Immersed in Movies: Screenwriter John August Talks Burton's 'Frankenweenie,' 'Big Fish' Musical, and Industry Frustration

by Bill Desowitz
October 11, 2012 3:44 PM
1 Comment
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"Frankenweenie" scribe John August was willing to concede industry frustration when we spoke even before the lackluster opening for Tim Burton's critically praised stop-motion animated feature (which was outgunned by animated rival "Hotel Transylvania"). It's increasingly difficult to get quality features produced, let alone commercially embraced. That's why he's been dabbling in theater and TV, with a musical stage version of Burton's "Big Fish" and the supernatural pilot "Chosen" for ABC and Fox, and making apps (including FDX Reader, a Final Draft for the iPad and iPhone) to help make screenwriting a lot easier.

August has also been blogging about the craft for a decade at, where he did some Monday morning quarterbacking on "Frankenweenie" this week:

"On a personal level, it is disappointing, because as the writer I had hoped a lot of people would see the movie this weekend and enjoy it, perhaps beginning a conversation about black-and-white cinema, stop-motion animation or the perilous state of science education. That didn't happen. Instead, the story is about how much money we made."

Still, "quality plus time equals success," August believes, so the notion that "Frankenweenie" will no longer be a strong Oscar contender is premature. This Burton adventure wasn't only personal for the director, who revisited his troubled childhood in Burbank in the '70s, losing his canine companion and retreating into the fantastical world of horror.


"When Tim called, I knew I had to do that story," August recalls. "I knew I had to do that relationship between a boy and his dog; I knew what the loss was; I knew what the excitement was. I had my own dog, Jake, who was 14 at the time. I knew I was going to lose him soon. He was a pug in the shape of Sparky. And I have a young daughter and we had conversations about the death of a beloved dog. It was the right movie."

After Burton presented August with a list of other iconic monsters that he wanted to incorporate in the second half, the go-to guy for weepy Burton movies went back and studied the original live-action short from 1984 in search of clues. "I tried to figure out who those other kids are in class and what they are trying to do. What is so special about the town and why is Victor able to do this thing that no one has been able to do before? And so in a conversation with Tim I pitched the science fair as a unifying way of explaining why everyone is doing these experiments and trying to bring these animals to life. Once it was clear that Tim really meant for this to be American suburbia, I knew I wanted a giant windmill, and that's how we came up with New Holland, this ersatz Dutch town. That also became Dutch Day, which was their fake cultural celebration (let me write one more song). So I unified the very disparate elements in that sequence, which was all the boys making their monsters and the threads coming together."

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1 Comment

  • Joe Beatty | October 12, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    Excellent article. "Frankenweenie" is one of the best movies of the year. John August is not only a nice guy, but is also very thoughtful and articulate on the subject of screenwriting. I highly recommend his website and podcasts with Craig Mazin at

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