John August: “Itches to be scratched” and Nine Cool Screenwriter Things by Kosha Engler

Thirty minutes later John August appeared in the flesh. We went wild with applause for the great man of podcast fame and oh, one or two Hollywood films. And a musical. And a few novels. And a screenwriting app, which he designed. All “itches to be scratched.”

My first London Breakfast Club was a cracker. At 2:30pm sharp I nabbed my front row seat at Phoenix Artist Club. Good thing too – it was packed.

Thirty minutes later John August appeared in the flesh. We went wild with applause for the great man of podcast fame and oh, one or two Hollywood films. And a musical. And a few novels. And a screenwriting app, which he designed. All “itches to be scratched.”

In classic August understatement he says of his Scriptnotes podcast, “It’s weird that we’re a relatively big show for just two guys talking over Skype.” Perhaps it’s because he and Craig Mazin are two crazy smart, articulate, insightful guys who never fail to enlighten, entertain or encourage me. Today was no different. Here’s just a taste of his brilliance:

1. Write what you want to see exist
“Write the things you want to write and don’t chase the things you feel like you should be writing. I think I wasted a lot of time writing the things I felt like, oh well this could get made, rather than the movies I most wanted to see exist in the world.” The first movie he got made, Go, was what he wished he could go see on a Friday night. “It wasn’t the biggest movie, it wasn’t the most special movie, it was just the movie I really wanted to exist and I’m glad I wrote that

2. Make things with your peers, rise up together
“There’s this perception that you have to find people who are already really powerful to be successful, and they will pull you up. Much more important than finding some great mentor figure is to find people who are trying to do the same sort of things you’re trying to do and work together and make things.” August did exactly this when he was starting out. He found like-minded peers and they crewed on each other’s films, read each other’s scripts and rose up together.

3. Pitch with passion
After loads of meetings as an inexperienced screenwriter, August eventually realized that “these conversations should be like imagining I had just seen a movie I absolutely loved and I had to describe to you what happened… it’s a sense of sharing your experience of a movie that doesn’t yet exist.”

4. Face to face matters
In an age when remote meetings are so ubiquitous, August believes “the reason why face to face still matters is ultimately [producers] need to believe, ‘Can I trust you that you’re not going to screw everything up? Can I trust you that if I invest in your movie, you’re going to stick around and be the person who can roll with the changes that are going to have to happen?’ Sitting across from somebody is a really important part of it. There’s something about that personal connection. ‘Oh I see the words, I see the person, this all makes sense.’ In screenwriting you have to interact with people.”

5. Fantasy needs reality
Having written the screenplays for Aladdin (2019) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, August says that with magical stories “reality is super important. No matter how fantastical your world becomes there has to be consistent emotional truth that connects you back into what the experience is. Also you have to be clear with yourself about what the rules of your world are going to be. And so by page 20 or 25, we have a really good sense of the kinds of things that can happen in your world versus the things that can’t happen.”

6. Take notes like a pro
When asked how collaborate well August replies, “Such a huge part of being a screenwriter is the stuff that has nothing to do with what’s on the page,” but how you manage the notes you’re given. His three top tips:

a) Embrace your inner psychologist
It’s about “hearing what [producers] are saying, processing it and echoing it back in a way that makes it clear you understand what they’re saying, so that you can then get to what’s really behind the notes or what’s really driving that thing. And so often what’s driving it is the fear of something else, or the last movie they saw… sometimes it’s not really the thing.”

b) Be The Flash in Gorilla City
What about conflicting notes? First try to get everyone on the same page. Or just take the most ‘important’ person’s notes. August recalls, “I’ve been on movies where, usually there’s one 800-pound gorilla, and whatever he or she wants, that’s what’s going to happen. But there have been some movies that have like a giant star and a giant director and a big studio executive and it’s like oh my god it’s Gorilla City. You want The Flash to come in here and stop the villains. And then you just have to be the person who – it’s like an Aikido move – where it’s like everyone is getting heard and you give them the answer that does most of [the note].”

c) Maybe it just needs to ‘feel’ better
“They won’t necessarily remember the note. It was something they were feeling. So if the next draft is three weeks away they’re probably not going to remember what that note was as long as everything felt better around it.” Notice where in the script the note comes. They recognized something wasn’t working right but the problem may not be the actual moment they noted. “If there’s a note on page 32 it could have been that something on page 25 was really where it was falling apart and it’s by page 32 they notice they weren’t feeling the right thing.”

7. Let go of structure dogma
Movies will have a beginning, middle and end. Characters will face challenges. There will be surprises. But August warns that when you become really obsessed about making things happen on specific pages or how it’s supposed to be fitting this formula, you get a lot of really boring formulaic scripts that you don’t want to read, much less film.” Instead, think like the audience and ask yourself:

  • How would you delight yourself or the viewer with surprises?
  • How can you meet your genre’s expectations and also push past that genre?
  • What does my audience expect the characters to do and how do I do these things and push beyond that?
  • Would I be able to understand what’s going on if I weren’t the person who

8. Come in Later
If he could only give one piece of advice to screenwriters? “Come into your scenes later. You can almost always whack off the top part of your scene. You get a little energy by coming in to people already in motion. You’ll tighten things up and you’ll be surprised how much the audience fills in if you do that.”

9. Love being an amateur
August revels in trying new things, “because so much of the life of a screenwriter can be just really frustrating. He loves the experience of not knowing what he’s doing and throws himself into new forms like musicals, novels or software. “I miss the experience of being new to screenwriting, when I was like ‘what is this form?? I’m flailing! But it’s fun to be flailing!” Tempted? “Vigorously pursuing the things that are fascinating to you is a really good place to start.”

Check out the full podcast for August’s thoughts on TV vs. film, why you should make shorts and web series, how he got his first agent, his Highland app, podcasting, developing TV concepts for today, writing for kids and why you should think like a producer.

Kosha Engler is an actress and writer. Her first feature The Fantasy Ridge is out with interested producers and she’s currently developing a TV comedy pilot. In February 2018 she will appear in Victoria series 2 on Masterpiece on PBS in the USA.

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