Q&A with film producer Mark Johnson

by Amy Goodwin on June 15, 2015

Mark Johnson interview-October 25, 2013, Austin Film Festival (Many thanks to Mark Johnson for allowing me to publish on this site!)

Q: Are you a sports fan and if so, what teams do you follow?

A: I don’t know there is one sport I follow religiously. The sports section may be the first section I read every morning. But I don’t watch as much sports on television as I used to, for no other reason then I’m too busy. I like basketball, but I don’t follow a specific team, certainly not our LA team. I did a movie in Pittsburg two summers ago. I fell in love with the Pirates. And one of the things I love about the Pirates is their work ethic and the fact that they have such a low salary as a team. You see interviews with guys like Andrew McCutchen and so on. And you can’t help but have fun with a team like that and that’s why I was following them very carefully. It looked like they were actually going to beat the Cardinals and go to the Series, but it didn’t quite work out. They’ll be great next year. And in football, I’ve always been a Redskins fan. It’s interesting, I grew up in Europe. I have produced two baseball movies – The Natural and The Rookie – not fully understanding baseball, but I love baseball; I’ve gotten to really like it. But when I did The Natural, I was hard pressed to know a lot about it and Barry Levinson, who is from Baltimore, was a huge Colts and Orioles fan and they were very, very important to him.

Q: So you have not been following the Dodgers and their miraculous showing?

A: You know, there is something – I shouldn’t say this – there is something about Los Angeles crowds that turn me against the teams – because they are so fickle. You know, at the start of the season everybody wanted to get rid of everybody at the Dodgers and now of course, they have completely turned around and they are their team and they were behind them all the way. Well of course they weren’t. And this whole thing, about whether or not they are going to keep Mattingly – there is just something about LA sports, the blasé nature of it all that I just – it is very hard for me to root for an LA team. It’s unfair because I am blaming the team for the fans.

Q: Now, you did mention you produced two sports films, The Natural in 1984 and The Rookie in 2002. In terms of your film portfolio, what do those films mean to you?

A: Isn’t that interesting. I am very proud of both films. Both films really touch me. I can’t watch The Rookie without tearing up. There are certain scenes, the quieter scene, not just when the,Dennis Quaid character comes onto Texas Stadium in Arlington, but just telling his wife what’s going on. Because part of what I like so much about The Rookie is the family aspect of it, and how it affects his family, and he won’t make any decisions without them. The Natural is one of the most beautifully done movies I have ever been involved in. It was shot by the great Caleb Deschanel, and I think it honors the romance of baseball in such a beautiful way. I really do think they are two of the best baseball movies every made – not saying the best, there are a handful of really good baseball movies, but I think they suggest the romance and the father/son nature of baseball.

Q: Were you a fan of Moneyball?

A: I like Moneyball a lot. It was really smart. I think, unlike what we I was just talking about, the romance of baseball, it really explains how the game works, how the mechanics of the game works; and it is very relatable, in terms of just about everybody is involved with some sort of business now. And how in our movie business, you can’t really make movies because you’d like to see them, how they somehow speak to your heart. There has to be a dollar and cents justification of them. One of the things I learned about baseball early on is so many of my friends and so many of their fathers who were intellectuals were people who had not necessarily followed sports followed baseball, because it was such a thinking person’s game. And you would see people who would sit there and keep box scores and pay attention to things like a left handed pitcher who had such a record against right handed batters and so on; why a manager would put in this person and take out that person. And I thought that was fascinating, and just the business of baseball, I thought was rendered in a very understandable way. And it was also a touching movie. The stuff with Brad Pitt and his daughter I think spoke to me as much as the mechanics of the game.

Q: Now Bill Simons wrote in an article in Grantland, “Quite a Rush”, if you make it sports movie these days you have to keep a budget of $25M to $30M and you probably can’t afford to have more than one recognizable name; and you have to accept the best case scenario is a double off the wall. Do you agree with Bill Simons on this?

A: I think Bill Simons is pretty accurate. I think sports movies, in particular American sports movies do not travel internationally. Even John Lee Hancock’s movie The Blind Side, which did over $200M dollars here in the U.S. did less than $50M in the entire international area outside the US. And while it is not strictly speaking a football movie, it does involve football. And it just didn’t make sense abroad. And baseball is particularly perplexing. Conversely, a really good movie like Ron Howard’s movie Rush is not playing well in this country because Formula One racing is not an American sport. So it is just hard to translate. The interesting thing about a good sports movie, no matter how deeply they are into the sport, it’s all about the emotion. I went with somebody to see Rush, who doesn’t know the first thing about racing, but was completely engrossed in the movie. It’s like anything else, it’s about characters who happen to play baseball, or who happen to be good at football.

Q: We have seen an emergence of sports documentaries and reality shows- ESPN has done 30/30, the Nine for IX series, HBO has done some wonderful documentaries, so has the NFL Network, and NFL Films. Are documentaries safer and easier than narrative films? Are they a sports movie placebo and if that is true, is there really any need for narrative sports movies anymore?

A: Well, one of the things documentaries have going for them is that they are so much less expensive. So sports movies, particularly period sports movies, are very difficult and expensive to shoot. Baseball is a problematic sport, in terms of shooting because a simple double play which takes up 4 seconds on screen is going to eat up 4 or 5 or 6 separate shots just to show the ball being hit to the shortstop, to the second base, to the first base and then them running, whatever. You have to cut from here to here to here to here. So it is just expensive. Then if you are doing it with a period crowd, you’ve got to dress everybody or pay for the CGI work to be done. So a documentary can just take used footage or, you know, do interviews and things like that and sometimes be more effective. Look at the Jackie Robinson story that was just done; it was very successful. I don’t think it did anything outside the US. But, if you make it for a price and you have the right script, the right story and the stars are aligned, you should be alright. I don’t think sports movies will stop being made. It’s just a hard one to sell to an audience. And when Warner Brothers released the Jackie Robinson movie it was really made by Legendary. Legendary was a huge Jackie Robinson fan. They really did it as a passion project.

Q: You are just coming off a huge success producing Breaking Bad. In that series sports are virtually absent. Even a character like Hank, who you would expect to be an avid sports fan, doesn’t really watch sports. There’s a picture of Gus playing golf, Walt, Jr. occasionally watches sports on TV. I read somewhere that this is due in part to the prohibitive costs of sports footage. Is sports footage and its prohibitive costs another thing working against sports movies?

A: That was not an issue in Breaking Bad. The truth of the matter is it never came down to sports, in large part because Vince Gillian, who conceived the show and ran it and was involved in every aspect of it is not a sports fan himself, so he didn’t really relate to it. Consequently, we did not see it in the characters. You’re right, Hank you would have thought, or maybe even Jessie would have had a game on every now and then. It is, it can get expensive, so why if you’re not making anything out of it, why throw it in there when you can do something more generic and not pay for it.

Q: You produced The Rookie with Gordon Grey and Mark Ciardi. They have gone on and produced a string of other sports movies. What was it like working with them and what do you think makes them successful in the sports movie genre?

A: It helps that both Gordon Grey and Mark Ciardi are huge sports fans. You know Mark Ciardi played for the Brewers I think one season and knows baseball cold, and Gordon actually played semi-professional soccer in Italy. So they know sports, they love sports, they speak sports, and they started off – their second movie was the movie we did. The Rookie. And they just fell into it. But once again, it’s people really speaking to what they are passionate about. I love those guys. They are very good producers. Really passionate about what they do, you know, they are constantly investigating – by the way their new film which stars Jon Hamm is based on an Indian cricket player who becomes a pitcher in the Major Leagues.

Q: Would you like to work with them ever again?

A: Oh, I would love to work with Mark and Gordon again. They are lots of fun and we had lots of laughs. Making movies is really hard. The hours are excruciating. So if you are not having fun with the people you are with and not having some laughs, what’s the point? And they are, along with being good producers, are a lot of fun to be around. They are very sincere about what they do.

Q: I noticed that the NFL Network actually had Vince Gilligan, upon conclusion of Breaking Bad say he was saying basically giving Sunday night back to the NFL. Did you see that?

A: No, I didn’t know that.

Q: Yeah. I was just curious what sense you made of that.

A: By the way, the NFL has always had Sunday night. Believe me, Breaking Bad did not threaten the NFL.

Q: Now I will venture to say that many of the sportswriters at leading sports magazines have their fictional sports movie script ready. How would they best have a chance of seeing their movie made? Should they secure their own funding and really learn how to go independent, or is there really a possibility of studios producing their movies?

A: I think it all comes down to script. If you have a great script, even if it involves a sport, if it’s good and the characters are relatable and you feel something for them, then it’s very hard to resist. You know studios told us for a long time they wouldn’t make a baseball movie. And then somebody made a good baseball movie. So Field of Dreams comes along and everybody wants to make baseball movies. Like anything else you, you have to have your good script, and you have to have good directing. If you are just trying to put another movie together in sports, that’s not the best way to approach it.

Q: I think Bill Simmons said in another article there’s a boxing movie made every year and boxing is easy to film because it just has two guys. Do you think that is a factor?

A : I think it’s more than that. Yes, boxing should be easier. I don’t know how easy it is. I think the issue really is that boxing is kind of like opera. It is so over the top and it is such a masculine sport and so life or death. I think a lot of filmmakers and a lot of writers can relate on that level. I didn’t realize that many boxing movies were made. It’s a sport that doesn’t particularly interest me, so I would have to actually think twice about seeing a boxing movie. Somebody has to tell me it is really good.

Q: So are there any narrative sports movies of late you feel have defied the odds and knocked it out of the park rather than hit a double?

A: I kind of feel that way about Moneyball. Moneyball shouldn’t have worked. You know it isn’t really about baseball. It’s about the business of baseball. It doesn’t have life or death situations. The only reason, let’s face it, that Moneyball was made, was because of Brad Pitt. But I was thrilled to see that it worked and it was such a satisfying movie. Anytime you see a movie succeed in difficult genre it’s good for all of us. It just reminds studios that you just can’t prejudge something. And you can’t just say no one is interested in water polo. Actually they are if there is a great character playing water polo. It may not be about whether or not the team wins or how good this person is – look at one of the great sports movies in recent memory– Rudy. And Rudy is not really about football, but football is very important to it.

Q: Are you watching the World Series at all?

A: I am, except I was traveling yesterday. I watched one and a half of the first two games. And I have a team that I’d like to see win, but I also like the fact that in baseball nothing is predictable. No matter how good a team is, no matter what kind of streak they are on, they’re not necessarily going to go all the way. Although, this is the first series in a while in which basically the top two teams are playing…because Boston has the best record in the American League and Saint Louis has the best in the National, and that often doesn’t happen.

Q: Do you think Moneyball has anything to with the Red Socks doing as well as they are?

A: I don’t know enough about the off season’s maneuvering of the Red Socks. Clearly they made some great adjustments this year, because you saw where they were last year and now here they are playing in the World Series. I don’t know. But I think there are some great stories about the world of sports business. In fact, there is a movie right now. It was directed by Ivan Reitman called Draft Day. But it’s basically about the NFL’s maneuvering of the teams and the players they recruit.

Q: Are there any sports movies in the queue for you? Are you interested still in the sports genre?

A: We are working on right now a historical soccer movie that takes place in Lithuania that could be great. Who doesn’t like sports movies, you know? And, you know, our movie, The Rookie, which people say is a baseball movie, as it turns out women liked it even more than men. And it’s because, once again, it’s about how baseball effects relationships and the family through sports.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: