John August on Highland 2.5 and Writing the Movie You Want to See

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

There has long been a perception in screenwriting circles that Final Draft is THE software for writing screenplays. And while Final Draft is a fine program and certainly widely used (I’ve used it for the vast majority of my screenplays), it is no longer the only option or even necessarily the best option.

Movie Magic Screenwriter (our sponsor at Write/LA – we love you!) is the only screenwriting program to earn an Academy Technical Achievement award. Writer Duet has arisen as a favorite online platform for writing teams. Fade In is a simple and straightforward writing program that does basically everything Final Draft does for a much lower price tag. And for those Mac users out there, Highland 2 might be the most innovative and modern writing program in the bunch.

Highland 2 was developed by John August – yes, that John August, co-host of Scriptnotes and writer of Go, Big Fish, Frankenweenie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and most recently Aladdin (though I was careful not to ask him about that writing process).

Highland is a writing program only available to Mac users, so if you’re a PC person like me, sorry. But if you are one of those crazy Mac folk (I’ll never fully understand you…), then you should explore all the possibilities that Highland has to offer. The app is available as a free download in the App Store – you can try it out today and use the vast majority of the features for free. The big catch is that any scripts you try to export as PDFs will have a “Highland” watermark on them, so if you want to use this program professionally, eventually you’ll have to cough up some dough. I believe the current purchase price is $49.99.

As Mr. August will explain below, what makes Highland unique is that you can open up a document and simply start typing. Rather than hitting the tab key however many times to indicate that you want to write dialogue or a character name or what have, you simply type your script the way you would an email, and the program figures out how your plain texted should be formatted.

August seems to have a real distaste for the tab key that I don’t quite understand – I’ve personally never been bothered by the mechanisms that Final Draft et al use for switching between different line types. But I will say that Highland has a number of additional features that make it quite appealing. One is The Bin, a little shelf on the side of your document where you can drag and drop bits that you want to cut out of your script and save for later. As someone who writes comedy, I find this INCREDIBLY appealing. I would constantly be throwing alternate jokes or scenes that are funny but don’t advance the plot over there, just in case. Another great feature is The Navigator, which lets you move entire scenes or even sequences in your script with a simple drag and drop.

I should also note that Highland is not just a screenwriting app – it’s an everything writing app. Whether you want to write novels, articles, outlines, treatments, or anything else, Highland can be your all-in-one writing program.

August and team recently released Highland 2.5 (though the app store still calls it simply “Highland 2”), and the new features include automatic chapter numbering (for manuscripts), title pages for all writing templates, different theme colors for your viewing pleasure, the option to easily include inline notes in PDF exports, the ability to “star” changes, the ability to include hyperlinks in screenplays, revision mode for all document types (a big win for novelists), and a word analysis feature.

The word analysis feature lets you take a look at which words you use the most frequently, making it easier to revise and give your characters more distinct voices. The feature also points out words that have different spellings in America and Britain as well as words that aren’t really words.

I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. August about Highland as well as his own writing career. An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

Angela Bourassa: I’m an Android and PC person, so…

John August: I’m sorry.

Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)

John August: I wish we had the app available for you today, but with limited resources, we can only concentrate on certain things. So it’s a Mac app for now. We definitely have visions for how we can broaden past that so everyone can use it, but for now we had to focus on what we could do.

Angela Bourassa: Having not used it myself, the word “app” threw me off, and I assumed it was a mobile app only, but Highland is obviously bigger than that.

John August: Yes. Right now it’s just for Macs, and it’s the app I wish I could have. I’m always trying to write the movie I wish I could see, so I’ve built the app I wish I could use. So it’s very particular to the things I like, but it turns out that the things I like tend to be things that other people like a lot. You’re probably used to Final Draft…

Angela Bourassa: Yeah.

John August: And my frustration with Final Draft has always been that you have to end up telling the app so much about, like, “This is a character’s name, this is dialogue, this is parenthetical.” You’re sort of wrestling with it, and that paradigm is really from the eighties when computers were really slow. Computers are really fast and really smart now. And if there was just a better way for the computer to figure out what you were doing so you could just type and not have to hit that tab key…

Angela Bourassa: Right. So if someone was looking for their very first writing program, why would they choose Highland? And if someone was looking to switch, why would they switch to Highland?

John August: I think, certainly for the first-time user, it’s a better writing experience, because they’re not coming in with the bias of, “Oh it’s gotta be complicated because screenplays look complicated, and I have to hit the tab key a bunch to get around.”

For people who are used to just typing, you type in Highland the same way you’d type an email. If you had to type dialogue in an email, you would uppercase the character’s name and then you’d hit return and put a line underneath it that would clearly be dialogue – that would be how you’d do it. That’s what Highland is. It just understands, “Oh, you must mean that that’s dialogue.” And if something ends in “to:” that’s probably a transition, or “int.” is probably a scene heading. It’s just smart enough to recognize what you’re doing. So for the first-time user, it’s a much simpler learning curve.

For someone coming from a more complicated program, it’s just getting them over the hurdle to do less. Just start typing and let it figure out what you want.

Angela Bourassa: I wanted to discuss two particular features that stood out to me. First, The Bin.

John August: Yes!

Angela Bourassa: I wish I had that. That seems amazing.

John August: It’s so helpful! Because you do this all the time…

Angela Bourassa: I cut something and then I hope I don’t forget and cut something else before I paste it somewhere…

John August: Yeah. So you probably have a scratch file of all these little things?

Angela Bourassa: Right.

John August: In Highland, you can just, bloop. Drag it over to the side and it’s there. It’s one of those things you end up using it a lot because, like, “That bit of description, I don’t have a place for it but I know I could need it in the future…” It let’s me be more aggressive about cutting stuff, because I know I can always put it back in. Or if I’m moving sequences around – well, now with The Navigator you can just drag and drop to move entire scenes around, which is great – but there’s times when you’re doing some more precise surgery, so it’s nice to be able to set things aside until you need them.

Angela Bourassa: The things that you put into The Bin, are they accessible across different documents or just the one document?

John August: Just the one document. It stays in the document, so if you send that document to a friend or co-writer, it’s always in that document.

Angela Bourassa: Ok. The other feature I wanted to discuss is the Gender Analysis. That one struck me a bit because it seems like something that… either you’re someone who cares about that or you’re someone who doesn’t care about that. I’m curious how you’ve seen it used and if it’s been effective.

John August: The goal with that was to get people who were kind of on the fence to just try it. So that’s why it’s so simple – it takes a few seconds you basically just, “Here are all the characters names. Tell me who’s male, female, or unspecified.”

And I didn’t want it to just give you a report – I wanted it to help you explore. So once you’ve tagged those things, you can ask, “Well what if I were to make that character female? Oh, the ratio changes a lot – isn’t that interesting…” I wanted to be not, like, finger-wagging but sort of just inspiring, “Oh, that’s a thing I could do.” Because when you try to do that by hand, it’s exhausting. But again, computers are really good at counting things.

Angela Bourassa: Right. I wanted to talk a little bit about your career.

John August: Yep.

Angela Bourassa: So, amateur screenwriters, people trying to break in, they’re regularly told, “Stick to a lane. Stick to a genre. Have a specific voice, a specific brand…” Your career seems to fly in the face of that, so my first question is, do you agree with that advice for newer writers?

John August: Here’s what I’ll say about that: First of all, I think sticking to your lane is bullshit advice and people shouldn’t take that.

Understanding your brand or understanding how people perceive you, there’s some value in that. That’s somewhat valid. I think you can do that by, again, writing the movies you wish you could see, and if you’re writing those movies, that’s going to end up being your brand. That’s going to be what people go to you for. It could be a genre, it could just be a style, it could be a voice – something that is unique about you helps you stand out from everyone else. There’s some validity to that idea of, you know – write the thing that people can identify with you so they can actually figure you out.

You know, I was pigeonholed as the guy who wrote kids movies, and I only got sent things about gnomes, elves, dwarves, and Christmas. And then I wrote Go, which, you know, people could look at it from many directions, like, “Oh, he can write an action movie, he can write a comedy, he can write women…” However people wanted to see this thing, they could see it in the script, and that was really helpful. So, people can’t just go off and write Go, but they can write something that’s very specific to their experience and show off their writing.

Angela Bourassa: You’ve sort of already answered this, but the next part of my question was going to be, how do you define your writing style? What gets John August called in on a particular project?

John August: I think originally it was voice stuff and character, dialogue-y stuff? Ultimately, though, the job of being a screenwriter who’s working a lot is understanding how movies get made and the personalities involved and sort of the psychological aspects of it… being the person they can trust to sort of carry the ball over the line. So it’s not just the words on the page, it’s also the words you’re saying in the room and understanding the emotional judo involved.

Angela Bourassa: (Laughs) To finish things off, I wanted to just ask you a few rapid-fire questions.

John August: Great.

Angela Bourassa: So, fast answers, just the first thing that comes to you.

John August: Ok.

Angela Bourassa: What’s your favorite genre to write in?

John August: Comedy.

Angela Bourassa: What’s your favorite genre to watch?

John August: …Action.

Angela Bourassa: Do you prefer TV or film?

John August: TV.

Angela Bourassa: Do you prefer streaming things or being in a theater?

John August: Being in a theater.

Angela Bourassa: Best movie of all time?

John August: Aliens.

Angela Bourassa: Guilty pleasure movie?

John August: Oo, um… Smoky and the Bandit.

Angela Bourassa: Favorite thing you’ve written?

John August: Big Fish.

Angela Bourassa: Best screenwriter of all time?

John August: Nora Ephron.

Angela Bourassa: Best time of day to write?

John August: …Morning.

Angela Bourassa: Writing brain-food?

John August: Chocolate.

Angela Bourassa: Hook first or character first?

John August: Hook first.

Angela Bourassa: Will you be my mentor?

John August: No.

Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)

John August: Sorry!

Angela Bourassa: Ah, I tried!

Highland 2.5 is available as a free download on the App Store.


Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

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