A movie by any other name

Arguably, the most important part of a film (besides it being good) is the title. Great titles have graced the silver screen, only to have the film bite all kinds of ass. But the title did its job, it got the suckers to watch the flick (i.e. The Phantom Menace). Conversely, a bad title can take the wind out of the sails of a very good film (I won’t watch Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood cause the title screams chick flick).

My question is, how do you come up with the titles to the films you write? What process do you go through to come up with a title that’d grab the audience by the Ya Yas?

– Americo
San Francisco, California

The majority of my movies have been adaptations, either of books or existing properties, such as Charlie’s Angels. Obviously, it’s not too hard to pick a title for those ones. (Trivia: the “Full Throttle” moniker for the sequel was picked by the marketing team; the working subtitle title was “Halo,” named for the McGuffin of the story.)

I have been through the name game on several movies.

Go started out as a short film script called ‘X,’ named for the ecstasy Ronna’s character is trying to deal. When I wrote the full version, my working title was ’24/7,’ but then I saw reviews for a British film called Twentyfourseven, so I nixed that.

About the same time I was writing this script, I’d made a holding deal with Imagine, for whom I’d just adapted the kids book How to Eat Fried Worms. As part of the deal, I had to pitch them five projects. One of my ideas was a Die Hard-y thriller about involving a bomber and a TV news crew, which I called “Go.” Imagine ultimately passed on all of my ideas, but I really liked the title “Go,” so I just took it for the script I was writing.

It was only after seeing the finished film about four times that I realized how often characters say “go” in the movie — and usually at crucial moments. It seems intentional, but trust me, it wasn’t.

One of my never-ending horrors is that an early Columbia press release listed the title as “Go!” rather than “Go”, so many reviews and articles about the movie include the exclamation point, thinking that’s really the title. It’s not.

I hate that exclamation point with an unmitigated fury. If it somehow became a sentient being, I would kill it without remorse.


Shortly after Go, I was hired to work on an animated movie for Fox called “Planet Ice.” That sounds like a sci-fi movie, and it was. The odd thing, I thought, was that there was no icy planet anywhere in the script. The title was a hold-over from many drafts ago. So along with the rewrite, I turned in a list of proposed titles for the movie, most of them centering around the long-lost spaceship at the center of the story.

Two years later, I went to a screening of the nearly-completed movie, which was now called Titan A.E.. “Titan” is the name of the missing ship, and the “A.E.” stands for “After Earth.” I guess. I never really got confirmation on that.

At any given point, I have a list of about 30 movies I’d like to write, and a good 50% of them have titles. Sometimes, that’s all they really have.

For example, that same thriller I pitched to Imagine is sitting on my to-write list as “Southland.” I think that’s a good title, but I doubt I’ll ever use it, since (a) I’ll probably never get around to writing the script, and (b) it’s too much like Richard Kelly’s upcoming Southland Tales.

I think some projects sell mostly on their title. A vampire thriller set in Alaska is an okay-not-great idea. But 30 Days of Night is a kick-ass title, which is why Sony bought it. On the flip side, my unsold zombie western has been through at least four titles: Deadfall, Devil’s Canyon, Prey, and Frontier. I don’t love any of them, and neither do readers.

But if you have a good title for it, by all means share.

Inciting Incident: Koo Koo Roo edition

kookoorooI went to Koo Koo Roo on Larchmont last night to grab dinner: half rotisserie chicken, cucumber salad, mixed veggies, to go.

While I was turning to go into the parking lot, I noticed a white SUV near the curb. It was bucking strangely. My first instinct was that the driver didn’t know how to use stick. Then I thought, maybe it was crazy custom low-rider shocks. But you really don’t see that on SUV’s, even on Pimp My Ride.

Then I saw that there was a man standing on the passenger side running board. It looked like he was strapping something down to the roof. That would explain why the car was shaking.

My curiosity satisfied, I parked.

When I came back around to the front of the restaurant, I noticed the SUV was still in roughly the same spot. The guy was still standing on the running board, but he wasn’t trying to attach anything. Rather, he had both hands on the roof rack, holding on tight while the SUV’s driver (a woman) tried to shake him off. That’s why the car was “bouncing” earlier.

I stood at the door of Koo Koo Roo for about 10 seconds, trying to figure out what the hell was going on — and what, if anything, I should do. Here’s roughly my thought process:

  • The woman’s on her cell phone. She’s in her late 20’s, maybe. It’s hard to see inside the car.

  • The man is maybe 40. Latino. He keeps knocking on the windows.

  • She seems upset, but not terrified. Almost more annoyed. She’s not crying.

  • I wonder who she’s talking to on the phone. A friend? The police?

  • He keeps saying (in English), “I need to talk to you.”

  • He seems really rational. But rational people don’t cling to moving vehicles.

  • She should drive to a police station. That’s what I’d do.

  • Where is the nearest police station? I have no idea.

  • I don’t know if he knows her. He’s not saying her name.

  • He’s wearing white. Maybe a uniform. Maybe a parking attendant.

  • She should keep driving down Larchmont. There’s a ton of people, so if she really does need help, she can get it.

  • I bet he’s a parking attendant, and she drove off without paying.

  • There’s only one other spectator watching. That guy at the bus stop.

  • He was there when I pulled in, so he must have seen more of this. He probably knows what’s going on.

  • If I got involved, maybe he’d back me up.

  • She’s trying to shake him off again.

optical illusionThe weirdest thing was how my perception of who was the “good guy” kept flipping back and forth, like one of those foreground-background optical illusions where you see either the Young Woman or the Old Crone but not both at the same time. Second by second, I thought, “she’s in danger” or “he’s in danger.”

He’d bang on the windows, so I’d decide he was a threat. Then she’d try to shake him off, and I was suddenly worried he’d fall to the pavement and get run over.

With both scenarios equally plausible, I decided I’d cautiously approach and ask the man what was going on. With the right tone of voice, it wouldn’t sound like a direct threat. If he gave a reasonable answer, I could talk to him like a reasonable person. If he gave me a Crazy Man answer, I’d know he was the problem, and…well, I didn’t know what I’d do, but at least I’d know he was the bad guy.

Just as I stepped forward to move from Spectator to Participant in this drama, the SUV pulled around the corner onto Beverly, picking up considerable speed. The man seemed unfazed. I realized that it’s surprisingly easy to cling to an SUV. No one would consider clinging to my little Toyota.

larchmontThe SUV took the first right turn, then disappeared from sight. I looked over to the guy at the bus stop, hoping for some gesture or nod that would reassure me that everything was okay, that neither of the two parties would end up harmed tonight.

Bus Stop Guy gave me nothin’. He just turned back to the street, waiting for his ride.

At the Koo Koo Roo counter, John August Concerned Citizen slowly reverted into John August Screenwriter, as I tried to construct scenarios to explain what had just happened. The parking lot attendant theory made the most sense, because I’ve encountered some surprisingly zealous asphalt barons in Los Angeles. Would one really risk his life by clinging to the side of a car? Maybe.

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!

I drove past the intersection where the SUV had turned, and glanced up the street out of idle curiosity.

The SUV was stopped there. The man was on the roof.

He was hugging the top of it like every action movie cliche, ankles dangling off the edge. The SUV wasn’t moving, but the guy seemed braced for doing 60 on the freeway.

By the time I spotted them, it was too late to make the turn. Instead, I hung three rights to circle around the block. It seemed to take forever. These were quiet residential streets — exactly the place you shouldn’t go if there’s some random lunatic clinging onto your car. Also troubling: my stubborn parking lot attendant theory was making less sense by the moment. Whatever urban logic makes it reasonable for a guy making minimum wage to wrestle a car also dictates that at some point he gives up.

This guy wasn’t giving up.

As I turned the third right, I figured that the driver and I would now at least be adjacent. I could roll down my window and ask if she was okay, if she was in danger. I could do something. By now, it was obvious I should have done something back at Koo Koo Roo.

But when I got back to the corner, there was no SUV. While I was circling the block, she must have driven off, with the guy still presumably clinging to her roof-rack. They were gone, and I didn’t know which one to worry about.

Do you call the police in this situation? Do you just forget about it, and check the papers in the morning? I was left — I am left — with an unsettling lack of closure. Yes, I want to know that no one’s hurt, but even more, I want to know what the hell I saw.

Was it funny or scary? Young Woman or Old Crone? I don’t know. Real life sucks that way.

Buy clothes Charlie Bucket couldn’t afford

wonka t-shirtMy best-dressed friend Jen sent me a link to Kitson, which has started selling a line of exclusive, and expensive, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-related merchandise.

I certainly don’t lay any claim to the idea of Golden Tickets or t-shirts, but I was a little giddy to see that three of the slogan shirts feature dialogue from the script (as opposed to Roald Dahl’s book, or the original movie). The shirts in question are:

“I’m sorry. I don’t speak American.” (Spoken by Mr. Salt.)

“Chewing gum is really gross. Chewing gum I hate the most.” (Spoken by Willy Wonka.)


“I love de Chocolate!” (Spoken by Augustus Gloop.)

Okay, the third one is a bit of a stretch, because Augustus says similar things in every version of the story. So I’ll just claim the “de,” since I wrote out his German accent. The fourth slogan shirt, “There’s no know where they’re going”, is also in the script, but it comes directly from Chapter 18 of Dahl’s book.

Obviously, there will be a ton of Charlie-related products over the next few months, so I won’t point out every promotion. And to anticipate the first question in the comments section, no, the screenwriter doesn’t get any piece of the merchandise.

But if Kitson wants to send me a t-shirt or two, I’ll take a men’s large. Not XL. L. Cheers.

Readers speak, part two

suggestionYesterday, I went through the top survey suggestions related to the site’s content. Today’s topic is everything else, from usability to new features.


Feature the archived stories and threads a little more prominently. There is some great information in those old postings that many don’t know exist.

Good suggestion. I may dust off older entries more often. Also, you’ll see more “related entries” at the bottom of new posts.

Create a better filing system for previously asked questions. Make these backlogged questions easier to locate.

Make browsing the archives easier.

Number the Q&A pages or create a better system to get back to the postings (other than hitting “back” forty times).

The archives kind of suck, particularly considering they used to be much pimper before I changed servers. Improving the archives interface is one of my highest priorities, geek-wise. I can’t promise any timeline, though, because my Actual Job has to come first.


Readers speak, part one

surveyIn the recent survey, I got a lot of hard numbers to back up and/or refute my assumptions about who reads johnaugust.com. I also got a lot of good suggestions from Question 10, which read: “If I could do one thing to improve johnaugust.com, I would…”

Here’s a sampling of what people wrote, and how I might implement their advice. Today, we’ll look at suggestions about content. Tomorrow we’ll cover everything else.

Update the site daily.

Increase the frequency of updates (no matter how breezy or trivial).

I do my best to post a couple of times per week. Realistically, that’s the best I can do while holding down a full-time screenwriting career. Unlike Jason Kottke, I don’t think any number of micro-patrons is going to enable me to quit my day job. Though at times, it’s tempting.

Increase the Q&A sections, or at least make the IMDb columns less of a rehash from what’s already been posted on the website.

The IMDb columns are the same questions I answer on the site. I could divvy them up differently, but I’d still be answering the same number of questions.

Be funnier. It’s a little dry.

Alas, dry is what you get. The truth is, I’m not crazy yuk-yuk funny, as you might guess by the movies I write: entertaining, sure. Hysterical, not so much. This site isn’t really meant to be a hoot-and-a-half. At its best, it’s probably edu-tainment.


English is not Latin

In an email a few weeks ago, my former assistant (and alarmingly successful writer/director) Rawson Thurber apologized for ending a sentence with a preposition. I insisted that he was well within his rights to dangle a preposition, split an infinitive, or break pretty much any rule he’d been taught about English — especially the seemingly-arbitrary ones.

Grammarians come in two flavors. A descriptivist studies the way people use a language, while a prescriptivist tries to lay down the rules of a language.

Prescriptivists are assholes. Ignore them.

Or better yet, try to make them explain why you’re not supposed to dangle a preposition. After all, there’s not a Bible of the English language, in which a certified deity listed his or her commandments. Backed into a corner, the prescriptivist will probably say, “because English comes from Latin, and that’s not allowed in Latin.”

Well, I studied Latin. It’s cool in a geeky way, sort of like computer programming. Many English words come from Latin, so it can be fascinating to play linguistic C.S.I. to figure out how “abscission” came from “away” and “to cut.” But here’s the most interesting and challenging thing about Latin:

It’s nothing like English.

Most notably, it has cases and declensions, which have pretty much disappeared in our happy language, replaced by word order and, you guessed it, prepositions.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s another article that does a good job explaining why the grammar Nazis are wrong.

See also:

‘Data’ is singular