It’s His Dog, It’s My Dog: John August on Frankenweenie
I recently spoke with John August, screenwriter of Frankenweenie, being released on October 5th. A film that was initially created as a short in 1984, this boy-and-his-dog-meets-Frankenstein story has now been remade into what it is now, with a good many additional creatures and a few additional thematic decisions. Having worked with Tim Burton numerous times, August had some interesting things to say about what their working relationship was like and what his own feelings were about writing for someone whose creative abilities are quite clear as well. I asked him about how they worked together and how they got started and how that affected a film as personal as Frankenweenie, a film that, for all intents and purposes, is supposed to be a somewhat alternative-style-biopic of Tim as a child himself. August was extremely friendly and warm, and had some really interesting things to say about the changes that they had made to the film and the thematic decisions that they had come to, script-wise and visually when they made the jump from short to feature film.
CraveOnline: You have worked with Tim Burton on several projects now. What would you say that your favorite parts of working with him are?
John August: Tim, in the best possible way, treats the writer like a department head, and you are responsible for creating a script that tells the story that’s going to serve the movie, in the same way that Colleen Atwood designs the costumes for his live action movies or his DP lights his amazing sets. So he puts a lot of trust in me, and that’s remarkable. He tells you what he needs, what he wants, and sends you off to do it, and that’s what you look for, that sense of [being] entrusted with creating this document that is going to serve everyone else and him to make this movie.
How did you first come into contact with Tim Burton and what were your first working conversations like?
The first thing we worked on was Big Fish and it was already written. We’d had another director on board who was unable to do it, so we said, “Well, let’s go with Tim Burton,” not thinking he would say yes and he said yes and so suddenly we were in production. And so because I’d already written it and because it was already good to go, there wasn’t a lot that Tim and I worked on together on it. I went down to Montgomery, Alabama on it, and we talked through some things and there were some cuts we needed to make and I just wasn’t sure how it was going to work out and then I saw in the office he had this crazy ventriloquist/comedy ventriloquist puppet, which is in the movie, and I was like, “Oh, that’s right, I wrote that! Oh you already made that! Oh, it’s going to be great.” So that was the first time. But on Big Fish I was there for the first day of shooting and you never really know what your relationship with the director is going to be like on-set, so I saw one thing on the monitor, and said to Tim, “You don’t really need me to tell you that,” so I hopped a plane and went home. It’s not that kind of “tell me everything you think” relationship. It’s very much that I do my part and he makes a movie.
As a writer, how do you negotiate the more “Tim Burton” part of the working with Tim Burton? He is a very powerful persona with very significant imagery and creative ideologies that come with him.
My responsibility is to give him a script to make a movie he wants to make, and it’s going to be his movie. It’s making sure that he has, scene by scene, moment by moment, the movie he’s excited to make and so I definitely look for the things… you know like weird girl with the cat poop, he’s going to dig that, he’s going to get that, that’s really gonna work for him and it’s partly my responsibility to create those moments that are going to, you know, be uniquely amazing and sort of fit into his world.
I was told that you have a great love for the theatrical experience. Would you care to speak on this?
I love that we still have movie theaters, and I think that we need to make sure that we protect our movie theaters. I think we’re going to have movie theaters for a long time because people want to see things on a big screen and they want to get away from their families and the rest of their cares for a while and sit in a dark room, and, y’know, bless ‘em. So I want to make sure we protect the primacy of that theatrical release. There are some movies where that is not going to be realistic for and I think it’s great that movies are sort of finding other ways to sort of get out into the world, but I do love big movies, and I do love that we made this for the big screen.
What was it like working on such a personal project as Frankenweenie?
Yeah, it’s his dog, right. It’s his dog, it’s my dog… it’s that primal boy-and-his-dog story, and so I knew it was a very important early film for Tim, and that a lot of the things we associate as Burton-esque sort of first manifested themselves in that movie and yet it was a movie that I “got” immediately. I loved that short, I knew sort of what would work in that short as a big feature film and Tim had a clear idea of the other monsters he wanted to bring in to the world, one of the things that he couldn’t do in a short film. So my responsibility was to take his old ideas and his new ideas and find bigger tents that they could all fit nicely under, so New Holland, that town, became a way of the expansion of getting those ideas in there. Really getting to drill in and find out who those other boys were who were building those other monsters, Dutch Day as a way to bring all those threads together. With more time, we could explore more things.
Could you expand a little on the other monsters that were introduced into the film? Some of them seemed to be paying homage to other horror film series’.
Sure. The original short is very much the Frankenstein short done with a dog, and it’s terrific. We knew we had that aspect and the question was, we’d love to have more monsters in there, but if we’re going to put more monsters in there, let’s be true to their mythology and their origins, and their origins tend to be “science gone wrong,” like mistakes of science. Well, Victor was science gone right so I needed to be able to approach it with a logic and Rzykruski is a huge portion of my writing the emotional logic for science is neither good nor evil, science is a tool that lets you do things and you can do good things or you can do bad things and Victor bringing back Sparky is a good thing and that’s the message of the movie and he did it out of love and that’s a very good thing. The other boys make monsters because they’re doing that out of love because they’re doing very bad things, and that’s sort of the origin of most of the other monsters of the world, you know the classic 50’s horror movie monsters, so it was a good way to expand our world and allow the monsters into our universe… it’s still a movie about a boy and his dog, but now you can talk about these other things because we have the time.
Did you have a great deal of experience with horror cinema as a kid?
I didn’t have all the references, and in some ways that was lucky. The danger of becoming so inside joke and insular… I knew in sort-of broad strokes what it was, so I could write the movie monsters to be my sort-of generic versions of those monsters or I should say tailored to the personalities of the boys who I did know very specifically. And then, through Tim’s experience… they found very specific touchstones and other inside jokes that I probably don’t even get all the references and that’s the fun of a collaborative medium like film, a lot of people can come in with great ideas and get them into your movie.