Question & Answer with Screenwriter John AugustFebruary 9th, 2006, at the WGA building on 3rd, as part of their "Writers on Writing" series.
Moderator: Howard Rodman
John August is a noted screenwriter of films such as Go, Big Fish, and Charlie's Angels. This Q & A session goes over the beginnings of his career, his various projects, past and present, his method, and his advice for new screenwriters. In addition to this Q & A, I strongly suggest those interested visit his fantastic website, johnaugust.com.
BeginningsBorn: Boulder, Colorado. Very suburban upbringing, Scouts on Monday, etc. (oddly, another prominent screenwriter, Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) is also from Boulder. Also, John is bummed that Josh has not yet assigned him a pseudonym on his own blog).
Attended Drake University, received a degree in Journalism. There, learned "Pyramid Style", the journalistic style of writing that allows the story to be cut off at any point and still stand up on its own. John saw a similarity between this and film, in that a great film can convey its essence in any one frame. For example, Aliens, his favorite movie.
Peter Stark ProgramThe Producing program at USC film school. It helped John get over his fear of Los Angeles. The best aspect of it was the lack of textbooks -- professionals would just come into the class and talk with them. Great benefit was learning "wholeness" of industry, from script to distribution.
While there, wrote short thriller called "Coil", that garnered him some attention.
He worked as a script reader for TriStar. He kept his notes on each script witty to help fight boredom, which helped him stand out. He did so much coverage of scripts, it got to the point where he could read and cover a full script in 90 minutes. His method was turn pages with one hand, "flash" each page (see it all at once), while simultaneously writing with other hand what was happening. It taught him how to *not* write a screenplay.
Here and Now was his first script. Overwritten, "about everything", but good enough to land him an agent.
Immediately out of school, he did two adaptations for money: How to Eat Fried Worms, and A Wrinkle in Time. Then he did Go.
First film: GoStarted as short spec script, then he later expanded to a feature length. The script as it was shot didn't change much from first draft, though there used to be a Linda Hunt character. If he had to pick, John would describe himself as the Claire character (Katie Holmes) -- "Can't we all just get along?"
Filming was behind by 3rd day, so John took over as 2nd unit director. He remembers being amazed by how many trucks were used to carry all the gear.
There are story ties to Alice in Wonderland -- the Miata is the "White Rabbit".
Titan A.E.Many iterations of script had passed before he touched it. 8 years old. His main job required lots of editing. At one point was to be all CGI, and was told "characters can't get wet, because doing water on the computer is hard".
GodAn 11 minute short, actually filmed using the Go crew while on a break. Rejected from Sundance. It currently has a 4 out of 10 star rating on IMDb, which John doesn't understand because he knows for a fact that almost no one has seen it -- on a shelf at home.
Charlie's AngelsWeird and great experience. He, Drew Barrymore, and McG all spent weeks before script was written just talking about how they wanted the movie to feel. General concept was for it to be "about 3 dorks who're good." A positive experience.
Charlie's Angels: Full ThrottleBefore starting, they created a "stupid sequel things to avoid" list, then watched as item by item they checked them all off. Bad decisions were made, and John has mixed emotions about the whole thing.
Big FishHe read the manuscript first, then got Sony to option it (it was sort of "holding" deal on John -- as long as they had this project he wanted, he wouldn't leave them).
John's own father had passed several years earlier, so he felt he would be able to address much of the story honestly.
Unmade scriptsZombie Western: awesome.
Fenwick's Suit: adaptation of children's book. Dropped.
Demonology: sad story. It was a combination of two of John's favorite movies: Clueless and Aliens. Paramount just never made it.
Thief of Always: He did a good script, but was fired because the director and novelist hated it.
"Secret Project": To be his directing debut. Very much under wraps.
Barbarella: for Drew Barrymore, but unfortunately, studio politics sank the project.
Fury: Wrote on spec out of anger following Charlie's Angels: FT. Very violent action movie. Studio wanted it as PG-13, so John didn't sell it.
Tarzan: Current frustration. Wants to set it in modern Africa, but studio wants it in Victorian times. Also difficult is that there is no dialogue for 40 pages.
Advice to Writers / Personal Writing Method
Working with directors
John has worked several times with Tim Burton. Reasons why their relationship has flourished:
Listening very, very important. From this, Tim Burton trusted him.
Ask "What do you need? I'll try and get it for you."
With Big Fish, John constantly asked himself, "Why is Tim interested in this story?"
On rewrites: Be a grownup
Know the issues that concern each person in the room -- knowing this can help explain quite a bit of their motivation.
Decide whether to take ownership of project, i.e. Architect vs. Contractor.
Due to disconnect of time between writing and the final product, watching a film he worked on is like seeing "a kid I met at camp."
When not writing...
Working on web site.
"I can beat myself up with the best of them."
Website came out of frustration from answering same questions on IMDb, and having no good way to navigate previous answers.
How to balance the day: Work 9 to 6. When his assistant is there, he knows it is "work time". Past 6, he feels like he is neglecting family. The new baby makes things tough.
Try brute force, making yourself keep writing. Also, skip to part you want to write next, then come back later.
Tries to write the ending early on, when still excited about the idea.
Two kinds: reworking entire sections, and then just moving commas.
Working on a word processor can give the "illusion of work", for it's easy to scroll by all that text without qualifying changes.
Ask "is this scene needed?" Drop if not.
Recognized in his own work
Daddy issues seem to come up often.
"2nd world" arises, i.e. what Tim Burton creates, or the Miata/White Rabbit of Go.
In 10 years John hopes to be...
Still writing for big filmmakers.
As a director, hopefully will not intimidate other filmmakers that he would be writing for.
Good screenwriters to study
James Cameron: Aliens, Point Break. More than any other, he knows how to convey sense of watching a movie as you read.
Quentin Tarantino: Natural Born Killers. On every page, you know he's having fun.
Often starts by thinking of "a movie about this."
"Sorry this is so commercial, but I ask myself 'What would the trailer be?'" - To know what is in that form can decide whether or not he'll pursue the idea.
It's tough to hold onto the original inspiration of an idea all the way through a project. For Go, he had a mix-tape of music he used to keep him in the mood.
For Big Fish, he made himself cry on purpose to write death/sad scenes.
His first move as a new grad today
John didn't do TV or many specs, but he would now.
Consider television as "just another screen", and pursue it if at all interested.
Don't re-write that first script too many times. You need multiple scripts.
Let anyone read your scripts, and be proud of the work. Of all the people he's met, it was the assistants that helped him the most -- get to know people at your level.
Write a script that can be made for a lower budget than a big blockbuster -- it'll make you easier to hire.
Personal method for writing/re-writing
Goes off along, writes chicken-scratch longhand version that only he can read.
Then a readable longhand, script version.
His assistant to types those notes up in proper format.
Takes two passes on this version, with some time in-between each draft.
Then ready to share.
Before starting actual script, preparation
Write up "beat sheet" of things that you want to happen in rough order.
Rarely returns to this sheet, and allows organic growth.
Don't feel guilty about not writing a section because it is stripped by earlier change.
Final, miscellaneous advice
Dialogue is the way people would talk if they had 30 second pause between each exchange to think of something good to say.
"Pick movies that get made"
Each script is a 6 months dedication, so think long and hard before starting down that road.
Feel bad about un-produced characters, trapped in a script that will just gather dust on a shelf.
* * *
The WGA then thanked John for his time. The Q&A now over, he was approached by about a dozen people. I hung back, ended up being one of the last to speak with him there, and as a result ended up in the same elevator down to the parking garage. There, we had this quick exchange.