Riding a Dream from Hopkins to Hollywood

By Michael Anft

photo of Emma Needell

Emma Needell ’11


As a young girl whiling away her time on a cattle ranch in a remote reach of Colorado, Emma Needell ’11 could only dream of the world beyond the wilderness surrounding her. That, and watch hours of films in search of some clues.

“On the ranch, we didn’t have TV, but we did have movies. They were inspiring to me,” says Needell. “They made me aware there were people in the world, and that they all had their own stories.”

Now, Needell is living her own Hollywood dream. Her script for a film called The Water Man, slated for production this summer, earned her nearly $100,000 in upfront fees, plus a percentage of the film’s prospective profits.

It also attracted some serious star power. Disney and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films will produce Needell’s tale of a young boy’s search for a known healer who can save his mother from cancer. David Oyelowo, who starred in Selma, will direct the movie and play a key role as the boy’s father.

“I’m very excited, though I’ve learned to be cautious,” says Needell, 28, of her own rising star power. “Last year was the year I learned how to juggle.” While making rewrites for the movie she was also working on original scripts in a writer’s room for Steven Spielberg’s anthology series, Amazing Stories.

Two other Needell-scripted films will look to start production this year. Songs of the Damned, a prison break musical-within-a-film set in 1984, will be financed by Orion Pictures. Mark Ronson, the top-selling, retro-loving music producer, will create the songs. And shooting should begin on an as-yet-unnamed family adventure film for Netflix, with Needell handling the concept and script.

Her success follows several years that involved surviving on low-wage production work, taking an unpaid internship with a producer of several Quentin Tarantino films, and avoiding what she calls “shinecrafters”—the many borderline characters who paint a perfect picture of their filmic visions, but who are more likely to exploit and underpay the unwitting than follow through on their designs. “This can be a predatory industry,” Needell says.

Paying her dues—which made her consider leaving Hollywood after a mere three months there—has given her ballast, leading her to emerge as a Left Coast rarity: a screenwriter who eschews the derivative designs of modern Hollywood to create original scripts. And who succeeds in getting them into production.

“Film has always been about rebellion and breaking the rules for me,” she says.

As a teen, she got caught drinking at high school. Her parents grounded her, but left her one out: attending a summer education program. Needell chose a film academy primer, much of it held on the backlot where the original Pirates of the Caribbean was shot.

Her fascination with narrative and movies came with her to Johns Hopkins, where Needell would earn a dual BA degree in film and media studies and Spanish, and benefit from the mentoring of John Mann, senior lecturer in the Film and Media Studies Program, and Professor Eduardo González, the cinephile who heads the university’s undergraduate Spanish studies department.

Upon graduation, Needell decided to take the leap to Hollywood—where she was immediately chastened.

“I had written five scripts that were awful,” she says. A yearlong UCLA screenwriting extension course helped her to fully imagine The Water Man. It put her over the hump, she says.

“Writing for film is a way to connect with other people. It’s a lonely job. I don’t like the loneliness, but if I can write something I fundamentally believe in, I feel more connected to the world,” she says.