Bruce D. Johnson '67
What does it take for a midwestern boy to survive in the Hollywood filmmaking industry? After studying American literature and history in college and creative writing and film in grad school, but with no formal experience, Bruce and his wife decided to move to California and “give it a go.”
Giving Hollywood A Go
Bruce began attending MA his sophomore year. “I did not realize it at the time, but my three high school English teachers, Mr. Nordstrom, Ms. Huck and Mrs. Westafer, had a definite influence on my career direction. Mrs. Westafer recognized my ability as a young writer and her encouragement steered me towards literature and writing.” He remembers a great class called Modern Problems that Harlan Christianson co-taught with Paul Swanson. “We got into subjects like the Vietnam War and civil rights, and the role of youth in America at that time. It was the late 1960’s – there was a lot of counter-culture activity and, looking back, we dealt with some of those issues in a very intelligent way. That class helped to teach us critical thinking.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Minnesota Morris, then took a little time to travel Europe and contemplate a career. After enrolling at Northwestern University (IL) and earning a Master’s in English with a teaching certificate, he taught English for a year and took additional classes at Northwestern in film, TV writing, and English which led to a multi-disciplinary PhD in English, Radio, TV and Film, and Education. His professor of “Writing for TV” encouraged him in his writing skills. “At the time, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, career-wise, but by then I was intensely interested in writing and in film. I got married during my last year of graduate school and we decided to move to California and give Hollywood a shot. I was intrigued to see if I could make it in the industry.”
Can I Make It In the Industry?
Bruce’s first job in California was making documentaries and educational films for a small company in Hollywood. It took him about six months to find a job--he did not know anyone and “I was just grateful for the job.” He won some awards for his work and began to learn filmmaking from the inside. “Even though I had taken classes in filmmaking, there’s no substitute for learning on the job.” He became a filmmaker, and a writer-producer-director. Along the way, he met a documentarian who introduced him to Joe Barbera, the co-founder of Hanna-Barbera Productions, the large animation studio. “I was interested in family entertainment, even though I didn’t have any training in animation. And I still can’t draw! However, I knew how to write, how to direct, and how to tell stories visually.” He got a job there developing new programs, working on re-makes of such legendary cartoons as Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, The Flintstones and others. Bruce worked at Hanna-Barbera for ten years, the last three of which were spent working for Turner Entertainment helping to launch the Cartoon Network in the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia.
Porchlight Entertainment And Foxfield Entertainment
“When I left, I wanted to get back to my producing and creative work, so I formed Porchlight Entertainment in 1994. We had a nice long run and produced a lot of animated series like Adventures from The Book of Virtues, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, and Tutenstein, along with several movies.” When Porchlight was sold in 2010, he formed an independent production company called Foxfield Entertainment and over the last ten years, he’s been developing and producing various television movies and specials. (You can check out his movies at www.foxfieldentertainment.com, or at www.imdb.com under Bruce D. Johnson.)
While he has been involved with a variety of general entertainment, Bruce has always gravitated toward projects that have socially redeeming themes and characters. “I see myself as a storyteller,” he says. “And I’m drawn to stories that have a deeper meaning, where characters have to overcome challenges, be they spiritual or cultural or emotional. I like producing stories with powerful, redemptive themes such as forgiveness, courage, or perseverance… stories that I hope will resonate with audiences for a long time.”
Bruce has always had a strong work ethic, which he attributes to his father, and has strived for excellence in whatever project he does. Growing up, he had a strong foundation of faith and family, and MA was an extension of his upbringing. In an academic setting, MA reinforced the values and the faith that were present at his home. “MA had a nurturing impact, without question. Those values stay with you through thick and thin for the rest of your life.”
He also values his experience playing sports at MA. “I didn’t know it at the time, but playing team sports like soccer, basketball and baseball – with tremendous coaches like Guido Kauls and Wendell Carlson – was great training for me since producing is basically a ‘team sport,’ where lots of people contribute to making a program work.” He also acknowledged his training in music. “As a kid, you never know which experiences will prove to be valuable, but music is a big part of every production, and everything I know about music I learned from Harry Opel and being a member of the Singers.”
What's still on Bruce's Bucket List?
What is still on his bucket list? “I would love to direct a large budget feature film. I’ve produced a lot of mid-range projects, and there’s a huge difference in size between TV and film.” Personally, he would love to play a round of golf at the Augusta National, and at St. Andrews. He would like to travel and see some off-the-beaten-path places in the world. “There are plenty of things left for me to do--that’s for sure.”
Bruce, like many alums, values the relationships formed at Minnehaha. “Even though I live in California and have pursued my career out here, I’m still in contact with many of my classmates. It’s a very strong bond: here we are, 50-some years later and I can pick up the phone or do a zoom call and there is absolutely no gap. We pick up right where we left off. That bond is just as strong now as it was when we were 18.”