Join the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, Jacob Johnston has stayed with the superhero world for years, working on numerous movies and TV shows set in the universe. Now Johnston is tackling a whole different kind of story, serving as a screenwriter for the next one. Prince of Maybelline, which explores the explosive life of an heiress to the Maybelline cosmetics fortune and her surprisingly close friendship with the mysterious Danne. Based on a true story, the film (starring singer-songwriter Greyson Chance) is a unique direction for Johnston to take and one he embraces with relish.
During an exclusive interview with CBR, Jacob Johnston explained how he became the screenwriter for Prince of Maybellinetackling screenwriting from a production designer’s perspective, and what lessons he’s learned from his years working with the MCU.
CBR: Watching their story before this interview, I was shocked at how complex this story can really get. What drew you to the story of Maybelline and Danne?
Jacob Johnston: Yeah, so I had a friend who had a friend who was initially going to be part of the project when it was in its infancy. Seth, the director, had worked with Danne, whose life was based on. Seth had done a bit of work on, not necessarily a script, but an outline for the adaptation of this book. I met them and introduced them… It’s a story that spans 80 years, from the 20s through the 70s and 80s. I came up with my own pitch, independent of the story that used elements , but, obviously, I wanted to fictionalize some things to maybe make it a bit more spicy or exciting. They liked it.
When Seth and I started working together, when I was officially named script writer, I think I went through about three drafts that were all very different. It went from one that was more of a crime thriller [to] one that looked more like a dark comedy. There were elements that Seth answered in every draft, but it just didn’t come together properly. We sat down for four hours one day, and he had this giant whiteboard, and he had written all these things and drawn all these arrows. He was like, “I think the story needs to be this fanciful…” He really wanted to focus on something more uplifting, a story that after people watched it, [they] might just feel good about something in their life.
It’s something very different from what I was working on. For a little while, there was just this moment like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” What he was proposing was this story linked by a series of vignettes, wasn’t it? There was no singular antagonistic conflict, which in screenwriting is one of those things you’re told to do. You have to have that antagonistic element. This is the guideline. The more Seth and I talked about it, the more he sent me this really awesome playlist that he had made of these fancy, uplifting songs that were all instrumental, and I don’t know, I fell into that mental space. I was like, “Yeah. We can do this.”
It’s gonna be an experience. The film itself will be less like this typed linear story and will be something exciting, different and uplifting. Even though there is tragedy… There is a lot of tragedy in the story, but there is always a guideline that you can succeed in the things you pursue… This is the one of the things that intrigued me the most was how much of a time period and the lives of these two people had so much in them. You could probably do a series on the Maybelline family and Danne’s story and not unbox at all because it was almost, like I said, 80 years old.
You look at your career, you’ve had more experience in production design than screenwriting, especially given your wealth of experience with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What’s it like to bring that kind of mentality to screenwriting?
I think it’s very important… Writing is a really interesting process because you have this very complex story. It’s like a trellis, a narrative trellis in your head. No matter how simple your story, it’s all of these things that come together. Sometimes in your head it makes a lot of sense. The thing about the production design is that it’s very similar. You should use the same tactic when you sat down to write a script. This is a research question. It’s sitting down and thinking, “Oh, if this is a period, what did the costumes look like?” Which colors were important? What were the design lines? How can I infuse this energy into the visuals? You just translated that on screen.
You can paint a picture if you know how to talk about the picture. If I’m going to try to write words on a page to put you in an environment, especially if it’s something like with Maybelline where it’s very different decades, and the visualization of what those decades looked like was very different , is not it ? The 70s was nothing like the 20s and the 50s was nothing like… There’s just this navigation to be able to seamlessly jump between decades and generations. It just helps because if you know how to talk about it intellectually, your reader will feel like they can trust you as a writer.
What lessons have you learned from the MCU that you’ve brought to your other work, including Prince of Maybelline?
The greatest thing, especially being at Marvel when it was still in its infancy… I mean, I started Captain America and Thor when the MCU wasn’t the MCU as we see it now, right? Nobody knew how big it was going to get. It was a very talented, very passionate and very creative group of people who came together to do what they did best and not be afraid to fail and not be afraid to make bold choices and trust each other. , to deliver something that will become, now, what the MCU is.
I think the biggest lesson that I will forever cherish from my years at Marvel is that collaboration and that trust. It reinforces why we do what we do in film. You must rely on everyone you work with to deliver to the highest caliber. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts and make bold choices. Because of this, you can build whenever you… Maybe something just doesn’t work the way you want… There will be some concessions where some things may not work as well as some others, but you can learn from it and learn from it. I think it can be translated to whatever area you are in. No matter your background, you need to continue to trust those around you and not be afraid to go out there and make choices that will hopefully turn into the MCU.
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