About the author:
After adapting Big Fish for the big screen, John August knew that the 2003 film, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, would make a thrilling, larger-than-life Broadway musical. The only problem? He’d never written for the theater! August, whose long list of screenplay credits includes Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows and Corpse Bride, set to work on a magical new tuner with composer Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family), which will open on October 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre. Below, August remembers the first time he read the original Big Fish manuscript (on a 12-hour deadline) and his inspiration for the “giant and intimate” film that inspired the new musical.
I first read Daniel Wallace's Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions in 1998. It came to me as a manuscript—a box of loose pages—and a 12-hour deadline. The book had already found a publisher, and now there was a question of whether it could be a movie. The next morning, Big Fish would be shopped to the studios, so if I hoped to attach myself as screenwriter I would have to decide that night.
By page 20, I was hooked. By page 40, I decided the narrator would be a journalist—my major in college. By page 60, I decided he had a wife and baby on the way. By the time I finished, I knew it would be an incredibly difficult movie to get made. But I had to try. After some cajoling, Columbia Pictures agreed to option the rights for me, and I set to work.
Daniel's novel is a collection of tiny stories, little myths about the larger-than-life Edward Bloom. It's a beautiful book: funny and weird and touching. There are fantastic moments and images that feel cinematic, from epic droughts to Herculean labors. But in order to become a movie, it needed a new structure: a reason why we were telling these stories in this order. It also needed new ways to gather some of the smaller bits together.
I added a circus, a war and, most iconically, daffodils.
The first 10 pages of Big Fish were the most difficult thing I ever had to write. I spent three weeks writing and throwing away introductions to set up how we'd move back and forth between the real world and the fantasy of Edward's life. I even wrote my first song, "Twice the Love," sung by conjoined twins at an Asian USO show.
After several false starts and missed deadlines, I finally arrived at a script that felt both giant and intimate. I enlisted producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen—they had just made American Beauty—and with their help rearranged the third act so that Edward Bloom's final story would be told by his son. It seems obvious in retrospect, but that's how most good ideas work. They're invisible until they become inevitable.
Two years later, we were filming Big Fish in Alabama with Tim Burton at the helm and an amazing cast. I was thrilled. As a screenwriter, my job was done.
But I didn't feel finished with Big Fish.
I told Dan and Bruce I thought there was more to do. These characters had an inner life that was impossible to explore with just words. They wanted to sing. Could we maybe, possibly, somehow make this a Broadway musical?
We knew we wanted to do it only if we found the right lyricist/composer. Luckily, Andrew Lippa was looking for us. After a chance meeting, he tracked down Bruce Cohen to ask if we'd ever considered doing a musical of Big Fish. Andrew and I had a short phone call, then he flew to Los Angeles. I picked him up at the airport and drove to Palm Springs, where we wrote two songs and two scenes over a long weekend.
In that initial meeting, we made some fundamental choices. First, unlike the film, in which Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play the younger and older versions of Edward Bloom, we wanted one actor to play the role all the way through. Same with his true love, Sandra.
Second, we decided to forget the book and the movie. The musical needed to be its own thing, not beholden on what had come before. So I never opened my old script. We never re-watched the movie. As we worked on every scene, every song, we started from scratch.
I had my memory of what I'd written before, so there are certain lines and ideas that carried over in dialogue ("Do you know much about icebergs, Dad?") or lyrics ("My father is a stranger I know very well"), but there was never a sense that we were adapting something. We were writing a new musical.
As a screenwriter, I'm used to writing a script and then turning it in. A musical works differently. Every few months, Andrew and I had to perform what we'd written at the piano, first for the producers and then for director Susan Stroman. When you have to play a character in front of an audience, you're forced to take ownership of the words. If Edward Bloom sounds a bit like Andrew Lippa, that's because he performed the role for six years. I was Will and Don Price and Karl the Giant. I'm not nearly as good as the actors we have in the roles now, but I've enjoyed the chance to play them.
My collaboration with Andrew Lippa has been the highlight of Big Fish. It may have started as a shotgun marriage, but we developed trust and respect and love for each other that has been unlike anything else in my professional career. We're gently but thoroughly honest with each other. I write the scenes; he writes the songs; not a word goes into the show that we haven't both approved. And we balance each other out. Odds are, one of us is being unreasonable at any given moment, so the other one steps up as the voice of reason.
When Big Fish opens, it will be like dropping off a kid at college. Andrew and I are both so proud of this child we've raised, and sad not to have it be part of our daily lives. But the nest isn't empty. We're figuring out our next projects, together and separately, so that we'll be able to write new things we love.