Randall Jahnson has been a professional screenwriter for 30 years. He has delivered scripts for both large and small screens; in both studio and independent realms; in genres ranging from horror to historical.
He has worked closely with such film-making talent as Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Spheeris, and Spike Lee. Among his produced credits are The Doors, The Mask of Zorro, Sunset Strip, Dudes, and episodes of the HBO cable series, Tales from the Crypt.
He also wrote the epic Western video game, Gun, which was voted Best Story at the 2005 IGN Video Game Awards. Back in the 1980s he directed videos for punk rock and independent musicians including Henry Rollins, Black Flag, Stan Ridgway, and the Minutemen. Jahnson grew up in Carlsbad, California. He attended film school at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Motion Pictures and Television. He lives with his wife and son in the Portland, Oregon area.
What made you become a screenwriter?
I was aiming for a career in journalism (I wanted to write for Rolling Stone) when I took a playwriting class at my community college. That opened my eyes to the world of drama. But very few playwrights make a living practicing their craft so I started to investigate alternatives. Art and photography, too, were interests of mine so film just seemed to be the medium where I could put all those elements to good use. Plus, I loved the word “screenwriter” – it sounded very avant-garde to me!
Several factors: I was feeling burned-out and uninspired in LA; the film business was changing in such a way that you could conduct it from almost anywhere; and my wife and I had a son whom we wanted to raise in a different environment. So after considering Austin, Texas and Ashville, North Carolina for about five minutes we settled on Oregon. And I had an instinct that Portland – with its nexus of music, graphic novels, art, food, film, and DIY culture – was going to be a very active locale in the coming post-Hollywood-new-digital-media landscape. Portland also struck me as a city with a sense of whimsy – it doesn’t take itself too seriously. After decades of living in LA I found that incredibly refreshing.
How many scripts have you written? How many have been produced?
I’ve written more than 20 feature screenplays – plus rewrites, treatments, a couple of TV episodes, and a few video games. Only about a quarter of that output has actually been produced. A better question might be, “How many of those were you actually paid to write?” and the answer is all but three. I’ve been fortunate to have had interesting projects offered to me as assignments or found producers who have wanted to buy whatever I was pitching. But being paid to develop and write a script does not guarantee it will be green-lit. Far from it – especially in today’s marketplace. Arguably, my best work has not made it to the screen – nor is it likely to – because it’s owned by the studio that hired me to write it. For example, way, way back in the ’90s I was hired by Warner Bros. to write a screenplay about inventor Nikola Tesla. I poured by heart and soul into that project and the script, which I titled “Wireless,” turned out to be one of my best. When I delivered it the producers and studio were thrilled. But it never got made. Why? Who knows. Maybe it was too expensive to make, maybe they couldn’t find the right star (though later I was told that it was collateral damage in a battle between vying studio heads). Nevertheless, I was powerless to do anything about it and still am because Warner Bros. owns it; I wrote it for them as an assignment. But I got paid!
Is there a secret to writing screenplays that get produced?
It wouldn’t be a secret if there was. So many factors affect the decision to produce a screenplay that’s it’s impossible to fit them into any kind of cogent formula. Money and attached talent certainly help. And I do feel it’s important to be realistic in your ambition. Set the bar the bar low enough that it’s doable and can be financed without compromising the quality of the storytelling. Getting a bankable star attached to your script also a way to get it produced. “Wild” and “Nightcrawler” are recent examples of that. But you won’t attract a star without first having the kind of character a star will desperately want to play. So it always comes down to having a dynamite script first.
What makes a good screenplay?
An engaging story with fascinating characters that is visually and succinctly told.
Are grammar and spelling important? Or is the story paramount?
Absolutely! Poor grammar, misspells, and typos get in the way of the storytelling. They’re like speed bumps – they slow the reader down. If too many are encountered, the reader, who could be a producer, director, agent, actor, will abandon the script for a smoother road. Also, a screenplay riddled with grammatical errors tells the reader that the author is either stupid or lazy or simply doesn’t care, which is not what you want. So proofread like crazy – or get a qualified individual to do it for you.
How do you research?
Any way I can. Internet. YouTube. Books. Usually, I’ll try to educate myself on a particular subject as best I can before I interview experts. That way I can ask smart questions and take less of a person’s valuable time. Also, if possible, I’ll try to visit the locations where the story takes place. Or locations that inspire the story. Soak up the sights and smells and faces of a place. I feel it’s important for writers to become extremely knowledgeable about their subject material. Not only for authenticity’s sake, but also to ensure respect among the other film makers involved. I’m not saying you have to walk a minefield in Afghanistan but you should make the effort to talk with vets who have.
You are also an instructor. What advice do you give to students the most?
Get out of your heads. Drama is emotional, not intellectual. Write from your hearts. Don’t be afraid to fail, experiment. People in real life are messed-up, complex, driven by fear, and often struggling to hold it together, so depict characters who reflect that. Maintain a sense of humor about yourselves and your work. And communicate with images – you’re writing for a visual medium.
What was it like working with Oliver Stone?
I get asked that a lot and people are always surprised when I tell them that Stone and I never really worked with each other. I wrote my draft of “The Doors” about three years before he came into the picture. During that time, I conducted my own research and interviews which yielded a lot of material that didn’t jive with the lead producer’s preconception of Jim Morrison. We clashed. He threatened to fire me if I persisted with my vision. I persisted. And he made good on his threat. Two other writers were subsequently hired and fired. Then Stone came on board. Around that time I bumped into Ray Manzarek, the late keyboardist of The Doors, who told me that I would soon be hearing from Stone. According to Ray, Stone asked to read all the drafts by all the previous writers and liked mine the best. Sure enough, a few days later I was sitting in Stone’s Venice Beach office chatting with the man himself. He was curious about my research and my vision of the Morrison story. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes. At the end of it he said my draft had inspired him a great deal and now he was going off to write his and shoot the movie after that. I didn’t see him again until the day the film opened in theaters.
Did you introduce any of your own personal life into the script? If so, what? What was the process like?
Hmmmm, interesting question. Not consciously, I suppose. But there was some overlapping that couldn’t have been avoided and I had to make use of. For example, both Morrison and Manzarek had attended film school at UCLA, which is where I had gone. In fact, we had two of the same instructors, one of whom I went back to interview. Also, when I was writing the first draft I was living just a couple of blocks from the intersection of Santa Monica and La Cienega boulevards, which was the center of Morrison’s universe – The Doors’ office, his room at the Alta Cienega Motel and Barney’s Beanery, his favorite watering hole, were just steps away and hadn’t changed a whole hell of a lot. Another element that seemed to help was my involvement in the LA punk scene at the time. I had been making some music videos with Henry Rollins and Black Flag and the Minutemen and going to several shows a week, and I put a lot of what I saw and experienced into the script. I even argued to the producers that The Doors were more punk and Beatnik than hippies. That seemed to impress Manzarek who was producing the band X then.
What was it like working with Martin Campbell in The Mask of Zorro? What was the process like?
Here’s another misconception. Yes, Martin Campbell directed “The Mask of Zorro” but I never met him. That’s because – like “The Doors” – I wrote my drafts of the script long before he came to the project. Actually, it was Stephen Spielberg who hired me for “Zorro.” He was shooting “Hook” at the time and I met him on the set. He was pretty amazing. One moment he would be talking to me with boyish enthusiasm about reinventing the Zorro character, then the next he’d be directing Robin Wiiliams and Dustin Hoffman in a take. He’d cut, then turn back to me and pick up right where we left off as if we’d never been interrupted. I’ve never seen anyone before or since compartmentalize like that. Spielberg was very creative and very visual and very demanding – he wouldn’t settle for easy solutions or low-hanging fruit. I learned a lot from him. I wrote three drafts of the script before I was relieved of duty. A succession of 8 more writers followed. Hired and fired. Ultimately there would be 32 drafts of the screenplay. But my basic story of the Old Zorro mentoring a Young Zorro survived it all.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m rewriting the first script I wrote when I got out of film school! It’s a horror story about a haunted highway. It came close to being made several times over the years but no cigar. A young Mexican director who’s really in to cars has optioned it and hopes to be shooting it later this year in Mexico – knock on wood! After that, I’ll be adapting a novel called “Saving the Karamazovs” written by a student of mine and diving into a webseries project that I’ve been developing with some local talent. I’d love to be shooting that soon – I’m tired of waiting for years to get something made.
In April, “Dryads,” a film I wrote that was shot in Norway last June will be coming out in Scandinavia (it’s in Norwegian). Don’t know yet if there will be a US release or not.
Why is it important to attend workshops and learn from professional screenwriters?
Like in sports, you need to learn the fundamentals – and practice them so much they become second nature. Then the artist will start coming through.