John August's Blog
John and Craig offer advice for super-rich aspirants about the film and television industry. If you have enough money to do anything, what should you do first? Do you want to make money, or make art? Or do you just want to hang out with famous people? No judgements.
Then we tackle another set of Three Page Challenges, with scripts ranging from Twitter-age slashers to animated birds.
Our next episode will be the Live Holiday Show, which airs Tuesday after Thursday’s recording. We hope to keep on our normal schedule through the end of the year, but there’s a chance we’ll skip a week.
- Company, Making of Original Cast Recording part 1 of 6, on YouTube
- Boston Magazine on Curt Schilling and 38 Studios
- The Development of Duke Nukem Forever has its own Wikipedia entry
- How to submit your Three Pages, and Stuart’s post on lessons learned from the early batches
- Three Pages by Blake Kuehn
- Three Pages by Steve D’Arcangelo
- Three Pages by C.L. Stone
- The Room Two is available now
- Skitch and Evernote are great together
- Download the Scriptnotes app for iOS and Android devices
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Andreas Hornig
The editors of Macworld named Highland one of the best products of 2013:
Writing is hard. Writing a script or screenplay can be harder. That’s why we like Highland, Quote-Unquote Apps’ minimalistic $20 screenwriting tool. Highland offers writers a clean, unadorned space to work on their screenplay.
All Highland files are saved as plain text, allowing you to open them in just about any program on your Mac, PC, or iOS device. You can even import your PDFs and Final Draft files into the app for easy editing, and then export them back into their original formats for further work.
Certainly for those in the film industry, this app is more than worth its price.
Many thanks to the editors of Macworld, and big congratulations to the Quote-Unquote apps team for their hard work on Highland. Nima Yousefi has built and rebuilt Highland’s parsing engine a dozen times, taking it from impressive to magical to so-good-you-forget-it’s-difficult. (The next build is even better.)
Ryan Nelson has designed and tweaked our graphics down to the pixel. Minimalism is hard, because there’s nothing to hide behind.
Stuart Friedel keeps tabs on sales figures and industry chatter. He and I use the app daily, so it’s often our observations and annoyances that set the agenda.
I was excited to see so many other apps I love on the list of Eddy winners, incluing 1Password, Badland, Bartender, Capo, Drafts 3, Fantastical 2 for iPhone, Gone Home (Craig’s One Cool Thing), IFTTT, Launch Center Pro, and nvAlt.
For 2014, we’ll be keeping up development of Highland while introducing a new app that works related magic for folks who deal with screenplays.
In the meantime, you can check out Highland on the Mac App Store.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Disclaimer: Hey, this is John. Two things about today’s episode. First off, this is one of those episodes where Craig swears a little bit. So, if you’re in the car with your kids, standard warnings there. It’s not terrible, just a few f-bombs, so they’re near the backend of the episode.
Second off, we now have an app for Scriptnotes. There’s an app for iOS and for Android. So, I talk about it at the end of the show in the One Cool Things, but in case you want to listen to this episode through the app, you can. It’s available right now for iPhone, for Android devices, however you want to find it.
On iPhone it’s in the App Store, so just go to the App Store on your phone and you’ll find it there, Scriptnotes.
For Android, I don’t know how you find Android apps, but it’s there wherever you find Android apps it should be there.
A few things about the app and how it all works. Scriptnotes is always free and it will always stay free so that the most recent episodes will always be free the way they always have been. The app is going to let us sell the back episodes. So, it’s a subscription that you can get all the back episodes you want, sort of the Netflix model, all-you-can-eat. Nothing has really changed except that if you want to listen to it through the app, or to go to those back episodes, they’re all available now.
So, if you like your current setup, don’t change anything. Stay awesome. Stay cool. And enjoy this episode of Scriptnotes.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, the Mike Birbiglia episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, you are in my house. We are doing one of those rare episodes where we’re actually live in the same room together.
Craig: Yeah. And as always there’s a certain frisson. There is a je ne sais quoi.
John: Yeah. It’s a little bit different when you’re here.
Craig: I noticed that everything that I said was very positive and what you said was studiously neutral to negative.
John: It’s good to have you here.
John: So, we will just do a little bit of quick follow up on our last episode. People tweeted us saying like, “Oh, I’m a reader at CAA and what you said about coverage was not accurate. It was only half true.”
Craig: I noticed that. Now, did that individual follow our invitation to explain? [laughs]
John: No. That’s the reason why we’re doing follow up. So, if you listen to our podcast and somebody says, one of us say something that’s actually incorrect or you disagree with, that is an ideal opportunity to write in and say, “You were wrong about this thing.”
And so I would invite this person who said I was wrong about coverage to email me and tell me how I was wrong, because that’s the only way we can grow is by being corrected.
Craig: We’re not particularly sensitive about being wrong. We like learning.
John: I love to learn.
Craig: There was another person who wrote, who tweeted both of us, and said something like, “I really liked how John and Craig said they didn’t know anything about drugs and then spent 40 minutes talking about drugs.”
Craig: I actually know a lot about drugs. And I’ve done drugs.
John: I know quite a bit about drugs. Yeah.
Craig: And you’ve done them.
John: But we’re just not doing them now.
Craig: Just right now. All we were saying was don’t do them while you’re writing. Why did that get — I didn’t understand that. Sometimes people are mean.
John: Sometimes people are just irrational. And I think Twitter brings out the worst characteristics of that where it’s just like it’s 140 characters, “I’m going to send it off.” Not as bad as like comments on a blog post, like reading below the fold of the post.
Craig: YouTube comments are the Mos Eisley of the internet.
John: They really are.
So, the third voice you hear in the room with us today, laughing occasionally, is Mike Birbiglia who is our special guest.
John: And so Mike Birbiglia is a writer, director, performer, what other — ?
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah, sure.
Craig: Standup comedian.
John: Standup comedian, yes. Performer, that’s sort of a catch all category for that. Now for people who can’t think of who Mike Birbiglia is off the top of their head, he was in the second episode of Girls and he was –
Mike: In the first season.
John: That’s a very crucial point. So, you were the guy who she was interviewing for a job at some sort of publishing company?
Mike: Yeah. I don’t remember! [laughs]
John: Anyway, you were a guy at a desk.
Craig: Method actor. You were really into it that day.
John: He was deeply into it.
Craig: “I don’t remember.” What’s your character’s name? Uh…
Mike: But it was a fun scene. I loved shooting the scene.
John: I honestly feel like that scene kind of codified what her relationship was going to be towards work from that point forward. It was a really crucial moment. So, this is Mike Birbiglia and Lena Dunham in their first meeting in Girls.
[Girls scene begins]
Mike’s Character: I think the only other place that you’re allowed to brag like that is on your online dating profile. Not that I have one.
Lena’s Character: Oh, no. Of course not.
Mike’s Character: Mm-hmm. So, you live in Brooklyn. Is it Williamsburg?
Lena’s Character: No, I live in Greenpoint.
Mike’s Character: Oh.
Lena’s Character: You know, big difference, Williamsburg/Greenpoint.
Mike’s Character: Oh sure.
Lena’s Character: Are you in Brooklyn or?
Mike’s Character: Yeah. On Cobble Hill.
Lena’s Character: Oh, that’s like grownup Brooklyn.
Mike’s Character: Yeah. I’m like a real live grownup. Can’t you tell?
Lena’s Character: [laughs] So, in your neighborhood do you ever drink at that place Weather Up?
Mike’s Character: That’s a little bit hip for my taste.
Lena’s Character: Are you kidding? You’re very hip. But I do object to any bar that calls its bartenders mixologists.
Mike’s Character: Exactly.
Lena’s Character: And they wear tiny vests.
Mike’s Character: I know!
Lena’s Character: If I’m going to drink in your neighborhood I want to go to Washington Commons –
Mike’s Character: — Washington Commons. Oh my god! I love that place.
Lena’s Character: Hands down.
Mike’s Character: I like a bar where the median age is about 55.
Lena’s Character: I like a bar where the average patron would be described as crotchety.
Mike’s Character: Crotchety is good.
[Girls scene ends]
John: Welcome Mike Birbiglia.
Craig: Mike Birbiglia!
Mike: The part they don’t hear devolves into this really awkward rape joke.
Mike: She makes a rape joke kind of flippantly and then I say, “That’s really not work language.”
Mike: That’s not — off is okay.
John: What was so great about that scene is it happens in a very natural romantic comedy kind of way. Like, oh, this guy is going to be a love interest. And then it so abruptly curtails in a way that I think is a remarkably good scene.
Mike: That was so fun. That was the most fun day of work I’ve ever had.
Mike: It was the easiest, most fun day of work. I love Lena.
John: So, can you come back and do another arc on Girls?
Mike: I’d be thrilled. Yeah. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen, but that character kind of discounts himself by the end of the scene as being anyone she’d ever want to run into again.
Craig: Just like your real life.
Mike: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
John: So, Mike is here because you are in town doing big legitimate shows. So, you just did Jimmy Kimmel. You’re going to be doing Conan.
Mike: Yup. Conan Monday and then I had tweeted at you guys I’m fans of you both and I listen to the podcast aggressively.
John: Wow. So what does that mean? You actually get yourself really pumped up and you start pen in hand?
Mike: I think it’s one of the favorite things in my life is listening to the podcast.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: Holy cow. That’s some high pressure.
Mike: You know what it feels like? I’ll tell you what listening to the podcast feels like. I said this on Twitter, but it’s like hanging out with really smart people and talking about writing except you don’t have to talk.
Craig: That’s very nice.
Mike: And I love not talking. Because I talk for my living and after awhile you’re just like, “I just like listening to people who are really smart.”
Craig: I’d like to get that deal where we could do the podcast but not talk.
John: That would be fantastic. Craig, that’s called listening to a podcast.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: But because you don’t listen to any other podcasts, you have the joy of the monologue that you don’t have to be a part of.
Craig: Oh yeah, I don’t… — How many podcasts are there at this point, like four or five now?
John: There might be at least six or maybe a dozen podcasts out there.
Craig: I just don’t have the time.
Mike: I mean, once it gets to ten they’re going to just stop making –
Craig: They’ll stop making.
Mike: Yeah. I’m sure. We’ll all have the good sense to do that.
Mike: But I’m just a big fan of the podcast and as a guest I just want to say up top, I want to discount myself and say I am the least pedigreed of your writer guests admittedly, but I’d like to think of myself as a writer/listener who like won a contest.
John: [laughs] Indeed.
Craig: [laughs] You’re a little better than that.
John: Yeah, underneath your seat at Jimmy Kimmel there was a little note saying like, “You get to be a guest on this podcast.”
Mike: It was part of a gift bag.
John: I first met you at the screening of your film Sleepwalk with Me. And so that was the Writers Guild Foundation, I think, did a thing at the Writers Guild Theater. And Joss Whedon hosted a Q&A afterwards. And so you and I were up there. And so we talked very briefly in the lobby beforehand about Lena and how awesome things were.
Congratulations on Sleepwalk with Me.
Craig: Great movie.
Craig: Great movie.
John: So, it’s a movie that people can find on iTunes and Netflix and it came out last year and had the indie release, the big thing you were sort of marketing was to make more than Avengers did.
John: And how did that go?
Craig: You got close.
Mike: Here’s what we did. Opening weekend we had the highest per screen average of any film that year, higher than Avengers. The one caveat is that we were on just the one screen.
Craig: Right. Of course.
Mike: And Avengers was on the 2,000 something screens. And so we did beat them in that category. In the overall I think they did close to $1 billion. We did about $2.3 million.
Craig: Still, that’s close.
John: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, with a margin of error.
Mike: They both have the word part “illion.”
Craig: That “illion.” A lot of kids who haven’t yet gone to second grade will flip the billion and million.
Mike: Yes, exactly.
John: That’s the original thinking. Generations –
Craig: For that age group you have done better than The Avengers.
Mike: Absolutely. And, honestly, it’s thrilling. Jokes aside, it’s thrilling to be able to make a movie that eventually gets to an audience. And people who love it, love it, and then people who hate it, hate it. And that’s fun, too.
Craig: I don’t know how anyone hates this movie. I mean, I don’t know why people hate movies in general anyway, but –
John: Positive moviegoing.
Craig: Positive moviegoing right here.
Mike: I loved that episode by the way.
Craig: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. And we’re talking about, you know, the guy, the Hulk, Hulk Film Crit, And Hulk Film Crit, one of his things is he had this amazing encounter with Quentin Tarantino who sort of lectured him on never hating a movie, which we’ll get to that later.
But I want to talk to you about your movie because the truth is you’re not any less credentialed than anyone. You wrote a screenplay and you directed your own screenplay and you made a movie. And you made a great movie.
As far as I’m concerned there’s no other credentials required. What’s fascinating about that movie is that it is, I think, unique in the history of adaptation. I don’t know if anyone has quite done what you’ve done, which is to take what is essentially a well crafted standup act in the vein of a one-man show kind of standup act, and adapt it for film and not just do kind of…forgive me, the guy who did the one-man show and then committed suicide, which is probably where you’re headed.
John: Spalding Gray.
Craig: Spalding Gray. So, before you Spaulding-Gray yourself, just know that even what he did, he shot himself talking to an audience. You dramatized the whole thing. So, my first question for you, if it’s not too early with the questions…
John: Go. Go.
Craig: Is how did you do that?
John: What was the genesis? I don’t know sort of how Sleepwalk with Me came about.
Mike: The genesis was I studied screenwriting undergraduate and I was very serious about it. I went to Georgetown and I was with a bunch of peers who were very serious about it. Jonah Nolan was in my class. Jordon Nardino. A lot of really great writers who went on to be working Hollywood writers.
And then I was not able to figure out how to come to Los Angeles and be a writer, and I was pursuing standup comedy at the same time. And so I was like, well, standup comedy at least, similar to the character that I play in the film, Matt Pandamiglio, not unlike Mike Birbiglia –
Mike: I was working at the DC improv comedy club and I could see that there was a business model to standup comedy that I could understand. It’s a meager business model, but it’s a business model. You drive somewhere, you perform for 20 minutes, they give you $50. Like it made sense to me. And because I’d been on both sides of it at a comedy club I understood that. So, I pursued that for many years and at the same time I simultaneously started merging the dramatic playwriting standup, or playwriting and screenwriting elements with my standup comedy. And that is what became the one-man show Sleepwalk with Me, and then subsequently My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.
Mike: And then what I really wanted to do was make a film. And then there was a company that was interested in adapting that into a film. They paid us to write it. They didn’t like the script. They didn’t see it. And I asked them if I could take it from them and make it myself. I was going to — we made it for about $1 million, which in film is nothing.
Craig: No, that’s a challenge.
Mike: I know people think it’s a lot of money, but in film it’s almost nothing. And so that’s how it happened. I mean, writing the one-man show took about seven years. And then the adaptation took about two or three years.
John: But so let’s talk about writing a one-man show, because I see you doing things that sort of look like standup but you actually look at what that show is, or what My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is, and they’re much more structured experiences where they’re clearly like and now we’re in a flashback where we’re telling this kind of thing. And they have rhyme and they have structure to them.
What is the writing process like for this? Are you thinking about like this is that story and this is how I can get that story to hook into the next thing?
Mike: Well, I was very lucky. Early on when I moved to New York City I started seeing all of the one-person shows on and off Broadway. I saw I Am My Own Wife. I saw Bridge & Tunnel. And then the one that really hooked me emotionally was this one called the Tricky Part.
And if writers are in New York, by the way, see cheap theater. It’s totally available.
Mike: See tons of it. It’s so educational. You can go on these like BroadwayBox.com and there’s all these like Broadway deals if you Google just like “theater deals cheap tickets.” You can get cheap tickets and see a lot and learn a lot.
I saw this one called The Tricky Part, directed by Seth Barrish, and starring Martin Moran. It’s this very dramatic story but had a lot of levity to it as well about this guy who was sexually abused by a clergy person in his church growing up. But it was very funny.
Craig: Not a rabbi. I should point that out.
John: You never hear that, do you.
Craig: You do, but less.
Mike: But there was so much humor to it, and it was so — how do I say — very conversational the way he told the story. You felt like you were talking to a friend. And I thought, oh my god, I got to talk to that director, Seth Barrish.
And I really like sent him a letter. I sent him my comedy CD. And I said, “This is what I’d like to do.” And I sent him the script for Sleepwalk with Me, an early draft of it, the one-man show, and he was not so interested but he listened to the CD and he said, “It’s funny, but it’s not quite there yet. And I’ll teach you sort of how I approach one person theater.”
And what he taught me, and I think this applies for film, I still use it for the films I’m writing right now, and he and I still use it when we work together with our one-person shows, is finding a main event that the whole film or play builds towards. And if that main event is interesting enough, all you have to do is build backwards to it so that secretly, as a writer, your little trick is that you know that no one has any idea that where you’re going is pretty fascinating.
Mike: And I feel like that’s been the guiding principal for all of me and Seth’s work.
Craig: In the movie, it’s the wedding.
Mike: I can say what it is.
Craig: We can give spoilers. It feels like it’s the wedding to me. Or the –
Mike: Yeah. I think we can say, I mean, I feel like it’s been out so long that we can say what it is.
John: It’s the jumps through the window.
Mike: Yeah, I would say –
Craig: Well, the jump through the window is sort of the breaking point.
Craig: But so that’s like, I understand what you’re saying. There’s a surprise thing that happens that you never see coming.
Mike: Yeah. In Sleepwalk there’s two simultaneous. One is the wedding. Or one is us getting engaged and the wedding plans. And then jumping through the window. My sleepwalking getting so bad that it nearly kills me.
And then once you have that, that interesting main event, I feel like you can build backwards towards that. I feel like it’s something you guys talk about all the time is finding your ending before you begin.
Craig: You got to know what your ending is.
John: Now, talk to me about writing this stuff, are you perceiving yourself as a character or are you perceiving yourself as I am just the –
Craig: Yeah. That’s the part that I find so fascinating that you would –
John: The boundary between who you are as an actual person, Mike Birbiglia, and who you are as this character playing. Because in the one-man show version of it, is it Mike Birbiglia or is it Matt?
Mike: Yeah. In the one-man show version it’s me. Definitely me.
Craig: And why did — I’m stacking questions.
Mike: I get this question a lot.
Craig: What’s the point? [laughs]
Mike: Of changing the name?
Mike: So, two of the models when I was writing the film, two of the models for the film were Private Parts by Howard Stern.
Mike: And Annie Hall by Woody Allen.
Mike: And in Private Parts Howard Stern keeps his name, Howard Stern. In Annie Hall he’s Alvy Singer. And I thought Woody Allen is a career that I like to emulate. He’s made some 30 or 40 films at this point.
Mike: Howard Stern is doing a great job in radio but he doesn’t want to make more movies. And I just want to make a lot of movies. And so I thought I don’t want to set myself up for this odd paradigm where people are expecting to come see Mike Birbiglia do Mike Birbiglia things over and over again, because I just honestly don’t have enough stories for that.
Craig: Your life is not interesting enough to support the entire career.
Mike: By no means.
John: And people, I feel like they set up their lives in ways just so they’ll have interesting stories. It’s like they’re deliberately seeking danger and seeking these crazy events so that they can have that.
Craig: Which is one thing I love about Mike and his story is that you seem like the kind of person who is, in watching your film, incredibly resistant to anything happening to you that’s exciting.
Craig: And that, in fact, it is only when you’re sleeping that the exciting things happen, totally against your will, and I love that.
Craig: I think you’re a great character for somebody to have written. Granted, in real life it’s got to be a huge pain in the ass.
Mike: Also it was really challenging dramatically to write a character who is incapable of doing most things.
Mike: Because so much of drama is based on action and his character is based on kind of inaction.
Craig: But then there’s an action that comes out, I mean, the first sort of — well, it’s not the first one. But the first time in your movie I got fooled, obviously I don’t get fooled when the sleep doctor is talking to you. I get what’s going on there. But I got fooled with that woman in that room until she gives you the pizza neck roll.
Craig: Because I thought it was happening.
Craig: So, you kind of trickily were able to be active. It’s kind of the point really is that you’re active when you’re not guarding against being active.
John: Now, a question about the writing process on that. Were you able to incorporate like bits of stories into your act, into your standup, to figure out sort of what was funny?
John: And that’s a unique thing that a normal writer wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.
Mike: Yeah, very much trial and error based. And that’s the thing that I love about standup comedy is that as a writer I can write, I can put something on stage that night and I can get a sense this either works or doesn’t work, or it needs work. And in my screenwriting process, like I’m writing two scripts right now, and I’ll just invite my actor friends over and we’ll just do readings of it.
Mike: And it’s so helpful.
Craig: Isn’t it? I mean, it’s amazing. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this. Even if your acting friends are terrible actors, it’s okay. Just to hear it out loud is so informative.
Mike: I encourage it so much. That was actually the thing — I made a bullet point thing of what I actually could talk about on this podcast that could be helpful and my biggest thing is DIY. Which is just people wherever you are, if you live in Washington, DC, you live in Cincinnati, you live in a suburb of Nebraska. You can develop a community and you can do readings and you can shoot shorts on really inexpensive cameras. And you can learn things on your own and kind of get better.
John: One of the things that I think is so fascinating about filmmaking is that everyone feel like, well, I would never be able to be a director. I could never do all of these complicated jobs. But I guess I can write a script. And so they write their scripts in secret and in private and then they get frustrated like, well, what do I do next? Well, you have to do something. You have to do something beyond just sitting at your computer.
You have to like get it out there in the world and let people see it and do things. So, readings are great. Shooting short films are great. People need to experiment with what it is that they made on the page and what it actually feels like out there in the world.
Mike: And failure is great.
John: Failure is wonderful.
Mike: Failure is the best thing that can happen.
Craig: That’s good news, because it’s here constantly. [laughs]
Mike: [laughs] This is the town of it.
Craig: Yeah. It walks hand in hand with all of us, doesn’t it?
Mike: Well that, when I was in college I directed my first short. It was actually called Extras. It was in the late ’90s, before the TV series, and it was about three professional extras who were roommates and two of my friends played the other parts. And it was a complete disaster. I lost like thousands of dollars, but I learned so much from it.
John: Yeah. That’s your film school. It’s really trying stuff out and seeing what works.
Craig: And, you know, it’s interesting because in your film, when you look at the character of –
Craig: I was just going to say you. I’m saying you.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, my character.
Craig: Look at you. Everything you’re doing circumstantially would make me not like you. Right?
Mike: [laughs] Yes.
Craig: And you very candidly turn to the camera and say, “Before I get to this next part, remember, you’re on my side.” But we are on your side. And the reason we’re on your side is because you are in a very kind of modern, confessional way sharing with us your failure. We watch you fail. We’re watching you fail at work. And we’re watching you fail at home with your parents, and your girlfriend. Just the negotiation of the apartment is a failure.
Everything is a failure. The awesome woman — who is the woman who plays your manager? She was hysterical.
Mike: Sondra James. A wonderful actress.
Mike: She’s on Girls sometimes.
Craig: Oh, okay. Great. I mean, she was just pitch perfect. There is that amazing segment of just incredibly old, food coming out of their mouth, managers. But you’re failing everywhere and so we love you. And we love you so much that we’re kind of doing, we’re peeking through our fingers sort of in fear because we know you’re doing the wrong thing.
Craig: Which is so interesting to me. It’s hard to ask you these questions, “Is that intentional?” It’s what was true.
Craig: But was it also something that you were aware of as you were writing that you were doing something that you would have to do anyway if it were a fictional character?
Mike: I’m not sure what the question is.
Craig: The question is, if you write a character who is agreeing to marry somebody that they don’t want to marry.
Craig: I don’t like that guy. We need to do something about that character to make us connect with him so we are on his side.
Craig: And experiencing his journey. So, when you were writing were you aware of that?
Mike: Well, one of the things that’s odd about the process of the film is that the monologues that are in the film where I’m driving and talking to camera are in the past tense. And I look and I say before I tell you this part of the story I want to remind you you’re on my side, etc, etc.
When we filmed it, we filmed it in more of a Ferris Bueller style where in the middle of a scene I would break and look to camera and speak to camera. When we got in the edit we were like, “Oh, this doesn’t work at all,” because it’s actually too sad what’s happening.
Mike: And it needs to be in the past tense.
Mike: It needs to be tragedy plus time to be funny. And because we need to know that he’s okay. And so when I’m driving and I’m looking at the camera you’re like, oh, he’s all right. He’s telling us the story and he’s telling us in the past tense, so he’s clearly okay. He’s not dead.
Mike: He’s figured it out. He seems like his mood is okay.
Craig: There’s a happy ending somewhere.
Mike: So we did that and we picked that up in post as a past tense thing. And it actually fixed the movie. The movie was tanking with our test audiences before that point.
Craig: Right. And then you take that out and you see this big jump.
Mike: Yeah, because people were like, “It’s just too sad. This story is so sad. This guy keeps failing and he’s messing up other people’s lives. And we’re not okay with it.” That’s how people were when they first saw it.
John: Well, getting back to the sort of the losery persona of the main character here, I would say we identify with a lead character who is trying. This goes back to Lindsay Doran’s argument. If you came in as being really cool we wouldn’t kind of care about you because we wouldn’t have –
Mike: [Crosstalk] …it’s like my least, it’s my biggest pet peeve.
Craig: Right. Cool characters.
Mike: Cool characters.
Craig: I got a note, my favorite stupid note I ever got was can the main character be a hero in the beginning.
John: That’s one of the worst possible notes.
Craig: Sure. Absolutely. How long would you like to shoot — we can shoot it in a day and put it out. It will be called Nothing Happens.
Craig: And just a guy will come in, punch a bad guy, and then roll credits.
John: Definitely. That’s a trailer. You get to make a trailer.
Craig: You can’t even make a trailer.
John: That’s true –
Craig: You would run out of time. You would never get to the point where James, what’s his face, sing’s I Feel Good. Yeah, you would never get there.
John: It would be very rough. So, we need to see your character trying.
John: And it’s great that your character fails and fails a lot, but able to pick himself up and dust himself off. And so shooting those extra bits that put it all in the past tense let us know like he is going to be able to pick himself up and dust himself up. So, even though things will get worse, they’ll ultimately get better. There’s a happy ending there at the end. You created a bookend for it that let us know we’d be okay.
Craig: So, you’re sitting there in a movie theater. The movie is done. And there’s a focus group and they’re saying things like, “This guy Matt Pandapiglia is just an asshole. And I hate him. I hate what he does. He’s a jerk. This character sucks. Why is she with him at all?”
And you’re sitting there like, It’s me!
Mike: It’s even worse after the movie comes out.
Mike: Like I think there was a Jezebel article that came out after the movie came out.
Craig: Oh Jezebel.
Mike: And they said –
Craig: They’re angry.
Mike: Well, they said, and I like the site. I like some of the writing on the site a lot. I consider myself a feminist. They said, “Why Matt Pandamiglio is bad for your relationship,” or something like that. I’m paraphrasing. I might get it wrong. You can look it up if you want. But something to do with the fact, like this kind of personal jab. And I just disagree. I disagree. I think this movie is about these two characters who are not together at the right point in their life and at the end they go separate ways and it’s better for both of them. I truly believe that.
Craig: She’s since gotten married.
Mike: She’s wonderful. She’s doing great. [laughs]
Craig: And you’ve gotten married.
Mike: She’s married. I’m married. We’re both very happy. We’re very close.
Mike: And very happy. Like when she saw the movie, we had an opening night screening in the Opera House at BAM. She came to the screening. She was crying afterwards. She said it was like so moving to see that part of our lives documented.
Mike: And for people to criticize it for that, I just, it was really disconcerting.
John: Well, okay, let’s talk about this aspect of autobiography, because you can’t write autobiography without other people and other real people being involved in that. So, as you’re figuring out the standup, the one-man show version of it and the movie version of it at what point did you have to figure out much you’re writing the real people versus the — this is the real person and this is what the person is in the drama –
Mike: That’s a good actually and that’s part of the reason I changed the names. I didn’t want my dad to be my dad. I wanted it to be Gary Pandamiglio. I didn’t want it to be Vince Birbiglia, I wanted him to be Gary Pandamiglio. Interestingly, and the same with my mom, and the same with my girlfriend.
I think there’s a degree to which you really need to protect people in your life, even if it’s just changing names, things like that. That’s just how I feel. What’s amazing is my parents saw the movie and they had no sense that it was based on them at all. They thought it was entirely fiction.
Craig: This is very common.
Mike: Didn’t recognize any –
Craig: People don’t see themselves.
Mike: They didn’t recognize any qualities that they have.
Craig: [laughs] While they were probably exhibiting those qualities –
Mike: With some direct quotes.
Craig: The direct quotes. They did not recognize. Well, you know, famously Dr. Evil is just an impression of Lorne Michaels.
John: Yeah. And he doesn’t see it at all.
Craig: Did not notice. In fact, as the story goes, Mike Myers takes Lorne Michaels for a walk before they’re going to show the movie –
Mike: Oh my god.
Craig: And he goes, “I just want you to know, so you don’t freak out, but Dr. Evil is basically you. But don’t, you know…” And he’s like, “Okay.” And then he sees the movie and he goes, “I don’t see it. I didn’t really see it.”
Mike: That’s so good.
Craig: But you also get a license to push the characters a little bit, I mean, by changing the names. I mean, I’m sure that they are exaggerated and –
Mike: Absolutely. And that’s what I want to do moving forward with my next movies, too. But while we’re doing impressions, I want to do my impression of you guys.
Craig: Oh yeah, he’s got an impression of us.
Mike: I don’t do impressions. I want to preface it with that.
Craig: I’m so excited.
Mike: But I feel like, so we just have to name an object and then we’ll have me do John and Craig talking about the object. So, like this is a coffee cup.
[as John] Yeah, I’m holding a coffee cup. So — so this would be like, so today we’re going to talk about coffee cups. And, I think, I love coffee cups. I think we that we should give coffee cups a chance.
[as Craig] What are you talking about? This coffee cup is garbage. They’re giving you something that’s practically garbage. There’s almost no coffee in it. You’re going to hurt your hand. It’s scalding hot. There’s no insulation.
[as John] Yeah, but, I think we should all — let’s give coffee cups a chance.
I feel like that’s the show in a nutshell.
Craig: Which one was which? I don’t know, was I the first one? [laughs]
Mike: That’s the show in a nutshell.
Craig: Yeah, pretty much.
Mike: And I love that. I love the scenario. I don’t do the voices, but it’s the essence of the show.
Craig: The essence of it, yeah. Well, you know, John is from Colorado. He’s American. And I’m from New York. [laughs] And I’m an ass. But for New York, I think I’m a nice New York.
John: You’re on the nice side of New Yorkers.
Craig: Yeah, it can be much worse than this. It could be much, much worse than this. That was disturbingly accurate.
Mike: I identify with both, so the yin and the yang of that. Like when I hear you points I’m like, oh, that’s a nice bit of positivity about that. And then when I hear your points I’m like, yeah, these motherfuckers.
Craig: Ha! [laughs]
Mike: Fucking idiots.
Craig: Yeah, come on, man! Right?
John: So, to transition to the next film you made, which was much more like a Spalding Gray, sort of one man talking in front of an audience thing, this is My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. So, was this a monologue you had already, or a one-man show you’d already put together before you had done? Tell us about the history of this.
Mike: Yes. It actually is. It’s a concert — it’s now a concert film that’s on iTunes and Netflix if people want to see it. And it’s an album on iTunes. And it’s a one-person show that Seth Barrish, again, directed. And that we worked on starting — I did a piece on This American Life. People might know me from that as well. I’ve done a handful of stories over the years on This American Life. And Ira Glass, who co-wrote my film, and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend was based on this incident I had. The main event is that I was hit by a drunk driver in Los Angeles. And then in a really strange turn of events made to pay for the other driver’s car.
It was $12,000. And it was infuriating. And the parallel story in that is that my wife and I, my now wife and I, were going through this really hard situation where we were deciding whether or not we were going to get married. And neither of us really believed in the idea of marriage but we were getting pressure from all sides.
And so — and I have this problem where when I think I’m right about something, it can be a real issue. A little bit maybe like Craig, where I just want to be right. I’m like, “Argh,” I get really riled up and it’s like, “I’m not paying for this car! And I’m not getting married! And I’m not going to blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
And the whole show, and the concert film, builds to a head where I’m dealing with both of those things at the same time and it’s –
Craig: Like most good stories, the object is to be less like Craig. Ultimately to get over that.
Mike: It’s not always written that way, but it’s the subtext.
Craig: The subtext is don’t — that I am the pre-actualization character.
John: Yes. Let’s listen to a clip from it. This is from My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and this is as you are first meeting — you’ve met this girl Jenny who you have a crush on and you agree to sort of go out on a three-person date and hopefully not have it be a three-person date at the end of the night. So, let’s listen to a clip.
Mike: We’re at the pub and it had taken so much convincing for Andy to get Jenny to come out there. By the time she came out she thought she was on a date with him. Yeah, that wasn’t the idea. And so I had to convince him to fall away as the night went on, like the red rockets and the space shuttle. And eventually she realized she was on a date with me. And she was not happy about that.
But, she warmed to me as the night went on because she was drinking and like, no, by the end of the night we’re laughing and having a good time and I caught a break which is we shared a ride back to our hotel with one of their friends. And she and I were stuffed in this little backseat together. It was really quiet, so I could hear her soft voice. And she told me she had just come off a long difficult breakup.
And I told her about my breakup. And for a moment there in the backseat it felt like we were holding up two halves of a broken paper heart. And we get back to the hotel and I offer to walk her to her room and she said, sure. And we get to the door and I didn’t want this night to end. And so I build up the courage to lean in to kiss her and she says, “Oh, no thank you.”
Mike: It’s entirely true that story.
Craig: “No thank you.”
Mike: Oh, no thank you.
Craig: That’s one of the greatest responses to an attempt at a kiss ever.
Craig. “Oh, no thank you.”
Craig: “It was nice.”
John: I want to talk about the visuals you built in there because actually it’s much more sophisticated than a person might guess at the start.
Mike: Oh thanks.
John: The visuals of this crowded Irish pub. And then being in the backseat of the car. So, by telling us specifically they were in the backseat of the car we have an image of the two of you guys together there. The image of like the broken paper heart, holding up the two halves of the broken paper heart.
The hallway. We’re seeing these places that you’re putting us and it’s very specific and it’s very — it’s writerly. And it’s not simply just a joke. You’re actually creating — you’re painting a scene which is a crucial thing that we don’t think about people doing in monologues. But it’s so smart.
Craig: Yeah. And while you’re painting the visuals, you’re also telling us something about your internal life which is that you are a romantic but you’re also anti-romantic. You’re anti-romantic enough to make fun of the idea of holding up two halves of the paper heart. And yet you thought of that. You know? And that’s a great human kind of real romanticism which I love.
Mike: Yeah. I think that — I actually think, and that’s why I’m saying I encourage people to make things. I feel like by making and directing Sleepwalk with Me I actually — this show became better. I had started this show and it was Off-Broadway before I made Sleepwalk with Me. And then I toured with it after Sleepwalk with Me to about 100 cities around the world, London, Australia, Canada, 70 cities in America. And it actually — I rewrote it, and rewrote it, and rewrote it, even after it had closed Off-Broadway. And then by the time I filmed it, like you said, it had become more cinematic.
John: So, structurally the show works as an extended flashback, basically.
John: So, quite early on we’re establishing like who you are as a character in this story that we may be hearing. That there’s a girl. That there’s going to be this car crash. And you have a very specific rhyming element that you say for the car crash. It’s T-boned. And it’s not actually even that funny, so it’s basically the car gets hit from the side and being hit in the side is called being T-boned.
And I thought it was so smart because I noticed it when you first did it. It’s like, that’s a strange — it’s not getting a laugh, and he knows it’s not going to get a laugh, so it much be there for a reason. And the reason why it’s there is because at the end of the show you’re going to come back to T-boned and it’s like, “Oh, we’re back in that same moment and this is all — this extended flashback is now over.” It was very smartly done. It felt very cinematic in a way.
John: It’s like, you know, this was the signal that we were out of this flashback and now we’re back into the present time.
So, talk about touring around and doing things, because when you say you rewrote it does that mean that you have — the show is not on index cards. It isn’t like joke cards anymore.
Mike: No, I do do it on index cards also. I have a running document which is, you know, at this point I probably did 30, 40 drafts of that show. And then –
John: What does it look like to you? Because since it is just you talking, so is it –
Mike: It’s just a Word Document.
John: It’s just a Word Document where you have it in paragraphs?
Mike: Yeah. A lot of times if it’s a joke it’ll be it’s one paragraph and that kind of thing to give it a tempo feel on the page. But, yeah, I keep rewriting and rewriting. And there’s a lot of things where I feel like the best movies and plays as well are things where you’re laughing, you’re laughing, you’re laughing, you’re laughing, and then at the end you go, “Oh my god, it’s a fucking story.”
Mike: And that’s what really lured me into like the stuff that I sort of model my own stuff after is like James L. Brooks’ films, Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment. Like you look at a film like Broadcast News which I’ve probably seen 10 or 15 times, and it’s just — I’m just laughing all the way through. And then when it just punches you in the gut at the end of the movie you just go, “Oh my god, this is why we see movies.”
Craig: Well, laughing opens you up. You know?
Mike: Yes, that’s right.
Craig: You’ve lost your defenses and you’re expecting to laugh again. So, nobody sees it coming, you know? I remember talking to David Zucker and Jerry Zucker about the first time they screened the movie Airplane! for a test audience. And in their minds everything was jokes. They were just obsessed with how the jokes would play. And they were just thrown on their heels when at the end of the movie the plan finally lands and the audience bursts into applause.
Mike: Oh, that’s amazing.
Craig: Because they cared that the plane would land. You know? And they just thought, “It doesn’t matter. We’ve told them in every possible way this is not a real plane.” It is to them. It matters. And so the human desire to give a shit is not defeatable.
Craig: So, you might as well work with it, which you did. I mean, you really did it beautifully in your movie. It’s even interesting watching you — if you were to say to me here’s a movie by a comedian about his career in which he gets up and starts getting laughs I would go, “Wow, that sounds kind of like a douchebag scene.” And it’s not.
Mike: Totally agree.
Craig: It’s not because you earned it, you know, because I watched you suffer. So, I totally agree. I know exactly what you mean.
Mike: Yeah. Well, one of the obstacles of that in the writing process and we really struggled with this is there were certain drafts where it was how do we show that he’s doing better. And it would be like, “Well, the audience applauds more.” And it’s like, nope, it can’t be that, because the audience watching it in the theater, if they disagree with the applause then you’re screwed.
Mike: The movie is over.
Craig: The movie is fake. Right. It’s self-congratulatory.
Mike: How many movies have we seen about performance where you’re not applauding when the characters are applauding and you just hate it? And so we were like — I love the movie Once, the film Once, I really love. And I thought that that’s the perfect treatment of performance which is at the beginning he plays covers and this woman convinces him to play originals. And then he plays originals and we get it. We don’t have to like the originals.
Craig: But he’s grown.
Mike: We just get that there’s a growth happening. We can relate to the growth.
Craig: Well and even then, in your moment, the turning point, you see a guy laugh. I mean –
Craig: I mean, you were kind of close on one guy.
Mike: I’m glad you noticed that.
Craig: Yeah. And then I see you going, “Holy shit. Someone laughed.” You know.
Mike: I can’t believe someone laughed.
John: Your reaction is more important than his reaction was.
Craig: Absolutely. And it was great that it wasn’t like [loud laughter], you know, it was just one guy going, ha! [laughs] And you’re like, huh.
Mike: The guy laughing is our producer, Jacob Jaffke. He’s the audience member.
Craig: Yeah, he’s kind of just slouching.
Mike: Yeah, it was a great moment.
Craig: Yeah, it was very smartly done.
I have sort of a question that’s more about your style of comedy.
Craig: Partly it feels modern to me because it is confessional. And I think there is a spirit of confession in modern comedy, you see it with Louis C.K., and you see it with Patton Oswalt. And you see it with a lot of guys.
John: We see it with Lena Dunham. You see it with –
Craig: Absolutely. Yeah.
John: Or, were you talking about this on stage?
Craig: I’m talking about on stage. And it’s not like that that’s new because Richard Pryor was doing it, too, but it’s very au courant. But you’re also very old fashioned actually in a way. You don’t curse in your act, so very kind of Seinfeld in that regard, or Cosby. And like Cosby, there’s a craft. You’re not winging it. But you’re not delivering something that feels over-workshopped or stale either.
Where do you see yourself sitting kind of in the continuum of comedy?
Mike: It’s funny you should say that because my new tour, which if people are interested in seeing me, for exact time/tour dates, you can see thirty cities, it’s going to be 100 cities, which is like I haven’t really told people.
Craig: Oh, we’re breaking news. Nice.
Mike: Yeah, breaking news. And it’s called Thank God for Jokes. And it’s all about what jokes mean to me. And I think what they mean to everyone. Which is to say that I feel like the moments in my life where I felt closest to anyone, to my family, to my wife, to my friends is when we share jokes.
And I feel like culturally we’re not really allowed to tell jokes at work. We’re not really allowed to tell jokes to strangers. You can do it, but there’s a real risk to it. And I think that the reward of comedy is worth the risk, like taking a chance and making a joke with someone actually payoff in this way that’s kind of amazing.
Mike: And makes you feel really close to people. And I actually talk about cursing in the show because I have four albums out there at this point and none of them have curses on them, none of them have explicit lyrics. And the reason is — I’m not proud of this reason, but it’s true — is that when I started doing comedy my mom was so ashamed that I was doing it that she said, “Just don’t become one of those dirty comedians.”
Mike: And I said okay.
John: Oh little Mike.
Mike: She goes, “You don’t have to use words like that. I mean, for example, Oprah is very funny.” And I was like –
Craig: Hysterical. [laughs]
Mike: So be kind of Oprah.
John: You need to be more like Oprah.
Craig: You are almost as funny as Oprah.
Mike: Yeah, I’m working on it. But so I didn’t curse.
And then oddly it ended up being this really good turn in my writing because even if you think about, you don’t want to really as a writer say any word 75 times more than another word. If I walked on stage and said “avocado” 75 times in an hour, after awhile people would be like, “This guy talks about avocados a lot. Is he selling us guacamole?”
And it ended up being a really good thing. In this new show I do curse a few times, but it’s with real purpose. And so, yeah.
John: So, this new show, is it more like standup, or is it more like a one-man show?
Mike: Right now it is standup. The way my shows have evolved over the years is by the time I film it it probably will have more of an arc to it. I have in mind an arc, but I want to let it evolve.
John: Well, let’s talk about what else you’re going to be doing because you said you’re working on two screenplays, so these are things for yourself to direct or things for other people?
Mike: Those are two films for myself to direct and I think in one of them I play a big part and one I play an ensemble part. And it’s really funny because a lot of times people go, “Who are you writing them for?” And I’m like, “I’m writing them for me.”
I feel like it’s almost old Hollywood in a way to say, to brag and say I’m writing this for New Line. It’s like I feel bad when people say stuff like that. I’m like, “Oh, too bad about you.”
Mike: How’s that going to get ruined.
Craig: That’s my life. Okay.
Mike: I’m sorry!
John: And do you see yourself sticking to films? Are you going to try to do some television? If I were a television executive I would say, “Well, let’s give him a show.”
Mike: I feel like, and I get that phone call quite a bit, more than one would think, and I don’t want to do that. Because I don’t think I have a lot to contribute to television and I feel like — I look at Louis and Lena and I just go, “You guys got it. You’re doing it. Way to go.” And I just don’t think that I have much to add to that conversation. But I think in film I — I think you got to do what you love. I love films. I feel like that’s why I like the podcast so much because you guys do, too.
There’s something about that 90 minute to two-hour experience that you cannot compare to anything.
Craig: And one story that resolves that exists in its own space. I’m with you. That’s always been, you know, that’s what I… — I mean, I talk about television all the time with people and I don’t, I think that’s the best way you just put it. That’s what I’m going to start saying instead of, “Uh…” which is my usual answer. I can just say, “I don’t think I have anything to add to that conversation.” That’s exactly right.
I think in terms of — and you clearly do as well, which is interesting, because standup comedy is very segmented. It’s serialized. And you can see how somebody like Jerry Seinfeld was able to just serialize it. But you really do tell encapsulated stories with conclusions. So, it makes total sense.
There’s something, you know, you said you love movies. And you seem like a very positive person, which I love, and when I was watching your movie there’s that scene where you talk to that other comedian and he’s so pissed off.
Mike: Yeah. Marc Maron plays the character, Marc Mulheren.
Craig: Well, no, not Marc Maron.
Mike: Oh, Alex Karpovsky plays the guy, yeah.
Craig: Marc Maron actually was very kind of avuncular. I liked his spin. He was sort of like, “Hey kid, it’ll get better. Now let me go bang this chick.”
Why, I think as somebody that works in comedy but would just be terrified to do what you do, to go on stage and do this, it seems so hard and it seems so raw and vulnerable. Why are comedians so mean to each other?
Craig: Can’t they just love each other?
John: Are they mean to each other? Or is that just one perception?
Mike: I think Craig’s right. I’ve been doing, at UCB Theater in New York, I’ve been recently doing an improv show. I was in an improv group in college actually with Nick Kroll who is another actor.
Craig: Yeah, funny guy.
Mike: Yeah. And I’ve been doing this show in New York called Mike Birbiglia’s dream. It’s a long form improv show with Chris Gethard who is super talented. And sometimes Vanessa Bayer does it, and Aidy Bryant, and Christina Gausas, and Tami Sagher, and all these really great people. And I love the camaraderie of it. That’s why I do it.
With standup comics, a little less camaraderie there. It’s a little bit — I don’t know, it’s a little bit of a Rat Packy thing. People break each other’s balls a lot.
Craig: Sure. But that’s different. I sense that there’s a –
Mike: Yeah. But I agree with you. I don’t know what to say about it. I think it’s a very lone wolf profession.
John: Yeah, is it because of the lifestyle? Is it because of the touring and because you’re always on your own and you don’t have your own group?
Mike: Yeah. I think you spend a lot of time alone and there’s just, I don’t know.
Craig: There’s that sense that people are clawing for some diminishing resource that’s being dangled in front of them, you know, when in the movie he says, “All my friends, they’re hacks and they’re getting sitcoms.” You know, that idea that there’s some closing window of success.
Mike: Yeah, I agree. And I think on your episode about positive moviegoing, the title of the episode Positive Moviegoing, I really liked how you guys were talking about screenwriters want other screenwriters to do well.
Craig: Largely. [laughs]
Mike: For the most part.
Mike: Cinephiles, I mean, I consider myself just a lover of movies. I just want movies to be great. Like this year, I love Spectacular Now, and Frances Ha, and I love Gravity. You know, and those are three very different types of films. And I loved that they were all made. And I want more made. I want more great movies.
Craig: Yeah, screenwriters, maybe it’s because it’s not us, it’s our work. We write screenplays, we hand them over. They’re made. We make them sometimes. But you guys, it’s you, it’s your faces. It’s your voices. And it becomes very personal. I could see that where it’s sort of like, okay, if John hands me a script or I hand him a script and we go back and help each other and say, “Well what about this? What about this?” That’s about the work.
If John walks off a stage and I’m like, “No, no, no. Your face — your hands, what are your hands doing buddy?”
John: Yeah, everything is wrong. Let’s talk about from the perspective of a 20-year-old college kid listening to this right now. And so he’s like, “I want to do what Mike Birbiglia is doing, that thing where I’m writing for myself and performing stuff.” How would that kid get started? What’s the roadmap for him or her?
Craig: Sleep disorder. [laughs]
John: Figure out what your biggest, strangest tick is and really dwell on that.
Mike: It is a really hard thing to say. And I think, I’m sure you guys have this with screenwriters all the time where it’s like, so I always feel like saying, “So the path is there is no path. And I’m sorry about that.” And you have to figure out what it is by studying what other people’s paths are. There’s tons of books on it. There’s this podcast. I would honestly say listen to every episode of this podcast to people who are aspiring writers. It is a wealth of information and it’s free.
Craig: There’s our promo. There it is. [laughs]
Mike: It is really a service. And what writing comes down to, being a performer, too, a writer-performer is you have to write and you have to perform. And that means you have to write anything and you need to perform anywhere. And because it’s about the ten thousand hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about. You have to get on the stage for ten thousand hours. You have to write for ten thousand hours.
Craig: You drove around from town to town. I mean, that happens.
Mike: I hosted lip sync contests. I performed in the center of a walkathon for lupus in a gymnasium, you know. I mean, these are real life stories. This is still my life. I mean, I get booked at corporate events where I’m performing for bankers. And I have to do it. And, like, it sucks. It’s not fun. But it’s part of my job.
Craig: You should open with that. “This sucks.”
John: “I resent being here.”
Mike: This isn’t fun!
Craig: Yeah. “This is not fun. It’s part of a job. But you guys understand what it’s like to do something that sucks, that’s not fun. You work for AT&T.”
John: Yeah. And in about two hours I’m no longer working for AT&T and you’re still stuck working for AT&T.
Mike: You guys are really good at this.
Craig: I can’t believe that half of you haven’t killed yourselves by now.
Mike: You guys are coming up with great ways to not get the check afterwards.
Craig: We’re really good at that.
John: That’s how it works. But what you’re saying in general is what we kind of say on the podcast about screenwriting in general. There’s no one path that sort of goes through it. And so you can’t get started until you get started. And you have to write. And in this case of performing, you have to find places to perform. And whatever those places are you have to do it. And just make that leap and trust that you’re not going to — you will fall on your face, and that’s okay.
Mike: Yeah. I remember in Washington, DC when I was starting out, I would go — there were not — this is in the late ’90s, there were not standup comedy open mics. I would go to music open mics and I would sign up. And then they would say my name and I would walk up and I would do standup comedy. No one is expecting standup comedy.
Craig: Right. The guy says, “Um, that was a comedian.” [laughs]
Mike: And a lot of times it’s pushing a square peg into a round hole, or whatever that expression is, and it sucks.
John: People always forget that Lena Dunham made two movies before she made Tiny Furniture.
John: And so she just started. And she didn’t ask for permission. She just went and did it.
Craig: Well, you know, people ask us how do you get started, how do you break in, da, da, da, tell me how you…
And I’ve done it. We’ve done it. We’ve both told the “how we got started” story. But always with the caveat this could have only happened to me.
Mike: That’s right.
Craig: There’s no one else that could possibly succeed following the Mike Birbiglia plan. Not possible. Even if you replicated all of it and jumped out of a window, you can’t do it. The only thing that we individually have to offer is what’s unique to ourselves, which means that we’re going to all start differently.
The only thing I see that is common throughout all these stories, other than some — hopefully some — level of talent and some level of drive, is honesty with one’s self.
Mike: I agree.
Craig: I just don’t know how delusional people can make it. And there’s a lot of delusional people out there who substitute delusional confidence for substance.
Mike: I always say that when I go back to the screenwriting class, I studied under this guy, John Glavin, taught me screenwriting in college. And whenever I go back I always say as a writer all you have to give is yourself.
Craig: That’s it. That’s all you’ve got.
Mike: And if you’re not willing to give yourself, go home.
It’s time for One Cool Things. Did you come prepared for the One Cool Thing? You can take a pause while we –
Mike: Yeah, I can pause. I’m going to pause.
Craig: I got to pull mine up on my thing here, because I wrote it down in my thing.
Mike: I want to do the one that you guys did a few things ago, like Knock Knock, where you knock your phone.
Craig: Oh yeah. That’s great. I use it all the time.
Mike: That’s so cool.
Craig: It seems like it might have updated.
John: It did update.
Craig: It’s getting much, much better. They must have listened to me.
John: They listened to Craig complain about it enough.
Craig: They must have listened to the center of the world. Yup.
John: So, while Craig and Mike are figuring out their One Cool Things, I will tell you my One Cool Thing is actually a podcast One Cool Thing is that we finally have an app for Scriptnotes.
Mike: Oh, great news.
John: I sent you the link to this and you didn’t even open it.
Craig: No you didn’t. You totally did not send me the link to this.
John: Okay. Well, I’ll show it to you on my phone.
Craig: How dare you make an app and not tell me.
John: So, there’s now an app. The whole reason why we switched to our library over from where we were hosting to this new thing which was complicated was because there was this hope of being able to offer an app so people could listen to all the back episodes and all the episodes we’ve done on one handy app.
So, if you are listening to us on iTunes, that will continue to work great, and our last 20 episodes will always be free for people to listen to and that’s great. If you have the USB drive and want to buy the USB drive with the first 100, that’s always an option.
But what the Scriptnotes App lets you do, it’s available for iOS, for your iPhone and for Android, it lets you listen to any of the episodes of the show. And if you want to listen to those early episodes there’s a monthly subscription which is — we’ve already talked about the monthly subscription.
John: But it’s $1.99 a month and it lets you listen to any episode from anywhere back. The Netflix model of all you can eat. So, if you want to subscribe for a month and listen to 100 episodes and then cancel, that is absolutely welcome. And you can do that.
Craig: Does this charge recur?
John: The charge recurs.
Craig: Oh, so we’re like porn now?
John: We are basically.
Craig: Oh, well, it’s worked for them.
John: It’s worked great for them. So, cancel after a month if you have caught up and don’t want to listen to more.
Craig: No one is going to cancel.
John: No one is going to cancel.
Craig: They’re going to find these $2 charges on Grandma Tilly’s bill in 2070. And I love it.
John: So, if you would like the Scriptnotes App it is available right now in the iPhone App Store.
Craig: I’m so excited. The best thing about doing the podcast with John is that I know no more about what’s happening than anyone else listening.
John: So, Craig, you will check your email and you’ll see it’s there. So, this is what the little app looks like.
Craig: Yeah, I’m going to check my email. You totally didn’t send that to me. You totally did not.
John: I totally did.
Craig: You totally didn’t.
John: And so here’s all our episodes.
Craig: What?! Oh, come on, that’s awesome.
John: So, it looks a little iOS 6-y because it’s actually the Libsyn people who do most of the podcasts in the world. It’s really their app with our sort of content in it. So, it doesn’t look as good as Ryan Nelson, our own programmer had done himself, but it works. So, it’s there for you and it’s available on iOS and even on Android because we don’t want to be just –
John: Snobby Apple people. So, that’s my One Cool Thing.
Craig: All right. That’s pretty freaking awesome.
Mike: I got one.
Craig: All right. Let’s hear it.
Mike: Well, actually I did a really small part in this film this fall called The Fault in Our Stars. And it’s with Shailene Woodley and a bunch of really great actors. But the cool thing is it’s based on a YA novel by John Green of the same name, The Fault in Our Stars. And I guess, I have to say before I read it I had never read a YA genre book, because I thought it wasn’t for me. But it’s like this really compelling book about these two kids who have cancer and they fall in love in the cancer support group. And it’s about their journey.
And I just think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s really touching. For any age.
Craig: YA novels are actually — one of the things I love about that genre is that they are still dedicated to storytelling, to proper storytelling.
Craig: They don’t need to soak you in a –
John: Wild conspiracies. The Dan Browns of the world.
Craig: Or just confuse me. You know, like a DeLillo novel. You’re confused, you know, or Pynchon. They’re not aspiring to that. They’re just trying to tell a good story. And there is something nice about a good well crafted piece of mainstream narrative.
I remember reading the Hunger Games books, and I struggle sometimes reading first person books, but I was like these are really well put together. So, all right, that is cool.
This is kind of a One Cool Thing in advance of Christmas because people are looking for gift ideas. And I try not to put things that are like super expensive, but this is kind of like $300.
John: That’s expensive.
Craig: It’s expensive. Okay, so it’s $300. All right. But it’s Christmas.
Mike: Okay, yeah. So, maybe your one gift.
Craig: I love karaoke. I love singing. I love karaoke. But the home karaoke modules and things –
John: Are terrible.
Craig: They’re terrible.
John: You shouldn’t use those.
Craig: They’re awful. Until…there’s this new thing now called Singtrix. And it’s pretty cool looking because basically they have a pretty good speaker and then they have this module that lets you actually properly affect your voice. You can add some reverb, or this or that, and they’ve broken out also the different parts of the music so that you can adjust it and make it sound good, so it doesn’t sound terrible. And then their library is enormous, but it’s based on, it’s through an app.
So, then you mount your iPad there. It comes with your microphone. And if your family or your friends love karaoke, and you have $300, you have more money than sense, Singtrix!
John: The model of this, is it a razor and blades model? Are they charging your per song also?
Craig: No. I believe that you have access to their library as part of your purchase of the $300 exorbitantly expensive Singtrix.
Mike: But that could be for the whole family.
Craig: That is in fact for the whole — so that is a gift that the family got for itself that really is just about the one person in the house that wants it, imposing it upon everyone else, and then angrily insisting that they will enjoy it, which is what will happen in my house with me, explaining to my kids.
John: “No, it’s your turn to sing a song. You will sing the song.”
Craig: “I said we would do things together as a family which means you’re all going to sit there and listen to me do something for myself.”
Mike: [as Craig] You will sing the song!
[as John] I think that you should sing the song.
Craig: Yeah. Sing it!
Mike: [as John] I think that you should sing the song.
Craig: Just sing it.
Mike: [as John] Well why not sing the song.
Craig: Ugh, sing it already.
John: There’s nothing better than when you sort of force your kid to like play a board game as a family and like they resent every role of the dice.
Craig: Any time a parent says to a child, “We’re going to do something together as a family,” the child knows they’re about to do something they don’t want to do.
Craig: Nothing is more anti-family than family activities.
John: Except half an hour into it they’re totally enjoying it and you can remind them, by the way, you did not want to do this.
Craig: You’re the worst dad ever. That is the move you should never do. “By the way, if you go back a half an hour ago you will see that you were acting like an asshole.”
Craig: And then you’ve lost them again.
Mike: I also want to say, I know this doesn’t count as my One Cool Thing, but my friend Mike Lavoie who was a producer on Sleepwalk with Me and worked with me for many years, like seven or eight years, introduced me to your website many years ago. He was the one who introduced me to it. And so I want to say hi to him.
John: Very nice.
Craig: A little shout out.
John: A little shout out. Mike, I am so glad you came in here.
Mike: That was awesome.
John: You’re a fantastic guest on our show. For like a damn near stranger, I can’t believe how well this –
Craig: He’s a super fan.
Craig: A super fan.
Mike: Avid listener.
John: And that helps. It does help a lot.
Craig: Writer, director, actor.
John: But talk about things we didn’t even know about, the performance stuff, the standup stuff. It was great.
Mike: It was all the insecurity I had as we were going through is that people will go, “They’re assuming as they talk about it that we like his movie, too, and we hate it.”
Craig: Oh, you mean the people at home listening?
Mike: Oh yeah.
Craig: Oh, yeah, they may very well hate it.
Mike: Yes. So, if you are writing in the comments, don’t write like, “Hey, by the way, I hate it.” We know. I know you exist. You don’t have to write about that.
Craig: Yes, we’re aware that some of you out there. No, if you hate this movie –
Mike: Then maybe it doesn’t apply to you.
Craig: Yeah. And also I hate you. Stop listening.
John: Thank you all so much and join us again next week. Oh, we should do our normal boilerplate here at the end. So, if you have questions for me, or for Craig, or for Mike Birbiglia, we’re all on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust.
Craig: I’m @clmazin.
Mike: I’m @birbigs.
John: And @birbigs would be a great place for you to find out more information about his upcoming tour and for new dates. You’re going to see him all over your television on various talk shows as well, so tune in for those.
Craig: Yeah, lesser shows than this, like Conan.
John: But while you’re on iTunes leaving us a comment about our show, you should also check out his movies and specials and comedy albums.
Mike: Yeah. Sleepwalk with Me. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.
John: They’re both there as movies and then also your albums are there as well.
Craig: Buy all of it. Just buy all of it.
John: Just buy it. Don’t think about it.
Craig: Don’t bust my chops over here. Just buy everything.
John: Buy it all.
John: Cool. Great. Thanks Mike.
Craig: Thanks guys.
- Write in and tell us if we’re wrong
- Mike Birbiglia, and on Wikipedia, IMDb, Twitter and iTunes
- The Tricky Part write up in The New York Times, and in book form on Amazon
- Use BroadwayBox.com to find discounted shows in New York
- Download the Scriptnotes app now for iOS and Android devices
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- Singtrix home karaoke
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Cole Parzenn
I recently updated my Youtube channel, and came across a scene from my 2003 pilot “Alaska.” I thought it would be interesting to compare the written scene to what it looked like in the final version.
Here’s the scene as scripted. (You can read the whole script in the Library.)
INT. SATCHEL HOUSE – DAY 3
Closing the front door behind her, Valerie follows Mathers into the living room. The house is spartan by any standard: dirty walls, old drapes, sagging furniture. Two rifles hang on the wall.
In all, it’s a shelter, but not a home. No woman has been in this house in a decade.
Venturing into the kitchen, Mathers finds industrial-sized cans of beef stew lined up on the counter. Saltines by the case.
The mother is dead, isn’t she?
Virginia Satchel. She died ten, fifteen years ago.
So who is Connie?
He points out a child’s drawing on the refrigerator, the paper yellowed with time. The illustration shows four stick figures in front of the house, labelled “Daddy,” “Glenn,” “Bobby,” and “Connie.”
Connie is noticeably bigger than the other three. As Mathers steps back,
BLASTS through the kitchen window from outside. As glass begins to rain down, a SECOND SHOT rips into the kitchen cabinets. Mathers and Valerie dive for the floor, unholstering their weapons.
Three more SHOTS blow through the kitchen. Mathers listens to the tone of the shots.
Rifle. One shooter.
You want me to call for backup?
How close is it?
Half hour. Maybe more.
Silence. The shooter has stopped. Mathers very carefully edges up to the shattered window. Valerie takes the far side.
With a quick movement, Mathers leans around the window frame and starts SHOOTING. Behind a distant wood pile, movement. A flash of metal.
Mathers ducks back as two more SHOTS rip into the window and wall.
Keep him shooting.
Before she can ask where he’s going, Mathers runs down the hallway. Valerie presses back against the wall. Steels herself, then pops around to FIRE.
She’s met with another BLAST. Just missed her.
EXT. BACK OF HOUSE – DAY 3
A chair SMASHES through a second story window.
Mathers climbs out after it. He slides down the shingled roof, then jumps down another ten feet to the ground below.
EXT. EDGE OF THE FOREST – DAY 3
We STAY WITH Mathers as he circles behind the woodpile, gun at ready. Up in the house, Valerie continues to FIRE, keeping the shooter’s attention.
Reaching a good distance behind the shooter, Mathers SHOUTS OUT:
State Trooper! Drop your weapon!
The shooter stands. CONRAD “CONNIE” SATCHEL is six-foot-six and weighs in at nearly three hundred pounds.
Severe birth defects have left him physically and mentally malformed. Although 20 years old, he’s like a giant eight-year old.
Put it down! Put it down!
Connie isn’t aiming at Mathers, exactly, but he isn’t inclined to drop the rifle either.
You’re a police man.
I am. I need you to put that rifle down.
Over Connie’s shoulder, we see Valerie approaching. She has her gun on Connie.
Is your name Connie?
How did you know?
Put down the rifle and I’ll tell you.
Intrigued, Connie sets the rifle down. Connie holds his hands up. His fingers are bandaged and bloody. Several are obviously broken, sticking out at strange angles.
What happened to your hands, Connie?
(looking at them)
They had evil in ‘em. Daddy had to fix ‘em.
Here’s the finished scene after filming and editing:
The biggest changes to the scene were motivated by the location we found. Director Kim Masters wanted plenty of windows, so we ended up enclosing a porch and playing it as a kitchen. We didn’t feature any of the set dressing I wrote in (industrial cans, saltines), but the set decorators followed that vibe.
Once the gunshots started, some dialogue got rearranged.
First, Valerie’s line was shortened to the much better “Call for backup?” Second, we added a line for Mathers — “Alright, let’s see what we got first.” I honestly don’t remember if it happened on set or in looping. (We don’t see his face in the cut, so it would have been an easy line to slip in.)
Because we ended up with a single-story cabin, there was no need to have Mathers sliding down a roof. Otherwise, the rest of the scene plays very much as scripted — and very much how I imagined it.
For me, writing a scene is a process of fully visualizing a scene in my head, then finding the words to describe it. You don’t always get such a good match between intention and finished product, but the better you can evoke the experience of the scene on the page, the more likely you’ll be pleased with the outcome.
You don’t need to use the app. In fact, most listeners will probably be better off sticking with their current setup if it meets their needs. We’re still on iTunes, just like we’ve always been.
Or if you’re not happy with your current podcast app, keep looking, because there are many good choices out there. (Personally, I’m a fan of Instacast for the iPhone.) As a podcast app, Scriptnotes only does one thing, and it only does it acceptably well.
So if I’m not recommending the Scriptnotes app, why does it exist?
For the back catalog.
There are now 121 episodes of Scriptnotes, and listeners often want to go back and hear those old episodes. We sell a USB drive of the first 100, and offer a subscription-based archive of all the episodes, but neither of those solutions is helpful when you just want to hear a given episode on your phone.
The Scriptnotes app hooks into the full archive, so if you’re a subscriber, you can listen to any episode whenever or wherever you want.
Since launch, we’ve actually gotten very few questions about the app, but here are some answers to theoretical questions someone might ask.
What’s the deal with subscriptions?
Scriptnotes has always been free and always will be. We make the most recent 20 episodes available through iTunes. Older episodes are available in the archives, either through the new app or at Scriptnotes.net as part of a monthly subscription ($1.99/month).
Think of it as the Netflix pricing model. For that $1.99/month, you can download as many episodes as you want.
Are you making money off this?
As Craig loves to point out, Scriptnotes is a money-losing venture. Between editing, transcripts and hosting costs, there are more expenses than t-shirts and monthly subscriptions could cover.
But that’s okay. We’ve turned down advertising and other opportunities because neither of us want Scriptnotes to be a business. Craig and I do the show because we like it.
Could someone subscribe, download all the episodes, then cancel?
Absolutely. To me, the handy thing about the monthly subscription is being able to listen to any episode at any time, but it’s totally up to you.
How do I cancel a subscription?
In the Libsyn account page, click “Change Subscription.” On the next page, you’ll see a button to cancel.
What’s the deal with bonus material?
To me, Scriptnotes is me and Craig together, talking about screenwriting stuff. Sometimes we have special guests, but it’s always the two of us.
Occasionally we have audio that is in the same vein as Scriptnotes but not really an episode. A good example is a recent conversation Daniel Wallace and I recorded at the Austin Film Festival. We put that up as bonus content for subscribers because while it’s interesting and on-topic, it’s not really a Scriptnotes episode.
Me and Craig = Scriptnotes episode
Me or Craig = possible bonus content
Will there be a lot of bonus material? I doubt it. I wouldn’t subscribe just for the bonus material. But if you have ideas for something you think would be great for a bonus thing, certainly tell us.
The app feels really iOS 6.
That’s not a question, but yeah.
We’re releasing the Scriptnotes app under our Quote-Unquote Apps banner,1 but it’s actually our host Libsyn’s app. They did all the coding — Ryan just sent our background artwork.
It’s not just dated — some of the functionality is also a bit hidden. For example, you can download episodes for offline listening by tapping the star next to the title. If you’re getting ready for a plane trip, this is a handy way to bank a few episodes for listening.
I suspect the app will eventually get updated with new graphics and such, but I don’t know a timetable.
How do I report a problem with the app?
On the main screen, tap Contact, then Troubleshooting. From there, you can Send a Diagnostic Report that generates an email to the Libsyn team.
- We put the app out under our label so we could track download numbers. As of yesterday, we had 359 downloads for iOS.
Writer/director/actor/comedian Mike Birbiglia joins John and Craig to talk about writing for yourself, and how his one-man shows have translated into his films Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. We talk movies and television, stand-up and screenplays, and the upside of failure.
In other news, there’s now an official app for Scriptnotes, available for iOS and Android. If you like your current setup, keep doing what you’re doing, because nothing has changed. The last 20 episodes will always be free. The app allows you listen to the back 100 episodes for a monthly subscription.
- Write in and tell us if we’re wrong
- Mike Birbiglia, and on Wikipedia, IMDb, Twitter and iTunes
- The Tricky Part write up in The New York Times, and in book form on Amazon
- Use BroadwayBox.com to find discounted shows in New York
- Download the Scriptnotes app now for iOS and Android devices
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- Singtrix home karaoke
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Cole Parzenn
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, Episode 120, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, are you high right now?
Craig: No, I’m not at all high right now. Not right now.
John: And that’s something we’ll be talking about on today’s episode is writers who get high a lot, or somehow use some other substance in order to allow themselves to write.
John: And the pros and cons of doing that.
John: Today we will also talk about the upcoming WGA negotiations. There may have been a template set by the DGA negotiations, so we will talk about that. But first, we wanted to talk about this infographic that probably everyone on Twitter sent to us this last week.
Craig: I mean, there’s got to be some service, someone would make millions, if they could create a service that let people know don’t send this to someone because the rest of the world has already sent it to them.
John: Well, let’s think about that. because it wouldn’t be that hard for Twitter to actually build that in. So, essentially if you were trying to @-message somebody this link, when you send it to them Twitter could come back saying they already got that. Are you sure you want to pester them again?
Craig: That is a great idea. Twitter, please! Just because you and I have a very specific kind of podcast. Probably more specific than 99% of the podcasts out there. And what that means is when something hits our specific topic, everyone sends it. Everyone.
John: I like that Craig knows that our podcast is more specific than every other podcast…
John: Considering he listens to exactly one podcast, this podcast.
Craig: I’m using the process of — I’m using induction.
John: [laughs] Induction.
Craig: Induction. I’m inducing this. Because how could you be more specific than what we talk about?
John: Oh, there are whole podcasts about grandfather clocks.
Craig: What?! That’s crazy. [laughs]
John: Well, if you think back to the prototype for our show, something like Car Talk, where they’re just two brothers talking about cars. And that’s a very — seems like a very specific topic. Granted, it’s more general than screenwriting, although we’re talking about screenwriting in movies overall, so movies are not more specific than cars, are they?
Craig: Well, screenwriting is. But you’re right. I’ll notch it back. We’re not more specific than 99% of podcasts. We’re more specific than 9% of podcasts.
John: We are fairly specific. And so the bigger point being that people do send us things like this infographic a lot. Probably because they like the show. They think this graphic is interesting. And we would probably want to talk about it on the show. And you know what? Let’s do it right now.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: So, this was an infographic that was put up on Reddit but a guy named profound_whatever. I think that’s his handle. If his actual name was profound_whatever…
Craig: Coolest guy.
John: He’d be kind of cool. Also, you wonder about his parents. It just tells you a lot about who the parents could be if they named their child profound_whatever. This person wrote, “I’ve covered 300 spec scripts for five different companies and assembled findings into a snazzy infographic,” which is linked. And it’s a huge infographic.
So, before we get into this I thought we could talk about what coverage is, because for people who are new to our podcast or to screenwriting, they may not be familiar with coverage.
So, Craig, describe coverage for us.
Craig: Great question. In fact, there was somebody on Twitter recently who was asking this very question and they seemed a little, they just seemed a little at sea about the notion of it.
Coverage is simply the process by which people who are interested in whether or not they should pursue a script ask somebody else to do the work for them. And the work meaning reading the script, summarizing the plot of the script, offering opinion about the quality of the script — relative quality of the script — and then giving it some sort of grade.
Craig: It sounds a bit awful to say that people whose job is to evaluate screenplays don’t do the reading, they essentially farm out the reading of these scripts. But they have to. They just don’t have a choice. There are so many more screenplays than decision makers. And so the decision makers need some sort of filtering system. And that’s how Hollywood has evolved. There have been readers forever. And they get paid, you know, sometimes they get paid okay. Sometimes they don’t get paid much at all. It’s a classic job for somebody that’s starting out.
You yourself did it.
John: I did.
Craig: And you kind of — you just hope that you get good coverage. And everyone has it. Agencies have readers, and studios have readers, and producers have readers. They’re everywhere.
John: Great. So, let’s define some terms. A reader is somebody who works for a producer, a studio, an agency, and someone plops a script down in front of this person and says, “Please read this and write coverage on it.” Coverage is both the process of covering a script, basically like to write out this report on a script, and it’s also the report itself. So, it’s the object and it’s the process.
John: So, coverage can best be thought of as sort of like a book report about a script. And so it has a summary page and it sort of lists the very basic things about it like who wrote it, how many pages long it is, so the quantifiable data. Some grades in different categories, like characterization, or setting, or different things.
John: Plot. Which would be scaled from like poor to excellent. And then usually three possibilities: “consider” or “recommend” are sort of interchangeable terms; “pass with reservations” or “consider with reservations,” sort of like that maybe grade; and then “pass,” which would just be no — you should not consider making this as a film or pursuing this any further.
Craig: Right. Recommend, consider, and pass are like green light, yellow light, red light.
John: Exactly. So, this person wrote coverage on 300 different scripts. When I was reading at TriStar, by the time I left TriStar, I had read 110 scripts and books and written coverage on them. And it’s very common to sort of keep at least your title pages of this in like some sort of database. And so it’s actually easy-ish to generate some kind of report and that’s what this guy apparently did.
John: So, out of 300 total scripts, he recommended eight.
John: 89 scripts received a consider. And 203 scripts received a pass. I found the 89 considers really, really high. Did that strike you as high, too?
Craig: No, because consider is — you have to put yourself in the shoes of the reader. I’m not sure who he was reading for, but you usually know for whom you’re reading. You will find screenplays sometimes that either have a high quality to them, but you don’t think are something that your employer, the person asking you for coverage, is looking to make.
And sometimes you have the opposite problem where, okay, well this is exactly the kind of move they want to make, it’s just not very well written. So, you kind of have to give it to them and let them know, at least, because it may be something that they want to be rewritten, or maybe a writer that they love that they want to put on something else.
So, that didn’t shock me.
John: That’s actually — those are very good points. And consider may also be, depending on the studio or what the venue is that you’re reading for, consider might be consider this is a writing sample. Basically like I don’t think this movie is something you’re going to want to make, but this writer is good, so therefore you should take a look at it.
Craig: Yeah. But the number that should give everybody a little pause is eight scripts out of 300. So, we’re talking about roughly, what, 2.5% success rate there.
John: I will tell you that when I was a reader for TriStar, I recommended — by the time I was done with 110 scripts I had recommended four.
John: And I can tell you on each of the four scripts I recommended I got called to the mat for recommending them. They’d say like, “Why are you wasting our time recommending this script?” And so it’s one of those things where as a reader a lot of times you’re more rewarded for not recommending something, which is a sad thing but a true thing that people should keep in mind.
Craig: Yeah. Because the thing is when you recommend something you’re saying, “You are going to spend three hours on your weekend reading this.”
Craig: And if they hate it, you wasted their precious time.
John: Exactly. You took time away from them and their families and their second wife.
Craig: [laughs] Second wives!
John: Let’s take a look at page count, because I thought you would be very excited by this page count graph. Basically he’s charted from the very shortest script to the very longest script.
Craig: I was excited, yeah.
John: The average script length was 107 pages. But Craig recognized a very familiar pattern from his psychology days.
Craig: The pattern of like the double hump.
John: The double hump. At first glance it is a bell curve, but then as you dig in a little deeper, there’s sort of two places where it also pumps up.
Craig: Yes. This is not a clean bell curve by any stretch. And the average script length here, I think, is less interesting probably — he’s using the mean. I’m kind of more interested in mode or median perhaps. But, yes, there’s this cluster of, I mean, it’s really small on my screen on this particular — oh, there we go.
So, there’s this cluster that occurs kind of around 95 to 100 pages. There’s a cluster that occur around 106 to 112. Then there’s a cluster that’s 117 to 122. A weird little spike, like in the mid 120s. But I was interested, and I was actually pleased to see this, there’s kind of no real average here. When you look at it you realize that there’s pretty remarkable diversity of page length in the range of 95 to 126 pages.
John: Yeah. The highest number of scripts he read had 106 pages rather than 107 pages. Also, I recognize now on the very right end of the chart, it goes up to 147, but it doesn’t fill in all the little steps in between. So, it’s misleading out there on the edges of the chart.
Craig: Yeah, he didn’t do the little squiggle to show that the graph was breaking numerically, which makes sense, because the 147 would have just skewed the graph and made it look stupid.
I mean, let’s give — what’s his name, proper_whatever?
Craig: profound_whatever has done a quite beautiful job graphically here. I just wanted to give him or her credit for their visual sense. I like the color choices and the fonts and everything.
John: Here’s what I would say, a useful thing to take from this. Anywhere between, you know, I’d say 98 pages and 120 pages, you’re going to be in a pretty safe zone. Most of the scripts you’re going to read are going to be in that zone. And so if you’re outside of that zone, you should really think twice.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you still see, I mean one of the more popular page counts in his infographic is 95 pages, which surprised me that there were that many. You know, I’ve never turned in a script that was fewer than 100 pages. I don’t think I’ve ever turned in a script that was more than 120. I’ve always landed somewhere in that 20 page zone depending on what the story called for.
But, I could see, okay, if it was a great 95 pages, no one is going to throw tantrum. If it’s a great 128 pages, no one is going to throw a tantrum. But, you will start to stress people out as you drift away from. I mean, however many standard deviations away from whatever they say — I would just say 110 is a nice number to call middle zone.
John: Let’s take a look at heroes and villains. Here he’s charting whether the hero and the villain were male, female, and how it all works. So, by far the bulk of scripts were a male hero and a male villain. That’s not surprising to me at all.
John: Male hero/indistinct villain is the second highest number. An indistinct villain is a forest fire, zombies, himself/herself, a haunted house, the Nazis, society, etc.
John: So that man versus something that’s not another man.
Female villain, there’s only 16 scripts. Male versus female villain, 16 scripts. Female villains altogether only accounted for 33 of the –
Craig: That’s right.
John: That’s a not very high number.
John: Female heroes were 33 out of these scripts. Sorry, total of 50 if you count the male and female villains. Not that huge a number.
Craig: No, this may be a function of the fact that more men are writing these screenplays than women. It may be a function of society or god knows what. You know, I always hesitate to draw conclusions from these things. But one thing is clear. This is a very statistically significant finding.
Craig: And the 300 scripts is actually a pretty decent population upon which to draw statistical analysis. That stories about men opposing men are wildly more popular than any other kind of story.
John: Nearly half of the scripts that he covered was a man versus a man.
John: Let’s take a look at the writers. So, of these 300 scripts –
Craig: Oh, well there you go. [laughs]
John: 270 were male writers.
Craig: There we go! That probably has is a big part of it. Yeah.
John: 22 were female writers. Eight were a male/female duo. Solo writers accounted for more than two-thirds, 223. Writer duos or trios accounted for the rest of them. Only four trios.
John: I know very few writing trios. So, if you have three names on a script, that’s usually someone has come in to rewrite it. It’s not that you were a writing team of three people. Do you know any writing teams of three people?
Craig: I do. The most famous and longest lasting writing trio probably in Hollywood is Berg, Schaffer, Mandel.
John: You’re absolutely right.
Craig: But they are an anomaly. No question.
John: Let’s take a look at the miscellaneous section. Heroes/villains with macho action movie names, 25.
Craig: “Stacker Pentecost.”
John: Scripts based on a true story. 18 of those.
John: Yeah. Oh, he didn’t count how many were like a bad word in a title, because that’s always like one of those icebreaker things where you have filthy words in the title.
Craig: Where is that?
John: It’s not there.
Craig: Oh, he didn’t count that.
John: It feels like there would be more of those than pun titles.
John: Because that’s a thing that people do. They throw some word you could never actually use in the movie title –
Craig: But so many pun titles. I mean, Last Vegas is out in theaters right now. People love pun titles. I don’t know why.
John: They do. Found footage scripts, 11. Zombie scripts, 10. Attempts at the next Sherlock Holmes, like historical revision.
John: Manic pixie dream girls, only four.
Craig: Oh, that’s nice to see.
John: But three uses of the scorpion and the frog analogy.
Craig: Well, it’s everyone’s favorite analogy.
John: It’s the best little analogy.
Craig: And look, I like that he puts here, “We get it, some people are born bad.” I know, but you know, like what if it’s in a good script?
John: I would take exception to that. I don’t think you can use that anymore. I think it can be a fantastic script, it would only hurt a fantastic script to actually call it out. Even Drive, with his scorpion jacket, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I get it.”
Craig: Well, what if it’s in the script in action and it’s not meant to be seen or heard? Like what if somebody says something like, “Jim shoots Dan. Dan looks at him. Of course, the scorpion and the frog,” but not like dialogue. Is that okay?
John: Yeah. It wouldn’t bug me nearly as much. I think it’s still absolutely a valid idea that a character cannot change his basic nature. That’s an absolutely valid idea, thematically resonate now, for the next 100 years.
Craig: But you can’t say it.
John: You can’t say it aloud.
Craig: I totally agree with that. That would be ridiculous at this point.
John: So, of the 300 scripts that he covered, he or she, I’m just assuming it’s a he, but that’s not necessarily true, 49 were horror/slasher.
Craig: That’s so crazy to me that there’s that many.
John: So many.
Craig: And you know, interestingly, so that was the most popular genre. And perhaps specs lend themselves to horror/slasher genre. Or perhaps a sort of cottage industry of amateurs love horror. But, horror movies are actually not that — they don’t get made a lot actually.
John: See, I think people will see that those scripts are selling. And we’re making at least ten of those a year. So, I think if you’re a first-time writer who is trying to sell a script, it might be the thing you write though.
Craig: Sure. But, I mean, look at this –
John: It’s not a bad –
Craig: There’s comedy, I mean, every month there’s two comedies, no matter what, without fail. And there are only 31 out of 300. 10% of the scripts were comedies.
John: That seems crazy to me.
Craig: It just seems crazy, right? Whereas almost 50 were horror movies. That was very, I mean, listen, great. Less competition. Please, more horror movies.
John: But here’s a thing I’ll say. If you are a funny person why are you not writing a comedy script? Well, maybe you’re writing a comedy TV half-hour. Maybe that’s where they’re actually spending their time. But if you’re a funny person, you have so much less competition on the spec level for those reads.
Craig: Yeah, well, maybe there just aren’t that many funny people.
John: Now, it could be a reporting bias. Like maybe this guy is known as like not having a sense of humor whatsoever, so he doesn’t get sent those scripts. That’s possible. When I was at TriStar I got sent certain scripts and not other kinds of scripts and I will never know why, but that’s possible.
Craig: Oh, all right.
John: The other genres are less represented. Drama, only 23. Drama that’s not a thriller or crime and gangster. So, that is sort of an eccentric way of breaking that up. Coming of age is broken out separately, so you never quite know what that –
Craig: Right. I mean, 13 science fiction post-apocalyptic. 12 mysteries. I liked “extraordinary romance,” 12 scripts. I’m not sure what that means. I guess, does that mean like — ?
John: I think it’s Twilight.
Craig: Oh, that means almost like supernatural romance?
John: Supernatural romance.
Craig: Oh, okay, I thought extraordinary romance meant like, wow, they really love each other. As opposed to those other movies where they kind of love each other.
John: I will point out that later on in this chart which I didn’t recognize, action-adventure comedy is listed separately as a category as six scripts, so there’s some of your comedy people.
John: Black comedy is listed as four. But black comedy is really it’s own thing. Like black comedy is not joke-joke funny-funny usually.
Craig: Yeah, black comedy is truly its own thing.
John: And there’s seven scripts listed as family, and family is a little bit more likely to be comedy.
Craig: You never know. It could be, or it could be sort of mopey.
John: Time period, story set in the past, 55 scripts. Story set in the future, 12 scripts. The vast majority of stories were set in the present. That makes sense. As it should be, unless there’s a reason to be somewhere else.
John: The endings. Good triumphed over evil in 229 of the scripts. Evil triumphed over good in 32 of the scripts. And there were a lot of horror/slasher movies –
Craig: Right, setting up the sequel.
John: Yes. Open-ended or even-handed. A little of both but not enough of either. 39 scripts.
John: So, I was thinking of my own movies applying to this and it’s like, well, good triumphs over evil. Well, like Go didn’t really have evil to some degree. I guess it’s a happy ending because no one that you cared about died, so –
Craig: Yeah, maybe yours would have been “even-handed.”
John: Yes. All right. Settings. How many scripts were set in each of these different locations. Totals will not add up due to scripts with multiple locations.
So, he has a very nice little map here that shows the locations where a lot of things are set. Obviously things tended to be set more on the edges of the country. So, west coast, east coast, some Texas, some New Orleans, very little in — well, there were four scripts in Denver, Colorado, which has been a weird thing I’ve noticed recently. Because both of your last two movies had a Denver connection, didn’t they? Or, no, your movie and Rawson’s movie? Identity Thief did, but also Rawson’s movie had.
Craig: The reason why is because studios, particularly when you’re dealing with the, we’ll call it mid-budget studio comedy that’s around $30 million or so, which is where We’re the Millers and Identity Thief both landed, they almost inevitably shoot in Atlanta. And you can’t make every movie actually set in Atlanta. Denver, as it turns out, is a kind of — for the rest of America, it’s considered a generic city. Nobody really knows what it looks like. You can kind of get away with it.
And so I have a — that’s why they did Denver, at least for us, and I suspect it was the same for Rawson because he was shooting in Atlanta, also.
John: So, considering that so many movies are shooting in Atlanta right now, not one script was set in Atlanta.
Craig: I know. Which is really interesting.
John: I would say the south overall is hugely underrepresented in this sample. So, Houston, there’s only two. New Orleans, there’s five. Miami, you really can’t count Miami as the south. Nowhere else in the south.
Craig: Yeah. It is odd. When I look at, for instance the original setting for Identity Thief was a road trip from Boston to Portland. So, in this case I would have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three scripts, which I assume were Harvard stories, and Portland, Oregon, two scripts. But, when you look at the way people basically write, New York — 43 New York. 32 in LA. 12 in Chicago. And then everybody else is just running behind.
Craig: People love writing movies in New York and LA.
John: They do.
This next category, the undisclosed locations, some of our south is made up here. So, there were 11 scripts set in the deep American south. But, not specifically one southern place or another southern place, which as someone who has made Big Fish, I will tell you that you’re going to find great differences between Alabama, and Kentucky, and Tennessee.
John: So, it strikes me it might be a lack of specificity to use our commonly used term here.
Craig: Or to be fair to these writers, he may have not — when it says “Undisclosed — the deep American South,” there may have been some indication that it was in a state or something like that. But he’s done these by city, so.
John: Yeah. We also don’t know — he presumably didn’t go into this planning to do exactly this infographic chart. And so usually in coverage you would not necessarily list every little detail that could help build this kind of chart.
Craig: Right. I didn’t like seeing though that 46 scripts were in some anonymous small town and then 40 were in some anonymous big city. That’s unacceptable. And I have read many, many scripts where you are in “a town.” What town? How town? [laughs] Please, give me more than “town.”
John: A town in Montana and a town in Arizona are going to be very different towns.
Craig: I mean, this is not a stage play. You know what I mean?
Craig: You can get away with Our Town on stage, but not on film.
John: So, this next section is recurring problems. And this is where it’s really his judgment, and so you should take it with a grain of salt. Like this is his opinion. But, the reader is basically giving his opinion in writing this coverage report anyway.
Usually coverage will have a title page which will list all the sort of quantifiable facts. And also give you the pass/recommend/consider. The second page or couple pages of the coverage will be a synopsis which will basically — just like a book report, like summarizing what actually happens in the plot. The last page of coverage is usually comments, which his basically this is what I actually genuinely think of the script. And this is really the meat of it. And this is where you’re pulling these recurring problems. So, these are the problems that he found in scripts and we’ll go from the most common to the least common problem.
The story begins too late in the script.
John: Yeah. You see that a lot.
Craig: Yeah, you know, I don’t know what to — this is a little hard for me because I’m not sure how to evaluate this exactly. Maybe I disagree with him, and you and I have talked about how –
John: Because you like long first acts.
Craig: Yeah, and you — we both like long first acts. This guy may just be like, “Start,” you know.
John: Well, here’s what I will say based on what he’s putting in his little sub heading here. If it’s not even clear what kind of movie it is until like midway through the script, then you really have a problem.
John: So, even in these long first acts we’re talking about, they’re setting you up for, like, this is what the world of the movie is. This is what we’re going to follow and see. So, even if the fuse hasn’t been lit so quickly, we know that there’s a bomb.
John: We know sort of what the world is.
Craig: Yeah. I have a feeling that if we were to talk to the person that did this, he or she would be able to look us in the eye and say, “No, no, no, trust me. This story began way too late.” And so I’m going to say, okay, yeah, I get that.
John: Scenes are void of meaningful conflict.
John: Yeah. We know this. So, far too often you have scenes where characters are either doing the next thing the story needs them to do, and they’re just doing it, or they’re telling another character something that happened that we already saw happen. Like, you have to look at like what is the conflict within every scene. And if there’s more than one character in the scene, there’s probably some conflict. Hell, if there’s one character in the scene, there’s got to be something that she needs to do that is a source of why there’s an engine in this scene.
Craig: You will also see this a lot in screenplays written by people who are attempting to dramatize their own lives, or things that have happened to them that they think are interesting or funny, but they’re not. All they read like is lunch with three people jabbering.
The script has a by-the-numbers execution, 53 scripts. Yeah, so if you can predict exactly what’s going happen the next ten scenes from now, that’s a problem.
John: The story is too thin. That’s a little bit generic. But he says 20 pages of story spread over 100 script, stuffed with tone but light on plot. Well, yeah, with bad execution, certainly.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: There’s lots of movies I love that are actually kind of light on story, but that’s part of their charm that there’s not that much that happens. The French film with the old couple and she has the stroke.
John: Amour. Great. That has 20 pages of plot over a two-hour movie. But you would not want more in there.
Craig: Right. I mean, there are movies where the joy is the journey. And I have a feeling, again, that perfidious_whatever…
Craig: profound_whatever would say to us, “Uh-huh, no, totally. Trust me. None of these were Amour. None of these came close to that. I, in fact, wanted to kill myself with a pillow after reading a number of them.”
John: The villains are cartoonish/evil for the sake of evil. Yeah, that’s really tough. We talked about villains in a previous episode. You have to have — every villain is a hero. You have to look at the whole story from the villain’s point of view. And it has to actually really make sense.
John: They can’t just be doing it “just because.”
Craig: That’s right. Now, there are times when you write a villain and part of their charm is that they are kind of — they’re kind of monologue-y and a little pretentious because that’s who they are. I mean, he writes, “The best villains are those who think they’re the hero of their own story, i.e.,” I think he means e.g., “the Joker, Hans Landa, Anton Chigurh.” Well, the Joker and Hans Landa, in particular, are incredibly snarky, and smirking, and sinister, and have affected dialogue, and pretentious monologues.
Craig: So, you can’t have it both ways, Whatever. You got to pick one. So, I think the answer is if you’re going to go for a villain like that, make them interesting. And make them actual human beings who are understandable.
John: Also, let’s look at, you know, so many of the things he covered were horror/slasher things, which is going to be much more likely to have this as a problem.
John: We’ve come to accept in certain kinds of genre, slasher movies, that the villain is just a psychopathic villain. And there’s something really terrifying about that, but that is sort of evil for the sake of evil.
Craig: And he’s calling out hit men, serial killers, and gangsters. And those three areas are rife with awfulness. No question. The too-cool-for-school hit man. The Hannibal Lector rip-off serial killer. And then gangsters. There’s just, you know, we’ve been doing gangsters since they figured out how to shine light through celluloid.
John: Yeah. Character logic is muddy. Yeah. Often lack of character consistency or a logically unsound villain plot.
John: Every character actually needs a reason. Why is he doing this?
Craig: Yes. Your characters don’t behave like human beings.
John: That’s where I describe where we should be able to freeze the movie and point at every character in the scene and say, “What are they trying to do? What is their goal? What’s happening here?’
John: And if you can’t answer that question you need to stop and actually rewrite your scene.
Craig: And do they pass the human test. Would a human react this way to this?
The female part is underwritten.
John: A common complaint.
The narrative falls into a repetitive pattern.
John: Yup. The conflict is inconsequential/flash in the pan.
Craig: Right, low stakes.
John: And sometimes it’s really just that you can feel the conflict is just being spread on. it’s not inherent to the actual situation. It’s just like people are shouting at each other just because you need them shouting at each other.
Craig: Yeah. And then there’s a problem and it just gets done. There are no obstacles. It’s not interesting. You don’t feel like anybody had to struggle or sweat. There is no significance to what the heroes are tasked to do.
John: The protagonist is a standard issue hero. So, basically based on the genre or the kind of movie it is, it’s exactly the kind of hero you have in this kind of movie.
John: That’s a fair criticism. If it feel generic because it just sort of comes with the territory, that’s not going to be a helpful thing for you.
Craig: No question.
John: The script favors style over substance. Well, yeah. I don’t know, there’s scripts I really enjoy reading that are written very stylishly and have a lot of flourish to them. That can be great. But if it’s not great, it’s not going to be great.
Craig: Yeah, I’m not quite sure I understood the little sub-header here. “The rule of cool for action movies. The rule of funny for comedies. The rule of scary for horror. No depth, just breath and flash.” What are these rules? That they should be those things?
John: Yeah. The rule of cool I kind of get, which I think is going back to that sort of Shane Black action style is what I think they’re trying to get to.
Craig: Hmm, okay.
John: But I don’t know what the rule of funny is. What’s the rule of funny?
Craig: That it’s supposed to be funny? I don’t know what this meant. [laughs] I got confused by that one.
John: The ending is completely anticlimactic.
Craig: Ooh, that’s bad.
John: That’s a problem.
John: Think of your ending before you start writing, folks.
John: Characters are all stereotypes. Sure, that’s not going to work well.
Arbitrary complexity. “Cluttered and complex aren’t synonyms.” Well –
Craig: I know what that means. Sometimes I read scripts and I think the person who wrote this, you know, like Richard Kelly was talking about scope creep. And sometimes you read a script and you think this script has all the invention that only an autistic writer could have put in there, but then also a level of complexity that is bordering on autistic as well. I’m being asked to work too hard to enjoy it.
And now that obviously changes depending on who’s reading it and who’s watching it. And, listen, people went to go see Primer and were like, a lot of people thought it was amazing and some people were like, “Oh, my head.”
Craig: But, most of these rules I think all have to fall under the biggest rule of all which is unless it’s good. [laughs]
John: Unless it’s good, yeah.
Craig: And then it’s Primer and it’s cool.
John: The script goes off the rail in the third act. Yes. That happens probably most of the time where you start to read it and it’s like, wow, that’s not just where I wanted to end up with this story.
Craig: Yeah. Sometimes writers who have not planned their story in such a way that the ending has relevance for the beginning and vice versa, they just replace — they substitute noise.
Craig: So, everyone is going to run around, stuff is going to blow up, I’m going to flash lasers in your eyes, and then roll credits.
John: I honestly believe that most of the problems with scripts’ third acts is because it’s the last thing you wrote. You were just desperate to get it done. And you just didn’t write it with the care that you could have. So, yes, some of it may be plotting. You may not have actually had good ideas for how you were going to wrap stuff up. But, honestly, just the words on the page are much worse than they were in the first 15 pages because you haven’t rewritten it as much as you’ve rewritten those first 15 pages.
Craig: Yeah. It was sort of the last in, last out. And you kind of were rushing and you were tired.
Script’s questions were left unanswered. Sure.
The story is a string of unrelated vignettes. Well, that’s a problem.
Craig: Yeah, that’s bad.
John: The plot unravels through convenience or contrivance.
Craig: Yes. You get one coincidence per movie.
John: Agreed. And so Peter Parker can be bitten by a radioactive spider, but that needs to be it. You can’t have a lot more coincidences there. You can have the one that’s sort of without this coincidence the plot wouldn’t have happened. That’s great. That’s starting you off. That’s like why you’re watching this movie, with this character today. But it can’t be happening again and again throughout the course of your story.
Craig: I would actually say that Peter Parker getting bitten by the spider isn’t a coincidence. That’s a random act. The coincidence that they got in that movie was that Peter Parker’s best friend is the son of a guy who is going to become a super villain. That’s convenient. That is a coincidence. And I think you get one of those kinds of things.
Then, you know, if it happens again and again, like I just happen to be here, and I happen to be going through here, then people start getting really angry because our feeling as an audience is you’re not doing the work that’s required to entertain us. You’re just cheating.
John: Well, we start to disbelieve the world.
John: Because we know that the real world is not that coincidental. Things don’t happen that way so often.
I would say you can sometimes get an extra coincidence if it’s something that helps the villain. And so if it’s the kind of thing where it’s like out of the blue the villain gets something that actually sort of really helps his side, that’s kind of great, too.
Craig: Right. Agreed.
John: Luck. Yeah, if it feels like just luck that helps them get there.
Craig: If luck hurts your character I think it’s okay. [laughs] It just can’t help them.
John: How are you making things worse for your characters? One of those fundamental questions you should be asking with every scene.
John: The script is tonally confused. Okay.
Craig: Sure. See it all the time.
John: The script is stoic to a fault. Let’s see what he says by that. “Nothing rattles the characters or the script. Characters don’t react to moments of drama. The script can’t deliver emotional/dramatic beats successfully. Dramatic beats fall flat, even when characters are dying.”
Craig: See this all the time. That’s a great one.
John: That’s actually a really good observation. It’s not something I’ve ever singled out, but I think it is a real problem where it’s another way of saying the character is not responding in a way to these events as real human beings would.
Craig: That’s why when I say to somebody, “How would a human being respond?” We had that Three Page Challenge a few weeks ago, the really good well written three pages, but there was a moment where somebody after murdering somebody kind of quips. And that was a stoic moment that shouldn’t have been there. It was too stoic for what had just occurred.
John: That was the western.
Craig: Yes. Exactly.
John: The protagonist is not as strong as need to be. Ooh, that’s a bad sentence.
Craig: The protagonist is not as strong as need be.
John: As need be, oh yeah, sorry.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, it’s still not a good sentence. The protagonist is not strong enough is the proper way to write that. We’re now doing coverage of the coverage of the coverage.
John: [laughs] It got very meta here for a second.
The premise is a transparent excuse for action. Well, yes, but that’s not all together bad. There’s a whole genre of movies that are a transparent cause for action. And it’s really the same way we have musicals which are just an excuse for musical production numbers. There can be something lovely and delightful about that in the right kind of movie.
John: So, yes.
Character back stories are irrelevant or useless.
Craig: Well, irrelevant and useless is bad in all circumstances. [laughs]
John: So, a thing is where it’s just like the obligatory “here’s my character backstory” but it doesn’t actually matter at all, don’t do that.
Craig: Yes. That would be bad.
John: Supernatural element is too undefined.
Craig: Uh….well. I don’t know. I mean, sometimes I kind of like it when the supernatural element is appropriately undefined because it’s supernatural, you know. Like when it’s like a very clear, well drawn ghost that explains what his problem is. That’s the one way of doing things. But the idea of some cloud, some evil, some presence, some thing actually matches a child’s understanding of what the dark is, so I kind of like that.
John: I do like that, too. I go back to The Ring, and it’s never really quite clear what’s going on with The Ring, but you are freaked out. And I love that.
Craig: Yeah. Totally.
John: The plot is dragged down by disruptive lulls.
John: Breaks in story where nothing happens. Momentum is lost. Well, momentum is lost is really the key thing here. How are you going from one scene to the next scene and really propelling your story forward? And if you have this little chunk where nothing is happening, that’s going to hurt you.
Craig: That’s got to go.
John: The ending is a case of deus ex machina. Oh, am I pronouncing that right?
John: Machina. It’s a hard “Ch.”
Craig: Deus ex machina. Yes. People have been complaining about this since Aristotle. No question.
John: The gods come in an rescue you.
John: Or something like the gods.
Craig: And, by the way, they’re not even right about — Lord of the Flies doesn’t have a deus ex machina because there is no rescuing. They are lost and broken permanently. Forever. [laughs] But, so I don’t even think of that — to me a deus ex machina is, well, we’ve seen them. We know. We know it when we see it.
John: Characters are indistinguishable from each other. We’ve talked about this a lot.
Craig: Yes we have.
John: Simple things, like your character’s names, will help you out a lot, but every character needs to be more than a name. They need to have defining characteristics so that one character’s dialogue couldn’t be said by another character.
Craig: Correct. If you give somebody an accent, nobody else gets that accent. If you give somebody a clipped way of speaking, nobody else speaks that way. Everybody must speak very, very differently.
John: Yeah. The story is one big shrug.
Craig: Well that would be bad.
John: That would be bad. I think that’s actually a fair comment. When you get to the end and you’re just like, “Yeah, okay.”
Craig: Right like, “Well, that was perfectly well done. I wouldn’t watch it. I don’t feel anything from it. It ticked off all the boxes. It just doesn’t ultimately deserve to be seen.”
Let’s power through the rest of these. Cheesy dialogue. Potboiler script. I don’t even know what potboiler means.
Craig: Me neither.
John: Oh, the airport novel of scripts. Yeah, okay, that’s fair. I guess, but it also just means not well done.
Craig: Sometimes those are cool, yeah.
John: Drama conflict is told but not shown. Yes, show don’t tell. Great setting isn’t utilized. Well, that’s an interesting complaint. Yes. A great setting is worth making the most out of. Emotional element is exaggerated. Well, okay, but maybe sometimes that’s great.
John: Dialogue is stilted and unnecessarily verbose. Sure.
Craig: Hurts the flow. Okay. [laughs] I don’t know, unless you’re watching a Tarantino movie, and then it’s amazing. I don’t know.
John: Then it’s fantastic. Emotional element is neglected. Well, so, this reader has some perfect little zone of emotion where it’s not too much, not too little. The Goldilocks zone is not achieved.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, and we’re getting angry at this guy. Screw you, man! [laughs]
John: The script is a writer ego trip –
Craig: Well, this one actually did piss me off: includes excessive camera directions, soundtrack choices, actor suggestions, credit sequences. How dare you writer that has invented an entire world, and narrative, and characters, and place, and theme, and purpose, how dare you have an idea of where the camera should be looking, or what music should be playing, or who should be playing the person. Or what could even go in the credits. How dare you! That’s the job of the director.
No, dude, that’s old school. Listen, when you say excessive, all I hear is “too much for me” and I don’t know what that is. Now, finally, at this point in the podcast I’m getting a bit shirty. All right, listen, here’s the situation. I don’t believe there are any scripts that have excessive camera direction or any of this other stuff, unless it’s so excessive that it’s stopping you from reading the script. But in and of itself, this notion that writers aren’t allowed to touch this stuff needs to die.
John: I’m going to stick up for this guy halfway. So, I think “writer ego trip” is a terrible headline for what he’s talking about here. But things like actor suggestions is — actor suggestions don’t belong in a script. That’s breaking the script to say like, “It’s a Will Smith character.” No, don’t do that.
Craig: Not in the script.
John: But everything else, not in the script. So, he’s talking about a script. So, if that’s in the script, that’s crazy.
Craig: Okay, that one, fine.
John: And too many music choices. I think you can get away with like one music choice in your thing. More than that and it’s like you’re reading liner notes. Stop doing that.
But camera direction we’ve talked about on the show. When you do camera direction correctly it feels like you are helping — you’re creating the experience of being an audience member watching it. And that can be fantastic.
Credit sequences are fine. They’re good. I think they’re a useful thing to script if they help tell your story.
John: So, don’t stop.
Craig: And let me just stick up for soundtrack choices for a second. No, you don’t put in soundtrack choices if it’s just background music while a car is driving. But, if you’re building a sequence that is married to music, and there’s a song that you feel will impart what your intention is for this section, then yes, I’m okay with it. And if you need to do it four times, do it four times.
If the music specifically important to what your trying to say, if in fact you’re using the music to say something you would otherwise have to say with words, then it’s okay.
Craig: Anyway, I got a bit shirty. Okay.
John: The script makes a reference but not a joke. A pop culture reference still needs a punch line.
John: Uh…I don’t really quite get that. I mean, I’m sure that he was noting situations where that was annoying, but as a general rule I can’t say that I agree with that general rule.
Craig: It’s about the characters. I mean, there are characters that speak that way. If the idea is that you’re trying to make people laugh just by citing it, then no, I agree, that’s annoying.
John: But I could imagine things where you’re making like a cosmopolitan joke, sort of like very Sex and the City, and so like if someone now orders a cosmo thinking that it’s really cool, I can see you having them do that and that be a pop culture reference, but making the joke about it would just be a hat on a hat. So, in some ways I think there’s times where you make the reference and you don’t try to make a joke out of it.
John: Or you don’t acknowledge the joke.
Craig: Exactly. The point is it’s just a reference which gets made.
John: Last one is the message overshadows the story. Well, yeah. I can think of movies that are…yeah, earnest, where you are left with a message but you don’t really care about the plot.
Craig: Yeah. Some people like those. I mean, if you’re making a message movie and there’s, I don’t know, I don’t write movies like that so I can’t judge.
I did want to say, have you ever seen that thing from Essanay Studios?
John: I don’t know what that is.
Craig: So Essanay was an old movie studio. I think it was an old movie studio from the silent film days. And someone found this thing on the internet that has been passed around. It is authentic. And it is a rejection slip from Essanay studios for your screenplay. And so we’ve just gone through all of these things written by some man or woman in 2013. Now let me read you, very quickly, this.
So, they list 17 things and they put a check mark next to the ones that apply.
John: That’s so wonderful.
Craig: So, Essanay: Your manuscript is returned for the reason checked below. 1. Overstocked 2. No strong dramatic situations. 3. Weak plot. 4. Not our style of story. 5. Idea has been done before. 6. Would not pass the censor board. 7. Too difficult to produce. 8. Too conventional. 9. Not interesting. 10. Not humorous. 11. Not original. 12. Not enough action. 13. No adaptations desired. 14. Improbable. 15. No costume plays or story with foreign settings desired. Illegible.
And last but not least:
- Robbery, kidnapping, murder, suicide, harrowing death-bed, and all scenes of an unpleasant nature should be eliminated.
Yours very truly, Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, Chicago, Illinois.
John: That’s pretty fantastic. So, Craig, when I was in grade school, maybe early junior high I, well, it probably was junior high, I wrote a short story which I hoped to have published in Dragon Magazine.
John: Dragon Magazine being the official monthly magazine of Dungeons & Dragons.
Craig: I remember it well.
John: And so they published some short fiction. Not every month, but every couple months they published some short fiction. So, I wrote this short story which was sort of hopefully, appropriately sort of sorcery-ish. And so I sent it in and I was so hopeful. And I got back that kind of letter. It was a one-page thing with like a checkmark.
John: If I remember properly, though, I think it was just like, “Does not meet our needs at this time.”
John: So, it was at least a useful thing on that since it was like, well, they liked it, it just didn’t meet their needs at this time.
Craig: [laughs] I like that you thought that. You were like, “Hey, dad, great news. They loved it. It doesn’t meet their needs at this time, but that’s sort of like saying it will meet their needs at another time.”
John: And what’s amazing is I think they actually did send it back to me, because that was a time where I was sending them a physical object and they sent me the physical object back because they did that at that time. Just the idea of somebody mailing something back to you at this point is crazy.
Craig: I know. I know. Well, just the idea of departments of people that are getting these things. Although, you know, it still happens. You ask anybody that works somewhere where things are submitted and packages still show up. There are people out there sending cassette tapes out.
Craig: It’s a wild world.
John: Even at the Austin Film Festival, some young musician was like, “I want you to hear my demo thing,” so gave me like a CD. I’m like I have nothing to play this in. A CD? I haven’t touched a CD in a long time.
Craig: Did you make a cool CD-shaped USB drive? Is that was this is? [laughs]
John: [laughs] Because that would be really useful. Ooh, you say you actually printed a URL on a business card. That would be vastly more useful to me.
Craig: Oh, yeah. I’m not going to listen to this.
John: Or like this is my Sound Cloud account. Oh, I know what that is.
Craig: Somebody should go make CD-shaped of things that aren’t CDs. I like it.
John: [laughs] Done.
John: Our next topic is this WGA negotiation that’s coming up. So, essentially this past week the DGA make their deal, or they — so, I don’t want to overstate what they did. The DGA goes into negotiations with the AMPTP which were the people who run all the major studios. And generally the DGA goes in and is the first group to talk with them about the things they would like for the next three-year contract.
John: And they came back with some decisions and now the membership will vote on the deal that they have reached.
Craig: Yeah. Actually historically they haven’t been the first ones to go in. Historically they’ve gone in very early, but the way that the union contracts were staggered the Writers Guild often went first. Sometimes the actors went first. One of the biggest losses that came out of our strike with the companies in 2007/2008 was that we fell out of cycle and the DGA officially did become the first to negotiate.
Technically we are still — we still expire before they do, but it’s so close that, you know, the DGA will literally go in eight or nine months early. So, they are now in the driver’s seat firmly which is where they’ve always wanted to be and that’s where the companies want them to be. The companies know that the DGA is the most likely union to make a deal. They don’t strike.
John: So, next up will be the Writers Guild and the actors will have to go in and negotiate their deals. And the whole idea of being on one of these committees that negotiates these deals is horrifying to me, because why would any sane person ever want to be involved in these negotiations. But, of course, this year I actually am on the negotiating committee, so I was asked to be on this.
It’s weird. I can’t talk in any official capacity about these negotiations, but what I can do is listen to Craig Mazin describe what happened in this last deal and what the things are that we in the negotiating committee might be having our ears open to as we go into this next round of negotiations.
Craig: Sure. Well, the deal is that when a union arrives at one of these agreements, what they’re basically arriving at is a memorandum of basic deal points. It’s a little bit like when you and I get hired to do something. There’s something called a deal memo. And the deal memo basically says this is how many drafts we’re hiring you to do guaranteed and this is what we’re paying you for each draft.
Then there’s this long form contract that the lawyers have to write up that goes into all the nitty gritty like how much do I get paid a week if I have to travel with the production to Paris and so forth. That will still happen. The DGA still has to do that long form. But the deal memo is the important part.
We’re still kind of picking out the details from this, but here are sort of the big ones. They got some wage increases for one-hour programs on basic cable, what they call “out of pattern.” Basic cable is a big, big issue for the writers because we know that the explosion of employment on basic cable dwarfs what is currently available on network, which is where our bread and butter was back in the day of three channels or four channels.
We have a ton of people that are working in cable. And, frankly, cable is a little bit of the wild west. Some of the cable shows aren’t even union at all, which I don’t understand. I don’t understand how we let WGA writers work on those shows. That’s another topic. But they got some sort of little increase. We’re not exactly sure what.
They are continuing to work on new media in small ways. They’re coming up with residuals for things like shows on Netflix, or shows that run on Amazon. So, they’re starting to get into that business.
John: We should clarify, this is original programming for Netflix or for Amazon.
John: So, things like House of Cards or any of those, or Betas, or any of those things.
Craig: Correct. And this is one of those areas where no one seems to know how much money there really is. And they’re trying to figure out how to create a formula that doesn’t turn around and bite you in the butt later. The Writers Guild has, in the past, vehemently argued for formulas that then turned around later were not great for us. So, we have to basically get the details on what’s been done there.
Similarly, they’re covering things in ad-supported streaming and cable video on-demand stuff. Set top box streaming. And these things were uncovered before.
John: Yeah, can you explain cable set top box streaming in a way that might make sense? Because I think that’s video on-demand. That’s what I think of as video on-demand. Isn’t it? Or is it a special case of video on-demand?
Craig: I think it may be that it is that, that it is basically, but it’s not pay-per-view, it’s different. It’s streaming through, you know what I mean?
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: So if you’re streaming directly from maybe, I don’t know.
John: Here’s what, so once I get into this negation I’ll –
Craig: You’ll find out. You’ll tell us.
John: I’ll find out what these terms really mean. Here’s what I think it might mean. And there are some movies which are free to watch through cable. Like they’re basically video on-demand, but they’re free.
Craig: Oh, they’re ad-supported. That’s what it is.
John: Yeah, they’re either ad-supported or it’s part of a subscription. Basically you get that as part of a subscription. So, those things are free to watch because they’re buying a block of movies that you can watch when you want to watch. So, you’re not paying individually for each movie. My guess is that is the kind of thing which needs to be figured out.
Craig: Right. That we get some residuals based on the ad revenue. And they also, a lot of this stuff, the company is building these free windows where they’re allowed to show things without paying residuals for a little bit just to get people’s interest up and then — and apparently the window for free streaming there was reduced.
To me, the big, I guess this is the big one. The big one really is that traditionally there would be a 3% increase in our scale pay rate. Most screenwriters aren’t dealing with scale. And the 3% increase there isn’t that much anyway. The reason that was always important is because television residuals are in fact tied to minimums, to scale. So, when we would get a 3% increase over the life of the contract, that meant that residuals in perpetuity we’re going to paying out at a higher rate for television.
In the last negotiation the companies successfully worked that number back down to two. And it looks like the directors have gotten them to now over the course of three years work it back up to three again. It’s sort of like, okay, everybody recognized that the marketplace went crazy but that crisis is over and we need to get back to three again.
So, it looks like that happened. I’ll tell you that all this stuff is done. In other words, when the companies come to the Writers Guild, the terms that they negotiate with the directors will be the terms that you guys get and they will not be altered in any important way. There are some areas where things are unique and can be massaged. And for this next negotiation a lot of that has to do with the relative state of health of the pension and health funds at the different unions.
The actors have a whole bunch of issues over there. And we all have our own issues. The writers traditionally have had very strong health and pension funds. I don’t know how Obamacare is going to affect us. I have suspicion that it’s going to. And so I think part of the negotiation is going to be about protecting health and pension from perhaps an increase in taxation or penalties or something like that.
John: Yeah. I think not knowing any specifics about our pension plan and negotiations, the general discussion I’ve heard about Obamacare is that the Writers Guild health plan is considered like one of those luxury plans.
Craig: No question.
John: It covers a whole bunch of things. And because it covers a whole bunch of things it may have different tax ramifications.
Craig: There’s no question. And the thing is what you start to find when you go through a negotiation process is that the companies really look at these contracts bottom line as a number. And it all gets divided up in various different ways. But when they say, okay, well we gave the directors this amount. We’re going to give you this amount. And it’s going to come in terms of an increase in residuals and this and that. And also you can move things around for health and pension.
So, I think this is going to be a fairly boring negotiation. I think it’s basically been negotiated with little areas here and there that we can fiddle with. But this is life in the world of the directors going first and I think we are going to have to get used to it.
John: Let’s go to our third topic for our show this week which is something you suggested which is something you suggested which is, I think was a conversation you had with a fellow writer?
Craig: Yeah. So, I met with a writer, he was a younger writer and he just wanted to get some advice. And obviously no names here. Terrific, terrific person. But he mentioned to me that — he was describing the various struggles that he faced as he was learning his craft and practicing his craft. And a lot of them were very familiar: finding the right amount of time, and self doubt, maybe partnerships that didn’t work out.
And then he brought up this other thing which was getting high. And, you know, you and I, we’re the old guys now. People just get high a lot. [laughs] They get high a lot.
John: You’re saying the younger generation gets high a lot, or our generation gets high a lot?
Craig: I think twenty-somethings just get way higher than we ever did. They just –
John: That may be true.
Craig: They just get high all the time. Our generation obviously got high and still gets high. And drinks. And drank and still drinks. But weed in and of itself, when we were in our twenties you could get arrested, you know? [laughs] Like I had to hide it. You really can’t now. There’s not a — and I actually like that. I believe that marijuana should be legalized.
However, I also believe that if you want to be — and this is what I told this person — stop getting high. If you want to write a screenplay, stop it. You want to get high Friday night through Sunday afternoon? Go for it. But this is a job that to me at least requires an enormous amount of sobriety. Even the famous writers who were notoriously drunk –
There was an interesting article recently. A lot of them found that they were most productive when they were writing through hangovers. It was in the aftermath of the drinking and the abuse. But, it’s romantic to think that you can get high and write the best stuff of your life.
I don’t think it works at all.
John: Well, in a general sense let’s talk about writers and drugs, because I think it’s actually a fascinating topic. The writers who get high because getting high reduces their inhibitions and makes the words flow or whatever, that was never me, and it’s not the experience I’ve noticed from any of my writer colleagues who sort of of my cohort. So, it’s entirely possible that this next generation that’s rising up to replace us, they are tremendously successful at writing while high and I’m just completely missing it. That same way that like I kind of didn’t understand why anyone would have a manager, then Justin Marks explaining why writers have managers.
So, it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong. But I kind of don’t think I’m wrong. Because my experience of being around people who get high a lot is that either you can do two things. You can use it as a crutch. Basically like, well, I can’t write because I’m not high, and I’m always high when I write. That’s tremendously challenging when you’re in any situation where you can’t get high. Where you’re actually in a room working on something and that becomes your thing. It’s like having this weird thing where you can only write when the sun is streaming through the window one certain way and any other way it won’t work. That’s bad. That’s not going to be useful to you.
The other thing I would say is that most of the people I know who get high a lot, their ambition just sort of dissipates a bit. And without ambition, I don’t think you’re going to be able to generate the quantity and quality of work it’s going to take to really make a screenwriting career.
Craig: I agree. I think that it’s important for me to point out that my experience of my cohorts is exactly the same as yours. I don’t know one single successful writer who has maintained a career who continues to abuse drugs or alcohol. I know some that have, and gotten over it, but I don’t know any that continue to do it as a matter of practice and can still function through it. I also think that the problem with writing while you’re high is that you’re not writing. The whole point of getting high is to alter your consciousness, which is fun.
It’s totally fun. Drinking is fun. And getting high is fun. I get it. But it’s about expanding your consciousness, and letting go of who you are for awhile, and when you come back from it, perhaps you can come back with something that you’ve learned about yourself. But then you’re not writing. There’s a you and it’s the sober you. I don’t know how else to put it.
John: I would agree with you. Writing is really hard. And so I think some of the instinct behind using something like pot or people who are using Provigil or Ritalin or other sort of stimulant things, helps them sort of focus in on what they’re doing, it’s an attempt to make something that’s inherently hard feel easier. But in making it feel easier, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find great success in that solution.
If you’re on one of these, if you take Ritalin or whatever, you may pile through more pages. The odds that they’re going to be awesome pages are very, very small.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: And I would also say the same with pot. You may write a few good sentences, but it’s unlikely you’re going to get the work done that needs to get done.
Craig: No, screenwriting is rigorous. It requires enormous attention. To me, writing while altered is right up there with directing while altered. Or driving. And I’m taking away even the aspect of how dangerous that would be for other people, yourself physically. I mean to say your just not very good at it.
It’s something that requires focus, and attention, and intention, and thought. And the whole point of getting high is to make some of that stuff go away. You know, beyond caffeine and, you know, cigarette, you know, if you feel like hurting your lungs.
But, yeah, just no. Don’t. I think culturally speaking I was a little taken aback, not in a judgmental way, but more in a, huh, I think this is probably going on more than you and I realize.
John: I would agree.
Craig: So, advice here is stop. I don’t think it’s going to help you.
John: Yeah. And so I want to phrase it as this is not a moral judgment about sort of whatever substances you want to consume. Just in my experience looking at sort of historical record of people I know who have succeeded and got stuff done, none of the people I know who have succeeded and really gotten a lot of stuff done have been using stuff frequently to do it.
John: Beyond the exact examples that you list, which are caffeine, which is getting you up and getting your focused through that next bit. And some people do smoke. But not that many people smoke now. Even Craig Mazin doesn’t smoke now.
Craig: Yeah, it’s an occasional, you know. The guy that needs to smoke a cigar every day while you’re writing. Great. Worked for Mark Twain. And really caffeine and nicotine or sort of two peas in a pod. But, you know, totally agree with you. This is not judgmental. I believe all drugs should be legal. I’m very libertarian about that. And I don’t care what you do when you you’re not writing. But, I do want you to be writing, not high or drunk you.
John: Yeah. That’s very important. And I will also say that I’m not discounting the fact that some people have special challenges and their brains are not working right, and so this is really talking about an otherwise healthy person who is trying to write a screenplay.
If you are a person who is sort of not overall healthy in life and needs some other antidepressant or whatever else, go do that and take care of yourself first. So, that’s not like a blanket statement against all drugs or any medication that could help a person.
But specifically taking something in order to get yourself to start writing is not my advice to you.
John: Cool. Craig, I have a One Cool Thing. Do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do.
John: Great. You go first.
Craig: This flows out of this last discussion. When I was thinking about it I realized that it would probably be a good idea if people who were out there who maybe were struggling with this as writers, is there something for writers who are struggling with substance abuse. And I found this. I can’t necessarily vouch for it, because I don’t have a substance abuse problem. And so I don’t have any personal experience. But there is an organization called Writers in Treatment. And they even have scholarships and things. And they’re an independent California non-profit company that basically was started by writers, for writers, here in Los Angeles, to help people recover from alcohol, or drug, or substance abuse, or self-harming probably, or any of these other things that writers get stuck in.
So, I don’t know if you are somebody out there who is struggling and you feel like, well, I would like to recover but I’d like to do it with people that are doing the same thing I’m doing. Then there are some resources for you. This is one. But like I said, I can’t vouch for them. Look around.
I guess the point is they’re out there.
John: Agreed. So, we’ll have a link to that.
My One Cool Thing is called Screenflow. And this last week I’ve been recording some different screencasts on Fountain and Highland and why I like to write in Fountain mostly. And Screenflow is the app I use to record my screen for doing those screencasts. And it’s actually just a terrific application.
In the way that we’re all probably used to taking screenshots of things so we can show like what’s going on on our screen, this is recording the video of your screen and the app is very smart at being able to let you zoom in on parts of the screen. And it very much works like Final Cut Pro in the sense that you’re able to cut between different scenes to get your point across. But it’s a terrifically well designed app that has been a pleasure to use. I’ve probably spent 25 hours in it this last week. And it’s great. So, I highly recommend Screenflow. It’s on the Mac App Store.
John: So, Craig, if people wanted to tweet to you or to me, I am @johnaugust. You are @clmazin.
John: If you want to subscribe to us, go to iTunes and click subscribe for Scriptnotes. Just search for us and click subscribe. If you are there you can leave us a comment. We like those comments.
Next week we should really read those comments. We should go through those because it’s been awhile since we’ve responded. That’s great when people leave comments.
John: And I think that’s it. Oh, if you have questions about stuff that we talked about today at johnaugust.com/podcast you will see a list of all the episodes we’ve done and links to the things we talked about on the show.
Craig: This was a packed podcast. Dense. The dense fruitcake of a podcast.
John: It was a long episode. It started with that dense infographic and I think it really sort of took its tone from there.
Craig: We’re saving lives, John. We’re saving lives. [laughs]
Craig: I want to believe that we’re saving lives.
John: I do want to believe. Craig, thank you so much. Have a great week.
Craig: Thank you, John. Bye.
- profound_whatever’s post on r/screenwriting and its accompanying infographic
- Deus ex machina on Wikipedia
- Directors Guild of America Board OKs New Contract, Triggering Member Vote from Variety
- WGA Announces Contract Negotiating Committee from The Hollywood Reporter
- Writers in Treatment
- Screenflow for Mac, and John’s video and post on why he likes writing in Fountain
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Matthew Chilelli
Antonia Lidder recounts her experience with Frankenweenie, and its impact on her son diagnosed with autism:
In spring 2012, when he had a vocabulary of approximately 15 words, Gabriel clearly said ‘Sparky’. We were excited that he’d said a word and was undoubtedly trying to communicate with us, yet we had no idea what ‘sparky’ was. We searched our memories and came up blank. Then one day I recalled, ‘Last month we did see a trailer for a Tim Burton film – there was a dog in it called Sparky, but it’s only mentioned a couple of times, and it was so fast, and we’ve only seen it once…’
‘Nah,’ my husband said, ‘can’t be.’
How much we have learnt since.
For some kids with autism, seeing a movie in a theater eliminates many of the distractions of ordinary life — eye contact, social cues, needing to keep up a conversation. In the darkness, they can focus on the movie in front of them. The movie theater is one of the last places you can fully lose yourself in a story.
Frankenweenie is deliberately simple, both visually and narrativley. It’s black-and-white, with no fast cutting. It’s the story of a boy and his dog and the adults around them.
My hunch is that kids with autism identify with both Sparky and Victor. Sparky is mute but curious, steadfast but easily frightened. Victor is reclusive and odd, but his oddness isn’t threatening. He’s special and his parents love him for it.
For Lidder, the film opened the floodgates:
FRANKENWEENIE sparked a magical trajectory for us, showing us the actual potential in our beautiful boy, rather than the deficiency that others perceive in him because he can’t express himself in recognised, neurotypical ways. It also has given us so many moments of unbridled joy and discovery that I don’t have the words to convey their significance in our lives.
Ultimately, FRANKENWEENIE is the tale of a boy who is different, isolated and misunderstood. The boy loses himself in film, and the adults find themselves as he shows them what love really is. In this way, and every other way, FRANKENWEENIE is the film of our lives.
My thanks to Picturehouse for sponsoring these special autism-friendly screenings, and for sharing this story.
The Fountain preview is not perfect. I noticed parentheticals didn’t find the right margins and other bits of minor weirdness. But this workflow demonstrates one of the big advantages of Fountain’s plain-text heritage: you can adapt existing tools to work with it.
Fountain-centric iPad apps are coming, but until then there are no shortage of great text editors for iOS, so it’s worth experimenting. Anything you write in Fountain can easily be transformed into a PDF by apps like Highland or Slugline.
Craig and John talk readers and coverage, centering their discussion on profound_whatever’s infographic charting 300 submissions and the lessons screenwriters can take from it.
After that, we talk about the recent DGA deal with the AMPTP, and the degree to which it might predict the upcoming WGA negotiations.
Finally, we discuss getting high and are generally buzz-kills. Sorry.
- profound_whatever’s post on r/screenwriting and its accompanying infographic
- Deus ex machina on Wikipedia
- Directors Guild of America Board OKs New Contract, Triggering Member Vote from Variety
- WGA Announces Contract Negotiating Committee from The Hollywood Reporter
- Writers in Treatment
- Screenflow for Mac, and John’s video and post on why he likes writing in Fountain
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Matthew Chilelli
This weekend, Neil Cross (creator of Luther) emailed me with a feature request:
I love Fountain in general and Highland in particular. I’d live there all-but permanently, but for one issue: I’m a very fast but very poor two-fingered typist. One of my worst habits is accidentally hitting the CAPS LOCK key — so I disable it.
I wonder if there’s any chance the Fountain syntax could incorporate a FORCE CHARACTER instruction, the way it currently incorporates FORCE SCENE HEADING?
I can’t be the only clumsy typist in the world for whom this would be a godsend.
I started to brainstorm syntax changes and work-arounds, until I realized we’d already built a solution into Highland: shift-return.
At the end of a line, if you hit shift-return rather than just return, you’ll make the entire line uppercase. It’s useful for character names, scene headings and transitions.
Melissa’s amazing, and always was. I’ve loved watching someone so talented and so deserving become a star.
We shot this film after Go, but it was actually finished first.
I wrote the part for Melissa, who absolutely killed her single scene in Go. Over the next few years, I’d cast her in anything I could. She played a recurring character in my WB series D.C., and had cameos in both Charlie’s Angels. I wrote a part for her in Big Fish, but her role on Gilmore Girls kept her in Los Angeles.
Nine years later, Melissa would play her character from God again in The Nines opposite Ryan Reynolds.1 Her husband Ben Falcone has a small part in the movie as well, and starred in another pilot I did called The Remnants.
God was shot on leftover 35mm from Go, using a lot of the same crew. That’s my old apartment, my old couch, my old answering machine.
I had no particular career goal in making it; it just seemed like fun. We never submitted it to festivals. Rather, it got passed around a lot on VHS, and would often be brought up in meetings. (Casting directors in particular loved it.)
Although I had already directed second unit on Go, this was my first real directing experience beyond crappy Super-8 films in school. I learned a lot, including:
- Using metaphors to explain what you want. I told my DP that I wanted the light to feel like a breath mint. I told the hair stylist that I wanted Hot-Topic Wiccan.
- The challenges of late-90s opticals. That “god” title in the opening shot, which would be three seconds of work today, took about a week of back-and-forth approvals at a lab.
- How expensive music is. The rights to “Walking on Sunshine” cost more than the rest of the budget combined.
- How much of a homebody I am. God started a trend of my writing movies that take place in my house.
Some of the best things that came from this short were relationships with people I keep working with: Melissa, producer Dan Etheridge, composer Alex Wurman, cinematographer Giovanni Lampassi, and editor Doug Crise. They’re all still part of my life and career, which is a remarkable gift.
- The short is a bonus feature on the US DVD.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 119, the Positive Moviegoing episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
And we are so lucky because we have our very first guest, the sort of guest who set the template for a guest on Scriptnotes would be like. Aline Brosh McKenna is here in the studio.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Woot-woot-woot!
John: How are you, Aline?
Aline: I’m doing well. I’m doing very well. I’m happy to be here.
John: Now it’s almost Thanksgiving. Do you have big Thanksgiving plans for you and your family?
Aline: We don’t. I don’t cook. We go out to dinner.
John: How very nice.
Aline: It’s great. I really love it.
Craig: [Long Island accent] “I don’t cook.”
Aline: No, it’s too much for me to do.
Craig: “We go out to dinner.” Where can you even go?
Aline: [Long Island accent] You got to set up the order.
Craig: Where do you?
Aline: We go to a lovely place in the mountains near Malibu where they cook game and you eat game.
Craig: Oh, you don’t do the normal Jewish thing of just Chinese food? [laughs]
John: I thought that was only Christmas?
Aline: No, that’s Christmas. Christmas is Chinese food and a movie.
Aline: What are you doing, Craig?
Craig: We have some friends coming over and another lovely half-Jewish, half-super not Jewish family in La Cañada. And we are going to have an excellent Thanksgiving. We’re going to be making all of our own food. I’m cooking multiple desserts and side dishes. And the, actually, you should know this guy, John. I mean, you don’t know him, but you should meet him. He’s great. His name is Josh and he does lighting design for operas and musical theater. He’s worked down at La Jolla and up at Santa Barbara Opera House and Minnesota. And he’s a cool guy.
So, anyway, we’re having a combined Thanksgiving and –
Aline: I love that Craig, who lost a titanic amount of weight, is the expert pie and cake maker.
Craig: Ain’t that the way it goes?
John: I, too, am having a bunch of people over for Thanksgiving. I’ll be making pies. I’ll be making the turkey. It’s the one day a year that I sort of go back to the full Martha Stewart mode. My former assistant Dana Fox and I, she and I every day would watch Martha Stewart Living, back when it was the filmed show, not that horrible live before an audience thing. Back when it was the true Martha Stewart. We would watch it. And that’s the day that my inner Martha Stewart comes out and I cook hard.
Craig: Mmm. I know. I love cooking hard. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Today, on the podcast, we are going to be talking about a lot of topics. Aline brought two. I brought one. Craig brought one. But first we have to talk about the Live holiday show. We are recording this on the Wednesday that the tickets went on sale and I think we’re kind of sold out. We’re not fully sold out, but a lot of people are coming, which is great.
The live show is December 19. It is at the LA Film School. It is a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation. There’s a few tickets that have been held back. So there’s a chance that even if we are completely sold out on paper we will be releasing some more tickets. So, do follow us on Twitter and we may announce that there’s still some more tickets left.
But out lineup for the show is incredible, including Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: Derek Haas.
John: Kelly Marcel.
John: Richard Kelly.
Craig: Richard Kelly!
John: Rawson Thurber.
John: Franklin Leonard and Lindsay Doran.
Craig: Leonard and Doran! Leonard and Doran, I think, was a great boxing match. Wasn’t that — ?
John: Yes, it’s a classic –
Craig: Was it Doran? Well, it was Durán, but anyway, I’d like to see the two of them fight. Money is on Doran.
John: I think the fight is going to be epic. So, that will be a fun show.
But, today on the show we’re going to talk about four topics. Aline suggested we talk about outline failure and why it’s important to befriend other writers.
I want to talk about this article about going broke in your 50s.
Aline: Oh, you sent it to me. I should have read it. I didn’t read it. You’ll tell me what it is.
Craig: We’ll summarize.
John: We’ll fill you in on the details.
Craig: “I don’t cook. I don’t read.”
Aline: [Long Island accent] I order. I order.
Craig: “I order.”
John: And Craig wanted to talk about positive moviegoing, which I’m not even sure what it means, so Craig start us out. What is positive moviegoing?
Craig: Well, it’s this thing I’ve been thinking about lately because this is the time of year when all the so-called “good” movies come out. And a lot of them are actually good movies. But I noticed that there’s — I think it’s just we live in a time of snarkiness and suspicion and nobody seems to want to like anything. People a lot of times go into theaters with their arms crossed, especially in Los Angeles. We’re all in the business. And I think people go to movies and they’re already — they’re demanding to hate them. And they’re prejudging them. And you could do it for — you name any movie and I could just sort of come up with some pretext for hating it.
And so what I really have been trying to do is when I go to movie to go wanting to love it. And accepting everything about it for at least 20 minutes. So, I don’t care what happens in the first twenty minutes. I am on board. I will accept it and I will attempt to enjoy it as best I can. I will give myself to the movie.
And then at some point, okay, you know, listen, sometimes you just don’t like movies. Sometimes they disappoint. Sometimes they anger you because you hate them so much. And that’s okay. I’m not denying that that can happen. But I’ve really been trying to just give myself over to movies.
So, I went and I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And I went in, just gave myself to the movie. And I loved it. And I think I would have loved it anyway, but I think it helped that I wasn’t judging. I just decided nobody else goes to movies to judge. Why do we go to movies to judge? Can’t we just enjoy them?
Anyway, that’s my thing, positive moviegoing.
John: So, what you’re describing is almost like — I can picture the body language of it. It’s like you’re sitting down in your seat. You’re not crossing your arms in front of you saying like, “Okay, impress me.”
John: You’re saying, “I’m here. I’m eager to be entertained. I will follow you wherever you go. And take me on a journey.” That’s the message you’re trying to send to this movie.
Craig: That’s right. Sort of like meeting somebody at a party and they start to tell you a story. You’re standing there. So be nice. Listen to it. Give it a shot, you know. I just get so depressed when I see people ripping movies apart before they even see them.
Aline: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s easy to hate things and to bag on things. I think it’s just, it makes people feel fashionable and intellectual. And it’s harder — it takes more effort to go out there and say, “You know what? Even if it wasn’t perfect, even if things aren’t prefect, sometimes things that you love are the imperfect perfect thing.” But going in there with an attitude of like, “I’m going to enjoy this. I paid my money to enjoy this, not to find something that I can sit down with my friends later and pick to shreds?’
Craig: Yeah. And it will happen that we will encounter movies that infuriate us. And we will pick them to shreds. And we will pick them to shreds. And if you’ve earned that experience, so you’ve earned it. But there is something to be said for letting yourself be entertained and not attempt to make yourself feel better by pushing a movie away.
And frankly even the feeling that, okay, it’s not perfect. Yeah! [laughs] How often does that happen? You know?
Craig: I mean, movies win Oscars and people go, “Oh my god, that piece of crap won an Oscar.” Perfection is irrelevant, you know.
I almost think, okay, mistakes aren’t really mistakes. It’s just, you know, no more than I got from here to there on a road and it was a really enjoyable journey and there was a pothole. It’s just part of it.
Aline: And I also think it’s very Christmas-y.
John: It’s very Christmas-y.
Now, on some level are we talking about expectation? Because I find that a lot of times the movies that I enjoy most were the ones where my expectations were not set too high going into them. And that’s why I love to see a movie during its opening weekend before everyone has sort of told me what I’m supposed to think and feel about it.
Because when I come into a theater with a set of expectations, nothing can surprise me. And I’m sort of preconditioned to think this is how I’m supposed to feel about this particular entertainment.
Aline: Yeah. I miss the days of just going to see a movie and knowing nothing about it.
Aline: My parents would drive us to the Paramus Park, we used to call it the Millionplex. It had 14 theaters. And they would just drop us off there and we would see the 7:30, whatever it was, and just be happy. That’s how I saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure which, you know, pleasantly surprised us. We laughed. Fell out of our chairs laughing.
We also saw Yor, The Hunter From the Future that way.
Craig: Yeah. Good one.
Aline: And just you don’t have that surprise anymore. You’ve been so inundated with media before you go to see a movie now, that I miss the days of just thinking like, “I just want to see a movie. Let’s see what’s out there.” I miss that.
John: Yeah, I remember seeing 9 to 5 that way. So, I was a kid dropped off at the theater and the theater we were supposed to go to — they dropped us off at the wrong movie, essentially. So, we saw 9 to 5. I was far too young to see 9 to 5, which is the best way to see 9 to 5, because they’re smoking pot, and having sex, and all these things.
Aline: Stringing people up.
John: I also remember in college going to see, we ended up seeing The Handmaid’s Tale because the other movie we wanted to see was completely sold out. We had no idea what the movie was. And that’s so incredibly rewarding when you sit in, the only information you have is what the filmmakers are giving you frame-by-frame as the story unfolds.
You had that experience of positive moviegoing because you weren’t preconceived with what we were supposed to feel. There was no expectation about what to –
Aline: And you haven’t checked a review aggregator that’s giving you 60 opinions before you even set foot there.
Craig: Yeah, or your Twitter feed, or comedians teeing up. Or whatever, anything. Or even articles that are insisting that it’s the most important thing of all time.
It’s funny. 9 to 5 was the first movie I think I saw, I was dropped off to see on my own. I remember it was like a weird triple date, like a weird triple fifth-grade date. What were our parents thinking? But, you know, I really make an effort now when I sit in the movie theater before the movie starts to blank my mind completely. I just say, go ahead movie, ride all over me and let’s see where this goes.
John: Some of my favorite experiences are actually like when you see the three trailers, or the four trailers, and then like the real movie starts and you’ve forgotten what the movie was that you’re supposed to — you have to check the ticket to see what movie is this. Oh right, it’s the Muppets! But it is very exciting.
Now, let’s talk for a second as filmmakers, as screenwriters, is there anything we can do in those opening pages or in the opening minutes of a movie to get people in the positive moviegoing experience. What is that like from our side as writers to hopefully foster that good spirit?
Craig: Well, I do have one thing that lately I’ve been tending to do, and that is write a credit sequence. It became out of fashion. All movies — well, originally movies used to have these opening credit sequences that includes even the credits that we now call end credits, you know, where there are logos and rosters of people. But then the standard opening credit sequences, that became out of fashion. And for a long time all the credits went in the back of the movie. So, you just started the movie.
I really like credit sequences. I like opening credit sequences. The opening credits for Mitty are beautiful. And I think that that helps kind of get everybody situated and in the mood. So, I’ve been doing that lately.
John: I will also write credit sequences in movies where I feel it’s appropriate. More than anything I try to make sure that the reader and therefore the viewer feels confident. Like, trust me, this is going to be a ride that you will enjoy taking with me. You’re going to feel rewarded and smart on this journey. We know what we’re doing. Everything is going to be okay.
And I mean that shows up in sort of your word selection on those first pages, but also just making sure no one is confused in a bad way in those first pages. Making sure that there is — if it’s a funny movie, you need to have something funny happen really quickly, so everyone sort of gets what the world of your movie is.
Aline: My husband has a thing where we’ll go to see a movie, and sometimes movies take forever just to get going, and he’ll turn to me at some point and say, “When does the movie start,” 20 minutes into the movie. Because sometimes it just seems like, especially because we do know what movies we’re going to see, it does seem like if you’re taking 15 minutes to get us acquainted with what we’ve seen on the poster, that makes me a little itchy.
And I think our attention span for that has probably changed a bunch, too. But I think it’s great to see if you can get to the heart of the matter so the audience knows what movie they are seeing.
John: I think that’s a great segue to a talk that you proposed, which is outline failure, because what we’re really talking is the structure of the story and when things are happening. And structure is really when stuff happens. So, talk to me about outline failure and what you mean by outlines failing.
Aline: Well, you guys I know have talked about outlining a lot on the show, and it’s always very interesting, and it’s something that people will always ask on panels and such is about outlining. And I think we all outline in different ways. But I think — I don’t really know any writers who don’t outline at all, or few.
And some outline after the fact. Some write a draft and then outline. But what I think is interesting is I do do outlines. I try not to do written outlines, submit written outlines, because I find that people get bogged down in the details of a written outline. But I do spoken — I will pitch an outline and I will pitch an outline to everybody. And before I start writing I tend to try and pitch an outline to as many people as I can, the producer, the studio, anybody who will listen to the outline so that I can tell it like I’m telling a story.
And often when you’re telling it you realize, oh, that’s not good, or that’s boring, or this patch needs to go here or there, or that doesn’t make sense.
But what never ceases to amaze me is, you know, it’s one of those phenomena when you’re writing which is you want to try and break it down into math. And you want to break it down into cards. And we all want to feel like we have control over it. And it never ceases to amaze me that you’ll outline something, you’ll go see six people and pitch to them, you’ll put it on cards, you’ll sit down and start writing, and it’s usually page 65 is where it happens, where you start looking at your outline and you’re thinking, “This is crazy. Like why did everyone let me do this? Why didn’t everyone know that this is riddled with flaws and the character has just changed on a dime for no reason.”
I’ve always contended that 70 to 90 are the rocky shoals, the rapids, where your movie either comes together and moves out into the next plane, or you start to realize that you’ve got some inherent flaws. But what is really fascinating is you can’t really tell until you write it. And as long as I’ve been doing this, I have found some outlines I’m going through, congratulating myself, and just thinking, “Wow, I really planned this out.” And some I’m thinking like, “Oh, I don’t know.”
But, at some point you always get to a point of thinking like, “Who are these people who I work with who allowed me to think that these were good ideas?” You actually get angry. And I don’t really know, I don’t know what the cure for this is besides writing through there. And I think it’s funny, because I just moved, and it’s kind of a similar process. You think, you know, we’re going to put the couch there. We’re going to put this ottoman here, we’re going to put this here. And then you show up and you put it there and you’re like, “This is hideous. This is ten times too large. Why did anyone think this was going to fit here?”
And I guess it just shows planning is — it’s just plans. And so you really do feel like you go into a war, you top off your canteen, you take as many weapons as you can, and then you get there and the enemy has gone on the run and gone into the bush. They had flying robots you didn’t know about. And all of a sudden you have to change your game plan. That’s one of those things that kind of separates the way I write now from the way I did in the beginning which was in the beginning I would really get very disheartened and think, “Why has this happened? What is the critical flaw in my process?”
And now I just accept, you know, okay, we’re experiencing some problem with the hydraulics in the outline. And need to make adjustments on the fly. And sometimes that process of trying to figure out why your outline has crumbled beneath you, often those are the critical — that’s the critical passage where you find out what your movie is really about, because 70 to 90 is where you’re sort of on the upslope to figuring out what problem is this person really solving. What problem is this character really solving? And you may have the wrong problem. And you may have the wrong thematic. And sort of that’s where you figure it out.
So, I’ve learned somewhat to try not to beat myself up about it, but for those out there who are staring out their outline, ripping their hair out, it happens.
John: I’m outlining something right now, and I do find that as I go through previous episodes of trying to outline these movies I will have so many beats figured out so precisely in that sort of first half of the movie, and then there’s a stage in which I’m just sort of like waving my hands and saying, “And then we get to this last thing.” And it’s that hand-waving section that you’re like, there’s really no connective tissue that’s getting me from that point to that point. And if characters are having to make these big jump transitions that don’t really make sense — you find characters who are doing things because I need them to do that, not because it’s the natural thing for them to do.
Aline: That’s a really good point. And I think Craig has talked about this, too. When you pitch a movie, let’s say you pitch for 15 minutes, you probably spend nine minutes on the first 35 pages. And one of the other rookie mistakes I would make is you end up, the first part of your script is like a finely scrimshawed piece of bone that you have added all these details to. And then when you get to 50 it’s like, “Yeah, and then some stuff happens, and then some other stuff happens.” And that’s endemic to the storytelling most of the time is spent on the setup.
Craig: Well, this is why I outline actually. I don’t outline for the beginning of the movie, or the first half of the movie, because you’re right — I think we have an innate sense of the world we want to build and the person we want to put in it. And what the problem is. And that big wrecking ball that comes through the wall that changes everything.
I outline specifically to avoid the hand-waving section. Really, I will spend most of my outlining energy on page 60 to page 90 because I won’t start if I don’t know how the movie ends. I can’t start if I don’t know how the movie begins. But, that are right in there, that’s where you’re absolutely right, Aline. That is where all the gunk, the sub-textual character gunk starts to burble out. And the character as we understood them is breaking down dramatically and violently and then being put back together again by themselves.
It’s a scary area in every movie. And if you do it well it’s the best part of every movie. So, that’s why I outline.
Now, that said, of course — you know, we write a screenplay and then somebody has to go make it a movie. Well, that experience of turning a screenplay into a movie is a bit like the experience of turning an outline into a screenplay. And somewhere along the way the experience of doing it starts to change how you feel about it and what you understand about it. You have to remain flexible. And you can’t afford to let your outline become your boss.
The fact that other people don’t see these pitfalls and can’t warn you about them is not shocking is it? I mean, if you didn’t see it, what were the odds they were going to see it?
Aline: So, let me ask you a question — oh, sorry.
John: What Aline describes though in that process of pitching things, that is the natural way you pitch things. And you pitch very much like the setups of everything, and then you sort of rush through the other things. And that’s just the natural way you pitch things. So, that’s what you’ve been doing as you’ve been describing these projects to people is that stuff. And it’s natural to sort of rush over to the other things. But the mistake we often make for ourselves is not realizing like, “Oh, you know, I did rush over all those things. I really haven’t figured out what some of those moments are.”
And so while there’s technically an outline for what those beats are that happen here, they’re not nearly as fleshed out and nearly as focused as the rest of it is.
Also, I think what you said at the start that’s really key is that sometimes the only way to know how to write something is to write something is to write it. And it’s like you’re trying to write the screenplay before you’ve written it, and it can only be a rough approximation of the journey you’re going to take. It’s like you have this map that’s showing you how to get from point A to point B, but you really don’t know where all the mountains and all the hills are and where the rivers are that you’re going to have to get yourself around.
John: So, you have to allow yourself the luxury of saying, “This is not what I thought it was. Given where I am at, what is the most interesting way to get to the places that I need to get to next?”
Craig: Yeah. And, you know, to me an outline is really good for a couple of things. It helps you organize your work, which matters, because you’re not going to get done otherwise. And the other thing that it does is keep you from being absurdly self-indulgent. We all have a tendency to be absurdly self-indulgent. We’ll just wander on. And when people say, “Well, I don’t really write my scripts. My characters write them for me.” Shut up! You write them. Don’t blame it on your characters when you’ve just spent 40 pages blithering.
That’s you blithering. And outlines help keep us –
Aline: Well, one thing, sorry.
Craig: Go ahead.
Aline: You guys don’t interrupt each other. I’ve noticed that.
John: We’ve gotten much better about being able to do that not interrupting thing. But, no, go.
Aline: Now you have two-thirds Jew, so.
Craig: So much Jew. We’re at peak Jew.
Aline: One thing that I’ve learned to do to avoid the scrimshaw, the first act scrimshaw, and I know Craig doesn’t do this, but after I have the outline I will write the whole script very quickly. And I will write like an 85, 90-page draft as quickly as I humanly can, to test. And what I’ll do is hop into scenes and I’ll see how I feel hopping into those scenes. And that’s the best way for me to test the outline is to hop into scenes and think, “Oh, there’s nothing happening here. No one is speaking in here. Oh, I’ve walked into a room and everyone is silent.”
So, I go really fast and I test the whole outline by building a very kind of provisional popsicle version of the script. And then I go back and I add my sheet rock and my paint and my ottomans. I do it that way. I build it in layers. And I know some people don’t do that. Some people build it good all the way through. But for me, to test the outline, I have to get all the way through the story.
John: Yeah. I’ve always wanted to do what James Cameron would do with the scriptments, which essentially is a very long outline that’s basically all the scenes but without the dialogue. I’ve always wanted to be able to be the person who did that. But the dialogue is by far the most fun thing to write, so therefore I always want to write that. I feel like I don’t really know the characters until I hear them talking to each other.
Aline: I don’t know if the story is going to work until I know if the characters will talk. And that’s what I think, for me, is the difference between an outline and a screenplay. You know, you think this is going to be a good scene, and then you get into the scene and you realize, like this has happened to me where I had an outline where there were two characters who were in opposition to each other for a good amount of the story. And that stuff was easy to write because they had a lot of conflict and countervailing points of view. And then there got to a point where I had them align their interest, and man, every time that happened that was like stabbing the inflatable.
I would just get to those scenes where they were supposed to both be pursuing something, and you know, the air, you just audibly hear the air go out of the movie because these characters didn’t have any interpersonal conflict. So, I ended up reconfiguring the outlines so that their interest continued to be at odds until 105 or something, so that I would maintain that conflict. But in the outline phase it seemed like, “Why not? They team up, they become a team here. That makes sense.” And I really didn’t know until I got into those scenes and they could not speak to each other. They had nothing to say. They were saying like, “This looks good. Yeah. This looks good.”
Craig: That sounds like great work.
Aline: Great scene.
John: There’s nothing less dramatic than agreement.
John: Just like, “Sure. That’s great.” They might as well be sitting back, reading the paper together.
Aline: “We should get the bad guy.”
Craig: “We should. Let’s do it.”
Aline: “Good. Let’s do it.” [laughs]
Craig: “Let’s do it. You want lunch?” Yeah, I want lunch” “Let’s have lunch first and then we’ll do…”
By the way, I do these –
Craig: I am the scriptment guy. I write scriptments. Because I love writing dialogue, so again, I feel like if I know exactly what the circumstance is, and I feel comfortable in it, then I get to have the fun of writing dialogue towards something that I think is correct. You know –
Aline: That’s the other great thing when you’re writing comedy, about comedy, is the test of your outline is whether people start saying funny things. If they’re not saying funny things, something is wrong with your scene.
Craig: Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong!
Craig: Flying robots. I’ve been counting all of your metaphors. We’ve got furniture, flying robots, hydraulics.
Aline: That’s a big one.
Craig: Bone. Layers of construction.
Craig: Inflatable. But my favorite is flying robot.
John: So, this project I’m working on right now, because I’m working on a spec, and Aline, you just finished a spec. I’m actually at the stage where I’ve written some scenes and I’ve paused for a second because I’ve realized like, oh no, there’s going to be trouble ahead.
Where I fundamentally — I have some mission creep happening, where the story was getting bigger than it should sort of — than it wants to get. When Richard Kelly was on the show last week, he talked about that with his movies, Donnie Darko, and you could definitely see mission creep happening in those things.
I’m trying to make something lean and it just keeps getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. So, I’m trying to sort of whittle back at the outline stage right now.
So, for the thing that you wrote for a spec, did you pitch to a bunch of people first and describe it, or was this an entirely internally-generated process? Did you outline on paper first?
Aline: Well, what I’ve done is I’ve written something that I want to direct. And it’s pretty specific to me. And so it was something that I mulled for a really long time. And there was a lot of freedom in not, you know, because I don’t often write just for myself. So, there was a lot of freedom in not having to be accountable to — making the process whatever I wanted the process to be.
Aline: So, I probably outlined it a little bit more loosely. But I did find a producer to work with after I had sort of an idea of what it was and what the basic structure was. Because I worked with a director once who said, we were having a meeting and he said, “You know, I think with my mouth open,” meaning he knows what he thinks as he’s saying it. And I’m very much like that. And so for me I needed and I like to have collaborators that I can talk to.
So, I found a producer who would work with me on spec, because I need to do that process of telling a story. But that said, it was really great to be able to just make adjustments, attack, and move however I wanted to without feeling like I was accountable to — as accountable to an outline. It’s good.
John: Let’s segue to our next topic, which you brought up also, which is why it’s important to be friends with writers. Because my recollection, and my early days in Hollywood, I was friends with a bunch of people who were starting out in Hollywood but they weren’t necessarily writers. I went through a graduate film program, so everyone was trying to become a producer, a film executive. Some people became writers, but I didn’t necessarily seek out other writers. What is your history going –
Aline: Well, I feel really strongly about that. I mean, and I think that people sometimes misunderstand what the idea is. The idea is not to be friends with writers who are going to network for you, or who are cool, or who are writing, or who are employed. That’s not really the critical thing. The critical thing is to have friends who do what you do and are engaged in the same kind of work that you are.
And I have, you know, a couple of my writer friends are from the very, very, very beginning of our career before we had any success or barely any work, and we don’t have work places in the way that, you know, my husband works at a mutual fund. He has a workplace. He has coworkers. We just, we don’t have that. Even when we do for a specific project, they’re just for that specific project.
My ongoing workplace, my Cheers, my group of people that I check in with are my other writer friends that I talk to on the phone periodically, or have lunch with. And we’re kind of –
John: Aline, you talk on the phone?
Aline: I talk on the phone.
Craig: Who talks on the phone?
Aline: I do.
Aline: And so we can check in on what we’re doing and say, “Hey, I was working on that. What do you think of this? Is this a good idea? What do you think of this person?” That network is invaluable. And you will grow with these people.
So, it’s less important to seek out people who you think are going to connect you with a job and more important to seek out people whose process you find productive. And Gatins refers to it as lab partners, you know, finding a lab partner who does their homework and has a neat notebook is important. And then –
John: I don’t think Gatins has a neat notebook. I think Gatins’ notebook is one of those folders that he’s like sort of half colored in as he fell asleep.
Aline: But it’s so –
Craig: Gatins’ notebook is like — it’s like a folder that you open up and it looks like it’s full of stuff, and you open it up and there’s nothing in there.
Aline: But it’s brilliant. It’s so brilliant.
Craig: It’s all in his head.
Aline: And it’s like a workbook where he didn’t do any of the math, but around the margins are those amazing drawings and thoughts. He’s a good example. He’s a great lab partner.
And also something another friend of mine said, which is easier said than done, we were talking about having your friends read stuff. And I said, “Who do you go to for that?” And he said, “It’s very simple. Send it to someone who roots for you.”
Craig: Perfect. He’s exactly right.
Aline: And I don’t know. It was like something I hadn’t really thought of in quite that way, because I think we all have friends that we love, but maybe we have other friends who we think root a little harder.
Craig: You mean to say, “Maybe some of them are rooting against us.” That’s what you mean to say. Which I think is real, by the way.
Listen, it’s human. It bums me out, but I sometimes sense it. Same thing about the positive moviegoing, you know.
Aline: I have the opposite of that which is I really like everyone around me to be really successful because I think it makes me look better.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly.
Aline: And it gives me more names to drop. But, sometimes it’s even on a specific project. Sometimes you can have a friend who is really supportive but they don’t like an idea that you have. Like I remember when I was — there was a friend that I had that I pitched him a few things I was working on, and one of them he just thought was a terrible idea. And so that’s not somebody who I would ever go to and say, “Do you want to read this?”
So, it’s just find somebody who really wants to see you do well, or find someone who really roots for that specific project, because that’s positive moviegoing. You want to share your work and share your career with people who are going in with the best possible intentions.
Aline: And we generate enough of our own schadenfreude towards ourselves in this process. You don’t really need it from other people. But finding people who can be your — and I have lots of friends who are producers, and executives, and agents, but your writer friends — and actors too — but your writer friends understand your struggles and your travails and they can really be there for you. And, you know, I think if you look around you can find people to kind of link arms with. And you will all come up together.
John: My friend, Andrew Lippa, who did the music for Big Fish, he has this group of composers, lyricist and composers, and they get together once a month and they have to show the work that they’ve been working on. So, as a group they have to perform the thing and like they talk about it, which just seems amazing. And there are obviously screenwriter groups that can do the same kind of thing, but it’s different to show your written pages versus actually performing something. And there’s a trust element that kicks in.
You were talking about you might have directors, or producers, or other people who can read your stuff, agents, but all of them have some vested interest in maybe how they’re going to associate with this project. The great thing about another writer is the writer is just the writer. Like they’re not trying to take your project. They’re not trying to do anything.
While there’s still sometimes that, it’s not even schadenfreude, but that realization of there’s only so many musical chairs and that sometimes you’re competing for the same spots, in general we can be very supportive of each other because we’re not trying to do the same thing. We’re all working on our own projects.
Aline: Yeah, and it’s interesting, because I know you guys have talked about this too, but the three of us all met at different phases in our careers and –
John: We should talk about how you and I met, because that’s a strange version of how you and I met. So, let me try my recollection of it, because I’m really kind of curious to hear your version of it.
So, Aline and I met on the phone because I was coming in to rewrite a project that she had written as a spec, correct?
Aline: No, I wrote it on assignment for New Line. And then John rewrote it and he cold called me and said, “I want to make sure it’s okay with you that I’m rewriting this.” And I said, sure. And then John did a draft of it, never to be heard from again that thing.
Craig: John, you killed her movie.
John: I probably killed her movie. So, the backstory –
Aline: But that was definitely, John was like, you know, they were bringing in the big guns and I got pushed down the stairs. And John was the first person — I think might have been the first person ever to call me and do the gracious thing.
And I remember, I was outside on my deck and I remember he said, “Is it okay with you if I do this?”
John: And I remember you also saying like, “Well, somebody is going to do it, and I’d rather you do it than somebody else,” which is honestly the reality of most of the situations. The answer is not going to that they’re going to go back to you, the original writer.
John: If they’re looking for another writer, they’re going to hire another writer, so you want the writer who actually has the ability to make the movie be good and not ruin the movie.
John: So, those are the situations you want to have. That was a strange project because the reason why I was able to get a hold of you is because we both had John Gatins as a friend. And so I called Gatins to get your number and said like, “Is it going to be cool if I call?”
Aline: Oh, that’s nice.
John: And so it was this movie that you wrote that I really liked. It was just a really good idea. And suddenly Dustin Hoffman was attached, and so I went to this lunch — this crazy lunch — with Dustin Hoffman. And suddenly like, well, this is a movie, and then it just…disappeared.
Aline: Yeah, it got complicated in that way. Those things do. But, we — you meet at different. Wait, so we already knew each other, and I knew Craig already when the strike happened. But the strike was really the thing where writers really connected in a different way. And I think it was sort of the convergence of the strike plus the internet. And all of a sudden people really got to know each other in a way that I had not experienced previously in my career where, you know, people really know each other now in a different way than they ever had before.
And I really think it’s for the good. And I always find it funny when you’re talking to an agent, or an executive, or a producer and you say, “Oh yeah, I talked to so-and-so about that project. Oh, yeah, she did a draft on that. So-and-so is directing it.” And they’re like, “How do you know that?” And it’s because, I think, we know each other more now than we did.
Craig: We know more than they know sometimes. We know so much more than they think we know. We talk to each other… — You know, I have a lot of writer friends. I like writers and it’s been a wonderful thing for me for the last, I don’t know, six or seven years to get this coterie of writers around me that I admire and that I trust and that I can learn from.
And we share and talk about everything. And I think we do so in a way that is informed by our experience of being safe with each other. That over time we haven’t screwed each other over. That the narrative that we just kind of feed off of each other and compete with each other and undercut each other is essentially bullshit. And that, in fact, we are supportive of each other because the pain that we feel is the most salient thing about the job we do.
So, when we see somebody else feeling it, naturally we just want to help them. I have found — there have been a couple people here and there, but for the most part I have found screenwriters to be incredibly generous and incredibly empathetic, and sweet and encouraging, to me at least.
Aline: I’ll tell you a good story. I had, on this spec that I was working on, I wanted to give it to somebody who didn’t know me and didn’t know the situation and didn’t know anything about it that I could give to, who I really respected. So, I gave it to a writer who I really, really respect but don’t know super well. I mean, I maybe hung out with him a dozen, no, half a dozen times. And I sent him the script and then I didn’t hear from him for awhile which is always the thing where you’re like, “Oh god, he hates it and he can’t figure out how to tell me.”
And then I get an email from him that says, “Look, my dad was sick, he was in the hospital. And so I’m just about to read the script.” And I was like, oh no. And then a couple days go by and I get a set of notes, seven pages of notes –
Aline: That are the most amazing thoughtful, heartfelt –
Craig: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
Aline: [laughs] Well thought out. Just, you know, including like, “Page 26, you could be doing this. Page 43, you could be doing this.” And written in this way that was like, you know, sometimes you get notes from people and it’s like they’re fighting what the movie is. And this was just a writer understanding like, “Oh, this is what she’s trying to do. You are trying to do this. Let me help you. You’re trying to get to such and such a place in five hours. Let me give you the best directions on how to get there.”
And I was so moved when I got that notes document that I was in my office that I like — tears sprang to my eyes. I know how hard it is as a writer to turn your attention from your own imagination and delve into another person’s script. And that he would do seven pages of these incredible notes really blew me away. And it’s professional camaraderie. And, man, the more of that you can find the better. And it doesn’t have to be somebody famous or — it can be, you now, if you’re 23 years old, it can be somebody else that you know who wants to do this, who will read your stuff and put their heart into it.
John: Well, it’s also back to the issue of as writers we want movies to be better. And so when I’m advising on projects at Sundance or other places, everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s a tremendous amount of your time that you’re spending.” It’s like, yes, but it’s a chance to make kind of movies better. It’s a way to sort of see what a person is attempting to try to do and help them get to that place that they’re trying to get to.
And so seven pages of notes is above and beyond the call. That’s terrific. But really only a writer could do that. Because only a writer could understand what you were trying to do and provide specific ways that you could sort of get to that place.
Craig: You know, I would also say that only a writer can convince you that you’re any good.
Aline: Right. That’s interesting.
Craig: I had a very nice experience. You know, I started writing a novel a couple of years ago. And, honestly, I wrote two chapters and then stopped, mostly just out of fear that it wasn’t going to be any good and that I wasn’t any good. And I’m no good. And, blah, blah, bah, rotten tomatoes.
John: Dennis Palumbo?
Craig: No, it’s not Dennis Palumbo. It’s actually, I gave it to Kelly Marcel because she asked to see it. And she’s a really good writer. And she loved it. And, you know, I have to believe that. I can’t — it’s not the same thing…
When we give screenplays, or we give our work to people that are employing us, they’re just as overly optimistic as we are. Everybody is rooting, rooting, rooting. But you always wonder.
Or you give it to somebody, you know, some producer, or agents, or coverage. Well, who’s doing coverage? I don’t know who they are. But if a writer reads something of yours and says, “This is good,” then you need to believe it. And we can’t get that from anybody else.
John: Yeah. You want that response of, “I’m so happy for you and also a little bit jealous.” That’s the best feeling you can get as a writer is when another writer says, “This is great and I wish I had written it.”
Craig: You know what’s so funny? That’s exactly what she said?
Craig: She said, I actually think she used the words, “I’m a bit jealous.” And then, see, but now I have this other task master that’s making me write this book, which is terrific, you know, terrific, because we also need that. We need somebody, we need a lab partner.
Craig: We need a lab partner.
John: And as we wrap up this segment on the importance of writers being friends, we also need to credit Aline because during the strike, I agree that the 2008 strike was a big game-changer in terms of especially feature writers knowing who each other are. You organized these events that would happen during the strike, or like these drink events where we would all get together and sort of mingle. And it was my first chance of actually getting to know faces with names of some of these people.
During the strike you were assigned to different studios where you were supposed to be doing picketing. And because I am the palest person on earth, I would picket at Paramount Studios from 5:30am till 8:30am. So, it would be dark and I wouldn’t get sunburned. And I loved that group of people I was hanging out with. But everyone else was at different studios.
And so the events that you organized, and there were three or four of them, were terrifically helpful because just suddenly all these names that I’d seen in the trades are suddenly in front of you and you’re talking about and a lot of what we were talking about was the strike, but you’re also talking about the work, and you’re talking about how to make things better.
Aline: But it came at a critical point. People were really, you know, if you try to do those mixers sometimes it’s hard to get people to go. But people were really wanting to be with other writers then and talk about what’s going on, and what are we going to do, and nobody was working.
And so that really, and you were able to organize them over the internet really quickly, send out an e-vite to hundreds of people. And so there were a lot of people who I knew their names but had never met them. And we all kind of really got to know each other during that experience. And it was a really tough… — And people had really varying opinions was the other thing. And a thing that always amazed me was people were really all over the map about what they believed about this, but by and large people were able to, the camaraderie of being screenwriters kind of overcame people’s different point of views.
John: I would say there were different point of views on the strike and sort of what we should be doing on the strike and how long it should go and what we should be fighting for. But a common point of focus in terms of like what our profession is, and sort of what our job is and what our craft is, and so by focusing on the feature writers who are usually completely in isolation, bring thing together, it was a way for us to identify ourselves as a group. Because usually we’re not a group the way that TV writers are often in rooms together and sort of know each other.
John: It was a way for us to actually know who these people were.
Craig: We also, there’s a certain kind of way that screenwriters interact with each other that is unique. And I love it. And it is a very talky, chatty, low tech, low fancy environment, almost always. We don’t do it the way other people do it. There are few screenwriters I know that sort of love to glam it up and throw parties at nightclubs and stuff like that, but for the most part it seems to me we’re at our happiest when we’re talking somewhere where we can hear each other. And that’s fun.
It’s a nice, real way to be in Los Angeles, a town where just around the corner there’s some place that has convinced you is important and you have to go inside. And if you can’t get inside, and who do you know inside, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, and there we are with our jeans and our sweaters and our cigars and our wine and we just — we’re able to be real with each other.
Aline: And I will tackle people. I mean, it’s funny, because I won’t do this with any other, you know, I won’t do this with actors, or directors really, but if I see a writer whose work I admire, I mean, I did a panel with Peter Morgan in 2006 and I was so excited he was going to be there. And the video of me is like, you know, a running back approaching, of me literally taking guys and grabbing them by the nape of the neck and chucking them out of the way to get to Pete. I was so excited to meet him.
And I got to him and I was like, “Oh my god, I just came to this thing so I could meet you.” And that moment someone said, “Let me take your picture.” And there’s a picture like 30 seconds after Pete and I meet, and I look like I’m standing next to Santa Claus. I’m so excited to be meeting Peter.
Craig: Well that’s, I mean, John, who was my Peter Morgan in Austin?
John: Oh, it was Breaking Bad, it was Vince Gilligan.
Craig: Vince Gilligan. I mean –
Aline: That thing, when you meet somebody whose work you so admire.
Craig: It’s everything. It’s everything.
Aline: It’s so amazing. And I will tackle people. And Kelly Marcel just moved to town –
Craig: Did you tackle Kelly Marcel?
Aline: I tackled her at the Mr. Banks thing. And she’s new to town so she doesn’t know a lot of writers. And I was like, oh, there’s people for you to meet.
John: There’s a mixer in your future.
Aline: Right. Yeah. And she went to Austin which is a really good way and, you know, one thing I would say is go to an event like Austin. If you’re somebody who is starting out, and again, we just did not have stuff like this when we were starting out and I would have been there tackling people. But, you know, go to these events where there is going to be other aspiring people and you will find people that you connect to, that you can pitch your movies to, that you can talk about what they’re working on.
You don’t have to be connecting to the fancy people. You can be connecting to people who are exactly in the same stage that you’re in.
John: Yes. Everyone grows up together. So there’s lateral things where you’re reading their script, and if you love their script, keep reading their scripts, and keep helping them out, and they will reciprocate. And you will find your people, but you have to sort of look for your people because it’s not you’re a professional football player where you’re just going to be around professional football players.
Aline: That’s right.
John: You are always going to be isolation unless you choose to make yourself not in isolation.
Craig: And don’t be judgy. Don’t be judgy. Don’t think that your friends have to be the fanciest writers in the world, or the most successful writers in the world. Don’t let that get in the way. You — when you fall in love with another writer, you’re falling in love with a kindred spirit and a fellow mind who understands you, who can help you and you can help you and you can help them.
There is no better feeling — the only better feeling than being helped is helping. How is that for Christmas?
John: So, our last thing I want to talk about today is an article that Nima had sent me, but I actually people linking to it, too.
Craig: Here comes the downer!
John: It’s a downer, but there’s a bright side at the end of it, too, kind of, or a brighter side.
Craig: Little bit.
John: Little bit. So, this is a site called priceonomics. It’s about David Raether who is a WGA writer who was a writer on Roseanne. And so he started Roseanne when he was already in his 40s or 50s, so he’d moved from the coast and got a job writing on Roseanne. And wrote on Roseanne for several years and was doing pretty well. He moved up through the ranks of Roseanne.
During the time he was writing for Roseanne he had a wife and eight kids. And eight kids is a lot of kids.
John: And at a certain point his marriage was starting to fall apart, so after Roseanne he took a two-year hiatus and sort of got his marriage back together and got his family situations settled. Moved to a more affordable school district so the kids could stay in that. And then started to go back to writing and to go back to try to find a television job and had a very difficult time finding a television job, which is a common thing you hear all the time which is that gap that happens between, you know, when you’re a writer in your 50s it’s harder and harder to be employed, especially if you weren’t the top showrunner person. It gets harder and harder for that middleclass person.
So, David Raether had, you know, a $500,000 nest egg, which sounds like a lot of money, but that very quickly disappeared. He ended up losing his home. In the article he talks about sort of the process by which the sheriffs come and sort of evict you from your home. And his marriage fell apart. His kids ended up moving in with other families. He ended up homeless in a van. And sort of like what it is to hit the bottom there.
And not bottom that we’re used to. We’re used to like drugs and alcohol, or some other sort of internal crazy that pushed you to the bottom. This was just like the floor just fell out from underneath him. And so the article continues on with sort of how he started working again and sort of getting jobs off Craigslist and ghostwriting things for people who couldn’t write stuff. And eventually sort of building his way up so he’s in a more stable place right now.
But it’s really, I think, a useful thing for us to talk about, especially going into the spirit of Thanksgiving, which is to be not only thankful for the things we have in front of us, but also to be mindful that when things get bad it’s maybe not quite as bad as it seems. That even this guy will say that as bad as things got, once you recognize that you can be homeless and you’ll be okay out of it, he’s like much less fearful about sort of the things that can happen.
So, a couple things I think we can talk about with this article is, first off, that gap year, what he describes as the gap years, that time when you’re no longer sort of employable, but your pension hasn’t kicked in. Because this is a guy who has a WGA pension. So, when he turns 65 he’s got that pension and he’ll be fine. But the problem is he’s not 65 yet.
Aline: Can’t you take it earlier?
Craig: Yeah, a little bit earlier, but at some point they start hitting you with a lot of penalties and things.
John: I think you essentially lose it if you start drawing down too early.
Craig: There’s a specific minimum age you need to hit, but it’s a really bad idea to dip into it.
Aline: Oh, I see. Got it.
John: In the beginning of your career, in the middle of your career, as you start to recognize that you’re sort of at the tail end of your career, what are sort of the financial decisions you make? Because I see a lot of people who sell a spec and think like, “I have a million dollars. I’m a millionaire. I’m going to start living like a millionaire.” And don’t seem to recognize, no, you’re not a millionaire. There’s no such thing as a millionaire, really, and you need to buy a more sensible car.
Craig: Yeah, you know, let me, [laughs], let me do what I do. Just for a moment. I promise I won’t be too mean. There’s a lesson that I drew from this that I have internalized anyway. Which is, you ain’t your job. You’re you. Your job doesn’t make you qualified. Your job doesn’t make you deserving or entitled of anything.
I want to point out something interesting about this guy, and I don’t mean this in the spirit of kicking somebody when they’re down. I’m very happy that he’s pulled himself out of this circumstance. But, he was not in the entertainment business. He was not a television writer. He was not a screenwriter. He had paid none of the dues that people pay for many years in this town to earn those jobs.
He was a casual friend of Tom Arnold’s. And he decided to write a spec script for Roseanne, once it was a hit, and send it to Tom Arnold. And Tom Arnold, who is apparently a very gracious man and likes his friends, said, “Awesome. I’m getting you a job and you’re going to work here.” And when I read that all I could think was, oh, how the people in the room at Roseanne must have felt about that. Like who is this? Are you kidding me?
My point is not to say that he doesn’t deserve to be in that room. He may very well have been the best writer in that room. My point is that just because you have a job as a writer doesn’t mean that you have now broken through some magical thing where you’re a professional writer for life. You’re not. You’re a professional writer right now. And it can go away for me, for you, for any of us, for any number of reasons.
So, you have to protect and save against that. You certainly can’t be so proud and so delusional to think that you can disappear from the one single job you’ve had as a writer, you can disappear for two years and then come back and everybody would just want to give you a job. Even if the market were great, nobody other than Tom Arnold has ever hired you to write before. It just seems so delusional to me.
Please, important lesson here. When you get your big break, it’s not a break. There’s no breaks. You’re going to have to re-break, and re-break, and re-break. It never ends. It never ends.
The other thing is I feel like the story is missing information. I really do.
John: It’s apparently a shortened version of like the book. So there’s actually a much more elaborate book that sort of talks through everything that happened. So, what information did you want to know, Craig?
Craig: Well, I feel like when you are a married person with a wife and eight kids and a job, and then your life is dismantled to the extent that you are separated from your wife, separated from your children, some of whom go to live in another country and you end up in a minivan, that there are additional circumstance beyond, “Huh, can’t find a gig.”
Whether it is substance abuse, or mental health issues, it seems to me like we’re missing some information here, because things just seemed to happen in this story and I’m not quite sure why. And there are also a lot of things that are available for people that he doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of. So, I don’t know. I was just a little suspicious about the whole thing. And a little concerned when I read it. there was a whiff of flimflam about it.
I may just be a terrible person.
Aline: “A whiff of flimflam.”
John: Oh, it’s a very good whiff, though. Well, let’s talk about sort of the, I don’t know, the safety net of it all, because one of the challenges of being a screenwriter is that your income is inherently unstable. And so you cannot predict how much money you’re going to earn the next year, which is a challenging thing.
Now, Aline, your husband has a normal job. And so is that comforting in any way, where like there’s a steady income regardless?
Aline: Yeah, well he doesn’t just have a normal job. He works for a mutual fund, so he’s very conservative. So, we plan very conservatively. But, you know, there are two things that when I can see them in a writer I get a little uncomfortable. One is writers who really love to write. When you run into people who just love to write, and just I love it, I look forward to it, it’s so enjoyable. That always sends up red flags for me.
My people are the ones who are like, “Ugh, it was hard.” You know, of course you have moments where it’s wonderful, but it’s work. It’s really hard work. And I think people who don’t complain about writing concern me. And then also people who just if you have that attitude of like, “I got one gig. I’m set,” it’s not that, man. It’s getting — everybody has to go out and get a job –
Craig: Look at the Jews fighting the Christmas spirit. We just can’t deal with it.
Aline: You’ve got to go get a job. A couple times a year, you’ve got to go back out there. No one is set. So, sometimes you do meet people who get some kind of foot hold, some kind of toe hold, and they seem to feel like they’ve made it through some sort of pearly gates, and it’s just not like that. It’s a hustle.
And I really look at it in a lot of ways as being an entrepreneur. And when you’re an entrepreneur, you know you’re going to have good times and not so good times. And you better take — here’s another metaphor for your — you better take your acorns and put them in your tree trunk.
Craig: And your flying robot.
Aline: And your flying robot. You better take that flying robot and get it some acorns, because this –
Craig: When did you become Dan Rather? I don’t understand what happened?
Aline: It’s a very cyclical business. And I just think you’ve got to keep your head down and do your work, but you’re not owed anything. There’s so many people who want to do this. So, I say all of this having not read the article because I did not do my homework.
John: When I first got paid, my first scale assignment, which was for How to Eat Fried Worms, and then the second thing was A Wrinkle in Time, I would have a spreadsheet. And on that spreadsheet I would track how much money I had and then I would month by month figure out this is what my rent costs. This is what I pay for these different things. And I would sort of watch the money trickle down. So, I could plan ahead, I could see ahead eight months to see like how much money I would actually have.
And that’s a very sobering exercise that’s so useful, because I could see like I cannot be buying anything beyond the bare essentials I need to live, because otherwise I could just run out of money.
Aline: I’m just picturing John in his 20s, which everybody else like lying around on dirty sofas, and John somewhere looking at his spreadsheet.
Craig: With like that little visor? [laughs]
Aline: [laughs] Yeah. And the armband.
Craig: With glasses. Right, the armband. And that adding machine that you have to go Ka-chunk to.
Aline: Sleeves rolled up. His friends are all like, “John will buy us the beer guys, seriously.”
John: I did not buy a bed the first two years I lived in Los Angeles.
Craig: Two? I think my first bed was my fifth year.
John: Yeah, so that’s the thing. We’re basically saying don’t buy a bed. And don’t put your money underneath.
Craig: Don’t buy anything. Don’t buy anything!
Aline: My friend, Jeff, always had this thing which is your evolution as an adult is how far your bed gets off the floor.
Craig: [laughs] That’s absolutely true. It’s true.
Aline: You basically start off sleeping on the floor. And then you get a futon, which is like five inches from the floor. And then you get a futon frame.
John: A frame. Nice. Classy.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
Aline: Which is 11 inches off the ground. And then at some point you buy a bed frame, but it’s not upholstered or anything. It’s just one of those –
Craig: It’s that metal thing.
Aline: It’s that metal thing with the feet.
Craig: That they give away. Yeah.
Aline: And the next thing is you actually get a mattress into a bed. But you’ve got to be — really think like an entrepreneur. And just to go on a side topic for a second, I know you guys have talked with bewilderment many times about why there aren’t more women who do this. And it is easier to understand with directing because the raising of children is not very compatible with being on movie sets. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why there aren’t more female screenwriters and I think it’s this aspect of being an entrepreneur.
You are really running a small business which is you. And you have to put yourself out there every day and wear your sandwich board of like, “I’m interesting. You’re going to listen to me.” And I think that women are attracted to things where they can demonstrate excellence in a somewhat prescribed fashion. That’s why women are killing men in colleges and graduate schools.
But screenwriting is not like that. Screenwriting is a lot like you’re starting a business of making flavored pistachios.
Craig: Here we go. Ice cream. Here we go.
Aline: [laughs] Flavored pistachios, I don’t even know where that came from.
Craig: Flavored pistachios.
John: Well, I can see the movements. I thought you were going to go for some Etsy kind of thing. I thought you were going for some crochet –
Aline: Or like, yeah, macrame, squirrel hats. I went back to squirrels.
Craig: Macrame squirrel hats. And you girls with your flavored pistachios.
Aline: [laughs] But you got to go out there and like be an entrepreneur and save your money and really put yourself out there. And I think that it’s not a thing that we encourage women to do from childhood is to really say like, “I’m interesting…”
John: Well, I wonder if culturally we have a different expectation about men in their 20s, it’s expected that you are broke, and you are sleeping on couches, and that your life is a disaster, but you’re doing all that stuff and so eventually you’re going to break through. And we perceive a woman who is doing that as being a failure. Because that’s not a viable way for her to proceed.
We are more worried for that woman than we are worried for the equivalent man in the 20s who is living that sort of marginal lifestyle. Is that true?
Aline: I don’t know if it’s that. I really think it’s about when you’re coming up as a writer, like I remember I ran into a friend from high school and I had just started being a writer, and I had maybe sold one thing.
And we were at a party and somebody said to me, “What do you do?” And I said, “I’m a writer.” And he looked at me and he said, “Do you really tell people that?”
Craig: [laughs] Cool guy.
Aline: And I thought, you know, I really — it takes a leap of faith and a confidence in yourself to say, yeah, I’m a writer, I have something to say. Because essentially what you do as a writer is you say, “Listen to me. That’s the very first thing you do.”
Craig: Well, that’s, and I wonder if this is something in terms of the gender thing that women are trained by the world around them, if not by their parents, to not aggressively go after what they want because they themselves have an inherent desirability. That they are instructed to essentially play hard to get and to let things come to them.
Aline: I don’t know. Maybe in a — I really think it’s an adjustment on that which is to go out there and say what you have to do at the beginning of your career which is I have nothing to prove to you that what I have to say is valuable except this: what I believe, my voice, my sensibility, my humor, my intelligence. And it’s just as good as anyone else’s. Probably better than someone else’s. You’re going to listen to me. I’m going to sit in a rom. I’m going to command your attention for 20 minutes.
Aline: I’m going to go outside the box. There’s no format for this. You know, it’s a very unscripted kind of unplanned thing.
And what I want to say to women who are listening, and I was talking at a thing at UCSB and what I didn’t know, what I didn’t understand, when I started I thought you had to know people and you had to network, and you had to do all these things which I was really — how was I going to do that? My parents were first generation immigrants. They don’t know anybody. There was no uncle I could call. There was none of that.
Craig: “Aline. I don’t know anybody who can help you.”
Aline: Right So, I had to really take that. And what I didn’t know is you’ve got to have the goods, be good at what you do, serve that apprenticeship of becoming good at what you do, but you also have to say, “My point of view is valuable. Listen to me. I have something to say.”
And I do find young women, younger women, they just do it. They just, you know, I’m working with this young comedian. She makes these YouTube videos on her own. She pays for them on her own. She’s a great DP and she writes songs and she just does it.
And I think that it really is changing and that young women have now unmitigated access to media. They don’t have to audition for anyone. They can just write their blog, or do their video, or put it out there.
Craig: Sisters are doing it for themselves.
Aline: They really are. But what I would say is if you’re trying to get into Hollywood screenwriting, which is a more Mandarin, closed system, you have to bet on yourself. And part of betting on yourself is saving money.
Aline: It is. Because every penny you save is money you can spend giving yourself time to write that great script. And that’s why I was really cheap when I started was just, you know, I know that if I get paid, if I can hold onto this check, if I can stretch this check as long as I can, that’s more time that I can spend working.
Aline: And if you get your first check and you blow it, you’re going to have to go and get that job which is going to be distracting and exhausting.
John: I hear you.
So, let us get to our final thing tonight which is our One Cool Things. So, who wants to start? Craig, do you want to start?
Craig: Yes. Because mine is incredibly short. Scroobius Pip. My One Cool Thing is Scroobius Pip. Look ‘em up on YouTube. Awesome.
Aline: Okay. Wow.
Craig: Scroobius Pip.
Aline: Wow. Never heard of that.
Craig: Look ‘em up.
John: Actually, I do know what this is because you had linked this on Twitter and Kelly Marcel had pointed it to you. And it is perhaps the angriest song I’ve ever seen.
Craig: Ever! It is this song called You Will See Me. It’s the angriest song I think that has ever been written.
John: So, what’s great about the song is the first half is so inspiring and it’s like, “Yeah, yeah!,” and then it just goes too far in that way that’s just wonderful.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: Most despotic people were probably like really great and driven and you wanted them to succeed until they went just way too far.
Aline: Oh, that sounds great.
Craig: Yeah, it’s sort of like, you know, I Will Survive turns into I Will Kill All of You. Everyone I see is going to die.
It’s remarkable. And it’s so smart. It’s so smart. It really does make You Oughta Know look like a love poem.
Aline: Oh, I can’t wait.
John: So, we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. My One Cool Thing is a book by Keith Houston called Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. I’m reading it right now. It’s great.
And so it talks about a lot of things like, you know, the paragraph symbol, like where did that come from? And like the crosshairs, and daggers, and asterisks, and all those little strange things. Well, who made that stuff up? And there’s actually a history behind all of those things.
Sometimes the word is made up, but an example is like we think about the paragraph symbol as like, oh, it’s like a P, it’s like a special P. But it’s actually not a P at all. It just sort of ended up looking kind of like that. And actually it’s a crossed C with another line beside it. it’s all different than sort of how you would think.
Aline: Between this and the spreadsheet, you’re really not James –
Aline: Yeah, I was going to say.
John: As a type nerd, I was very excited that this book –
Aline: Or just a nerd.
Craig: Actually, I did think of you. And I’ll try and find the link to this, because it was such a you thing. I can’t believe I didn’t send it to you. I read an article. For a long time people have been struggling to try to denote irony in text.
Craig: And, I don’t know, maybe you saw this article where there was a guy hundreds of years ago who invented an irony mark.
John: And that is covered in this book.
Craig: Oh, it is?
John: It is.
Craig: And it just never caught on. Nobody wanted it.
John: Nobody wanted it. There’s also a whole chapter on the interrobang, which is the question mark and exclamation point at the same time.
Craig: Oh, interrobang.
John: Which ultimately is just not that necessary? You put the two things together, we got it.
Aline: In emails.
John: Emails. Yeah.
Aline: Have you guys talked about treadmill desks?
John: No, so let’s talk about treadmill desks.
Aline: Oh, okay, well that would definitely be One Cool Thing. So, I had a GeekDesk, which I think I got the nod from you on, the GeekDesk, which is you can adjust the height. So, I was writing standing up for awhile. And that was sort of okay, but you get into a lot of slouchy, uncomfortable positions when you’re standing.
And so my friends, Susannah Grant, took the leap. She had also bought the GeekDesk at my recommendation, so we both had those. And then she took the leap and got the TreadDesk which goes under the GeekDesk. And then you’re walking and you’re writing.
And it’s really embarrassing and stupid to look at, but what I really like about it is that I’m a kind of gregarious, like to be busy person, and so a writing for me, a long day of writing, I will eventually feel like — ooh, analogy — I will eventually feel like a raccoon with its foot in the trap.
Craig: We got to have somebody, please somebody out there illustrate every single one of these that she’s done in this episode.
Aline: Oh, that’s good. So, I would feel so trapped by the end of the day. And there’s something about being on the treadmill where you feel like even if I’m — on those days where you feel like I’m not crushing it, at least you feel like I went for a walk today. I did something reasonably healthy. So, I’ve enjoyed it.
And then I emailed Susannah the other day and said, “I’ve taken it to a terrible place,” which is I’ve taken it to dancing.
John: You’re dancing on your treadmill desk?
Aline: A little bit. So, I think this is going to lead to traction.
John: Yeah. It’s could be dangerous. So, your treadmill desk, essentially you’re using your normal standing desk, but then there’s a very flat treadmill that goes underneath it.
Aline: Right. They make this thing now. And it’s TreadDesk. You can find it if you Google TreadDesk, you can find it. Because that was the thing. I couldn’t find one that didn’t have the big –
Craig: But you can’t write like that?
Aline: I do.
Aline: You go very slowly.
Craig: Oh, that’s a nightmare.
Aline: Yeah, you go slowly. And you know what it’s really particularly good for? It’s not great for fine point editing, proofing, where you want to really find, but what it’s really good for is after you’ve gone through a script and you’ve written a bunch of notes to yourself and you’ve written a lot of notes in the margin, that’s what it’s really great for, when you’re implementing stuff that you’ve written by hand. It’s really — like if I have something due, there was a week where I had something due on a Friday and I walked 18 miles that week.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: That’s a good week. I do the same thing with my iPad and the normal treadmill, iPad with the keyboard. And so I can do things like first passes on blog posts. Just doing triage on emails. It’s great for that kind of stuff.
Then when you actually sit down to really focus, then you’re really in writing mode, which is good, too. So, it’s a change in state.
Craig: I just like to walk around, outside, and enjoy God’s splendor.
John: Yeah, we don’t believe you at all, Craig Mazin. We know you far too well.
John: You have more to say?
Craig: Nah. [laughs]
John: All right. If you would like to send a question about vocabulary choices or analogies for Aline Brosh McKenna can make for us, you can write to email@example.com.
Craig: That Aline.
Aline: I covered a lot of animals today.
Craig: Yeah, Aline. Like two squirrels fighting over a flavored pistachio raccoon.
John: What I really want is a Christmas Tree. I know you’re Jewish, but I really want a Christmas Tree with all these ornaments of the metaphors you used.
Craig: And Aline Tree. That would be cool.
Aline: I love it.
John: Aline, are you on Twitter?
John: No. Aline is not on Twitter. But I’m on Twitter, @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
Our podcast that you’re listening to right now is available on iTunes. And so if you’re listening to this on iTunes and have not left a comment, it’s great if you do that because that helps people find the show. So, you can subscribe there.
We enjoyed having Aline Brosh McKenna on our show today.
Craig: As always.
John: Aline, thank you so much for coming by.
Aline: You’re most welcome.
John: And we will get to see you again on December 19th.
Aline: Woot-woot! Oh yeah!
Aline: And that’s when we’re going to have our drink and a half.
Craig: Yes! We will have a drink and a half. And, no, I’m not drinking that foul eggnog.
Aline: We’ll see.
John: So, I’m not really clear based on this new facility we went to, I’m not clear that there’s going to be a bar bar. But if nothing else we’ll have a flask.
Aline: I’ve got a purse.
John: All right.
Craig: And I’ve got a purse.
Aline: All right, guys. Thank you.
John: Thank you guys. Happy Thanksgiving.
Craig: Happy Thanksgiving.
- Aline Brosh McKenna on IMDb, and her first, second, third, and third-and-a-half appearances on Scriptnotes
- The Scriptnotes Holiday Show is sold out, but follow @johnaugust and @clmazin to be the first to know if more tickets are released
- John Gatins on IMDb
- What It’s Like to Fail on priceonomics
- Scroobius Pip and You Will See Me
- Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston
- Irony punctuation on Wikipedia
- The TreadDesk
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Kris Gotthelf
For the past 18 months, I’ve been doing all my new writing in Fountain rather than a heavyweight screenwriting app like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.
I love working in Fountain so much that I made a screencast to explain why it’s better:
For geek types, it’s easy to say that Fountain is like Markdown for screenplays. But that doesn’t explain why it’s better for day-to-day writing, so in this screencast I tried to show why a screenwriter might use a Fountain-based app instead of Final Draft or one of the other apps from the 1990s.
In the video, you’ll see that I’m including several comparatively new applications in this category of old-style apps. They may be recent, but programs like Fade In and Adobe Story work largely same way word processors did back when Will Smith was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They’re essentially Microsoft Word with custom style sheets. They don’t take advantage of how much faster computers have gotten, or the special things you can do when you’re handling structured text like screenplays.
The old apps were built for printing scripts from stand-alone computers. The new apps are built for the web, for phones and tablets, for everything that’s coming. It’s the flexibility and extensibility of Fountain that helps make new things possible.
As always, you can find out more info about Fountain at Fountain.io, including full explanation of the syntax and apps that have particularly good support for it.
You can get Highland, the app I used for this demo, from the Mac App Store.
Over this Thanksgiving break, why not give Fountain a try?
Aline Brosh McKenna joins John and Craig to discuss watching movies with an open mind and why it’s important to befriend other writers.
Also this week: what to do when you outline collapses and a look at going broke in your 50s.
The Scriptnotes Live Holiday Show on December 19th is technically sold out, but there’s a chance seats will open up, so keep an eye on Twitter.
- Aline Brosh McKenna on IMDb, and her first, second, third, and third-and-a-half appearances on Scriptnotes
- The Scriptnotes Holiday Show is sold out, but follow @johnaugust and @clmazin to be the first to know if more tickets are released
- John Gatins on IMDb
- What It’s Like to Fail on priceonomics
- Scroobius Pip and You Will See Me
- Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston
- Irony punctuation on Wikipedia
- The TreadDesk
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Kris Gotthelf
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 118 of Scriptnotes, the Time Travel episode of a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
John: Craig, what is your favorite kind of episode of Scriptnotes?
Craig: It’s funny, we haven’t done one in awhile. I really like the Q&As because it allows me to be even more passive than I normally am about this podcast.
John: You can be as underprepared as possible.
John: I will just read you questions and you can think of a response as I ask you the question.
Craig: Right. Like a little baby bird with his mouth open and regurgitated worms just drop in.
John: Well, my favorite type of episode is usually the ones where we have a guest on. So, ones like the Lindsay Doran episode or the Dennis Palumbo episode, or episodes like today where we have a special guest who is with us here in the “studio.” And that is Richard Kelly. He’s the director of Donnie Darko, the writer-director of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales and The Box. So, he will be joining us in a few minutes to talk about all things that we want to talk about…
Craig: Great. Richard Kelly.
John: …such as first movies, science-fiction movies, lots of stuff.
John: But first we have to talk about my other favorite kind of episode which is the ones where we have a live audience. We have one of those coming up, December 19, and as promised there is now information about tickets. Tickets are going on sale tomorrow, the day after this podcast airs. Tickets are on sale November 20 at exactly 10am they promised us.
Craig: Okay. And who’s selling the tickets?
John: It is through the Writers Guild Foundation.
Craig: And how much are the tickets? How much do they cost?
John: They’re $10 each, Craig Mazin.
Craig: Ten dollars. Anyone can afford that.
John: Anyone can afford ten dollars. So, it will be a live show in the Writers Guild Theater. There will be seats and chairs. And there will be a reception beforehand. Eggnog is promised. I haven’t gotten really clarity on whether there’s alcohol involved in the eggnog reception or not.
Craig: Everything about eggnog is disgusting. The name is disgusting. Both the word egg as part of a drink and then nog, which isn’t a word, and then two short syllable words ending in hard Gs, eggnog. And then what it is. Blech.
John: Yeah, it’s really the pumpkin spice of milk drinks. But, still, it’s going to be a good fun night. There will be you and me and special guests. Many of our previous guests will be coming to the show, but we’ll have new people who you’ve never seen before on stage with us and we will be announcing those names and I think people will be very excited by who those names are.
Craig: I agree.
John: So, the actual live show is Thursday, December 19, Writers Guild Theater. Tickets go on sale tomorrow. From experience doing our 100th episode live show, they went really, really quickly. So, we’re trying to make sure they actually go up exactly at 10am so people can get tickets and not be left out. But if you would like to come to the show, come see us then.
You and I will both tweet the URL for people to sign in and buy tickets that morning as well.
Craig: Great. And just to reassure me and everybody listening, we still don’t make money off this podcast, correct?
John: No, it’s completely a money-losing proposition.
Craig: Fantastic. That’s the key. If we can just stay in the red.
John: Yes. We will make no money off this event. The Writers Guild Foundation, which is a very good charitable organization, will make a little bit of money hopefully.
Craig: Oh great. Okay, well then that’s even better.
John: Craig, you had some housekeeping, too, today.
Craig: Yes. Very briefly. I took your advice from I think it was last week’s One Cool Thing and I downloaded Knock to Unlock and I’ve been using it. And I really like it a lot, but for the Knock to Unlock people if they’re listening: I don’t know if you’ve noticed this — sometimes it’s a little laggy.
Craig: And so I wait, and I wait, and I wait, and I think, “Ah! I could have entered my password by now.” And then I knock on it and it doesn’t work or it registers one knock. Sometimes it works perfectly and sometimes it just doesn’t work. So, I want them to fix it, because I want it to work constantly and quickly.
John: Craig, I agree with you. My experience with Knock to Unlock has been sort of like on the iPhone 5S, when it works perfectly it’s really kind of magic, and when it doesn’t work it’s a little bit frustrating.
John: What I have found with Knock to Unlock is when you’re on the lock screen, there’s that little circling blue light that goes around your face, your little profile picture.
John: When it’s solid, it tends to work exactly right. When it’s still circling it’s not connecting up to your phone the right way and –
Craig: Takes too long. Takes too long! Make go faster.
John: Make go faster. So, this was Craig Mazin venting about a product rather to an audience of thousands rather than to the actual people who make the product.
Craig: Right. Well, I feel like I can enlist all of you out there to assault these people and to make their thing that is very cheap and awesome even better for me, because I’m impatient.
John: Yeah. Craig often, like this was actually my One Cool Thing. But one of the things I really respect about you is that you’ll often pick a One Cool Thing that you’ve never even tried out. You have no idea if it actually works.
Craig: Right. I’m adventuresome.
John: You are adventuresome.
Craig: I like to put a question mark at the end of One Cool Thing?
John: [laughs] Well, in the spirit of adventure, let’s go to our first and only guest today on the show, Mr. Richard Kelly.
Craig: Richard Kelly!
John: So, if we had an audience, this is where they’d be applauding.
Richard Kelly: Hello guys.
John: Now, Richard, I was trying to remember when I first met you and I’m pretty sure it was actually at the test screening, not even a real test screening, an informal screening for your film, Donnie Darko, at Flower Films.
Richard: It was at Flower Films. And it was in their private little screening room at their Sunset Boulevard tower offices back in probably the year 2000.
John: Yeah. 2000. It would be late 2000, because it was before Sundance.
Richard: It was before Sundance. We were on the brink of submitting to Sundance and it was one of the first screenings that we did. And it was Nancy Juvonen, and Sean McKittrick, and a few other select friends. And you were one of the very first people to see the film. I remember. And you were very helpful, I think, in your suggestions and it was a really, really amazing experience because I was just like at the very beginning of my career really.
John: So, at this point you had graduated from USC. And it was USC for grad school or was that undergrad for you? I forget what your history is.
Richard: I was undergrad. I was an undergrad production major at the School of Cinema and Television, it’s now called the School of Cinematic Arts and has a bunch of new fancy palatial digital buildings, but when I was there at the end of the ’90s graduating it was still relatively archaic.
John: It looked like a dentist office really. It looked like a decent dentist office somewhere in the Valley.
Richard: Absolutely. And there was the George Lucas Bridge where everyone used to kind of eat their Carl’s Jr. and sort of trade tips and wait for light stands and camera equipment.
John: So, you were a production major if I recall correctly.
John: So, you’re a production major from USC and you wrote this script while you were still at USC, or had you already finished by that point?
Richard: No, I didn’t write the script until right after I graduated. I was sort of in mortal of fear of writing a screenplay all throughout the undergrad experience because I was so focused on learning how to use a camera and stage direction and lighting and all of the technique required of being a director. I was so focused on that — screenwriting was something that was in the back of my mind and it was just very terrifying to me, because I wrote a lot growing up but it was more essays, and short fiction, and short bursts of inspiration. But the idea of doing something long form was just really intimidating, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really try to engage in any activity that I don’t think I’m going to be good at.
So, I was just, I was terrified. And so I kind of stored it all up.
Craig: But then you got over this fear and wrote a script that is — it’s interesting to hear you say that this is almost the first screenplay you wrote because it’s very well structured. I mean, it must be very well structured because of the content and the kind of story you’re telling.
But there’s a rigor to the structure. It’s a very experienced kind of structure. I wonder, did you realize that you were kind of melding… — It’s funny, I rewatched Donnie Darko the other day and I thought there’s so much about it that’s non-traditional. And yet there’s so much about it that actually is traditional. They’re sort of stuck together in this fascinating thing.
Were you aware that this was going on when you were writing it?
Richard: I think was subconsciously aware of it. It was me storing up probably 23 years of experience, of watching and digesting stories and I believe a lot of it really came from, of all places, my high school English teachers who really sort of just pushed narrative structure into me. I mean, they really educated me in terms of that process. And I took maybe one screenwriting class at USC, but my focus was so much more on production that I actually kind of derived it from my high school education, which might sound unusual, but that’s where it kind of came from.
And you see that embedded in the themes of the story –
Richard: You know, Drew Barrymore playing this idealistic high school teacher and the sort of — it’s a very adolescent script in terms of its innocence and its formative approach when it comes to the themes are very much a teenager’s bleeding heart so to speak.
Richard: So it was me kind of expunging my 23 years of adolescence onto the page really.
John: So, you’ve written this script. This is before the Black List. This is back in the day of like printed scripts that were sent around. What was the process from you finish this script to it ends up at Flower Films and you’re going to start production. What was that journey like?
Richard: Well, I had partnered up with my friend, and he still is my producing partner, Sean McKittrick, at our company, Darko Entertainment. But at the time he was working as an assistant at New Line Cinema. And he helped me with my graduate film and produced my graduate film. And he was working on a desk for an executive named Lynn Harris at New Line Cinema.
And I sent it to Sean. I’m like, “What do you think? I finished the script.” And he read it and he called me and said, “I need to read it a second time. It’s a little too long.” It was like 147 pages or something. “And it needs a few tweaks, but I think there’s really something here. And I really think you’re onto something.”
And then he called me back after having read it the second time and he was even more confident that I was onto something. He’s like, “Let’s trim 10 or 15 pages out and then I’m going to send it to my friend, David Ruddy, who works at CAA.” And that’s obviously the big talent agency.
And so he sent it to David and David was working as an assistant to Beth Swofford who still to this day is a huge agent at CAA. And he read it and called Sean and said, “I want to meet this guy.”
So, he took us out to drinks and Dave made sure that I wasn’t an axe murderer, or something equally deviant.
Craig: Which you are, I mean.
Richard: You saw what I did in Austin.
Craig: Instantly I detected. I don’t know how he missed the fact that you are absolutely a deviant axe murderer. But go ahead. Go ahead with the story about the least observant man in the world.
Richard: [laughs] Yeah, so he was like, “Okay, I’m going to give this script to Beth,” and then Beth read it and brought it up in a CAA staff meeting. And she gave it to three other agents, including my current agent to this day, John Campisi, and all of a sudden I was getting a call from a group of four people at CAA who called me in this sort of group conference call and said, “We love your script and we want you to come in and meet.”
And, again, I was 23 years old and living with a few friends in the South Bay making $6.5 an hour serving cappuccinos at a post production house in Hollywood. I was making cheese and cracker plates for Mark Romanek, and Madonna, and Jonas Åkerlund, and Puff Daddy. I was barely getting by and I had this film degree. So, all of a sudden to be getting a call from CAA was like a fairytale scenario.
Richard: So, I rolled in there and they wanted to sign me. And then I informed them of the unfortunate news that I was going to direct the film, and I would never let anyone else direct it. And you could see the sort of polite smiles and nods of the head. It was not going to be an easy course.
John: So, at this point they’ve read your Donnie Darko script. Have they read anything else?
Richard: No. No. That was the only thing I had.
Craig: That was all they could read.
John: And did you have a reel? Did you have anything to show them that you could direct?
Richard: I had my grad film, which was this really ridiculous, campy science-fiction thing that I showed them and they were like, “Oh, let’s not show that to anyone.”
Richard: Just because it was just so different and so campy and so — more of like just a visual exercise. And they were kind of like, “Let’s not bring that up.” And I’m like, okay, because I’m always the kind of person who sees myself as having like many different channels in terms of switching beyond into many different genres. And I’m not a person who believes in categorization or putting people into boxes. But that’s what this town is all about is keeping you in a box or keeping you in a category. So, they’re like, “Let’s put that aside”
Everyone read the script. They sent it out to all the big production companies. And I was all of a sudden meeting all of these famous producers. Just amazing people. I got to meet Paula Weinstein and Betty Thomas and Mark Johnson. And just this long list of amazing legendary producers. I got to meet Ben Stiller on the set of Mystery Men. And everyone loved my script. And everyone was saying all these wonderful things. But, after six months of meetings it was sort of like, “This is an amazing writing sample. We think it’s probably an unproduceable film, but we would love for you to maybe write something else for us.”
Richard: “And if you really want to direct it, we respect that, but you’re barely 24 years old. You look like you’re 17 and good luck with that.”
Richard: “But we just, you know, come write something else for us. “
John: Let me pause your story for one second, because this is a very common thread of what I’ve heard about sort of first stories, and sort of my first story, too. Everyone always thinks like some incredibly powerful person reads it. It’s slipped over the door and someone reads this thing and says, “Ah-ha! This is the thing.” But it was really your friend who you knew from before who was working a job at sort of your same level, was working at a desk somewhere who read it and sort of said, this is really good.
And he profited by — not profited literally — but by recognizing your talent he could take it to somebody and say like, “I think this is really good. Please pay attention to this.” So, it was somebody at your same level. It wasn’t just some giant person who read it and said, “Yes, this is the real thing.” It was a ramp up. You didn’t hit 100 miles per hour right at the first day.
Richard: Yes, and it was a strategic ramping, because Sean was a very well liked producer at New Line at the time and he had a very smart boss. And he was, you know, obviously talking to the right assistants and kind of networking with the right assistants. And to this day you even see what Frank Leonard has done with the Black List. It’s all just sort of galvanizing from the desks of the mailroom and even places like that where people find the great material and sort of pass it upwards in exchange for being a part of this sort of trade system of information, and credit, and representation.
It’s a system that still exists in a different way today.
John: Now, these six months that you were taking meetings with places, you were taking these sort of general meetings. They liked your script and they want you to write something else. Were you working at this point or were you still like making coffee at production houses?
Richard: I was sort of still serving coffee and then I was hired by Phoenix Pictures to adapt the children’s novel Holes, which was my first big writing job. Which I completely, [laughs], jumped the shark, so to speak. I went and just changed so much of the novel into kind of like a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Stephen King thing.
Richard: And just kept the core essentials of the novel.
Craig: That’s what I would have done. I would have done the same thing.
Richard: I was just convinced that this is what would be the great version of the movie and that they would see what I wanted to do –
Craig: So great.
Richard: They probably read it and I got that call like, “Are you insane?” What are you thinking? This is not what we wanted.”
Craig: Yeah, but you read Donnie Darko and then you hired me to write Holes. Are you insane?
Richard: Well, but I was very naïve. And I was convinced that I could convince them that this was the cooler version of the movie. And they were just like, “No, we want to make a PG-rated pretty faithful adaptation of this best-selling book. We have Andrew Davis directing. You’re insane. Please sign this contract. We’re not going to pay you anymore money. We respect you. We like you. But we’re moving on in a different direction.”
Richard: And I was heartbroken. But then I got the call, you know, we were kind of under the impression that Donnie Darko as a script was just sort of this great writing sample and it was sort of dead as a potential movie due to my stubborn refusal to let anyone else direct it.
John: Now, at this point had you — you said you were going to be directing this, but had you come up with the budget? Had you come up with the schedule? Had you come up with a production plan for how you could do it?
Richard: We had actually taken a meeting with Paramount Classics at the time. And they were making movies very, very inexpensively, like the under $2 million kind of budget range. And we had talked about trying to do it for like $1.5 million to $2 million, but given the ambition of the story, you know, we have time portals and big set pieces, and school assemblies, and a jet engine smashing through a house. It was very ambitious. People were saying we needed $10 million. And we honestly — with the different kind of producers and line producers we had talked to throughout the process. And Sean McKittrick was sort of coming in with a number about $4.5 million that we thought was the bare bones to really achieve the vision.
That to do it for less than that would really be so much of a compromise. You know, sometimes there’s that threshold where you realize it’s better to just hold off and put the movie back on — put the script back on the shelf as opposed to making it at a budget where you are going to compromise what’s really essentially to the story.
Richard: And we didn’t want to monkey with it in that way. And then all of a sudden the script had been sort of digested by the entire town that people were still talking about it, like, “What’s going on with that? Will he sell it? Will he finally just let someone else take it over?” And there was a lot of discussion — “Why do you need it to be set in 1988? Just set it in present day and make it more of a horror film.” And all these kind of things, you know. “Get rid of the Asian girl. You don’t need her.”
And all these kinds of things that are sort of these voices sort of beating me down a little bit. But then we got word that Jason Schwartzman had read the script and really loved it and was interested in meeting.
And I went and met with him and he attached himself to play Donnie. And all of a sudden the script had all this new legitimacy and that I was legitimized by Jason’s attachment.
John: So, with one actor who at that point was A-list-ish –
Richard: He was coming off of Rushmore.
Craig: He was kind of hot. He was hot.
John: He was hot at the moment, so therefore there was an extra element that made it seem producible.
Craig: Right, like Jason Schwartzman now makes you the new Wes Anderson.
Richard: Well, it was this wonderful thing. And then we got word from my agent that Nancy Juvonen had read the script. Nancy who is Drew Barrymore’s producing partner at Flower Films. And she wanted to meet with me. So, I was like, wow, this is great. And Sean and I went to the set of Charlie’s Angels at LA Center Studios in Downtown LA.
Craig: Back to John August.
John: Where we were shooting it.
Richard: And I might have actually, maybe I met you.
John: We may have crossed paths there with trailers and all that stuff.
Richard: I walked up to Drew’s trailer and lo and behold there was Cameron Diaz right outside of Drew’s trailer. And they were goofing around. I was briefly introduced to her and obviously our paths would converge later in life. But went into Drew’s trailer and Nancy was there and we had this wonderful discussion. And Drew was still finishing the script and paging through it. And I was like, listen, we would love for you to play the English teacher, Mrs. Pomeroy.
And she’s like, “I would love for my company to produce this with you and we could partner on this project.” And I said absolutely. It was really a very quick marriage, so to speak. And then with Drew Barrymore and Jason Schwartzman, we got an offer from a company called Pandora, a European finance company at the American Film Market. I think in November of 1999 they made an offer for $4.5 million. And Drew was the kind of galvanizing foreign sales actor to get us to that number.
John: Absolutely. Drew was a very marketable star at that point.
John: People wanted to make a movie, so a small movie with Drew Barrymore at AFM — pretty easy sell.
Richard: Yeah. Yeah.
John: So, with this package sort of put together, so Jason Schwartzman, Drew Barrymore, you to direct, how long did it then take to actually start rolling cameras?
Richard: Well, we were able to kind of get the financing closed, I think, going into the beginning of 2000. And all of a sudden Jason had a scheduling conflict with another movie and was going to have to back out at the last minute. And we were gearing towards a summer production start because Drew had a window, a one-week window, right before she was going to do a Penny Marshall film called Riding in Cars with Boys.
So, we had that one-week with Drew to get our act together or we were going to lose her, or we weren’t going to get the movie made. And when Jason had to back out it was this horrifying weekend where, oh no, is Drew going to back out as well? And is this all going to collapse? Is this going to undermine my credibility or something? And it was — Jason was very apologetic and it was just an unfortunate circumstance.
And Drew left this wonderful message on my answering machine. This is back in the day — in the year 2000 when we still had answering machines. And she left me this long wonderful message saying, “We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to find another great actor. I’m in this for you, and the script, and I believe in you.” And she was really wonderful.
And so we started meeting with some different actors to play Donnie, and I went to Drew’s office and met with this kid named Jake Gyllenhaal, who was 19 years old, and had done October Sky, and was kind of at Columbia, segueing out of Columbia after two years, and was going to get back into acting. And I basically gave him the part on the spot.
John: Great. Jake Gyllenhaal very much feels like the movie star version of you. I mean, did you notice that when you cast him?
Richard: I never thought of it that way, but then as we were shooting the film on our breakneck 28-day schedule, Jake confided in me about halfway through, he was like, “You know I’m kind of mimicking you. You know that, right?” And I was like, oh, okay, I don’t know how I feel about that, but I guess it’s working.
Craig: What part of him was mimicking you? Because he has different moves in the movie.
Richard: I don’t know. I think — I may be too detached from myself or too much time has passed, but I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of –
Craig: I think I know.
John: I know exactly what it is, too. Craig, you can say it first, and then I’ll say what I think it is.
Craig: All right. So, you know when I say something to you, Richard Kelly, I’ll say, “Ah, Richard Kelly, look how handsome you are.” And then you kind of look down and you’re like, huh, and you get that little goofy look. It’s the same look that Jake does every time he slips into his fugue state and starts talking to Frank. That funky little grin and that semi-sinister look in his eyes — I’m telling you, that’s it man, right there.
John: I was going to say the same thing about the eye contact thing, because it’s a thing I also noticed from all the photos in Austin is that you never quite look in the lens of the camera. And so you’re always like a little bit off to the edge of it, which I feel very much is a Donnie Darko thing. So, I can see that being a… — It’s fine, it works.
Richard: Yeah, it’s not intentional. It’s just maybe –
John: I also think the relationship between a director and the actor, especially a writer-director and an actor, can be that kind of thing. Like Ryan Reynolds basically plays me in the middle section of The Nines. And it was fine. He owned up to it and I said this is fine. And the cast and crew recognized he was doing it. It was appropriate for that.
Richard: Yeah, I mean, it all kind of goes back to you say that your high school education or even prior to your high school education sometimes it really informs a greater part of your life, for better or for worse, and it was like my seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Jordan, who taught us Watership Down, the book that Drew Barrymore teaches in the film. And his whole mantra was “write what you know.”
It sounds very simple, and it sounds like a cliché, but it’s really the personal stuff that ends up bleeding through when you’re writing. When you work with an actor they can kind of detect the truth from the author and they can sort of — it bleeds through into the performance somehow in everything.
Richard: So, sometimes it’s a virtue of the actor’s detective work.
Craig: Well, it’s interesting also that when you talk about writing what you know, you’re very smartly talking about writing what you know emotionally. You don’t know what it’s like to have an airplane engine drop on you while you’re sleeping, or to go through a time portal, or to talk to a rabbit that is, in fact, the time image of a boy you kill. It’s — spoiler, sorry. It’s our emotional lives that when we talk about writing what we know, that’s what we’re talking about.
I think a lot of people misunderstand the advice and they write very boring scripts about their actual day. I just hope people don’t do that. [laughs] Don’t do that.
John: Absolutely. It’s most crucial that you’re able to write in a way that’s emotionally true to how you would feel in that circumstance. And so you feel that it’s… — You’re writing yourself in these characters so that they’re responding in ways that you would respond to these situations — these absurd situations — that you sort of are creating for these characters.
Now, so fast forward through production. It was 28 days, I think?
Richard: It was 28 days in the late summer of 2000. Shot in and around the greater Los Angeles area, Long Beach, Burbank, out in the Calabasas Ranch area and then the San Angelo, across the mountains. It was just sort of approximating a Virginia idyllic suburban town in the greater Los Angeles area by virtue of composite.
John: Great. And why did you choose Los Angeles? It was for ease of actors mostly?
Richard: It was a combination of ease of actors. And there was a commercial strike happening, I believe, in the summer of 2000 which made a lot of crew available to work at low rates. And during the summer when everyone’s kids are out of school, a lot of people in the below the line world, they want to stay in town. They want to shoot in Los Angeles.
And if they’re taking a pay cut to be with their kids, as opposed to going to Vancouver or Toronto where a lot of the runaway production was happening, we were able to get a big crew for cheap. And it made sense to do it in LA as opposed to going off to Toronto which a lot of people were doing at the time.
Craig: I have a question about that’s I guess about how at the origin of this, at the beginning of Donnie Darko, you’re writing a movie, and when we write a movie normally the movie is designed to be the sum total of what we’re presenting to the audience artistically. What’s interesting about Donnie Darko, among other things, is that it was ahead of its time not only when it came out. I think it’s actually currently still ahead of its time in this aspect. That the movie isn’t the total picture.
You wrote a book that appears in a movie that is almost required, really, to complete the experience of the movie. Was that something that you did intentionally, or did you write the movie and then say, “You know, there’s this other part of this. There’s a website and a book and an additional amount of experience that’s required to augment the experience of watching the movie.”
Richard: There’s this expression called “scope creep” which is my dad is a scientist and worked at NASA for many years. It’s when the scope of a project continues to creep outward. And you don’t realize it’s happening. That’s my issue with all of my projects. They’re always becoming bigger and longer than can be contained within the sort of two-hour format.
And the book that is written by Roberta Sparrow, Grandma Death, in the story is called The Philosophy of Time Travel. And Donnie as a character is reading it and obsessing over it. And as a writer, and as the sort of avatar for Donnie, or vice versa, I was wanting to know what was in that book. And I was obsessed with completing it. And I had kind of rough draft sketches of it coming into my head as I was directing the film. And then as we were editing the film I went and wrote out all the specific chapter titles and some of the essential pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel.
And as we were trying to edit the film down it was clear that that kind of stuff wasn’t going to ever make it into a film, a version of the film that would run lower than two hours. So, it was something that I said, “Let’s put it on the website. Let’s have it be a tangential piece of information.”
I’ve kind of really gravitated towards that kind of thing in all of my films because it’s an overflow of information, but it’s also I guess they call it transmedia is what the word for it is now. And so it became sort of a transmedia thing with this elaborate website that we built with this company in London. And it did become more kind of essential information and I kind of worked it into the director’s cut of the film years later.
But, again, it’s scope creep.
Craig: But it’s interesting to me because in order — I didn’t quite understand, and this is going to lead into another question, I didn’t quite understand if there was a certainty to the movie until I read that additional material and then I thought to myself, okay, there is a certainty to this. There is an answer to this movie in a sense. Not complete. No movie gives you a complete answer, but there is at least a guided solution to what you’re seeing and what was intended here.
But you seem to be saying that you didn’t even quite have that solution yourself until you were in post-production, which is fascinating to me, because it’s almost like you built a very interesting puzzle box, but you didn’t quite know how to solve it yourself until the very end.
Richard: Well, I think the solving process or the completion process really does go through the editing. The writing process continues through editing. And even when you do reshoots. We did do one additional reshoot. It’s not a reshoot, because that implies that you –
Craig: Screwed up a scene.
Richard: You screwed up and you redid it. It was an additional — it was one additional day of photography we did after the Sundance premiere of the film which was James Duval waking up at the end as part of all the characters waking up from the tangent universe and from the dream experience that they had. Whether it was a communal dream or an actual alternate universe is left up to the gods to explain, because no one can ever answer that question.
But, the studio that bought the film six months after its sort of disastrous Sundance premiere was like, “We really wish there was a shot of Frank alive waking up at the end so the audience understands that he’s still alive and he was part of that experience.” And I’m like, oh wow, I wish I could have shot that.
So, we actually went to a little stage in Burbank and set up a little set and got the cameras and we shot James Duval waking up with those drawings on the easel…
Craig: Right. And touching his eye…
Richard: Touching his eye.
Craig: Which was a great little moment.
Well, let me ask you this question. What happened at Sundance? [laughs] What happened there? How did it make you feel? And how do you feel about it now?
Richard: You know, everything happens for a reason. And that was the journey that this film was meant to take. But, it was a situation where at Sundance 2001 we had this huge amount of hype going into the festival. A $4.5 million budget was relatively large for a Sundance film at that time, even for now it’s a very healthy budget. And the film looked like it cost a lot more than that.
And we had big movie stars. And it had time portals. And it had all of these sort of components where you read the summary in the Sundance program and you’re like, “What in the hell is this?” There was just this big curiosity factor. And we were also the first film officially in Sundance competition history to have digital effects.
Craig: Ah, interesting.
Richard: And so immediately that was a little bit of a, you know –
Craig: Oh, so you guys were like sellouts all of a sudden.
Richard: [laughs] It was a very huge showing at the first Eccles screening and everyone was there. All of the buyers. Everyone, you know. Harvey Weinstein was there wearing a Donnie Darko hat.
Craig: Oh, god! Harvey! What the hell?
Richard: Well, you know, it was overwhelming. And when the credits rolled at the end it was just — there were applause from plenty of people who loved it, but a whole lot more people who were just freaked out, and disturbed, and –
Craig: Who were just, WTF? [laughs]
Richard: Yeah. It was just like, did that guy just kill himself? Did your hero just commit suicide?
Richard: And then it ends, you know. “Whoa! I don’t know how comfortable I am with this.” It was a shell-shocked reaction and it was not a movie that made people feel good as they left at the Eccles Theater. So, immediately all the buyers sort of backed away very quickly. And it was kind of like we had the Ebola Virus. At that time movies would sell very quickly or they wouldn’t.
Richard: Now, just everyone knows that sometimes it takes a month, two months to sell, and it’s okay because the market has changed. But that was the time where everyone pounced or they dropkicked the movie out into the mountains. So, we got dropkicked.
Craig: You got dropkicked into the mountains. I mean, obviously the story ends well. There is an interesting, I don’t know if there is a lesson to be taken from experiences like that, because I think every experience is different. But I wonder do you walk around with a little bit more confidence knowing that the last time people kicked you into the mountain they were wrong. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I can’t tell.
Richard: Well, you know, listen. I take everything with a grain of salt. And I look at any struggle or mountain that had to be overcome as just a part of the process and kind of a learning experience. And I just try to take all the knowledge and absorb it and continue to just understand that everything is a process and to be really strategic and to try to just hone my filmmaking in a manner that things get easier.
I remember I asked Tony Scott when we were working on Domino, I was like, “Tony, does it get easier with each film?”
And he was like, “Oh, no. Rich, it gets harder.”
Richard: And it was sad to hear that, but he said it with a grin. He said it with a grin of a man who absolutely loves to make films, more than life itself. But he was kind of just conceding that it can get more difficult. And, I don’t know –
Craig: And it did get more difficult for you in a sense.
Richard: Well, I mean, listen, there are always new challenges, but I think a lot of it is you sometimes can design your own difficulty without realizing it. Or, you can manifest it. And I think it’s learning how not to do that and it’s learning how to just sort of figure out how to make concessions or collaborations or judgment calls that will just help make the process easier, but still get what you want.
John: I look at your career and I look at Rian Johnson’s career, because you are both writer-directors who try to make their own films and try to do their own things. And each one is really challenging, and difficult, and has very specific worlds built around sort of how it all sort of fits together.
One of the things Rian has done though is he’s gone off and directed TV, which is the chance to practice that craft of directing independently of having to have the onus of a movie. Has that been interesting to you? Have you considered doing television? To do your own show or someone else’s show?
Richard: I’ve kind of, you know, I’ve kind of flirted a little bit with the idea of television here and there. And it’s something that I absolutely want to do at some point. But I’ve been so consumed, particularly in the past three years with writing feature screenplays. I’ve just been on a writing binge for about three years now.
Craig: For yourself or…?
Richard: For myself. For myself. For purely selfish purposes. [laughs] But in a way that I’ve just been trying to actually refine my craft and write a lot of different scripts in various different genres, places where people wouldn’t think I’d be able to, I’ve gone there. People want to, again, always put you in a box or a category, so I’ve spent the past three years writing a whole bunch of different kinds of films that no one would expect from me.
And I think with television it’s more of like you can create your own show, or you can come in and direct a pilot, or you can come in and direct an episode the way Rian did brilliantly with Breaking Bad, which is we all know now one of the great shows in the history of the medium. And I think Rian is smart, and savvy, and talented enough to have kind of figured that out early on and was able to go in and really do some wonderful work.
And I admire him for doing it. And I’m envious of him for getting to work in that series because it’s so amazing. So, as for me in television, I think I just want to get one more feature under my belt and then kind of see how the timing works out and whether — you know, how I can kind of really make a mark in television in a meaningful way where I don’t feel like I’m just sort of directing traffic or just getting a paycheck.
Richard: I want to do it for the right reasons. And I want to really be — I’m one of those people, I don’t know how to fake something. I’m really idealistic and probably to a fault in a lot of ways where I just want to make sure I have authorship of it.
But, again, sometimes you don’t have to have complete authorship of something for it to be fulfilling. You can really come in and be a partner, or be a –
John: Let’s talk about the places you could work right now. Because it seems like all, my recollection, all three of your films have been for different places and for sort of newer places. So, this first place was Pandora who put up the money for Donnie Darko. Who did Southland Tales?
Richard: Southland Tales was a combination of about eight different equity sources. Universal International was the foreign investor, along with Wild Bunch who had France. And I’ve worked with them also on The Box, my next film. And then Sony bought the film for domestic rights. And then Samuel Goldwyn distributed in a partnership with Sony. So, it was a –
John: Yeah. They have sort of this weird relationship between them.
Richard: Yeah. It was like a Trivial Pursuit pie piece of eight different — so, I think there were lots of people involved with Southland Tales because it was such a complex, elaborate film. A $17.5 million budget film. So, that was a big Frankenstein conglomeration of people. And then The Box was a company called Media Rights Capital.
John: Which is also equity.
Richard: Which is also equity.
Craig: Right. They’re associated with William Morris Endeavor.
Richard: Yes. And they partnered with Radar Pictures, owned and operated by Ted Field. And those two entities partnered with Warner Bros. Pictures who took domestic on the film. So, it was essentially an equity-funded film with domestic distribution in place before we started shooting.
So, it was kind of a studio film in a lot of ways, but most studio films today have equity from an outside source. It’s more of a distribution P&A deal. But then they’re giving notes on the script and they’re approving the wardrobe and the hair for the actors. And micromanaging as they’re prone to do. But that’s the reality of the business and you’ve got to do it.
Craig: Well, don’t you think that there is a certain, if you’re investing money in a Richard Kelly movie, at some point I assume they all look at each other and say, “Well, we could attempt to do the thing we normally do, but it’s not going to work because Richard Kelly.”
Richard: Well, you know, the one thing that I’m proud of with all my movies is I put the money on the screen. There is always a production value that surpasses the budget in terms of what people think it costs and what it really costs. So, I always put the money on the screen. But I also end up shooting tons of scenes that don’t make it into the movie. And I always end up with like 45 minutes of deleted scenes.
And it becomes really difficult to cut the movie down to under two hours. And that’s one of the things that I’ve learned, particularly in the writing process, and I’m going through it right now on a project where I’m just like I’m not going to have any deleted scenes. I’m literally going to have –
Craig: Well, good for you. That’s a very good goal to have.
Richard: Yeah. I’m going to have nothing in the script that isn’t absolutely necessary and it’s scope creep.
John: It is scope creep.
Craig: It is scope creep.
John: We’ve talked about Gravity a lot on the podcast recently. Craig, did you finally see Gravity?
Craig: Uh, what?
John: [laughs] Craig still has not seen Gravity.
Craig: I saw Walter Mitty.
John: Well, very good. I’m proud of you.
Craig: Can we talk about that? [laughs] I saw that.
John: You cannot talk about that. We can talk about Gravity for one second because Walter Mitty, I suspect, probably has some scope creep, but Gravity has no scope creep. That is a very lean movie. And it’s one of the things I think is actually interesting about making movies for the big screen versus making a TV series. Because I look at these situations where you have — you’ve built this entire world, this entire universe. You clearly could have built a whole series of Donnie Darko and sort of what that universe is.
And Donnie Darko might also have been fantastic as a series, or as a limited series, or that kind of thing. Or the way American Horror Story is, those limited series where it makes that run through.
Craig: Definitely true for Southland Tales, for sure.
John: Oh my god, Southland Tales feel like it’s –
Craig: It feels like it’s a series that got sort of compressed down.
Richard: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, ultimately I still want to do an animated prequel to Southland Tales and a final kind of cut of it that would be the size of like a limited run miniseries, you know. But, you’re right, because I was doing transmedia with graphic novel prequels and my mind was overflowing in the scope creep sense of feature film evolving into transmedia. And again, we’re now in this sort of new world of the internet, Netflix limited run series that sort of are bridging between film and television in a lot of ways.
John: But to me it just sounds like J.J. Abrams in terms of ambition but you don’t have Bad Robot behind you. You don’t have 100 really talented elves to do all the other stuff that could do that thing. And so in order to up your sort of productivity if you want to do those kind of things, maybe you need more elves?
Richard: Yeah, yeah, I think everyone could use more elves. I think if anything I’ve been the elf storing away all the Christmas gifts for the past three years and just really getting a lot of material ready so that my hope is that starting next year that I’m kind of back behind the camera and I’ll have a pipeline where I can be working consistently at different budget levels, whether it’s a feature film that costs well under $10 million, or a feature film that costs well over $10 million and in different degrees. That hopefully there’s a way to just continue working with a consistency because, you know, it is a situation where I feel like I’m a director first and foremost and a writer in the secondary position.
But I’ve been doing so much writing over the past three years that I finally feel like, okay, I’m starting to finally feel like a real screenwriter. And now I’m kind of really ready to go enter the second act of my directing career I guess. And I’m always just trying to get better and not be complacent.
Craig: You have an interesting challenge because on the one hand I think it’s great that you’ve made the reduction of scope creep a goal. And I love that you’re saying my goal is to not direct a deleted scene. That should be every director’s goal. I completely agree.
On the other hand, what makes you unique and what is part of what is attractive about your work to your fans is the scope creep. It’s a funny thing. How do you become a better Richard Kelly but still be Richard Kelly?
Richard: Well, I think it is, you know –
Craig: Did I just freak you out? I just freaked you out, didn’t I?
Richard: A little bit. [laughs] Because I’m going through that right now. I honestly am. But I believe that there’s a way to get it all within a framework of the two-hour timeline and still have the complexity and the density — sometimes people are afraid of the word density because it can read as something that’s cumbersome or medicinal or hard to get through or impenetrable, which are adjectives often used to describe my work.
Richard: [laughs] But when I say density I like to think of films where you can watch them over, and over, and over again and see new ideas, and see new themes, and laugh at different nuances. And I’m just trying to make sure to hold onto that, but to make sure that it’s — I’m not just going to have a 2 hour 45 minute cut of the film, you know.
John: It’s interesting what you say about density because a thing I’ve noticed in some films is that you recognize that characters have relationships before that scene started, which is great. But sometimes they’re referencing things that are not germane to the scene and therefore it’s pulling you out of the scene that you’re currently in. And it’s a thing I try to always be mindful of is the audience only has the information about what they’re seeing in front of them.
So, you want them to believe these characters have relationships and they existed before they walked on screen. You can’t have them be so fascinated or distracted by what those things could be that they’re not paying attention to what’s happening there right in front of them.
You start to lose the audience’s confidence in your ability to tell a story. And it’s such a tough balance. And I think TV gets away with it more because you just have more time and more hours. And you can have that extra scene to establish how Tyrion got into that situation.
Richard: I was going to say the wonderful thing about a lot of TV is you look at a brilliant episode of Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, or some of our greatest shows and you think some of the best scenes might have ended up being deleted scenes in movies, you know.
Craig: No question.
Richard: Because there’s the time to breathe and to see the character doing something that might seem incidental or not really necessary to the main through line of the story but it’s very fascinating stuff.
Craig: Yeah, David Benioff and Dan Weiss ran into a big problem on their first season of Game of Thrones because they had never done television before and they were short. They just didn’t have enough episode. A lot of the episodes were running short. And HBO basically said you kind of need to give us at least 50 some minutes here. You can’t give us a 42-minute episode.
So, they went back and just added scenes. They were pre-deleted scenes. [laughs] They weren’t even scenes that they felt were necessary to begin with. Now they’re adding them in to just fill time. And some of them are the best scenes in the series. They actually learned a great lesson from that. In television sometimes these quite moments where these characters — you can afford them in television. And we can’t necessarily in film.
And so I think it’s a great thing that you’re addressing it. And I guess for folks who are listening there is a great lesson for all of us that you go and you make a movie like Donnie Darko and it’s a cultural touchstone and the thought of changing even a frame of it would make many, many people of that generation shriek, of a certain generation shriek.
But the person who created it continues this kind of endless self-evaluation and this self-recreation, which I think is amazing.
Craig: Did I freak you out again, Richard? Are you all right?
Richard: I’m constantly freaked out, you know, by life. So, you know.
John: Craig, you didn’t learn that at Austin Film Festival? He’s always a little bit nervous. And it’s often because you’re telling Leigh Whannell to like figure out ways to kill Richard.
John: That was a long [crosstalk].
Craig: Killing Richard Kelly is, for whatever reason, it’s just more entertaining to consider than killing, I don’t know, other people.
Craig: It’s more of a challenge. I feel like he would fight back really hard.
Richard: I hope none of the listeners of this podcast decide to follow through.
Craig: Yeah, don’t kill Richard Kelly. By the way, don’t kill him if for no other reason than he’s mine to kill.
Craig: My quarry.
John: Now, Richard, a thing we do on our shows every week is a One Cool Thing and I should have warned you about this ahead of time. So, you can think about it while we do things. You actually mentioned one of them at the Black List party. You sent me an email about it which could potentially be a great One Cool Thing. Do you remember what that was?
Richard: Oh god, what was the email?
John: That science foundation thing?
Richard: Oh, yes, yes.
John: So, when we get around maybe that can be your One Cool Thing. Craig, do you want to start? Should I start?
Craig: Well, you have a big one. I think you should go last. Mine is really easy. Someone tweeted this to me and I jumped on it and then people continued to tweet it to me as if I didn’t know, which is kind of exciting. It means that I’m a certain kind of person that likes a certain kind of thing and everyone is figuring it out.
It’s this thing called Coin and it doesn’t exist yet. This company is a startup company and they’re taking preorders, but it’s just one of those things like the Nest where I went, oh cool — if that works it would be great. So, we all have a bunch of credit cards and debit cards in our wallet, and I don’t like having lots of things in my wallet. I’m constantly going through and getting rid of stuff.
So, they came up with this thing called Coin. It’s the size of a credit card but it is electronic. It syncs up with your phone over Bluetooth, secure Bluetooth, and you essentially scan your cards into your phone with one of those little scanny things that they send you. And then take a picture of your credit cards. And then it pipes all that information and syncs it into the one coin card. And then there’s like a little touch thing on the back of it that lets you select which card you want to use at any given point. And it has all of your cards on one card.
I don’t even have that many cards and I got so excited about this. So, anyway. That’s my One Cool Thing. Doesn’t yet exist. As you point out, most of my One Cool Things are things I haven’t actually experienced, but I want to.
John: We will put a link to that in the show notes along with the video that Adam Lisagor did showing it. It’s a very clever idea. Essentially, it looks like a credit card but it can change out its stripe. You just push a little button and it changes what the stripe is. And so when you run it through whatever little machine it will show up as a different card.
John: And that’s a very clever idea.
Richard: Interesting, yes.
Craig: Yes, Richard Kelly. Now, what is your One Cool Thing?
Richard: My One Cool Thing is something called the Science and Entertainment Exchange.
Richard: The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a organization that puts on a monthly symposium for screenwriters and producers and anyone who is interested in really, really cutting edge scientific discourse. And a symposium of probably an audience of about 100 people that are in attendance with a very elaborate audio visual presentation. And at least three to four very high level scientific guests there to discuss an issue and as it might relate to your storytelling.
John: So, what are some recent examples?
Richard: Some recent examples, there was one held at the DGA Theater on bioethics. And it was this wonderful discussion of bioethics with four prominent scientists and John Spaihts who is a screenwriter who wrote Prometheus and the upcoming Passengers was the moderator of the event. And it was just a discussion of different bioethical issues facing our world, whether it’s organ donation or stem cell research or something to do with — there’s a huge flu outbreak and there’s only ten respirators left in the hospital. And when it comes down the last respirator there’s a 14-year-old girl and a 63-year-old man.
Richard: You have to give it to one of them.
Craig: Girl. Give it to the girl!
Richard: What is more ethical? And then they have everyone text message their answer up to the big screen, like who should get the respirator. And then they put another wrinkle into it. They say, “Well, the little girl has this terminal disease and the man has created, the 65-year-old man has created some of the most seminal works of fiction in the world and has a Nobel Prize for literature.”
Craig: Nah, give it to the girl.
John: His best days are behind him.
Craig: She’s the girl, I mean, give it to the girl.
Richard: They keep adjusting the ethical dilemma and everyone re-text messages their answer. And you see how the data is changing and where people are in terms of their perception. You know, that’s only the beginning, but it’s just this really fascinating discussion. And then a month later there was an FBI agent there to host a symposium on psychopaths and the science of psychopathy. And she was like a modern day Clarice Starling. She’s like the real deal. And she was giving you all the — this audio/visual presentation about serial killers and their profile and their disposition and their behavioral habits and the way that they blend into the world.
And it’s this really disturbing and fascinating discussion of psychopaths. It’s just really great use of science and how to implement science into your work with these amazing people that you probably wouldn’t get to meet in this kind of environment in everyday life.
Craig: That is cool. I would have enjoyed being at a seminar on psychopaths and watch — I would like to watch you, Richard Kelly, watching the lady talk about psychopaths.
John: Well, Craig, you would find it very helpful because like, oh man, they’re onto me for these reasons so therefore I’m going to have to change up my game completely.
Craig: No, psychopaths never worry about being caught because they’re — not that I would know, but Richard Kelly –
John: Oh, that’s right.
Craig: Richard Kelly and I can have a side discussion about what it means to be a total sociopath.
Richard: They have a lack of empathy.
Craig: Yes. A total lack.
Richard: That’s the big thing. It’s very disturbing.
John: Yes, it can be quite disturbing. So, my One Cool Thing is actually an app. It’s an app called Hotel Tonight which is an iPhone app and it’s incredibly useful if you find yourself in a city without a hotel room. So, essentially at noon every day across the nation — noon locally every day across the nation, it goes online and you can find cheaper hotel rooms for whatever city you’re in.
And so last weekend I found myself in New York City and I needed a room. And so I went to it. It was actually very smart, and good, and easy to use. It’s much faster than going through Expedia and everything else.
Craig: What’s it called again?
John: Hotel Tonight.
Craig: Hotel Tonight. I usually use Grindr when I need a room in New York.
John: That’s another effective way to find it. But then you have to share a bed, or a couch, or something.
John: And you never know.
Craig: It’s cheap.
John: There could be needles or other drugs involved.
Craig: There usually are.
John: A little party and play for you.
So, Hotel Tonight was the app. And so the reason why I found myself in New York is sort of the bigger story. Last week on Thursday I got the call from the producers saying, “We thought we could go through the spring with Big Fish, and we’re only going to be able to go to December 29. And so we need to tell the cast because we want to tell the cast before the cast finds out from somebody else.”
And so I had to sort of fly secretly to New York so to not warn anybody that this was happening. So, I had to get there, get in early at night, use the Hotel Tonight to get the room.
And so I showed up at the Neil Simon Theater and it was actually really happy to see everybody there because it was our Sunday matinee, so it’s 3pm. So, I show up there a little bit early. I deliberately wore all black so I could sit back with the orchestra. And so I got to see the whole show with the orchestra. And I got to sort of hug everybody and be happy and be so excited to sort of join the whole cast.
And just be the cheerful like “I’m just here to support you guys” kind of look because I didn’t want anyone to be tipped off before going out on stage that there was bad news coming.
So, what happens, this is, you know, I didn’t want to miss this because it was the end of this part of the journey, but it was also… — I don’t know. I think as a writer you — at a certain point you start to accumulate experiences. And I didn’t want to not know what this felt like and just to sort of not know what it felt like for this thing to have an end date to it.
So, at the end of the matinee, current comes down, we keep everybody on stage and the producers break the news. And it was surprise, and heartbreak, and shock because we’ve been selling out all the shows and there was a standing ovation every night. So, it was from their perspective like well how could this possibly happen.
And you don’t go into full explanations there. I won’t go into full explanations on the podcast. But essentially we knew how much money we were making week by week in November. And that was enough for us to be turning a small profit. But, in February, the numbers will naturally go down because –
Craig: It’s a dead zone.
John: Broadway is very — it’s a dead zone. Broadway is very seasonal. So, we knew that we’d be about 30% lower than that in February. And at 30% lower than that we wouldn’t be profitable. We wouldn’t be able to keep the show running in February.
And so because of that, the theater does the same math and they say, “You’re not going to be able to hold onto the theater come February. We want you out sooner.” So, it becomes this whole negotiation about when do you leave the theater, how it’s all going to happen.
This was a chance to make our money through the holidays, make as much for everybody as we can make it, and sort of know when we’re ending.
So, my function with seeing everybody on stage was to sort of say, “You’re awesome. We’re incredibly thankful to have this group with us to make the first version of Big Fish.” There will be more versions of Big Fish. And coming out of this process we will be able to license the show and we’ll have future productions of it because we had this first Broadway production.
John: Also, I could remind people that this wasn’t the end. It was the middle. And it’s that weird thing where we still have seven weeks left. And so people can still come see the show. And we will probably sell a lot more tickets because the end is –
Craig: Right. There’s a limited supply now of shows.
John: But the whole experience of this part of it reminds me of as we talked about the show on the podcast, it’s a little bit like film in that you’re always working on one thing. There’s one project you’re working on. And every night you’re working on making this one thing, unlike TV where you’re doing different episodes.
But it’s like TV in the sense that it’s just a continual process. And your ticket sales are sort of like ratings in a way. And so if your ratings fall below a certain level the network, or in this case the theater, kind of cancels you.
But it’s also like a business. It’s like that little startup. And this process of closing down is much more like a startup, like a tech startup that sort of run out of money and that you have to, you know, you’re relying on your weekly cash flow in order to pay for your marketing or pay for all of these things. And at a certain place the numbers just won’t work out. And they won’t work out for every show. Like every show will close. The Book of Mormon will probably close at some point in 30 years…
John: Because the numbers won’t work out. And so everything has an end. It also reminded me of sort of this sense of expectation in that one of the things that I think is so smart about what we’re doing in TV right now are those limited series where you know there’s ten episodes. And if there’s another block of ten episodes, great. But it’s designed to be ten episodes long.
And if we had come into Big Fish saying like, “We’re going to run for 12 weeks through December 29,” that would have been awesome. But it’s that sense of the sort of moving goal lines, like you never know when you’re really going to end, that you sort of — you can always kind of pull failure out of success.
Craig: Well, you know –
John: Things in my head.
Craig: I have to say, I mean, obviously I was upset when I heard the news. And upset for both the people in the show, and poor Ryan the Giant. He seemed to take it very hard. And everybody that was involved in the show seemed to really love being a part of it. And obviously meeting Andrew and, of course, following your story. I mean, it was heartbreaking in a sense.
But, you did it. I mean, you mounted a Broadway musical. It ran. You got some terrific reviews. The audience was in tears and they were applauding. And it happened. And the fact that there is a certain amount of external success that needs to occur financially in order to make it happen for a long amount of time is rough and this is life.
But, I just want to thank you for kind of taking us along on the journey with you because we’ve been doing this now for awhile. And I’m starting to realize that we’re chronicling our lives on this thing to some extent.
Craig: And, you know, I’ve certainly had my dark night of the soul when every critic in America punched me in the mouth, again, last February. And so I know that this is hard, and it’s emotional, and it’s difficult because we unfortunately must repeatedly open ourselves up to pain every time we open ourselves up to care about what we do.
But, the pain will subside and the achievement is permanent, which I think is wonderful.
John: And it’s one of the reasons why it was great to have Richard here on the episode this week is that Donnie Darko is a film that went through those sort of highs and lows, where you had the experience of everyone loving your script, and then the challenge of actually trying to get it made. And then the elation of getting it made. And then the challenge of the first reaction at Sundance and not knowing how it was going to be perceived years later.
Things never really end. They never really stop. And Donnie Darko is a thing that that keeps going.
Go was a movie that I loved, my very first movie that we had so much excitement and enthusiasm but it hugely underperformed. And yet I’m so grateful that it’s a thing I got to do.
And so that’s one of the sort of general lessons to take about all the work we do is you were able to make something. You were able to create something that exists in the world because of your efforts. And that’s something not a lot of people can say.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And so it’s a luxury of what we get to do.
Richard: Absolutely. In the end, also you mentioned time travel at the beginning. The lesson is that time destroys everything, but time also heals everything.
Richard: I don’t know what the message of that is.
Craig: Geez, you just blew my freaking mind, Richard Kelly!
Richard: Destruction is a form of creation.
John: I agree with you there.
John: Wow, this guy is deep –
Craig: God, Richard Kelly.
John: It got deep in the middle, too.
Craig: Look how Richard Kelly can do stuff. He’s so amazing. I feel like he needs to go. [laughs] I just have to take care of this on the side.
John: Richard, thank you so much for being our guest on the episode.
Richard: Thanks for having me.
Craig: Richard Kelly, you’re the best man. Thank you so much for doing this.
Richard: All right. Thank you, Craig. Thank you, John.
John: If you want to write a question or talk to me or Craig, on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Richard, what are you on Twitter?
Richard: I am @jrichardkelly.
John: So, people can tweet you if they have questions about things?
John: If you have longer questions for me or Craig, the best address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That is where we will gather up questions so we can do Craig’s favorite kind of episode, the one he doesn’t have to prepare for at all, which is the question-and-answer episodes.
John: A reminder to everybody to set your alarm so you wake by 10am tomorrow to buy tickets for the live show in Los Angeles if you are planning on coming to that. And thank you guys all so much listening.
Craig: Thanks Richard Kelly. Thanks John. Bye.
John: Thanks. Bye.
- Tickets are on sale tomorrow morning for the December 19th Scriptnotes Live Holiday Show
- Richard Kelly on IMDb, Wikipedia and Twitter
- Donnie Darko, and on Amazon
- The Donnie Darko Book
- Scope creep on Wikipedia
- Coin for all your cards
- The Science and Entertainment Exchange
- Hotel Tonight
- Big Fish is on Broadway through December 29th
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Matthew Chilelli
When we launched Screenwriting.io two years ago, we called it a beta, because it was just barely useful.
But in the past 24 months, it has grown a lot. The site now features more than 100 short articles answering basic questions about screenwriting. Each week, we get thousands of visitors.
So today we’re shedding the beta label.
Screenwriting.io is aimed at simple questions like:
These are questions so basic they would feel awkward on johnaugust.com. But they deserve answers.
My mandate to Ryan and Stuart was straightforward: each page should be The Answer. If answering one question raises new questions, new pages should answer those questions.
Stuart handles most of the questions that come into Screenwriting.io. If he doesn’t know the answer, he asks me. Either way, he provides links to information on johnaugust.com and other sites for further details.
So if you have a simple question about screenwriting, Screenwriting.io might be a good first stop. It’s also a handy place to refer newcomers to the craft.
As we discussed on the last podcast, Craig and I are doing a live episode benefiting the Writers Guild Foundation.
Thursday, December 19th
The Los Angeles Film School (new venue!)
6363 Sunset Blvd
Hollywood, CA 90028
In the spirit of A Christmas Carol, we will be visited by previous Scriptnotes guests, including Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wear Prada), Derek Haas (Chicago Fire, 3:10 to Yuma), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), Rawson Thurber (We’re the Millers), Blacklist creator Franklin Leonard, and producer Lindsay Doran. Plus we’ll have brand-new guests on hand to discuss features, television, and the business of slinging words.
There will also be surprise give-aways and way too much eggnog. Will Craig play Scrooge to my Cratchit? Join us and find out.
Tickets are normally $25 — but only $10 if you use the special promo code UMBRAGE at checkout.
Note that we’ve moved to a bigger venue. We’re now going to be using the main auditorium of the LA Film School, across from the ArcLight in Hollywood. We’ll likely sell out, and likely quickly, so don’t dally.
Tickets should be available at exactly 10am today (Wednesday) at the WGF website.
In an earlier post, I listed three ways to import a PDF into Final Draft:
- Retype it.
- Copy and Paste and Reformat every line.
- Use Highland.
On a Mac, Highland was by far the best choice. It was much faster and much more accurate.
Joel Levin at Final Draft emailed me to recommend an alternate workflow that’s listed on the Final Draft site:
If you have a recent version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader you can go to File > Save As > Text and save the document as a text file.
Import this text file into Final Draft (File > Open) as a script but you may need to do some reformatting.
I just tried it, and will update my earlier post. Here’s a screencast:
The short version is that for the file I tested, this method was better than copy-and-paste — but only slightly. Elements were more likely to be recognized correctly, but line breaks and spacing glitches were daunting. The script also swelled from 114 to 343 pages.
I wondered if it was just something strange about that one file, so I tried the same method on a bunch of the PDFs in the Library. Some of them turned out better than others, but all of them were significantly messed up.
So while it’s generally an improvement over copy-and-paste, you’d still need to spend quite a bit of time getting a useful script out of this workflow.
This actually isn’t Final Draft’s fault — their app is doing a commendable job on the fairly janky text file Adobe Reader is creating.
Nor is it Adobe’s fault — they built a general-purpose PDF app that doesn’t know anything about screenplays. It’s like complaining that a hammer is a terrible screwdriver.
Highland is a specialized tool for doing exactly this kind of conversion, which is why it works so much better. My previous recommendation still stands: if you need to convert a PDF to Final Draft, your best bet is to use Highland on a Mac.
If you can’t use Highland (e.g. you’re on a PC, and can’t bribe someone with a Mac), this Final Draft workflow is better than copy-and-paste. My thanks to Joel for pointing this out.
John and Craig wind back the clock with writer-director Richard Kelly to look at the origins of Donnie Darko, and how a recent film-school grad gets a movie made.
Along the way, we talk about Sundance and slow success, scope creep and transmedia.
The Scriptnotes Live Holiday Show will be Thursday, December 19th, 2013. Tickets go on sale November 20th at 10am. Links below.
- Tickets are on sale tomorrow morning for the December 19th Scriptnotes Live Holiday Show
- Richard Kelly on IMDb, Wikipedia and Twitter
- Donnie Darko, and on Amazon
- The Donnie Darko Book
- Scope creep on Wikipedia
- Coin for all your cards
- The Science and Entertainment Exchange
- Hotel Tonight
- Big Fish is on Broadway through December 29th
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Matthew Chilelli