An interview with John August

John August

Photo credit: Jen Pollack Bianco

You’ve written an impressive number of scripts over the last several years. Were you always this creatively productive?

I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started approaching writing as a full-time job that I really felt any mastery of it. Sometimes I’m an artist, but mostly I’m a craftsman. I write for very specific purposes, and I can sort of switch it on and off. That came with experience.

I think “productivity” is a pretty limited concept. If you’re writing a lot, but you’re writing crap, that’s not particularly helpful. I think what I hit in my early-to-mid 20s was a sweet spot between Getting Stuff Done and Getting Stuff Perfect. My first drafts are pretty strong. They feel like the final movie. Some writers do what they call a “vomit draft,” which is long and messy, then edit it down. I don’t. I write the script that could be shot.

I labor pretty hard over each scene in its first incarnation. I play the entire scene in my head, in a constant loop, until I really feel I know it. Then I do what I call a “scribble version,” which is a very quick-and-dirty sketch of the scene, handwritten, which would be indecipherable to anyone but me. Then I write up the final scene from that.

In terms of the number of scripts with my name on them, that really comes from picking projects carefully. The frustrating thing about screenwriting is that you can spend a year working on a project that never gets made, and it’s like you never wrote it. I like to say that my favorite genre is, “Movies that get made.”

What drew you to screenwriting, as opposed to other kinds of writing?

I didn’t know what screenwriting was until fairly late in college. That was before the Internet, so the only scripts you could find in Des Moines, Iowa, were the occasional screenplays that were published in book form. I remember reading Sex, Lies and Videotape and being awestruck by how closely it matched the finished movie. It sounds naive now, but I really didn’t understand movies were written.

The screenplay form didn’t come naturally. I’m not sure it should; it’s pretty artificial and unlike conventional writing. The closest equivalent is certainly the stage play, which is pretty much just dialogue. The screenplay has evolved into this strange beast that’s meant to be a blueprint for the entire movie — not just what the characters say and do, but how the film is supposed to look and feel and sound. Most of the time I love it, but it has very frustrating limitations. I get sick of writing in the third-person present tense. I yearn to write about scents and textures and the inner thoughts of characters. One of the reasons I keep up the blog is that it’s a chance to write in my own voice rather than the detached, omniscient “screenplay voice.”

I really don’t like writing. That’s a terrible thing to say of course, because one is supposed to love one’s art. But I’d rather do just about anything than sit down and start writing. The thing is, I love having written…. So ‘writing’ is a necessary, painful process I go through in order to get to ‘having written.’

With your first full script, was it a challenge getting from beginning to end?

The first script I finished was called Here and Now. It was a romantic tragedy set in Colorado, where I grew up. It was that classically overwritten first work, where the writer tries to cram in everything he knows about everything. I can’t even read it now. But evidently, it was good enough to get me an agent and get started with a career.

Writing that first script was honestly a terrific experience. I’d had to write an outline for it as part of a class project, so I had a twelve-page document to refer back to. (Particularly for one’s first scripts, some sort of outline or treatment is essential because it’s easy to get lost while writing a 120-page script.) I wrote the first draft while I was working at a summer internship at Universal. My job was incredibly mindless, just filing and copying, so I’d come home every night with my mind ready to work. I wrote scenes longhand, then typed them up the next day during lunch.

That’s still my favorite way of working. Writing scenes longhand prevents me from going back and editing. Editing is a sticky trap. It’s always easier to go back and rework old stuff than write new material.

How has your approach changed from that first script to today? And what sort of impact did your experience directing The Nines have on your screenwriting?

Going through the process of production — not just directing, but any time you’re closely involved with the physical production — makes you realize that a lot of things that are easy on the page are quite difficult to execute. One sentence of your script could take half a day to shoot. Realizing that makes you take a lot more responsibility for your work. Your first question always has to be, “What really needs to happen in this scene?” Because almost anything can change. At a certain point, there’s no sense defending a joke that no one likes if it’s not playing, or a specific moment in a fight scene if it’s not crucial to the scene.

For The Nines, I knew I was going to direct it before I started writing it. But I made sure to write it as “just” a screenwriter. One hundred other people were going to need to read the script to understand what I was trying to do, so I never cheated and said, “Oh, I’ll figure that out on the day we shoot it.”

There were portions of the movie that didn’t have scripted dialogue, which was terrifically exciting as a writer. The actors would be in character, and I’d start having them talk about something tangentially related to the point of the scene. And as they’d go, we’d shape what they were saying, doubling back and picking up especially good threads. As a writer, you never get that immediate interaction with your characters, which was amazing.

Directing The Nines also made me aware of the strange relationship between writers and actors. Basically, I play all the characters in the script, until one by one they’re assigned out to “real” actors. There’s a handoff that happens, and while the director is a facilitator, he’s never really touching the characters themselves.

You’ve talked on your site about “pure damn laziness,” “brain lock,” and “perfection paralysis” sometimes getting in the way of getting work done. Do you have any techniques that you use to help yourself plow through when the work isn’t flowing?

I really don’t like writing. That’s a terrible thing to say of course, because one is supposed to love one’s art. But I’d rather do just about anything than sit down and start writing.

The thing is, I love having written. I love going back and looking at the scene I wrote. So “writing” is a necessary, painful process I go through in order to get to “having written.”

When people say, “Oh, I just loving writing!” I know they’re full of crap. They’re probably lousy writers who are regurgitating their daily thoughts in a journal. Actual writing is hard work. Even when you have the flow and it’s going well, it’s still incredibly taxing. My deepest nights of sleep are after days of having to write ten pages.

(By the way, this — answering questions for an email interview — isn’t writing. This is talking with a keyboard, which is damn near effortless. I think one of the dangerous things that’s come with the rise of the Internet is that people are confusing typing with writing. Just because your words are captured in a UTF-8 character set doesn’t mean that you’re actually writing. Writing involves carefully shaping a thought for its desired impact. Writing means anticipating the reader’s reaction, and honoring (or defeating) that expectation. Writing requires logic. Blogging just requires an account.)

When I’m on deadline — which is most of the time — I’ll sometimes set a timer for twenty minutes, during which time I’m not allowed to do anything but work on the script. A five-minute break, then another twenty minutes. Or I’ll offer myself some sort of prize (like permission to get another Diet Coke) once I get this scene finished. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the healthiest way to approach my writing, but it works in a crunch.

I really like the Getting Things Done (GTD) concept, and use it for a lot of my nonwriting life. But I’ve found it doesn’t handle screenwriting particularly well, which is less about discrete steps and more about slogging through. It’s a marathon rather than a series of sprints. Yes, you could have a Next Action of “outline scene 23,” but that might not be what you really need to do next creatively.

In terms of getting blocked, or unblocked, I never force myself to write in sequence. I’ll happily skip anywhere in the script to write the scene that interests me. I can almost always find something that I’m willing to write.

Have you noticed anything that helps you tap your creative side? And is there anything in particular that tends to sap your creativity?

I’m most creative and energized at the very initial stages of a project. It’s that first blush of love, when you can’t stop thinking about it. And I’ve learned to respect that, to follow it, but always to remember that two weeks from now there will be new ideas that are more attractive largely because I haven’t seen their flaws and challenges. One of the frustrations with screenwriting is that it just takes so long. It’s six weeks to write a first draft, and during that time it’s easy to become disenchanted.

Along the same lines, the hardest thing for me is to go back and write a project when my heart has moved on. That happens a lot, unfortunately. After all the meetings and deals, it can be months before I’m allowed to start writing, and that initial enthusiasm is long gone. That doesn’t mean the project won’t work — it was more than year before I started Big Fish — but it makes for a much less enjoyable writing experience.

What do you think are the qualities that make for a great script and story?

A great script manages to create the feeling of having seen a great movie — using only words. That’s what a lot of beginning screenwriters don’t really grasp, is that you’re not writing a 120-page document, you’re writing a movie. The artistry comes in knowing what that movie feels like before a frame is shot.

A great story is interesting characters in a compelling situation. I resist the temptation to break it down to some magic formula of beats and reversals. You see these diagrams in screenwriting books and they’re always so simple and tidy. A great story keeps you immersed and fascinated by what’s going to happen next. That has nothing to do with arcs and plot points.

And what’s the key to keeping the audience immersed and fascinated?

I think the crucial challenge is to see the story from the audience’s perspective. There’s a very useful concept called, “The Curse of Knowledge,” which describes how hard it is to feign ignorance once you know the facts. As the writer, you know why that scene is there and what it’s leading to, but you have to always remember what the audience is experiencing in the moment. Many times, you can allow them to make incorrect assumptions as long as it’s keeping them emotionally and intellectually engaged.

Go does that a lot. In Part Three, it seems like Adam and Zack are being led into an uncomfortable sexual situation, when in fact it’s just a multilevel marketing scheme. And once that’s revealed, the audience realizes that a lot of the looks and tension between Adam and Zack was because they were in fact a couple. That detail could have been revealed earlier but it would have overshadowed the other plot elements that followed.

How do you use your day-to-day life to feed your writing?

When I was writing for my first TV show I found that I was sorting through life with a filter: what could be “in” the show and what would stay “out.” If I heard a song on the radio that I liked, I was mentally putting it into the bin for the show. If someone said something interesting — or something boring but in a particularly interesting way — I would literally stop to write it down.

That was probably necessary for the show, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for real-world sanity. I began living a large part of my life inside the show. That break from reality ultimately became one of the main story points of The Nines — what are a creator’s responsibilities to his creations? At what point was I allowed to walk away from the universe I’d created and get back to my real life?

I think I’m healthier now. I certainly always have my ears open for interesting phrases, but I don’t feel like I’m in constant collection mode.

How do you think being a screenwriter shapes the way you take in the world today?

I certainly find myself looking for motivation, in the dramatic sense. Motivation is the answer to questions like, “Why is this character doing this thing right now? What does he actually want?” I find that I don’t get flustered or frustrated by assholes as much anymore, largely because I redirect my energy at figuring out why they’re acting a certain way. Basically, I look at people as characters, often ones who have no idea where their story is going.

One last question: Is there any advice you’ve come across about the creative process that you’ve found particularly true or helpful?

Don’t let better be the enemy of good. It’s easy to become paralyzed, knowing that there’s a better solution, a better sentence, a better scene. You should always aspire to do your best, but be wary of needless perfectionism, which helps no one.

That’s one thing TV writing has over feature screenwriting. The demands of production mean that a writer can’t dawdle, waiting for the muse to come with the perfect solution to that third-act problem. The script has to be written, scene by scene, and if the ideal speech can’t be written, a good speech will have to suffice.

Category: Stage/Screen, Writing

7 comments on “An interview with John August

  1. great interview, really honest answers. found his hate/love relationship with writing uniquely and thoughtfully put: “But I’d rather do just about anything than sit down and start writing….The thing is, I love having written.” impetus and process versus results. also enjoyed how his art acts as a life filter, and its drawbacks. well done!

  2. So true about the love of “having written” rather than writing — but also great insights into getting to the point of “having written.”
    I loved hearing about the handoff off the characters to the actors, and Mr. August’s enjoyment in getting to “talk to” his characters. That must be fantastic — an incredible writer’s reward.

  3. i really get a sense from this of the experience of screenwriting, but there’s also so much here that’s applicable to other kinds of work. thanks john and cecil for this very generous interview.

  4. My favorite interview so far! August comes across as sarcastic, honest, and very likeable. I love his comment about people who say they “love” to write… Now I will have to finish my copy of Getting Things Done, which I bought 3 years ago and have neglected to finish. It also seems like August could share more of the David Foster Wallace school of writing philosophy (“do your best writing ALL the time”) rather than the Anne Lamott school (“shitty first drafts” are the key).

  5. Fascinating stuff. Uh, I love typing!

  6. As a writer my entire school career, and as somebody who has written material for countless people, short films, speeches, etc, I don’t think there was one thing John said that I couldn’t relate too.
    The love of the “having written” part is the same with me. I hate sitting down at a computer and stringing sentences and paragraphs together. But, once you get through that horrible, painful, and ridiculous process, looking back at what you have accomplished makes it all worth it. You can feel rather chuffed with yourself, it really does make it all worth it.
    It also doesn’t help that we all write with the internet just a click away. John says he takes a 5 min break…in my case, sometimes 5 mins can turn into 5 hours. The internet will suck you in at the worst possible times, like writing under a deadline. I hate it!!

  7. Loved this interview! I read John’s site regularly (though maybe not regularly enough to call him John…) and really enjoyed this overview of his creative process and perspective. Thank you!

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