Dialogue: 'Frankenweenie' Screenwriter John August on Writing a Subversive Kids Movie for Disney

Dialogue: 'Frankenweenie' Screenwriter John August on Writing a Subversive Kids Movie for Disney

Oct 04, 2012

Up until a few days ago, Frankenweenie had been more or less marketing itself as a kids movie about a youngster who brings his dog back to life after he's accidentally run over. And that's certainly the heart of the movie, but that's not what it's all about. There's a bigger story at play, and it involves more dead things coming back to life than just a cute, energetic little pup.

It's actually what elevates the movie from being a sweet story about a boy and his dog to a clever tribute to the creature features and sci-fi movies of yesteryear. Earlier this week we chatted with Frankenweenie screenwriter John August about how the larger story came to be, the challenge of making a subversive Disney movie, and what it was like to write a song that no one would ever want to sing.

Note: We've left out a portion of the interview dealing with the film's ending. We'll save that for Monday, after more people have had time to see Frankenweenie.


Movies.com: Were certain elements of the film hidden from the public prior to its release?

John August: All the monsters we hid? I'm not involved with the marketing at all, but I know that foremost you have to be honest with the parents and show that the dog dies and then he comes right back, otherwise parents are going to revolt at you. So I think it was smart that they hid the monsters for so much of the marketing.

Movies.com: Speaking of the monsters, whose creation were those, yours or Tim Burton's?

August: When I first sat down with Tim, he said “I made this short...” and I said, “Of course, I've seen your short. It's amazing” and he said, “Well, I have these other monsters I want to see in there, with the other kids in the class having made them.” And so he gave me this list with a giant turtle, hamster mummy, just ideas for things he wanted to see. The list had even more things than I knew we could fit into the movie, but it was the vision he wanted to see. If you look at the short Frankenweenie, it's very much the Frankenstein creation story, but with a dog. So this was a chance to see other monster-creation myths in a sort of kid version. It felt just right.

My responsibility was coming up with the science teacher, the science fair, the reason for all of this to happen, and the weird girl who would sort of frame everything for us in a way that Sparky's return would create these other monsters.

Movies.com: Do you think anyone else could have made this movie from your script other than Tim Burton?

August: It's tough. When you write something specifically for Tim, it's always going to feel like Tim's. I think part of my responsibility as a filmmaker is to be my own department head coming in to deliver one specific thing for Tim, which is a framework for everyone else can deliver their work. And so every page I'm looking for the moments that are going to get Tim excited. Another person could have made a version of this story, but it wouldn't have felt the same. It wouldn't have been obsessed about the same things, down to how each shaft of light looks and every character's specific expressions.

Movies.com: The amount of detail packed into every frame is incredible. Just watching the movement of reflections alone is gorgeous.

August: That's testament to tremendous animators and puppet makers and set builders and everyone else, but they're all working toward Tim's vision. So quite early on, even before I put theoretical pencil to paper, Tim had these drawings of Sparky and his world and you could already see how it would all fit together.

Movies.com: Tim Burton said that in his mind it was always a Disney movie whether Disney actually made it or not. Was there any push back for making it so pro-science?

August: To be completely honest, I wrote those pro-science scenes with Rzykruski and just thought they'd be great. It never entered my mind that there might even be push back at all. After turning in the script and entering preproduction, I didn't see any footage from the movie for two years. So I watched it in a theater with an NPR audience and was like, “Oh my, those are some startlingly sharp pro-science messages there!” And God bless Tim and Disney for not backing down on that at all. The impetus behind that is I feel most monster movies are about the dangers of science, and that's not the message of this movie. We do a good thing with science, and I wanted to show that good science is something that should be commended. So I was happy and delighted to see that it made it through, and that you're noticing it.

Movies.com: The teacher's town hall speech is one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.

August: It does put a big spotlight on it. It's sort of a strange commentary on our times that a pro-science message is considered subversive.

Movies.com: What are you still learning about the craft of screenwriting?

August: A lot of my time has been spent doing the Big Fish musical. We're doing a Broadway version of Big Fish, and it's been like learning a whole new medium. While there's so much onstage that seems similar to what happens in movies, it's totally different. You don't have postproduction, you don't have editorial, everything has to happen live in that moment, and so I've been learning about making that work. I love writing movies, and my favorite kinds of movies are the movies that get made, but I am also looking forward to trying new things. I've written some fiction; we're doing a TV show now. I just want to be working in a lot of different stuff.

Movies.com: Speaking of other mediums, you wrote a song for Frankenweenie. How hard is it to write a song that no one will ever, ever want to sing?

August: It's tremendously fun. “Praise Be New Holland” was a song that just felt right for that moment. I needed some musical number to encapsulate a bunch of threads and pull them all together. Before Winona came in and actually sung the song, I had done a temp version for the animators so they could plan for it. And my version is even more unsingable, so I'm really happy that song made it.

Movies.com: Any idea if that will end up as a DVD extra somewhere?

August: I think the world is safer if no one hears it.

Follow along on Twitter: @PeterSHall and @Moviesdotcom.

Categories: Interviews, In Theaters, Sci-Fi
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