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Leads to Spielberg Offer : Student Film Starts a Hollywood Career

December 08, 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 lead to an almost immediate 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 Disney Studios, three projects in the works there and studio executives singing his praises to newspaper reporters?

But, a skeptic might grumble out loud, isn't this the age of the Brat Pack, when children of stars become stars themselves at age 18? 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."

La Canada Native

Joanou, a fast-talking La Canada Flintridge native just turned 24, laughs when asked 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 first name basis with Spielberg and on Dec. 15, NBC is scheduled to air the "Santa '85," segment of "Amazing Stories." Story by Spielberg, directed by Joanou.

With the hyperenergy of someone equipped for Hollywood deal making, Joanou discussed his career recently at his office on the Disney lot in Burbank. Dark, slim and compact, he was dressed in the best Baby Mogul fashion: jeans and sneakers topped off by a nicely cut jacket, shirt and tie. The room's walls were lined with framed posters of rock heroes Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and a print of a moody Edward Hopper painting; his desk was piled with copies of plays and screenplays, some already famous, some not yet produced.

Dream Come True

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 worshipping 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 plastic 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 got into its film school, celebrated as a Hollywood breeding ground. There, in his last semester, his comedic screenplay about a painful high school romance was among a handful chosen by the faculty for a full production.

Broke Rules

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 his story needed 33 minutes. He prepared a shorter version for faculty review but later re-edited in the missing 13 minutes for a version to be shown to the industry. That provoked some well-remembered controversy at the school.

"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 flaunted 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 more as a ticket to a career than as an academic exercise. "Everyone here wants to be Phil Joanou," one student said.

Joanou concedes he broke rules. But he stressed, "the longer version worked much better." And, what he now recalls as a "tempest in a teapot" paid off.

'Last Chance Dance'

On Oct. 25, 1984, the full cut 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, who had been given a videocassette of the movie and, coincidentally, had watched it the night before on a Warner Brothers jet en route to New York.

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