John August, The Nines
John August holds a unique position as not only one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters, but also one of the filmmaking community’s most active and helpful members. August’s first produced script was Go (1999), directed by Doug Liman, a triptych of interweaving stories which played out like a junior version of Pulp Fiction. He has since written the animated Titan A.E. (2000) and both Charlie’s Angels movies, and collaborated with Tim Burton on Big Fish (2003), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride (both 2005). All the while, he has also been passing on his professional expertise to others by answering online readers’ questions, maintaining a blog (at www.johnaugust.com) and participating in Sundance labs.
It is a sign of August’s ambition that the script he chose as his first directorial project, The Nines, is his most complex and challenging by far. The film is a psychoreligious existential conundrum told across three consecutive stories, in which leads Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy all play multiple roles: Gary, Margaret and Sarah in the first, Gavin, Melissa and Susan in the second, and Gabriel, Mary and Sierra in the final part. The segments are all shot in differing styles and begin to overlap somewhat in their stories of an out-of-control actor, a TV writer, and a computer game inventor (all played by Reynolds). However August’s film refuses to make things too neat or give easy answers to the questions he poses about creative responsibility, the nature of existence and, yes, storytelling itself. The Nines may not please audiences seeking superficial pleasures, but it delivers a cinematic experience which is smart, thought-provoking and deeply memorable.
Filmmaker spoke to August about the world of The Nines, drawing on his own experiences for inspiration, and his continuing love of The Muppet Movie.
Filmmaker: I believe the inspiration for the film stemmed from an incident in your own life when you were working on the TV show D.C.
August: I created a show called D.C. for the WB Network, which was my first time running a show. It’s an overwhelming job. The minute you finish writing a script, you’re already behind on the next one, and keeping all the plates spinning takes 47 hours a day. The way people have “walking pneumonia,” I sort of had a walking nervous breakdown, and started to have a very hard time distinguishing what was happening inside the show from what was happening outside the show. I felt a tremendous responsibility to the characters I’d created, and to the actors playing those roles, but I couldn’t keep the show — or myself — afloat. As I recovered from the experience, I started thinking about what it meant to be a creator in general, and the inherent problems and paradoxes.
Filmmaker: How integral was your friend Melissa McCarthy to the conception of the film?
August: I sat down with her before I ever put pen to paper. I knew that if she didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it. Not only does she play herself in the movie, which is always a bit uncomfortable, but she revisits a character we’d created when we were both starting out. I knew we’d have to shoot during her summer hiatus from Gilmore Girls, so that was a driving force behind the schedule.
Filmmaker: When did you make the decision to direct the film?
August: I wrote it knowing I was going to direct it. Part Two is both highly autobiographical and largely unscripted, so it relied on my being both writer and director.
Filmmaker: This seems a lot more arty and abstract than your previous studio work. Is this your preferred style or true authorial voice?
August: I don’t know that a writer has to have a single style or voice, but it’s certainly the most “me” I’ve ever had in a movie. For Big Fish, there was a lot of autobiographical material, but I could hide behind the fact it was an adaptation.
Filmmaker: Was this a hard movie to finance?
August: Not really. We knew how much money we could pull in from various sources, and constructed the movie based on those numbers. We didn’t cheap out on anything for budget, but we were smart and frugal about our choices.
Filmmaker: Was Ryan Reynolds your first choice for the G’s? It seems an unusual but inspired career choice for him.
August: We discussed other actors, but I knew Ryan was the guy from the moment I met him. Everyone who’s worked with him raves about him, and with good reason. He’s a great guy in addition to being a great actor. On the 13th hour of shooting, he’s still giving you his best.
Filmmaker: How did the actors, and particularly Ryan, handle three such differing roles? Did he base his performance as the writer, Gavin, heavily on you?
August: When Ryan and I were discussing the roles, we were careful not to focus on the differences between the three characters, but rather on who each guy is individually. I think that helped keep it from feeling like an Acting Showcase. Part Two’s Gavin is based on me, and I gave Ryan permission to use anything he wanted of mine, good or bad. It’s not an impersonation by any stretch, but he did capture a fair amount of my personality.
Filmmaker: What was it like shooting in three different sections in three different styles? Was this problematic for the actors’ schedules? Did you shoot each sequence separately?
August: Each section was shot separately — it was like shooting three short films, back to back. That was a big help for the actors, because they never had to switch gears in the middle of a day’s shooting. It made it harder to handle some scheduling issues, though. Hope Davis lives in New York, and it wasn’t possible to keep all of her scenes together in one block, as you’d normally do.
Filmmaker: Has your experience of directing, and seeing scripts from a different perspective, changed the way you will write now?
August: No. I’ve always written scripts that are meant to be read and filmed, and The Nines is no different. For a writer, I’ve been unusually involved in the editing of a lot of my movies, so the changes that come in that phase were no surprise.
Filmmaker: There seems to be a lot of yourself in the film’s characters and incidents. Was it easy putting your own life on film?
August: I’m a fairly private person by nature, but I’m happy to exploit dramatic incidents from my life if they help tell a story. Most fiction is truth with the names changed, anyways.
Filmmaker: Can you explain exactly what a Nine is?
August: A Nine is almost a Ten. Working backwards, let’s say a Ten is a theoretical ultimate. In terms of beings, a monotheistic God would be a Ten. He can do anything, and there’s no one else as powerful, or more powerful, than he is. If you were a character in a book, or a movie, the writer would at first glance seem like a Ten. After all, he could kill you at any moment, or change any part of your world at a whim. But of course, something could have created the writer. He’s not a theoretical ultimate. So it would be safer to label him a Nine. For a character in a work of fiction, the writer is a Nine. Same holds true for a character in a videogame. The creator is a Nine. The world of the movie was created by a Nine, who stuck around entirely too long fiddling and tweaking. Eventually, his peers (other Nines) came to convince him to come back home.
Filmmaker: The film is very dense and complex, and you’ve described it as a question rather than an answer. What exactly do you mean by that?
August: To the degree there’s a secret in the movie, it’s answered. And as the author, I can answer any question about “what this meant” or “why she said that.” But the movie ultimately posits pretty big questions about the nature of reality, which no movie could ever answer. It sort of bleeds past the edges of the story.
Filmmaker: How much has your screenwriting blog altered the way you think about your work? Did your thoughts about the process of writing inform the ideas in The Nines?
August: More than the blog, the desire to tackle some of these ideas came up after working for years as an advisor to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. The movies that go through that process are invariably and unapologetically challenging. They don’t put on false grins, hoping that you’ll like them.
Filmmaker: Are there more of your characters, like the ones in D.C., that are still stranded in limbo that you need to revisit?
August: Unfortunately, a lot of them are stuck in legal purgatory. My Tarzan screenplay is probably the best writing I’ve ever done, and it’s apparently never getting made. I have a huge fondness for the Barbarella I wrote for Drew Barrymore, which has likewise been shelved. That’s part of the reason I’m gunshy about committing to movies that I’m not certain will get made.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?
August: Of any film, ever? Aliens. But then I’d probably change careers, because I would never top it. Of the movies I’ve written, I’m closest to Go, but I wasn’t ready to direct it myself at the time. Same for Big Fish, which was simply too big for me to handle logistically. But I could have done Barbarella. I still would, if it ever came back around.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
August: The Muppet Movie. Still in my Top 10.
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
August: Seek challenge, not validation.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen, or had to do yourself, during your time in the film industry?
August: A certain film executive once wiped her glasses on my shirt, without acknowledging that I was wearing it. Or existed.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you ever made?
August: Not mentioning her name.