It was while working as a reporter for KARE 11 that Minneapolis native Phil Johnston realized that he was on the wrong side of the camera.
“I was good at storytelling and writing, but I was not the person you wanted standing in the snowbank doing a live report,” he said of his stint at the TV station from 1998 to 2001.
Perhaps he’s just being modest.
“No,” he said with a laugh. “The consultants [hired to work with on-air talent] agreed with that.”
So he moved to Los Angeles and started writing scripts. He got an MFA in film, but his real training, he insists, came at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis.
“Watching the shows at the Uptown was my favorite,” he said. “I remember all the great shows I saw there: ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Memento.’ I went to the Uptown and Lagoon and immersed myself in independent film.”
After selling a couple of shorts and a TV movie, his screenplay for the 2011 comedy “Cedar Rapids” earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Then he came up with the story and collaborated on the script for the 2012 animated hit “Wreck-It Ralph.”
After a couple of other projects, including 2016’s “Zootopia,” he’s back with the sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” This time, in addition to getting a writing credit, he’s also listed as co-director. But, insists the movie’s other writer/director, Rich Moore, it’s not his debut in that capacity.
“It’s mostly just a change in title,” said Moore, who got the directing credit for “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia.” “It’s how we’ve always worked. We’ve always been a team.”
And, it appears, a very convincing team. They not only persuaded Walt Disney Pictures’ animation department — which hasn’t released a theatrical sequel since 2000’s “Fantasia 2000” — into approving a follow-up, but they also talked the corporate honchos into letting them make fun of the studio’s iconic stable of princesses.
And they weren’t done. They got Gal Gadot of “Wonder Woman” fame to make her debut as a voice artist — and sing in the film, to boot. Then they lured Taraji P Henson (“Hidden Figures”) for a major supporting role.
How did they accomplish all that? Just by having the nerve to ask, they said during a recent visit to the Twin Cities to promote the movie.
“We’d modeled the character after Gal Gadot, so we figured we’d ask her,” explained Moore, a veteran animator who was one of the original directors of “The Simpsons” 30 years ago. (“I left after three years because I thought the show had run its course,” he admitted with a self-deprecatory shrug of the shoulders.)
Naysayers in their office tried to dissuade them from contacting Gadot, “but we’re delusional enough that we said, ‘Let’s try,’ ” Johnston said. It turned out that she had seen “Wreck-It Ralph” and jumped at the chance.
Much the same thing happened with Henson, although this time it was the filmmakers who were surprised.
“She’s great at improvising,” Moore said. “John C. Reilly is legendary for his improvising, but she was poking right back at him. John was actually taken aback a couple of times.”
They thought their bosses might object to one scene that makes fun of the Disney princesses’ proclivity for relying on men to save them. The decision ultimately went all the way up to corporate ladder to CEO Bob Iger, who loved it.
“He said, ‘Everyone else is making fun of us; we might as well do it, too,’ ” Moore said.