john august
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Entertainment

The Multitasker: How 'Big Fish' Writer John August Made Hollywood Work for Him

John August presides over a mini-empire steered by curiosity, fortified by experience, and fueled by brain power. With only 24 hours in a day, the multitasking writer of movies like Charlie's Angels, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory scribbles out scripts for big budget Hollywood blockbusters, outlines sequels to middle-grade fantasy novels, maps future episodes of his hit podcast, designs apps for other creative professionals looking to optimize their time, and finds time to invent fonts. If you were granted a golden ticket to tour the laboratory that is his bald head, you'd find a jolly team of meticulous, laser-focused Oompa-Loompas. It's the only way.

"I'm really curious about how things work, and generally the only way to know how things work is to actually do the thing," he tells me over the phone one morning. "Rather than planning the thing or reading up about the thing or interviewing someone about how the thing works, I'll tend to just start doing the thing and then figure it out as it goes along."

If there's a guiding philosophy to August's brand of creative self-help, doing the thing might be its guiding tenet. His long-running podcast, Scriptnotes, which he co-hosts with The Hangover Parts II and III writer Craig Mazin, is about the craft of screenwriting, the business of moviemaking, and the larger quest for creative fulfillment.

But it's really just about doing the thing.

You'd never accuse him of not doing the thing: The 47-year-old screenwriter is uniquely, mind-bogglingly prolific. In addition to screenwriting and podcasting, he's created TV shows (DC, a short-lived drama on the WB from 2000); adapted one of his scripts into a musical (Big Fish, which debuted on Broadway in 2013); created apps with his company Quote-Unquote Apps (Highland, a screenplay editor in 2014); conceived of an inspirational card deck for blocked storytellers (Writer Emergency Pack, Kickstarter-ed into existence in 2014) and a card game for fantasy nerds (One Hit Kill, Kickstarter-ed in 2015); and, in an act of nerd service, helped design a new typeface (Courier Prime, available for free via Quote-Unquote beginning in 2013). Each of these new projects is painstakingly documented on his website JohnAugust.com, which began in 2003 after he started writing a column about screenwriting for iMdb. (His site contains screenshots of the blog in those early, nascent stages.) He also finds time to raise a daughter with his husband of nearly a decade.

John August and Craig Mazin at 'Scriptnotes' on July 25, 2013.
Beck Starr/FilmMagic/Getty Images

"I grew up in Colorado," he explains when asked about his devotion to chronicling and demystifying the creative process. "In the '70s and '80s, even into the '90s, it was hard to find information about some of the things you're interested in. I was curious about writing and screenwriting, and before the internet it was hard to find answers."

His latest project is his most ambitious yet: In February, August published a middle-grade fantasy novel titled Arlo Finch and the Valley of Fire, which draws on his childhood memories of growing up around nature and making friends in the Boy Scouts. It's a rousing adventure, filled with horned horses called "Night Mares," mystical woods where children go missing, and a mysterious hag in the woods. But in an August-ian twist, simply writing, selling, editing, and marketing a book wasn't enough; he needed to make it more complicated by dissecting each part of that process -- including phone calls with his agent and an excursion to a book-printing plant in Harrisonburg, Virginia -- on his 7-episode podcast mini-series Launch, which he released with the podcasting network Wondery. (One podcast, clearly, was not enough.) More than his previous audio projects, Launch is a personal journey, centering his fears and vulnerabilities.

"To some degree, the podcast was very helpful as a crutch for me to let myself ask awkward questions because I'm asking them on tape," he says. "Also, it's a way of emotional self-defense: If the book tanks, well, at least I've made a podcast about it."

Either way, the thing(s) gets done. But how? And, more importantly, why? What drives a successful, established screenwriter to scrutinize their creative process in such exacting detail?

"He does everything."

In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign August is currently entangled in with some friends, he plays as a character called a Kenku, a bird-like humanoid creature. On the outside, it looks like a crow wearing a brown cloak; underneath it carries tools and weapons. Its alignment? Chaotic neutral.

"John's stroke of brilliance was to decide his particular Kenku was more like a parrot, so he's incapable of saying anything out loud unless he's heard someone else say it," Craig Mazin writes to me in an email, issuing an all-caps "DEEP NERD WARNING." "And he has to say it exactly like they do. Seriously. The dude keeps a list. His character is smart, but limited by circumstance (and the bizarre random phrases he happens to hear our characters saying), and the result has been the funniest, most creative ongoing performance I think we've ever had in our game. I don't think any of us would have ever thought to do that in a million years."

After a dozen sessions, his Kenku has created its own lexicon of phrases, a language picked up through resilience and savvy. It's an apt metaphor for the way August has navigated an industry that remains in a state of flux. Keep moving. Glean what you can from others. Struggle. Persevere. Grow. It's a simple formula, but it allows him to approach the perceived genius of more brand-name Hollywood figures. 

"When I finally got to meet Steven Spielberg, I think the thing that was simultaneously depressing and exciting was, 'Oh, he's working really hard. It's not like everything is easy for him,'" says August. "When you realize these folks are working really hard at being good at the thing that they are, you realize, 'Oh, I could work really hard, too.'"

"There's always this sense that people are born with magical abilities and then they are the ones who can do stuff and us mere mortals can't. That hasn't been my experience at all."

For the last six years his podcast Scriptnotes, which currently has over 340 episodes, has wrestled with these larger issues while also diving into hyper-granular discussion of screenwriting minutia, like whether to use two spaces after a period. (August was a two-spacer, but he's evolved into a one-spacer.) Friends of the show like Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, comedian Mike Birbiglia, or Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson might appear as guests, but most episodes just feature August and Mazin bantering and answering listener questions. They're anti-gurus.

According to Mazin, August is the perfect podcasting partner because "he does everything." The behind-the-scenes machinations, the distribution, and the transcripts of each episode archived on his site are overseen by August. "It's a dream come true," writes Mazin. "For me, I mean." He goes on: "Everyone should get a John August before even thinking about doing a podcast."

Claire (Katie Holmes) and Mannie (Nathan Bexton) in 'Go.'
Columbia TriStar/Getty Images

As Mazin and August often bemoan on the podcast, the "how-to" arm of screenwriter-dom is filled with contests run by grifters, classes taught by con-men, and books peddling elaborate plot structures that will sit on your shelf like totems of abandoned dreams. August knows that many neophytes are drawn to titles like Syd Field's film-school dorm-room staple Screenplay or Lajos Egri's more high-minded The Art of Dramatic Writing. They promise answers, solutions, and systems. For August, his introduction to screenwriting was less conventional: He read the published version of the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh's Sundance breakthrough, Sex, Lies, & Videotape, which included the fastidious director's production diary, and gave himself a crash course.  

He remembers a specific moment in the diary where Soderbergh describes needing to do a reshoot to pick up one extra shot where Andie MacDowell, the film's troubled protagonist, finds an earring. The reshoot was filmed in a random hotel room, months after the shoot had wrapped, and the carpet in the room didn't match the original set and her hair didn't match. It didn't matter. "They needed that one shot to connect two pieces," explains August. "That was a revelation to me. You are repurposing things to communicate bits of the story."

His gift for narrative codebreaking is evident in his first produced script, the rollicking '90s crime riff Go. The non-linear plotting was widely compared to Pulp Fiction when it was released in 1999, but where Tarantino's writing has a languid, stoner glow, Go plays like a EEG scan of a multi-multitasker's busy cranium. Fresh out of USC's Peter Stark Producing Program and still in his 20s, August crafted a "wild night out" story that's chopped into three interlocking chapters: Sarah Polley and Katie Holmes's retail workers sell chewable aspirin as ecstasy to gullible ravers in one section, Desmond Askew's goofy loser takes a road trip to Vegas and has three-way tantric sex in a burning hotel room in another, and, in the movie's final third, Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf's gay soap actors get invited to a bizarre dinner party by a tough-guy cop (William Fichtner) they're working undercover for. (A frequently shirtless Timothy Olyphant shows up as a drug dealer with a neck tattoo of flaming dice.) It's like watching a dancing bear juggle knives.

"It was a chance to see if I could actually control [what] comes out."

August is quick to note he was "a white guy writing movies for white guys" during an industry boom, earning splashy gigs like Charlie's Angels and its sequel, Full Throttle, plus prestige fare like Big Fish, a nesting-doll adaptation of Daniel Wallace's novel developed with Steven Spielberg before Tim Burton climbed aboard. The unfiltered John August experience emerged with his 2007 directorial debut The Nines, a delirious slice of mind-fuckery that finds Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, and Hope Davis playing multiple roles in three different stories of artists losing their grip on reality. Toward the end, Reynolds learns he's "a multidimensional being of vast, almost infinite power." Also, in the movie's world, koalas are telepathic. August once described the movie as "my brain splatter on the screen."

Like any high-profile working screenwriter, August's career is also peppered with movies he either wrote multiple drafts of or pitched that ultimately never got made -- or ended up with someone else. They're the ones that got away: A shot at writing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or an adaptation of the cult comic Preacher. Those sting.  

"The frustration of the screenwriter is you can spend years trying to make the script just right and trying to make it appeal to the people who need to say yes, but then for whatever reason they don't say yes," he sighs. "Or they say 'Yes but…' and they want it to be something that isn't what you set out to do. I think both with Arlo Finch and Launch, it was a chance to see if I could actually control the thing that comes out and really make it be exactly what I wanted it to be."

Bill Murray, Lucy Liu, and Drew Barrymore in 'Charlie's Angels.'
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

When I'm on the phone with John, he calls out to an assistant to Slack him a document. Seconds later, an outline for Launch, is in my inbox. "This is the story of a book," it begins. "It's also the story of books in general: how they're written, sold, and distributed."

Like many August ideas, Launch grew out of a desire to do his own version of a cool thing he liked. He was a fan of reported, narrative-driven shows like Serial, Planet Money, and Start Up, particularly the way they covered events that happened in the recent past but then gradually caught up to the present in real time. (Similar to the way the plot threads in Go and The Nines overlap.) The process of telling the story influences the way it unfolds.

"I decided to start writing my own book," he says, describing the inception of both Arlo Finch and Launch. "And it was really almost simultaneously that I realized, 'OK, if I am going to write this book, that's a new thing for me to be doing and I'm going to have 1,000 questions and this would be a good reason to start recording those answers.'

"I didn't have any sense of how difficult it would actually be to make [Launch]. I was naive in how much time it would take. I'm so used to making a show that's just two people chatting, which is almost done in real time, and this was orders and orders of magnitude more difficult to actually get made and get the feeling right."

He had to completely scrap a version of the first episode, which he describes as "horrible." He wrote it in a way that would work for someone else, but sounded forced and fake when he said it in his own voice. In the midst of a three-hour recording session at Wondery's studio in L.A., he knew it wasn't going to work.

"For someone who is as accomplished as he is... he was so collaborative."

After sending the cut to friends like screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), who told him it showed promise but wasn't coming together, August decided to throw it out. His solution? Write his way out of the problem. It's a skill that gets you in trouble, but also provides an escape route.

"I do fall back on writing a lot," he says. "For Launch, what I hadn't anticipated was how much writing there would be to get an episode done. What we end up doing is we have a Google doc for each episode and into it our producers will paste snippets of interviews that they think are useful, and we'll discuss that, and then I'll write the narration through. But those documents end up becoming huge and that becomes the template for what we're recording off of."

He eventually did write his way to solid ground, landing on the podcast's cozy-yet-inquisitive tone. "The first episodes are always the hardest because they really do set the tone for these types of mini-series," says Ben Adair, a public radio veteran who served as the executive producer and editor on Launch. "The thing I'll say about John is that for someone who is as accomplished as he is as a screenwriter and as an author as well, he was so collaborative on figuring this out."

"And he was very open-minded about realizing that this is a different medium and that some things work in screenwriting that don't work in podcasting. Or in novels that don't work in podcasting. He was really a great sport, and so willing to experiment."

'Launch' cover art.
Courtesy of Wondery

Taken together, Scriptnotes and Launch are both toolkits for professionals looking for nuanced shoptalk and amateurs seeking a foothold in seemingly impenetrable industries. August's willingness to take you behind closed doors, to let you hear the conversation that occurs between a writer and a potential editor, is part of a generosity of spirit that extends to other areas of his personal and professional life. In addition to currently serving on the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America West, he's also provided guidance to a string of assistants who have gone on to great success as TV and film writers.

Rawson Marshall Thurber, the director of Dodgeball and The-Rock-crazy-jumps-into-a-skyscraper movie, Skyscraper, was one of the first students in what ex-members now refer to as the John August apprenticeship. Other graduates include How to Be Single writer Dana Fox, Greek creator Patrick Sean Smith, Scandal writer Matt Byrne, and NCIS: New Orleans writer Chad Gomez Creasey. Thurber tells me agents routinely say they'll instantly sign one of August's assistants because they don't want to miss out on the next one.

I ask him if there's a secret that these people all learned from John. "There is a ritual... but we're not allowed to talk about it," he jokes.

"I learned it was possible to be a good person and a good screenwriter."

August's description of what his mentorship looks like is unsurprisingly straightforward. He gives them a desk to go to every day' enough tasks that they're busy, but not so much that they can't work on their own projects; and an example of what a working screenwriter actually does all day, which mostly ivolves sitting and writing. Thurber describes him as the best boss he's ever had.

"I learned it was possible to be both a good person and a good screenwriter," he says. "I stole so much screenwriting craft and office supplies from John August that it's kinda embarrassing."

Launch, Scriptnotes, and almost every other unusual side project in the John August Expanding Brain Universe are built on this proposition: If you do the thing, you'll get better. It's simple, practical advice that can also be maddening. Where are the shortcuts? What's the trick? How can I get what you have? Those are common questions in any business, but they're especially widespread in fields like screenwriting where the career path feels so mercurial. August doesn't preach a gospel. He recognizes that the path is long and unique for everyone. It helps to develop a varied skill set.

Though the ad market for podcasts is growing, the financial stakes are significantly lower than in the realm of studio filmmaking. August's next film is Guy Ritchie's live-action remake of Aladdin, starring Will Smith as the Genie, the type of enormous production where a screenwriter must inevitably cede control to the unwieldy machinations of the business. (In 2017, it was announced that The Shape of Water screenwriter Vanessa Taylor was brought in to rewrite August's script.) The movie will likely arrive in 2019, the same year his next novel, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon, hits bookstores. Having multiple outlets and working in a range of mediums, which screenwriters have been doing since the dawn of cinema, might be the only way to stay sane.

Is maintaining sanity the best a multitalented screenwriter can hope for? One of the questions August often poses to authors, editors, and agents on Launch is how they measure success. Naturally, I ask him how he'll know if Launch was a success.

"If people are still finding it useful six months and 12 months down the road. I feel like podcasts are disposable in the sense that you wouldn't go back and listen to an old episode of something that's really newsworthy or time based. Hopefully, Launch will be something that a year or two years from now, anyone who is interested can go back to and say, 'Oh, this is the story of how a book gets made.'"

Even if Launch doesn't live forever, it's clear it will have at least one positive effect: It's got all his synapses firing and will likely inspire another John August experiment. The next podcast or script or event or song or app or Dungeons & Dragons character. The next thing to do.  

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.