Conceit bites writer!

A first-person tale of the price of self-deception

Several weeks ago a conceit fell upon me. It went like this: I had been solicited by the New York Times to write a short profile on a very smart screenwriter named John August, best known for writing “Go” and the forthcoming script of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” My conceit was, I had written a piece that didn’t sound like it belonged in the soberly brilliant NYT, and I wanted to see if I could sucker them into printing it.

Conceit bites writer!

Conceit bites writer!

This turned out to be a mistake No. 1. (Mistake No. 2 was allowing a factual error to creep into the piece, which I’ll confess as we get into the text.) The piece that was published looked nothing like what I submitted. This is not a protest–I had my reasons for what I tried to do, and I failed. But I thought from my disappointment I might share with you what happens when your piece undergoes major surgery.

The first version I turned in was obsessed with the concept of “cool.” I really, really liked John August, who is very smart, appropriately humble and earnest–a guy who simply seems comfortable with himself. Nothing about him is classically “cool” but there were numerous aspects of his life that intrigued me. I knew I needed to choose one aspect to lead the piece, but I didn’t want to. So I tried to substitute “cool” as an organizing principle.

Here’s what happened. (My comments in caps or bold-faced in parenthesis.)

VERSION ONE

Screenwriter John August is cool because in his mid-20s he wrote “Go,” a riveting if unsuccessful 1998 movie that started with a young supermarket clerk’s attempt to pay rent by selling drugs and exploded into three intersecting stories filled with stunning wrong turns.

Mr. August is still cool because, a few months short of 35, he retains a boyish earnestness that Hollywood usually strips from its participants before swallowing them. When he uses “a dream come true” to describe being chosen by director Tim Burton to adapt “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which opens July 15, he means it.

Mr. August walks out of the living room of his mini-mansion in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire district, returns with a 1977 postcard and takes you back to the third grade in Boulder, Colorado.

His teacher, he explains, asked everyone to write a letter to a famous person. President Carter was the most common choice. August, having already read “Charlie,” wrote to its British author, Roald Dahl, and received a response: “A letter from England, which was so cool.” (A bit later someone would break the news to the boy that the card was a form letter.)

Mr. August is also cool because he loves creating stories in which characters inhabit what he describes as a “second world.” In adapting “Charlie,” which stars Johnny Depp as candy baron Willie Wonka, Burton wanted a script that followed Dahl’s text more faithfully than the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder. The book offered no guidance about Willie’s boyhood. So August made him the son of a renowned, candy-hating dentist.

In one flashback, Wonka’s father throws his son’s Halloween candy into the fireplace; in another flashback, Wonka finds one piece spared from the flames and bites in. Then, Mr. August wrote in the script, the opening chords of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” begin to play, and “we begin a spinning perspective shot that would leave Hitchcock jealous. In little Willie’s eyes we see a reaction. He’s like Isaac Newton getting beaned by the apple…”

Mr. August is also cool simply for the way he describes the “weird ah-ha moment” at age 10 when he discovered screenwriting. He already liked to write, he said, but while watching a rented tape of the black comedy “The War of the Roses” it occurred to him that “everything they were saying and doing was written someplace. So I tried to write down the dialogue and find out what that was like…I thought maybe I could be one of the guys who did that.”

(The error in that last paragraph is that August was 19 when that movie came out, not 10. Had I looked up the release date I would have caught the discrepancy. August later told me he just got his numbers mixed up, that the actual experience was valid. I was too trusting, and it engendered laziness.)

He studied advertising and journalism at Drake University in Iowa, attended a summer film program at Stanford and was accepted at USC’s prestigious two-year graduate program in film production, arriving with what he describes as “a hell of an inferiority complex; everybody else seemed to know so much more than I did.”

He conquered that by graduation. Then a trio of breaks fell his way in about a year and a half of the late ’90s: He sold “Go,” which eventually wound up at Columbia Pictures, which hired director Doug Liman, who’d made another cool picture, “Swingers.” Then his new agent sent him a copy of “The Big Fish,” a fanciful Southern novel about a dying, larger-than-life father written by David Foster Wallace.

Mr. August fell in love with the novel.

“As I was flipping pages I was adding characters and moving scenes around.” He’d lost his father at about the same age as the novel’s son. “I knew how to do dying when the story is about more than dying.”

But before he could write the screenplay Columbia asked him to join the dozen or so writers who were trying to salvage a remake of television’s “Charlie’s Angels.” Co-star and co-producer Drew Barrymore was a fan of “Go.”

It is another mark of Mr. August’s cool that he has no regrets for having said “Yes” with an exclamation point. He loves “Charlie’s Angels” the way only a kid nourished by stylized ’70s TV can. “Where other people are well-read, I’ve seen so much television.” He favored a duality: Three women (Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Lu) who were “incredibly proficient on their jobs, and giant dorks when they were off the job. Because comedy isn’t about cool people; comedy is about dorks and idiots.”

He worked on the first “Angels” remake and its sequel. Meanwhile, director Burton was brought into “Big Fish” and developed a fondness for August’s ability to write sweetly without falling into the ditch of sentimentality. “With families, you can go trough years of therapy and not know what it’s about,” Burton said. “His script touched on that abstract nature…his great gift is capturing those things that are quite difficult to discuss.”

Says August: “You avoid being sappy by being honest but optimistic.”

Burton called on August to write the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” adaptation, which August said he finished in four weeks, “changing my style a bit to sound like Dahl wherever I could.

Meanwhile the diversity of his work caught up with him. In 2004 he was nominated as best adapted screenplay by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for “Big Fish”-and nominated for worst screenplay for the “Charlie’s Angels” sequel by a Hollywood group that honors what it calls “raspberries.” “Did you actually read the screenplay?” Mr. August asks his critics rhetorically. Screenplay is “the only category where you’re not looking at what the writer did, you’re guessing about what the screenplay must have been like. If they’d read the screenplay for the second ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ they might have liked it.”

Mr. August is also cool to aspiring screenwriters because he shares his wisdom on a web site he built. (“I’ve always been a big techno-geeky nerd.”) On a recent Spring morning he could have been toying with a script he is writing and hopes to direct, or with a musical adaptation he won’t disclose, or a movie he is co-producing for Jerry Brukheimer based on the video game “Prince of Persia.”

Instead, as he does every day, he went to www.johnaugust.com, and decided which nuts-and-bolts question to answer. He selected a query from a British screenwriter who was uncertain whether to revise spelling and slang when he submit a script to American studios.

By 8 a.m. August had dashed off this advice: “..If you do set it in America, with American characters, you’re probably better off using American spellings throughout. That way, there’s no weird disconnect when Tyrell starts talking about “gang colours….Having said this, a UK writer shouldn’t worry about being too British. Or Scottish. Or whatever. There’s a long history of talented filmmakers crossing the Atlantic to work in Hollywood (and vice-versa). You shouldn’t try to sublimate your natural writing style to match some mythical American standard.”

“He has a great generosity of spirit,” said Howard A. Rodman, who chairs the division of writing at USC’s Schol of Cinema-Television. Mr. Rodman said Mr. August once visited a seminar of six students and spent three hours showing them how to build a script with index cards. “I can think of very few alumni who are regarded by USC students with that level of enthusiasm and respect.”

Mr. August is gay but says sexual orientation “has never been a big issue” in his work,” and doesn’t expect it to be. He believes he learned to be a student of human detail by spending the first 20 years of his life “observing the world and trying to model my behavior to look as straight as possible. It’s sort of this psychological ‘CSI’ you’re doing on a daily basis; you’re always looking for motivation…I suspect ever gay screenwriter has a big gay catharsis movie inside them, but then you go to a gay film festival and you see everyone else has done their movie and there’s not a pressing need for you to do yours.”

Mr. August is cool, finally, because he’s convinced he’s not. “After ‘Go,’ I wanted to make sure I was not [pigeonholed] as the guy who did teenagers causing havoc…When I first sat down with people, they were expecting somebody with tattoos and multiple ear-piercings. I’m just a pretty sedate Midwestern guy; I’ve never felt remotely cool.”

Mr. August (he uses his middle name because he got tired of spelling his last name, Meise) lives with his partner of five years, Mike Douglass. They are expecting a baby, being carried by a surrogate. The child is due-even this is cool–in August.

I SHOWED THAT VERSION TO A COUPLE FRIENDS AND THEY THOUGHT I WAS IGNORING AN INTERESTING CONTRAST–AUGUST WAS MORE UN-COOL THAN COOL, EVEN BY HIS OWN DESCRIPTION. BUT I WAS DETERMINED TO MAKE “COOL” THE BYWORD, SO I DECIDED TO USE AUGUST’S DEMUR IN THE SECOND AND THIRD GRAFS:

Screenwriter John August first became cool when, in his mid-20s, he wrote “Go,” the stunning if commercially unsuccessful 1999 movie in which a grocery clerk who tries to pay her rent by selling drugs sets an explosion of wrong turns.

Mr. August will have none of this. He remembers taking meetings after “Go” with producers who “were expecting somebody with tattoos and multiple ear-piercings. I’m just a pretty sedate Midwestern guy; I’ve never felt remotely cool.”

Which is what makes a guy cool. Ignore the appearance–6-feet tall, 170 pounds with a shaved head (“I don’t want to be one of those guys who thinks he’s not bald when it’s pretty clear he is”) and a pleasant countenance. Mr. August is still cool because, a few months short of 35, he retains a boyish earnestness that Hollywood usually strips from its participants before swallowing them. When he uses the cliché “a dream come true” to describe being chosen by director Tim Burton to adapt “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which opens July 15, he means it.

(Then back up to the original . . . .)

Mr. August walks out of the living room of his three-bedroom home in Los Angeles’ lush Hancock Park district, the byproduct of polishing scripts like “Charlie’s Angels,” and writing unproduced ones like “Barbarella” and “Tarzan.” He returns with a 28-year-old postcard and takes you back to the third grade in Boulder, Colorado.

His teacher, he explains, asked everyone to write a letter to a famous person. President Carter was. . . .

AND THAT WAS THE VERSION I SHIPPED TO THE NEW YORK TIMES, WHERE A LINE EDITOR TOLD ME THE WRITING WAS LOVELY–BUT JUST NOT FOR THE NYT, WHERE MOST SUBSCRIBERS ARE NOT “COOL” AND WOULD GET CONFUSED BY THE BOMBARDMENT OF THAT TERM.

THE EDITOR ADVISED THAT I FIND SOMETHING MORE SPECIFIC ABOUT AUGUST TO START THE STORY–HIS WEB SITE WAS INTRIGUING. SO, I OFFERED, WAS HIS WRITING THE “CHARLIE” SCRIPT, WHICH PROVIDED THE TIME ANGLE. “WHICH DO YOU WANT?” I ASKED. “YOUR CALL,” SHE SAID, WHICH WAS EXACTLY WHAT A GOOD EDITOR SHOULD SAY IN A MOMENT LIKE THAT. I FELT DEFEATED BUT NOT CRUSHED.

SO I CHOOSE THE WEB SITE AS THE TOP. I JUST MOVED IT UP FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE STORY AND USED A CHEAP TRICK TO CONTRAST THE WEB WITH ALL THE OTHER STUFF ON AUGUST’S PLATE (INCLUDING “CHARLIE”):

John August, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand script polishers, could have been toying with any number of personal projects on a recent Spring morning: there was a script he is writing and hopes to direct. There was the musical adaptation of a book. There was a movie he is co-producing for Jerry Bruckheimer based on the video game “Prince of Persia.” There was his upcoming vacation/script-research in China. And looming over all of it was July 15, the day his adaptation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, opens in theaters.

Instead, as he does most every day, Mr. August sat down at his computer and logged on to www.johnaugust.com, where he regularly shares his wisdom with aspiring writers who pelt him with questions like: Should I pay to enter a pitch fest? Should I take a job rewriting a bad movie? How much parenthetical emotional guidance should my script give an actor? Does “based on a true story” have any legal weight? What kind of printer do you use?

On this morning Mr. August selected a query from a woman asking about legal rights involved in adapting a friend’s discarded memoir for a screenplay-unbeknownst to the friend. Mr. August told the woman she was on shaky grounds legally, then added: “I think you’re a pretty crappy friend. So what if [her friend] can’t write a good memoir? That doesn’t give you the right to make the movie version…without consulting him first. My advice: tell him what you did, and show him the script. Maybe he’ll love it. Maybe he’ll hate it and stop being your friend. I can’t say I’d blame him.”

(A couple hours on the web and a few interviews allowed me to put his site into perspective.)

There are scores of web sites run by screenwriters, most of them of limited credentials, and a few others run by pros geared to working writers. Mr. August’s site, by contrast, draws an audience more reminiscent of USC’s film school, where earned a graduate degree little more than a decade ago. The site reflects not only Mr. August’s talent for explanation but his enjoyment of it, and reveals him to be, in his words, a “big techno-geeky nerd”: He built and administers the site by himself.

(Then a little bit about his career arc. . . )

Mr. August, 34, has won a reputation for versatility by writing “Go,” the riveting 1999 commercial flop about disaffected youths directed by Doug Liman (“Swingers”)and a much-praised screen adaptation of the novel “Big Fish,” directed by Burton, in 2003. In between, Mr. August has made enough money to afford a spacious home in L.A.’s pricey Hancock Park district as a script doctor on projects including “Charlie’s Angels” and yet-to-be-made scripts including “Fantasy Island and “Barbarella.”

For all that success, www.johnaugust.com has a decidedly humble, nuts-and-bolts sensibility. Send Mr. August an e-mail about whether to use location “slug lines” (INT. OR EXT.)when two people are conversing from different locations and he’ll answer: “Behold the magic that is ‘INTERCUT.’ Then you don’t have to keep doing the location slug lines.” To cheer the struggling masses, Mr. August posts a list of the 11 full-length scripts he has sold or written on spec that have never been shot.

Mr. August started giving advice through the web site IMDB’s “Ask a Screenwriter” feature in 2000, then set up his site two years ago and transferred his IMBD advice there. The result is an archives with more than 400 entries. Mr. August, who jokes that operating the site “is an excuse not to work,” describes it as “one of those pay it back, pay it forward things.”

Mr. August retains a boyish earnestness that Hollywood usually strips from its children before swallowing them. When he uses the cliché “a dream come true” to describe being chosen by director Burton to adapt “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” he illustrates it with a 28-year-old postcard from the third grade in Boulder, Colo.

His teacher asked everyone to write a letter to a famous person. President Carter was the consensus choice. Young John, having already read “Charlie,” wrote to its British author, Roald Dahl, [cq] and received a response.

In adapting “Charlie,” director Burton wanted a script that followed Dahl’s text more faithfully than the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder. However, the book offered no guidance about Willie’s boyhood. So Mr. August, fond of characters who inhabit what he describes as a “second world,” made him the son of a renowned, candy-hating dentist.

In one of the script’s flashbacks, Wonka’s father throws his son’s Halloween candy into the fireplace; in another flashback, Willie finds one piece spared from the flames and bites in. Then, the script says, the opening chords of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” begin to play, and “we begin a spinning perspective shot that would leave Hitchcock jealous. In little Willie’s eyes we see a reaction. He’s like Isaac Newton getting beaned by the apple…”

Mr. August said he discovered his craft-to-be at 10 while watching a rented tape of the black comedy “The War of the Roses.” It occurred to him that “everything the actors were saying and doing was written someplace. So I tried to write down the dialogue and find out what that was like.”

He studied advertising and journalism at Drake University in Iowa, attended a summer film program at Stanford and was accepted at USC’s prestigious two-year graduate program in film production, arriving with what he describes as “a hell of an inferiority complex; everybody else seemed to know so much more than I did.”

He conquered that by graduation, and in the late ’90s a trio of breaks fell his way in about a year and a half: He sold “Go,” which eventually wound up at Columbia Pictures. Then Mr. August’s new agent sent him “Big Fish,” a fanciful Southern novel by Daniel Wallace about a dying, larger-than-life father. Mr. August fell in love with the book. “As I was flipping pages I was adding characters and moving scenes around.” He’d lost his father at about the same age as the novel’s son/narrator. “I knew how to do dying when the story is about more than dying.”

But before he could write the screenplay Columbia asked him to join the dozen or so writers who were trying to salvage a remake of television’s “Charlie’s Angels.” Co-star and producer Drew Barrymore was a fan of “Go.” Mr. August said “Yes” with an exclamation point. He unapologetically loves “Charlie’s Angels.” “Where other people are well-read, I’ve seen so much television.” He vowed to write an affectionate, “giant hug” to the show he’d grown up with, celebrating the Angels’ duality: Three women (Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Lu) who were “incredibly proficient on their jobs, and giant dorks when they were off the job. Because comedy isn’t about cool people; comedy is about dorks and idiots.”

Meanwhile, director Burton was brought on to “Big Fish” and developed a fondness for Mr. August’s ability to write sweetly without falling into the ditch of sentimentality. “That was the tricky thing he did very well,” Burton said. “My vomit meter was on high alert…With families, you can go through years of therapy and not know what it’s about…His script touched on that abstract nature…his great gift is capturing those things that are quite difficult to discuss.” Says Mr. August: “You avoid being sappy by being honest but optimistic.”

Burton next called on Mr. August to write the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” adaptation, which Mr. August said he rushed out in four weeks, “changing my style a bit to sound like Dahl wherever I could.”

(I marked two grafs as optional trims because the assignment had been 1,200 to 1,400 words and I, of course, wrote more.)

NEXT GRAF OPTIONAL TRIM

Some fans of Mr. August pine for more of his “Go” sensibility and less of his fascination with pop culture icons. They took some satisfaction last year when he was nominated in the best-adapted-screenplay category by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for “Big Fish” and nominated in the worst-screenplay category for the “Charlie’s Angels” sequel by a Hollywood group that honors “raspberries.”

END OPTIONAL TRIM

(Now we come back to the personal detail.)

Mr. August is 6 feet tall, 170 pounds with a shaved head. (“I don’t want to be one of those guys who thinks he’s not bald when it’s pretty clear he is.”) He is also gay; he and his partner of five years, Mike Douglass, [cq] are expecting a baby, being carried by a surrogate, this summer.

Mr. August says his sexual orientation shaped his talent for human detail far more than it shaped his choice of story themes. He said he spent the first 20 years of his life “observing the world and trying to model my behavior to look as straight as possible. It’s sort of this psychological ‘CSI’ you’re doing on a daily basis. You’re always looking for motivation.

LAST GRAF OPTIONAL TRIM

“I suspect every gay screenwriter has a big gay-catharsis movie inside them, but then you go to a gay film festival and you see everyone else has done their movie and there’s not a pressing need for you to do yours.”

THE EDITOR WAS VERY HAPPY WITH THAT STRUCTURE BUT FELT THE ENDING WAS WEAK. IN THIS SHE WAS RIGHT. I NEEDED TO FIND A WAY TO RESONATE THE BEGINNING-TO CREATE A FEELING OF COMPLETENESS. THIS WOULD NEVER BE ACHIEVED, BUT HERE IS A CHRONICLE OF THE ATTEMPTS:

I SUBMITTED AN ENDING THAT PLAYED WITH THAT “COOL” VIBE:

Some fans of Mr. August’s early work dismiss his pop-culture fascination and pine for the cooler, edgy sensibility of “Go,” in which a grocery clerk (Sarah Polley) sets off an explosion of wrong turns and colliding storylines when she tries to stave off eviction by selling bogus hits of the drug ecstasy. Mr. August cautions against stereotypes, remembering meetings after “Go” with producers who “were expecting somebody with tattoos and multiple ear-piercings. I’m just a pretty sedate Midwestern guy. I’ve never felt remotely cool.”

The “Go” crowd took some satisfaction last year when Mr. August was nominated in the best-adapted-screenplay category by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for “Big Fish” and nominated in the worst-screenplay category for the “Charlie’s Angels” sequel by a Hollywood group that honors “raspberries.”

“Did you actually read the screenplay?” Mr. August rhetorically asks his critics with no apparent rancor. Screenplay, he reminds them, is “the only category where you’re not looking at what the writer did; you’re guessing about what the screenplay must have been like.

“If they’d read the screenplay for the second ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ they might have liked it.”

MEANWHILE THE STORY PROCEEDED UP ANOTHER RUNG OF EDITING. THIS WAS INSTRUCTIVE TO ME BECAUSE OF A FLOURISH THE NYT HAS–THE USE OF SEVERAL CLAUSES WITHIN A SENTENCE, ELOGATING AND ENRICHING THE SENTENCE SOMETIMES, MAKING IT FAT AND UNWIELDY OTHER TIMES. (SORT OF LIKE WHAT I JUST TYPED.)

I’LL SHOW YOU WITH CAPS HOW THE EXTRA CLAUSES WERE INSERTED INTO THE SECOND GRAF. THIS VIRTUALLY SABOTAGED THE PARAGRAPH–A CRUCIAL ONE, SINCE IT ITRODUCED US TO THE WEB SITE:

But INSTEAD, AS Mr. August sat down at the computer IN HIS SPACIOUS HANCOCK PARK house–WHERE HE LIVES WITH HIS PARTNER OF FIVE YEARS, MIKE DOUGLASS–he logged on, as he does most every day, to www.johnaugust.com to let aspiring writers pelt him with questions. Should I take a job rewriting a bad movie? How much guidance should my script give the actors? Does “based on a true story” have any legal meaning? What kind of printer do you use?

On this morning, Mr. August selected a query from a woman asking about legal rights involved in adapting a friend’s discarded memoir. . .

COOLER HEADS WOULD REMOVE SOME OF THAT CLAUSE OVERKILL. BUT THE ENDING REMAINED A PROBLEM TO THIS NEW EDITOR. SHE SUGGESTED–CORRECTLY–THAT THE ENDING HAD TO ALLUDE BACK TO AUGUST’S WEB SITE. LUCKILY FOR ME, A COUPLE DAYS EARLIER AUGUST HAD CHRONICLED A WEIRD SCENE AT A LOCAL TAKE-OUT JOINT. I SUBMITTED THE FOLLOWING ENDING, APOLOGIZING FOR THE FACT THAT IT WOULD AKE THE STORY LONGER.

THE ENDING CAME AFTER THE GRAF ENDING “‘Big Fish’ and nominated in the worst-screenplay category for the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ sequel by a Hollywood group that honors ‘rasperries.’”

Mr. August’s greets that dichotomy with a smile. He can afford it. On his side are a number of film executives who prize not only his talent but his ability to work well with difficult directors and a mounting fan base on his web site, increasingly charmed by August’s ability to find writing lessons everywhere-even in a confrontation outside a neighborhood take-out chicken restaurant.

Mr. August posted that story a couple weeks ago. [5/7] It seems he’d been picking up dinner when he saw a man holding tight to the roof rack of an SUV while the female driver tried to drive away. “Here’s my thought process,” he typed the next morning and listed 16 questions or impulses that shot through him as he watched the action: the woman was on the cell phone; the man kept knocking on the windows; he was saying “I need to talk to you?” But wasn’t saying her name-does he really know her? Where is the nearest police station? “I bet he’s a parking attendant and she drove off without paying.”

Then, “John August Concerned Citizen slowly reverted into John August Screenwriter,” Mr. August wrote, “as I tried to construct scenarios to explain what had just happened. The parking lot attendant theory made the most sense…but the other scenarios – Furious Boyfriend, Eerily Calm Stalker, Random Psycho – also seemed to fit.

“After watching this scene unfold, I wasn’t even sure what ‘genre’ it belonged in. If you put Will Ferrell in the guy’s role, clinging to the side of an SUV, then it’s a comedy. Hugh Grant, and it’s a romantic comedy. Sean Penn, and it’s a thriller. (Unless Sean Penn’s playing retarded, then it’s “I Am Sam.”)

“As I was driving home a few minutes later, I kept mulling over the scene – though part of me was busier contemplating actors and their career choices. Sean Penn used to be funny, damn it. C’mon, Spicoli!”

(The last graf was a tortured attempt on my part to allude to August’s own characterization higher in the story.)

Clearly, to use Mr. August’s standard, this was more fun than playing a video game.

OKAY, HERE IS HOW THE STORY RAN ON MAY 22 IN THE ARTS AND LEISURE SECTION. YOU CAN READ IT COMPLETELY IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN GREATER DETAIL, OR YOU CAN CHECK OUT THE ENDING, WHICH I FELT WAS NO LESS TORTURED THAN MINE. MORE ON THAT AFTER THIS FINAL VERSION):

LOS ANGELES — John August, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand script polishers, could have been working on any number of projects on a recent spring morning. There was the script he is writing and hoping to direct. There was the musical adaptation of a novel. There was a movie based on the video game ”Prince of Persia,” on which he is serving as an executive producer for Jerry Bruckheimer. And looming over all was July 15, the day his adaptation of ”Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, opens in theaters.

But instead, as Mr. August sat down at the computer in his spacious Hancock Park house, he logged on, as he does most every day, to www.johnaugust.com , where aspiring writers pelt him with questions. Should I take a job rewriting a bad movie? How much guidance should my script give the actors? Does ”based on a true story” have any legal meaning? What kind of printer do you use?

On this morning, Mr. August selected a query from a hopeful screenwriter asking about legal issues involved in adapting a friend’s discarded memoir — unbeknownst to the friend. Mr. August told the correspondent she was on shaky ground legally, then added that he found her appropriation of her friend’s memoir a little — well, unfriendly. He said he told her: ”My advice: tell him what you did, and show him the script. Maybe he’ll love it. Maybe he’ll hate it and stop being your friend. I can’t say I’d blame him.”

There are scores of Web sites run by screenwriters, most of them with limited credentials, and a few others run by pros and geared to working writers. By contrast, Mr. August’s site — free, like most of the others — draws an audience reminiscent of the University of Southern California’s film school, where he earned a graduate degree a little more than a decade ago.

The site reflects not only Mr. August’s talent for explanation but also his enthusiasm for it. It reveals him to be, in his words, a ”big techno-geeky nerd”: he built and administers it himself.

Mr. August, 34, has won a reputation for versatility with scripts like ”Go” (1999), the cool and chaotic look at disaffected young people directed by Doug Liman (”Swingers”), and ”Big Fish” (2003), the fanciful family tale directed by Mr. Burton. In between, Mr. August has earned enough as a script doctor to buy that expensive house, which he shares with his partner of five years, Mike Douglass.

For all the success, www.johnaugust.com has a decidedly humble, nuts-and-bolts sensibility. To cheer the struggling masses, Mr. August posts a list of the 11 full-length scripts he has sold or written on spec that have never been shot. He jokes that operating the site ”is an excuse not to work,” and that it’s ”more fun than video games.” But he also calls it ”one of those pay it back, pay it forward things.”

Mr. August is 6 feet tall and 170 pounds with a shaved head. But he retains a boyish earnestness, which Hollywood usually strips from people before swallowing them. To describe his feelings at getting the ”Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” job, for example, he unselfconsciously invokes a cliche: it was ”a dream come true,” he says.

And then he retrieves a 28-year-old postcard. His third-grade teacher, in Boulder, Colo., had asked everyone in the class to write to someone famous. Most kids went for President Jimmy Carter. Young John, having read ”Charlie,” wrote to its author, Roald Dahl. The postcard that arrived shortly thereafter seemed like a treasured reward: a personal note from the man himself. Eventually, someone broke the news that it was no more than a form letter.

Mr. Burton wanted his film to follow Dahl’s text more faithfully than had the 1971 version, ”Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder. However, the book offered no guidance about Willy’s boyhood. So Mr. August playfully made him the son of a renowned, candy-hating dentist.

In one of the script’s flashbacks, Willy’s father throws his son’s Halloween candy into the fireplace; in another, Willy finds one piece spared from the flames and bites in. Then, the script says, the opening chords of Jimi Hendrix’s version of ”All Along the Watchtower” begin to play, and ”we begin a spinning perspective shot that would leave Hitchcock jealous. In little Willy’s eyes we see a reaction. He’s like Isaac Newton getting beaned by the apple.”

Mr. August said he discovered his craft-to-be at 10, while watching a rented tape of a black comedy, ”The War of the Roses.” It occurred to him that ”everything the actors were saying and doing was written someplace. So I tried to write down the dialogue and find out what that was like.”

He studied advertising and journalism at Drake University in Iowa, attended a summer film program at Stanford and was accepted at U.S.C.’s prestigious two-year graduate program in film production. After graduation, in the late 90′s, three breaks fell his way in about a year and a half: he sold ”Go”; his agent sent him ”Big Fish,” a Southern novel by Daniel Wallace; and Columbia asked him to join the dozen or so writers who were trying to salvage a film version of the 1970′s television series ”Charlie’s Angels.” Mr. August said yes with an exclamation point. He set out to write an affectionate ”giant hug” to the show he’d grown up with, celebrating the Angels’ duality: three women (Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Lu) who were ”incredibly proficient on their jobs, and giant dorks when they were off the job.”

”Because comedy isn’t about cool people,” he said. ”Comedy is about dorks and idiots.”

Meanwhile, Mr. August had fallen in love with ”Big Fish,” which tells the story of a larger-than-life father through his son’s eyes. The narrator is about the same age that Mr. August was when his own father died. Mr. Burton was brought on to ”Big Fish” and developed a fondness for Mr. August’s ability to write sweetly without falling into the ditch of sentimentality.

”That was the tricky thing he did very well,” Mr. Burton said. ”With families, you can go through years of therapy and not know what it’s about. His great gift is capturing those things that are quite difficult to discuss.”

Mr. August said his sexual orientation has helped him notice things others miss, because for the first 20 years of his life, he said, he was ”observing the world and trying to model my behavior to look as straight as possible. It’s sort of this psychological ‘CSI’ you’re doing on a daily basis. You’re always looking for motivation.”

But he’s not especially eager to write a gay-themed picture. ”I suspect every gay screenwriter has a big gay-catharsis movie inside them,” he said. ”But then you go to a gay film festival and you see everyone else has done their movie, and there’s not a pressing need for you to do yours.”

Some fans of Mr. August’s work pine for more of his unconventional ”Go” sensibility and less of his fascination with pop culture icons. They took some satisfaction last year when he was nominated in the best-adapted-screenplay category by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for ”Big Fish” and nominated in the worst-screenplay category for the ”Charlie’s Angels” sequel by a Hollywood group that honors ”raspberries.”

Mr. August regards this dichotomy with a smile. He can afford it. On his side are not just the film executives who keep giving him work but also the acolytes on his Web site, who get to listen in as he finds writing lessons everywhere. A few weeks ago, he was picking up dinner at a fast-food place when he saw a man holding tight to the roof rack of an S.U.V. while the woman driving it tried to pull out of the parking lot.

”Here’s my thought process,” he typed the next morning. First, he recalled, he wondered if the man and woman even knew each other. Was he harassing her? Was she skipping out on the parking charge? Then, ”John August Concerned Citizen slowly reverted into John August Screenwriter,” he wrote, ”as I tried to construct scenarios to explain what had just happened.” He thought through a Parking Lot Attendant scene, a Furious Boyfriend scene, an Eerily Calm Stalker, a Random Psycho.

Then he tried to decide what genre it was: ”If you put Will Ferrell in the guy’s role, clinging to the side of an S.U.V., then it’s a comedy,” he wrote. ”Hugh Grant, and it’s a romantic comedy. Sean Penn, and it’s a thriller.”

And if you put John August in the observation deck, it’s yet another learning opportunity

I disliked the cuteness of that ending. I thought it was tepid. I disliked the fact that I wasn’t consulted about it. But gradually I came to recognize an essential truth, to be filed away for an essay that will be called “How to Get Edited,” and it goes like this: I brought all this upon myself. As far as the ending went, my last attempt at it sucked as badly as they one the NYT grafted on. As far as my first submission went, I tried to get away with an intellectually dishonest style (“cool” is simply not what this guy is about). I deserved to have the story taken out of my hands. I deserved to have it end with a sentence so lacking in perception or vitality that, as one friend said, “Bob, it’s not grabbing me.” I offer this confession to all my brothers and sisters who have been edited more than they would like: It’s fun to write for yourself, and sometimes it feels good just to take a stab at it, but remember, there’s a price to be paid.