This week, the Ball State English Department continues the short series of new faculty profiles by featuring John King. Continue reading below to see John’s interview conducted by English intern Tyler Fields. Also, be sure to check out the series’s first three posts featuring Miranda Nesler, Maria Windell, and Liz Whiteacre.
To begin, can you talk a little bit about how you developed an interest in film and screenwriting? Are there any specific interests of yours which contribute to this concentration?
First question: I’ve been into film since I was little. My dad used to rent a pile of VHS movies every weekend and bring them home. That was our family entertainment. We didn’t have a lot of money to go out, so we stayed in and watched movies all the time. I remember watching The Goonies three times in the same weekend. I got him to rent all the great comedies of the era — stuff with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, or any of that “Saturday Night Live” crowd. I’d watch those films over and over. It sounds like a boring childhood, but it was great.
I originally wanted to go into radio because my high school had a radio station and I really enjoyed working there. I was a TCOM major at BSU because of those experiences, and I still love music, but my interests drifted back to film, and I started writing screenplays. Scripts seemed like an effective way for me to take my own experiences and ideas and share them with other people in a way that I could never quite get with fiction or poetry.
Second question: Lately, my interests have drifted to creative nonfiction. When I look at some of the scripts I’ve written, much of what’s on the page is autobiographical in some way, anyway. Creative nonfiction operates on the assumption that this stuff happened, this is how I dealt with it, and this is how I’m different now, and I don’t need to dress it up like a film. I can do all of that with a screenplay, but it involves all these pretenses that sometimes I don’t want to mess with — I just want to get a story out. Plus, with creative nonfiction, I don’t have to worry about someone buying my story and then turning it into some total mess that wasn’t anything like what I envisioned. For the most part, people leave creative nonfiction alone (until they make it into a movie).
Can you discuss how you synthesized your TCOM and creative writing background to fit your interest in film and screenwriting?
For me, they’ve always been connected. To really write an effective story (screenplay, fiction, or nonfiction), you need to be aware of and understand narrative theory and history, at least to some degree. If you listen to working screenwriters, most of them are quite literate with film and seem to have seen everything. If the best way to become a better writer is to read more, then with film, you need to read screenplays and watch lots of movies. You need to know what’s been done and why certain things are effective, and how certain movements and techniques and theories of film influence subsequent stuff. I was fortunate to take some of the earliest scriptwriting classes at BSU, and like today, those classes are heavily populated with TCOM majors. That bridge between TCOM and English has been here for more than a decade in one form or another, so for me it was easy to make the connection. This campus is rare in that our two departments seem to communicate pretty well and understand what we’re trying to provide our students.
I noticed from your CV that a good deal of your background has also been in journalism. For instance, you have many honors for your column writing, and your M.S. from Ball State’s CICS is in information/communication technologies and journalism. Is journalism another interest of yours? How do journalism and film/screenwriting inform each other in your work?
Journalism is simply a way to get my writing out to a big audience very quickly. Most of my columns were just thinly veiled, lighthearted creative nonfiction — just writing about a weird experience, a funny interaction, things that drive me crazy, etc. I was never really interested in writing news, but once I started writing editorials, I started getting more engaged with current events and real world issues.
Media writing forced me to consider audience more than any type of writing I’ve done, because if you’re going to put your opinions out there on a regular basis, then you’d better do some homework because someone is bound to disagree with you and let you know (and maybe want to argue). I learned to see multiple sides during the writing process, which informed everything from word choice to framing an argument. I’ve gotten some letters over the years from people who completely misunderstood my point. I used to think it was their fault, but the more I write and the more I look back on my writing, the more I’m willing to assume the responsibility for not connecting to my audience — whatever the medium. You can’t please everyone, but if you’re publishing to a wide audience and you can’t appeal to a wide audience, then you’re doing something wrong.
So for me, journalism and screenwriting connect in that consideration for audience, and in how I can take a personal experience and make it relatable for readers. As a writer, I had to ask, “Who is going to read this and how do I want them to react?” Storytelling is a kind of manipulation, whether it’s news or fiction or screenplays. They might look and work differently, but for me, they all accomplish similar goals.
I noticed that you’ve produced a number of short and feature length scripts, several of which have been made into film. Unfortunately, I’ve never read or seen any of these, but I wonder if you might briefly describe some of them with specific regard to style, genre, topic, etc.
When I was an undergrad, I worked on a full-length mockumentary about fathers and fatherhood, where we staged these fake interviews with actors playing “dads,” each of whom told stories and revealed how, in different ways, they were all terrible parents (but in their eyes, they were the perfect dads). The film was intended as a dark comedy. We sent the film to a bunch of festivals, but no one would touch it. It sits on a hard drive somewhere, and that’s probably a good thing.
More recently, I’ve written short scripts for the annual 48-Hour Film Festival that Big Car puts on in Indianapolis every year. Because there’s that time crunch, it forces me to get something done in a short time without over-thinking. The first 48-hour film I did was another mockumentary (we drew the genre, so it was a fluke coincidence) about a not-too-distant future in which beer pong is outlawed, so there are all these underground parties where they have to sneak around and play it.
I wrote another one last year about a woman who found herself time slipping while she and a partner were trying to commit corporate espionage. Because she was time slipping, she could see her partner betraying her “alternate self,” so she had to try to prevent her “alternate self” from getting killed. It’s kind of a twisty concept, but once we got the idea, we just ran with it.
Finally, this year I helped write another one about a man who had invented time travel, but he could only travel to one geographical point on the same date and time in the past, and when he walked about 100 feet from the entry point, he vanished and returned to the present. It was an interesting challenge, to see if this guy’s limited time travels could affect anything. I need to get away from time travel movies.
If you’d like, can you talk a little bit about any future projects you have planned?
My friend Michael, also a BSU grad, is a professional actor in Chicago. He and I are writing spec scripts for a possible TV show. I can’t say a lot about this yet, but we have a couple of episodes written, and he has venture capitalists talking about financing. Representatives from three networks have shown interest in the idea. Neither of us is sure where this is going (it could go nowhere), but we’re obviously interested to see how this plays out.
What is your experience / opinion with writing a script and then giving significant artistic freedom to the rest of a film team such as the director, producer, etc.?
I once heard someone ask Nick Hornby how he felt when he saw High Fidelity (the movie) after they had adapted his original novel. He said it was a bit like selling your house and then going back a few months later and complaining to the owners that they painted the kitchen. Once you sell the script, it’s someone else’s to interpret and put on a screen, and unless they hire you to continue writing, it’s not really yours any more. Yeah, you wrote it, but you sold it to someone else so they could make a movie out of it. Most writers hope that their original vision ends up on the screen, but film is a collaborative medium, so you have to expect some changes along the way.
-Interview conducted by Tyler Fields