Fayette County

Veteran journalist John Winn Miller finds ‘magic’ in helping make movies

John Winn Miller posed with the poster for the movie he recently produced, “Band of Robbers.”
John Winn Miller posed with the poster for the movie he recently produced, “Band of Robbers.” palcala@herald-leader.com

John Winn Miller of Lexington disputes novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that there are no second acts in American lives.

His busy 63 years have included a stint as a foreign correspondent in Rome, a decade as a reporter and editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader, and several years at top newspaper positions in Pennsylvania, Florida, Washington state and New Hampshire.

He has planned to retire a few times but says he keeps “stumbling onto something else.”

Since 2010, Miller has added a new title to his lengthy résumé — movie producer.

On Jan. 15, he will see the third movie he has helped produce become the first to get a major theatrical release.

Band of Robbers is a 95-minute comedy adventure that is a modern retelling of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as petty criminals in their 30s looking for one big score. It is scheduled to play in theaters in 11 cities.

Miller, who says he has a “nanosecond” part in it, is listed as one of the executive producers of the movie, which was filmed in August 2014 in and around Los Angeles.

The movie premiered June 13 to a sold-out theater at the Los Angeles Film Festival, including an encore screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it received positive audience and press response.

Critics called it “wonderfully absurd” and “a miraculous balancing act of broad humor, homage, and heart,” and something that “would make Mark Twain proud.”

Miller calls the movie “very much family.” His wife, Margo Miller, also was an executive producer. Brothers Adam and Aaron Nee co-wrote and co-directed the film. Adam stars in the movie as Tom Sawyer and is married to the Millers’ daughter, Allison Miller, a TV and movie actress.

As an executive producer for what he said was a “low-budget” film, Miller said his primary job was to raise money. But he served a multitude of purposes during filming — driving actors, holding umbrellas and making coffee runs.

He said he “basically did any grunt work that needed doing.”

The roles Miller performed for Band of Robbers were more extensive than for his first two movies — Armed Response, about security company owners who rob houses, and Hitting the Cycle, about a washed-up baseball player who returns home for the first time in 15 years to confront his dying father. The latter was shot entirely in Lexington. It features and was written and directed by native J. Richey Nash, son of University of Kentucky basketball legend Charles “Cotton” Nash. Both movies are on DVD.

A fringe benefit of Miller’s role as an executive producer is the chance to work with major stars. Band of Robbers features Stephen Lang of Avatar fame and Melissa Benoist, who plays the lead role in CBS’ Supergirl. Other well-known actors in Miller’s movies include Alan Arkin, Ving Rhames and Bruce Dern, with whom Miller spent two days.

Making movies is tedious work, said Miller. “You take 100 hours of film and get it down to 90 minutes,” he said. “It truly is a miracle for it all to come together.”

He described the overall experience as “magical.”

So what is Miller’s “next act?”

“I have no idea,” he said during a recent interview.

He now is working as a journalist in residence at the University of Kentucky. He taught a course during the fall semester with veteran journalist Al Cross about covering the governor’s race and is a consultant to small newspapers.

His “big dream” is making one of the three screenplays he has written into a movie.

One is about a rogue Merchant Marine who tries to rescue a Jewish family out of Amsterdam in the days before the United States entered World War II. Another deals with a popular baseball coach whose house burns down, and the question arises whether he set the fire. The third involves a journalist who finds a pattern to strange shootings in the state.

“There are second acts in America,” Miller said.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics