John August (2008)
You probably don’t know the name, but you’ve almost certainly seen some of this guy’s films. From Death Ray 13.
John August is a regular writing workmate of Tim Burton. A US screenwriter who specialises in the fantastical, we got the lowdown on his directing debut, The Nines.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride, both Charlie’s Angels movies, Big Fish, Titan A.E. – if you’ve seen any of these films, you’ll have been watching the work of John August. With his directorial debut The Nines out on DVD recently (DR12, FOUR STARS), we spoke to this spinner of SF yarns in LA about the industry and his work within it.
A warning here, if you haven’t seen The Nines, this interview contains spoilers.
Death Ray: You have written a lot of SF
John August: I grew up with a science fiction mindset. My favourite shows were anything that had aliens or lasers or swords. You tend to write about the things that you love. I describe The Nines as stealth sci-fi. Watching the movie you really don’t know if you’re going to go into a sci-fi place or if it’s going to be some kind of elaborate conjob.
DR: It’s come up a few times in the wilder areas of science, that the universe is a simulation. Where did you come across the idea?
JA: You know, it really stems from the second part of the movie, which was my experience doing D.C., my TV show. That second section of the move is incredibly autobiographical. While I was running the show, my real life kind of disintegrated and I found myself only living inside the show. And that responsibility that a creator feels towards his creations was a really an overwhelming emotion. Then when you step back and look at it from a normal place, I realised that someone who was creating our entire universe would probably feel a lot of the same things that I was feeling while I was creating my own little fictional universe.
D.C. was honestly a disaster, and while a lot of the specifics that are in part two are different than the real world, the emotions that Gavin, Ryan Reynold’s character is going through is very much what I was going through. Melissa McCarthy, the star of The NInes, was the star of that show too.
DR: The film talks a lot about God. Do you feel much like a god to your creations?
JA: From the perspective of the characters inside the things that I write, I must seem like a godlike figure, because I can change anything in their world at a whim, I can erase them from existence. But there’s a question of responsibility. Most of the things you work on as a screenwriter never become movies, so most of the characters you create are always sort of trapped in 12-point courier. Well, to me those people are real, and they are just stuck in there until they are filmed, but with a lot of projects you have to walk away at a certain point.
It’s a different dilemma than a novelist faces, because a novel is the final work, whereas a screenplay is always just a plan for a work. You are not the final creator, yours is not going to be the hand putting it together. That’s why it was important for The Nines, I wrote this script, and I wrote it knowing that I would direct it, it was not a project that I would be able to hand off to another director.
DR: The crazy thing about multiple universes, with regards to writers, is the theory that when you create something fictional, it actually exists somewhere…
JA: Do you know, I accept that I am not really clever enough to understand quantum mechanics and all the philosophical and physical implications of the possibilities, I certainly believe that there are multiple things happening simultaneously at all points, and that a lot of what we think of as real is really just our perception of it. I was really trying to get at that. But you can drive yourself a bit crazy staring at it too long.
DR: The Nines was a very personal project. How’s that differ from your work on say, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory?
JA: Charlie and The Chocolate Factory was one of my favourite books growing up, and weirdly I had never seen the Gene Wilder version. I don’t know how it’s possible. So I had virgin eyes for what the movie version would be like. One of my first questions was, ‘Oh, should I watch the Gene Wilder?” Tim leans across the table, to stop me from ever watching it. I swore to him that I wouldn’t, and I remained true to that up until the moment that I delivered the first script. It’s strange how the exact same source material can make such a completely different movie. My mandate was to be incredibly faithful to the book, and I was.
DR: You have worked with Tim Burton three times, do you think you will work with him again?
JA: I know I will be working with him again. There’s another thing that I’m going to do with Tim, but it’s not been announced yet, but it’s a big property that people are going to be excited about. Tim’s great to work with. I always hope to be writing a Tim Burton movie.
DR: You’re doing Billy Batson and The Legend of Shazam too, based on Captain Marvel.
JA: I don’t think many people are aware of who he is. And that is partly what was exciting about doing the property, it’s just a great character, a 13-year-old boy who can become a superman type hero, classic wish-fulfillment.
DR: How did you get into this line of work?
JA: I went through film school at USC, but I’d always written, and it wasn’t until I was halfway through university that I realised, oh people write movies too. Which sounds incredibly naive, but this was the late ’80s early ’90s, and there wasn’t this same popular cultural awareness about screenwriters back then. I think auteur theory had made everyone believe that movies sprang out of a director’s head.
DR: Would you like to do more TV?
JA: I’m not opposed to TV, the challenge is that it’s such an incredible timesuck, even though you have the possibilities of doing these amazing things, it’s very hard to do television and keep doing films. I’m doing a series for the internet which we’re hoping to start shooting this summer, which is nice because it is as close to independent film as you can get in television. It does have a science fiction twist to it, it’s not quite announceable yet, but it’s funny and scary.
DR: Would you like to direct a big budget style Charlie And The Chocolate Factory one day?
JA: I would. What’s tough about these tiny movies like The Nines is, it’s still a year of your life, I’d love to have a movie that could play 2000 screens and really aim big. It’s not just the material stuff, it’s work getting people to see The Nines, because it never has the kind of mass exposure that a big movie has. But I would say that my favourite genre of movies are movies that get made, and The Nines was a movie I could get made.