While in film school in New York City, Craig Johnson of Bellingham and a college friend, Mark Heyman, worked on a film script with the goal of winning admission to a writing program at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. They never got in, but last January their script for “The Skeleton Twins” won a coveted best screenplay award at the Sundance Film Festival.
“That’s sweet justice,” Johnson said Tuesday, Sept. 17, from Los Angeles, where he now lives and was preparing to attend a film festival in Hong Kong for “Skeleton Twins” and other Sundance films.
“Skeleton Twins” stars “Saturday Night Live” comedy veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in highly praised serious performances. The movie, which has won strong reviews and big crowds in limited release, goes nationwide Sept. 26.
A special showing Oct. 10 at Bellingham’s Pickford Film Center will benefit the Whatcom Center for Early Learning, where Johnson’s mother, Julee, was a parent volunteer and then a staff member for many years. Craig’s younger brother, Eric, 33, has autism and benefited from programs offered by the center.
“It’s an organization that’s near and dear to my heart,” Johnson said. “I feel privileged to present something that can help them in a fundraising capacity.”
The early success for “Skeleton Twins” is heady territory for Johnson, 38. He’s had to buy extra clothes for his busy slate of premiers, media events and film festivals.
Johnson was born and raised in Bellingham, the son of Steve and Julee Johnson. “Skeleton Twins” is only his second movie as a director, but he’s been into movies and acting since he was a child.
His mother recalls that Craig played an ugly stepsister in his preschool’s production of “Cinderella.” More telling, Craig would tell stories to his father, who would write the stories down and type them up for his son.
“These stories were always based on the ‘Star Wars’ movies,” Julee Johnson said. “That is what he loved.”
A child of the ’80s, he also loved such movies as “Gremlins” and “The Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“I remember being obsessed with movies from an early, early age,” Johnson said.
In time, he began writing original stories, and became active in the local theater scene, appearing on stage at Bellingham Theatre Guild and at Sehome High School, where he graduated in 1994.
Four years later he graduated from the University of Washington as a theater major. He then spent several years in the Seattle area doing theater work, sketch comedy, and holding down a day job as an educational presenter for Pacific Science Center.
Script brewed over time
In 2002, Johnson began studying filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. That’s where he became friends and a co-writer with Heyman, who went on to co-write the screenplay for the Oscar-winning “Black Swan.”
Over many cups of coffee, Johnson and Heyman worked on a script about a relationship between a student and a teacher. In time, the story focused more on the student and his sister. However the script sat for awhile when Johnson and Heyman went on to other projects.
Johnson directed his first movie, “True Adolescents,” his master’s thesis film, taught filmmaking to students and wrote scripts, none of which have become movies, yet. After “True Adolescents” came out in 2009, he dusted of the script for “Skeleton Twins.”
The movie explores the relationship between estranged siblings Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig). Their father committed suicide when they were teenagers, and both have problems of their own that have left them pondering — and in Milo’s case, attempting — suicide. Maggie takes Milo into her home after he slashes his wrists.
A somber topic, to be sure, but reviewers agree that Hader and Wiig bring their comedic chemistry to the forefront as they reconnect as siblings and cope with their less-than-happy lives.
Johnson said Hader’s and Wiig’s characters’ shared sense of humor reflects, in part, his relationship with his sister, Kristin, 35.
“We’re both pretty good at laughing at the dark stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot of personal stuff in the movie, and yet it’s not overtly autobiographical.”
As a former actor, Johnson said he wasn’t nervous directing Hader, Wiig and the movie’s other stars, including Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell of TV’s “Modern Family.”
“I consider myself an actors’ director,” he said. “I was just excited about working with these great actors.”
He’s already thinking about his next movie, possibly something akin to “Poltergeist” or “Arachnophobia,” a scary tale about a small community dealing with the supernatural.
The fact that he can look forward to making another film is perhaps the best thing to flow from his work on “Skeleton Twins.”
“I feel like I’ll definitely be able to make another movie,” Johnson said. “That’s all you want as a filmmaker.”