FilmCraft Screenwriting: Interview with John August
By Tim Grierson
John August wrote his first story, about a boy who gets trapped in a hole on Mars, at the age of seven on his mother’s typewriter. From there, he’s developed into one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters, notably working on several projects with director Tim Burton. Their partnership began with Big Fish (2003), which earned August a BAFTA nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. From there, he wrote the screenplay to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and co-wrote the script for Corpse Bride (2005). More recently, August has collaborated with Burton on Dark Shadows (2012) and Frankenweenie (2012), the full-length adaptation of the director’s cult 1984 animated short. August’s first screen credit came from his original screenplay for the comedy-thriller Go (1999), a funny, vibrant examination of a collection of different characters on Christmas Eve. He co-wrote Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), which combined have grossed more than $520 million worldwide, and Titan A.e. (2000), a multiple nominee at the Annie Awards, which recognize excellence in the field of animation. In 2007, he wrote and directed the provocative mind-twister The Nines. When he’s not writing scripts, he devotes time to his website, johnaugust.com, where he discusses the business and art of screenwriting.
“I was pretty sure early on that I’d be a writer, but I didn’t know what kind of writer. I had no idea that screenwriting was a thing that existed. I went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, for their journalism and advertising program, which is a pretty good surrogate for screenwriting. Journalistic writing is very focused and structured, much like screenwriting. And advertising is a good blend of the creative instincts and the business instincts. Pitching an ad campaign is very much like pitching a movie: You’re describing what it’s going to be like when it’s all done, but you’re not describing every little step along the way.
The first script I ever finished was a romantic tragedy set in Boulder, Colorado, my hometown. It had all of the classic first-script problems: I tried to wedge in everything I knew about everything into this one script because, well, maybe I’ll never write another script. But it turned out pretty well, and it helped me get an agent, and the agent got me started. The script was called Here and Now, and it involved the atomic clock and was based very much on the scientific community that I grew up around. And it was weepy—it was my first weepy. In the script, you think you know what the tragedy will be, but then there’s this surprise tragedy. It made people cry, which was great, and it started a precedent of “John August makes people cry.” I was writing for myself, and I had a sense that some people would like it.
I deliberately wrote something that wasn’t like the other spec scripts that were selling at that time, which were much more high-concept. This was something small and personal and specific. I think specificity is where you recognize good writing: It feels like the writer actually knows what he or she’s talking about and that the characters exist in a very clearly defined world. They’re not in a generic movie world. You know, for the studios, it’s important to write movies that make their concept clear—that you could make a poster for—but this wasn’t going to be that.
When I was at USC’s Peter Stark producing program, which was before I’d ever written a screenplay, we had an assignment to write the first 30 pages and the last 10 pages of our script—which is a genius trick because, by the time you’ve written all of that, you’re going to want to finish the script. It very much set the way that I write screenplays today. I’ve never felt the burning need to write in order. I will write whatever moment in the script feels right for me at any given time. I may not have a physically written outline, but I’ll have a good-enough sense of what all the scenes are in the movie before I start writing. If I sit down one day and I don’t really want to write that one scene, I can write any other scene. There are scenes that are really easy and there are scenes that are really hard, and sometimes it’s better to just bang out the easy scenes so you can achieve a critical mass.
For Big Fish, the most difficult scenes were the opening 10 pages—which establish the two timelines and the nature of the conflict—to make sure it felt like one movie rather than two movies. I knew I had to crack the opening so I could figure out how to get the story started. The death scenes are the kind you push as far back in the process as you can because you know it’s going to be hard when you get there.
While working on Big Fish, I got very Method: I’d stare at a mirror until I could get myself crying, and then I would start writing. It was literally days of just staring at a mirror and crying, but it works—something about that process captures the right feeling. And by getting myself to the point of crying, it helped me get other people to that point. I had done it before with another project, a horror movie, so the process for that was to get myself terrified and then write. A lot of writers will play music while they’re writing, or they’ll have a scent that reminds them of the movie’s world and smelling that gets them back into it. Anything’s fair game as long as it works.
I haven’t really done any acting, but I’ve read the books on acting. When I write, I’m playing all those characters until we assign it out to others. I’m a really good actor internally—I’m not a great actor externally. But screenwriting is essentially watching these scenes happen in your head and then figuring out words to describe it. I’ve always had a pretty good ear for dialogue. Dialogue is basically listening to how people talk and then optimizing it. It’s saying, “If people had an extra five seconds while having a conversation, how would they optimize their words so it would sound best?”
You have to treat every script as if it’s the first thing they’ve ever read of yours. Coming in with a reputation doesn’t give you any free passes. I’ve been frustrated by screenwriters who will get to an action sequence and just write, “Now comes a kick-ass action sequence that will blow you away.” Sorry, but you actually have to write that.
A lot of the time when I’m coming in to help a project, I’m there to get the dialogue better and fix some story problems—but sometimes I’m just there to make it read better. Over the course of a project with different writers, the script gets messy, and it doesn’t feel like a movie. And by going through and spending the time to make everything read better on the page, you give them a better sense of what this movie is that they’re trying to make. Screenwriters are not just writing this for the director or the producer. A well-written script helps the costume designer know what the world feels like, and that’s important, too.
If I’m the second writer on a studio project, then I definitely want to make sure that the first writer understands that I’m not the enemy. If I’m being brought on the job, that other writer is going to be off the job. That decision has already been made. If it wasn’t me, some other writer would be doing the rewrite. But you want to know where all the bodies are buried, and I mean both in the script itself—what are the real challenges with the project?—and also what’s really going on and who do I need to be careful around? I’ve been rewritten on projects, too, and I always want to pass along that information, because you want things to be taken care of as best they can be. Screenwriters can be grownups and talk about this stuff calmly.
I met Tim Burton for the first time in Los Angeles right before he went to Alabama to make Big Fish. It was just a very general conversation about some of the things that we couldn’t afford to shoot and how we could find less expensive alternatives. Considering how many movies share our names, I’ve spent very little time with him. Throughout all of Big Fish, I met with him for maybe two hours, and that includes when I was in Alabama for table readings and helping out where I needed to help out. Most of my relationship with Tim has really been like that: I write something, he shoots it. I’m like a department head—I’m the guy that gives him the script, and then he goes off and does it. A screenwriter loves a director like that. Some directors want to walk through every line and every moment with you, and that’s their process and that can be great. But some directors don’t, and that’s Tim—and that’s worked out well.
When I’m writing, I have to have a sense of what the final movie should feel like. So with Charlie’s Angels, it felt like your dorky kid sister who wins the Olympics—you’re annoyed by her, but also proud of her. I wanted the movie to have a bright, sunny, Southern California feel to it. With Go, it’s the experience of being 22 and picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and everything working out okay in the end. No matter the script, though, you’re trying to make sure every moment can stand in for the whole movie. It needs to be fractal in a way. And yet, each of those moments has to be advancing the plot, too.
Even if Go hadn’t been shot, that script was hugely helpful for me. When I wrote that script, I had already been hired to write the adaptation of the kids’ book How to Eat Fried Worms, which was over at Imagine, and I’d done another kids’ book adaptation over at Dimension of A Wrinkle in Time. Because of those, I was only being considered for kids’ books or things involving gnomes, elves, dwarves, or Christmas. It can actually be really helpful to be typecast as a certain kind of writer—at least then they can think of you for a certain kind of job—but I didn’t want to only do those things. So I knew Go would be a chance to break out of that mold. Studios liked it, and producers liked it, but everyone thought, “Well, it’s an R-rated comedy with teens and there’s drugs in it—we can’t make this movie.” But it got me in a ton of meetings, and it got me hired to write stuff for other people, like Blue Streak (1999), the Martin Lawrence comedy. I got brought on to make things edgier—never mind that I was the same person who they were only hiring for little kids’ things before that. So, Go was actually useful as a script because it showed people, “Oh, you write comedy. You can write action stuff. You can write women.” However you wanted to look at Go, producers could use it to justify hiring me for something.
There are movies that are really yours, and you feel deeply connected to them. You’ve lived inside them for a long time, and they’ve become a part of you. And then there are other movies that are like friends you meet at camp: They’re lovely, but you don’t feel any deep, special connection to them. What’s frustrating as a screenwriter is that there are a lot of those projects that I have deep, emotional connections to that aren’t movies now. They’re just frozen as 120 pages of typed Courier, and that’s really maddening. For example, I have a script for a version of Barbarella (1968) that I wrote for Drew Barrymore. I would love to get that made. But I know that the rights will never be able to sort themselves out, and it’s absolutely impossible to make that movie. But, other things, there might be potential. The challenge 10 or 20 years into your career is trying to decide at what point you give up on some projects.
The most frustrating time as a screenwriter is when you have to do another draft when you don’t genuinely believe in the studio notes you’ve been given. It’s sort of like the doctor’s credo:
“First, do no harm.” You can feel yourself violating that and trying to find the balance between what the movie is that you want to write versus the movie that they want to make. And sometimes, you can’t always find a happy balance there. But if it’s a scene the director doesn’t like and doesn’t understand, he will never be able to direct it well, so, therefore, you have to change it. That’s just reality. If the actor can’t make the line make sense, you have to change it. The real frustration is when the note comes from someone who’s not really the person who’s going to be executing the plan. Maybe the junior development exec has this one note that he feels has to be taken into account. You have to do that note because, otherwise, you’re not going to make forward progress on getting the movie made. But it’s not a good note, and it will not get the movie closer to being made in the way you want it to be made.
When you’re a screenwriter, you’re not the final artist. You’re not directing these scenes. You can put your heart into it, but you have to know that your heart can get broken. That’s tough, and you have to go through your little mourning process. But the good thing is that, unlike a lot of the other jobs in the film industry, you can always pick up your pen and write something new any time.”
Excerpt from FilmCraft: Screenwriting edited by Tim Grierson © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.