A Night with John August

By Heather Hubbard

On April 14, 2009, an essential player on the Tim Burton and Johnny Depp team spoke at the Rancho Mirage Public Library. John August showed clips from some of his most popular films at an event with the Palm Springs International Film Society, while also discussing what it means to be a screenwriter. August is the screenwriter behind films such as Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride, and Big Fish, to name a few. He is not only a highly talented and successful screenwriter, but a director as well. In 2007, August wrote and directed The Nines, a drama starring Ryan Reynolds and Hope Davis, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

To aspiring screenwriters, August’s career is an enviable one. It is hard to imagine that at one time, he was a film student with dreams of making it big and writing films that would be seen and loved by large audiences. It’s almost comforting to hear him speak about his experience in the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California where he received a Master of Fine Arts in Film. The best piece of advice he ever received in the program? “The best advice I got was criticism. It was essentially like, ‘No, that doesn’t work, and this is why it doesn’t work, and don’t delude yourself into thinking that this is something that it’s not.’ The best criticism acknowledges what you’re trying to do, what worked, if anything worked, and what really didn’t work. Generally, when you present something to somebody, you want them to say, ‘That’s fantastic, you’re awesome, this is great.’ You mostly want validation. To actively go in seeking criticism is a lot tougher.”

It is surprising, and a relief, to find out that August is not always a fan of writing. Like every writer, August feels the frustration that can come with writing. “It’s horrible!” he jokes about sitting down to write a script. “I always enjoy having written; I very rarely enjoy the process of writing.” He confesses that he does not have the “Oh, I can’t wait to write in the morning!” attitude that some writers have. “Occasionally…the mood strikes and you’re ripping through pages, great, but most days it’s a lot of heavy lifting.” With a novel, August explains, the writer has to think about what shape it’s in, as it is. However, with a script, the writer has to ask themselves, “How will it play out as a movie?”

So how does the Charlie’s Angels screenwriter approach a project? “I have different methods for different projects,” August says. He gets a sense of what the movie is going to be and then writes a scene that comes to him in that moment. He writes different sequences to get a sense of how the movie will be put together. He also focuses on the universal question all writers ask of their stories: what does the character want? He says that when he doesn’t know what a character wants, he’s done with the project. “That’s the time I can’t do it anymore.” Does he worry about having to dump some projects? Not at all. “There are other ones out there,” he says optimistically.

On his website, johnaugust.com, August answers readers’ questions about the craft of screenwriting, screenwriting as a career, and questions about his films and scripts. It is a wonderful tool for budding screenwriters, or even accomplished screenwriters who might simply enjoy August’s sharp sense of humor and entertaining blogs. While August’s wisdom and advice is priceless, he admits screenwriters need to be realistic with their dreams and goals. “I have this basketball analogy…almost everybody can play basketball sort of, but most people aren’t going to play in college and most people aren’t going to play in the NBA.” He also says that it’s not difficult to write a one hundred and twenty page script, “But the ability to write the script doesn’t make you a great screenwriter.”

Despite this reality, August still does what a writer in a high position should do: he reaches out to the struggling writers who just want to catch that lucky break. Blog after blog, he offers his advice to frustrated, bitter, hopeful new writers. As a writer myself, I thanked August for creating such a wonderful, helpful website for beginning filmmakers, and for taking the time to share what he knows with all the rest of us. To which he responded with a surprised smile, “Oh, thank you! Thank you so much.”

John August: one of the most talented, and perhaps even more importantly, one of the nicest, screenwriters in Hollywood.

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