This UVA Alum Is Heading to the Oscars – Again

March 6, 2024 By Alice Berry, Alice Berry,

Mark Johnson started his journey in the film industry in front of the camera, but his career took off once he moved behind the scenes.

The 1971 University of Virginia alumnus grew up in Spain and was booked as an extra for a few British and American movies, but found he enjoyed his gigs as a production assistant more than he ever liked being on camera. Plus, he admits, he wasn’t a very good actor.

After graduating from UVA, he went to the University of Iowa, eventually earning a master’s degree in film scholarship.

“I just fell in love with the romance of making movies,” Johnson said. “I never thought that it could be a career.”

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It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia
It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia

He proved himself wrong. Since graduating from UVA, he has produced some of Hollywood’s greatest hits, including the Oscar-winning “Rain Man,” “The Notebook,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” among other films. He is also behind TV series like “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” and “Interview With the Vampire.”

Johnson’s latest movie, “The Holdovers,” is up for Best Picture at Sunday’s 96th Academy Awards. The popular film was the centerpiece at the most recent Virginia Film Festival. The stars of the movie, which centers on a cantankerous teacher at a New England boarding school, have already won or been nominated for a host of awards; Paul Giamatti and Da’vine Joy Randolph each won Golden Globes for their roles as Paul Hunham and Mary Lamb, and newcomer Dominic Sessa won Best Breakthrough Performance at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Looking at his list of credits, it’s easy to see that Johnson’s television and film projects run the gamut.

A scene from The Holdovers

Johnson’s latest movie, “The Holdovers,” is raking in awards. (Contributed photo)

“Obviously, ‘The Holdovers’ is unique in and of itself,” Johnson said. “My preference is not for genre, but really for just what entertains me, who are the characters I really want to stay with.”

Johnson says his time at UVA shaped his taste, exposing him to new books and ideas. But he nearly didn’t graduate.

“My first two years, I was completely adrift,” Johnson said.

He joined the Virginia Players theater troupe as a first-year student, but adjusting to living in another country away from his family and life at a university rich in traditions proved difficult. Rather than study, he spent his days at the movies. Johnson’s father made him drop out, but a year and a half later, Johnson returned.

He says the time away from school was helpful. When Johnson came back to finish his degree, he said he was able to maintain a perfect grade-point average while working a full-time job at the now-closed Gaslight restaurant. He said he loved his last two years at UVA.

From there, he went to the University of Iowa and focused on film history and theory, rather than production.

“I was going to be an academic,” Johnson said.

He was headed toward a doctoral program when he moved to New York, though his passion was for filmmaking. That’s when he decided he’d regret not at least trying to make a movie. He attended a training program through the Directors’ Guild and moved to California, where he worked on Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety.” That’s where he met screenwriter and director Barry Levinson – a partnership that’s proved fruitful for both men. 

Johnson produced Levinson’s directorial debut, “Diner,” which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The pair also worked together on “Bugsy,” a crime drama that earned 10 Academy Award nominations as well as the Golden Globe for Best Picture.

“The Holdovers” brought Johnson back together with his “Sideways” partner, director Alexander Payne. Johnson says he didn’t have any professors like his character Mr. Hunham during his educational career, but his UVA professors in the drama department were just as influential.

“It was really where I fit in,” Johnson said.

His career has sent him across the country and around the world, but he’s remained connected to the University, chairing the Virginia Film Festival’s advisory board. He’s even brought stars like Bryan Cranston to UVA for the festival.

“I’m so appreciative of my UVA background. I loved my time as a student here,” Johnson said.

Johnson isn’t the only Oscar nominee to visit Grounds recently. Last fall, Grammy-winning musician Jon Batiste played a small concert at Carr’s Hill ahead of the Virginia Film Festival premiere of a documentary focused on him and his family, “American Symphony.” A song from the documentary, “It Never Went Away,” is up for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

You can find out whether Johnson or Batiste take home Oscar statuettes on Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC.

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Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications