Becoming a New York Times bestselling author, writing Marvel comics, helping produce a Hollywood movie featuring Harrison Ford, creating TV shows and working alongside Orson Scott Card might sound like a dream for many.
However, these are only a few of BYU alumnus Aaron Johnston’s accomplishments.
“My favorite thing about Aaron is that, if he had an ounce of selfishness, he could dominate every creative enterprise he is involved in,” said Card, author and Johnston’s partner in many projects. “But instead he supports and encourages everybody, contributing freely but not seeking to get his way.”
Johnston’s journey with creativity began early in life. At a young age, he started creating his own movies with his siblings that he would write, direct and edit.
He said he remembers how he always wanted to write and that he loved to read growing up, but it wasn’t until he came to BYU that he started studying screenwriting and realized how hard of a career it can be.
“We had people from the industry come and speak to us, and I learned, ‘Oh, this is actually harder than I thought it was.’ And so hard that it’s difficult to maintain a career and a constant source of income,” Johnston said.
That’s when he combined his love for creative writing and the desire for a stable career and decided to change his major to advertising. He estimates that he has written hundreds of radio commercials. Johnston said he likes writing for radio because radio is the theater of the mind.
“If I wrote it funny enough, and if I communicated the right message, the client would usually buy it, and so I wrote a lot of crazy stuff in advertising that I felt very privileged to participate in, and that kind of scratched the creative itch that I had,” he said
Johnston said life took him across the country, where he connected with a new friend, Card, which unexpectedly brought on new opportunities.
“When they moved in, my wife and I called on them in their rental house, and I think they were baffled by our visit. We weren’t officials in the ward or stake, calling them to new positions. We merely thought we might become friends, even though we were more than a decade older,” Card said.
Card recalled how they developed their friendship through mutual experiences and shared laughs.
“I had the opportunity to see Aaron in an improv troupes. He was so natural with timing, so perfect, that even though all the performers were very good, after the show nobody would be confused if you said, ‘I really loved that one guy, you know, the funny one.’ They were all funny, but Aaron stood out while being completely supportive of everybody else,” Card said.
Eventually, Johnston and his family moved one more time, this time to Los Angeles to work with Card’s production company.
“Aaron was working with my production company, especially helping me by attending some of my meetings with some pretty appalling Hollywood people — and some fine ones, as well,” Card said. “Aaron helped me hold my temper by his serene calmness when the other guy was being incredibly rude or stupid.”
At one point, Card said he needed someone to write a screenplay for his company and Johnston came to his mind. When Card had asked him, Johnston said, “That’s what I really want to do.”
“I think we paid him in cans of tuna fish, if I remember right. Not as much as he was worth, anyway,” Card said.
The same happened when Card’s company had a chance to recommend some writers to create comic-book adaptations of some of his shorter fiction pieces.
“He did so well on the one-off that Marvel hired him to write more and longer adaptations. He also turned in his high-quality work on time. He was a professional — creative yet disciplined,” Card said.
Johnston was also an associate producer for the movie Ender’s Game. He said it was a dream come true to work on it, because it was one of his favorite novels growing up. Through the production of this movie, he said he was able to meet some of his heroes.
Johnston grew up watching Harrison Ford, whom he said he considers the movie star of his generation. “I was even in a scene with him, you know? I was an actor with him. To say that I’ve acted with Harrison Ford is kind of ridiculous, because I had no business being in a scene with Harrison Ford. But it was delightful,” Johnston said.
Johnston considers his big breakthrough to be the publishing of his first novel, “Invasive Procedures,” a science-fiction thriller, in partnership with Card. In his opinion, it was the first work that got him noticed. He said most authors write a series of novels that never get published before they write one that gets noticed.
“It was also the first novel I had ever written, which is unheard of in terms of publishing, just because breaking into publishing is so impossible,” he said
When asked about his secret to success, Johnston said, “The secret is being in Orson Scott Card’s ward, I guess.”
Johnston recognizes that God has been in each step of the way in his career.
“Many of my opportunities, to be quite honest, were just dropped in my lap, were just blessings from God,” said Johnston.
Johnston says the opportunities he had were not necessarily deserved, but he seized them and made the most of them.
Johnston says his favorite work has been with The Garren’s Comedy Troup at BYU. During his time with the comedy group, he met his wife and created many deep and lasting friendships.
Johnston was a freshmen when he started in the troupe, and the experience inspired him to work with creativity and gave him the confidence to do what he wanted to do.
Recently, Johnston released a new series he created called “Saving Me” on BYUtv. Johnston explained that the show is about the idea that everyone makes mistakes they wish they could fix, and who people become as adults is a result of all the small everyday decisions that they make in their youth.
Kelly Loosli, one of Johnston’s coworkers on the show, said even though Johnston did not have prior animation experience, he was quick to give amazing notes that helped with the animation production.
“The funny thing about Aaron is that he is a bit nervous and maybe a tad paranoid that things won’t go well,” Loosli said. “With that I must say, he is super positive, full of ideas, funny and yet grounded.”
Now, Johnston is finishing his time as Director of Inspirational Content for Church Magazines, a department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he has worked in different capacities with the Liahona magazine, the Gospel Living app, For the Strength of Youth magazine, Friends magazine and other media related to the Church.
“It was just a joy for me to create content about the Savior, Jesus Christ, that invited people to come closer to Him,” Johnston said.
Jonhston’s new adventure has just begun, as he became the new Head of Entertainment for Chick-fil-A, another big-name company.
Johnston said that as a student, he never would have imagined he would be where he is today.
“The best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented than you and collaborate with them, convince them somehow to allow them to work with you, and then create something great together,” Johnston said.