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In the Spotlight: Jessica Johnson

Jessica Johnson has a voice and she isn’t afraid to use it. She is one of those rare filmmakers you meet who shines a light on topics that tend to be in the shadows and overlooked for a superhero flick or the next rom/com. Instead, she has focused her passion on a very simple goal. To invoke change and inspire. This is the core of what we do as screenwriters. We invoke some form of change with our work. Either to our audience or to ourselves. Jessica has tapped into this, effortlessly. She is fearless in her pursuit of this truth and I am very glad to introduce her to you. This is Jessica D. Johnson…

Mini Bio

Gardena, California born and raised. Self-proclaimed awkward Black girl with a knack for art of all mediums: drawing, writing, graphic design, you name it! I fell in love with the art of storytelling at a very young age and have been addicted ever since.

At seventeen, I enrolled in film school at Columbia College Hollywood (CCH) located in Tarzana, CA. There I, majored in screenwriting and attained internships with companies such as BET Networks (Santa Monica), Myriad Pictures (Venice), and Tri Destined (Los Angeles). I worked as a set P.A. under directors and producers such as Stuart Acher, ND Brown, and Trey Haley. In 2014, I graduated from CCH as valedictorian. I’ve written and produced several short films and passion projects for Youtube and Vimeo. Now, I’m enrolled in the screenwriting graduate program at Loyola Marymount University (Westchester), set to finish in 2020.

My passion is to speak truth through my art. I am determined to create independent film pieces that impact and reach out to voices often unheard, neglected, or improperly portrayed by the industry. I consider myself an advocate and ally for the queer community as well as people of color and I try to work avidly and tell stories catering to both audiences.

Q: How did you stumble upon screenwriting?

I’ve been a storyteller since childhood but only happened upon screenwriting in 2009, my senior year of high school. I never knew that writing or making movies was an “accessible” career. Up to that point in my life, I had assumed it was only for people with the last name Spielberg or if one had some relationship to big names. At a college fair, I came across a film program that offered a screenwriting degree and the rest is history.

Q: Who inspired you into taking this path?

Growing up I spent a lot of time drawing my own comics and writing short stories. My grandparents were my most supportive readers and audience. They adamantly encouraged me to write more. I do this because it’s natural. It’s what I love. But I also do this for them, because to ignore my gift and the support they dedicated to it would be a disservice.

Q: Who was the first person who believed in you?

I’ve had support and encouragement in this decision from day one, but I believe the first person, outside of family, who convinced me that I truly have a talent for what I do was Rick Mitz. He was my professor for “Screenwriting II” at Columbia College Hollywood. He sat with me one day and spread my pages out across the desk stocked with his notes. One of the most notable comments he had was how naturally my dialogue flowed and how well developed my characters were in only 15 pages of script. My third year of school I took another class of his entitled “Writing for Actors/Acting for Writers.” There I wrote a monologue with his coaching. By the time it was polished and performed, my writing had brought tears to my own eyes among many others. When I graduated as valedictorian, the smile on his face as he shook my hand permanently engraved itself in my mind. It’s my reminder that I’m good at this. It’s my reminder that I can go places with this.

Q: What was the moment you knew you wanted to be a screenwriter?

I might say I knew as early as eight years old that I wanted to write and make movies. I would sit on my grandparents’ living room floor watching Forrest Gump on repeat. My favorite thing about that movie has always been the voice-over throughout. It’s so well written and Tom Hanks masterfully delivered every word. But more significantly I think the spark outside of adolescence happened when I watched the film “Saw.” Leigh Whannell combined everything I love. Suspense, mystery, stimulating characters, and gore. When the screen went black at the end all I wanted to do was write my own version.

Q: How do you define success for yourself?

Success, for me, would be to speak to someone the way so many films have spoken to me. If something that I write ignites a fire in someone else’s soul, my job is done. If my work does that on a large scale in theaters or Netflix accounts around the world, I will have done my job well. I want to create independent films that people can see themselves in or feel connected to. If I manage to do that, I’ve succeeded in all I’ve ever wanted from this path.

Q: Give us a typical day in your life:

Are you an Early Bird or a Night Owl? A bit of both. Some nights I’m up late writing or at a bar until 2AM. Some days I’m in the gym by 8:45AM.

When do you get up? On the days I don’t ignore my alarm, 7:00AM. On the days I choose to meditate for a bit, closer to 8:30.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Depending on my agenda, most days I jump out of bed, make a quick bowl of oatmeal and head straight to the gym. Others I gradually make my way to the shower, then sit and write for a couple of hours before going into the real world.

When do you eat lunch? I don’t have a set time but more than likely I’m eating some variation of chicken with sides like vegetables, fries, or a salad. It’s almost always chicken or fish.

What do you do midafternoon? Primetime to live. I love being out in the California sunshine so I’m likely at the beach if not somewhere trying to hustle and promote myself as an artist/trainer.

What do you do at night? At twenty-five, I’m still quite a fan of the nightlife. If I’m not in my bed writing or watching Netflix, I’m likely at a bar, hosting a bonfire, or having a game night with friends. We play a lot of taboo, Mario Kart, and Super Smash Brothers Brawl.

Do you have a pre-bed ritual? Water and prayer/meditation. I never go to bed without first saying thanks for making it through the day (and the last 25 years’ worth) and praying that I’m given another.

How do define a successful day?

Productivity. If I have managed to accomplish something, further a project/script, achieve a personal goal or help someone to attain theirs, my day has been successful.

Q: What’s been the most important skill you've developed on your path to screenwriting?

There are two: Listening and Speaking. By listening, I mean receiving notes in the most professional manner I can and using them constructively toward my work. All too many writers don’t take constructive criticism well. By speaking, I mean honing voices of my characters and my themes. You must embody these voices and speak truth through every one of them.

Q: What’s been the greatest challenge in your writing so far?

Structure and plot point placement. Sometimes I struggle to see the line where each act breaks. Frequently, I get confused about where turning points should land despite the books I have. For me, it’s a challenge with every narrative I tell, but it’s a challenge I welcome.

Q: What’s been your greatest reward in the choices you've made?

I do what I love. There’s truth in the saying that when you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. That’s my reward. I followed my heart and despite the fact this isn’t the most lucrative of careers paths, I’m happy. Lots of people have chosen paths that make them miserable or indifferent. I’m excited to hear I have a deadline of 30-40 pages due in a week or two. I’m enthused when I’ve taken an internship that requests I read and give coverage on a couple scripts per week.

Q: What do you want to learn from a community of your peers?

I really want to learn what makes other people tick. I want to know what moves you in your daily life. What speaks to you? What things would you do differently without limitation? What are your limitations? I want to learn more about what has made my peers who they are and what has shaped them or pointed them toward their paths. I want to know if there is any work, currently, out there that speaks to your internal voice or heart’s song.

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