'Big Fish' writer chats with the minnows

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John August

John August (April 18, 2013)

Q: You do something on the podcast called the Three-Page Challenge. What is that?

A: One of the frustrations that Craig and I had originally is that you can't talk about words on a page unless you have words on a page. We didn't just want to use our own stuff, so Craig initially had the idea of, "I can look at the first three or four pages of a script and often tell you if that person knows what they're doing, or doesn't."

So we asked people to send in the first three pages of their script for us to talk about on the air, and we got hundreds in the first few days. It's turned out much better than I would have guessed. You can learn so much by seeing what kinds of things people are doing on the page and recognizing what tends to work or what doesn't. People have been really generous to send us their stuff. I hope we help steer people in good directions. Even when we read something great, we can often find suggestions for how to make it better. If it's bad, we're not going to slash it apart, we're going to talk about what's not working. We do it about once a month now.

Q: You've said there are certain things we don't see people do in the movies anymore, like we don't see people eat. That made me laugh. But it's true. What is that about?

A: Movies tend to be about extraordinary things happening to characters. You don't find a lot of normal life happening in movies. The bigger-than-life moments are what are going into our movies these days. And so simple daily activities? That's television. The once-in-a-lifetime things? That's movies.

I love what we're able to do on television today, but because of that, it's become harder to do certain kinds of movies. We don't do big dramas anymore. There are certain kinds of comedies we can't do anymore because we think of them as being half-hour sitcoms. Look at "New Girl," which is a fantastic show — that is what a movie romantic comedy should be. But because we're doing it on a half-hour series basis, there's not room to do a movie version of that kind of story right now.

Q: You and Tim Burton have worked together a lot. Was "Big Fish" your first film together?

A: It was. I had written the script, and (the producers) went looking for a director, and ultimately Tim signed on to do it. It went really fast, so I didn't work with him very much at all. The first thing I really wrote for him was "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Then I did "Corpse Bride" and then we did "Frankenweenie."

Q: Is it just a melding of the minds with Burton?

A: There's an expectation that Tim and I are best friends, and we talk all the time! That's not the case at all. I'm the guy who writes the scripts, and he goes off and makes the movies. It's about understanding what he likes and needs, so I write for what I think he's going to love to shoot.

Q: You don't have creative sessions where you go out and drink eight bottles of wine and brainstorm?

A: Not at all! A long meeting with Tim Burton is about 20 minutes. There's not a lot of talking through things. He's not a talk-througher.

Q: But he is someone who has earned the right to do weird films, when the stereotype about studio movies is that all the edges have been dulled.

A: I've worked with some other A-list directors too, and it's true, they do have an autonomy that is helpful because they can make the movie that needs to get made, rather than the safest possible movie. They've earned that right. That's why, as a screenwriter, you love working with those people because you're writing for one person, not for a committee.

Q: In the fall you kept a diary of all your pop culture consumption for a week for Vulture and you were really honest about your opinions, which is rare from someone working in Hollywood. Like the fact that "Considering my husband and I are gay dads through surrogacy, we should be in the bull's-eye for 'The New Normal.' But the show drives me crazy, and I stopped watching halfway through the episode. It's like 'Glee' with just Sue Sylvester and no songs."

A: That was a show that didn't land for me. I hope I'm always respectful about hard it is to get anything done. It's just as hard to make something that doesn't work as it is to make a surprise hit. I never want to fault people for their effort. But also, you can't clap for everything. And if something's not working, it can be good to talk about why.

DePaul's Page One Entertainment Writing Conference runs from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday at CDM Theater, 14 E. Jackson, Lower Level. No registration required. Go to cdm.depaul.eduand click on "CDM calendar." For tickets to "Big Fish," go to broadwayinchicago.com. John August's podcast can be found at his website johnaugust.com.

Immigrant experience

Chicago-based filmmaker Tyler Brinegar is looking to raise $10,000 for his documentary "The Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project," which will center on a small immigrant group in Bolingbrook. "Last week I saw a senior citizen — who has been deported and re-entered (the country) three times — take a bus to the nation's capital and tell her story in front of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol headquarters. Someone convinced her it was worth the risk to do that," says Brinegar, who until recently produced promos for one of the local news stations in town. "Inspired by (her) courage, I quit my job and started making the film." Go to kickstarter.com and do a search with Brinegar's name.

Educating girls

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