Reidar Jonsson: His Life as a Writer

The Swedish writer Reidar Jonsson is a rarity even in Hollywood. It's not his nationality that distinguishes him. It's the attitude thing.

He admits to liking what he does. He likes the town and the people he works with. He likes story meetings. He likes the idea of options and doing rewrites. He likes projects, points and studio people. He even likes the executives he works with. For that matter, he likes his agent.

In a time when it's fashionable to bite, nibble and gnaw on Hollywood's collective and often meddling hand, he finds the whole process of script development challenging and rewarding. Jonsson, who wrote the book and the 1987 movie "My Life as a Dog" (he received an Academy Award nomination for co-authoring that script) and the recently published sequel "My Father, His Son" from Arcade, is different in another respect. His word processor may be in his Hollywood home office, but his many film and writing projects span oceans and leap continents.

He is the writer as globe-trotter, a trans-oceanic mover and shaker.

Hollywood does, after all, tend to get congested at times with people bearing scripts. Consider:

* About 25,000 new scripts for movies and television projects are registered each year in the Writers Guild West office alone. An equal number are filed away from Hollywood.

* The major studios and what remains of the independents make only about 200 feature films a year, leaving a lot of scripts to age gracelessly in vaults and on floppy discs.

* Worldwide, the legions of Guild writers number 8,500.

* Some 6,400 of them live and try to work in Los Angeles (you could say that almost one out of every 1,000 people in Los Angeles claims to be a film or TV writer).

* About 3,500 writing assignments are made each year in films and TV and most of those go to network, cable and radio news people.

* Three-fourths of Hollywood's writers are hyphenates. They do more than one thing as writer-directors, writer-producers or writer-actors. Only half work at all.

Just to live, let alone flourish, in this town, writers have to learn how to balance their several hopes, careers, scripts and projects.

Which brings us back to Jonsson and his writer wife, Donna Matson Jonsson, and why they may make a difference with their cups running over with a multiplicity of projects.

For one thing, they've formed their own company, Sirius, to co-produce with Northern Screen Productions of Norway the film version of "My Father, His Son." They've completed that script, signed up director Graeme Clifford ("Frances"), are beginning to cast the leads and have lined up a third partner, a Norwegian shipping executive who has invested one of his ships in the project. That ship will be used for most of the shooting, which is scheduled to begin later this year, possibly along the coast of Northern Africa. "My Father, His Son" in large part covers the seagoing experiences of the maturing Ingemar Johansson (not the former Swedish heavyweight champion but the youthful, similarly named main character of "My Life as a Dog." The book is the second part of a Jonsson semi-autobiographical trilogy).

As an adjunct to his production company, Jonsson is partnered with a Swedish literary agency, attempting to bring the work of Scandinavian writers to the attention of Hollywood producers.

But let's not forget the writing part.

The husband-wife team are working on two separate projects, one the script for "North Star," a feature project for Richard Gere Productions and New Regency/Warner Bros. The other is a script for Imagine Entertainment called "The Hunt."

That project shows something else of the ocean-spanning Jonsson, who bought the film rights from a Swedish writer and then got Imagine interested. The story is about some Swedish hunters. "But this is such a universal story," Jonsson said, "that we moved the action from the north of Sweden to Minnesota, where my wife grew up. The same kind of men, these hunters, face the same moral issues in both countries."

The global potential of the written word dawned on Jonsson after the success of "My Life as a Dog." The movie brought international fame to director Lasse Hallstrom, along with several new projects.

For Jonsson it produced only an initial writing fee. No points, gross or net. No writer's residuals. No piece of the action. "I'm embarrassed to say what the Swedish producers paid me," he said. The film, which cost $3 million to make, went on to become Sweden's biggest-grossing film at $24 million and its video version grossed another $3 million, becoming the most-rented foreign film in the United States.

That's why Jonsson held on to the film rights to "My Father, His Son." That's why after a comfortable career in Sweden, writing seven novels and numerous books of poetry along with 13 plays for stage, television and radio, he went global.

He's been here for the past year and a half . . . taking meetings . . . doing second and third drafts . . . polishing. He and his wife have a drawer full of screen treatments and future projects.

"In Sweden, the directors only make films that they write. The writers almost don't exist in the movie business there. So for me to come to Hollywood and go to a meeting with a producer, it's like being alive for the first time. Here they expect the scripts to be done over and over," he said.

"I'm astonished by how many intelligent people I meet in this business. In Sweden, they think Hollywood is dumb. But the Hollywood people I work with are very intelligent. This is a highly competitive system where you have thousands and thousands of people who want to take over the same job. So if you meet a producer, you know the person on the other side of the desk has to be very good at what he is doing."

Jonsson and his wife are now writing partners. He works on their computer in the mornings. She writes in the afternoon. They talk script changes through computer messages. He writes in English. She supplies Americanisms as they move through their story. She handles another form of writing, the checks--"I haven't learned how to," he said.

Jonsson sees himself as a sort of global citizen. His teen-age years were largely spent outside of Sweden as a merchant seaman (a major part of "My Father, His Son" deals with that period). A third of his 47 years have been spent abroad. He sees a universality and a commonality in human experiences.

"I've been working several years on a story that takes place in northern Sweden," he said. "Now suddenly I am living in the United States, experiencing the United States, and I realize that the same problems that were set in Sweden could be set in the United States. I could move the story from Sweden to Alaska or even to Miami. It would be the same experience."

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