HU: What brought you to screenwriting? How did your interest develop?
JG: I’ve always loved films. When I was a wee lad, I wore through my VHS copies of The Muppets Take Manhattan, Ghostbusters, and Tim Burton’s Batman in record time. I’ll never forget coming down to breakfast on my 10th birthday and finding the original Star Wars trilogy waiting for me. But even when I was enjoying film after film, I was conscious that I was watching the creative work of other people. And I wanted to tell my own stories that an audience would want to see and enjoy. I had Adele Kamp as a terrific creative writing teacher in seventh grade; and then Richard Leonard in 12th who convinced me that writing couldn’t be just a hobby – it was necessary.
HU: What was your first script about?
JG: I wrote my first feature script in the year after I completed undergrad. It was a mockumentary called The Prophet of Westchester County, and it was about a young preacher who amassed a 2,000-member cult following in suburban New York over the course of two years and then vanished without a trace. The idea was to interview his friends, family members, former cult members, clergy, and so on – all in an effort to figure out who this fellow was and where he went. I cast friends and family in it and I think it might have been my way of finding out who among them could act! I’ve since made three other features (a romantic comedy, a family drama, and an absurdist comedy) and numerous shorts. I’ve written a total of 18 features and am about to start on number 19. A big reason why I opted for an MFA was because I felt that I was hitting a creative wall and I wanted my work to become even better. I have no doubt that attending the Hollins MFA program has given me that edge. The variety of perspectives that the Hollins teaching faculty bring to the table only strengthens the program and the writing of the students within it.
HU: What were one of the highlights of your experience at Hollins University?
JG: The people you meet at Hollins will change your life. Whether they’re faculty or students or staff, they’re your colleagues from day one. The emphasis on collaboration was clear and as a de facto six-week writers’ retreat, the atmosphere is social as well as creative. Hollins is a bright, open campus where you can write in the library, a quiet classroom, or in a boisterous writers’ room among your peers. The special guests brought in, such as Peter Riegert (King of the Corner), Susan Arneson (South Park), and Scott Kosar (The Machinist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), are informative, personable, and accessible. You’re encouraged to make friends and connections and to explore in every sense of the word. Hollins is right next to the Appalachian Trail and the city of Roanoke is a hotspot for great restaurants, friendly locals, distinctive specialty stores, and fantastic karaoke. I remember one time when I accompanied some friends from the screenwriting and children’s literature programs on a walk around campus after midnight. We slipped down a path with trees on both sides until it opened into a clearing in which thousands of fireflies blinked from all directions. It wasn’t a writing experience, but it was something I’ll never forget. It felt like I was precisely where I was supposed to be. That is Hollins.
HU: How did the MFA program help your growth at Hollins University?
JG: It’s funny how when I finished my undergraduate film and TV degree at New York University, I thought that I had a really good handle on what it took to be a good writer. “Conflict!” I thought, “That’s all I need.” And so my subsequent scripts were full of conflict, but they were still lacking something. I tell people that it took going to undergrad for me to think that writing a screenplay was easy, but it took going to grad school for me to realize how difficult it really is. The tenets I learned from Hollins professors such as Tim Albaugh, Kelly Fullerton, Mari Kornhauser, Hal Ackerman, Joe Gilford, Klaus Phillips, Laura Shamas, Stephen Prince, Jon Klein, and Christa Maerker were essential to my development as a creative. I credit Hollins specifically for making me into the writer I am, and it would be the first name I’d thank on the Oscar stage. At the same time, Hollins taught me that education is lifelong and that true mastery is something to always aspire to rather than something hard and fast to achieve. I am a better writer and have a more solid understanding of storytelling, thanks to Hollins. And I will continue to read and learn everything I can about the craft.
HU: Tell us a little about your professional life to this point – how did you land the jobs and were they positive experiences?
JG: Right out of undergrad, I was hired as a production assistant at Nickelodeon. Within four months, I was promoted to a writer position and for a little while, I penned about half of the on-air promos that aired on the channel. While it was a fun gig, I realized that I was spending my time promoting the creative works of others, and so I left there to start my own production company, Winter Twilight Productions, LLC. The films and web series I’ve made through it have been seen in numerous festivals and dozens of national and international media outlets. I’ve done production work with community media stations in Rye, NY and Cambridge, MA and have taught film production and screenwriting part-time at five Boston-area colleges. I founded and run Cambridge Screenwriters, the largest established screenwriting group in New England. I’ve started my own script consulting business and have been a screenplay judge for the NYC Midnight Competition, the Nashville Film Festival, and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. I’ve recently been hired for a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor position in screenwriting at DeSales University and I’m looking forward to this next chapter! One thing I’ve learned regarding searching for a job in which I can use my degree is the value of persistence. You hear about overnight successes for the same reason you hear about plane crashes: they’re so rare that when they happen, they’re a big deal. But far less sexy is the story about someone who toiled quietly for years or decades and finally, finally makes it. Persistence opens doors. Period.
HU: Where would you like to see your career go from here?
JG: My career goal is and always has been to sell my writing. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to support my creativity through related work. When I started out in college, I loved the idea of going into film but feared going into massive debt for an arts degree. But based on my own career and what I’ve seen, if you want to advance, you will find a way to make it happen.
HU: What has your life been like after graduation?
JG: Hollins has opened doors for me, and the degree has easily paid for itself. The MFA is a terminal degree, so it can secure teaching work. But more than that, it has made me into a more confident storyteller. I’m pleased to begin a professor position that I mean to use to support my students, the school, and my own creative endeavors. And these are not mutually exclusive. Whether at Hollins, an MTV writers’ room, or in a classroom at DeSales, I look forward to being surrounded by creative people. It helps my work, it helps theirs, and when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. I find the time each day to write, as I know that the only way I can call myself a writer is to sit down and make it happen.
HU: What is the best movie you’ve seen in the last year or so? Why?
JG: My favorite films of last year were The Big Short, Steve Jobs, Anomalisa, Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Room. As for this year, Zootopia might be my favorite thus far (although I have high hopes that Finding Dory will be a home run). I like ironic, imaginative, character-driven stories with flawed protagonists who are challenged to become better than who they are. The best films invariably make us feel and make us care. These are the stories I aspire to write.
HU: Who is your favorite screenwriter?
JG: Do I have to pick just one? Gosh. I love Aaron Sorkin, Charles Randolph, Emma Thompson, Charlie Kaufman, Alejandro Iñárritu, Alan Ball, Hayao Miyazaki, Stanley Kubrick, Tina Fey, and especially the folks at Pixar like John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Brad Bird, and Michael Arndt. There are so many great storytellers out there, and they all have so much to teach us!
HU: Do you have any advice for current Hollins students?
JG: Write and write and write some more. Enjoy your time at school and enjoy life. Between the professors, the staff, the students, the Roanoke Valley, and the central air conditioning, Hollins is a treasure. My professors and my fellow students are my friends. Returning to Hollins feels like coming home. With an emphasis on collaboration rather than competition, we’re constantly reminded that we’re all in this together and when one of us wins, we all win. You have access to world-class professors and facilities at a ridiculously inexpensive price. The Hollins education I received was a kick-start – since graduating in October of 2010, I have written at least two complete features each year. They’ve placed in Austin and Final Draft, and I learn more from each subsequent script. Because of Hollins, when I now watch The Muppets Take Manhattan, Ghostbusters, and Batman, I know why I love them so much, and I love them all the more.