John August


Everyone Starts Somewhere

Screenwriter John August wrote his first story on his Mom’s typewriter in Boulder, Colorado.

He was seven.

Years before he would even dream of becoming one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood, August grew up writing poems, short stories, and eventually studying journalism at Drake University.

Meanwhile, he fell in love with movies and watched them constantly – but never realized they were written by a specific person until the day he saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape in college.

Inspired, he raced to the bookstore and bought a published version of Steven Soderbergh’s script from the film.

He re-watched the film, reading along with its screenplay, and realized everything he was seeing on screen was on the page first. Not just the dialogue, but the action, the settings and the details.

In retrospect, August recognizes how naive he was to not understand that movies were written, but it was a life-changing revelation at the time.

“I didn’t know anything about making a movie, but I knew I could write. If that’s what it took to be a screenwriter, maybe I could become one.”

With that goal in mind, he headed to the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC’s film school.

“It was a broad survey of how to develop a script and market a movie,” August says. “A really great soup-to-nuts education.”

The assignment was simple: write the first 30 pages of a screenplay and then the last 10 pages.

“It was a clever trick to get us to write a whole screenplay,” says August of the assignment his USC professor gave him years ago. “Because once you’ve written the first act and the last 10 pages, you’re really tempted to write the whole thing.”

Sure enough, August turned in the 40 pages and completed the entire script that summer.

The finished product was a romantic tragedy involving an atomic clock titled Here and Now.

That script never sold, but it landed August an agent (with help from a classmate who referred him to a producer, who referred him to an agent) and launched a career that has included writing movies that range from Go, to the Charlie’s Angels franchise, to several Tim Burton-helmed films including Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Frankenweenie.

Following are some of the most important lessons he’s learned over the course of his career.

Make It Tough On Your Characters

Here And Now (1994)

There’s no better way to learn than to dive in head-first

Writing Here and Now taught August many things, but the most important was to create compelling characters and then put them through the ringer.

“When you start off as a writer, you’re very protective of your characters because you’re sort of protecting yourself,” he says. “As you get more experienced and comfortable with it you start to recognize that stories work really well when you make things awful for your characters.

Being nice to your characters is rarely the right choice

“Being nice to your characters is rarely the right choice. That lovable little’s great that you love him, but now to tell his story you’re going to have to make his life very, very difficult.”

What was difficult for August, then in his first year in film school, was dealing with his fear that Here and Now would be the only script he’d ever get to write.

“When you’re writing your first script, there’s an instinct to cram everything you know about everything into it, because who knows if you’ll ever write another? Writing a screenplay is such a slog, you can’t imagine having to do it all over again. It’s not until you’ve written a few scripts that the format becomes second-nature, ” August says.

He set the story in a familiar place (the Boulder backyard where he grew up) and admittedly crammed everything he knew about, well, everything, into the story at the expense of real character development.

What the audience got was “a lot of speeches.”

“I learned from watching people read it,” he says. “People would really respond to the emotion. Friends who read it liked it, and I could get about a third of the readers to cry.”

Once August saw the power of his words to evoke emotion, he knew he was on to something.

I suddenly recognized that all writing is like writing a joke. There is a set-up, and there is a payoff

“I suddenly recognized that all writing is like writing a joke. There is a set-up, and there is a payoff,” he says.

“The set-up is extraordinarily important, and you can’t get to the punchline until you’ve established all the points along the way. Both Here and Now and, ultimately, Big Fish were long jokes where the punchline was tears.”

The emotional impact of his writing earned him a reputation early on – John August will make you cry.

“I don’t know who said that first, but I’m fine with that tag,” admits August. “I have a huge appreciation for people who are consistently funny, or people who are consistently scary. So, to be a person who hopefully can certainly get you to an emotional place, that would be a terrific thing.

“I don’t think it’s the only thing I do and certainly most of the scripts I work on have no tears anywhere near them, but I’m happy to have had a few with that impact.”

Push Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Go (1999)

The lessons August learned about pushing characters into difficult circumstances would influence another script he started while at USC - the frenetic 1999 drug- dealing dark comedy Go

Go was very much an effort to push beyond what I was comfortable with as a writer,” he says.

The film, inspired by stories about the off-the-clock activities of workers at the infamous “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ralph’s” grocery store on Sunset Blvd., was set in the heart of Hollywood – far removed from the Boulder backdrop of his first screenplay.

While August took what he had learned about putting characters in peril from his earlier work, he found himself exploring new territory as well.

Go was really about writing the movie I wanted to see ,” he says.

The script’s creation couldn’t have been further from how he wrote his first screenplay.

“I wrote this little script as a short for a friend at USC to direct, and that was the first third of Go,” he says. “It was just this story of Ronna trying to pull off this tiny little drug deal at Christmas.”

That friend, Jim Whitaker (who is now a producer), ended up with a good development job and never had the time to direct the short film.

But other friends read August’s script, liked it, and encouraged him to flesh it out into a feature-length film.

Easier said, than done.

“I had a good sense about what all the characters were doing that night, but I couldn’t just expand the story from the inside out – all the tension would escape,” says August. “The idea of restarting the story twice and following the different threads was born of necessity. 

“I’d seen overlapping narratives in movies like Rashomon. And then Pulp Fiction came out. It suddenly became an acceptable technique to try. I wrote the rest of the script, and it turned out really well. It very much became the movie we shot.”

August attributes the success of the script to Go to letting its characters loose.

“The characters in Here and Now are incredibly well-behaved. They follow the rules and do exactly what we expect they’ll do. Even if you like the characters, it’s not especially interesting. At best, it’s pleasant.

Katie Holmes as Claire Montgomery in Go

“With Go, I let the characters drive. They’re trying to make tiny drug deals, dance and get laid. They don’t care what anyone thinks. In most ways, they’re totally opposite of me. The character I identify most closely with in Go is Claire (Katie Holmes), because she gets dragged into the adventure and ends hooking up with the hot bad boy. That was my experience of being in my early 20s.”

A small production company called Banner acquired August’s script for a very small fee, but agreed to make him a producer on the project.

Together, they brought on director Doug Liman (fresh off of Swingers), assembled a cast, and moved forward with what would become August’s first produced screenplay.

“That was really the start of everything in terms of my film career because it was my first experience looking at what I’d written on the page, what the process is like getting that filmed, and getting that through the editing room and on to the big screen,” he says.

Sarah Polley as Ronna Martin in Go

The experience also taught August to be mindful of the realities of production. For example, Go is set almost entirely at night — which mean 22 long nights of filming, forcing the crew to have their lives flipped upside down.

“You want to kill the writer!” August jokes.

But, August wasn’t laughing when he saw the first version of Go. It was then he learned another valuable lesson.

“I remember watching the first cut of the movie and feeling like it was so bad that it would hugely hurt my career,” August told the Huffington Post “The lesson was that the first cut of every movie is awful,” he says.

He also learned not to worry about structural complexity being confusing. 

As long as the audience is engaged and as long as the audience is curious with you, they will follow you almost anywhere the story wants to go

“As long as the audience is engaged and as long as the audience is curious with you, they will follow you almost anywhere the story wants to go,” he says.

Put Yourself In Your Screenplay

Big Fish (2003)

The next lesson in August's career was a personal one

While August learned from Here and Now to make things tough on his characters and Go taught him to push beyond his comfort zone, his 2003 adaptation of the “strange little book” Big Fish would teach him a much more personal lesson about writing.

On the heels of Go, Columbia Pictures bought the rights to the book for the then 29-year-old August to adapt at his request.

“I think they felt they were doing me a favor by letting me try to do it,” says August. “It was a really small, really expensive movie and these are the last things they want to make.”

As a result, the studio put together “an extraordinary short list” of directors for the project.

“When we were able to go to Tim Burton, they were excited to make it with him because they saw a potential in it which they hadn’t seen before,” says August. “Having a director of Tim’s scale made the movie possible.”

But August still had to crack the screenplay which was no easy task.

The wildly creative novel is about a larger-than-life man adored by everyone, including animals and giants. Yes, giants.

As he is dying, the man’s son decides to recreate part of his life to better understand him, which isn’t easy because the father loves to talk in tall tales.

August was attracted to the story in part due to its stranger-in-a-strange-land conundrum, something that’s emerged as a theme in his work.

“The common theme of most of my movies is characters torn between two worlds,” he says. “They start in very normal worlds, then they go off into a second world and have to figure out that second world.

“Even something like Big Fish, which starts off in a naturalistic way with this family drama, most of the story is taking place in the father’s imagination. And it’s a son trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not real.”

The common theme of most of my movies is characters torn between two worlds

While the story’s theme matched August’s writing tendencies, he still had to write a screenplay that needed to include some not-so-subtle elements that weren’t in the novel. 

In doing so, he looked to draw from his own experiences.

“I really put myself in the book,” he says. “I gave the son my age and my background because it was easier for me to keep track of the timelines that way.

“My dad wasn’t anything like Edward Bloom, but I had the same questions about him that Will does in the movie. I could predict him, but I did not fundamentally understand what was happening in his head. We were strangers who knew each other very well.

Ironically, as August currently works on an upcoming Big Fish musical adaptation he’s found that his ability to connect to the father character has changed.

August also found an interesting way to tap into the emotional elements of a story about a dying father – he would go to a mirror and make himself cry before writing an emotional scene.

“For better or worse, I’ve always been about 20 seconds away from tears at any given moment - it’s just how I’m wired,” says August. “It’s not that I have had a particularly awful and traumatic life, but I have a good well of things to go to when I need to have those emotions.

“I’m not an actor. I can’t externalize characters the way great actors can. Internally, though, I’ve built out the entire world of the movie: the locations, the scenes, the characters. For Big Fish, I could put myself in the place of Will Bloom as he’s trying to talk his father through those last moments of his life. It’s really easy to get to those tears.”

It’s a technique that August has learned to apply in a variety of different ways – not just for writing emotional moments.

“To some degree, it’s Method writing. I will deliberately scare myself silly when I’m writing a horror sequence, or get amped up for an action sequence,” he says. “It makes me feel what it feels like to be in that space. You pick different words and focus on different things based on your mental state.”


Think Like A Department Head

Frankenweenie (2012)

Big Fish’s success led August to a relationship with Burton that has resulted in several collaborations

His next lesson came on the 2012 stop-motion animated Frankenweenie. Inspired by a live-action short film a young Burton had made at Disney in 1984, Frankenweenie is a dark, but playful tale in which children discover how to make their dead pets come back to life.

His work with Burton has taught August the importance of thinking bigger when it comes to his responsibilities on a project.

“Tim treats everybody who works with him on a movie as a professional who’s fully responsible for his or her job,” says August. “In writing a movie that Tim is going to direct, I very much write it like the department head in charge of writing. I’m looking for what I can do that will help Tim make the best possible movie.”

This mindset influenced his approach to writing the film.

I’m looking for what will get him excited about shooting this scene

“I’m looking for what will get him excited about shooting this scene,” says August. “That’s a great perspective to be able to approach as a writer because I’m not writing for some imaginary director; I’m writing for a director whose taste I know and can somewhat anticipate.”

This department head mindset also played itself out in a series of brief, but productive, meetings August had with Burton.

“You don’t have long meetings with Tim,” says August. “You have very short, very focused sessions where you describe what you think you can do. He gives you feedback and guidance on what’s important to him. And then you just go off and do it.

“Our meeting for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an iced tea at a hotel. I described my relationship to Roald Dahl whom I’d written to in third grade. Dahl had written me a postcard back, and I still have that postcard.”

August continued about Burton, “I described the general arc of where I saw the movie going and he said, ‘Yes, do that.’ That was the extent of the conversation. Once you know what’s important to Tim, you’re off and running.”

The importance of thinking like a department head was especially vital to August’s work on Frankenweenie because of the added complications of writing an animated film.

“In animation, what would normally be the process of production is this multi-process of the story department,” he explains. “The story department is taking my script and figuring out shot by shot, scene by scene, how everything is going to fit together and they’re doing these illustrated story boards to figure everything out.”

But that process requires more collaboration and flexibility than a live-action film might.

“Sometimes, the process of storyboarding reveals new possibilities,” says August. “In Frankenweenie, I’d written a very complicated chase sequence. As they started to break it into boards, they found funnier, smarter ways to do it.

“Writers coming from live-action often bristle at animation, because so many more people have their fingerprints on the story. You’re constantly being challenged and second-guessed, or forced to rethink something that isn’t working in pencil tests. But with great collaborators, you can end up with something greater than any single person’s vision.”

One of the biggest challenges August faced in writing Frankenweenie also contributed to one of the biggest lessons he learned from the project – the value of knowing where your story is going before you start writing.

“I only had three weeks to write it,” says August. “That’s all the time I needed because I knew what the story was like. I knew exactly what it’s like to be that boy with the dog. I had my own dog who was sitting at my feet as I was writing it, and I could see the whole story from his perspective.”

In some ways, his experiences had come full circle as he once again was able to draw on those lessons he had first learned when his professor asked him to write the last 10 pages of his first screenplay.

“By knowing where the movie is going to end, you can make some much smarter choices about how you’re doing the middle and the beginning,” says August. “If you’re planning a road trip, you have to know where you want to end up. And then you can take really fascinating ways to get there. But it’s important you actually get to the place where you’re trying to go.”

It remains to be seen where August will take audiences next, but it’s clear he’ll continue to learn valuable lessons along the way.