Summer 2010: Features
Writer Mike Sager 78C interviews up-and-coming producer Jordan Wynn 00C
By Mike Sager 78C
Jordan Wynn 00C is kicked back in his leather swivel chair, a headset riding his ear. Out the window the sky is the welcoming blue of a spring day on the west side of Los Angeles; the cool air smells of the salty Pacific Ocean, only a few miles distant. Wynn is dressed not so differently from how he once dressed as an English major at Emory, in a casual green Izod and dungarees. (Okay, maybe the jeans are cleaner these days.) Back then he lived in the Pike house and spent many happy hours watching coeds come and go from the WoodPEC.
On top of his desk, next to his computer, a half dozen baby carrots are strewn haphazardly, looking like so many disembodied orange toes. He’s been living on expense account for the last six months, producing his first movie—you should have seen him before he lost the thirty pounds. Ten years beyond graduation, you crash land in your thirties. You start learning a few things, like the facts that your metabolism gets a lot slower with age, that a little paunch can creep up on you before you know it, and that it takes a boatload of will power to lose the little bugger. Luckily, as your wheels give out, your knowledge and experience grows. You look up suddenly and you find yourself—little you, the person in the mirror, that kid from Phoenix Country Day School and Emory College—in Montreal, Canada, producing a sci-fi thriller that you’d pushed up the Hollywood development mountain from concept to screenplay to financing to principal photography. Who cares if you’ve grown a little gut? Your movie is a reality. Your dream is real. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal. It was directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones (whose last movie was the artistic and offbeat Moon, with Sam Rockwell). Source Code is due in theaters in 2011.
The office is full of books and boxes, the personal stuff Wynn had with him on location. He hasn’t been back long. He’s come down with something; he’s still a little bit sick. He’s just unwrapped a brand-new iPad that his boss has given to all the employees in the interest of saving trees. Wynn works for the Mark Gordon Company. You might not know the name, but you know the hits: Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot, Wonder Boys, Tomb Raider. More recently there has been 2012, which grossed more than $750 million worldwide, and the Academy Award–nominated drama The Messenger, starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson. Gordon is also a television producer: Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Army Wives.
Along with Gyllenhaal, Source Code stars Michelle Monahan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, and a comedian named Russell Peters “who I’d never heard of before until I got to Canada . . . and found out he was like the most famous person in the country.”
All told, Wynn worked on the project for four and a half years, starting with an idea from screenwriter Ben Ripley. Concept was huge for this one: “It’s a movie about alternate realities and time and destiny and all these things—but it’s set in the guise of a fast-paced popcorn action movie. Our conversations were like, ‘Okay, how do we sort of ratchet up this action sequence while still keeping a thriller pace?’ That was half the conversation. The other half was about quantum physics and God and all these weird ethereal constructs.”
Some people might say that going to Emory on the way to a career in Hollywood seems a bit of a detour. But life is like that. When your career goal is becoming a lawyer or a doctor or a CPA, the work is hard, the competition is stiff, but the route is clear. You could MapQuest it: college, grades, boards, grad school, internship, shingle.
Embarking on a creative career is a little bit different. There is no map. You can’t take this road to that highway to this exit. At some point, all you can do is make a hard right off the beaten path and head out across the toolies. If you’re smart, you’re driving something with four-wheel drive. There are going to be a lot of obstacles. But it doesn’t matter, because you are compelled, you know there is something out there for you. You know you’re going to find it. Maybe you have no idea what it is. One thing is clear: you’ll know it when you see it.
That’s kind of the Jordan Wynn story. Which probably should start and end with the fact that Jordan really doesn’t feel all that good about being the subject of a magazine story. He’s a smart kid—thirty-two years old. He’s done incredibly well, worked hard for it, doing his best to combine the two essential elements in the right combination—humble and cocky. He doesn’t want to jinx his good fortune or sound like a little puke. He’s done one frickin’ movie, okay? Careers, as we older folks know, last decades. You can only really judge when it gets pretty far along . . . and sometimes not even then.
Suffice it to say that Wynn is true to his school (as is your faithful correspondent). But please don’t get the idea that Wynn asked for any publicity. He’s just up there in his office off the Bundy Drive exit of the 10 freeway (how are you at your O. J. Simpson murder trivia?) plugging away.
“I loved Emory,” Wynn says, going back to the beginning. “I had an amazing time. My one regret is that I did not take advantage of my education. I was an English major. I didn’t go to class. I could write the papers easily—I’ve always been a decent writer and a critical thinker—but it was the same in high school. Underachiever with a capital U. I think I was too immature to take advantage of my college education. I had fun. I had a lot of fun. I partied. I don’t think I took great strides to better myself, and I regret that. But I made wonderful lifelong friends.
“One of the problems in college was I pretty much didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he continues. “I majored in English, minored in philosophy. Then, my senior year, I took a screenwriting course. It was my last semester, and I really liked it. A light went on.”
After graduation—and after the Sydney Olympics and a long walkabout in Australia—Wynn moved to L.A. in early 2001. “I had no money, no real prospects. The best contact that I had was a guy named Matt Shire—he was a senior in my fraternity when I was a freshman, and I kind of knew him peripherally. His mom is Talia Shire, who of course is the amazing actress who plays Adrian in Rocky. I thought I was going to be a screenwriter, but I didn’t really know what that was.”
For the next year, Wynn found himself working as the personal assistant to Talia Shire. He became even more enmeshed when the star had back surgery. Though he had a free room in her house and access to personal idols like Francis Ford Coppola, the strong-willed Wynn realized in time that there was no future for him working with Shire. He needed to spread his wings. In December 2001, after about a year, he quit—though today he remains close to the kind and still-beautiful actress he says “was very helpful to me during a critical time in my life.”
As a reward to himself, maybe a little freaked out at the prospects that lay ahead, Wynn did what a lot of young L.A. dudes do to unwind. He went to Las Vegas.
You know what they say about what happens in Vegas. Wynn will tell you this much:
After driving into town and checking into the Venetian Hotel, “I put down a ten dollar bet at the Caribbean Stud table, with a dollar in the progressive jackpot,” he says. “I got dealt a royal flush.”
He won $55,000.
“The next day I was playing at the Bellagio and got a straight flush and won another $9,000,” he recounts, shaking his head, the awe still apparent. “It was crazy. It was just totally bizarre.”
After paying taxes, Wynn walked from Sin City with something like $42 grand. Enough to finance his own personal grad school.
For the next year, Wynn says, “I spent from sunup to sundown reading all the things that I should’ve read in high school and college, all these great books. I didn’t have to worry about money; I didn’t have to worry about pressure and hustling and getting a job, like all my peers. I had this sort of space to be able to take the time to educate myself and figure out what I was interested in, the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I wrote a couple scripts, which were decent. But what I learned about myself during that period is that I’m a better collaborator and storyteller than I am actually a screenwriter. That’s a discipline and a craft I have tremendous respect for. But the important thing is to know what you’re good at.”
In time, his self-imposed grad school orbit began to deteriorate. “After a year, I had kind of hit the wall with the amount of days in a row you can stay in your pajamas and read while your friends are all out making lives and careers. I started to get into a little bit of a funk. I started to go a little bit mad. I needed a job.”
Did someone say Emory network?
Wynn’s best friend from Emory, Alex Vouvalides 00C, is another of a good number of Emory alumni in town—he was working at the time as an agent’s assistant at ICM. The calls went out. An opening was found. There was an interview.
Wynn won the job with Gordon as a lowly assistant, one of five or six in the bottom rung of the pecking order. One day, about six months into his employment, Mark Gordon himself called a meeting of the staff. Since Wynn had started working there, Gordon had been working on The Day After Tomorrow. Wynn had never even met his boss. The time was at hand.
“Anybody from inside the entire company who wanted to pitch a movie idea was welcomed into the room,” Wynn recalled. “I was so there. Everyone was in the room. The president of the company, all the assistants, everyone gets their chance to pitch. Mark just sort of went around the room and everyone pitched, and he kind of shoots everything down. It was pretty brutal,” Wynn says, laughing, munching an orange carrot toe.
“And then it’s my turn. I pitch an idea, and he goes, ‘That is a f@#&ing home run.’ Sorry, but those were his words. He loved it, loved it, loved it. It was very cool. It was very cool. And from that moment on he kind of like . . . listened to me. He started listening to what I had to say.”
A few months later, Wynn was promoted to creative executive. He was given a desk . . . in the script closet. “It was me in that closet for a year and a half—just hustling, playing the game.”
These days Jordan Wynn has a legit office, even his own assistant. He’s on the way. Where to, only time will tell.
Reflecting on his decade of experience since leaving college, he takes a long view: “I might not have gotten as much as I would have liked out of the college classroom, per se, but you know what? I took away a lot more from there than I even realized.
“For me, college and my fraternity established my lifelong friends. I wouldn’t be out here if it weren’t for the people I met in college. I never really thought that after college you could move to a place you didn’t grow up, and do something totally different than your dad did.
“In one way I’m a zillion light years away from Emory. But in another, it’s right here with me. They didn’t exactly put that in the catalog, but it’s got to be a big part of why you go to college.”
Mike Sager 78C played varsity soccer at Emory, was an editor of the Emory Wheel, and president of Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity. His first professional writing job was through a Department of English internship at Atlanta’s Creative Loafing. After that, he worked for the Washington Post and Rolling Stone. For more than a dozen years he has been a Writer at Large for Esquire. For more information, please see www.MikeSager.com.