Just nine months after writing his first screenplay, Capetonian Paul Johnson has made it into the top 10 of the Hollywood film industry’s top-rated screenplay competition.
Heading the judging panel for the 4th Annual American Zoetrope Screenplay Awards, director Gus van Sant this week named Johnson’s screenplay, The Last Marine, one of the Top Ten screenplays in this year’s line-up. Van Sant’s final selection follows a six-month judging process, assessing the work of 2,500 new screenwriters. Remarkably, The Last Marine (written in June 2006) was Paul’s first attempt at writing a full-length feature film. “I’d initially thought about it as a South African action film,” he says, “but reconceptualised it as a modern-day Western after realising local interest was lukewarm.”
The American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest, the brainchild of company owner Francis Coppola (The Godfather; Apocalypse Now), is regarded as one of Hollywood’s premiere contests identifying new screenwriting talent. Van Sant is the Oscar-nominated director of Good Will Hunting and won the 2003 Cannes Golden Palm award for Elephant, his chilling take on the Columbine school massacre.
Johnson’s latest milestone continues a remarkable first nine months in screenwriting, highlighted by an unprecedented run, with different screenplays, in various US competitions and festivals.
His first-ever attempt at scriptwriting, a Law & Order TV episode, entitled “Malicious Intent” (written in May 2006) saw him named as the only non-US semi-finalist at the 2006 Austin Film & TV Festival. Again, the story started as a pilot for what he envisaged as “a gritty South African current affairs crime series”. After eliciting little local interest, he adapted it to a New York setting, winning positive critical attention for an episode that unexpectedly placed Law & Order back into the festival awards frame, alongside hot new shows House M.D., Grey’s Anatomy and Medium.
In December, Paul’s feature screenplay, Vengeance Valley, was also announced as a shortlisted semi-finalist in the US’s 2007 Screenplay Festival, currently in final judging.
As a result of its Top Ten selection by Van Sant, The Last Marine is now under consideration at top production companies Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures, Paramount, Icon Pictures and American Zoetrope itself. Johnson is also currently being considered for representation by A-list Hollywood talent agencies ICM, William Morris and CAA.
“The U.S. industry has been very responsive to my work,” Johnson says. “But I’m also grateful it’s created greater local access, allowing me to tinker with some amazing South African projects in development.”
Since last year’s Austin Film Festival, Paul has been flooded with offers from local and international producers – and has now written three movies, four one-hour TV dramas and two international radio dramas. “Things have taken off faster than I expected but the key is to keep writing – strengthening local and international industry experience of me as a reliable, versatile screenwriter, comfortable in any genre.”
Formerly the British Council’s communications director, Johnson left his job at the end of April 2006 with “a growing compulsion to write movies”. He is currently working on an undisclosed international project.