Sundance EXCL: John August on The Nines


The first time spoke to screenwriter John August, it was at the Atlantis in the Bahamas, where he’d been flown to promote Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for which he wrote the script. That would be his second of three movies with Burton, but August also had an idea for something a bit off the beaten track–yes, even for Burton–so he decided that his existential dramedy The Nines would be his directorial debut.

The Nines premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week to positive reactions for its trilogy of stories, each of them starring Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy in different roles. The first story has Reynolds playing a TV actor placed in house arrest; in the second, he’s a TV writer trying to get his new pilot off the ground; and in the third, he’s a video programmer whose car has broken down in the woods. In all three segments, Davis and McCarthy play key roles in the arc of Reynold’s character, and by the end, they’re all tied together in ways one might never expect.

As a fan of August’s previous films, wanted to talk to him about this new direction in his career. In the last few years, you’ve been working mainly on adaptations and big studio movies, so what was the genesis for this movie?
John August: I think ideas float in your head for periods of time. Sometimes you pay more attention to them and sometimes you pay less attention, and eventually they sort of insist you sit down and write them. This was actually a couple different ideas, three perceptions that I realized were the same idea, and that is, “What is a creator’s responsibility to his creations?” Definitely from Part 2, what was my responsibility to the TV show I had created and to the actors I had cast in that TV show? I had worked with a lot of video game designers on different projects and they were creating these amazingly, fully immersive worlds that people would sort of lose themselves in so what are their responsibilities to the world and to the people who are playing them. Also the relationship between writers and actors, which is sort of the first part. As a screenwriter I’m all the actors until we start to cast people. There’s that weird hand-off from a writer to an actor, that doesn’t even really go through a director, it’s just sort of transferred. It’s always strange as a writer to see an actor’s choices and to play the role you’ve always been playing yourself.

CS: And did you always plan to direct this yourself?
August: Yeah. Particularly because in Part II, it’s not all scripted. There are a lot of scenes where Gavin (Reynolds’ character) meets Dahlia, they sit down and have a great conversation, so I knew I would need to be there getting that to work while we were there. Honestly, Ryan is playing a slightly personified version of me in that section, so I needed to be there to keep the chemistry going and helping him figure out how to be me.

CS: Why did it take so long for you to get back into doing your own thing again?
August: Generally, for seven years, there were always things I had considered, either writing for myself to direct or writing for someone else to direct, there were always opportunities to do other movies that I really wanted to do. For instance, Tim Burton will call and say, “Hey, can you do this?” and suddenly I’m on a plane to London for weeks doing something.

CS: You’ve done three movies with Tim Burton, so is that a relationship that you expect to continue?
August: Yes, I hope to do as many as he can possibly do but there are some things you need to do for yourself. It was just the right time to do it, plus we had to shoot during Melissa’s hiatus from “Gilmore Girls,” I wanted to come to Sundance with it, so it had to be done by a certain time so I wrote the script and had to pull the trigger and just get it done.

CS: Can you talk about how you mixed film genres in the movie?
August: I think it’s the recognition that a person’s life isn’t a drama or a comedy. My life isn’t one comedy, it isn’t one drama. The experience of movies tends to be there’s one category and you stick to it. That’s a really good idea for big movies, but I think there’s an opportunity for telling stories that don’t neatly fit into one genre. Back to my first movie “Go,” it’s filed under comedy, but… and “Big Fish” was also challenge because we were trying to decide what to go up for at the Golden Globes. Ultimately, we were a comedy, but it’s not funny like “Ace Ventura” funny. So that’s one of the challenges. I’m not sure what we’re going to file this under when it shows up at Blockbuster. I think the people who will love this movie will be sci-fi people, only because they go in expecting the unexpected and in this case, they’re certainly rewarded for that. That’s one of the things… a big movie has to be describable, it has to be summarizable. I don’t think that’s representative of life and that’s sort of the movie I made, it’s challenging that way.

CS: Did you ever consider shopping the script to a studio?
August: Oh God no. That would have been a fool’s errand. The script reads really well, but you just don’t know what that movie is going to be.

CS: So with this script in hand, you decided to take some time off from a guaranteed paycheck in screenwriting to make your movie.
August: I took it as sort of a vacation from my writing career. I really enjoy movies I’m able to write for other people and hope to keep doing that as long as my fingers can type, but I needed a sabbatical, just a chance to explore new things. I could never write this movie for a studio and I could never write this movie for another director, but I really needed to write and direct the movie and it was just a unique opportunity to do it and address some of the things I was feeling.

CS: Did you know Ryan and Hope beforehand?
August: Nope, first time I met them. We cast Ryan first and then cast Hope as someone who would be really interesting opposite Ryan.

CS: Did you always plan to have Melissa involved with the move?
August: I’ve had her in almost everything I’ve done, so she’s my lucky rabbit’s foot. Up until she got “Gilmore Girls” and became a lot harder to get free for projects, I tried to make sure she was in everything, so this I wrote very specifically for her. The middle character, when she read her script she said, “Oh sh*t! I have to play myself.” And that’s the hardest thing to ask for an actor. Her relationship with Gavin is her relationship with me. That’s her real husband. We used a lot of details from her life in there. For the other two roles, it was finding an actor who I could believe playing all three different roles and Ryan was the guy I thought could do it and also, just by reputation, I knew that he would commit 100% which he had to.

CS: Did you sit down with Melissa and talk about things she’s experienced?
August: I did sit down with her before I started writing to sort of get into her head. I didn’t warn her she was playing herself, but the Margaret character she plays in Part I is an extension of who she played in the short film we did many, many years ago. We did talk about where Margaret would have gone in those times and tried to remembered what was special about Margaret that would help keep that character distinct.

CS: Were a lot of the other characters based on real people that you know?
August: Absolutely. We tried not to do stock types, but there’s something wonderfully den mother about a publicist. She’s your friend and she’s taking care of you, but she really just wants you to shut-up and do what you’re supposed to do and that babysitter function was a really great thing to be able to put up into the movie.

CS: You’re not worried about offending people who might realize you based a character on them?
August: No, I don’t think so. There’s no one who’s cribbed from any one person. I’ve worked with a lot of development executives and have great experiences and some bad experiences and while I’ve never had the Susan Howard experience in Part II, it’s very recognizable and that aspect of “I am your biggest fan and biggest supporter” until that’s no longer helpful.

CS: Regarding Part II, did you have a lot of experience writing for TV as well as movies?
August: I’ve done three different pilots. One of which went to series and Melissa was on that series, one which we shot a pilot with Dahlia Salem, but it never got past the pilot and the third thing, which never got past script, in which it was very much the axe. It was the classic development process where it was like “Let’s change it all over again” a good learning process, but not the best.

CS: Did those experiences sour you on doing television work?
August: No, I really enjoy TV, especially in the last five years it’s become amazing. You have stories that are almost cinematic, like “Lost,” “Heroes,” “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” they do things that movies couldn’t possibly do. I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to go for that, but it’s certainly interesting to watch.

CS: What do you hope that audiences will take away from “The Nines”?
August: I definitely made a movie that hopefully people are intrigued by and enjoy the first time they see it, but it’s going to leave them with a lot of questions. Not only about what they saw, but more existential questions, like “If that’s the rule for that universe, what does that mean?” It sort of spills over the edges of the movie. It also is a movie that when people see for the 50th time on DVD, they’re still getting more stuff out of it. There’s certainly a place in the world for movies that entertain you for two hours and then you’re done, but I think there’s still an opportunity for movies that stick into you and unsettle you.

CS: Did the film premiere already? How did that go?
August: It did. It played the Eccles, and it went really well. I watched it with the audience and I sat down for the Q & A afterwards. Both screenings had really good Q & A’s. It’s one of those movies where it leaves you a little bit stunned, you’re figuring out how you really feel about things. We test-screened it before, so I knew it going in and I actually set up forums at so when it does bug you at 2 AM and you don’t have anyone else to talk to about it, you can get online with someone else who has seen it.

CS: What are you doing next?
August: A couple of things. I wrote a Broadway stageplay that we’re trying to figure out, I’m halfway through a Broadway musical that I wrote with a woman composer and there’s movies for big directors we’re figuring out what’s going to happen.

CS: Is working on Broadway something new for you?
August: Yes. Again, it’s just a chance to try new forms. I love screenwriting but you’re sort of limited to five forms in screenwriting. You can only talk about what can be seen and heard. In a stage play, the nature of the structure, you can do things you just can’t do in a movie. There are also unique limitations which are always fun. You’re always looking for new challenges and there’s just something about the stage.

The Nines is now playing at the Sundance Film Festival. Stay tuned to find out when and who might distribute it theatrically.