John August is a Los Angeles based Screenwriter. He has written the screenplays for many successful Hollywood movies such as Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish and Aladdin.
A screenwriter writes the film’s screenplay. They do this either based on an original idea, by adapting an existing story or by joining an existing project
In the following interview, John shares how he started out in the film industry, details on his new scriptwriting app Highland 2 and his advice for aspiring screenwriters.
What originally attracted you to screenwriting?
I probably knew I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. My mom had a manual typewriter, and I spent the better part of a week trying to type a story about a boy who lived on Mars. I only made it about 12 lines. The story kept changing because I often hit the wrong keys, and would have to stop and think about what words I could make with the letter I had mis-typed.
It wasn’t until college that I started to think about writing for movies. In the era before the internet — and internet-based advice columns — I read what I could find in bookstores, starting with Steven Soderbergh’s screenplay for SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE. I remember being fascinated by how simple movie scripts were. It seemed easy, or at least a lot easier than any other form of writing.
I was wrong, but I was hooked. I learned everything else about screenwriting after I moved to Los Angeles in 1992. I was 22.
What was your first paid job as a screenwriter?
My first paid screenwriting job was adapting the books “How to Eat Fried Worms” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” (Neither of these screenplays were produced.) I’d gotten both of the jobs off of my first screenplay, a romantic tragedy that never sold. The process of working on Worms and Wrinkle in Time gave me a lot of good experience in how to take notes and incorporate them.
Is it a good idea to move to LA to have a career in screenwriting?
I know a hundred screenwriters, and can only think of two who managed to start a feature writing career while living outside Los Angeles or New York.
As much as I want to believe that a fledgling screenwriter in Scranton, PA, can take the industry by storm, the majority of writers working in studio feature films live and work in Los Angeles, at least in the early stages of their career.
Talent and luck accounted for part of my success during my first few years in LA. The rest of it was due to my peers: friends in film school, co-workers and fellow interns with whom I’d exchange scripts and offer notes. I got an agent through one of those friends. A writing job through another. But just as importantly, I was helping them get their careers going. And it didn’t feel like work. There was no calculation or list-keeping. These were people I was going hiking with, going to movies with. We were all in it together.
Could you do it in London? Sure. New York? Probably. Could you just commute back and forth to LA, spending most of your time somewhere else? Maybe. Basically, if your life’s dream is to become a giant Hollywood screenwriter, then you need to live in Hollywood. If you have different goals — indie films, for example — your options are much more open.
How does your new app Highland 2 make the writing process easier for screenwriters?
With Highland 2, I wanted to extend the tools we’d built for screenplays for all kinds of writing. I’ve written all three Arlo Finch novels in it. I’m writing these answers in it. It’s pretty much the only thing I use for putting words together.
The most important factor why Highland works the way it does is that I use Highland every day for actual paid work. I rely on it, so major and minor annoyances get addressed. We’ve also grown a strong community of writers and we take their feedback seriously. Highland 2 is just a better way to write because it was built by writers. It’s fast and flexible. You never have to tell it how to format something. It just intuits which elements are which.
I’m particularly proud of the user interface we’ve developed for Highland 2. It feels like a 2019 app, not something dragged up from the 90s. The new features in Highland 2.5, which released June 12th, let you stay in the app even through revisions.
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
When you’re writing your first script, there’s an instinct to cram everything you know about everything into it, because who knows if you’ll ever write another? Writing a screenplay is such a slog, you can’t imagine having to do it all over again. It’s not until you’ve written a few scripts that the format becomes second-nature. But you shouldn’t mistake familiarity with the format with mastery of the form. Screenwriting is a weird mix of the technical and artistic. You’re trying to create the experience of watching a movie with just words on the page. You only improve by reading a lot of scripts and writing consistently.
Beginning writers worry too much about structure and not nearly enough about characters and relationships. When you start off as a writer, you’re very protective of your characters because you’re sort of protecting yourself. As you get more experienced and comfortable with it you start to recognize that stories work really well when you make things awful for your characters.
Being nice to your characters is rarely the right choice. That lovable little kid...it’s great that you love him, but now to tell his story you’re going to have to make his life very, very difficult.
John August Also hosts a weekly podcast on screenwriting called Scriptnotes - Find the podcast here