John August's Blog
Justin Marks offers a look at what it’s like to be a working screenwriter you’ve never heard of:
I had the fantasies of what this life would be like — a life that, for most, never will be a reality. I’ve wanted to write movies since I was 12 years old. I wanted trips to backlots, premieres, moments of seeing my movie on the shelf at the video store. That’s what we sign up for.
Then there’s the other 90 percent: waking up, walking the dogs, grinding away at my computer in the clothes I slept in. Occasional fits of creative euphoria interrupted by phone calls from agents, arguments on Twitter or the dogs barking at squirrels in the yard. But when it picks up — when there’s a movie being made or a star being attached or a deal being closed — man, that high feels like it’ll last forever.
For the record, I’d heard of Justin Marks. In fact, he wrote a piece for this blog urging writers to ignore my advice and get a manager.
As promised, John and Craig answer a bunch of listener questions on everything except screenwriting, on topics ranging from sex to science to sushi.
- How can the universe be infinite, but expanding?
- What’s it like being bald?
- Do spouses need to have common interests?
- Can someone become a morning person?
- And what’s the secret to a close, comfortable shave?
We start with two things in the news: an update on the Zach Braff Kickstarter situation, and the attempt to unionize the writers of E!’s Fashion Police.
- The Writers Guild Foundation presents The Screenwriter’s Craft: Finding Your Voice featuring Scriptnotes Live
- Zach Braff’s response to The Hollywood Reporter’s article on his film’s gap financer
- The Hollywood Reporter on E!’s Fashion Police writers strike
- Highland v 1.0.2 brings shift + return caps, lyrics and various minor bug fixes
- Try Cignot.com for all your eCig needs
- Thumbs up for UC Verde Buffalo Grass
- The Nest Thermostat is fantastic
- For LA pizza, check out Pizzeria Mozza, Joe’s Pizza in Santa Monica or the pizza kiosk at The Americana
- And for LA sushi, we like Nobu and Matsuhisa, Sugarfish and the former Nozawa, Sasabune and Chef Niki Nakayama’s n/naka
- If you’re in Chicago (or Washington D.C.), try Protein Bar
- Craig still loves his Tesla and John still loves his Leaf
- Alternate with water when you’re drinking
- OUTRO: George Michael’s Father Figure covered by Cantaloop
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 89, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, we have actual news this week, exciting events that we can talk about finally.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, we’ve really been struggling making stuff up on the fly, but now we can talk about things that are real.
John: Things that are real, including a long-promised and wished and hoped for live event in Los Angeles. Not just one, but two.
John: There will be two live Scriptnotes this summer in Los Angeles. The first of which will be Saturday, June 29th, at 10am, at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. It’s part of a larger event that the Writers Guild Foundation is throwing. Tickets are not yet available, but they will be available soon, and there will be a link when those are available.
But, if you are in Los Angeles and would like to come to that you can mark it on your calendar and make sure you don’t have any other plans for 10am on Saturday, June 29th.
Craig: I can’t wait to get a look at our listenership.
Craig: I want to see what they look like. I want to get an eyeful of these people.
John: So, to date we’ve only done one live event and that was in Austin. And that was at the Austin Film Festival. So, it was already the people who we were seeing every day at the Driskill Hotel. So, this is a chance to see our Los Angeles fan base, including people who I do see at like Trader Joe’s, or at the Nobu restaurant. But this is a chance to see them all together to see us on one stage. It’s going to be exciting.
That is the first of two events. The second event will be Sunday, July 28, at the evening, probably a 7:30 show. That’s going to be at the Pickford Center in Hollywood, which is part of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s their big complex on Vine. And we’re going to be having the theater there to celebrate our 100th episode of Scriptnotes.
Craig: Woo! That’s going to be fun.
John: That’s going to be fun, in quotes. So, that’s one where we’ll be actually selling tickets sort of separately. It will be our own thing. And that will be a celebration of 100 episodes of you and I talking at each other over Skype.
Craig: And when we say we’re selling tickets, are we making money off of this?
John: I don’t think we’re making any money off of this.
John: So, I’m sorry, Craig. You won’t be able to raise some money for your electronic cigarette habit.
Craig: Hmmm, maybe we could do a Kickstarter for that. [laughs]
John: That’s what we need to do. But there may be something you could take home with you after the event, and that’s still in discussion. So, the elves are busy working on those things.
John: Yeah. So anyway, those are the two dates for the summer. We can’t sell you a ticket right now, or send you to a link, but you can mark them on your calendars. So, the first is Saturday, June 29th, 10am. The second will be Sunday, July 28th, in the evening, probably a 7pm or 7:30 pm. Those are two chances to come see us and come to a taping of our show.
John: Now, there’s one other chance. If you are in Los Angeles tomorrow night I will be hosting an event at The Academy, which you are all welcome to come. Tickets are $5. This is storytelling in a digital age. It is me hosting a big panel of screenwriters and editors and DPs talking about the challenges and possibilities of making movies in the age of technology that is quickly advancing. So, we will have amazing guests like Mark Boal, and Damon Lindelof, Maryann Brandon, William Goldenberg, Mary Jo Markey, Dylan Tichenor, and also some DPs who I can’t announce yet, but by the time this airs people will know who they are.
So, it should be a really fun time. We’re showing clips. There will be clips from Zero Dark Thirty, from Argo, from Star Trek. There’s an amazing clip from Star Trek which I got to see, which everyone will get to see before the movie even comes out. So, come to that event tomorrow if you would like to.
Craig: And you’re the perfect host for that.
John: Well, thank you. I hope it will be a good, fun time. I love technology. I love making movies. I love talking to people. So, hopefully it will be a good, fun time.
John: But now you’ve jinxed me, and I will just completely stumble and fall.
Craig: There’s no way you could blow it.
John: Thank you. I will find a way to blow it.
Craig: Certainly you’ll enunciate every word and no one will ever turn to somebody in the crowd and say, “What did he just say?”
John: “What did he say? What was that? What did he say?”
There’s a pre-reception for like press and with wine, so I’m having to very carefully moderate my alcohol consumption before I start. Because, one glass of wine I’m better than normal. Two glasses of wine, you don’t want me on stage.
Craig: It’s so funny you mention that, because I brought up before my favorite British comedians, Mitchell and Webb. And they have this amazing — so here’s another link — an amazing sketch whereby we find out that the world is run by this Illuminati group and their entire philosophy is based on the fact that anywhere between one and two glasses of wine makes you a super human.
But if you have less than one glass of wine you’re just a loser. And if you have more than 1.5 glasses of wine you’re an idiot. [laughs] So, you have to have exactly 1.5 glasses. It’s pretty smart.
John: I will confess that there have been times over our 89 episodes that we’ve recorded of the show that we’ve done it late at night, so I’ve already had my one glass of wine at dinner, and it’s just vastly easier with one glass of wine in me.
Craig: I walk around naturally with one glass of wine in me. I don’t drink the wine, it’s just I think I live on a level of one glass of wine.
John: That’s nice. It’s three in the afternoon as we’re recording this, so I have no wine in me. But, if we lived in a different era, if we lived in a Mad Men era, I’d have two martinis in me already. And maybe that would be much, much better.
Craig: That’s right. But you’d be married to a woman.
John: There’s pros and cons. [laughs]
Craig: Exactly. [laughs] Up and downs.
John: I would have the two martinis because I was married to a woman.
Craig: I know, exactly. And then you’d just stare at her, “Ugh.” And she would cry, “Why?”
John: “Why doesn’t he touch me the way I want to be touched?”
Craig: [laughs] Stupid.
John: Today on the agenda we have three things to talk about.
First we want to talk about this $23 million lawsuit filed by two of the writers from G.I Joe.
Second, we’re going to talk about shots that we need to stop putting in movies. So, it’s sort of a corollary to our Cut it Out things, but these are visual things that are in movies that we just need to stop putting in movies.
John: And, finally, a topic that you suggested was transitions. And I think that will be very useful for us to talk through. The craft of transitioning from one scene to the next.
Craig: Great. Big show.
John: Big show. Craig, let’s start by talking about G.I. Joe. So, this was a piece of news that came out this last week, I think. Maybe it will be next week by the time this show airs. Two of the writers from the original G.I. Joe movie, the one that came out — I don’t know — eight years ago? Whenever.
Craig: Well, no, not eight years ago. I think it was like 2009 or something.
John: Well, everything happens…
Craig: 2009. Yeah. 2009.
John: 2009. Because it happened sort of during the strike. It was shot during the strike.
John: It happened during that time. So, David Elliot & Paul Lovett, who are two of the writers credited on that movie, filed a $23 million lawsuit against the makers of the sequel movie, the one that just came out. And it’s interesting for a whole host of reasons. There have been lawsuits filed over movies over people who claim, “Well, I should get credit for writing that movie,” or, “they took my ideas before.”
This is a very unique case in the sense of these aren’t just two guys off the street. These guys wrote the first movie. And they’re arguing here that much of the second movie was work that they actually did and stuff that they had pitched. And raises a whole host of interesting issues, not only for this one lawsuit, but potentially this is the case that you and I have talked about for a long time that could change a bit of how we handle paper in Hollywood.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Exactly right. This is the proverbial time bomb that I’ve been going on and on about for a long time. And kind of ironically as part of our little CPSW stuff, our Committee for the Professional Status of Screenwriters, a few of us have gone to studios to talk to the people who run the studios to say, “Look, here are some practices that we think aren’t very good. They’re not productive. They’re hurting writers. We should stop them.”
And you can imagine what they are. Let’s try and have more two-step deals. Let’s try and pay writers on time. Let’s stop asking them to write stuff in order to get jobs. And on that point, I have said repeatedly — including to the folks at Paramount — this is going to blow up in your face. There are divisions of lawyers at these studios who are obsessed with making sure that they own the copyright on every single thing that goes in and out of the gate.
And then you have these other people working there, whether they’re studio executives or producers, who very cavalierly demand that writers write stuff before they get hired and then they don’t get hired. Well, they don’t own that stuff. And if it should happen to turn up in a movie, uh-oh, right?
So, let’s talk a little bit about the details here, because there are some things that I want to be clear about. First of all, it is tempting to side with the writers always the second you hear something like this. But, please always remember that there are other writers on the other side of this issue, namely Reese & Wernick, who wrote — or are credited with writing, and I assume did write — the actual sequel that it is currently being litigated.
I happen to know Rhett & Paul and they’re great guys. And there’s no chance in the world that they would actively rip somebody off. That’s just not possible. So, the question then is, okay, did these guys who wrote stuff down and handed it to the producers in the company, and who then did not get the job, did their material by way of producers repeating things back and so forth sort of contaminate the pool of ideas that were given to Rhett & Paul?
And, again, personally, there’s just no way that Rhett & Paul stole anything.
One thing that is concerning for me about this when you look at David Elliot & Paul Lovett’s case is that the Writers Guild determined that they weren’t participating writers on the project. And that doesn’t bode well for them, because the Writers Guild does take a look at material and say, “Okay, well, this person wasn’t hired, but if they wrote on it they are a participating writer.” And somebody looked at that material over there and said, “We don’t think you wrote on this movie.”
John: So, clarify this for me, because this is something I could not see from the material that I read through. In the pre-arbitration hearing, or was there a pre-arbitration hearing that established that they were not part of this group of writers?
Craig: Yeah, it appears so. Yes. So, what happens is, let’s say you write a script and you’re not hired by a studio. It’s a spec script, or spec material, anything really. You’re not hired. And then you see the script that arises when the credits are being determined and you say, “Oh my god, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I wrote that’s in this script. And I should be a participating writer. I should be able to get credit on this if I deserve it.”
The Writers Guild will do what they call a participating writer investigation where the material is read by a writer at the Guild, and that writer’s simple determination is, “Yeah, this person’s material actually is evident in the screenplay,” or, “No, this person’s material is not. They shouldn’t be a participating writer.” All you need really is a couple of lines, frankly, that are sort of word for word, or like a very specific kind of scene or moment, or something like that, I would imagine.
I’ve never done one of those myself, but point being these guys were not awarded participating writer status. So, that certainly call their claim into question. We can’t — we don’t know. We don’t know all the details. All we know is what the court is going to decide, or what a settlement determines, and certainly a court doesn’t care what the WGA thinks.
But what does matter ultimately in the end is that the studios have to really now take a very strong look at who is asking for written material, because at this point if they don’t issue a blanket policy that they can’t accept written material from writers trying to get jobs, they’re nuts.
John: Yeah. So, let’s do step away from the details of this specific case, because I don’t know these writers at all and I don’t know the specifics beyond what I read. And so if people are curious about the specifics, there are PDFs up that show not only the lawsuit as it was filed but also attached are the emails that were sent through describing in detail what these writers had pitched. And so that’s one thread to look through if people are curious about that.
But, I do think the general topic of prewriting, which is basically this is stuff that you are writing before you’ve gotten the job, and maybe you’re writing that for yourself, but the minute you hand that over to somebody, you are creating written material that could potentially become part of the movie, and that is hugely troubling for the studio, and for the writers, and for the producers.
And let’s also take a look that this is G.I. Joe. So, this is a preexisting property. When you come into this property, they did not create these characters, so these are preexisting characters. So, they can show that they created the situations in which these characters are doing things, but they didn’t come in from scratch writing brand new characters, which is also a complication in this situation. But, very, very common for the situations where there are a bunch of writers going up for a job.
John: And when people are asking you to come in and pitch a take they are saying, “Okay, we have this material, we have this book, we have this preexisting property. Let’s redo The Addams Family. Well, how would you do the Addams Family?” Well, if you’re going to do The Addams Family you’re going to look at, well, this is The Addams Family. These are who the characters are. And so anything you’re pitching is going to be using those characters in a specific way.
And if you create, you know, you may be writing stuff for yourself, but if you hand over that written material, that’s the problem. And let’s talk about why you would hand over that stuff. Because here’s what happens when I’m in a meeting. They’ll say, “We love that. That was fantastic. Do you have something I could have so I can pitch this to my boss?”
John: That’s invariably sort of how they phrase it, because you are talking to some lower level creative executive who has to then go turn around and pitch your take to his or her boss. And they’ll say, “Can I have something to refer back to?”
And from my earliest jobs I’ve sometimes done that. I’ve given that paper over. And that’s not a good choice for the writer, and it’s certainly not a good choice for the studio.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a mess. And I don’t really know any way around it other than the studio saying, “We’re not doing that anymore.” Because if you were to say, “Well, why don’t we do this: everybody who comes in, you want to give us some material, that’s fine, but we’re going to pay you for it. So, we have a new deal. We’re going to pay you $5,000 for it. Everybody who comes in.”
Well, that’s great for the writers. They get five grand. And great for the studio. They’re covered on all that material. They own it lock, stock, and barrel. But, the problem then is when you get to your credit arbitration you have about 40 guys all with pieces of a story. And the poor guy who actually wrote the movie is like, “What?! Who am I sharing story with? Which one of the guys that didn’t get the job am I sharing story with?”
It gets crazy. The fact is studios cannot per the terms of our collective bargaining agreement insist that there be written material as a condition of employment. They are forbidden to do that. And they do it all the time. So, that has to stop.
And then as far as the writers go, writers can offer that material. I think, frankly, the studio is going to have to say no. “If I want you to pitch this idea to my boss, I’m taking you to my boss and you’re going to pitch it.” Because once it’s written down on paper it exists and they’ve accepted it.
John: So, let me back you up one step. You said that the studio cannot require writers to do this prewriting as a condition of their employment, but they could pay them for exactly what you’re describing. They could pay them for a treatment.
John: So, in television that’s common. And I have to say like television has somewhat solved this problem to some degree. Granted, you’re not bringing in a bunch of people to pitch on one particular project so often, but in television you do get paid for those steps along the way. You get paid for those outlines. You get paid for those things, or at least they’re considered part of your overall employment. So, basically upon giving your pitch, part of your deal is that you’re going to be writing this material and you’re going to be working through these drafts of stuff before you actually get to your script.
And that may just be a way that smart studios may want to proceed is that they’ll hire you to certain steps and then pull triggers to get you to the next step. And that may be a way to cover themselves.
Craig: Well, I’ve always been in favor of that. I believe that’s a great part of the process, and it used to be a formal part of the screenwriting process and it sort of went away.
The major difference between television and film I think in this area is that most television projects are generated by the writer. So, the writer comes in. They say, “Look, here’s the idea. Here’s the world I want to do,” and they say, “Great. Let’s start developing it. Here’s some money, write a treatment, do all these steps.”
In features, so often they’re coming to you and saying, “We have something we want to do. Five, six, seven of you come in and wow us,” whether it’s a sequel, or a book, or a remake. And in those situations they very typically engage in the sweepstakes pitching stuff where a lot of writers are coming in.
And those situations in particular are the most treacherous for the studio to accept written material for. And yet that’s the situation in which they are most likely to accept written material because the writers are all competing with each other and basically racing to the bottom of the barrel in terms of working for nothing.
John: Yes. And it’s very unlikely that if you had seven people come in and pitch their takes, there would be great similarities between those seven takes.
John: Let’s talk Charlie’s Angels, or whatever. If you were coming in to pitch Charlie’s Angels, well, you know there’s going to be three Angels. You know they’re going to have different types. And so you’re going to probably find there’s going to be some overlap of who those types of women are.
There’s going to be a nature of who is the Bosley type character? What is his function? What is the plot of this big movie? And so the movie version of Charlie’s Angels, well, it’s pretty natural that someone is going to try to kill Charlie. That’s kind of an obvious idea because it’s a movie idea.
So, those kinds of things are going to happen a lot. The idea that there’s going to be an old Angel that comes back — which is what we did in the sequel — who is the villain, that’s kind of an obvious idea. And yet, if you were to sort of track through and say like these things are all similar, and this must have influenced this, well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it influenced. It just means that like that’s the kind of idea you have for the movie version of this property.
Craig: That’s right. And unfortunately the rules of these things are fairly dumb. They very dumbly look at chronology and little else. And the assumption is, okay, if it came first, everybody else looked at it and saw it, and if it’s the same thing then you must have taken it. And that’s just not true. You’re absolutely right. Frankly, so much of our film language is influenced not by writers that precede us on a project but by movies that precede all of us and oftentimes are berths.
So, it was a former Angel that came back. Well, you know, we’ve seen that in other movies. That’s sort of a time tested thing of the former ally coming back now as an enemy to write a wrong. Bond has done that at least, what, three times?
Craig: So, that’s not what makes, frankly, the movie interesting. You know what I mean? And there are movies where the characters, the tone, the action is the fun stuff, and the intricacies of the plotting is not. That’s not the point. And frankly G.I. Joe 2, I’m guessing, is probably in that category.
And how many different ways can you do a sequel based on a cartoon property like that, a toy? You could easily see three or four writers coming up with very similar stories. And then it’s just about the execution, tone, and all the rest.
John: Agreed. You and I have both been part of lawsuits where someone has come in to sue and say like, “Well, I wrote this script first. And this script existed afterwards. And clearly it must have influenced. We can’t prove that you read this script, but clearly this must have influenced it. Because who else could have the idea of doing a script like this?”
And that’s the most maddening kind of thing at all. Who would have the idea of doing a movie about bowling? Well, everyone had the idea. And so my defense in those situations, which I’ve never actually used legally, but I think my sort of emotional defense is that if I can show any other script that existed about bowling before your script, then you have no case. Because therefore you must have stolen that idea from somebody else before.
John: Prior Art as sort of the defense against those kind of copyrights.
Craig: That’s exactly right. But, you know, look, there are crazy people who are crazy. There are narcissistic people who are narcissistic. And self-delusional people. That’s always the case. This is not what’s going on here. I mean, in truth, we are dealing with two professional writers who had a very privileged relationship with the people that they’re suing. And that has to give everyone cause for concern. It certainly gives me cause for concern.
And, listen, if these guys have a case, and they were infringed upon, I wish them nothing but the best of luck in this, you know. I feel bad for Rhett & Paul, because you don’t want this hanging over your head as writers.
I just feel like the larger answer for the studios has to be that they just can’t get involved in this stuff anymore. If their lawyers knew the way that the producing world in general was behaving, they would lose their minds. They would.
John: Yeah. I would agree. I’m sort of on the side of all the writers in the situation. And I’m not rooting for or against anybody. I’m more rooting for the case changing something, because I feel like this is the kind of lawsuit that you and I have been taking about for years. That someone who has — not just some Joe off the street — but someone who actually has a career is going to step up and say, “This is what happened.” And people are going to have to acknowledge the reality behind it.
John: Cool. Let’s move on and talk about, this was a list that I found today, or actually I think Stuart actually found this list and passed it on to me, so thank you, Stuart, for finding it. It’s from a blog called Reverse Shot. And it’s a list of sort of visual clichés.
In a previous podcast you and I did this thing called Cut it Out, which is like things we see way too often in scripts, or just tropes that need to stop being used in screenplays because they’re clammy. They’re just not original anymore.
Craig: Although, literally, I think people called out three that I’ve used recently. [laughs]
John: Which is fine.
Craig: So, I don’t think those count.
John: No, they’re not clammy then.
This was a list of sort of visual equivalents of that. And so it’s things that you see, that wouldn’t necessarily show up in a script, but then you see them in movies and you’re like, “You know what? Let’s stop doing that because we’ve seen that shot way too many times.”
So, I thought we’d take some turns reading through this and discussing some of our favorites.
John: So, I loved the first one on this list which is moving clouds that are sped up.
Craig: Yeah, Koyaanisqatsi time-lapse.
John: Yeah, exactly. So, time-lapse is lovely and great, but we’ve seen those moving clouds a lot. And so maybe we could do something else rather than those moving clouds.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, sometimes when they’re part of something else that’s going on, I’m okay with it. If it’s just the clouds and that standard shot then it is pretty boring.
John: It’s pretty boring.
Craig: Yeah. The next one is we’re in a long shot and a guy is really far away and walking toward the camera and you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m going to have to watch him walk the whole way.” And it turns out, yeah, you are going to have to watch him walk the whole way.
Does that happen? [laughs]
John: It does happen. And it happens a lot over opening credits where we see somebody walking, and walking, and like the credits are just showing up on the screen. And like, oh my god, I’m going to have to watch this person the entire time?
Craig: It’s kind of an indie vibe sort of thing?
John: It’s sort of an indie vibe thing. Sometimes it’s a walk and talk where literally the camera is stationary and it’s a walk and talk towards the camera. And every once and awhile that will work just great. But, man, it just drives me crazy because I start to notice that, wow, we’re just going to stay in this shot for forever.
It has to be a really fascinating moment for me to want to stay in there and not really notice that we’re staying in this moment. A Steadicam can be the same kind of situation. Like, if I notice that you’re Steadicam shot has gone on for two minutes I’m going to just start looking for the cut and I’ll stop paying attention to the scene.
Craig: Unless it’s Goodfellas.
John: Unless it’s Goodfellas. But Goodfellas, it’s just such a good shot that it’s amazing, but how often is it really going to be that shot?
Craig: Are you Martin Scorsese?
John: Yeah. I mean, Joe Wright does it a lot, too. And I got fatigued by Joe Wright doing it.
Craig: All right.
John: Third one. An alienated teen or adolescent girl in the passenger side of a car driving down the highway, window rolled down, her hand swaying in the wind as it zips down a road to who knows where.
John: Yeah. We’ve seen that a lot folks. I mean, if she has something in her hand that she lets go, that’s also a cliché.
Craig: [laughs] Top down. Feeling youthful. Yeah, we’ve seen it.
This one’s pretty great. Overhead shot of protagonist in the rain, arms spread, just letting the downpour come. Yeah. That is really baroque.
John: Yeah. So, Shawshank Redemption is sort of the classic version of that, but like in Shawshank Redemption he just did crawl through a sewer tunnel. So, you give him, like he kind of wants the shower. But we need to stop doing that.
Craig: Yeah. Because people don’t do that.
John: People don’t really do that. People really don’t want to be in the rain overall. In movies they seem to kind of love it, but whenever it’s raining I’m kind of like how fast can I get out of the rain.
Craig: I mean, maybe you like the rain, but then you don’t put your arms out and look up at the sky and go, “Yay!”
John: Yeah, because it’s not comfortable.
Craig: It’s not!
John: Rain hitting your eyes is not good.
Craig: It’s weird. That’s how turkeys drown.
John: Number five. So it’s a side angle, above-boob shower shot of women cleaning themselves after the previous events. So, it could be like a terrible date, or something awful happened, but it’s that sort of frantic scrubbing. Also in the bathroom here, things like shots are into the mirror, people washing their faces and looking up to examine their wet face in the mirror with their mouth open.
Yeah, people looking at themselves in mirrors is happening a little too much in movies overall, but that washing and then looking at yourself in the mirror, that’s just a kind of cliché.
Craig: Yeah, washing and looking at yourself in the mirror, I do feel like I can make a list of 20 movies that do that.
John: Not so good.
Craig: Good point. Next one we have is protagonist on mass transit, looking pensive. Everyone else also looking miserable. And maybe layered with some “melancholic electronica.”
John: Yeah, the point being, so you’re on mass transit. So, you don’t have a car, I guess. But just being miserable on a train is just, well, yeah, people are miserable on trains.
Craig: Don’t you get it man, we’re all alone. Together.
John: That’s what it means. Yeah. We’re all alone together. And everyone has got their headphones on. It’s meant to be a great, big point. No, not so much really. I think if you’re going to put somebody on a train, we should know the reason why they’re on that train. Something should happen that they’re on that train. Because if it’s just them going to work, then it’s just kind of a stock shot of people going to work.
Craig: Yeah. They’re sad on a train.
John: They’re sad on a train.
Next up, this would be a Mexican, or Sicilian, or Indian, or Iranian child running through the streets without a care in the world, smiling and laughing, running right by a mother who hardly notices them, so busy she is hanging laundry.
I do see that a lot. It’s sort of like a third world/happy children/mom is doing laundry.
Craig: Tired mom.
John: Tired mom.
Craig: Happy kids/tired mom. Yeah, I guess that, generally speaking the running, laughing children is annoying to me. [laughs]
Craig: You know, what is that? Is that a game? The run and laugh game? I don’t know that game.
John: Yeah, what are they doing? They’re running and laughing because they can. Maybe they have a stick in their hand and they’re running it across the fence.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. And laughing. And, yeah, no, no.
Craig: Cut it out.
Guy goes to open a safe, or refrigerator, or something like that and BOOM, all of a sudden we’re shooting from inside out that thing, looking out at them.
Yeah, that’s even cliché for bad commercials.
Craig: You know, the beer ads, you know.
John: It goes back to point of view. It’s like, so why are we inside the refrigerator? Is there a really good reason why we’re inside the refrigerator? I mean, is there an important story point happening in the refrigerator? Or are you just doing it so you can do it? And if you’re just doing it so you can do it, that’s probably not the best choice.
John: Worst choices would be sort of like shooting up from the sink’s point of view, or something. Don’t do that.
Craig: Yeah. Unmotivated camera work. Just, why?
John: Next up. Epiphanies while jogging. So, often it’s like the big tracking shot, the gliding tracking shot. Then we pull up short while they suddenly have a revelation.
Yeah, you know, you can have good ideas while jogging. Things can happen. You can be interrupted from your jogging by something. But, if you suddenly stop short, and often the music will tell you that you had an epiphany. It’s like you’re responding to the score rather than actually to an event that happened.
Craig: It totally agree. There is this very famous moment from Good Times where the dad dies. He dies because John Amos wanted too much money. I think that was the actor’s name, John Amos. So, Norman Lear was like, “Eh, now you’re dead.”
And Esther Rolle, I believe, is the woman who played his wife. And they go through this whole episode where he’s dead, and the funeral and everything, and she’s kind of like keeping it together in this amazing way. And then at the very end she’s alone in her kitchen, she’s just cleaning up. And she just takes a dish and then she suddenly smashes it into the ground. She says, “Damn, damn, damn!” And it’s awesome.
And it’s awesome because she didn’t need to go jogging. There was no music. [laughs] It was absolutely quiet. And for sitcoms to be absolutely quiet it is very eerie. And you suddenly feel like, oh my god, I’m watching a reality show, because nothing is happening at all. They’re wasting broadcast time watching a woman literally clean for 20 seconds.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. And you don’t have to go in the rain, or jogging, or punch a punching bag to suddenly realize something important. “Damn, damn, damn!”
Craig: Oh, yeah. Well, “Damn, damn…” I’ll just keep doing it. So good. That show is so good.
So, in documentaries, stock footage of 1950s appliance ads and educational reels for a goofy, eerie conformism effect. That is super, duper clammy. You know, the whole point is that the ’50s were terrible, and robotic, and nobody was free, and everybody was just a cog in a huge machine, when that’s not at all true; it’s just the style of making those movies of the time.
John: I also have a hunch that a lot of times the reason why we see them in documentaries is those are free to license. And so it’s a simple, easy thing to stick in there. And because we’ve seen them so much in documentaries it becomes sort of default, like, “Oh, we should cut to that.”
Craig: I mean, I think that there’s probably stuff from the ’60s and ’70s you could license as well with like that wah-wah-wah. Like, you know, when we were kids, remember those film strips? And they were always like wonka-wonka with the crazy Wah-wah pedal.
But, I think the point is like, “Ha, ha, ha, stupid ’50s people.” And you know, I’m sorry, they were just in a war. Lay off. There’s nothing wrong… — So, I’m sorry, they all worked in a factory and they all look clean. Oh, whoop-de-do.
John: It’s a terrible thing for that. Related in documentaries is that when you hold on a shot just slightly too long after someone said something ridiculous.
John: You get that. It’s just like leaving tails on something to sort of makes somebody look like an idiot.
Craig: I know. And you know what? It kind of bums me out. I happen to love Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! I don’t know if you ever watched that show on Showtime. It’s really good. They’re so smart. They’re so good. And they do such a great job of being skeptics, and certainly I am one of them.
But one thing they do that bums me out is that. They’re always having people say things, or responding, or saying a line, or responding to a question, and then they just hold on them pointlessly to make them look dumb. And that in and of itself is bullshit.
John: Yeah. Because really the reason why there’s that silence is because you haven’t said the next thing, and you’re creating that space for them to look stupid.
Craig: Right. Like there could be somebody talking on the other side of that, and they’re just listening. But if you take that audio out, then it just looks like they’re dummies that say a line and then suddenly turn off like robots running low on battery.
John: Yeah, it’s not good.
John: This is an obvious cliché, but when something is blowing up behind somebody and they don’t look back or acknowledge it blowing up.
Craig: “Damn, damn, damn!”
John: [laughs] Uh, yeah. It’s been such an acknowledged cliché that to do it now it sort of has to be sort of, you have to do something special with it because we’ve just seen it way too much — the being cool while something is blowing up behind you.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah, that’s ridiculous.
John: That’s ridiculous.
Craig: Old-timey camera flashbulb close-up opening a shot. Often in slow-mo so you can see the scorching filament. And this is, yeah, with that sound that goes, [camera flash sound effect]. Yeah. That should stop.
John: Yeah. And actually that’s a perfect opportunity for us to transition to our third topic today which is about transitions. Because that is an example of a transition.
John: It’s sort of a hacky transition. But, it’s a transition that somebody probably wrote in there. Okay, maybe it was written into the script, or maybe it was a thing that was done on set with the anticipation of like, well, this will be our transition to get us into a new moment. A sudden flash of light that will carry us into a new world.
So, let’s talk about transitions because it’s an important part of screenwriting that we really haven’t touched on so much over our 88 episodes.
Craig: Well, one thing that we should probably say right off the bat is that there are people out there in the screenwriting advice world who spread this nonsense that writers shouldn’t direct on the page. “Don’t tell the director what to do.”
Oh, please! We’re not selling screenplays to directors. Directors aren’t hiring us to write. We’re writing screenplays for people to read so that they can see a movie. And part of our intention when we write screenplays is to show what the movie should look like. The director doesn’t have to do what you say on the page. But, you know what? I find that they tend to appreciate that you’ve written with transitions in mind because it’s really important to them. And, frankly, if you don’t write with transitions in mind, some directors aren’t going to notice and they’re just going to shoot what you wrote and then it won’t connect.
Transitions are a super important part of moving from one scene to the next so you don’t feel like you’re just dragging your feet through a swamp of story, but rather being propelled forward through it.
John: So, let’s clarify some terms. There’s two things we mean when we talk about transitions. And one is literally just the all uppercase on the right hand margin of the page, CUT TO, or TRANSITION TO, or FADE TO, or CROSS-FADE TO. That is the element of transition. That is a physical thing that exists in the syntax of screenwriting.
And we’re only kind of half talking about that. That’s a way of indicating that you are moving to something new. Most modern screenplays don’t use CUT TOs after every scene. That’s a thing that you were sort of originally taught to do. And you can sort of tell first time screenwriters because they will always say CUT TO.
John: In most cases you won’t really use a CUT TO. In personal life, I only use CUT TO if I have to really show that it’s a hard cut from something to another thing, to really show that I’m breaking time and space to go to this next thing.
Usually you won’t do that. Usually what you’ll do is you want a scene to flow into the next scene. And that’s really what I think we should talk about today is how do you get that feeling of we’re in this scene, and now we’re moving into the next scene, and there’s a reason why we left that scene at this moment, or we’re coming into this scene at this moment.
Craig: Yeah. And this is a very kind of nuts and bolts craft thing. There are techniques. I mean, I wrote down a few techniques which I will run through. And you tell me what you think.
Craig: The first and the easiest one is size. A size transition is to go from a very tight shot to a super wide shot, or to go from a very wide shot to a super close shot. Sometimes you can even be in a medium shot where two people are talking, and then the next thing you see is a close-up of a watch, and then we’re into a scene where somebody is checking the time.
So, just using the juxtaposition of size in and of itself helps feel like things are happening and they’re connected.
John: So, let’s talk about what it actually looks like on the page, because you’re not describing every shot in a movie obviously. But, if you were in a dialogue situation where it was two characters talking, and they’d been talking for awhile, the assumption is that you’re going to get into some fairly close coverage there. So, if it’s just about those two people, then if your next shot is described as a giant panorama of something, something, something, that is a big size transition.
Similarly, if you were to cut to the close-up of the watch, or some fine little detailed thing, then we’d say like, okay, that’s a huge size transition. Even if you’re not describing what that shot was on the outside, we have a sense of relative scale there. You don’t have to necessarily draw our attention to it, because we’ll notice that something different has happened.
Craig: It will help your reader see your movie instead of read it. I mean, it’s just real simple things like that.
Another simple one is music or sound. There’s nothing wrong with calling out a piece of music. It doesn’t have to even be a specific song. You may just say, okay, like we’re looking at two cops and they’re in the break room. They’re chitchatting. And then over the sound of hip-hop we are…and now we’re South Central, LA. Rolling down Crenshaw. Just to kind of help the reader understand there’s a connection here.
Similarly, you can use sounds. Two people are talking quietly about what needs to happen, and then the next thing we hear is a siren. And, by the way, you can pre-lap that audio, or you can have it just be a hard cut. But something that jolts us. In a weird way, the funny thing about transitions is they’re almost anti-transitional at times. It’s not about… — Because the point is you want people to understand I’m in a new place at a new time. And if it all just flows together like mush, it’s almost too transitional.
John: Absolutely. There are time where we want that really smooth legato sort of flow from one thing to the next thing. And there are times where you want big, giant, abrupt things, like that cliché flashbulb, to tell us we are at a new place at a new time, and brand new information can be coming your way.
Craig: Exactly. One cool thing you can do, I wouldn’t overdo it, but it’s fun here and there, is what I call misdirect transitions. So, a guy says, “They’ll never see us coming,” and he’s got a gun. And we go to a close-up, bullets going into the gun. Pull back to reveal, interior, it’s another character loading a gun.
Craig: Little tricks, basically.
John: Yeah, and again, that’s a thing where if you did that three times in a movie, you’d be golden. If you did that ten times in a movie, we would want to strangle you.
Craig: Probably. Unless it was just like everything was so clever and it’s kind of like a, I don’t know, like a Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels kind of movie or something.
John: Yeah, I was going to say sort of the Asian action films might do that more often. So, yeah, if that’s your style then it’s going to work, but otherwise it’s going to probably feel too much.
A similar related thing is Archer does these amazing transitions from scene to scene where a character will — they’ll pre-lap the character — they will pull a line of dialogue up above the cut that seems to be about the scene that you’re in, but it’s actually about a completely different moment that’s happening on the other side of the scene.
It’s very clever how they do it. And that’s a way of misdirecting you sort of comedically from what you thought you were talking about to something completely different.
Craig: Right. Exactly. And there is a general kind of, I suppose the most conventional transition is the pre-lapped audio. So, two people say, “Well, that didn’t go very well.” The next shot is a courthouse. And over the courthouse we see, “Everyone please come to order.” It’s the most standard kind of TVish thing. But, it helps you move at least inside and outside in ways that are not so clunky.
Another sort of tricky dialogue method is the question-and-answer transition.
Craig: Or, someone will say, “Someone isn’t telling us the truth.” And the next shot is a woman smiling. [laughs] You know? It’s just little, it doesn’t even have to be a dialogue answer in other words. But just the transition itself is giving us information.
John: That’s very much a TV procedural kind of thing. That’s a thing you would see in Law & Order where the “We need to find a witness who can…” and then the next shot is going to be the witness who can do that.
John: Or like this is the question we need to have answered. So you ask a question on one side of the cut and you come to a possible answer on the other side of the cut.
Craig: Right. Right. “Does anyone know where Luke is?” Cut. A guy on a boat. Drunk. You know?
John: In a very general sense, what you’re trying to do as you end a scene is you’re trying to put the reader’s head, and really the viewer’s head, in a place where they have a certain image in their head. And so when you come to the far side of that cut, that is changed or that is addressed in some meaningful way.
So, thematic cuts are another common way of doing this. A classic is sort of Lawrence of Arabia, the match that transitions to the sunset. That is a fire. There’s fire on both sides of the cut. So, you’re thinking fire, and then you see this giant image of a fiery sun. That is a natural transition.
Sometimes you’ll do that with imagery. Sometimes you’ll do that with a word that matches. Sometimes you’ll do it with a question that needs to be answered on the far side. Those are natural ways to sort of get people across the bridge there.
Craig: Yeah. The ones we’ve gone through here are very rudimentary. And they’re generic because we’re discussing them in generic terms. Find your own and find ones that are meaningful to you and your story. But really do make sure as you’re writing that you’re not just bone-on-bone here. That there is something that helps more us through, little tiny things.
It makes an enormous difference. It really, really does. And, frankly, it puts you in greater control over the movie that will eventually exist.
John: I would agree.
Another thing I would stress is that you probably want to save your powder a bit, and use those big transitional moments for big transitional moments. So, don’t paint a big giant landscape of something if it’s not an important moment that we’re going to, something new. Don’t always give us those big transitions. Some things should be sort of straight simple cuts, where we’re just getting from one thing to the next, so that when we do the bigger thing we as the reader will notice, “Okay, something big and different has changed here.”
When you’re reading through scripts, after awhile, well, the first couple scripts you read, you probably read every word because it’s all a new form to you. But after you’ve read like 30 scripts, you recognize that you stop actually reading the INT/EXT lines basically. They sort of just skip past you. And you can sometimes jump back at them if you’re curious, but you’re really just sort of looking for the flow of things.
And so most times you’re just jumping over that; you don’t really kind of know or care where you are. So, even though we tell people to be very specific in those things and give us those details, a lot of times people aren’t going to read those. They’re just going to read the first line of action that happens after the scene header, if you’re lucky.
So, save those bigger moments for the bigger moments that you really want that reader to stop, and slow down, and pay attention to the fact that we are in a new place, a new time, this is a new section of the movie.
Craig: Well said. Well said.
John: Great. Craig, are you ready for some One Cool Things?
Craig: I have Two Cool Things.
John: I have Six Cool Things.
Craig: I have Twelve Cool Things.
John: It’s going to be an arms race. You go first.
Craig: Okay, well one is fast and one is a little longer, but they’re both sort of linked together by charity and the notion of charity.
The first Cool Thing is that, and I had no idea this was going on, but studios are –
I read this in the LA Times. This was forwarded to me by Todd Amorde at the Writers Guild. Studios are donating their old sets to Habitat for Humanity. And Habitat for Humanity actually, they’re not using the sets to build houses, because sets are not built for people to live in, but what they do is they sell a lot of the stuff that they get to people, and then they collect the money and they use that help build homes for people.
And , in fact, The Hangover Part III sent over a whole big bunch of stuff to them, ten truckloads of stuff, [laughs], to Habitat for Humanity. And there is an interesting — there is a scene that happens in the movie in a cellar basement, and the walls were this kind of cool faux brick, rocky wall kind of stuff. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that looks real.”
John: It’s actually just foam, right? It’s painted foam?
Craig: It’s kind of painted foam. And somebody bought that stuff. [laughs] “Habitat received about 60 sheets of faux brick wall used for a wine cellar set in The Hangover Part III. One customer bought 40 sheets for $25 each to use in a custom-made space.” Now, I may not want to go to that spa, that might be weird, but I think that’s cool. So, well done — Sony, I think, kicked this thing off. But, they’re all doing it now. That’s really, really great.
I never really thought, oh, where did all that stuff go?
The other thing is a repeat of something that we helped promote last year, and that’s Joe Nienalt who is a screenwriter is once again dong the fundraising for the Heart Walk 2013/2014. Last year they raised almost $45,000. And they are looking to do it again.
And they are doing their same campaign. And the way it works — listen up people who say, “No one will read my script. No one is going to read my script!” Well, shut it. Here’s the story:
Daniel Vang is a manager at Benderspink. They are a real, legitimate production management company, unlike some of the people cited in your average Brooks Barnes article. [laughs] Is that his name, Brooks Barnes?
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Brooks Barnes. Eh. I tried to forget his name.
Anyway, they’re real producers. They’re real managers. Daniel Vang is an actual human being who reads things and is involved in this business. If you donate $25, Daniel will read the first ten pages of your script. If you donate $50, he will read the first 50 pages. If it’s great, he’ll keep going.
If you donate $100, he will read your entire script. $100 and a guy at Hollywood will read your script. Not a guru. An actual guy. And here’s the best part: He doesn’t pocket the money! It goes to charity. It goes to the American Heart Association.
So, we’re going to put the link on John’s website, so you can go there and take advantage of this. And stop whining. “No one will read my script!” Save a life. Do something positive for once!
John: Absolutely. The angry man is yelling at you to do something positive.
Craig: Do it! [laughs] Stupid idiot!
John: [laughs] No, it sounds very good. And so last year a lot of people did take advantage of that, obviously. And I think it’s a great opportunity for people to get their scripts read.
Craig: For sure. Do it.
What about you? What’s your One Cool Thing? Couldn’t be cooler than saving lives, but okay.
John: So, for the last 12 years, 13 years, I’ve had an assistant. And so I’ve had a string of assistants who have all gone on to do really, really well. And I got to thinking about them over this time that I was in Chicago because Stuart — poor Stuart who edits this show, god bless Stuart — was here sort of alone, keeping the home fires burning. And working on his own crafts and projects.
But this summer was actually a very eventual summer for many of my former assistant, so I thought I would actually sort of go back through my last six assistants — my only six assistants — and just sort of track their progress.
Craig: This honestly is an amazing thing.
John: [laughs] So, Stuart is my current assistant. And Stuart keeps all the stuff running here. So, god bless Stuart.
My assistant before him was Matt Byrne. Matt Byrne is working on Scandal now. And when he started working on Scandal it was like, oh, that show, is it going to last? Is it going to work? The ratings were dicey. Now the ratings are really, really good. I think it’s the top drama running right now.
Matt was just — so he’s a staff writer on Scandal. And he was just today in a podcast for Scandal. So, I will put a link to the podcast in which Matt talks about his role in Scandal.
John: It’s been fascinating to watch Matt sort of become a big TV writer, which is fantastic.
Chad Creasey and his wife Dara Creasey, Chad was my assistant before Matt, they are writers on Mistresses which is a show that airs on ABC this summer. It’s very exciting for them.
John: Dana Fox, who is a friend of the show, Dana ran the show Ben and Kate. She has written a gazillion movies. But this last week she got named Hollywood Reporter’s Comedy Class of 2013.
John: For all of her rewriting.
Craig: And she is a member of The Fempire.
John: She is a member of The Fempire.
Craig: She is a Femporer.
John: Yes. With Diablo Cody and the other very talented women who write movies and television shows.
John: Rawson Thurber, who was my assistant before Dana…
Craig: The king of them all.
John: The king of them all. Well, he got engaged which is why I’m so personally happy for him, but he also has a movie coming out this summer called We’re the Millers.
Craig: Wait a second — he got engaged just recently?
Craig: No way. I thought…okay. So, I’m so traditional. I was at his house, I met his — now — his fiancé. I thought, oh, I guessed he’s married. Stupid me. Wasn’t even engaged.
John: No. So, we’re very happy that he got engaged. And we’re very happy he has a movie coming out this summer.
Craig: Yeah. Great guy. Great guy.
John: Great guy. And, so back to my very first assistant who predated Rawson by only like two days, but Sean Smith had a baby.
Craig: Hooray! Congratulations Sean.
John: Sean Smith, who is a television writer, who created the TV show Greek, just had a baby. So, yay!
Craig: Nice. So he made life.
John: He made life. Other people made television shows, but he made life.
Craig: Now, you’ve got to be leaving out one assistant who is like, eh, he’s in his mom’s basement.
John: I’ve had essentially really no dud assistants. The only people who I’m sort of leaving out are people who like filled in for a week at a time, but those are not the real assistant people.
Craig: So, Stuart, I assume, sits there thinking, “Soon it will be my time.”
John: Soon it will be Stuart’s time.
John: It was tough while I was in Chicago because I didn’t have — for the first time I didn’t have an assistant. I didn’t have like a full time person who was my person. So, I ended up drafting in some people from the music department. And there was an observer from the Director’s Choreographers Guild who was there, who ended up sort of de facto becoming my assistant because there were things that I needed someone to do. So, Amber Mak, I thank you very much for that.
But, it was weird sort of just being solo for a time, and having to figure out how to get this thing to print. So, I’m very grateful to be back with an assistant.
Craig: Well, that sounds wonderful. I have assistants — I underutilize them. I tend to do everything myself. Sometimes I forget that there is somebody who can do it.
John: Honestly, the last ten years have been a process of gradually recognizing that certain jobs are better performed by somebody who is not me. And so with an assistant, and then with Ryan Nelson who does all the digital stuff for us. I was recognizing that people have skills that they’re better at.
And when directing a movie I’ve had to definitely step back and recognize that I have an idea of how to light a scene, but I should never be anywhere near a light. I shouldn’t really edit. I sort of know how to edit, but I really shouldn’t edit. These are things that people are going to be better at than I am. And it’s not about humbling, it’s empowering when you realize that someone else can do that job.
Craig: When you’re directing, also, your personal life needs to be attended to. I mean, you suddenly are like a baby.
Craig: Somebody has to put food in your mouth for you.
John: Yeah. Someone has to like literally bring food and say, “Eat this food,” because otherwise you will not eat that food.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: It’s a good thing.
So, listeners, if there is anything that we talked about on today’s show that you would like to find a link for, well, you can find links at johnaugust.com/podcast. And so all the previous episodes will be there as well, but on this episode you will see links to things like the Heart Walk. What was the thing called? The Heart Walk?
Craig: Yeah. The Heart Walk.
John: Heart Walk. See things to the podcast that Matt is featured in. You’ll see stuff for this lawsuit.
Craig: And the sketch for between one and two glasses of wine. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Exactly. We’ll have Stuart find that and put that as well.
John: If you like the show, you can subscribe to us in iTunes. That helps other people find us. You can leave us a comment there. I was looking at comments today. People leave really nice comments for us.
Craig: I got to go. I haven’t been back in a long time. I tend to spend my time on the internet just reading the terrible things people say.
Some guy out of nowhere the other day, some guy sends me a tweet. I just love these people. They’re like, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to send a guy a tweet telling him he’s not funny. That’ll be fun.”
John: That’ll be good.
Craig: Why don’t I do that? Let me start a fight.
John: Yeah. That will make everyone’s day better if you say that kind of thing.
Oh, well, okay. All right, fine, I guess I’m not funny. But you didn’t make me any funnier. You didn’t make me less funny. I’m as you found me.
What’s wrong with people?
John: I don’t know what’s wrong with people.
Craig: What is the story?
John: So, Craig, I would like to propose — and we haven’t talked about this — so I’m going to propose it here on the air. I would like to propose for next week, perhaps, that if people have a question that’s not about screenwriting, but about like their personal life, or other advice, they send in that question.
John: Because I feel like we talk a lot about sort of screenwriting here, but we have a lot of listeners who are not screenwriting people. And we have a lot of opinions.
Craig: We do. And we’re so wise!
John: So, next week let’s have an episode that’s just entirely off-topic.
Craig: Oh, yeah.
John: Where we just talk about what should, you know, really anything is fair game. And so obviously we’ll pick which questions we’re going to actually answer.
John: But I’d like a very wide, I’m going to cast a very wide net here.
John: So, anything you would like us to answer, we’ll happily try to answer on the podcast next week.
John: Sex. I’m happy to talk about sex. It can be our first sort of mature-rated thing. I’m happy to talk about sex.
Craig: I think this is a great idea. More than anything, because I’m kind of fascinated to see what you think about some of these things?
John: I’m happy to talk about it.
Craig: I feel like the two of us are so different but we’re so similar. We have different styles.
John: We are really different about a lot of stuff.
Craig: We are. But I feel like we always end up in the same place.
John: I think it’s largely because I create a very open space where I allow you to be over on the edge of crazy.
John: I say like, well, it’s fine that you’re on the precipice of crazy. Here’s the other side of that line.
Craig: I get it. I get it. You’re just humoring me. That’s cool, too. I think it’s going to be a great show.
John: [laughs] I think it should be a good, fun show. So, we’ll encourage people to send in any question you want to ask about anything. You can send those questions to email@example.com. You can also tweet us if it’s something short, but why don’t you just send us a longer thing and we’ll read it on the air?
Craig: “Dude, you’re not funny.”
John: Yeah. That’s always a good thing to say.
Craig: “Be funnier.”
John: “Be funnier.”
Craig: Okay! All right, Twitter. I’ll get on that.
John: That’s going to be good. Last thing, so if you want to see me tomorrow night at The Academy, there should still be tickets left. I don’t know, we’re recording this on a Friday, so who knows. But they tell us that even if it is sold out, they always have a line. And people who are in line almost always get in.
So, if you want to come see us tomorrow at 7:30 — me tomorrow at 7:30 at The Academy — you can come to that. And you can mark your calendars for — god, I’m going to forget the days — June 29th and July 28th for live podcasts.
[Sirens in background.]
Craig: Nice. Look, the sirens are coming. The sirens are coming to tell us it’s over.
John: This is the end of the episode.
Craig: This is it.
John: So, Craig, thanks for a good podcast and I’ll see you next week.
Craig: Thanks John. Bye.
- Turning the Page: Storytelling in the Digital Age at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater
- The Inebriati from That Mitchell and Webb Look
- Paramount & MGM Sued By ‘G.I. Joe’ Writers and the complaint from Deadline
- Twenty Shots to Be Henceforth Retired from Film Vocabulary on Reverse Shot
- The Los Angeles Times on Studios donating film set materials to Habitat for Humanity
- Joe Nienalt and Daniel Vang’s will-read-your-script fundraiser for the American Heart Association
- Listen to Scandal Revealed episode 221 featuring Matt Byrne
- Chad & Dara Creasey are on Mistresses on ABC
- The Hollywood Reporter Comedy Class of 2013’s writeup on Dana Fox (and John Hamburg)
- Rawson Thurber’s We’re the Millers on Wikipedia
- New dad Sean Smith on IMDb
- Email us or Tweet John and Craig your questions on anything
- OUTRO: Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun covered by Busby Marou
Highland 1.0.2 is now available the Mac App Store. This release is mostly just the standard bug fixes and performance enhancements. Nothing wrong with that.
Nima added one sly trick you’re likely to love: shift-return makes the line uppercase. Boom. Try it! Your caps lock key will feel lonely.
We’ve also added support for the Lyric element. It’s not part of the official Fountain spec yet — the syntax might change — but I needed it so here it is. Lyrics work like dialogue, except each line is preceded by a tilde (~), and you can have multiple stacked lines of lyrics — even blank lines if you need them.
Here’s an example. This…
MARIONETTES ~Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka! The amazing chocolatier! ~Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka! Everybody give a cheer! ~He's modest, clever and so smart ~He barely can restrain it...
…comes out as this…
In screenplay format, Lyrics show up in italics. In stage musical format, well…maybe that’s something for a later release.
One last thing: your terrific feedback and five-star ratings mean a lot. Thanks for being awesome and supportive.
On next week’s episode of the podcast, Craig and I will be answering listener questions about everything except screenwriting. So if you’re a fan who wants to hear Craig’s opinions on velcro shoes or to know my first literary crush (Pete Crenshaw from The Three Investigators), this is your week.
With the exception of the anything-goes topic, standard rules apply. We won’t use your real name unless you ask us to, so feel free to be blunt, dirty and embarrassing.
Sample questions we’ve already gotten:
- “What your thoughts are on the attractiveness and sex appeal of women with grey hair?”
- “If I someday have the opportunity to be uploaded into a robot body, should I do it?”
- “What profession other than writing would you like to attempt?”
Basically, Craig and I will answer almost anything, including giving advice on topics we know little about. So send in those questions if you got ‘em.
How you get from one scene to the next can be just as important as the scenes themselves. Craig and John talk techniques and tactics for making those cuts count.
But first there’s the issue of the $23 million lawsuit filed by two of the GI Joe writers, claiming that much of the storyline in the 2013 sequel came from their earlier work. Is this the case John and Craig have long predicted, in which unpaid pre-writing comes back to haunt the studios?
We also look at a bunch of shots we no longer need to see in movies.
Plus Craig and John have actual news, with a date for the long-promised live 100th episode in Los Angeles, and a bonus live podcast in June.
- Turning the Page: Storytelling in the Digital Age at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater
- The Inebriati from That Mitchell and Webb Look
- Paramount & MGM Sued By ‘G.I. Joe’ Writers and the complaint from Deadline
- Twenty Shots to Be Henceforth Retired from Film Vocabulary on Reverse Shot
- The Los Angeles Times on Studios donating film set materials to Habitat for Humanity
- Joe Nienalt and Daniel Vang’s will-read-your-script fundraiser for the American Heart Association
- Listen to Scandal Revealed episode 221 featuring Matt Byrne
- Chad & Dara Creasey are on Mistresses on ABC
- The Hollywood Reporter Comedy Class of 2013’s writeup on Dana Fox (and John Hamburg)
- Rawson Thurber’s We’re the Millers on Wikipedia
- New dad Sean Smith on IMDb
- Email us or Tweet John and Craig your questions on anything
- OUTRO: Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun covered by Busby Marou
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 88 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, we have a very big show today and we’re already getting a late start, so I thought we’d just dive right in. Is that okay?
Craig: Boom. Dive. Go.
John: Boom. Three things I want to do today. I want to talk about this New York Times article that everybody tweeted me this morning, because I think it was just designed to provoke outrage…
John: …umbrage from screenwriters. We will answer some questions that have been stacking up in the mailbox. And we will look at three Three Page Challenge entries from our listeners.
Craig: Great. Oh my god, so much. Let’s go.
John: So much.
The only bit of housekeeping I need to do is that on May 15 of this year I will be hosting a panel for the Academy with some nice screenwriters and other film professionals including Damon Lindelof and Mark Boal. We’re going to be talking about the impact of technology on filmmaking. And it is a $5 panel, so come see us at the Academy Theater if you want to. That is on May 15.
And there will be a link in our show notes for how to come see that panel if you’d like to come see it. So, please come.
Craig: Nifty. Good group.
John: Yay. Let us start with this article that everybody tweeted me this morning. It’s an article by Brooks Barnes in the New York Times and it is about a man…
Craig: Vinny Bruzzese.
John: Vinny Bruzzese, who is, “‘The reigning mad scientist of Hollywood,’ in the words of one studio customer.”
John: Yes. What Mr. Bruzzese does is he provides notes for filmmakers — really studios — on screenplays they are considering going into production. And he’s looking at them from the perspective of here is the data of a whole bunch of other movies and these are concerns about the script based on genre, based on specifics in the actual script and giving them suggestions on how to improve the screenplay based on the data that he has. So, for this knowledge he may charge $20,000 for this consultation which results in, I think, a meeting and also 20 or 30 pages of notes.
The article ran this morning and I think it’s interesting to talk about both from the perspective of what this guy is doing, but also to talk about from the perspective of entertainment journalism, because I think there are concerns I have about both areas.
John: Craig, where should we start? Should we start with the article or start with what this guy is doing?
Craig: I mean, why don’t we start with the article because that will probably go faster and then we can did into Mr. Bruzzese.
John: Great. So, this article is written by Brooks Barnes, and I met Brooks when he first started working for the New York Times and he does a lot of these kinds of articles which is talking about the nature of the film industry.
And I was about halfway through the article when I scrolled back to the top thinking, “I bet Brooks Barnes wrote this,” and I was right.
Here’s what tipped me off that I thought it was a Brooks Barnes article, because he used the word “script doctors” in a way that’s actually not the way you use the word script doctors. He meant script doctors in the way talking about like a script consultant, which is what Vinny Bruzzese is.
But Vinny Bruzzese is not a script doctor. A script doctor is a screenwriter who comes in to fix a problem in a script. So, at times in my career I am a script doctor. That’s not what this guy actually is or what he’s doing.
The other concern I had sort of overall was that no one was on the record. Other than this guy, Vinny Bruzzese, and one screenwriter who was horrified, nobody was actually named by name in the article, which I think was really telling.
Now, at the end of the article Brooks Barnes talks about his theory on why people don’t want to go on the record, they don’t want to offend people. But I think it’s just really telling that nobody wants to actually talk about this by name because it doesn’t seem like a good useful thing that’s going to track well into the future. And nobody wants to be able to be Googled that they contributed to this practice or behavior in the industry.
Craig: Brooks Barnes…you know, I teed off on this guy years ago because he wrote an article — I think it was about residuals and he simply did not understand how they work.
Brooks Barnes tends to approach Hollywood the way that an anthropologist sometimes approaches some local tribe that they’re just encountering, describing it as if they’re alien life forms. This guy needs to just stop writing about Hollywood because he doesn’t really understand it. He doesn’t really get it. And the people he’s talking to, frankly, it’s like, you know, some of these people that he’s quoting, you know…Scott Steindorff? Okay.
I mean, is Scott Steindorff really representative of people that are actually holding Hollywood up with their hands? Not really.
John: I will actually amend my earlier statement, because Mark Gill is also mentioned by name, and Mark Gill is a person whose name you will see in actual trades and is actually making movies. Mark Gills is president of Millennium Films.
Craig: Yeah, but he’s president of Millennium which is just… — I’m sorry, I guess this will disqualify me from working for Millennium. They stink! That’s a bad company.
John: Millennium is a genre filmmaker that does a very specific kind of movie.
Craig: Well, they also do a very specific kind of thing where they treat writers poorly, I have to say, in my opinion. I think they treat writers poorly. We’ve seen this before from there where, you know, there was a whole thing recently where they had been asking writers to write stuff on spec for them in order to get a job, at least that’s how I recall it.
I just think that…I’m going to get sued now by Millennium films. Oh, whatever. What am I going to do? This is my opinion. My opinion is that they stink!
John: Yes. Now, let’s bridge a little bit into the actual work that Mr. Bruzzese is doing. So, basically they are providing this advice and in the article says, “But you can ignore the advice at your peril, according to one production executive. In analyzing the script for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer…Vampire Hunter…”
So, this is the example they’re actual citing. It’s the only movie that I think they’re actually talking about by name. “The company worked on behalf of the film and the production company supplied 20th Century Fox with notes. The movie flopped. Mr. Bruzzese declined to comment.”
So, the one movie you’re going to hold up as like, “Oh, this is the movie we worked on,” was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer? Hunter. God, I keep saying Slayer.
Craig: I know. I like it.
John: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This is the movie that you’re going to hold up as like, “Oh, this is one we did notes for, and they didn’t take all our notes, and that’s why it flopped.” Really? Really? That’s why it flopped?
Craig: Well, now let’s get into this dude. So, can I just say first of all I kind of love some parts of him. So, first of all, I love that he’s Vinny Bruzzese because, you know, I’m from Staten Island and there’s a lot of Vinny Bruzzeses. And he seems like a cool guy actually in that regard.
I love that he drinks Diet Coke and Diet Dr. Pepper and smokes Camels all at the same time. I mean, the guy is cool. And I will also say this much about this guy: I love how totally upfront he is about how he’s trying to make money. And I have to say one of the things that drives me nuts about the cottage industry of these awful so-called script consultants — or people that Brooks Barnes bizarrely calls script doctors incorrectly — is that they’re always couching what they do in some sort of altruistic, artistic form.
And this guy is the opposite. And I love that he’s literally like, “Yeah, you know, basically I got into this to make money. And I really like making money. And I also am providing the service to studio executives so that they can cover their ass in case of a failure.” He literally says that.
John: He does actually say that. I do totally respect that.
Craig: I think that’s so great.
John: And so I will also defend him to some degree in the sense of using data to look at which movies should get made, because there is some value to that. And if you step back, studios have been doing this for a long time because there is actual Data-data that you can look at. You can look at what movies you’ve made. You can look at what movies have grossed. You can look at what dates you release them. You can look at what actors were in those movies and what other actors were in those movies with them.
There is a whole big giant set of data that you could look at that can be invaluable for determining, like, do I green light this movie? Do I not green light this movie? That is valid. And that is especially valid when you’re looking at, like, how will you be able to market this movie?
The challenge is that’s actually objective data. When you’re looking at a screenplay there’s almost nothing objective you can say in there. And one of the examples they cite quite early on in the article which I found just the best, and worst, and most telling was he talks about movies about demons and horror movies.
So, it says, “‘Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned,’ Mr. Bruzzese said in a gravelly voice, by way of example. ‘If it’s a targeting demon, you are likely to have much higher opening-weekend sales than if it’s summoned. So get rid of that Ouija Board scene.’”
What is that? So, you’ve created a distinction between summoned demons and targeting demons, which I’ve never even considered. I don’t think any writer has really ever considered. You’re saying, “Well that’s the difference between why this movie does a certain amount of box office, and this one does a different kind of amount of box office.”
Craig: It’s ridiculous.
John: Yeah. So, with data, when you have enough data you can look for correlations and you don’t necessary need to say that that’s the cause of why this thing was what it was, but if you’re just making arbitrary distinctions you’re just cherry-picking little things in whatever movies were hits and whatever movies were not hits. And you’re using that to defend what really your decisions are. And that’s not actually using data. That’s just manipulating things.
Craig: Yeah. Let’s take the demon example, because it’s so bizarre. First of all, it’s pretty rare for marketing to specify whether someone has been targeted by a demon or has summoned a demon. So, right off the bat people don’t read the script for opening weekend. I’m not sure how anybody would know that for opening weekend.
But, let me give a counter example, and this is where this guy kind of, you know, look, you made your bed, let’s sleep in it. There’s a Ouija Board in The Exorcist. She uses a Ouija Board to talk to Captain Howdy. I’m pretty sure that’s in there. I’ll have to check and make sure, but either way there’s some kind of implication that she has summoned Captain Howdy. It’s just dumb.
Look, the thing about this guy is he’s not the villain here. What he’s really doing is basically hustling and giving notes on stuff. If his theory is that people like some things more than others…duh. Right? Okay?
Craig: If his theory is that, I don’t know, let’s go out on a limb here. I’m going to crunch some quick data here using my statistics program. In romantic comedies, people like it when the couple ends up together. Duh! Okay. We all know. We get it. We got it, okay? That’s called giving notes and that’s what studios always do. They’ve always done that. And we as writers have always tried to write towards an audience, but also sometimes challenge an audience, maybe turn things on their head a little bit.
The villain here are the people hiring this guy! Because it used to be — it used to be — that people in Hollywood who gave notes, while maybe not the smartest people all the time, had the courage of their convictions. That’s why they had a job. What the hell is their job if they’re hiring this guy to do exactly what they’re supposed to do? And the data doesn’t mean a damn thing. We all know that. The data…Fight Club.
Let me back up for a second. One thing that this kind of stuff will never account for are the Black Swans. You’re familiar with the whole Black Swan theory?
John: Absolutely. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I think, is his name.
Craig: I believe that’s correct.
John: And so his theory is that — a gross simplification of his theory — that there are going to be events or things that happen that are so outside of your expectation that you can consider them Black Swans. And those events you can’t fully prepare for but in a weird way you have to be ready for the fact that because you can’t prepare for them you have to prepare for them.
Craig: And also that when Black Swans occur they tend to have very large impacts, because the world is set up in such a way that we expect things. And when the unexpected happens it is either very, very good, or very, very bad.
In Hollywood, I think what we find is that there are a lot of Black Swans that in retrospect we look back as White Swans because so many White Swans follow them.
So, Star Wars is a Black Swan. Nobody thought Star Wars was going to work. Nobody. Fox literally let Lucas put his own money into it and gave him merchandising, because they didn’t — I mean, everybody thought the thing was going to be a disaster. And, frankly, based on the early screenplays and ideas it probably was going to be a disaster.
And, by the way, it may even be a Black Swan within the world of George Lucas. It may have been that Lucas just fluked himself into Star Wars and really Lucas is far more Howard the Duck than he is… — I don’t know. I mean, he did a good job on American Graffiti. But I guess the point is those are the things that make Hollywood Hollywood.
If you want to be in a business that follows various predictable patterns in order to grind out predictable income, what the hell are you doing in Hollywood anyway? The whole point is to chase things that are surprises. Isn’t that the point?
I mean, yeah, of course, you want to make Avengers, go for it, make Avengers. And when that works you can point to how it basically fit everybody’s expected pattern. Except take three steps back and then say, well then why didn’t the Hulk make all that money? And why didn’t the Bryan Singer Superman make all that money? And why didn’t, you know, they’re on their 12th iteration of Iron Man, it’s still working great, but when they hit the fourth Batman back in the ’90s it didn’t work great.
Nobody knows. And you can come up with all this nonsense, but the truth of the matter is what this guy is peddling is nothing special at all except comfort.
John: Yeah. He’s peddling comfort. I mean, he’s doing that retroactive pattern fitting to say, “This is the reason why these were successful, therefore we’re going to take this pattern and template and apply it to these future things. Oh, but never mind the things that don’t fit that template because those were flukes or we’re going to find somebody to explain why they do fit the pattern magically.”
What I will say is especially telling is that nowhere in this whole article does it talk about the quality of the actual product. And in a weird way I’d argue that the quality of the product is largely irrelevant to sort of how well it does. It’s not completely relevant, but it’s not the most important factor in how well it does. So, his notes and his opinion on what movies you make and how you make those movies is about the screenplay and it’s about sort of the actual movie you’re going to make.
But, the movie you made has very little impact on the actual opening weekend. The opening weekend is the biggest predictor of how much a movie is going to make. And nothing that they’re doing here is going to bump that needle for what that opening weekend is.
Craig: It’s right.
John: Your opening weekend is determined on somewhat the movie that you made, somewhat to a large degree the stars you have in it, to a huge degree the weekend that you’re choosing to open, the competition around that weekend.
So, all of these factors have nothing to do with this 20-page report that you pay $20,000 for. And it’s maddening to think that it’s going to all come down to these formulas.
Craig: I totally agree. And I have to say that his whole, that Brooks kind of skews this article and Bruzzese feeds into it, to suggest that the only people — the ONLY people that don’t like this are the writers. We’re the only ones.
I don’t care. Let me tell you something. If I’m working for somebody and they want to give this guy $20,000 to write up a bunch of notes, great. I’ll read them. If they’re good, I’ll do them. I have no problem with that. I mean, the fact that Mr. Bruzzese bills himself as a distant relative of Einstein, notwithstanding, if he writes good notes, terrific.
It’s just that what he’s trying to do is this game that I’ve been watching. He’s formalizing a game that I’ve been watching and experiencing for nearly twenty years now. And that is the game of, “My opinion is not an opinion; my opinion is a fact.” That’s the game people play.
When I’m sitting in a room with people and they’re like, “I think it should be like this.” Really? Because I think it should be like this. “No, no, no, it can’t be like this. It has to be like this because of this, this, and this. It’s a fact.”
No it’s not. Your opinion is not a fact. Nobody’s opinion about any screenplay is a fact. Ever. I can’t take it! That’s got to stop.
And all this guy is doing is dressing up opinion as fact so that these executives who don’t have either the courage of their convictions or convictions at all can present them to the writers as fact. But, look, if you can come up with all the pieces, do it! Go, spend another ten grand, maybe he can actually give you the demon movie that will do the best. But, until you can do that you have to acknowledge that there is an enormous ghost in the machine over which you have no control.
And, frankly, that’s what we do. So, I don’t mind that this guy is doing this. I applaud any hustler. I am so sad that people are lining up to play his three-card monte though. That is…oh god.
John: I wonder how many people are actually lining up to play his three-card monte, though. Because if you look at it, like no one else went on the record. No one else said that they were actually talking to him. So, my concern sort of from the journalistic perspective is it feels like a terrific press release for this guy. And in some ways selling the controversy is a way to sort of get more people talking about him and talking about this idea and this service that he’s providing when there may actually be nothing to it. There may not have even been sizzle before this article ran yesterday.
I don’t know. I mean, there’s a photo of them in a nice-looking office where he’s talking to some young woman who is a development executive there. Great, but I don’t know that there is anything to this at all.
Craig: We don’t even know that that’s his office.
Craig: [laughs] I don’t know where he is. But I just think, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not plugged in enough, but for instance it says, “Major film financiers and advisers like Houlihan Lokey confirm…,” who?
John: Who is Houlihan Lokey?
Craig: Houlihan Lokey doesn’t even sound like a real name. Is that a person or…?
John: It’s an amazing name, though. I love it.
Craig: It is a pretty good name, like Houlihan Lokey. Houlihan Lokey is like the old drunk in the saloon who ends up killing everyone because he’s still really, really good with a six-shooter.
John: Yeah. He’s notorious.
Craig: “Who did this? Houlihan Lokey! Ugh.”
I don’t know how that would be analyzed by Mr. Bruzzese’s spreadsheets, but all I can say is my reaction is not… — In the end he tries to, I love it when people do this, they try and basically pre-but you, you know, so in a rebuttal but a prebuttal he says, “All screenwriters think their babies are beautiful. I’m here to tell it like it is. Some babies are ugly.”
No shit. I mean, like do you really think that we’re all so stupid and narcissistic that we think that all of our scripts are beautiful? No. No!
Go ahead, ask how many screenwriters after their first draft, okay, you have a choice: you can get notes and we can work on this, or we will turn around and shoot this exactly the way it is and put you name on it and we can’t change a word. How many screenwriters are going to go, “Um, uh…”
John: Yeah. You want that chance.
Craig: Yeah, of course. Of course. So, no, we don’t think that all of our babies are beautiful. And, no, we don’t have a problem with notes and we don’t have a problem with anyone’s notes.
Compare this, by the way, to Lindsay Doran’s terrific talk about joy where she says, “Look, movies that end on joy really please audiences.” That’s a very dramatic statement. It is not specific. It doesn’t say, “You cannot summon demons.” You know why, because it is talking about an audience experience. It’s not talking about a story point.
She, unlike Mr. Bruzzese has made movies. She has actually sat and worked with writers. She understands how to talk to us. This guy understands how to talk to executives, who don’t make movies.
John: So, let’s talk about that specific example and Lindsay Doran’s perspective on it, and his perspective on it. He would come to saying like, “Well, the data says that moviegoers don’t like movies with summoned demons, they prefer the other kind of demon.” But he might have ten points of data. That’s not actually meaningful data.
John: So he’s only looking at correlation. Lindsay Doran can come to it with that same note, but she could say, “Here is why I think that’s not going to work, because in this situation it’s going to track through this way, and we as the audience feel this way about the characters at the end because of the nature of what happened with that demon situation.”
That is a meaningful note that you can actually think about and use and implement throughout your script. His saying like, “Don’t summon the demon, don’t use a Ouija Board,” that’s not…
Craig: Because it’s a fact. And by the way, all we’re doing now is just waiting for the movies that contradict those facts because that’s the business we’re in. We’re in the business of surprises and subversions of expectations. It’s constantly changing. There are movies that come out that don’t do any business in the theater at all and then in home video become phenomenon.
Look at Austin Powers. I think made $40 million in theaters and then was just enormous at home. Office Space. Nothing. Enormous at home.
Who knows? I have a movie coming out where we decapitate a giraffe, how does that work out on a spreadsheet?
And I’ve watch this with comedy testing all the time. Inevitably the highest testing joke is also the worst testing joke. But, you know, this is the same old snake oil as always, and shame on anyone who is so bad at their job — it’s your job. And you have to hire somebody else to do it for you? That’s embarrassing.
Craig: Why don’t you just quit at that point. Why don’t the people who employ you just fire you and hire this guy instead? What do we need you for, to write a check to this guy? Oh my god. This guy is fine. I love this guy. Good for him. Way to go, Vinny.
John: Let’s answer some questions.
Craig: You got it.
John: So, Jill writes in to ask, “A friend of mine wrote a pilot for a web series and decided to get some of our smarter writer friends together to punch it up. That’s when I realized I have no idea how to run a punch-up session. Can you give us some tips and tricks?”
So, Jill is talking about an informal punch-up session. Sometimes on a big movie, you and I have both been in these situations where it’s a WGA movie, and so therefore there are kind of rules about how you do it. So, you are bringing in people for a day, you’re paying them for a day, and you’re sitting around a table. We all sign these contracts saying that we know what we’re doing. And eventually we have to sign another form saying we’re not going to try and get credit on it.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. She’s just doing a little web series. So, let’s give some suggestions on the smaller version of what she should do.
Craig: Well, I have done these before. And the basic rule of thumb is if you’re running the session you should try and participate very little. Your job really is to kind of move people through the script. So, you’re sort of saying, “Okay, let’s just start,” usually you’ll say, “Here are some general areas where we’d love to punch up. Here is our kind of thing we’re looking for, some specific questions, but really more than anything, let’s just go through the script page-by-page and pitch out some thoughts as you have them. So, let’s just start. Let’s just start with page one. Anybody have any thoughts on page one?”
So, you can do a little preliminary “let’s just talk about the big issues,” if anybody has any big story issues, if you want. But then just go, page one, and then people start pitching and you’re like, great, great. And just be encouraging and you’ll find that some people are really good at it. Some people are terrible at it.
As the person running the session you have to kind of rescue and be kind to the people who are floundering because you don’t want to be mean. You don’t want the room to turn on somebody because they may have one joke that works, and it may be the best joke ever. So, you just don’t want to kill them. And just keep things going and keep things light. And just keep moving through pages.
You will find, inevitably, that most of what people have to pitch are on the first 30 pages or so. The last 20 pages everybody gets really quiet because they either stopped reading or it’s action and climax and it’s not joke time.
John: Yeah. I would say if you have the opportunity to do a reading of it right beforehand, that’s helpful, so it’s fresh in everyone’s head. Just read through what’s actually on the page so everyone agrees that they read the same thing together, that’s really helpful before you start flipping pages. You won’t always have that chance, but it’s great if you can do that.
I’d say provide plenty of food, a lot of carbs, to keep people going.
John: Pizza is always good. Be genuinely thankful for everyone who is there.
Inevitably in any group situation someone will probably kind of dominate the conversation, and maybe that’s a really good smart person who is actually really funny and that’s great, but if it’s the wrong person then you have to sort of do some judo to sort of get the other people talking a little bit more.
If you can get Nick Kroll to come to your punch-up session, he’s really good.
Craig: Nick’s funny, yeah.
John: So, that’s a good, funny thing, too. But have fun with it. And always ask the questions, like the what-if questions, and try and never shut down an idea because like, “Oh, that’s going to be impossible based on what everything else is.”
John: Don’t shut down now. Just sort of improve rules of like, “Yes, and?” And just keep rolling because even if it is not an idea that is implementable right then, right there, you may find a way the next day, like, “Oh, I know how to do that kind of thing,” or that sparks something that’s really good.
So, take notes for yourself about not even what they’re talking about right there but what it inspires for you.
Craig: Yeah. If you have a producing partner or somebody that’s there with you, don’t worry and think that they’re going to somehow think that you can do something you can’t do, and vice versa. For those of you who produce don’t think that this is the time to jump in and say that’s not possible.
The two of you, knowing the script and the situation better than anybody, will have the exact same reactions afterwards. “Okay, well, we can’t do that, we can’t do that, we can do this, we can do this. What about this? What about this?”
So, just keep it light. Keep it moving. Don’t freak out. And, also, just be aware that when there’s a ton of stuff that people are going to be like, “That is so funny,” and in your mind you’re like, “And will never be in this movie because it’s totally off-tone or it’s going to stop the movie dead.” That’s okay. Just keep that to yourself. That is, 95% of stuff that gets a room laugh in these things — unusable.
Craig: I can think of one guy in particular who is awesome at these things and I never once have gotten anything usable from him. [laughs] But he’s fun to have. And he keeps the room laughing which in and of itself has great value.
Craig: But, you will find some… — And you know, the fact is there will be all these little dramas that occur, usually little soap operas that happen at these things. People get jealous, they get weird, they get quiet, they get too talky. Sometimes they go after each other as part of like the comedy sport. Just, you know, you be mommy or daddy and just gently encourage everybody to stay on target.
John: Yeah. Next question. Matt in Orlando, Florida asks, “When you look at the pilot script for Modern Family you’ll notice the character introductions are done in list form directly under the title page before the actual script begins. It seems like a great way to save space, especially in a sitcom script where you have a lot of characters to introduce and a limited amount of time to do so. Is this common?”
The answer is, yes, it is common. That is a very standard sitcom format. And so I encourage all writers no matter what genres you’d like to work in to take a look at the different formats for how things are done. And in sitcoms, yes, it’s common to do that kind of character introduction, a page of these are the characters who are the regulars and these are characters who are unique to this show. And that’s a standard way of showing stuff in sitcom land.
Even a single camera comedy like Modern Family will often do this.
Craig: I take your word for it.
John: Yeah. But don’t do it in a screenplay.
John: No one ever wants to see that in a screenplay. Don’t ever…don’t do that.
John: So, it’s a sitcom thing. And that’s why it’s important that if you’re writing a spec episode of Modern Family, which is probably not the right one to do because that’s an older show, but if you’re writing a spec episode of whatever great new sitcom, find an episode that’s a common — actually just mimic their formatting exactly because that’s what people want to see, that you know what you’re doing.
Craig: I’m sorry, I just have to interrupt because I just remembered one thing also that makes me angry about Brooks Barnes. [laughs]
Craig: Can I say it? God, so, in the beginning of his article he makes this really weird analogy to what Vinny Bruzzese is doing to what Facebook and Netflix do by analyzing the way people use their websites. They’re so not analogous…
John: [laughs] Not even remotely.
Craig: …in any way, shape, or form. They have nothing to do with each other. It’s just a totally different business, purpose, and point. Brooks needs to stop writing about Hollywood. Okay, sorry. Back to the questions.
I get nuts. I get nuts!
John: I know. I mean, it could have been the whole episode but it came up very late and so I thought we’d…
Craig: I know. We have so much to today. It’s a very busy show.
John: Heather in Dahlonega, Georgia writes, “Can you tell me why so many movies starting big names are going straight to DVD? I recently watched one on Netflix streaming called Fire with Fire starring Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson, Josh Duhamel, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Julian McMahon, and Red Lights with Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, and Robert De Niro.
“In the past a cast like this would garner a theatrical release, or if the movie just wasn’t good enough the actors wouldn’t have signed onto it in the first place. What’s going on with these movies?”
Craig: Ah-ha! Typically when a movie ends up going direct to video like that, and Netflix, however you want to describe direct-to-video these days, it is because the movie just didn’t turn out very well. Actors sign up for movies because they think the movie will be good. Sometimes, though, that just doesn’t happen. You know? Sometimes the movie doesn’t come out well.
And basically if it’s an independent movie — and these are almost always the case — if there is independent financing the idea is “let’s find a distributor.” And nobody wants to distribute it because distribution comes with great costs. There’s typically the cost of marketing, the number one, plus also making the prints, putting it in theaters and so forth.
And if they can’t find enough theaters interested and they can’t justify the marketing budget based on what they perceive to be the interest in the film based on test screenings and so forth, they have no choice. They have to cut their losses while they can.
John: Absolutely. So, back in the day when Variety was a print publication I would get, I always loved once or twice a year AFM would come up, and AFM — American Film Market — and, I guess, maybe it was twice a year. I always got confused about it. But, there would be this thing out in Santa Monica where these foreign distributors and foreign filmmakers would come in and they’d show the packages of movies that they were going to get made.
And so in Variety they would have these mockup one sheets of all these movies. And it was like you’d never heard of these movies. And sometimes they were movies that were going to go into production, sometimes they were movies that were already done. You’re like, “Really? This movie exists in some way?”
And that’s sort of what some of these things are. Like I suspect Fire with Fire was that situation where someone raised the money to make this movie, foreign financing/other financing, they were able to make this movie with the hopes of selling it to a major distributor because it was going to be so good and everyone was going to love it. And often that just didn’t happen.
I’ll also say that, you look at Nicholas Cage as sort of the classic example of this, like who’s in a lot of movies, and you can’t believe he’s in so many movies. Some of those actors, they’re meaningful overseas in ways that they’re not meaningful here. And so even if it doesn’t have a theatrical release in the US, it may have a theatrical release overseas.
John: Or home video may be enough overseas that it is worth it to make the movie with them.
Craig: I think that’s what — I remember the same thing at the same time, flipping through Variety as a twenty-something and going, “What is this AFM and what are these movies?” I remember the one that made me laugh the most was, it was shortly after RoboCop, somebody made a movie called Cyborg Cop. This is obviously just RoboCop. But it was like a flea market of movies, and that’s exactly what was going on.
Basically they were selling them to foreign distributors and then here in the US they would either get no distribution or direct-to-video. So, that’s what’s going on there.
John: That’s fine. And, you could say like, “Well, why would anybody be in these movies?” Well, they got paid to be in the movie. It may be the kind of role that they really wanted to try to do. And sometimes those movies are giant, great, big hits.
And so things like the Jason Statham movies, like The Transporter, that was probably that kind of movie and it actually took off well enough that it sort of established him as a bit of a star. So, sometimes those movies that seem like they come from a major distributor, they really were pickups and they were bought by some distributor here and it always seemed like they were a Columbia movie but they weren’t.
John: Let’s look at some Three Page Challenges. So, while we open these up I will give you sort of the backstory on these. If you are new to the podcast, every couple weeks we invite listeners to send in the first three pages of their screenplay and Craig and I will read it, and take a look at it, and share it on the podcast so people can listen to our critiques but also read the pages themselves and see if they agree with what we said.
If you have a screenplay that you want us to take a look at the first three pages, and only the first three pages, you can send it to us at the website. The link for it is johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out, and we will maybe take a look at it.
Stuart reads through all of them, all the ones who come in with the proper boilerplate language on it. And Craig and I get a small sampling of them. And Stuart sent us three today. Which of the three should we start with?
Craig: You know, I’m just ready to do any of them. And if you want me to summarize one, let me know. You know, I’m back to being your apprentice. Dad’s back.
John: [laughs] Let’s start with Sue Morris’s script. We don’t have a title for this. I can do the summary on this one if you want to do the next one.
John: So, we start, we fade in on the nib of a quill pen, it’s moving in small, neat strokes on the paper. And there’s a super with text over it. We are in England, Christmas, 1126. So, we see a young woman giving birth. She has given birth to a baby girl. Next, we see at the Palace of Westminster we see two, we see Sir Thomas and Sir John, both knights, talking about the fact that she’s just given birth to a daughter and that daughters can still be useful.
Next scene we meet King Henry in his late 50s. He says that, “It has been six years since the death of our beloved son and heir, William, in that great tragedy which took the lives of so many sons and daughters.” He says that the next heir will be his daughter, Matilda, will be his successor.
Actually, no, “My daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, will be my successor, to rule over the lands on both sides of the sea.”
Some raised eyebrows but no one questions it. So, there’s obviously some sort of court intrigue happening there. More discussion, as we wrap up page three, more discussion about sort of what this means, and then we jump forward at the end of page three to a hunting lodge near Normandy and the king has died. And that’s where we’re at at the bottom of page three.
John: Yeah. Craig Mazin, talk to me about these pages.
Craig: I feel like I’ve read this kind of thing many, many times. I’ve seen a lot of spec scripts that are medieval dramas. More than you would imagine, actually. There’s quite a few of them out there.
This scene where the child is born I feel literally like it just gets repeated over, and over, and over. There is always the woman on the straw mattress and there is always the screaming and the blood and there’s always the midwife. I guess that’s how children were born back then. And no one ever wants a daughter; everybody always wants a son.
I got a little confused by the fact that King Henry is the king, but there was a boy who was the Holy Roman Emperor. Maybe I just don’t know the difference between the two, but I thought that once Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Emperor he was the king? I don’t know. I guess it’s two different things.
I didn’t really love the fact that we cut away from this to show the drowning. It just seemed a little strange.
Craig: To have a flashback there on page two of a character we’ve never met. It felt very TV. And maybe this is TV. I don’t know. It feels very TV to me.
And then there’s just like sort of generally generic court murmuring. “So the King’s nephew precedes the King’s bastard.”
“You should know our man by now. Always determined to be the first.” You know, like political intrigue and stuff. It’s all fine, I mean, it’s written fine. I have no problem with the writing. I just feel like hopefully something crazy happens after this because otherwise, you know, been there.
John: Yeah. I was lacking point of view on this. I didn’t see what was going to be special about this versus The Tudors or sort of every other kind of big medieval drama. And, so, let’s start from the very top.
We see this quill pen writing. Okay, that’s a little cliché, but fine; quill pens can write, that’s great. But then there is a super. It’s listed as a super, but I can’t believe anyone would read this much onscreen. Here’s the text of the super: ‘If on the death of a baron or other of my men a surviving daughter is the heir, I will give her [in marriage] with her land following the advice of my barons.’ Clause in the coronation charter of Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy, 1100 AD.
That’s a lot to throw at me to read. And it’s not especially clear writing. That’s a hard, hard sentence to pierce. So, that’s throwing up a bit of a wall to me at the start.
Then we get to the actual birth stuff, and while it’s a kind of cliché scene I thought it was actually nicely written. Those are nice short lines breaking the action down.
Craig: Yes. I agree.
John: Two paragraph little chunks. I get it. I love it.
When we get to the Palace of Westminster we meet Sir Thomas and Sir John. Sir Thomas I’m told is in his early 20s. Sir John I get no information about. And if you’re just going to call them Sir Thomas and Sir John I have no way of really keeping them apart or separate. So, why am I watching these two people and what’s really going on?
I also got confused because, here’s the description of Sir Thomas and sort of what he’s doing:
Bright, cold sunlight. Leather boots crunch on frosted grass as SIR THOMAS (early 20s) strides across to meet the newly arrived MESSENGER dismounting from his horse. They confer briefly, breath condensing in the chill air.
Sir Thomas spins on his heel and strides back, towards a fellow knight, SIR JOHN. Sir Thomas says, “Another daughter.”
What was weird to me is like I think we were supposed to be in a really wide shot so therefore we weren’t hearing what the messenger was saying, but if you’re going to have people confer and we don’t hear it, kind of say that we don’t hear it, because otherwise that dialogue we’re going to assume is somehow between the people who — I just confused where we were at in the scene and whether that messenger was still there.
Craig: Let me also mention: a knight doesn’t walk across the lawn to go talk to a messenger; the messenger walks across the lawn to him. Much more interesting. I mean, these things are all about power, and rank, and privilege, and all the rest of it, so much more interesting to follow some exhausted courier to walk over to a guy and whisper something in his ear.
John: Exactly. So, if you’re going to have a similar situation, if you keep Sir Thomas on his horse or whatever, the messenger comes over with him, and then they pull back to reveal that Sir John is watching this from a distance and not able to hear what’s going on. That may be more interesting. That, again, suggests some cinematography here that’s happening.
With King Henry on page two, “King Henry may not be the largest man there, but by God he owns this place, and the assembled BARONS, the great Anglo-Norman nobles, all feel it.” Wow. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of clauses to throw at me.
John: And so, “He’s not the largest man there,” but he is the King. It was just a weird sentence to me. It didn’t help me understand the power dynamic of that moment as much as it probably could.
Craig: And it is, I mean, “But by God, he owns this place, and the assembled BARONS,” so he owns them too. “The great Anglo-Norman nobles all feel it.” Oh, I see what’s she’s saying. You know, that’s that kind of tortured writing, the tortured sentence structure.
Also, his first line, I don’t, “My lords, it is time.” Eh.
John: Eh. Yeah. It’s cliché.
So, here’s a problem with those clauses there. “But by God he owns this place, and the assembled BARONS, the great Anglo-Norman nobles all feel lit.” The “and the assembled barons,” does he own the barons? He owns this place and the barons? What? Huh?
So, it could read either way. It’s actually sort of interesting both ways. It’s actually probably more interesting if he believes he owns the barons.
John: And then I agree with you, there’s a flashback on page two which is like, oh my god, I don’t know who anybody is and we’re already getting a flashback to somebody who dies and therefore is not going to be part of our show. So, that’s…
Craig: We just don’t care.
John: These are all issues. And then we jump again at the end of page three and at that point we may be ready to actually start the story and so that jump may feel great if we hadn’t jumped around in time on page two.
Craig: And if the idea here is that these two guys, Stephen, late 20s, the golden boy of Henry’s court, and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, a decade older than Stephen, are going to be competing with each other for the favor of this newly minted widowed queen, I’m suspecting as much.
Then, that’s the perspective we want to play here. That’s what we want to do. And it certainly can’t be manifested by a weird shoulder scuffle fight. “A few moments of shoulder-barging and scuffling between the two men. They glare at each other.” That just seems comedic. And I don’t think that this is supposed to be comedic. I mean, that’s just funny to me in a bad way.
John: Yeah. I would say I hadn’t guessed that Stephen and Robert would be the focus of things. If they are the focus of things I want to see them on page one or page two, rather than page three. And, honestly, we could get them there just by cutting out some stuff that I didn’t think we needed in page one or page two.
Craig: Agreed. Not bad, Sue. Not bad.
John: Not bad at all. And, you know, everything on there was nicely written. I didn’t have any sort of issues with sort of how you were describing things on the page. It felt professional. It just felt like something I had seen before too much.
John: Next let’s do Robin Peters. The Gaffer. Do you want to do the summary here?
Craig: Sure. Okay, so we begin at a fancy restaurant, and we’re in England, where Simon page, in his 20s, is proposing to his girlfriend, Trudy, and he’s given her a small diamond ring. And she doesn’t feel that it’s big enough and basically says I can’t, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with a market trader.” So, she’s unhappy with his status in life.
Next, we’re in Simon’s office, sort of, and someone is congratulating him and they don’t even know his name.
Now we’re in a park and she’s very happy because I guess she’s heard that he’s gotten a promotion but he tells her the catch is it’s in Texas. So, he’s been promoted but he has to go to Texas. And she basically says, “I’m leaving you because that’s not good enough.” She hands him his ring back. He begs for her to come back. She does not. And he chucks the ring away, hitting a duck.
John: So, my first concern here is specificity. And that’s a word we use too much on the podcast, but I think it’s actually really important for here.
We start, “EXT. NORTHERN ENGLISH CITY — NIGHT.” Uh, just tell us the city.
Craig: Right. Manchester takes fewer letters than Northern English City.
John: “Lights flicker against the night sky.” Yeah, but maybe you could think of something more specific. Maybe you could just paint our world a little bit more specifically because I have a hard time clicking in because I just don’t feel like you know what these things are. And I lack confidence because you don’t seem confident in your choices here so far.
We’re “INT. FANCY RESTAURANT.” Okay. I mean, if you don’t want to give the name of the restaurant, that’s great, but just paint our world a little bit in that first line here.
Simon and Trudy, okay, proposals are an interesting thing, or diamond rings are a thing we’ve seen a lot at the start of things, but it’s a natural way to start something, but that scene never really quite clicked. I wasn’t sure at the end of that first scene how I was supposed to feel about things.
Then we jump to the next “OPEN PLAN OFFICE,” again, really generic, before we start this next thing. Every place we go to is just the most basic description of what it could possibly be. And I just don’t feel — I never click in because I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for.
Craig: Yeah. Well, this is a comedy. And I don’t know if Robin is English or not, but it certainly reads English. The problem is that it’s not very funny. And it’s not very funny, I think, in part because the characters are so broadly and thinly drawn.
You’re absolutely right about all the specificity. And there’s also a kind of TV-ish quality to it, for instance, starting with the first line of dialogue on an establishing shot that’s rather boring, and then coming inside and moving through diners. You might as well have a waiter carrying a tray through. It’s all very kind of cliché and generic.
Bu the biggest issue is, if I can summarize, Simon is basically a schmo and Trudy is a gold-digger, mean lady. I don’t know why these two are together at all. I don’t believe, frankly, that they are together. I don’t believe that anybody talks like Simon. When she finally breaks up with him, because she doesn’t want to go to Texas, he keeps begging after her and I hate him for it. And she’s acting in a way that’s just sort of broadly sociopathic in a mean girl way which I kind of just don’t believe.
I’ll give Robin credit for getting the plot out on page two. Englishman is going to be a fish out of water in Texas, I presume. That’s fine, but I don’t know anything about his job. I don’t really know why market trader is better or worse than “junior” — “They could use a junior in Texas.” I’m not sure what that means.
His office was very odd. Talk about generic: INT. OPEN PLAN OFFICE — DAY. Simon exits a room into a gleaming corporate open plan office, reeking of wealth. A SUIT comes up to him.
Well, let’s count the genericisms here: Open plan office. Room. Reeking of Wealth — gold? A suit. I don’t understand what’s happening. Frankly, this would be a much more interesting scene if it were one scene and it started with a guy proposing to a woman and she was super happy because he was giving her everything she wanted and he’s telling her that he knows that she was waiting for this promotion because she knows, I mean, explain it in terms that women — so women watching this don’t feel like you hate women. She really wanted to make sure that she was supported and secure in her life because of how she grew up, whatever it is. And he says, “But the only thing is we’re…” And as part of the surprise, because he knows this is the big pitch. It’s not the ring is the big pitch. The big pitch is, “Texas.”
And off of her face the next shot you see is him at the airport alone. And, you know, the airport lady is like, “And you are traveling alone?” “Yup.”
Just there’s so much… — Be more interesting about this. This is just not interesting to me.
John: Well, also what you described in that take of a scene is you were giving a moment where he could actually be funny.
John: Because none of these scenes that he’s actually funny now does he have the capability of really being funny, because he’s just reacting to other people.
John: And so in either his trying to sell this idea to her, what’s his motivation? What is he attempting to do? And you need to give him something to attempt to do. So, either he’s attempting to get her on board with this idea of moving to Texas, or, alternately, we can see that whatever that room he came out of, well what happened in that room? Was he like making a pitch for himself and trying to stand up for himself about why he should get a promotion, and then he gets Texas out of it, which is not what he wanted, but it’s something new — that’s a moment where you can see him actually driving something.
I would also back up one step, because when I talk about sort of Northern English City, you know, working on a musical for the last 10 weeks I’m very keenly aware of you kind of need the “This is our world” song before you get to the “I want” song. And I didn’t get either of those so far.
And it’s fine, if the first three pages were really just like a “This is our world” song, that’s great. And you can setup this is the nature of the universe that we’re in. That can be wonderful.
And then by letting us see that guy in his world, then we can see the decision of what is it he wants. What is it he’s trying to do? And I wasn’t — none of those gears were sort of clicking in on these first three pages for me.
Craig: Yeah. Agreed. If it is, in fact, going to turn into a fish out of water comedy, we do need to see the fish in water. And we need to know what that means. And it can’t just be simply one shot of him at a park, which we describe as “Park,” kicking a stone around like a football, and then mentioning a local fast food joint. It’s just not enough.
Yeah. I think that this needs a little bit more remedial work and study to make… — And you’ve got to be careful about these jokes like, she says, “I don’t mean to be heartless, but I can’t spend the rest of my life with a market trader, can I?”
“Yeah, of course. Sorry, which bit of that wasn’t heartless?”
Well, okay, if you know it’s heartless, why are you still there? She’s heartless. What is going on here? And the issue with this, yes, we know people in real life who are pathetic doormats, but we don’t root for them in movies. We need to see some spark of something with this guy.
Craig: That’s why so typically people will find if the movie starts with a breakup they find their mate in bed with someone else because we understand that they were deceived. But this guy — she is such an open book, I really hate this guy for not getting it.
Craig: All right.
John: All right, our final Three Page Challenge of the day comes from Kevin Pinkerton.
John: It’s called The Morning Briefing. And I will attempt to give a summary here.
So, we start on the Pentagon Basement Corridor.
Craig: Wait, did you say Pentag-AN.
Craig: Pentagon. You said Pentigan.
John: I did say Pentagan. That doesn’t make any sense at all. I rhymed it with Alyson Hannigan and Bennigan’s.
Craig: [laughs] Bennigan’s. Exactly. Or it’s like Houlihan O’Reilly, or that guy, one of the biggest financiers in Hollywood? What was his name? Houlihan Lokey or something?
John: Yeah, something like that.
Craig: That’s great. Pentagan!
John: So, we’re at the Pentagon Basement Corridor, and the president is walking next to a Special Forces Sergeant. They’re appearing and disappearing into pools of light. The president wipes his forehead with a red, white, and blue handkerchief.
They come to an unmarked door. The president says, “Let’s get this over with.”
Inside is a chamber. It’s sort of dark and ominous inside. And, in fact, on a low circular dais is a creature, a giant creature — looks like it’s made of rotted meat in over-muscled humanoid form. There are also children on bleachers who are chained there watching, and terrified.
The president expects this creature to be there, and the president says, “Begin.” The creature gives the president advice about what’s happening in the future. And so tells him to, “Deploy the ships to Bosporus. Acquiescence is certain.”
The president asks about press reaction. So, basically this monstrous creature is an advisor who has some ability to see into the future. And so at the end the president thanks him to some degree, but also says, the creature is hungry, and the president agrees, okay, well, you can eat the children. And then the president leaves and we hear in the background the sounds of the children being eaten by this monstrous creature.
Craig: I love this.
John: I loved it, too.
Craig: I loved it.
John: And let’s talk about reasons why we love this.
Craig: Yeah, well, I mean, first of all, just from a craft point of view, it’s really well written. At first I was nervous because on the first page it seems like, oh no, this is just a bad version of a Roland Emmerich movie, because they’re doing that thing where they walk down the hall, “lit overhead by a row of dim bulbs.” And I’m like, dim bulbs?
He’s got a red, white, and blue handkerchief which feels like…
John: Yeah. I flagged that, too. I was like, oh, no, no, no, that’s cheesy, but then I was like, no, it’s deliberately cheesy.
Craig: Deliberate, exactly. It’s deliberate, which is great, because it’s a choice, and it’s a smart choice given what we’re about to see. And then we go into this room, and again, I’ve seen this room in the basement of the White House before, so everything just feels like, oh god, I’ve seen it…and then there’s like an alien there. Oh no, but then there’s these kids. And I’m like, well, what the hell is that about?
A dozen children, and I love how unapologetic Kevin is here — he doesn’t pull a punch at all. “a DOZEN CHILDREN, ages five to seven,” [laughs], the cutest age, “wide-eyed and weeping in horror at the thing before them, as they sit gagged and chained to their seats.” Brilliant. I love how audacious this guy is.
And then the president snaps his finger at the creature and one word, “Begin.” So, you know, here’s just so you guys playing at home, the home game, what I love about this line, it’s the first line of dialogue, or rather the second line, and it is, “Begin.” And what that line tells us is this has happened before. In fact, this is so frequent that the president is actually annoyed. It’s like, “I don’t have time, let’s go, begin.”
That is such a great tonal shift, because we’ve been set up to believe that this is like so horrifying, like the way in Independence Day they visit that alien that they’ve captured and it’s like so super serious. This guy is like, “Begin, let’s go.”
And the creature delivers these predictions. And the funny thing about the predictions, even though it’s not done funny funny, is that they’re so mundane. “Press reaction?”
“Acceptable.” [laughs] It made me laugh. “On the crux of the Senate standoff, the weak vote…” The creature is like a Beltway insider at this point, which is so great. He even gives a weather prediction.
John: Yeah, so the creature says, “Thunderstorms in the D.C. Metro area. Hail.”
John: “But I’ve scheduled a speech.”
“I have seen the storm. It is already cut on the lathe of time. What more? Enough.”
Craig: On the lathe of time! I know. The creature is like, “Get out, I’ve given you…stop questioning me.” And the president is trying to figure out exactly, like his concern isn’t about the world, or any of that stuff, his issue is he’s got a speech and it’s supposed to hail. [laughs] It’s like, “Are you telling me? I just want to be clear.” And then he’s like, “Back to the Russians.”
“I just want to be clue, the carriers, the Russians won’t be –”
And the president is like, “Eh.”
John: So, let’s talk, I do have a little bit of some criticisms here. On page one, “THE PRESIDENT walks beside a SPECIAL FORCES SERGEANT.” Well, how are we going to know he’s the president? We’re not necessarily going to know he’s the president. So, you’re telling us he’s the president. I’m not sure we’re going to necessarily get that originally. And it’s very important that we know that he’s the president.
So, you may want to throw in a, “Mr. President,” like he comes out of the elevator, “Mr. President,” just let us know. Because it’s much funnier if we know from the first frame that he’s the president.
John: The overall more general concern: this was a tremendous little sketch, a little moment. There’s nothing there that leads me to believe that this is a good sustainable idea over the course of a full-length movie, but I kind of don’t care, because I’ve enjoyed reading these three pages so much that I want to read the next pages.
And that’s, there’s a lot to be said for that. Kevin had a perspective, and a voice, and it was enjoyable to read. And these are — it felt confident. And, god, just give me some confidence…
John: …and I will just keep reading.
Craig: Such a great point. I mean, he is totally in control of this. And he is unapologetic, and specific, and frankly, there’s just a lot of craft. I really like the way the dialogue flows. There’s a great rhythm to it. And we cannot teach that to anybody. There’s just a really smart rhythm to it. I can tell you that Kevin is a funny guy. He’s a very funny writer. I thought it was really good.
And I think, if I were to predict what this kind of movie is, it feels a little bit like those early — you ever see the early Peter Jackson.
John: Oh yeah, early Peter Jackson.
Craig: Just like over-the-top comedy/horror/grotesque/funny, obviously satirical. I think it’s really cool. And I think Kevin did a great job.
John: I think so, too. It reminds me of sort of mid-era Whedon or sort of like the Buffy and Angel sort of at their peak. This would be like the cold teaser opening to something and you’d meet, like the new villain of the season would be the president and he would have this monster. And that would be the villain for the season, or half the season.
It felt great and solid that way.
Craig: Yeah, very cool.
John: Nicely done, Kevin. And nicely done, Stuart, for picking that sample for us.
John: It’s so nice to leave on a high note.
Craig: On a high note. Left on a high note. Well, well done Kevin Pinkerton.
John: I have a Cool Thing this week. My Cool Thing is actually, this is going to sound really self-indulgent, but it’s a book that I’m featured in. It’s a book called The FilmCraft Book of Screenwriting. And, as we’ve talked about on the show, I don’t like most books on screenwriting. And what’s nice about this book is it’s just a bunch of interviews with a bunch of screenwriters. And so there’s me, there’s Billy Ray, there’s Whit Stillman, there’s Mark Baumbach, Guillermo Arriaga.
It’s a really nicely put together, really pretty, pretty book that this British publisher put together. It’s $20 and it’s actually kind of great. And so I have an interview in there where I’m talking about sort of different movies I’ve worked on and sort of process, but everyone else is really fascinating and great, too.
And so if you’re looking for a book on screenwriting, or want to give a gift of a book on screenwriting, I think it’s actually a really well put together book. So, edited and written together by Tim Grierson. And there will be a link to that in the show notes.
John: Oh, I also have to say, it also has the most misleading cover in the history of any book you’ve ever seen. So, the cover is Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in Bed from Benjamin Button. And it’s this incredibly sexy shot. And it says Screenwriting over the top of it. [laughs] It’s like there is nothing sexy at all about screenwriting.
And so this was waiting for me when I got back from Chicago. I opened the envelope and I’m like, what the hell is this? And I had no idea that I was featured in it. Then I found it inside and it was good.
Craig: Nice. I’m cool-less this week. But it’s such a big podcast.
John: It was a big podcast.
Craig: Maybe my Cool Thing this week is Vinny Bruzzese.
John: It’s a great name.
Craig: Vinny. I love…Vinny is like, “You know what? I’m busy. I’m smoking. I love Diet Dr. Pepper, but sometimes I also like Diet Coke.”
John: Yeah. Mix them together it’s good.
Craig: Boom. “Open, hey, genie, I want both. Give me both. Open them both! And Camels.”
I don’t know why I imagine Vinny yelling at genie.
John: Because he probably does.
Craig: He might.
John: He might.
Craig: But he may be a very soft-spoken guy. The point is, I love him. I love this guy.
John: I love him, too.
Craig: He’s cool.
John: All right. Craig, thank you for another fun podcast. If you have questions about anything we’ve talked about, including how to submit Three Page Challenge samples, or this book I just hyped, or any of the Three Page entries that we talked about today, you can find them all at johnaugust.com/podcast.
This was Episode 88, but there’s 87 episodes before this if you want to go back through and look at them.
If you are not subscribing to us in iTunes you probably should, because that way we know that you’re subscribing in iTunes and other people can find us. So, look us up on iTunes at Scriptnotes.
And we will be back next week. And next week I think we’re going to have exciting news about our 100th episode live show.
Craig: Very excited.
John: Which could be very exciting, because we got a great email today. So, I think that could work out nicely.
Craig: It could. Could!
John: Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. And welcome home.
John: Thank you.
- Turning the Page: Storytelling in the Digital Age at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater
- Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data by Brooks Barnes
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black swan theory on Wikipedia
- Screenwriting.io on multicamera script format
- Three Pages by Sue Morris
- Three Pages by Robin Peters
- Three Pages by Kevin Pinkerton
- FilmCraft Screenwriting by Tim Grierson on Amazon
- OUTRO: Thompson Twins’ Doctor Doctor covered by Danny McEvoy
Craig and I are considering dates and venues for Scriptnotes Live in Los Angeles this summer. Basically, we’d be doing the show in front of a live audience, with guests and questions from the crowd. Maybe even some alcohol if it’s a nighttime thing.
Possibilities include the end of June and the end of July. This isn’t either/or. We might do both. We just need to get a rough headcount to see what makes sense.
In both cases, assume the events would be somewhere in Hollywood/Beverly Hills and either free or less than $10.Scriptnotes Live June If we did an event SATURDAY, JUNE 29TH in the morning, would you come?
- Yes, definitely.
- Yes, probably.
- Probably not.
- Definitely no.
This second one would be our official 100th episode edition, if that makes a difference:Scriptnotes Live July If we did an event SUNDAY, JULY 28th in the evening, would you come?
- Yes, definitely.
- Yes, probably.
- Probably not.
- Definitely no.
Thanks for helping us get a headcount. We’ll have details about our plans in the next episode or two.
I’m hosting a panel for the Academy next Wednesday, May 15th, to discuss how technology impacts cinema — both the kinds of stories we tell, and how we tell those stories.
We often think of technology in terms of cinematography and visual effects, but I wanted to look at its impact on writers and editors.
With that goal, we’ve assembled a great group:
- Writer Mark Boal (Academy Award nominee for “Zero Dark Thirty”)
- Editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey (“Star Trek Into Darkness”)
- Editor William Goldenberg (Academy Award winner for “Argo,” nominee for “Zero Dark Thirty”)
- Writer Damon Lindelof (“Star Trek Into Darkness”)
- Editor Dylan Tichenor (Academy Award nominee for “Zero Dark Thirty”)
We’ll have clips and quips and anecdotes, along with a conversation about what’s coming next. No word yet on whether any of it will be available online down the road, so try to come if you can.
Tickets are on sale now. Just $5. And only $3 for students and Academy members.
Has a statistician cracked the code on successful screenplay formulas? John and Craig cast a skeptical eye at a New York Times article on Vinny Bruzzese, who claims to have done exactly that.
But is the real story Bruzzese’s numbers game, or a general misunderstanding of how the film industry actually operates?
From there, we answer several reader questions before diving in on a new batch of Three Page Challenges.
- Turning the Page: Storytelling in the Digital Age at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater
- Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data by Brooks Barnes
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black swan theory on Wikipedia
- Screenwriting.io on multicamera script format
- Three Pages by Sue Morris
- Three Pages by Robin Peters
- Three Pages by Kevin Pinkerton
- FilmCraft Screenwriting by Tim Grierson on Amazon
- OUTRO: Thompson Twins’ Doctor Doctor covered by Danny McEvoy
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: I’m Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, Episode 87, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig: Hmm, interesting.
John: I put it in there this time.
So, Craig, this is my last episode broadcasting from Chicago. I am flying home on Friday night. I just cannot tell you how excited I am to be back home in my own bed. I have not really been back in Los Angeles since February, so it’s been a very long time.
Craig: These stretches are difficult. And I know feeling all too well. There is just something about your own bed, your own house. In fact, I play this little game with myself where I think to myself even though it’s in the future, I’m going to be walking to my front door, and when I walk to my front door I want to remember what it was like when I thought it was in the future. [laughs] It’s a very strange thing I do. But, somehow it’s comforting and it gets me to the point in time I want to be.
John: So, it’s been a remarkable time and stretch here in Chicago. And we’ll talk about a bunch of things today, so let me talk about the topics on our agenda:
I want to talk about moving on, which is both how you move on from a project that you’ve been writing for a long time and recognize that, well, maybe you should just not keep rewriting that project.
In a more general sense, how do you recognize that maybe screenwriting is not a career that you should be focusing on.
I want to talk about reviews, because I remember like when you had Stolen Identity, that movie that you wrote, you got all those reviews and you had a bad reaction to the reviews from that. And I had an interesting situation with the reviews here for Big Fish.
John: And, finally, we should talk about the Zach Braff Kickstarter thing because that’s a thing that happened this week.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not going to veto any of that.
John: Great. So, let’s go in reverse order. Let’s talk about the Zach Braff Kickstarter thing.
John: We had an episode a few weeks ago where we talked about Kickstarter in a general sense, and Veronica Mars in particular, and you were not high on the idea of Kickstarter-funding projects, like making movies based on funds raised on Kickstarter. Is that a fair assessment?
Craig: It was. It wasn’t so much an issue with the Veronica Mars people. I think in the end I probably had a larger issue with just the concept of Kickstarter and what it does. But, the specific circumstance of Veronica Mars made it hard to criticize them. They had somebody who owned their copyright saying, “Unless you come up with a whole bunch of money that you don’t personally have, we’re not going to let you make this.” So, okay, I got that.
John: This week Zach Braff announced that he had the ambition to make a follow up to Garden State and that he was using Kickstarter to raise the money, or some of the money, to make that movie possible. And it was funded — as we’re recording this it got up to about $2 million, and maybe higher than that right now. And it looks like there’s going to be enough money to make the movie.
There was a lot of criticism and blow back about Zach Braff doing this and sort of he’s here, you have like a rich actor, or perceived to be a rich actor coming off the TV show Scrubs, and sort of why should we be paying for him to make a movie.
Craig: Well, there was a bunch of criticism. One was, yeah, okay, here’s a guy who at one point was reported to be making a third of a million dollars per episode of television and he’s asking for $2 million from people without granting them, of course, any kind of stake in the profit. That seems a little odd.
The other criticism was that he wasn’t saying, “I can’t get this money elsewhere.” What he was saying was, “I could get this money elsewhere, but then I wouldn’t necessarily get my way.” And that’s a very different situation than the Veronica Mars thing. He can make this movie without Kickstarter. He just doesn’t want to.
So, there was some, certainly some push back there as well.
John: Now, I’ve met Zach Braff on a couple occasions, always like social things, so not on any particular projects, and he was actually always lovely. So, I don’t have anything against Zach Braff in general. I would say that some of the criticism I read about his scenario was that he didn’t come off well in how he was presenting himself and the project.
And I think it would be a good primer for anybody who’s considering using Kickstarter to raise money to be really careful about your messaging because I feel like that push back against him, in a way that was not favorable.
Craig: Well, he still got his money, so in that end, you know, from just a pure ends orientation he won. I think that, I don’t know. Look, I’m friendly with Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher, the producers on this. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. And I told Michael as much, you know.
Nothing against Zach Braff. I don’t understand this. He wants final cut on a movie, you know, I don’t know. Earn it? Or, you know, plenty of people go out there and get financing for small movies like this and do get final cut because it’s a small movie and they’re not getting paid that much.
Or, put your own money to it. You know, someone sent me a link just today. A year ago there was a big article in, I think the New York Times, about Zach Braff’s awesome loft in Manhattan and how he had just redecorated it. [laughs] I’m just reading this going, “Ugh, man, why do you need $2 million from people out there?” I don’t understand it.
At one point he referenced a guy who, you know, he said most people don’t know that Garden State happened because one guy funded most of it. Well, where’s that guy? Garden State made a good amount of money based as far as I can tell. It should have had a good return on investment. Where is that guy? I don’t understand this. I just don’t get it.
And here’s the thing: In the end, I can say, well, I find it tacky on some level, but I can’t blame Zach Braff because it worked. I can’t blame, again, you know, when we talked about Kickstarter last time, my whole point was every business if they could just get capital for which they had to offer no equity would do it and should do it. So, let’s just call it the Sucker Born Every Minute theory.
Who are these people giving him…I don’t understand it. There are so many other things to give money to in this world. Why this? I don’t get it.
John: Well, I think as we talked about in Veronica Mars, one of the reasons they want to do it is because they want a thing to exist. And Garden State, I liked that movie. And I think a lot of people liked that movie and they would love to see a follow up to that movie. If this is a way to make that happen and sort of bend the universe in that direction, that’s fantastic.
From the Zach Braff or the existence of the movie’s perspective, yes, I think he could have gotten the money someplace else because, yeah, you kind of want to make a sequel to Garden State. I can see the logic behind doing the Kickstarter model, though, because it generates publicity and interest in a movie that does not even exist yet. And it will be the movie that raises money on Kickstarter, so people will already know about it a year before it comes out. And that can be useful.
And I think that some of what people use Kickstarter for isn’t even so much to raise money as to raise awareness that something exists. And that’s potentially useful. It has a publicity scope.
Craig: It’s even worse now to me. I get your “let’s just cause it to be created” argument. And in the case of Veronica Mars, that’s true. It literally was the only way that it was going to happen because barring those people… — And I don’t believe that, for instance, it’s as easy for Kristen Bell who starred on a show that didn’t make it into like big syndication dollars and all the rest of it to just say, “Okay, we’ll here’s the $4 million we need to make this show, or this movie rather.”
But this could exist — he said as much. He said, “Yeah, I could make this movie. I wouldn’t be able to cast this guy.” And then he pulls the guy in from Big Bang Theory who I’m pretty sure he could cast. It’s a $2 million movie. Or, it’s a $3 million, whatever it is, why not? That guy is on the biggest sitcom in America.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just out to lunch here. But then your point is like, well, so now these people are not giving money to something for which they receive no profit in success, they’re also funding the publicity campaign for the thing for which they receive no profit in success. And I just don’t get it at all. And if people are asking me to apportion some kind of blame here, I’m going to say 98% of the blame goes to people giving money to this on Kickstarter. [laughs] I just don’t get.
I don’t get it at all. And, you know what? There are people out there who really don’t have access to what Zach Braff has access to who really need Kickstarter. They’re not just going to Kickstarter because they don’t want some — because they want final cut. They don’t have anything or any way of knowing anything, or any way of anyone giving them anything except Kickstarter. But, $2 million goes to this.
I don’t get it.
John: I wouldn’t apportion any blame to anybody. I think I share a general frustration about this situation in the sense of you have a person who you know to be wealthy who you know, however much money he has, you know that he has the ability to make this movie in some other way and has chosen to go this route to do it for reasons that you’re not entirely sure you agree with. And you don’t want all movies to happen… — I worry about a scenario in which all small movies feel like they have to go through Kickstarter. If they didn’t they’re not real.
That’s the only concern I have is that, you know, working with a lot of the Sundance movies, like they’re always scraping to get funds. But if the expectation is that not only do you have to sort of impress investor people but you have to do this Kickstarter thing, it just becomes this weird beast of figuring out your t-shirt campaign before you’re figuring out your movie.
Craig: Well, it doesn’t appear to be working for Melissa Joan Hart who tried the same thing. And, ironically, her movie is called Walk of Shame, which is the expression they use for Kickstarters that don’t reach their goals. It was made mostly that it was on purpose.
I just wonder if we haven’t seen the last of these. In other words, the Veronica Mars thing was met with just pure exhilaration. This one, not so much. Frankly, it took a bit. I mean, Veronica Mars had made more than this thing did in like 24 hours practically. This one kind of like dribbed and drabbed its way to $2 million.
I mean, granted, it took, whatever, four days. I mean, that’s fast. Don’t get me wrong. But there’s been a lot of criticism. And, you know the internet, John. You know it the way I know it. It just feels like, I wonder if the worm has turned here and the next person who tries this isn’t going to just get absolutely slammed in the face.
John: We’ll see.
All right, next topic. Let’s talk about reviews, because last week we talking about getting notes. And getting notes and getting reviews are kind of related topics, but also very different topics.
Usually when we’re talking with screenwriters, reviews come a long time after you’ve finished your work. So, you have written a script. Like, Frankenweenie is a good example. That was the first movie that I just did not read any reviews.
And it was actually very easy for me to not read any reviews for Frankenweenie because I had been done with that movie for like a year and a half before the movie came out. So, it wasn’t very close and personal to me. I loved the story, but I didn’t have a lot of emotional stake in it immediately. So, I knew that the reviews were basically good. I knew that my life wouldn’t be greatly improved by reading them, so I just didn’t read any of them. And it was actually lovely not to have read the reviews.
You chose to read the reviews for Stolen Identity.
Craig: Yeah, it was mistake. [laughs]
John: [laughs] It was a mistake. So, here with Big Fish, we just opened. And so last weekend was our opening and so the reviews came out. And Andrew Lippa, the composer and I, decided deliberately that we were not going to read any reviews. We were not going to read the good reviews, we were not going to read the bad reviews. We were going to read no reviews.
And it was actually the right choice I think because it was a weird thing with a musical because a movie, you’re done. A movie, you’re done and you’re finished. Whereas we’re in this preview process so we’re still making changes all the time and we’ll make more changes before we go to New York.
And even reading the good reviews in a weird way would have been toxic because it would have made us, you know, I don’t know, when you put words to something and you read something in print, it gives it a sense of authority that may not really be warranted. And so even if you read something, like a glowing review, saying this is the best song or the best scene in the whole show, in a weird way you’re nervous then to change it. You’re nervous to do the actual work you need to do.
John: So, what we chose to do is we said — the producers, obviously, we’re going to read all the reviews — and so we said, “Read the reviews. And just tell us the generalities of what things are common. What things everyone agrees we need to work on. Not everyone, but what is the consensus of the stuff we need to work on.” And, thankfully, there was consensus. And the consensus was exactly what all of our friends and colleagues who had seen the show said we needed to work on as well. So, that was good.
John: And then there were also raves. And so like the Variety thing was a rave. And so they can say it was a rave. And I could know that there was a rave that I didn’t have to read which was a wonderful thing.
But, I want to talk about, you know, last week we talked about notes and sort of how you approach notes. And what’s different is when you’re getting notes from somebody you can actually engage them in a conversation. A review is like a monologue about what you did. And there’s not a way to ask questions about back about it. There’s no way to sort of engage with them. And if there were they’d be, I don’t know, more useful.
Craig: It’s funny that as we talk about reviews, the areas in which they can be useful keep getting pared down, and down, and down. So, they’re not useful to you early on. They’re not useful to you later. [laughs] They’re not useful to the artist at all. They’re not.
John: Well, in a weird way these reviews are sort of like on any cool news where they used to have like test screening reviews, and I’ve always criticized those because like someone is trying to review an in-progress product. It’s like, it’s not the final product.
With theater, you necessarily kind of have to have those reviews because we are selling tickets. I think it’s fair to review what we’re doing and sort of where we’re at in the process.
John: And the best, you know, a lot of the reviews said these are the things that worked and these are the things that need to be improved before it gets to New York. And like that’s a lovely way to phrase it. But it’s still sort of judging a thing as it stood that night when the next night it was different. It’s like trying to give a moral assessment of a seven-year-old kid. They’re still growing. They’re still changing.
Craig: Yeah. And I would imagine that talking to audience members could give you a very similar snapshot. The truth is, it’s audience members that you want to attract. Famously, Les Misérables when it opened in London got terrible reviews. Same show. Same show that has been running forever, all over the world, and then the movie, and the multiple cast albums. Terrible reviews. The critics just didn’t matter. They weren’t right.
Or, let’s not say that. They weren’t applicable to what people on stage are going for which is to fill a theater with people. So, talking to people I would imagine would give you, like you said, all they did was say the same things that your friends and your other preview goers were saying.
John: Absolutely. One of the most fascinating things that happened this last week was we had groups sales meetings which is they fly in a bunch of the people who sell whole big blocks of tickets to tourists who are visiting New York City. And so it could be church groups, educational groups. It could be conventions, whatever.
And these people are fascinating because they see a zillion shows, because they see all the shows that are coming to Broadway. So, afterwards we did this Q&A and they could ask questions. And one woman was like really, really direct about the things she liked and the things she didn’t like, and who she was going to recommend the show for and who she wasn’t going to recommend the show for. And that was actually really useful because I could engage her in a conversation. And a lot of what she was saying was consistent with the other notes we were getting, and with like honestly apparently what’s in the reviews which is great, because that means that’s a thing you can address.
John: The process is like as if we’re editing a movie but the Avid, we’re putting a new cut off the Avid every day and have to show it to an audience. It’s like you’re having 35 test screenings back, to back, to back. And it’s wonderful to have that opportunity, but also exhausting to have that opportunity.
Craig: Yeah, I can see that.
Well, I think it’s very smart that you guys were not plugged into the reviews and in the end they simply — they are, I guess, just associated with the experience, but they are not causal to it in any way.
John: They’re a snapshot of sort of what the show was like at a certain time and what the reaction to the show was at that time.
Craig: Through one person’s camera.
John: Through one person’s camera. And, honestly, like what happened that night, because some nights are really, really good, and the audience is fantastic, and just everything kind of clicks. And some nights a line gets dropped or some cue doesn’t work quite right, and it is like the sustained magic trick. Even with a movie, you’ve seen scenes where like literally cutting one reaction shot changes the whole scene.
John: That’s the kind of situation we’re at now where like some stuff has to be polished exactly one way or it doesn’t really work right.
Craig: Yeah, you know, and I totally believe you because you’ll see that with movies, and movies never change. But the audience changes, or a theater changes, or a venue, and it’s just weird sometimes. It’s just one thing that they respond to in one room, they don’t in another. So…
John: You and I have both been to experiences where they’ll have a premiere, but like there will be too many people for one screen. And so there will be theater A and theater B. And it’s the exact same movie playing in both places and people have different experiences which is so…
Craig: So weird.
John: It’s crazy.
Now, partly why I didn’t read the reviews was sort of a psychological self-defense. It’s like knowing what was going to send me off in little spirals and make me unproductive. But, psychological self-defense is really sort of our third and biggest topic today which is how do you recognize when it’s time to move on from either a project or from this thing of writing.
And let’s talk through that, because I have 12 produced movie credits, maybe. I think 10 or 12. And a lot other movies I sort of worked on along the way, but there’s a whole bunch of scripts I wrote that never shot. And I’ve had to sort of move on from them. And you have a big shelf of stuff, too, I assume?
Craig: Yeah, for sure.
John: So, let’s talk about when you decide to just be done with a project, or do you decide — does it just fall off or have you officially sort of said goodbye to any projects?
Craig: I have said goodbye. There’s one project that I was hired to do by a studio and I really loved it and my producer really loved it, but there were circumstances that made it sort of impossible to green light it. It just wasn’t a good fit for the studio and it was very expensive. And I think it has just been there. I don’t know if anyone has ever really worked on it again. I think it’s just dead.
And, you know, in a weird way, it doesn’t bother me. I guess that’s okay, you know. I’m okay to rest on those things. There’s a spec script that I wrote that has some really cool stuff in it, but then just stuff that’s not quite right, and I kind of realize, “Uh, I don’t really want to write this anymore.”
And, so I quit on it. And I have no problem with that at all. Do you feel great sadness when… — Do you feel like quitting on something is a bad thing, or ending like that is a bad thing?
John: I can offer two perspectives. I think every movie that I write is real to me in the sense that I’ve entered into that world and I’ve written everything from the inside, and so those characters are as real to me as the characters are in the movies that get made. And so there’s a certain sadness when like something doesn’t proceed because I know those characters are never going to see their full life. They’re only ideas of the final movie. And so they’re real to me, but they’re not real to anybody else. And so that’s a sad thing.
One of the themes in The Nines was that sense of these characters are sort of trapped forever in 12-point Courier. And what is the creator’s responsibility to their creations. Am I responsible for, having created these characters, am I responsible for making sure they exist in the world for real? At what point are you allowed to sort of walk away from the things you’ve made, be it a story, a script, a universe? At what point is a creator allowed to walk away from the things he’s made?
So, some of those things, it is different when it is my own original baby, when it was like a spec script I came up with. It was entirely mine. I own every little bit of it. That’s a tougher thing for me then sometimes there’s a bundle of rights that I was hired on to write this thing. It’s not my thing. I did everything I could. I took care of this thing as well as I could, but it’s not ultimately mine.
That’s a situation like Preacher. I would love the Preacher movie to exist. I just can’t actually get it to happen. And I don’t own those rights and so I can’t push it any further. And I can get people on the phone, but I can’t get the next thing to happen, and that’s the reality of it.
Craig: I mean, it’s not the end of the world. I mean, I guess, you have an experience writing something and I always feel like we learn every time we write. We push ourselves or challenge ourselves in some way. And there’s an upside, frankly, to the things that are unmade. And that is you get to enjoy them perfectly in your mind. And no one can mess with those.
John: So, I think there’s sometimes an opportunity cost to holding on to things. And that opportunity cost is like that is time when you’re not writing something new.
John: That is time where you’re not pursuing something new. And that’s an important thing to remember, because honestly the easiest thing to do is often to work on another draft of that project. And so sometimes you promised it to somebody, so you’re going to fire up the word processor, and like Final Draft, and go through and just do a new pass for somebody. And a lot of screenwriters in Los Angeles have written one and half scripts.
John: They’ve written that first spec script. They started on another script. They didn’t really finish the second script. And they’d go back and they’d keep writing that first one, which might have had a pretty good idea on it, but all they sort of know how to do is how to rewrite that first script.
In most cases, people would be better off say acknowledging like that was a lovely script, I learned a lot from there, and move onto the next one.
John: The first thing I wrote which got me an agent will never get made. And it should never get made. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a perfectly valid piece of writing. It just wasn’t a movie that the universe wanted to exist.
Craig: I also think that for a lot of these writers they are belaboring under a misconception that their script must be as perfected as possible, or I guess the proper way to say that is their script must be perfected in order for someone to truly appreciate it. And it turns out this is not at all the case.
A, there is no “perfected.” There is only perfected for you. B, nobody ever reads a script and says, “It’s perfect. Shoot it!”
John: No one.
Craig: And, C, most importantly, and most encouragingly, the stuff in your screenplay that is basic, and intentional, and specific to your screenplay will shine through flaws every day of the week. Everybody, frankly, is looking for something, even if it’s one great scene, or just the basic idea. They’re going to get it or not. They never pick up these scripts — no one, forget the cartoon producers and studio executives that you might imagine are out there, anyone, no one is going to pick up a script and say, “It is flawed, therefore no good,” or “It is perfect therefore good.” That’s not how it works.
So, when we redo, and redo, and redo, and redo and just sit there sanding and polishing we are unfortunately misusing our natural obsessive compulsive disorder for bad. We let that get out of control. We need OCD to be able to fill 150 pages, and we need OCD to redo it and fix it in large, gross ways.
But, when you start to indulge the OCD, that is when you are entering the line of diminishing returns and it is time to consider maybe moving on.
John: Yeah. Here’s a sign: If you go through a draft and you’ve mostly change punctuation…
John: …that was not a productive draft. Because you start to recognize that all you’re doing is polishing the script but you’re not actually changing the movie. Like, the movie that you actually make from that script would be almost exactly the same script. You’re just kind of improving the words.
And it’s not to say that the words are unimportant. The words are incredibly important and you should — every word in your script should be deliberate. But that doesn’t mean you should have spent three years on those words and every word in that script, because that’s not good and productive use of your time.
John: In many ways I feel people who get a chance to work in television benefit from recognizing that perfection is a trap. And the time pressures that they’re under in TV is like, “How do I write what needs to be written in this scene so that…” You know, good enough is sort of a trap too… “but that it does its job, and that therefore the scene will work and I can move onto the next scene.” It’s how to write the best scene for what it needs to be the first time through.
Craig: Right. That’s exactly right. And just keeping checking into yourself. If you feel like you’re still eating meat, keep writing. If you start feeling bones crunching, stop. You’ve gone too far, you know? And you’ll know. I think we all know.
Because we care so much about these things, sometimes when we finish a script and we feel really good about it we just read it, and read it over, and read it over, and we’re just congratulating ourselves by reading what we’ve done. And that’s a perfectly fine way to indulge yourself if you’d like. But that’s also a pretty good sign that you should probably now start to ease off the pedal and send it out into the world.
John: Yup. A friend of mine who’s very smart and sort of much more psychologically self-aware than I think I will ever feel comfortable being…
Craig: Is it me? Is it me?
John: [laughs] No, certainly not you. When she’s moving on, she will write a letter to the script saying, “These are the reasons why I’m moving on.” And it’s a weird sort of closure exercise for her, but like, “This is why I’m done. You’re fantastic. But I’m not going to be continuing to pursue you anymore,” which I know sounds a little bit crazy, but the actual process of writing that saying gives her permission to stop thinking about it and obsessing about it.
Craig: That doesn’t sound a little crazy. That sounds a lot crazy. But, if it’s working…
John: If it’s working. Because what I do find is that sometimes there’s just the open loops that you just sort of keep thinking about. Like, oh, I need to go back and do that. Oh, I need to go back and do that. And it becomes a sort of stacking kind of guilt.
And if you give yourself permission to just be done with something, that can be useful. And if it takes writing a letter, or just a little note to that thing saying, “This is why I’m not going to worry about you anymore,” that could be useful.
Craig: Whatever it takes. You know, you just want to try and find the sweet spot between the ding-a-ling who starts 12 scripts but never finishes and the other ding-a-ling who’s on his 20th draft of something where he’s now fixing tiny things no one would have noticed in the first place anyway because he’s on the 12th level of revisions.
And, by the way, for the way, for those poor people, god help them when other people finally read it. They don’t recognize that you’ve already gone through this process and that you’re 12 levels in. They’re just like, “I got bored here.”
John: Yeah. A lot of times people keep writing that thing because they’re scared of, who am I if I’m not writing this thing. So, maybe you should set a limit. So, like I will not rewrite this script until I’ve written an entirely new script, because that way at least you’re moving forward. And probably in the process of writing that new script you will recognize, “Oh, you know what? I’m a writer. I’m not just one script.”
Craig: And there you go.
John: And you’ll keep moving on. But, let’s push a little bit further. What if you’re not a screenwriter? And how do you know whether you are a person who is just maybe not cut out for screenwriting?
Craig: Well, I was thinking about this the other day because someone on Done Deal Pro sort of did some back-of-the-envelope math about what the odds were of becoming a professional screenwriter. And while the back-of-the-envelope was pretty loosey-goosey in terms of all the assumptions and things, obviously it’s low, right? The odds are low. I don’t know what they actually came up with, but let’s just say the odds of — you know, when you look at all the people who want to be a screenwriter, all the people trying to be a screenwriter, let’s say that the odds are 0.05% of them become professional screenwriters in however we define that term.
And my argument back to all of them was, no. Those are the odds, maybe, let’s stipulate, but they’re not your odds. Your odd are 0% or 100%. That’s it. The general odds don’t apply to you. So, with that in mind, really what it comes down to is: Are you wasting your time?
And, this whole concept of “follow your dream” is so important and so vital for the people whose odds are 100%. And so destructive and limiting to the people whose odds are 0%. And I think it’s important for us to speak to all of those people out there who are doing this to say: Listen, there may come a day where you start to believe that perhaps it’s not supposed to happen. You’re not what is wanted in the world for a screenwriter. And you’re not loving it. And I think it’s okay to say, “I’m going to stop now.”
We shouldn’t associate shame with that. I know too many people who have wasted a lot of time and there’s other stuff to do. And, also, frankly, I mean, I’m sure you’re the same way — screenwriting is a huge part of my life. It’s my profession, it is my vocation. It has been so for nearly two decades now and hopefully for another decade still. It’s not the most important thing in my life by far. By far!
You know, my wife, my kids, it’s not the be all, end all.
John: Two points to sort of reiterate is that moving on is not failing. Moving on is recognizing what’s working and what’s not working and making a choice to pursue what is the best path for you to be pursuing next.
Second off is the difference between what you do and who you are. And your identity cannot, should not be in most cases your profession. Your identity should be the things you stand for, the things you love, the people who are in your life. It shouldn’t be what you do on a nine to five basis.
Craig: Yeah. For sure. If that is your identity something has gone terribly wrong.
And, frankly, if that’s what you’re chasing, too, there are kids who really want to make that baseball team. They really want to make the tournament team because they love baseball. Then there are kids who really want to make that tournament team because they really want that uniform that says, “I’m on a tournament team.”
A lot of people out there I think want the uniform.
John: Yeah they do.
Craig: [laughs] And, I got to tell you, it ain’t that great. When I was…I’m going to tell you a little story. Let me tell you a little story about little Craig Mazin.
Little Craig Mazin went to public school on Staten Island for kindergarten through fifth grade. And his public school was as New York City’s Board of Education love to do, because they were super creative, our school was, Public School 69, PS69. — No jokes please. — So, I went to PS69.
And in PS69 if you were in fifth grade you could become a safety monitor. And a safety monitor basically got to stand in the hall and do safety stuff, I guess. But really what it was was this: you got this white cloth band thing. It would sort of go around your waist like a belt. But then it had this other thing that went diagonally from the right side of the belt, up over your shoulder, and then back around. And then there was a badge on it.
John: So, it was a sash-belt-badge combo.
Craig: Sash-belt-badge combo. And you could do things like check for bathroom passes and stuff like that. You were essentially a little Gestapo. And did I mention badge?
Craig: Oh my god did I want this! I wanted it so bad. And I don’t know what the criteria were for selecting hall monitors. I was, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I was a star pupil. Star pupil. Now later in life it occurs to me that that’s probably not — the high performing students weren’t necessarily what they wanted for their goon squad. [laughs]
But oh my god I wanted that thing so bad. I had no interest whatsoever in what it actually meant. And I remember feeling so frustrated by the casual “who cares” attitude of the kids who were awarded the sash-belt-badge combo and who didn’t even seem to care about it. Or, god forbid, forgot their sash-badge combo at school. You know?
John: So, Craig, you were never given that sash-badge?
Craig: No, I was not. I never got the sash-belt-badge combo.
John: This is explains so much, Craig. It also explain why you fundamentally reject anybody who sort of wants that kind of thing because now — not having gotten it yourself — anybody who would want such a thing, or who’d want to…or who would want to kick-start a campaign to make sash-belt-badge combos is suspect in your world.
Craig: [laughs] I would love, by the way, if one of our listeners actually found an image of this somewhere on file. It has to be a sash-belt-badge combo thing from a New York City public education school from K-5, which is what we had, and it has to be circa ’70s. I’ll go as high as ’81.
Anyway, no, the truth is it was a very, very 10-year-old thing of me, but yet those 10-year-old things never go away. They’re always inside of us.
I’ll give you another one. When I was in college I really, really wanted to be in one of the a cappella singing groups. And I was good enough to get a call back, I just wasn’t good enough to actually make it. And I was — I felt, it’s not jealousy, it’s the frustration of denied aspiration. It’s really hard to deal with. But, you know, the thing is, you do have to look in your life at the things that you do get, and then remember everything that you get at some point becomes a job, becomes work, becomes a task.
And if all you see is what’s romantic about it, and there are some romantic things about screenwriters. You and I get to hang out with famous people and be on movie sets and go to premieres. That is romantic. And we get to talk to people, you know, and be interviewed. On this side of the line, of course, it’s like, blech, right?
So, for those of you who are fueled primarily by romantic aspirations, think about that means.
John: I would also say when you have this idea about what your life is going to be like when you’re having that job, when you’re in that position, you’re really doing the same kind of thing which I had some problems with the reviews, is that you’re putting your self-esteem in someone else’s hands. Your sense of self-worth is based on whether someone else thinks you are good enough in this situation or in this world.
And so, be it reviews, be it getting your hall monitor sash, you have decided that how good you are is based on how someone else judges you. And that’s not a productive, happy way to go through your life. Ideally your self esteem should be based on the things that you do and can control and things that you want that you can achieve that are meaningful to you, not meaningful to other people.
I definitely get that. My daughter has a similar situation to your hall monitor/hall pass thing. She’s seven years old and one of her good friends does ballet. And so she’s like, “Well, I want to do ballet.” It’s like, well, why do you want to do ballet? “Because she does ballet. They get to do the Nutcracker and stuff.” It’s like, well do you want to do that? “Oh, I really, really want to do that.”
But we actually really drilled down. She kind of just wants the trappings.
Craig: Right. She wants the shoes.
John: She wants the shoes. But she doesn’t want the work. She doesn’t want one more thing on her schedule which is already sort of over-packed. In a weird way she doesn’t want someone else to have something that she doesn’t have.
John: And that’s a natural instinct, but you have to sort of push beyond that natural instinct.
And so I feel like a lot of people approach screenwriting because they really want to be in the movie business, but they recognize that they have no idea how to direct a movie. They feel like they don’t have the funds to make a movie. They don’t feel like they know people who can help them make movies. They know on some level that they’re not actors.
So, the only thing that seems like approachable in the world of making movies is writing a script, because anyone can write a script, so that is what they pursue. But, it’s not..I would say 80% of people who are aspiring screenwriters wouldn’t necessarily classify themselves as writers. It’s not like they wrote stuff before this. They just want to make movies, and so therefore they’re writing screenplays.
And that’s not likely to work out well for the 99.5% of them. Because they’re not getting into it for the right reasons.
John: Most of the people we know who are successful screenwriters, they were good writers before they ever approached screenwriting. And they were writing for other things and then they came to screenwriting. That’s a common trend amongst most screenwriters I’ve met. They were always good writers. Is that true for you, too?
Craig: Yeah. I’ve always been good with words and my — the vast majority of writing I did prior to screenwriting, frankly, was non-fiction writing. It was essay writing. It was persuasive writing. Investigative writing. I was a student journalist. But always trying to tell a story.
So, I was working with narrative inside of non-fictional topics. And you can see, you know, the non-fictional writers that we tend to appreciate the most in a sort of popular way are the ones who are able to place things within a narrative.
I’ve always been obsessed with narrative, and with mythology, and I’ve always loved movies. So, yeah, I was always a lexicographically-minded person.
John: I think there’s a reason why a lot of non-fiction writers tend to sort of drift over to screenwriting is, you know, writing for a magazine is very much creating a narrative but with very specific constraints in that you don’t have all the space and time that a novel has. You have a very specific kind of writing that you need to do. There’s certain restrictions placed upon you, the same way there are restrictions placed upon screenwriters. And screenwriters can only talk about things that you can see and hear. A journalist can only report facts. They’re limited to the truth.
You know, an investigative journalist only has the things that he or she can actually find and put into the story. So, there’s a reason why people who come from those field tend to come into screenwriters. Mark Boal is an example of that. Someone who comes from a journalism background. I was a journalism background as well.
So, I do feel that a lot of people come to screenwriting out of this desire to be part of the movie business. “I like movies a lot and so I want to write movies.” That’s not necessarily the best bridge between the two.
Craig: Right. Yeah, just be on the lookout for that. As you go through this, at some point you my start to feel like it’s a slog. That you’re doing all this but not for “it.” You’re doing all this for other reasons.
Craig: Or, you’re doing it for the right reasons, it’s just not working. And all I can tell you is if you should come to that day where you just don’t like doing it, stop. Just stop. It’s okay.
John: It’s okay.
Last week on the podcast we talked about, someone wrote in the question saying like isn’t it really annoying when people do this kind of thing, and I proposed a hash tag called #CutItOut for stuff we needed to stop doing as screenwriters.
Se, a classic one is, you know, air ducts are just…we have to stop using air ducts because air ducts are cliché and they’re gross. But we proposed if anyone had other ideas for things that they need to — we need to stop seeing in movies and that screenwriters need to take responsibility for just not putting them in movies, to tweet them with a hash tag.
And some people wrote in with some good suggestions. So, here are a few.
Dan Slovin wrote, “This trope I’m bored of, ‘Oh god, he’s broadcasting on every TV on the planet.’”
Craig: Oh, yeah, like the guy who takes over the main switching station for all TV channels? [laughs].
John: Yeah, exactly.
Craig: Yeah, what is that?
John: Yeah, what is that? Because it’s not really practical. I don’t even know sort of what they would be?
Craig: It doesn’t really work that way because there are different satellites. What are you — you’ve got control of every satellite and what you’re going to do with that is broadcast something?
John: Exactly. And when was the last time I watched broadcast TV? I haven’t watched broadcast in months. [laughs]
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, you know what? I never even considered that. It makes no sense. You’re right.
John: Aaron Bradley wrote in with three. One is, “Dropping one’s camera in the face of unspeakable horror.”
Craig: Oh, yeah, yeah.
John: Yeah, you see that a fair amount.
Craig: Yeah, with the slow backing away.
John: “There’s no such thing as…followed by whatever thing doesn’t exist.”
Craig: Yeah, that’s the Gilligan’s Island, “I’m not wearing that dress.”
John: “The girl telling the slacker man who’s the hero of the story if he can’t do it she’ll get someone else who can and then storming off.”
Yeah, I see it as a general idea. Like, “Well, if you can’t do it, I’ll get somebody who can.” Eh. That’s clammy.
Craig: Yeah, it’s more clammy then…I mean, it’s a clammy line, yeah.
John: “How about a sociopathic antagonist with an Old Testament Name.”
Craig: [laughs] That’s pretty good.
John: Yeah, that’s pretty good. Eli, Josiah.
Craig: Yeah, yeah, Hachaliah. I always loved Hachaliah. I think that’s in Inherit the Wind when William Jennings Bryan is losing his mind and having a stroke. He starts yelling names of biblical books and Hachaliah was maybe one.
John: This is actually a pet peeve of mine. This is from Devin O’Neil. “A character receives shocking news, so shocking in fact that after much dry heaving they vomit.”
I’ve never received news that made me throw. I think it does actually happen. I just don’t want to ever see it in movies again.
Craig: Has that happened in movies? [laughs]
John: Oh, it’s happened in movies.
Craig: Really, where somebody throws up because of a message?
John: Yeah. They get so overwhelmed that they throw up.
Craig: Oh, the big throw up, I see. Yeah, okay, now that I think about it, yes. Got it.
Throwing up is gross anyway. Although it’s funny, I watched The Sixth Sense with my son last night who’s 11. He loved it. And I really appreciated it, probably more than I did when I watched it the first time when it came out. And there is that terrible moment where the ghost of Mischa Barton throws up. It’s really scary.
John: Yeah, Mischa Barton.
Craig: Mischa Barton.
John: She is scary.
John: “This ends now.” That’s a clam more than anything else. But, no, just stop that.
Craig: That is a message for itself.
John: Yes. David Bratton suggested that.
We’ve talked about this before, but like an opening scene where somebody hits an alarm clock, or hits an alarm clock and knocks it off the nightstand.
John: Stop that.
Craig: Yeah. Nobody does that.
John: Nobody does that in real life.
Craig: No one.
John: “Tight on an eye as it opens, pulling back to reveal the hero waking up in the desert not knowing how he got there.”
John: Uh, that’s awkward.
Craig: Does that happen?
John: It does happen. I mean, it’s not always the desert. But just that sense of like waking up someplace and having no idea how you go there.
Craig: Oh, okay. I guess. I mean, that’s not so bad.
John: Says the writer of The Hangover movies. [laughs]
Craig: Well, I didn’t invent that language in the first one. [laughs] So, I can’t take credit or blame for that. But, I don’t know, I mean, I guess. That’s like, what a close-up, a disorienting close-up? I think we have to keep that within our language.
John: Nick Rheinwald-Jones writes, “The criminal protagonist is bailed out of jail by a guy who wants him to do another crime.” Yeah, that needs to stop.
Craig: And, again, maybe my film vocabulary is weak, but is there a famous example of that?
John: Oh, I think it’s actually really common in heist movies where the guy gets out of jail and is immediately recruited in to do the same thing, or sometimes it’s the government who comes to get the guy. It’s like, “We need you to do this thing because you’re the only person who can do it because you did this crime before.”
Craig: Right. Okay, got it.
John: So, let’s stop that. August Benassi writes, “The character decides to quit drinking. Dramatically stares at bottle. Opens it, and pours it out.”
John: Yeah. I think that probably does actually happen in real life. I’ve just seen it a lot. And I saw it in John Gatins’ movie, Flight, and I thought was the last time I needed to see it.
Craig: Yeah, you know, that doesn’t offend me. Some of these don’t bother me. [laughs] They really don’t. Maybe I’m just more cliché-oriented than most people, but I don’t…that doesn’t bother me. Yeah, I’ve seen it before, but it’s something that every single person — one of those people has to do it, so…don’t they?
John: Yeah, I just…yeah. Giving up drinking in movies overall is a sort of source of frustration for me. It just feels like, you know. I mean, it’s a thing that happens, just it annoys me for some reason.
Craig: You know what annoys me, come to think of it? It just annoys me because of what we do. Any time there’s an author in a movie, he has, or she has, writer’s block. And then something happens. And then they just start writing and they can’t stop.
Craig: It’s the most ridiculous portrayal of how writing works. It’s not some crazy coke binge where it’s like one crazy night because I finally got over my problem.
John: Yeah, they get like graphia or whatever where they just can’t stop writing.
Craig: Yeah. And they’re so happy. And it’s just that shot of their face while they’re typing. And then a shot of pages that turn into a stack of pages. It’s crazy!
John: Yeah, it’s the corollary to ripping the paper out of the typewriter and crumpling it up.
John: Tossing it into the overflowing trash can.
Craig: Yeah, I know! And that scene is always there, too.
John: John Meehan writes, “On the desk or shelf or on the wall we see a faded old photo of a younger, happier main character alongside a woman and a child.”
John: Yeah. That’s sort of an establishing shot of who the character was in a younger, happier time. That’s…
Craig: Yeah, that is cliché. I mean, we actually did a little spoof version of that when we did Superhero Movie because it is so cliché, and that was a pretty funny scene, I liked that. Just the happier times and in each picture the things around his poor, dead dad, the things that his dad was doing were increasingly dangerous. [laughs] It’s just kind of funny. I liked it.
John: [laughs] Jason Markarian writes two different ones. “Our disheveled lead long pours a beer into his cereal.” Yeah, beer and cereal, no. Stop that.
Craig: Yeah, maybe I’m just not seeing enough movies. That just sounds stupid anyway.
John: “Our disheveled lead, straight from bed, chasing far too many aspirin with a huge swig from a vodka bottle.”
Craig: Well, yeah, this whole like “I’m going to drink in the morning, look how crazy my life is,” I also don’t believe that that happens.
By the way, I don’t know about you, but my other thing that…this isn’t even a trope. This just makes me nuts is when people wake up in the morning and start kissing each other. Like, brush your teeth. It’s gross!
John: “The female lead has a boozy one night stand with a guy who the next day turns out to be her new boss or coworker.”
Craig: Yeah, okay.
John: Yeah, I’ve seen that a lot. Don’t do that.
Craig: That sounds pretty familiar, yeah.
John: Joey H. wrote that, thank you for that.
“Showing open boxes of takeout in a single person’s fridge to show that he is single.”
John: Yeah, Wilson Kelley, good call there.
Craig: See, that’s a good example of something we should just cut out, because it’s not useful anymore. It’s actually dumb. It doesn’t even seem true.
John: Yeah. So, I would say, yeah, let’s not do that. Or, if you’re going to do it, again, make a joke out of it. There’s probably a good joke to be had there because it’s so expected that you can probably surprise us with something else that’s different there.
John: Oh, here’s a good one. Getting the bad guy…okay, “The bad guy gets captured because it’s part of his essential plan.”
Craig: Right. I’ve seen that a lot.
John: It’s happened a lot recently. So, that’s in Skyfall. It happens in Avengers. It doesn’t need to happen again.
Craig: It happens in, I mean, the Joker does it.
John: Oh, yeah, that’s right.
Craig: And I never understand it frankly. I honestly never understand that whole, “I want you to capture me thing.” It did, by the way, as much as I enjoyed all the movies we just mentioned, I didn’t understand why he had to do that in Avengers at all.
John: No. I don’t understand why he had to do it in Skyfall, either. If he had the capability of doing all of those things he was already doing, there was no reason why he needed to get captured in that, either.
Craig: Plus, it always backs the screenwriter into a weird place because they want it to be a twist. Well, if it’s a twist, that means the villain has to behave as if they don’t want to be captured. But, once we find out that they did want to captured, you have to reconcile their prior behavior which is really hard to do.
Craig: Like why were you kind of behaving like you didn’t want to be captured so that you would be captured? None of it makes sense.
John: It does not make sense.
Joe Dinicola writes in, “When the boss baddie turns away, then turns his back and shoots one of his own guys.” Yeah, when you shoot one of your own guys to show that you’re a badass, yeah, I’ve seen that a lot. It’s not the best use of your time.
Craig: When you say to prove that you’re a bad guy, you shoot one of your own guys?
John: Yeah. I think that’s what he’s implying. So, it’s one of those things where like the villain shoots one of his own people sort of cavalierly.
Craig: Oh, I see. Oh, you know, I’m guilty of a lot of these.
John: Yeah, but you’re a successful screenwriter so…
Craig: I mean, I feel like when I do it it’s really entertaining! [laughs]
John: [laughs] Maybe in your next script you’ll consider it.
Craig: Maybe I’m done with them now, now that I’ve gotten them out of my system.
John: Our final from Erica Horton, “The crazy/awkward priest or minister at the wedding.” Yeah, I think I’m done with that, too.
John: If you’re doing a wedding scene, like I don’t need the priest to be eccentric. I just…
Craig: Yeah, that’s normally…again, I’m drawing a blank. Where does that happen?
John: Oh, I think that happens a fair amount. So, I think Four Weddings and a Funeral, I think that’s a trope that’s in there. There is something where Robin Williams is a minister.
Craig: Well, that was License to Wed and that, while the movie doesn’t rise to the test of what you wanted that movie to be, but the whole point was that he was a nut. I mean, it wasn’t like there was a scene and in the scene the priest was goofy.
John: Yeah. I didn’t see that movie.
Craig: I did. I saw it. And, you know, it wasn’t for me.
John: You didn’t work on it?
Craig: No, no. Went to the theater. I’m not sure why.
John: I have not been to the movies in seven weeks. I’m so excited to see a movie, any movie. It will be great. I’m so excited to have a night where I’m not writing Big Fish. That will just be a delight.
Craig: It’s too much fish.
John: So, let’s get onto our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is actually very much related to this topic of moving on. So, my friend Gabe Olds, who was an actor on DC, his mom is a famous poet, Sharon Olds, who just last week or the week before won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. And her book is called Stag’s Leap.
And the Pulitzer people say it’s fantastic, but I also think it’s just fantastic. I read it this last week. And it’s the first book of poetry I’ve probably read since college. It’s just free verse. Nothing rhymes.
What it chronicles is her divorce. And so it’s her divorce of her husband of 30 years. And it’s just breathtaking and amazing. And sad, but really just terrific. So, I highly recommend it. And especially if you haven’t read poetry in a while, it’s great to be able to read a bunch of poems that are about one thing. Because so often, like in The New Yorker you’ll read a poem, and like, oh, that’s a really good poem, but it’s one little appetizer of something.
And so this makes a meal out of this whole situation and there’s a whole arc to it which was terrific. And poetry, in a weird way, matches up to some degree to what we do in screenwriting because unlike normal prose which has full, complete sentences and has paragraphs and stuff, the stuff that we write is also kind of free verse-y. It’s just like it’s words scattered on the page to create an effect, and that’s what she does incredibly well in this book of poetry.
So, Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is my recommendation.
Craig: It’s a very difficult thing to marry a poet because on the one hand they can be super depressing and then you want to leave them. But then if you leave them you know that they’re going to destroy you in poetry.
John: Yeah. It’s like dating Alanis Morissette.
Craig: God, it’s just like dating Alanis Morissette. It’s true. You know she’s going to get you like Dave Coulier got gotten.
John: Yeah. I guess. I have friends with personal experience in that front. So, yeah.
Craig: But, you know, that album was good.
John: It was good. Or Fiona Apple. I remember my friend Rawson Thurber at one point said like, “I do just want to date Fiona Apple for a couple months in the hopes that she’ll write an album about me.”
Craig: Right. Exactly. Just an angry, hallowed out album of anger sadness.
John: What I will say that also really impressed me about Sharon Olds’s book is that in it you can recognize that the fact that she was a poet who was writing about their situation did have an effect upon their marriage. He was the knowing subject of some of her work. And who wants to be in that kind of spotlight?
Craig: Apparently not him. [laughs]
John: It was not him.
Craig: Yeah, he punched out. Hard to blame him. Hard to blame him.
Look, I don’t want to take sides in this difficult divorce, but I am saying to this guy, you know, you might potentially have a friend in me here.
Craig: I mean, I get it. That’s all I’m saying.
Well, I have a One Cool Thing this week. So, let’s talk about energy for a second. If I were to say to you, John, that the international space station is the largest scientific — international scientific collaboration on the planet. That would be true. But do you know what the next largest scientific collaboration o the planet is, measured by how many nations are participating through labor and money?
John: Is it the Super Accelerator?
John: Oh, what is it then?
Craig: It is a big huge fusion reactor.
John: I love it.
Craig: So, there’s this project called ITER, that is the Latin pronunciation of I-T-E-R, which means the way, which sort of sounds culty, but it’s not. And it is a massive project. It’s actually housed in France. And they are essentially trying to solve this problem that they’ve been chasing for a long, long time for fusion energy.
And the cool thing that happened is that this week basically they got approval for — the final approval for the design of the most technically challenging part of this thing. And by getting that final approval they’re actually on the path to making this thing work within 10 years. That’s the theory.
And I think it’s going to work. And so basically regular nuclear power is fission power where we smash apart uranium atoms, I believe. And the fission of those atoms releases a lot of energy. It also releases a ton of radioactive waste and there’s always the chance that it could have a runaway chain reaction. Those are the problems that we all know about.
Not the case with fusion reaction in which they are actually smashing atoms together and by smashing atoms together releasing a ton of energy. In fact, that’s how the sun works. The sun is basically a big fusion reactor using hydrogen, and helium, I think, and something. Well, hydrogen. [laughs]
In any case, here are the benefits of fusion reaction. You can’t have a meltdown, you can’t have a chain reaction. It does not give off radioactive waste of any significant amount. And the fuel is basically kind of water. But, to make it work you have to kind of heat it all up with plasma to hotter than the center of the sun. It is incredibly — basically you have to get temperatures of over 100 million centigrade.
But, they’re close. They’re actually getting close. And, if they can figure this out, we’ve solved the energy problem permanently. It’s done. You can sell your oil and gas stocks. It’s over.
And I think, John, despite our advancing age, you and I will live on a planet with fusion energy.
John: That will be fantastic if we do. Now, I’ve seen different fusion things along the way. One of them was like a laser-based thing. So, it’s a bunch of lasers that have to fire at exactly the right moments and exactly the right spot to create this. Do you know what the engine is that creates the heat?
Craig: They’re basically using a version of what’s been around all the way back to Soviet Russia called a Tokamak which is a big, huge donut. And then they use these big, big magnets that old the fuel, because the fuel can’t be held in anything…
John: Because it would melt through it.
Craig: Yeah, melt through anything, right? So, they’re using magnets to basically hold this stuff in place and they’re using plasma and then firing helium and tritium and something at each other. So, it doesn’t look like it’s lasers. It just looks like it’s just gases and magnetic coils and stuff.
John: And smashy smashy.
Craig: And smashy smashy. And so the theory is that they will be, now that they’re kind of on board to finish the construction, the big part of this construction. And we’re talking, like this is how precise it is –there’s these 18 magnetic coils that weigh hundreds of tons. And they have to be positioned with a precision of less than two millimeters. That’s how careful they have to build this thing.
But they think they might even be able to inject the plasma into it in 10 years. And another five years after that they put the tritium in and, zoom, supposedly then you’re off and running.
Craig: Yeah, so just hang on, people. Just hang on.
John: Just make it another 15 years. We’ll have power.
Craig: We’ll have clean, super clean, super safe power and then, of course, the ice age will follow. Because we were supposed to warm the planet. You know it’s coming. You know that’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. It’s just…we can’t win.
John: Yeah, well, what we can do is thank our listeners for listening to us. And if you have questions about anything we talked about you can find notes and links at our show page, johnaugust.com/podcast. We are on iTunes. You’re probably listening to us through iTunes, but if you’re not go to iTunes and search for Scriptnotes and subscribe. Leave a note if you’d like to leave us a note, a comment; it helps people find us.
And, if you have a question for me or for Craig, small questions are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. If you have a longer question that we sometimes answer on the show, it is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And thank you guys very much for listening. Craig, thank you for a fun podcast. I look forward to being back in Los Angeles so I can still not see you and still talk to you on Skype.
Craig: Very exciting.
John: But I’ll be closer.
Craig: You’ll be that much closer.
John: We’ll be in the same time zone at least.
Craig: That will make it easier. Welcome home. Congrats on a successful Chicago run. And I’ll see you next time.
John: Great. Thanks.
- Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here on Kickstarter
- ValleyWag’s Braff-Kickstarter vitriol
- Braff on why Kickstarter is right for this project, and Psychology Today on why independent filmmakers should celebrate his presence
- Scriptnotes 49: Losing sleep over critics
- Scriptnotes 77: We’d Like to Make an Offer, in which Craig discusses Identity Thief reviews
- Done Deal Pro users try to calculate the odds of “making it”
- Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds on Amazon
- ITER: The way to new energy
- OUTRO: Last Day of Our Acquaintance cover by AAAdriennne
John and Craig discuss when to stop rewriting a project and accept that it’s just not going to become a movie. Then we go bigger to look at when to give up on the dream of being a screenwriter — which starts with a hard look at why people seek out the career in the first place.
Also in this episode, we talk reviews and the virtues of not reading them, plus a look at Zach Braff’s Kickstarter situation.
- Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here on Kickstarter
- ValleyWag’s Braff-Kickstarter vitriol
- Braff on why Kickstarter is right for this project, and Psychology Today on why independent filmmakers should celebrate his presence
- Scriptnotes 49: Losing sleep over critics
- Scriptnotes 77: We’d Like to Make an Offer, in which Craig discusses Identity Thief reviews
- Done Deal Pro users try to calculate the odds of “making it”
- Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds on Amazon
- ITER: The way to new energy
- OUTRO: Last Day of Our Acquaintance cover by AAAdriennne
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 86 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, I’ve had a profound revelation that will change the podcast forever. Are you ready?
Craig: I assume it’s that I’m fired?
John: [laughs] Well, there’s that. But, before we even get to that — so long time listeners of the podcast will know that a thing that annoys Aline Brosh McKenna more than anything else is that I drop out the T of “interesting.” And it’s something that I’m just defective, or that’s what I thought: it was just my problem.
Except that my family was visiting this weekend, including my nephew Ben, and he said, “Oh, that’s just because you’re from Colorado.” And I’m like, no, no, is it really a Colorado thing? And he says, “Talk about what are those hills outside — those giant hills in Colorado?”
I say, “Mountains.” And he said, “Yeah, you know, you don’t say the T in ‘mountains.’” I’m like, I don’t. He’s like, “No one in Colorado says the T in ‘mountains.’” So, dropping that T is an important thing.
So, then I started doing some introspection and figuring out like, well, when do I drop the T and when do I not drop the T?
John: And it’s actually pretty consistent. So, I would always say “intelligent” because the “tell” has a stress on it. The emphasis on the word is inTell. But, “interesting,” there’s no emphasis on that syllable.
Craig: Because the emphasis is on the “in.”
John: Exactly. And so “intelligible,” sure. I’m trying to think if there’s other T situations, but it’s pretty consistent. So, as long as there’s not a stress on it.
Craig: What about those, like when you’re eating Cuban food and you get those little bananas. What are those?
John: Because there’s emphasis.
Craig: Right. But if they were Plant-Ains. [laughs]
Craig: You know, there’s a weird corollary to this that my grandmother had. It’s a very Brooklyn thing. And you can also here, if you watch Goodfellas and you know Martin Scorsese’s mother plays Joe Pesci’s mother in Goodfellas, and you can hear her doing it, too. And I can’t quite do it right. But if you take a word like “bottle,” for instance, go ahead — say bottle.
Craig: Okay. You and I say it the same way. There’s an old school Brooklyn way of saying it that’s “Bot-ul.” Bot-ul. Or Bottle. It’s almost like you’re saying either two Ts or like a word glottal T. It’s the strangest thing.
John: I think what I’m doing is essentially a tiny little glottal stop that’s getting rid of the T when I don’t need to. Because when you’re making the “In,” you’re going forward as if you’re making the T, but then you just don’t actually stop and make the T because you can understand the word without it. So, I’m capable of making the T.
Craig: This is a remarkable — remarkable — explanation for your…what I will continue to maintain is just a defect.
John: [laughs] Yeah. It’s defective to explain it.
Craig: I’m going to Colorado and I’m going to confirm this. Now I’m flying.
John: But it was really profound when I started talking about like “mountains.” Like I have never said “Moun-Tains.” It just seems weird.
Craig: I say “Mount-Ains” also. I don’t say “Moun-Tains,” I say “Mount-Ains.” But when you say “interesting there’s almost no T. Like I don’t make a big deal of it. I don’t say “in-Teresting.” I just say, “Interesting. Interesting.”
John: I’ve ruined you, Craig. You’re doing exactly what I’m doing now.
Craig: You do, “Inneresting.” You know what it is, it’s not that you drop the T, it’s that you jam the R right up against the N. “Inneresting.”
Well, regardless, I love it about you and I don’t think you should change. I’ve said this before, I’ll say it many, many times. The hell with Aline Brosh McKenna. It’s practically my motto.
John: [laughs] Thank you. We’ll put it on t-shirts which we’ll sell at the 100th podcast.
Craig: Yeah, somebody get to Etsy quickly.
John: So, I consider the issue put to bed.
Today, though, I want to talk about other exciting topics. You suggested a very good topic which is so relevant to me right now which is about how you take notes as a writer. So, let’s talk about taking notes. But then there’s also some really good listener questions in the mailbag, so I’d thought we’d get to that, and call it a show.
Craig: Great. Well, it sounds good.
So, let’s start with this whole issue of notes. And I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, as long as I’ve been doing it. The first time you get notes in a professional situation, it’s a bad feeling. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how pleasant the session is. That first time is a slap in the face. And there’s so many ways that we can go wrong in those meetings. And I have done them all, I think, and I kind of got them out of my system early on.
But I continue to watch writers do it to this very day and I would imagine that this extends across any creative pursuit. If you’re a musician and someone is critiquing your music, or you’re a lyricist, or you’re a dancer, whatever it is.
So, I wanted to talk about the pitfalls of all of this. And I’m going to preface it by saying this: don’t think for a second that avoiding some of these things somehow means you’re dealing away your pride. It’s not. If anything, it’s ego which is different than pride. That’s not professional pride; that’s ego — ego that gets in the way.
I’m going to start by asking you a question, John.
Craig: When you go into a notes meeting, what in your mind are you hoping to accomplish, if anything?
John: I’m hoping to accomplish a transformation in which they will see that I was correct and that they were wrong…
John: …and that the script is ready to become a movie. If I’m being honest, that’s really what I’m hoping to accomplish in the course of a movie, of a movie notes session. Now, realistically, I’ve been to this rodeo enough times that I recognize that’s not going to happen. So, what I’m hoping for myself is that I will be able to do the kind of judo that accomplishes their goals while accomplishing my goals simultaneously.
Craig: And what are your goals in a general sense? Are they always specific goals? Or are they general goals?
John: I think my goals are to make the movie better, which is sort of the pinnacle goal. The secondary goal is to make the movie not worse. And often notes can make a movie significantly worse. Related to that is I want the movie to get made. I want the thing to proceed to the next step.
So, getting the movie made is sort of the overall arching goal, but usually those note session you’re talking about are we going to go out to a director; are we going to send it into this person? There’s some next step, and I recognize that only through the successful completion of this meeting and the discussion of these notes will we be able to get to the next step.
Craig: Well, those are all good thoughts to have and good goals and I share them all. I think every time we walk in there there’s a part of us that’s hoping that the point of the note session is really, “Look how great this is.” And then practically speaking, as business people, as well as artists, we have a certain list of business goals that we have like let’s get a director attached, let’s get an actor, let’s get going. Let’s make a movie.
And then there’s the hope that somehow they will give you something that you hadn’t considered that will make the script better. And then the most important one of all — let’s not make it worse. And for me, if there’s one goal I have when I walk into a notes session, it’s this: I am there to make sure that I protect my intentions. You know, screenplays are just a big huge bundle of intentions. And I’m okay with doing whatever needs to be done, and I hope that whatever needs to be done is something that I agree with that is going to make things better.
But I want to protect my intentions. And the reason I’m bringing that up is because I think that intentions are protectable. And when you start thinking about your intentions for what a scene is about, what it means, why the character is doing what they’re doing, all the why questions instead of the what questions, we start to get ourselves out of the realm of sounding defensive about what we wrote. And we get instead into a conversation about the why. And I have to say right off the bat that puts us at an advantage because we understand the whys generally better than anybody.
It also makes it seem less like we’re there to somehow create an obstacle to what everyone else considers to be a very necessary process. And if you’ve ever given notes to somebody, you suddenly realize what the other side of it is like. It’s actually quite hard to do. And when somebody is really resistant or does any of the things I’m about to talk about, it’s frustrating for you as the note giver.
So, I wanted to talk about things to not do. [laughs] And along with those, some things to do. And little tips. And join in with any that come to your mind as well. And comment on these as you wish.
A couple of easy ones to start off with — a couple of dos. Try and be as relaxed as possible. If you’re not relaxed you’re starting a fight that doesn’t need to start.
Craig: Listen, which is very, very hard for us. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this where you realize that you know exactly what this person is saying, you already have the answer to what they’re saying, and yet what am I supposed to do, sit here and listen for another three minutes of terrible irrelevant monologue when I have the answer? So, you just want to cut them off! [laughs] You know that feeling?
John: Yes. I do know that feeling, often on this podcast.
John: I think listening is crucial. Also, listening with — to say a really cheesy term — it’s sort of the active listening, where it’s making it clear to the person that you are listening to them, that you’re hearing them, and oftentimes what’s helpful is just to restate what they just said in slightly different words so that they know that you heard what they just said to you.
Craig: That’s right. And another thing that goes along with being an active listener, and I like that term a lot, is taking notes. You may not agree with what they’re saying. Just the physical act of taking notes helps get your mind off of whatever the emotions are of the moment. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen other writers listen to very detailed suggestions, not take notes, and then have the person say, “Are you at all interested in writing any of this down,” because it’s viewed as disrespectful.
I mean, essentially it’s viewed as “I’m not listening to you” [laughs] and I don’t care about what you’re saying. Which may be true, but why give that away?
Craig: I am a big believer — this is another “do” — of asking neutral questions about a note. If I sometimes feel that sensation, the “oh my god, oh no” sensation welling up, instead of just repeating the note back I’ll ask a neutral question, in part because I really do feel like when I do that I can kind of maybe get something of value out of it.
Simply put, something like, “Can you explain that for me?” Or, “Can you go deeper into that,” which is a very neutral interrogative. But it does have them talk more. And, frankly, sometimes it also helps them on their own realize that there’s not much ground underneath their feet with that particular note.
John: A corollary to that is make them contextualize when they felt that note. And so if they’re saying like, “I didn’t really like this character. I didn’t really like this thing,” you can sometimes ask them, “So when did you start feeling that? Is it at this moment? Is it at this…?”
Ask them to be more specific about sort of what it is that — what isn’t working for them. And if they could place it within the timeline of the script, that can be helpful for you, too.
Craig: That’s great. And, again, that expresses legitimate interest in what they have to say, which at times they do deserve. Let’s talk about some don’t dos. And I’ve seen all of these and I’ve probably done them all as well.
I call them the 3Ds. Let’s start with the first D — Defend. It is a natural thing to defend your work. When somebody says something like, “I just read this scene and I just thought it was not funny at all. I read the scene and I thought it was over-the-top. I read the scene and I thought it was boring.” Don’t defend that. You can’t.
You can’t say, “No, it is funny. No, it’s not boring. No, it’s none of this,” because it’s not to you, but it is to them. That’s not going to change. Better to just say, “Okay, let’s talk about why. Let’s talk about what I intended there. And let’s see if we can maybe find a way where that intention can be done in a way that is funny, or thrilling, or tense, or exciting.”
The next D — Deny. Do not deny what they’re saying either. “That’s not true.”
“It just seems like this character doesn’t care that much.”
“That’s not true! Obviously this character cares.” Don’t do that. Again, you may be right, but denying what they say is only going to get you, again, into a fight. And if your goal is to not make the script worse, to not get fired, to protect your dramatic intention, there is no value to deny what they’re saying. Better again to just try and find your way through what they’re saying.
And the last D is Debate. And this is the one I think most writers fall into. And when I say debate I don’t mean to — because there are times when I’ll say, “Well, I’m not sure about that, and here’s why.” Or, “Well, okay, if I do that just be aware of this.”
Debating is essentially when you step outside of the process of trying to make the script better, or trying to protect your intention, and instead engage in war. You’re fighting. That’s what you’re doing. And you’re fighting because you’re hurt and because you’re scared.
And you know, I mean, I assume you’ve felt hurt and scared before in these notes meetings?
John: I have indeed. And it’s always like they’re insulting not only you but they’re insulting your child. And so your instinct is to protect your child. So, deny, defend, debate — these are all natural reactions. It’s a posture you’re taking because someone is coming after you, so therefore you are going to assume a posture that could protect yourself and your work.
Craig: Exactly right. And by protecting yourself, unfortunately what happens is you’re actually doing a worse job of protecting your work. It’s a weird paradox. You’re better equipped to protect your work if you stop worrying so much about yourself and the pain that they’re causing. But it’s real pain. That’s the hard part.
I’ll tell you the emotional reaction I get when I get a really bad note, because I’ve thought about just like how do I qualify precisely what’s going through my under brain. And it’s this: I’ve just seen in rapid fire progress in my mind what happens to this movie, its reception, and my career, and my ego if this happens. And it’s horrifying to me.
All of that is packed into my reaction to a sentence that they’re saying that they simply don’t realize has that kind of ripple effect. Very hard to not deny, or defend, or debate.
John: So, let’s talk about strategies for when you encounter those situations, because the most helpful thing I’ve found over the years is both in your own mind and for the person you’re with is to reframe it in terms of the movie you’re trying to make.
John: And that way if you stopped talking about the script and started talking about the movie, then you’re sort of on neutral territory because you’re talking about a theoretical thing that’s in the future rather than this thing that’s right in front of you.
So, you can talk about not only what your intentions where with the script — fine, whatever that is — but what your intentions are for the movie. And exactly what you’re saying where like I’ve now quickly fast-forwarded through and saw exactly what the horrible thing that that note would do to the movie, they’re not there yet. And so sometimes what my job is is to help them subtly discover what the repercussions of that note would be without sort of telling them what the repercussions would be, without making it seem like I’m the person who created this horrible scenario. Let them come up to it in their own terms.
And so sort of slowly walk them through sort of what that is that happens there.
Craig: And you said a really important thing which is to talk about the movie as opposed to the script. Their nightmare is a writer who doesn’t understand that the point is a movie and not a good script. And their nightmare is a writer who is focused entirely on a document that will be 100% worthless once the movie is made.
And they’re panicked over that. So, I love that you’re saying talk about the movie. That’s exactly right.
John: In a general sense, let’s talk about what notes tend to be helpful and what notes tend to be frustrating, because there’s sort of a Goldilocks zone of notes that I find are really useful. And so if note is “too general” then it’s just maddening, because I can’t do anything with that. So, if someone says, “I don’t know that this should take place in space.” Well, like that’s too general. I can’t do anything; that’s the nature of the movie that we’re talking about. So, that’s too general of a note.
There’s also “too specific” of a note. There’s like, “Oh, when he drinks out of the blue glass it should really be like a green glass. I think the green glass more feels like…” That’s way too specific.
What’s usually helpful for me as a writer is that note that falls right in that sort of in-between zone where it’s usually talking about a scene, it’s talking about a character, it’s talking about a moment that’s actually addressable, that is something that I could do and I could work on.
So, I love when somebody comes to me with, “This isn’t working for me. This is the problem I’m coming to. But I’m not going to tell you how to solve it. I’m here to be a sounding board for talking about how we can work through those things.” The best note sessions have been the ones that ask the questions and don’t sort of try to force the answers upon me.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And I think the best note givers are the ones who don’t have ego wrapped up in doing a job that they’re not currently doing. The worst note givers are the ones who aren’t directors, aren’t writers, aren’t actors, but think they are and talk that way. So, they’re trying to do it for you. The best note givers are the ones who respect what you do and also respect themselves, understand that nobody gets it perfectly right the first time or even the 20th time. It can always be made better to some extent. And their job is to get you to figure out how to do that.
Everybody is an audience member. Everybody is born an audience member. Eventually we show these movies to 20 people, well, a room full of people, and then ask questions of 20 to 25 of them. And they have absolutely no qualifications whatsoever except that they have a pulse and they like movies. Well, if they say this is all boring or it’s really slow, it’s boring, and it’s slow, at least for them.
Craig: And so good note givers can have an impression and then are able to tease out of you the solution. I think that’s exactly right. There are times when you will get bad notes and it’s very tempting to win points. Sometimes you will get a note like, “I just feel like — why isn’t there a moment where he tells his friend that he actually loves her?” And there is that moment. It’s on page 11.
And every writer has had that experience. You’re like, it’s on page 11! And there’s two ways of saying that. [laughs] There’s the, “It’s on page 11, dummy!” And then there’s the, “Well, there’s this moment on page 11 that I intended to do that. I don’t know if it’s landing that way. Can we just take a look at it?”
And nine times out of ten if presented that way they’ll go, “Okay, you know, I just missed it.”
John: Yeah. When doing a TV pilot they often say like, “Yeah. Maybe we kind of need to underline that moment.” And what they literally mean is just, “Could you just underline it because I didn’t see it because I read it too quickly and no one else is going to see it.” So, that’s one of the things I learned this last time through in TV is like sometimes you actually just have to underline it because people are going to read too quickly.
John: I want to talk through two frustrating scenarios that have come up in the last couple weeks. And I don’t know that I have solutions for them, but I will point out like a shared frustration I think most people are going to feel. One is when you get really — when someone is really articulate and impassioned and makes a very strong point about something, there’s a tendency to sort of give them more weight and validity than you necessarily should.
John: Because sometimes really smart people can be wrong. Really smart, articulate people can be wrong, and they can actually steer you in a dangerous direction. And it’s so tempting to listen to them because they seem so smart and articulate. But they may not actually have the same intention for the movie that you do.
John: And that is a thing to always keep in mind. And so all the other things we’re talking about in terms of active listening and taking notes and all that stuff, but at the same time you have to ask yourself, “Is this the right person to be giving this note for this movie? And is this steering the movie in a direction that I want to go into?”
I’m often part of the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. And so I’m an advisor there and I will read a bunch of scripts and we’ll give feedback and try to help people find the right things. And we’re coached in sort of how to give notes in a way that’s hopefully asking the “what if” questions rather than trying to give solutions.
The challenge is all the advisors are like really successful screenwriters. And so anything we say people tend to put sort of too much stock in in a weird way. And so I have to sort of sometimes caution people, it’s like, “This is just what I’m feeling right now. Do not take this as gospel and do not try to do exactly what I’m saying, or do not try to do what me and three other screenwriters are saying which is going to steer you in different directions. Just listen to sort of our ideas, but don’t try to do this directly.”
John: The second situation which I run into far too often is sometimes they’re really giving a note about the last draft. So, they had a very strong opinion about the last draft and you did things to address those things. But they still have that residual opinion from the previous draft. And so sometimes they’re not really giving notes on this draft. They’re giving notes about how they kind of feel about the project and not specifically what you put on the page.
And that’s just something you kind of have to live with in a way because you’re not going to be able to convince them that it actually has already all changed in the script, or that you have addressed that. It’s just, you know, it’s the echo of a previous opinion and that’s just going to stay there for awhile.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. There’s nothing you can really do about that. I think you’re absolutely right that there are times when individuals who are persuasive through force, position, articulation, and intelligence will sway a room. Persuasiveness, as you point out correctly, does not equal correctness.
Craig: And I think that is something that… — I’ll tell you, I’ve come across that a couple of times. The only strategy I have for that, or I guess tactic is the proper word, is I find that you’re not the only one who is struggling under that yoke. Everyone else is, too. Whoever that bulldozer is, you’re not the only person that’s been bulldozed.
And sometimes what I do in those situations is I circle back with the other people who are sort of cowed into silence or mowed over and I say, “Look, that’s a big personality in there. But can I just talk to you side bar and just say brilliant person, very smart. I don’t think that the movie they’re describing is the one we should be doing. Can you help me out?”
A lot of times they’ll say, “I know. Let’s figure this out.” And you find your allies where you can find them, you know?
John: I mean, the high class problems that we often run into is sometimes there are multiple people in that room who all have big personalities who all have authority just because of their position. So, you have a giant actor, you have a powerful director, you have a studio head, and they’re all saying slightly different things. And our function, and hopefully the reason why we’re getting paid a weekly, is because we are supposed to be somehow able to synthesize all these ideas and get everyone onto the same page, which doesn’t always happen.
John: And so it’s recognizing that that’s the Psych 101, or actually the Psych 401 of our jobs is to somehow get these people to feel enough confidence in your ability to tell the story that they’re going to say yes and actually shoot the movie.
Craig: Yeah. If you have managed to not be antipathetic and antagonistic, and you have been pleasant and yet also defended your intentions and made them feel not stupid, made them feel welcomed and comfortable and listened to.
It is absolutely true that when the inevitable time comes where there is a Game of Thrones like clash over the “Who gets to sit on the Iron Throne?” everyone will come to you. You have a choice. You can in the process of receiving notes you can hue towards the childish or you can hue towards the adult. And the adult is far less emotionally satisfying in the short term; far more emotionally satisfying in the long term.
And, frankly, it helps you get what you want. You are suddenly listened to and needed in a way that you might not have been otherwise. And that, I guess my final general concluding and guiding advice is this: When you’re in these meetings, if you are positive about something, whether it’s a suggestion or something that we should be doing, or something we all like, be as passionate as you can be.
If there is any negativity — if you are disagreeing with a note, if you’re disagreeing with a suggestion, a thought, or a direction — be as dispassionate as you can be. And you will find that you will be appreciated and you will be given more room to do your job and you will actually, I think, be hung up less on the hook of bad notes than you would have been otherwise.
John: I would agree. Craig, thank you for a good talk about notes.
John: Woo! Let’s get to some questions.
John: Our first question comes from Matthias from Taastrup, Denmark. He writes, “I read Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver and several times he’s cheating the action scene description, or at least it feels that way. An example: ‘Travis’s cold, piercing eyes stare out from his cab parked across the street from the Palatine headquarters. He is like a lone wolf watching the warm campfires of civilization from a distance. A thin red dot glows from his cigarette.’”
So, the “lone wolf watching from the campfires for civilization” is his question about that line.
“A second example: ‘It is the same look that crossed his face in the Harlem deli. We are reminded with a jolt that the killer lies just beneath Travis’s surface.’”
And so the question is, is this cheating? Is it an exception? What do we think?
Craig: Both. It is cheating. [laughs] There’s — I mean, it certainly evokes something a director can go for. At least the director in reading that script says, “Okay, the intention here is that there is a specific look, a kind of hunger, an animalistic predatory hunger here that I want to kind of tie back and mirror in these two moments.”
But here’s the truth: of course it’s an exception, because Paul Schrader wrote an amazing screenplay. And in the end I don’t care what you do. I don’t care if you write it in crayon, and I don’t care if you write it backwards. If it’s really, really good no one cares, you know?
The only reason I say to people don’t cheat on that stuff as a matter of principle is because usually they’re cheating on it because they’re not doing what the non-cheated version should have done, which is reveal those things. But I think that through the actions, the actual filmable actions of that screenplay, obviously Schrader did do that. And so he gets to cheat because he wrote an awesome script.
John: I’m going to split my decision on this. I think “he is like a lone wolf watching the warm campfires of a civilization from a distance,” yes, it’s poetic, but that’s actually a filmable moment. That tells you what it feels like to be watching that scene. And you can sense how you might do that. And so I think that’s a filmable moment.
The second one I have a little bit more of a problem with. “We are reminded with a jolt that the killer lies just beneath Travis’s surface.” That pushes a little too far for me. And that starts with the “we are reminded,” it’s like, well, that’s just a lot of presumption on the behalf of the audience in this moment.
So, I think if you can give us a sense of what the visual description is that reminds us. You already say, like, “It’s the same look that crossed his face in the Harlem deli. The look of a killer, or the look of a killer right beneath the surface.” That feels a little bit less like cheating because you’re not going to the “we are reminded that.” The only thing that took me out of the prose there was those four words.
Craig: I agree. I mean, those aren’t filmable, but apparently not also necessary to be a movie itself, I guess, you know.
John: And in a general sense I think you have to remember that what we’re putting on the page is things that you can see and things that you can hear, but the experience of watching a movie, there are things that echo from before. So, if it’s important that a look be a certain kind of look, you can describe that kind of look because that’s a thing that a lens can show you.
Or, sometimes there are sounds and if you can describe those sounds and give us things — if we’re going to recognize somebody that we saw before, that’s a thing that’s really easy to do in movies, but sometimes a little bit awkward to do on the page. But just do it on the page if it’s important. Don’t worry about that’s cheating. If we’re going to remember something that we saw before, that’s really simple to do with a camera. So, it’s absolutely fine to do it on the page.
Craig: Yeah. Just don’t do anything cheaty that you need the audience to know, because they won’t. If you’re doing it intentionally cheaty to evoke something in the reader or to clue the director in onto what he ought to go for with the actor, that’s fine.
And I will say that this is a good example of how so many of these gurus and ding-a-lings are incorrect when they say, “Never tell the actors how to act in your script. That’s the director’s job.” Well, uh, no.
Craig: Not true at all. I think the screenplay is designed to be read and performed by actors. I think it’s perfectly fine for the screenwriter who came up with the whole thing to express their intention to the actors reading the script. It’s perfectly fine.
No, you don’t want to overdose the thing. You can’t read it that way. But, you know, we can’t… — These ding-a-lings out there who say, “Oh, well, directors hate that.” You know what? They don’t seem to hate it that much when you’ve written a great script that attracts great stars and a budget. Then they’re okay with it.
John: Somehow they are.
John: Our next question is also about the words on the page. Gordon asks, “My question is about the TV treatments on your site and their informal tone.”
So, he’s talking about at johnaugust.com in the library I have the treatments that I’ve written for some TV stuff that I’ve done.
“Do they reflect a standard approach, or would they only be accepted from an established writer with a good track record? I was pleasantly surprised by the loose conversational style.”
And so this is what we talk about a lot, is what your voice is. And usually we’re talking about voice in terms of what it sounds like in a screenplay, but a treatment is a much less structured document in many ways. And it often does have a much chattier tone. And it’s a lot like if I was telling you what happens in this story. That’s kind of how I write treatments. They’re much talkier. They don’t necessarily refer to you, or they don’t refer to you or to me, but they feel like you’re in a conversation with somebody.
And, Craig, you don’t submit — you don’t have those kinds of documents very often, do you?
Craig: I do. I write treatments all the time?
John: Things that you share with people?
Craig: Yeah. Absolutely.
I don’t do it always. It depends on the project. But sometimes I want to do it because there are so many people involved that… — I mean, look, I always do it for myself anyway. But that’s really a collection of notes. And I put the notes in order so that I have all the ideas and things I’ve thought of for the movie. As I’m writing I can say, okay, I don’t forget, it’s a big catch-all bin.
But, like for instance on Identity Thief there was Scott Stuber and Pam Abdy who were the producers, along with Jason Bateman who was a producer. And there was Melissa McCarthy, and there was Donna Langley, and there was Peter Cramer, Scott Bernstein, and there was, and there was, and there was. There were a lot of people.
And when there’s a lot of people like that there’s a natural tendency in any environment for people to kind of pick off the writer here and there to get their thoughts in. And not everybody is aware of what you’re doing at any given point. And suddenly you turn the script in and two people are like, “Well what is this?” And three other people are like, “Well, that’s what we wanted,” and, “No, we didn’t.”
So, if there are a lot of people involved I will write a treatment and basically give it to everybody and say, “Yes we agree, or no we don’t agree” before I start writing.
I do write those very conversationally. I think that those treatments should evoke the feeling of a friend walking out of a movie and saying, “I’m going to tell you what just happened. The most amazing movie. Okay. All right, so it opens on…” You know? Because, why not?
John: Exactly. It goes back to the general principle of all kind of professional writing is you want to write something that people want to read. And if it’s loose and conversational they’re more likely to actually read it and not stop reading it and drop it and sit it down on the table at some point. So, if it’s easy for them to read, they’re more likely to go through it.
Craig: Yup. Totally.
John: Next question is super important. It comes from Chris Ford. He says, “I decided to try Final Draft’s competitor, Fade In, and I was surprised when it loaded up with a ’1.’ at the top of the otherwise blank first page. They claim they consulted with industry pros. I think I remember Craig saying he was involved with the software or used it. Obviously it’s super easy to change, but I wanted to know where you both stood on this hugely controversial and super exciting issue of having a page number on the first page?”
Craig: [laughs] Oh my god. I’m now opening up a draft of something to see if — I couldn’t even tell you if I have a number on the first page. While I’m doing that you will tell me what your position is.
John: I believe the first page should not have a page number on it.
Craig: That’s normal for like regular things, like Microsoft Word documents usually don’t do that.
John: If it’s the first page you know it’s the first page so why would you put a page number there, and it gets in the way. I also love to put just a little blank space at the top of the first page. It’s just my thing.
Craig: Well, I just checked. The Hangover Part III does not have a 1 on the first page.
John: So, industry pros tell you do not put a number on the first page.
Craig: Yeah. So, what I’ll do is I will tweet the fine author of that software and say, no, get rid of it. The script I’m about to write, I think I’m going to write it in Fade In.
Craig: Yeah. I’m going to give it a shot, see how it goes. Why not?
John: Absolutely. The second question here, then we can sidebar for a second. Martins in Latvia — I just love that we have listeners in Denmark and Latvia. “Here’s a plea on behalf of those who want to use Final Draft in languages other than the ones currently available. I trust there would be a lot out there. It’s time for Final Draft to switch to UTF-8 fonts.”
And a sidebar about UTF-8. Roman alphabets, there are various character collections you can use. And UTF-8 is a large character set that can include all the different sort of characters and marks for most sort of western languages.
“Since I used to be to get Final Draft to write in Latvian, my native tongue, under Windows XP and less so under Windows 7, but switching to the latest Mac has made it impossible. Now, I can only use it for English language writing and that’s a bummer.”
So, first I want to say, yes, you should be able to write in your own language and it’s frustrating when things don’t allow you to do that. I have found in general Macs to be really pretty good at sort of being able to let you write in whatever character set you need to write in. For Highland we were able to do that and people seemed to have very good luck writing in different western languages in Highland without great problems.
It’s sort of natural to the Mac to be able to do that. Final Draft right now is in this weird state where it’s kind of old and it’s kind of new and it’s not very Macintosh like.
John: So, I’m not surprised that you’re having this problem with it.
Craig: I don’t have anywhere near your expertise on fonts and so forth. I’ve used Apples, in all their variations, since 1983. And it always seemed to me that the company just was more friendly to alternative alphabets than Windows. So, I’ve never noticed an issue, but then again I don’t use Cyrillic, I don’t use Swedish, or anything like that.
What I do know is that Latvia is cool. And I’m glad that people… — You know, for a long time I thought Doctor Doom was from Latvia. But he’s…
John: Where is he actually from?
John: Oh, yeah. It’s a crucial distinction. You add that extra syllable, it changes everything.
Craig: Well, first of all, it changes it to a country that doesn’t exist, [laughs], most importantly. But I feel like people of Latvia probably do get the “Oh, yeah, Doctor Doom is from Latvia.” And then they go, “No, he’s from Latveria.” Latveria is no more related to Latvia than Argentina.
Craig: It’s a totally different country.
John: So, there are people who are protesting the Czech Embassy because the bombers were Chechen. And it just makes me so angry and sad for America.
Craig: Ugh. You know, god. I’m just.. — People are getting dumber, and dumber. I don’t know if people are getting dumber, or it’s just that there are so many more avenues for them to express their stupidity.
John: I think there are more avenues for them to express their stupidity and it’s more easy to report on how stupid they are.
Craig: Yeah. Self report. [laughs]. Well, they self report and then we cover it.
John: [laughs] Yeah, Twitter is like self-reporting stupidity central.
Craig: It’s true. Actually now after ever controversial or tragic event there is this thing that happens now that I just call idiot roundup where they’ll then roundup the 40 people who tweeted horrible, horrible things, who are then exposed to everybody. Like after Obama was reelected there was like here’s 40 incredibly racist tweets. And after Boston, here’s 40 incredibly stupid comments.
Now, it’s like the game is the day after — look who’s stupid on Twitter. I hate people.
John: I hate people, too.
Going back to screenwriting software for a second, one thing that came out this last week which we should talk about briefly is Slugline which is a plain text Fountain-based screenwriting app that I got to use when I was writing the ABC pilot. So, that was the unannounced software that I was using that I wrote in Fountain. And I love it. I think it’s actually a terrific little app.
And so it’s now in the Mac App Store. I think there’s some confusion. I didn’t make it. I was one of the people who helped make Fountain. I make the Highland app. Slugline is a completely different app that is sort of friends with Slugline but is a different thing.
You got to try it out this week, didn’t you?
Craig: I did. And for the life of me, I can’t remember. I liked it. There was something that was bugging me.
– Oh, yeah, I like it when a character speaks dialogue, then there’s a break for an action line, and then the character says “continues,” I like the “Joe (CON’T),” and I like that to be automatic. And this program doesn’t do that.
Craig: And I would imagine it’s essentially useless for revisions and things like that as well. But, for a casual user it’s even more simple to use than most of them. It doesn’t use the return tab system. It’s smart enough to know, okay, you just start typing a character name in all caps, you must mean character.
John: Yeah. That’s the thing I appreciate most about Slugline is that you just start typing into it. And you never have to sort of like tab over and figure out which element you’re in, because in Fountain Syntax you’re always in one kind of element. And it’s smart enough to know that if you started with an uppercase line, and the next line doesn’t start uppercase, that must be a character name, that must be dialogue.
John: It just sort of magically does it. So, Highland is more like a plain text editor where everything stays over in the left hand margin and that’s just how it is. Slugline interprets in real time sort of what it thinks the elements are and does a really good job of sort of matching stuff up.
So, if it’s your style I would definitely recommend using Slugline.
Craig: Yeah. The other limitation of it, it’s just essentially baked into the way it does it. You know, I prefer a method where I tab and then I can type the first letter without doing a shift, you know?
But then, okay, the tab is a keystroke and so that’s sort of, okay, what’s more annoying: tab and then C, or Shift-C? Mm, you know, I don’t know.
Craig: I’m just used to it.
John: You’re used to a certain way. And I will say that after having written the whole script in Slugline, then when I had to go through to do revisions in Final Draft I found it maddening to have to sort of figure out what element I was in as I started typing. Because there are times where you think, “Oh, I’m tabbed over, I’m in character.” But, no, I’m actually in a parenthetical or I’m in some other weird thing. And then I have to reformat to get back to the right thing.
Craig: You know, Final Draft man. It’s just, god, they bum me out because they have such an opportunity to improve that software and make it better for all the people who use it and they just default to, “Eh.”
John: Well, they did announce a roadmap and a plan. And so I don’t want to sort of dig too deep into it right now, but they announced Final Draft 9 and sort of where they’re moving. And so the new format will be FDX V9, or whatever. And they said, in the press release, I kind of was flattered because they said like they’re going to start having approved partners for the FDX format. I really kind of think that Highland was the official unapproved format that they got really frustrated that we were using their format without having official approval.
John: But when you’re based on XML you’re open format. Anyone should be able to do it.
Craig: Well, yeah.
John: It does sound like Final Draft is going to move — in their press release it says they’re moving to an online service so your script is in the cloud. There are wonderful things about being in the cloud. There are potentially really terrifying things about being in the cloud, about being in Final Draft’s cloud. So, it’s going to be interesting to see sort of how that all works.
Craig: I’m not into it. And, you know, look — here’s the killer app part of this that none of these guys have been able to figure out, because it involves network security issues, and that is allowing two people in two different places to work on the same Final Draft document at the same time.
Obviously by putting it in the cloud that becomes simple; it’s essentially a Google Docs. And so that part, I guess, is cool. I like that concept of it. It’s just, god, I wish they were better, you know?
John: Yeah. Let’s move onto other topics. Mike from Walnut Creek, California asked, “A, what would be a realistic annual earnings target for someone who ‘makes it’ as a feature screenwriter? Assuming the writer gets a healthy amount of work in a given year and perhaps at one of the top echelons of WGA feature writers who stay employed in any given year.” So, that’s the first one.
And I tried to just like, oh, I’ll just look up what the median –
[horn blares] What was that, Craig, on your side?
Craig: It sounds like it was like a truck.
John: That was nuts.
Craig: Yeah. We should leave it in. That’s what’s going on here all day long.
John: Leave it in.
So, I tried to look up what is the median feature screenwriter salary and I couldn’t actually find a useful number. And I kept going back to like 2007 and it was all related to the strike when they put up that average screenwriter’s salary which was, of course, really misleading.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know what the median is. I don’t think they’ve ever reported it. It’s a good question.
John: So, of course, the average salary would be to take how much the total earnings are of feature writers and divide it by the number of feature writers, or the number of employed feature writers, but that really kind of misrepresents what the experience is of being a feature screenwriter because some years you’re making a lot, and some years you’re making not very much at all.
John: It is a sort of feast or famine kind of thing. And so you have to anticipate that some years you’re going to make a lot and some years you’re going to make much, much less. Like this year I made much, much less because I was busy doing the musical so I just wasn’t working as much.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there are general tiers of things. The typically new screenwriters are going to work on one, maybe two things a year. Typically they’re making between $100,000 and $250,000 for a feature project. And, again, you have to take all these numbers, and I think we’ve walked through this before — reduce it by 15% to 25%, depending on whether or not you have a manager, because you have an agent, and you have a lawyer. And, of course, then taxes, and if you have a partner you can then lop it in half again. So, these numbers sounds a little sexier than they are.
The middle class of feature film writer, they generally define as between $250,000 to $550,000 for — and I think that’s a decent amount for a year’s work for somebody like that. Then you have writers with credits, you know, call them B+ list, I don’t care about the list names. And those are writers who are then, okay, you’re in the upper echelon. You’ve got a good quote. Your quote is maybe $400,000 against $800,000, or $500,000. And so they’re making between $500,000 and $1 million a year.
And then A-list screenwriters make on the low end $1 million a year, all the way up to David Koepp-ville or god only knows. [laughs] I mean, you know, there are writers who have made between $5 million and $10 million in a year.
Craig: It happens. So, millions. You know, A-list writers make millions of dollars.
John: Yeah. But I would say it’s important to keep in mind that there are fewer A-list writers than there are big NBA basketball players. I mean, there is a very small number of people who actually are making that much.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So, you shouldn’t kind of like, “I’m going to be one of those people.” It’s great if that is a goal of yours, but if your goal is to be a working writer the actual money you’re making as a working writer is considerably less. And you should be just delighted to be a working writer because the number of people who tend to be screenwriters who have sold something, or were working writers but are not currently working writers, that’s a large percentage of the population as well.
Craig: For sure. I mean, when you say fewer than the NBA, it’s fewer than maybe four NBA teams. Maybe there are 40 screenwriters who made over $1 million last year working in feature films.
John: I don’t think there are that many. I bet if we went off the podcast and sort of actually just made a list, we’d recognize it’s a very, very small number.
Craig: It’s small. And it is more like being an All Star baseball player, you know. It’s so tiny. But, you can… — Look, you can make a lot of money being a screenwriter if you happen to be one of those. But, I personally think that anybody who goes into screenwriting should think that in success they are going to earn a comfortable living, a very comfortable living. They will be wealthy by many, many standards if they are able to do it over, and over, and over, and over. And that is where you see, because for a lot of people I know, a lot of writers I know, because there are writers I know that were there when I started. So, I’ve been able to watch different people in their different paths.
And there are writers who sell — they have a big script sale for $1 million and that feeds them for six years. You know?
Craig: it is not… — Don’t become a screenwriter to make money. That’s not going to be…
John: Yeah. Become a screenwriter to make movies. That’s what it comes down to.
Craig: Yup. Big time.
John: Become a stockbroker to make money.
Craig: Yeah, for sure.
John: Dan writes, “I thought you and Craig might want to start a Cut it Out list for clichés that come up in screenwriting like the ‘staring into the mirror’ example mentioned in the recent podcast. It might be fun to compile a list, get reader participation. It would also be a helpful tool for screenwriters to avoid all of these clams.”
I think that’s a terrific idea. So, if you have a suggestion for me and Craig of something that we just need to stop doing in scripts, tweet it to us and we’ll keep a list. If it’s longer than what can fit into a tweet, you can just mail it to email@example.com. But, if it’s a short little thing, tweet it and we’ll make a list. We’ll maybe even retweet the really good ones, because that’s a great idea.
Craig: This is kind of like the action description version of the dialogue clam list we did. Love it.
John: Yes. So, on Twitter I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. And tweet us your suggestions for things that we should just stop doing in movies, things we need to Cut it Out.
Craig: But don’t put things that are in the movies I’ve done, [laughs], because you know, there are people out there who would be like, “Cut it Out, Craig Mazin writing screenplays. Cut it out.”
John: If you want to hash-tag it, just #CutItOut.
Craig: Yeah, oh nice. Well done. I keep forgetting about those hash-tags.
John: I’m very viral that way.
Drew in Taiwan writes, “Whereas box office gross is extremely accessible,” box office gross numbers he means, “probably owing to history and tradition it’s been difficult for me to find the numbers behind the profits of on-demand services or iTunes rentals and streaming sites like Netflix. A friend in the industry told me that studios don’t want to release this information because it gives them more bargaining power with talent or whoever else. What do you think about that theory? And where could I find these statistics?”
Craig: That’s a perfectly good theory. In general, business wants to release the least amount of information possible because it tends to muck their stuff up. I mean, information is power. The movie business is challenged in that regard because the theater collects tickets. And the studios make their money by finding out how many tickets the theater sold. The theater then takes a chunk of that and the studios take the other chunk. So, there needs to be independent, verifiable sourced information, hence Rentrack and I assume there’s other companies that do this as well.
It’s not like, for instance, Big Fish the musical, the production collects the tickets, right? I mean, you pay rent to the theater, but the money for the tickets goes to the production. Isn’t that right?
John: That’s not actually true.
John: Actually I would say theater box office, the actual box office is actually very similar to what film box office is.
Craig: Oh, okay.
John: And so you can actually go to sites like BroadwayWorld and they will have the weekly to show exactly how many tickets were sold and what percentage of seats were sold. That’s actually all very public information.
Craig: Because the theaters do take a — is it a numerical cut based on the tickets you sell?
John: Yes. It’s because there’s house nuts. And so some of that stuff works very much like how it works in the film industry. And that was a surprise to me. So, I’m only just learning that it is such public information. But that’s why we can know what shows are struggling because it’s really public information.
Craig: It has to be because any time two different businesses are relying on a number, that number has to be shared.
John: Absolutely. And so if you are a participant in a show, like with Big Fish when we open on Broadway I will get a percentage of that box office, that’s just sort of the deal a writer has in that. And so that has to be a public figure. Granted, there are all sorts of things that get taken away from that. But there is some sort of public figure that can back up there.
Where I’ve often found, just studying the industry, trying to figure out video numbers in general, even before we get into online and streaming stuff, is very, very difficult and is much more fungible. So, you’ll find out video rental information or you’ll find out video sales through retailers, but it’s all much murkier than it is with true box office.
Craig: Yes, it is. They do publish DVD sales lists. They generally aren’t as accessible because just aren’t as interested. So, for instance, most news sources won’t subscribe to those sources because they just don’t care. But, they exist. The problem — the reason that they’re murkier is because these kinds of sales take place in a very diffuse manner. It’s true that the first week a DVD is available for sale — and we’re talking in 2006 terms now — you’ll sell a lot of DVDs.
But, DVDs are constantly being sold. They’re constantly being sold — it’s library stuff. And sometimes there is suddenly a spike in interest in a DVD because, you know, something happens, or people are interested in the movie.
For Netflix and for downloads and all the rest of it, I guess the basic rule is if they don’t need to publicly share admissions, actual people going through turnstile, then they’re probably not going to tell you much about it.
John: Absolutely. And the retailers, the equivalence of that, have good reasons for not disclosing those figures if they don’t have to. So, Amazon doesn’t want to tell you how much they paid for the streaming rights to that movie, or how many DVDs they sold of that movie because they want that information for themselves, because that’s power for them.
So, I agree that it’s frustrating and I don’t have good answers.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s the case, if it does poorly it’s embarrassing to them, so they don’t want you to know. And if it does really well then they don’t want you to know how much sick amount of cash they just made off of someone else’s product.
John: Absolutely. So, they’ll show you charts, but I think they show you the charts because they know that charts can sometimes generate sales in itself. So, they want to show you the top 20 selling DVDs because maybe you’ll be one of those top 20 selling DVDs. But it’s just one of those self-fulfilling prophecies many times.
John: Our last question of the day is a long one. So, I’m going to take a deep breath as I read into this. Emma in Rochester, New York, and I’m actually changing Emma’s name for reasons that you’re going to understand why, she writes:
“In December 2010 I began writing a screenplay about and for somebody. It was about a man I barely knew but I thought might have been in love with. We were never ‘together,’ in fact we were barely even friends. I told him how I felt, he rejected me, and then I went on and wrote this screenplay mapping out in detail how much I wanted him.
“I’m a woman with no experience. No experience — read between the lines — so in reality I guess it makes sense that I would do something idiotic that others might even presume is something psychotic. Michel Gondry once said, ‘Every great idea is on the verge of being stupid.’
“My idea of writing a screenplay for someone that didn’t want to, but doing so in trying to make the screenplay hilarious, funny, heartwarming, innovative, and endearing to the point of possibly making that person want to take a second look at you as a woman to me was just that, ‘A great idea on the verge of being stupid.’
“It’s now been 2.5 years since I wrote the first page of the screenplay. In those 2.5 years I’ve only seen this man three times in brief passing at social events. We’re no longer in contact, but he does not know about the screenplay. I went to therapy last year because of major depression and other things, not just him, and am now in a better place. I have stopped editing the screenplay.
“The script is done but in need of a heavy rewrite and edit. Now that I am in this better place I feel odd going back to it. But in the past two years it has always been my goal. People tell me not to ever show this to him in case it ever goes somewhere professionally and that I shouldn’t care what he thinks, but in all honestly I don’t ever think I could not care what he thinks. After all, if anything, he was my muse and to me I care most about what he thinks and I still want to show this to him despite I have more or less moved on.”
I’m going to skip three paragraphs here.
Craig: [laughs] Okay.
John: “I worry that writing this screenplay is no longer ‘good for the psyche.’ And in the same breath I feel like the longer it sits there I’ll wonder what if I had tried doing something with the script. My question is how do I write about someone who has become a distant memory to you and how do you infuse that passion needed to make a good story out of this when this person is someone you’re not even sure as to whether you have feelings for them anymore?”
I muddled that sentence, but you get where we’re at in this situation, Craig.
Craig: Yeah. Well, you know, I kept waiting for that moment when Emma from Rochester would say, “I’ve gotten over this unhealthy obsession with this guy who is, as they say, just not that into you. And now I’m looking at the screenplay as a standalone work of art but I want to adjust it so that it’s not specifically about the things that are irrelevant, like my former obsession with him, and rather could just be something that would be universally interesting to an audience. How do I do that?”
That’s a question I can answer. The problem is she never got there. She’s still…
John: And I don’t think it was even in the paragraphs I cut out.
Craig: [laughs] No. So, she’s still hung up on this guy. And I have to tell you, Emma, that from everything you’ve described here, when you say, “I’ve more or less moved on,” it seems less than more. And you should move on. If you want to write screenplays to entertain audiences in a theater, then do so and write another one. No one has just one screenplay.
And I would suggest, I’m not saying throw this one out, I’m not saying burn it, but put it in a drawer and wait for the day where it is not an instrument to achieve a romantic goal, because that ain’t happening.
John: Yeah. I chose to read this letter because I completely relate to her. And I completely relate to her situation. And I think a lot of writing is sort of obsession. And, you know, it’s exploring those feelings that you sort of dare not actually explore otherwise. And so I’ve been in her situation where you sort of fall in love with people that are never going to love you back. And some of the early writing I did in college was that sort of situation.
And that’s not necessarily healthy or good, but it’s really normal. And so I want to make sure that I underline that what she’s sort of experiencing and going through is totally normal.
John: At the same time I think your suggestion in general is absolutely correct. She does need to set this one aside and work on something completely different that intrigues her and interests her because her interests as a person and her interests as a writer will often overlap but they can’t be exactly the same thing.
She can create a work of fiction and that’s wonderful, but she’s not going to be able to make that work of fiction transform her reality. That’s just not a healthy expectation about what her writing can do.
Craig: Yeah. Screenplays are not particularly good at persuading individuals to fall in love with you. Screenplays are, I think, a great avenue as is much art — a great avenue to exercise any demons you have, to examine your own behavior.
Let me tell you, Emma, that if you wrote a screenplay about this, that would be interesting. If you wrote a screenplay about somebody who is obsessed with somebody who didn’t care about them and really put themselves out there through work of art and was rejected and then found a way to move on, that’s empowering and that’s terrific.
Slightly related, did you ever see The Boys in the Band, John August?
John: Yeah, I’ve seen it. Yeah, of course.
Craig: So, I’d never even heard of this movie and our friend, Ted Griffin, fine screenwriter, he’s reading the William Friedkin autobiography. And he gets to this chapter where he’s talking about The Boys in the Band. And The Boys in the Band is one of these movies that you can watch on YouTube, like somebody separated it into 12 chapters. And, frankly, it is a movie that you absolutely could watch on YouTube because it takes place in essentially a room. It was a stage play that was very successful and then they shot it almost true to being — it was very stage like in its production.
Fascinating movie. I mean, it’s ridiculous at times. It’s dated and somewhat over the top. But, I kind of loved it.
John: I think you need to explain the sort of context. It was one of the very first…
Craig: It’s the first.
John: …movie depictions of gay men as not monsters.
Craig: Well, kind of. Yeah. It was the first filmed depiction of gay men being men, just people, and not tragic figures that end up killing themselves, or objects of ridicule, or side characters.
And it was the first movie that treated gay romance as just romance and problems of gay men as just human problems. And the guy who wrote the play, I think his name is Mart Crowley, was gay at a time when that was almost completely wrapped up in a kind of self-loathing and outsider-ness. And he wrote this play to kind of exercise a lot of demons.
And the main character of the play is a terrible person. And that is, he’s like, “That’s kind of me. I was kind of that guy and this was part of the exercising of that.” And he’s just a cruel, mean person who is wrapped up in hating himself and hating his — both celebrating and hating his homosexuality.
And I thought just as an exercise in cleansing yourself, this was a remarkable act of courage. And so for Emma I would say, okay, cleansing yourself of something is a great muse. It’s a great impetus to write a screenplay. But, feeding something that is unhealthy is not.
John: Yeah. Right now she’s sort of kindling her obsession.
John: And she’s able to revisit all the feelings she has about this guy by working on this script. And that is not going to be a healthy choice for her life or for her writing career.
So, I agree that it may be fascinating for her to pursue sort of the introspection of what is this character who is obsessed with this thing, and what is the funny version of that who like puts on the play. That could be a great story. But, what might also be a better choice is just something that’s completely not that, something else that is actually interesting; something bright that she can move towards rather than this dark sort of tumbling thing that is never going to resolve well.
John: But, if there’s a last bit of encouragement I can put on you here, some of the greatest works of art, of literature, have come out of this kind of obsession over people.
John: And so if you look at Jane Austen’s work it’s kind of about girls obsessed with guys in a way that’s, you know, I don’t know if it was specifically Jane Austen’s situation, but it kind of feels like it was — like that inaccessible guy who finally loves her, that’s a great story and that’s a great thing to pursue. So, you shouldn’t feel afraid about feeling things too deeply. Just don’t keep recycling that feeling to get stuck in this loop with this script about this guy who’s never going to love you back.
John: And also I would say just in a general sense, you need to — in getting over this guy you need to recognize — this is the sort of self help portion of the podcast — you just need to find somebody else who recognizes that you’re awesome and who isn’t this guy. And recognize that they’re awesome for recognizing that you’re awesome and start living a happy, healthy life.
Craig: Yeah. Big time. Absolutely.
John: And that’s our self help section for the show today.
John: I have a One Cool Thing which I worry could be your One Cool Thing, but I’m going to say it first so that I get credit for it.
Craig: Not a chance. Not a chance.
John: Okay. So, my One Cool Thing is a website that Craig knows. It’s called the Internet K-Hole and it’s just amazing. And so it’s a photo blog, and when I say a blog I mean it’s literally in Blogger. And so it already feel vintage just because it’s in Blogger.
So, you go through the site and you feel like you’re looking through some stranger’s photo album, like there is this weird, sort of bizarre druggy nostalgia that’s just super compelling. It kind of feels like — it’s like rock-and-roll and skateboard culture, but there’s also a lot of nudity and there are kittens.
It is not at all safe for work. It’s not safe for children. It’s not safe for…it’s just not safe.
Craig: No. But it’s not gory and it’s not particularly explicit.
John: No, no, it’s not violent. But if you don’t want to randomly come across female genitalia, don’t go to this, because you will come across female genitalia.
Craig: You will. Yes.
John: So, don’t look at this at work. Don’t look at it with your work computers.
What I found so amazing about it, it was this woman Babs, she took some of the photos but mostly she just curated and she created sort of this alternate universe where this thing is happening. And so it’s photos from the ’70s, ’80s, probably early ’90s, and every once and awhile you’ll come across like, oh, there’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers before they were the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Or, there’s Siouxsie & the Banshees.
But what it reminded me most of was there’s this great performance thing in New York called Sleep No More…
Craig: Yeah. It’s funny. I was talking about that with Ted Griffin as well.
John: …which is sort of vaguely inspired by Macbeth. It’s like this site-specific sort of thing you wander through that has narrative but weirdly kind of loops in on itself. And it reminded of that which is you felt like you just tumbled into somebody’s strange dream and you were sort of smothered under too many blankets in a way that’s fantastic.
So, I didn’t go through all of the site. I know people who have gone through everything and sort of experienced the very depths of it, but it’s worth a visit if you are not afraid of genitalia and kittens.
John: And rock-and-roll lifestyle, and are not on a work computer. I would recommend you take a look into the Internet K-Hole.
Craig: It’s so cool. I mean, there’s something about it that manages to recall my memories better than my memories because it’s so mundane. I guess if I were to say one thing that unites all the photos she’s selected here is they’re just total mundanity. They are tacky, but the point isn’t look how tacky. It’s not like People of Walmart which is like, oh my god.
Sometimes the pictures are nothing more than two kids, one drinking from a hose and the other one laughing. But it’s the clothing, it’s the quality of the photographs. It’s all — it truly is a celebration of the most mundane aspects of growing up in the ’70s, and ’80s, and ’90s. And so much of it reminded me of what Staten Island was like in 1979. Just boring and off, but not off in a…
John: But kind of awesome in a way of, like you now, of drinking beer on a porch kind of way.
Craig: Right. It’s funny, when you go through you remember. Like for instance, I’d forgotten the shape of beer bottles. And then everyone is holding those Michelob bottled and I remember my dad holding that Michelob bottle. And I’d forgotten that shape. I’d forgotten so much. It is a cool — it’s cool. It’s bizarre. Totally.
And I guess that’s the thing. It’s bizarre without trying to be bizarre. It’s not bizarre enough to even qualify as bizarre, that’s what’s so bizarre about it.
John: Yeah. Exactly. It’s honest in a way that’s just sort of kind of fascinating.
Craig: Yeah. Very cool. That is a very cool thing. Enjoy tripping through that.
My Cool Thing this week is something called Slacker Radio. Are you familiar with Slacker Radio?
John: I don’t know what it is. Tell me.
Craig: Slacker Radio is, I mean, this is just another nail in the coffin of FM radio. It’s internet-based radio. And I know that you can access it through their website, but I just access it in my car. I think a lot of cars now are coming equipped for it the way that they now become equipped for satellite radio.
And so if your car has essentially a 3G connection or you buy a unit for your car that has a 3G connection, as the Tesla does, then you have access to Slacker. And here’s the beautiful part about Slacker.
So, first of all, it sounds awesome. I don’t know how they made a 3G streaming signal sound better through a really nice car stereo system than either HDFM radio or satellite radio, but they do, so that’s pretty remarkable right there.
And the best part is there are channels, sort of, but not really. Really what there is — I can imagine it’s basically a database of tagged songs. So, for instance, let’s say I want to listen to Les Mis. So I type in Les Mis into their little search thing and, okay, there’s the album Les Mis. I tap on that. That instantly creates a channel called Les Mis. That channel doesn’t just play songs from Les Mis. It plays songs from Les Mis, but it also plays songs that apparently other people who like Les Mis like.
So, it makes an instant radio station for you. And you can customize it and so forth. But the coolest part of it is you can pause. [laughs] And this is like — remember when TiVo happened and you were like, “Oh my god, I’m pausing TV!”
Craig: It’s so great to pause a song. So, when you’re listening to a song in your car, you pull up to where you’re going, and you turn your car off. When you get back in your car it picks it up from where it was.
John: That’s great.
Craig: That’s great. And, also, if you don’t like the song that’s playing you just hit next.
John: I like it. Craig, what is the model that’s sustaining this?
Craig: It’s a subscription-based model. I think that the subscription is bundled with the Tesla. So, it’s essentially the satellite radio model I believe. So, check out Slacker Radio. I don’t know honestly how you get it in your car if it’s not built in already, but I would imagine there’s little thingies the way there used to be for satellite radio, remember when everybody had that little stupid thing. It’s awesome.
Just the fact that, oh, a song comes on, I don’t like it? Next. Wow.
Craig: That is cool.
John: Great. Craig, thank you for a fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: So, standard boilerplate here. If you like our podcast, subscribe to us in iTunes so that we know how many people are listening. And if you are there and you want to leave a rating, that helps other people find us and that’s awesome.
On Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
Notes for this episode, and all episodes of the show, can be found at johnaugust.com/podcast.
If you have a question for us you can write firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s some suggestions on the site for about how to phrase those questions so that we’re more likely to answer them.
We do a Three Page Challenge every once and awhile, so if you want to submit the first three pages of your script to us go to johnaugust.com/threepage. That’s spelled out “threepage.” And there are instructions there for how to send those in.
And, that’s it for tonight. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: See you next time.
- Fade In
- Final Draft
- Screenwriting.io on page numbering and other basic formatting
- Tweet your clams to @johnaugust and @clmazin with #CutItOut
- Scriptnotes, episode 52 featuring Go Into The Story’s list of dialogue clams
- Rentrack and BroadwayWorld
- The Boys in the Band on Amazon
- Internet K-Hole (Warning: NSFW!)
- Sleep No More NYC
- Slacker Radio
- How to submit your question
- OUTRO: Obsession cover by TERMINATRYX
For screenwriters, John McWhorter’s TEDTalk on texting grammar is a useful reminder of the differences between how people talk and how they write.
Speech is made up of word clusters with no discrete punctuation. Because speech is almost always dialogue — you’re usually speaking with somebody — it’s structured in a way that allows interruption.
Compare that to written language, which is by its nature a unbroken monologue with punctuation to demarcate how thoughts should fit together, allowing complex sentences like this one with nested clauses (and even parenthetical asides) that you’d likely never attempt in speech.
As screenwriters, we’re often writing speech. Our goal is to make it feel unwritten.
With dialogue, I generally aim for a slightly optimized version of how people would actually talk. That is, I consider many ways a character could express an idea in that given moment and choose the one that works best. Not only am I looking at the “meat” of the line — the reason why they’re saying it — but also how the line ends. Ideally, each line of dialogue invites the next line, either through an implied question or challenge (“You wouldn’t say he’s arrogant, though.”), or patterns that suggest what’s to follow.
I just adore Reggie! His wit, his charm...
His money is adorable.
The danger is that being too clever can make something feel written — the audience becomes aware of the writer, rather than the character. You have to consider the genre and the audience. One of the most sobering jobs in a rewrite is killing dialogue that is terrific but wrong.
Back to the video: McWhorter argues that texting is best thought of as “fingered speech.” It looks like writing, but it’s an emergent form of language that is quickly developing its own conventions. I buy it.
I also really enjoyed McWhorter’s earlier book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. I wrote more about that back in 2009.
Craig leads the discussion on how to survive a notes meeting. As screenwriters, our instinct is to defend, deny and debate — but these are almost always the wrong choice. By reframing the discussion about the movie rather than the script, you can often end up at a better place.
From there, John opens the listener mailbag so we can answer questions about cheating scene description and romantic obsession. Plus we talk about Slugline, Highland, Final Draft and the plethora of screenwriting apps available to screenwriters today.
- Fade In
- Final Draft
- Screenwriting.io on page numbering and other basic formatting
- Tweet your clams to @johnaugust and @clmazin with #CutItOut
- Scriptnotes, episode 52 featuring Go Into The Story’s list of dialogue clams
- Rentrack and BroadwayWorld
- The Boys in the Band on Amazon
- Internet K-Hole (Warning: NSFW!)
- Sleep No More NYC
- Slacker Radio
- How to submit your question
- OUTRO: Obsession cover by TERMINATRYX
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 85, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m good. I like that “things that interesting to screenwriters.” A little syncopation.
John: I’m trying to break it up just a little bit. Trying to get that T in the interesting.
Craig: Oh, well, don’t betray who you are.
John: Yeah. I don’t want to throw Aline Brosh McKenna for a loop. But, every once in a while I’ll mix it up a little bit.
So, Craig, let’s start with the bummer news is that we had another screenwriting colleague pass away over this past week. Mike France, a screenwriter who did Hulk and did other good movies.
Craig: Yeah. He had a story credit on GoldenEye, which was the Bond movie that kind of turned the franchise around.
John: So, Michael France, a screenwriter I never actually met in person I don’t think. If I did it was at some sort of Austin thing where I got introduced to a whole bunch of people. But who I first sort of came in contact with because he ended up buying and running a movie theater in Tampa, Florida I want to say.
Craig: I believe that’s right.
John: Somewhere in Florida. And he wanted to do a screening of The Nines. And so we got him a print of The Nines so he could show The Nines at his little theater in Florida. And he was lovely about it all. And so we were very sad to get word this week that he had passed away.
Craig: Yeah, I’ve never met Mike France in person and yet — and this is the way of the internet now — I’ve known him for nine years. For nine years, going all the way back to Writer Action which was once a very cool place, and I think now is just a ghost town. But, it was sort of the original place where screenwriters started meeting on the internet.
And he’s a really good guy. And he was one of those guys who somewhere along the line said, “I don’t want to write anymore. Either things aren’t going well for me in the business or I’ve become disinterested in the business, so I’m going to try and do something else.” And there are a world of writers who write professionally at a successful level for many years and then somewhere in their 40s say, “Okay, I don’t want to do this anymore. And it’s time for act two,” which they say nobody gets in America, but people do.
And he was living in Florida. He bought this movie theater that was one of the old movie houses, I guess, and tried to program it the way he wanted a movie theater to be programmed. So, it wasn’t a multiplex. It was a single screen, I believe. And he showed what he wanted to show. And I think somewhat predictably he struggled. It’s hard, you know.
And as the years went on it got harder because the way the business is moving, you know, everything is digital distribution now and that would require a big upgrade to the facility and all the rest of it. But, he stuck with it.
I think Mike France broke into the business with his spec script for Cliffhanger.
John: That could very well be right.
Craig: And so he has his name on a lot of big movies. And he died very young. He was, I think, 51 or something like that. He had diabetes. And it’s interesting — he was not a big man. He was a pretty thin guy, actually.
So, I don’t know if this was adult-onset diabetes. It wasn’t obesity related, so I’m not sure. But he was struggling with his health for a while. So, this is sort of the bad news comes in threes.
John: We lost Mike France, Don Rhymer, and Don Payne.
Craig: And Don Payne, yeah.
John: All quite recently. And so looking at this I wondered to what degree is that really just a cluster because we are now entering a certain age where some people are going to pass away. And that’s the sad aspect of mortality.
Craig: Yes. A depressing thought.
John: A depressing thought. But that does happen. So, we’re sad to hear of Mike France’s passing and of other gentlemen. And what a depressing way to start a podcast.
Craig: Well, I know. And I hope that this isn’t one of those seasons. You know, life is seasons. I remember Bar Mitzvah season. And I remember Sweet 16 season, and marriage season. And then there was, thankfully, a brief divorce season where it seemed like all of my friends who were going to get divorces got them. And now, you know, as a lot of my friends enter their 50s, I just hope that this isn’t — and this is the season where people who die young die.
I hope that’s not the case. I mean, there’s just been three. Maybe it will just stay at three.
John: Let’s go for the next season, so like people having babies season. That’s always a good thing.
Craig: Well, yeah, we’ve pretty much been through the baby season, I think. I think the next season is going to be grandchild season. Is that possible?
John: Oh my.
Craig: I know. No, that’s a ways off.
John: That’s a ways off. My kid is seven, so hopefully no grandchildren any time soon.
Craig: Maybe impotence season is just around the corner. [laughs]
John: How about unexpected successes season? Or like, maturing second act season?
Craig: Second act season sounds good. And speaking of second act seasons, Mr. Derek Haas, who was our guest on a recent podcast, and who is in Chicago working on his fine show Chicago Fire, told me that he and his wife Christy saw your show in previews and thought it was terrific.
John: Well, thank you. That’s great to hear. Derek was very generous to come on our very first night of performances where we weren’t even sure we were going to be able to keep the curtain up. And we did. And so now we’re two weeks in. We actually have our official opening on Friday, which is exciting and terrifying.
And so one of the things I’ve been trying to describe to people, it’s like you’re at the Avid and you can make some changes, but every night you have to put it up on stage. And so if there’s a change you want to make, you have to figure out, like, “Okay, if we make this part of this change will the whole thing still make sense for like the people who bought their ticket for 7:30 at night?” And so that’s been the really exciting but challenging thing is that if you want to change a song, well, you have to teach the new song, and you have to re-orchestrate it, and you have to get the choreography in. And you have to redo the lighting cues.
And we have about five hours every afternoon before we have to put on the show. So, that has been the thrill of this last week. But, we’re nearing — there’s light at the end of some tunnel ahead of us, which is Friday, which is our grand opening.
Craig: Well, I was talking about it with Aline. And we were saying, “Should we go? Are we bad friends? I mean, should we go and see the show now in Chicago?” And I thought, well, maybe we are bad friends, but, I kind of want to see it on Broadway, you know?
John: Yeah. And you’ll see it on Broadway soon enough. September 5 is the first performance. October 6 is our opening on Broadway. So, the only reason I encourage people to see it in Chicago, like friends to see it in Chicago, is there’s always that chance the meteor is going to hit, and therefore the world won’t exist on September 5, so I want people to come see it here.
John: But, you’re not terrible friends for not coming to Chicago.
Craig: No. We’re just garden variety bad friends.
Craig: Very good. I can live with that.
John: Yeah. Inconsiderate. Yeah.
Craig: That’s actually an upgrade for me. [laughs]
John: [laughs] And speaking of friendship, we had an interview in Fast Company. It’s our first national press we’ve done about the podcast this last week. And it was an interesting article. It was a very long interview, if I recall. It was like an hour-long of an interview for an article that was ten paragraphs.
John: But one of the things we brought up in that, which I don’t know that people are necessarily aware of, is that you and I weren’t like best buds when we started doing this podcast. We were acquaintances, but we weren’t like hanging out with each other kind of friends.
Craig: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. It’s not that we were enemies, [laughs], just, you know, we were acquaintances. I always liked talking to you. And we had spoken a few times. And we had spent a week together on a little business thing.
But, yeah, I’ve gotten to know you through the podcast.
John: Yeah. People might anticipate that we have these long conversations about what’s going to happen on the podcast. No. It’s literally like Craig hops on Skype about five minutes late, we talk through for about 30 seconds what’s going to happen, and then we start the show.
Craig: That’s exactly right.
John: So, you’re experiencing it the way we’re experiencing it.
Craig: And, by the way, that’s how I experience life.
John: Indeed. About five minutes late for everything.
John: Craig, today I thought on the podcast we would talk about sort of the writing environment. Not the industry, but sort of literally what it’s like as you sit down to write. And what places you write. How you write. The times you write. Who is around you when you write, which is I think there is this ideal that we should go into a cabin in the woods and just be along with our thoughts. But so rarely is that actually how we’re doing our writing.
John: And then we would take a look at three Three Page Challenges from other brave listeners who have sent in their scripts for us to take a look at and learn from what they’ve done. And, hopefully, help them be even better. Sound good?
Craig: I think it’s a terrific plan and I question none of it.
John: Great. So, let’s talk about the writing environment, because Craig right now you do most of your writing, I’m guessing, at your office which is secluded except for when all the sirens go buy and then Stuart has to cut out the background noise.
Craig: Correct. Yes. It’s just me and the emergency personnel. I do have — it’s funny, I actually have somebody that works for me now who isn’t an assistant. She’s sort of my — how do I put it? She’s my creative sounding board person.
So, she and I sit together in my office while I’m figuring the story out. Because I’ve come to find that even if I’m the one who’s figuring it out, having someone there and being able to talk about it is better. My mind works better and faster. And I tend to get rid of stuff that is precious faster and get to the heart of what matters faster.
So, that part of it I’ve been doing with somebody. But when I actually sit and write, then I’m alone.
John: Yeah. I have gone through many scenarios of sort of how I best write. Classically when I start a new script I’ll have done some outlining and sometimes I’ll share that outlining or sort of the big white board or the cards. And sometimes I will share that with people.
I tend to go off and sort of barricade myself at a hotel someplace out of town and just handwrite as many scenes as I possibly can over a period of three or four days. And just kill myself on it so I can sort of break the back of it. If I can get like 45, 50 pages written that way, then I know I can actually finish it, that I’ve gotten sort of ahead of steam.
What’s been interesting working on — in TV shows certainly — but also doing Big Fish is that I don’t have that luxury of going away to do something. Literally I have to do it right there in front of things. So, sometimes I’ve had to like come up with a new joke like while people are waiting for the joke to be inserted there.
More often, like we’ll be in the rehearsal room in New York and they’ll be doing one scene in front of me and I’m on my laptop doing a completely different scene in a different part of the show on my screen. And that ability to sort of switch back and forth is almost like code shifting, where I have to think, like, “Right here I’m in this place in Ashton while over there they are at the cave with the giant.” And I have to be able to sort of do both things at once.
Craig: I kind of love that, don’t you?
John: It’s very exciting. It’s very tough on your brain, because you’re literally have to… — It’s like one of those magic eye puzzles, also, where you have to see both things at the same time.
John: Then, sort of this process right now of, you know, we’re making the tweaks on Big Fish. Andrew Lippa and I share a little tiny dressing room that’s honestly like a little prison cell on the second floor of the theater.
And he has the keyboard set up on what would be like the makeup table part of the dressing. He has a full 88-key keyboard set up there. So, he has that. He has his laptop on a music stand. I have my laptop on my lap. And there’s only two chairs in the place. And like we’re literally three feet away from each other having to write all this stuff, which is scary but also really terrific.
It feels like you’re at the cockpit and you’re in control of things.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: The most challenging thing, though, is when you try to work on a song, if the show is actually playing then you have these speakers and we cannot turn it down low enough. Like, you’re trying to write one song while Kate Baldwin is singing Time Stops over there. And it just doesn’t…
Craig: [laughs] You got to pull the wires out of that speaker.
John: Actually our speaker in our little room can turn down all the way, but in the hallway you have to keep it playing.
Craig: Oh, I see.
John: And so there’s no way to sort of shut that completely out.
Craig: Yeah. That’s very hard.
My normal writing mode is to just, the room you just described sounds great for me. I’ve never been one of those guys who shows up and people will say, “Well, we can get you this office or put you here.” I’m like, “Why don’t you put me in the closest thing to a closet you have? I don’t want windows. I need a chair, a desk, an outlet, and a light.”
Craig: And that’s it. Because ultimately when you’re writing everything around you goes away anyway. But the most fun, I guess, for me is when it is like the hullabaloo of live theater. Actually why I would love to work in theater. Because, for instance, on the last Hangover movie there was one day in particular I remember where Todd and I were, we had a scene written and we sat with the guys and we rehearsed it. And there was something about it that was wobbly here or there. And we were trying to find some interesting things.
So, we just kept rehearsing and rehearsing with the guys and I was sitting there with my laptop sort of writing in changes as it was going in sort of notesy form. And then we kind of found what we wanted. And then the two of us went and sat down in those little, you know, like the makeup and hair people bring those little lawn chair type things, you know?
Craig: To hang out in. So, we just stole two of those and we sat there. And while this entire sound stage of, you know, work was going on, the two of us just huddled around my computer and we did it.
And you felt like you were in the movies. It was one of those nice moments we’re you’re actually like, “Oh, this is the way the movies show how movies are written.” But it was really just that one scene.
But, I love that. I mean, that’s fun.
John: Definitely. It’s that sense of all this stuff is swirling around you and you have to be nice and quiet in your little cocoon that you’re creating, this little invisible shield around yourself where inside that little shield you’re in a completely different space and time.
Last week on the podcast we were talking about how one of the functions and skills of any kind of creative writing is the ability to imagine an alternate scenario, an alternate way that things could be. And so whether you envision yourself in that, or you envision your characters there, so often as I’m writing I’m not literally at the place I physically am at. I’m somewhere else. I’m like off in the forest with these characters doing their thing.
And the ability to fully visualize what that world is like for those characters and place yourself in there, I mean, you are literally just the camera who is observing these characters doing that thing.
So, one of the challenges I find sometimes is remembering what it’s like inside that world, because sometimes you’ll have to hit pause and you’ll have to, you know, set down that script for a month while you work on something else.
So, right from the very start when I start a new project I try to gather up some things that remind me of what it’s like to be inside that world. And so those can be songs. So, I’ll tend to make a playlist on iTunes of like these are the songs that are like this movie, or what it feels like to be inside this movie. And then if I have to leave and come back to it I can sort of play through that playlist and remember, like, okay, this is what it felt like to be inside of that world.
Another trick, and this seems really sort of esoteric and weird, but some other sense can get you there. Literally, like there’s this one project which I found this candle that smelled exactly like what that world smelled like. And so literally smelling that I could remember, oh, that’s what it feels like to be in that world. That seems really Namby Pamby, but it was actually really, really helpful.
Craig: It’s both Namby Pamby and helpful.
John: Yes. It can be both things at once. What it was, it was very much like a Tahitian Island kind of feel. And like that Tahitian Island kind of candle got me back to feeling what that was like.
Craig: Have you been to the Tahitian Islands?
John: No. I know you have been. So, Craig, tell me about it. Tell me all about your fish stew.
Craig: Mm. No, no, no, Poisson Cru. It’s not stew.
John: I’m sorry.
Craig: [laughs] It’s not stew.
John: I’m sorry. It’s like slicked fish with stuff dumped over it.
Craig: How dare you! How dare you! Their culture gave you a candle that helped you write.
John: Yes. [laughs]
Craig: And this is the thanks you give in return? You know what? This week’s One Cool Thing is Poisson Cru.
John: Yeah. So, on the topic of environments, a lot of writers find that they need to go — they need to around white noise. They need to be in some sort of Starbucks kind of environment. And so, yes, it’s a cliché of like every laptop in a Starbucks, you could look, it’s all formatted in screenplay format.
John: But it’s understandable why people want to do that. It’s that sense of they need to be outside of their own head because it gets too loud to just be in their own head. And as I start first drafts, while I will be in my hotel room writing a lot, I’ll also just like go out and be in a food court of a mall and write stuff there.
John: Because it is very helpful to like be around other people but sort of not have to interact with them.
Craig: Well, it also adds an immediate accountability because you simply can’t… — I mean, let’s face it. If you’re at home alone or in your office alone writing and you aren’t disciplined about it, frankly you’re always two minutes away from masturbating. That’s just reality.
Craig: Now, I’m very disciplined.
Craig: I’m a very disciplined writer.
John: Yeah. He’s a monk.
Craig: I am very monk-like when I write. My office is pure. But if you’re writing at Starbucks or a coffee shop, well, that can’t happen.
John: Very true.
Craig: Neither can you sit and, because you’re going to feel like such a goof if you’re just sitting there watching dumb YouTube videos or something. So you have to… — There’s a great Mitchell and Webb. You know what? This week’s One Cool Thing is going to be Mitchell and Webb. I love — are you familiar with those guys?
John: I recognize the names but I don’t know what their videos are.
Craig: I’ll save it for the end, but they had a great sketch where this, this British sketch comedy show, and this woman introduces her husband at this party to this other guy. And she said, “Oh, you might want to talk to him because my husband just started working at home while I’m at the office. And I know that you work at home. And maybe you can give him tips.”
And he’s like, “Sure.” And the wife walks away and goes, “So, so you’ve just been wanking a lot, haven’t you?” [laughs] It’s just about dealing with that.
John: [laughs] Yes.
Craig: Dealing with that problem.
John: Yes. And honestly that’s one of the reasons, good arguments, I’m not talking about masturbation specifically, but having an assistant, having Stuart who comes to the office from 10 to 6 every day is good in the sense of like it makes it feel more like work. And I think that’s part of the reason why people tend to go out to Starbucks or wherever else to do some of the writing is because if they’re just at home they feel like they’re at home and they’re just in home mode.
And so sometimes being out in a different environment makes them feel like I’m not in home mode. I’m actually in some sort of work environment, some sort of work place.
Craig: Right. And if all these other people around you have their Final Draft or Movie Magic open, you should, too.
We are romantics. Writers are romantics. Screenwriting itself, the reality is it’s incredibly unromantic. But, it helps us write if we feel romantic at times. And writing in a coffee shop feels vaguely romantic.
Craig: Particularly if you contextualize it as, “I’m writing the next great movie in a coffee shop.” And so you keep writing. Anything to keep you going, folks. I’m okay with those delusions. It’s all good.
John: Use your delusions. Let’s do that. And so let’s talk about some scenes that people have sent in which could have been written in coffee shops, they could have been written in other environments, and see if we can help these people make their scripts even better.
John: So, the three Three Page Challenge samples that we’re going to do today, they were sent in to johnaugust.com/threepage. Every couple of weeks we take a look at some of these samples that people send in. If you would like to read along with us, those PDFs are available at johnaugust.com/podcast. And you can download them and read them with us and see if you agree with what we say, or if you have other suggestions.
The first one I want to take a look at is called Blood Money. It’s by Charlie Lyons.
John: And let’s get started.
Craig: All right.
John: So, this is actually a TV pilot. I’ll give the recap on this one if that’s okay.
John: It’s a TV pilot. And so we’re starting in the teaser of the TV pilot. So, we’re in an ambulance. The siren is blasting. Lights are flashing. Inside the ambulance we see the driver and the passenger seat guy. I don’t know what you call these two positions. But, Tanya Suarez is the driver. She’s been doing this for 15 years. She’s really intimidating.
Jimmy Kiley is the young guy next to her. She’s asking questions about, “So what do you in this situation.” Like the family is there. She’s basically talking through how do you handle certain situations, stuff that comes up.
She’s driving kind of like a maniac. And as she sort of gets through an intersection there’s like a long approach as we’re getting to this thing and this car going to get out of the way. She ends up making it through the intersection but sort of causes an accident because of it.
The reach the city park, the baseball diamond, where they are there to get somebody. It turns out it’s a gunshot victim. The guy who’s there with the gunshot victim asks, like, “Is he going to make it?” And Jimmy who’s our young guy, who’s just learned the thing you’re supposed to say is, “We’re doing everything we can. We’re doing everything we can.”
The guy who’s talking to him then suddenly shoots that guy a couple more times, the guy on the ground, to make sure that he’s actually going to die. And that is the end of our three pages.
Craig: Right. Well, and don’t forget, “Pre-lap: — the BREATHING of sex.”
John: I’m sorry. An important pre-lap on the bottom of page three. The breathing sounds of sex.
Craig: The breathing of sex. So, well let’s, I want to talk just about the first two paragraphs. And then I’ll go larger with it. But, the thing about screenwriting is you can get away with clunky prose, because no one is going to hear the clunky prose or see the clunky prose. And the idea is, okay, if everybody gets what you’re going for here, okay.
But when you’re writing stuff that is speculative and you want people to be interested, it rattles confidence. So, I just want to talk about some clunky stuff going on here.
“Siren BLASTING, Lights,” capitalized L, “FLASHING, the ambulance…” So, we’re already backwards. “Siren BLASTING, Lights FLASHING, the ambulance…” you know, I’d rather just start with “An ambulance. Siren BLASTING, Lights FLASHING, it flies.” I don’t like this backwards structure.
Try and avoid Yoda writing as much as you can.
“The ambulance flies past run-down triple-decker houses in Boston.” All right, here’s how I read that. The ambulance flies, past, run. What? [laughs] Oh, down. “Triple-decker houses in Boston. It’s a truck.” What?
John: Wait, what’s a truck? The triple-decker houses are a truck?
Craig: Or the ambulance is a truck? No it’s not, it’s an ambulance. I know what an ambulance is. You don’t have to tell me what an ambulance is! “A red and white behemoth.” I know what color it is! It’s okay. “Its front wrapped with a black two-foot high bumper.” What?! [laughs] You mean it has a bumper?
John: Yeah. What’s confusing about it is are you trying to make clear that this is a different kind of ambulance than a normal ambulance we’re supposed to be seeing? Because if that’s the case, if it really is like a special kind of, like an air wolf of ambulances, then really start with that and don’t give us the town and everything else.
Craig: Right. Exactly. You’ve really got to think about — understand every word is spoon fed to the reader as you want it to be. There’s nothing haphazard about this. So, if the most important thing is a beast of an ambulance, start with that. “A beast of ambulance. This thing is huge. Way bigger than any you’ve ever seen. Massive bumper. Boom. Boom. Sire BLASTING, lights FLASHING, it zooms through triple-decker houses. Boston,” whatever that is, okay. Not backwards. Not out of order.
Then we meet “TANYA SUAREZ (mid 30s) rests her hand with cigarette out the…”
“…rests her hand with cigarette out the open driver’s window.” There’s something about the way these sentences are coming together that is so confusing.
“TANYA SUAREZ (mid 30s), smokes.” That’s all we need there. We don’t need the hand with the cigarette out the open driver’s window. Okay.
Then, the next thing, “The SIREN,” capitalized now, but not before, “floods in.” So, just is coming in, or why is the siren flooding in? We understand that if you’re in an ambulance and there’s a sire on and you’re driving the ambulance that the siren is going on at the same time. We don’t need the siren to be flooding in. This is fake stuff.
“Strong and tall, hot and intimidating, she’s at home in the driver’s seat, been there for fifteen years.”
John: Yeah. Let’s talk clauses here.
Craig: Yeah. Thank you.
John: We’ve got some Santa Clause problems here. “Strong and tall, hot and intimidating.” Okay. I’m not crazy about these descriptors…
John: But this sort of structure could work fine. So “something and something, something and something, and then a full rest of your sentence, period.” You can do that, but then to put the comma, “been there for fifteen years,” I don’t know what that is. You just have four chunks of sentence that don’t get me anyplace.
So, if you wanted to start with that, something and something, something and something, da-da-da, period. That’s the rhythm of a sentence.
Craig: I’m so glad you said the rhythm, because that’s exactly what’s wrong here. I mean, you can get — you can use poetic license as you write prose for a screenplay, but you have to have a sense of rhythm. It’s not that people read things out loud. It’s that even our eyes connected to our brains will start to get lulled to sleep if we get la-da-da, la-da-da, la-da-da, la-da-da. We will start to get sleepy.
And, frankly, you know, and this is my pet peeve, unless it says, unless she’s got a patch on her arm that says, “My 15th year,” this is cheating. “Been there for fifteen years.”
“In the passenger seat, JIMMY KILEY (early 20s),” once again, we’re Yoda-ing, “short, nervous, and buff. He wears his uniform tight to show off his muscles.” Or perhaps what is that we see, he has a tight uniform.
Craig: I mean, we said buff. Got it. Buff. I assume that it’s not buff behind his baggy, you know, you would have said, “Buff behind his baggy uniform.” Okay, so, sorry about all that. I really felt like that was important to kind of go through how you had already sort of started off rough.
She’s doing this sort of thing we’ve seen before where the Training Day style, the tough one in charge is pop-quiz-hotshotting her rookie partner. And he says, “Load and go.” I’m not sure why he says that. That was a weird conclusion for that run.
But here’s the really weird part. There’s a blue car at a stop sign waiting for traffic. She’s trying to get through with her ambulance. The guy can’t move because there’s traffic. So, she pushes him into traffic and that blue car that she pushes into traffic gets hit by another car. In fact, another car crashes into the blue car. She casually pulls around the accident and keeps on going.
Now, at this point she needs to be arrested because she’s caused an accident. And, she’s an ambulance driver who doesn’t care that she just caused an accident. She’s not stopping to see if somebody got hurt in there. And if the point here was “look how bad ass this ambulance driver is,” you’ve miscalibrated and pushed her into “look how awful this ambulance driver is — this show is insane.”
John: Yeah, so nudging the car, okay, that’s aggressive but you get that. Pushing it, causing an accident that could potentially kill somebody else does push us into sort of crazy territory. And it’s not just a problem of like, oh, it makes Tanya look bad. It makes Jimmy look bad.
John: Like, why is Jimmy not commenting on this?
Craig: Right! Like Jimmy just looks back at the wreckage.
John: So, let’s pause for a second and have a general conversation. Sometimes you will have a sympathetic character in your story. Let’s say Jimmy is the sympathetic character in this story or this scenario that we’ve set up so far. And you say like, “Oh, that character’s not doing the bad thing.” But if that character is not responding to the bad thing, or if that character is not behaving in a way that seems reasonable, then we stop having faith in that character or the situation.
A classic example is in early seasons of The Office, and Jim and Pam were starting their flirtation, Roy was Pam’s boyfriend. And for a couple episodes he was such a monster that you started to sort of question Pam and sort of Pam’s intelligence for being around this guy.
John: And so be mindful of that. It’s not always going to be killing people in car accidents. But if you have a character who is associated with a person who is — another character who is just awful, eventually we stop having sympathy for our sympathetic character because that character is not responding in a way that seems reasonable.
Craig: Yeah. Absolutely true. And now we find out what his call is. They’ve arrived at a baseball field. Would have been great if we had known a little bit of that, but that’s okay, we didn’t. I mean, just so that it doesn’t seem random, like suddenly they’re parked.
It looks like a community baseball field. Not sure quite why they can’t just drive the ambulance onto the field, but let’s presume that there’s a big fence around it or something.
Jimmy finds the patient, a male. He’s been shot. And up comes this cousin, Stephen. And I like this idea. This was a cool story point. So, here’s a guy saying, “Hey, is he gonna make it?” And Jimmy, our hero, is parroting back the words that he just learned he was supposed to say, “Doing everything we can.”
And Stephen surprises us by shooting the patient three more times. Obviously he was the one who shot him in the first place. And that leads us to sex. So, that was a fun, surprising thing. It was a great turn. And I liked that. So, that was — at least of what you’ve got going here, Charlie, you have a sense of surprise. I think your sense of surprise got you into a little trouble with that car crash.
Craig: But my general advice is to watch the Yoda writing and the rhythm and the kind of clumsy ordering of information that you’re doling out in your exposition.
John: Agreed. I think that final reveal is potentially really good. I don’t think it really worked on the page. Like, already my logic meters were sort of redlining a bit there, because why wouldn’t he have shot him more there at the time?
John: But, stepping back, I think it’s an interesting idea and it’s a good thing for the pilot of a gritty ambulance show. Fine. That’s the right kind of thing to see. And I think the overall idea of it’s like Training Day but it’s emergency workers, that’s a valid idea for a pilot.
John: So, all of these things I want to say in favor of where we’re at right now for this.
Blood Money as a title is interesting, although it puts me in very much a crime mode idea, and maybe that’s really ultimately where the show is going.
Craig: Yup. It’s possible. Quite possible.
John: So, anyway, Charlie, thank you very much for sending in your script. I hope that’s somewhat helpful.
Craig: Thank you, Charlie.
John: Our next entry is Natural Assassin by Lisa Scott.
Craig: All right. I’ll summarize this one.
So, it begins with a super, a nice quote from my favorite philosopher, Frederich Nietzsche, “One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”
We fade in. It is Washington, DC, September 2063. We’re in the National Mall, the Washington Monument, and there is some kind of terrible thing going on. A huge crowd on the Mall there between the Lincoln Monument and the Capitol Dome. A huge crowd is panicking, screaming, trampling through the shallow reflecting pond. Police sirens whirl. Helicopters hover.
Then we’re inside a sewer all below this and a man named Damien Harper Bay is racing through the dark sewer, head gear bobbling off his head. We hear the sounds of the madness above him. That slowly fades away as he jogs away from the scene.
Finally gets to a manhole. Goes through, or drops a gun, I believe, yes, a weapon. Then crawls out of a manhole, up under a car. Rolls out. He’s in a parking garage. Turns out it’s the parking garage of The Kennedy Center. He brushes off his filthy self, sneaks down a hallway and gets to a dressing room with his name on it, Damien Harper Bay.
Goes inside, cleans up, gets dressed. Is called out to the stage and he gets onstage and starts playing the piano. And I’m a little confused what was going on on the stage, we’ll get to that.
John: There’s a thousand pianos.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a thousand pianos. I’m not exactly sure what’s happening. Perhaps that’s okay in 2063. And he begins playing a rendition of Nietzsche’s Einleitung, which then goes into the Ungarischer Marsch.
Craig: So, that’s Natural Assassins. So, tell me, John August, esteemed screenwriter, what did you think?
John: All right. I’m going to step back and say I think the idea behind this is that there is a famous pianist who is actually an assassin. That’s my guess in terms of where this is going.
John: And that is not a bad idea. That is a reasonable idea in the sense of like a pianist can travel all over the world and no one would suspect that he’s actually a killer. So, that is reasonable as sort of a general crime assassin story.
That said, most of what I saw here was crazy town. And I had so many more questions. I have so many circles on the page here that I want to sort of talk through and figure out what’s important, what’s not important, what’s the intention here.
So, we start with a Nietzsche quote. Great. The Nietzsche quote is, “One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” All right. I don’t know how that is reflected in the stuff I’m just about to see, but okay, that’s a fine quote.
Craig, I will be honest. I skipped over September 2063 when I read this the first time, and I have no idea why we’re in the future. There’s nothing in here that says future at all to me.
Craig: Well, it does say helicopters hovering. They can’t do that!
Craig: Oh wait.
John: Yes. There’s nothing in here that seems 50 years in the future.
Craig: Lincoln Monument! There’s no Lincoln…oh yeah, there is.
John: Yeah, there is. If it was the Hillary Clinton Monument, then that would be something.
Craig: Ah! There the Clinton Monument. That would be a great monument. I would love that actually because you know who that would drive crazy? Bill Clinton. [laughs]
Craig: Every day for the rest of his life he would just be like, “How did this happen?” Yeah, I agree.
John: But let’s focus on the words on the page and the action that we’re seeing. So, as we reach EXT. NATIONAL MALL, here’s the sentence: “From the top of the towering Washington Monument the view of the Capitol Dome gleams in the sunlight.”
Okay. But, the view does not actually gleam. The Capitol Dome gleams, so why is “the view of” in the sentence.
Craig: We are back to Yoda-Ville again.
John: It’s Yoda-Ville.
John: “In the opposite direction, the Lincoln Monument.” Okay, but now you’re just giving me a tourist guide to what Washington, DC is like. There’s nothing specific about our story here.
Craig: In fact, if you notice, when I was recapping I did better. [laughs] Not to brag, but it’s really: “The Mall between the Washington and the Lincoln Monument, a massive crowd trapped, scrambling like ants.” That’s all you have to say.
Craig: What is this from the top of the…from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli? It’s just not necessary. Go with what’s dramatic. I mean, you have a big crazy riot.
John: Craig, do think police sirens whirl?
John: No, I don’t. Because here’s the question, it’s like police sirens are the sound of the siren to me. The lights, they can whirl.
Craig: Yes, light can whirl. Police sirens can wail.
John: Wail. Absolutely.
Craig: Yeah, they can wail. They don’t whirl. And in fact, now that you mention it, I’m just looking at this paragraph, why wouldn’t you begin inside of this panicked crowd like a riot of crazy people and then pull back to reveal it’s between the Lincoln Monument and the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome? Why wouldn’t you do that? Isn’t that more interesting?
John: I think it’s probably more interesting. Yeah, it’s the question of do you start wide and go tight, or do you start tight and go wide? This is the situation where starting tight and going wide feels like it’s going to be a much better reveal.
Craig: Yeah. Because the reveal is interesting. Because if you start wide, what we’re staring at is the massive crowd scrambling and panicking. We don’t care that we see a monument there. Yeah, we’re basically…yeah, well, okay. Keep going.
John: So, let’s go on to our next block here. So, we’re inside the sewer. And I always sort of sigh when I see a sewer because it’s like the air ducts.
Craig: It is.
John: It’s one of those things that’s really convenient for narrative fiction, but it is actually not a thing that people really are in or are using or doing. And so I’d say avoid sewers as much as possible. “Below the commotion — the dark figure of a man. This is Damien Harper BAY.” Oddly, only the BAY got capitalized. If it’s the whole character’s name, let’s put the whole thing in caps.
And it’s fine if you want to call him Bay after that. We’ll get it. We’re smart. We’ll totally follow that.
The next paragraph: “Bay races through the dark sewer.” Okay, but you just used dark one sentence before that. So, let’s find a different word for it. Or, maybe we don’t need to say the sewer is dark because we sort of know that sewers are dark.
Craig: They’re not well lit. We know that.
John: Yeah. The next sentence is perplexing. “Head gear bobbles off the side of his head.” What is that?! what’s head gear? I don’t know what head gear is.
Craig: It’s head gear.
John: And so if you’re going to give us something like that, you’ve got to tell us more about what this is. I mean, is it orthodontia? Is it some sort of…
Craig: [laughs] It’s that thing that Joan Cusack was wearing in 16 Candles.
John: That’s what it is!
John: So, suddenly we’re in a John Hughes comedy. No, it’s probably some sort of high tech something, but I don’t know what that is. So, you’re not allowed to just give me that head gear bobbles. First off, why is it bobbling? Bobbling is like a silly word. And so I expect something kind of goofy with it. But it’s not goofy, probably, because people are wailing and screaming upstairs. So, I don’t…I don’t know what this is.
Head gear might dangle here. And dangle isn’t quite as silly as bobble. But tell us what the head gear is.
John: “As the sounds of hysteria dissipate he slows down to a long quiet run.” Well, but…it’s not a long quiet run. What is he, just jogging?
Craig: He slows down to a long, quite run. Period. Next paragraph. “He slows down to an easy jog.” I guess we’re meant to watch the continuing slowing down of the run.
This is not well planned out.
John: No. It’s not.
So, this sewer escape sequence is not great.
Craig: I’m sorry. We’ve also got an alliteration issue, I just have to mention, before we move onto that part. “Sloppy sewage squishes under each step.”
John: Mm-hmm. Perfect for a Dr. Seuss book.
Craig: Right. [laughs] Exactly.
John: But it feels silly. And this is not a silly story. And, again, if the tone of this were very different, “sloppy sewage squishes” might actually be an appropriately kind of fun thing to do. If it’s a glamorous character who finds herself in the sewer, then “sloppy sewage squishing” could be great. But it’s not. This is some sort of assassin story. It’s a Natural Assassin.
John: And so it doesn’t — it’s not helping us here.
When we finally get to the Kennedy Center we’re in a parking garage which is, again, one of the most generic kind of locations we can be in, so let’s try not to do that more than we absolutely need to. But then I actually did like that we were in the Kennedy Center. And I do like this idea that there is an assassin who is actually a pianist who is famous for being this, but is also a different character. That can work.
The biggest challenge here is we see him running from something, but we don’t even know what he’s running from. So, why didn’t you give us the event? Why didn’t you give us what he did and see him do his thing, and then show us who he really is? Instead you just have him running, and we don’t know if he’s running from having done something, from having seen something. We don’t have any context for this at all. So, show to us that he is a bad ass assassin. And then have the surprise that he’s actually a pianist who is going to go on and perform this amazing concerto.
Craig: That’s right. And I’m not exactly sure how you get away with a calm, happy audience at the Kennedy Center if there’s a massive swirling chaotic throng on the Washington Mall. Generally speaking, if there is some sort of high level assassination in Washington, everybody goes home. They don’t hand out at the Kennedy Center. There’s nobody, no stage hand is like, “Five minutes.” She’s watching TV, crying, because somebody got killed.
That part — I understand that this is the juxtaposition we want. I’m not sure you can get it this way. There’s a weird moment in here where after he cleans himself up and he’s looking at himself in the mirror, he pulls the sides of his eyes outward to narrow his eyes. First of all, there’s eyes and eyes in that sentence. “Gently tugs his top skin down in an attempt to look Asian.”
John: I have no idea.
Craig: What was that?
Craig: Why would he do that?
John: Yeah, it was a little bit offensive and I’m not quite sure why it was there.
Craig: Yeah. He fumbles with his crooked tie. The woman straightens his tie. She smells sewage smell from him. “Ugh!”
He darts up a small flight of stairs to a curtained…he’s still running around. That’s also, it’s like, if the whole idea is that you’re James Bond and you can switch characters like this, you’re not darting anywhere anymore. You’re in total command. And you shouldn’t smell bad anymore, either, unless this is somehow a clue that later we’ll follow.
But, here’s the weirdest thing of all, and I don’t know if this is because it’s in the future or not: “Bay emerges from the curtains. APPLAUSE. He glides past an orchestra of various styled pianos. A pianist alert and waiting behind each one. At the only grand piano Bay flings back his tails and takes a seat in a red velvet folding chair.”
There’s so much strange stuff here. An orchestra that’s just pianos, or mostly pianos. Or, frankly, more than one piano. I’ve never seen that before. And I don’t know, is that the way it is in the future? Are they just all pianos? Because that would sound terrible actually.
Pianos are designed to be very loud, cut-through instruments. Just a whole bunch of piano players playing together is awful. So, you have all of these — but they’ve been waiting for him. He gets the only grand piano. So, everybody else is on what? Like uprights and spinets and…crappy pianos?
John: Little Casios.
Craig: Casios. And then, he’s sitting in a red velvet folding chair. So, he would be the first — maybe they don’t have benches in the future.
Craig: Because all the other pianists sit on benches in the world. And then the weirdest part of all — he nods to the conductor and he begins playing Nietzsche’s Einleitung. Now, I happen to be a Nietzsche fan. Nietzsche wrote some sort of crappy music I think in the 1860s before he started becoming a philosopher. It’s not anything anyone would play in a concert really. I mean, maybe one, but playing a whole bunch of it is just sort of a weird novelty act.
Again, maybe this is all explained by the future, but I have to say, I was very confused by what Lisa wrote here.
John: I was as well. So, let’s talk about the future because if you’re going to give us future you have to give us future. And so some of what she did here can work. And I do always respect the idea of if you have to write something in the future, show us some things that are familiar to us now, and then paint on top of that.
So, if you want to give us DC, it’s great that we have these monuments we recognize, but then you’re going to have to tell us what’s different on top of that, so we actually believe that we’re 50 years in the future. Because right now there is nothing in this that felt like it was 50 years in the future except for some un-described head gear. That was the only thing that felt unique or different.
It goes back to expectation and what audience expectation is. And so if you say that we’re in the future, you can give us some things pretty easily and quickly and you don’t have to explain a lot about it. So, like if vehicle can move differently, if there’s silent electric cars, or electric helicopters, or that kind of stuff, you don’t have to give a lot of detail about that. But, anything that you give us that is weird, we’re going to assume that must be part of the future.
So, the reason why Craig thinks there’s something strange in the future about velvet chairs, or these orchestras made up of pianos, because that’s just weird. And so if you’re giving us something weird, we’re going to assume it’s because of the change you’ve made in the world.
Same thing goes true with any other genre. If you’re giving us a vampire story, you don’t have to explain how vampires work, but if anything in your rules for how vampires work in your movie are different you’re going to have to be pretty explicit about what’s different. Like, if your vampires can go out in daylight you have to explain why they can go out in daylight, or else we’re not going to have faith in you.
Here, if you have an assassin pianist in the future, you’ve got to give us the future. The rest of the stuff we can probably figure out.
Craig: Yeah. We’re stacking up quite a few conceits here. Generally speaking it’s often enough to be in the future. To be an assassin pianist in the future may be one thing too many to juggle. But, if there are things that you intend to be idiosyncratic to the future, like for instance the fact that orchestras are now just pianos and multiple pianos, then let us know that you know. “Curiously the orchestra is nothing but pianos. A dozen pianos, each with a pianist.”
Tell the story in a way that… — So, if you mean to say, “Huh, that’s odd,” let me know that you know. Be in control of your story and your story telling.
John: Our third sample is Good People With Guns by Kevin Graham-Caso. And let me give you the recap on this. So, we open up at the Fort Hunt Diner where Jill Cardinal, she’s 26, sits on one side of the booth, and across the other side of the booth is Jason Schrader who is also 26. Something has just been said. And we’re not quite sure what has just been said.
Then, Jill says, “Fine, you’re right.” She pulls a gun out and sets it on the table. And then starts smoking, lights a cigarette. The waitress comes by, says that Jill can’t smoke there. Jill agrees. She puts the cigarette out. So, Jill seems kind of bad ass, but we don’t know sort of too much about what her situation is. She re-holsters her gun and excuses herself that she needs to go to the restroom.
When we see her in the restroom, the bathroom of the diner, we see that she’s actually freaking out, a full on anxiety attack. She stares at the mirror.
Cut to the title, Good People With Guns. Then we go to Two Months Earlier where we are on the front steps of the New York State Supreme Court. We see Jill, a more put together version of Jill. And she is shell-shocked by something that evidently just took place. She lights a cigarette. Her cell phone buzzes. She answers. She has a phone call with a woman named Fiona. It doesn’t seem to go especially. And she looks like she’s about to smash her cell phone when she decides against it. And as we end at the bottom of page three she kicks a taxi. The taxi driver gets out and yells back at her.
Craig: Now, you know that at this point I can’t blame this on Stuart. Because you know that Stuart loves it when he gets to that part in these three pages where it says, “Super: Two Months Earlier.” And he goes, “OH MY GOD! What?!”
John: There’s a lot of two months earlier.
Craig: It can’t be Stuart’s joy of it alone. So, now I’m really saying to all of you out there. Seriously. Stop it. And I know that you’ve seen it work in movies, and it is a thing, and it does work in movies, but I mean at this point this is the only conclusion that I really feel comfortable about drawing in a meta way from all of the three page scripts we read, and that is this is just overused at this point.
Craig: It’s really overused, the whole show a thing and then say Two Months Earlier. We’ve got to cut it out.
John: It’s the temporal air duct. It just needs to…
Craig: It’s a temporal air duct. Needs to stop.
Now, that said, I really liked the first page a lot. You know, again, the first two paragraphs do the typical screenwriter tango of a really good-looking actor and actress but I can’t just say they’re really good-looking so I’ll do some sort of quirky version of good-looking. And, again, these things that we can’t show or imply to audiences like “her soft features and blue eyes suggest she was considered attractive when she used to give a shit.” No they don’t.
No. [laughs] There’s no way to suggest that at all. Then she’s there with Jason Schrader who is “disheveled, unshaven, yet still dorkishly handsome,” that you can shoot. And I really like the idea of opening after something has been said. Very cool.
Then she pulls this gun out, which is always interesting and exciting. She lights a cigarette. This lady has got all sorts of interesting issues. And a cool little line at the end, about the cigarette, “Someone must have noticed these things were killing people,” which is always a cool thing to say when you’ve put a gun on the table.
She heads to the bathroom, he’s waiting. She walks past two cops, and a little thing like “heads past two cops at the back of the diner,” just helps create tension. Okay. There are cops there. She has a gun. Did they not see her with the gun? What’s going on there? But I’m a little nervous.
In the bathroom she goes into a full on anxiety attack, which is interesting. Maybe a little bit too much. I mean, she’s literally hyperventilating. And so it seems a little broad, frankly, of a turn, but I understand the intention of the turn.
We have the moment where a character stares in the mirror. Maybe that one we could put in our clam list of cut-it-out. Stop looking at yourself in mirrors.
And then she gets tough in that mirror. And then we get the title, Good People With Guns, which I think is a really cool title.
John: It’s a great title.
Craig: Then Stuart squeals with joy — squeals with joy to see, “Oh, we’re going back in time!” Two Months Earlier. I guess she’s a lawyer. She’s outside of the New York State Supreme Court.
John: I’m not sure she was the lawyer. I think she may have been involved in some sort of case. My first read was that she was a lawyer. But, I’m not necessarily sure that’s the case.
Craig: Well, she’s wearing a business suit, that’s why I thought maybe she was a lawyer.
Craig: Or maybe she is…or something involved, yeah. And an older lawyer gives her a condescending nod. I feel like she lost a case. That’s kind of what I’m buying there.
And her boss, I presume is who it is, calls her. And she’s obviously being dressed down. And then has this little moment of anger that she — it’s weird, she chooses to not throw her phone but instead kicks a taxi, which is even more aggressive, frankly, than throwing a phone. But, okay, I like the idea that there’s this woman with this rage inside of her. Obviously we’re not meant to know from these three pages what happens next.
I thought this was, you know, pretty well done. It’s just that there isn’t one single move in here, other than the beginning with post question, that I haven’t seen before. It’s sort of a collection of things I’ve seen.
John: To me it was a collection of attitudes and poses, but not actual action.
Craig: I think that’s a great way of putting it. Yeah.
John: And so the opening scene, I’m sympathetic to when people call things Tarantino-esque, because I got hit with that for Go, which was really frustrating. So, this is the kind of thing that you could see in a Tarantino movie, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have it here. It’s fine and it’s good. But I stopped believing a little bit when she set the gun on the table and the waitress didn’t refer to it.
And it’s not clear whether the waitress saw it or didn’t see it. That just felt odd to me. Lighting the cigarette in the diner also feels a little bit like, well, you’re just provoking for the sake of provoking. So, that made me question that a little bit.
Where I got a little bit confused about the writing versus, like, was I reading this the way that the writer intended? On page two, first off in the bathroom, “A MEDIUM SIZED window illuminates Jill.” Why is it a medium sized window? To highlight that it’s a medium sized window, I don’t even know what that means. How big is a medium sized window?
If it’s going to be important, like she’s going to need to jump out of this window, okay. But, that felt really weird to sort of single that out.
John: This line, “A JILL-LIKE STRANGER stares back at her through the glass,” okay, are you being poetic. In a novel I’d say, oh, he’s being poetic. It’s like, I don’t even know who that person is anymore.
John: But by highlighting here I really thought like, wow, is it somebody who looks sort of like her but is actually a different person? Like it’s literally a split personality thing where like it’s Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh looking at through the mirror, because that’s kind of fascinating. I don’t think that’s what was happening. I think it was just poetry that got to be a little bit confusing here.
Craig: Yeah. And the truth is that your script will be read by all sorts of people. It is not a sign of stupidity to make mistakes like this in reading. I have been surprised and so I’m no longer surprised to be surprised that very smart people sometimes just misunderstand certain little things in a screenplay when they read it, because everybody is trying to make the — everybody is bringing their understanding of movies and their expectations to it, and they’re filling in blanks for you. That’s what we need them to do. It is just words on a page and we’re trying to inspire a visual daydream in them.
When you do things like a “A JILL-LIKE STRANGER stares back” you’re asking for trouble. I know what you mean to say. And so she looks at… — First of all, windows don’t illuminate anybody, the light coming through windows illuminates them — we don’t need that garbage in there. It’s just…
Craig: “Jill stares at herself in the mirror.” You know, “Jill stares into the mirror, barely recognizing who she sees.” We would get that, you know what I mean, if that’s your idea. You just don’t have to get too — but frankly it’s this whole staring into a movie thing. The reason that ended up with a “A JILL-LIKE STRANGER stares back at her through the glass,” I think, Kevin, is because you were trying to make a very trite moment interesting.
But it’s not going to be because it’s that scene where the lady looks at herself in the mirror and calms herself down and splashes — we’ve seen them probably three or four times just in the Three Page Challenges we’ve seen people staring in mirrors.
Craig: So, find a different way. Just find a different way.
John: Also, I would say staring into a mirror right before Two Months Earlier, that is a very classic sort of clam here. Where it’s just like, “How did I get myself in this situation.” Then Two Months Earlier.
Craig: Right. Right you are. Yeah, if you’re going to do that Two Months Earlier transition — which at this point I’m starting to feel everybody should stop doing — that transition needs to be interesting as well. I mean, it’s a little bit more, I mean, Tarantino has people walk out the room with a gun and start shooting and then cut to the title, and then do Two Months Earlier. You know?
John: Yeah. On page three, my frustration here is that once again something has just happened that you’re not telling us what happened, but we’re supposed to come in right after this other thing happened. And so I start to worry like everything interesting is going to happen off-screen, and we’re just going to see the reactions of people to more interesting things that could have happened off-screen.
John: And so if the events that just happened are important, I would say show us the event and don’t just show us the aftermath here, because you just tried to do that a page ago. So, give us what’s actually happening here and not just the reaction shot from this young woman.
Craig: Yup. Yup. Yup. Agreed.
John: Once again, I want to thank all three of our people for sending in their Three Page Challenges. And also to all the people, the hundreds of people who sent in their Three Page Challenges over the last year we’ve been doing this.
We won’t get to every one of them, but we really do appreciate that you are so courageous in sending in your samples. Stuart sifts through all of them. He reads absolutely every one that comes in that has the proper boilerplate language of like please don’t sue us. And it really does mean a lot that you guys are so trusting and caring to send in things so we can talk about them and so other people can learn from our discussions.
Craig: Yes. Very much so. And I would love — it’s too much work for Stuart — I’d love to know what percentage of Three Page Challenges we get have the Two Months Earlier thing going on. I honestly think it’s like 20% at this point.
John: It might be kind of a high thing. Nima at some point was working on some sort of like amazing analysis that would actually go through all the PDFs. Because we can melt the PDFs with Highland. And so he was melting them down to text and then he was doing some analysis on it. But then at some point I had to say like, no, no, you actually have to do the work on like the apps we’re selling and not just on this data mining that is interesting to you. Yeah.
Craig: That’s funny.
John: Craig, I have a One Cool Thing this week which is an app. Which is Ulysses III. And Ulysses was this text editor I was sort of aware of, and I probably tied to use once or twice. And sort of in my head I thought of it like Scrivener in the sense of it being a sort of big, full-featured word processing/document processing app.
Ulysses III, this version that just came out, is actually really cool. It’s a text editor that’s kind of very stripped down. It rights in Markdown which his this text format that I love to work in. I do my notes for the show in Markdown. I do my blog posts in Markdown.
It has a really smart, innovative way of gathering your documents together in sort of a — almost like Apple Mail’s kind of like how it has the three panels. It keeps the documents in that kind of format which is actually really smart and good for a lot of things.
So, I would encourage people to check it out. Right now it just writes in Markdown, but apparently it’s going to start writing in Fountain, too, which would be great. And so I can see that being a nice new Fountain editor on the horizon.
Craig: Cool. Well, my One Cool Thing, as alluded to previously, is That Mitchell and Webb Look. Mitchell and Webb are British comedians. They’ve had, I think, three different sketch comedy shows on the BBC. They have That Mitchell and Webb Sound was the radio show. That Mitchell and Webb Look. And there’s another one.
But That Mitchell and Webb Look is the one I’ve been watching mostly. I think they’re awesome. And you can watch full episodes on YouTube for free. They’re really, really smart. They’re really, really funny. And I guess the two sketches I’d probably call out just to link to maybe in the show notes, one is called Homeopathic ER, which is awesome.
John: Homeopathic ER. That’s actually a fantastic one.
Craig: That’s pretty awesome. And the other one is Angel Summoner and the BMX Bandit. So, it’s a TV show. It’s meant to be like an eighties style hero/partner TV show where these two guys solve crimes. And one is the Angel Summoner and he summons angels. And the other one is the BMX Kid, I think, not Bandit, BMX Kid. And he has BMX bike skills.
And they’re just useless. [laughs] You know, summoning angels is pretty much that’s all you need. And they just start fighting. It’s just pretty great.
And then I guess the other one, just for writers, there’s this wonderful sketch they do where an author is talking to his editor and the editor is giving him suggestions. “Well not that, but…” And it’s quite perfect.
So, That Mitchell and Webb Look. That’s my Cool Thing of the week. You could lose hours on YouTube just watching their shows. They are really, really funny guys.
They’re so funny, and in my mind I’m like how can I write a movie for those guys. But then I think, nah, they would write their own movie. They don’t need me to write a movie for them. And so I immediately go, “Oh, all right, when are those guys going to write movie?” So, I land immediately from how can I write a movie for them to when are they going to write a movie.
So, hopefully they do something like that. I think they’re terrific.
John: Maybe they’re listening to this podcast right now and they will be inspired to say like, “You know what? We will do it. We will make our movie just for Craig Mazin.”
Craig: I hope they do. I just think they are really funny and they have a wonderful combination of silly and smart. And I’ve always gravitated towards silly smart/smart stupid. [laughs] You know, I like overeducated people doing low brow humor. It’s just been my thing my whole life and I love it. And I think they’re great at it.
John: Cool. Craig, thank you again for a fun podcast. If you enjoy our podcast and are not subscribed to us in iTunes, it might be a good idea to subscribe to us in iTunes so you can get them every week. And if you’re there you could also leave us a comment, or a rating, or tell the people that you like the show if you do you like the show. If you don’t like the show then I’m surprised you made it through to the end.
And we will see everybody again next week.
Craig: Next week people!
John: All right. Thanks. Bye.
Craig: Thank you, John. Bye.
- RIP Michael France
- Mitchell and Webb’s Working from home sketch
- How to submit your Three Pages
- Three Pages by Charlie Lyons
- Three Pages by Lisa Scott
- Three Pages by Kevin Graham-Caso
- Ulysses III for Mac
- That Mitchell and Webb Look BBC Two site and on Hulu
- Mitchell and Webb’s Homeopathic Emergency Department, Angel Summoner and the BMX Bandit and Write This sketches
- OUTRO: Beatboxing Inspector Gadget Flute Remix
John and Craig discuss the odd dislocation writers experience when writing movies in coffeeshops and windowless offices. We’re literally “someplace else” with our characters, but learning how to work in less-than-ideal circumstances is part of the screenwriter’s trade.
Then it’s another round of Three Page Challenges, wherein we wrestle with the question of why “two months earlier” keeps cropping up. Whatever the reason: stop it.
- RIP Michael France
- Mitchell and Webb’s Working from home sketch
- How to submit your Three Pages
- Three Pages by Charlie Lyons
- Three Pages by Lisa Scott
- Three Pages by Kevin Graham-Caso
- Ulysses III for Mac
- That Mitchell and Webb Look BBC Two site and on Hulu
- Mitchell and Webb’s Homeopathic Emergency Department, Angel Summoner and the BMX Bandit and Write This sketches
- OUTRO: Beatboxing Inspector Gadget Flute Remix
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Mmm…my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 84 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig, how are you?
Craig: Oh, recovering. I got sick again.
John: Oh no, Craig.
Craig: Yeah, you know, enough already with this. But much better now. Feeling good. I think I’ll be less phlegmy in this podcast. And recuperating from, you know, traveling with… — You ever have that thing where you’re descending on a plane but your ears are all stuffed up?
John: It’s the absolute worst.
Craig: It’s the worst. And you feel like something inside of you is dying.
John: Yeah. It reminds me of the classic scene in Star Trek II where they’re putting the little bugs inside, is it Chekov’s ears?
Craig: It is. It goes inside Chekov’s ear. And it is a scene that I have tortured my sister with for… — I mean, when did that movie come out? 1981?
John: Sounds right.
Craig: So, I’ve been torturing her with that for 32 years.
Craig: It’s just so awesome. What a weird Jungian nightmare that they just sort of uncovered.
John: Yeah. I think anything going into your eyes, or honestly, the knife going across somebody’s eye is the thing that I just can’t possibly stand.
Craig: You know, but the knife going across somebody’s eye, like, Un Chien Adalou did that very famous thing, it’s so ridiculous that I don’t even like, eh. Because there’s a lot of stuff that they do in movies where you’re like, “Oh god, that would really, really hurt.” But there’s something about a thing crawling into your ear. It’s an opening you already have, so they’re not cutting you. And then it’s going in you and staying in there.
John: We’ve already lost half of our listeners by disturbing imagery.
Craig: But we may have picked up some new ones.
John: Ah! Maybe so. Well, hopefully they’ll enjoy listening to our topics for today which include the First-Sale Doctrine, which is a big copyright concept that has important ramifications for people who make movies and people who like to watch movies.
John: Second, I want to talk about what’s funny on the page versus what’s funny on screen.
Craig: Hmm, like I know?
John: Yeah, I think you can answer a couple of those questions.
Craig: I have no clue.
John: And a couple of other just random listener questions that have been in the mail bag that I think we can tackle today.
Craig: Great. Before we do that, real quickly, how’s everything going over there?
John: Things are going really well. So, I’m in Chicago right now. This was our first week of previews for Big Fish. And it was terrifying but really, really good. Everything kind of came together. And our Tuesday night went terrific. And our Wednesday night really well. And Thursday night was even better. So, it’s really been amazing.
The strange thing is we go through this tech rehearsal where you’re trying to put all the pieces together and you’re never quite sure what the whole show looks like. And it was literally not until we started on Tuesday night that it was like I thought we could get through the whole show.
John: And people cheered at the right things, and laughed at the right things, and it was great. That said, you still keep doing work. And so we are performing every night but we have rehearsals starting at noon. So, basically 11am we meet with the creators and talk about sort of what we want to try to fix. And then you’re scrambling from noon to five to make changes, to make cuts, to change lines, to move stuff around.
And then everyone has to go have dinner and come back and put on the show with those changes in it.
John: So, it’s been amazing. But, I’ve said before, it’s like production and post-production at the same time. This is like being at the Avid but the people are actually in front of you and you’re trying to make this thing happen. And every night there’s — you don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s actually live in front of you. So, the second or third night one of the lack scrims didn’t come up in time. Last night we had one of our actresses get sick during the show.
John: Like she got food poisoning during the show. A swing had to go in. And our swings are brilliant, so Cynthia stepped up and did the job. So, that’s remarkable and that’s been fun to watch and experience.
Craig: Wow. Yeah, it’s funny, I have a friend who has been in musical theater for a long time, and while I don’t think she ever quite made it to Broadway she did a lot of Off-Broadway stuff and a lot of theater out here, like Santa Barbara and stuff like that. And we went to go see her in Peter Pan and she told us that the night before she had food poisoning and actually puked, I think puked on stage, [laughs], which I think is amazing.
And the great part about it is that it’s Peter Pan, so there’s all these kids in the audience. And they’re just like, “Why is Peter Pan throwing up?”
John: Yeah. Hopefully she wasn’t like in the aerial sequence of Peter Pan when the vomit happened.
Craig: God, you know, if she had been. “Unforgettable,” says the Santa Barbara News.
John: And one of the most remarkable things about Big Fish here in Chicago is a bunch of people from our podcast and from the blog have come to see the show. And so I had an open invitation, like if you’re coming to see the show send me your dates, and your times, and your seat numbers and I’ll try to come visit you. So, I’ve sort of done that Where’s Waldo thing of trying to find people in the balcony. And that’s worked only okay.
It’s actually much more difficult to find people up there than I thought it would be. I really needed Nima and Ryan to like make me an app to find people, but it’s been challenging.
Craig: Well, why don’t you just tell them when they see you to hold up something?
John: Yes. I’ve asked them just to grab me if they see me because I’m pretty identifiable. And so many people have grabbed me and said hello and they’ve enjoyed the show. And it’s been remarkable for them to come. So, I look forward to shaking more hands as we go through our five weeks here in Chicago.
Craig: Great. Awesome.
John: Let’s get started. First off, the First-Sale Doctrine, which is this legal concept that exists in US Copyright Law, but I think probably other countries’ copyright laws as well. What First-Sale Doctrine means is that if you make something that is subject to copyright, so let’s say you make a movie or a song, or a book is a good easy example.
John: Let’s say you created a book. You have the exclusive right to distribute that book. That’s one of your rights in copyright. What First-Sale Doctrine holds is that once you’ve sold that book to somebody, they can go off and resell that book again. And that’s why we have used book stores. That’s why we have libraries to some degree. It’s an important thing that’s one of the important tenets of US Copyright Law.
So, these last couple weeks, two big cases came up that challenged our conceptions of First-Sale Doctrine. And I thought they were important to talk about because they have big implications, not only if you are making movies, but if you are watching movies.
Craig: Right. I think one of them definitely has implications for the movie business. Maybe more so than the other.
John: Great. I’ll be curious which one you think is more important.
So, the first one that came up, the ruling came back, it was a Supreme Court Case called Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. And so here’s the situation that happened in that, and this was actually a book situation. It was a textbook situation, like literally it was about textbooks.
Somebody from Thailand came to the US to study and found that the textbooks were incredibly expensive. But they found that, “Oh, wow, if I actually bought those same textbooks back in Thailand, they’re much, much, much cheaper.” So, not only did he buy the books in Thailand for himself, he started bringing in those books from Thailand and selling them in the United States to help pay for his college education.
John Wiley & Sons, which was the publisher, said, “No, no, no. You can’t do that.” And they sued him. They won at a lower court, but the Supreme Court overruled that 6-3 and overturned that decision, and ruled that First-Sale Doctrine holds true even if the books were purchased in Thailand or outside the US, that concept still holds true.
John: So, that’s a fascinating issue because a lot of times we want to discriminate on price based on different markets. And so from a movie perspective, a lot of times we may say like, “Okay, we’re going to price this movie at this price in Asia, but it’s a higher price in the United States.”
Craig: Yes. And if we were still living in DVD culture I would say this would be definitely — this is an issue. Because first, I think the notion is that the First-Sale Doctrine is kind of a US thing. I mean, our copyright laws are different from other countries in a number of ways.
So, okay, First-Sale says you’re the copyright holder and the reason that the word “copyright” is copyright is because that’s the biggest right of all, to make copies. You’re the only person that can make copies of your work. You’re the only person that can distribute your work.
However, you get the right of the first sale. You don’t get the right of the second, third, and fourth sale. Once you sell it to somebody they can sell that discrete copy to someone else — as you said, used book store. The same goes for textbooks.
What this case seemed to be about was basically, look, Thailand maybe doesn’t have the doctrine of first-sale, or even if it did it’s a different doctrine of first-sale because it’s a different country. So, if you go and you sell intellectual property in somebody else’s jurisdiction, with somebody else’s copyright laws, and they take that and they come back to the United States, does the Doctrine of First Sale somehow magically appear all of a sudden, even if it wasn’t purchased originally in a place where Doctrine of First-Sale exists?
And the Supreme Court said: Yeah, it does. If were still living in a world of DVDs, and the studios were selling DVDs here for $20, and overseas for $5, then it would make total sense to just start buying your DVDs overseas and then selling them here. The whole point, this guy didn’t just buy a textbook in Thailand, bring it over, and then sell it to somebody. Nobody bothers with that. He was running a business. He was basically arbitraging the difference between the textbook prices of the same textbooks, reselling them and keeping the profit.
So, you could say, “All right, I’m going to buy 100,000 copies of Transformers in India where it costs $2.00 and sell them over here for $8.00, which is still cheaper than the US price and make a lot of money.” True, that there’s this whole DVD region thing that makes it a little more difficult to do, but really that’s not as big of a deal for us right now in the movie business because we are increasingly out of the physical object business, which is why this next case was so, so important.
John: Yes. So, the second case is Capitol Records vs. ReDigi. I think they call it ReDigi. And what ReDigi does is it says, “Okay, you have bought these mp3 files on iTunes or through some other store. We will let you resell that mp3 to somebody else who might want it. And in selling it we will delete it off your computer and put it on their computer.”
And ReDigi was the company that was serving as this broker. It was doing this work of moving your mp3 to the other person’s computer, the buyer’s computer.
This is much more sort of obviously troubling for people who are making digital goods, such as digital movies or songs that are mp3 files. The studios really did not want this to happen. It was Capitol Records in this case who came in.
So, it was a lower court decision, but this lower court said that ReDigi’s business model, their plan of doing this, was not realistic. Was a violation of the First-Sale Doctrine. Wasn’t covered by First-Sale Doctrine.
Craig: Right. Yeah.
John: And I do like that the judge in the case actually cited Star Trek’s Transporters and Willy Wonka’s Wonkavision. And so as a writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I love that he cited Wonkavision.
Craig: He did cite Wonkavision.
There’s a lot going on in this case and it’s not final obviously. I have a feeling that this one will be appealed and maybe make its way to the Supremes as well. But, it was an encouraging decision for us.
So, the crux of it is this: You buy a digital file from the copyright owner. And the question is how does the First-Sale Doctrine apply to you? Okay, they made the first sale to you; how do you then resell this? And really the truth is you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because the First-Sale Doctrine doesn’t say you can make a copy of what you’ve bought and sell the copy. It says you have to sell that thing you bought. So, because copyright is exclusive to the copyright owner — only they can make copies — unless they’ve licensed you some limited ability to make copies for personal use, which they can do.
So, how do you sell a digital file you have purchased without making a copy? So, ReDigi’s argument was, “Easy. We just take it from you and move it over to here. And we make sure that you’ve deleted it.” But, the judge rightly is pointing out, “Well, that’s still a copy.” Once you transmit the file to another space, you’re copying it. The fact that you are copying the book and then burning the other book behind it doesn’t mean you haven’t made a copy.
The truth is there is nothing that discrete about these digital files. The only real way to resell digital files, I think, and still be consistent with the First-Sale Doctrine is to sell them with your hard drive to someone. But barring that, you have made a copy. Furthermore, it’s really impossible for any business to ensure that they’re not making a copy, because the only way I, as ReDigi, can ensure that I’m not making an illegal copy when I accept your file from you is to make sure that you haven’t already duplicated your file on your end.
And that, of course, is where the opportunity for abuse is and it would be abused. Why wouldn’t any starving college student want to sell his entire music library knowing full well it’s copied, [laughs], and it isn’t going anyway? It’s sort of an obvious one.
Now, here’s what I think is interesting about this: When, I would say about two or three years ago, the movie industry got together and was trying to figure out how are we going to sell movies digitally, away from physical objects, and I suspect one of the things they were wrestling with was this very question, even though it hadn’t occurred to a lot of us. If they do sell things that are re-sellable, it’s not good for them.
Craig: So, what his all points to ultimately, I think, and the way around this mess for the movie business, and the music business, too, is that ultimately we’re never going to own any of these copies ever. We’re never going to have them. We are going to have to own access because if I’m the movie studio, here’s what I know: The person at home wants to watch the movie when they want to watch it. And they’re happy to pay to watch the movie. I do not want them to have a copy of the movie for so many reasons. So, I stream it to them.
I stream it to them and what they’re paying for is access to that stream. And on their end it ought to be no different than popping in a DVD. Now, that’s going to require infrastructure improvements to download speeds and all the rest of it, but that’s ultimately where it has to go.
John: I would agree with you. I also feel like this coming generation is sort of used to this “assetlessness.” It’s been interesting even just me living in like two corporate apartments over the last two months, I’ve kind of come to treasure the fact that I don’t actually have anything I need to own. Like I don’t have any printed books here. I don’t have any DVDs here. I don’t even know if I have a DVD player in the room, because if I want to watch Game of Thrones I just pull it up on my iPad and connect it to my Apple TV. I don’t want to have to own those physical things if I don’t have to own those physical things. And not owning those physical things is wonderful.
The problem comes when I don’t have an internet connection. That breaks down. And that is a huge flaw in this.
So, just so we can talk it out better, I’d like to try adopt the opposite point of view so I can see like these are the real problems with what you’re describing and sort of what the issues here.
John: So, I will now be the counter voice here.
Craig: You’ll be the “copy-fighter.”
John: I’ll be copy-fighter. So, here is the challenge. What you are doing by saying that you cannot transport this material from one person to another person is you’re essentially going back to the dark ages where things were written on scrolls, and like only certain people had access to certain things. Because what you’re saying is like only — you can’t ever own anything, that you can only license something. Then you’re controlling who can have access to anything that you don’t want them to have access to.
So, right now it’s the corporation saying, “Oh, we don’t want to license that movie in certain countries.” But then you’re denying everyone in that country the ability to experience that movie.
John: Or even to import that movie, or to find a physical copy. We’re saying that 100 years from now there may not be a physical copy that somebody could use in a library. You might say that a copyright extension is a whole separate other issue, but it’s sort of meaningless to say, “Oh, it will become in the public domain eventually,” if there’s never an ownable copy up until that point.
Craig: My response would be this. I think that there’s a reasonable case to be made that there ought to be full and open access to these things, and I don’t know how you legislate this. Because ultimately, well, maybe not. I mean, look, the copyright owner has the right to distribute, which also includes the right to not distribute. I don’t have to sell my novel in Wisconsin.
Craig: No publisher is required to sell a novel in Wisconsin, nor is any publisher required to translate the book, nor is any publisher required to sell it in any particular country. So, I would say that that’s actually not that different than it is now. The only difference is that you can’t — we’ve effectively barred those people from any kind of re-buying of that.
And, all I can say is, again, I tend to side with the rights of the content creators. I also feel like in general the marketplace tends to solve this problem. The whole point of making movies for these companies is to have people watch them and pay for them. So, I have a feeling that they would be all for open access as long as it didn’t feel like they were letting the foxes in the henhouse.
As far as libraries, I think their day is coming to a close. And I love libraries, but they are not going to be — libraries will ultimately not exist. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
John: So, let’s go to books, although of course you can apply it to movies as well. If libraries cease to exist, if you are a person who doesn’t have the economic means to get that book, to purchase that book, to purchase whatever the license is to read that book, then you have no access to that book. And that is a potentially huge problem for not only the educational system but sort of our system of culture.
Craig: Yeah. I think there will ultimately become some sort of virtual library. And I don’t think that we’re going to live in a time 30 years from now where access to the internet will be seen as the privileged outcome of owning a device. I think at some point it’s going to — for instance, telephones.
Craig: — were just given to people, you know, the impoverished got telephones. At some point they were like, “Everybody needs a phone. You’re going to have to have a phone. And they’re so cheap and here’s a phone. And here’s a connection.” And everybody that uses — even to this day — when you pay your bill, part of your bill is a tax for people who are poor and can’t afford a phone.
And I think that’s where it’s going to go. I think ultimately everybody will be connected. I think there will be literally hobos in the street with tablets.
And there will be some sort of access to free material through there in some form or another.
John: All right. Let’s go back to our core demographic here of writers and screenwriters. How do these issues affect screenwriters, people who are making movies?
Craig: Well, the biggest way is that by shooting down the ReDigi model we’re essentially protecting our residual base. So, we get paid when the studios get paid. Our residuals for reuse, our percentage of their gross for reuse, and in a ReDigi world where people can just sell each other these copies over, and over, and over, there’s just little incentive for them to buy the premium copy from the studio, which means we just don’t see the revenue.
It’s a little bit like eBay. You know, eBay is an enormous underground market. It’s a huge flea market of resale and the manufacturers get nothing of that resale. And that’s fine. I mean, people are selling objects and that’s the deal with objects.
For us, however, it would decimate what is already a wobbly system and what is already a system that has been knocked down so severely since the fall of the DVD. And by extension, continues to put pressure on screenwriting as a viable career.
Forget the average person, since it’s never been a viable career for the average person. It wouldn’t even be a viable career for the average screenwriter today. And that’s the scary part. So, that’s where the rubber hits the road for me.
John: Yeah. I would say going back to the Wiley decision, the ability to bring in things from other places, I’m glad it sort of ended up where it ended up. I feel like if we are not able to import things from other places, to see them, to experience them, then all the Japanese anime that you might want to go see could become locked off to you.
So, I think it’s important to be able to have access to — to bring stuff in from other places — or sometimes things that you would want to have a copy of that is just not available in the US market. And so I think it’s generally a helpful thing for people who want to see movies, that you can bring stuff in from other places.
Craig: Well, that decision didn’t really say that you could now do that. What it said is you can now do that and then resell it.
Craig: Which is a different deal. I mean, any of us can go online right now and buy a textbook from Thailand. It was just that this guy was pretty enterprising about it.
John: Yeah. But I respect the business model, and you see it more in big cities, but like the place that just sells the stuff that they brought in from Asia. And that can be kind of great. And I think it’s good that you can actually get some of those physical things from other places, copyrighted works.
John: And I would worry that had this decision done the other way you could see many more barriers put up to being able to do that.
Craig: Yeah. And, you know, for the textbook industry and for the — let’s just say the widget industry where people are selling physical objects, sorry, physical manifestations of intellectual property like books, and CDs, and DVDs, and works of art, this is a little bit of a challenge because they do price things for their marketplace.
I mean, yeah, obviously we pay more here in the United States for the same thing than they do in the developing world. And while we could stop and say, “Well, wait a second. That means we’re getting ripped off.” Uh, yeah, I guess we’re getting ripped off, but then again we have a lot more money than those people do and we’re willing to pay for it here. And, so, that’s that.
John: A couple reasons I think for the price discrimination. First off, we have more money, so therefore they can just afford to charge more for it. Second off, I mean, the reverse of that is they don’t have the money in those other markets, so if you price certain things, not only can no one buy it but you’re incentivizing piracy. Essentially like you’re trying to compete with free, or nearly free.
Craig: Right. I mean, there’s a little part of me that gets annoyed when I see, okay, well, if you can price it for that in Thailand, and still make money, because I know for sure you’re not pricing it below your cost, then you’re just up-charging me a massive amount for the privilege of having enough money to pay for it.
But, then again, I think, okay, but they sort of average it all out. And there’s like a medium price. The thing is, what do they do about — it does make a challenge for them because they can’t… — The only reason they can charge $5.00 in Thailand is because they charge $25.00 here. If the average is, you know, whatever, is $15.00, well, we’ll all buy them for $15.00 merrily, but they can’t in Thailand. So, what happens then? You know?
John: I suspect that the real costs are considerably different based on just the market. So, you know, a lot of the costs that we’re associating with our movies is all the — it’s the store, it’s the shipping, and all the other stuff, which might be quite a bit lower in other markets.
Craig: Yeah. But like for instance textbook publishing, I mean, look, I don’t know, but I suspect that most of the books that we buy here are actually assembled and published overseas.
Craig: So, it’s just that, you know, and yeah, maybe we’re spending a little bit extra for the — you know, because they have to ship the books over, but not that much more. We’re getting gouged. We know we are.
Craig: And so I’m kind of… — In a weird way, who this ends up hurting are the people getting the lower prices. Their prices will go up and that hurts them more than our prices coming down, if this becomes like a huge thing. We’ll see if it does.
John: Yeah. Cool. Let’s move onto our next topic which his about comedy. So, a completely different thing. This is a question that actually starts with Joe D. who wrote in to ask.
Craig: Where is Joe D. from, by the way?
John: He didn’t say.
Craig: Oh, because that sounds like a New York guy to me.
John: Joe D.!
Craig: Hey, Joe D.!
John: So, yes, if you’re writing in with a question, and I should stop and say that if you have questions that you want me and Craig to talk about, you can write to email@example.com. And so a big list of questions comes in, and I cull them, and Stuart culls them, and eventually we answer the ones we think are interesting.
So, Joe D. wrote in to ask: “When writing a comedy script do you think there is a one-to-one correlation between funny on screen versus funny on paper? Meaning, should a laugh out loud moment seen on the screen be equally laugh out loud moment on paper? In your experience, has this rung true? At what point does a smile on paper become a chuckle or a laugh?”
Craig: There is not a one-to-one relationship at all.
John: Not at all.
Craig: Not even close. You know, there are books that have made me laugh wildly, but if you were to shoot them they wouldn’t work at all. I mean, prose designed to make you laugh is very different than prose designed to be produced and make you laugh. It’s just a different thing.
Similarly, the same goes for situations that you’re describing. Knowing what to write to turn into something that makes people laugh, that’s why there are so few people that write comedy in movies. It’s not easy. And it’s an art. You know, it is an art in and of itself. It’s a strange debased, silly art, but it is an art.
And there are very few times where I’ve… — You know, sometimes I’ll write a line and I think, “That’s gonna work.” And it does work. And I think, “Okay, so there you go. That was a one-to-one moment, you know.”
John: But, I mean, that’s not quite what he’s phrasing. Like how often do you actually laugh when you read a script? For me it’s almost never.
John: I mean, I’ve read very funny scripts that become very funny movies, but they’re not funny when you’re reading them on the page because they’re funny because you’re visualizing, like, “Oh, this is how it’s going to work.” And you can tell that, “I think that’s going to be funny,” but you have no idea.
John: You aren’t laughing as you’re sitting there with the script on your iPad in front of you.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t remember reading any script that made me laugh through it. And, frankly, if I did I would be suspicious that something was weird, because it was designed to do the wrong thing.
Sometimes producers or executives will say, “I laughed out loud when I read this,” or “I laughed out loud when I read that,” and I’ll think, okay, yeah, you’re probably lying. You know the way people say LOL but they never really LOL?
Craig: I think it’s that. But, no, there’s not a one-to-one thing. Comedy is about performance. You’ve probably heard the old saying about timing. So much of comedy is about timing. So much of comedy is about staging. So much of comedy is about editing, or more specifically the lack thereof. And you simply can’t get that from the page. So, comedy writers are basically putting down a chemical formula and then you’re mixing the chemicals in front of the camera on the day.
So, no. No one-to-one relationship with there.
John: That said, that’s not to give a carte blanche to not try to be funny on the page. And so I’ll definitely notice that as you refine your work you’ll be taking out certain words, or trying to put back certain words so that it will read funnier, and so that you will give the actor a plan for like how that line can actually be funny.
And I’m sure we’ve both had situations where an actor just doesn’t understand how to make that line funny, or they’re trying to change something that is actually cutting into how that thing should be funny.
Craig: No question.
John: A classic example is an actor will change the tense in a sentence. They think, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter,” but it actually makes it not funny because of how they’ve changed the tense.
John: Or, it’s a misdirect. So, one of the lines in Big Fish that every time I watch the show I have like my little scribbly piece of paper and I take notes on what things are. And because I know every line of the show, if a line isn’t delivered right I can make a note and we can give that line reading back.
One of the things that’s happened a couple of times is exactly that. A very specific thing — in this case it was a joke where if you say, “Luckily, years earlier I had been bitten the Chucolabra snake of Tanzania.”
John: “Luckily, years earlier,” it’s important that it be that way. Because we say “luckily years before I had been bitten by the Chucolabra snake. “The years before, before I had been bitten,” it becomes a separate clause that makes it not funny. So, earlier versus before is actually a very important thing.
Craig: You are hitting on something interesting and sometimes I seethe quietly over this, because comedy requires a certain mastery of grammar. There is a reason why things are funny in their order with specific words. You can look at two versions of a joke where it’s slightly different, and one is clearly funnier than the other. And you could spend all day talking about why, but really nobody has the time for that. Either you know or you don’t.
And the people who write comedy routinely tend to know. And the people who don’t, don’t. And it actually requires quite a bit of intelligence. And just instinct. And that’s why… –What’s so great about comedy, too, is that unlike drama, which I think drama is always about representations of tragedy. There can be new comedy invented. Comedy actually can just come out of nowhere — and suddenly there’s a new comedy that didn’t exist before it.
And those people and their instincts are incredible. But it is so instinctive and so scientific. And, frankly, it’s OCD. Comedy is OCD. If you’re not OCD about the language that you’re using, comedy may not be your thing.
John: Yeah. One other thing I want to make clear, when I say like it’s not necessarily funny on the page, that’s a different conversation that voice. And I remember when we had Aline on the show we talked about voice. And the successful writers, the ones you can tell like, “Oh, this person is going to succeed,” a lot of times it’s because they have a voice. And many times it’s a funny voice.
And so the good comedy scripts tend to be funny even in the places that aren’t necessarily jokes. It’s just enjoyable to read in the right ways and it has a sense of humor to itself that’s not just scene, scene, scene, line, line, line.
John: It’s a hard thing to describe. But even not just what the characters are saying but the way that the script actually feels on the page is funny, or it is just the way it should be.
And so even if people aren’t laughing out loud, they’re going to the next page because they’re hearing a voice. And they’re having confidence that this person knows what they’re doing.
Craig: And there are writers who are really funny and write really funny stuff. They don’t have necessarily a great mind for structure. They don’t necessarily have a great mind for theme. They don’t necessarily have a great mind for drama. They’re just funny.
A lot of times those writers end up having incredible careers working on hysterically funny television shows, because television shows do rely less on a kind of self-encapsulated structure. I mean, there’s a structure to each show, of course, and there’s a room full of people to kind of help you get there. But a movie is a self-encapsulated structure. It’s its own thing that begins and ends. Permanently.
So, a lot of times they do that. But then there are a lot of writers who also work in movies who really do come on to projects to make them funnier. They’re not there necessarily to write something that is comedically dramatic or dramatically comedic.
John: Yeah. And there are cases where like you just literally need a laugh here. And so that’s where a writer who’s good at figuring out what could be funny in that moment can be really valuable.
You and I have both been on comedy panels, roundtables on movies that are about to go into production. And those are not ideal situations for figuring out the big funny of a movie, but they can be useful for figuring out those little surgical moments of like how do we get a laugh here that can propel us into the next moment.
Craig: And it’s funny because you’ll have a lot of people in a room — we do this all the time — where we go through a screenplay that’s about to go into production looking for opportunities for jokes. And all of these really funny people, I mean, I’ve done these things with Patton Oswalt, and Dana Gould, and big comedy writers, Lennon and Garant, and we all go around the table and we do this stuff. And at the end of the day on a movie if two jokes come out of that whole thing and end up in the movie, that’s a good day.
Craig: Because it’s really hard to just sort of come in and throw stuff into a movie that would actually work in that moment, in that tone, is doable, consistent with the characters, translates from what was funny in the room to funny on screen. It’s just a whole different thing.
John: Yeah. Sometimes those sessions can help get the other writers, or the writers who are working on it longer term, or if it’s a writer-director, can get them in a good spirit to be thinking for other things, thinking of other moments that can help. So, that can be useful.
And, honestly, if those two jokes end up in the movie but they also end up in the trailer, then you’ve just made things…
Craig: Big time.
John: Big time. It’s been completely worth everyone’s time to go do that.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. For sure.
John: Our next question comes from Michael who asks — again, I don’t have locations on people. Tell us where you’re from. We’d love to know where you’re from. Michael asks: “It seems like you get a lot of things done with screenplays, musicals, the website, podcast, apps, games, etc. Do you have any tips on time management and self-actualization?”
Craig: Well, I mean, this is all about you, because I really only get one thing done.
John: [laughs] What I liked about this question is that the actual question is like time management and self-actualization, and weirdly I think those things have been bundled together in a way in the last couple years that’s not necessarily healthy or productive.
So, time management is basically, you know, getting the stuff done in your day that you can get done and not being so stressed out about it. And that’s good. And so I do have some things to say about that.
Self-actualization is really a different thing. And self-actualization is sort of feeling good about who you are and what you’re doing and sort of how life works. And overtime management is probably bad for your self-actualization. You’re like a machine who gets stuff done, but isn’t anything other than a machine who gets things done.
So, I think it’s just weird that we packed those two ideas together.
John: For time management, when I’m back in my normal Los Angeles I have pretty good stuff and I can actually churn through a lot of things. Since I’ve been doing the show, it’s all gone out the window. So, I’ve barely my OmniFocus which is where I store all that stuff. I’m late for everything. Stuart, god bless him, sort of keeps his master list of who’s coming to what show of Big Fish every night so I can try to find those people. But then I forget to print it out. I forget that people travel cross-country to see the show.
So, I don’t have like a perfect system for this.
Craig: You’re a bastard.
John: I’m a terrible, terrible person.
John: Like literally in the lobby, I just happened to be in the lobby and three people I knew sort of separately came up and said like, “Oh, John, thank you for meeting.” I’m like, “Yes, I planned…” No. I didn’t plan to be here at all. I just happened to see you.
Craig: You’re such a bastard because even the lies you successfully told to hide your bastardy have been undone right here.
John: Right on the show.
There are general theories on time management. One is that you should focus on whatever the most important thing is and get the most important thing done, to the exclusion of all other stuff. And that’s sort of been how I’ve treated Big Fish this time is that there’s a lot of other stuff in my life, work stuff in my life, that needs some attention that I just can’t give it.
So, I’ve been sort of stalling on phone calls, or just not engaging on stuff because I can’t I have to sort of devote every brain cell to this.
But, in my normal life I will sort of — I’ll look for what the easy things are and just knock out a bunch of easy things. And I think that sometimes people, and I’m definitely one of them, get sort of paralyzed because they know that the big thing is too hard to do. So, the trick is to break it down into smaller steps and just get those little smaller steps done.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: In terms of writing, sometimes there’s that scene that I just don’t want to do that. And so, like, well don’t write that scene. Write the other scenes that are around that scene that are simple that you can do right now.
Craig: A lot of times when I don’t want to write that scene I have to confront the fact that something’s wrong with the scene. [laughs] That’s usually the big thing. But I have to say that my approach to scheduling stuff, writing, this, you know, I do a lot of charity work in my town, I do work with the WGA, I’ve got a family — that’s a big one. We’ve often talked about our kids are killing us.
Craig: I have come to accept in a self-actualized way, I think, that I have a method that is methodless, and that through various impulses — guilt, desire, whatever they are, shame, happiness, excitement — the things that I want to get done get done. And what I would say to you out there is if you’re having trouble with these things, there’s no problem whatsoever with looking for help. Maybe there’s a system out there that you would find services what you want. Just make it what you want.
Don’t follow some plan, some artificial plan, to your nature. Because that’s not going to work, either. And you’re absolutely right. It is going to get in the way of you just being a happy person. Productivity is not the same thing as happiness.
Productivity in something that makes you happy is the same as happiness. And we can always get better at things. If it excites you, it’s a good thing. If it exhausts you, it’s a bad thing.
John: Yes. That’s definitely been my theory with sort of the app stuff I’ve done and sort of Highland has shipped, and Bronson, and the other things. I did it because it was really interesting to me. And so I have no trouble sort of spending a lot of time on things that are actually fascinating to me and exploring how to do that.
And so the musical was a brand new thing, and it was terrifying, and it was fascinating to do it. It’s exhausting right now, but I recognize that I’m sort of through the sloggy/exhaustion part of it. But I also get to see it every night, and that’s a remarkable, amazing thing.
So, I will say that sometimes — here are the two sides of it. The bright shiny things are always going to be bright, and shiny, and attractive. And sometimes you just have to go chase them because they’re what you sort of want to do. And sometimes you’re going to be in the third draft of something that is just a slog. And it’s recognizing that it’s a slog because it’s a slog. But then you’re going to get through it and you will finish it.
Craig: Yeah. Don’t be a child. There is delayed gratification. We all have the experience of not wanting to work out, and then working out, and then feeling great that we worked out. So, writing is no different sometimes. Sometimes writing is awesome and it’s fun. Sometimes it’s working out. But then when it’s done you feel great.
John: Craig, I think we’ve talked about the marshmallow test on the podcast, because you as a psychology major must be familiar with the marshmallow test. Have you seen this?
Craig: Maybe not under that name. Is it the kids who are given the marshmallows and told to wait and they get more marshmallows. Is that the one?
John: Exactly. The classic setup is that you have a young kid who is presented with like a marshmallow on a plate. And the tester says, “If you can wait, I’ll be back in a few minutes. And if you can wait, I’ll give you a second marshmallow.” So, basically they time the kid, like how long it takes the kid to not just eat the first marshmallow and delay gratification in order to get two marshmallows.
And I’ve always been the kids who like I could probably wait there a day to get that marshmallow.
Craig: Yeah. And it is interesting because they find that some kids are just better at it than others. That there is a kind of innate capacity for delayed gratification.
For some people it seems that gratification is only gratifying if it’s immediate. Those people do tend to become drunks. But, [laughs], or substance abusers, or sex addicts. They are also sometimes the most fascinating people in the world.
Writing, unfortunately, is not for people who find gratification only in the moment. It is not an impulsive person’s task.
John: I would say sketch writing might be, writing for like a Jimmy Fallon. That could be that.
Craig: Yeah. I think that might be so. Writing for stuff that’s immediate like that, sure, like a daily variety show where every night it’s a new thing and you just burst it out. Absolutely. Yeah. I can see that. That is fun. That is as close to standup comedy as writing gets probably.
But writing anything long form — writing anything that’s not being shot that day requires a sense of delayed gratification. Screenwriting requires a sense of delayed gratification that is monastic…
Craig: …in its requirements. You need to be willing to not only write for a very long time to reach the gratification of finishing; you need to be aware that you haven’t finished at all and that you may have another six months, another year, another lifetime ahead of you on that movie. Or it may never gratify in the end ultimately which is the movie experience.
So, those of us who screen-write, yeah, we’re waiting for the second marshmallow.
John: I have a theory that perhaps the ability to delay gratification is partly the ability to visualize an alternate future. So, it’s the ability to see a future in which you had waited and this is the result of having waited. Because that’s really what you’re talking about is being able to picture yourself as the person who got the two marshmallows because you waited.
And a lot of the projects I’ve been involved with, it’s knowing that, okay, it’s going to go through all these different steps, but this is what it’s going to look like at the end. And both the movies I’ve written and now the show, and even the apps I’ve done, it’s being able to see like, “Okay, this is what it looks like at the end.” And because I can see what it looks like at the end I am willing to go through all of the stuff that gets you to that place.
Craig: Well, that’s an expected confluence for somebody who writes because, after all, writing is imagining stuff and being excited about what you imagine. So, it seems like that would go hand in hand.
There’s an interesting experiment that — a little game that they play. And so you at home can play along with us. I want you to take out a piece of paper, or if you’re in your car just imagine this. You’re going to draw three circles on the paper. The first circle represents how important the past is to you. The second one represents how important the present is to you. and the third one represents how important the future is to you.
And by important I mean to say how much of your thoughts and your mind are occupied by these things — the past, the present, and the future. And, you know, for me, when I did it was sort like a very small circle, pinpoint, huge circle. [laughs] Because, you know, I really don’t think about the past that much at all. I just don’t. I’m not one to go roll over things. If anything, it’s all very dream like behind me. The moment to me right now is the moment right now. But it’s hard for me to access. I’m constantly thinking about tomorrow. I’m constantly thinking about the future.
John: Yeah. I would wonder whether that’s necessarily the healthiest balance. I agree that the past is maybe not as instructive and people tend to dwell too far in the past. And therefore we have terrible world situations.
But what’s interesting about the future, and if I could improve one thing about myself, and find myself doing it, I would say I clock it that I’m doing it, is I will visualize the future and I will visualize conversations — hypothetical conversations with people that are not productive. I will visualize, like, “I’ll say this, and then they’ll say that, and then I’ll say this, and I’ll do that. And you know what? That’s not going to really work out so well.”
Craig: [laughs] No. No, no, it’s true. I have occasionally caught myself in loops like that. I remember when I was on the board of directors of the Writers Guild, after the first few meetings it became clear to me that the nature of those board meetings was endless talking.
And it was frustrating talking because, frankly, so much of it was just wrong. You know, it was just sitting in a room listening to people say things that were wrong. And saying them with conviction. And when you hear people saying wrong things with conviction, something happens inside of you that is — well, maybe something happens inside of me. It was terrifying. [laughs]
And I would find myself sometimes at night playing out conversations in my head in which I attempted to make them see why they were wrong. And it never worked. Ever. It is, in fact, a waste of time.
But, it may also be neural flotsam and jetsam that is unavoidable to those of us who write because that is precisely the mechanism we use when we’re creating characters and writing dialogue.
Craig: So, it’s hard to make that muscle stop being a muscle.
John: Yes. But I think it is important to recognize that writing yourself into imaginary fights with people is not maybe necessarily the healthiest thing to be doing.
John: So, I’m recognizing when I do it and hopefully not doing it as long as I’ve done it.
Craig: How many fights have we had in your head?
John: I don’t know that we’ve had that many fights. Maybe two.
John: And I’ll tell you, one of the fights I had in my head was over a script of mine that you read. And in a lovely way you were trying to talk about some aspect of it, but you said it did not hit my ears especially well.
Craig: Oh, I’m sorry.
John: And so therefore I started having the very unproductive conversation with you, the imaginary conversation in my head. How about you? How many fights have you had with me?
Craig: None. [laughs] Because, well, and I’m sorry. You know, that’s why I hate reading people’s scripts and talking about it because then I think like, “How can I say something here and not upset them if there’s something that I feel is wrong, or incorrect, or I don’t like.” And I don’t want to be pedantic about it.
But then there’s always the risk that that will happen. And it’s certainly not intentional.
Craig: I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.
John: Oh, no, it’s fine. And people who are working on Big Fish know that I have about — you can sort of watch me and know sort of like where my meter is at. Because I can start crying at about 15 seconds at any given point. It’s been a very sort of stressful time. But it’s gotten to the point where it’s just like it’s almost kind of funny because it’s like I don’t have — I’m aware of it, and so it’s not so terrible.
Craig: I didn’t make you cry?
John: Oh, you didn’t make me cry at all. Not at all.
Craig: Because I thought that script was good. I really liked it.
John: Well thank you. Thank you.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, any thoughts I had were just — they were probably, you know, if you heard anything strange in my voice it was probably that I was encountering things that I had done in the past and paid terrible prices for. And maybe there was memories of old mistakes that may not necessarily have translated to your script, but maybe that was what it was.
John: I want to thank you for that.
Let us wrap up with our One Cool Things.
Craig: But now I’m going to have a fight in my head with you later though.
John: Oh, good. See? “How dare he be so sensitive about that thing? And how dare he call me out on a podcast about it?” That’s really what you’re fight is going to be.
Craig: Yeah. I think the more, frankly, the more you do that to me the better the podcast gets.
John: [laughs] Because it’s really the podcast where I knock Craig Mazin down a little bit.
Craig: But the best podcast. I wish every podcast were me defending myself. It’s my natural position.
John: Good! Yes. I very much enjoyed our Veronica Mars podcast for that reason, because we genuinely did disagree.
John: And I didn’t have to just take the opposite point of view.
Craig: That’s right.
John: I have a One Cool Thing this week which is actually courtesy of two members of our cast. Alex Brightman and Cary Tedder. And this is a recurring joke in the dressing rooms. It’s Carl Lewis “sings” The National Anthem at an NBA game. You may have seen this. This is from a long time ago.
Craig: Seen it! Seen it!
John: It’s really just amazing. So, it’s not a surprise — he does a terrible job. And there’s moments in it that are just brilliant. Because he recognizes, like, oh, this is not going well, so he says, “Uh-oh.” That uh-oh is great.
Craig: I know. That’s my favorite.
John: And so we’ve had some uh-oh moments in Big Fish. And nothing has gone horribly awry, but there are cats that have fallen out of trees when they weren’t supposed to. So, there have been some uh-oh moments, shot guns that are broken. And so “Uh-oh” has become sort of a recurring thing. So, I will include a link to it in the show notes. It’s only 30 seconds long, so it’s not going to take up a lot of your time.
What I think is fascinating about it is it’s not just to make fun of Carl Lewis, or not even to make fun of him. He’s given us a great illustration of why our National Anthem is so problematic. And I think some guidelines on sort of if you do need to sing The National Anthem, here is my personal piece of advice: You need to recognize that our National Anthem can only be sung if you start at near the very bottom of your singing register.
John: So, National Anthem, the third note is the lowest note in the whole song.
John: Yeah. So, [sings] “Oh, say…” You have to figure out — well, that was a terrible one — but you have to figure out where your lowest note is.
John: The lowest note that you can sing well should be the “Say.” And then you have a chance, just a small chance, of being able to get through the song.
Craig: Basically you’re going from “Say” to “Glare.”
Craig: That’s the range of the song. And it’s a long range. And it is very difficult.
John: And if you don’t think about it ahead of time you’re going to make a natural assumption for most songs that you sing, which is that the first note is going to be somewhere in the middle of where that song is.
John: And that holds true for America the Beautiful. It holds true for Happy Birthday. Through most of the normal songs you sing. It’s just a fluke song. It requires far too much of a range.
So, figuring out this piece of my own, everyone is like, “Well, someone else must have given some good advice on how to sing the national anthem.” So, I’ll also include a link to this ten-point guideline for how to sing The National Anthem without embarrassing yourself. The zero point on that is never sing The National Anthem.
John: You basically can’t win with The National Anthem, unless you’re Whitney Houston, or Zooey Deschanel did a great job, too.
Craig: Lots of people can sing The National Anthem. And I actually like singing The National Anthem. You just have to know — you have to know that you can do it. The only way to sing The National Anthem is to sing it confidently, because the whole point is it’s a song about confidence. It’s a song about victory.
Craig: And you cannot be confident if you, while you’re singing or thinking, “I wonder if I’ll hit the word Glare.” Maybe not. [laughs] You know?
John: One piece of advice in this blog post, and then I’ll stop talking about The National Anthem, is don’t look at a printed copy of it. Instead, listen to the song and handwrite out all the words so that they make sense to you. So, you can detect the through line of the story and that will keep you from messing up the “rockets’ red glare” and a couple couplets that always get messed up when people try to sing it.
Craig: [sings] “Bunch of bombs in the air.” You gotta put Leslie Nielsen’s version as Enrico Palazzo is the greatest version of The National Anthem ever.
John: I’ll have Stuart find that and link to it.
Craig: “Bunch of bombs in the air” is the greatest. You want to talk about one-to-one writing funny and being funny — “Bunch of bombs in the air.” That’s just amazing. Yeah.
John: Craig, do you have one this week?
Craig: I do. Yes. This is a Cool Thing that a lot of people already know is cool, but perhaps you don’t out there, and it’s the video game BioShock Infinite.
John: People love it.
Craig: People love it. I love video games. I loved the first BioShock a whole big ton. I’ve really enjoyed the second BioShock as well. This one sort of takes it to another level. So, BioShock, the series created and masterminded by a guy name Ken Levine who’s super duper smart. Interestingly, started his career — attempted to start his carrier as a screenwriter, and didn’t happen for him.
So, then he went out east to New York to become a playwright. Didn’t happen for him either. He is, however, I would argue the preeminent video game writer of our generation. No question he is actually. I mean, you could argue maybe that the Houser Brothers who do the Grand Theft Auto games are up there, too. But, frankly, I think Ken Levine is in a class all of his own.
The game is easily the most fascinating world conceived for those of us with a brain in the video game genre. It is remarkable. It is incredibly literate. It is incredibly literate almost to a fault. I will say — so I’ll give a little spoiler alert here — I’m not giving away the ending at all. I’m simply talking about the nature of the ending.
The nature of the ending is presented in such a curious way and is so much about you figuring out. I mean, there’s that metric of how much do I tell you, how much do I let you figure out. So, okay, I need you to know that Bruce Willis is really dead. So, I’m going to let you figure it out by showing the breath and then showing little flashbacks from the movie and then you’ll get it.
I’m not going to just have somebody announce, “He’s dead!” Well, end of BioShock Infinite, I think, errs a little too far in the “you figure it out — here, we’ve told you everything you need to know.” I couldn’t actually quite understand all of the intricacies of it until I went online and had people sort of explain it in depth, which reminded me a bit of the second Matrix film.
Craig: Which had that scene with the architect, which if you understand, is amazing. What he’s saying is amazing. And what they are presenting there is amazing. It’s just that nobody understood it, so it doesn’t matter. You don’t get credit for it. So, I think that the end of BioShock Infinite got a little too that way for me. But, now that I understand it, it’s pretty awesome. I just wish that it had been presented sort of in the way that Ken Levine presented the big twist inside of BioShock the first, which was done flawlessly and hits you like a ton of bricks.
And not only — that may be the greatest twist in video game history because not only did it create a twist in the story, but it created a twist for you as the player. You realized you hadn’t been playing the way you thought you had been playing, which was wild.
So, anyway, BioShock Infinite is a game worth playing if you are a writer, if you are intellectual, if you are fascinated by the connection between humanity and the crimes of humanity. So, that’s my big Cool Thing of the week.
John: Wonderful. I’m looking forward to that when I get back to Los Angeles. I will barricade myself and play some of that.
John: Craig, thank you for a fun podcast. Our standard boilerplate here at the end. Anything we talked about on the show today you can find at johnaugust.com/podcast, along with back episodes. If you like our show, it helps us if you give us a rating in iTunes so other people can find us. We are just Scriptnotes on iTunes.
If you have a question for us you can write at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even better, you can go to johnaugust.com/podcast and there is a little thing, a link, that shows how to send a question in and the things we will talk about and the things we won’t talk about.
For example, we’d love if you’d put your location so we know where you’re writing from.
John: I am @johnaugust on Twitter. You are @clmazin?
Craig: That’s right.
John: And thank you, Craig, again for a fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next week.
John: All right. Bye.
- First-sale doctrine on Wikipedia
- Reselling Digital Goods Is Copyright Infringement, Judge Rules from Wired
- Capitol Records LLC vs ReDigi Inc.
- New York times on the ReDigi ruling
- Carl Lewis “sings” The Star-Spangled Banner
- Jonas Maxwell’s tips for singing the national anthem
- BioShock Infinite on Amazon.com
- How to ask a question
- OUTRO: Leslie Nielsen (as Enrico Palazzo) sings the national anthem
Craig and John look at two recent court decisions that could have a big impact on how movies get sold and resold — and how writers get paid. First-Sale Doctrine is one of those intractable issues that involves freedom and control, bits and atoms, creators and consumers.
From there, we take a look at whether comedy is necessarily funny on the page, and why jokes can work or fail based on tiny details. Then we tackle productivity and happiness, concepts that may not be as directly related as you believe.
- First-sale doctrine on Wikipedia
- Reselling Digital Goods Is Copyright Infringement, Judge Rules from Wired
- Capitol Records LLC vs ReDigi Inc.
- New York times on the ReDigi ruling
- Carl Lewis “sings” The Star-Spangled Banner
- Jonas Maxwell’s tips for singing the national anthem
- BioShock Infinite on Amazon.com
- How to ask a question
- OUTRO: Leslie Nielsen (as Enrico Palazzo) sings the national anthem
We’ve had a great response to Highland, our plain-text screenwriting app, with lots of five star ratings that make us blush. We’re working on new features, but first we’re squashing some bugs.
Here’s what’s new in 1.01:
- When you save (or autosave), Highland remembers where your cursor was. Because that’s How It Should Be.
- Highland retains newlines upon Save. So if you like to use a lot of blank lines for some reason, go right ahead. It’s your script.
- Drag-and-dropping text within the editing window is so much better now. Try it!
- When you import a PDF or FDX file, we treat it like a new Fountain file — which it basically is. The first time you save it, you’ll give it a name.
- Fixed a bug that caused an occasional crash during Save.
- Fixed Export menu command.
- Updated welcome screen text.
- There was some stray Fountain markup (====) in FDX export. Whoops. Fixed.
- In Dark Mode, we’ve made the scroll bar easier to spot.1
If you haven’t tried out Highland, there’s a demo available. (Mac App Store rules won’t let us mention it in the product description.)
Keep sending your report cards and comments. That’s how Highland improves. And I’ll admit it: stars are nice, so if you’re enjoying Highland and feel like telling folks, leave us a review.
- Did you know you can change the colors in Dark Mode in the Preferences panel? Nima was like, “But what if someone picks terrible colors, like pink-on-red?” And I said, “What are you, the Color Police?” Then he showed me his badge.