Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Conversation with Writer/Producer, Joan Considine Johnson


Joan Considine Johnson and Gary R. Johnson

Writer/producer, Joan Considine Johnson has been involved in creating a variety of media projects. Her passion and skill at imbuing her projects with heart and humor have resulted in reviews praising her work as well written, honest, full of clarity and emotion. She portrays dramatic and sometimes controversial topics in a family friendly manner. She is a well regarded writer in both live-action and animation.

Judith: Joan, you recently worked on “Olivia” for the Nick, Jr. network. I had no idea going into this interview that you had worked in the animation world. I was only familiar with your live action work. What's the biggest difference between writing live-action vs. writing for an animated project?

Joan: I love writing both and find the writing to be much more alike than you might think. The biggest difference is, in writing for animation, the writer provides more description in the narrative of what the character is doing; in live action, the actors and director add more of that as they block the scene for shooting. That’s not to say I don’t provide some action narrative in a live-action script, particularly if it is key to a line or to understanding what is going on in the scene. In animation, the artists and directors bring ideas to bear as well, but in a broad sense, the writer is more of a director when writing animation than live action.

Judith: You were a story writer and consultant on two of cable's highest rated programs (Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys). Your work on The Wild Thornberrys received an Emmy nomination. Tell us how you got involved in those projects.

Joan: A writer friend of mine had written for Rugrats and heard the same people were looking for freelance writers for The Wild Thornberrys so he recommended me. I came in with several other prospective freelance writers and participated in a ‘pitching’ session – pitching ideas for storylines – and got a script and ended up on staff. I loved The Wild Thornberrys. It was a wonderful show and so much fun to write. After Thornberrys was over, I switched over to Rugrats which was also great fun.

Judith: Did you think they would become as big as they became?

Joan: They were both already launched before I started writing on them and were obviously well received and deservedly so. I think the reason they became as big as they did is because they were clever, well-written shows with fun characters that both parents and kids enjoyed watching. The shows taught kids lessons, but they were rooted in character and in smart, fun ways. They weren't saccharine or earnest. They often had humor that worked on two levels, one for adults and one for kids – like all the great classic cartoons (Bugs Bunny et. al.)

Judith: You went from the Rugrats television series to working on the Rugrats movie sequel, Rugrats in Paris. What was the single biggest creative challenge going from the television series to the filmed version?

Joan: For the movie, I came in after the script was already written and did a ‘punch-up’ session – several writers in a room going through the script and pitching lines to help make the already funny script even funnier wherever possible. It’s always a blast to see ideas build on one another and get crafted and tweaked so that what was at first a funny line becomes a hysterical line.

Judith: Television is a quick medium to get a project launched, whereas a film could take literally years to get made. Having worked in both, which do you prefer?

Joan: While I like them both for different reasons – some stories are better for film, others for television – I do love television. I like seeing what I write produced, I like exploring characters over lots of stories and situations, I like being part of a staff and working with the cast and crew over a longer period of time and I like the immediacy of it – you write it, then it’s prepped, shot (or in the case of animation, designed, drawn and voiced), edited, posted and aired! Of course that all only happens if your show is picked up and then stays on the air!

Judith: You worked on The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa direct to DVD project Being a Disney alum I have to ask about your experience on Timon and Pumbaa. The filmed version and eventually the stage version of The Lion King became gigantic successes for The Walt Disney Company. How did you get involved with this entry of The Lion King?

Joan: This was the first (and only) job I got through an agent. It was also actually the first animation script for which I got paid. Disney had already done a season of The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa and had brought new writers in to pitch for freelance scripts and I ended up writing three episodes. Did I mention I love writing animation?

Judith: You were selected to be part of the Hanna-Barbera Animation Scriptwriting Program. I loved Hanna-Barbera Studios. What a collection of great cartoons! The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Hong Kong Phooey, Huckleberry Hound, Magilla Gorilla, Quick Draw McGraw, Wally Gator, Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, Scooby-Doo and my personal favorite, the mighty Touche Turtle. Touche Away! The brave, little turtle who did good things. I loved Touche as a kid and I have even amassed a Touche Turtle collection, although, now I have to figure out what to do with it. Did you love Hanna-Barbera cartoons growing up? Was this a dream come true?

Joan: I remember Touche Turtle! And wow, that list has so many of my favorites – I loved The Jetsons and Magilla Gorilla (I can still sing at least part of that end theme song) and on and on. I hadn’t been in Los Angeles all that long (after moving from Ohio) when a friend told me about the scriptwriting program and I applied. It was an amazing experience to walk down the halls and see all this incredible artwork. I learned a great deal in that program.

Judith: Who are your all-time favorite cartoon characters?

Joan: How can you choose?!! Of course I love plucky Eliza Thornberry of The Wild Thornberrys and brave little Tommy of Rugrats. Growing up, I was a fan of Astro the dog on The Jetsons (did you know his real name is Tralfax? That was in an episode) and I also liked Rosie the Robot on that show. Besides all the regulars everyone loves (the Warner Bros. & Disney characters), I’ll throw out there Johnny Quest and his dog Bandit. And, if we go beyond series to Christmas specials, I love the Peanuts characters in Merry Christmas Charlie Brown and all the Who’s down in Whoville in How the Grinch Stole Christmas – and I am a complete sucker for the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer gang – I collect those figures!

Judith: I love all of those Christmas specials too. Fond memories. You were a creative consultant and writer on the two highest rated series that ever aired on the PAX network. Both Doc starring Billy Ray Cyrus (between his Achy Breaky period and Miley's rise) and Sue Thomas F.B. Eye were quite successful for PAX. Sue Thomas F.B. Eye has been out on DVD for a year now. What have sales been like?

Joan: For those who may not know, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye is a series that was inspired by a real woman who was deaf who went to work for the FBI; when they found out how well she could read lips, they put her in surveillance to help catch the bad guys! She also had one of the first ‘hearing’ dogs that would alert her when the doorbell would ring or a smoke alarm would go off. The series had action, comedy, romance and wonderful characters played by fantastic actors.
DVD sales have been great – people who know the show love it and are ecstatic all the episodes are available on DVD. But we know there are legions of people who don’t yet know the show and would love it – as well as thousands of more fans who do love it and may not be aware that the show is now on DVD so we appreciate the chance to spread the word. The DVDs are available at http://www.suethomasdvd.com/.

Judith: Will you be bringing Doc out on DVD as well? Have you kept in touch with Billy Ray Cyrus?

Joan: For those who may be unfamiliar with Doc, it was a series about a country doctor from Montana who moves to New York City to work in an HMO – a fish out of water story with lots of humor and drama – and of course great characters and fabulous actors! As you said, it was very successful and fans still love it. We hope that Doc will be able to be put out on DVD – we’ll have to keep you posted on that. And we do touch base with Billy Ray from time to time – he really brought a lot to the show.

Judith: Are either of the shows still airing in reruns anywhere?

Joan: Both shows are airing on GMC (found on DirecTV, Sky Angel, Verizon FiOS and some cable systems) - Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye airs Monday-Friday at 3pm EST and Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9 & 10pm EST; Doc airs Monday-Friday at 4pm EST. Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye also airs in Canada and the UK.

Judith: Sue Thomas was based on a true story. How did you get involved with this project and why?

Joan: The creators, Dave Alan Johnson and Gary R. Johnson had been approached by a rep from a film company which owned the rights to the real Sue Thomas’ autobiography. They were both busy on other projects but the rep said, ‘Just meet with Sue.’ Well, if you’ve ever met or seen the real Sue Thomas, who’s now a motivational speaker, you know how amazing she is – and before the meeting was even over, they agreed to do the project. So it was originally written as a feature – and there were actually several opportunities to make it as a feature over a few years but it never came together. Then, when we were all doing Doc, PAX wanted Dave and Gary to do another series – and that series became Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye.

How I got involved requires a little more backstory: I met Dave years ago as a writer; he was a fan of my work and wanted to hire me but wasn’t running a show right then. So when ‘Doc’ and Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye came along, he hired me. The fact that, in the time in between, he introduced me to his brother Gary and Gary and I fell in love and got married, were honestly not a factor. As we say, my writing got me a husband – my husband didn’t get me a writing job!

Judith: I love dogs (Joan has two golden retrievers), so I need to ask the question. Is Levi (the hearing dog in the show) still with us?

Joan: Levi was the hearing dog in the show – he was played by a dog named Jesse Renfro. He was amazing – he could do almost anything! We all loved that dog and I’m sad to say he was diagnosed with cancer and died a year after we finished shooting.

Judith: Sorry to hear that. I loved that dog! The show did a tremendous amount for the deaf community. Explain the kind of reaction you received? Did you have a burden for this community prior to your getting involved with the material?

Joan: We wanted to tell Sue’s story and share her experience and her message that ultimately, we are all more alike than we are different. And doing it as a series rather than a feature also gave us the opportunity to have lots of different deaf characters and tell many different stories. We got a great response from both deaf and hearing audiences.

Judith: Deanne Bray (Sue Thomas) was deaf. What a monumental move to hire her to play this role? How did that come about?

Joan: Until Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, there had never been a series where a deaf actress played the title role. And this role was a tall order to fill: we were looking for a deaf actress who could speak well enough that people wouldn’t know she was deaf; someone who captured the essence of the real Sue Thomas; someone who had the acting chops and charm and charisma to carry a series – and it wouldn’t hurt if she was also beautiful! Deanne had done some acting and was teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing students in East Los Angeles when she came in to audition – and she fit every one of our criteria and brought even more to the role. She is a wonderful actress and literally the answer to our prayers. She continues to act and was a regular on Heroes last season.

Judith: You've been fortunate to gain work in a business where everyone wants to be a writer. You were one of 13 writers chosen from 3000 applicants to receive a Walt Disney Writing Fellowship. Your writing gained you entry into the Warner Bros. Writing Program, the American Film Institute’s TV Writing Workshop and the Hanna-Barbara Animation Scriptwriting Program. What was the process like to enter these various programs? Such a huge success to be part of not one, but four major writer's programs.

Joan: Each had its own process – some had forms, some had interviews – but all required sample or ‘spec’ script submissions. I had written quite a few spec scripts – sample episodes of shows currently on the air to show you can write a story, know plot, can capture character voices, know how to do an act break, etc. – in short, to show you can write a script! By writing so many sample scripts (which you do not get paid for), I had worked on my craft so I had some strong samples to enter.

Judith: You started your career in local television working as the Assistant Director of Marketing, Promotion and Publicity for WBNS-TV, (CBS affiliate) in Columbus, Ohio. How did you find yourself at WBNS? What motivated you to go in that direction out of college?

Joan: I always loved television and I always loved writing. The job at WBNS-TV combined those two things: I wrote promos for the news and syndicated shows and, as a plus, I enjoyed the marketing aspect.

Judith: What was your desire as a teen? Did you know early on you wanted to work in media? What brought you to WBNS?

Joan: I’ve always loved television but didn’t know as a teen exactly what I wanted to do in TV. When I was in junior high, I thought of being a studio teacher for child actors. I had read an article about Frances Whitfield who was the teacher for The Sound of Music and The Brady Bunch actors. But as I began writing more and more, I realized I wanted to combine writing and television.

Judith: When did you know you could write and then when did you know you could write well enough to make a living from it?

Joan: I started writing poetry in junior high and then took scriptwriting in college. After I worked in local TV writing promos for several years (when I guess I was making a living from writing J), I decided I wanted to try writing something longer than thirty seconds so began writing spec scripts. I worked on my craft and got encouragement from those who were already making a living at it.

Judith: Are you involved with your Alma Mater, Ohio University? If so, how?

Joan: I don’t get back to OU as often as I’d like. But I stay in touch with some of my professors – and I have a niece and two nephews who currently are at OU. Go Bobcats!

Judith: You have worked with both your husband and your brother-in-law? What's it like working with family? How do you find the balance working with and living with your husband? Any grand lessons to be learned - good or bad, working with family?

Joan: I think it comes down to each individual case; while working with family may not be for everyone, for us, working together works – Gary and I enjoy it. And we also each get time alone since writing is often a solitary endeavor.

Judith: You often speak on panels. Young people are always looking for advice. What is the one piece of advice that you give out knowing that it works.

Joan: The advice I was given when I started out is the advice I now give: if you want to be a writer – write.

Judith: What are your favorite television programs at the moment?

Joan: That’s a tough one – since there are so many shows between network, cable and pay cable and since I don’t and can’t watch them all! But of the ones I watch, I’d pick The Good Wife – real characters, lots of twists, some humor. And The Closer would be a very close second.

Judith: What are your all time favorites programs (comedy and drama)?

Joan: The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues– all classics.

Judith: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is my 2nd all time favorite show (I Love Lucy is number one)! Which films of the last year are worth seeing?

Joan: The King’s Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network and Toy Story 3 – that is a marvelous idea incredibly well-told. Those Pixar guys really know how to tell a story.

Judith: I couldn’t agree more. These were the four best films I saw in 2010. What are your favorite films of all time?

Joan: When Harry Met Sally, It’s A Wonderful Life, – both of which I can watch over and over. An Argentine film called The Official Story that I saw years ago still haunts me.

Judith: I know you are an avid reader (we share that bond). Per a prior discussion I know that you read the Bonhoeffer biography by Eric Metaxas. Having read it are you as surprised as I am that no one ever made this story into a film? Do you think they will now?

Joan: I highly recommend Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy’by Eric Metaxas. He has done a masterful job of telling this amazing true story. I certainly hope that it becomes a film – but only if it’s as well done as Metaxas’ biography.

Judith: What makes you stay in the business?

Joan: I guess it’s the creative itch. It’s great to wrestle with a story, work with fun, creative people and then get to see your work on the air.

Judith: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Joan: I took up golf a few years ago – after saying for years that I would never take up golf. But I really enjoy it, even though I have a high handicap.

Judith: What is inspiring you at the moment?

Joan: As we talked about previously, the Bonhoeffer biography was very inspiring to me.

Joan, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Go Touche!

Copyright: The Flaming Nose - This article cannot be reproduced without the consent of the author.

5 comments:

Lisa said...

Wonderful interview! Interesting perspective on animation and live-action TV and writing in particular, and lots of fun pop culture references! :-)

Tremendous look into the career of a talented woman!

Lisa said...

I also forgot to mention what a cute couple Joan and Gary make! Such a great photo of them! You can see why they make such beautiful television together!

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview Interesting career.

Anonymous said...

What a delightful interview! It's so nice to be in on a conversation with a writer who really brings something different, and so very human (in a good way), to life on the small screen.

I have looked everywhere for an email address for Dave Alan or Gary Johnson. Indeed, my search is what caused me to land, happily, on this blog.

Would it be at all possible for you to post a contact addy here? (Of course, with consent of the Johnsons.) I would very much appreciate it, if that's possible and appropriate.

Thanks for considering the above request. And thanks again for an interesting, informative and inspiring interview.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Forgot to tell you how much I loved seeing that pic of Lucy and her flaming nose!