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The hallway on the sixth floor of the G. Homer Durham Language and Literature building looks more like a movie theater than a place of academia. The walls are lined with posters that run the gamut of cinematic achievement, from blockbusters like “Jaws” and “Scarface” to lesser-known indies like “City of God.”
It must make Justin Winters feel right at home. The newly minted faculty associate in ASU’s film and media studies program only recently put down permanent roots in the Valley. Before that, he was commuting between his home in Phoenix and an apartment in Los Angeles, where he has spent more than a decade establishing a career in the entertainment industry. During that time, he worked with such notables as “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer of the megahit “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Stuart Beattie.
Now, he’s sharing that invaluable experience with students at ASU, all while continuing to make a name for himself in the business. This summer, Winter’s first film, “ Killing Winston Jones ” will make its debut in theaters. Starring Richard Dreyfuss as a retired gym teacher hell-bent on leaving a legacy, it’s drawing comparisons to Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and Winter couldn’t be more pleased.
“[Wes Anderson] and his work have always been an inspiration,” said the screenwriter and producer.
Winter also has plenty in the works for TV, including a show he recently sold to Comedy Central, and even a podcast — although he maintains his true wheelhouse is drama and dark comedies. Later this semester, he’ll be bringing out the director of his upcoming film and star of such films as “Dodgeball” and “Avatar,” Joel David Moore, for a Q&A session with his students.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is keep these students excited about the craft and what they’re studying. So I’m trying to bring a lot of people from the industry here for my classes,” said Winters.
ASU Now sat down with Winters — one of those “industry folks” himself — for a Q&A.
Question: When did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
Answer: I’ve always been a writer. And it’s kind of been in my family. No one in my family has ever pursued it [professionally] but they’ve always written. I was just the first one either dumb enough or crazy enough to pursue it.
Q: The entertainment industry is notoriously tough to break into. How did you get your start?
A: One of my first jobs in LA was as a paid audience member. You get paid to clap. I literally had to go sit in “Jeopardy” and this terrible Donny Osmond show for hours and just clap for minimum wage, because I was just trying to find anything to put food on the table. Later, I worked at a literary agency, Innovative Artists, representing writers and directors. When they had a script that they wanted to shop or potentially try to sell, I would read it and give them notes about what we could revise in order to make it market ready. I was reading 10-15 scripts a week, at least. It was a great way to keep that creativity going but also understand the business side of it.
Q: What was the most difficult aspect of the job?
A: There’s a character in “Entourage,” Ari Gold, who’s played by Jeremy Piven. And he’s kind of this egomaniac who gets what he wants, and works as hard as he can to get his clients work. And it’s very much like that; it’s like a fraternity, it’s grueling. There are agents who are literally, physically and mentally abusive on a daily basis. I mean, I’ve had scripts thrown at me, staplers thrown at me … I think I grinded half of my teeth away [at that time].
Q: At what point did you decide “I’m done with this”?
A: I spent quite a bit of time at Innovative Artists. I was going to leave to start writing full-time, but some friends of mine had gone to a place called Creative Artists Agency, which is arguably one of the bigger agencies in the world in the entertainment industry. So I went there and started working with Joel Lubin, who represented, for example, Brad Pitt and Tim Robbins. I was there for a limited amount of time only because it wasn’t the side [of the industry] that I wanted to be on, but I did make amazing connections.
Finally, when I kind of burnt out, I decided I was just going to dive headfirst into screenwriting and try to make a living out of it. The first film that I wrote is entitled “Killing Winston Jones,” and that’s the project that’s going to be coming out in theaters this year. It’s tested incredibly well, and people are laughing and people are crying. So we think we hopefully have a sleeper hit on us.
Q: What other projects have you got in the works?
A: Oh gosh, I think I have 16 projects right now in different phases of development. I came from the feature world, so for several years I was writing features. “Killing Winston Jones” was the first one to go. That went because when I was at Innovative Artists, I became friends with an actor/director named Joel David Moore. Joel is known for his roles in “Grandma’s Boy,” “Dodgeball” and “Avatar.” He read “Killing Winston Jones” and really enjoyed it and said that he wanted to direct it, produce it and star in it. So he was able to help me get that off the ground. I also have a few other features I’ve written that have been optioned.
I recently moved into television because … the average time it takes for a script to go to screen, if you’re an established writer, is 18 months to three years. It’s hard to really make an existence as a writer off of that.
Q: That’s a lot of projects. Where do you find your inspiration?
A: I read this book recently by Jonah Lehrer, called “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Because we’re constantly searching — I mean, that’s the question: Where, how do we get inspired? How do we get these ideas? Really, for me, it just happens. It’s kind of organic. With “Killing Winston Jones,” it was from reading the trades.
Q: So you get inspiration from everyday life?
A: Everyday life, yeah, human interaction. People will surprise you or inspire you. I tell my students if they’re looking for inspiration, there are so many things going on in the university. Go to a class, go to a party, go hang out with your friends, go get coffee, go eavesdrop, gossip.
I started an idea journal when I was in college, so any time I would hear something funny or something sad or something that really triggered something in me, I’d write it down. Don’t wait, though. When that idea strikes, don’t be like, “Oh, I’ll put it down later,” because we forget. When ideas come to you, keep a journal, go back to it and then you have this wellspring. I finally condensed mine, and now I have over 120 pages of a 10-font Word document. So every once in a while, I’ll flip through a few pages [to get inspired].
As a writer, you have these peaks of megalomania and these deep, deep valleys of self-loathing. And you’re usually in the self-loathing part. But hopefully, if you’re passionate about what you do, you have a belief in what you can create.
Q: How did you get into teaching?
A: A few years back, I had quite a few people who were contacting me asking for help in developing story concepts. So I started consulting with young, aspiring screenwriters, trying to help them get their scripts sold. I really enjoyed that process, so … I contacted UCLA and was directed to the UCLA extension writers program. The first course I taught was Intro to Screenwriting. I don’t know if I was just extremely lucky, but I had incredible students who were very receptive to the material and willing to put in the time and effort and work extremely hard. So it was very gratifying for me.
I ended up coming out to Arizona because of my wife’s work. I was still dividing my time between here and LA [and I wanted to] plant some roots out here. So I contacted ASU and I talked with Michael Green about my background and what I could hopefully bring to the program here. He talked to Aaron Baker, and then I met with Aaron, and they sort of petitioned to see if they could bring me in to teach a few classes, which worked, thankfully. I’m really excited about the two classes that I’m teaching right now.
Q: What are those classes?
A: Writing for Television, which is FMS 394, and FMS 494, which is Story Analysis for Film and Television. My goal for Writing for Television is to have every student pass the class and have what’s called a TV show deck, which is kind of like an outline that breaks down what your script is about, who the characters are, what the world is, what the tone is, what the pilot looks like, what the seasons look like — basically it’s a calling card. So if you have a great concept, you can shop that around to production companies and studios.
Q: So your students are going to leave your classes ready to go pitch their stuff for real?
A: Yes. And I think what Aaron saw in me and what Michael saw in me teaching here is that, not only do students have that, they now have me to help them with the connections that they need. So if a student has written something that is compelling and that I think really works in the dramatic space, I can act as a liaison to try to get their project read, or to set up a meeting for them.
Beyond that, one of the things I’m hoping to bring to the department is — when I went down to Los Angeles from UC Santa Barbara, I had the foundation of film history and film theory but I didn’t really know the business side of it. So I had to try to find it on my own. If my students tell me early on what it is that they’re passionate about, then I can reach out to Innovative Artists, or Creative Artists Agency, or a production company [for them]. So, now they have an opportunity to leave ASU and immediately get plugged in.
Q: How do you balance writing/teaching/life?
A: There are not enough hours in the day. You know, you just do it. If it’s something that you love and you’re passionate about, you just find the time. Once you figure out what it is that you’re passionate about, you know that you’re going to have to make sacrifices. So there is no real answer; you just find the time. And when you can find the time to sleep, you sleep.