An interview with Graham Jones, award-winning screenwriter
Interview by Zoe Palmer
Graham Jones is an award-winning screenwriter and proud Athenæum member who hails from Greenwich, Connecticut. After studying history at the University of Colorado, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant in the film industry. There, he began writing screenplays and attending workshops at the University of California, Los Angeles Extension.
Q: Can you please tell me about your journey in the film industry and your background as a writer?
GRAHAM JONES: I wasn’t really a writer and didn’t think I wanted to be a writer until I was going up the chairlift in Aspen with a friend of my parents and said, “I’d like to go to Hollywood, but I’m a history major, not a film major.” They didn’t have film majors in my day. Maybe at University of Southern California, or University of California Los Angeles. My friend said, “History’s a good preparation, you should go do that.”
I was never admitted to UCLA. When I first went to Los Angeles, I applied to all the big film schools, USC, UCLA, American Film Institute, right? After I’d been there for a year or two, I started working for a film director, Peter Markle. He made me what was called a director of development, to read all the scripts he wrote, that his friends wrote, that his agent (Creative Artists Agency) sent over. This was a big deal. You’re 27 and you’re the director of development for a working movie director who’s represented by CAA. It’s a pretty big deal. So after about a year our mailbox was filled with invitations begging me to come to the screening of the work of film students whose class I would’ve been in!
I worked for Peter after working in the mailroom at Walt Disney, and that was no fun, and also helping friends on their student projects, which was fun. Peter said to me, “If you want your dreams to come true in Hollywood, you have to write screenplays.” And I couldn’t. I just wasn’t any good at it. It didn’t happen. But I was around Peter, and I was around screenwriters, and this was, dare I say it, the early to mid 90s. Career instability in Los Angeles, that’s the name of the game there. It’s not Boston, it’s very different. Lots of career instability. I started taking film classes at UCLA.
Fast forward to the writing. I made a little film and it did OK, it won an award, and then the writing just started to come. And it started to come while I was working for Mark Burnett, the reality television guy, who didn’t care about scripts. They humored me and read a couple of them, and then I just started writing.
Q: What are some of your favorite screenplays you’ve written?
GJ: Back when I was a 20-something, I actually wrote this screenplay to make in Boston, but I lost it! So I’m seeing this therapist, saying, “I don’t know where the thing is!” After, I wrote a bunch of scripts and they won a bunch of awards, I found the script I’d lost. It was a hard copy, the digital was long gone. I read it and it’s one of my favorite scripts. I’ve rewritten it a couple times, but it’s never been as good as this version that I barely remember writing.
At this point it was the mid to late 2000s, and I wrote screenplays about George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt and Ulysses Grant, and I wrote a screenplay about equestrian polo. Back then in LA, I was pretty into polo for a couple of years. In a grass field polo team, there are four players. And guess what, there are three Musketeers and D’Artagnan. I read The Three Musketeers, wrote down all the plot points the way Syd Field tells you to. Dumas, he wrote like film. First act, second act, midpoint, climax, end of second act, third act, resolution. That’s the way he wrote. Boom, I turned it into a script about four polo players at a mystical college. It’s really UCLA, but I call it University of Los Angeles. I wrote it around 2005, I wrote it to take place after the First Gulf War. You read these things now and they read like period pieces, which makes me feel like I should have a little walker.
In some ways, I’m the most proud of those scripts, but they’re not my best. My best are the three president scripts I wrote, one each about Washington, Roosevelt, and Grant.
Q: What is your writing process like?
GJ: I used to say the writing process consisted of the right mix of junk food, naptime, and exercise, but I don’t eat junk food anymore. At my age, you can’t eat junk food. So it’s naptime and exercise. I can never write a script in class. I have to have it done first. I would write, and then take the class, and rewrite.
I wrote a novel in second person singular, which we don’t often use in English, but a friend of mine from Paris said it is more common in French. So I wrote that novel, but it’s not published—I couldn’t get anybody interested in it. The process behind that was lots of caffeine, especially in Los Angeles. Taking my laptop, writing around people. That was something I could do then. I’m not sure I could do that now.
So my process is to be alone. I don’t have any writing partners. I don’t want one. I have tons of writing friends. We don’t do this to have a partner. That’s the whole point. We have a production company for a movie. That’s fine. But when somebody wants to be a writing partner, you buy it. You go, “Hand me the check, see you later.”
Q: I noticed on your IMDB page that you’ve also directed and produced and edited some of your own work?
GJ: Yes, my short work, and some of Peter’s stuff I helped develop. I enjoyed that part of the process as sort of a social, exciting thing to do with friends.
Q: Are there any writers or screenwriters whose work you particularly admire?
GJ: A filmmaker named Curtis Hanson. I never met him personally. The guy who wrote LA Confidential, James Ellroy, was my favorite writer. When I was a boy, I read a lot of Tolstoy. I read War and Peace a few times, Anna Karenina. William Goldman was the ghostwriter on a lot of stuff. He’s probably the best screenwriter there is. And these writers in these workshops at UCLA, some really good writers there. And you learned as much from the other writers as you did from the instructor.
Q: How did you first get involved with the Athenæum?
GJ: Dad had some friends that were very involved and I think still are, and a friend of my mother’s and father’s bought my father a membership. Friends got Dad his first Athenæum membership, and a friend gave me mine.
Q: And to close us out, do you have any favorite spots in the library to work or read?
GJ: I like the quiet room on the fifth floor with the vaulted ceilings. Probably the statue of Washington. I also like the portrait of Mrs. Cabot that I think is from 1910 or 1912, the tall thing where she’s got the big hat and the long 1912 style. I think it’s pre-World War I. That’s probably my favorite right now. A lot of my writing has to do with portraits. The first script, the one I lost and then found, was about a guy in Boston being haunted by a ghost that lives in one of his family’s portraits at their house on Beacon Hill.