Saturday 25 January 2014

Interview with Jason McKinnon

This is post #800.
Jason McKinnon lives in Toronto. In his day job, he is a mild-mannered television editor. In his spare time, he is a writer, director and producer of short films, a family man, and a screenwriting blogger.
    His short film, 4 Stops, was one of the first I ever included on this blog. At the time, I was close to allowing Adelaide Screenwriter to fold. Jason's kindness and generosity made the difference. Thank you, Jason.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Sudbury, Ontario Canada. I grew up there until I moved away for school and then ultimately wound up in Toronto where I currently live.

What kind of a family did you grow up with?

My family is incredible. They were beyond supportive of all my creative endeavors growing up. (No matter how annoying I was with my endless movie ideas and pitches.)

When did you first take an interest in filmmaking?

When I was little, I NEEDED to be creative in order to function as a normal human being. Most of the time, I gravitated to writing short stories and little treatments for stories I intended to write someday. I called them trailers. Today, those notebooks remain a guilty pleasure when I come across them. 
    I was going to be a pro basketball player and an accomplished novelist. However, my quest to write novels didn’t last long once I saw a screenplay for the first time. Everything changed after that. It's strange, I remember the sudden rush of inspiration I felt clearly yet I cannot remember WHAT the screenplay was. I suppose it doesn't matter. Discovering screenwriting gave me the creative outlet I was searching for. As for my basketball dreams… I’m only 30. There’s still time.
    My passion for screenwriting and film blossomed when my friends and I began creating short films in high school. We produced films for virtually every school project we could. We even created sequels in completely different and unrelated classes.

Where did you go to school?

I studied English & Film in Sudbury and eventually transferred to a Television program in a nearby city called North Bay. I looked at screenwriting first and foremost as a form of stress relief. I wanted a career separate from writing. The reason for my transfer was simple: I wanted to work in Television/Film more than I wanted to be an English teacher. It was the best decision I ever made. (Aside from marrying my wife of course.)

Who is the teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

This person isn't a teacher but he had more of an impact on me than any teacher I've ever had. When I was studying English, I was working part time for my Member of Parliament. The MP's right hand man sat me down one day and asked me how school was going. I gave him the typical answers but he had an agenda that day. He could tell I wasn't happy studying English and continued to question my motivation. He asked me WHY I wanted to be an English teacher. I did not have an answer. The truth is I didn't want to be an English teacher. I knew it all along but changing schools after investing two years is a big risk. I thought about it for a few weeks before I made my decision. Six months later, I moved away from and became a television student. That risk ultimately led to my dream job in broadcasting.

What was your first paying job (in any field)?

Speaking of dream jobs! My first paying job was at Pizza Hut. That statement may appear to have sarcastic undertones but I truly enjoyed my time there. I worked with a lot of my close friends and we had a blast. What better way to earn money in high school!?

What was your first paying job in the film/TV business?

I was fortunate enough to be hired right out of college at one of the largest sports networks in Canada. I'm an editor responsible for highlights, reports, features & more covering every major sport on the planet including The Olympics, NHL, MLB, NBA, NFL, UFC, Soccer and more. I've always been obsessed with sports and being able to work with such amazing footage (and people!) on a daily basis is a dream come true. I couldn't have asked for a better career. After eight years, I still look forward to work every day. As the old saying goes; 'Find a job you love, never work a day in your life.'

You became known to most of us as the guy who published The Athletic Nerd, starting in 2009. Now TAN is another in a long line of defunct screenwriting blogs. Do you have any regrets? Can you share any lessons learned from those four years?

Landing a job in television never stopped me from pursuing my passion for screenwriting and film. When I moved to Toronto, my friend Eric and I began producing short films. The Athletic Nerd began as a way to update people on the films we created. Essentially, it was a second full time job but we had so much fun.
    Eventually, we decided to take a break and The Athletic Nerd became more of a personal blog with movie reviews, top 10 lists and features. In time, I began blogging about screenwriting as well. After 4 years and well over 1,000 posts, I realized TAN had changed so much that its original purpose had gotten lost. We no longer produced short films and I didn't have enough time to write screenplays because of my daily obligations on TAN.
    I decided to shut it down in 2013 in order to reorganize my creative life. I'll never be able to fully explain how much The Athletic Nerd meant to me. Thanks to that site, I taught myself web development and design, through trial and error. I learned how to use Photoshop and created all the graphics and animations on my own. Most importantly, I learned how to brand and market a blog and worked tirelessly to attract as much traffic as I could. The blog wound up with over a million page hits before I shut it down.
    Essentially, I wanted more time for screenwriting and more time for my family and friends. I also wanted to take what I had learned and apply it to a new website. A website devoted to my number one passion in life: Screenwriting.

The Athletic Nerd has been superceded by Screenwriting Spark, which is (if I understand correctly) more of a depository of screenwriting articles than a site of personal reflection. Tell us a little about your plans for the Screenwriting Spark.

When I shut down The Athletic Nerd, I didn't want to leave the web behind completely. I love everything about blogging and the work it takes to stand out online. At the same time, I knew creating another daily blog would keep me from screenwriting. The Screenwriting Spark began as a hobby. It was a website I would work on between screenwriting sessions. For the first time, I planned ahead and came up with a clear vision for what I wanted the site to be. It took months to finish the design and enough content to take the site live in May 2013.
    In the meantime, I finished my first feature length screenplay in years and felt rejuvenated. I spent so much time writing short films and blogs, I had forgotten how satisfying it was to finish a full length screenplay. I was hooked all over again.
    When I hit road blocks, I found inspiration visiting online screenwriting blogs. I bookmarked hundreds of helpful resources along the way. (Sparks.) There are so many talented screenwriters sharing their experiences out there. That's where #inspiretheaspiring came from. I'm not an expert but I do love every aspect of screenwriting. The Screenwriting Spark is built on the idea that screenwriters inspire screenwriters. It's my hope that collecting these resources in one place will inspire others as they have inspired me. Since launch, I've created numerous guides and link collections but this year, I plan to reintroduce my own personal reflections as I continue to learn about the craft. I'd like site to be a destination for screenwriters at all levels to find whatever 'spark' they need to write something incredible.

I first became aware of your work through the short film, 4 Stops, which you wrote and Eric Gamache directed back in 2008. You continued writing and making short films until 2011. What are your plans in this area. Are there any more short films to come?

When I first moved to Toronto, I was a full time editor, a producer, a screenwriter, a director, a web designer and I edited our shorts. Obviously, I'm still a happy full-time editor in television, but beyond that, I'm just a screenwriter now. Anything web-related is focused on screenwriting as well, so when I’m not at work, I’m surrounded by all things screenwriting.
     Writing, producing and directing short films taught me a lot about screenwriting. I also learned that I'm better off writing screenplays. It was fun while it lasted and I wouldn't trade that time for anything but I've simplified my life and it's nice to have more free time. My old business partner still works in film & television and we talk about new projects here and there but nothing is planned.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie screenwriter in Adelaide, which one would it be?

If I had to suggest one it would be How Not to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn. It covers so many errors beginners make. For years I read that book every time I finished a first draft. It's the perfect rewrite companion.

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

Great question! I used to have a blog to publish these types of lists! I haven't had a chance to update my top 10 in years! Here goes:
     I may or may not lose some credibility with my first pick but I must be honest. My favourite movie of all time is Signs. Yes. The one directed by M. Night Shyamalan. That movie was released when I really got into screenwriting. Call it good timing, but the film Signs just worked for me. I haven't enjoyed a Shyamalan movie since, but Signs remains my favourite.

1. Signs (2002)
2. A Few Good Men (1992)
3. Good Will Hunting (1997)
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
5. The Matrix (1999)
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
7. Gladiator (2000)
8. Inception (2010)
9. The Lord of the Rings (2001)
10. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

What’s next for Jason McKinnon?

Over the last few years, I've thought a lot about the types of screenplays I want to write. I'm currently writing a screenplay I feel is the answer to that question. My wife and I are expecting our first child this spring and it's my hope to finish the first draft before I become a father! After that, all bets are off! I'm hoping to complete a second screenplay in 2014 or at least develop one between diaper changes.
     As for The Spark, I developed it with a specific (and manageable) work load in mind. Things will get busy but I have big plans for the site in 2014!


And here it is, 4 Stops, my favourite McKinnon/Gamache short film.


Unknown said...

Congratulations on post #800 and thank you for the kind words! All the best, Jason.

Unknown said...

What an amazingly active film man Jason McKinnon is! I had never heard the saying: "Find a job you love, never work a day in your life," but it sounds just right. I think it says a lot for Mr McKinnon's positive outlook as most screenwriters complain about how their day jobs prevent them putting more time into their creations. He has made for himself very solid ground.

Unknown said...

I just watched "Four Stops" again and it was odd how different it was from the way I remembered it. Although very low key and ultimately unsuccessful in connecting two people, it is actually very romantic, as it focuses entirely on one person's attempts to get past the barriers of another, and to connect.