August ends with August's reality blurring 'Nines'


Newmarket's "Nines:" If you see a movie and are baffled afterwards about what was going on, it's usually your own fault for not paying close enough attention to what the filmmaker was saying.

In the case of writer-director John August's new three-part fantasy drama "The Nines," however, a measure of uncertainty was built into the project from the get-go. August makes his feature directorial debut with "Nines," opening Friday via Newmarket Films. Produced by Dan Jinks & Bruce Cohen (producers of the 2000 best picture Oscar winner "American Beauty") and Dan Etheridge (producer of August's 1998 short comedy "God"), it stars Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, Hope Davis and Elle Fanning.

In "Nines" August intentionally blurs reality, fantasy and virtual reality, mixing them all up so we can't say for sure that we really know what he's talking about. On the other hand, this multipart film in which several actors play different roles that in some ways overlap from episode to episode clearly deals with creation and the role of the creator -- or, perhaps, the Creator of the Universe. In one episode, that's creator as in a reality TV show-runner. In another episode, that's creator as in a video game designer who, perhaps, is actually God in some temporarily convenient human form.

It's all very good food for thought and after enjoying an early look at "Nines," I was happy to have an opportunity to talk about the making of the film with August, who's screenwriting credits range from the critically acclaimed "Go" to hits like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The Corpse Bride" and both "Charlie's Angels" movies.

"I think there are expectations, especially with American movies, that if you don't have a clear opinion of the film by the time the end credits are rolling, then something is wrong and this isn't that kind of movie," August told me. "It's the kind of film that you want to talk about with friends afterwards and discuss rival opinions and theories. And people's opinions of the movie shift a lot in the first two days after seeing it. That's one of the reasons why we actually set out to do some online forums for it so that if you don't have that group of four friends who saw it with you (available to talk to) at two in the morning, you can log in and actually discuss and share and debate points in the movie."

Asked to explain what "Nines" is about, August replied, "To me the movie is about a creator's responsibility to his creation. As a writer, I'm responsible for these worlds I create and the characters inside these worlds. To me, they feel very real, but at a certain point I have to let go. The thesis of the film is sort of at what point are you allowed to kind of walk away from the things you built?"

How did he get the idea to do such a film? "Generally, there's a bunch of ideas that are kind of fighting for my attention in my brain," he explained, "and eventually some of them get to be so loud that I have to pay attention to them. There were these three ideas that were speaking to me very loudly and I realized they were all aspects of the same idea, which was that sense of (a creator's) responsibility. And as I thought about how they can all fit together I knew I also wanted to make another movie with Melissa McCarthy, who's been in most of my movies. So I talked to her about it and, once again, she was on board to do it and I sat down to write it."

"Nines" is a far cry in terms of its unconventional structure from most of the movies August has written in the past. "I'd say it's probably closest to 'Go' structurally in that it's going off and doing a lot of different things at once," he said. "Many of the movies I've worked on that don't really have my name on them are a little more in that mind-bending arena. I did some work on 'Minority Report,' which was, again, about how do you let the audience in when there's really tough logic questions and existential issues coming up in a story."

The inspiration for the film's middle episode about a TV show-runner came to August, he recalled, "shortly after I got fired from the first TV show I did. There were a lot of issues and feelings I had that were sort of bundled up in that experience. I knew I wanted to write about it at some point and was just looking for the right story. But it was really the last two years that I sat down to write the script. I had to move into production pretty quickly because Melissa McCarthy was on a TV show, 'Gilmore Girls,' and I knew I had to shoot it during her summer hiatus."

When he's writing, August noted, "my writing process varies from project to project. I do keep kind of normal office hours, but my life is still sort of like mid-terms (at college) in that I will pull an all-nighter to finish something when I need to. I've gotten to the point 10 years into a career that I don't beat myself up for my bad habits. They're just my habits. I don't label them as bad anymore."

He writes his first drafts in long-hand. "So I tend to go off and barricade myself in a hotel room some place and crank through as many pages of long-hand as I can," he said. "That's to keep me from going back and editing and re-writing too early in the process. Once I have a certain critical mass of long-hand pages, then I'll go through it and work on the computer."

Is there a screenwriting program he uses? "I use Final Draft," he said as so many screenwriters do, but then he added, "I'm not a huge advocate of Final Draft. I'm continuously frustrated by the mediocre state of screenwriting software -- particularly when you compare it with how amazing film editing packages are now for computers. You have such robust competition in the editing field that every year programs are so much better and there's been such tremendous stagnation in screenwriting (programs)."

Asked what he'd like to see screenwriting programs do that they aren't doing now, August replied, "You know, screenwriting is a specialized form of word processing. The screenwriting softwares to date haven't taken into account all the different stages and struggles of screenwriting. They tend to be OK about (letting writers) throw words at the page and OK about putting a script into production shape with scene numbers and all of the changes that happen on that, but it's not elegant and it doesn't do a very good job of letting you keep track of changes and updates and your thoughts along the way.

"If I had a free year where I wasn't allowed to write I would probably try to hire a team and build a better program, but that's never going to happen. And, also, I complain but there is some progress and there are other companies that are trying to come up with better solutions. It's frustrating to have the iPhone sitting on my desk as a wonder of technology and still be using essentially the same screenwriting program from six years ago."

Writing "Nines" was about a six-month process, he said, "and because the film consists of three short films, I could really concentrate on each of those and (make) them as tight as they could be. So I wasn't necessarily tackling the whole script at a pass. I would work on a section and figure out exactly what I needed."

While he was writing, August knew he was going to direct it, as well: "It's an unusual movie in the sense that it's -- especially in the second section -- both highly biographical and largely unscripted. It was the first time I'd written a script where there were scenes which have no dialogue just (directions like) 'Gavin and Dahlia Salem have a great conversation. He likes her a lot.' So on the day of shooting that, it was up to me and the actors to figure out what are some of the things they were talking about. We shot the whole middle section of the movie documentary style so (there were) one or two video cameras, uncontrolled locations and just let the tape run. There was a lot of improv in Part Two. It's unusual to have dramatic improv, which was new for the actors, because generally (improv is done by) comic actors who are looking for where the funny is going to be. This was an opportunity to get some really raw uncomfortable emotion through unscripted dialogue."

Does August write differently if he knows he's going to be directing what he's writing? "I think there's a misperception that the screenwriter's writing for the director," he observed. "The screenwriter is, hopefully, creating a document the director will get and understand and be able to use to make the movie, but there are so many other people who need to rely on the script that you can't just sort of say, 'Oh, it's OK, I'm directing it.' The script becomes the blueprint for the producers or the art department or the editors or every phase along the way. And the script is also the bait with which you get the actors onto your movie. You can't cheat it."

Well, if he's directing a screenplay he's written, is it easier or more difficult for him to change things? "I always find on the day (of shooting I'm) always aware of what the intention of the scene was and if the scene as written wasn't achieving the intention I was delighted to change it," he answered. "So, particularly in Part Two, we went very much off the script and whatever needed to happen happened. As far as actors, if they were changing lines and their lines were better I was delighted. If they were changing lines and I wasn't getting what I needed then I would sort of nudge them back towards the text.

"That's just from knowing very specifically how the pieces need to fit together. It's such a complicated movie that something that is said five minutes into Part One ends up having a huge payoff 84 minutes later. And the actor on the day isn't going to be aware of that, but the writer is very much aware of how it's going to fit together. Generally, when I'm the writer on a set that's really my function also -- to never butt in unless there's an important thing happening that someone else might not catch."

In terms of structure, "Nines" is definitely different from what we're accustomed to seeing. "I really like the structure of 'Go' and 'The Nines' and other movies that sort of break from the traditional three-act building structure," August said. "To me, it's always about what is happening exactly at this moment in the movie, what is the audience's expectation about what's going to happen next and how to do you either meet or exceed that expectation. So, yes it's a huge jump for the audience when the movie suddenly stops and (the next episode) starts 35 minutes into the film, but we hopefully laid enough groundwork so that you're eager to see what's going to happen next and you're looking for the connection that will bring you into stuff (that happened) before and stuff that's happening later on.

"So even if they seem like three completely separate films, we're laying in some clues to let you know there's more going on than you might at first suspect. All three incarnations of the characters Ryan Reynolds is playing have the same green string around their wrist. There are lines and moments that are happening in all three stories so consequently you recognize that there's almost like a rhyming scheme happening that's making this all feel like one movie even though the pieces are so different. Symphonies have multiple movements that are very distinct and have no relation to each other except for some common themes."

Coming back to the question of how people are interpreting "Nines," I asked if August has his own interpretation in mind that's the correct interpretation. "I always look at any movie I write or any piece of fiction and there's always the author's intent," he noted. "The author always has an answer about why he made the choices he made and what it's supposed to mean as he wrote it. But I'm always delighted when people come up with their own alternate explanation behind things. To me, the movie really does explain itself pretty fully in terms of the logic of what's happening on the screen. The challenging thing with 'The Nines' is it asks some big universal questions -- philosophical questions that it couldn't even hope to tackle. That's mostly what you're going to be talking about for three hours after the movie -- that sense of, 'Given this thesis posited by a movie, what does it mean about the rest of the universe?' Those, to me, are the entertaining movies to see."

Asked about the key challenges he faced in filming "Nines," August told me, "Very, very early on we realized that we had to shoot it as three short films because the actors were going to be in physical transformations (such as) haircuts, hair coloring, beards. Everything was different and we had a very different shooting style for each piece. The first part was shot on Super 16. The middle part was shot on (video). The third part was shot on 35mm film. We knew that it was never realistic to try to shoot two different pieces on the same day so we had to build this incredibly intricate schedule that would let us shoot each piece as its own kind of separate movie and fit the whole thing within 22 days. Our line producer, Todd King, deserves some sort of special honorary award for getting us a schedule that would actually work. It was incredibly difficult to find a way to make it all fit together. And our first A.D., Mark Mathis, bore the brunt of whenever changes would come up trying to fit them back into the puzzle."

Their shooting schedule didn't allow for the three films to be shot in the same sequence in which they appear: "We shot Part Three first so our fourth day of shooting was the last scene in the movie. Then we shot Part One and then we shot Part Two. But it was really a process of getting rid of crew as we went along because Part Three on 35mm had the largest crew. We looked like a conventional movie in that there were trucks and there were lights and lots of things. As we got into the Super 16 section we looked more like a little independent film in that we had a smaller crew and a lot fewer people doing more work. And when we got down to Part Two, which we shot like a documentary, I don't think anybody realized we were shooting a movie. We looked like just any other reality TV show shooting in Los Angeles. A lot of times it was just me, the actor, a cameraman and a sound guy.

"I ended up loving Part Two, the documentary style, the most. In many ways, not having all of the equipment footprint let us be a lot more spontaneous. If we had a good idea we could just run with it. In terms of an acting style, it was exciting just to be able to just let the actors start having a conversation about New York real estate and eventually steer them over to the scene at hand. I made sure that we got a lot of stuff that wasn't going to be in the movie to let the actors get to a really natural speed and let our editor, who's fantastic -- Doug Crise (a 2007 Oscar nominee for co-editing 'Babel') -- cut it like what it really was (supposed to be)."

As for the film's budget, August explained, "We had a small budget. The reason I said at Sundance that I would go to my grave never revealing the budget (is that) I work with the Sundance Film Lab every year and I really enjoy doing it. What I've noticed over the last few years is that there's been this over-reporting of film budgets. It's almost become the independent film equivalent of boxoffice opening weekends where there's this number that gets associated with a movie and you just kind of stop thinking about the quality of the movie, itself, and everyone thinks about the budget. So we never say what it was (but) it was low.

"It wasn't the craziest low-budget you ever heard of, but it was just enough to make a movie. And if I had five times the budget I don't know if I would have made a different movie. So it was just the right amount. I think it does look good and through a lot of careful planning (and having) an amazing DP in Nancy Schreiber (winner of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival Cinematography Award for 'November'), who could really find the way to get every shot looking terrific."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 25 & 27, 1989's columns: "If anyone in Hollywood has a right to be pleased with how things are going, it's Tri-Star president Jeff Sagansky. Not only does Tri-Star have a boxoffice triumph in 'Look Who's Talking,' but the film's success also validates the major improvements made over the past year in the studio's distribution and marketing operations. Moreover, with some very promising product ahead for this holiday season and early 1990, Tri-Star looks to be the jewel in Sony's Columbia Pictures Entertainment.

"When Sagansky and I talked early Monday morning, I began by asking him to discuss the prospects for 'Look…' 'I think we've got clear sailing through the next three weeks before Nov. 17 and the opening of 'Harlem Nights' (from Paramount, directed by and starring Eddie Murphy). And I think we'll hang in there through Thanksgiving and, possibly, Christmas at this rate,' he told me.

"How did the project originate? 'Amy Heckerling came into the office with the idea. She had had a baby about a year and a half before and my wife was pregnant. So it was something that obviously we'd been thinking a lot about. I bought it and, credit to Amy, she hung in there. It took a long time to get the tone of the script right. She hung in there through about 10 drafts of the script. Finally, we gave her the go-ahead. At that point there was no producer on it.

"'We had an in-house budget which was very high, much higher than we wanted to spend, and we had Kirstie Alley's interest. We went to John Travolta. Jonathan Krane, as you know, is his manager. Jonathan said he really liked the script for Travolta -- Travolta liked it -- and he quoted us a price for John's services. At that point, I said we really would like to make some sort of deal to pay him less because we only want to spend $8 million for the picture. He said he would produce it himself and he could guarantee that under the production arrangement he could deliver it for that price. And we said, then you could pay Travolta whatever you want. So that's how he became the producer. He did a real good job. He brought it in for just a little over $8 million direct cost and we're, hopefully, well on our way to a sequel now…'

"Looking at the booming film business, Sagansky observes, 'I think it's partly because the films have been good and partly because of what's happened on the exhibition side of the business with all the multiplexes going up that have made the moviegoing experience really enjoyable.'"

Update: "Look Who's Talking" opened Oct. 13, 1989 to $12.1 million at 1,208 theaters ($10,023 per theater). It went on to gross $140.1 million domestically, making it the year's fourth biggest film. It spawned two sequels for Tri-Star -- 1990's "Look Who's Talking Too," which grossed $47.8 million domestically; and 1993's "Look Who's Talking Now," which grossed $10.3 million domestically.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel
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