John August has spent nearly the last decade collaborating with Tim Burton. Beginning with the heartfelt fable Big Fish, August went on to work with Burton on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride, Dark Shadows and, now, Frankenweenie, opening tomorrow (Friday, October 5th).
Earlier this week, we spoke to August about the film, which is an adaptation of Tim Burton’s 1984 short film about an inventive young boy and his resurrected dead dog. Inside, August discusses capturing the right tone, creating new monsters for the film and more.
Shock Till You Drop: What were your own memories of Tim Burton’s original film?
John August: I loved the story of the boy and his dog. It was simple and emotionally pure, so when it came time to talk about the movie version, when you have that, it’s an amazing core aspect of the story. Even with everything we wanted to do with Weird Girl, the boys and the other tangents we could go off on, there was always that safe place to go back to.
Shock: Did the creatures featured in the film stem from the script development conversations you had with Tim or did he already have a good idea of what he wanted?
August: Tim showed up with the short film and then a list of other monsters he wanted to see that the boys created after being inspired by Victor. That was good, I could see the movie. So, my responsibility was finding the framework. Most movies are about the evils of science, so I said to Tim, this is a weirdly pro-science movie, let’s embrace that. So, you have a new science teacher come to town, there’s this science fair, the boys start their projects and then we needed a suburban town with a giant windmill. That’s where New Holland came from and Dutch Day, that way we can explain why there’s this windmill in a suburban American town. It was tremendously fun.
Shock: In your upbringing, were you a fan of Universal’s classic movie monsters?
August: I knew what the monsters were and what the basic tropes were, but I didn’t know them specifically. In some ways, that was a help on this movie so I could approach that with a layman’s audience perspective on the movie. Tim and the other animators knew very specific details, but we didn’t get lost in a lot of in-jokey stuff because I could approach them in broad strokes. To me, it was more fun to look at each one of those monsters as being a manifestation of the boys’ personalities. So in their competition, these boys create fearsome creatures.
Shock: Speaking of the kids – did the vocal talent match the voice you had in your head while you were writing these characters?
August: None of the voices were cast when I turned in the script and so I assumed Tim would find great people. He said he wanted Victor to be an innocent kid and then he just found the right voices for everyone which was terrific.
Shock: Atticus Shaffer took me by surprise.
August: Atticus is incredible. That a kid could pull it off…
Shock: Were there limits for you, as the writer, as to how dark the film could go?
August: When I visited the set and I was there with my daughter who had turned five. When she realized Sparky died, she sat down on the floor and didn’t move until we had a good ten-minute conversation about why everything happens. It was heartbreaking but very instructive because I told the producer, we need to make sure in marketing from teaser trailer on that the dog dies and the dog comes right back or we’ll have parents rioting. The work, both in the script, shooting and Danny Elfman’s music, is all about letting the moment play then picking things back up with the comedy that unfolds after that.
Shock: On a genre-related note, as a writer, what are you loving that you have seen recently?
August: I love American Horror Story. It took sort of an impossible premise: How do you sustain a haunted house story? Then it ran incredible fast towards this cliff and then ran off the cliff? What the hell are they going to do for season two? Oh, they’re doing something new. I loved that, because it was a trick ending. We have this expectation of what a series is supposed to do and I loved that it didn’t do that. And, The Walking Dead isn’t perfect, but it’s got some grimm stuff you wouldn’t expect to see on television.
Shock: You just signed to a television series of your own, didn’t you?
August: Yes, I’m writing a pilot for ABC. I will write and if goes to series, Josh Friedman will take it over, he did Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s a family drama with a supernatural aspect called Chosen and I’m excited to write it and excited to see a show Josh makes. I approach TV as a fan of television, I know what I like and I know what excites me. I always advise writers to write what they would pay to see $15 on opening night. I’m writing the kind of show I wish was on television right now. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t.