As a UNT student, John Norris wrote in his journal while eating at Jim’s Diner on Fry Street. He documented his successes — such as practicing the piano three hours a day — and his dreams about composing music for movies.
Now, Norris has made his mark in film in a different way. He was an executive producer for The Help, the movie about maids in the 1960s South that was nominated for four Oscars this year, including Best Picture. Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress for her role.
Norris came to UNT in the early 1990s and he studied philosophy, religion studies and then music. Growing up, he thought he would be a composer, but made Super 8 movies in high school.
He describes himself as “just a kid searching.”
“I was on the typical Denton track, playing hacky sack in front of the Kharma Café and The Flying Tomato,” he says.
“The inspiration I took from these guys helped set the bar for my own goals, even if I wasn’t sure how and where I would work it out,” Norris says.
Focusing on a “broader” form of expression, he auditioned in the College of Music and switched his major to jazz. He played keyboards for the band Chomsky and later formed Tomorrowpeople. He played at the Fry Street Fair, hung out at Bruce Hall and took part in the installations of the Good/Bad Art Collective.
“All of a sudden I was playing music,” says Norris, who left UNT when Tomorrowpeople signed with Geffen Records. “And then I realized how much I hated the music industry.”
The band broke up and Norris moved to Los Angeles in 2000, working as a music editor and composer for the TV show Bette and the movie Fast Sofa. A friend of a friend got him a job as a sound production assistant with Quentin Tarantino’s production company.
“Say what you want about being a P.A. — this is where you learn the rules of production,” Norris says.
He moved into development with special effects guru Stan Winston and began working on financing projects with young writers. Norris worked on the 2003 short feature Chicken Party, written and directed by Tate Taylor, and independent movies such as 2009’s Triggerman.
Taylor had secured the rights to the novel The Help by his friend Kathryn Stockett and drafted a screenplay. Then, Norris and Taylor had to convince Hollywood executives that this unknown could adapt and direct the beloved novel. A filmed presentation they made — along with Taylor’s script — got them funding from Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studio.
With the movie’s strong critical reception, they fantasized about getting Oscar nominations, but didn’t dare to hope.
“Just to be nominated was phenomenal,” Norris says.
His next projects are another book adaptation, Peace Like a River, and an action/sci fi movie, Archetype, based on a short film he produced. He says his success reminds him of those days of writing about his dreams.
“That journey just made me see how far I’ve come.”