Portrait 5: John

Portraits John

  • Portrait: John (Phillip Wilkins)
  • Art: Musician, Screenwriter, Songwriter
  • Known for: Co-founding The Postmarks; Art Director for The Weekly World News
  • Location: Los Angeles, CA

 

Tell us about you (i.e. anything that is significant in giving you identity, meaning, human shape)… If there were three defining moments in your life, what would they be and why? When did you know you had artistic talent/s?

My writing and music have been intertwined since I can remember. The desire to do both manifested around the same time I discovered films. I guess it all started at my grandparents’ house, vacations on weekends and in the summer. The beaches were empty then… miles of sand to explore… adventures on my mind. And, then, I spent one summer on my own at their house. They had an old Kimball organ gathering dust next to a small black & white TV that I’d watch old sci-fi movies on (on lazy Sunday afternoons). I’d turn down the sound, sit at the organ, and compose soundtracks to the monster movies. Nothing too sophisticated, just eerie atmosphere and low tones that shook the organ.

A few years later, I was in middle school. The “cool kid” played drums so I figured I’d learn. I signed-up for lessons at a shop called (not kidding) G-String Music. The “instructor” was holding on to last vestiges of ’70s glam rock: shag haircut, ripped jeans, patches on his jean jacket. He taught me one disco beat and had me play it for 20 minutes while he played along on bass guitar. I was a self-taught everything at that time and decided I’d be better off on my own. A few more years passed, I entered high school and a drum kit followed. I met like-minded musicians, and we’d jam in my garage; soon after, we’d move to a warehouse where we’d spend all night playing music, eating pizza and laughing. It was my first band, but my first “real” band wouldn’t come along until 10 years later.

I’d been writing short stories since the second grade, but it wasn’t until I met the first person to take a serious interest in my creativity that I took my first steps to becoming a real writer. She was Mrs. Goldberg, my fourth grade reading teacher. The assigned book was “Old Yeller”, a soppy tale of the responsibility we all have for life and death. I had seen the Disney movie and wasn’t impressed. Students would take turns sitting in an alcove with bean bag chairs, a welcome respite from the hard plastic desks. Next to this area was a spinning paperback rack. At the bottom were books for the younger grades, moving up to the older readers as the novels increased in page count. And then I saw it… (Did it glow or speak to me? Probably not but it might as well have.) I reached up near the top of the rack, knowing we weren’t supposed to deviate from the assignment. The cover had a magical watercolor painting with a two word title: THE HOBBIT. I snuck it down, used Old Yeller as a cover and dove into Middle Earth. A week later, I was almost done, Bilbo was headed back to the Shire and a shadow descended upon me. It was Mrs. Goldberg. Instead of scolding me, she gave me a quiz based on The Hobbit. That Christmas, she bought me “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”. Most teachers would have taken the book away because that’s the easy thing to do. Her indulgence and desire to truly teach superseded an aging lesson plan. That day I began my relentless journey to read more books than anyone else and, someday, write them.

In high school, I received one of the greatest gifts ever: a 4-track tape recorder (thank you, Les Paul!). It allowed me to create songs on my own. I decided I needed to learn how to play the drums for real followed by guitar, then bass, then keyboards. As everyone knows, musicians can be massive flakes and my friends were no exception. I couldn’t always count on them to be at my beck and call when I needed a guitar part. I’d sit watching TV, guitar in my lap, playing along to commercials, improving solos, learning how to play better with every passing day. Soon, I had amassed a decent collection of instruments, enough to create my own teenage bedroom symphonies. The garage band soon followed, but, again, it was 10 years later that I formed my first real band. We called it Cool Blue Halo (not the Canadian band). We played a mix of originals and covers, recorded an E.P., and played shows locally. And then, I moved to San Francisco…

All this time, music was an amateur affair. My actual vocation was in graphic design and article writing. When I moved to the Bay Area, I went to work for a newspaper in Pacifica, then a large publishing firm in the City. I was still recording music on my own but nothing formal. It was at this time I started writing screenplays. The magazine I worked for had a very long publishing window. Three weeks of almost nothing to do while we waited for advertising and editorial, and then one week of mad scrambling to design an entire magazine. I needed to fill that time, so I started by re-reading some abandoned novels of mine. I realized early on that writing a novel took a certain amount of dedication, stamina and discipline – none of which I had at the time. [Even now, I probably have one novel in me. I know what it is, but it’s (still) not the right time.] Reading those false starts, I saw decent stories. I also realized I loved writing dialogue and story, so I dug up my dog-eared copy of the “Time Bandits” screenplay, figured out the format and structure, and started writing. I didn’t get far, about 15 pages, but it was the opening scene and I liked it. I liked writing in that style.

In 2001, I returned to South Florida and my old job at the tabloids, two months before the Twin Towers fell. I sat directly across from Bob Stevens, a casualty of homegrown terrorism. Our desks, which faced each other, were surrounded by yellow caution tape. A weekend later, I was at the Health Department taking a blood test and learning about anthrax. We never returned to those offices, everyone’s belongings abandoned and left as they were like a last meal at the Roanoke Colony. The move back to Florida meant making new friends. An amazing girl named Liz introduced me to the local music scene and its inhabitants. I fell in quickly, recording and playing with many artists. I took over a local lounge and did a DJ/band showcase night called Popscene (an ode to a similar night I attended in S.F.) It was an outlet for my musical tastes and a creative space for the best local talents. It’s where I met Tim, the eventual singer for our band The Postmarks. Writing took a back seat to my music. I was recording, touring, living a life as a member of a successful band. Each year I told myself the “band thing” would come to an end, and I’d move to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. And every year the “band thing” would get bigger. Around this time, I finished my first screenplay. Nothing that could be sold, but a deluge of indulgent weirdness that got me past the ‘I’ll only ever be able to finish short stories’ fear. I started 10 more screenplays, finished the one I started in San Francisco, and completed a third a year later. The band went on indefinite hiatus. I suddenly had nothing to do.

In 2015, I was ready for L.A. I had some money in the bank, one contact, no job, and no place to live. No problem. After eight months I’ve finished a TV pilot, another feature script, started ten others and met Danny Woodburn (Mickey from Seinfeld). But I still make a living from music. It’s something that will always be part of my life, hand-in-hand with everything.

Do you specialize in one area or have multiple artistic leanings? 

Films have influenced me more than anything. While I have written music in every style imaginable, I lean toward soundtrack music, orchestral and electronic. My writing has been exclusively screenplays for a long time.

Across your life, where have you found your greatest inspiration?

Friends and family, along with my favorite creatives. My parents supported me, even if they didn’t understand it. Giving and receiving inspiration from friends has been some of my biggest influences. And, as I’ve said before, films… I’ve seen a few thousand in my lifetime, and there’s nothing I find more inspiring for what I want to do.

Do artistic talents (of any kind) run in your family (parents, kids, siblings…)?

My mother is a painter. My father owned a construction company for his entire life. On the surface, it appeared he never had any artistic ability, but a peek at legal pads tell another story. He would create intricate doodles while he talked on the phone, almost unconsciously. Recently, I learned he has a dream of creating metal sculptures.

Do you identify as an “artist”?

In this digital age, are you an artist if you don’t create anything that you can touch, anything that exists in the physical realm? If I say I’m an artist, the next question is, what makes me an artist, and I can’t answer that.

Are you in a position to pursue your art on a full-time basis? Would you want to (if you are not already)?

Music still pays the bills, but filmmaking and writing are why I’m in Los Angeles. If I could work in that field, I’d jump at the chance.

If you had the chance to do it all again, what – if anything – would you do differently?

I’d do well in my senior year of high school, apply to USC, move to L.A. and go through their film school. I would have been imbedded and ready to work 25 years ago. But, I know exactly what I want to do now; I didn’t then.

Can you imagine your life without (your) art?

I’d probably be a world-class tennis player or freelance astronaut (if I wasn’t doing all that I’m doing now).

Editor’s note: John’s brilliance on paper translates to his daily conversations and sense of humor as well. I consider myself lucky to have made such a talented friend in the craziness that is now the two to three degrees of separation afforded by social media. From one Miami kid (yes, we share this distinction) to another, I admire all that [he] has already accomplished, look forward to learning more from him, and being able to say “I knew him when…” as his next artistic chapter unfolds.

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