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.

In terms of the animation, is it different to see something like Frankenweenie come together versus something like Go or Big Fish?

A little bit. Here’s the other luxury: whenever you see a live action movie you have some experience with those actors before, so if you see Brad Pitt in a movie, you’re seeing the character but you’re also seeing Brad Pitt. He’s a movie star and you’re seeing Brad Pitt. Here everyone is blank slates, especially in this movie where there aren’t these big, giant name voice cast people. Everyone is their own characters and that’s really remarkable. So it’s a little closer to what I had in my head because I just had my voices in my head.

Did you have input into the character designs?

Yup! Tim had character designs for many of these characters even before I had them scripted out. So he had Victor and Sparky and the parents, so we knew what that world was like. And then as I pitched the boys he quickly went on and started drawing them out. But voice wise, they already recorded some of the voices before I found out [laughs]. “Who is playing that?” “Catherine O’Hara.” “Who is playing that?” “Catherine O’Hara” “Catherine O’Hara!” “Catherine O’Hara!” [laughs]. But I was delighted and I liked that it was so many people who had played important roles in a lot of his older movies.

I’ve heard you mention that this was a personal story for you because you actually experienced the death of your own dog while you were working on it, but this is also a very personal film for Tim, as there’s a lot of his own experiences in the story and it’s based on one of his first shorts. Obviously you’ve worked together many times before, but does that put a degree of pressure on you as a writer?

No, it doesn’t. I knew it was a seminal and important movie for Tim, I knew that a lot of what he established as “Burton-esque” in terms of his movies was first found here, but this wasn’t him making a movie from his house, this is his making a new movie, and so we gave him a movie that he could make and would be excited to make, and turn every page and find stuff he was excited to shoot. That’s the same challenge as any new movie, so it wasn’t uniquely tough in that aspect.

What is your working relationship with Tim? You’ve done multiple projects together, but you’ve also both done things separately. How do you come together on a film?

Well, a very long meeting with Tim is half an hour. You go in, he says, “I got this and this and this,” and to that I say, “Okay, I think this and I think it should be structured around a science fair, the movie is sort of weirdly pro-science, even though most monster movies are anti-science…and that’s my way of bringing things together again.” “That sounds good, that sounds good. I need it really soon.” [laughs] “Okay, so I’ll go and do it right away!” I’ve enjoyed the ability to keep writing his movies, but it’s not that I have amazing, great insight or were hanging out over barbecue all the time.
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