Touched by a Charlie's Angel
John August, the Screenwriter of 'Go' and the Fall Season's Most Anticipated TV Remake
When Doug Liman's 1998 L.A. triptych Go arrived in theatres, many audience members didn't know what to make of it. The film's three intersecting storylines and character arcs recalled Pulp Fiction, but the narrative was a pure -- if stylized -- slice of Lost Angeles nightlife, something rarely seen, much less captured with such an assured hand, in mainstream cinema. Screenwriter John August is the man who, as much as Liman himself, created this funky little nugget of coolness -- and that was just the beginning.
Since then, August has gone on to pen the Fox feature-length animated space epic Titan A.E., and this fall, his Charlie's Angels update is a droolingly anticipated event. He can also boast a $3 million Columbia Pictures deal for an as-yet-untitled (and virtually top-secret) monster movie, an upcoming remake/update of TV "classic" Fantasy Island, and a version of the genuinely classic kid's book How to Eat Fried Worms for Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment. In anticipation of his appearance next week at the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference, I spoke with August from his L.A. office while he was girding himself for the imminent release of Charlie's Angels, which, of course, he wrote.
AC: Certainly your most well-known film to this point is Doug Liman's Go. It's such a uniquely structured film. Can you give me some idea of how you approached that and what the general background of that was?
JA: I wrote the first section of Go -- the Ronna section -- as a short film for a friend to direct, just over a weekend. That never happened, and the script ended up sitting around for a while. People would read it and say, "Oh, this is great, but who is Simon, and why is he in Vegas? Who are Adam and Zach?" At that point there were no answers to these questions since it had been intended as a short film. Almost a year later I actually picked it up again and wrote the rest of the finished script, working backwards and trying to cram all those answers into it. Hopefully, in most scripts, the minor characters you're putting in there are interesting enough that if they had to, they could carry the whole film. So with Go that's just what I set out to do in the beginning. It took these people who you thought were just bit players and lets them run with the whole story.
AC: Were you satisfied with the end result?
JA: Absolutely. It was a unique situation, because I also co-produced. And so I was on set every single day, and I actually ended up directing some second-unit stuff on it as well. Doug was great to work with. He's a person who tries to do, like, nine jobs at once, and because of that it makes for some very collaborative filmmaking. He was just fantastic.
AC: Let's talk about your upcoming projects, of which there are many. Several -- like Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island, and Barbarella -- are remakes of TV shows and Sixties pop culture. Was this something you set out to tackle, or was it a case of the studio saying "See what you can do with these old properties of ours?"
JA: People are always online, slamming TV remakes, and usually the people who are slamming on them are also talking about how this comic book or that comic book should be made into a movie, and I just don't get the difference. Or how that video game -- which especially frustrates me -- should be made into a movie. For me, TV shows -- and these are all TV shows I grew up with -- are sort of our fairy tales, they're part of our mythology, and so to move them into movieland isn't such a bad thing, necessarily. In the case of Charlie's Angels, since that original show, we have not seen three women like that, who are strong but feminine, empowered but goofy, and I thought it was a great opportunity to make the right movie of this. When I came onboard, Drew Barrymore had already come on as producer, and she and I clicked immediately in terms of what we wanted this film to be, which is this bizarre, giddy action-comedy.
AC: Did you worry about doing any updating for the more PC temper of the times? I think a lot of people are concerned it's just going to be a big-screen jiggle-fest.
JA: Not so much. Movies are about 10,000 decisions, right? And I don't think there was ever a time when being politically correct was ever a factor in almost any aspect of the movie. It was about what was fun, what was true to the spirit of the TV show, and that kind of stuff. The whole thing takes place in this slightly alternate world where people really can jump 10 feet in the air and then spin and kick people. With that said, it's kind of goofy and the girls are classic Charlie's Angels types. One's the smart one, one's the pretty one, and one's the ho, but in this movie they're all, each of them, all those things at once. They're prettily goofy and brilliant all at the same time. If that makes sense. When it comes time to deactivate a bomb, they're all business, but they can still get giggly over boys. And being able to get all of them to do all those things at once was the biggest challenge.
AC: What was the difference between doing an indie film like Go and a major studio blockbuster like Charlie's Angels? Do you prefer one over the other?
JA: On Go, since it was an indie film that got bought out while we were in production, we did everything all the time. Once we got that money, we were able to do things like the car chase without getting anyone killed, so that was good. Everything about Go had a very independent spirit. With a movie like Charlie's Angels, we'd really notice the difference in, say, editorial. In Go we had one AVID in this dark little backwoods place in Hollywood where we were constantly scraping to get by. On Charlie's Angels, you go in and there's constantly, like, four AVIDs running all the time. Things like that really are noticeable on set.
The biggest thing about independent movies is that they have to be shot faster. Go was shot in only 34 days, whereas Charlie's Angels was a solid six months of shooting.
AC: Here's the million dollar question: What advice would you offer to fledgling screenwriters looking to crack into the business?
JA: I would say read a lot of scripts. As many as you can. I think people have an assumption about what a screenplay is that isn't necessarily true. What's so tough about screenwriting is that it has all the challenges of normal fictional writing but with the added burden of a very specific set of guidelines in terms of structure and what you can and cannot say. It's the difference between drawing and architecture. You've really got to read a lot of scripts to understand how that works, and not just good ones but bad ones as well, so you can know what to avoid and what doesn't work. Reading scripts at Tri-Star for a year was a huge help to me.
An equally important piece of advice is not to write scripts just because you think you can sell them. Don't be driven by a marketplace mentality. If you do that you're always going to be behind, and it's going to be very hard to create work that you're actually proud of.