In the living room of writer-director John August's Hancock Park home, Hope Davis has just finished singing Peggy Lee's existentialist lament "Is That All There Is?" She has recounted a series of life experiences that have left her cold -- watching her family's house burn down, attending a circus, falling in love for the first time. Davis' character has explained that the only reason she doesn't commit suicide is because she's "in no hurry for that final disappointment."
But that isn't all there is to August's feature directorial debut, "The Nines," due for release from Newmarket Films on Friday. Today's scene -- in which Davis plays Sarah, the oversexed mom next door who is on the verge of seducing Gary (Ryan Reynolds), an actor under house arrest and the watchful eye of his crisis publicist (Melissa McCarthy) -- is only a tiny piece of one of the film's three segments. Filmed partly in August's home, each features the three main actors in roles that explore the relationship between creator and creation, among writer and actor and character.
"Not being a religious person, I was really interested in the parallels between what I do on a daily basis versus what a creator of the universe would be doing on a daily basis," says August, the 37-year-old screenwriter behind such films as "Go," the "Charlie's Angels" movies, "Big Fish" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." "To the characters I'm creating in my stories, I must seem like a god because I can do anything in their world. As a writer, I'm all the characters until actors are cast, and then they take over the mantle. I feel like writers and actors are co-creators in finding a character."
The film's largely improvised Part 2, a making-of documentary about a fictitious television pilot titled "Knowing," allowed August and his actors to co-write characters in the most immediate and collaborative way possible. August even posed questions to the actors as the pseudo-documentary's off-camera interviewer.
"John's questions are very leading, and that's intentional," says Reynolds. "In fact, I can pick up on that instinct when I'm listening to him or when he's off-camera, and I can actually go to a place that he's hoping I'll go to simply by the question."
Adds August, "It was like being able to mold the clay right in front of yourself and not have to make a plan for it but to see what's there and to shape it into the right form."
Part 2 is also the most autobiographical section -- and holds the key to why August was motivated to write about a creator's responsibility to his creations. In the role of "Knowing's" frazzled show-runner, Gavin, Reynolds is the film's most obvious stand-in for August. Davis plays the development executive who literally drives him crazy.
"Especially the middle section of the movie was very much based on my own experience running my first TV show ['D.C.' for the WB] and getting to a place where most of my time was spent living inside an alternate universe and trying to write a show from the inside and really losing touch with the boundaries between where the real world stopped and where my imaginary world began," says August, who would spend long hours as a child alone in his room inventing James Bond stories.
"When you let yourself get lost, it can be exciting and tempting because your normal responsibilities go away, but there's that danger that you're not going to be able to find your way back to normalcy again."
These feelings degenerated into a self-diagnosed nervous breakdown in 2000 and August was eventually fired from the show and beset by guilt at the thought he had stranded his characters.
"It could be my own personal brand of crazy," he admits. "But I suspect that quite a fair number [of screenwriters] do have that sense of responsibility because you spend a year working on the script, and those characters are right at your fingertips for all that time. And there's a bit of a Pinocchio quality in that they're just little wooden dolls sitting on the shelf, but if the movie gets made, then they actually get brought to life."
At least one character in "The Nines" doesn't have to rely on August's Blue Fairy wand to become real. In Part 2, McCarthy plays herself. And just as Gavin writes his pilot for McCarthy to star in, August has written the actress into several of his other projects, including "D.C."
"It was really scary because I think you can do anything under the guise of: 'It's not me,' " she says. "And it was supposed to be me playing myself. All the topics were real -- like my husband and I had just bought a house, and all these lines kind of blurred. And as things would happen, John would just slip them in there. So it was a little more nerve-racking to really talk about things that are actually yours. I'm glad I've done years of Groundlings because I can just kind of improvise it."