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Exclusive: John August Talks Frankenweenie, Big Fish Musical, More

Screenwriter John August made a name for himself with 1999’s hyperkinetic “Go,” which hop-scotched back and forth in time in colorfully detailing intertwining stories surrounding a drug deal gone bad. Plenty of other high-profile work followed, including a series of lucrative polishes on studio flicks, but August has become most synonymous with director Tim Burton, working with him on five films over the past decade. Their latest collaboration is the 3-D, stop motion-animated “Frankenweenie,” a delightful little curio about a boy, Victor, who endeavors to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life following his untimely death. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had the chance to speak to August one-on-one, about “Frankenweenie,” his history of collaboration with Burton, his eponymous website, and his years of work on the book for the musical version of “Big Fish.” The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: This is perhaps a weird or somewhat esoteric question, but you were involved early in your career on “Titan A.E.,” an animated film that, for better or worse, was perceived as a troubled production. It wasn’t very well received at the box office, and one of the reasons, I remember in the post-mortem, was this discussion or perception of it as being too much of a “boys’ movie.” Granted, I know these are very different films, but in your experience has the mandate changed with respect to big-budget animated tales?

John August: I’m maybe not the best person to answer because I came into “Titan A.E.” to do a little bit of quick dialogue work. I had already made “Go,” and they wanted the characters to be a little edgier, a little more like “Go.” So I was like, “OK, I’ll do that.” (laughs) And in the four weeks I worked on it, there were literally three directors. So it was a challenging production, and I’m happy with how the movie turned out but it wasn’t a close affinity for me. My other experiences in animation have been with Tim’s movies, which [exist in] these remarkable little bubbles of protection. So Tim tells you what he needs and you just write that. I can’t speak much from the writer’s perspective (about) how much has changed or evolved. I can just say that I’ve been incredibly lucky. I had a very good experience on “Titan A.E.,” for what it was, and these two movies have been remarkably good experiences because of Tim and (producer) Allison (Abbate), and the people who make them.

ShockYa: I’m sure there are others, but I’m having trouble remembering a sustained relationship with same writer that a present-day director had had for quite as long —

JA: John Logan maybe — he’s done a lot of the Scorsese stuff. I’m just trying to do your job, sorry! (laughs)

ShockYa: No problem. Even there, though, there seems to be something of a commonality with respect to historical underpinnings. Your work with Tim has spanned a lot of different genres, broadly speaking. Take me back to your first meeting with him.

JA: It was for “Big Fish.” We had another big-name director who was on the movie for a year and eventually said, “I’m probably not going to do it,” so we said, “Let’s get Tim Burton, he’ll never say yes.” So my first meeting with Tim was when he was in a pre-production office over near Sony, at the old Culver lot, and he had vertigo so he had to sort of sit back or else the whole room would spin. And so I’m talking to him in a darkened room and he’s laying back like this (demonstrates a thirty-degree angle). We talked through (the script), he liked it, he didn’t want to change anything in it. “Wow, this is going to be perfect and easy and good,” I said. He shot the movie that I wrote, and I was so, so happy. And then the first thing that we really got to work on together was “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which was one of my favorite books of all time. I’d written to Roald Dahl, and I still had the postcard that he’d sent me back. And so I knew what that movie was. Most of the projects with Tim have been very much him describing what he loves (about the material), and me then saying, “I love that and this, and I think I need this to make it all fit.” That was “Frankenweenie” — he had his original short from 1984 that he’d made, he had these other monsters he wanted to find in there, and he wanted the boys to be making these monsters. I said, “I can do that. I think we have a science fair. I think it’s a weirdly pro-science movie, we have a science teacher. I need a windmill, so I’ll call it New Holland.”

ShockYa: So he gives you loose parameters, it sounds like, and allows for a lot of freedom within that.

JA: Absolutely, which has been phenomenal.

ShockYa: What about the differences of something like this, where you have his short film, and movies that have different extant source material, like “Dark Shadows,” where maybe there’s another set of mandates and obligations with which to grapple? Was this an easier lift, quote-unquote?

JA: It was easy in the sense that Tim very much knew what the world was, because it was his world, and so he’d made a version of it before and knew where he wanted to take it, what new things he wanted to add in. And I do have a good sense of what is going to make Tim excited. My other secret weapon in this is that it’s a story about a boy and his dog. We always had that core relationship to go back to, and I knew I could Victor and Sparky, I knew what those guys where. So I wrote in Weird Girl, with poop, and these other sort of extreme characters and bits, and I wasn’t afraid because I knew we always had that core to go back to.

ShockYa: I’m particularly intrigued with the camera movement in “Frankenweenie.” Stop motion animation is very exacting, but in discussions with Trey (Thomas, animation supervisor), he was talking about how lightweight digital cameras in particular have opened a whole new visual vocabulary for these types of films. So do you find your stage direction for this and “Corpse Bride” as specific as it is for live-action screenplays?

JA: It is. The best example is Sparky and Persephone, and their little love story by the fence. You have to bring the camera down to their level and see the whole world from their point-of-view. And in the writing you have to really make sure you’re giving that perspective — the exact notch between the fences, and how much they can really see each other. I have to see the scene in my head and then just describe the scene as accurately as possible, so I’ll put camera direction in there — like a swooping helicopter shot, even though I know there’s no helicopter. You have to just really trust that they’ll figure out a way to capture all that.

ShockYa: I saw and reviewed (your directorial debut) “The Nines” when it came out, and it didn’t meet with a lot of success at the box office. But given your success as a screenwriter, and because you’re so strong with structure, I would imagine you would get a lot of opportunities to tackle smaller-scale movies behind the camera. Is that something that interests you?

JA: Yes, and I will direct something in the future. Some of (the delay) has been because the behind-the-scenes on “Big Fish: The Musical” has taken a long time. There have been these big blocks of time where I’ve had to go off and be in musical-land for a while. I have a young family too, and directing is hard on a young family. The remarkable thing about writing is that I can do it 9-to-5, and still be home for dinner. At some point I will go off and direct another movie, but not right away.

ShockYa: What has the process on the “Big Fish” musical been like — is it completely different from what you expected?

JA: I didn’t know what to expect, which was good, because if I’d gone in with too many pre-set expectations then I would have been surprised and bewildered too often. I’ve written a lot of movie musicals, of a sort — like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and even the original “Big Fish” movie has a song number in it. This has been a process of growing something very slowly from the inside. I had to perform it a lot more. With a movie, I write a script and someone reads it and you get some notes. Here, it’s not so much about words on a page, it’s about performing it for people. And so the composer, Andrew Lippa, and I, for the last nine years, have had to play songs for people and read through stuff and be all the characters. It’s been a great learning experience because I’ve never been all that comfortable being a performer and doing a show like this is much more performance-based. So I’ve loved it. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would have, but the people have been amazing. It’s a very small little community and everybody knows each other. And I love what it is, and what it’s become. The other thing is that I’m not able to go to some of my strengths — I’m really good in post, at editing and figuring things out, and there’s no post-production in a musical, it’s all right there in front of you. So I’ve been really lucky to have great collaborators.

ShockYa: Are there specific dates set yet?

JA: I can only talk about what we’ve announced, but we have said so far that we’ll be opening in Chicago on April 2 (2013), and the goal is to get to Broadway. I’m really excited for people to see it.

ShockYa: You’ve had an online presence for quite a while, via your eponymous website. What creative itches does that type of writing and presence satisfy?

JA: The website was really coming from a basis of always being grateful when I needed to research something — like, if I need to know about cowboy hats from the 1870s, somebody has a whole blog about that. And I’m like, “God bless you for making that.” So I thought if I could be the answer to people’s screenwriting questions, or at least one answer, then I’m delighted to be that. That’s a couple hours a week of my time, and it’s time well spent. In terms of other stuff, part of the motivation for making “The Nines” or the “Big Fish” musical is just the chance to do new things. So I’ve been making apps for the iPhone and iPad as well. You see an opportunity, and rather than wait for someone else to do it you do it. And that’s been great — the chance to explore new things.

ShockYa: What were your research resources growing up, as you became interested in movies and writing?

JA: Growing up in a pre-Internet age, “Premiere Magazine” was my source of information, and a real lifeline. … And the first screenplay I read was for (Steven) Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape.” I read that while I watched the movie and was like (gasp), “Everything matches up!” I just recognized that a 13-year-old now would go online to find that stuff, and I wanted to make sure that they could find quality stuff, because kids can start their lives earlier now. There are pros and cons to that, but I wanted to make sure that if they do that they’re getting the right information.

Written by: Brent Simon

Frankenweenie Interview

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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