Fresh Out of USC, Director Is Living an ‘Amazing Story’

Times Staff Writer

The publicity machine behind the television series “Amazing Stories” tries to portray Phil Joanou’s career as an amazing story in itself.

After all, the press releases ask, how many times does the showing of a student movie lead almost immediately to an offer from Steven Spielberg to direct the Christmas segment of his first television series? How often does someone fresh out of USC film school wind up with a cushy office at Walt Disney studios, three projects in the works there and studio executives singing his praises to newspaper reporters?

But, a skeptic might grumble, isn’t this the age of the Brat Pack, when children of stars become stars themselves at age 8? When entire studios are being handed over to kids who were in the mail room two years ago? When anything that smacks of youth seems to be valued above all else?


La Canada Native

Yes, that’s true. However, even the cynic might look at Joanou’s last 14 months and quietly say under his breath: “That’s an amazing story.”

Joanou, a fast-talking La Canada Flintridge native just turned 24, laughs when asked about whether his life is actually an amazing story.

“I have serious doubts,” he said. “There are probably a trillion more amazing stories in the world than mine. But I’m not complaining. If someone had said to me a year ago that I’d be in an office at Disney and that I would be directing for Steven Spielberg, I’d have said, ‘Yeah, that’s nice and you’re Leonid Brezhnev.’ ”

Now, he’s on a first-name basis with Spielberg and next Sunday NBC is scheduled to air the “Santa ‘85” segment of “Amazing Stories.” Story by Spielberg, directed by Joanou.

With the hyper energy of someone equipped for making Hollywood deals, Joanou discussed his career the other day at his office at Walt Disney Productions in Burbank.

Dark, slim and compact, he dresses in the best Baby Mogul fashion: jeans and sneakers and either a work shirt or well-cut jacket, shirt and tie above. The room’s walls are lined with framed posters of rock heroes Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and a print of a moody Edward Hopper painting; his desk is piled with copies of plays and screenplays, some already famous, some not yet produced.


Dream Come True

It seems clear that, despite his modest protestations, Joanou is living a particular dream come true, complete with a soon-to-be-added secretary. But that dream, like most others, did not materialize without a combination of talent, luck and fierce ambition. And not without breaking some of the rules.

He spent his movie-mad high school days in La Canada making Super 8 home films and worshiping Spielberg. He nagged his parents--his father is an advertising executive, his mother a homemaker--to take him to see Spielberg’s “Jaws” five times. He even tried to make his own sequel until his shark, made of wood and Hefty bags, fell apart in the backyard pool.

“ ‘Jaws’ was really the film that got me excited about movies,” he recalled. “It made me see the potential power of films.”

After graduation from La Canada High School, he enrolled in the drama program at UCLA but kept rethinking plays in cinematic images. So, he transferred to USC and entered its film school, celebrated as a breeding ground for Hollywood.

There, in his last semester, his comedic screenplay about a painful high school romance was among a handful chosen by the faculty to be made into a full production.

But Joanou and the faculty clashed over the length of the movie, called “The Last Chance Dance.” School rules required student movies to be no longer than 20 minutes; Joanou insisted that his story required 33 minutes. He prepared a shorter version for faculty review but later restored the missing 13 minutes for a version to be shown to the industry. That provoked some well-remembered controversy at the school.

‘Flouted the Rules’

“Phil Joanou is persona non grata around here,” said one professor, who asked not to be identified. “The films are the property of the university and he took it upon himself to lengthen it for his own purposes. Yes, he is a talented kid and his movie was clever. And yes, the kid went out and got a job out of this thing. But he flouted the rules of the game and some people took a dim view of that.”

However, some students regard Joanou as a hero because he saw his movie as more as a ticket to a career than as an academic exercise. “Everyone here wants to be Phil Joanou,” said one.

Joanou, who received his degree nevertheless, concedes that he broke the rules. But “the longer version worked much better,” he said. And what he now recalls as a “tempest in a teapot” paid off.

On Oct. 25, 1984, the full version of “The Last Chance Dance” was shown, along with other USC student films, to a high-powered industry audience at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The next day, Joanou’s phone began to ring with calls from agents and producers. One call was from Spielberg.

‘Blew My Mind’

“It really blew my mind,” Joanou said. “Here I was talking to my hero.” Joanou, then only 22, soon met Spielberg. “He asked me all kinds of questions about my film and treated me like a fellow director, not like, ‘Hey, kid, let me tell you a few things.’ That was so impressive to see in someone who obviously has so much power.”

A week after the meeting, six months out of USC, Joanou received the offer to direct “Santa ’85.” He was in heady company. Martin Scorcese and Clint Eastwood also accepted offers to direct episodes of the new series.

Anyone connected with “Amazing Stories” is sworn to silence about its plots. Joanou would only describe his segment as being about a little boy helping Santa Claus through some of the problems of life in 1985.

After six weeks of groundwork, the 30-minute episode, starring Pat Hingle, was shot in two weeks during very hot July weather on the Universal back lot. The biggest problem, Joanou said, was getting the reindeer to run in blazing heat and fake snow.

There was also the adjustment from heading a crew of eight at USC to a staff of about 100 at Universal. Joanou said he closely watched Spielberg direct an earlier episode but received no help from Spielberg during the shooting or editing because the famous producer-director was in North Carolina working on his soon-to-be released movie “The Color Purple.”

“I’m sure somebody will say that this or that looks like a Spielberg shot, but I don’t care,” Joanou said. “The whole world can think he directed it. I just want to make movies.”

Stephen Semel, an associate producer of “Amazing Stories,” described Joanou as by far the youngest director on the series, but thoroughly prepared and professional.

“It’s not as if he came in and kind of figured out his craft while doing it,” Semel said. “If Phil didn’t know the answer to something, he relied on other people’s expertise. But no one came to save him. This was one of the more elaborate of our stories and he brought it in on time and on budget.” The budget was reportedly close to $1 million, extremely high for a half-hour show.

Deborah Jelin, director of development at Spielberg’s production house, Amblin Entertainment, agreed that Joanou’s age was no hurdle. “Phil’s energy was contagious,” she said. “He is really adorable but still emanates maturity.”

Joanou has another powerful patron in Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney Production’s 35-year-old chairman of movies and television and a wunderkind in his own right. Katzenberg saw a tape of “The Last Chance Dance” and thought it showed “a lot of skill and real spark,” he said in a recent interview.

He offered Joanou an office and gave him seed money to write three screenplays: a love story, an African adventure and a New York comedy. The option contracts stipulate that Joanou serve as director if Disney produces any of the stories. Joanou has another option from Spielberg for a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy screenplay.

It was Katzenberg, says Joanou, who taught him the business aspects of Hollywood: “How development works, who makes decisions, what makes this business tick. Film school focuses on making films and not on how to get them made. It shouldn’t. But it is definitely not easy to get movies made.

“I used to make Super 8 movies for $50. Now I’m talking about $10 million to $20 million of corporate funds. You’ve got to convince investors your project is worthwhile.”

Wouldn’t Discuss Salary

Joanou, not surprisingly, wouldn’t discuss how much money he’s earned from all his projects. According to the Director’s Guild, the minimum fee for directing a half-hour television show created on film is $9,964. But he says he’s still a long way from Beverly Hills.

He has enough money to share a Pasadena apartment with one of his three sisters and for budget flights to New York every month or so to visit his girlfriend, actress Helen Slater, star of “Supergirl.” He says he drives the same old car with 130,000 miles on it and still eats at a lot of fast-food joints.

Joanou seems very aware that the money and all the perks of Hollywood could dry up as quickly as they blossomed.

“I was writing at the La Canada library, eating at Del Taco and living with my parents last year. I can do that again. They can take away my office and everything else. I know that can happen. But I’ll keep going.