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There are many messages that writer John August plays with in the new movie Frankenweenie, from the value of science and progression to the necessity to love your experiments. There are many crazy characters, homages to classic horror movies and classic Tim Burton world building. But at the core of it all, really, is the story of a young kid and his love for his loyal, friendly pup Sparky. And for August that was the part of the script that came before everything else.
On the same day that I had the opportunity to interview director Tim Burton (you can read that interview here) I also had the pleasure of sitting down with August to talk about his work on the new film. Read our conversation below in which he talks about not only the importance of making it a story about a boy and his dog, but also his working relationship with Burton, the difference in approach to live action and stop motion, and the strange distance he had from the project.
How many years are you removed from writing this script at this point?
Four years, yeah.
Is it kind of weird to have that much distance from the material at this point?
It’s kind of weird. I described it to somebody it’s like a friend from camp. “Oh hey! How’s it going!” You saw someone when they were pregnant, “Oh, you had the baby, right?” The baby is like this tall [uses his hand to indicate about four feet above the ground] So yeah, that’s strange, but, of course, because of Corpse Bride I knew to anticipate that. With Corpse Bride, even with this I kind of forgot that it existed all the while through animation [laughs]. You write the script, then you go from revisions to set, and then it’s just churning – they’re making like 15 seconds a day. So then it was only like a couple months I was called, “It turned out really well!” “Oh yay! Great! I’m so happy!” [laughs]. And then I finally saw it together and it was great. Again, from Corpse Bride, I knew to let some of that preciousness slide away and recognize that the story department, the animation, they’re breaking stuff down, they’re going to make some changes, they’re going to do stuff different than you intended. And since I’m not seeing dailies, that’s fine. And so then I watched the final movie, “Wow, they actually… they did everything!” And the stuff they did, like simplify some action sequences, “Yeah, that was better. Good choices!” And with the Rzykruski speeches, they kept them! Any other studio was going to cut that down, but Tim [Burton] wasn’t going to let them.
You mention the changes that have to be made to simplify things. When you’re writing are you keeping the intended medium at the front of your mind? Does it change how you write?
I try to imagine the boys as real boys, all the characters as real, living human beings… so I write the scenes that way, but I’m also sort of flipping that. Does this make sense in animation? Here’s where he stands, it makes sense in both…There are a couple cases where you have to make sure that it’s actually going to track the same way with a character who looks like that [points to a Frankenweenie character poster hanging in the room] and does it still make sense and in both cases I didn’t have to do any real tweaking. I tried to make sure that it exists in this sort of timeless bubble – so it’s not the 1950s, it’s not present day, it’s somewhere that’s kind of magically nowhere. So you have no pop culture references and people aren’t snarky. Adults can have their conversations and kids can have their conversations – the camera is physically lower and you enter their world. And the science fair is incredibly important to them, even though the parents don’t know it’s happening.
What’s the key element in making that come through?
I treated it as the story of a boy and his dog. I treated Sparky like a real live dog, and I had my dog, Jake, at my feet while I was writing this. And so I really wrote the dog like a dog and I didn’t try to make him so anthropomorphic or wise beyond his abilities, and let them be a great dog, so we really got to know him as a great dog who could really bond with Victor as he’s going through the grieving and why he would bring him back. And so I knew that once I knew we had that core relationship all of the eccentricities and the curly-cues can go in and they wouldn’t be too much because we had that central relationship. You can always go back to Victor and Sparky.
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