by C.J. Darlington
Jodi Johnson Interview
"God is always going to be forgiving. He's always going to be there. There is a way out. I would love for people to get out of this that no matter if you've fallen short, God will still use you. God can use your failings for His glory." --Jodi Johnson
Jodi Johnson is an Oregon native who grew up competing on the West Coast horse show circuit. After high school, she attended Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, for her degree in Broadcasting and Visual Design. While at Lane, she wrote, produced, and directed three short student films. Once she completed her college program, she continued on in the film industry working for Law and Order: SVU in New York City, and for Paramount, among others.
While working in the industry, she began to write her own screenplays. One of her first, Slidin' Home , was a Screenwriting Grand Prize Winner at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. Aside from her writing, Jodi has worked the last two years for the Sundance Film Festival.
Has screenwriting been something you've always been interested in?
I was really interested in going to films growing up, every matinee, every Saturday. I thought if I ever got into the film industry, I'd be interested in the screenwriting. A lot of people want to be actors; for me it was definitely the writing. In high school I took creative writing classes. In college I did a two year degree of broadcasting visual design here in Oregon. Initially, all I wanted to do was take the screenwriting class. Then I ended up taking tv studio production and the other aspects of making film so I would have a better understand of the process as a writer. Then I worked with Syd Field down in Los Angeles, who is a pretty well known screenwriting instructor. At the time he wasn't teaching at UCLA, he was only taking about 13 students to his home for a once a week class there. Even though he already had 13 people, when I called him he was willing to take me on. It was something I prayed about, and it just seemed like the door opened. So I headed on down to Los Angeles to work with him for about six months. My more formal education was with him.
So this is something that came out of your Christian walk?
I had a desire to write; I kind of had this prompting, or burden, to do it. But I didn't know how in the world I would be different. But I believed that if this is what the Lord wanted for me, it would happen. When I decided I was really going to give this a go, I went to the local book store and bought a book on screenwriting. I remember writing the date I purchased it (February of 1992) on the inside of the cover to remember, in case this was a phase. Even then I was praying, “Lord, if this is what you have for me, keep prompting me to keep going.” 'Cause sometimes you're interested in something and it ends up being six months later, you've lost interest. I just never did. I kept going, one step at a time. It definitely was something I was seeking the Lord on. I still have the book. Then I bought Syd Field's book and started formulating my first screenplay, just reading through the chapters in the book. That's how I got my first one finished.
I've written five feature length screenplays, and I've done several shorts. I've done a couple commercials. For me, the script I'm working on now that we're looking at producing next year, is actually a totally different script, but with the location and characters from the very first script that I wrote. I restructured it, redid the story itself, but still maintained the characters in the story. So that first one wasn't wasted! Now that I have more skills, it's definitely much better than it was.
You also love horses and riding. When did that dream get placed in your heart?
Ever since I knew what
a horse was I was all about horses. Even when I was two years old
rocking horse. When I was seven I got my first
pony, and then from the time I was eleven until now I've been competing
in the show circuit. I started out with Arabian and then moved to Morgans
and Saddlebreds and spent a few years in the quarterhorse circuit. All
my life growing up I said, “I wanna be a horse trainer.” I'd
work off my riding lessons, since my family couldn't afford a lot of lessons.
So from the time I was about thirteen
I was working off anything I got. It taught me a lot of responsibility
and accountability and that you have to work for what you want to achieve
When I graduated high school I started my own business as a horse trainer and giving riding lessons, and I did that up until I was working on scripts and going to school. The horse thing was my day job while I was going to school for screenwriting. I feel like God has taught me so much about life through working with horses, all these little spiritual metaphors in my mind about what it's like for God to work with us. When you're training a foal to lead you wrap the rope around their rear end, but if you were to try to lead them right off they would resist you. All you're really trying to do is get them to go from point A to point B with you; you just want them to walk with you. And as Christians, that's the first thing we want to do when God is trying to channel us into a different place out of our comfort level. Our first reaction is to pull back, to want to get away. God's like “I just want you to walk with me. I'm not doing this to torment you.” Little things like there. There is this abundance of metaphors I can utilize.
Where did the idea for Saving Winston come from?
As a riding instructor I have a student I had coached when she was really young. Several years later she'd been through a situation where she'd been through rehab and her family had approached me to see if she could come out and help me with the horses, grooming, riding, or whatever. I see being a riding instructor as a ministry, a mentorship. I've been on the horse trainer side and been the example and mentor to my students, but growing up for me in high school wasn't always perfect either, so I know both sides. The story was a blending of those two sides of my life together. You're trying to be a mentor, but you don't need to preach to them every second. Even with the aunt character, she wasn't really heavy handed about it, but she was trying to let her niece find her way by asking her questions. So the story came from that initial instance and then just reflecting on my own life and what I feel the Lord's taught me as a horse trainer and riding instructor.
How did you and Shane Hawks end up working together?
He and I and his wife, Carrie, all worked at the NBC affiliate here in Eugene doing the news. They were the news directors, and I was the audio graphics person for the evening news. That's how we met. They had gone to film school at the University of Oregon, and he had directed some independent films prior. We'd just become really good friends, and they'd moved down to Los Angeles a couple years before I moved down there. We would always be talking about our projects, and we'd always maintained a really good friendship. I told him about this horse story I wanted to write, and I was contemplating moving back. They were, too. He asked me to tell him more about this story, and he was really interested in directing it. So as we were all moving back to Oregon, we decided we should really try to do this. Because I'd moved back to Eugene, I had all the connections with the horse people I'd known for twenty years. It felt like all this cultivation of friendship that God had placed in my life, twenty years later, we're all working together on a Christian movie. If the last twenty years was all about getting “Saving Winston” off the ground, this is so cool. All these people in my life had a part in getting something God put on my heart off the ground. There were so many miracles, people coming out of the woodwork. The horses were there, people volunteered anything and everything we could possibly need.
Listening to the commentary on the DVD, Shane mentioned that your original screenplay was a bigger concept that you had to revise?
It was bigger in the sense that we knew we were going to a big horse show at the end of the movie. We were going to go back to Louisville, to the Saddlebred World Championships. That was my original script. We knew there was a very strong possibility that we would be making this film on “loaves and fishes” so I had to rewrite that part of the screenplay. That was our mantra through the whole thing, “loaves and fishes, loaves and fishes.” We just didn't know how much money we were going to have, so we had to write the scenes as simply as possible, the locations we could get for nothing or next to nothing. That's where I had to scale down, the biggest element being the horse show I had intended us to go to.
But you really did get the feeling of the horse show. It was very creative the way you guys did that.
Yeah, but because we knew we needed the horse ending as well as the Christian element of the ending, we knew we needed her to get back in the ring. I wanted to have a Saddlebred in the movie, just because everything's usually a thoroughbred or a quarter horse. I knew I wanted an American Saddlebred for sure and have the Morgans in there, because that's my background. That in itself was amazing. Originally I thought we'd need a rescue horse, but not one that needed too much rehabilitation, and I thought we needed a different color. It was totally the Lord – my friend who owns the star horse, Alfie, said to me, "Well, I'm not going to show him this year, so you could use him.” I was thinking about it, and the month before we started filming the co-owner found some people in CA were interested in buying him. I said, “Okay, Lord. Whatever you want.” And at the last minute my best friend bought him for me to use in the film. So I really bonded with him. He was only four, and he was so good with everyone and all the traveling. It was truly a blessing, because up until the end we didn't know.
And as far as the stable goes, we had a location we were told we could use, and just beforehand we were told they were closing the barn and moving. Everyone had to leave in thirty days. And our backup location started to have a conflict, too. We didn't know what we were going to do. I met with the girl who was the stunt rider, and her trainer came in and offered his stable to film. He just offered it out of the blue. He gave us the code to the gate and it was just perfect. Once again we thought we had these plans, and God had something even better. Even when things seemed to be in peril, the next thing we knew God had an even better answer. This way we weren't interfering with anyone, we had the whole place to ourselves for our horses, a controlled environment. It was another amazing blessing. We learned to not stress out about anything!
You're the writer as well as the producer. How much input did you have in selecting the actors?
Shane and I did the casting together. We did all the auditions together. The whole project is a collaboration. I never questioned Shane on the technical and directing aspects; I totally trust his instincts there. We collaborated for six months to a year on the script, just doing rewrites. Because of our budget which was next to nothing ($30,000) we took the bigger elements down and kept it very simple. We're even keeping the horse elements down, because we didn't have the time to give the actors six months of riding lessons. The original script had a lot more riding. Some of the actors also had input on certain aspects.
It's interesting because Shane and I co-own the company together, he's the director, I'm the writer and a producer, his wife's a producer. So we're all wearing multiple hats. On our next project we've got it down on how we collaborate together. Shane's definitely more on the artistic side of things, and I'm more on the mainstream side as far as writing goes. It's really good when we meet in the middle; that's where the magic happens. We've had this friendship with Carrie, Shane, and I for fifteen years. We've done the LA thing together, we've worked in live news together, which is very stressful. I tell them “If we can handle live news together, we can handle the stress of doing a movie.” That really developed us. Now we're just transferring how we've learn to work together into filmaking. I can't imagine working with anybody else. You get to work with your best friends.
Is the next movie going to be a horse movie as well?
No. The next horse movie I do will probably be a Western. One day. This one is actually called The Eddyline. It's kaykaing, rafting, river resort location. It's a woman who is haunted by her past being raised by an alcoholic father and victimized mother. She and her sister grew up in this little river town. They used the river to escape. One sister dealt with life better than the other. She is now going back because her mother has finally succumbed to an illness, and her sister begs her to come back to spread her mother's ashes. Her father is already gone, and it's her path of trying to find forgiveness. This bitterness against her father has affected all her relationships. Even Christians aren't perfect, but God can use that for your testimony if you let Him. That'll be next year. We're doing the final rewrite on it now. We'd like to film it in Oregon. It depends on the weather. Here in the summer would be the best time. And it's so beautiful here.
What I loved about the film is how you use symbolism. You even mention how she and Winston are alike in many ways. What do you hope people take away from this film?
We all have times in our lives when we feel we have failed or fallen short of our calling. Sometimes if you stumble like she did with her drug addiction and the crowd she was hanging around with, and the drinking, you doubt that. But God is always going to be forgiving. He's always going to be there. There is a way out. I would love for people to get out of this that no matter if you've fallen short, God will still use you. God can use your failings for His glory. You're maybe just a couple steps ahead of someone behind you, and you can help them.
When you struggle in life and you know you're not on the right path, it's harder to talk to someone who seems perfect. Just being real is what our goal is with our films. We want them to be authentic, about real people who aren't perfect. We just want to connect on a real level with people. Don't think your life is hopeless because you haven't lived a perfect life.
In this movie you share the relationship between girls and horses. It's sometimes an amazing bond.
I know! There's just
something about 'em! I think it's maybe that they're such sensitive animals.
We as women are sensitive, a bit more emotionally
connected, so horses allow for that. You can communicate with them. You
feel like you have a friend there who you can communicate with, and there
is no judgment. You can communicate just one on one with the horse. That's
what I feel like. They are consistent in their personalities, in their
character, and you can have a conversation. They're not going to give you
an opinion, but it's a way for you to talk without peer pressure. They
don't care how you're dressed. You can be yourself. After dealing with
people and peers, it's a relief to just go to the barn and be with the
They help young girls because they're simple and not complicated. You have
this rapport. You can work on goals together, you work together as a team
towards goals with your horse. You don't get that connection with your
friends all the time. People change and friendships go away, but the horse
is always there. They've been in my life forever, and I can't imagine them
not being in my life.
Watch the Trailer:
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.