MaryAnn Johanson is a New York City-based writer whose writings on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture appear in a variety of US alternative weekly newspapers including Salt Lake City Weekly and Charleston City Paper, and in the UK’s Blockbuster Preview. Online, she contributes to Film.com and FlickFilosopher.com. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Today she spoke with me about her job, writing, blogging, what it’s like to meet so many celebrities among other things.
What made you decide to do this…how did it all begin?
I went to film school in the late 80s because I wanted to direct. However I soon realized it wasn’t for me and I dropped out of film school. But I was writing more and more. So, basically the bell went off and I thought if I’m making movies how will I be a writer? So that’s how I began writing. Then in 1997 when the web became big I began a web site and then it started to get really big…
It is really big! And I must say you are very insightful not just with your reviews but also with your predictions.
Oh, thank you…
I was shocked and impressed by your accurate predictions for the 2009 Oscars. I saw you on that show, Grit TV with Laura Flanders...you predicted Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side AND you also predicted Kathryn Bigelow as best director for Hurt Locker and they both won!
I certainly wasn’t alone in making those predictions and I don’t think anyone was hugely surprised by those wins…
…the academy is very sentimental in a lot of ways and Sandra Bullock’s win totally fit into that sentimental side. They’re not going to have another chance to honor her so they took this chance to do it.
What do you mean she won’t have another chance?
Oh, I could be wrong…she’s reached some sort of pinnacle in her career with this role and there aren’t a lot of roles for older actresses and they tend to go to better actresses but all that said… I would be delighted to be wrong about that. I would love for there to be more opportunities for any actress to have more opportunity. So, what I’m saying is unless something really changes…she’s not going to have another opportunity.
I see what you mean now. And sadly, I think you’re right. The age thing for woman in Hollywood is a major concern and that really upsets me. Anyway, back to your web site…how did it get so big?
At the time (1990s) no one had been doing this. A lot of mainstream press was noticing because there weren’t that many people doing this so I was able to capitalize on that. Lots of people were going on-line for independent movie reviews and my site always came up. It’s interesting to see that not too many people that started around the same time are around today. I mean there are two sites that are still huge Ain’t it Cool News which is run by Harry Knowles from Texas makes millions…
Yes. Part of my plan this summer is to try to figure out how to increase the traffic to my website...it’s good but I think it can be better.
I wish you luck. I think it’s great…and it’s lead you to several television appearances…can we talk about that?
Sure. I’m not really a TV person per se but if it brings more exposure then I’ll put up with it. I’ve done radio a lot more than I’ve done television.
There’re almost always local…I recently did an appearance on a rural radio show in Canada.
With radio you really don’t have to travel…
Oh no, we did it on the phone. They emailed me in the morning and asked me if I wanted to discuss Conan’s move to another show.
So you don’t just review but you also do commentary…that’s interesting. How does one make money in this?
First from advertising on the website which is based primarily on traffic and sometimes ‘click thru's’ and then also selling reprint rights to Newspapers.
Salt Lake City Weekly, Folio Weekly…that’s in Jacksonville Fl, Charleston City Paper, Monterrey County Weekly, California…
And what about the web ads?
I use a network…Value Click…they use banner ads and square ads…they’re the ones for major corporations; we’re all in that network…they’re selling ads across a network of websites, not just my websites.
I see. You’re giving me a lot of ideas for my own blog. I love that. Tell me about the celebrities you’ve interviewed?
Well, sometimes it’s been in a round table situation like everyone is discussing something and in walks Meryl Streep or Samuel Jackson or Kiera Knightly or Colin Farrell…um, James Franco, I could go on and on.
Have you published something on all of them?
The reason why you don’t always publish a round table discussion is because you’re not the only writer there and so it’s not unique. Other journalists are getting the same material. But…if it’s one on one then I always publish that. But that’s always rare. However, there was once a situation where I had written something unique that a director had spoke on and for some reason, no other journalist had picked up on it but me.
What do you mean?
It was during a press conference for the film District 9. The star of the film who’s a film maker also who had never acted before…his name is Sharlto Copley http://awfj.org/2009/08/12/awfj-women-on-film-sharlto-copley-on-district-9-maryann-johanson/ …well, somebody asked him, “What does your name mean?” He went into this big explanation on it and then there was also a big discussion on the geeky sci-fi production stuff. I posted all of it on website because I thought my readers would appreciate it and for some unexplainable reason no other journalist published that tid-bit about his name! And then the movie ended up being HUGE and I ended up getting all the credit for the bit about his name and the sci-fi bits and it eventually got linked in People magazine!
With all those journalists there, not one wrote about it…that’s very strange. I feel like if I was there I would try to write about everything that (celebrity) is saying. So, tell me what it was like meeting James Franco, what sort of guy is he?
I went and did a round table for a movie called the Dead Girl with Marcia Gayharden and James Franco among other people and she brought her nieces with her because they wanted to meet James Franco and we met her first. We all sit in multiple rooms and they move the talent around and the nieces were so excited to tell us all about their meeting him and then when we talked to him about it he was totally laid back about it and it was very sweet.
Who else have you personally interviewed one on one?
I got to interview Ron Livingston from Sex and the City http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2007/11/ron_livingston_on_holly_and_mu.html and most recently Rodrigo Garcia http://awfj.org/2010/05/06/awfj-women-on-film-rodrigo-garcia-on-making-movies-about-women-maryann-johanson-interviews/ he directed Mother and Child…
Yes, I know. I read a lot of great reviews about this film. His father is Gabriel Garcia Marquez…I had to read many of his books in college. How did you get chosen to interview him? This little indie is getting lots of good press!
The publicists connect to me. He’s totally done to earth which is true about most of the people…I mean take someone like Merryll Streep who was just like completely goofy and it just wasn’t what I expected…that’s how he was. If you ask most people about their job this is how they are about it. He was just a pleasure to talk to…he was intelligent…there’s intent behind his films and he’s able to articulate that in an interesting way.
Wow, I would be intrigued to meet him, the son of the great writer…I would be totally spellbound. Oh, and I remember you mentioned meeting Colin Farrell…
He was quiet, thoughtful, and introspective; shy even, totally not what I expected. He has this reputation of being a ‘lad’ as the Brits and Irish say like this bad-boy ‘ladies man’ but this totally didn’t come across when I met him…did not jibe with the shy thoughtful artist he came across as.
Wow, that is surprising! You consider him an artist…what movies of his would be considered artistic?
This round table was for the movie, In Bruges.
Wow, I am really surprised I never heard of this film until now!
The title is a city in Brussels. Brendan Gleeson played the other lead…it was like if Laurel and Hardy were hit-men and they were stuck in this quaint little city. It’s a hilarious movie and he’s such a moron in this movie and he’s not in real life…I really highlight what an excellent actor he is…which I always thought. I also thought he was great in Pride and Glory…he plays an NYC cop in that with a perfect American accent. In Miami Vice he was good also…and um, Cassandra’s Dream which he did with Ewan McGregor. They play brothers in London and one is confident/secure and the other is a mess and they play the opposite of what you’d expect and although it’s not a very good movie…they play very well together.
Oh, and I really love Amanda Segfried, what was she like?
That was a while ago….she was doing the film, Chloe but she’s been in all these movies since then so I think it’s worthwhile to go back and transcribe it all. I mean she was so fresh and spontaneous which is not like what a lot of much more experienced actors are like…
What do you mean?
They have their patter…
You know like routine…they get the same questions all of the time.
Did you know about her before meeting her?
I had watched many of her films and I think she has a lot of screen presence...
What other female actresses?
Julianne Moore http://awfj.org/2010/04/03/awfj-women-on-film-julianne-moore-on-atom-egoyan-amanda-seyfried-and-choosing-chloe-maryann-johanson-interviews/ …she is so elegant…that’s the one word that comes to mind. I know I’ve saying a lot about this…I guess we only get the smart ones (laughing).
And you did get a one on one interview with Paul Schneider http://awfj.org/2009/09/17/3832/ ?
He’s on Parks and Recreation. I was interviewing him for an upcoming movie of John Keats...it came out last autumn, Bright Star. I hadn’t seen the show at the time. That interview went well and when an interview like that works whether one on one or round table you make someone laugh or you make them say, “wow I’ve never thought of that before” means you haven’t asked the same questions they get asked by all these other journalists.
Does this happen often?
It can. I made Sam Rockwell laugh once before at an interview session…I likened him to one character he played to another and he hadn’t thought of that before. And Paul and I just talked a lot about his acting and afterwards he joked with me and said, “I don’t think I need to see my therapist today.” I thought he was going to get nominated for that role…then my interviewing would have really taken off!
I think it already has…your content is great.
Another one and one I got to do was with Kirk Jones http://awfj.org/2009/11/29/4128/ he directed a movie last year with Robert Dinero and Drew Barrymore called Everybody’s fine.
Oh, I wanted to see that…thanks for reminding me.
He was great, he was so enthusiast about the move and so was I and this doesn’t always happen. It’s sort of like an on-the-road movie…so we talked about English film making verse American film making and how American landscapes inspire different kinds of films.
So what was the movie about? It seems like it’s like a self odyssey film from the way you describe it.
It’s a movie about family and how family members sometimes lie to keep the peace…
Can you give me an example?
Let’s just say there are four children that live in different places and everyone knows something is going on about the brother and they keep giving him (the father, Robert Deniro) excuses.
I think you did say you met him too!
Yes, never interviewed him though. Robert Deniro is very smart…he’s been in everything and he’s everywhere and it’s always difficult to get him to say even a monosyllable. He just doesn’t like to talk about himself.
Tell me something about your job that is surprising.
My job is not as glamorous as it sounds. First of all you cannot act like a fan. I’ve seen many journalists take pictures and ask for autographs. It is a job…yeah it’s awesome…I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it…you go and see the movie, then spend hours writing about it...
Can a review or something else you create about a movie be sold more than once?
Absolutely, I do that all the time…I’m selling (it) to several local newspapers. I mean I couldn’t sell it to Time Magazine and Newsweek but I could sell to two or more newspapers in different states because then there’s no competition.
I have written exclusive stuff once in awhile… for example I reviewed The Indian Jones Box Set for Archaeology Magazine and that was exclusive; they paid a lot more than $75.
And they commissioned you for that?
They did yeah.
Wow, that’s very cool. I recently read one of your reviews about Just Wright and it seemed like you were in love with this movie (laughing)?
Really? Did you read it?
Yes, I’m just joking. You couldn’t stand this movie. Was it really that bad?
I went to see it in this tiny little screening room...they are all over the city…you wouldn’t even know it. So it was me and a bunch of other journalists watching Queen Latifia in the middle of the afternoon…
And there’s nothing good you can say about it?
No. Queen Latifia is amazing…she’s fantastic, she just deserves better movies…one good thing is she didn’t have to loss forty pounds to get the guy…that’s a good thing. Too bad the guy is such a drip and the movie was so predictable.
What’s the most rewarding part?
Every once in a while I’ll get a letter from a movie director who will say something nice to me and that’s always nice. But the thing I find most rewarding is the site. A lot of sites suffer from span or junk comments but I’ve tried to foster a community that is intelligent and has something to say to each other even if we don’t always agree.
I have to say…you do get a lot of comments to your site…which isn’t common for any site….
I’ve managed to maintain that even as the site traffic has grown. So I also have this big master file, there’s one link on the front pages which has every review since I began…and the blogging software lets you tag your posts and that creates a kind of index which is very useful.
Let’s talk about your book!
Okay…it is a long deconstruction of the movie A Princess Bride...um…it’s a social cult favorite movie so I wanted to find out what was so appealing about it…how it falls into classical fairy tale structure and how it turns it upside down and plays with it.
So it is a fairytale then, she falls in love?
Yeah, but prince charming is a pirate and there’s an evil prince, a giant, a magician, it’s got everything…true love. It’s one of the first movies that weren’t very big in the theaters but when it got released on VHS and something happened…it became an instant cult.
Who did you interview for it?
I did interview some cast members and a couple of other film critics and one guy who is an expert in fairy tales but mostly it was my opinion…I just made it an e-book.
Is that cheaper?
Yes, the actual book to buy is about ten bucks and the e-book would be about two….but I think it could be easier to sell more that way…
For sure, I understand that…you could sell a few thousand copies if the price is right. I want to buy a copy now.
Let me know what you think.
Well Maryann, I’m glad I could let my readers know about your site so next time they decide whether or not to go and see a film or wait for the DVD they’ll check out your site first. Oh and I have two more questions…
Can I go with you to a round table sometime?
Sorry, it’s only for journalists…otherwise, yes.
Okay and what film have you been commissioned to see tonight?
McGruber…the release of this movie starts tomorrow and they’re only just premiering it tonight… which is never a good thing.
Learn more about the ever insightful MaryAnn Johanson! She was a nominee: BEST ONLINE CRITIC, 2010 National Entertainment Journalism Award (Los Angeles Press Club) and check out her sites FlickFilosopher.com: http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ and MaryAnnJohanson.com: http://www.maryannjohanson.com/.
She is a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences: http://www.iadas.net/
Alliance of Women Film Journalists: http://www.awfj.org/ and a member, Online Film Critics Society: http://www.ofcs.org/ and here’s two more interviews you might want to read: Neill Blomkamp (DISTRICT 9 director):
Shohreh Aghdashloo: http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2009/06/i_interview_shohreh_aghdashloo.html