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.