John August, Screenwriter and Director
John August Interview
What’s most impressive about John August is not his incredible body of work (although it is impressive), it’s his willingness to share his knowledge with anyone who seeks it.
In a world where people don’t often offer helping hands to those in their shared field, August is a bastion of kindness and a seemingly bottomless pit of insight and wisdom into filmmaking. His wildly successful podcast, Scriptnotes, which is co-hosted by Craig Mazin, is a weekly mini-course into the behind-the-scenes process of entertainment. And sometimes grammar.
At the risk of discussing his actual writing credits last, his work on the technological side of screenwriting has changed not only the way writers share their work, but also the way they create it.
And, I guess lastly, he has written many great movies, television shows and a Broadway play. He’s been nominated for awards many times over.
John August is, to put it mildly, a jack of all trades.
What did you want to be when you were a kid? Did you always want to be a screenwriter?
I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t really understand that screenwriting was a thing. I knew that there were movies, I knew there were plays, but I didn’t ever make the leap that movies were written the way the plays were written.
It wasn’t until I watched War of the Roses — Danny DeVito’s The War of the Roses — and I went back and rewound the tape and started writing down everything in it and realized like, everything here was written. It sounds really naive now, but this was before the Internet. There wasn’t the sort of popular coverage of how movies got made. I realized there must be like a play behind this, a little light bulb went off and I started looking for examples of that.
The first screenplay I was able to read was Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. I read that and loved it, and saw that, wow… It’s actually what the movie is like before it’s a movie, and figured out I wanted to learn how to do that.
What do you love?
I love when someone does something unexpectedly amazing. A lot of times you can be very, very jaded. I love when something surprises me in a good way, where I thought I knew where something was going and then it surprises me and exceeds my expectations.
I think a lot of writing and a lot of creating art is how to handle the expectations of who is going to be viewing what you’re making. Everyone is going to approach whatever you’re trying to do with set expectations about the genre, about who you are as an artist, about what they think this work is supposed to be. A lot of your job is to anticipate those expectations, meet them most of the time and then exceed them in ways you didn’t expect. I love when I see something that blows me away because it wasn’t even doing what I thought it would do.
Do you think there is a specific genre that you see that more? Do you see it in plays or television?
This may be the golden age of television, and I think 10 or 20 years from now we will look back and say, “Wow, that was really an amazing time when things suddenly changed in remarkable ways.” We have shows as complicated as Game of Thrones doing so well, and things as honest and simple as New Girl or Girls dealing with sort of the everyday issues of people you don’t usually see on TV.
I think you see expectation-busting happening in television a lot. There are movies that certainly do that, and I think we still have our indies that do that. We have occasional big movies that break out that way, but the innovation seems to be happening on television or the newer television/web formats.
What’s your process like? How do you make creative happen?
I think creative happens because you continually ask questions and challenge the assumptions about how things are supposed to be. The last few years I’ve been making a lot of apps for Mac and for iOS, and where I think I’ve succeeded in doing that has been in looking at sort of what the status quo was in the industry and saying, “Well, why does it have to be that way? And why can’t I actually make a better version of that or why can’t I solve that problem?”
One of the first apps I made was called Bronson Watermarker which was literally just because I need to watermark these 45 scripts with different names on it and there was no good tool for me to do that, so I said, “Well, someone needs to start that tool and that should be me.”
I got frustrated looking at 12 pt Courier and I wanted a better 12 pt Courier, so I worked with a talented font designer, Alan Dague-Greene, to make a better Courier, and called it Courier Prime. I think it’s recognizing that the current situation can change, and using those that are available to make that change happen.
What is something you had to learn the hard way?
Everything takes much longer than you think it will take. There have been so many projects that I’ve started out at a sprint, and then eight months later I’m still in the service log. I’ve had to come to accept that things will never happen as quickly as you would like to see them happen. You need to anticipate that from the outset and make sure you’re not basing all your self esteem around the success of one project that may be years off in the horizon or may never happen.
The amount of work you do outside of screenwriting, with things like your podcast, it’s clear you want to help people in this industry. I can’t imagine you have a lot of free time, so why is it so important to you to help others?
I think that’s something you can say about artists in general, that they want to bend the universe a little bit in their direction and the direction they liked to go. In helping people on the podcast or the website, I just wish the state of screenwriting was a little bit better. I wish the state of writing was a little bit better. If I can do something to help nudge it in that direction, I will do that.
I’m also tremendously grateful for everything that other people have done before me and simultaneously with me without knowing I needed their help. When I need to do research and find out about cowboy hats of the 1870s, someone has a whole website about cowboy hats in the 1870s. If they are willing to be that resource for me, I should be that resource for somebody else. If everybody took the time to really document what they knew, the world would improve measurably.
If you could go back in time, say ten years, and give yourself some advice, what would that advice be?
I would probably pick projects more based on the collaborators and less on how much they excited me. One of the things I’ve recognized over the last decade is that it can be the best idea in the world for a movie but if you don’t believe that those are the people who can carry that movie across the finish line, you’re kind of spinning your wheels. Sometimes I’ve been attracted to the bright and shiny objects… I have written other people’s movies that they weren’t able to make. I should have spent more time writing the movies that I could make.
Who are some of your influences?
As a writer and as a filmmaker, I mean certainly James Cameron’s ability to marry his storytelling with his technical prowess is remarkable and it’s that nothing-can-stop-him quality that’s inspirational. I’m a frequent adviser to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, and every year there’s a batch of new filmmakers who inspire me by their singularity of vision. They’re not trying to make somebody else’s movie, they’re trying to make their movie and that’s a good reminder because so often my function is to be the craftsman who’s there to help make this product better, and not necessarily more unique.
What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a pretty good baker. I really like the sort of the weird, artisanal magic baking involves and then you don’t necessarily know how stuff is going to turn out until you spent two hours trying to make it. You can have some anticipation about how these flavors should combine, but you don’t know if the cake is going to rise, or if the cake is going to fall. I don’t bake as much as I would like to, but it’s actually one of the things I enjoy doing when I get the chance.
How do you define success?
I think you define success at being able to do what you want, when you want, and make enough of a living at it that you’re not kicking yourself. I think too often people define success based on other people’s opinions of them, and the problem with that is ultimately when you put your self esteem in someone else’s hands you risk your self-esteem being destroyed. It’s the same reason why I don’t read reviews anymore. Reviews can be a meaningful part of the cultural discussion, but I think reviews can also can be very destructive to the actual person who created the work. For that reason, I don’t read reviews of my own stuff anymore.
What makes a good script?
I’ll sit back and talk about what makes a movie a movie. Because most of what I work on are movies. Movies are a strange thing in that they’re a story that should only be able to happen once. It’s a unique set of circumstances with this character and this world and this incident that it begins a story that can only happen one way, with this character, in the situation. A good script has an interesting character facing interesting and seemingly insurmountable problems that through their own efforts they’re able to solve. That’s a very, very generic sort of baseline description, though. I think a lot of movies that don’t work don’t meet that test. Movies are never really about the plot. Movies are about those characters you are fascinated by, creating a plot in front of you.
How was the transition from writing to directing?
The luxury a writer has is I can sit in front of my computer and just take as long as I need to get it right, and I have absolutely 100 percent control over those words on the page, and those words are exactly the words I want them to be. Directing is honestly a process of surrendering some control, because ultimately you cannot make the actors be exactly the puppets you would like them to be. You can’t control every bit of light. You can’t control every bit of costume. Directing is ultimately a collaborative process. You have to be the leader of the team but you still have to rely on the team.
Part of the process of learning how to become a director is learning how to trust the people you’ve brought on to your team. How to talk to them in ways that stimulate them to be doing their best work without limiting them to your small vision. I know a fair amount about lighting, but I wouldn’t know how to light that scene as well as a qualified DP would. I know a lot about music, but I cannot create music the way a great composer can create music. It’s been a process of learning how to surrender some control.
What’s the best advice you have for someone just out of college?
I would say embrace what makes you unique and embrace your vision. If you don’t know what your vision is, spend some time figuring out what you love and what movie you would more than anything in the world want to see, and figure out how to make some version of that movie.
I think too often you become obsessed with trying to create something for somebody else, something they will like, and not focusing enough on creating the thing that is uniquely you that you could put out there into the world.
I think my process of getting more comfortable with speaking in front of crowds. My online persona has been just sort of learning to embrace the things that are weird about myself and take them as strengths rather than weaknesses.
What personality trait do you think is most important to a screen writer?
Perseverance and screenwriting is kind of a marathon activity. Anyone can sprint and get through small bits of writing, but a screenplay is a pretty big document. It’s 120 pages. You keep going back through it and revise it again and again and again and again. The ability to look at something for the 15th time and yet also look at it like it’s the first time is a uniquely difficult thing for screenwriters.
I think the novelist may pass through her words a couple times along the way, but a screenwriter is going back again and again, and it has to be able to be both the writer who’s in control of the scene and the audience who has no idea what’s happening next. Being able to shift back and forth between those perspectives is a tough skill to learn.
How do you think we can make Hollywood a better place?
I think Hollywood will always be broken and that’s because we’re trying to do a really difficult and impossible thing, which is make movies that are specific and interesting and terrific and yet will appeal to everyone on the planet. Those are not necessarily compatible goals. I would venture beyond Hollywood to say, how can we make cinema better, and I think that’s by being honest about the kind of movies we want to make, honest about the kind of movies we want to see. Supporting unique and individual voices and not settling.
I think right now television has risen and become a much more interesting place than our movies are. I think Hollywood — and filmmakers overall — can learn a lot of lessons from what’s going so well in television and make better movies.
How do you think we can make the world a better place?
It starts with taking personal responsibility for the things you can control. I think before you can fix other people’s situations, you have to make sure your own situations are fixed. The small things you can do in terms of not ruining the planet are the things you should do. Once those are in control, you can tackle the bigger issues.
You need to look at what citizenship means. Citizenship, we often think, means we have a civic duty for voting and being patriotic. Citizenship is really just recognizing that you are one of a group, locally and state-wise and nationally and globally, and recognizing there are difficult choices we make at every level. Make sure the people who you’re putting in power to make those decisions are the right people, and try to understand things that are beyond your own limited scope.
Writer Emergency Pack
Helping writers get unstuck
John August’s kickstarter campaign: Writer Emergency Pack is a deck full of useful ideas to help get your story back on track. Writing is hard. You’re constantly trying to figure out what word comes next.
Creative writing is even harder. When you’re working on a story, you’re not just trying to decide what word comes next, but what idea comes next.
It’s easy to get stuck.
I know what that’s like because I’m a screenwriter. I’m lucky to have had ten movies produced, from GO to BIG FISH to FRANKENWEENIE. I also host a popular podcast about film and television called Scriptnotes.
Over the years, I’ve had conversations with hundreds of writers, both on the podcast and around the lunch table. No matter what genre or medium, all writers face story problems. Plots that plod. Characters that don’t connect.
Every writer has her own techniques for pushing past these problems — little nudges and prompts to help get the story clicking.
Writer Emergency Pack is a curated collection of some of the most useful suggestions I’ve encountered. It’s by writers, for writers.
Learn more about Writer Emergency Pack: http://kck.st/1obEMOQ
Each week, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discuss screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters, everything from the craft to the business to the best ways to actually get yourself writing.
Highland [App]: quoteunquoteapps.com/highland *The better way to write a screenplay.
Bronson Watermarker [App]: quoteunquoteapps.com/bronson
Weekend Read [App]: itunes.apple.com/us/app/weekend-read
Writer Emergency: www.writeremergency.com
Courier Prime: www.johnaugust.com/2013/introducing-courier-prime
Last but not least, my favorite browser extension- Less IMDb: quoteunquoteapps.com/less-imdb
Special thanks to Stuart Friedel for orchestrating everything.
Featured photograph by: Duane Fernandez
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