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Immersed in Movies: Screenwriter John August Talks Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie,’ ‘Big Fish’ Musical, and Industry Frustration

Immersed in Movies: Screenwriter John August Talks Burton's 'Frankenweenie,' 'Big Fish' Musical, and Industry Frustration

“Frankenweenie” scribe John August was willing to concede industry frustration when we spoke even before the lackluster opening for Tim Burton’s critically praised stop-motion animated feature (which was outgunned by animated rival “Hotel Transylvania”). It’s increasingly difficult to get quality features produced, let alone commercially embraced. That’s why he’s been dabbling in theater and TV, with a musical stage version of Burton’s “Big Fish” and the supernatural pilot “Chosen” for ABC and Fox, and making apps (including FDX Reader, a Final Draft for the iPad and iPhone) to help make screenwriting a lot easier.

August has also been blogging about the craft for a decade at johnaugust.com, where he did some Monday morning quarterbacking on “Frankenweenie” this week:

“On a personal level, it is disappointing, because as the writer I had hoped a lot of people would see the movie this weekend and enjoy it, perhaps beginning a conversation about black-and-white cinema, stop-motion animation or the perilous state of science education. That didn’t happen. Instead, the story is about how much money we made.”

Still, “quality plus time equals success,” August believes, so the notion that “Frankenweenie” will no longer be a strong Oscar contender is premature. This Burton adventure wasn’t only personal for the director, who revisited his troubled childhood in Burbank in the ’70s, losing his canine companion and retreating into the fantastical world of horror.

“When Tim called, I knew I had to do that story,” August recalls. “I knew I had to do that relationship between a boy and his dog; I knew what the loss was; I knew what the excitement was. I had my own dog, Jake, who was 14 at the time. I knew I was going to lose him soon. He was a pug in the shape of Sparky. And I have a young daughter and we had conversations about the death of a beloved dog. It was the right movie.”

After Burton presented August with a list of other iconic monsters that he wanted to incorporate in the second half, the go-to guy for weepy Burton movies went back and studied the original live-action short from 1984 in search of clues. “I tried to figure out who those other kids are in class and what they are trying to do. What is so special about the town and why is Victor able to do this thing that no one has been able to do before? And so in a conversation with Tim I pitched the science fair as a unifying way of explaining why everyone is doing these experiments and trying to bring these animals to life. Once it was clear that Tim really meant for this to be American suburbia, I knew I wanted a giant windmill, and that’s how we came up with New Holland, this ersatz Dutch town. That also became Dutch Day, which was their fake cultural celebration (let me write one more song). So I unified the very disparate elements in that sequence, which was all the boys making their monsters and the threads coming together.”

Even more important, August came up with the kindly science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, (voiced by Martin Landau), who Burton designed as a tribute to his boyhood idol, Vincent Price. “I had a fifth grade teacher that the kids loved but the parents couldn’t stand because he didn’t treat them like kids. I wanted an adult to be on Victor’s side and who really understood what he was doing and could provide the logic behind why Victor bringing Sparky back to life was good and why these other kids’ pets turned out to be monsters: science as tool for good or evil. This is science being pushed to the edge and the rogue scientist who saves the town, which learns to appreciate science and helps brings Sparky back to life by getting over their prejudices.”

Since “Frankenweenie,” August has sought creative satisfaction with the “Big Fish” musical, which has expanded the Southern yarn- spinning tale and father-son conflict with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family”).They are joined by director Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) and two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz (“Catch Me If You Can”) in the lead role.

“Things that were really hard to do in the movie version are simpler to do when characters sing about their frustration,” August continues. “You don’t have close-ups so you give up the camera control. A character can take two steps to the left, though, and be in a new scene, or you can be in multiple time periods at once, and the audience uses its imagination to see a character as two things at once, which is terrific. It was good to have the movie to draw on when there was a question about a moment not working and realizing that the answer was there.”

August isn’t sure if “Chosen” will be picked up (he’s collaborating with Josh Friedman, who developed “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), but the development of this teen romance and conspiracy tale has been more fulfilling than most recent feature projects that have been committee-driven (his adaptation of the graphic novel, “Preacher,” which he originally developed for Sam Mendes, is likely DOA). Although he’d like to direct again someday, it’ll probably be something bigger and more ambitious than micro-budget drama “The Nines.” In the meantime, he’s learning a lot about the confluence of technology and creativity working with VFX folks on his screenwriting apps. If only some Silicon Valley money would trickle down and save Hollywood, he fantasizes.

“It’s a frustrating time and also an exciting time. While the gear seems stuck in certain places, a lot of people are able to do an end around and make the movies they want to make. I love big screens and the experience of watching a movie with an audience in a dark room. And I think we’ll have multiple platforms and always have theaters if for no other reason that teenagers need to get away from their parents. I loved seeing ‘The Master’ in 70mm. There was nothing committee about it whatsoever. There isn’t one right way or wrong way to shoot a movie. We need to embrace digital and embrace film and whatever way people want to tell their stories. And that includes stop-motion as an antidote to CG. If we get so calcified, we’re going to lose art forms and lose ways of telling stories in different ways.”

“Big Fish” opens a five-week run at Chicago’s Oriental Theater, starting April 2, 2013.

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