Q & A With Hollywood Screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe

As a screenwriter and film producer, J. Mills Goodloe is best known for writing the screenplays for recent hits like Age of Adaline, Everything, Everything and The Mountain Between Us. Born John Mills Goodloe, the 50-year-old writer hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida and later moved to Dallas, Texas to study. Goodloe got his start in the film industry working as an assistant for famed American director Richard Donner, whom he credits as an inspirational force. Real Style spoke to Goodloe about getting his start in Hollywood, the life of a screenwriter and his upcoming creative projects.

Real Style: Tell us more about discovering your passion for showbiz.
J. Mills Goodloe: I stumbled on it completely by accident. I was on a cruise ship, on an around-the-world academic thing called Semester at Sea. I ended up meeting some people from California, and I had never been to California. I thought it might be interesting to go to Los Angeles when I graduate. A friend of mine’s father hooked me up with a job working as an assistant out there. I figured; why not give it a shot? I was 22 years old and kind of figuring it out

RS: How was the experience working under a major name like Richard Donner?
JMG: My first job was as his third assistant. I was kind of a go-fer for him, and did very basic stuff for him. It was my first real job out of college. I had never been on a film set before. Just through osmosis and watching him, that’s how I kind of stumbled into the business and thought it might be an interesting thing to pursue. I liked what he did, and I liked the whole energy of cinema and filmmaking. Prior to that, I was not one of those [people] who were making 8 millimetre tapes when I was ten years old.

RS: You got lucky. You’re his assistant, you’re 22 years old and you’re learning the business. What do you do next?
JMG: I spent eight years with him. With every year, I’d get more responsibilities. My responsibilities shifted from being a personal assistant to kind of being a production assistant. Ultimately, kind of having a more senior position in his company, at Warner Bros. Through that, deciding that I’d like to be a filmmaker, as opposed to a producer. It was an eight year evolutionary film school for me.
Then I left to write and direct an independent film. I adapted a book and named it A Gentleman’s Game, and it starred Gary Sinise. I was moved from being on the executive, having a regular salary job, to being an “artist” and being a director and screenwriter. I did that, and then I ended up realizing that it’s really difficult to be an independent film director. You need to concentrate a lot more on editing and writing. It’s just a harder way to make a living. I just worked really hard for a couple of years, trying to get a screenwriting job that would pay the rent.

RS: A Gentleman’s Game was your independent thing. Then you went to work on The Best of Me. How was that experience?
JMG: The evolution of screenwriting is that at first, you’re just trying to get a job that pays you the money to write something. You’re not looking at it as “will this film get made?” It’s really fortunate that I am getting paid a fee to make a film, that I’m in the Writers’ Guild and that I’m able to make my rent. You do that for a few years. I got a larger assignment doing a John Grisham book, and that was helping me. I think I got better as I went along. The first film that came out was a movie called Pride, which was an African American swimming movie.
I pulled The Age of Adaline as a spec script, and then that started getting some momentum. Everyone thinks that [script] is a book or something, but it is an original. You’re building off, of not success of the first, but the work you have done previously, building success one step at a time. Fortunately in the last three years, four studio films were made. The first ten years, there was one film made.

RS: Where do you go to gather your creative energy and focus on writing?
JMG: As I’m speaking, I’m at the Pepperdine Law School (which is at the University of California, Malibu) in my car. I work at the library there, and obviously I can’t talk on the phone in the library. I like everything still and quiet. When I work in the library, I will find a comfortable chair. I’ll put a baseball cap on and I put earplugs in, and that’s my perfect working environment.

RS: What advice can you give aspiring screenwriters?
JMG: You figure it out. My advice is most of the stuff is just sitting down, and trying to do it and trying to figure it out. It’s not a lot about sitting around and daydreaming. It’s really sitting down and thinking about what you need to do and what you need to accomplish. In any profession- whether it’s an architect who is designing a house or sitting in front of those desks with a big piece of paper, getting out there with their ruler and drawing lines, or a painter- you just need to sit in front of what you are producing.

RS: Is it easier to adapt a book than create an original screenplay?
JMG: No. That’s the biggest misconception. What I do in screenwriting is a field where people who are not in the business feel that adapting a book is taking a 400 page book, and doing an abbreviated version of that story. You have a little bit of a head start with a book, because you have a general framework around it, kind of a beginning, middle and an end. You have names of characters; you have the tone of what is going on. If you’re writing an original, you’re getting to a certain point in the process (I call it 20 percent into the process) where you kind of know “This is my story, this is my character getting better.” But 80 percent of it is remaining, the execution of all that. It’s the same thing with the book. Once you’ve got that 20 percent, you’ve got to turn it into something cinematic that works.
And omission is as important as addition. If people look at The Mountain Between Us, for example, they looked at the movie, and compared between the two, and tell me the differences, you’d be astounded of the differences between how it evolved and how it changes.

RS: What else are you working on right now?
JMG: I am working on a true story set in China in World War II. It was an English boarding school that was set up in China, for children of diplomats, expats and missionaries, while their parents were working in China in the 30s and 40s. After Pearl Harbour, when Europeans got thrown into the war, the Japanese were controlling China and rounded up every expat; every European and every American that was in the country and sent them to the detention/concentration camps, and kept them there for about four years.
They basically brought them to places that were like college campuses. The only thing that they would do, you can’t get out. You’ll get a minimal amount of food and we’ll give you wood, coal for heating. Everything else, you’re on your own.

RS: How did you discover this idea?
JMG: Producer Marc Platt had heard about the story and optioned material that was for research, and just thought it would be a good story. I was approached, and I was brought on to take this real life incident that not a lot of people had heard of, in history, and turn it into a film. It’s kind of like Hidden Figures.

RS: Back to the story then. Are you doing an original screenplay then? And will you be directing it?
JMG: I’m strictly studio writing it. I’m not adapting anything per se, because there’s no fictional account, it’s a real life story that I have done a lot of reading about. As for directing, it’s too early to tell. I’m only about halfway into it right now.

RS: You mentioned a little bit earlier that you want to get back into directing.
JMG: I’d like to do a smaller independent film that I can get up. If you make a $40 million film, it takes ten years to get made. If you make a $1 million film, you can do it a lot more quickly, because you don’t have the same pressures.

RS: Do you have a five year plan, or do you go from project to project?
JMG: Five day plan! From what I’ve told you so far, about what I’ve done, and how the roads have taken me, there’s zero rhyme or reason for any forethought into some big master plan about what I’ve wanted to do. More like an instinct. It’s like “this is the right thing to do right now. When this is done, we’ll see what happens.” I never set myself a goal. It would be nice to win an Academy Award. I’d like to be nominated by the time I’m a certain age, you’re setting yourself up if you don’t do that.

RS: If you were going to summarize the life of a screenwriter, what would you say in a sentence?
JMG: Incredibly challenging and frustrating and intimidating, but it’s a lot better than having a real job.

We also spoke to J. Mills Goodloe on The Mountain Between Us Red Carpet at TIFF 2017. 

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Real Style Magazine’s January issue features an interview with another screenwriter, Ed Solomon. You can read it here.

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