You may not get a more unorthodox discussion about writing than hearing Steve Johnson discuss it. But you may not meet a more unlikely new writer than Steve Johnson at all! After all, the physical effects genius worked on classic films like The Abyss and Ghostbusters took a break not only from Hollywood for five years but also from society in general, it seemed. And where did he go? Into the jungle to write, surprisingly enough! Or, in his own words, he just "got sick of making monsters for other people's movies." Some might assume that he would pick up a camera and make his own movies, then, but Johnson is more surprising than that!
After being fired off Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are for just being too far outside of the allotted effects budget for the animatronic characters, Johnson dropped everything and went to Costa Rica. He changed his email; he took only the possessions he could fit into one suitcase; he closed up his shop; and he showed up in the jungle without even a place to stay. He fought off monkeys (literally-- he shared that they would often get into his hut and have food fights with each other); he lived two hundred feet above the water; and he wrote what he deeply believed was the next great American novel.
“I went down there and I told myself I would not leave that hut no matter how big the insects were, no matter how hard it got, no matter how many people didn’t understand or how many banditos I had to survive…until I finished the book, and that’s what I was going to do!” Johnson explained.
And true to his word, he did not leave that jungle until he finished the book. But whether or not anyone ever gets to read it is another story.
“Kind of delusionally I thought ‘When I get back to Los Angeles, I can be on Oprah’s show, on her list, and then I can…say f-you to the effects industry, but I couldn’t even get an agent! I couldn’t sell the damn thing…I haven’t seen a red penny from it; it may never be published,” Johnson continued.
But in the end, that’s kind of okay for him. Johnson said he approaches writing now the same exact way he spent so many years creating monsters: he revels in the excitement and the rush of the creative process. Of course he would love to share his work with the world, and he admitted that there were times he got so obsessive-compulsive about it that if he wasn’t going to be a literary success the way in which he was an effects success, he could just end it all.
“Oh my God, do you know what suicidal means?” His tone may have stayed jocular, but his story suddenly darkened. “I actually researched practical means of suicide online because…I didn’t want it to hurt; I just wanted to turn off. How do you stop this? I just threw away my whole career, now what will I do?”
Hindsight certainly is twenty-twenty and only now that Johnson is looking back on such an emotionally tumultuous time can he realize the positive lessons that have come out of it, perhaps most notably that he can’t completely run away from everything he knows but must instead embrace it because it has not only made him who he is today but also will grant him the means to cross over in art forms.
“I’ve been writing kind of very deeply spiritual, but still kind of Stephen King-based stuff, and all of the agents and all of the publishing companies said ‘Look, you’re a monster maker! You know you can get your foot in the door so easily; you know you can sell a certain amount if you write about what you know.’ So what I decided to do was dish the dirt out on all of the celebrities I worked with, because I know people love that!” He shared.
Using his celebrity in the effects world to sell a story about his life and his work will allow publishers to then give him more breathing room with the next story, the novel he has been working on for so long-- a novel that he still admits to tweaking every now and again. He calls it “very close” to being finished and again Stephen King-esque not only in tone and dark elements (it’s about a paraplegic trapped in a stilt house over a swamp as a hurricane approaches…who may also have an escaped convict seeking refuge from the storm in her house) but also in length (“I tend to write six, seven hundred pages,” he said). Even in his fictional works, he is staying true to what he knows after having worked on dozens upon dozens of suspenseful projects that keep their characters in harm's way for (no pun intended) emotional effect.
“I knew the lesson to be learned here is I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid, and I think that what writers do is that they write. The hardest thing I’ve ever done is continue once I started writing. It’s just been an incredible journey…You only get one shot, and when you’re on your deathbed, what are you going to regret? I’ll have no regrets,” he pointed out.
And really, you can't ask for anything more!