I’m John August. I’m a screenwriter (Big Fish), novelist (Arlo Finch), podcaster, app developer and Grammy nominee. AMA.
My name is John August. I’m mostly a screenwriter. Some of my credits include Big Fish, Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Frankenweeenie, and both Charlie’s Angels. I also wrote and directed a movie called The Nines, which no one ever talks about.
I’m currently writing a middle-grade fantasy novel trilogy called Arlo Finch. The first book came out in February, with a new book each year. People seem to dig it.
With Craig Mazin, I co-host a weekly podcast about screenwriting called Scriptnotes. I also did a seven-episode podcast called Launch which follows the process of making Arlo Finch from idea to book tour.
I have a small software company. We make Highland 2, which came out yesterday and is currently #8 Top Grossing on the Mac App Store. We also make an iOS app called Weekend Read and several card games. Our Writer Emergency Pack was the top-grossing card project in Kickstarter history until Exploding Kittens blew us away by millions of dollars.
I share a Grammy nomination for Wonka’s Welcome Song with Danny Elfman, which is random. But I’ve done a lot of other musical work with Andrew Lippa on the Broadway version of Big Fish.
Other stuff: I’m on the board of the WGA and work with a charity in Malawi. I’m an Eagle Scout and a converted single-spacer. My husband and I have been together 18 years. We have a 12-year old daughter. I use a SafeType keyboard because I had really bad carpal tunnel syndrome. (Let's see if it saves me today.)
Most importantly, I play a 5e D&D campaign and have strong opinions on how surprise works in regards to initiative.
Starting at 10am PT. AMA!
Hi John, thanks for doing this. Huge fan of the show. I was listening to another podcast recently with a manager talking about being fun and outgoing when it comes to taking meetings with people. How big of a component is being good in a room for screenwriting? I suffer from anxiety, and while it's not completely debilitating, I wouldn't consider myself the most gregarious of types. I do love to write though, and my big worry is that, even if I'm lucky enough to get to a position of being called to meetings, I might not have enough interpersonal skills to wow people. Can great writing trump that to a degree?
Hello John, I am a writer/director and I wanted to ask you if it would be a good idea to shoot the opening 10 -12 pages of my feature film script as a short film. My logic is that it can allow to showcase my vision for the project and can also help me in landing an agent in case the script gets any traction. What do you think?
Thanks for everything you do. I'm interested in the journey from screenwriting to novel writing.
How did the craft of screenwriting translate over to novel writing for Arlo Finch?
Did you find yourself using the same dramatic structures you employ in screenwriting? Just more prose?
What was the most difficult transition for you?
If you had to give one piece of philosophical/theoretical idea that you use in novel writing and screenwriting, what would that be?
You possibly answer some of these questions in the podcast series you did for Arlo, but I've been burning through old scriptnotes episodes. Looking forward to listening to the Arlo Finch podcast!
I've only quit my current script twice. What am I doing wrong?
Clearly quit 18 more times and BOOM! Oscar.
Every time I see the term "virtue signaling" on reddit I love it because I know the comment is going to be stupid.
I'm glad he finished it, it was a pleasure to watch
Tips for your screenwriting career
I see a lot of misconception and focus on the wrong things amongst new screenwriters. I've been working in the business for almost 15 years, and though I'd give you some tips. I'm based in Europe, so some things are very different from e.g. the US.
Finish your script. When you're doing something on commission, you have a producer asking you how it's going and when he/she can read something. That pushes you. But when you're alone, you don't. So push yourself. Finish it.
Learn to prioritise, and write something good! I see people in writing subs saying you should just make a first "vomit draft". Sure, for your own sake that's true. But if you're commissioned to write, the producer can't have something too shitty. You still need to deliver a good first draft. Learn to prioritise what you need to do well in a first draft, and what can be done later.
Write a lot. I see people with this one script they've written, trying to have it made. And when they get a no, they modify it and keep going. That one script. Leave it for now. Write something else. You can always go back. But if one script is all you've ever written and all you'll ever write, screenwriting isn't for you.
Books are there for you, you're not there for the books. Sure, you can get some good ideas and theories from books on screenwriting. But when a producer or director tells you the adventure needs to start earlier, "but the acceptance of the call is at exactly 25%, so it's correct!" is not the right answer. Those "what should happen when" books and rules are just to help you out early on. As you're doing re-writes, those beats will move around.
Rewrite on demand! Sure, when the worst ideas from executives are launched at you, when the director has no clue what movie it should be (according to you), when the producer is just not getting it, you'll be frustrated. They're making it worse. You can't do this. Well, then don't. They'll exchange you for someone who will. Being a screenwriter is not being an auteur. Sure, you'll be referring to those writer-directors who just do their thing, like Woody Allen. And one day you may be Woody Allen. But right now you've been commissioned to write something, or you've had your script optioned by a studio, and now you're part of the machinery. The gears will keep grinding whether you'll be the one changing that line, or someone else takes over and does it.
one day you might be Woody Allen
God I hope not.
Thank you for this post, though. Very clear and concise!
Thank you for this, great post!
I'm no way nearly as experienced as the OP, but I have written a few scripts now. My first was a 4 page short written in word with no formal formatting at all. The story was there and I sent it to a friend who is a script supervisor for major flicks, she immediately told me to Google the correct formatting of a script. Do that. Then download some free screen writing software. The free version of Fade In is my preference, it pops up with a buy now memo just press enter twice and it disappears. First try putting down a story in the right format... Then read up, there's so many books about screen writing and blogs and videos, look for john truby, Blake Snyder and syd field to start with. Then read scripts. Lots of scripts. Pick Oscar winners and see what they put in and what they leave out. Read scripts while you watch the film. Watch the DVD with the writers commentary if they have it.
More important than all the above is just to start.
EDIT: in answer to your question, small scripts are easier and follow the same structure and rules so it's a good place to start. Aim for 5 pages or less.
Great to hear! Good luck!
How do you actually get an agent, I mean, for real
How do you actually get an agent, I mean, for real
Pretty much from what I researched the only way to get an agent is to already have an agent. The other ways from "self help" blogs seems to be "Send letters, a lot of them, but don't expect that to ever work lol" and "buy my book which will tell you everything about being a successful screenwriter except how to get an agent which I have but you don't".
So other than being famous and already having an agent how do you get an agent. I have friends who have agents and they won't even tell me how to get an agent. I get that it's cause this is a competitive career but if the only way to actually sell a screenplay is to have an agent and no one really gets an agent other than what appears to be voodoo or nepotism, what's the real way to get an agent?
People won't tell you because there is no magic formula..
It's getting good at your craft. It's networking. It's placing in competitions. It's emailing that guy you used to live across the road from. It's cold calling agents until your ears bleed.
There's no short and quick fix answer but mostly it's having what they want when they want it, and it has to be good.
No, it’s you refusing to admit you can do better. This guy gave legit advice and even qualified it with “because there’s no magic formula.” He then answered your question to then best of his abilities, taking time out to do so, and you are ungrateful and reply with “this is yet another non answer I suppose.”
Perhaps you are what’s standing in your own way. Negative energy begets negative energy. It sounds like you have a victim-attitude/demeanor, which people can spot a mile away.
Just trying to point it out, not trying to shame you or anything.
This is a side note, and getting an agent is absolutely a step forward to a career, but please don't make the mistake of thinking an agent = jobs.
I've had an agent for the last year and half now and have been sent on three meetings. That's it. Every other meeting, every job, every conversation I've had that has led me to either a meeting or a job has been set up by me, for me, either through networking, luck, or connections.
Now you might say I'm an exception. I wish I was. But the fact of the matter is an agent is a negotiator on your behalf, not an employment agency. Yes people will take you more seriously if you have an agent. Yes that agent will be able to get you 10% more on that contract you sign and maybe get you a better title like "Executive Story Editor," but you are the only person who is going to land jobs for yourself.
The thing you have to realize is that you may think an agent works for you, but it's a two way street. There are so many people want to do what we do and there are only so many contracts going around, so for agents to make a living they need to sign as many young writers in the hopes that two out of the two dozen have careers.
I use baseball as an analogy. You get an agent? Congrats, you've been drafted. But you still have three minor leagues to battle through before you reach Game One of the Majors. And guess what, there were many others in your draft class, even on your team, that are going for that same dream you have. And that's not counting the thousands of others already in the minors. So good luck, and get to work.
Again, I can't stress enough the value in having an agent. But too often on this site I see it as a codeword for having made it. So don't get too excited when you get signed and are left twiddling your thumbs wondering now what.
Because it only gets harder from here.
I don't get it, whenever I read online forums or talk to people they say selling a screenplay is like winning the lottery. Why is it that 90% of the movies today are horrible with weak to no storylines?
Is it talent that wins this lottery or not? If so, the product shown in the marketplace does not prove that in the least.
My time learning about the craft/business has led me to believe it's the following things:
It IS talent that wins the lottery, but being talented doesn't guarantee you'll win. You can increase your chances of winning through various ways (networking, submissions, queries).
Talent doesn't have to mean writing a good screenplay - it can also mean being good at writing the kinds of movies the people with the money want to make (the bad kind).
Lots of bad movies started out as good screenplays, but competing interests (producer, director, talent, marketing, finance) have resulted in them being "crapified" (Craig Mazin's word).
The bad movies that started out as bad screenplays were probably written by good screenwriters, but weren't able to produce their best work because of interference.
Making movies is hard and nobody really knows what they're doing.
What a lot of people underestimate is that there's a huuuge difference in being able to see why Suicide Squad is a bad movie, and actually writing the script to suicide squad.
The hard fact is that 90% of the people here wouldn't be able to deliver a script at the quality level of an average bad hollywood movie.
People mistake their ability to discern why a movie doesn't work, with the ability to do better. Which is just so far from the truth. We've got 11 year old kids who can pick Inception or Transformers 2 apart. We've got thousands of youtube videos elaborating on why tons of movies suck.
But none of those people would be able to write anything that'd even get close to getting made.
It's really, really difficult to write and make a good movie.
Obviously there are things within the industry that doesn't help. A lot of the time studios put out movies more to make a years movie making budget make sense, not because they think the movie is good.
But the number one reason why there are a lot of bad movies it that it's really difficult to make a good one.
The hard fact is that 90% of the people here wouldn't be able to deliver a script at the quality level of an average bad hollywood movie.
Hope you don't mind me hi-jacking, because I don't disagree but I want to make an important semantic point: More (I'd say far more) than 90% are "able," but won't, because this is a tough career path and requires a whole lot of resilience. In my experience at many different jobs, the majority of my co-workers have displayed incredibly poor work ethic. If people were willing to work harder, they could do it.
The reason that you're right about it being "really, really difficult to write a good movie" isn't that it requires an extraordinary natural talent - it's that it requires an extraordinary work ethic, an exceptional attitude, and humility; all things someone can acquire by choice.
EDIT: DAMN, this whole time I meant more than 10%. Ugh.
Who says narratalogical aficionado unironically?
A cheat-sheet to improving dialogue
I put together a sort of cheat-sheet that has helped me improving when writing dialogue for my characters and thought I would share. Dialogue seems to be one my weak points. It seems that among writers, there are two camps: Those who write excellent description/action and those who write excellent dialogue. Putting these skills together is what separates the men from the boys, or the paid from the unpaid (IMO).
Anything else to add?
At lunch, grab a sketch pad and eavesdropNote how people talk over each other constantly, and rarely ever finish a complete thought Don’t transcribe the conversation verbatim, but jot down interesting phrases, notes regarding the flow of dialogue, and how the flow shifts (or how the dialogue volleys / turns of phrases)
Write a scene where a couple is buying a mattressThey are only allowed to speak about the mattress, but through the subtext, we learn of their marital problems
"I've always wanted a firm mattress, what with my back problems and all. I need a nice hard lay, don't I John?"
Dos:Short, simple sentences -- one thought at a time Include tension and purpose to every word/sentence Generally, no more than three, uninterrupted sentences -- the odd, lengthy monologue is fine but should be absolutely warranted If you can, always break up dialogue with action Channel your characters -- quiet the automated voice in your head Engage the audience -- viewers are engaged by what the writer doesn’t tell them, not by what the writer tells Join scenes late -- i.e., avoid pleasantries Leave scenes early -- i.e., cut the scene at the point of tension or drama Allow characters to exist offstage -- reference their background lives or acts, at least those aspects worthy of mention, in their dialogue/character interactions Let the scene loop over in your head 10-20 times, silent, before placing in the dialogue to establish what needs to happen and what messages you want to convey Alternatively, imagine watching your scene, but in a foreign or gibberish language -- What does the talking feel like? What’s the emotion behind the words? Who’s in control? Who’s guiding the discussion? Is it an equal exchange? Have your characters actually listen, engage, interrupt and react to things said by each other, instead of each character just speaking because it’s their turn When you’re finally done and happy with your scene -- go back and cut the dialogue shorter Remember that film is a visual medium -- a motion picture Some screenwriters suggest writing to a rhythm; write to the pulse or the beat of your story
Don'ts:Avoid people saying directly what they mean Avoid big speeches Avoid “uh” and “um” Avoid spellings things out, instead allude Avoid stating the obvious (particularly in respect to things the audience can see or hear)
Purpose of Dialogue
Dialogue in film has four major functions: reveal character, advance the plot, express subtext, and entertain. Aristotle gave us the idea that everything in a story is a microcosm of the entire story, and if it isn't, then it is unrelated (and shouldn't be in the story) -- the same can be said of dialogue.
Reveal CharacterEvery line should resonate with who says it The flavour of their background should be captured in their word choices The syntax (arrangement of words) should be uniquely theirs Focus on background, attitudes, personality quirks, unique world view, education, mannerisms -- and most importantly -- wants and needs Strong characters have needs which should come into conflict with the needs of other characters
Advance the PlotWell-written dialogue imperceptibly moves the story forward -- by having the characters say something that leads to something happening A decision is made A question is asked Information is revealed -- with subtlety Momentum or tension is built Even silence at times can be moving A cause and effect relationship should be established between what is spoken and what happens next Try to instill conflict in your character interactions In real life, inner conflict often gets externalized, or “dumped” onto friends/family/complete strangers (remember to be subtle)
Express SubtextAvoid people saying exactly what they mean Let visuals, sounds, tension and so on, drive the meaning behind words -- trust your audience and your actors
Entertain the AudienceDialogue needs to evoke a visceral response and engage the audience Whether it’s a funny line, poignant line, mysterious line, frightening line, emotion-filled line or so on, the audience should be moved emotionally Engage the audience by... Joining scenes late Leaving scenes early Allowing characters to exist offstage Revealing new information about your characters (reveal the different or unexpected facets of their personalities) Thinking about what the audience expects from this film -- Is it a horror? Drama? Comedy?
A great quote (though from a religious preacher):
[Great dialogue requires] thinking out what I have to say, then thinking out how the other man will understand what I say, and then rethinking what I have to say, so that, when I say it, he will think what I am thinking
I am a professional script reader. I have covered over 3,000 scripts in the last five years. AMA
Like the title says, I'm a reader. I've covered for indie production companies, major production cos and one of the big 3 agencies. It's a living.
Screenwriters find work is dwindling
Merry Christmas to all! May you all earn at least one screen credit this year!