John August – Putting Words in Captain Marvel's Mouth

Over the next few months, comic book readers have much to look forward to when it comes to the big screen. "Spider-Man 3" is arriving in theaters this Friday and "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" will follow soon there after. When experiencing movies such as these, comic fans usually brace themselves a bit to see what changes their favorite characters must undergo. For example:

Spider-Man? We may learn that the Sandman was involved in the death of Uncle Ben.

Galactus? Prepare yourself for a giant world-eating cloud instead of a giant world-eating god.

Who makes these decisions and why are they made? Input comes from many sources, including the films' studios, producers, directors and, occasionally, the comic book companies themselves. Then, at the end of the day, a screenwriter must take these notes and make them mesh with their plans for the story. This is just one of the challenges facing John August, the newly selected screenwriter for Warner Bros. "Captain Marvel/Shazam!" movie.

Fortunately for August, he's no newbie. He has had plenty of experience developing scripts from source material with loyal fanbases. His credits include"Go," both "Charlie's Angels" films, "Big Fish," "Corpse Bride," and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Based on the breadth of genres he's worked in, one could see why the writer is an ideal candidate for a movie about a kid who becomes a super-powered adult when he says the magic word, "Shazam!"

August was able to break away from his work on Billy Batson for a few moments and speak to us here at CBR News. We started our talk the way all good films open – in the beginning.

"The studio called my agent; my agent called me," August told CBR News. "I had a long phone conversation with the director and producer, talking about what kind of movie they were looking for. Once we were all on the same page, it took about four meetings to get a story ready to pitch to the studio. I think New Line liked that it both fulfilled what you'd expect from a comic book movie, but also played against expectations. It's not just about stopping a villain. There's comedy and drama beyond that.

"Some of my favorite movies would be great even if the A-plot never kicked in – 'Aliens,' for example. If the aliens never showed up, the world and characters would still be fascinating."

Like many writers, August keeps a blog. Unlike others of its ilk, though, August blogs with the intention of helping beginning writers. It's a must-read if you're curious about Hollywood or just want to learn how to write a better story.

In the blog, the screenwriter mentioned he had prepared for his Captain Marvel pitch with comics writer Geoff Johns ("Green Lantern," "Teen Titans"). "Geoff was gracious enough to come in and talk with the director, producer, and me through larger areas of DC mythology, in addition to specifics about Captain Marvel," explained August. "It was just one meeting, but it helped. It was interesting meeting Geoff, because I realized his job is a lot like that of a TV showrunner."

Some screenwriters know their subjects intimately, while others know it well enough to get the job at hand done. In talking about his familiarity with comics, it sounds as if August would rate somewhere around a "7" on the comic fanboy scale. "I tend to read collections and anthologies. For whatever reason, I never get around to reading single issues. Give me a book with a spine and I'm set. I'm much more familiar with the DC world, but I'm slowly trying to fill in some of my gaps in the Marvel universe."

Hollywood develops thousands of scripts each year that for one reason or another don't get made, regardless of who is writing it. Warner Bros. tossed out a Kevin Smith-written "Superman" script because it didn't suit their needs. More recently, Joss Whedon parted ways with the group developing "Wonder Woman" because their visions differed.

"Captain Marvel" is similar to these projects in that it's been in the development "pipeline" for quite some time. The last screenwriter to take a whack at it was William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Princess Bride," "Misery"), who is considered an institution by some in Hollywood (the book chronicling his experiences in the biz – "Adventures in the Screen Trade" – sits on nearly every screenwriter's shelf).

"I don't know anything about the earlier drafts," said August. "I'm sure William Goldman's draft is great; he's an enormously talented writer. Most times, when a project doesn't proceed, it's not because of the script itself, but rather overall decisions about what kind of movie the studio decides it wants to make. That's happened to me several times, so I wouldn't be surprised if that's the situation here."

As many comic fans know, DC Comics is owned by Warner Bros. Therefore, any movie made of a DC superhero will come from the Warner Bros. Studio. This film, however, is being developed by New Line Studios. How is this possible? Well, New Line is also owned by Warner Bros., so everything is staying "in the family," as it were.

Captain Marvel was, at one time, thought by some to be merely a copy of Superman. So much so that Captain Marvel's original publisher, Fawcett Publications, was sued by DC and was forced to stop publishing the character in 1953. DC Comics later purchased the rights to the character and integrated Captain Marvel into the DC Universe proper in the '90s.

I mention both facts about New Line and Captain Marvel because I found the pairing of the studio and character analogous to how they're viewed by outsiders. New Line is Warner Bros.' "little brother," and Captain Marvel is viewed as Superman's "lesser brother."

In light of the fact that "Superman Returns" didn't perform as well as Warner Bros. may have hoped, I was curious if there was any sense that the "Shazam" creative team wanted to show the "big guys" -- Warner Bros. and Superman-- how to do it right.

"Wow, I don't think so," replied August. "Everyone is focused on making their own movies. There's no time for posturing. And I truly don't think we'd have the same level of expectation put upon us as 'Superman Returns.' We're not the same kind of cultural icon as Superman."

And as Captain Marvel doesn't have the same level of recognition as Superman, it would make sense that the film's budget is appropriately smaller. Still, this will be a "comic book" movie, which means that its expense is considerable – just don't ask August to factor in those costs to his script. "Superhero movies are expensive, but you don't write with a calculator beside the keyboard," said August.

From August's credits, one can see that he has worked with director Tim Burton on several occasions. As Burton is the person who brought superhero movies back to the theaters with "Batman" in the late '80s, CBR News asked August if the director had shared any words of wisdom with him.

"Tim is busy doing 'Sweeney Todd' [starring Johnny Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen], so I'm sure he has no idea that I'm doing 'Captain Marvel.' We've never spoken about 'Batman.'"

Too bad. I guess this means we won't see any women in skin-tight leather outfits with whips. As for the characters we will see, August listed several of the Captain Marvel books he is using as research for his script in a blog entry. CBR News tried to get more specifics from the writer, and asked him if we might see any of the following characters: Black Adam, Sivana, Mary Marvel, Mister Mind, Uncle Dudley, Freddy Freeman or Talky Tawny.

August's cryptic response? "At least two. One of my favorite things about the 'Spider-Man' movies is the way they layer in characters who might – or might not – play important roles in sequels. That's one of my goals here: to keep the world full of possibilities."

With that, August went back into his screenwriting "cave" to toil on a script for a character that he hopes fans will love. Until then, we have giant world-eating clouds…

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