About Craig Johnson
Craig Johnson is an award-winning writer/director best known for 2014’s The Skeletons Twins, starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. His latest project, Alex Strangelove is a Netflix original movie, available now. Lunacy’s own Stu Pollard recently sat down with Johnson to discuss the director’s early career and his first two films: True Adolescents, which Pollard co-produced, and The Skeleton Twins, for which Craig won a Sundance screenwriting award.
Stu Pollard: Give us the condensed version of what first led you into filmmaking.
Craig Johnson: I was a theater kid in Bellingham, Washington. And I did a lot of fringe theater in and around Seattle, and then eventually had what I call my “mid-twenties crisis” and was like: I’m tired of this, I want to do film.
So I applied to film schools and ended up going to NYU for Grad school. And during that three year program, I made a bunch of short films, worked on innumerable short films of my peers and wrote a lot of screenplays. I could always write. Which is good, because my short films were not great.
Then I became friends with this guy named Mark Heyman who is still one of my best friends to this day. He went on to write the movie Black Swan, he developed a television show called Strange Angel that is currently on CBS all access. But before he did that we were just friends in grad school and we’re like, let’s try to write a screenplay together.
The first thing we wrote was a big, broad, silly sort of Will Ferrell-style comedy. We had so much fun doing that, but at the end of the day it’s this huge $30 million studio comedy. We don’t know the first thing about getting something like this made, so let’s write something that is a little more down to earth, smaller in scope, and a little more reflective of the kind of movies that we really loved.
Which were, for lack of a better word, these bittersweet comedy-dramas by Noah Baumbach like The Squid and the Whale. Or there was a movie by Miranda July called Me and You and Everyone We Know, which is a wonderful little movie.
And so we sat down and threw out ideas from our own lives, ideas that were interesting to us, and Mark started telling a story about how when he was in high school there was a student-teacher relationship that went down with this really cool math teacher and a female student who was a senior at the time. Word got out and the guy was fired. The interesting thing for Mark as a teenager was that this teacher was so beloved and the student wasn’t as much. She was only 17. It was an underage student and a teacher. This is a very black and white situation. But the complicated gray area was the fact that this student was thought of as manipulative and Machiavellian, and was in many respects not as well-liked as the teacher.
That resulted in the core of a story about a student who is now grown, going back to his small town after a suicide attempt, to reconnect with his teacher who he had an affair with in high school.
In our first draft, the main character had a twin sister, but it was very secondary. And we found as we were developing and writing drafts that we loved this brother-sister relationship. We realized that’s what the story should actually be about, and the student-teacher relationship, which was the impetus for the whole movie, fell into the backstory. And that became The Skeleton Twins.
SP: You want to tell the story about submitting to Sundance?
CJ: Yeah, so, we wrote what we thought was a pretty damn good screenplay, and we were obsessed with getting into the Sundance Writers Lab.
And to any screenwriters, you should also be interested in in the Sundance Writers Lab. It’s a wonderful and very, very hard-to-get-into lab that goes on twice a year, and if you are selected, you get to go up to Robert Redford’s Sundance Ranch for this two-week long lab with other collaborators where you develop your screenplay and then they will help connect you into the industry. It’s a wonderful thing.
So we submitted, and we did not get in. However, there was a very nice email that said “We really liked a lot of the screenplay. We encourage you to rewrite it and resubmit it.”
So we did; we spent, like six months and we really retooled it and we resubmitted… and did not get in again.
But they still sent us a nice note that there are still a lot of things they like about the screenplay. Which we took to mean they want us to submit again.
So we took another six months and actually did a real overhaul on it and really thought about what wasn’t working and got it into really legit shape. And we submitted a third time. Third time’s a charm, right?
But we did not get in again! And this time the email said, “Please, you do not need to resubmit this ever again. Anymore.” Politely.
Well, we were crushed. We were devastated.
The happy ending of the story is when we finally made the movie and premiered it at the Sundance Film Festival, it won the screenwriting award at the festival. So that’s a little sneak preview to the happy ending of why you should never give up on your dreams. But there were about three or four years in between that.
SP: So how did that lead you to True Adolescents?
CJ: At that time I just put that screenplay in a drawer and I was like, “Well shit, now I’m graduating from grad school, I have to make a thesis film.” I didn’t have any really great short film ideas, short films are really hard to do. They’re a strange format we were not used to. Most of us didn’t grow up watching a lot of short films.
So I was kind of obsessed with doing a feature film for my thesis. I didn’t have a screenplay, but I had an idea. And I knew that there was a screenplay reading offered by NYU. This was the summer and the first slot would be in September. So I called up the dean of the school and I said, “Book me for that first slot,” which was something like a month away. And I told him, “Invite people because I’m going to have a great screenplay ready to go.”
And I mean, I had nothing. I had the idea. So I was like, “All right, I’ve got a month, better write a screenplay.” The idea I had was something that I figured was small enough that we could conceivably make it. So I wrote a story about this Pacific Northwest rocker dude whose life falls apart and he moves in with his aunt in the suburbs. But then she ropes him into taking her 14-year-old son and this kid’s best friend on a hiking trip. But this dude’s a self-centered loser, and he should not be in charge of unruly teenagers — they get lost in the woods, and he has to man-up and be responsible.
That big idea became True Adolescents. I wrote it in a month, and we did the reading and it went over really pretty well! The dean of NYU hooked me up with a student who was graduating from the producing program at NYU, a guy named Tom Woodrow who really liked the screenplay. We didn’t have any money but we said: we have eight months, let’s just tell people we’re making this thing in eight months.
This was right at the time that the Mumblecore film movement was just kicking off. Mumblecore is really lo-fi — it was basically prompted by digital filmmaking and this idea that you could make a feature film for $25,000 if you just had interesting actors. Directors, like the Duplass brothers, and Andrew Buljalski, and Joe Swanberg — all of whom have spiraled off to do really interesting things — were all part of this movement.
So I thought, “Well, we could do this Mumblecore style, make it for like $50,000, but that would require a lot of re-tinkering.” Ideally our optimum budget was half a million. So Tom said, “We have eight months, let’s just start knocking on doors,” which is what we did essentially. And we started cobbling money together from all the strange places that you get money to make your first film… my producer’s uncle who knew a guy that loves movies and has a lot of money. A production company here and there.
One of the fellows we found was Stu Pollard, who took a liking to Tom and to the script and said, “I want to be helpful in any way I can.” And ended up being immensely helpful and was with us and co-produced the whole production. We ended up getting about half a million to make it and shoot it. Oh my God. I can’t believe that’s 12 years ago.
SP: Yeah, ‘06. ‘07.
CJ: Amazing. I couldn’t believe that this was my thesis film for film school. It took a long time in post, because of stupid things like we didn’t get any B-roll and it was a road trip movie set in summer. So we literally had to shut the edit down and wait for six months so that the leaves could grow back on the trees in the Northwest and we could go and shoot.
There’s a little lesson learned for doing your feature: for a road trip you need to get scenes like trees going past the windows, because you need stuff to cut to when you’re making your movie.
SP: That movie has a crazy family tree. You’re talking about the Mumblecore guys, but also they just did a retrospective on Lynn Shelton at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, and she was your still photographer.
CJ: Yes, Lynn Shelton who is a huge filmmaker, was our onset photographer. The movie stars Mark Duplass. Currently he and his brother Jay Duplass, they are producers extraordinaire. Now they have a show on HBO called Room 104. Melissa Leo (The Fighter) was in it, shortly before she won a bunch of Oscars.
SP: The gaffer was Sean Porter.
CJ: Sean Porter is an incredible cinematographer now. He just shot Green Book.
SP: He’s had an insane career, and he was a gaffer on this little tiny movie.
CJ: I know. So True Adolescents carved out its own little niche. It premiered at South by Southwest and eventually — it took awhile — but eventually got a small distribution deal, it was a critic’s pick in the New York Times. I got a manager and agent out of the deal and it really started my career.
So I made my first movie, and I think we feel that once we make our first feature, then the red carpet gets rolled out to make our second one. And that’s not so much the case. It’s still a battle. Not only because your ambition gets a little bigger and your goalposts move, but it’s just frickin’ hard to make movies!
So after we made True Adolescents, I was like: The Skeleton Twins. It’s time. So I dig up that script that’s now been sitting in a drawer for two years, and it was like reading it for the first time. I was like, this is not half bad.
I gave it to Mark Duplass, and he and his brother liked it and said, “Listen, we’ll step on as executive producers and and try to help you get this thing made. And we think the way to do that is by hiring really cool actors. So that means getting a casting director.”
So the origin story of getting The Skeleton Twins made and getting Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig involved, was hiring our casting director named Avy Kaufman, who we got through Mark.
Independent films basically get made one of two ways. Either they are financed by people who believe in you as a filmmaker, or they’re going to fund it because of the actors involved. That tends to be movies with movie stars, usually a director’s second or third feature. It’s hard to get access to the kind of casting directors who will cast meaningful actors.
We had other actors attached to The Skeleton Twins. We had a different cast at a certain point and were financed three separate times. It even fell apart three separate times. But my requirement for casting was — because we knew it was a bittersweet movie and there was dark stuff in it — I wanted comedic actors. I just thought that the material was dark enough that it needed little bursts of light and it needed little comedic moments in it so that we didn’t have just a dirge of a movie about two depressed people.
My inspiration behind it was my feeling about my friends and family members who have struggled with depression. These are smart, lively people who have great senses of humor and, yeah, maybe they can fall into a pit sometimes. And I wanted to see a movie that reflected that; the struggles with life, and that depression doesn’t mean you’re always depressed. It doesn’t mean you’re a bummed-out person.
Once we got the actors, we were able to get the financing pretty quick, especially Kristen Wiig who just came off of Bridesmaids. So she brought the financing, but the movie was very inexpensive.
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins.
SP: Do you think the fact that you were offering comedic actors more dramatic roles, that it made your pitch more compelling? The chance for them to show their range?
CJ: 100%, yeah. If you’re looking for actors, offer them something that they are not known for doing. Because there’s a good chance they’ll want to do it. That was the case with both Bill and Kristen, who were both on Saturday Night Live, and known as comedic actors. Bill in particular, had never done anything dramatic. I mean, prior to Barry on HBO, he’d only been known as the guy that did impressions on Saturday Night Live.
And to be honest, my casting director suggested Bill Hader and I was like, “I don’t know. Bill is really funny on SNL, but can he do this kind of subtle thing?” So I remember I had a beer with Bill in the East Village in New York. We spent two hours just talking about our lives. And I realized, I hadn’t even heard his actual speaking voice. I’d only heard him do characters and he was just soft spoken and real sweet, a little nerdy. I was like, “Oh my God, this is exactly the character of Milo.”
SP: What was your distribution plan for The Skeleton Twins? And how did that change when you got the lead actors attached?
CJ: Every movie has its own drunken treasure map of a distribution story. Some are nightmares, and some are fairy tales. The Skeleton Twins for me was a fairytale because we premiered at Sundance, and it was a hit — a critical hit as well as an audience hit.
SP: Did you always plan to submit to Sundance?
CJ: We did. We knew we weren’t even going to apply for Sundance until the following year. It was great, because a lot of times when you shoot a movie and the obsession and goal is Sundance, often you’re rushing to finish that cut. If you can at all avoid rushing a cut, do it. You never want that feeling of, “Maybe the movie would have had a chance if only…” And if you don’t get into Sundance, which most movies don’t, you don’t want that reason to be because you rushed your cut.
So yeah, the nice thing is that we had all the time in the world. We finished it and got our final cut submitted, and it was chosen. It was the biggest sale at Sundance that year actually, it was bought by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, who partnered for a distribution plan. So that was a fairytale scenario. That has never happened to me since.
What’s more likely to happen, is more what happened with True Adolescents; we premiered at South by Southwest, which is a great film festival, and people liked the movie. But it was 2009, which was when the economy had fallen apart and so I think we hit a really bleak time. And the movie was just too small for a lot of the major distributors. So that was tough. This was before the years of Netflix, so it wasn’t … Streaming wasn’t even a word yet, it was “straight to DVD.” Are we going straight to DVD? So it was really hard to find distribution. Really, really hard.
Most movies will often now do a day and date release. So don’t be frightened of any distribution deal like that. In some ways maybe even the landscape is a little better now because there are so many more opportunities for streaming than there were in 2009.
The world of filmmaking has shifted in the last six months. And it’s not that people are going to stop making movies, and that people are not interested in seeing stories in a two-hour format right now, it’s just that what goes into theaters is changing. You’re just going to be seeing a lot more superhero, animated, horror. That’s the only thing in theaters. And maybe five or six indies that are Oscar bait per year.
You’re going to see a lot more Netflix Originals, Amazon Originals, HBO Originals. The stigma is totally gone. My last film was a Netflix Original, and it did extremely well, and probably more people have seen that little high school movie which has no movie stars in it, than all my other movies combined by millions.
I like to think optimistically that everything’s just merging. The production values you used to only see in movies, you’re seeing in TV now. TV shows look and feel like movies — they started doing that around The Sopranos and that was now 20 years ago. The era of making your indie film, premiering at Sundance, and getting a big theatrical release… it can still happen. Sundance is still vital, and movies can still sell for a lot of money out of there, but the biggest sale last year at Sundance was a movie called Late Night. Which recently came out in theaters, and I’m not so sure how many people paid to go see it there.
Why? Because our TVs look frickin’ great and that movie’s going to be out in a week, so why would I pay my $13 and get a babysitter and pay for parking… I’d do that for The Avengers, but I don’t know about Late Night, even though it’s supposed to be a good movie.
SP: It might be relevant to talk about your experience between those first two movies, and how you were making a living while trying to get The Skeleton Twins into production.
CJ: Sure. That took four years, and I was day jobbing, and I had no money, and I was editing wedding videos, and teaching filmmaking to high school kids in the summer, and doing everything I can. Day jobs don’t go away for a long time, so be prepared for that.
I worked as a producer for an MTV show called Made. I did a little online branded content, commercials, short films — piecemeal work. I made sure it didn’t take up all my time and pull from my soul. I was living in New York at the time, barely able to make rent, but I continued to write scripts.
After my first movie I got an agent and a manager, and started coming out to LA for meetings. At first it didn’t feel like anything was happening. I was kind of miserable. Then one day my manager told me about 20th Century Fox’s In-House Writers Studio. They hire 12 writers for a year contract, so you move to LA and work on the Fox lot. I submitted, they loved my first movie and my script samples, and they hired me. I couldn’t believe it. It was a weekly paycheck! Plus I got into the Writer’s Guild.
So, that was my job for a year. I ended up writing two scripts for 20th Century Fox, neither of which were made. I don’t think they ever will make them, but it was a wonderful big break. It was my first foot in the door of the studio film world.
SP: The part that I think speaks to your ethic and your drive is that you weren’t an overnight success. You had to make time to write every day, you knew this was what you were put on the planet to do. And even in those moments where you got discouraged, you kept doing it.
CJ: Well, yeah. Here’s this little piece of advice: if you have a little bit of talent — you don’t even need a lot — if you have a little bit of talent and you work your ass off, it will happen. But it’ll take longer than you think. Maybe 10 years longer. But it will happen. I do believe that.
I do believe that, because there’s plenty of people who have successful careers who only have a little bit of talent; we’ve all seen them. We all have our opinions about them. But they worked their asses off, and they didn’t give up, and it took them 10 years, 15 years before it happened. You can have a whole other life doing something, and then find your true calling.
You’re seeing all these actors, a lot of actresses, become these incredible directors. Greta Gerwig, Olivia Wilde. I’m fascinated by Jordan Peele’s trajectory, doing this incredible sketch comedy, silly, goofy shit, for years and years, making a great living, and then making some of the greatest, most socially relevant and fucking awesome movies that we’ve seen… that do gangbusters in the theater! He’s unparalleled right now, I think, as a filmmaker, and as a creator. I’d like to think that he always wanted to make Get Out and just did 15 years in a day job as a comedy guy.
SP: How did you find that energy to keep writing, keep creating while day jobbing in between movies.
CJ: That’s a really good question. I learned I can’t write after working eight hours, because I am just drained. So I would get up and try to write two hours before work. I wrote my screenplay Alex Strangelove during that period, which eventually we made into a movie. I wrote another screenplay, that has not yet been made, I don’t know if it ever will… I did both those movies simultaneously. Like one day I would write one, one day I would write the other.
I would love to have been doing more projects, and I do believe that you need to be spinning five, six, seven, eight different projects. But, you can only do so much. You’re only human, so go easy on yourself. But we can all get up an hour or two earlier and just sit down and write something. You’ll feel like you accomplished something, and you haven’t even left for work yet.
Keep an eye out for part two of this interview, where we’ll share some of Craig’s insights on directing, as well as more production stories from True Adolescents and The Skeleton Twins.