This month, we are revisiting a Harold Lloyd Master Seminar featuring Directing Alum John Patton Ford (AFI Class of 2009) who recently visited campus to talk to AFI Conservatory Fellows about his feature directorial debut EMILY THE CRIMINAL which stars Aubrey Plaza and was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Screenplay and Best First Feature.
Ford’s AFI thesis film PATROL premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was shortlisted for the Academy Award®. He has written scripts for Universal, Disney, and Sony, and his highly acclaimed screenplay “Rothchild” landed at number five on The Black List in 2014. We spoke to him about his experiences at AFI, his close-knit collaboration with Plaza on EMILY THE CRIMINAL and what he learned from making his first feature.
AFI: What was your approach to your AFI thesis film PATROL?
John Patton Ford: That was the best, man. It’s such a wonderful memory to me. I actually named my production company Patrol Pictures. It was something I did when I was really young, and I didn’t know how anything worked, and it was just the most pure experience. I was able to do something that I really liked, and I think is inspiring. I’m not trying to be anybody. I’m certainly not trying to make some career calling card. I just thought it was a story that I could tell with great authenticity.
AFI: How did you create a tight-knit collaboration with your cinematographer Todd Banhazl (AFI Class of 2009) and the rest of your crew on PATROL?
John Patton Ford: Positive reinforcement and listening to people, and then when they do something you think is good, just let them know. I think you can go into things with your own ego and your own designs on how you think things should go, and it takes a lot of work to put that aside and really listen to somebody and try to see things from their perspective. Around the time of this movie, I’d written a script that I really believed in. I knew exactly how I wanted to shoot it. I remember giving it to Todd, and he had this completely other take on it. And for the first time I remember sitting back and putting my entire experience aside and just listening to this person. I think you could tell that I really took him seriously, and it bonded us. Then that same thing happened with everyone else in the crew until it became this group project that we were all doing together.
AFI: Talk a little bit about your trajectory from the directing program at AFI to also becoming a writer after graduation?
John Patton Ford: I’m just going to be honest about this, and this is going to be scary and inconvenient to hear, but this is my story. I graduated, we got into Sundance and afterward I sent my agents a feature script which was terrible, and they never called me again. I’m at zero, except now I’m at zero with $100,000 of student debt. I went to work at a catering company. And all the time, I was writing. I knew that if I was going to get anywhere, I was going to have to learn how to generate my own material, and it was going to have to be good. At that point, I understood that no one’s going to hire me because I’ve directed a short film. At least I know how to direct something – that’s useful, but it’s only going to come in handy later. For now, for anyone to notice me, it’s going to have to be via some piece of material. And if they find out after the fact that I had a short film at Sundance, great.
I worked random catering jobs off and on until 2013 when I wrote a script called “Rothchild” which was the first good script I ever wrote. Before, I was thinking too much about structure and what you’re supposed to do. I’d read all the books, you know? I was trying to be too didactic. And then “Rothchild” turned into this subconscious thing where I was just having fun.
AFI: Did you write “Rothchild” with the intention of directing it?
John Patton Ford: At this point, I was just so hungry to stop catering and have a job of any kind that I decided to try to write a script that I couldn’t necessarily see myself directing. At that point, I’d only written material that I imagined I could direct, and I felt that was kind of limiting. Then I had this explosive idea for “Rothchild,” and I didn’t worry about directing it and just focused on writing it. I was just having fun, and it was such a huge lesson that if there’s some creative thing you have, just go do it. Don’t worry about execution. Don’t worry about if you can make it on a low budget. Just go write the thing that you’re enthusiastic about because if you are having fun writing it, chances are people will have fun reading it.
AFI: How did you begin writing EMILY THE CRIMINAL?
John Patton Ford: I went to all these general meetings – 113 meetings in nine months. I learned to pitch during this time, which is one of the most useful things I know how to do. During that time, I became astute at how to pitch ideas to a group of executives. You have to keep it really simple and visual and linear and not weigh it down with too many details. I think as directors we have a vision which can sometimes be too granular and complex, so I honed this ability to pitch to people who work on the business side of film. You also can kind of set these traps in a pitch where you act like you don’t quite know how something is going to go, and then one of the executives can jump in with their own idea, and you’re like, “yes!” even though it was your idea. You just want to bring people in and make them feel like it’s theirs as well.
Even though the movie I got hired to write never got made, it led to another job which led to another. And before long, I was writing a script at Disney and, by this point, I got to quit all my other jobs. I wasn’t catering anymore which was the greatest thing ever. I didn’t really come to Hollywood to be a screenwriter and it felt kind of precarious, so I knew I needed to direct something. I know it’s actually what I’m probably best at, so I wrote EMILY THE CRIMINAL in the little bits of time I had where I wasn’t writing something on assignment, and I was hoping to direct it myself.
AFI: How did you team up with Aubrey Plaza who both stars and produces EMILY THE CRIMINAL?
John Patton Ford: Aubrey is the greatest. I can’t say enough about her. I had written a script that another director was attached to direct, and he and I became friends during that process. He asked me what other scripts I had, so I gave him EMILY THE CRIMINAL and said this is something I wrote for myself and I’d like to direct it. He read it and was like, “I like this. I know Aubrey Plaza. Can I give it to her?” To her credit, she read it really quickly, which is so rare for an actor to do, and then we linked up. I just remember that she walked in and immediately I was onboard, so I decided to rewrite the script and just lean into every quality that I was seeing because she’s so unique and she makes you feel on edge in this wonderful way.
She was also really able to step into her role as producer leading up to the movie. As we were prepping the film together, it was just incredibly useful because she can get stuff done because people know who she is – from getting deals on equipment, to getting locations that her friends have, or getting Gina Gershon to show up, which is awesome. Aubrey will just step in and kind of flex her muscles and do it, and I think she spoiled me as a director because I don’t expect actors to do that all the time.
AFI: Talk about creating the film’s visual style, which was tight close-ups, long lenses and handheld.
John Patton Ford: So much of it was out of necessity because we had about 20 days in LA and then one day in Mexico. There just wasn’t time to do elaborate camera moves in this movie, and I knew that I’d have to have a visual style that would allow me to get a lot of coverage to help in the editing room. But then the other part of it was I wanted to really, really put the audience in the main character’s POV.
Another issue is that we shot during COVID, and everyone in the background is wearing a mask all the time. There were moments, like we shot on the corner of 7th and Figueroa downtown, which is this fantastic location. We were just out on the sidewalk and there are people everywhere and it looks really alive, but the reality is that when you back up and put a wider lens on, everyone’s wearing a mask in the background.
AFI: You mentioned that you wanted EMILY THE CRIMINAL to be a film that watches itself. What did you mean by that, and what did you take away from shooting the film?
John Patton Ford: I wanted it to be something that was so engrossing that you just couldn’t stop watching it. I wanted it to be almost like an airport novel – to grab you really unapologetically and just take you on this ride, and to never really give you much of a choice but to watch it. I wanted it to have that kind of a raw effect upon an audience, and that’s ultimately what I wanted the movie to be. We finished filming in Mexico, and we stayed for like a week because no one wanted to leave. When you finish your movie, it’s this weird thing that you feel responsible for and that you did, but then what you really come away with are the relationships from it. I really think that’s what movies actually are, or that’s what they are for me.
This interview was excerpted from a Harold Lloyd Master Seminar with writer/director John Patton Ford (AFI Class of 2009) when he visited the AFI Conservatory in the fall of 2022.