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Leap to Spielberg Show Is Director's 'Amazing Story'

December 05, 1985|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

The publicity machine behind the television series "Amazing Stories" tries to portray Phil Joanou's career as an amazing story in itself.

After all, the press releases ask, how many times does the showing of a student movie led almost immediately to a offer from Steven Spielberg to direct the Christmas segment of his first television series? How often does someone fresh out of USC film school wind up with a cushy office at the Walt Disney studios, three projects in the works there and studio executives singing his praises to newspaper reporters?

But, a skeptic might grumble, isn't this the age of the Brat Pack, when children of stars become stars themselves at age 8? When entire studios are being handed over to kids who were in the mail room two years ago? When anything that smacks of youth seems to be valued above all else?

Yes, that's true. However, even the cynic might look at Joanou's past 14 months and quietly say under his breath: "That's an amazing story."

Joanou, a fast-talking La Canada Flintridge native just turned 24, laughs when asked about whether his life is actually an amazing story.

"I have serious doubts," he said. "There are probably a trillion more amazing stories in the world than mine. But I'm not complaining. If someone had said to me a year ago that I'd be in an office at Disney and that I would be directing for Steven Spielberg, I'd have said, 'Yeah, that's nice and you're Leonid Brezhnev.' "

Now, he's on a first-name basis with Spielberg and on Sunday, Dec. 15, NBC is scheduled to air the "Santa '85," segment of "Amazing Stories." Story by Spielberg, directed by Joanou.

With the hyper energy of someone equipped for making Hollywood deals, Joanou discussed his career the other day at his office at Walt Disney Productions in Burbank. Dark, slim and compact, he dresses in the best Baby Mogul fashion: jeans and sneakers and either a work shirt or well-cut jacket, shirt and tie above. The room's walls are lined with framed posters of rock heroes Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and a print of a moody Edward Hopper painting; his desk is piled with copies of plays and screenplays, some already famous, some not yet produced.

It seemed clear that, despite his modest protestations, Joanou is living a particular dream come true, complete with a soon-to-be-added secretary. But that dream, like most others, did not materialize without a combination of talent, luck and fierce ambition. And not without breaking some of the rules.

He spent his movie-mad high school days in La Canada making Super 8 home films and worshiping Spielberg. He nagged his parents--his father is an advertising executive, his mother a homemaker--to take him to see Spielberg's "Jaws" five times. He even tried to make his own sequel until his shark, made of wood and Hefty bags, fell apart in the backyard pool.

" 'Jaws' was really the film that got me excited about movies," he recalled. "It made me see the potential power of films."

After graduation from La Canada High School, he enrolled in the drama program at UCLA but kept rethinking plays in cinematic images. So, he transferred to USC and entered its film school, celebrated as a breeding ground for Hollywood. There, in his last semester, his comedic screenplay about a painful high school romance was among a handful chosen by the faculty to be made into a full production.

But Joanou and the faculty clashed over the length of the movie, called "The Last Chance Dance." School rules required student movies to be no longer than 20 minutes; Joanou insisted that his story required 33 minutes. He prepared a shorter version for faculty review but later restored the missing 13 minutes for a version to be shown to the industry. That provoked some well-remembered controversy at the school.

'Flouted the Rules'

"Phil Joanou is persona non grata around here," said one professor, who asked not to be identified. "The films are the property of the university and he took it upon himself to lengthen it for his own purposes. Yes, he is a talented kid and his movie was clever. And yes, the kid went out and got a job out of this thing. But he flouted the rules of the game and some people took a dim view of that."

However, some students regard Joanou as a hero because he saw his movie as more as a ticket to a career than as an academic exercise. "Everyone here wants to be Phil Joanou," said one.

Joanou, who received his degree nevertheless, concedes that he broke the rules. But "the longer version worked much better," he said. And what he now recalls as a "tempest in a teapot" paid off.

On Oct. 25, 1984, the full version of "The Last Chance Dance" was shown, along with other USC student films, to a high-powered industry audience at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The next day, Joanou's phone began to ring with calls from agents and producers. One call was from Spielberg.

'Blew My Mind'

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