Mark Johnson has won the most prestigious awards in film and television and worked with the biggest names in Hollywood. But the University of Iowa alumnus also is committed to championing the work of numerous up-and-comers—including many Hawkeyes.
Story
Emily Nelson
Photography
Arts and Sciences Communications, University of Virginia

In February 2019, Iowa Writers’ Workshop student Abigail Carney received a phone call from a California area code. On the other end was Mark Johnson.

“I thought, ‘The Mark Johnson, the Academy Award–winning producer?’” Carney says.

Since graduating in 1973 from Iowa with an MA in communication and theatre arts, Johnson has worked on more than 50 feature films and numerous television films and series, winning an Academy Award, three Emmys, a Peabody, and a Golden Globe for films such as Rain Man and television shows such as Breaking Bad. He’s also committed to investing in the future of the next generation of professionals in the film and television industry—and that includes Hawkeyes.

An impressive list

Mark Johnson has worked on more than 50 feature films and numerous television films and series, including:

Films
Rain Man
Good Morning, Vietnam
A Little Princess
Donnie Brasco
Home Fries
Galaxy Quest
The Notebook
The Chronicles of Narnia
series
Bless Me, Ultima
Downsizing
Breath

Television series
Better Call Saul
Halt and Catch Fire
Rectify
Shut Eye
Battle Creek
Breaking Bad
The Guardian

Johnson was calling because University of Iowa alumni Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess—the Emmy Award–winning duo behind Northern ExposureThe Sopranos, and Blue Bloods—had passed along a script Carney had written the previous semester for their Writing for Television course through the Department of Theatre Arts.

“The beauty of it struck me,” Johnson says. “What I look for in any work that I’m involved with are strong characters. And she’s written some wonderful characters, especially the lead protagonist, a very complicated woman who finds herself back home in Montana.”

Carney, who will graduate this spring, says she never expected anything more of the script than to use it as a sample when trying to get work on television shows after graduation. Instead, she has spent the past year working with Johnson to develop the script and is now sending it out to potential directors.

“I was 26 when I met Mark. Not every producer takes writers who are that young that seriously,” Carney says. “I’ve heard multiple stories about Mark really respecting and supporting young people. He’s special in the way that he gives advice and support and leverage to young people starting out in the industry.”

Johnson spent much of his youth in Madrid, Spain, where many American and British movies were being filmed at the time.

“I acted in a couple, but I was never really an actor. Nor did I really want to be one,” Johnson says.

During his final year earning an undergraduate degree in drama from the University of Virginia, he took his first film course.

“I didn’t know you could study film the same way you could, for instance, literature,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know you could explicate a movie much the same way you could a book. I loved the idea and wanted to know where to go from there.”

Johnson to receive honorary degree

In recognition for his significant influence on cinema and television, efforts on behalf of children in need as the founder of the Children’s Action Network, and commitment to championing and investing in the next generation of professionals in the film and television industry, the University of Iowa will award an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Johnson in December 2020.

He discovered Iowa’s film department focused not only on film production but on film history, theory, and criticism as well. After spending his life in Spain and Virginia, Johnson says the move to Iowa was a bit jolting, but in a good way.

“I might as well have been on Pluto,” Johnson says. “I knew nothing about Iowa before, but I fell in love with Iowa City and, specifically, the university. I tell people all the time that I did my best thinking and was surrounded by the smartest people during my two years at Iowa. It was such a wonderful academic and intellectual atmosphere.”

Johnson remembers two people in particular at Iowa who made an impression on him and his future work: then-PhD candidate David Bordwell, who is now a respected film theorist and historian and emeritus professor of film at the University of Wisconsin; and Dudley Andrew, now a professor of film studies at Yale University who received his PhD and taught for 30 years at Iowa.

“They were studying and teaching all sorts of very esoteric things that I was fascinated with,” Johnson says. “But there were a number of people who had a real impact on me and whom I was somewhat in awe of.”

Since leaving Iowa, Johnson has produced dozens of critically acclaimed and highly honored films and series for the big screen, small screen, and streaming services, and worked with the biggest names in the industry. He’s also championed the work of numerous up-and-comers over the years—including many Hawkeyes.

“I tell people all the time that I did my best thinking and was surrounded by the smartest people during my two years at Iowa. It was such a wonderful academic and intellectual atmosphere.”

Mark Johnson
Oscar-winning producer and University of Iowa alumnus

Among the Iowa alumni Johnson has worked with in the past are David Kajganich, Josh Miller, Lila Byock, Sam Shaw, Vinnie Wilhelm, and Mark Lafferty. The latter four recently received a Writers Guild of America award for the Hulu series Castle Rock, and Kajganich is currently collaborating with Johnson on a project.

He’s also working with recent alumnus Bobby Lamirande on a pilot, helping him land a writers’ room at AMC. And then there is Carney.

“She’s a wonderfully talented writer with a unique voice, and I hope to be working with her on this current project and future projects,” Johnson says.

Johnson says he likes working with young talent for a couple of reasons. The first is a sort of world view.

“The next Martin Scorsese or the next Alfonso Cuarón, they have to come from somewhere,” Johnson says. “Iowa has this great nurturing quality that is wonderful for the intellectual life of artists, whether that be film artists, writers, or visual artists. I hope I can help move them forward as well.”

The other reason, he says, is a bit more selfish.

“I’m always looking for new writers and new directors and new actors who I can involve in the work that I’m doing,” Johnson says.

A series takes shape

Iowa Writers' Workshop student Abigail Carney

Abigail Carney came to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to write a novel. As she prepares to graduate, she has not only finished her novel but also is developing a television series.

Johnson says he aims to build relationships with young talent that will last long past an initial project. That is a goal that Carney says she appreciates in working with Johnson.

“I’ve really enjoyed developing a relationship with Mark and his company that’s not just about this one specific project,” Carney says. “He shares stories about his time in Iowa City and asks about my life outside of working on this script. He doesn’t just treat me as a mentee; he treats me as a creator and writer. But that is part of what makes him such a good mentor.

“And even though I am a junior person and it’s my first TV project, he’s never offloaded me to a more junior executive or had me go through his assistant. I think that shows not just his investment in the project but him really respecting me and taking me seriously as a young writer.”

Carney says Johnson always makes time to meet with her when she’s in Los Angeles, where she lived and worked before coming to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“Last fall, he was in post-production on one movie and in the midst of night shoots on another,” Carney says. “He had this insane schedule but was so committed to meeting with me, even though we didn’t really need to meet. He’s just really, really generous.”

Johnson says there are a number of Hawkeyes working in Hollywood at the moment, particularly as writers.

“I’m kicking myself because I wasn’t more connected with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop earlier in my career,” Johnson says. “I wish people didn’t know about the workshop because I don’t want them muscling me out for talent! But the truth is people are well aware of the Writers’ Workshop, and people who may not have known about Iowa before know about it now.”

University of Iowa students and alumni aren’t the only ones who get Johnson’s attention. He’s also highly involved with his other alma mater, the University of Virginia. There he has led classes and serves as chair of the Advisory Board for the Virginia Film Festival, for which he has worked in some capacity during the majority of its 30-year run.

It was while judging a screenwriting contest at the Virginia Film Festival that Johnson discovered a young writer by the name of Vince Gilligan. The two went on to create the television series Breaking Bad and its spinoff Better Call Saul.

Johnson says he knows that for college students in Iowa City, the film and television industry can seem exotic and far away.

“But the truth of the matter is that you’re much closer to it than you think,” Johnson says. “If you’re talented and you’re a hard worker, the industry wants you as much as you want it. We’re constantly looking for talented, original voices. Practice your art and craft. When it’s time, come out, and if you’re talented and you have the resolve, you will get discovered and become a part of it.”