'Big Fish' writer chats with the minnows

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John August

John August (April 18, 2013)

A group of influential screenwriters will converge on Chicago this weekend, including Lucy Alibar (whose script for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was nominated for an Oscar this year) and Bob Gale (who wrote all three "Back to the Future" films).

They'll be in town Saturday as part of a daylong series of panel discussions — free and open to the public — organized by DePaul University. Other screenwriters on the docket include the writing team of Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (creators of the "Saw" franchise) and TV writer Lon Zimmet ("Scrubs" and "Happy Endings"), who is a producer on NBC's upcoming Michael J. Fox sitcom.

Chicago has long proved itself a viable city in which playwrights can live and work, but we don't often hear about Chicago-based screenwriters landing big opportunities. Doesn't make much sense. This is a writers' town. Keith Huff (whose credits include "Mad Men" and "House of Cards") is one of the exceptions. So is Steve Conrad ("The Weatherman"), who wrote the screenplay for the upcoming Ben Stiller adaptation of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

It's not like there isn't work here. According to numbers released by the state last week, $184 million was spent locally by TV and film projects in 2012. That's the highest figure ever. But the writers on all those projects were based elsewhere. Mostly Los Angeles.

You can't blame students from DePaul's screenwriting program (and other schools in town) who see LA as their only option. You're a bit of a lone wolf as a writer, and for those starting out, there is an entire cottage industry looking to take the money of would-be screenwriters. (The seminars offered by Robert McKee are among the most expensive, topping out at nearly $1,000.)

Immense credit goes to DePaul for making Saturday's writing conference free and open to anyone curious enough to show up. Lately there are other resources offering insight, including the weekly Scriptnotes podcast, hosted by John August, a frequent Tim Burton collaborator whose credits also include "Go" and "Charlie's Angels." August happens to be in Chicago through the first half of May, working on the stage adaptation of his film "Big Fish" at the Oriental Theater before it moves to Broadway in the fall.

Scriptnotes is free and is co-hosted by fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin (his resume includes "The Hangover" parts two and three and the recent Melissa McCarthy comedy "Identity Thief"; both moneymakers, despite drubbing from critics). Together they offer an insideperspective on the job. On a recent show they analyzed a transcript that's available online of the brainstorming session between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan for "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"It occurred to me that this would be great to talk about on the podcast because everybody knows the movie," August told me, "but we never talk about it as a screenplay and why it works."

There's also this: August might be the most accessible Hollywood writer working today. "I think we're at a weird time in culture where, I'm just a screenwriter guy, but because I'm online and on Twitter, I'm more accessible than someone in my position would probably normally be." His email is listed right there on his web site, along with this message:

"Reminder that if you're coming to see 'Big Fish' in Chicago — on any night in the run — Tweet me or email me your date and seat. I will endeavour to come by and say hello." He's not kidding. He really will.

I spoke with August during a recent rehearsal break about the life of a screenwriter. What follows is an edited transcript.

Q: As busy as you've been with "Big Fish," you're still doing your podcast once a week.

A: I had to maintain some kind of regularity! The podcast is a beast that I have to feed, and in a certain way it's like having a weekly therapy appointment. It's nice to have that regularity when everything else is chaotic.

And it doesn't matter that I'm in Chicago right now. It's funny, Craig and I always do it by Skype. We've only been in the same room once or twice to do it.

Q: You give very real-world insight into the job of screenwriting. Aspiring screenwriters don't generally have access to that.

A: Yeah. It comes back to when I was a kid growing up in Boulder, Colo. I was curious about movies, and I was curious about screenwriting, but there was no way for me to find out how it worked. This was all pre-Internet. So I would look through Premiere magazine and would try to pick up what was going on, but I really couldn't.

So now I think, if I were a kid growing up in Colorado now, where would I find information? It would be online — but is it good information, or is it someone trying to sell me something? If Craig and I can be that source for people — the good information — I'm delighted to be that.

Q: That openness feels rare. Do you get the feeling that a lot of people working in Hollywood are like, "I had to work my tail off to figure this stuff out, I'm not going to give it out for free"?

A: Screenwriters are actually fairly generous. I've gotten to know a lot of them. They may not take two hours to read your script and give you extensive notes, but everyone will happily answer questions for you.

And the podcast seemed like good format to have a conversation about not just how to get started, but what it's like to be a screenwriter. That's what we try to focus on. Not just advice, but a real conversation about what it's actually like to do this, because I think there's this fantasy that it's like the lottery — that you're going to sell a script and they're going to make the movie and you're going to be rich, and that's just not the reality at all. It's a tremendous amount of work. It's not just one movie that you need to work on, but a lot — and it's projects that don't go anywhere that sometimes start relationships.

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