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Montgomery Advertiser

Lifestyle-Jan. 14, 2003

A vision comes to life

Screenwriter puts spin on Big Fish

By Rick Harmon
Montgomery Advertiser

John August sat at a table in Wetumpka on Monday, a few dozen yards from where Tim Burton and a film crew had begun the first day of shooting on "Big Fish," the screenplay he wrote and once thought might never be shot.

Even before the release of "Go," the critically acclaimed 1999 film for which he wrote his first major screenplay, August had asked Columbia Pictures to buy Daniel Wallace's "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions."

The novel deals with a father-and-son relationship. When the son, a reporter in Paris, discovers that his father is dying, he returns to the small Southern town where he grew up to try and know his father better. It is through his father's tall tales that the son begins to understand the elusive man.

"I'd read it in manuscript form, and loved it," August said. "People at Columbia read it, and they responded like everyone seems to. They said 'Oh, that is just like my relationship with my father.'

"I met Dan Wallace in Virginia, and it was an amazing opportunity to talk with the writer about all the little secret layers of the book. One of the tales in it is based on 'The 12 Labors of Hercules,' and while I caught about half of it, he explained the rest to me. He and I continued to keep in touch through e-mail."

They've kept in touch more than four years now.

Since writing "Go," the 32-year-old writer has been on the go, co-writing "Charlie's Angels," "Titan A.E." and a sequel to "Charlie's Angels." He's also been hired to make last-minute script changes for movies such as "Jurassic Park 3" and "Scooby Doo."

It looked for a time as if "Big Fish" would flounder.

"The studio liked the screenplay, but they were nervous that it was both a very small and a giant movie," August said. "You had this very intimate movie, but with gigantic effects that weren't going to be cheap to do."

August said it appeared that Columbia wasn't going to tackle the project, which is when he took things into his own hands by "slipping" the script to some friends of his.

The friends, in this case, just happened to be Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, the team of producers who had just won the Oscar for "American Beauty."

They were interested, and so was Steven Spielberg.

"When producers like Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen said they wanted to make it, Columbia couldn't really say no," August said. "Spielberg was the trump card."

August met with Spielberg during the summer, talking about one of the script's main difficulties -- which characters to include and who to play them.

After some delays, Spielberg chose to make "Catch Me If You Can" instead.

"The great thing about being a Spielberg is that there are always great films to make when you want to make them," August said.

Other directors, including Ron Howard, expressed interest in the project, but after Tim Burton said he was interested, August said everyone believed they had the perfect match for the screenplay.

"He has this incredible style, plus he has been able to interweave it with smaller, intimate stories, such as 'Ed Wood,'" August said.

August is about to leave the set to fly to Los Angeles and then to Canada to start work on a new ABC crime drama series set in Alaska, but he will return about once a month to help with "Big Fish."

Already, he has written about 80 pages of changes while he has been on the set.

"Most of what I've done is small, but you are always refining things," he said. "You are looking at what Tim needs, what he can afford to shoot and just new ideas that come up along the way.

"The screenplay is like a blueprint to a house. It is a plan to show you how to construct it, but you are always changing it up until the last minute."

Those who have read Wallace's novel will discover "some really big changes from the book to the movie," August said.

"Will, the son, is mainly just the narrator in the novel, but he has become much more of a character in the movie. When I heard his wife was French, I decided there was really a need for her in the movie too, even though she is a complete invention of the movie.

"We used some of the fantasy scenes in the book, but changed others. For instance, in the movie there is a circus. The circus has always been in the script, but wasn't in the book. But the book has all these small stories through various parts of the father's life, and the circus was a way to bring them all together."

The script brought not just the stories together -- it also drew an A-list of stars.

When August talked about the cast, he never thought it would include Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume and Marion Cotillard.

"It was a surprise to get a cast like this one," he said. "I expect that it was a combination of things -- everyone really has meaty roles, everyone wanted to work with Tim and everyone wanted to work with the other actors who were in the film. There are fun things to film here."

"Here" is Alabama, another casting decision of which August approves.

"It has added to the movie on every level," he said. "As grounded as this film needs to be at times, it needs a reality that you couldn't get on some Hollywood sound stage.

"You could spend $20 million and not get a river as beautiful as the one here," he adds, pointing at the Alabama River.

John August is the screenwriter for "Big Fish," the Columbia Pictures film that began shooting Monday (seen in background) in Wetumpka. August also wrote the 1999 movie "Go," as well as "Charlie's Angels."

-- David Bundy, Advertiser