John Temple, a veteran investigative journalist, non-fiction author and professor in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media, recently added screenwriter to his bio, and he’s transferring these skills into new course offerings at WVU.
Since joining the College’s faculty in 2002, Temple has authored four non-fiction books. One of those, “American Pain,” documents how two young felons built the largest pill mill in the United States and traces the roots of the opioid epidemic. Temple sold the 2015 book’s film rights several times, including to Warner Brothers, and last year co-wrote a screenplay with his wife, Hollee Temple, a professor at the WVU College of Law. Temple was also a staff writer for the Showtime drama TV series “Waco: The Aftermath,” which premiered on the network earlier this year.
This year, the Temples teamed up with Elaine McMillion Sheldon (BSJ, 2009) and her husband, Curren Sheldon, to write and produce a feature film about a West Virginia boxing family. The film, titled "BEATDOWN," is fiction but was cast with a mix of actors and boxers and was partially shot at the Toughman amateur boxing competition in Beckley. Temple co-wrote the script with Sheldon, who also directed.
“Selling the film rights to ‘American Pain’ was a long process that involved so many people and decisions, so it was very slow,” Temple said. “But that was my introduction to film and TV. I learned so much about storytelling and applied it to the books I was writing and to my classes.”
These experiences compelled him to pitch and develop both an intro and an advanced screenwriting class at the Reed College of Media.
“I’ve had students who were excited about film, and I realized there was nowhere for them to go at WVU to pursue that interest,” Temple said. “There’s no film program. There are a couple of classes offered within other departments, but there’s nothing about screenwriting. I felt like there was some potential for this [area of study].”
The Introduction to Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting courses are a deviation from the journalism courses Temple typically teaches because students aren’t required to write true, fact-based stories. The 50-student lecture-based intro course fulfills the University’s general education writing requirement for students from any major and covers the principles of screenwriting, character creation and the structural theories around storytelling, like the hero’s journey. In the advanced course, students leverage those skills in a more intimate 20-person classroom setting, where they work more closely with Temple.Temple on the set of "BEATDOWN" with several screenwriting students who spent the day there as extras in a scene shot in a bar in Grafton, West Virginia. From left: Claudia DiLima, Tess Barnhart, Bailey McCord, Temple and Jacob Taylor.
“You pitch a project and then follow that to a rough draft, and from there you can keep writing on that project, or you can explore a new project, do some more pitching and really get deeper into the process of writing a longer feature or pilot script,” explained former student Bailey McCord (BSJ, 2023).
Because of her experiences in both classes and Temple’s connections within the industry, McCord was able to secure an internship with Story Force Entertainment and was hired fulltime as a development researcher for the production company upon graduating.
“Professor Temple was very open to talking about what other people’s interests were and trying to connect us with a network and build our own pathways to get there,” said McCord. “He was the first person to be like, ‘Oh you want to work in film, let’s get you there!’ It was a very strong creative environment to push people to be passionate.”
Jarret Fox (BSJ, 2023), who now works as an assistant producer for the independent film company Anna Barbara Films, chose to major in journalism because it was the closest thing he could find to film at WVU. He signed up for the introductory screenwriting course when it was first offered in spring 2022.
“I was somebody who was always interested in the film industry and had planned on making that my career one way or another,” Fox said. “I was in that class with people like myself who really wanted to get into film, and they were dying for a class like that at WVU. There were also a bunch of people that weren’t really interested in film, but ended up taking it and because of Professor Temple, are really trying to get into that now. They want to pursue screenwriting.”
Temple hopes to create a third production-oriented class where students create short films from the scripts they develop in the screenwriting course, and he sees the potential for crossover opportunities with the College of Creative Arts when it merges with the College of Media in July 2024.
Prior to teaching at WVU, Temple taught and studied creative nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned an M.F.A. Temple also worked in the newspaper business for six years. He was the health/education reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a general assignment reporter for the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a government and politics reporter for the Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida.
Temple’s four nonfiction books chronicle dramatic stories of American life and illuminate critical current events and issues. They include "Up in Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Movement” (2019), "American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic" (2015), "The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates" (2009) and "Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office" (2005).
More information about Temple’s books may be found at www.johntemplebooks.com.