The Bricks of Breaking In: 'Wreck-It Ralph's' Phil Johnston on Screenwriting as a Second Career
July 11, 2019
It can feel impossible to make the switch to screenwriting after you’ve established a career in another industry. Yet with hard work, focus and dedication, it can happen.
Just ask Phil Johnston.
Before writing the Disney movies we know so well (Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia and Ralph Breaks the Internet) Johnston worked as a journalist in local TV news. What motivated him to make the move?
“More and more I was covering crime and fires and talking to people about, ‘How do you feel now that your XYZ relative has had XYZ horrible thing happen to them?’”
Although he liked the job and his career was on the rise, covering stories like that started to wear on him.
“I was worried if I kept doing that, I was climbing the wrong ladder. Is being a network news reporter really what I want? It was sort of soul-searching; asking myself at almost 30, ‘What am I passionate about?’ It was an either-now-or-never kind of thing.”
So Johnston made the change, choosing Columbia in New York for his MFA. Film school played a pivotal role in launching his new career.
“I had a professor named Jerry Kass. His wife is Delia Ephron, who wrote a bunch of movies with her sister, Nora. I had a short film and a feature script I had written and Delia sent it to a manager. That’s really how I broke in. Not even a year after graduating from film school I had gotten a manager.”
From there, it took several years before Johnston got anything produced or made money as a writer.
The first work he sold was called Life is Super, a half-hour comedy for ABC about a woman from Wisconsin who had adopted several children and was doing a podcast about it.
“I was working with Joe and Anthony Russo, who had done Arrested Development. Now they’ve become these huge Marvel guys,” he said.
Still, the show never got made.
“It just went through development hell and into the toilet.”
Despite coming to screenwriting later in life, Johnston didn’t feel like age was a disadvantage for him.
“I think having had experience in the real world — in a job that’s full of pressure and deadline pressure and you meet weird people, both in the newsroom and in the real world — I think it actually helped me,” he said, adding he isn’t convinced entering the career earlier than he did would have been the right choice.
“For me, if I had come out here at 22 and worked up as a [production assistant] or writer’s assistant or something like that, I’m guessing I would be telling very different stories than the ones I’m telling now,” he said.
“I like the fact that I have sort of a different view on life and on the world.”
Still, breaking in came with plenty of internal challenges for Johnston.
“My biggest concern then was, ‘Am I ever going to get anything made?’ It’s like if a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around, kind of an existential thing. If I’m writing a script, but it doesn’t get made, am I really a writer?”
At this point in his career, Johnston acknowledges that was a faulty way of thinking; his perspective has changed.
“The advice I’d give to my younger self would be, ‘Be willing to listen to notes and know that you’re going to have to rewrite over and over again, but within your rewriting — and within the crappy notes you get — be sure you stay true to yourself.’”
According to Johnston, in his early years of writing, he would get angry and frustrated with notes he’d receive. That reaction, he said, hampered his progress.
“I’d just address them as they were prescribed and I would end up going down roads that were just junk and stuff that didn’t represent what I really wanted,” he said.
Though they were challenging, those experiences taught Johnston lessons.
“Just because someone gives a note and then gives a solution, you don’t have to listen to the solution. But if you hear a note a couple times, you should probably pay attention,” he said.
Johnston’s colleague, Rich Moore, compared this lesson to a light going off on the dash of a car; if that engine oil light goes off and it keeps flashing and you ignore it, at a certain point, that engine’s going to blow up.
Another great piece of advice Johnston got along the way was from Alexander Payne, who produced his first movie.
“He taught me the power of the word ‘no.’ Like, “Say no. Just don’t do it. Sometimes that’s going to get you in trouble, but more often than not, your convictions are going to get you where you need to be.””
Johnston has expanded on that advice with his own.
“If you really believe in something, you should stand up for it and if you don’t want to do something — I’m talking about projects that would feel like you’re compromising in some fundamental way — just don’t do it,” he said.
“It’s not going to be worth it.”
Standing by his passions and telling stories he believed in are what helped Johnston find his voice as a writer. Still, it took time and perseverance to get his career off the ground, even after his first few near-successes.
His first movie that anyone showed interest in was in the midst of casting and location scouting when the company financing it went bankrupt. What seemed like a dead end turned into a new opportunity when that script, Jeremy Orm Is A Pervert — a hard R comedy — found its way to the last place Johnston expected it to land.
“Someone at Disney had read it and they liked it,” he said.
“Not that it’s ever going to be a Disney animated film, but they liked the voice; that it had a point of view.”
It was this writing sample that got him a general meeting at Walt Disney Animation Studios and led Johnston to meet Rich Moore, who he has now made three movies with.
“We hit it off right way,” Johnston said.
“He had come from The Simpsons so he had a similar sort of skewed sense of humor that’s not typical of Disney. We wanted to do something that wasn’t typical of what Disney does. They embraced that. They wanted that, too.”
Finding out what kind of stories drive his writing was a process for Johnston, and so too, he said, will it be for writers who are up-and-coming now. For them, he offers this advice:
“Writers just starting out often make the mistake of trying to write a big spec script, like a big science fiction epic. Even Disney doesn’t look for big animated spec scripts when they’re finding writers; they’re looking for voices.”
He encourages new writers to tell personal stories that represent their point of view.
“Time and again I would just encourage people to tell a personal story that has real emotion and real heart behind it,” he said.
“The unvarnished sort of raw version of it sells them as a human being and a writer and a point of view, [it’s] not [about] selling a product.”
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a television and documentary writer and producer. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary The Jewel In The Woods. A Sundance Fellow and winner of Scriptapalooza TV, Kelly Jo has been a panelist at the Austin Film Festival, Wisconsin Writers’ Institute and for Stage 32. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.