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Introducing Justin Winters

Students need look no further than their own university for writing inspiration.
ASU prof: When you're passionate about something, you just find the time.
March 9, 2016

How a Hollywood insider made his way to ASU — and what's in store for his students

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 programThe film and media studies program at ASU is run by the Department of English, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 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 CentralWinters’ as-yet untitled project with Comedy Central is an unscripted comedy, co-created and produced with Steve Frech. It will feature host Jessimae Peluso in search of the most outrageous competitions — from outhouse racing to tuna-fish tossing to the world series of beer pong., 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 optionedTo option a film is to sell the film’s rights to a company for specified period of time, during which they have the option to produce it. If at the end of that period of time the film has not been produced, the film rights are restored to the seller, who can choose to re-option it with the same company or an alternate company..

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 GreenMichael Green is a lecturer in the ASU Department of English’s film and media studies program. about my background and what I could hopefully bring to the program here. He talked to Aaron BakerAaron Baker is an associate professor in ASU’s Department of English., 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.

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'Equal in the eyes of the atmosphere'

ASU scientist says human activities like farming a factor in climate change.
Wet rice cultivation, as in rice paddies, is major source of greenhouse gases.
Capturing methane and altering farming practices are two ways to lessen impact.
March 10, 2016

Fossil fuels not the only contributor to climate change; team including ASU scientist says human activities like farming a factor

Methane and nitrous oxide gas emissions, caused by human activities like farming, overwhelm earthly carbon dioxide absorption and should be tackled to fight climate change, according to a study published in the March issue of the scientific journal Nature.

An Arizona State University scientist worked on the paper as part of an international research team of 23 scientists from 16 institutions in four countries, led by Hanqin Tian of Auburn University.

Kevin Gurney, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and associate professor in the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is an atmospheric scientist, ecologist and policy expert working in the areas of carbon cycle science, climate science and climate-science policy.

This is the first time that human activities have been proven to be a contributor to climate change by transforming the Earth.

Question: Everyone is always talking about fossil fuels but not about the land. How do the two compare?

Answer: Fossil fuels is a much larger overall source, but there’s a good chunk of it that’s removed by the land biosphere. Whereas in the case of methane and N2O — the other two big greenhouse gases of the big three: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — just don’t have as much biotic removal. CO2 has fossil fuel components and there’s biotic parts — swamps are decomposing and releasing CO2. Certain vegetated areas will remove CO2. When you take the net CO2 of the land biosphere, the net methane of the land biosphere and the net nitrous oxide of the land biosphere, it’s overall a positive number to the atmosphere, which for a long time was not very well recognized.

Q: There are more of both these gases than CO2.

A: Only the biotic component of CO2. Remember CO2 comes in two big flavors: fossil-fuel combustion and then some ins and outs of the biosphere. So we’re only talking about the biotic part of CO2. The fossil-fuel part of CO2 is very large, and it’s only one way: It emits into the atmosphere. The biotic part of CO2 is in both directions. The land can remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and it can emit CO2 into the atmosphere. Deforestation is the classic example of vegetative parts of the system that are emitting CO2. You chop down trees, you burn them, whatever, and you’re going to emit CO2. But, as I said, there are parts of the biosphere that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. An example is that a young forest that is vigorously growing. It will remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Q: So we need to look at land management now. That’s a huge component. And cultivation of rice is a major source (of greenhouse gases).

A: It’s because of wet rice primarily — paddies. They’re like any swampy inorganic area. It tends to be anaerobic decomposition, so decomposition without air. The stuff that’s smelly, the places where you’re like, “That really stinks,” a lot of that is due to methane release. The reason rice is a big factor is because so much of rice production is done in a waterlogged situation where there’s a lot of anaerobic decomposition in the soil.

Q: Any possible answer there for land management?

A: Probably two things. You can capture the methane. This is done at landfills. Instead of letting the methane release to the atmosphere, you capture it, and you can use it, burn it as a fuel, and then displace the fossil fuels. You can manage these systems for less methane emissions. In the case of rice, there’s plenty of dry rice techniques instead of wet rice cultivation. In terms of management, you can’t stop methane emissions from a ruminantA ruminant animal — such as a cow or sheep — is one that has a four-chambered stomach and that regurgitates partially digested food, or cud, to continue chewing. animal; it’s part of their life cycle. People argue we could shift away from a meat-centered diet toward a plant-based diet. But it’s hard to do much about the release of methane from ruminants.

Q: How would you characterize the main thrust of the paper?

A: I think the main impact of the paper is that traditionally we were under the impression that the biosphere was acting as a net sink of greenhouse gases. It was giving us a helping hand mainly because we had focused so much on carbon dioxide. It’s still the biggest greenhouse gas, and it still dominates emissions, but when you look at just the biotic part and you include methane and nitrous oxide, it looks like the biosphere is a source. Like every part of the greenhouse-gas puzzle, we’ve got to make reductions where it makes sense. I think the paper highlights that there are other parts of the puzzle that we can tackle to lower overall emissions. An omission of a greenhouse gas anywhere is good. It doesn’t matter if it’s the fossil-fuel part or the biotic part or the decomposition/cow part, they’re all essentially equal in the eyes of the atmosphere. It emphasizes this component of the budget, so we can tackle it, just like we’re tackling reducing fossil-fuel combustion, which is the one of course we all talk about and we all think about. There are other emissions we can tackle as well.


Top photo by Fintan Boyle/

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now