IFH 331: Hollywood Screenwriting with Screenwriter John August

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Today on the show we have Hollywood screenwriter, director, producer, podcaster and novelist John August. He is known for writing the hit Hollywood films Go, Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Frankenweenie, the Disney live-action adaptation of Aladdin and the novel Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire.

He hosts the popular screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes with Craig Mazin, maintains an eponymous screenwriting blog and develops screenwriter-targeted software called Highland 2.5 through his company, Quote-Unquote Apps.

Enjoy my conversation with John August.

Alex Ferrari 3:00
But today's guest is the legendary screenwriter, John August. But he's not only a screenwriter, he's also a legendary podcaster. His podcast on screenwriting, called script notes has been around since 2011. And it is pretty amazing. It's a great, great podcast and listen to as well. Now if you guys don't know who John August is, he wrote films like big fish frankenweenie Corpse Bride, Charlie's Angels, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dark Shadows, Charlie's Angels to the awesome film go. And more recently, he worked on Aladdin. The new Disney release just came out. And he also rewrote Iron Man, he was a rewrite one of the rewriters on Iron Man, the original movie that launched the Marvel Universe. So you know, John's career is doing okay, let's just say he's doing okay. But seriously, I wanted to get him on the show, to talk about his craft, how he works, how it's to work with big directors and their processes like Tim Burton. He's worked with multiple times. Like I said, he worked on big fish, one of my favorite Tim Burton movies ever. And I wanted to get into his process. And we also talked about the software that he created for screenwriters called Highland and there's a new version about out called Highland 2.5, which we'll be talking about that as well. And we get into the weeds, about screenwriting about the business. And I really felt that this would transcend both podcasts. So without any further ado, please enjoy my conversation with John August. I like to welcome the show John August the legendary John August. Thank you so much for being on the show, sir.

John August 4:46
Thank you

Alex Ferrari 4:47
You are, as they say an OG in the podcasting space. Without question, when did you actually start your podcast?

John August 4:55
Well, we're on episode 405. We just recorded that last night. So it's 630 Seven years, a long, long time.

Alex Ferrari 5:02
And what made you start podcasting? When like nobody was podcasting?

John August 5:06
You know, I started a blog when nobody was blogging to I've just always, you know, I always look to see what the next thing is. It's interesting to me and I see people doing the thing, and I want to do it. And so I started to listen to a bunch of tech podcasts. And I was getting really tired of sort of how the grind of the monologue of doing a blog for screenwriting and so I turned to Frank Mason, who was doing a blog like it. And so like, let's just have this be a conversation. So we started a weekly conversation that script notes, and it's gone really well.

Alex Ferrari 5:37
It's been going ever since very strong. So now I wanted to ask you, how did you first get into the business?

John August 5:44
I started I went through film school, I went through USC film school, and graduated from that I'd written a script that people liked. It was not a movie was ever gonna get made, but sort of got me started meeting around town. first project I had hired to write on was an adaptation of how do we fried worms, a kids book of Ron Howard's company, and I just kept working. And first of all it got made was go back in 99, so 20 years ago, and just kept going.

Alex Ferrari 6:13
That was a very complex script. If I remember a complex movie, there was so many story plots, jumping back and forth. And we remember when that came out was, it was definitely a 90s movies such as Doug Liman 90s film without question, how did you enter we've so many plots, and like matching them all together and stuff at the end, like,

John August 6:31
It started, it started as a short script for short film, which is just the first section of it. And then I had all these other characters in there, I knew what they were doing the rest of that night. And rather than try to fill out the whole story from my day, and I just make it longer, I just restarted the story twice, and could sort of follow the same night from different characters perspectives, you see how they overlap. And luckily, you know, Pulp Fiction came out a year before that. And so people had an understanding, like, okay, that's a real thing you're allowed to do in movies. And it was, yeah, God bless that. But let us do some very specific things. Because so often, you see movies that are struggling, because, you know, the audience wants the next thing to happen. But the story needs something else to happen. And this could be very tight, because the storylines that stick very close together.

Alex Ferrari 7:17
Now, how many screenplays Did you have written when you sold your first one, because I always tell people don't just have one. Don't write, don't sell, sell your first screenplay generally.

John August 7:27
You know, I hadn't sold a written script until go, which was pretty far into it. So I'd written four things before I had one that sold. But two of those things I'd written I'd been paid to write, they were adaptations of existing books. So I was very lucky, it started very quickly for me. But your general advice, I think is correct is that you don't put everything in, don't assume that the one thing you're working on right now is the thing that's going to break through for you. Because you just don't know, and you're still learning your craft, you can't anticipate all these things are gonna happen. That said, you know, write the movie you wish you could see because that's the movie that you're going to actually stick by and finish and really be able to, you know, stay home on Friday nights to work on

Alex Ferrari 8:12
And you came up in the 90s so the the the screenwriting marketplace was a little bit different back then the

John August 8:20
There were there was really respect sales there would be like, you know, a million dollar spec sale for you know, an original script and that has basically gone away and so that was different it was it was a boom time there were there clearly were things that were happening there the same way that there's a boom time right now for television. It's just it's shifted a lot.

Alex Ferrari 8:38
Yeah, cuz because back then, I mean, you would get these Joe Astor house Shane Black deals that were just like two $3 million for him. It was like a lottery almost. And and someone like Astra house, he, I think he made more money on movies that never got made that

John August 8:53
but I mean, that's always been true of screenwriting, though, is that, you know, there are a lot of screenwriters who get hired a lot, and they work a lot. But, you know, most movies are developed don't get made. And so that is a frustration of screenwriting is that even me like I have a pretty good track record, but most of the things I've written have not been made. And that's a real frustration.

Alex Ferrari 9:14
And you've actually been hot. And these are things that you hired to do

John August 9:16
Hire. So I'd like 12 produce credits, but I have at least 30 scripts that I've written just for pay and most of them are just kind of frozen in 12 point courier just because, you know, either the underlying rights or just whatever didn't come together the right way to make those movies.

Alex Ferrari 9:32
Yeah, it is a frustrating part of the whole the whole game and, and there's multiple reasons for that. It could be REITs or something like that, or just studio changes.

John August 9:43
Obviously, you never found the right director or there was a competing project that was too similar. lots of reasons why things don't happen.

Alex Ferrari 9:50
Now, you've collaborated with the legendary Tim Burton on multiple occasions. What is the collaboration process like with Tim Burton?

John August 9:59
It's clever. Between a screenwriter and director is different every time and sometimes it's a really close bond. And I'm there every moment. So I go, I was there for every frame, we shot. And I was in the editing room a lot, I was there for the whole thing with Tim, it's not that I'm with Tim, I'm very much like a department head in my department, his story. And so I'm the person who's coming up with the script, delivering the script. And then I largely go away, I'll be there through pre production through table read, I'm there to help for anything that needs help. But like during production, I have no function in it. I'll see early cuts, I can give notes on that I can give feedback. But it's that's just not how we work. He treats. You know, all his partner heads really, really well. And so calling out what you know, sees his vision delivers costumes that will suit what he needs to do the cinematographers do the same thing. But I'm, I'm a different department head for temporary movies

Alex Ferrari 10:50
Do you actually do like when you're actually collaborating with, with stores? Do you just he's just like, here's this, here's the book, get me something.

John August 10:57
But does he give you notes, because back and forth. It's more the former CIO, which is unlike most directors, but it's really just, this is the overall vision, give me something that matches the vision. So Charlie, the Chocolate Factory is a good example of that he had signed on to direct it, it was really starting from zero on a script. And we could tell, he could say, like, I want everything from the book, and as much as you need to make sense. And I could approach them from my whole memory of how much I love that book, and sort of what was special to me about that book, and then write it really anticipating the things that he would love. And so, you know, walk his father being a dentist, and the orthotic headgear, and like just the moments, I knew that Tim Burton could knock out of the park. But there were probably less than an hour's conversation, during the whole process of just like this, I will be making it very clear that like, you know, I'm writing a script and Tim's making a movie and it'll, it'll work.

Alex Ferrari 12:01
And that's a very unique scenario. Now, normally, directors are really,all inside your business

John August 12:08
Yeah, normally, you're really sort of grappling over every scene in every every beat. And that's not Tim's basic way of doing things. He's, you know, I think I've really learned from him is that he prepares meticulously, and so he has big notebooks of how he's going to do every scene. And he's sketching, and he's painting, he's figuring out what it is. But he's figuring out how to make the movie inside his head. And he doesn't. He doesn't necessarily need to work with me as a writer in terms of doing that. He's trusting me to sort of like, provide the words and he's gonna revive the, all the other things it takes to make a movie.

Alex Ferrari 12:46
I mean, you wrote one of my favorite Tim Burton movies ever big fish, which I think it was it was such a brilliant, brilliant movie and, and very Tim Burton, he but not in the same sense. Does that make sense?

John August 12:57
It does well, and that was a script I'd written before Chairman sign on. So I just read it. I read a book that I loved very much, I convinced the studio to buy me the book. And I wrote it without any directors on board about any producers on board as wrote the movie. I wish I could see, originally, Steven Spielberg had signed on to direct it, he was on for about a year and never really happened. And then when he dropped off, Tim signed on. And so we didn't have a lot of conversation about, you know, the story, the movie or sort of what individual things meant to him. He just he wanted to direct that script is the only things that change once Tim sign on board are really for budget and schedule things just like things that were in the script, it just we just couldn't make. And so then we discuss how we were going to do that. But it wasn't a, you know, you think there's gonna be these, you know, 12 hour sessions, we're really just ball over everything. And that's just not Tim's way.

Alex Ferrari 13:48
Now, you, you you have a recent film that just hit the theaters, a small little film called Aladdin, small indie project, yeah. small indie project by startup. And, you know, I was when I first heard they were, well, of course, this is remaking everything they have in their, in their arsenal or in their backlog. But when I heard about a lot, I'm like, Wow, that's a really unique challenge, because the original is so engrained in our head and specifically that Robin Williams performance. How did you tackle that remake? Like, how did you go into that process? Knowing that there's this Honestly, this shadow? I'm sure Will Smith had the same problem, the shadow of that Robin Williams was casting on the project, at least from my point of view?

John August 14:31
Yeah, I approached it from so I'd have to rewind the clock a lot and sort of come into my universe once before and it's like, oh, no, I'm not gonna touch that. And then Disney did the Cinderella remake, which I thought was fantastic. And what I love so much about the Cinderella remake is it took the same story. Basically, it just gave the characters human motivations rather than cartoon motivations, that they really had to do things that flesh and blood people would do not animated characters would do. And then it Reasons had to be different. And so as I approach the story from that perspective, I was looking at, well, Jasmine, so Jasmine as a character, you just can't bring that animated character through the live action movie because she will seem so helpless and weak and frustrating to watch. And so, you know, the idea that Jasmine is trying to learn how to rule this kingdom is interesting. That's a fundamental shift I could make from the very first pitch the dynamic between Genie and Aladdin, I really saw them more as as bros as like a house, like you've never had a friend like me. And so what is it, it was more sort of a kind of a Seth Rogen II kind of dudes hanging out kind of vibe with them rather than the Robin Williams cocaine uncle kind of thing. And when, when you from the early pitches, like that's really the vibe I was going for. And so I knew that whoever was playing the gene, it wasn't real at that point. But it was hopefully going to be will or somebody like well could didn't have to play in the same lane, they could do his own thing, that there wouldn't be that assumption that you'd have to have the same kind of manic energy at every point, it could be a different thing. So that, you know, the characters were going through much the same story, but the reasons for how they were doing it were working a lot differently, Jafar is another good example is that he can't be as moustache totally hidden, he needs to be seen as a viable sort of physical threat and not just, you know, obviously to learn from the first moment he shows up.

Alex Ferrari 16:32
Right, exactly. And that's what makes a good protect what makes a good antagonist, generally speaking, is not the, the twirling mustaches has been, shouldn't really be what we write anymore. Now, Charlie's Angels, which was a monster hit when it came out. The first one for people was when people that weren't around then Charlie's Angels have a very big deal when it came out. And that was, that was your first kind of like, blockbuster monster hit right out of the gate. Yeah, it

John August 17:01
was the first one that I had sort of really come on board, you know, at the start and sort of helped build from build up from the bottom. And that was, again, an example of, you know, taking all the things I loved about the original and recognizing, okay, so how do we do this as a movie? How does the things I love about this as a series? How do we do this in two hours? What are the audience expectations of how a story like this wants to tell itself into in two hours, probably, than big fish are rival each other for the most difficult things I've written because in Charlie's Angels, you have three protagonists, each of who needs their own plot lines, his own personal plot lines, you have a villain, you have a twist, you have all the sort of normal action, movie action, comedy, things that need to happen. So every scene has to do a lot of work to service very many things. And so making that all work together in the puzzle pieces fit was really tough. But we approached it, mostly from a sense of, what do you want this movie to feel like? And so I really wanted to get that sense of being incredibly proud of the girls for sort of what they've done, which you don't think about an action movie, but these women are really, really good at what they do. But they're giant dorks when they're off the job. And so that's what makes them feel human and relatable is that they are, you know, they're goofy and flawed and ways that you can sort of key into they're not perfect.

Alex Ferrari 18:20
Yeah, like, you don't want to have a beer with Rambo, like generally, okay. No, no,

John August 18:25
I mean, and comedies are never about cool people. comedies are about dorks. And so we had to find a way that they could be great at their job and also be dorks you know, off the job.

Alex Ferrari 18:35
Now, what was it like, you know, being kind of like the belle of the of the ball after Charlie's Angels hits in town, because anytime there's a big hit the screenwriter and the director, they they kind of get twirled around for a while, while you're hot. While the spotlights on you. What's that expressed? Like? What was that experience? Like? Because I know a lot of people listening would love to know

John August 18:54
what I mean. It's nice to be offered projects where you don't have to chase everything. Whereas sometimes it's just a little calm, say like, Hey, would you want to do this thing? That's great. You also really are constrained by time. Like, there's only so many things you can do the only the only things you can say yes to and the more things you say yes to you're really saying no to other things. And it was tough to balance what people wanted me to do for them. And those opportunities I was getting versus the things I wanted to do for myself and finding you know, what was actually, you know, provide value to me creative satisfaction to me. And it didn't always make the right choices. I ended up like, you know, taking projects that seems cool, but sometimes never happened. And so there's some gaps in my resume where I was working a lot just those movies didn't happen and a lot of my job as a screenwriter ends up being kind of like a stock picker. I have to pick the movies that that I want to do but that I also think will get made because it doesn't do me a lot of good if I got paid to write a movie that never became a movie.

Alex Ferrari 19:53
Yeah, I know a lot of high end. You know, big time screenwriters that have one, maybe one credit to them, and they're like, but they're working for 10 years Oh, yeah, yeah, it happens all the time. Now, you also said at the beginning, you said that you kind of start off fast for you. What was the first break? Like? What was that first thing that happened? Because even in the 90s, it was still hard to break in without question.

John August 20:14
No. And I think this is, you know, a pattern I've noticed, you know, among my friends, but also, I've had a whole slew of assistants who've grown up to be, you know, big writers. And there becomes a moment at which something you've written is getting passed around without you're actively trying to get it passed around where someone reads things, and passes them as like, oh, should we this is really good. And that happened for me with the script that I wrote in film school was a romantic tragedy called here and now, and I read it now, I don't think it's especially good, but the writing is good. You can read and say, like, Oh, I don't necessarily want to make this movie. But like, the writer is actually probably pretty good and are worth meeting that got passed around a bunch. And just, you know, it started with friends at my level. So just, you know, people I was in class with people who were assistants, other places, would pass it around to their bosses would read it. And eventually, it sort of got some buzz to it. And that was what enabled me to go into a producer who said he wanted to think about optioning. I said, That's fantastic. But I really need an agent, can you help me find an agent, and that producer helped me find my first agent, and sort of get me more of those meetings, you end up doing sort of this waterbottle tour of Los Angeles where you just meet, you know, you know, producers and studio executives, and just talk about stuff.

Alex Ferrari 21:32
Now, um, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see in screen and screen that screenwriters make when they first starting out?

John August 21:40
There's this focus on make ability, marketability, chasing what's currently popular, and that's never going to work. Because first off, everyone can sort of feel that you're not your heart's not really into that movie. That like, just because that Western opened big that there's gonna be a whole run on westerns, it goes back to that kind of lottery chicken mentality. And that, like, there was a time where scripts would sound like, you know, suddenly, you're a millionaire. Because that script sold for a bunch. That's not the time we're living in, really, you need to be writing scripts that you deeply believe in, it's a movie that you would pay $15 to see opening weekend, it would means that much so if that's a giant blockbuster, or a tiny art film, right, that movie you wish you could see because that's the thing people will read and say like, oh, he or she really, you know, I really see something special in this, I really see a connection to this, I want to meet this writer, because mostly, you're gonna make your living as a screenwriter by being hired to do stuff.

Alex Ferrari 22:41
Now, what do you want to I'd love to hear your opinion on this, you know, the studio system has changed so dramatically since the 90s. Or in the 80s, where a movie like go could get made. But in today's world, the studio would never even think of making a film like go are an independent film. Not independent film, but just like a little bit.

John August 22:58
Go was basically independent film is an independent film that got bought out right before we started shooting. So it really was in India.

Alex Ferrari 23:04
But But like, you know, the studios aren't taking many risks anymore. It's all these big blockbuster, everything's tentpole, what do you feel about that, as far as you know, just for the creativity of, of unique stories, unique voices? in those stories? What do you think? No,

John August 23:22
there are still plays that are making those things. So it's not Disney, it's not Columbia, but there's still the annapurnas, the May 24, I think we still have a really vibrant indie film community. And so those movies are happening, and it's still getting seen, I think the biggest shift that we're seeing is that more of those movies are ending up on Netflix, on Amazon, on Apple on places that aren't, you know, that aren't, you know, going into a big giant movie theater and seeing it there. I love the big screen movie experience, I still want to keep making those movies, but I have to be realistic that there's certain kinds of movies for which most people are expecting to see it, you know, through a streaming service. And maybe we should just acknowledge expectation and make those things for those markets. Because that's where you're going to see, like, always be my maybe worked really well for Netflix. And that's everyone could watch it. And it'd be part of a cultural conversation, because it was so successful there on Netflix, if it had come out and done the traditional, you know, platform in New York, Los Angeles and have to expand out from that. I don't know if it would have worked. So I think that's just where we're at right now.

Alex Ferrari 24:30
What do you think of the whole streaming service phenomenon? The Netflix effect as they say like it is it is literally lifted this little small company completely changed the way the Hollywood does business?

John August 24:40
Yeah. I mean, for certain kinds of projects, you know, they are a huge dominant player. And, you know, as someone who's writing things, you always want more buyers, you always want more places where things can go that's that's just the reality. So it's it's amazing to have in there as another big studio but The downsides are, you know, it used to be you'd make a movie and it would exist out there in the world. And you could always find it or there was a DVD thing. There's just a sense that like there was a movie with a physical thing. And now that it's just bits on a streaming service, and you just don't know what's going to happen to it, it's great that everyone in the world can see your movie. But in some ways, there's so much there that it's very hard to sort of point somebody to your movie and get them watching it. It's hard. Honestly, the, the aftermarket for a movie is so much smaller. Now, just because it is showing up on streaming services. There's no, there's residuals, but they're not the same kind of residuals that writers got used to.

Alex Ferrari 25:41
Now, what is your approach to structure? And how and how do you structure your scripts in general, like do you outline,

John August 25:49
I'm not a big outliner. But I have a very good sense generally, when I'm starting writing of what the important beats are, and most importantly, where I'm headed. So it's like a road trip, like, I obviously know where you're starting. But you gotta have a really good sense of like, where you want to end up, and you can take some different routes to get there. But you have to have a good sense of like, Okay, this is getting me towards where I want to be. So I'm, you know, it was New York, Los Angeles, I could go by the Grand Canyon, or I could go by Mount Rushmore, I had to make some choices, but I will get to that place where I'm going, so I have a good sense of the big, you know, pitstops along the way, as I'm, as I'm getting there, I'm not a huge believer in, you know, page 30, page 60, page 19, or these are the big moments we have to hit. All movies, begin, all movies have a middle point, and they have an end, just naturally, everything has a beginning and an end. But I don't believe in sort of that strict, you know, ideas, I'd like you know, that a three act structure has to hit exactly these moments. Do like, there's

Alex Ferrari 26:48
a lot of these rules that you hear about, like, you know, make sure there's not a lot of action. Like you need a lot of a lot of whitespace on the script and proper formatting. And, of course, that's part of the process. But how truly important like, if you have, if you have one typo on your script, are you is your thing going to get thrown out. That's that stuff that they tell people and I always felt like, Look, if it, if you threw Pulp Fiction down, you know, if you're a typo or two, they're gonna let you go.

John August 27:17
here's the here's what I think is true about that, though, is that the commitment to read a script is a pretty severe commitment, you're asking for an hour or two hours of somebody's time, and really, their focus and attention. And so you have to make them believe it's really gonna be worth their time to finish the script. And so if you're giving them any excuse to put it down, then you've shot yourself in the foot. So that's why, you know, you know, check them one last check for typos. One last check for like, is this really the best way through this scene? Did I mess up these characters names? Like, is it, those last things are those last looks are very important, because, you know, it could be somebody only look, so you want to make sure that all that stuff is done, right? In terms of what it looks like on the page, you know, I make Highlands two, which is a really good screening app, and most of them can do the basic formatting stuff for you. That's not an issue. But you're still gonna have to make choices about you know, how dense you want your page, like, how do you make it inviting for someone to get all the way through that page and flip it and go to the next one. And I'm a person who doesn't like big law, he texts of chunk a bit chunky blocks of text, because I just know sometimes as a reader, I'll start skimming, and you just don't want people to start skimming on you.

Alex Ferrari 28:30
So the so tighter the better. As always, as they say,

John August 28:34
yeah, I mean, you don't, don't put more than you need, but you are the only person who can know what you really need.

Alex Ferrari 28:40
Now, what advice do you have for building interesting characters? Because I think there's, you know, there's character, there's character driven movies and plot driven movies. Would you agree on that?

John August 28:52
To a certain extent, to some extent, there's certain certainly movies where the unique character conflicts are not what makes you buy a ticket for a movie?

Alex Ferrari 29:01
It's like looking like Indiana Jones James Bond,

John August 29:04
basically, yeah. But I mean, Indiana Jones without Indiana Jones himself and serve his unique thing wouldn't work. Right.

Alex Ferrari 29:11
Right. In another way, the plot wouldn't move if you threw another character there. It has absolutely. It's an Indiana and

John August 29:15
same thing with James Bond, you kind of maybe do Bourne Identity, kind of what I mean, but I mean, even in his blankness Jason Bourne is a fascinating character, because you're leaning into C because you don't know who he is, you know, he is and you don't know who he is. But you're fascinating to find out. So you're on the journey with him.

Alex Ferrari 29:32
So what advice do what do you have advice you have for building interesting characters?

John August 29:37
Well, I think it's tailoring the right character for the world and the story you want to tell. So basically, you have to have a sense of what is the point of the story that I'm telling you like what is, you know, be it sort of more a plot engine or be it a world you're building? You know, figure out what that central question is that thing that the movie is grappling with and figure out who is the most interesting person to be driving the story to be carried through the story, you know, who is either best prepared for it or at least prepared to go into this story. So, Indiana Jones, he's uniquely well qualified to be in a story. But Groundhog Day Bill Murray is uniquely disqualified to be in that movie. That's what makes it so fascinating. You could do that same plot mechanic with nearly any other person on earth. But this grumpy weatherman is a really great fit for the story you're trying to tell.

Alex Ferrari 30:30
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. And was there ever a movie like Groundhog's Day prior to Groundhog's Day that did that?

John August 30:46
There were movies that? Yeah, there were movies that there appeared time? Yeah, that was not first thing. So I mean, Rashomon goes back to the same moment three times. So yeah,

Alex Ferrari 30:56
but yeah, I guess it's

John August 30:58
not quite as time loop is quite the same way. But like, that idea is not new to Groundhog Day. But soon, and that's an important thing to stress is like, there are no ideas that are groundbreaking, the new it's execution that matters. And it was the execution of that, you know, that time loop thing which could have been in any Twilight Zone, but the comedic bands with a very specific character with a very specific moral lesson has to learn. That's what makes Groundhog Day Groundhog Day.

Alex Ferrari 31:23
Is there any film that you can think of in recent history, or even in your lifetime that you saw, like, Wow, that is completely original, that is completely do I've never seen or heard anything like that?

John August 31:35
I don't, I don't like the final movie nearly as much as the script. But Natural Born Killers for me was as a script, something that was it was just so inventive with form. And it doesn't all translate into the final movie. But it was the first script I remember reading where I finished it just off the back to page one and started reading again, because like, it would just suddenly become a sitcom kind of for no reason. But it would be it would just, it would just change its form. And it would, it seemed to be aware that it was that we were in a time of, you know, post post modernism there just like the boundaries between media forms were eroding. And so Tarantino's original script for that I thought was so groundbreaking and original, that I loved it.

Alex Ferrari 32:17
I would love to see that version produced. Like if he actually

John August 32:20
Got to be, it'd be amazing. It'd be fantastic.

Alex Ferrari 32:22
And I'm a fan of the of the movie either. I've read, I saw the movie first before I read the script. But then when I read the script, I'm like, Oh, this is completely different. Completely different situation. It was, it was remarkable. When you in like, who is like one of your favorite like your favorite screenwriters like Who do you look at and go, man?

John August 32:40
Well, everyone in my generation who started writing when we did, I mean, we all look up to James Cameron for his ability to write action on the page. And so you know, many of us are still kind of consciously or subconsciously, AP and sort of what he's able to do because it was Middle East, but fantastic. And it really gave me a sense of being present in that moment for the action that's happening. Nora Ephron her ability to sort of just illuminate characters from within. And so and just and just have a really good sense of like, how the ball passes back and forth. James L. Brooks, again, a great example of a writer who can, you know, make people feel grounded and real in their place in their world. But he's also telling you a story. He's, he's, he's constructing University, it's going to force them as the characters to make choices. So I mean, just to pick three off the top of my head, those are three that would go back to now,

Alex Ferrari 33:33
we touched upon this a little earlier to today, but the protagonist, the archenemy, the antagonist, the villains have there is a problem there's a disease of bad villains out in cinema. What do you What advice would you have for to create a really good villain and can give you an example of two or three like insanely good villains you like? Well, that's the depth that those villains had, you know? Oh, let's

John August 33:57
think about it. So obviously, the best villains don't understand that they're villains they every villain is a hero. And so sure, that's villains think that they're doing what needs to be done. And they have they have very good reasons for why they're doing it. Whether the moral reasons or other reasons. Some villains I've especially loved till this one's character in my play warrant, and I don't like when I'm messing up the title, the George Clooney movie?

Alex Ferrari 34:24
Yes, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. No, he talking about Yeah. Yeah,

John August 34:27
I'm playing my clip. She's fantastic in that she is. She's weak in really fascinating ways. I love that she's, you know, she's ballsy and tough, but she's also vulnerable in ways that you don't often see the villains and so I thought it was a brilliant characterization there. And Tony Gilroy, I think if I'm not mistaken, so are there other villains I love? I mean, one of my favorite movies of all time is aliens and the alien Queen you don't think of it as being a character But its motivations are so clean and pure. And that's a movie that's all constructed around sort of the horror of motherhood. It's it's Ripley, as Ripley as a mother, really. She wasn't expecting a surrogate mother to news. And you know, the end Queen as the evil version of that mother are just, they're brilliantly balanced between the two of them. And so I think in the movies that I love, you see that that is exactly the right villain or antagonist to challenge this specific hero or protagonist in the story.

Alex Ferrari 35:30
So like America mirror image, like a mirror image of like, so I always use Batman and the Joker like they literally polar opposites, and they're perfect for each other. Yeah.

John August 35:42
I mean, the Joker is a fantastic villain and all Sabrina carnations, it's whether it's a he's a force of pure chaos or a force of just just twisted love. There's, there's lots of ways to play a joker, I think it's easy, you know, iconic for all those reasons. I do a series of books called Arlo Finch. So they're middle grade fiction, or Harry Potter age fiction. And it's been fascinating like trying to find the right villain for that because the central character is a 12 year old boy who's like, nervous about the answers. This is a big planner is the sort of, you know, always a little bit leery of the world outside there. And finding the right villain opposite him has been fascinating. So I needed to find a character through who was. Arlo ended up creating his own villain. And so quite accidentally, like he was trying to do the right thing, but ended up sort of creating this madman who end up coming back after him. And so when characters and when antagonists and protagonists have that causal bond between the two of them, I think that's especially meaningful, Superman has that with Lex Luthor, because you know, Superman, absolutely, you know, got absolutely hurt Lex Luthor as a kid. Those things are great. In big fish, the protagonist, antagonist relationship is between the Father and the Son. And so they, they're each other's villain, and each other's hero in time. And that's a fun way to look at it, as well.

Alex Ferrari 37:07
Now, as far as the protagonists, what makes a good like, what makes you want to jump on board with that protagonist and go on that journey, because there's also some weak weak motivations. And so many so many screenplays and also movies that I see just like, man, I don't care about that guy. Like, I don't want to go on this journey. I don't care about this person. Or it's just so flimsy. The reasoning, this just kind of like, someone just threw something in there just to get it to the next step. What's your What's your opinion? What's the

John August 37:38
motivation, you're talking about? motivation, you're really just a synonym for want. And like, all characters want things but the protagonist of the movie, we want what the protagonist wants. And if we don't want what the protagonist wants, then we don't care, we won't follow that person in the movie. So it's establishing really early on what it is that the central character wants, needs and fears. So we understand why we're going on this journey with the character. And for movies, it's really like, is this a journey that we're willing to spend about two hours with this character and see them go from this point, to that point, there'll be a big transformation. That's what makes movies so different than TV shows is that movies are about a one time experience. It's the characters profoundly change versus a TV show, they're not going to change a lot by the end of the episode. So you're, you're looking for, like, who is the right character, who can change who can protagonist over the course of two hours to get to a really meaningful, emotional place that they couldn't have got to earlier on? And that's, you know, it's looking that along the way for how do you, you know, put choices in front of the character, this character so that we see why he or she is doing what they're doing and can never go back to the places that they were before.

Alex Ferrari 38:53
I wanted to touch on something and I think you're uniquely qualified to answer this, because a lot of a lot of not only filmmakers, screenwriters as well, they and I was I was guilty of this as well, early on my career that you're trying to kind of hack your way into Hollywood, you're trying to hack your way into getting an agent or getting in through the back door or using this technique or this, this this little secret that you heard someone say once, can you kind of just debunk that and understand like, you know, you do need quality, but there is right place, right time, right product, you know, without without question. Yeah.

John August 39:30
I mean, you need, you need to be a good writer, you need to be lucky. And you can work on becoming a good writer, and you can work on being on getting lucky by making sure that your stuff is out there where people can find it, because no one's going to stumble across your script if they have no way to find your script. So a lot of the questions that I'm getting it's like, oh, I, I want to send with the script over somebody but I'm worried about if you get stolen or something like that. getting past those fears is the first thing you have to do because you want anybody under the sun who wants to read your script. To read your script, because you never know, who is the person to spark for in the right way that will, they'll start the ball rolling into the next thing. I wasn't a big part of any writers groups, but I know a lot of people who are working right now who, you know, start on the early levels, who have found it the accountability of being in a writers group and having every week to show up with like, this is the new thing I wrote, this is the thing I did. He's great. And then as some people develop some traction, it's a way to sort of get your stuff out there into the world. So especially if you're in Los Angeles, joining a group of good writers whose opinions you like and trust, who can really contribute to that group is probably a good idea as well.

Alex Ferrari 40:43
Do you have any advice for people trying to just, you know, play the Hollywood game, if it's lack of a better word is there I mean, is there any,

John August 40:52
I mean, there's always there's always been a Hollywood game, the rules change some degree, but like, but you can spend all your time just playing that game, and you'll never get anything made. And that's, that's the issue. So, I mean, it is important. I mean, there's, there's a social aspect to what we do, and that you have to be able to you think like, Oh, I'm a really, if you're a good writer, then it shouldn't matter that I can't sort of like, pitch in a room. But now you've got to build pitch in a room, it's part of the sport that you're you're you're playing, you've got to learn how to be able to sort of this like, function add up, you know, cocktail party, and, you know, and make that chitchat stuff, because that will be an important function of it all. And understanding and with those social skills, as you're starting to work on stuff, understanding the notes you're getting, and sort of what's behind the notes, and how to sort of, you know, figure out what you actually need to do versus what you should ignore that those are all important skills, and they're hard to cultivate until you actually are just doing them and you're gonna be stressed out at times. That's just the reality.

Alex Ferrari 41:55
Now, how do you deal with notes because I mean, you you working at the the highest levels in Hollywood, and you're dealing with, you know, a lot of studios and student executives and directors and lack of a better term egos, as well actor's wants and needs. So how do you deal with notes coming in from you at all, at all angles?

John August 42:13
You know, it's that balance of being humble and sort of like, understanding that, like, this is a collaborative thing that you're trying to do. And so you're going to have to be able to, you may have your one perfect vision for how this is supposed to be, but like that one revision is useless if they can't make that perfect vision if they can't see the movie that's in your head. So it's hearing what they're saying, processing in ways that makes sense to you trying to echo it back and do the things that make sense. So you can come to a consensus about the same kind of movie you're trying to make. It's tough. And I would say that one of the I know it's a crisis, but one of the real challenges facing screenwriting right now is that it's still kind of playing by the way, it's always played where there's, this is conservatism. There's this, play it safe aspect, there's this, you know, you're here. Yeah. And there's much less fear in television, there's much less fear and sort of like the, the good television being made. And the writers are just being able to make the why they

Alex Ferrari 43:14
why is that because the budgets are massive, as well.

John August 43:17
But they are, I think this is a recognition that that ultimately, there's gonna be differences of opinions. But the writer who's responsible for that whole series, you got to gotta listen to what she's saying, and that she may actually know what she's talking about. I'm not saying it's perfect, and like network TV is still a drag. But the folks I know who are working in television now are finding. Even when they get noted, they're getting noted to like, let's make this smarter rather than let's sand off the rough edges.

Alex Ferrari 43:51
Now, you're talking about pitching earlier, do you have any tips on pitching because pitching is a completely different skill set to walk in? It

John August 43:58
is it takes, it takes a lot of practice. I mean, the spirit for a pitch though, is you have to think about imagine you just saw a movie you absolutely loved and you had to convince your best friend to go see that movie. And so you wouldn't pitch every beat of it. You would pitch the world the principal characters what it's about, you'd get us into it and but then you would sort of shorthand some things along the way. And most importantly, you really share your enthusiasm for it. That's not just you're not just going through a list of bullet points that it really feels like you are selling the movie, not just telling the movie.

Alex Ferrari 44:33
Now what what is your daily writing routine? Like?

John August 44:38
So I'm here in my office. I am usually out here by 9am. I'm here nine to six, but I I'm 20 feet away from my house so i can i can wander back in. I know that. Yeah. So I can I can go in and out pretty freely. I tried to get three hours of writing done a day and so I usually do those sprints and so people who follow me on twitter See, like, I'm say about to start a right sprint who wants to join me, I usually start a spread at the top of the hour. So like, at 10am, I'm starting this. And that means for 60 minutes, I'm doing nothing but writing. And in Highland two, we have a little timer function. So it, it starts counting my words I do within that hour so and then when the hour is up, then I can step away. But like during that hour, I'm not googling things, I'm just focusing on getting words on paper, or deep,

Alex Ferrari 45:26
deep work deep, right? And,

John August 45:28
yeah, I'm really, really writing. And then if I do three of those a day, I'm getting enough done that things will get finished. For a book, I'm hitting at least 1000 words a day for a script, that's three to five, maybe seven pages,

Alex Ferrari 45:44
you'll finish if you if you get that much done. And there is kind of like a disease of distractions that we have to deal with as just human beings in general. But as writers as creatives, it's so brutal, because you have little things you have little notifications, all that stuff, the concept of deep work. I don't know if you read that book, deep work, which is it's amazing book about just what you can get done if you actually just Yeah, yeah, you know, any tips on how to deal with, you know, what you do? block everything out? Yeah, I

John August 46:14
used to this app called freedom, which like blocks connection. And that's great. If it works, I found just, you know, actually starting the timer, and just like saying 60 minutes is enough for me, like, it'll keep me on task. But everyone's different. So recognizing that what works for somebody else may not be the right solution for you. But there probably is a solution for you. And this is, this is my version of it. The other thing I will say is that I've never been one to write in sequence. And so I will write whatever seeing appeals to me to write that day. And so I let myself freely hop around. Because when you're making a movie, when you're editing a movie, you're going to be doing that naturally anyway. So just don't give your self the excuse of like, I don't really know how to do this next scene, they're like, well, then don't do that scene, do the other scene that you need, that you actually have the energy to do, because there's times where I feel like writing a big action sequence. And there's times where I just want to have, you know, some happy bantery dialogue between some characters, recognizing what you want to write that day is an important part of it.

Alex Ferrari 47:12
And how do you get through writer's block? Or do you have you ever suffered through writer's block?

John August 47:17
I've had very little of that sort of classic image of like, the writer of the typewriter and pulling it out and probably a bit like, the montage of that the paper balls. I don't have a lot of that. I do have procrastination, I have this self doubt of like, is this even the right idea? Is this even worth it? deadlines can help? No, take it taking a step back and really looking at why I want to write a project can help. No, this is not a thing I've I generally do. But I know friends who at the start of a project will write themselves a letter saying like, this is why I'm so excited to write this thing. They'll seal it up and like set up there. And so then whenever they need that they can rip over themselves like, Oh, that's right, this is the thing that I've done. That is why I started doing this. One thing I tried to do with the starter project is make a playlist in iTunes of these are all the songs that remind me of this movie. So the songs that could be in the movie, but it just feel like it. And so I can get myself emotionally back in that space of like, Oh, that's right, this is what the movie feels like. So in those times where it's hard to get started, I can at least get my brain moving in the right direction.

Alex Ferrari 48:28
Did Did you ever feel even early on or even later on in your career? That imposter syndrome that self doubt that you had to had to break through? What did you do to break through that because I know so many artists, if not every single artist ever has dealt with that at one point in their career.

John August 48:46
But it's a byproduct of something that's very necessary to do, which is fake it till you make it like fake like you know what you're doing until you actually are doing the job. And then everyone's like, oh, you're doing the job. But, but the imposter syndrome, he says the natural sort of, you know, progressive. Wait, I was faking it. And now I don't believe I actually know what I'm doing. And at a certain point, you realize, like, I do know what I'm doing or actually do you know, I have the answers to these questions. It never entirely goes away. And I think there's something actually lovely about imposter syndrome is that as I've moved into new areas, and so as I did my first Broadway musical, as I started writing software, as I started writing songs, in podcasting, I didn't always exactly know what I was doing. And it's kind of great to be a beginner because it gives you the excuse to be, you know, to make mistakes and is, you know, also reminds me of like what it's like to be young. So I think part of the reason why even having done this for 20 plus years, I still have a good connection to sort of like what it's like to start is because I am always starting new kinds of things. I'm always, you know, being new in a place and I know how exciting but how disorienting That can be,

Alex Ferrari 50:01
it is terrifying to start something new sometimes, especially as you get older, as you get older, you become less fearless. I mean, when you were young, you would do things that you were, we did stupid things, let's be honest.

John August 50:12
And I have to acknowledge that, like, I had the privilege of like, I started making a good living pretty early on. So, and I saw that I didn't, I wasn't risking everything at every moment to try new things. Like, I could always kind of fall back on what I've done before. And so not always going to have that. But generally, people who are just starting out, like, if you're in your early 20s, you just move to Los Angeles, you're kind of used to living on ramen so like, you can you can take some bigger risks in your 20s, you should.

Alex Ferrari 50:40
Now, I wanted to ask you really quickly about subtext because it's something that's also another virus that goes throughout screenplays, writing on the nose, and so on any insights you have on how you write subtext?

John August 50:54
No, I don't think if you're thinking about writing subtext, you're probably doing it wrong. Like subtext should be just, it's all the unspoken things that are happening between two characters, or the feeling that you're trying to communicate without actually saying those words. If you're worried that writing is too on the nose, that people are sort of speaking in their subtext, maybe you're right, but maybe you're also just being too hard on yourself, maybe just, I'd say, take a break, listen to how some actual people talk in the world around you and realize that subtext is always happening. There's always some shading being given on any things that people are saying in the real world. Movie dialogue is a slightly optimized version of real speech, it's sort of think about it, it's like a movie dialogue is what people would say they had an extra 10 or 15 seconds between the ball being hit back, like they just hit it back a little bit better than they otherwise normally would. Right? And we forgive him of that, it's when that things feel so crafted that then it becomes kind of arch. And either it's great. And you're you're Aaron Sorkin, or it feels really worth it. So it's really said, genre expectation.

Alex Ferrari 52:04
Now, let's talk about Highland for a little bit, you have this amazing piece of software called Highland, which is a screenwriting piece of screenwriting software. And now you have a new version coming out. So can you tell everybody about the software, and what the new things are in 2.5?

John August 52:18
So Highlander originally came about because that situation I'm sure you've encountered to where you get a PDF of a script, and you need to edit something like edit a PDF? Yes. So back in the day, we'd have to retype it. So the original Highland was just an app to meltdown, a PDF, so can take a PDF and make it an editable document again. And so we had that. And it's like, you know what, this is raw text, I wish I could just stay in this raw text and not have to deal with all the bullshit of final draft. Because final draft was a genius program, when all we had was Microsoft Word, we had to write scripts in Word. And so like the power dropped seems just like a godsend. But all of the metaphors, the final draft are very 1990s. And that you have I mean, it kind of still looks like it's in the 90s. But like that, you have to tell final draft, what every single element on the page is like, Oh, this is a character name. This is a parent article. This is dialogue, this must be a transition, that you have to just keep hitting that dumb TAB key or the reformat thing to tell is like, no, this is what I'm trying to do. And so when I started working with that raw text, I was like, well, this is actually just so much better. If I could just go back from this raw text, and then get a nice looking, you know, PDF at the end of it, I'd be delighted. And so we made the app to do that. So it's just, you're just typing it like you would type an email, but it understands what you're doing. So it understands that like, oh, that uppercase word that has another line below it. That must be a character name and some dialogue. Oh, there's parentheses, I bet that's apparent that I call that line ends in to colon, I bet that's a transition. And it just our computers are smart if we can figure out what this stuff is. And so the app began as a way to do screen writing and that really plain text way. And then we just, I added in the things as a writer that I wanted most in an app. And so things like as a screenwriter, you're always there's little bits of text that you don't have a place for but you don't want to lose them. So you're cutting them, I would, I'd make a scratch file and paste it over in the scratch file because they ever needed that thing again, in Hyland, you just drag it over to the side, there's a little thing called a bin it just sits in your bin. So it's more like editing, you know, video where it's like, you have a bin of all your little clips and you just like bring stuff back in. I want to take those metaphors ran through the the big thing we did with Highland 2.5 was adding in revision mode. Because as a screenwriter, you're often working, you know, as you're going from one draft to the next draft, you want to put those little stars in the margins to show like what's changed. And if you ever done that in final draft or any of these other apps, it's incredibly complicated. You're just like, you know, it looks like you're landing in space shuttle when you try to turn on that mode. And I was like, it should not have to be that way. So in, in Highland 2.5 is it's a little easy to flip a switch and tell what color you want to be like it just does it and so we hit All the complexity behind under the hood. So it's just really simple. And you just start typing and he's like, oh, as long as the switch is flipped, everything I typed now is gonna be blue, and there's gonna be stars in the margins,

Alex Ferrari 55:11
You would think you would think that would be already there. It's just so simple.

John August 55:15
Yes. But no, no, another app was doing it that way. And even like, Track Changes in a word, if you ever had to do that, Oh, my God, that's complicated. You can mess up a document so badly. So we just wanted it to be simple and simple in a way that people would actually use it. And so that's what we were able to do with this

Alex Ferrari 55:32
Very cool. And then you started Highland in general, just because he was like, I just can't take this and

John August 55:37
I want a better thing. I'm going to be in an app for you know, eight hours a day, it should be a beautiful app that I'm really comfortable in. So I'm, you know, my company makes it but I'm also the principal beta tester for it. Because every day I'm launching a new build that has some small things fixed or changed. I'm seeing like, what if it did this? What if it did that, and it can't crash, because I'm writing all the stuff in it. So it has to be rock solid, so that I can use it every day. So it's a unique challenge for my designer for my coder. But, you know, I want the app that works best for me and happens to work best for most of the people I end up showing it to,

Alex Ferrari 56:14
And how long has it been around.

John August 56:16
So Highland shoe came out last year, almost a year ago. And we had small revisions, but this 2.5 releases a big release a big set of changes for restorative for everyone, I should say like, one of the fundamental things we did differently in Highland versus other apps is in Word in a final draft, there's that sense of like, what you see is what you get. So like, you're always typing in sort of final form of things. in Highland, you work in an editor and the preview, and you sort of see what what it's like, it's like a renders out sort of what the final version is. And it's just, it ends up being a much faster workflow, you're not fiddling with little bits of things, because you're just focused on the words, not the formatting around it.

Alex Ferrari 56:58
Very cool. I'm gonna ask you a few questions. I ask all of my guests,

John August 57:01

Alex Ferrari 57:02
What advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business today?

John August 57:08
I'm gonna restate what I said earlier in the podcast is that focus on writing that thing you wish existed in the world. And so really, for any artists, but like, so for a screenwriter, write the script of the movie you wish you could see. And that's the one you'll finish. That's the one you'll keep fighting for. If that's the one you're bringing be enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm will really be seen in the work itself. So just last night, I was talking to guys like, I really want to do this big mythology project, but I'm worried it's going to be a market for Mecca. My god. What that's that's ridiculous. You really want to make this right, this movie. So you should write this movie, like, Why? Why are you standing up here talking to me, like, go off and write that movie? So people, I think, have a sense of needing to ask permission and don't ask permission, just write the thing you want to write. The best thing about writing is it's free. Like, you don't have to have a crew, you're not the camera, you don't have to anything just like just just do

Alex Ferrari 58:02
The copy of Highland, a copy of Highland and

John August 58:05
Free it's free download on a Mac App Store. There's really nothing in your way.

Alex Ferrari 58:10
Now, can you tell me what book had the biggest impact on your life or career?

John August 58:15
Which book let's see, well, Charlie, the Chocolate Factory, which I read in third grade, we had this assignment where we had to learn how to write proper letters, where it's like dear person's name and date in the corners, a couple paragraphs and sincerely, and I wrote my letter to Roald Dahl who wrote Chocolate Factory we said all the way over to England. And he sent me a postcard back. It was like a foreign postcard With that said, Dear john, that was the first time that I realized like, oh, authors are actual real people and probably thinking like that, maybe that could be an author and so so I wouldn't say like, I love the book. I'm not saying it's like, the single greatest piece of literature but like, my connection to it really did start me on the journey.

Alex Ferrari 58:57
Now what what was that like when you got the call, or you got the the final approval to redo the chart, you know, to write it,

John August 59:04
It was amazing. But I sat down with Tim that first time to talk through it, like I brought my car because I still have the postcard for the road or something back. So it felt like, you know, it felt very movie like about like, no, this circle had been completed.

Alex Ferrari 59:18
Yes, that circle of life, if you will, almost. Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?

John August 59:27
I would say that I had a lot of things that for years, I said, like, Oh, these are my bad habits. And I started to just recognize it. They're just my habits. It's just like, it's how I work. It's how my brain works. And so I procrastinate I, you know, make some things harder for myself that I necessarily need to but that's just, that's just who I am. It's just just those are just my habits. And when I stopped looking at them through a negative lens, just like that's, that's how I that's how I do it. Things got better.

Alex Ferrari 59:57
Now what did you learn from your biggest failure?

John August 1:00:03
I'm trying to think what my biggest failure would be. I know, I would say I learned a little more humility and sense of, you know that, in wanting to control everything and wanting to sort of have dominion over like a whole project and sort of getting to work a certain way. There are always gonna be things I couldn't control. And that, you know, you can't control how people react to a thing, and you can't control how stuff works. And so all of you can try to make it to try to do is make sure the daily process of working on the thing is meaningful to you. Because that doesn't mean it's always gonna be a joy or be happy, but that you feel like, Okay, this is this is worth my time that I'm putting into it. Because also you don't know that you're gonna have anything at the end of it other than the time you put into it.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:02
And what is the biggest fear you had to overcome when writing your first screenplay?

John August 1:01:10
Weirdly, like kind of the format. Because the screenplay format is just really weird. We first started looking at it, it looks, it looks just sort of arcane. So I kept worried I'd have to make some fundamental mistake, which would make my thing unfilmable. And I didn't really quite get over it until we were in production on go. And I was like, Oh, yeah, that's when I write I wrote, we just shot it, and it's done. It's fine. So like, that, the translation of these words on paper, and that's seen that's down in the camera, that it could really happen. So it was that fear that like, is sort of an imposter syndrome to like, they're gonna find out that I really don't know what I'm doing.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:49
And three of your favorite films of all time.

John August 1:01:53
So I think we talked about some of our so aliens is right out there. So good. I mean, just, I mean, alien, the movie is fantastic. But to make a slight well, to a masterpiece, alien. Yeah. And, again, that's a case of recognizing what the source material is, but also what you want to say. And you know, what unique thing you have to bring to a piece of material. So it's not a remake, but it's, you know, every sequel has to ask, ask the question, like, why are we doing this again? And it answered it really, really well. clueless? Me Hercules movie is just amazing. It's so smartly done. And it's, you know, it's a remake of a sort of adaptation of ama. And so it had really good bones underneath it, but it was just so amazing and specific. And then talented, Mr. Ripley, just because it's a movie that like, I can't believe gotten aid in the studio system. Yeah, cuz it's expensive. And it's weird, and it's dark. And it's love it. I love it to death. So those are the three of my favorites. And where can people find you and the work, your podcasts, all that kind of stuff. So I have a website such as john adams, calm on Twitter. I'm at john August, Instagram match on August script notes you can find through jobs calm, or we're on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts.

Alex Ferrari 1:03:10
John, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you.

John August 1:03:12
Absolutely a pleasure for me too!

Alex Ferrari 1:03:14
Thank you so much for dropping some good knowledge bombs on the tribe today. So thank you again.

John August 1:03:18
Thank you.

Alex Ferrari 1:03:20
Again, I want to thank john for being on the show and just being so honest and straightforward about his process and his stories about the business. Thank you again, john, so much. If you want to get links to his software, links to his podcast and anything else John's doing, please head over to the show notes at indiefilmhustle.com/331. And if you're listening to the bulletproof screenwriting podcast, those show notes are at indiefilmhustle.com/bps049. Thank you again for listening guys. And just have a great weekend and I cannot wait for next week to come for you guys to see what I have been cooking. So the anticipation is just in there. I can't wait to release this to everyone. So it's coming. It's coming. Winter is coming. Thank you guys again, so much. As always, keep that hustle going. Keep that dream alive. And I'll talk to you soon.



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IFH 179: Oscar® Winner Russell Carpenter ASC – Shooting Titanic

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I can’t tell you how excited I am about today’s guest. I sat down with the legendary and Oscar® Winning Cinematographer Russell Carpenter ASC. Russell has been shooting blockbusters for over 40 years and has shot films like Ant-Man,  xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Charlie’s Angels, The Negotiator, True Lies, Monster-in-Law and classic 90’s action flicks like Hard Target, The Perfect Weapon, and Death Warrant.

He won the Oscar® for his cinematography on the second highest-grossing film of all timeTitanic. We go down the rabbit hole on shooting Titanic, working with James Cameron, crazy Hollywood stories, how he approaches each project and much more. This episode is a treasure chest of behind the scenes stories and cinematic techniques from the highest levels of Hollywood.

Get ready to be entertained and have your mind blown. Enjoy my epic conversation with Russell Carpenter A.S.C.

Alex Ferrari 1:45
Guys, today is a amazing episode. I'm so excited to bring this episode to you. Today's guest is Oscar winning and legendary cinematographer Russell Carpenter. Now if you guys have been under a bridge, or under a rock somewhere for the last 30 years, Russell Carpenter is the cinematographer of not only some of the biggest movies of all time, like Marvel's Ant Man, triple AX, Charlie's Angel, the negotiator, True Lies, monster in law and some of my favorite 80s and 90s action films, hard target, which was john woos first American movie, the perfect weapon and death warrant, but the one I'm leaving out is probably his largest and biggest movie ever, actually the second highest grossing film ever. Titanic. Russell, by far is one of the sweetest and kindest souls I've ever had the pleasure of talking to. Now, Russell is not only famous for working on Titanic, but also working on just with the most amazing directors and filmmakers over the course of his career, none being probably more prolific than the legendary James Cameron. And Russell and I sit down and talk about his almost his entire career, as well as working with James Cameron, how he got the job on True Lies, which is an amazing story, and how he got the job. And then from there, how he got to Titanic. And what was it like working on the biggest movie of all time, at the time he was making it. I mean, it was a $200 million movie when nothing was even close to a $200 million movie, that to have that kind of scope and to deal with what he was dealing with on a daily basis, all the stories, all the rumors of the project going down and and it's going to be a complete catastrophe. And it was just a thing that you can't understand in today's world, what he went through, on on Titanic and the just the mere size of it all, and how he was able to handle that is a lesson for any cinematographer working not only on big movies, obviously, but even on smaller indie movies. And he just recently did an indie movie. And we talk a little bit about his process with that, how he works with directors, how he sets up his movies. I dug in really deep and he was so kind to give us almost 90 minutes to answer all the questions I had for him. He was so, so generous to do so. So get ready for an epic, epic conversation with Russell Carpenter. I like to welcome to the show Russell Carpenter, the legendary Russell Carpenter, thank you so much for being on the show. Russell.

Russell Carpenter 4:26
It is a pleasure to be here.

Alex Ferrari 4:28
Thank you so so much. And I'm so glad I ran into you to in cinna gear down in LA.

Russell Carpenter 4:33

Alex Ferrari 4:34
Amazing. It's amazing what happens when you're here in LA?

Russell Carpenter 4:38
Yeah. It's been a year is the place that you'll go constantly running into anybody you ever met.

Alex Ferrari 4:46
You right? Absolutely. Everybody in the business kind of walks in there and, and you're they're walking around like crazy. So I wanted to ask you this first start off at the very beginning when you were born. No, I'm joking. When How did you get into the film History in the first place why what made you want to become a cinematographer?

Russell Carpenter 5:06
I at first it was just play something to do with my friends I I grew up in Orange County area the deepest, darkest very republican Orange County. This was about two ice ages ago when we were when we were playing we were we were working with a super, super eight millimeter cameras, and it was just dumb things to do to keep ourselves occupied my friends. I in fact guy my sister, Maureen, who is the status of the four of us children, were raising these ugly animals. She wouldn't say that called Chuck their desert lizards are they and they look like roadkill when they're alive. Oh my god. And but there because I grew up watching things like your original King Kong over and over and over again. Because it was on the local station so much. We decided we would make a monster movie. So we tied we took one of her lizards call a chuck Wallah. And incidentally my my best friend in the world with named Chuck Waller. And so we tied strings to the lizard I mean, thread to the lizard put plastic, I mean, paper, paper wings on the lizard, and fluid endlessly back and forth in front of a landscape painting. And that was our that was our first movie called it came from the pet shop. We worked. We worked our way up from there. So I was afraid at the time eventually got out of high school dodge trap by doing AV TV, audio visual television kind of stuff. And I at that time, you know, I didn't have the money to go to USC or UCLA and I was terrified of those places. They were so vague. Right and guided by me when I I went to instead went to San Diego State state collared San Diego State College at the time became San Diego State University. And I had the supreme luck to get a job at a at a public television stations very small one. And that's where I really actually got to work with 16 millimeter film and I made every mistake in the world but at least I you know, I learned these mistakes by doing and that really gave me an opportunity to instead of just learn about it, learn about film in a classroom, learn about it by just going out there and doing it. And I stayed in. I did that for a while until I was offered a job there. I quickly discovered that I can't really I had a trouble just going every day to the same job and sitting in a little desk and I couldn't do it. So I I quit. I went to Hawaii for a while. I lived on tuna fish and peanut butter. best best served together I found out as well slept on beaches and I was I was on a beach north end of Hawaii at kalalau Valley and and one morning I woke up and there were these helicopters with 17 from the sky and they were landing on the beach around me. These guys got out wearing t shirts shorts and they had these cases and the sad pan of vision on the side you know this was out in the middle of nowhere and it turned out that they were there to film the the gosh what year was this?

Alex Ferrari 9:12
What this is not Hawaii 50

Russell Carpenter 9:15
No, it was not it was the Jessica Lange

Alex Ferrari 9:18
Oh King Kong.

Russell Carpenter 9:21
And I stayed. I watched this happen and it just kind of it was literally a sign of in the heavens and maybe I should get back and get back to California and do something and I I got a job at another public television station and after working there for a couple of years. I hooked up with a director, Tom Everhart who we were both tired of edifying people and he wanted to make a low budget or picture so he convinced this I would guess Call a an office furniture czar to to find our little movie if this fellow's life can be like the most prominent zombie in the movie, obviously, obviously, we had to have a plane crash, or the remnants of a plane crash in the in the movie, so we almost burned down somebody's backyard reading that. And then miraculously this little movie was was released not, you know, not like for like four days or something. Sure, sure. That gave me false hope. And I, I'm not far but move north of LA. And that's where the I wouldn't call it the starvation started. I think my false hope was just that false hope. And, and I, I was afraid. The My problem was I was just afraid to make phone calls, just just people. And I realized that lots of other people had had, well, at that time, we had 16 millimeter demo reels that we had to, you know, show the show to people and we would just, you know, put them in their hands and then we wait the two to three weeks it would take them to rapidly look at the real right. And it was it was a good experience for me I I just learned that not to be so afraid I was still mortified. Eventually what happened was a friend of mine that had been working with in documentaries and they moved up to LA and they were starting to do things and they would get me in on on interviews with things. And from there it was really you know, what I would call it was like a lightning fast 15 years.

Alex Ferrari 12:10
Overnight success.

Russell Carpenter 12:12
Yeah, overnight success 15 years of, you know, just waiting and waiting and waiting for the for the very next thing the cabinet. But in the meantime, what I was doing was i was i at that time again, it was like VHS tapes or beta tapes that I would watch the work of cinematographers that I really admired. And I watched these things backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards and and, and learn learn from that. That was kind of how I learned plus the little time I would have on the on the set and I was starting to do their dramatic form stop if you could call it that because it wasn't really dramatic. It was kind of schlock This is called like it was but shit. But it got me on a set. And that was the best experience. I I I could have and I just moved from zero budget to no budget to you know, you know, budget movies, and, and it was much harder to get into the union. So I just, I just kept doing this as I worked my way along.

Alex Ferrari 13:27
So yeah, so basically, you were just grinding it for 15 or 20 years until you started really getting some momentum built up for yourself.

Russell Carpenter 13:37
Yeah, and I would say I mean, to people who are who are in the same position, I just said, if there was one thing, besides learning as I went and really go into as many seminars as I could and and all that, for me, it it became just a matter of persistence and it in one way it was miserable. But waiting that in the other way I did have anything else I knew how to do so I kind of had to stick with us, you know, even when it just seemed like grimmer than grim. And so, so I But eventually, I got to the point where I said I think I can make a living at least doing the the independent films and and the other thing that happened was sometimes things would happen that were like sure seemed like sheer disaster, you know, and and they actually led to something were to a break. Like, for instance I I did four episodes, one two years before I was fired. Okay, why were you fired? Well, a couple reasons. One, I would walk you know, with it. I would walk into somebody's office, they say, oh, Russell, you know, I want to talk to you about one thing I said, you know, the the dailies, you know, the, the film, it's, it's just too bright, you've got to darken it down this, we don't want this to play as purely broad comedy. And I said, Well, I you know, I'm just thinking well I that's like the way I look at it, I don't know quite what they're talking about them. And then literally, like 10 minutes later somebody to wrestle I want to talk to you about it take me into the room, their room, and look, I looked at their TV set, and they say, this, this is this is the Wonder year, it's supposed to be brighter, your lighting mid to dark. And I mean, literally, oh my god. And I'm just saying, Oh, I don't think I'm long this this job. And also at that time, and I didn't really understand that. Well, the people ran the shows called show runners. They, they really wanted the DP to kind of tell the director what, what to do, because the directors would come in and they were at that time. TV I did like, TV traffic cops of a person who really ran the show was the showrunner and, and, and I was coming from the space of the directors, the boss, I want whoever he or she is, I'm serving that person. And that, and that did that really kind of for that show made me the wrong person for the job. So I got I got fired from that. I didn't know what to do. I was you know, I was doing in between I was doing like these odd job things for they hadn't been called man. Like it was a temporary employment agency called manpower. And that was and, and I would do jobs. Like one of the worst jobs I ever had. But it was enlightening was was I worked. I lasted half a day, I worked at this place. It was like this mom and pop, vegetable, liquid vegetable, vitamins or your plants.

Alex Ferrari 17:24

Russell Carpenter 17:25
I sat with about 20 other people in a room. And we went by hand, we put labels on these on like, cheese guy who would walk around and tell us, yeah, no, no, this guy will go to the right, you know, or speed it up or whatever. And it was the most mindless thing you've ever done. And I asked the guy next to me, I said, How long have you been here? And he said, five years. And that was an epiphany. The epiphany was wow, you know, there are probably millions of people in the world who have jobs. And, and, and however miserable, it seems at times I at least I have a job. And at least when I'm doing it, I really love it. And it just be me. I don't know, I didn't really get me over anything, except at least have an appreciation for the, for the job, or the job. And but, uh, but what happened was I did like after that show I had was really running out of money. I took a shot I was trying to get out of doing I was doing a lot of IBM C or z level for when we get this. Something that I'd really didn't want to do was pet cemetery too. And it was, but I haven't the greatest time and the people were great. The director was great. And one of the people who was in that was Eddie Furlong. And he had just he had just not too long ago. Then Terminator two. And, and yeah, he was very young. And so but and the people who were kind of his own tech guardians said, Oh, you know, something about you get along really well with Jim Cameron.

Alex Ferrari 19:23
So. So before we get to Jim, because I have a bunch of questions about about Titanic and your relationship with Jim, I want to take you back a little bit to one of your first films and I've just dying to hear what experience was like and what lessons you learned from shooting critters to the main course. Ah, well, let's see. Because I mean, that's the thing that a lot of people only see the Oscar they only see not from you. But generally when they see someone successful in the business, they only see the end result of 2030 years of grind.

Russell Carpenter 19:59
Yeah, and I That's what I have to say is that for all of that, I mean there are there there are a few cinematographers in the business who seem to you know, like, rise out out of the depths of the ocean. I mean, full blown cinematographers right, you know, Janusz Kaminski or or chivo

Alex Ferrari 20:25
Achievement yeah chivo Orville Moser one of these guys

Russell Carpenter 20:28
Oh, oh my god they're poorly formed You know? And they're they're like 14 years old. They're shooting you know, these these master pieces and I'm and why am I still on the bunny slopes of light you know just you know, grinding it out you know, that's dirty moolah. I don't know how the world works. But I do know that if you keep putting out the energy, eventually, I mean, thing, things, things happen. And I I, I had a great time with with critters too. And I and you're just trying to, you know, even though even though you're looking at your heroes in at that time, I was looking at people like guitarist urara. And I'm shooting critters to take something from run by here, oh, that I can apply to this and add it or try to make the the light a little more interesting. And yeah, so eat each, each thing you do is somehow putting a part of your personal camera together, because we all talk about the gear and stuff like that. But the real, the real gear is the real camera is the camera inside, the one that you're putting together that you'll be putting together for your whole life is that and, and anytime you get on a set on anything, it's just, it's just an excellent opportunity to, to not only develop the vision, but to learn how to develop the vision while things are falling apart. Because in a way on film sets, they always are. Because there's usually never enough time. There's usually I wouldn't call it the daily emergency but but a lot of things just don't happen. The way you imagined they might, especially when you're starting out because people that you're working with are have usually have about the same experience level that that one what as a young cinematographer, so I would just take these, these little things that I could do and maybe I will certainly wasn't every shot, but but I would say okay, at the end of the day, I could say that I did some terrific stuff with that shot or that shot that shot and, and so it wasn't it was never a situation where, oh, I felt that I'm a good good enough to wait for a script that was not the I that ideal never happened it was I had to eat, right? gotta pay the mortgage, what I did to get experience, and I think that that was one of the best person that I know who worked in a lab, he said you just said Do everything you can do, you know, to just do every everything you can do and that turned out the the way that that worked for me, it evolved I have and I have talked to cinematographers to say, No, I I will wait until I have a script that I think is worthy of being of shooting and that work that work for them. But I the I just I picked the path that I needed to pick out of necessity

Alex Ferrari 24:17
Basically. Now you so and during that time during the time you were doing a lot of horror movies like Nightmare Before nebera on Elm Street and the legendary puppet master which was one of my favorites I love that must have been such fun shooting puppet. Well I that I only did I did. Like conditional share digital stuff.

Russell Carpenter 24:40
At that time I would do anything that I could work either nightmare and I'm sorry that I mean those those spells were actually a lot. They were really a lot of fun. And they were done in basically warehouses out in the Santa Clarita Valley. Kind of, they say way off the grid. They were at, gosh, I forget what years these is this question of bending at users. That was 89. Yeah, yeah. 89 it was, again, it was much, much harder. But let's just say the union has really changed a lot. Now. Now I see the Union as as, as much more realistic in terms of their, their educational programs. And it's not like it's, it's not kind of like life and death just to get into the union. But at that time, it was it was, it was tougher. So those of us who needed a place to paint to do something, we were we, that was what we worked on things like getting a new line, the company that did that very nicely with a relatively new company. And this, this was a place that we could work. And then we also again on I also met other other cinematographers and filmmakers who I've known forever, my, my gaffer Levine, we met in the 80s. And we've been working together ever since. That's a long, long relationship

Alex Ferrari 26:21
Now. And then you also during that time, you started getting some more action work. And and you actually worked on some of my favorite action movies of the late 80s and early 90s. Like, the classic death warrant by junk lavonda. Perfect, perfect weapon. Hard target.

Russell Carpenter 26:38
Yeah. When I when I look back on the carpenter opens where it will be right, right up there, because you never had more than three word sentences for the started to say, you know, was it was it was, yeah, it was action. It was action. Yeah. And the oven. And about as mindless as they come. But yeah, again, I work in. And that was the thing. One is one thing leading to another is the director of death ward. I just like that Derek Reagan, his father, his father was going to do with this film, a Japanese sci fi movie that had at the time. a phenomenal budget. I think it was

Alex Ferrari 27:32
55 55 million bucks. I have. I'm looking at it right now. It's a monster budget for its day. It was sold a crisis, right. It was called Total crisis.

Russell Carpenter 27:41
And, and it turned out to be an unwatchable movie. But I did good work on that film, I was really happy with what I did. And so I went back and I collected bits and pieces, I got this and that. And then I went in and I basically retime the thing myself, use as my showreel. So here I have my whatever it is, okay, let's say $55 million, show real job. And I didn't know what to do with it. But so I had that I had something to show and as you go along, you just have to because because as a cinematographer, you can be the potential cinematographer that you want to be, but you have to show people that you're, in fact, validly a real cinematographer. So that's why it's even even if something that you do is the acting is bad or worse, but somehow, you you can cobble it together, skillfully, either yourself or whether they get the help of an editor. And you use that to show people but showing people something that you've done is that's absolutely paramount. They you you have that? So, yeah. Yeah.

Alex Ferrari 29:00
Now as far as there was one movie in that time period in the early 90s, a hard target, which was a big deal back in the day because it was john woos first American film, what was it like working with john and how did that that change because I know he was used to, I mean, I think hard boiled and the killer they shot in like 250 days or something like he just sat and just shot. We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. You didn't have that on hard target. How was that? That relationship to work with on that on that movie?

Russell Carpenter 29:42
That it was amazing. When john is is one of the nicest people you could ever meet and you go How is it that this guy is making the most violent movies are just mere are they're, they're clever. They're very, but you know, there's a lot of blood flying around,

Alex Ferrari 30:08
And dogs and doves, and and dum dum stuff stuff.

Russell Carpenter 30:14
First we've got we had our obligatory job. And it it, it was I know it was hard on john, in the sense that in America, he said, and he said this to me after the film he has he says one thing I've learned is that in America celebrity is everything. So he said celebrities, and at that time, you know, john Claude London was huge. And he said, and therefore they have a, they have a lot more input, not only in how things are shot sometimes, but especially how things are cut afterwards. And, and he said that, that was probably one of the reasons we we eventually went back and did some really great films back in China was that he was not used to dealing with the political culture in, in Hollywood. And it was not used to that I mean, really being the God on the set. Not that I'm not saying that in an egotistic No, no, no, I'm saying it in the sense that vision, it's the vision, yeah, record vision. And he said, if he wanted to do a big action scene with, um, you know, amazing action, he literally have hundreds of people who would want to do this crazy ass stuff, that that would be very hard to pull off in the United States, like, given the regulations that they have here, sir. But the, but that the experience of working with him was great, but also learning, the way that he shot was very different in terms of how action is staged in the United States, in the United States, you'll take your action and your take your moments, and you'll shoot in pieces, this piece in here, and then we move this piece in, it doesn't necessarily have to be shot in an order. JOHN would arrange his shots action, as though it was a kind of putting all the springs into a fine Swiss watch. And just every little piece of action would lead to another piece and flow into it. And, and so you, instead of doing all these little pieces, says he would do, he would make it more of a ballet and in make sense as a whole. But in order to do that, and this is where it it, it falls on the cinematographer who's working with with john is that he'll want to do it with seven or eight cameras, of course. And, and how you get one how you light for that. And, and then one how you how it's almost impossible to keep the other camera but shot, but somehow you do it. And so we would do these takes and we do it once or twice, and he would have it it might it might take us them, you know, several hours to set these things up. But once it happened, you just go, oh my god, this shot took us to this camera. And he then he knows that, okay, he's going to use two thirds of a second have this shot, which is going to take us to the other angle. And that may last three seconds, which will take us to the other angle. You know, it was really amazing.

Alex Ferrari 34:07
So then basically, instead of instead of doing seven or eight different setups, you would work really hard to get everything in one setup. But you basically have done you're done the scene are done that that sequence.

Russell Carpenter 34:19
Yeah. And it's it also it's harder on the stand people in the actor, because you have to make it look like every hit connected. And but it these things had an energy though, when they were cut together. That was really great. Yeah, so I learned not not only a lot about how to shoot for multiple cameras, but I also learned something about you know,

Alex Ferrari 34:50
Staging and editing and flow. Yeah, I mean, even hard target a few I mean, you watch Hard Boiled Do you watch the killer, and then you watch our target. You can tell he's handcuffed a bit. But yes, yeah, but but you can see the whoo come out.

Russell Carpenter 35:06
Yeah, yeah. You know? Yes. And some of the signature things that he liked to do he certainly, he certainly did those but, but but then you can also I've been so here, this is a jungle I know what it is and then you go back and you look at hardware, and they have a lot. I mean, there's a lot more going on those bells. Yeah, I mean, they're, they're amazing.

Alex Ferrari 35:33
No, they're master but they're masterpieces of action. I mean,

Russell Carpenter 35:37
There Yeah, there. Yeah, you go back and look at The Birdcage seeing

Alex Ferrari 35:43
The opening of hardboiled Oh my god.

Russell Carpenter 35:45
So yeah, just oh my god, what planet did this come from? I mean, it's, they're, they're really amazing film. So. Yeah. So. So that was a great experience.

Alex Ferrari 35:57
So So you were starting to talk about how you and Mr. Cameron got together. You were saying that you met. You worked with Eddie Furlong after Terminator two. And as people said, Hey, you would work well with Jim.

Russell Carpenter 36:08
Yeah, at the time he was. Jim wanted to do a wanted to do an independent film of

Alex Ferrari 36:18
A drama. Yeah, that drama that he wanted to do a thriller or something like that he wanted to do I heard about that.

Russell Carpenter 36:23
Crowded room, this this. This is a famous film that's ever been made about the life of a person who had like 15, or six school personalities. And it's been around Hollywood for I don't know, Eon. And somehow it's never gotten made, but he wanted to do that. And so, Eddie's people and also some other people who knew me, I guess suggested to Jim, that he should meet me, I got we, there was a party at the end of at the end of pet cemetery, too. And I think he came to that we talked for a little while I like, you know, I was, I probably had the life force at the time. Like, I have a piece of wood or something, you know, just and then it was weird, because because after that, I was I was in Louisiana, in New Orleans with john Woo. Do because that, well, that film fell apart. Right? I but what I did do was I did show my $55 million sample.

Alex Ferrari 37:39
Amazing, real amazing sample real.

Russell Carpenter 37:41
Yeah. And he liked it. And but the film fell apart, because I was like, well, that's okay. So I didn't, you know, I just go back to while doing the Jiwoo film. And it's really weird. I got this phone call from his producer while I was there. And said, she said, what, when you get back to town, I want you to have lunch with Jim Cameron, he has his project we'd like to talk to you about. So and this is before the internet. So my crew and I start to get every copy of variety that we can possibly get. And I'm getting through these varieties trying to see what what he has, because in my mind, I'm thinking he's got a little documentary or he's got something something little project that he needs this.

Alex Ferrari 38:37
This is and this is the conference, this is that that's the phone call that at that point in, in, in Hollywood history. And so this point as well, you get that calls, like hey, Jim Cameron wants to meet you about a project. I'm assuming that's a really big deal.

Russell Carpenter 38:50
Well, it was a big deal. But I couldn't put my I couldn't put my I couldn't put the rustle. I knew up to that point. in the same room. Oh, and it's a it's a big feature. So I'm looking through these things. And all I can see is Oh, he's doing something with Arnold Schwarzenegger called True Life. And I go right past that. Of course. That's not what we're talking about here. That could be free.

Alex Ferrari 39:18
But you could even believe that you would be even up for that situation. Yeah, but when I got back, exactly. And when I got back and called, call this producer up there, and lunch was set up. And again, it was surreal. We were in near his house in in Malibu, and we're sitting down at Tony's two burner. Yeah, I guess that's what it was called. And he starts talking about this film and it's in my head is kind of exploding. I can't believe he's talking about this. Phil. Right. And this is this is how Jim hi Somebody, so we're you know, so he's starting to talk about the film. And he's talking about this and this. And like halfway through the conversation, he says, he starts using the word we. And it says, and then when we get to Washington are these kinds of problems, you know, and then after that, you got to go there, and we've got to be ready to do that. And I'm, and I'm sitting there, you know, like a dog. Here, I can't even understand. I'm looking at it. But I can't understand. surreal, completely surreal. It was totally surreal. And so we have lunch, and I leave, and I and I call him my agent. And I say, because by that time, I had an agent, I said, I think I was just hired to do this big picture. And he called me back two days later, and she says, Yeah, you knucklehead, you know, yes, you were hired to do fulfill. And, and then it That, that, I guess, of course, that opened the gym camera. Light. And it was very interesting, because of the pre production went really, really well. You know, and I just felt like, of course, I felt like I had a lot to prove and stuff like that. And, and then, and then we started filming and and that that went really well to was go, Oh, my God, and just never let this happen yourself. Because this is what I did. I said, Well, I don't know what because I had heard stories about other cinematographers. That worked with him, and they were good stories. I don't know. Maybe Maybe I'm the person who cracked the code? No. Let's go so well. And so all those legendary James Cameron stories, at least on True Lies didn't happen.

Russell Carpenter 42:03
They didn't have that up until about the fourth weekend. And this story I tell a lot, because it's it's it has something to do with persistence, I guess. And also something to do with the fact that, that sometimes you've got to develop a skin a tough enough skin that, you know, that he realized that it's not about you, when I went out on plenty of interviews was turned down plenty of times and you know, you're kind of in the same boat that an actor is, well, you're going to meet with a lot of rejection, and you just cannot take that personally. Just go back. Just keep doing your thing. And hoping that the next thing comes along when it eventually it will maybe not as fast as you wanted it. But there it is. But so we we were he had been watching everything on the on the web that time on the cam video. Yeah. And so now we're in a, we have a screening one night, it's the first time we're in a theater, in the gyms the screening room. Is there about 40 people in there, they're all department heads. When we're, the film starts to roll. And we're watching a scene in a scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger has just returned from his first mission met, he was up in the snow. And he he returns home and he goes over into the room where Jamie Lee Curtis is sleeping goes over, looks at himself in a mirror as he takes up his wedding, or you know, or something like that. And so that shot comes on. And it's it's a little dark, and I think I'm gonna have to have them do a reprint on this printed up a few points. And all of a sudden I look over at Jim who's sitting beside me. And he's just sitting there shaking his head. Jim, Jim, what's wrong? And now he says loud enough. So I'm sure everybody in the room says he says, I have the highest paid actor in this or any parallel universe. Let's see as I can. Tim, well, I'll just print out three points. I think everything is okay. So no, you print this scene up three points and you ruin the mood of the scene. And that loud enough for everybody to hear. So I you know, from then on, I just want to die because as he waited the wait a couple more minutes. And then he'd say something about you know, as shattered come up that was maybe a little overexposed. And you'd say Where on earth did you learn to read the light? Oh, louder. You know, and, and so on. That I endured like three more comments like this. And literally, before they turned on the lights, and you know, before the light was all the way up, I think I was out of that room. I just ran out, you know, and I, I was out, I went out to the parking lot, I called my wife and I said, Well, I, you know, I had my run with Jim Cameron, I toured, this was my last day, I guess, aliens were horrible, blah, blah, blah. And I look up and there's the first assistant director, and the, and then one of the producers and they're just smiling at me. They're laughing. Right? And I go, What? What? And and they just say, you know, he does that to everyone? And I said, No. and No, he said, just call. You know, they said, he gave me a name of a couple of other signal companies that just call him. You know, talk to them about this. I did, I talked to Mikhail Solomon and the best thing. He said, What did he use the line about? You know, where on earth? Did you learn to your baby, say, his grandmother could shoot better than this? Or, you know? And I said, Yeah, and that. I said, Okay, I know, I really have to have this credit. And I'm going to stick it out. And there were days that would go fly. And there were days that just felt like somebody hooked me up to two high voltage wires, and I was being electrocuted for the entire day, you know, until they called wrap. And that was my that. That was realize that was true lies. And that that was if there was ever a trial by fire picture that was that was it? For sure.

Alex Ferrari 46:55
I mean, you hear I mean, I mean, I studied Jim's career fairly closely in the abyss, I mean, one of the one of the craziest experiences of all time, and you hear all these stories about him and I. And you know, I actually knew some people who worked on Avatar and how he changed over time, but yet still very, very, Jim. But so I wanted to ask you about working with what has changed over time. I've heard he's, I heard and this is just again, from secondhand. I've heard he's softened a bit. He's not as like he would be back in the prior before Titanic stage. But he's still Jim. Yeah.

Russell Carpenter 47:37
About Well, when the thing about Jeremy, is whenever he gets an opportunity to work with them, or maybe somebody like him, who's coming along, is that there's a singularity of vision and almost a laser like concentration on the scene that he's doing. I mean, I've never seen anybody concentrate, like, and I've never seen anybody working harder than he does on the set. I mean, it's, it's amazing. I mean, how can somebody be that invested second after second, you know, because the rest of the rest of us mortals seem to say, Okay, I just did that. Now, I've got a chance to take a breath, maybe I'll just go over to the craft service table and do this. That doesn't seem to be Jim, to me. He is, I mean, there's, in terms of pure devotion, to what he's doing. I've never seen another person like him. And my experience, and, and that's, that's really something and he. And my sense about him is that every time he does a project, he goes out and says, There's something I don't know how to do. But it's something I've never done, you know, with True Lies, it's why I've never really shot, you know, a comedy, you know, so I'm going to do a comedy, or, you know, or Now, here's Titanic. And I'm going to make, I need to make a film that not only succeeds as an action film, but I've got to make a film that totally succeeds. As a love story, are the actions not going to mean very much. And so he he's, he said, he says, Well, I don't know how to do this film net and finish that Suzanne attitude and and, you know, he I don't think he expects everybody to be perfect, but I think I know he expects everybody we're doing the absolute best job. They can that they know how to do now. And that's that's saying a lot. And I mean, I think for the storms that come up, when they do come up, if you learn not to take them personally and know this is you This is this is gonna last another minute, and then it's back to work, then then then you have a chance of not having a nervous breakdown.

Alex Ferrari 50:11
And some people and some people just can't handle that some people take it too personally and then this business, I think is one thing I've learned over the years is, you can't take it personally, a lot of times, you just can't you got to move on.

Russell Carpenter 50:22
No, you can't take it personally. And then on the other hand, especially as a director of photography, you need to so if there's eggs on the SAT, you also need to develop the skills that you're not the main source of that. Or you're doing something to, you know, okay, we all know that things have to be done. They have to try to do them in a certain time. But you, I think I would, really starting out, I would mistake my passion. When I say, Oh, this is just passion. But you know, in some ways, I look back at him and say, Well, that wasn't passion, you were just being an asshole.

Alex Ferrari 51:08
There's that,

Russell Carpenter 51:09
Yeah, you can learn to have that passion. And this took a long time to learn, you can learn to have that passion, and also have a roaring good time, because you're doing one of the best, you're in a position of having one of the best jobs, at least I think that anybody can have.

Alex Ferrari 51:26
Now, when when working with a director, that's so hands on, like, what advice would you give? What advice would you give to a cinematographer who has a very hands on director, meaning that he's very involved with the visual look of the film and how his shooting, he might even tell you a little bit of like, I want this here, because that because a lot of times, you know, with Jim, and I talked to Mr. Cameron, he's obviously a very technical director, and he really knows a lot about what you're doing and pretty much about what everybody else

Russell Carpenter 51:56
Is doing on the set. And as as probably often quoted, it helps me he'll, he'll tell people that that he knows. And, and the whole miserable aspect of that is that is probably right.

Alex Ferrari 52:11
Correctly, when you're working with a genius, it's like a fear

Russell Carpenter 52:14
And I, I wouldn't put Jim in that category of being a genius. I do. I think he, I think, because you at one point you go, how can somebody who's so technical into a movie that's also has so much imagination, and and the way he paints and how he how, with his camera angles and the structure, the structure of his script, he sets up a totally immersive experience, you know, and that is that they have that technical side and that that, that artistic side all firing, you know, on, on all all cylinders, you know, they're they're all work. Although, you know, that doesn't happen with Jim you, you know, and I guess in my personality, makeup I, I'm a pleaser. And I do I am that person who says this is the director's vision, how can I help this director with his or her vision? board? And so you go in. So there's Jim on one end of the spectrum, who is just happy to set up and, and frame every, every camera, you know? And, you know, what, like, a titanic. It's interesting, like, as a cinematographer, I had, I had the freedom to do things the way that I thought they should be done, but if I wasn't doing what he wanted, he would definitely let me know.

Alex Ferrari 53:59

Russell Carpenter 53:59
When he would say, No, no, I want that's not it, I want this. Or, or I think the light here should be hard or something like that.

Alex Ferrari 54:09
Or he literally would get that detailed, like no, I this needs to be it's like almost like a Kubrick in that sense that has such a complete control of the vision that if he doesn't see you doing what he wants, he will push you or nudge you in the proper direction, according to his vision.

Russell Carpenter 54:26
But I also tell directors that I know don't have those chops, you know, they're wonderful people who have come from lighting or some other and especially now it's much much easier with digital light. Look, if you see something that that that for some reason doesn't work for you. Just Just tell me and I and you know, and unless it's something really good I really don't agree with that. But I'm I'm just said, Okay, well, yes, I can do this a little different. And let's see, if you enter, you know, in a second, I'll come back and say that that's right that it's it's not so much technical, it's just something, it's you. It's story driven, most people. So as a cinematographer, you go, okay, on films, there are lots of things that are the same. But I've always found every single film to be different. And a lot of that has to do with how you work with a with a director, I did a lovely film in India called parch. Very low. And the director was fantastic. We really never really, after she called me what, where she felt the heart of the story was or, or, or this particular scene. We didn't really talk about lighting, we, and she, and in this situation, I was I would suggest blocking, I would say, okay, given what I just saw, we could do it this way, this way, in this way. And because we're on a budget, I know if we do it, we'll do it this way we tell the story. And it, we just shave a couple shots off the scene. Because we're doing it more efficiently. So So as a cinematographer, you can be a service in to any kind of director that you're working with. But again, with if it's a Jim Cameron, we know that they're going to have lots of input about things that other directors may not care a bit about. It's very, very flexible, busiest that way.

Alex Ferrari 56:41
So let's talk a little bit about that little film Titanic. That is, you know, we've heard legendary stories about, you know, stories from the set, I knew a few actors on the on the set that have told me a lot of stories. I mean, at the time, it was the biggest budget film in American and filmmaking history, and Hollywood history. I mean, you basically had every toy you ever wanted as a cinematographer. on set, I'm imagining Can you can you tell me what it was like working on a film of that size? And also that magnitude, because everybody in the world was looking at that movie and looking how it would finish and how it would end?

Russell Carpenter 57:23
Or, or a lot of the work, what we'll say, Are your younger listeners who certainly are grieving that the film was such a phenomenon when it was being made. There was actually on the front of variety, I think, there was a there was an outline box with called Titanic watch, because I thought this thing was going to be just a just ghastly flop, because it was the most expensive movie at the time. And there, there were, occasionally there would be setbacks, because things were being tried that had never been tried before. Right. And also it was it was what I call a a very special movie, in that it was a hybrid movie, in the sense that a lot of its heart and soul was with the David lean epics, you know, Ryan's or Dr. Zhivago, or, you know, the, the, those big films had had a beating heart like that. And yet, it was, it was, it was using, technically, it was using some very, very old techniques. And at the same time, it had, the other foot was distinctly in the future, in terms of being done with computer, probably cutting edge at that time, you know, when, when the film was in pre production, they hadn't really worked out a really viable way to make realistic ocean water.

Alex Ferrari 59:17
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Russell Carpenter 59:28
There were two, two things that I would read in the paper is because now it's good. It wasn't just the trades, it was the LA Times. One was that things were unsafe on the set. And that is not true. That week, we had sometimes safety meetings that would last up to an hour because we had an international crew. So you had to you had to do all the safety notes and in English or Mandarin In Spanish, because we were in Mexico, and then we had a lot of Hungarian stunt people. So, so but but safety was was really, really at the top of everybody's agenda. And Jim Carrey is definitely not well, you know, people are expendable kind of thing. So whatever, somebody cracks or rip breaks a leg. That wasn't, I didn't. And the other thing was, well, they're just, they're just down there every day figuring out how to throw gold bullion into the water, this thing is so expensive, you know. And that wasn't the case, either, you know, people would come down from the studios and try and figure out how to make things be less expensive, and they weren't coming up with you solutions either. In fact, in fact, the thing was, the film was so big, it was hard for anybody to get a get a handle on it. And when I came down, the first time I went down there, where it was before to Rosarito Beach. The studio had really been built, it was a work in progress. And there was an excitement about it, it was, it was like, well, this is how the Gold Rush was, you know, buildings coming up, like, you know, crazy in days, I would go, I was actually working on another movie at the time, this was happening. So I'd come down on the weekends. And, and it's like, every weekend, there's another big building just came up. And there's a there's the tanks are being built. And it was really quite a sense of excitement about it. And then but what happened was, you know, on a, on a regular film, you have a sense of where everything fits in. And here are the pieces and you can look at the film as a totality. This film was just so big. We just had to look at it. I do week, and it was you're constantly putting out one fire after another. Oh, this says it This isn't ready. You know, it's like, let me just adjust. For example, my john Buckley was my gaffer on that, that picture, he went out as a ship was being built, and he was trying to figure out what how to table something. The Titanic is basically the whole thing is a just a huge piece of scaffolding, I mean, a huge piece of scaffold on water. Yeah, well, but, but yeah, but not much of the ship was ever in, in water. I mean, that's part of the illusion that they the tank parts, most of the tank was just three feet deep, just just deep enough. So a lifeboat could be in the water. And, and you'd have like three inches of clearance at the bottom of the water. You know, it's kind of like being at Disneyland that way. And so it was easy to move the lifeboats around, and then much closer to the ship. That then the tank was dug much deeper so people could jump off the side of the ship and not land in three feet of water. They had to you know, have these 2020 feet deep there. And I mean, it was this crazy. Let's just, you know, and this this podcast would go way too long.

Alex Ferrari 1:03:33
No, no, no, please. No, we're fine. We're fine.

Russell Carpenter 1:03:35
How people figured this out, I mean, how things were scheduled. The ship itself, and a lot of the sets were basically engineered the same way. cemeteries engineer, lighting a coffin into the hole, you have cables under the, let's say you have holes into the coffin, and then the punches you unwind the winches, and the the cable or straps loosen, and they they start to take the weight of the coffin and it drops into the hole. That is the same thing that was the same thing as how that huge ship was. was dropped, right. And also we had sets that had to be dry in in her run seamless eight, say take that giant dining room with those lights in there. We shot our dry scenes and then a month or two later came back and shot the web scenes. And we were in a that dry set was actually built inside a tank. So now filled up with water. And we have to change all of the lights out because they're going to go under water and they have to stay lit because that's what happened with the lights on the Titanic. So So now you're into all kinds of logistical things. So to make it look like the water is rising, with one end of the set would be lowered on straps until the water started to creep in, and then the rest of the set would be lowered to make it look like the water was rising at a pretty fast rate. And then then you end the take, and you go back to one, but going back to one

Alex Ferrari 1:05:26
Can reset everything,

Russell Carpenter 1:05:28
Reset everything. And there were times that the set would go into the water and there's chaos happening. You've got hundreds of people and and all that all the silverware all the table claws, they start to float around, and we're talking, you know, what, 100 tables or something like that. They're floating everywhere. So resetting is not an easy thing. And that that was just kind of the story of all the amazing takes at the end of the, at the end of the movie where the ship's going down and hundreds of people are running up and down. The the ship, that was probably the last film for real when you saw 300 people running up and down now, right? Because four years later, you'd have one not even that long. You along comes Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings, and he's got 1000s of orcs or whatever running around. And they're all they're all computer driven. And so. So Titanic was really that that movie that made the push out of out of what we call the more classic kind of filmmaking. So how about how did you shoot?

Alex Ferrari 1:06:46
Like, how do you shoot a film of that size, like just on a technical standpoint, that the mass amount, how big was your camera department?

Russell Carpenter 1:06:55
That would depend on what we were shooting, we started off with the smaller, smaller scenes. And we'd have one or two cameras. And that was when we go along that way for a while. And then when we got to the really big stuff that's well for the cinematographer. And for everybody, that's when the craziness happens is you've got Jim would say, Hey, you know what, let's go outside tonight, I want to see the whole ship. And and we're going we weren't even scheduled to do this for like three more days, we're not even sure that we can get everything up and running. Because this is going back to how when you talk about the immensity we wound up with something like 40 miles of cable inside the ship. And the ship, when you go around. When you look to the other side. All it is is it's scaffolding. scaffolding. And once I have it has what looks like a ship on it. And then only the two top decks of the ship are built along the real ship. They end with smokestacks and stuff like that. And so, again, back to my gaffer, when we're talking about the immensity of things, he says, he comes back one day and he says, well, we're going to start out with we need we need 1500 lights. And yeah, that's what I

Alex Ferrari 1:08:32
What kind of lights are we talking about? Like lights, lights, like film lights?

Russell Carpenter 1:08:37
He said, Well, I counted, we counted the portholes, we've got 750 portholes, we need, we need what we call a visible light that the camera can see, that looks like it should belong there. And then we want a we should have at least a 1k pointed out of every port home. Okay, and so so we've done we've done the portholes and we're up to 1500 lights. So he starts to put his list together. And he goes to 20/20 Century Fox. And, and john gets a little letter back a little note that it's very, it's a very nice note, but the subtext is you're insane. You don't know what you're doing. We're going to send down some people who are going to help you figure out how many lights you need. Okay, they do that. So they go up so they go out with john. This is in pre production. Yeah, what? They come back at the end of the day. guys say you don't have enough lights, you need more light. And they were right. And I have to hand it to 20th Century Fox. They found lights they went to warehouse They fed, you know, and they they refurbished a bunch of, of lights. Because at the end of the day, you have just you have those 1500 lights just for the portholes you have and a lot of them have to be sealed there has to go underwater right. And then you have all the lights and all the sets for the whole movie. And I now the number is slipping my mind but we had a phenomenal amount of lights not only decorative lights but lights that we had to use ranging from everything from the the huge lights that kind of like the ship at night to, to everything we needed to make the movie because because you can't you have to have your lights hidden clustered, because you can't just say, Oh, I need a five can move it from the stern to the bow, which is 800 feet away. You know, that's not going to work. So so it should john Buckley's credit. I mean, it was just an enormous undertaking to do this. And but the number of lights was in the 1000s of cable, the cabling for this thing which looked like I call it said like if you ever saw that movie, Brazil by Terry Gilliam it looked like a Terry Gilliam version of company in the 50s. I mean, it was a complete cluster, whatever of of cabling and how it all stayed on, I'll never know. And, and, and it was, it was a constant battle. Because Because lights, you know, they your life and they go off, you know, right?

Alex Ferrari 1:11:54
That's 1500 my mind hurts, my brain is hurting thinking about trying to keep track of a shot because there was no high end visual, I guess they could have done something visual effects but, but like you want 1500 like 700 and something portals, you're in the middle of a shot, one of the lights goes out, like,

Russell Carpenter 1:12:10
Oh, my God. And boy, we learned our lesson the first night because we I mean, we had a lot of people back there be, you know, in the scaffolding area, but it because it was the first night and I think we were shooting a couple days earlier. Like john would see some lights go out or worse, Jim would see some lights. And I said one of those lights doing that. And and you'd look over and you hadn't noticed I mean, oh my god. Yeah. And so john would say get somebody down to so and so and so and so and this is God's honest truth. So somebody would run back there. And, and eventually, you'd see the lights go on. And then about three minutes later, we'd hear you know, this is so and so I'm down here, I don't know where I am, I can't find my way out, you know, with some of these beats coming at me because I'm you know, I'm really starting to get nervous, you know, realize that we would have to play a zone system from then on and the same person, we put everything in quadrants. So like, going up, you had level you you'd have level, you know, ABC, you know, all the way to wherever it was. And then and then horizontally, you'd have a number. So every every quadrant and we'd have the same person organize this is work the same fairly small quadrate Night after night, because that is that was the only way we could do this efficiently. But it that that looking back now it seems funny, but when you're waiting when the directors Wait, it wasn't so

Alex Ferrari 1:13:55
I mean, it's it's it's honestly, it's a miracle that no one got hurt.

Unknown Speaker 1:14:00
Yeah, I think in construction, somebody's done. Oh, really? Yeah. And we did have let's see, some somebody else got hit by a car walking along the road down there. That was That wasn't on the set. Right. And, and then that we had one big night that had been rehearsed for weeks where they that at the end of the at the end of the movie that the stern of the ship goes near vertical. Yes. People start falling down. And this was a they were what they were falling down into was a bunch of stunt pads covered in green. So we could extend the the tissue make it look longer. And they had it all worked out. So the timing so one person would fall and they were when I say fall they were all on these things. These descender rig the Senator Pan rig It would slow the fall down if it's still look real, but it would, you know, they were literally falling or under control, but they had to get out of the harness and then jump out of the pad, you know, not get out of the harness but disconnect. But on the first two takes in the, in the excitement of it all. Like, some people weren't getting out of the way. So the next person down, like somebody cracked a rib. And Jim just said, Hey, we're not doing this anymore. So more people submit it's going to really get hurt. And so we came back later, and they're really significant falls. They were done by

Alex Ferrari 1:15:46

Russell Carpenter 1:15:47
CG Yeah, CG base based on a real person doing a call it that then became a CG person. Yeah,

Alex Ferrari 1:15:55
He was cutting edge, because there was nothing like that. At that point. There was nothing like that at that point.

Russell Carpenter 1:15:59
Yeah. And if you look back at it now, you know, you could Yeah, you can pick certain things apart and go, but that person is not quite Rocky. Right. That must have been Yeah,

Alex Ferrari 1:16:09
My favorite. My favorite spoof or the biggest mistake I've saw in Titanic if I could be so bold as to call something out was when Jack's running down the hall while the waters rushing behind them him rose. And you see the face that they plant they face replaced the stun people. And you can that's the the only really like blaring visual effects shot. I was like,

Russell Carpenter 1:16:32
Yeah, that that that was the one where, you know, he really tried to make that work. And I guess, you know,

Alex Ferrari 1:16:40
He pushed the technology too far.

Russell Carpenter 1:16:42
Yeah. And now crazy plate. placement is is common place. But at that time.

Alex Ferrari 1:16:51
Now there's one. There's one more question about Titanic I had. And this is a I've read an American cinematographer magazine article years ago that I think you gave about the wide shot of the ship sinking into the water that the bulbs because they were hot. The bulbs on the actual deck not like film, movie movies, lights, but actual lights. practicals would hit the water and they would pop. So then after you would reset, you would have someone go in there and have to re unscrew and screw back in new lights. Is that true? Or is that something some truth here,

Russell Carpenter 1:17:24
That timing on all of those scenes where that started out, basically looking dry and then sinking into the water timing was of the essence, because let's just take the dining room, dining room, when we shot all the dry, the dry for dry seems like dinners and stuff like that, basically normal lives. But when that same set was waiting to sink into the water, all the bulbs had to be enclosed in a glass fitting, they had to be watertight, because as soon as water hit any of these bolts, they would explode. Yeah. Also, if they just stayed on, eventually, the heat would build up inside that airtight container. And it would explode because of the heat. So what we had to do was I mean, and again, because we had so many people in the scenes, we would work and work and work and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse, get our hunger camera set up, then you would do and this is this is just common thing, especially with with sinking, you'd have to do a set search with divers joline set was nothing or and there was nobody down there who had been left behind somebody who hadn't heard the we're gonna shoot, you got it. So that would be time consuming, too. So awesome. So you're looking at another 20 minutes, just to do that. Then the real action once you call action, the real action has to happen within a minute and a half. Because as soon as you roll cameras with the lights come on you roll cameras, and then you know that about a minute and a half from now, these lights have to be underwater or they're going to explode. So that's that's the timing issue of it all is there was this kind of this one and a half or two minute drill, that thing had to happen so that the lights would go underwater but inevitably if you So let's just say let's just say 100. Lights. Okay, you got to take two, seven of those lights have gone out. So we had a team that would run in, grab those lights and then replace them with lights that were working. That part didn't take us because we were prepared for that, that it will take as long as it you know, it might have Wow.

Alex Ferrari 1:20:24
Now what? And I know you've given me so much of your time today, Russell, thank you so much. I have a few more questions if you're if your game. You're alright. What is the biggest lesson you learn from shooting Titanic? Because that is it was unlike a an experience that most cinematographers will ever have.

Russell Carpenter 1:20:43
Yes. In fact, my crew who worked with me for a long time, he said, Yeah, gee, Ross, when are we ever going to do the big movie? And

Alex Ferrari 1:20:54
Be careful what you wish for?

Russell Carpenter 1:20:55
Yeah, yeah, that's right after typing. The end of the day, the last the last day, called wrap and instead of a big movie. Yeah, people like zombies just wandered to the parking lot and got into their cars and drove away. Broke, broke, broken, broken souls, broken spirits. Yeah, yeah. That's the biggest lesson was on a on a film like that that gave you you can't be overwhelmed by trying to gobble up the whole experience all at once. If then you'd never start, you just know. For me, it was, okay, I've got the scene, I'm going to do the best I can on this scene this day. And I know I've got a group of really good people who are working on the sets that we're going to shoot, you know, a week from now or two weeks from now. Just to really just hang in there. And, and do do your very best that you can with what's in front of you. And that was the only way I got through.

Alex Ferrari 1:22:09
Yeah, cuz if you try to get right, if you try to eat the entire cake, you'll never get through, you have to take it bite by bite, slice by slice day by day. Yeah. Now, what's the biggest mistake you see young cinematographers make?

Russell Carpenter 1:22:27
Well, because because I've seen a lot of really great young cinematographers. And I don't know what, what what else is happening. I think, gosh, the only thing I think is that there were there was a value in shooting film, and that you really had to know, your stuff, what, what you can do with exposure. And the only thing that I'm hearing from the lab is that, that sometimes people shoot, thinking that they can fix everything in when they when they get into the, you know, the post production process. And they, you know, and I can't say that I've seen because I've never seen that, but the labs have, and they say, we don't, these people will know that their film could look so much better. If they really paid attention to the lighting of this actress or this actor. That and, and, and, and try to do as much of the work on the day long while you're shooting. And then also know, also, because you have a very good, then if you have a very good sense of what can be done and should be done in post, you can say, You know what? That wall over there is too bright right now. But I know it's going to take me 15 minutes to fix that now. And I can do it in 30 seconds in post, you can just in that kind of knowledge that would be a big, big help.

Alex Ferrari 1:24:07
All right. That's it. That's very, very good advice. Now, what would you do on a business standpoint? But film business standpoint? What advice would you give a cinematographer wanting to break into the business?

Russell Carpenter 1:24:21
Well, besides the thick skin and, and knowing, hey, you've got to be in this for the long run. Those are the first two things. I I there's so many things, just learning to work with people. That's such a because lots of people are really good at what they they they do, and they're not good. At the people end of it, I would I would say the cinematographer even though you just want to be an artist, the cinematographer has to be an artist of course, but a scientist enough enough to Know what the camera that he or she is working with, can do what it's capable of, you also have to be a manager because as you go along, you're going to have to start to manage how, how your, your, what your your people, your weapons are, how they're position, you know, terms of who's, who's doing what, so you're getting the most efficient use of them. And then and then a politician, a politician. And I mean, not, not the smarmy sense of every often thing. But it is a political business. When when I shoot a test with inaccurate, inaccurate part of what I'm doing there, I mean, the screencast is not only not only learning what I need to know, but really imparting to that actor or actress that I will have their best interest at heart I want to make politically, I want them to be comfortable, you know, that. set for them, it's going to be a safe place where they can do their best work. So there's that politic, political in the sense that somebody did a bonehead thing. We did a bonehead thing and instead of yelling at them know, people make mistakes. This person was trying to do their best job vile people as if the biggest issue I have is that I know somebody who's very competent, and they're just not trying that, that's a big issue for them. That, that so So anyway, there are so many things you've got to be able to do and make make our while while catastrophe is happening around you. That's the other thing. Those. So, in a nutshell, those I pay attention.

Alex Ferrari 1:26:55
Now, I'm actually the last few questions that I asked all my guests. Can you tell me what book had the biggest impact on your life or career? Oh, these are? These are heavy questions. I don't even know. An answer to right. Well, I didn't know I don't have an answer. All right, well, then we'll move on to the next question. It's okay. What is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in life or in the film business?

Russell Carpenter 1:27:37
In life and the film business, because it seems like whatever whatever we choose to do in life, there are there lessons that that were here, it seems to me, we have to learn. And when is say as passionate as I am, or as fast as I want to go or whatever, as good as I want the picture to look, I have to have empathy for what anybody on the set is going through. I mean, I think developing empathy that it's somebody might be at work, and they might be coming up a very, very troubled to us home life. Or, or they're working and we haven't maybe they're they're working with a with some injury that's healing or, or just that I could say something. I don't think it happens much now. But I could certainly see it happening earlier on. You say something that's meant to be a joke. And yet it cuts to the quick with somebody and and you just have to hit just trying to again have the empathy of what it's like to be another person on the set. Works. Happy having to work with me what what is that experience like? So

Alex Ferrari 1:29:02
The excellent excellent answer. And what are three of your favorite films of all time? Oh, my God, and pick anything that comes to mind? Okay,

Russell Carpenter 1:29:12
Yes, for the look of it read searching for Bobby Fischer because I love the story. I love the way it was shot. Oh god there's so many

Alex Ferrari 1:29:28
Searching searching for Bobby Fischer is such a that is like a DPS movie. Isn't it? The what he did? And the name I'm sorry, please forgive me the name. Oh, yes, Conrad Hall. What he did with like he was shooting with mirrors. And he was what he did in that movie for cinema on a cinematography standpoint is remarkable, right?

Russell Carpenter 1:29:47
Yeah. And just the guts that it took to do some of the things that he did and had but how beautiful that one look. And not and how it was shot. My camera was placed because a lot of the time That we really are putting yourself in the place of this very young, young I guess, like 11 years old chess and, and that was good. Oh god, there's so many more films and I you know, red shoes which a lot of people? Yes, Red Shoes is just I to me I thought that was a stunning, stunning film and a marvel of the Technicolor process and I probably got 100 100 more probably. Right now right here. That's what comes to mind.

Alex Ferrari 1:30:34
And last question. What was it like winning the Oscar?

Russell Carpenter 1:30:40
I have been asked that. And I think it's a shirt for me. It was really weird. I thought when I found out it's all about the dress, you know. But if my wife's dress when she was great aware, but it was at that point I was not. I think I was so serious. I didn't really allow myself to feel the joy, the kind of kick in the pants that that must be. It the end. What happened was I won the Oscar. And within eight hours later, I was in the hospital. I various night, I passed a kidney. And I didn't pass but I had a kidney stone in such agony.

Alex Ferrari 1:31:34
So you really couldn't you couldn't relish in the achievement.

Russell Carpenter 1:31:38
Yeah, yeah. So it was like, Yeah, but it's really weird. Like, right now I feel like I'm enjoying what passes for a career as a much, much more I would have been much, much more fun on the set appreciating a lot more. And, and and I have, I would say a little bit or maybe maybe a considerable about more of tranquillity. Because early on, I was just so nervous about, you know how things were going or not going in. Now I I look back and I say Yeah, well, like right now I'm going through a period where nobody seems to be calling. And now I'm going through a period where too many people have called on it, or whatever. Right? That's, I just say, I can take what's kind of on the plate with more ease than I did before.

Alex Ferrari 1:32:39
Russell, I want to thank you so much for your time and amazing stories and amazing advice. You're giving our listeners, thank you again, so much for being here.

Russell Carpenter 1:32:50
Okay, well, thank you very much.

Alex Ferrari 1:32:52
That interview does not disappoint. Russell again, is so amazing. And thank you, Russell, so much for taking the time out. I know, you're literally just got back from Bali and heading over to Vancouver and you had two days to rest. And you took an hour and a half of that time to speak to me. So thank you again. And I hope you guys got a lot out of that interview. You know, it was just such a thrill for me to sit down and talk to Russell and to pick his brain about his process and his first hand experience of working on some of the biggest movies of all time working with the biggest directors and filmmakers of our generation. So it was such a pleasure and humbling experience doing this so I hope you guys got a lot out of it. I know I did. I got really jacked up and really inspired and kind of start shooting again. But there'll be more on that later. But anyway, guys, thanks again for listening. If you want to see anything we talked about in the show, head over to our show notes at indie film hustle.com forward slash 179. This is a long one, so I'll keep it short. Keep that hustle going keep the dream alive and I'll talk to you soon.




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