On Tuesday I attended an advance screening of the new Tim Burton film Frankenweenie, followed by a Q&A with screenwriter John August. This event at USC was a treat for me because 1) the film was quite enjoyable and 2) I’ve been following John’s blog and podcast for many years. If you haven’t been by his website (johnaugust.com), it’s one of the best screenwriting resources on the Web.
Moderator Howard Rodman—writer, professor, and vice president of the WGA—described John as occupying the small intersection of writers in Hollywood who are well respected, get the work done, and give back to the film community.
I’d already heard much of what John had to say through his various outlets. I wouldn’t count that as a negative of the Q&A by any means; I consider it a spoil of riches on my part that I’ve had the opportunity of prior access to John’s wealth of knowledge. However, I do learn something new each time. Some nice tidbits I picked up from Tuesday’s event were the following:
- Tim Burton treats his screenwriters and department heads with the respect to do their jobs. John was given relatively minimal guidance in writing Frankenweenie (not including Burton’s 1984 short film of the same name), which permitted him to write the story he wanted.
- As a young screenwriter, he worked a mindless job answering phones. The upside here was that he hadn’t used any brain power during the day, so he could return home and write his own pages at night. I particularly enjoyed his description of the youthful writer having “serial killer energy”; you could take a hit, get back up, and keep going. While John’s younger self lacked the finesse of modern John, he had brute force on his side to get his work done. We writers must never underestimate the power of consistent productivity.
- Several guests inquired about the scientific logic that brought the animals to life in Frankenweenie, particularly what would happen if the process were reversed. (I know I’m being vague here, but I don’t want to spoil the movie.) John replied, “I don’t know.” It’s beneficial to understand that you don’t have to write the textbook to the world in order to make it believable.
- He’s a good interviewee and quick on his feet. As someone who has attended hundreds of Q&As (no exaggeration), this aptitude is not taken for granted.
- Finally, he repeated my favorite advice from his wheelhouse: “I used to say that I have a lot of bad habits. And now I just say I have habits. I don’t label them.” Take procrastination as an example. Sometimes he still scrambles to reach deadlines, but he reaches them. John is someone who knows his process and makes it work.
I take this last item to heart because I am my worst critic—sometimes to the extent of debilitation. Always have been. Always will be. I need to remember that this bad habit is just an ordinary habit of mine. I need to work around it and not let it interfere with my process.
While we writers have our individual projects, the roadblocks we encounter are communal. It’s nice to have the veterans remind us that writing is work. Always has been. Always will be. Just make it work for you.
Thank you, John, for coming in.