John August is a screenwriter who has one of those careers every maître d’ who has hidden a script under a stack of menus envies. His first script, the straight-outta-film-school “Go” was jazzily directed by “Swingers” helmer Doug Liman, and less than a half-decade later, August started a lengthy creative partnership with director Tim Burton. Just this year, August provided the original story for Burton’s gonzo “Dark Shadows” update (his draft — which he calls one of the best things he’s ever penned — was heavily rewritten by current Burton favorite Seth Grahame-Smith) and this week he has “Frankenweenie,” a stop-motion animated feature based on one of Burton’s very first projects – a live-action 1984 short. We talked to August about his relationship with Tim Burton, whether he plans on writing and directing again anytime soon, and his work on the “Big Fish” musical.
Starting in 2003 with the gently fantastical drama “Big Fish,” August has worked with Burton five times. August has adapted everything from Roald Dahl‘s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to Russian folk tale “Corpse Bride” (as well as the aforementioned ’70s soap opera and short film). We wondered how their relationship had changed over the years. “The very first movie we did together was ‘Big Fish.’ The script had already been written and Tim signed on to direct, so I didn’t have a whole lot to do with him on that,” August explained. “So it was ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ was the first time we worked together and I came in at page one and wrote him the script.”
August said that the experiences on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Frankenweenie” were very similar. “This was very much like the ‘Charlie’ scenario – he knew what he wanted and he gave me very specific guidance where he had a short and he wanted to stay true to the short,” August said. “He had a list of monsters, he had an idea of the other kids in this universe. It happened very quick. He just said ‘Give me the thing that ties this all together and makes it a movie.’ And it was my pleasure to give that to him.”
Dual challenges faced August and “Frankenweenie” – the task of adapting a short film to feature length as well as transitioning from a live-action sphere to the world of animation. And while that seems like a hell of a lot of work, August comes across as nonplussed. “I had done stop motion animation with ‘Corpse Bride’ with Tim before so I knew what that world was like and what the possibilities were,” August said. He said that there were things in stop motion that you shy away from – like large crowds and water that are present and accounted for in “Frankenweenie.” The short-film-to-feature transition was definitely something of a challenge. “In terms of the short film we didn’t want to just expand that. We loved what was in there and knew it would be a story about a boy and his dog and that would always be the emotional heart of it,” August said. “But this was a chance to look at what else was in that world. The original short film was a very sweet Frankenstein story and this was a chance to look at all the other monsters through the eyes of what a young boy would do.”
While there aren’t any immediate plans for Burton and August to work together, August remains optimistic. “It’s just a matter to see what Tim wants to do and whether or not he wants me to do it,” August said happily. “I love writing movies that he can make. But there’s nothing coming up right now.”
One of Burton and August’s most beloved collaborations, “Big Fish,” is about to see new life as a big Broadway musical set to debut next spring. Burton is not involved at all in the new iteration, though. “This is all me and Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen who produced the movie,” August said. “We had to go back and get Daniel Wallace‘s novel again and reacquire the script from Columbia Pictures. It’s been a really long process but it’s been amazing.” The transfer of “Big Fish” from screen to stage mirrors the adaptation of “Frankenweenie” from teeny tiny short to big animated feature. August said: “It’s a chance to take a new look at something I was very familiar and look at it in a new format. It’s not unlike ‘Frankenweenie’ in that now there’s a chance to look at it in a different version with new possibilities.”
August has a slew of new, non-Burton-related projects coming up, including a live-action movie at Fox called “School for Monsters,” which August says is out to directors and which he described as, “A chance to do some stuff in movies that I’ve wanted to do for a while, to take some genres and turn them on their head.” He’s also got a television show called “Chosen” in development with “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” creator Josh Friedman. “I hadn’t planned on doing TV this year but I had lunch with Josh and over lunch he said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to do a TV show, you could write it and I could take over.’ And I said, ‘Actually I kind of do.’ It happened very fast. But you never know what’s going to go to series.” When we pressed for a description of the series, August said it was, “A family drama with a very unusual supernatural aspect.”
After working on the “Big Fish” musical and a series of high-profile for-hire gigs (saying nothing of the hush-hush script doctoring he does on the side), August is eager to return to writing and directing for the first time since 2007’s “The Nines,” which was first seen as largely impenetrable but has accumulated a cult following since its release. “I think I know what I want to do,” August said. “Maybe not a giant movie but it won’t be as small as ‘The Nines’… But hopefully accessible enough. And not as cerebral and brain-splitting as ‘The Nines’ was.”
And if all that wasn’t enough, August runs a website that he oversees, complete with podcasts on the art of screenwriting and downloadable apps that do everything from “melting” PDF files to files that you can easily edit to watermark multiple screenplays. We wondered what drove him to hand out these tips. “I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and I watched movies but had no idea that movies were written,” August explained. “I realized that if I was a teenager today anywhere outside of Los Angeles I would be going onto the internet to find out about screenwriting. If I was going online to look into screenwriting I would be grateful for someone giving honest advice.” He seems just as proud of his website as he is from his Oscar-nominated features. But he also just wants to be part of the informational surge of the internet. “The resources that are out there are amazing if I can be one of those resources then that would be incredible.”
“Frankenweenie” opens this Friday.