John August Makes Movie Magic

[The trailer for The Nines, which August wrote and directed.]
AB: What was that transition to screenwriting like? You said that you started with short stories…

JA: It wasn’t until I had gone through college that I read my first screenplay – I read the script for Sex, Lies and Videotape and realized that images are happening, the movies really is happening on the page first. I was comfortable enough with writing that I had a reasonably good chance to get into this.

AB: How did you approach it when you had only been familiar with short stories in college?

JA: Well, my degree in college was journalism and that was a good parallel for the challenges of screenwriting. It’s very much – the art of economy. You’re trying to say a lot with a limited number of words. There are restrictions on what you’re allowed to say and what you’re not allowed to say. A journalist isn’t supposed to be speculating, but reporting in a very structured format. You can cut the story off at any point and it still holds together. In a screenplay, you can only talk about what characters can see and hear. You can’t go into their thoughts. You can’t describe the texture of something. It’s a very limited form, but within those limitations there’s a lot you can do.

AB: Do you still write short stories?

JA: I have written some fiction, but nothing really of note; the occasional magazine pieces and a play that I wrote, but it’s mostly just screenplays.

AB: You sit down, you write it, and you have a rough draft of a movie. How many drafts do you go through? How much does the screenplay change from conception to screen?

JA: I would say – after thirty scripts, my rough drafts tend to be closer to what the movie is. You get a sense of what scenes you need to write to get the story from place to place, so I go through fewer drafts now. But there’s also the script that you write for yourself, which isn’t the same as the one you turn in, which needs to help them achieve a goal. One of the challenges of writing a script professionally is that you’re a step in the process. Your final draft of a script isn’t really the final product. It’s like being an architect: you’re making the plans, but you’re not actually constructing the finished product.

AB: Let’s go back to Colorado when you were a kid. You said you wrote to create another world…

JA: One thing I was lacking in childhood was that classic thing to rebel against, to push against. I went to great schools; I had great teachers, good friends. There was nothing classically wrong to push me into artistic endeavors. The writing I did was to fulfill my own enjoyment. And, also, the feedback – I’d write something and people would tell me it’s good and that would encourage me to write more stuff. I wasn’t writing to get back at something.

AB: Do you remember the first story you wrote?

JA: The first story I really remember writing was on a typewriter that was my mom’s. It was a manual typewriter and I was determined to write on it even though I was only about six years old. I would just type one letter at a time and if I made a mistake, there was no correcting, so I would have to think of what word or sentence I could make with the mistake I made, so I ended up writing a two paragraph about a boy on mars, but I’m sure that’s just how the letters ended up occurring.

AB: Do you still have it?

JA: No, I don’t, but we were one of the very first families I knew to get a computer – we had an Atari 800 – and I remember using the word processor on that at an early age. I still have a lot of the stuff that I wrote back in that time. I just transferred it. It’s all sort of Dungeons and Dragons-esque.

AB: Oh, really?

JA: Oh, yeah!

AB: Well, I’m looking at your CV here and it reflects a fantasy direction. So, that’s what you’re attracted to in film?

JA: That’s most of what I’ve been hired to do. I always say that my favorite genres of movies are those that get made. The movies I’ve gotten made are in the fantasy genre. For whatever reason, my mysteries or romance thrillers aren’t the ones that got made. I’ve written a lot of different genres.

AB: Personally, do you feel that you’re better at the things that end up getting made?

JA: I’m very mindful of what movies I can write that can actually get made. I think a lot of the job of a professional screenwriter is recognizing both what you’re good at and recognizing what’s actually going to make into film. As I’ve had the luxury of going through the process, I’ve gravitated more towards fantasy movies, which have been getting made in the last ten years. It’s not a genre that I’m dying to write, but I’m fortunate in that I’m good at doing it.