at the school and the success of his 22-minute thesis film “Flightless Birds,” Johnston met Eryn Brown at Industry Entertainment. “She was an early supporter and introduced me to this brave new world,” he says.
His earlier scripting efforts haven’t seen the light of day. He wrote “A Friggin’ Christmas Miracle,” for Imagine/Universal and believes it won’t be made. His first script, “Jeremy Orm Is a Pervert,” a Wisconsin-based comedy about a preacher’s kid who sells pornography and destroys his father’s career, was in pre-production for ThinkFilm, but that fell apart when the company collapsed. “It’s still absolutely something I want to do and direct myself,” he says.
He’s having better luck with his subsequent projects. Alexander Payne is Johnston producing “Cedar Rapids,” with Miguel Arteta directing and Ed Helms starring as a sheltered guy whose mind is opened when he visits the Iowa city. And his Comedy Central pilot “Ghost/Aliens,” based on Trey Hamburger’s supernatural comic novel, is moving forward.
Payne cites Johnston’s background as a local newsman as a key to his unique perspective: “He brings the same clinical sense of observation to the human heart as he did to state fairs, meth labs and fatal collisions,” Payne quips.
For Johnston, “The goal is to do comedies with characters that are not aware they are in a comedy,” he says. “And I think I’ve encountered enough weird people in my life that I can tell their stories.” For instance, he recalls a close relative who has a predilection for stealing meat from Walmart by putting it in his pants. “I draw a lot of inspiration from people like that who are flawed but lovable creatures,” he says.
Currently in the early stages of writing a comedy script “about a guy who ends up ruining his life by doing something stupid,” Johnston confesses, “I’m attracted to people who are a little misguided; probably somewhat (misguided) myself.”
HOMETOWN: Neenah, Wis.
INSPIRED BY: Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, Christopher Guest (for their “real affection for the American language and the people who inhabit their films”), the Maysles brothers’ documentaries, “The Far Side” comicstrip, David Letterman, Yasujiro Ozu and Federico Fellini
UP NEXT: An animated comedy feature for Disney in the Pixar mold, directed by Rich Moore (“The Simpsons”)
REPS: Agents: Jason Burns, Dan Erlij (UTA); manager: Eryn Brown (Industry); attorney: Andrew Hurwitz (Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz)