Hey folks, Harry here... BARBARELLA as PG 13 sucks ass. I despise the concept of a modern day TARZAN film at an initial impulse, but if he makes Tarzan scary in the modern jungle, where tribal genocides take place. Where Pygmies are hunted down for meat. And here's this man who kills silently from the canopy of the jungle and protects a region of the jungle... there could be something there. Something we've never seen with the character. But I really hate the concept of a PG 13 BARBARELLA. Well, here, get on with Beaks and August... Here ya go...
It might be doing the film a disservice to label it as such, but BIG FISH is probably the most deeply affecting tale of father-son estrangement since FIELD OF DREAMS. But while the film earns its share of tears, it’s refreshingly devoid of easy sentiment, preferring to get lost in the pleasures of tall tale spinning that caused this peculiar rift rather than hammer home the frustration and sadness of a deathbed reconciliation. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, the screenplay rights were optioned early on by John August, a hot scribe thanks to his inventive and witty work on GO. Four years later, John is finally seeing his labor of love realized via the ever inventive visual sense of Tim Burton, who has reigned in his wilder flights of fantasy to serve this intensely personal tale. As a result, he’s come away with his best film since ED WOOD, and a large part of that has to do with his faithfulness to August’s script, which, thanks to the incredibly generous screenwriter, you can read on his website, www.JohnAugust.com. You’ll also find tons of invaluable advice regarding nearly every aspect of screenwriting, from nurturing an idea, to developing it, to selling it, and, finally, to suing the studio for stealing all your good ideas, and stuffing them into a lame Mickey Rourke/Shucky Ducky vehicle (I’m just assuming August covers that last bit).
But before you go over there to read one of the year’s best screenplays (and, hopefully, see the film as it goes wider this Christmas), why don’t you check out this interesting conversation I had with John August over lunch at Buddha’s Belly in Hollywood.
I was really surprised by this movie. It seemed like a real departure for Tim Burton.
I agree. If you weren’t looking really closely, you wouldn’t necessarily know that Tim had directed it. I think that was sort of deliberate on his part; he didn’t want to have his signature on every shot. He worked with a different team than he had before.
When did you get bit by the movie bug, and what movie was it?
I had always watched a lot of movies, and THE MUPPET MOVIE was the first movie that I’d seen more than once. I think the first time I ever realized that there was a script, I was watching WAR OF THE ROSES on videotape; the first time I ever saw it was on videotape. So, my brother and I watched it, and I rewound it. And, as I watched it again, I started writing down all the dialogue, and I realized, “Oh, wow, there’s actually a plan behind all of this!” It’s… naÃ¯ve, but I hadn’t realized that movies were written. And I could see from what I’d written down… that that was how they’d made it. The first script I think I read was SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE – Steven Soderbergh’s script. And then I realized that there was this structure, and structure is an overused word, but there was this plan for how they were going to make the movie. It wasn’t like people just showed up, and started doing it.
What was it about WAR OF THE ROSES?
The dialogue was really great in WAR OF THE ROSES. Really good performances. And it’s mean, but mean in a really smart way. I also like that, just at the last moment when you think they’re going to wuss out and have a happy ending, they don’t. They have the chandelier fall, and then he puts his hand on her, and she brushes it off. I thought that was just great. What’s weird is that Danny DeVito directed that, and I talked to him a zillion times on the movie, and I never mentioned how much I loved that movie. How seminal it was. I didn’t even think about it. And I didn’t even meet Danny during the filming. I talked with him once on the phone; he called randomly out of the blue, and said, “So, John, I’m reading my script, and I don’t know how to say this. Is it like *this* or like *this*?” I’m like, I’ve never met him, and he’s asking me for a line reading.
You have this reputation for bringing a kind of hipster cred to the films you work on. Does that bother you at all?
There are a lot worse creds to have. What was weird is that, before I did GO, my first paid writing jobs were adapting kids books: I adapted HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS and A WRINKLE IN TIME. I’d written GO as a short, but I wrote the whole thing… I didn’t really think it was going to get made necessarily, but as a “Fuck you, I can write other things, too.” It was helpful, because TITAN AE then brought me on because they wanted hipper dialogue. And there’s nothing hip about TITAN AE whatsoever. They really tried. They really wanted edgy, but they kept filing the edges off. But it really got me established and started. I had actually read BIG FISH before GO had (been released), so, I was developing this hipster cred, but BIG FISH was actually the first thing I was trying to do after that.
And, yet, you lived with that for…
Five years, yeah.
You wrote the script—
I wrote the script about three and a half to four years ago. I had read the manuscript before it came out, and loved it. So, I took it to Sony, who was going to release GO, and they wanted a project for me. They agreed to option the rights – it was really cheap to option the rights to it – and they sort of used it as a holding deal for me. They kept saying, “Oh, well you can do this first before you go off and adapt that.” So, I did BLUE STREAK and CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and, then, I did this horrible T.V. show. And then I finally went back and adapted it. It was easy for them because… they kind of liked the book, but they also didn’t necessarily see it as really being a movie, because my description of the movie sounded really intimate and expensive. And that’s a tough combination.
How faithful were you to the book?
There weren’t any producers, so it was just me on the book. I flew out and met with Daniel Wallace, who wrote it, and he was great. He could answer a lot of questions, and explain why he did things the way he did them. He was never defensive about things. I had known from the start that I would have to change a lot, because the book is really only the fable parts. The present day stuff with Will and the father is largely brand new movie stuff. There’s only, like, one small section of the book that actually addresses the father and the son. I had known when I first sat down with the book what my structure would be. It was like THE PRINCESS BRIDE, where you’re moving back and forth between the real world and this fantasy. And I had also known that I would have to beef up the son a lot, because the son in the book is just the narrator. I knew I wanted to make him a journalist, I knew I wanted him to live in Paris, and that he had a pregnant French wife. There were a lot of things that I knew I wanted to do, and Daniel was great about not freaking out about any of it.
You made him a UPI journalist, so he’s very dry, and sort of, “Just the facts”.
Yeah. Which was… if you look at it, there’s sort of this very obvious contrast, but I knew that, in the actual staging of it… the Will character, on the page, everyone is like, “We hate Will”. You love this big, charismatic guy, and Will’s the only person who’s challenging the big, charismatic guy, so you hate him. But my degree was in journalism, my father had passed away three years before I started writing this, so in many, many ways, this was the most autobiographical character I’d written. And it was hard not to take those comments personally. It was like, “That’s just myself.” More so than most things, I’d written in my own voice.
Was your dad a tale spinner?
He wasn’t. He was mysterious in a very quiet way. I never felt like I fundamentally understood his motivations behind things, which was how he saw the world. What I really came to realize as I was writing the script is that throughout the rest of your life, you’re going to pick who you’re going to hang out with, but your family is just this weird lottery. You just end up with these people, and you’re supposed to be able to have this magical relationship with them, when you really have nothing in common other than the genes. And, then, when you try to look at your parents as individual people, it’s really tough, because you’re only seeing them as your parents. So, a lot of that thinking became snippets of dialogue that ended up with different characters.
It’s strange how much the father-son relationship resonated for me, particularly since my relationship with my father… sounds like it was a lot like yours. But Edward did remind me a lot of my grandfather, who was a real raconteur, and embellisher. He would always tell these stories that you just knew weren’t entirely true.
History is just memory, and memory isn’t all that accurate either. Your sense of who you are at this very moment is shaped by all these things that you think you sort of remember, but they’re really just narratives that you’ve sort of built for yourself to explain how you got to this place. I always knew that the central conceit of the movie is that the stories that Edward is telling aren’t strictly true, but you should always be able to see what that grain of sand was that became that pearl deep down in there. And over the course of the movie, you discover more and more of those things were actually… that there was an essence there.
You’re violating basic screenwriting 101 rules here by having not only a narrator, but multiple narrators. How do you make that work on the page?
This weekend, the screenplay is going online, so people can read it and see how I did it. I try to make reading the scripts as much like watching the movie as possible, so I try to make sure that I’m not going to confuse you at any point with the narration. It’s “Will V.O.”, or “Older Edward V.O.” A lot of times, an older Edward character is narrating, but we see a younger Edward on screen, so you try to break it up and make it clear as to who’s doing what. And Jenny Hill actually has to narrate one of the stories. It’s tough. There were times, as we went through different drafts, that we looked at it like, “Would it make more sense if this person told this, or didn’t tell this?” Ultimately, we said the story was what’s important, rather than who’s telling it. So, we could do the multiple narrator thing, and get away with it more so than usual.
How many drafts did you go through? I read the interview with the producers, and they said Tim just took the script…
Yeah, he shot it. I went through two or three drafts before I took it to Dan (Jinks) and Bruce (Cohen), who came on board to produce it. With them, I did two drafts. Then, Spielberg was on board for about a year, and I did one draft for him – not a lot changed in that. After he left, I went back and made my best draft, with all the stuff I really wanted. Tim signed on to that, and really ended up shooting that. The only thing that changed was a Dust Bowl sequence that we just couldn’t afford to shoot, so the slippery baby sequence at the start of the movie ended up replacing that.
So that was supposed to show how he was born?
Yeah. What’s weird is that the Dust Bowl sequence is the first thing I wrote for the script, and it’s very literally from the book. But we just couldn’t afford to shoot it, so it had to go away. Also… after Jessica Lange was cast, I went out and met with her in New York. The bathtub sequence came out of the conversation with her, in terms of her feeling that we never saw older Edward and older Sandra, and what their relationship was. So, I wrote that for her. But those were the only things that changed close to production.
When you’ve got a script on the brain for four years, there’s a sense that it’s going to get stale or overthought. How do you avoid that?
There is a danger. A lot of people’s first scripts tend to be overwritten and overthought. There’s a sense that this is the only thing they’ll ever write, so they have to put everything they know about everything into it.
Or it’s going to be the first thing that everybody reads of theirs, and they’ll be forever associated with it.
Yeah. Even when I started writing this script, it was probably my tenth script, so I had a little bit of that out of my system. I think weirdly the process of… I had done a lot of weekly work on projects, where you just come in and change one thing, and you have to adapt your style to a process that already exists. I think that sort of helped with (BIG FISH). There was one new scene that we ended up shooting that we didn’t put in the movie where I literally had three hours to write this scene before we were going to have this table read of it. So, I had to go inside my crappy little office, and bring myself to this level of horrible emotion, and write it. It was this scene between Sandra and Josephine at the hospital. And I could do it. You still find things that are new and fresh to you.
Tim Burton has such a striking visual sense, but the narrative in his films has, in my opinion, a tendency to get overwhelmed. Were you at all concerned with that?
When his name was first brought up, I was a little concerned just because the first thing that popped into my head was PLANET OF THE APES and MARS ATTACKS. But then you think about ED WOOD or EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and those are really sensitive stories. Even though he hadn’t directed scenes of normal people sitting in a room and talking, which was a big part of BIG FISH, you looked at ED WOOD, and you sensed that he could do that. Everyone in ED WOOD was crazy, but there was an underlying normalcy to their actions, so I felt that he could do it. And after I met with him, I was convinced. The questions he was asking were just the right questions.
My favorite Tim Burton film has always been ED WOOD, which also has an anecdotal structure sort of like BIG FISH. Not that BIG FISH is entirely anecdotal – there’s a very strong throughline – but it does have that digressiveness that made ED WOOD work.
What’s important to understand with Tim is that he doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about commerciality. A lot of the reviews are like, “Oh, Tim is trying to make a commercial Hollywood movie”, and he so isn’t. It’s not a priority or a thought to him at all. He didn’t do PLANET OF THE APES to sell toys; he did it because he thought it would be cool.
Could you talk about the process of adaptation?
The classic story of adaptation is that you have to cut everything. How do you make things more efficient? But with this, the stories were so slight that I ended up… in most cases, I could take certain things, but I’d have to change the context for it. The book doesn’t have the circus, it doesn’t have the war, it doesn’t have Sandra – there was a whole romance with Sandra at the college. For instance, in the book, there was this “Twelve Labors of Hercules”, where he had to clean the stables and do all of this stuff. I really liked the idea, but there was no good way to do it, so I built the circus as a giant place to do all of that. How he meets Sandra in the book is a lot different… and it was just finding ways to combine a lot of threads. And then a lot of times I needed different characters in order to do stuff, like Norther Winslow. There’s a guy named Norther Winslow in the book, but he doesn’t do the same things. But they’re great names, so I used them. Then other times… I’m doing CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY right now, and that was a case where I could just literally go through the book with a highlighter, and saw exactly what I could take. Roald Dahl’s language was very specific and very useful for the movie, so that was a case where I could actually start typing off of the book page, and that could help me out.
Well, there you’re also working against an earlier film, as well. Have you watched it recently, or are you staying away from it?
I have a theory that at some point I was kidnapped as a child, and my memory was erased, because I’ve never seen the movie, which is bizarre. I don’t know why I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen still images from it, so I know what the Oompa Loompas look like in it, but I’ve never seen it. I’m not watching it until after I turn in the script, so I can have one draft that’s fresh to me.
I first read the book, or it was actually read *to me*, in Third Grade. And when I first saw the movie, I was really disappointed because it was a musical, which I wasn’t crazy about at the time. But I was also disappointed because it couldn’t match my imagination, or Dahl’s. Are there going to be any musical elements in this, and how faithful is it to (Dahl’s book)?
The Oompa Loompas sing like they do in the book, but Willy doesn’t sing. The movie, and I have a week to turn in the script, is very faithful to the book. And then it actually goes a little bit beyond the book to explain a little bit more about how Willy ended up the way he ended up. And why Willy and Charlie are well matched for each other. The book ends really abruptly… and (the script) goes a little bit further than that. I think it will help the story a lot.
How dark are you going to go?
Any movie in which terrible things happen to four children, there’s a certain element of darkness, but it’s never bleak or evil, or anything like that. It’s much more mischievous. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a good parallel for it; although, even that’s a shade darker and more macabre than this is. To me, Willy Wonka is not at all mean, and doesn’t mean to be mean, but, like Thomas Edison, he’s so driven and so focused that he doesn’t notice a lot of the world around him. He doesn’t perceive children as being children; he looks at them as short adults. And if you treat a child like an adult, that might seem like you’re being mean, but he’s just being honest with himself.
Are you still doing TARZAN?
That’s still percolating. I was working on TARZAN, and Dick Zanuck called to say, “Hey, would you do CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY?” I was like, “That’d be great, just let me finish TARZAN.” And he was like, “No, no, you’ll have to leave TARZAN to do that.” So, I’m halfway through TARZAN. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. My familiarity with it wasn’t from the movies; it was from the 70’s animated television show (from) Filmation, which was great. So, off E-Bay, I actually bought all of the old episodes, and I’m watching them. They’re terrible, but they’re kind of great for being terrible. I had always wanted to do this as a movie, but then Disney made their TARZAN movie, and I was like, “Oh, they won’t make another TARZAN movie for a decade.” But now they are! Warner Brothers called, and I desperately wanted to do it.
Were you worried with the WB television show?
Yeah. I hated the WB television show.
I didn’t see an episode of it.
They made a really bad decision. It really had no relation to Tarzan whatsoever. It was just about a guy who ran around without his shirt on.
The ads reminded me of that movie WILD THING, which was written by John Sayles. I loved it when I was a kid, though I haven’t seen it since then, so who knows how it plays now? It might be worth checking out.
It might be. I had never read Burroughs’s TARZAN, so I read it and it was actually much better than I would’ve thought. And then it completely falls apart at the end. The big challenge is that you’ve got these white hunters who are going in, and there’s a lot of khaki and pith helmets, and you’ve got this white Tarzan guy who’s just saved Africa. And you’ve got the natives… it could be perceived as very, very racist. I don’t think Burroughs meant for it to be, but it could be seen as racist now. So, one of the big things that I wanted to do, and Warner Brothers agreed, was to keep it all in Africa, but (set it) in the present day. So, rather than having colonial Africa, with pith helmets and khaki, you have modern Africa, which is tumultuous, and civil war and strife. We’re not going to say what country it is, but it’s going to feel like the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. The whole thing is very tenuous.
Tarzan’s myth is a little bit arbitrary; there’s this baby who’s abandoned and raised by apes. But *why* was he raised by apes? What is the deeper meaning for this baby being raised by them? The jungle chose to save him is my (explanation). There’s a reason the jungle chose to save him, and it’s not entirely a good reason. So, it gets a little more into classic, heroic, STAR WARS-y type of myth, where he has a destiny, and he doesn’t know what that destiny is at the start of the story.
Are you thinking ahead to franchise?
I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot to make a movie that has to be (a franchise). That’s the problem they were running into with the SUPERMAN thing, where they were like, “Oh, we have to make a trilogy!”
What about BARBARELLA?
The challenge with it is that it’s not based on the movie, but the underlying books. And the rights to the underlying books are the biggest octopus of tangled legal questions and quandaries. I need to go back and do another draft. The one thing we do know is that we’re very happy with the story, and what it’s going to be. It’s much more like CANDIDE, or, like, PRIVATE BENJAMIN in space. She’s this girl who’s grown up in this Utopian little world, and everything is perfect. But she’s so curious that she ends up going into the Underworld, and realizing that her tiny little planet is being supported by this giant slave planet. So, she ends up leading a revolution accidentally, and overthrowing the ruler of the slave planet. It’s really, really fun. The challenge was, when I first wrote it, we were coming off of the first CA, and so it had this… big scale and big (fight scenes). Now, that’s not so much a priority. We’re trying to scale it back, and make it more like a comedy and less a big action movie; a little more INDIANA JONES and a little less STAR WARS.
Are you writing sexy, or, specifically, for an R.
No, it’s written for PG-13, and, I think, safely that. I had to tone down a few things: one of the procedures on her planet… they’re all virgins, so it’s all been educated out of them. So, she has sex for the first time, and it’s hard to convey that in a PG-13. The ratings thing is very frustrating. I believe there’s a good reason for ratings – I wouldn’t want to get rid of them – but people are so fearful about certain ratings. There was a movie I really wanted to do, that someone was going to buy from me, and they were like, “Oh, it has to be PG-13”. I was like, “It could *never* be PG-13”. They said, “We were able to make SWAT PG-13”.
Getting back to BIG FISH, whose vision is it?
I think the story is largely mine. How it looks and sounds, and the interplay between what feels real and what feels fantasy, is a large part of Tim. The thing with Tim… Tim hires really great people, but he’s also able to communicate with them in ways that a lot of directors can’t. Colleen Atwood is a great costume designer, but she also gets to work off of Tim’s little water colors of people. So, even if she’s not matching that exact design, she knows what he’s got in his head. Dennis Gassner I thought did a great job on production design. Some of the fantasy stuff… it heightens, but it still feels almost possible.
Had you intended for it to look realer?
I had intended for the fantasy stuff to look a little more fantastical. A little more garish, a little more PRINCESS BRIDE. But Tim went for the real thing, and I think it really served the movie.
It’s a great film, and a fantastic screenplay. It’s unfortunate that Sony forgot to buy a Golden Globe nomination for it, but I’m sure the Academy will rectify that mistake, and give John his well-deserved first Oscar nod. I can’t wait to read what he’s done with CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, but I’m most looking forward to his TARZAN script, as the character’s never been depicted successfully onscreen. Hopefully, the script fairy will drop that off on my desk one day soon.