In a way, the world has the University of Virginia and the Virginia Film Festival to thank for the hit television series “Breaking Bad.”
The show’s producer, 1971 UVA graduate Mark Johnson, met “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan at a screenwriting contest during the 1988 Virginia Film Festival. A young Gilligan had submitted a screenplay that Johnson, who now chairs the festival’s advisory board, called “spectacular.”
Johnson immediately asked to meet the writer and the rest, as they say, is history. That spectacular script became a 1993 film, “Wilder Napalm,” starring Dennis Quaid, and Johnson and Gilligan struck up the friendship that would birth “Breaking Bad,” which Gilligan wrote and they both produced. The AMC show, which started in 2008 and ran for five seasons, smashed ratings records and earned critical acclaim with its tale of chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.
“Breaking Bad” is hardly Johnson’s only hit. His decades-long career as a Hollywood producer has included films like “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “The Notebook,” “Little Princess,” “Bugsy,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and many more. He has earned an Academy Award for Best Picture (for “Rain Man” in 1988), an Emmy Award (for “Breaking Bad”) and a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture (for “Rain Man” and “Bugsy”) and has received many more nominations.
Two of Johnson’s latest creations are prominent in this year’s Virginia Film Festival, which started Thursday and concludes Sunday. “Downsizing,” starring Kristin Wiig and Matt Damon, opened the festival Thursday night. “Breath,” the first film directed by actor Simon Baker, will screen Friday night.
We spoke with Johnson to learn more about his time at UVA, the films he has worked on and his commitment to the arts community here.
An Inauspicious Start
Johnson almost didn’t graduate from UVA.
He came to the University from Spain, where his mother raised him and his two siblings after their parents’ divorce. Though his father lived in Virginia, Johnson had spent most of his life abroad and knew precious little about UVA. It was a tough transition.
“I gravitated toward the Virginia Players [student theater organization] and became involved in the drama department,” he said. “Still, for the first two years, my grades were not very good.”
At his father’s urging, Johnson took some time off from school and instead worked as an airport staffer with United Airlines. He learned a lot, but ultimately wanted to give higher education one more shot.
“I realized that I really wanted to go back to UVA,” he said.
This time, it stuck. Johnson returned to Grounds, got a job at a local restaurant, did much better in the classroom and got involved with the Charlottesville arts community.
“I loved it,” he said. “Coming back meant a great deal to me. It really turned my life around.”
A Move Backstage
After earning his degree in drama in 1971, Johnson moved to New York and then Los Angeles. Along the way, he learned that his best bet for a career in theater was to get off the stage.
“While in Virginia, I had acted in a few plays and made two very smart discoveries: I was not a very good actor, and I did not necessarily want to make myself a good actor,” he said. “I still loved theater, and I knew I had to find another way.”
What he loved most about theater, Johnson decided, was uncovering a good story and finding the very best way to tell it. He began to gravitate toward producer roles.
“I like discovering something that is worthwhile, be it a book, a writer or a director,” he said. “I love the process of bringing that work to life, of helping someone create his or her story.”
Sometimes, that means producing an epic tale with mesmerizing effects, like “The Chronicles of Narnia” series. Johnson recreated C.S. Lewis’ famous stories in three films: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in 2005, “Prince Caspian” in 2008 and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” in 2010.
“With every movie, I like to try to do something that I have not done before,” Johnson said. “One of the reasons I wanted to do the Narnia series was because I had not done a movie with big special effects like that before. … I loved the idea of entering a world where kids who felt powerless in war-torn England suddenly found themselves in this other world where they could determine the future.”
Other stories, Johnson said, are better suited to the small screen, where the serial format of television shows allows for methodical character development.
“‘Breaking Bad’ viewers basically watched a good man become a bad man,” he said. “No one had ever quite seen that before. They had seen anti-heroes, but they had not necessarily seen the transformation of someone’s character. The wonderful thing about television is that you can make that happen over all of those episodes.”
As with all television producers, Johnson has needed to quickly adapt to the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, which encourage viewers to “binge-watch” entire seasons of a show in one or two sittings.
“We can work for eight to nine months to make something that someone watched in one night,” he said. “At the end of the day, though, you are still telling stories.”
So far, Johnson said, the shift toward binge-watching has not stumped him. In fact, he said it has made him think more creatively.
“You have to be adaptable,” he said. “I have even been talking to people about doing a whole new series with episodes about 10 to 15 minutes long.”
A Focus on Family
Though his body of work is pretty varied, Johnson said that one theme sticks out: family.
In the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, the Pevensie siblings learn to stick together in the face of both real and mythical dangers. In “Breaking Bad,” Walter White’s transformation from high school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin is motivated by a desire to provide enough money for his family after his terminal cancer diagnosis.
For Johnson, the theme of family resonates most personally in his 1995 film “A Little Princess,” based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The main character, Sara, struggles when she is sent to boarding school as her father leaves for the trenches of World War I. Sara reminded Johnson of his daughter, whom he had just adopted from foster care at the time.
“The film was sort of my gift to her,” he said. Johnson and his wife Lezlie, who ran a foster-care agency in California at the time, also adopted a son from the foster care system.
“I believe family is not necessarily something you are born into, but something you make,” Johnson said. “We all need people to support us.”
A Home Away from Home
Though he left Charlottesville for Hollywood long ago, Johnson remains an important part of the arts community here. He has helped to bring national and international artists to Grounds – he moderated a discussion with “Breaking Bad’s” Cranston in front of a packed house in John Paul Jones Arena in March – and chairs the film festival’s advisory board.
He has worked with the festival in some capacity for the majority of its 30-year run, analyzing films, leading classes at UVA, working behind the scenes and of course, screening his own work.
“It’s always a real honor to come back to the festival and to the University,” he said. “I am there to make myself available for advice, for classes, for whatever, because we all need to give back. There are so many people, particularly at UVA, who have helped me along the way.”
This year, Johnson will present “Downsizing,” which will be released nationwide in December. Johnson calls it “a comedy with real teeth to it.” He was initially interested in the science fiction drama because of screenwriter Alexander Payne, whose work he has long admired.
“I would have done just about anything to work with him,” Johnson said. “But I also loved the outlandish idea that one can shrink oneself and do something good, in theory, for the planet. It’s very much a satire of how humans can unfortunately subvert that wonderful intention.”
Johnson will also screen “Breath,” to be released this spring. The film, based on Tim Whitten’s novel set in mid-1970s Australia, is a coming-of-age tale about two teenage surfers who befriend an older pro. It is the directorial debut of actor Simon Baker, best known for his starring role in the television series, “The Mentalist.”
“It’s about two 16-year-old boys testing who they are and what their limits are,” Johnson said. “There are themes that I directly relate to – how to be different, how to be original, how to distinguish yourself.”
To learn more about the festival and purchase tickets, visit virginiafilmfestival.org.