Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Writing Blockbuster Hits & 6 Hollywood Tips: An Interview with Screenwriter, John August

Today’s interview guest at Into The Script truly needs no introduction...but we’re giving him one anyway. 

His career began by writing and co-producing the 1999 cult classic film Go, and hasn’t stopped since. He has written/co-written and been otherwise involved in many films, including Titan A.E., Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Big Fish, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, The Nines, and 2019 box office giants Aladdin, and Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark.

His accomplishments and contributions to the entertainment industry do not stop there either! Besides writing the novel Arlo Finch In The Valley Of Fire, he has established two successful screenwriting websites, johnaugust.com and screenwriting.io, which have a wealth of information available for aspiring and experienced screenwriters alike. 

He also founded Quote-Unquote Apps in 2010, which develops software related to the film industry, including his most recent screenwriting software, Highland 2.5, which we discuss in the interview! You can also find him on the top ranking weekly TV and Film podcast Scriptnotes.

He has been nominated for a Grammy, as well as a BAFTA Award, and in 2016, he was awarded the WGAw's Valentine Davies Award for his dignified contributions to the entertainment industry and the community-at-large. 

So without further ado, please welcome to Into The Script...Mr. John August.

1. First off, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, and for sharing some of your invaluable knowledge with the Into The Script community! 
Your body of work certainly covers a wide range of genres.
Does your approach to a project, from concept to finish, remain relatively the same each time, or can it vary depending on the style of film you are writing? And if so, would you mind explaining in what ways it may differ? 

When you’re writing a screenplay you’re ultimately writing a plan for making a movie.
So just as every movie is going to have its own style and feeling, the approach to the script is going to vary. 
If I’m doing a character piece, I’m drilling into their motivations and relationships from the very conception, because those are the big moments you’re going to see on screen.
On the other hand, if it’s a big world-building fantasy story, I need to know what it’s all going to look like, so the visual aspect comes very early in the process. 
Ultimately, of course, it comes down to the words and sentences you use to describe this movie. And that part of the work is the same regardless of what genre you’re writing. 
2. It is no secret that people can sometimes be overly critical of movie remakes, or adaptations, especially when it comes to universally beloved films such as Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Aladdin.

What are some of the challenges to finding a balance between staying true to the original, while also creatively making it your own? 

Every adaptation is going to come with expectations, for better or worse.
If you’re adapting a best-seller like Twilight, you have millions of readers who have very specific ideas about how everything should work.
As a screenwriter, you have to stay within a narrow lane. When adapting a less well-known book like Big Fish, you have much more latitude to change things. 
When Tim Burton asked me to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my first question was whether I should watch the original movie. (It’s not like I was raised off the grid by hippie survivalists, but somehow I had never seen it.)
Tim urged me not to watch it until after I handed in the first draft, which I think was wise. 
Halfway into my second draft, I finally watched the 1971 Gene Wilder version, and it was jarring.

No disrespect to the movie, which is obviously beloved by a generation of my peers, but it was visually and narratively very, very different from Roald Dahl’s book.
True, most of the main story elements were still there, such as the rotten children and the chocolate river.

But some of the choices made – killing off Charlie’s father, adding Slugworth, the acid trip on the pink boat — wouldn’t have been my choices. 

And in some ways, it’s great that the original movie did its own thing, because it gives the new movie a chance to use some of the overlooked parts of Dahl’s book. 
Although the press inevitably called this a remake of Willy Wonka, it should properly be called a new version of Roald Dahl’s book.
I honestly think that if the 1971 movie had never been made, we would still be making this one. It’s testimony to the timelessness of Dahl’s books that they remain so popular today. 
With Aladdin I just came to it with an enthusiasm for what made the original movie so great, and a recognition of what wasn’t going to work the same in live-action.
Audiences were going to expect the new version to follow largely the same plot points as the original, but a few things needed rethinking, including Jasmine’s ambitions, Jafar’s obvious villainy, and the friendship between Aladdin and Genie.
I addressed those three elements in my initial pitch, and the changes largely made it through to the final version. 
3. Many writers can whip up a first draft without much hindrance. It seems to often be the dreaded rewrite/editing process that keeps a lot of people from ever moving forward with their script.
What advice or tips can you give writers in regards to the rewrite process that may help them get past the proverbial “first draft wall?” 
The biggest problem with most rewrites is that you start at page one, which is already probably the best-written page in the script.
You tweak as you go, page after page, moving commas and enjoying your cleverness — all the while forgetting why you’re rewriting the script. 
Instead, you need to stop thinking of words and pages, and focus on goals.
Are you trying to increase the rivalry between the two principal characters? Then look through the script — actual printed script, not the one on screen — and find the scenes with them.
Figure out what could be changed in those scenes to meet your objectives. Then look for other scenes that help support the idea.

Scribble on the paper. Scratch out lines. Write new ones. 
Then move on to your next goal. And your next one. 
At first, this “checklist” approach to rewriting probably won’t feel organic.
It doesn’t have the same flow as writing the first draft. But fixing your script isn’t that different than fixing your car.
If the stereo was busted, you wouldn’t start at the tailpipe and work your way forward until you got to the dashboard. You’d rip out the stereo, figure out what was wrong, and replace it if you couldn’t get it working.

Then you’d do the same for the headlights, the shocks, and the windshield wipers.

A car is a car, and a script is a script. But they’re both made of lots of little pieces, and you can only fix one piece at a time. 
And scripts are much better than cars.
If you don’t know what you’re doing when you try to fix your car, you might be stuck taking the bus.
With a screenplay, you always have the old version saved on disk.
So roll up your sleeves and get to it.
Don’t let the fear of screwing up keep you from starting. 
4. Recently, through Quote-Unquote Apps, you released Highland 2.5, an updated version of your popular writing app, Highland 2.0.
Can you tell us a bit about the upgrades that were made, and do you have any advice for screenwriters on how best they can utilize the app with their own projects? 

With Highland 2, I wanted to extend the tools we’d built for screenplays for all kinds of writing.
I wrote all three Arlo Finch novels in it. I’m writing these answers in it.

It’s pretty much the only thing I use for putting words together.

When we announced Highland 2, we published a Roadmap of features we were planning to add. With 2.5, we’ve incorporated all them: Revisions Mode, Drag and Drop Navigator, Custom Themes, Stoppable Sprints, Word Analysis, and more. 
With Highland 2.5, we focused on bringing our users the features they need for an optimal writing process.

For example, when working on a rewrite, screenwriters commonly use colored text and stars in the margins to indicate what’s changed between drafts.

In most screenwriting apps, it’s a daunting, error-prone process. With Highland 2.5’s new Revision Mode, it’s a simple on-off switch.

The resulting PDF matches the Hollywood industry standard, but the process getting there is much simpler and more intuitive. 
We also added a drag-and-drop function in the navigator tool making it easy to outline and revise your project within the app. 
Highland works the way it does because I use Highland every day for actual paid work.

I rely on it, so major and minor annoyances get addressed.

We’ve also grown a strong community of writers and we take their feedback seriously. 
5. Your renowned fantasy series ‘Arlo Finch’ is another example of the broad spectrum of mediums and genres you work in.

Can you share how other novelists can also make use of the incredible benefits that Highland 2.5 provides, and the benefits you have found working with a variety of mediums as a writer? 
Most writing software is designed for writers rather than by writers.

It’s an important distinction. While it’s easy to add a bunch of features that seem useful, our focus has always been on tools that writers will want to use every day, and stripping out all the cruft.

In many ways, simplicity is a feature. 
We’re always mindful of how Highland 2 feels under your fingers.

For example, with Live Margins, Highland 2 predicts and formats as you write so you can focus on the story. We carefully tweak the timing and animation of these changes so it feels natural and never distracting. 
Whether I’m writing screenplays or novels, I rely on Highland 2’s Writing Sprints to keep me focused.

And because I generally write chapters and scenes as separate files, Highland 2’s Include and Chapter functions are a godsend for assembling the whole document. 
6. If you could go back in time to when you were first trying to get your work out there and start your career as a writer, and give yourself a piece of advice based on the wisdom you have now, what would it be?
Beginning writers worry too much about structure and not nearly enough about characters and relationships.
When you start off as a writer, you’re very protective of your characters because you’re sort of protecting yourself.
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.
That lovable little kid...it’s great that you love him, but now to tell his story you’re going to have to make his life very, very difficult. 

Kevin Wilde is an up and coming screenwriter, as well as a feature writer for Into The Script.

Everyday is Halloween for Kevin, as he has an unrelenting passion for all things horror. Influenced by the likes of masterminds such as John Carpenter, Stephen King, Kevin Williamson, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie, you can certainly look forward to many horrifying tales that will have you sleeping with the lights on.

You can find Kevin on Instagram and Facebook.



  1. Another blinding interview. Thanks both Olivia & John.
    Oddly I'd never known about Highland, let alone Highland 2.5. I certainly do now! Interesting you both agreed not to have watched the original before the first draft - I would've suggested the same thing. Interesting what you said about Roald Dahl's book being nothing like the portrayal. It's the same for a lot that's been out there for ages.
    When I spoke with Darby McDevitt on a recent interview here, I should've asked about the adaptation they did for his narrative work on 'Assassin's Creed' on the movie written by Michael Lesslie & Adam Cooper. Personally for me it didn't work and neither did Paul W.S. Anderson's adaptation of 'Resident Evil.'
    Thanks both for the entry - Enjoyed it.

  2. Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview!


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