John August: A Big Fish across the Pond by Elaine Clayton

The London Breakfast Club was back in action this week. Hot on the heels of the London Screenwriters’ Festival and with a spectacular guest speaker: John August.

Many of us are familiar with Scriptnotes, the weekly podcast John hosts with fellow screenwriter Craig Maizen. If you aren’t then here’s a link:

It’s routine to hear John’s words of wisdom and insights on the screen industry, but what a treat to see him in person. John’s in London helping with rehearsals of Big Fish The Musical which stars Kelsey Grammar and opens on the 1st of November 2017.

The Phoenix Artist Club was the regular hosting hotspot and packed with writers eager to listen and learn from the inspiring advice of a legend. Here are a few highlights from The London Breakfast Club talk, but to hear all of what John had to say listen to the podcast.

‘Write the things you want to write.’
Don’t waste your time chasing the things you feel will get made or that you should be writing.

‘Write the movie you want to see exist in the world’
Something you’d like to go and see at the cinema on a Friday night.

‘What is a TV show versus what is a movie?’
John believes this still causes confusion for writers, especially now, as TV has become so large in budget and production quality. With a movie, you should fit your entire story into two hours where your character will go through something that they can only go through once. With a TV show, you have to tell a story that fits within the hour but leaves questions unanswered, so the viewer is curious about what is going to happen next.

‘Habits are habits, don’t label them good or bad.’
If writing rituals help you ‘get words on the page’ that’s fine but if habits get in the way of your writing, then change what you are doing. Make sure you get the stuff done that needs to get done.

‘Surround yourself with people who are trying to make the things you’re trying to make’
John believes there’s going to be a generation of really great filmmakers coming out of this period, where they’re shooting every weekend and making amazing things. Yes, there are differences between a five-minute short sketch and a feature film, but you are going to learn skills that it has taken other filmmakers a decade to learn.

‘Can I trust that you’re not going to screw everything up?’
Face to face interaction still matters so much in this business. Even though a PDF is a PDF, companies have to know they can trust you. If someone invests in your movie they want to know you’ll stick around, be adaptable and reliable throughout production. You can’t be a hermit that doesn’t interact with people in screenwriting.

‘Get conflicting note givers on the same page’
If the note givers get together, try and get them to agree on the best note, that way they have resolved the issue for you. If you have to decide yourself, pick the right note, the least harmful note, or follow the note from the most important person, that ‘eight-hundred-pound gorilla’. Notes often are not remembered when improvements are made. Make people feel heard and help them stay calm.

‘Distract yourself’
Waiting to hear back is always an anxious time. John believes the best way to cope with waiting is to start breaking something else. Find a new project. Don’t waste your time imagining the conversations that are going on in the outside world. Get busy with your next project, then when you get that call it’ll be a happy surprise, or if it’s bad news you didn’t dwell on it.

‘Would you be able to understand what was going on if you weren’t the person who wrote it?’
There is a core, minimum structure to all storytelling. A beginning, a middle, an end. But don’t adhere to the dogma of script structure and think by page ten this must happen. When you obsess about making things happen on particular pages you get a formulaic script that’s boring and you don’t want to read, much less film. Think about how you will delight the viewer with surprises? What are the audience supposed to be feeling? How are you going to make them feel that?

‘Be better than everything out there.’
With original TV concepts today think about what you want to see and think about what you could move from movies down to TV now, something different. It has to be good and groundbreaking in some way. The old idea in the US that a show has got to run for a hundred episodes or more has gone. Ask yourself questions a producer will ask for TV and film, but never let it paralyze you as a writer.

’Imagine you’ve just seen a movie you love’
Sharing your experience of a movie that does not yet exist is exactly what pitching is. You as the writer should transition from being someone with potential, to being someone with potential and I like what they’re describing. Pitching skills will develop as you practice, gain experience and become more confident.

And John’s final piece of advice – ‘Come into your scenes later’You can always take from the top and bottom of a scene. Start your scene when people are already in motion. The audience will fill in the details for you.

John also spoke about his relationship dynamic with Tim Burton, how he secured an agent and the three novels he’s written for kids. Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire will be published in 2018.

What I took away from my first Breakfast Club talk; everyone’s really friendly, the guest speakers have great advice to give and are happy to mingle afterwards. If you get the chance to go, do it!

On behalf of all who attended, thank you John August (and thanks again for signing my Scriptnotes T-shirt).

Elaine Clayton
Elaine is a screenwriter. In 2017 she’s been a BlueCat Quarterfinalist and made the jury shortlist for BAFTA Rocliffe New Writers with her feature script Evil Mrs Claus.

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