John August's Blog
We’re doing a live episode of Scriptnotes on Thursday, May 15th at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. It’s a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation.
This time, we’re featuring some of the biggest names behind the biggest superhero movies.
Scheduled panelists include:
Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (both Captain Americas, Thor: The Dark World, and the Narnia movies)
David Goyer (Batman vs. Superman, Man of Steel, Batman Begins, Blade, the upcoming Constantine)
Andrea Berloff (Conan The Legend, World Trade Center, Straight Outta Compton and Blood Father)
Marvel and DC together on stage! Swords vs. hammers! Umbrage vs. reason! Plus more special guests.
We’ll also be doing a live Three Page Challenge. Details will be announced next week, but this will be a new process (that is, we won’t be pulling from the backlog) and may involve listeners getting to choose which entries we discuss.
But there’s more!
We’re selling a limited number of tickets for an exclusive pre-show cocktail party co-hosted by Aline Brosh McKenna, where you can mingle with these guests and other favorites from our first 150 episodes.
Pre-show cocktails at 6:30pm. Show begins at 7:30pm.
All tickets go on sale Thursday, April 17th at 10am Pacific at the Writers Guild Foundation website.
Charles Forman, whose company OMGPOP developed Draw Something, is writing a screenplay in Fountain:
I don’t work at a bank. However, I’m sure that on the first day of orientation, they teach you how to use an application written in 1999 in Visual Basic. It hasn’t been updated since 2001, it doesn’t work very well, everyone hates it, but it’s the way it is, and if you trick it, you might be able to do what you want, or wait until it’s 5 PM. It’s probably exactly what it’s like to use Final Draft.
The joy of writing shouldn’t feel like working at a bank.
Forman offers a detailed look at writing in Fountain from the perspective of someone who’s written a lot of code. For his screenplay, he used both Slugline and Highland, but also built his own tools based on the libraries available on GitHub.
He also built a tool that generates a word cloud based on a screenplay.
Here’s Big Fish:
Forman listens to the podcast, so he’s heard us discussing the possibilities of a new screenplay format. He argues that we already have it in Fountain.
Because Fountain is pretty flexible, you could add metadata for anything you might want to extend the screenplay with. In my case, I have included storyboards. You could add metadata for the song that is playing. You could add metadata about which characters are in the scene, if its not totally clear. You could add metadata about what the purpose of a scene is. You could add anything. If I could make a small ask to the Fountain team, I would love a specific way to insert metadata. I am using notes. I’m thinking about putting curly bracket objects inside of notes going forward.
This kind of thinking is why I’m so bullish Fountain: not just what it can do today, but what it can be repurposed for in the future.
John and Craig visit Ben Blacker’s Nerdist Writers Panel for a special crossover episode, recorded in front of a live audience on April 13, 2014.
As television gets more cinematic, what if feature writing was more like TV writing, with multiple writers together in a room? Would movies get better or worse? Could a Joss Whedon or a Vince Gilligan make movies the way they make television?
We have another live show coming up: May 15th, featuring writers from the biggest superhero movies and a live Three Page Challenge. Tickets go on sale Thursday.
This is a two part episode! You can hear the other half at Nerdist Writers Panel. Seach for “Nerdist Writers Panel” iTunes, or follow the links in the show notes.
Our thanks to Ben Blacker and the Nerdist empire for a great evening. If you’re not already listening to his podcast, subscribe.
- Nerdist Writers Panel
- 826 LA
- NerdMelt at Meltdown Comics
- The Children of Tendu podcast, and on iTunes
- Superman: Red Son and Marvel Zombies on Amazon
- John’s Scriptcast on writing better action
- Ops in the John August Library
- Scriptnotes, Episode 121: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend’s Screenwriter
- Tickets for the Scriptnotes Summer Superhero Spectacular will be available April 17th on the Writers Guild Foundation’s website
- Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art from the Underground by Matthew Chojnacki
- Unsheets on tumblr
- Fight jet lag with Entrain
- Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction, and on Image Comics
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, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, you’re at home, your son was using up all the bandwidth. We’ve had some challenges but I think we’re doing better now.
Craig: Yeah, basically I just yelled at him and now everything is fine.
John: That’s great, great parenting.
John: Last weekend I had a parenting challenge and we actually did something new where I asked five questions on a piece of paper and had her sort of fill out like what she thought was like the right amount of screen time, what she thought would be the right consequences of these kind of actions, and drew up a little agreement. And so far so good. Better.
Craig: Well, I don’t know if it’s a gender thing or if it’s just an individual thing. With my son, I find that what seems to work best is a kind of a military precision with him. So generally speaking to help guide him we don’t discuss the why he’s doing things or why it’s wrong or what it’s supposed to be. Instead it’s just very like, here’s the rules, this and this and this. And he says, got it. [laughs] Then he just does it.
But we do have this interesting thing we do where sometimes at night he’ll write up a little something where he expresses his feelings. It’s easier for him to just write it.
Craig: And then he gives it to me and he goes to bed because he doesn’t want to talk about it. And then I read it and then I write back a response. It’s very parental and nice. And then I slip it under his door and when he wakes up in the morning he reads it. And in a very kind of father-son way that works really well for us. We are allowed to be kind of vulnerable and sweet with each other that way.
John: Yeah. I do the exact same thing with my daughter, so it’s a good idea.
Craig: Oh, good.
John: So our parenting advice for the episode would be to do that.
John: But we have a show chock full of other stuff today, so let’s get to it.
We’re going to talk about the Writers Guild and producers who have reached a new agreement. And so we will have Chris Keyser on to talk about that.
We are going to talk about screenplay formats and not just our sort of new format but sort of how we got to the current screenplay format and some of the alternatives that have already been out there and sort of what they look like and their pros and cons of that.
And then I also want to talk about the process of assembling a first draft, because I just today shipped in a brand new first draft of something and it was a completely different way than I had ever written before. So I want to talk about that process.
John: But before we get to Chris Keyser I have a little bit of follow up. James in London emailed us two episodes ago about Courier Prime and how the underlining wasn’t right. Do you remember that?
Craig: Yeah, I do, yeah.
John: And I was like, well, you’re wrong because I underline things in script a lot. And I think the underlining in Courier Prime is really good. The underlining does actually, like the Gs carve out in the underlining, which I think is a good thing.
He emailed us back to say, “I have since looked further into the matter and I feel I owe you an apology. The difference in underlining is due to changes in Final Draft 9 and not the fonts. I have attached a couple of screenshots showing the difference.”
Craig: Oh! Ha, that’s weird because they did spend three years on that.
John: So I will describe for our listeners sort of what the difference is. Like the underline is weirdly, bizarrely thin in the Final Draft 9 version. I don’t have an answer for why it is that way. But actually it’s a Final Draft 9 thing and he was not being crazy, we were not being crazy. It was a Final Draft thing.
Craig: How many times they –
John: Final Draft.
Craig: Do we say, oh it’s just a Final Draft thing?
John: So on Wednesday this past week the Writers Guild and the studios reached a tentative agreement for another three years of contract, which is great news. Press releases don’t work very well on radio, so we’re so excited to have Chris Keyser, the President of the Writers Guild of America, on the show today to talk us through what is new in the deal.
Chris, welcome to the Scriptnotes podcast.
Chris Keyser: Thanks, guys. Thanks, John. Thanks, Craig.
I haven’t seen you in over a day, John.
John: It’s been a very long day without you.
So I was on the negotiating committee, so I got to see Chris in action sitting at the table right next to me as we were negotiating this deal and this contract. And you went off and shot a whole pilot in the meantime too, so.
Chris: I did. And now I’m editing it. So I’ve stepped out of the editing room and — but I’m glad to talk to you guys.
John: Good, fantastic. So what should writers know about this deal and sort of what has happened over the course of this negotiation?
Chris: There are actually a lot of things that I think this negotiation accomplished. Most people I think will look at it in that it’s two separate things. One is a whole bunch of stuff that we got that came off of what people will think of as the DGA pattern, a pattern that in fact we had a lot to do with because there were conversations that went on for a long time between the WGA and the DGA about all the stuff that had been negotiated. And then separately the new provisions on options and exclusivity which are the first time for those issues to be discussed in the MBA. And actually I think potentially a big step forward.
So we should probably talk about one and then the other. And I’m happy to do whichever thing you want to do first.
John: Let’s do the basics, because a lot of stuff going into this negotiation was about talk of really rollbacks.
So I think far in the distance as this negotiation was approaching, there’s a sense like, okay, it’s just going to be a very standard negotiation. We’re going to end up doing a lot of the same things the DGA deal did. It should not be complicated.
And then the first proposals we got from the studios were actually not what we expected.
Chris: No, they actually contained about $60 million in rollbacks which seemed outrageous during the time of unprecedented profitability for the companies. Nevertheless, that’s where we began. And so that’s coming off of an initial list of rollbacks and then a decision on the part of the studios, the companies not to come in for any early conversations but just to arrive on the first day with those rollbacks on the table.
We began on our end with a letter, as you probably all remember from the co-chairs of our committee, from Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray, essentially informing our members of what those rollbacks were. And I think that was a really important moment in the course of the negotiations. It put the companies on notice that we were not taking this lightly. I think it energized the membership in a way.
And we went into the room with interestingly I think a little bit of momentum. I don’t know whether it was a strategic mistake on the part of the companies. You’d have to ask them how they felt about it in the long run. But I think though it looked like it was a potentially dangerous moment and it could have been. There were many days sitting in the negotiation room when we were still at risk of some of those rollbacks actually trying — being imposed on us if we could not get out of them. But instead, what it turned out to do was to kind of invigorate us on our side and put us on the offensive almost from day one.
So first off, all of those rollbacks were off the table and those rollbacks included some major — would have — major concessions first of all in pension and health — mostly in health. Also some rollbacks on the screen side of the business that would have decreased the salary of screenwriters by raising the low budget minimum. So that was actually a very dangerous moment for us at the very beginning.
But all of that stuff actually went away. And by the way, those were the highlighted rollbacks. But the truth was as we got into the deal there were also a bunch of hidden potential rollbacks that we actually were able to avoid as we went and negotiated a number of the different specifics.
John: One of the things I found most interesting as I was sitting there learning about this stuff is that when we say the DGA deal, I sort of assumed that all the unions had kind of agreed on what the levels were for things. Like on the future side, what we describe as being a low budget or medium budget or high budget, I assumed those would be common across all of the guilds. And they’re not at all.
And so when the studios try to say like, oh we want to have the low budget and the medium budget things be similar to the DGA things, that can be really, really bad for our side because we may have much better definitions for what those terms mean than the DGA does.
Chris: Yeah, I think it — and you’re talking specifically about the rates for basic cable where the budget breaks for basic cable are different between the WGA and the DGA deal. So what ended up happening was we were looking at getting what’s called an outsized increase in the script minimums for hour-long dramatic basic cable series. And the question was, were we going to do it on our old budget breaks or would we be asked to adopt the DGA budget breaks. If we did that, we would have lost much of the gains that came with those minimums because the shows would not actually fit over those budget breaks.
But we held firm. So what ended up happening is it doesn’t look like a remarkable gain because in fact what we got — I mean, in terms of the budget breaks because the budget breaks are exactly the same as they’ve always been in the WGA deal. We do have, in fact, one of the gains we made was a 5, 5 and 5% bump in script minimums for basic cable dramatic series without a change in the budget breaks.
So that’s a good result of the negotiation that will not be clear in the materials that were put out for the negotiation.
So the DGA made a deal off of its contract and we made a deal off of our contract. And our point of view was you can’t change our minimums. That’s a rollback. And they didn’t get a rollback. We shouldn’t get a rollback either. So we didn’t. We both ended up with gains over what was existing in our current contract.
Craig: I want to take a step back for a second, Chris, because we’re going to go through all the points of what this deal means for us. But for the sake of context for people listening, there’s kind of a meta victory baked in to all of this. And that is a victory of prudence. I don’t know how else to put it.
The companies came to us with this jerky first offer. And there are so many ways to take the bait there. And quite expertly you and David Young and the negotiating committee and Billy Ray and Chip, you all chose the path of no bait. We’re not taking the bait at all. We’re not going to antagonize. We’re not going to throw a tantrum. We’re going to very calmly tell our membership. But basically, we’re not going to take the bait.
And they blinked. And I think it’s important for people to understand that there’s no fun victory in any of this. You never get to punch this guy in the nose and see him go down and then just dance around him. It’s always some quiet unseen victory. Those are the only victories worth having in these things.
Craig: So you guys did a really good job right off the bat of not taking the bait. And I think that the prudence paid off in a huge way. There is this saying that some used to promulgate years ago that the guild never won anything good without a strike. I would submit this negotiation as the perfect rebuttal to that. We got a lot here.
Chris: When the companies put out those rollbacks on the table and we came in with that firm undeniable response, I think they rightly believed that we could go back to our membership and take a strike vote. And that we would get a strike vote. That’s what the truth in the room that we were not going to put up with, in a period of unprecedented economic success for those companies, rollbacks in our P&H or for our most vulnerable members at this point, our screenwriters. That continued into the conversation about options and exclusivity throughout all of which I think they rightly assumed that they were sitting on a tinderbox.
Chris: We didn’t explode anything but we made it very clear what was at risk if we didn’t get some deal on this.
Craig: It’s a great example of walking softly and carrying a big stick because, yeah sure, I’m sure they were probing with the theory that we were all just battle-weary still from 2007. And why not see if we can get away with something crazy. And so they do what they do and you guys had the perfect response.
I was really happy to see the term — we used to traditionally always get these 3% bumps in minimums. And for people that write in features, minimums are sort of irrelevant because it’s sort of an overscale business and most of us — most people who work in screenplays get more than scale. But even if you do get scale, 3% isn’t going to change your life.
But in television it’s the basis for residuals. It’s a really important term. And we would always get 3% and then suddenly it became 2%. And now I’m happy to see that it’s coming back for 2.5% and now 3% — back to 3% again.
Chris: Yeah. David Young calls it breaking the 2s and it was a very high priority for us. I’ll just quote him again, something — a quote that the negotiating committee heard over and over again. I think anyone who went to any of the outreach meetings, I think he quotes Einstein — whether it’s actually an accurate quote or not, who cares: that the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.
Chris: So 3% every single year, year after year actually makes an enormous difference in income for writers both from their minimums they get paid but also in residuals. But in addition to that, I think that we believe that it drives eventually overscale income that as those minimums rise and at some point double over the course of a decade because of it, so too does above scale income rising. We all know that one of the pressures right now is on downward pressure on above scale income, not just for screenwriters but also for television writers.
And it’s a tough thing for us to take on because it’s not actually within WGA’s purview. But we do effect it indirectly by guarding our 3% bumps in minimums. And I –
Chris: And I agree with you. It was an important gain in this year’s negotiation.
Craig: Yeah, for sure.
John: An unusual thing about this negotiation is generally the parties sit down, they negotiate for a long period of time and hopefully by the end of this negotiation they reach a conclusion, a deal. And this time, it didn’t happen. So we got through a bunch of it and then we announced to the members that we were taking a break and that we were coming back to focus on one specific issue which was options and exclusivity.
So can you talk us through what options and exclusivity really mean, who is affected by it, and sort of why it became an issue this round?
Chris: Yes. It’s a little bit of a long story and that would actually happen in the negotiations as well.
Options and exclusivity became an issue because of traditional television schedule, the 22-episode television schedule or more — 22 episodes or more television schedule which had writers writing on the same schedule essentially from the beginning of June until sometime in March or April. And then taking something around a two-month break before they were either hired again when their show came back or not or had the chance to go after a different job the exact time as everyone else.
It has begun to be replaced by a new system of short orders which meant that increasingly television writers were finding themselves working for eight or 10 or 12 episodes on a series much less time and for much less pay. And then waiting under both either exclusivity or an exclusivity and an option deal with their studios, and I’ll describe what that means for a moment, unable to get work sometimes for six, nine, 10 months in a row because you — as people know who write cable programs, you may be in a room, write all the episodes. It may be some time before all the shooting is done and then some even more months until that series airs. And then who knows how long until the studio and the network decide they’re going to pick up the show again and put you back to work.
So what ended up happening was writers had small amount of pay over a small period of time attached to which they had a very long period where they were effectively unable to get other work.
Why were they unable to get other work? One of two reasons. One, because some people had exclusivity agreements which meant that they were actually not permitted even when they were not writing to go write for anyone else. The studio that had them under contract essentially had a lock on them.
But even if they didn’t have an exclusivity deal, they had an option on them in first position for when the series came back which meant that anyone who wanted — and it’s not that they weren’t free to go look for other employment in television — could only look for employment in television in second position. So I’d go to another show and say, “Hey, I’ve got some number of months off. I’d love to be on staff on your show.” And that other show would say, “Yeah, but we don’t know when your first show is going to come back on the air and they’re going to take you out of our writers’ room potentially somewhere in the middle. And we can’t afford that. At the very least, why would we hire you as opposed to somebody else who’s free and clear?”
So effectively, what was going on is that people were working for short periods of time and being held under an option to that same studio for long periods of time without pay. At some point, that becomes an untenable financial situation for people. They can’t actually make ends meet. And what’s more and the argument that we made is it’s fundamentally unfair.
John: So I have friends who were in exactly that situation where they were sort of in limbo because the TV show they’d been writing on had shot. It was waiting to find out whether they were going to get another season of the TV show. And during that time, they were stuck. They couldn’t write on any other shows. They weren’t even supposed to go out and do feature work during that time, which seemed crazy. And you don’t know how long that’s going to be.
So to literally be taken out of the market for such a long period of time is so damaging to writers, especially young writers, people who are just first-time staff writers. They suddenly can’t work anywhere else.
And so these are the kind of writers who end up having to go get other jobs because like literally like Starbucks kind of jobs because they cannot work in the actual industry for which they’re supposed to be employed. It was incredibly frustrating to me. But I think it’s also frustrating for television. I think it’s bad for television.
Chris: That’s right. I mean, it’s difficult in a couple of ways. First of all, I think you were alluding to this: Imagine somebody who beforehand was writing 22 episodes a year, that kind of experience. And now, they’re — maybe they get eight episodes in a full year and maybe the next year they don’t get that because their show doesn’t get picked up. And so you end up with people instead of who have hundreds of episodes under their belt by the time they want to run a show or move up the ladder and become co-APs or whatever it is, they now have episodes that measure in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s because that’s all they can add up to if you’re only doing a short order every season at best.
And so it’s very bad for that reason. The other reason why it’s bad is because — and we actually felt that the studios would respond to this and maybe they did even if they didn’t say so out loud — is that a marketplace where all the writers are tied up not working is bad for every television show that doesn’t have the dibs on that writer.
So if you, John, have a new show and you want to staff, you may well find out that there are five or six writers who are not currently writing but they’re not available to you.
The second argument really is that for every show, every studio that isn’t holding a given writer under contract, they’re at a huge disadvantage by this tight labor market because, for example, I said like say you, John, you have a new show that gets on the air and you’re looking to hire a writing staff. And in fact, there are many writers who are not currently working but they’re not available because they’re all sitting doing nothing because they’re under option to people who aren’t using them currently. How much better it would be if the labor market were freed up and that people who had shows and needed writing were able to hire those people? And those people would then be able to choose which show to work on.
In the long run, that benefits everybody. The companies certainly never expressed the feeling like this would in the long run be down to their benefit. But I actually feel like it’ll be beneficial to everyone to have a labor market in which people can work whenever they’re available.
John: I strongly agree.
Chris, can you talk us through what is new and different in this options and exclusivity agreement, because I think there’s some confusion as if, you know, we didn’t actually give up anything that was already in the contract. None of this was ever covered by WGA contract. This is sort of brand new territory for the MBA.
Chris: That’s right. This is the first time ever that options and exclusivity have been covered in the MBA. And like everything in the MBA, these are minimums which is to say that they only set a floor from which we can negotiate even better deals for ourselves and our individual contracts. There is nothing in the MBA that gives the companies the right to have an option over you or to exclusivity. They need to negotiate for that. The options and exclusivity provisions that are in the new MBA restrict the company’s ability to negotiate for options and exclusivity in the following way.
If you are a writer who earns after January 1st 2015 under $200,000 a year or after January 2016 under $210,000 a year, the companies are not permitted to negotiate options and exclusivity clauses with you. Instead, your treatment is governed by the MBA. And this is what it says. First of all, there’s no exclusivity anymore for any of those writers. So when you are not actually working, you are free to work for any other company. You want to go out and write — you get a chance to do a rewrite on a movie during your hiatus, you are free to do that and they cannot say to you, “No, we get a first look at your services.”
Second thing is about options. So the companies have a 90-day period after when payment is due for your writing services during which they still have a hold on you. This is roughly the same as the kind of hold that they might have had at the end of the 22 episodes, 22-episode order.
But beginning on the 91st day, you have the right to go out and look for any job you want. The requirement is that when you get a bona fide offer, you bring it back to the studio and they have two choices. Within three days, if your show has already been picked up, only if your show has been picked up, they may exercise your option and put you on that show and you need to begin being paid to write within 14 days. Or if your show has not been picked up, they leave you free to go. And you are then permitted to go and get another job in first position. And the company with which, the studio with which you originally work then retains second position.
So in other words, once your job is over, once that second job is over, if your original show gets picked up, they can come back to you and say, “Okay, we want to put you on that show under the terms of the deal that you negotiated.” Effectively, you are free to go get work in essentially any situation after those 90 days are done.
Craig: Unless they pay you a holding fee.
Chris: That’s right. So that’s the other thing. The other thing they can do is they can, after that 90 days, they can pay you to extend your option. And that holding fee is one-third of WGA minimum for either Article 13 or Article 14 writers plus pension and health. That’s fundamental for us because what we said was the right, which is not just the right of writers but of all human beings, is to actually be able to apply their trade, to go out and make money for the thing that they do. We don’t work for free nor do we forgo employment for free.
So beyond the reasonable period at the end of a season, of a show, there’s no reason why a writer should say you may hold me without either compensating me or, like I said, I wouldn’t put it that way, you can’t hold me without compensating me. And if you do not compensate me, you must let me go. The argument we made in the room over and over again, it was made very powerfully by a lot of members of the committee, was that anything less than that is a form of servitude. And that we would not live as indentured servants of the companies.
Craig: Well, one thing that I think is revolutionary about this — beyond the fact that it’s addressing an area that had not yet been addressed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement — is the idea, is the philosophy behind the idea that this applies to people who earn less than X. And in this case, X is $200,000 per contract year. Unless I’m incorrect, my memory of the MBA is that the only other place that there was anything like this was in relation to pseudonyms that we have a right guaranteed by the MBA to use a pseudonym unless we make more than I think it’s $200,000 or $250,000 on a project.
But what’s so brilliant about this is that one thing that we’ve always struggled with and what the companies throw in our face all the time is that this is a mature contract. And it is a mature contract. It’s — I mean, this is the product of — we’re coming up on 70 years now of negotiated settlements and it is a mature contract where we are literally arguing over whether we should get raises of 2.5% or 3% and so on and so forth. And we all know that certain residual formulae are set in stone. But this is shining a light. And I think this is the future of our guild and our negotiations with the companies.
And that is to say let us agree that certain areas here are mature, but let us now carve out exceptions and protections for new writers who are being paid what I call close to scale because those are the writers who are suffering the most from these kinds of practices. It’s harder to argue as some did.
When I was on the board people were still fighting the DVD battle and they were saying, “Well, we’re losing millions of dollars.” And I was listening to millionaires telling me that they were losing millions of dollars. And it was true.
But what was also true is that they were millionaires. And I really like the idea that we’re forgoing this need for a universal benefit for all union members and saying we’re okay to settle for getting the goods for the people who need it the most. To me, that’s what a union is for. And I think this is a big deal. I just think philosophically from an approach point of view, there’s a lot more to be mined from this tactic than there is from saying everybody deserves it or nobody gets it.
John: Well, I think it’s also — it’s looking structurally what are the biggest problems facing actual working writers. And you can’t be a working writer if you’re not allowed to work. And that’s I think a great place for the guild to come in and take a look at it.
But I would stress, though, it’s not necessarily just the people who are making below $200,000 or $210,000 in the second year of this that are going to be affected because I think the people who are above that level, their agents, their representatives are going to go back and say, “Hey, I know we’re above this cap but we want those same protections that the people below the cap have.” And some of those people will get it and some of those people won’t get it. But I think it sets a standard or a pattern for how you talk about options and exclusivity for even people who are making –
John: Significantly above that level.
Craig: Sure. I agree. Yeah.
Chris: I think one of the problems that we’ve had is, look, it’s obvious, is that individual agents negotiating for individual clients have been unable to exert the leverage to avoid onerous options and exclusivity clauses in contracts. The philosophy of this is that there are some writers who are beginning, who make less for whom the job of negotiating this individually through their agents is an impossibility. Much like negotiating a minimum salary for those people would be an impossibility. They’d be under pressure to — downward pressure to accept less and less and less.
But having set a floor below which the companies cannot go, we hope to provide an opportunity for the agents of better paid writers to make an argument that said, “If you’re paying my staff writer and my story editor and not holding them under option, you’re not going to tell my co-producer and my producer that he or she needs to be under an onerous option.” We put the power back in the hands of the agents where that also belongs.
Craig: Chris, you and I have had a discussion about the free rewrite problem, whatever name we want to give it, that’s really what it is. And one thing that I’ve expressed to you before and I’m kind of hoping that maybe this is a little bit of an illuminated path to it is the idea of carving out a protection in the MBA for writers that are earning close to scale, particularly when it comes to one step deals.
I’d love to see a term where we were okay with going in there and saying, “We’re negotiating for a two-step deal guarantee. But not for everybody, just if you’re making this or under.” And I think there’s nice precedent now for that kind of work to be done.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s where we have to go after we hang up. It’s high on the list.
Craig: Great, good.
John: So Chris, talk to us about when the things in this deal go into effect because it’s not all at once.
Chris: No. In general, the terms of the deal go into effect May 2nd of this year. That’s when the new three-year term begins. Options and exclusivity are effective January 1st 2015. That’s because it actually is a very large change in the way business affairs has to do business. So it gives them, the companies, a bunch of months to actually get their houses in order. And actually for us to begin to educate writers and agents about how this is going to work.
Craig: It makes sense too because the term is based on a contractual year income and that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a little strange to look back at income that was accrued under a contract that didn’t have that provision.
Chris: That’s right, that’s right.
John: So before any of this goes into effect though we have to ratify this contract. So what is the process for that? What do writers need to do or WGA members need to do?
Chris: Well, they can either vote online or in the old-fashioned ways. And all of the packet of materials will be going out — I apologize, I don’t know exactly what day but in the next day or two. The contract has been recommended by both the guild — the Board of Directors of the West and the Council of the East and by the negotiating committee. So all that’s left is for the members to vote and I hope to ratify the contract.
And so you’ll get the material in the next few days. And I believe the voting deadline is the end of — it’s like the 29th of April. Don’t hold me to that. It could be just a day or — it can’t be a day or two later because it needs to be ratified or we need to turn it down by the date on which the contract expires which is May 1st. So voting needs to happen.
And I — look, it’s the same argument that we make all the time. I think a good turnout and I hope a good turnout that votes in favor of this contract continues what I think the negotiation began to suggest to the companies which is that we are, after all these years, and an argument I think that I’ve made and you’ve made, John and Craig, we’re actually much more unified than the companies might have perceived that we were or the world continues to claim that we are.
Chris: And one — another piece of evidence of that and that means people voting.
Craig: I think for me, by far the most important factor and the most beneficial thing for us when dealing with them is our leadership and how they view our leadership. And again, I have to say they took our leadership this time around, which includes the two of you, seriously because our leadership behaved in a serious manner. Not in a loud manner but in a very serious manner. And if they feel they’re dealing with serious people, in their minds they know if serious people turn to the membership and say, “Hey, everyone, this is bad,” everyone will believe them and become instantly energized.
Craig: We don’t need to be marching around with pitchforks until such time as a reasonable man asks us to.
Chris: Yeah, I think –
John: That’s a very good point.
Chris: I think that — yes. Look, I mean it’s self-serving for me but I will agree with — one of the things that we are susceptible to and I think a fallacious argument is that ignoring the fact that science gives consent in fact and that the assumption that when our members are not active, they are inactive because they don’t care, I think many of them are inactive from time to time because they have many other things going on.
Chris: They have their lives that are complicated both in a work sense and every way else. And if they feel as if things are going in the right direction, then they’re less likely to actually feel the need to actively engage. I don’t take that always as being a negative. Sometimes I think that’s a quiet sign of competence.
John: Chris Keyser, I would like to thank you personally for your quiet confidence during this whole negotiation. It was great to see this. And I really thought the team was terrific, including David Young who I had not really encountered before but just did a terrific job negotiating that contract. So my personal thanks to you for a really great negotiation.
Craig: Yeah. I mean I’ll back that up. I would say, Chris, and this is self-serving for me because I’ve supported you strongly from the start but I think you’re going to go down as one of our great presidents. I really do. I think that you have accomplished not only an extraordinary amount of good during your time, which is of course not yet over, but you have set an example and kind of put forth proof of an argument of a way to do this that is better than the way it has been done. And that is extraordinarily valuable for us as a union going forward.
John: Well, Chris, we’ll let you get back to you cutting your pilot and thank you so much for joining us on here to talk about the deal and congratulations. And everybody, remember to vote.
Chris: Okay, thanks guys.
Craig: Thanks, Chris. Thank you.
John: So Craig, we we’ve talking a lot about our potential new screenplay format and I thought today we could spend a few minutes talking about sort of how the screenplay format came to be and sort of what some of the other alternatives that have existed out there are. And it’s a little bit of a history lesson but also alternate history lesson of the way things could have gone.
John: So I’m going to start with — actually, a guy wrote in — emailed us. His name is Stokely Dallison and he wrote, “I suspect you may have forgotten what it’s like to be a new screenwriter. In my view, it’s a wonderful comfort to adopt the same format as thousands of scripts that have come before. Every script the same font, the same spacing, the same three holes with two brass brads. It feels good to be part of something relatively old. It feels good to know that my script, however inadequate it might be, looks the same as all the great scripts that have come before.”
And I thought that was actually a really charming thought –
John: Because I remember writing that first script and it’s like it just seems so weirdly magic that I — oh everything — it’s got to look just like a real script and the esoterica of the screenplay format is both something that sort of keeps people away, but once you sort of get inside it’s like, oh, I know how to do this. There’s something about that format and it does feel sort of special. And so whatever we do, we have to acknowledge that there is something special about it.
What’s interesting though is what we take as being the screenplay format is actually fairly recent. And there are other ways it could have gone and there are other ways — you’ve seen movies that were written in completely different ways.
John: And so there’s not one magic way for it to work.
Craig: No. Well, I have to say that, first I hear — I can’t tell you how many times I will hear somebody say, “Well, you’ve probably forgotten what it’s like to be a new screenwriter.” No, I haven’t. No. [laughs] I don’t think there is a screenwriter alive who still doesn’t feel like a new screenwriter on some level. And certainly we don’t forget what it’s like. I do want to just put that out there. Never think that we’ve forgotten magically the pain of becoming a screenwriter or starting out.
There is something that’s comforting about being able to write in a format that makes your screenplay look professional. But unfortunately that’s not really important. And I would argue that a lot of new screenwriters will obsess over those things in order to avoid the other things that are unique to their screenplay like, you know, the content.
John: So let’s take a little history trip and figure out how the screenplay came to be. Because when the first movies were made, the first screenplays were really just a list of shots. And if you think about it, these are silent films. So literally you are just making a shot list and just like a train comes, close on a man’s face. And that’s sort of what the original screenplays were like, were just a list of these shots.
And it was almost — it was basically a set of instructions for like what the order of the shots were going to be. And if there was going to be a title card, there wasn’t really dialogue, so it could just be a title card or like one of those intercut cards that show like some line that someone is supposedly saying. But that’s as much as there would be.
It’s Thomas Ince who is often credited with sort of being the father of the modern screenplay because he’s also the father of the modern studio. He was the one who said — he bought a bunch of land in California and he’s like we’re going to make a bunch of movies. And in order to make a bunch of movies, he wanted to make sure that he could basically hand a blueprint to anyone, any of his directors, and say like this is what it’s supposed to be. Shoot exactly what I’m giving you.
And so our idea of a screenplay being the blueprint for a movie is really credited to him. And so a bit of trivia, if you actually are down in Culver City, there’s a street of Ince. There’s the Ince Gate –
Craig: Ince, yeah.
John: To the Culver Studios or one of the studios down there. You will actually see the word Ince down there.
Craig: Wasn’t he the guy that got murdered on a boat or something?
John: I’m sure there’s a fascinating story. Like all of old Hollywood is great and wonderful. And so –
Craig: Right. Everybody was constantly being murdered.
John: Well, this was the frontier. This is like a brand new town. It was all –
John: It was all made up from scratch. So he’s the guy who sort of I think is generally credited with being the guy who said this is a plan for making the movie. It’s typed out this way. It’s basically those shots.
Now I still, remember, he was essentially making silent films. And as we started adding dialogue in, that’s where the scripts became a little bit more like a play because you actually have to have people talking to each other.
So scripts going back to even like Casablanca, they written in what’s called a continuity style, which is sort of like a shooting script. It’s basically a sequence of shots. And even when there’s dialogue, it’s really about the shots. And it’s as if you’re sort of directing on the page. It’s like — it feels like a director’s plan for what it is that you’re shooting.
This evolved over time to what is called the master scene format. And I don’t even — I mean, I’ve been writing scripts for a long time but I didn’t know that the way we were writing our scripts is called the master scene. Have you seen that terminology?
Craig: Yeah. I’ve never heard it before, but I did see it in the example that they used for an early master scene format screenplay. It’s The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. And they wrote that in 1959. And that does look very much like the screenplay format we use, if not exactly like the screenplay format we use today, which by the way I have to say, so on like one hand you’re right that it’s not like the movie business was founded on this format that we currently use. On the other hand, we have been using it for at least 55, 60 years, which implies that maybe it’s time for, you know, a change.
John: Or that we got it exactly right and nothing needs to change at all.
John: [laughs] Well, let’s talk about The Apartment, because actually I was really struck by it. And there’s going to be links in the show notes to sort of all the scripts we’re talking about. So The Apartment, it really looks like a modern screenplay. Like if someone dropped it on your desk, it’s like, well, this is a screenplay.
But it’s considerably different from the continuity style of script. It’s literary. It’s kind of designed to be read. It’s not designed just as for a director to know what shots there are. It’s designed for a person to be able to see what a scene feels like just on the page. There’s a lot description about sort of — there is screen description. It’s really talking through what the characters are doing, what things feel like, what things looks like. And in a weird way, I think this is a good point that this site that we’re going to send you to makes, is that it actually gives the director more leeway.
Craig: That’s exactly right.
John: And so rather than calling out every shot, it’s describing sort of what the scene is like, and sometimes the suggestions were sort of like how it’s shot. But really, it’s going to be a director to figure out what those shots are in there to tell the story. So even though the writer gets to have a more free rein and more words to describe the scene, the director actually gets a little bit more leeway for figuring out how to shoot that scene. It’s a significant evolution.
Craig: Yeah, you can see in the Master Screen format — that’s what they’re calling it Master Screen format?
John: Master Scene format.
Craig: Master Scene format that everybody is starting to approach filmmaking in a more artistically free way. It is being unyoked from the factory. Early Hollywood was a factory. They would just burn film and lights and people would stand in spots and they would make movies in a matter of days. I mean, it was just — they would just churn them out.
And so it was really an ADs’ business if you think about it, you know. I mean, that what we currently think of as a first AD, they are the people on the set who are scheduling, figuring out how many pages you’re shooting in the day, marshaling the crew, making sure that the props people and the this and the that and everything is in place.
ADs were kind of the early directors, in some regards were like that.
John: They were.
Craig: And then as you see the influence of European cinema and also the increasing freedom, the artistic freedom of Hollywood, which I think was just naturally building on itself, getting bored with the kinds of stories they were telling and trying to find new ways to tell them, started to — and also probably because of the influx of playwrights into the process because of the demand. You can see now that the format is allowing both the writer and the director the freedom to tell a story in a creative way.
John: Yes. So if you look at the Master Scene format, which is really what we think about the modern screenplay format, it’s very tempting to read the dialogue and skip over everything else because the dialogue tends to be the meat of what is happening in modern screenplays.
You can get the gist of what’s going on by reading the dialogue. And so the dialogue is centered. And your eye kind of goes — falls to the center of the page. And all the scene description and the transitions and the scene headers stay towards the edges. But that’s not the only way that it can happen. And one of our listeners, Matt Markwalder, sent through a bunch of examples of Kubrick scripts which are wildly different and actually sort of do the opposite.
John: And I think and probably in direct response to how people read scripts, he decided to do a completely different thing. So in Clockwork Orange, first off, everything is double spaced. And dialogue has wider margins and action is sort of put over to the right. And so the action is deliberately sort of minimized and sort of put over to the side, but in a way that you tend to sort of read it. It’s like the line length is really, really short and your eye goes to it. Whereas dialogue tends to be bigger, wider blocks of things.
John: So an example, I’m skipping to page 28 of A Clockwork Orange. Scene 22. INT. CAT LADY HOUSE. That feels kind of normal. “The cat lady enters and dials a number.” That sentence is centered in two lines in the middle of the page. So it’s like it looks in sort of the area where you would normally expect to see dialogue, that’s where that line is. And the cat lady has this long speech that’s double spaced and goes all the way to the margins of the page. Is just a really interesting way to do it.
Craig: Yeah, well, and then he changes it up because then when you get to Full Metal Jacket, it reads like a novel. He’s just in — he’s burying dialogue and action description into flowing paragraphs, not really breaking them out or formatting them any differently than each other.
It’s almost as if Kubrick decided I’m just going to format my screenplay the way I feel the movie is. I’m going to let the formatting reflect the tone and the vibe of what I’m going for which is awesome. And I suspect that when the entrepreneurial screenplay market really took off, the need for screenplays to be uniformly formatted became really important because now it was a commodity. And you had to formalize it. But I regret that. And I would love to see people have the freedom to write their screenplays however they choose to get across the vibe of the story they want to tell. I think that’s very powerful. And I think you and I are going to do it.
John: [laughs] So in Full Metal Jacket, for those who aren’t looking at this on the screen right now, the dialogue is actually in quotation marks. It just looks like a page of normal text really. It’s a very –
Craig: It’s like a book.
John: A completely different way of doing things.
John: So I also want to take a look at some of the other types of scripts that are out there that aren’t screenplay formats or at least normal screenplay formats. The most obvious one which is similar but different is the three-camera comedy, or the multi-cam comedy. So everything you see there has a laugh track to it on television tends to be that. So I’m looking at the page from The Millers.
Craig: The Millers, the show, the TV show, yeah.
John: So in multi-cam, action is basically on the same lines, has the same margins as we sort of expect in a screenplay format, but it’s all upper case. And it’s usually minimized. They don’t try to write as much in there as you would otherwise. Everything is double spaced. The whole page is double spaced. Character names, where they expect to be. But the dialogue blocks are a little bit wider. Parentheticals fall within the dialogue block themselves.
John: It’s really different. One of the things I do sort of enjoy about multi-cam and you can see sort of why they do it is partly because you’re scheduling things sort of on the fly so quickly. Skipping to page 37 of the script I’m reading at. INT. NATHAN’S HOUSE. KITCHEN LATER, D3, D3, indicating day three. And this is a thing you’ll commonly see in TV shows indicating what day or what night it is. But underneath that line, in a parenthesis is, “(Nathan, Debbie, the Sarge),” and what it’s showing is like who is in this scene.
Craig: Who’s in the scene, yeah.
John: And that’s a really useful bit of really kind of metadata that is useful to have especially as you’re trying to schedule this thing. Who needs to be there, what characters even if they’re not speaking in the scene need to be there in the background.
Craig: Yeah, it is useful information. And obviously a sitcom’s script is formatted in part to serve the need of a churning production that is weekly and involves live theater essentially for most of them. But I have to say just aesthetically I find it ugly.
John: I find it ugly, too, but that’s what I’m used to. It’s what your — it’s what you grew up with. And I’m sure to people who are used to multi-cam, they don’t find it ugly at all.
Craig: I guess I would say that what I find ugly about it is that it is the most formalized, that even screenplays allow you a little more leeway about how you approach things. But it’s so rigid in that sitcom format. And, you know, my instinct now is to see how we can allow screenwriters to express a movie on the page in a way that is more idiosyncratic to the story they’re telling and how they want to tell it and their dramatic intention.
So I’m probably just reacting to that because it’s very rigid.
John: It’s very rigid. So actually it’s interesting because in stage plays there actually is a wide range of sort of how those stage plays look. And so something I found in Big Fish is that I was looking at other books for musicals and it’s like, oh, there isn’t really — there’s much less consensus about how those things are supposed to look.
Typically, in plays you will find action will always be put entirely in giant parentheticals, which I find maddening and really not attractive to look at. But it’s a common way to do it in stage plays. Dialogue can be sort of where we expect it now, but blocks tend to be a little bit wider. Are lyrics all the way to left, are they inset differently? Are they all upper case? That all changes.
But of course there’s another way you can do plays, which is just to have — which is more like sort of the reading plays that you and I are used to where a character name is, you know, upper case, bolded maybe even with a colon after it. And their dialogue just goes after it. Since plays are mostly people talking, that could be an efficient way to show that on the page. And it may make more sense to really let the page be dominated by the dialogue because the action is going to tend to be much more minimal than it would be under the screenplay.
Craig: Yeah. Well, you know, the key thing — the thing that’s going to unleash us all is this getting away from pagination. The more I think about it, I just know we’re right. I just know it.
John: So let’s talk about what those fundamental units are, because the fundamental unit could be a scene. It can be a sequence. It could some sort of other unit. But there needs to be some area of story by which you can say like, these are the outer perimeters of what this moment is because if you look at the Kubrick scripts, it’s very difficult to tell sort of where we are at in those things. And sometimes I wouldn’t even know like are we in the same location? Have we moved to a different place in time? That’s challenging to figure out in some of these Kubrick scripts.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. No, I’m not an anarchist about this sort of thing. I do think that, you know, if you are — granted if you’re directing your own material, the only person that truly needs to understand it is you and you’ll explain it to everybody else around you. But for those who are writing screenplays for other people to read, I think sequences — sequences. I think letting the dramatic action delineate where the pieces begin and end is the way to do it, not location.
John: So the Coen brothers’ scripts, I don’t know if you’ve actually read any of them on the page. They tend to get rid of scene headers altogether. They tend to be, you can see that we’re in the new place or new time. But they’re not using the classic sort of nomenclature for sort of what those are. That may ultimately be the way to look at this is that as you’re moving from place to place you’re showing us where we’re at, but it’s not formalized in those scene header ways. So we don’t think of those scene headers as being — we don’t give them more importance than they deserve. And right now, I think they get way too –
Craig: They’re so important. Yeah.
John: I think they get elevated too high.
Craig: I mean, honestly, you pick up a screenplay, if you were from another planet and you came here and you picked up a screenplay you would think that the most important part of storytelling is whether you’re inside or outside.
Craig: It’s the dumbest thing. And half the time now the way we shoot movies, it doesn’t — you’ll say, you know, EXT. OUTSIDE OF INTERGALACTIC FEDERATION BUILDING. That means you’re inside on a stage. There’s no inside or outside. I mean half that stuff doesn’t even matter anymore. How do you write exterior/interior on a script for Avatar? Explain that. I mean what’s the point?
Craig: So I totally agree. I think the slug line thing is the weirdest thing. It forces us into categories of time. A lot of time I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say morning, afternoon, dusk, noon, or just day. What does day mean? I don’t even know what day is. What’s day?
John: Yeah, and how specific are you allowed to be about what time of day you’re at? Do you need to clarify if you move to a different day. Like I just like The Millers script indicated it was day three, like that is a useful bit of information yet does that need to be reflected on the page right at that moment? Perhaps not. And maybe there’s a different way that you can indicate that, so that it’s part of the metadata for that sequence, but doesn’t have to be written down the road.
Craig: Right. Exactly. Because I’ve had this conversation with a number of ADs on a number of movies where they will sit down with me and say, “Walk me through the days of the week or the month on this? Let’s actually…” And in fact, I remember on Identify Thief, Seth and Jason and I sat down one day and really dialed in the days of the week, so we knew that this thing actually made sense and that it wasn’t taking either two days or 12 days. Because we didn’t, you know, if you have four nights in a row and then say you had a three-day road trip, it just doesn’t quite work.
So at some point, you do that. And if you want to — if we have a format that uses technology and allows us to flexibly include a file that they can pull up as they wish, that just shows a day, night, time passage summary.
Craig: That would be really cool. But I don’t need to look at it while I’m reading the script.
John: Exactly. So that’s a useful bit, just like costume changes. It’s one of the first things when you have a costume designer comes on to a movie is really doing that day/night breakdown to make sure like, are they still in the same outfit as they would be in the previous scene? And sometimes I will get involved with that because I need to sort of clarify like no, no, this is a different day. Like they could have changed clothes, they would have changed clothes between this time. Or no, they have to be wearing the same thing because they literary came right from there to there and it’s going to bizarre if they’re suddenly wearing new clothes.
Craig: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact you’re zeroing in on something that’s really interesting about the current screenplay format, is that it overemphasizes some things, and ignores other things entirely. And what ends up happening is we go — right before you shoot a movie, right before you begin principal photography, the entire production gathers together all the heads of the department and most of their keys under them, and the director and the producers and hopefully the screenwriter is there as well. They should be. And everybody goes page by page and they ask questions.
And a lot of those questions will shock the hell out of the screenwriter because they’ll think, oh, I thought that would be obvious, but it’s technically not in the script, so yes, they don’t realize that they’re coming home in the same outfit that they went to work in, you know. But if we could help guide those things because the format allowed us to flexibly do so, that would be really cool.
John: Yeah. So I think that it becomes a matter of you write your script, you write what is going to be a thing. Let’s not focus on sort of what it looks like. But you’re going to write your thing and you’re going to figure, you’ll write your script, Hollywood script/screenplay. Don’t worry — we won’t worry about margins or sort of other stuff.
John: But then you figure out what are the sequences? What are the units of story that are important? And within those units of story then we can sort of have those, you know, if this were the web, each of those units of story would be essentially a page and there could be extra metadata associated with that page. So you could have all the information that is about who is in the scene, day or night, where this falls in the timeline of the actual story.
John: And the situations where we’re in multiple locations, you can address those facts that you’re in multiple locations over the course of the sequence. So those intercut phone calls which are always a challenge, that can all be part of that because it’s — there’s a fundamental story unit that’s together.
Craig: What a waste of space when you have two people talking. You have interiors and exteriors, blah, blah, blah, intercut, nonsense words you don’t — it’s like, duh. You just write, you know, he calls her up. She’s sitting in her apartment. They have a discussion, on the phone. Everybody knows how phone discussions work, but somehow screenplay formats are like slogging like Frankenstein through the mud. It’s like we all know how to write our name, but if you need to program in Basic, you go 10, print name, 20, go to 10. You know, it’s just it’s so clumsy and unnecessary and we need to be free of it, John, free, free.
John: So the other thing I will say is, you’ve written some animation and I’ve done a lot of animation, is you recognize that they ultimately number things as sequences. And it will be a bunch of what we would consider scenes. They will consider one whole sequence. Almost more like what we think was as reel, they will think of as a sequence. And it’s a much, ultimately a much smarter way to address it because they’re not worried about sort of like this location, that location, whatever. It’s about this unit of story. And that’s probably a smarter way for us to format.
Craig: Yes, for sure. I mean, you start writing. Let’s say you’re writing in our new format. And when you reach the end of your first sequence, you indicate it’s time for a new sequence to begin. You might naturally say, well, how will I know when that sequence is over? You’ll know. You’ll know. [laughs] Because you’ll just know. It’s so obvious. And it will just be similarly obvious when the next — it’s like, oh god, we got to do it, John.
John: We got to do it. So this is actually a great segue for our last topic of the day, which is I just delivered like literary two hours ago delivered the script that I owed and so I turned it in.
John: But this is the first time I went hardcore on a way that I’ve kind of been working, but I went much more hardcore on it this time, which is that I wrote each bit separately. So I didn’t sit down with one file and write from the beginning to the end. I only wrote separate scenes or sequences, whatever you want to call it. And I just wrote the pieces.
John: And I skipped all over the, you know, the story of this episode and wrote the pieces I wanted to write, I had a really good outline and I assembled it all at the end. And so I want to talk through sort of how I did it this way. And, you know, I think it’s actually useful for what we’re doing in terms of like what a format could do that could help us down the road.
John: So for this time, I used WorkFlowy which was a One Cool Thing from before which is an outline or it’s an online outliner that I really just love. And so even right now, I’m looking at WorkFlowy because I keep show notes for the podcast in it. But I just made a pilot and I wrote the, you know, these scenes that were in it. Basically these are the events that happened. And I rearranged them and so it was equivalent of my index cards. But I would sort of have a list of basically these are the scenes, these are the things that are happening over the course of it.
And then as I had more details I could fill in underneath those scenes. I sometimes would start writing dialogue. I’d write the important stuff that needed to happen in those things. And when I chose to write one of the scenes, I would just open up a brand new file in Highland and just type it. And I’d write it and when I was done, I would save it, I would scratch that off the list and keep moving on to the next one.
What’s so good about this is, well, once I start on a first draft I’ll go someplace and barricade myself and write drafts by hand. And I’ll do that so that I can’t go back and edit. This was sort of the same idea, is that I would write something and then I would not go back to it and futz with it. I would go on and write the next thing. And I would write the next thing. And I wouldn’t go back through and sort of start at page one and keep building forward. I actually got a lot more done I think because I wasn’t going back and tweaking all those things I’d written before.
Craig: You know me, I’m a big go-backer, tweaker, you know, but that’s just my flow. I like that feeling. It just makes me — I’m happy, you know, and whatever makes you happy and whatever gets you through the process. What I very much am addicted to, I don’t know, it’s probably the wrong phrase, but I’m committed to is the notion of thoroughly outlining the movie before I start because I feel like if you do it and I do think in terms of sequences when I’m outlining as supposed to locations which is an indication that we should be writing in terms of sequences and not locations.
It helps you place all of these things within the context of character and theme and all the rest of that stuff as opposed to just, there’s a car chase. Yeah, but what happens in the car chase that makes it relevant to the character beyond, you know, chase man and get him, you know, that sort of thing.
So I like outlining a lot. But there — look, there are writers who don’t and still get there on their own and do it well. I just think that when you’re putting a first draft together, you are entitled to do whatever you need to do to get there. That’s basically my feeling. You get to use anything that supports you through the very difficult process of making something out of absolutely nothing.
And just as long as you can accept that this is — there is no end to your first draft. There is simply ceasing and then returning to it. Do what you need to do.
John: So in this case, I ended up with a folder full of essentially 40 — 30 to 40 scenes. And classically what I would then have to do is I’d have to open up a new document and open up each one of those individually and sort of copy and paste them into one big thing and sort of get them all arranged properly.
So being the person that I am, I asked Nima to write me a new little app called Assembler.
Craig: Of course you did.
John: And because that’s what I do.
Craig: It’s what you do.
John: So Assembler is a thing which we might end up releasing or we might not. It looks ugly right now, but it did the job. Essentially, what Assembler does is it takes a folder full of little files, little text files because that’s all Fountain is little text files. And you choose a folder, it pops up, and you can just drag the order that you want the files to be assembled in. You hit a button and it assembles them and opens up in Highland. And so I had simply an assembly.
And I think that assembly is a really good way to think about that sort of pre first draft. It’s like it’s all the basic scenes, but they’re not necessarily nipped and tucked in the right way. So it’s — it wasn’t my first draft certainly, but it resembled what the script was going to be. All the scenes were there. And then I can sort of go through and then really do that detail work of making sure that this scene is really leaning into the next scene and tumbling into the next scene in ways that was useful and meaningful. Even as I was writing, I knew what had come before, I knew what was coming after. But I want to make sure I was making great word choices that were going to send me into the first line of the next scene. All that stuff.
John: And so that was a great way. So I went from that first assembly to this first draft in, you know, four days and felt good about it because I knew all the bits were there and so I could really focus on making everything that’s best and not sort of like struggling to get those last little bits done.
Craig: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think what I’m doing is an analog version of what you’re doing. I’m just doing it with index cards.
Craig: That I’m basically breaking down my pieces into index cards. And the index cards typically are sequences. And that’s how I’m sort or organizing things. And what I’m doing — when I’m doing those index cards, is there’s a depth sort of textually there’s a depth because there’s a little summary on the card. And then what I like to do it is I like to have another card next to it that’s the what does this mean? Why is this in the movie? Why did this deserve to be in the movie card?
And then underneath that, the woman that sits with me and helps me, you know, takes all the notes and puts this all together for me, she’s also then writing down a whole bunch of notes related or thoughts, bits of dialogue, concepts, purposes, points, characters, et cetera that are related to those index cards.
So by the time I’m writing my draft I have this interesting assembly of headers and what’s and why’s and then details for these sequences in a non-digital, semi-digital format. And then I just start to write. It’s funny, even though we have — they look so different, there’s something very similar about the process.
John: I would agree. As she’s assembling this stuff, or as you’re sort of putting these things together, is that ever one file or it is just still a bunch of cards?
Craig: Well, we have one file that she kind of master, she sort of has this master file. And then a lot of times as I’m heading into a section, I’ll say, well, all right, let’s — now, we are on page 60. And I know that I’m about to head into this sequence where, I don’t know, the soldier is going to fly into the temple with his parachute and do a thing.
So let’s talk about it again. Let’s just run through what was there before, but now let’s rediscuss it in light of what has led up to it now through the writing. And so she’ll take that portion out of the master document and build a new thing that’s just like, okay, here’s what you’re doing for the next few days.
Craig: And then I’ll add more detail and layers into that. That keeps in mind what’s come before it recently. And then I’ll use that. Like it will sort of sit next to me.
Sometimes I don’t even look at it because just the fact that I’ve talked it through, now I know it. And I know what to write, you know?
John: There’s a story that John Gatins told before, so I apologize to listeners if I’ve told this story on the podcast before, but I think it’s such a great illustration of the trap you can fall into when you just kind of start writing, is that there was a guy who was hired to paint the stripe down the middle of a road. And so the first day he had his little bucket and his paint and he painted a mile and he came back and his boss was like, “That was really good, you painted like a whole mile. That was terrific.”
And the next day, the boss comes back to see his work, he’s like, “Oh, you painted another half mile. Okay, well, that’s great. Still pretty good. That’s better than most people.” And the next day, he came back and he’d only painted a quarter of a mile. And so the supervisor said like, “What’s going on? Like why did you slow down so much?” And he’s like, “Well, I have to keep walking back to get to the paint.”
John: And that can actually be what the situation you find yourself with a script, is that if you’re starting at page one every time and just like, write, sort of rewriting it to get up to the next page, and then rewriting it to get up to the next page, every day you sit back you’re going to have spent a lot of your creative energy rewriting those first couple of pages and you’re going to probably make less and less progress through your script. So yes, I bet those first pages are going to be incredibly tight because you went through them a bunch of times. But you’re not actually moving the ball forward.
So, you know, what I’m describing in terms of not letting myself, but just doing separate sequences and not letting myself assemble the whole thing is to keep myself from doing that, because it’s just a bad habit I’ve noticed.
So before I would write pages by hand and fax them through to my assistant who would type up the pages and stick them in the folder. And I would do that until I got to where I felt like I was probably halfway through the script and then start assembling and then start doing it. This was just the most hardcore version of that where I wouldn’t let myself assemble it at all until I knew I actually had all the scenes written that I thought I needed and could put them together.
Craig: Yeah, I do see it differently than you.
Craig: My feeling is that, I guess I stick to my loose, rigid, you know, I have loose, rigid scheduling and I have loose, rigid rewriting. And that is to say there’s this much time to write it and I’m going to use that time. How I use it? That’s my prerogative.
Craig: I allow myself the — I’m okay with spending 40% of my time on the first 30 pages if I feel that that’s what’s going to help me efficiently write the last 70 pages. As long as I am productive I feel like I’m allowed to be productive in any direction I want to be.
Where I agree with you is the idea that you’re going to fastidiously whittle every word. Well, you can do that but just be aware that it would be really helpful if you were an awesome genius. And it would really helpful if you didn’t need money or to kind of work a lot.
Craig: So if you wanted to just write one astonishing script every five years, I’m okay with that, you know. I mean, look, Rian Johnson is not prolific.
John: No, he’s not.
Craig: But, you know, but when the script comes out and he makes the movie, it’s really good. So that’s cool, too. As long as you are, I guess the way I would — I would just hand it to the writer and say you know if you’re being productive or not.
Craig: Listen to yourself. And if you’re just rewriting to avoid writing then stop.
John: I agree. As we close this out I will say this is the first time I ever used Highland from start to finish on something. It was the first time working on a long script on Highland. And it was really good and illuminating in the sense that I recognized the pros and cons of Highland. So the new build that’s going to be coming out probably by the time or shortly after this episode airs actually reflects a lot of the stuff that were sort of happening while I was writing this much longer script because as something would break or something would annoy me, I could yell down to Nima and have him fix things.
And so one of the things, a situation which happens in all apps, but was particularly frustrating to me in Highland this time is you’re deep into the script, you’re on page 40 into the script or something and you need to refer back to something that happened earlier on. So how do you go back there and then find your place, find your way back to where you were at?
So assuming you’re in the middle sort of page 40, but you need to find something earlier on, how do you get back to where you were on page 40?
Craig: Well, I’m the worst because I’m a scroller.
Craig: [laughs] So, I, you know, I have — most major programs have some sort of outliner available to you, but I just scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll because I can kind of like see as the pages are flying by roughly. I know where to land. So it’s not efficient, but I’m a scroller.
John: So the thing which we put in this next build which I really love and found myself using a lot was called Markers. And so it’s really something I took from Final Cut Pro which is the video editing software. And a marker is something you can just drop and then you can find it again. And so you hit Control M and it puts a marker wherever you are. And then you can go wherever else you want to go in the document and the Control option then will take you back there.
So you can drop as many markers as you need. It’s like a little shortcut to get back to that place you’re at.
John: So if you end up scrolling back and like did a little something, you know, on page 20, but you need to get back to where that thing is, Control option M it will take you back to where you were before.
Craig: Yeah. That’s cool. And I would love to sort of see the ability, you know, we talk about our new format and obviously we’re not talking about an application to read that format, but rather we would hope that applications like Highland and others would take advantage of what the format would offer.
And I would love to see sort of tabbed sequences. That would be great. You know, so when I’m working, I could just go up and go, okay, I’m going to go back to the car chase. I’m going to go back to the beginning, I’m going to back to the middle, wherever it is.
John: So Final Draft 9 has an aspect of that. It’s not great. But you can add sort of the information that gets you there. Slugline already does have a really good version of that. So in Slugline you drop little hashtags and those become your sections. And so you can do things for individual scenes. And it shows you an outline view that you can hop to anything in the script at any point. So it may be worth taking another look at that because it’s really — that is really good. It’s a kind of thing that they did great.
Craig: Is it — yeah, I mean, like you know, for instance Fade In has the outline that’s sort of running along the right side of the screen. So I can just jump, you know, from that. But there’s something about — I like what you’re saying about Slugline where it’s I can basically say, they’re chapter headings and they’re like little — it’s almost like a little Rolodex-y kind of thing along the top of the screen –
John: That’s exactly what it is.
Craig: Oh, that’s smart. I like that.
John: It’s on the left side of the screen, but it’s the same idea.
Craig: Oh, I like it on the top
John: So you can either have it show all your section headings or if you have notes, it will show you the notes and you can jump to wherever those notes are.
Craig: All right. Good.
John: I have a One Cool Thing this week. Mine is a book. It is called The Way to Go by Kate Ascher. And it’s a book that I think you will love, Craig. I think, you know, most screenwriters will love because screenwriters are curious.
And so what Kate Ascher did in this book and she’s done two other books that are sort of similar to it, is she looked at how planes and trains and cars work. And it’s like a big illustrated book, almost like kind of like one of those kids books where they talk through like, you know, how engines work. But this is like really sophisticated details. So it gets into like lots of details about like the modern air transportation system and sort of like how cargo containers are constructed and how things fit together, how locks work, how the Panama Canal works. And so it’s this great, incredibly well-illustrated book that sort of shows how stuff works for transportation. So I think it’s something you will enjoy.
Craig: There were those — I think it was David McCullough was the guy that did the books where he broke out the buildings for you.
John: It’s very much in that style.
Craig: Yeah, I love that stuff. All right, and it’s called The Way to Go?
John: The Way to Go.
Craig: All right. Well, my One Cool Thing this week is a character. It’s a little random, but I watched Pitch Perfect last night. I hadn’t seen it before. I really, really liked it a lot. But my favorite character in the movie is the character of Lilly. Have you seen Pitch Perfect?
John: I saw Pitch Perfect. And I love Pitch Perfect.
Craig: Do you remember, Lilly?
John: Is Lilly Rebel Wilson?
Craig: No. Although Rebel Wilson was hysterical.
John: Oh, is Lilly the one who wouldn’t sing and then finally sings at the very end?
Craig: Lilly is the one that’s super-duper quiet and really, really weird.
Craig: And I’m just obsessed with this character. So her name is Lilly. And the actress is Hana Mae Lee. And Kay Cannon is a very nice lady and a very good writer. I just love her name because it’s Cake And really. It’s like Kofi Annan is like Cake and On.
Anyway, so Hana Mae Lee portrays Lilly. And she is just the strangest thing. She barely speaks. She has this tiny little whisper. That’s why I did my little name that way. And in the movie does one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen any character do in any film including Lynch films. I mean it was the weirdest.
So Aubrey, this character Aubrey is the very controlling head of the group. And she’s so tightly wound that she has this problem where when she gets really upset and really emotional, she pukes, which is funny. And at one point in the movie, she gets super-duper angry at everybody and she just pukes like a ton. And it’s gross. And you’re like, okay, it’s just like one of those scenes in a comedy where somebody pukes and it’s like, ahh.
[laughs] And then at some point, they start fighting and Lilly trips and falls and lands in the puke.
Craig: And then lies back in the puke and calmly begins making like a snow angel.
Craig: And it was so shocking to me. [laughs]
Craig: I just — I just stared at it. And I watched it like three times because I couldn’t believe they did it, and I’m not even sure why they did it. And nobody in the movie really comments on the fact that she did that. But she did it.
And so anyway, I love her. And I just want to read a few lines because she doesn’t say much. She just says these individual tiny little lines. One of which is, “I ate my twin in the womb.”
John: I love it.
Craig: And one of which is, “Hi, my name is Lilly Onakuramara. I was born with gills like fish.” And then she says — they’re discussing the fact that Aubrey had puked the year prior, and they’re like, “Oh, we don’t want to have what happened last year happen again.” And Lilly says, “What happened last year and do you guys want to see a dead body?” [laughs]
It’s so weird. She’s such a strange subversive character in the middle of this very mainstream comedy. So my One Cool Thing this week is Lilly.
John: That is awesome.
John: Great. And that’s our show. So you can find links to the things we talked about at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. There you can also find transcripts to all the back episodes. You can also find the actual audio for episodes online both through the app, we have an app for Android and for iOS devices so you can listen to them there. And you can also subscribe and get to all the back episodes, back to episode one where we barely knew what we were doing.
Craig: Barely. Now we slightly more than barely know what we’re doing.
John: Yeah, we still have Skype issue sometimes. You can also buy the first 100 episodes on a few of our last remaining USB drives. That’s at store.johnaugust.com.
Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Blake Kuehn. It’s great. It’s sort of this ’80s awesome kind of tribute thing. So thank you, Blake, for that. If you’d like to write us an outro, there’s a link in the show notes for how you can do that.
If you have a question for me, you can write to @johnaugust on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. Longer questions go to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s our show.
Craig: That was a big, huge, long, great show.
John: It’s a huge episode.
Craig: Yeah, huge.
John: And cutting back and forth in time and so it’s –
Craig: Oh my god.
John: This has been almost 90 minutes of –
Craig: Oh my god.
John: No, it’s been 100 minutes of our taping this show.
Craig: Okay. Well, we need to charge people for this one. That’s it.
John: That’s it.
Craig: Yeah, see you next time.
John: Thanks, Craig. Bye.
- Courier Prime
- WGA President Chris Keyser on IMDb and Wikipedia
- Deadline’s January article on Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray’s letter to WGA members
- Thomas Ince on Wikipedia
- Sample pages from alternatively formatted screenplays
- Screenwriting.io on multicamera script formatting
- The Way to Go by Kate Ascher
- Lilly Onakuramara on the Pitch Perfect wiki, and a YouTube compilation of some of her best moments
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Blake Kuehn (send us yours!)
This morning, I tweeted:
Grimm’s fairy tales offer uniformly terrible marriage advice: 1. Endure supernatural hardship 2. Marry the person who rescues you
My observation was based on my nightly reading of a copy of Grimm’s that I got at Barnes and Noble last week,1 not any statistical analysis. But it sure feels true.
If someone has the time this weekend, I’d be curious to know which of Grimm’s tales actually fit this pattern. The book is free through Project Gutenberg.
Obviously, fairy tales are simplifications of reality, so we can’t expect verisimilitude in them. But this pattern of marrying the first person who assists you seems an especially dangerous idea to instill in young women.
As I think about acquaintances with terrible boyfriends/husbands, almost invariably the girl came from a difficult background (abusive parents, poverty, illness), and this guy got them away from it.
But the fact that they rescued you once doesn’t mean they are the right person for you to build a life with. It doesn’t mean they’ll be a supportive spouse or a good parent. And it doesn’t mean that you’re right for them, either.
If the only requirement for marriage is saving you from peril, we should all marry firefighters.
- I’m reading one of those $20 made-for-Barnes versions, and it’s actually really nice.
In an interview with Billboard, producer Patrick Leonard talks about writing “Like a Prayer” with Madonna.
I like to start really early in the day. She would come in about 11 and I would have the musical idea on whatever piece of gear I was using. I think it was just a Yamaha sequencer or something at the time. [...]
I would just put the track, the chord changes, some kind of drum beat, bass line — something simple — and say, “here’s the idea, here’s what I have for the day.” She would listen, then we would talk a little bit. Oftentimes I’d say, “here’s the verse, and here’s the chorus,” and she’d say, “no, it’s the other way around, switch ‘em.” So I’d switch ‘em. This thing is an hour old, it’s not etched in stone.
Then she would just start writing. She’d start writing lyrics and oftentimes there was an implied melody. She would start with that and deviate from it. Or if there was nothing but a chord change, she’d make up a melody. But, a lot of the time in my writing there’s a melody implied or I even have something in mind. But she certainly doesn’t need that.
She would write the lyrics in an hour, the same amount of time it took me to write the music (laughs). And then she’d sing it. We’d do some harmonies, she’d sing some harmony parts, and usually by three or four in the afternoon, she was gone.
That’s how “Like a Prayer” was written, and then the next day we wrote “Cherish,” and then the next day we wrote “Dear Jessie.” And that’s how it was. We wrote the album in less than two weeks.
This recap demonstrates something I’ve often found to be true: a large part of making art is showing up to work.
As a writer, yes, sometimes you get flashes of inspiration and genius, but if you sit around waiting for them, you’re unlikely to get much accomplished. Most screenplays are written a scene at a time.
One of the great things about writing with a partner is the ability to hold each other accountable. When working with Andrew Lippa on Big Fish, we had limited days — sometimes hours — to get stuff accomplished. So we buckled down and tackled items one-at-a-time. This song. This moment. This transition.
That’s how you finish things.
Ben Schott answers all your questions about those uppercase names at the bottom of movie posters.
While it might look like a bar code of haphazardly packed type, it is in fact the product of detailed legal agreements and intense contract negotiation.
Note that the billing block is distinct from on-screen credits, whether opening titles or an end-crawl. And certain types of posters and ads may not require a billing block at all.
Maybe I’m hyper-aware because yesterday was the 15th anniversary of Go, but I’m encountering all sorts of references to past projects this week.
In THR’s interview with Susanne Daniels, she cites my first series:
There was this very good pilot that Dick Wolf did for me when I was at WB, which was called D.C. I distinctly remember he called me after he had sent me the pilot and asked me what I thought of it. The very first thing I said was, “Why didn’t you shoot this one particular scene that was in the script that I loved?”
Fourteen years later, my heart still flutters to learn she thought it was very good!
People and projects circle back into your life. I’m not crazy about the idea of power rankings, but The Wire’s recap on the cast of Go illustrates just how special that group continues to be. I keep up with a surprising number of those actors, and write them into everything I possibly can.
Yesterday in the halls at Disney, I bumped into Ricky Strauss, who was integral to getting both Go and Big Fish happening at Columbia. He told a colleague, “John wrote Fantasy Island for us.”
Wait, of everything I wrote, you single out Fantasy Island?
In every screenwriter’s career, there are so many scripts that never become part of your filmography. But they still matter. People remember them.
And some projects never die. A few weeks ago, I got a call about a rewrite on a project. As I spoke with the executive, I dug through my hard drive to find my notes from the last time I pitched on the movie.
My notes were dated October 6, 1996.
They are still trying to make the movie.
John and Craig talk with WGA President Chris Keyser about the tentative deal reached between writers and the studios, and why it’s more groundbreaking than it might appear at first glance.
We continue our discussion of a new screenwriting format by looking at how we got here, both the history of “modern” screenplay layout and the alternatives.
Finally, John just delivered a new script, the first one he wrote entirely in Highland. We discuss the difference between drafts and assemblies, and how much we like to know before digging in on a sequence.
- Courier Prime
- WGA President Chris Keyser on IMDb and Wikipedia
- Deadline’s January article on Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray’s letter to WGA members
- Thomas Ince on Wikipedia
- Sample pages from alternatively formatted screenplays
- Screenwriting.io on multicamera script formatting
- The Way to Go by Kate Ascher
- Lilly Onakuramara on the Pitch Perfect wiki, and a YouTube compilation of some of her best moments
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Blake Kuehn (send us yours!)
In this animated lesson, Michael Arndt explains some of the things he learned while working on the screenplay for Toy Story 3.
When I saw this video, I immediately wondered what it was from. It’s clearly professionally made, so why is it on some random guy’s YouTube account?
I emailed Michael Arndt, who wrote back that it was originally a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for Toy Story 3. He gave me his blessing to link to it.
I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3.
Disney and/or Pixar own the copyright on the video, so they could pull it down. But I hope they won’t. This kind of lesson celebrates what’s made their films so successful, and deserves wider exposure.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[John and Craig pretend to be one another]
“John”: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
“Craig”: My name is Craig Mazin.
“John”: And this is Episode 137 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, how are you?
“Craig”: I am doing just fine, John. I got my Diet Dr Pepper here. I got a beautiful summery afternoon. It’s good here. It’s good.
“John”: Well, we’ve got a big show today. We should probably get started on that.
“Craig”: I’m going to sort of jump ahead, if I can jump ahead? Is it okay if I jump ahead?
“Craig”: Because so often on this show, I show up and I don’t have a One Cool Thing and I sort of feel bad, but I think I may have had like the one coolest thing of all. And so, I’m worried that a catastrophe could happen and I wouldn’t be able to share my One Cool Thing. Can I just share my One Cool Thing first?
“Craig”: Okay, so, as I talked about on this show once or twice, I have a Tesla. I have an electric car. It’s a Tesla Sedan and it’s the best car ever made.
“John”: You have mentioned it once or twice.
“Craig”: The Tesla is a fantastic car but like all cars, there are things that come up and there’s this normal maintenance you need to do on a car. You have to keep the car clean. And so that means you take it down the street to the carwash and there’s people in your car and they’re messing stuff up and you have to wash it. In the inside you have to vacuum it. It’s a disaster. You don’t want this to happen at all.
“Craig”: And so, I’m so excited because I think Tesla has finally figured out how to get us past this boondoggle of keeping a car clean. So if you think about the Tesla, you may not know this, but the Tesla, the hood of the car, there’s actually nothing under there. That’s like an extra trunk and you have that sort of extra storage space there. But a lot of people have been speculating like there’s some reason why that’s there. There’s like there’s a big empty space like what is the purpose behind that.
I will tell you, or Elon Musk will tell us what the purpose is behind that. The purpose is that’s there to keep your car clean. A couple of months ago, he made sort of an illusion to what it was going to be. And so people thought like, well, is it going to be like some sort of robot. Is it going to be like a Roomba for your car that comes out and like cleans your car like when it’s charging? That would be kind of cool.
“Craig”: John, just calm down. It’s better than that.
“Craig”: It turns out there’s a lot of stuff inside your car that requires actually some kind of a delicate touch. And so even our best robots, they couldn’t really get in there and like really clean everything. You sort of need to do that by hand, but it’s not just like not my steady fingers. You need like really small little hands. This is what they figured out. It turns out the perfect thing to clean the inside of your car is a monkey.
“John”: Oh, I see, a monkey. Well, that’s very smart.
“Craig”: Yeah. So, essentially, you have a monkey that lives in your car and cleans it. The space that looks like the hood, it’s actually for the monkey to live in there. And so the monkey is in there and then when you’re charging your car a little light goes on and the monkey can come out of a little space that the monkey lives in and clean your car. So it can clean the inside of your car any given time but also keeps supplies in there, it can clean the outside of your car. It can wash your car while you’re in sleeping or doing something else. So that monkey can be a part of your car like an assistant for your car but just like has a little place to live. And so, it’s kind of everyone wins: the monkey gets a house; you keep your car really clean.
“John”: Great. So there’s a monkey in your car that cleans it. Terrific.
“Craig”: Where is the excitement there? I mean, this is an innovative business model here, John. I don’t understand why you’re not seeing the possibility here.
“John”: No, I do. I think that sounds great. A monkey is in your car and he cleans it.
Well, I also have One Cool Thing this week. Craig, you probably do a lot of sleeping.
“Craig”: I try to sleep about four or five hours a night if I can.
“John”: Well, honestly, that’s not quite enough, but I understand why because sleeping is time that we lose. It’s time that we could be spending on productive things with our family or on work or organizing. There’s a wonderful product that I purchased and it — are you smoking an electronic cigarette?
“Craig”: No, I’m not. I’m not. It’s nothing.
“John”: So it’s wonderful product that I purchased. It’s not particularly expensive but it’s really well designed and I have to give the designers credit. They’ve done a terrific job. It’s called the Standing Bed. It’s just like a regular bed, the mattress is like a regular mattress but it’s vertical. So when I sleep, I’m sleeping standing and it turns out this is much better for your joints.
The bed also comes with a built in alert system to help you organize your sleep. So your sleep comes in alpha waves and light sleep and REM sleep and dreaming sleep. And the bed tells you what part of the sleep you should be in. Naturally there are also some workspace areas that are ergonomically designed so that you can take care of things while you’re standing sleeping. It’s terrific and I bought one for everyone in my house. There’s an adjustment period but I think everyone is enjoying it.
“Craig”: Well, you talked about on the show before that like people think that I come from a lot of money but my parents were school teachers and this seems like the kind of thing that like if my parents could have afforded it would have been amazing for our house because it would have like it would have saved some space too, right? I mean, like, you don’t have to have the big floor space of like a bed being down. It could be like up. You could stick this in your closet.
“Craig”: I think it’s a great invention. I don’t see why everyone doesn’t do it.
“Craig”: Between this and your apps, I just feel like you’re working all the time and I think this is good.
“Craig”: John, one more thing. Happy April Fools!
[They stop pretending to be one another]
Craig: I can’t do it anymore. [laughs] It’s so hard. Happy April Fools. It’s so hard to be you. It requires an enormous amount of constraint.
John: Yeah. It does and maintaining that level of sort of like you string a lot of sentences together in a way that I just don’t do and so I did a poor approximation of you.
Craig: No, but it was good. I mean, you did a really good job and it’s much easier for me because I get to be just really calm.
John: Yeah. [laughs]
Craig: I actually wonder because I can’t tell if that made me more or less anxious. I can’t tell if that raised my blood pressure or lowered my blood pressure. Was it more freeing for you or did it raise your blood pressure?
John: Oh, it was absolutely, it was fine for me. I didn’t feel bad at all about this. What you actually described was a very close approximation of a thing that I would love.
Craig: The Standing Bed.
John: A standing bed. [laughs]
Craig: I know. [laughs] That’s like the worst possible thing I can imagine, a standing bed.
John: I was — I wanted, here’s the thing, is like I felt like I would have done the follow-up questions about it, like I would have been horrified about the monkey and so I had a whole like line of stuff like prepared for like — that John August being horrified about what you’re doing to this monkey.
Craig: I know, but the thing is like I never felt like — I think the most horrified reaction you ever give me is just to restate what I’ve said and then silence. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Because I was going to talk about like the monkey disposal and it was going to be great.
Craig: Oh, god, that’s pretty good. Well –
John: It was a whole organic thing.
Well, hello, and welcome to our actual podcast.
John: Today on the show we are going to be talking about how disruption affects TV writers –
Craig: And podcasts.
John: The process of getting a first draft done. And we’re going to answer a bunch of questions from listeners.
John: But first we have some follow up, on formatting, and oh, my god, this thread that I got thread-jacked into on Twitter. I just — I want — come on Twitter. Like, Twitter this last week put out an update that lets you like tag people and photos and stuff like –
John: No, the thing I want you to do more than anything is to be able to like yank myself out of a thread and that I have no desire to be a part of.
Craig: You want an unsubscribe function.
John: So big. I want just that.
Craig: Yeah, every time I did this I just kept laughing because I knew that you were getting tweeted or tweets.
John: Because here’s the thing like this thread like this thread got so big that there were like five names in it, so literally, like people could put two words in addition to the thing. You couldn’t actually have a message –
Craig: That by the way –
John: Because it was all just jammed with the names.
Craig: That annoys me. Like I don’t understand why Twitter penalizes you for adding names on to something. Why should that eat into your message length?
John: What’s weird is that this last week, what they did with photo tagging, it no longer does count against it. So it’s just weird.
I suspect — I honestly think that Twitter names are going to vanish in this next year because they are confusing to new users and they’ll just get rid of them.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, in terms of just being incorporated in the messages like that.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Craig: Yeah, I just don’t understand why if I want to talk to five people why now I’m down to 14 characters. That’s just dumb.
Craig: Regardless. This is this debate that occurred, David Stripinis.
John: That’s what I’m guessing.
Craig: Stripinis, we’ll call him David, is a podcast listener and he works in the visual effects industry I believe.
Craig: And there’s also a guy named VFX Law who I’m guessing is a lawyer in the VFX business. And the two of them got quite umbraged over something that we had suggested doing as part of our hypothetical new screenplay format.
We talked about the idea that if say I were writing a scene and I wrote EXT. MOUNT RUSHMORE, that we would like that to be clickable. So if you clicked on that slug line, a little window would pop up or an image would pop up like a light box kind of thing and you could see an image of Mount Rushmore, in case people were unfamiliar.
Similarly, if I put something like music, Paradise by the Dashboard Light, if somebody clicked on that maybe they could hear a little snippet of it so they can go, “Oh, yeah that song.”
So these guys got super duper, duper upset and they’re super duper upset because they feel like this is a copyright infringement on the images that people are creating. That somebody takes a photo of Mount Rushmore; they put it on their website and now I’m basically taking it, making an illegal copy and embedding it into my screenplay and what’s worse, I’m profiting off of it by selling my screenplay with their image in it.
Now, my initial reaction was, hogwash, argle-bargle, foofaraw. And I say this as somebody that is obviously a believer in copyright because I create content myself. But my problem is that we’re not selling their images to anybody. We’re using them as reference, and this happens constantly throughout the day in any creative business. You’re constantly saying — well, here’s an image, an available image, something that has been made public by somebody. I’m showing this to you not because I’m selling this to you or representing it as my work but rather to say, “Like this. I may do something like this or this is what something looks like.” Not selling it.
And it occurred to me that this became really — I don’t know, it came really ridiculous to me when I started thinking about how this format would actually work because let’s say we’re all on our iPads and we’re all reading the new August-Mazin format on our iPads and it’s connected to the Internet.
And the way we’ve designed it with the reader that is involved is that if I tap on EXT. MOUNT RUSHMORE, essentially a browser window comes up. And the browser window is doing what browsers do, accessing images from somebody’s server somewhere. That’s what browsers do.
When you put an image on a web-hosting site, you are by default saying, you may view this through a browser. That’s okay. But if I embed the image itself somehow, that’s not okay, even though to the naked eye there is no difference whatsoever.
John: So let’s slice through this little part here, because you and I both had it both ways on this topic which is the difference between linking and embedding. So if we think back to the Tarantino scripts that Gawker got — Tarantino sued Gawker for his script. They are arguing, no, we linked to it, we didn’t embed it. And that’s actually — we weren’t violating copyright, we were just providing a link so viewers could find it. So I want to at least acknowledge the fact that that’s a complicated area that we sort of had both ways on.
Craig: It is and it isn’t, because with Tarantino’s screenplay and with the screenplay that you or I write or anybody’s screenplay, we have not put that screenplay ourselves on the Internet. It was stolen or it was put on the Internet by somebody who’s not authorized to do so. But let’s say David Stripinis has a website, I think he does, and there are images on that website. They are designed to be viewed by the public.
Craig: Anybody that writes a browser can view those including you or me.
Craig: At some point, you have to ask if there’s no difference to the visible eye, then what’s the problem?
Well, technically, the problem is copyright is the right to make copies and you’re making a copy and that’s technically against copyright, so let’s talk about this aspect.
I started getting really annoyed by this whole thing because I just thought I was arguing nonsense. It just seemed minutia and it seemed ridiculous and one thing I know about the law is that it’s not as cut and dry as it’s supposed to be or meant to be. That in fact the law takes context into a consideration.
So I decided to talk to a lawyer. This isn’t somebody I know. I asked my attorney, who’s a great copyright attorney that you know, who would be willing to talk to me on a pro bono basis about a question that I have.
And he sent me the name of a guy that I — and I checked on, he’s top-notch. And I called him and I said, “Here’s what we’re talking about doing. The screenplay format and images that we either want to pipe in browser style or take the file from the Web and embed. The idea is that we would not be warranting that we created those images nor would we be publicly distributing those images. This would be for reference to show to people that we’re working for people we’re selling a screenplay to.”
And here’s what he said: Not a problem. He said, look, reference is a real thing especially when you’re talking about publicly available images. He said, if you were to take somebody’s raw image, if somebody took a photograph of Mount Rushmore and you got their raw data, their complete original image and you embedded that massive file into your thing, maybe somebody could possibly get you on that. But he said, there’s a lot of case laws establishing that things like thumbnails or degraded images, essentially compressed images of originals can be used for reference and, yes, it’s fair use. He said, fair use is vague. I mean, fair use is defined on a case-by-case basis. But he said, there are two issues to consider. There’s infringement and then there’s damages.
And he said, in the case of damages there are none. There’s no damage done here. If I walk into an office and I show them a printed out picture of your photograph of Mount Rushmore and I say, “Yeah, here, Mount Rushmore,” there’s no damage there because I’m not stealing anything from them nor am I pretending that it’s mine.
And he said, similarly on the infringement, he goes, look, on an infringement basis, assuming that, I mean, statutory damage is assuming that somebody had registered their work with a copyright obviously and all the rest of it and the rest of it. He said in the case that you’re describing, they would still just get laughed out of the courtroom. It’s stupid.
I mean, his point and my point was, as we discussed it, if I can sit in a conference and open up my laptop and show you the image from somebody’s website, then, frankly, I can show you the image from that website. He said, the things to consider for our format. And he said if you did this, you would be fine: Don’t use the original full resolution photographs that somebody did, but rather use compressed versions, thumbnails, those are sort of established as good reference.
If you can credit or notate from where they are, that is helpful. Place a general disclaimer at the top of the screenplay or the screenplay format that states that any image contained within is not authored by you nor is it for sale but rather for fair use as a reference and for the educational purposes of enlightening people as to what you’re talking about.
He said for music, he said in the case of music don’t play the whole song. That’s sort of the equivalent of don’t show the full res image. Play five or 10 seconds so people get a sense of it. But this argument that these guys have seems to be about something entirely different which is this fear that they’re going to get ripped off, specifically the fear that they’re going to create a work of art, a creative work of art, we’re going to look at it and then we’re going to basically steal it by changing a little bit of it and then putting it out there.
But I have news for them. If it’s on their website, then anyone can look at it right now and do that.
Craig: What we’re talking about changes none of that.
John: Yeah, and that’s where I got most frustrated by this thread that I got sucked in to was that sense that, you know, we’re talking in a vague sense about this different kind of format and there’s this outrage about like, well, people are going to do this and they’re going to do these horrible things. It’s like, to me, it’s like, if you built a car, somebody could use that car to like run over people or to like drive liquor across state lines. There’s all these terrible things you could do with that new technology.
Well, it’s like, that’s not both the purpose of it but it’s also not the technology’s fault. It’s like we’re talking about like could a person commit copyright violations with something? Yes, they can do that with anything. They can do that with a photocopier. They can do that with any machine that can sort of duplicate anything, can create a copyright violation. That’s not what this is about whatsoever.
The other thing which I think that this has showed was like a — and this may have been partly, I wonder if this is sort of how where their head was at, is that, it’s very common when you’re pitching a project, especially if you’re a director pitching a project, to do what’s essentially called a rip reel.
And a rip reel is where you take existing footage from other movies and maybe some stuff you shoot yourself and paste it together to show this is what the movie feels like. This is how I would shoot it. This is what it looks like.
And if you’re doing a big VFX-heavy film, maybe you are actually grabbing a lot of sort of VFX stuff and maybe that is what they are pissed about is that that’s the kind of stuff that’s getting pulled and it looks like their work is getting used to make someone else’s movie. But it’s really, it’s getting that next person’s movie green lit. And it’s not the actual finished work. It’s just like a part of getting the job.
Craig: Right, and there’s this kind of bizarre thing where, like, “I got you that job.” No, you didn’t. Referring to something is referring to something. It’s not representing as yours.
The whole point is I didn’t do that. Everybody knows that in the room. If somebody goes and makes a presentation on the kind of movie they want to shoot and they take a clip from Big Fish or they take a clip from Hangover or whatever, why would I even care? I don’t even know it’s happening. It doesn’t matter. It’s not for the public. It’s not being sold.
They might as well be talking about it in their living room while they’re watching it. It’s ridiculous. Their argument is willfully oblivious to the way the world actually functions and has always functioned. And their kind of moral consternation that an image they make publicly available should be referred to without their expressed written consent is insane.
Craig: It’s insane. And also, not legally valid. So, there’s no legal argument there that they can stand on. There is absolutely no moral argument at all. I mean, again, I just want to draw the line between stuff the creator makes publicly available and stuff the creator gets stolen from them.
If you create an image in your house or on your computer that isn’t on the Web and somebody hacks into your computer and steals it or somebody that you give it to for private use publishes it online, that’s different. You got ripped off. You got hacked. And that was not your intention.
I understand that you’d want to withdraw that or pull that back, just as Quentin Tarantino didn’t want his script out there. But if you put it on your website, I mean, for the love of god, it’s out there in the world, people are going to talk about it. If I publish a screenplay online on a website, am I really going to be outraged when somebody goes into a meeting and hands somebody printed pages from it and says, “I like this scene, I’m going to write a scene like this.” That’s insane.
John: That is insane. So, to close this up, I would say, I think it’s appropriate to have moral and ethical outrage when someone takes work and represents it as their own when it was not their own. That, I don’t think anyone is going to argue about that. We’re just coming down on the side that using something as reference, saying like, we’re aiming for something like this is not the same as representing that as your work and there’s a clear distinction there.
There’s a video I put up on the site this week where Michael Arndt, our friend Michael Arndt, did this great talk about writing the first part of Toy Story 3. And so someone had tweeted a link about it and so I looked at it and I was like, oh, this is really, really great. I’m so surprised I haven’t seen it because this is like animated and like where is this is from.
And so then I checked the person whose YouTube thing it was on and it’s like, well, he obviously didn’t make this so like where is this from? And I couldn’t find it anywhere else. And so, that was a case where I felt really shady linking to it or putting it on the site because like I don’t know where this is from and this is clearly not some amateur thing.
So I wrote to Michael Arndt.
John: And said like where is this from? And he told me where it’s from. He told me it was an extra on the Toy Story 3 Blu-ray from a couple of years ago. He was cool with me doing it. Disney might not be cool with me doing it, and you what, if Disney’s not cool with it, I’ll just take it down.
John: But like it was a thing that can be out in the world and no one is getting ripped off here is the point. And I was making a moral choice about sort of what ethical choice about when I felt it was okay to link to it and when it wasn’t okay to link to it.
Craig: Yeah, nobody is getting ripped off and, frankly, you wouldn’t have even had that ethical choice if what you were considering was whether or not to show it to three people in an office and say, “What do you think of this?”
Craig: There would have been no ethical issue there whatsoever, just as there isn’t for our work. And I think that lurking behind all of this is this thing that we see in screenwriters far too often and apparently it’s the case with visual effects artists where they believe that they’re constantly being ripped off. Guess what? You’re ripping off people too.
Everybody is ripping everybody off to some extent. Copyright isn’t it a lock box where nobody can draw a werewolf anymore. We’re all allowed to draw our own werewolf and I’m allowed to look at your werewolf and say, “I like parts of this werewolf, I’m going to be inspired by that werewolf but I’m going to do my own werewolf.”
That’s life. That happens and everybody is like, you know, we just did this show where people are like, “Oh, my god, that’s my movie.” And similarly, “Oh, my god, that’s my…” and in the middle of this discussion, another person says, “Well, I’ve had my work ripped off nine times by a studio.” I don’t know what to say about that. That has nothing to do with what we’re talking about. We’re just talking about reference.
Craig: Reference! [laughs]
John: So we won’t get into it this week but next week I want to talk through what the actual format of screenplay like material looks like because we got a great length a listener sent in from Clockwork Orange.
Craig: Oh, I love that, yeah.
John: That showed like what his layout was on the page, which was bizarre and it was sort of more like what a stage play layout would be, but it was fine. It was like recognizable. You could see sort of what things were supposed to be. We should also talk about multi-cam, because I find multi-cam incredibly frustrating to read but that’s just my own bias.
So, let’s talk about some different way of laying stuff out on the page next week.
Craig: Right. So we’re going to do some questions now or we’re going to do some — ?
John: First of all, I want to talk about TV stuff.
Craig: Oh, yeah.
John: Because there were some great links that got sent through and it’s also very applicable to what’s happening WGA wise right now. So, TV, if you’ve watched TV in the last couple of years, you’ve noticed that things have changed. And so some of the big changes are, of course, the entrance of Netflix, and to some degree, Amazon — the dominance of one-hour dramas and especially in cable.
John: Especially on the HBOs and the premium channels. And with these new kinds of shows, seasons have gotten a lot shorter. So rather than 22 episodes, the classic model of TV was 22 episodes. Then they’d take a break during the summer and they’d come back in the fall and that’s how everything worked.
Now seasons are a lot shorter and I think as a viewer that’s going to be kind of great, and I think the quality has actually improved partly because of these shorter seasons.
The challenge is that it puts weird pressures on writers. So some of the pressures which were referenced in the email to Writers Guild members about the negotiations is that writers on TV series are being held under options of exclusivity for all the time that they’re not — that show isn’t running.
John: So you could have written, you know, on a show, you could have written a 13-episode order of a show. Nine months later, those episodes finally start airing and then six months later they finally decide like, “Oh, you know what? We’re going to order another season.”
John: Well, that could have been a year that you were basically unemployed being held under contract in that original series.
Craig: Yeah, they’re holding you for like you’re working on a 26-episode season or something but you’re really only working on a 13-episode season or a 9-episode season. That’s a problem.
John: Yeah, we’ll want to talk with the WGA people about that when the negotiations are finished. But two other interesting articles that came out this last couple of weeks that I wanted to talk through.
First is by Derek Thompson for The Atlantic who asked a provocative question, “Is House of Cards really a hit?” And the question is essentially we used to know what we meant by hit, which is basically how many eyeballs, how many viewers are watching that show and how is it growing week to week.
But when you have something like House of Cards on Netflix which is distributed all at once and a person can like binge watch all 13 episodes or space them out. They can watch them in any timeframe they wish to watch them in, it becomes much harder to say whether that show is a hit or not a hit particularly because Netflix has no obligation to reveal any of its numbers. It doesn’t have advertisers. It has no incentive to say this is how many people are watching it. It’s entirely a private decision.
Craig: Moreover they refuse to say.
John: Exactly. They refuse to say.
Craig: They know, they just won’t say.
John: And this is a question that, you know, back when Sue Naegle was running HBO, I asked her at lunch one day, it’s like, “Well, how do you figure out what shows to keep and what shows to not keep? Is it about by viewers?” She’s like, “Yes, but then also you survey, you figure out what show if we didn’t have people would cancel the service.”
John: And that’s essentially what Netflix’s decision is. It’s like, they want their House of Cards and their Orange is the New Black. They want a diverse slate so that, man, you’ve got to watch them. And so there’s at least one show there that you definitely want to watch and that you’re willing to keep subscribing to that show. So it’s just a very different way of thinking about what is a hit.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, for paid television of any kind or I guess you’d call it subscriber-based television, the only way to define a hit is something that the company is willing to renew.
Craig: And their criteria for that could be whatever they feel like including fancy, including critical acclaim, attract other artists that we’re interested in, profile, general company branding. It could be anything but when you’re talking about a subscription base or a model of any kind, eyeballs are completely irrelevant. If one person watches it, but it’s talked about constantly and your actors have their faces on the cover of magazines with your company name, it’s a hit.
John: It is a hit.
John: Yeah, I think the question should be. You’re a hit if you can get Entertainment Weekly to give you the cover and that to some degree is one of the qualifiers. If there’s a big enough segment of your possible viewing audience who desperately want to watch that show, you’re a hit.
Craig: Yeah, pretty much.
John: So the second article that was, from this last week, is also kind of about Netflix but it’s really about broadcast. And I found it really fascinating because it’s a question I’ve often had and sort of addresses that questions, which is why when you go to watch back episodes of a show in its current season can you only get the last five episodes. Because there’s been a lot of times where I would love to catch up on a show that people say is really great but you can’t actually get all of the episodes. They’ll only have a certain number of them out that are available for you to see.
John: Sometimes you can buy the whole — you can buy each of the episodes on iTunes but there’s no way to like on Hulu or Netflix to get stuff within the season.
John: And so that’s called in-season stacking and it’s a fight between networks and studios. Studios basically don’t want to show you all of the season. They don’t want you to be able to get to all of the season at once because they want you to come back and watch it in reruns. Studios still want you to watch shows in reruns because that’s where they used to make their money.
John: Networks would be delighted to show you any episodes you want anytime you want as long as it’s going to keep building the audience for the show.
Craig: So let me ask you, what’s interesting about this? NBC wants to do in-season stacking and run the whole season but Universal television does not want that. What’s odd about that?
John: They are the same company.
Craig: They are the same company. Now, can someone explain this to me after all — I mean, look, it used to be easy. Studios couldn’t own networks and vice versa. There was Fin-Syn and all that and that then went away.
But now that they are all owned by the same parent company, I just don’t understand, I mean, why can’t they just figure this out internally. Why can’t ABC and Disney figure this out? Why can’t CBS and Paramount figure this out? I don’t get it.
John: Well, this article we’ll link to is by Marcus Wohlsen in Wired, and what it’s arguing, I think, ultimately is that even within a company, you have to recognize that the studio side has some different goals than the network does. And the studio is looking at this property for how do we get to — it doesn’t necessarily have to be a hundred of episodes anymore, but how do we make this show make us a lot of money both in broadcast right now but also at all the other markets after it’s been off the network TV. So they’re looking at this property in a very long-term space. The network is looking at this, you know, what do we do on a Monday night, what do we do on Tuesday night.
John: They kind of don’t care about the long-term value of something.
Craig: Well, I get that the individual fiefdoms have their priorities. At some point, some one ring to rule them all must be looking in a big picture way say, “Well, this is going to make us the most money in totality in the end, so this is what we’ll all do, so the other parts of you just shut up because this is what I’ve decided.” What was interesting to me was that, Netflix pays a ton, a ton for the right to do this in-stacking, in-season stacking and they basically said, “Look, if the networks start doing this, we’ll pay you much less.”
Craig: And to that I could easily see the networks saying, “Yeah, we don’t care, because, you know, then theoretically, we’ll be getting more business and your eyeballs and make you less relevant.”
John: It’s the ongoing evolution of what is a network. Is a network a place that distributes tonight’s television or is a network a brand like HBO and these are all the shows within that brand? And as networks try to maintain their brand, that may be sort of where they’re going to. It’s like they want you to come to NBC to watch the NBC shows.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, I would have to say currently that there is no network that is a brand. No broadcast network is a brand. I don’t know what NBC stands for.
John: No, nor do I.
John: And they don’t stand anything. I mean, that’s the whole point of –
John: Yeah, Fox is probably the closest I can think of to a brand and they started kind of as a brand. But –
Craig: Are they? I mean, they’re –
John: Yeah, different nights are very different. It’s true.
Craig: Yeah, I think the whole point of broadcasting is we’ll give you everything. We’ll give you late night. We’ll give you a comedy. We’ll give you drama. We’ll give you 8 o’clock family stuff. We’ll give you 10 o’clock not family stuff. They do everything. And there’s so much content. Oh, and we’ll do reality and we’ll do news and we’ll do this and we’ll do that. They’re everything.
Craig: And so, yeah, a supermarket can’t be a mom-and-pop store or a boutique. It’s just never going to work.
Craig: Well, listen man, TV is just cuckoo nuts.
Craig: I can’t keep up.
John: All right. Let’s get to some questions.
First question comes from James and it’s actually a question about Courier Prime so I put it in here because I’m curious what your opinion is on this as well.
John: James says, “I switched to Courier Prime several months ago and found it preferable to all the other versions. However, I’ve come across one aspect that has bugged me. This sounds awfully pedantic but I imagine in font design there is no such thing. I recently started working on an old script and the first thing I did was change the font from Courier Final Draft to Courier Prime. I always underline my scene headers and notice that the Prime underline is so close to the bottom of the text that they touch. In Courier Final Draft there’s a separation which I find to be much cleaner. I hope this is not perceived to be a criticism especially when it’s a free gift to writers.” So the question really is underlining. Do you underline in scripts, Craig?
Craig: Very rarely.
Craig: Very rarely.
John: So what situations do you underline?
Craig: If I really feel that there is a word that needs to be stressed but a reasonable reader would not know that it needs to be stressed, and I feel like an italic isn’t quite right, I will very occasionally throw an underline in there. And by the way, I use Courier Prime and I’ve never noticed an issue with where the underline is.
John: Yeah, I’ve never seen the touching either. So I’m sort of surprised that this is happening, but we’ll investigate and I’ll follow up with him about what his deal is.
John: And it could be that it’s a PC thing or there’s some other reason why that’s happening. I don’t underline very much at all but I do underline maybe once in a script if there is some line of scene description of action –
John: That if you missed it, like you’re going to miss a hugely important moment or thing. So it’s a way to stop skimming. It’s to give you that one underline.
John: But you do it too much, people are just going to stop paying attention.
Craig: Yeah, I guess, that’s exactly right. I will occasionally underline a line of action if it’s the big reveal or the Holy Crap moment. But I tend to use bold. I bold my slug lines. I would find that underlining to be really jarring to the eye. It would just become mush, page after page to see an underline slug line. I’m not a big fan of that. I will use italic more for emphasis then if I need to.
Craig: But I try to avoid all that stuff anyway.
John: Courier Prime gives you a nice italic so you can use it when you need it.
John: A question from Tony in Long Beach. “If you write a script using the existing property, not with the intention of selling it but as a fun exercise to show off skills, will anyone read it? Can you post it online or will you be sued for stealing other people’s ideas?”
Craig: So, getting back to our copyright discussion, you have without permission created a derivative work of somebody else’s work and now you’re putting it online and you’re putting it online with your name on it. Another copyright holder would absolutely have the right to call you and say, “Take that down.”
Craig: You’re not allowed to do that without my permission. I did not put my work out there publicly for you. You’re not referencing it. You’ve made a derivative work. You have altered it and republished it publicly.
Craig: So, yeah, no, I think that that’s a no, no.
John: Oh, I’m going to disagree with you. So I would say weirdly there’s a long tradition of people doing this. There was a Wonder Woman script that a guy just like wrote on spec and that Warner Bros ended up buying. There is classically Aliens vs. Predator, one of the first incarnations of that was just a spec script a guy wrote that sort of combined Aliens and Predators. So that does happen.
In a very general sense, people all the time will sort of do a spec adaption of a book. It’s not usually generally a well-known book but if it’s something they really like they’ll do it. But the standard caveats apply. You’ve written something that you cannot possibly sell and you’re going to have to publicly acknowledge at all points, like, I don’t actually own or control this.
And so, there’s a downside to it but all at the same time, I don’t want you to sort of not write the thing you want to write just because of those — I don’t — better to ask forgiveness than ask permission in some cases.
Craig: Well, I actually don’t think we disagree. I’m totally fine with the idea of doing a fan fiction script and handing it to a studio and saying, “Look, you might not want this, but if you like the writing, hire me to do something else.” You’re right. That happens all the time. It is high risk, high reward.
I mean, we talked to Kelly Marcel about when she was writing Saving Mr. Banks. They didn’t have Disney’s permission. They’re putting all this stuff in with not only Walt Disney as a character but it’s including songs from Mary Poppins. It’s about the writing of the songs and all the rest. They’re like, “We just don’t have permission. We’re going to write it and then we’ll give it to Disney and see what they say.”
The difference here is that this guy is saying, “I want to put it online.” That I don’t think you can do. I don’t think you can distribute your work publicly if it’s derivative of somebody else.
John: Craig, would you consider putting it up on Blcklst.com, just putting it online?
Craig: No, I think that you can make the argument that that’s essentially not public. In other words, that is a curated site that is subscribed to by individuals. It’s not like just literally putting it on the web for everyone to see with your name on. That’s where I think it might get a little dicey.
John: Yeah, I think you’re less likely to run into issues there. So I would separate this down to what is legally the correct, what is morally correct and what is practically correct. And so, legally, you are violating copyright doing that. They may not care about it, but you’re not in the clear.
Craig: That’s why I’m talking about this public stuff, because when you talk about this you have to ask, well, who has been damaged and how? If you publicly distribute this script across the entire Internet for anyone to read, you can make an argument that you’ve damaged my ability to — you’ve damaged my reputation because somebody thinks I’ve licensed this or you’ve damaged my trademark or my interest in this material because you’ve disseminated it widely, as opposed to putting it on the Black List where it’s quietly looked at and understood by professionals to be an example.
John: One example that comes to mind is it’s incredibly common in television to write spec episodes of shows. And so, that’s a classic way people get hired on things is to write an episode of CSI or to write an episode of Sleepy Hollow as a writing sample.
John: And that’s done all the time.
John: So, in television you should never feel weird about doing that because that’s business as usual.
John: Our next question comes from Manchester, and so I’m not sure if that’s a person who lives in Manchester or a man named Chester. It could be any of these things.
But he or she writes, “Are there good, professionally-written scripts that you’ve read that might not do so well in a Three Page Challenge because, well, those first three pages just don’t work until you get to page four or five or six?
“As an example, pages one or two set up some sort of world, then page three changes that to a seemingly different world which is often inauspicious from your good writing perspective and it make good complete sense if you were to read page. I’m not suggesting that it’s okay to be unclear on pages one through three, and if you have some amazing reveal on page five and the rest is the best written script ever. Are there some good scripts that are simply not candidates for The Challenge? And if so, how would John and Craig describe this to people thinking about submitting?”
Craig: It’s a very good question. My instinct is to say no, that we are not looking at these three pages as needing to give us more plot or needing to give us any plot or any story. I have no problem if the world shifts suddenly and dramatically. I just want it to be good writing and I want it to be interesting. And I would think that any good script does have two interesting pages. For instance, we talked about The Social Network the other time, the other podcast.
Craig: So it opens with dialogue. Just two people sitting at a table, in a bar, and a stream of dialogue, just ribbons of dialogue. But it’s so good. It’s just specific really good dialogue. I don’t think there’s any — I can’t imagine that we would ever look at the first three pages of a good screenplay and go, “What?”
John: Maybe not. So, people who are new to the show, there was actually an episode, we’ll figure it out and put in the show notes, where Craig and I did our first scripts and we did our first scripts as a Three Page Challenge. And that was revealing because they weren’t awesome and there was potential but there was also really a lot of problems in those first three pages.
And I guess, it might be interesting to take a look at the first three pages of some really good scripts and see what they’re doing and maybe make a special bonus episode where we just talk about some really good first three pages.
I can imagine there might be some scripts of movies that I ended up loving that I don’t know that I would have recognized that I would love them based on its first three pages. I think about the kinds of criticisms we often make in a Three Page Challenge, like, I don’t know what this movie is, I don’t know the world of this movie is, I don’t feel comfortable or grounded and that’s entirely possible. Like, I haven’t read the script for The Matrix, but there’s a lot going on in The Matrix and I wonder if after the three pages I might be like, “I don’t know what this is.”
Craig: It’s possible.
John: The world is big and crazy.
Craig: It’s possible, but I have to say that sometimes when we say, “I don’t know what the world is,” we’re not saying and we must always know what the world is.
Craig: I think sometimes we’re just saying that the writer doesn’t know what the world is. What we’re picking up on is a lack of control over your own screenplay.
Craig: I don’t mind not knowing stuff as long as I know you don’t want me to know it yet and that you want me to know what you’re showing me and what you’re showing me has purpose and is interesting in and of itself.
John: More than anything I would say, after reading a bunch of screenplays and a bunch of Three Page Challenges, you really quickly recognize good writing or you recognize a good writer. And that’s going to, no matter what is actually the content with those pages in some ways, you recognize like this person has a skill for slinging the words on the page and making me want to keep reading to the next page. I don’t think it’s innate. I think it’s a learned thing, but I think it’s a thing that some people are going to be great at and other people are not going to be great at and you can tell after three pages.
Craig: No question.
John: I have an actual One Cool Thing this week. Do you have an actual One Cool Thing?
Craig: Oh, god. No.
John: It’s all right. My One Cool Thing this week is a thing we started using here in the office. It’s called Slack and it’s kind of great. So it’s team management software but it’s really like chat software.
Craig: Just like the standing bed.
John: It’s just like the standing bed.
Craig: I really want credit. I nailed it.
John: You nailed it. It was great.
Craig: Nailed it!
John: So what Slack is for is basically any small group or any small project and especially software, you end up like emailing stuff back and forth a lot and you probably found this like in production, too, where like you’re constantly sending these little emails back and forth and you sort of lose track of emails and you sort of wish they could sort of all be grouped together.
This is sort of like chat software but for the small teams. And so, basically, everyone signs into this thing and it’s an app window that stays open in the corner. It’s also on your phone and you can just type in to these channels and like discuss things or drag in screenshots. You can talk through stuff. You can drag in links and it’s incredibly smart. And so now even like when on Twitter if someone tweets Quote-Unquote Apps that tweet shows up in there and we can respond to it immediately right there. It’s just genius. So it’s a subscription service. It’s all web-based and I thought it was just fantastic.
Craig: Well, that actually does sound pretty cool. I must admit. Although, I don’t have people that I have to do that with generally speaking.
John: And that’s where I would sort of stress is that it’s good if you are the right kind of small team. And so, like a small production would be fantastic for it. So, like where you have, you know, the AD needs to be able to talk to, you know, the production designer needs to be able to talk to the costume designer. Like that kind of stuff that needs to go back and forth really quickly would be fantastic for this kind of thing.
John: But for software, it’s just awesome.
Craig: For software, I can see it’s huge, yeah. Well, I guess, it’s funny, I realize now that I do have a One Cool Thing and it’s something that I forgot to turn on which caused me trouble in this podcast. When we’re doing the podcast and we’re recording, I don’t know about you but I’m not really — maybe you are because you’re looking at questions and stuff but I’m not touching my computer.
Craig: I’m not moving my mouse around. And like everybody, I’ve got my computer set to go to sleep or not go to sleep but if it’s not doing anything, the monitor will go off.
Craig: And like most people, I have a password on my computer, so now I got to put the password in or do the knock thing on the phone. It’s annoying.
And there is this tiny little app called Caffeine and it sits up in your menu bar. It’s for Mac OS. It’s just an empty coffee cup and then you click it and it’s a full coffee cup. When it’s a full coffee cup, it’s not going to go to sleep.
John: That’s brilliant.
Craig: Your computer won’t go to sleep. The display won’t go to sleep. It doesn’t matter. You can walk away for a year, it’ll still be on. And then when you’re done, you click it, coffee empty, it will go to sleep.
Craig: So I forgot to fill my coffee cup, then I did and it works so elegant.
John: Yes. That is our show for this week. So you can find the links to the things we talked about in our show notes at johnaugust .com/scriptnotes. It’s also there you can find transcripts to all of our previous episodes.
You can listen to all the back episodes both there on the site but also through the Scriptnotes app for the iPhone and for Android, so check your app store. And weirdly, like a bunch of people have suddenly started using the app, so we get statistics and like it just went crazy hockey stick big, so whoever is using that and enjoying that, that’s great.
John: So the app is actually the best way if you want to listen to like really early episodes, you can do that. And Rawson Thurber actually emailed me saying like, “But I’d like the app but I want to be able to like download an episode for it so I can listen to it like while I’m on a plane or something.” You just tap the star. You tap the star and it downloads the episode.
Craig: Yeah, Rawson, tap the star.
John: Just tap the star. It’s actually completely unintuitive. We didn’t design the app but it’s out there.
Craig: God, Rawson, tap the star.
John: Tap the star.
Craig: Tap it.
John: But if you want to listen to some of the first hundred episodes or actually all of the first 100 episodes, we still have a few of those USB drives that have all 100 episodes so you can find those at the store.johnaugust.com.
Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel and edited by Mathew Chilelli who also wrote the outro for the show this week. So listen to that. If you have a question for me, you can write me at johnaugust or @johnaugust on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin.
If you have a longer question like the ones we answered today, you can write to email@example.com and we occasionally open the mail bag and answer those questions.
Craig: [creepy Craig] Hey, John, that was a pretty good episode.
John: Thank you. I was going to try to do sexy Craig and I just couldn’t do it.
Craig: You don’t try to do sexy Craig, you just be sexy Craig.
John: And have a good week.
Craig: No, it’s terrible. You’re not doing it.
John: I’m not doing it. I’m not going to try to do it.
Craig: I know you shouldn’t try. You can’t try. Bye.
John: [attempts creepy voice] Yeah, yeah.
Craig: Oh, no, that starts to sound like Beavis. That’s the least sexy thing I’ve ever heard. Shame on you John August.
John: Yeah. See you.
- Tesla Model S
- Monkeys on Wikipedia
- Standing beds by Ernesto Neto and Jamie O’Shea
- The Twitter thread on linking to media
- Fair use on Wikipedia
- Is House of Cards Really a Hit?
- Netflix and In-Season Stacking
- Scriptnotes, Episode 58: Writing your very first screenplay
- Caffeine for OSX
- The Scriptnotes App for iPhone and Android
- Outro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli
Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work tracks how some of history’s most notable writers, composers and thinkers spent their waking hours:
I wanted to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.
RJ Andrews turned Currey’s data into infographics, because that’s what we do in 2014. How he did it:
Representing each day as a continuous 24 hour cycle invokes the ever spinning wheel of time, and more simply the face of a clock with midnight placed in the “12 o’clock” position and noon at ”6 o’clock.” Colors mark major categories of activity – work, sleep, exercise, etc.
Compare Beethoven to Mozart:
More than anything, Currey’s book and Andrews’s graphics demonstrate there’s no one “right” way to do creative work. Fetishizing one writer’s routine is pointless. What matters is getting the work done.
Aspiring screenwriters often ask whether making a short film will help their careers. I believe it can. In terms of exposure, it’s easier to get someone to watch something than to read something. More importantly, the process of making a short film helps screenwriters understand how words on paper translate to the screen.
That said, making a quality short film is a huge investment of time and money and stamina, all of which might be better spent writing. Nick Rheinwald-Jones agreed to write up his recent experience making a short, providing useful illustrations of what happens when screenwriters get behind the camera.
1997 was such a hopeful year. The dot-com bubble had only begun to inflate, the TSA didn’t even exist yet, and as far as anyone knew, the Star Wars prequels were going to be amazing. Even the famously Eeyore-ish world of screenwriting was much more upbeat back then, buoyed by continued reports of million-dollar spec sales. And I, a happy-go-lucky college sophomore, had just decided that I was going to hop aboard that train as soon as I graduated. I’d move to L.A., work my way up the entertainment industry ladder, and let the magic unfold.
(If you’ve ever watched VH1′s Behind The Music, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s coming in this next paragraph. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Abject misery. And that’s just The Phantom Menace; I haven’t even gotten to Attack of the Clones yet.)
Dissolve to 2013. I’d been calling myself a screenwriter for over fifteen years — accurately, I should say; I’d certainly been writing all that time — but that all-important sale or commission that would allow me to call myself a professional screenwriter? It still hadn’t happened. There had been a few inklings of encouragement (for example, a pilot script of mine was a quarterfinalist at Slamdance), but no money, no representation, not even one actual meeting.
In other words, it seemed like a good time to re-evaluate things. At some point optimism becomes delusion, and pessimism becomes rational thinking. I didn’t want screenwriting to be a hobby, because heaven knows there are better hobbies than staring at Final Draft all day. But if I wasn’t getting paid to do it, if nobody was even reading my scripts, then that’s what it was going to be.
As I saw it, then, there were two options: Either come up with a new approach to my career, or change course altogether. The latter was certainly tempting; I knew I was smart and hard-working, and why not put those attributes to use in a field where I’d actually be appreciated? But even after all that time, I wasn’t quite discouraged enough to give up my Hollywood dreams: I’m nothing if not stubborn.
So I opted to go with Plan A and take a different tack.
I decided to make a short film — a resumé piece, essentially; something I could easily pass around. Most people will come up with any excuse not to read a 120-page script, but a 10-minute video would be less likely to be automatically ignored. (Or so I hoped.) Although I wasn’t really looking to get into directing, I figured I needed to direct my short so nobody else could take credit for it. I’d also need to fund it myself, and on this point, thankfully, my wife was very supportive. (Actually, she was more than supportive; she pretty much insisted that I do it.)
And so I began.Step one: write the script
Somehow, I thought this would be the easiest part. I mean, I’ve been writing screenplays longer than some pop stars have been alive. Problem is, I’d never thought much about doing an entire filmed story in ten to fifteen minutes. In a feature screenplay, that’s just when things are starting to get going.
Beyond that, all my previous material was written with a studio budget in mind. Things would have to change a great deal if I was going to be the one writing the checks.
Fortunately, the budgetary constraints actually helped me with finding the story. I decided to write something that could mostly be filmed inside our house, so I’d have more money to use on other aspects of the production.
Genre-wise, I didn’t want to do a straight-up comedy, since that’s not what I typically write, and I wanted the short to serve as a good representation for the kinds of scripts in my portfolio. I opted for an action-comedy instead. A spy-action-comedy, to be specific. That was going to be a challenge, but it also focused my thinking. (For example, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time deciding what country I’d set it in, or whether the climax should take place on an aircraft carrier or a bullet train.)
Reading John’s short script for God was also helpful, in that it reminded me the needs of a short film are very different from those of a feature. You don’t need a lot of characters, you don’t need subplots, and you don’t have to turn the world upside down by the end of the movie. You do, however, need to be efficient and get to the point quickly. Luckily, I’ve always been pretty strong in those areas.Step two: hire a producer
Here is yet another situation where luck played a huge part. I asked one friend (a writer/director) if he could recommend a producer; he had one producer to recommend, and she was available. I sent her the script and we met up to discuss it.
I figured there was no reason not to be completely frank with her, so I told her I’d never done anything remotely like this before (shooting some videos on a Hi-8 camcorder in college was about the closest I’d come) and that I needed all the help I could get. Although I knew a fair amount about most areas of filmmaking, I was fairly clueless about the actual process of, you know, putting a movie together. Scheduling? Budgeting? Renting equipment? Hiring a crew? Permits? SAG? Big bowl of nothing, as Jeff Garlin would say.
But by the end of our conversation I felt like I was in good hands. She had plenty of experience on movies of various sizes, not only as a producer but also as an AD and even a director, so I wouldn’t be throwing her any challenges she hadn’t faced before.￼Step three: pre-production; or, is it too late to change my mind?
Our shooting schedule allowed for about two months of prep. I’ll be honest: I spent much of that time freaking the hell out. What was I worried about? Hold on a second and I’ll get out the list.
I was worried that my LLC paperwork wouldn’t be filed in time. (You have to form a corporation if you’re funding a movie, for a whole variety of reasons, and this entails working with California’s legendarily crummy bureaucracy.)
I was worried that we wouldn’t find a decent location for the opening scene. (The movie only needed one location other than my house, but it had to serve a pretty specific purpose, and it also had to be fairly cheap.)
I was worried that I wouldn’t get a decent cast. (Low-budget equals open calls, and also I couldn’t afford to use a real casting agency.)
Oh, and then there was that small matter of actually directing the movie — working with real actors, keeping to a (very brief) schedule, and surviving it all without an Apocalypse Now-level meltdown. In all my years of work experience I’d never managed a single person, and now I was going to be managing an entire cast and crew, all of whom were a good deal more experienced than I was.
But it wasn’t all nail biting and night sweats. A lot of it was pretty great: Meeting a real stunt coordinator; working out the shot list with my DP; even casting, one of my biggest fears, turned out to be a ton of fun (and quite successful).
(I should also note here how helpful it was to have a good producer at my side for this part of the process. Yes, I was freaking out on a regular basis, but I never actually had to worry about which forms I needed to sign, which checks I needed to write, or how I was going to find a cast and crew. She was taking care of all of that, and I am eternally grateful, because otherwise I probably would have gone insane.)Step four: let’s shoot this thing
This is where I learned that adrenaline is a wonderful thing. Didn’t sleep for days before the shoot, definitely didn’t sleep during the shoot. And yet, while I was on set I was more upbeat and alert and on the ball than I’ve ever been in my life.
It probably helped that shooting a movie was easily the most fun I’ve ever had. It also helped that my cast and crew were superb — fast, efficient, professional, and generally just great people to be around. The cliché about a movie crew being like a family really holds true; even after a three-day shoot there were hugs and heartfelt goodbyes.
Of course there were frustrations, difficulties, unexpected obstacles, and more than a few I’m-in-over-my-head moments. But there was nothing to do with those moments but overcome them, push past them, keep things moving. Because if there’s another cliché that’s 100% true, it’s that the show must go on. There’s no time to complain, dwell, or retreat into your self-doubting cocoon when everyone around you is ready and waiting. And that’s a little bit terrifying, but it’s mostly exhilarating.
Also, this happened in my living room and it was pretty cool:Step five: how does it end? I’ll keep you (ugh) posted
Long story short: “Movies are made in the editing room” is a cliché because it’s 100% true. Certainly the process of going from a rough cut to a final cut is every bit as challenging and labor-intensive as actually shooting the film — except the timetable is far less constrained. And you’d think that would make things easier, but… remember how I just got through saying how great it is that when you’re on set, there’s no time to second-guess yourself? In post, there’s plenty of time to second-guess yourself. Plenty of time to tweak the stuff that doesn’t work, and to refine the stuff that does. The goal is no longer to get everything shot so you can pack up and send the crew home; the goal is to produce a good movie.
Luckily, my editor was a jack-of-all-trades-and-then-some, handling sound, visual effects, and coloring in addition to the already-punishing workload of cutting the picture. And one of my best friends, who has worked for many years in the music business, hooked me up with a great composer who delivered a great original score in record time. Now it’s in the hands of the festivals, so my job is pretty much crossing my fingers.What I learned
Making a film — even a ten-minute one — completely changed my perspective on my career and my identity as a creative person. Although I absolutely intend to keep writing, I no longer think of myself as just a writer: I know now that I can do more than that. I’m excited to look for more opportunities to direct, and maybe I can even make some money at it someday (since self-financed shorts are not quite the golden goose that I wish they were).
I’m not holding myself up as some special case, either; I’d wager that a great many people who see themselves solely as writers could do an excellent job of directing. It sounds scary, and sometimes it is, but being a screenwriter is fantastic preparation for it. As John often says, when you’ve written a script, you’ve already seen the movie in your head, and that’s at least half the battle. The other half is being able to explain it to your collaborators, but if you pick talented people — and Los Angeles is positively teeming with them — it’s not really that hard.
I think people write spec scripts for two reasons: (1) They want to see their scripts made into movies; and (2) They want to get paid. And I think that for most people, the priorities go in that order. Getting a paycheck is great, but the dream is seeing your words and scenarios brought to life. You don’t need to sell your script to a big studio to achieve that. The only difference between the biggest studio movie and the smallest self-funded independent movie is money. (A lot of which is often wasted, as demonstrated in this piece by Gavin Polone.) Money is the only thing hiding behind those studio gates — not ideas, and certainly not talent. Great actors, great crew, and great equipment are available to everyone (and you’ll pay far less for all three if you’re not part of a giant expensive production).
You can spend your entire career waiting for permission to see your work brought to the screen, and you can give up if it never happens (and, like I said, I was very close to giving up). Or you can jump the line and do it yourself. Instead of being the person desperately trying to get hired, you can be the person doing the hiring. That’s a pretty nice ego boost.
So things are going pretty well these days. I’m still writing specs, but I’m working with a manager now, so my scripts are getting some exposure instead of languishing in the void. (Funnily enough, I got the meeting with him not because of anything to do with making my movie, but because I had a script hosted on The Black List that he liked. Thanks, Franklin Leonard!) I’m also having a great time writing for Previously.TV, a new online venture from the creators of Television Without Pity. The inside of my head is starting to look more like those upbeat days of 1997. Optimism is back in town.
And the Star Wars prequels might have sucked, but those sequels are going to be great!
You can find Nick Rheinwald-Jones on Twitter at @rheinwaldjones.
(Photo credits: David T. Cole) ￼￼
Craig delights as John gets @-napped in a Twitter thread about copyright infringement. Then they talk disruption in television, and how it affects writers.
Finally, they answer listener questions about underlining, fan fiction scripts and whether a professional writer’s script would fare well in the Three Page Challenge.
- Tesla Model S
- Monkeys on Wikipedia
- Standing beds by Ernesto Neto and Jamie O’Shea
- The Twitter thread on linking to media
- Fair use on Wikipedia
- Is House of Cards Really a Hit?
- Netflix and In-Season Stacking
- Scriptnotes, Episode 58: Writing your very first screenplay
- Caffeine for OSX
- The Scriptnotes App for iPhone and Android
- Outro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli
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 136 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, no funny voice this week?
Craig: Uh, that wasn’t a funny voice?
John: Oh, no, that sounded like your normal voice.
Craig: Oh, you mean, [creepy voice] you mean this voice, John?
John: Yeah, no, that wasn’t the voice I wanted. I was looking for something, I don’t know, something British maybe, I don’t know. I was expecting something different. I don’t know why.
Craig: What are you looking for buddy?
John: Yeah. You’ve got a whole trench coat full of voices and you just pull one out.
Craig: I’ll give you what you want. Sexy Craig is back!
John: Sexy Craig needs to go away forever.
Craig: Sexy Craig! Oh yeah!
John: So, I think it’s because of your voice last week that I had a mild stroke. And when I said the dates for this Writers Guild Foundation event that I’m hosting a little panel on with Kelly Marcel and Linda Woolverton, I said July 12, which is completely wrong. It’s April 12. And I often get dates wrong, but that’s like really, really wrong. So, it’s April 12. It’s a Saturday.
So, if you are interested in coming to see me, and Kelly, and Linda Woolverton, and a bunch of other screenwriters, there’s a link in the show notes to that.
Craig: “Sexy Craig needs to go away forever.”
Craig: You don’t mean that.
John: I think sexy Craig might have a better use inside your own home than on this podcast.
Craig: Sexy Craig goes where he wants.
John: Ah, that’s the danger of sexy Craig.
Craig: [laughs] He’s so dangerous. Sexy Craig honestly is nothing but trouble. Nothing but trouble.
John: Yeah. You feel like sexy Craig is probably the younger brother who sort of like started smoking a little too early, started drinking a little too early because the parents had kind of given up on him a little bit.
Craig: Hey man. I don’t need them to tell me what to do.
John: Exactly. The parents I feel are actually kind of old at this point and they just really can’t control him.
Craig: Sexy Craig doesn’t need parents.
John: Sexy Craig was born in the wilderness.
Craig: He was born fully formed. He knows what he wants. He goes out and he gets it. He doesn’t need advice. He doesn’t need guidance. He guides you.
John: That’s right. He’s the master of his own fate and destiny.
Craig: Yeah. Sexy Craig is a real sociopath, by the way.
John: Craig, this week I got to do something kind of amazing. I am going to qualify it down as kind of amazing. I very rarely, and I want to ask you about this, how often do you play the sort of “I work in the industry and I have a certain profile and therefore I’m going to ask permission to do a certain thing.” How often do you sort of play that, like, screenwriter card?
Craig: Oh my god, like zero.
John: I never do it at all. But my daughter’s favorite show in the entire world is Lab Rats on Disney XD, which if you don’t have a young kid you have no reason to know that this show exists at all. But it does exist. It exists on Disney XD and it is a show about these four — well, there are three bionic kids and one unbionic kid.
Craig: Yeah, my daughter watches it.
John: Yeah. And so it’s the kind of show that an eight year old watches. And it’s not my taste in a show, but my daughter absolutely loves it. And so Stuart, Stuart Friedel, who everybody on the podcast knows because Stuart is the producer of our show, he used to work for Disney. So, he said, “You know, I can totally get you in to see a taping of Lab Rats.”
And so I finally said, “You know what? I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it for my daughter.” So, on Monday we went and saw a taping of Lab Rats. It was kind of fascinating.
Craig: That doesn’t count as like pulling rank or throwing your weight around. I mean, you know, that’s no big deal.
John: Maybe not such a big deal. Except that they don’t really have an audience for their tapings.
Craig: Oh, you were observing a taping? I mean, I honestly thought that where this story was going was that you were going to say that I was waiting to get into an event and they weren’t letting me in and I said, “Do you know who I am?” [laughs]
Craig: I thought this was going to be a “don’t you know who I am?” moment.
John: Oh, Craig, that’s every day for me. I’m pretty much always throwing my weight around that way.
Craig: Stomping your little foot.
John: Yeah. Here’s the thing. It’s because Stuart knew the people that it was very easy to sort of make those first phone calls. But because it’s not a show that normally tapes in front of a live studio audience, it was a little bit odd to go visit the set. And they weren’t used to having a lot of visitors. But they were actually terrifically nice and wonderful and helpful. The producers are Chris Peterson and Bryan Moore who created the show.
It was also just a fascinating time to sort of see what that whole universe is like because you and I don’t do that at all.
John: Like you’ve never written multi-cam, have you?
Craig: The very first stuff I was trying to do were multi-camera sitcoms. But I never actually got a job, you know. So, I watched some tapings. I went to some tapings.
John: Yeah. I’ve been to some tapings, too. And so it’s a show without an audience but it still has a laugh track. And so I was always curious like how do they do that? Do the actors just know to pause because that thing is supposed to be funny and therefore they’re going to fill it in with wild applause even though it doesn’t deserve wild applause?
John: It turns out the answer is they have this group of like six or seven people who sit in these sort of lawn chairs and watch a monitor and laugh. And these are people who I think are probably paid as extras whose whole job it is is to watch the show and laugh, take after take, and laugh the same at every joke as if it’s as funny the first time. It’s such a bizarre job and it’s such a great — I wish Ricky Gervais were still extras because it’s exactly the kind of thing you would want to see him do.
Craig: I’m honestly stunned. [laughs] I can’t quite absorb what you just told me. To reiterate, if I may, the show is not shot in front of a live studio audience. Obviously a laugh track is put in after. But rather than just leave some spaces and put the laugh track in as they desire, they have commandeered human beings to pretend to laugh over and over and those people do that?
John: I would clarify to say they are actually laughing, whether it’s genuine or not genuine. They provide a full voiced laughter that is apparently helpful for the actors in their timing to sort of know how things are supposed to feel.
Craig: I guess. But the thing is, A, no, it’s not natural because they’re adults. [laughs] I mean, look, I actually really enjoy the fact that there has been this resurgence of multi-cam traditional sitcom format on Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon does some as well because those were the shows you and I grew up with watching.
Craig: Laverne & Shirley, and Happy Days, and so on. And so I like that my daughter can watch them and she really enjoys them. But she’s not laughing out loud at them. Nobody really laughs out loud at them with rare exceptions.
John: Every once and awhile my daughter does laugh out loud at them.
Craig: Okay. Every once and awhile.
John: In some ways it’s a strange thing because I think it teaches kids that certain things are funny that actually aren’t funny. I do wonder about the dangerous quality of that laugh track.
Craig: There is that. But I guess my point is that adults surely wouldn’t be laughing out loud at that. Granted, when you go to a live sitcom taping, because it’s live theater and you’re in the moment, you do tend to laugh. And they do have to remind you to continue to laugh if there’s a retake, which they try and not do over and over. I mean, a lot of a sitcom is just shot, you know, okay, we’ve got it. We’re moving on.
But, there’s just six people. It’s not a big crowd. It’s just six people. They have to laugh. And I’m just a little surprised that the actors wouldn’t be completely creeped out by the fact that there’s this fake laughing going on.
John: Yeah. But they’re three seasons in and they’re all 17 years old and this is their job. Two years ago they were living at the Oakwood auditioning for things. So, it’s not a bad gig that they’re in right now.
I think the reason why they can’t have a normal audience for this is because they’re so — you’ve seen the show probably. There are so many stunts and effects that they can’t shoot like a normal multi-cam can, so they are doing things like four or five times and they’re having to do specific like wiring of stuff, so they couldn’t do a normal audience.
But it is just strange.
Craig: That’s weird. Yeah. Hey, if it works for them, god bless them.
John: Our mutual friend Melissa McCarthy is on a multi-cam right now. She’s on Mike & Molly. And so she’s describing how they do pre-tapes for certain things like car scenes they’ll do a pre-tape. And they’ll anticipate sort of where the laughter would be naturally, but on the day they actually film the show in front of a live studio audience they’ll just sit on apple boxes without like any of the set around them and just do the same scene again so they can get the laughter, get the jokes timed right.
Craig: And they’ll see where humans would naturally laugh.
John: Yeah. But there’s really nothing natural or human about a Disney XD show. And I’m not sort of denigrating them, and bless them for having me come over. I don’t really want to sound like I’m throwing them under the bus.
Craig: Why would that — that’s not denigrating.
John: It’s a strange thing.
Craig: Yeah, for you to say that there is nothing less natural, [laughs], what was it? Nothing less natural than a Disney XD show?
John: I may have said nothing less natural or human than a –
Craig: Or human, yeah. There’s nothing negative about that at all. [laughs] They did you a favor!
John: They did me a huge solid, so I am just being sort of a jerk now. But it was fascinating, this is a show about androids. Sorry, they’re not androids. I’m sorry, they’re bionic.
John: There is something actually inherently non-human about them, so maybe that’s what makes it all work.
Craig: Listen. Whatever production tricks they need to do to get through the day, that makes sense. I just find it so odd. I mean, I would have never thought of that.
If somebody were to say to me do this show and you can’t have a live studio audience, but you do need to figure out the timing of the laughs, I suppose I would just say, well, I think since I’m controlling where the laughs go, and there isn’t a live studio audience to cue me where they would naturally go, it’s entirely arbitrary per my decision, so why don’t I just get a thing to playback laughs live on the stage and not have people do it over and over?
John: Yeah. Why don’t you actually just like push a button for where the laughter is, where you think it’s going to go.
Craig: Right. Have you ever seen one of those guys with their machines? Those guys are gone now. Everything is on a computer. But when I started in the business way, way back in the ’90s, there was a guy who would show up with this special patented machine and he would plug it into your mixing board.
John: A sweetener.
Craig: Yeah. And he would select the laughs. And there are stages of laughs. Little — everything from titters to guffaws and awes, and oohs, and all that. And actually the creepiest thing about it was I remember, I was talking to that guy and he goes, “You realize all the people you hear laughing on TV, they’re all dead. They were recorded in the ’50s.” And so a bunch of 50 and 60-year-old men and women in the 1950s were just recorded laughing and doing all these reactions. And they’re all gone now, so it’s like ghosts laughing at jokes that they wouldn’t even understand about iPhones. [laughs] It’s so weird!
Craig: I love it. I love it.
John: Today on the show we’re going to do a Three Page Challenge. People love the Three Page Challenge. And we have three new entries for the Three Page Challenge.
Craig: Oh, I wish I had a thing right now so I could go, “Ahhhh.” Yeah, after everything you say I’m going to give little laughs.
John: Maybe Matthew Chilelli will add in a little laugh here or there. But, actually, this is sort of an interesting segue because one of the things I realized as I was watching this, I asked the guy who had written this episode like what are your scripts like, are you writing them like a single cam or like a three-camera, because there is no reason why you should kind of write it like a multi-cam, but they do write it like a multi-cam, so they write it in that format that I find so odd where dialogue can be all caps and parentheticals are in part of the dialogue. They’re not set aside as their own separate line.
But I recognize fully that my thinking it is odd is just because it’s not what I’m dealing with on a daily basis. And so a good transition to us talking about some follow up on what a screenwriting format could look like or should look like and what some of the priorities would be. Because we actually had some people email us and tweet at us this week following up on our last conversation.
Craig: Yeah. There was a little bit of a discussion in our last podcast we talked about how you and I have this instinct to move away from slug lines as the scene dividers and talk about sequences as the primary chunk in which to parse out a screenplay.
And there was a little bit of discussion back and forth, and it’s true that initially when we started talking about this we were saying, “Oh scenes are the thing,” but I think you and I realized fairly quickly that scene is a strange word because it means different things to different people. And I’m going to agree with a lot of people who are like, “Hey, slug line doesn’t define scene.” That’s correct.
It does, I think, in current format to some extent, maybe to the detriment of the screenplay, it does define the scene. When you’re shooting people say, “Well, what’s the scene number?” And they’re referring to something that’s connected to a slug line. Interior or Exterior, location, time of day. And what we’re saying is that’s useful information to have, and that’s important to have, but that’s actually not a great way to split up the work. A better way to split up the work is to think of a sequence and a sequence is a group of scenes that are organized around a certain narrative movement.
And when I even say a group of scenes, I mean to say bits. You know, bits. And those bits may actually cut across slug lines as well. For instance, in one of our Three Page Challenges today we’ll come to a part where there is a bit, where a kid is upstairs and then he’s downstairs. And there is a missing slug line in there. And I missed it. But that doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t really one scene.
John: Absolutely. I think when we get to that Three Page Challenge you’re going to see what we’re talking about. I agree with you that I really like that our listeners have challenged and pushed back on some of our assumptions, because that’s exactly what you sort of need to do at this early stage of talking about what could be new or better.
Right now when we talk about scenes, ultimately you and I are still in two different worlds. We’re trying to write a movie and we kind of know what a scene is in a movie. It’s this chunk of a movie that it’s about this thing. And usually it’s often characters in a certain place in a certain time. And then that scene — you kind of feel like that scene is over and then you’re onto the next scene. And so location and time is often a useful way of describing the boundaries of it.
But we are always running into situations where you have people on two sides of a phone conversation and that ends up sort of being kind of two scenes, or is it one scene. Or you have people who are moving through a space and you’re trying to decide do I break this out as separate scenes, or is it continuous. And all that stuff is really just weird text baggage being put on something that’s very natural when you see it in a movie, but it’s really weird on a page.
And really what we’re talking about — and I don’t know if we’re going to end up on scene or sequence as being the right sort of defining block for it — but, yeah, we’re talking about what makes sense in a story purpose as a scene, not what necessarily needs to make sense on a budgeting or a strip board kind of thing.
John: A lot of what is in the modern screenplay format is there as much for the AD or the line producer as it is for the reader. And so things like INT/EXT as a shorthand for are we inside or are we outside. The location and trying to be really consistent about the name of that location so you’re not calling the same place three different things. Well, it’s not maybe the best experience for the reader, but it’s meant to be sort of consistent for the person who has to figure this stuff out later on.
Craig: That’s right. The slug lines are there to help you figure out how to shoot the movie out of order, because you are going to shoot it out of order. But, of course, we read it in order. So, we have this strange format that straddles out of order and in order. And as you were talking it occurred to me that I guess one of the defining characteristics of this useful bit of parsed out storytelling that we’re trying to describe here is continuous time.
Craig: That there is a section of storytelling that occurs in continuous time. So, if somebody is inside and then they walk outside and then they get in their car and then they pull up, and there is not a jump — or even if there is a jump but the jump just exists to compress, it’s about a sense of continuous time.
John: There are cases in screenwriting where it’s discontinuous time, but you’re continuously at a place or you’re continuously on a certain idea. And you really, I mean, yes, sometimes you really call this more sequences where you’re going back and forth between a lot of different things, but it’s really all one idea. You’d really call that one scene.
Craig: I agree. Or one sequence. Exactly.
John: So, yes, in both cases our reliance on that single line of scene header to describe what’s going on and what this feels like as a movie is really hurting us, I think.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s why sequence is the best word. Because scene is borrowed from stage anyway. And it probably made a lot of sense when they first started shooting movies and everything was on a stage.
Craig: And it was just you enter, you talk, you leave. We really do need to switch to this notion of sequence and leave this word scene behind. Scene doesn’t even describe what the slug lines are doing anyway. All the slug line is is just an indication of location and time of day.
John: Absolutely. What people may not be aware of, in the origin of screenwriting the first screenwriters were largely women. And the first screenplays were essentially just a list of shots. And so they were this list of sort of like how you’re going through things and basically shot, by shot, by shot this is what you’re seeing. And it evolved into this format that we have now which is sort of like halfway like a play, halfway like a radio play. It’s its own weird beast, partly because of how it started.
And I think it doesn’t necessarily do a great job of describing what we’re actually making right now. So hopefully if there’s going to be something to replace it it would do a better job of describing that.
One of the things which people who haven’t been through production are probably also not aware of is there’s a stage in production where you take a script and you break it down. And by breaking it down you’re going down to scene by scene. And by scene I’m talking about that sense of this is the location, this is the time, this is how many pages or eighths of a page is occurring in this block of shooting.
And one of the functions that so often an AD or a line producer is doing is writing a synopsis of that scene. It’s basically like a one sentence or two sentence description of what happens in that scene.
John: As a screenwriter I often, if I’m heavily involved in production, I will often ask for that and go through and rewrite that quite early on. And I’ll rewrite what the synopsis of those scenes were, because so often I’ve seen the purpose of the scene horribly misrepresented. And so it’s like they’ll describe it as being like “Susan confronts Tom about this” when it’s actually not what happens in that moment, so people can get confused. But that idea of a synopsis for a scene I think is actually a really interesting idea as an element to be part of the screenplay format from the start.
And it’s actually a thing that exists in Fountain. We have a thing where if you start a line with an equal sign that’s called a synopsis line. And it’s just a way of — a shorthand for what happens in that moment. And that can be very useful for writers. So, essentially almost that kind of what you would write on an outline or what you would write on an index card for a scene could be part of the actual document itself.
Craig: I think that that ability is in Fade In and Final Draft and Screenwriter. They have these kind of summary little things that are attached that you can tag onto, but what’s interesting is that none of it is really formalized, you know, because we’ll do all this stuff, but you’re right at some point it just goes through the meat grinder of an AD going, “Okay, how many pages is this? How much time do I need to shoot it? Is it a day or two days? Is it inside? Is it outside? Where is it? What time of day?” And, yeah, some brief often ham-fisted description of the action just so people…
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this. I’m fascinated. I cannot do it. It’s funny, Todd Phillips and I would talk about this all the time. We’d be on set and somebody would walk up to us and say, “Hey, listen, for scene 72 did you guys mean…,” and we both are like, “Don’t — we have no idea what that means. None.”
John: I do that all the time in production. Because they’re only looking at numbers.
Craig: And they actually memorize it. And they all do it. It’s incredible. I feel so stupid. I mean, it’s like some guy will come up to me and he’s like, “Hey, are we doing 85 tomorrow?” And I’m like, uh, how did you do that? [laughs] Where? What?
John: What’s fascinating is that once you start production, from production through the end, that actually is a meaningful thing because editors are looking at those scene numbers, too. So, like everyone else can talk about scene numbers, but weirdly the people who wrote the script generally have no idea what those scene numbers are.
John: Which is crazy. But maybe that’s reasonable, too.
Craig: Well, we’re the ones that put it in. It’s just that we put it in for everybody else. But in our minds we’re, you know, we’re just thinking about the movie.
John: We’re thinking of the movie. We’re thinking of how you get from place to place. How you transition from that moment to the next moment.
John: So, a couple wrote specific tweets that I thought we should address on the air. So, Alyssa Brick wrote, “Is there a danger that people could hide bad writing behind good AD presentation in a new format?” I think absolutely. There is a danger that in some ways you could forget about the writing and sort of like the importance of the writing by having all of these other gimmicks in there. And somebody else had written in with some pages of a script that they were working on that I just, I don’t know what you thought about it, I thought that was a mess and I would not be interested in reading that or seeing that. I wouldn’t want to be handed those pages and say like, okay, here’s the movie.
Did you look at those?
Craig: I did. They were fascinating. The problem was that the writer used every possible thing. It was a bit like, I mean, I like mustard and I like ketchup, but I don’t want mustard and ketchup and salt and pepper and this and that. I mean, they just went kitchen sink.
There were ideas in there that I thought were at least nibbling at the sort of things that could be helpful, but I do agree with the implication here. The last thing we want to do is basically imply, oh, you’ve just got to go and puke a bunch of insanity onto a page to flimflam us.
By the way, I don’t think it’ll ever work.
John: I don’t think it would ever work. And here’s why I thought those pages didn’t work specifically for me is that even if you’re adding more stuff into a script page than would normally be there, the experience of watching a movie is essentially linear. You can’t pause and take everything in. It’s going to keep running forward. And so, you know, a script ultimately has to be very linear because that’s the experience of watching a movie is very linear.
So, if you’re throwing out a bunch of stuff that has like two column charts and then like all these other stills in there and you have — if I’m spending like five minutes looking at this page trying to figure out what’s going on, that’s not the experience of what a movie can actually be. And that’s not going to be a great experience. So, while it’s great that you have all of these resources, I think you actually have to look at sort of what the experience of watching the movie is going to be like and how can you reflect that in a document. Because the experience of watching a movie is nothing like that page, I would hope.
Craig: I agree. And in fact one of the things that I think we should think about as we invent our new format is to use the flexibility of digital format, so that the reader has a choice of when to call up extra information. It’s not imposed upon you. The page isn’t a scattered pastiche of text, and image, and sound, and all the rest, but rather I understand that there’s a small icon next to a description. I can click it, a window will pop up, show it to me, and then I can make it go away.
It’s at my command, as I wish.
John: Yeah. So, Mr. Bowers wrote in saying, “Have you guys seen Scrivener?” Which I have seen Scrivener. “It’s very close to what you describe as your ideal new screenplay format.”
No. And I think you tweeted back saying that Scrivener is an app, it’s not a format, and I think that’s a really crucial distinction and I want to make sure that as we talk about this that that sort of comes out clearly, because I think if there’s any one app that does a bunch of this, that does all this stuff, that’s not the solution. The solution — because we’re not trying to replace Final Draft. We’re really trying to replace what screenplays are like.
John: And that’s a much broader thing and that’s existed before Final Draft and everything else that generates these kind of documents, too. So, it’s really a system for like how you could display this kind of information. And what I think has worked so far about Fountain is it’s not trying to be one company and it’s not trying to be one app and it’s not trying to be one thing.
It’s about there is going to be buy-in by a bunch of different people. So, in many ways I think what you and I are talking about is incredibly utopian and would probably never actually really happen, but it might steer a conversation in an interesting way and some of these ideas could come to pass.
Craig: I think it’s going to happen.
John: All right. That’s great.
Craig: Yeah. I’m a go-getter.
John: The last thing is people tweeted back saying, “Oh, you can’t get rid of one page per minute,” and so I want to have one last little bit of discussion about the one page per minute because there is a step that, again, I don’t think people realize because they haven’t been through production is that before you actually start shooting a script there’s what’s called a script timing. And that’s where a person with experienced production goes through the script literally with a stopwatch, reading through it and sort of feeling out how long each thing is supposed to be taking, often in conjunction with the director, timing it out to really get a sense of like how long the finished product would be.
Because you and I both know that there are scripts that are 140 pages that come out at 100 minutes and scripts that seem incredibly short that come out very, very long, especially in episodic, the different shows will have a completely different style, so a show that is really rapid fire like Gilmore Girls, their scripts were like 80 pages long for a show that was going to be 42 minutes because they spoke a thousand miles per hour.
John: And I wouldn’t be surprised if True Detective was kind of the opposite where those scripts weren’t a full — wouldn’t feel like a full hour, but it’s because of the pacing of it that it wouldn’t be that. So, there is a stage called script timing which is actually designed to do exactly what we’re talking about. Even if we’re not doing this one page per minute rule, someone is going to time it out. You’re going to know how long something is.
Craig: No question. I still believe that you get a sense of how long a script is from reading it. And if you were to hide the page numbers from me, or hide pagination entirely and I just read it, I would be able to give you some vague sense of how long I thought the movie would be. And that would be, I think, more accurate frankly than some paginated page number.
Look at The Social Network. I mean, very famously Sorkin wrote massive — I mean, the opening scene, I don’t know how pages that it’s paginated. 15? I mean, it’s wall-to-wall dialogue but it was meant to do at a very rapid pace. And it certainly didn’t take the amount of time that the one page per minute would indicate.
Similarly, when I was doing spoof movies with David Zucker, I understood that they were done at breakneck speed. And that it was really more like 45 seconds a page if anything. The people that are clinging to this one page a minute thing I think are just afraid.
Craig: They feel, it’s like we’re taking their woobie away. But the woobie is not real.
John: The woobie is not real.
Craig: No. There is no woobie.
John: Craig, you brought up a topic that I think was great and incredibly apropos, so I would love you to take over this. This is about when it’s okay to work for free.
Craig: Yeah. This has coming up a bit lately and there’s a little bit of a confusion about it. And so I just wanted to lay the groundwork for people in terms of what the rules are, which I think frankly parallel what is best for us as screenwriters. This is not always the case. In this instance it is.
So, per the WGA and our agreement with the companies, so called “spec writing” is forbidden. And you’re like, “Well, wait a second, we write specs all the time.”
Okay, let me explain. The deal is that you can write on your own. You control the material. You own the copyright as you wish. You can write a spec screenplay, you can write a novel, you can write anything you want. And obviously no one is paying you for it because it’s yours.
You can do this even in conjunction with a producer, because remember producers don’t employ us. Producers are employed by the studios just as we are. If you were to sit down with a producer and they say, “Hey, we have an idea and we’d like for you to write it. And you could write it on spec and then we would go out and try and sell it.” You are perfectly free to say yes. And I don’t think there’s any issue with that, because you control it. That’s the most important thing. You have the copyright on it. It’s yours. You wrote it.
You don’t feel like selling it? You don’t feel like selling it for a certain number? It doesn’t happen. It’s entirely under your control.
The kind of free writing that is unacceptable is free writing that occurs as a condition for employment or free writing that occurs as part of employment. So, if somebody says to you, “We would be interested in hiring you to write this. Write me ten pages to prove that you can.” That’s a huge no-no. It’s against the MBA and it’s also something that we just shouldn’t do as writers. It’s unprofessional.
If you are hired on something and the employer says, “We know we’re supposed to pay you now for the script you just turned in, but we don’t want to. We want you to write another draft of it.” That is a no-no.
Now, there is a flexible area where producers are asking for this and this is the whole free rewrite conundrum. We’ve gotten into that before. But the biggest issue to just keep in mind is that you cannot, cannot write to get employment. You can’t accept writing as a condition for employment. They’re not allowed to ask for it. They can’t even ask you for a summary or a lead behind or an outline or a treatment. And, frankly, as writers I would strongly suggest that you not do it, that you not give them that in order to get a job.
They will put that on as a condition and one of the things that we’ve been talking about with the studios is to say to them, “Look, not only is that against the rules, but it’s going to blow up in your face because…” and this has happened now a bunch of times. Somebody is going to write one of these things to get the job. They’re not going to get the job. And now you have somebody out there with material that you don’t own. And you’re going to make a movie and as we know there are similarities and they’re going to come back and they’re going to get you, because they’re going to say you stole it.
So, anyway, that’s the basic dividing line and hopefully that clears it up for people in some way.
John: In some way. I think the take home from this is that there’s nothing wrong with free writing if it’s your writing. If you are writing for yourself a spec work that you are doing for yourself where you’re writing a script for yourself, yes, and that’s one of the most wonderful things about being a screenwriter is no one can stop you from writing, unless they have some exclusivity on you, which is a crazy thing, which we’ll get into at another point. But essentially no one can stop you from writing and that’s the gift you have as a writer.
One of the other gifts is you can say you want to work with somebody on a project, you can do that. And a producer who is not a guild signatory who is not a person who would be hiring you in general, you could agree that you’re going to write this thing and collaborate with this producer on getting this thing to its final best form, but it’s still yours. You’re going to own this. And you can choose whether to sell it or not sell it.
It’s when you are going into a buyer, a person who is going to pay you money to do stuff who chooses not to pay you money to do stuff, but rather is just going to have you write for free and if they like it then maybe they’ll buy it. That’s the problematic situation.
John: So, where it gets complicated and where you and I both know people who have run into this situation is that conversation of like, “We would be really interested in something like this,” and so it’s like, uh, so are you telling me that you want me to spec — not telling me but they’re telling the young writer — are you telling me that you want me to spec something that’s in sort of this ballpark? And they can’t really quite say that, but they talk about the kinds of things they’re interested in and it becomes this conversation that is essentially asking you to write something for free.
Craig: Well, yeah, but the difference again is if you really like, yeah, you own it. They don’t want it, go sell it to somebody else, assuming that it’s something that anybody would want.
Craig: The trickiest of these for me is when a producer comes to a writer and they control a property. They have an option on a book, for instance. And they say we’d like you to adapt this on spec to see if we can go set it up somewhere. I’m not a big fan of that.
John: Yeah. Because it’s really clear to see how this can go wrong, essentially they decide they don’t like your script, they drop the option on the book, and suddenly you have a script that’s based on material you don’t own or control. And you can’t sell this project.
Craig: Precisely. So, the idea is when you’re writing on spec you need to write in an unencumbered way, so that you own the material completely. The only other thing I would say is if you really loved some underlying property that a producer controlled, it would be fair to say, “Fine, I’m going to write this on spec, but I need us to sign an agreement. And that agreement is that if you’re going to set this project up, you’re setting it up with my script.” And usually they won’t, [laughs], they won’t agree to that. And that’s why I like asking those questions because suddenly they have to show you who they are.
John: The leverage you have as the writer is the ability to say no. And there are times where you’re going to need to say no, or at least ask the questions that will lead you to a no.
John: All right, let’s get to our Three Page Challenges this week. We have three that Stuart picked. So, Stuart, I want to just stand up for Stuart here for a second. Stuart read 70 Three Page Challenges yesterday. They had sort of backed up for awhile. And so when I asked him like, hey, could you grab some for me and Craig, he went through 70.
Craig: I am impressed, Stuart.
John: So, these are the three he picked. And some of these may have been from before this last batch of 70, but if you are new to the Three Page Challenge let me talk you through what happens here. So, we solicit our listeners to send in three pages of their script. It’s almost always the first three pages, but there’s no rule that it has to be the first three pages. But if you’re going to do that, there are rules that you have to follow.
And that is go to johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out, and we will ask you to have certain boilerplate on the email. Send only the pages. Don’t send anything else. Just send the pages. We’d love to have your name. We’d love to have a title page is great and helpful. But it’s just these three pages. And we talk about them on the air, a very small fraction of the people who send pages in actually are discussed on the air, but we really thank everyone who sent them in. And we especially thank people who are brave enough to hear us talk about their pages on the air because you guys are heroes.
If you want to read along with these pages, there are PDFs attached to this episode. So, go to the show notes either on your app device or at johnaugust.com and you’ll see the show notes and these Three Page Challenges attached.
So, what should we start with, Craig?
Craig: Well, you know, I just noticed. I was looking at our three submissions today and I feel like Stuart hides little themes.
John: Well I think I picked up a theme, but what are you going to say?
Craig: I think the theme he hit today was single word punchy title.
John: Yeah. All these are — the three scripts this week are Reactor, Bruiser, and Paragon.
John: They all kind of feel like they could be ABC shows. Like Scandal. Betrayed. Or Revenge.
Craig: [laughs] That’s right. Revenge. Well, we can start with any of them. I’m holding, well, I’ve got all three of them. Do you want me to summarize this first one here?
John: If it’s one that I’m not ready to summarize. Do you have Chris Sandiford?
Craig: I have Chris Sandiford right here. Reactor.
John: Reactor. Yeah, I want to talk about this one, so let’s go for it.
Craig: Okay. So, Reactor. We open up high above the clouds at night in moonlight and then we descend down through the clouds to realize we’re in a violent thunderstorm.
On the ocean below there is this big Maersk E-Class Ship, big cargo ship, and there’s a heavy cable, like a toe cable that fires from the sky and hits one of the containers on the ship.
Inside the ship we can now see that a helicopter is attached to this toe cable and it’s using this toe cable to sort of pull itself into the ship.
And then we go into the helicopter where Colonel Drumm is advising his pilot and some guy using a laptop to essentially take it easy and try and land thing.
We go onto the ship’s bridge where a crewman is watching his radars fizzle out and then he notices that there’s this helicopter that’s coming in. He gets on the radio to the captain who is in the mess hall eating spaghetti and basically says there is an unidentified helicopter and there are three guys with weapons coming out of it.
And we then go to the engine room of the ship where a crew person is alerting Emilia Alvarez, an engineer, that there are hostiles outside, emergency protocol. We think that she’s just working on the engine, and then it is revealed to us but not to the other crew person that in fact she is assembling some very fancy looking grenade launcher.
John: And I took it that she’s actually a hostile.
Craig: It appears that she is a hostile. Yeah, a saboteur.
And so that is Reactor by Chris Sandiford.
John: So, my take on this is this is essentially all action setup. And so this wasn’t like, you know, oh we’re getting to know who these characters are. We’re not getting to know the world. This feels like the start of an action movie. It feels like the start of a Die Hard or some sort of like big set piecey kind of action movie taking place on the seas.
And I actually kind of dug it for what it was doing here. There are some things that didn’t work. I thought some of the dialogue didn’t especially ring true. I don’t like Spaghetti Captain. I don’t like on page three we have, “Then, with respect, Captain, get your ass in gear! These guys have weapons!” That’s how you’re talking to your captain? That feels kind of odd.
But I liked the overall sense of scale and size and drama. I felt like I knew what kind of movie this was after these three pages. And was excited to sort of see well what is this set piece going to be like.
Craig: Well, I agree that there was a good sense of pacing to it. I mean, it was an example of how to introduce elements and reveal things cinematically. These are very cinematic pages. We’re watching everything and that’s great.
In a general sense, tonally this feels out of time. It feels old fashioned to me. This feels a bit like a Steven Seagal movie.
John: I was going to say Steven Seagal. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. Mid-’90s. I think we’re past this. Even video games, frankly, are past this. This feels like a cut scene from like the first Splinter Cell, not something that you would see now. So, there was a kind of an old fashioned sense to it and it was not helped at all by the characterizations that Chris gave us.
Even the names. We’ve got Colonel Drumm. “Easy, ace.” And in fact, Ace says, “Aye, Colonel. This storm is something else.” All of the dialogue is very cornball, frankly. I really got puzzled, very puzzled by the interaction with the captain.
I’m just going to read this exchange. This crewman, he’s seeing this thing that — I mean, they’re on a ship in the ocean and there’s a helicopter that’s towing itself in that he does not recognize and his radars are gone. And they’re in the middle of a storm. Captain, for some reason he’s eating spaghetti, fine. The guy turns an alarm on and then calls the captain and says, “Bridge.”
And the Captain says, “This had better be good!” Why? Because it’s spaghetti time and everybody knows don’t bother the captain when he’s eating spaghetti? They’re in the middle of a storm. There’s an alarm.
“Sir, we’ve got a chopper more to the bow,” which isn’t true because it was actually more I think to a container, but fine. “You expecting anyone?” It’s already that kind of vaguely, quippy Michael Bay Armageddon-y kind of dialogue.
And the captain says, “Alarms are for emergencies, crewmen!”
I don’t know. I kind of feel like some strange helicopter that’s moored itself to your bow in the middle of a storm is sort of notable. And then, yes, the guy with the assault weapons come out and then the crewmen says, “Then, with respect, Captain, get your ass in gear! These guys have weapons.”
And then the captain slams down the receiver, turns to the other three crewmen in the mess and says, “OK, listen up!” This almost is bordering on spoof. Assuming that there’s a kind of a modernization of the dialogue and a little bit more of a professional veneer to — not professional screenwriting veneer, but professional crew person veneer to how these people behave.
What I did like was the visual of a helicopter towing itself in. I would have loved those people in the helicopter to be more serious. I like the idea of crew members going, “Whoa, what the hell is that?” And I thought it was a good reveal to see that there is this engineer who is listening to headphones and seems to just be oblivious, actually being part of the sabotage crew.
John: Yeah. So, where I thought this could have really benefited from is just a little bit more mystery. And so more sense of like as the audience we’re watching these two sides and we’re not sort of sure who to root for. Because I guess right now I’m not sure who to root for. But honestly if you were to take out all of the dialogue I think you have a much stronger, more compelling scene.
So, if we see this helicopter landing and we see like just quick barked commands behind like what people are doing and mounting this ship, and then if we didn’t really see, if we didn’t know much about sort of what the captain situation was — honestly, just give us less. I think you could take out almost all the dialogue in here.
And then we’re watching this thing, it’s like should we be rooting for the people in the helicopter who are boarding this ship? Should we be rooting for the people on the ship against the helicopter. Is this an invasion? Is the ship evil? Is the helicopter evil? These are all kind of fascinating question and I feel like holding back on this a little bit longer would have been great.
Craig: I agree.
John: I mean, even right now I don’t quite know who I’m rooting for, but I’d like to really have that heightened more.
Craig: I agree. My suspicion is that the helicopter guys are bad guys, but I don’t know, then they’re military. It seems like they’re acting like bad guys? I couldn’t tell.
The other advice I would give on just the plotting, just logic, is you’re a helicopter and you’re going to do this very fancy maneuver to land on this ship. And obviously you’re up to no good. Why would you start landing in a spot where they could see you? I mean, there’s this guy tapping on a computer to shut their radars down. But yet they’re just landing in front of a window. You know, it seems like it would be a good thing to show that these people are a little more competent than that and are revealed only because something goes wrong or the ship gets rolled by a wave or something.
John: Yeah. And if we’re going to have a guy on a laptop there may be a better way than “guy on laptop” honestly. It would be more exciting to see the physical action of what you’re doing to take down that radar thing. A person doing something is almost always more exciting than a computer doing something. So, if it’s a physical person taking something down or breaking something or changing something, that could be great to see as well.
Craig: Yeah. Guy on laptop in helicopter above turning radars off below, again, just feels like a cheesy misunderstanding of how computers work. And you used to be able to get away with that sort of thing, I guess, but less so these days. People do demand a little more technical verisimilitude.
John: Yeah. I mean, if it’s the thing where like you’re tossing something out the radar that makes it look like a lightning strike but it wasn’t a lightning strike, that you’re doing something to physically knock it out feels probably a little bit more rewarding.
A couple other things I noticed, sort of words on the page. Right now we’re starting “EXT. SKY — NIGHT. FROM A GREAT ALTITUDE WE SOAR over a thick blanket of endless CLOUD,” I think it’s clouds, “bathed in enchanting moonlight.”
I don’t think you need the “EXT. SKY — NIGHT.” The first line is telling you that we’re in the sky, so I think you’re just redundant. And I love starting a script without that scene header slug line when we don’t need it. It was a little too written for me.
Craig: A little purple.
John: It was a little too purple. And it’s like, “Thick blanket of endless bathed in enchanting moonlight,” and then we’re going through the fluff and into a violent thunder storm. Let’s just start at the thunder storm. It’s a thunder storm. Let’s be in the middle of this.
Craig: Yeah. You’re going to end up there anyway when they cut the first part.
John: Yeah. You are. You’re totally going to be there.
Craig: You just are. You see the company logo and then, boom, you’re in the middle of a thunderstorm. It’s a cool way to start.
John: So, Chris Sandiford is evidently British because he spelled “storeys,” which is absolutely fine. Nothing wrong with being British. But I will say a general bit of –
Craig: [laughs] I think there’s something a little wrong with being British.
John: Just a little bit wrong.
Craig: I can think of somebody I know who is British who is just a little wrong.
John: Oh, but she’s wrong in just the right ways.
There is a general style note. Let’s talk about numbers in scripts. Because we’ve talked about how you shouldn’t really write numbers in dialogue, you should spell them out. Let’s also spell out numbers that are starting sentences. And numbers less than 10. I mean, I’m sort of talking MLA style here. But here “20 storeys,” spell out the twenty. Don’t give me numbers for that.
Later on another page he does “4 men” with the number four to start things. No, spell those out. Numbers ten and above, I would say probably better to use the numbers for those. But the smaller things, use words because they’re easier to read. It just feels more natural.
John: Chris, I think I’m a bigger fan of these pages than Craig was, because I was — I was honestly sort of skipping over some of the dialogue moments because I was so excited by the skill and scope of which this ship was being setup and sort of what this action was going to be.
Craig: All right. What are you going to do now?
John: I can do Paragon by Aaron Kablack.
John: Sure. Like Kaboom? Kablack.
Craig: Like Slotboom. Kablack.
John: Yeah. I think you’re right.
Craig: We never heard from Slotboom, did we?
John: I don’t think we did. I can check through the mail. But I don’t think we heard back from Slotboom.
Craig: I don’t think she listens to the show.
John: All right. She just sent in pages randomly.
Craig: Yeah, she’s too cool, man. She’s Slotboom.
John: Yeah, I submitted my pages but I didn’t bother listening. That’s how cool I am.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Whatevs.
John: That’s the title of the script. It’s called Paragon. As this story begins we’re in an elementary school hallway. And we start with Ashley Ayers, and she’s being slammed against the lockers by Wanda, who is 10. Ashley is only 7 years old.
Wanda is going to beat her up for narcing on her that basically she was cheating off the test. Ashley ducks the blow, gets on top of Wanda, starts beating her up. And she’s fighting hard.
Cut to principal’s office, where we see Ashley with her mother, Blair. The principal says, “This is the fourth time this year. I’m sorry, but we have no choice but to suspend Ashley. Again.”
We’re in the car. We’re driving home. Ashley says it’s not her fault. Her mom says, “We’re going to deal with this when your father gets home.” A comment about whenever dad does get home. Some setup about how he works for the news station.
And then traffic starts slowing down more and more and more and suddenly people are running past the windows, concerned. A distant wail of sirens. More people sprinting past. And suddenly a whole bunch of people are sprinting past the windows, getting away from something as we reach the end of our first three pages.
Craig, go for it.
Craig: Well, this is the first thing, “INT. ELEMENTARY SCHOOL HALLWAY — DAY. The back of 7-year-old ASHLEY AYERS’S head SLAMS into a locker door. Her barrettes CLACK off the metal.” And here we were off and running with problems.
John: Yeah. There are a lot of problems in that first sentence.
Craig: A lot of problems. I mean, problem number one: I don’t think you know many 7 year olds, because this is not — the whole — all these pages were not appropriate for a 7-year-old character to be behaving the way this little girl was. First of all, the fight between a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old seemed way misaligned. The kind of dialogue, the fact that she calls her a bitch. And they’re back and forth and the severity of the fight just seemed way off for a 7-year-old.
I mean, I know 7 year olds. My daughter is 9, so I can remember all the –
John: Yeah. 7 year olds, they’re second graders.
Craig: They’re second graders.
John: They’re kind of tiny.
Craig: They weigh 40 pounds soaking wet. They’re sentences are all ka-jumbled. [laughs] They’re little girls.
Craig: They’re really little girls. I mean, a lot of them are still like learning to read and stuff, you know. So, just the age was nuts.
Her barrettes clack off the metal? I got really just like, huh? How?
John: Because here’s the thing — there’s a physics problem of like if her head is slamming against that, well that slam is going to be louder than the clack. It felt weird. And so I get the instinct behind the barrettes. It’s like it’s trying to make her younger by giving her barrettes in a way, like reminding her that she’s still a little girl. But, it doesn’t make sense.
Craig: I think being 7 would be the tip off. Also, let’s just be realistic. It’s impossible to shoot that. You literally can’t shoot a 7-year-old girl having her head slammed against a locker. How exactly does that work on the day, you know? So, really I guess my first thing is just say to Aaron I think you mean an older girl here. Everything that happens here seems to be asking for an 11 or 12-year-old girl.
John: Yeah. 7 year old girls haven’t been suspended multiple times.
Craig: Absolutely not.
John: It’s actually really hard to get suspended from school in second grade.
Craig: It’s really, really hard. And, frankly, if you’re fighting that much in second grade, you’re just mentally ill. [laughs] Little girls in second grade aren’t doing this.
John: I want to stop for one second and say like assuming that all these girls are older and that this is a fight that actually should happen, which I don’t think probably should happen, the actual beating up and the fighting was handled relatively well. I got that that slugging and stuff was kind of fine. It just didn’t make sense for this little girl at all.
Craig: The fight in and of itself was fine. I’ve seen it before where the girl gets on top of the person and starts punching and then they pull her off. The back and forth discussion I found very mundane. It was sort of just paper thin. Mean girl who’s super mean bullying tiny girl. Frankly, if Ashley has in fact gotten into fights this many times to the point where she was suspended this many times, pretty sure everybody would kind of give her a little bit of a wide berth. I certainly would.
We then get a scene in the principal’s office where we meet the mother. And the principal delivers some exposition. And he says, ” I have no choice but to recommend suspension.” To whom? You’re the principal. Go ahead and suspend her. Suspend her.
John: So, Craig, you’re familiar with stock photos?
John: I feel like they’re stock scenes. I feel like you could actually just go to like iStock Scenes and just buy this little thing that you can just copy and paste into your script. Because I think I’ve seen this exact scene. I mean, I actual can picture the people in the photos that would go with this thing about like this is what it looks like when you get suspended. Your kid being suspended is such a trope. I mean, it’s not even a trope. It’s sort of a super trope.
Craig: [laughs] Yes. Super trope.
John: It sort of demands to have some sort of weird spin put on it, but there’s no weird spin here at all.
Craig: I agree. It’s like Clip Art. These things, we’ve seen — the mean, motivation-less bully, and then she beats the bully up. She gets blamed by the glum, 50s, central casting principal. And then, frankly, we’re going to have another scene that’s Clip Art where the little girl is saying it wasn’t my fault, the mom doesn’t get it. And then the little girl starts making these pointed comments about the absentee father. And then the mom starts making very on-the-nose comments that are defensive, including a reference to his job.
It just felt so out of place.
John: Yeah. So, for people who don’t have the pages in front of them, let’s do the scene together.
Craig: Let’s do it. Would you like to be mom or daughter?
John: You be Ashley, I’ll be Blair.
It wasn’t my fault.
I don’t want to hear it, Ashley.
It wasn’t! Why don’t you ever listen to me?
We will deal with this when your father gets home.
Whenever that is.
Excuse me? What did you say?
Your dad works hard to make sure that you and I have a good life.
How good can it be if he’s never around for it?
Your dad’s job isn’t like other jobs, sweetheart. You know the Beacon’s slogan: News...
...Never sleeps. I know, I know.
Craig: I mean –
Craig: Like even the sigh you put in, it was like, because the problem is this isn’t — people don’t talk like this.
John: People don’t talk like this.
So, here is what’s so fascinating though is like these pages would drive me crazy, but then on the very bottom of page three suddenly like there’s a whole stampede of people going past. And clearly this is not the movie you think it is. There’s something strange is happening here and it’s going to be, you know, something remarkable and probably supernatural is happening here.
So, there’s a bigger thing. And so it made me think like well maybe this is all meant to be sort of like, you know, stupid sort of template scene stuff to set up the banality of this kind of movie. And then it’s going to go someplace else. But it’s not played that way at all.
Craig: I don’t think so. Yeah, I don’t think this is intentionally off. And even this bit at the end where the action begins is Clip Art because I’ve just seen — I just saw this in World War Z. I’ve seen it in every zombie movie.
Craig: They’re in a car and suddenly there are sirens and people are running and are heroes are confused.
John: Yeah. So, World War Z, I mean, obviously this made me think so much of World War Z in terms of everyone running past, and it made me think back to like that opening scene in World War Z is not awesome. It’s sort of a Clip Art scene. It’s like that pancake scene. And it’s not like the best moment of everything, but there’s something to be said for something that like really lowers your expectations in a certain way. Like you’re just like — it’s just like so kind of common. And then like something supernatural happens. So, there’s nothing wrong with having some really natural, normalistic stuff, but this isn’t normalistic. It’s just –
John: It’s far too familiar.
Craig: Right. I mean, the opening scene in World War Z is — nothing happens in it. It’s just a family waking up in the morning and they are really happy with each other. They’re just a super self-satisfied American golly gee family. But, it does feel realistic. It feels, like you said, naturalistic. It feels like a happy family.
They didn’t jam any exposition down our throats except for one little tiny bit where we get the sense that he used to work for important people and now he doesn’t anymore. But this feels very after school special. And then zombies are going to show up.
So, I just think that — I am concerned, Aaron, about your grasp of tone and character. And I want you to take some time. Unless this was intentionally meant to be this way, I think you need to do a little remedial work, frankly. And watch some movies that are of your genre and really examine how people are set up and talk to each other.
And above all ask yourself am I — is my job to mimic stuff I’ve seen or is my job to offer something unique?
John: You know, actually fascinating. If this were to be intentional, I mean, even if like after the fact this sort of odd tone was deliberately intentional, wouldn’t it be fascinating to have like Ashley’s voice over, like almost like a Veronica Mars kind of voice over where she’s commenting on it or something. Like where she had this sort of beyond her years sense of who she was in this place? I feel like there’s something you could do with sort of exactly these scenes where if she had a voice over that was playing against it.
Sort of like what I think about for both Clueless and Heathers where there is this sense of like the world is sort of deliberately a little bit fake, but it’s –
John: It’s pushed. But it’s because these characters are able to talk directly to you that you sort of go with it. I mean, Brick, Rian Johnson’s Brick is also the same kind of way. It’s not a realistic world.
Craig: But we’re made to understand that. In other words, you know, we’ve talked about how the beginning of a movie teaches you how to watch the movie. And so Rian understands how to teach you to watch that movie. The problem when I’m reading this is I just think, this isn’t teaching me how to watch an interesting kind of movie. It’s just copying other movies.
And, frankly, if you’re going to copy movies, copy better movies. Because the other thing is sometimes I think it might be frustrating for people to say, “Well, look, you know, I saw a movie in the theater, maybe even one that you or I wrote. And that wasn’t very original, or that scene felt ripped off.” And I guess my point is for those people to say that’s the end. That’s the end result after maybe somebody else rewrote it, maybe somebody had a different way of shooting, maybe people got involved. Maybe actors got notes. Production problem. God knows what.
The entire process of going from page to film is a degrading process to quality in general. It’s corrosive. It’s very hard for the best to remain at that level, the best of what you can do to remain at that level. So, all the more reason to start as good as you can because it’s going to get worse from there, not better.
John: For sure. Well, it also goes back to that sort of plus one fallacy, which is like if it’s better than the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Well, that’s not anything to aim for at all.
Craig: Nobody is going to — yeah, what they’re doing is they’re actually buying brilliant screenplays and then turning those into crap. [laughs] So, you can’t start with crap.
All right, well, so our last three pager is entitled Bruiser and this is written by Jessica Wiseman.
So, we begin in William P.’s House. William P. That’s abbreviated, P. He’s 13 years old. Comes into his room, good-looking kid, starts tossing his backpack and his book bag and his gym bag aside. He’s on the phone talking to someone named Rajeev and telling him to stop freaking out. He gets on the computer and he’s basically saying to this Rajeev, and we only hear his side of the conversation, something about who cares if it’s cliché, people love that. Can we get a picture of an eagle.
It’s like he’s advising somebody who is designing something for him. And he takes a soccer ball out and starts juggling the soccer ball. He’s apparently very good at it. And then he hears a noise from downstairs. He comes downstairs. We don’t see him. We just hear him, because we’re in a different room. Heads downstairs. And he’s surprised by somebody that he knows but isn’t expecting to see. There’s an off-screen scuffle. And then William enters into a room. His nose has been bloody. He’s trying to calls somebody but he can’t.
Two people in black hoodies run in, pin him down. William is begging. Call my parents. Don’t hurt me. And another person enters the room whose face we cannot see. I assume it’s from behind. And William knows them and is asking them please to stop. This was all just fun. And the person slams his face with their boot. We cut to black.
Next day we’re in Nate’s house mourning. Nate, also 13, preppy kid, reading a book about politics. And his mom is giving him breakfast. And apparently Nate is going to be running for some sort of class office or something. Mom talks about getting together for family time. And he asks her if she has any cash she can lend him.
John: Yup. And so three pages. I was really excited to read page four and five and six. Of all the things we read this week, this was the thing that I was sort of most excited about. I thought it was hardly perfect, and there are some things — there’s a lot of stuff to talk through with this. But I was excited to see it.
Let’s start with what we talked about earlier in the show which was that sense of when you’re moving between two places but it’s really unclear on the page where you are. And so this happens for us on page two.
John: He leaves the room, but it’s not really clear that he leaves the room. And it’s not clear that we have stayed behind in the room. You have to be clear about this people. So, that’s one of those cases where it’s appropriate to say we stay behind as he leaves and we hear him off-screen, because right now the only indication that he’d left was that he’s O.S.
Craig: O.S. Right.
John: Yeah. So right on page two. He hangs up the phone and immediately walks out of the bedroom door to check on the noise. We hear him start to descend the steps to the living room. Well, tell us that we’ve stayed behind, because otherwise we’re going to think we’re going to move with him. He’s the only character we’ve seen.
We’re not used to, as readers or as an audience, staying behind empty rooms unless you’re telling us that specifically we’re going to do that because it’s just not a thing we do in movies without a good reason.
Craig: That’s right. I mean, we need some kind of indication of geography here. And, frankly, I’m not a big fan of even staying in the room anyway and then coming back to the room. It’s an odd move, but I guess it could work.
John: I liked it. Actually I liked it a lot because it sets up tension. Because it’s an unusual thing to do. So, we know that there is something wrong but we’re not quite sure what’s wrong. And then he comes back in and he’s been bloodied and apparently it’s probably a continuous shot, so that’s going to feel great.
Craig: That’s my problem with it in a way is that I have an angle — I’m just imagining I’ve got to shoot this. I have an angle on this kid in his room and then he leaves and I’m stuck with that angle. So, when he runs back in I’m stuck with him just running back in. It almost feels like my camera has become a webcam or a point-of-view camera like a security monitor, because I’m locked into that angle. And in my mind, what I kind of wanted was for him to leave the room and then I’m downstairs in a living room. And I hear something off-screen and then he runs into this new room, just so I could reorient myself.
But, regardless, listen, that’s a choice, but geography is a choice and you need to get it across very clearly.
John: So, I think she made an interesting choice. It just wasn’t clear. It was confusing to the reader and therefore she lost a lot of the power of her interesting choice by not making it clear to the reader.
Craig: That’s right.
John: But I actually really liked the sequence that happened here. I liked –
John: — William P. I liked that he was clearly focused on something. And you see him like — he pulls a soccer jersey out, smells it, but puts it on anyway. He’s talking to some guy on the phone. We’re not sure even what he’s talking about, but he sits — he’s working on stuff beyond his years. He senses that there already could be trouble before he hears the first sound off-screen.
I thought all of that was really well done. And I like a 13-year-old getting the shit kicked out of him. That’s surprising. And so that happens on page two and you’ve got me for another ten pages based on what happens there.
There were some surprising formatting errors and so while we were talking I actually looked to see what app made this PDF, because there are things which felt really like strange mistakes.
Craig: Yeah. And consistently done incorrectly.
John: Yeah. So, this was made in Final Draft, so this person was using a normal app but maybe hadn’t read a lot of other screenplays, because there were things that were sort of odd.
When you have a parenthetical under a name, the convention is that that parenthetical is lower case. And so all of these got upper cased for sort of no good reason.
At the bottom of page two, for whatever reason, “You gotta stop this. This…this was all just…fun. You know?” It’s centered rather than being dialogue.
Craig: Right dialogue is always left justified.
John: Yeah. Always left justified. So, just some odd things. Then, when we get into page three, she makes a choice to have the mom character be I guess almost like a Peanuts character with like a wah-wah-wah, so it says –
Craig: Peanuts or penis?
Craig: [creepy voice] I thought he said Penis character, John.
John: Have you seen the trailer for Peanuts?
Craig: Yeah. I did see the trailer for Peanuts.
John: You know, it wasn’t awful. I just don’t know what that — I know what it is. I guess it’s like the specials in a way, but just like a better version of the specials.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen Peanuts moving around. I mean, I love that they used the Vince Guaraldi, yes.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I’m positive. I mean, you know, hopefully it’ll come out nicely. I mean, I did like that they didn’t — it wasn’t like uncanny valley. It was a very subtle 3D-ification of the artwork.
John: So, on page three, back to the script, the unseen mom, so it’s referenced a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs, and a glass of orange is set in front of him by his unseen mom. So, by using the passive voice and saying unseen mom, you’re establishing like that you’re never really going to see her and that it’s all from this character’s perspective. I guess. It just feels like I got a little bit nervous about sort of how locked focus we’re going to be on not having adults be in this world. But it felt a little bit strange to me and it felt a little arch on page three.
Craig: Yeah. Well, I agree — I think where I was happy was on page one most of all. There’s a big chunk of action at the top and I liked it. It was good description. And it was the sort of description that I felt didn’t cheat. I just liked it. Even the part that was kind of cheaty was more hypothetically cheaty. He probably has older women cooing at him all the time.
John: She actually wrote “older woman cooing at him all the time.”
Craig: Yeah. That is true. There are a bunch of those in here. And I like what he was saying — what I liked is that William P. is really cocky. And he’s talking like an actual kid talks, which was great.
I wasn’t thrilled about him suddenly doing soccer ball tricks while on the phone and doing this because that felt very — that was an indicating movie, like he knows how to do soccer. And then the ball ends up on his head, which first of all is just annoying to shoot, but also more importantly it just felt forced.
Then we already discussed the moment where he gets attacked. Wasn’t thrilled with his dialogue once he got caught. Less is more in that circumstance. And I feel like this comment comes up all the time when we do these Three Page Challenges. Think about how many words you would be able to form and speak when your heart is racing and you’re physically hurt and you’re afraid for your life.
John: Yeah. I thought her scene description on him was really nice there. So, “William’s face is soaked with tears. Snot mixed with blood streams out from his nostrils.” That feels really appropriate.
I agree that less is more, and so don’t have a giant block of dialogue ahead of that. I wanted to get to that moment. And so break up your stuff. Just do something different.
Craig: I think that when people are hurt and they’re not action heroes of a kind of archetypal sort, archetypical sort, that they tend to regress. I think that, “I’m sorry, it was just fun,” is all he could probably be able to get out. And that’s the only part that matters anyway.
Craig: So, I think less is more there. I did not really love this next scene. Again, felt a little like, okay, so it’s a kid reading a book on politics and he’s running for class office. And everything he says is sort of, I mean, “Chris Matthews doesn’t say anything about eating bacon as a key election strategy,” feels very, very contrived and not true. It’s like it’s too much.
John: Yeah. I agree.
Craig: It’s too much. The mom off-screen I actually think can be a cool choice. What I would say to you, Jessica, is that if you want to have somebody off-screen that’s unseen, what you’re telling us is that our focus should be on this kid. And if our focus is on the kid, give me more from the kid. Let me know what’s happening. Show me more than just quippy comebacks and a discussion of breakfast which is irrelevant. And show them either studiously not listening to her, not paying attention, or show me what he’s reading. Show me him, because you’re making a choice that he’s lost in something and I want to understand why.
Because right now he’s lost in something but he’s not, because he’s responding to everything she says. He’s eating. He’s talking about Gus, about bacon, and then about cash. And that last line indicates that he’s up to something.
John: Yeah. And I like that he’s up to something.
Getting back to the mom being off-screen, I’m counting up lines here and she has a lot more dialogue in the scene than he does and it just feels weird that — here’s one of her blocks of dialogue: “Well, I guess he would know better than me. Your dad is getting off work early tonight and he wants to know if you’re up for some family togetherness time, maybe bowling?”
That’s a lot to be sticking on an off-screen character while we’re just sitting here watching this kid with a book.
Craig: Right. I mean, to me, there’s an interesting choice here. If you have this kid and he’s reading this book and food gets put down in front of him while this mother is talking, and I wouldn’t have her talk about what he’s doing. I wouldn’t have her talk about the campaign or anything. She could be talking about other things. “Remember, I’m going to be gone from this to that.” We don’t see her. We just see him looking at the book. And he’s looking at a passage in the book or something about it that matters that we’re hip to. And she’s just rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling. And he’s not eating. He’s not drinking. He’s just focused.
And then at the end he sees something and then he goes, “I’m going to need some money.”
Craig: He wasn’t listening to her at all. He’s on his own track. So, if you’re going to make this choice, Jessica, you have to match the storytelling to the choice.
John: Absolutely. Jump back over to the first page. I like so much of it, I just felt like there was a little bit too much scene description overall. So, you were talking about getting rid of some of the soccer moments of it all. I honestly felt that the first paragraph just went on too long. So, that whole thing about older women cooing over him all the time, you need to cut off that line shorter, but it just got to be too much there. And it took me too long to sort of get to his action.
Craig: Well, yeah, either that or maybe just paragraph break it, because everybody — I mean, I liked the content, but six lines in a row right off the bat is a little bit of a ugh…
John: And it shouldn’t be, but it is. And it’s just the reality is whenever we’re faced with a paragraph that is six, or seven, eight lines long, you’re just going to go, [sighs], and I’m going to dive in and read that paragraph. Versus a two or three line paragraph, just churn right through it.
John: Cool. Well, thank you again to these three people who sent in their Three Page Challenges which are great. And I think Jessica, I would love — I have a suspicion that the rest of your script is probably really, really cool. And I think she can really write. I think these other guys also had some really promising stuff in their scripts to. So, thank you again for sending them in.
Craig: Yes. Thank you. and thanks for facing the firing squad as it were.
John: Yeah. Craig, my One Cool Thing this week combines two things that I suspect you love and that many of our listeners love which is technology and fire.
Craig: I love technology and I love fire. How did you know?
John: Because you are an…
Craig: I’m an open book.
John: Yeah. Because you’re Craig Mazin.
John: As you recall this last week, or two weeks now when the podcast comes out, we had a little earthquake. Not a big earthquake at all. But weirdly we had just actually done all of our — every six months we do our sort of earthquake shopping and we sort of go through our food supplies and throw out the stuff that’s about to expire.
We have like a whole set aside stuff for food supplies. But one thing that I’ve been thinking about is like I really want to get a little camp stove so in case we lose power here at the house we can actually just boil water and cook food and do the normal kind of stuff.
And so I was in the market for a camp stove and I found this little thing called the BioLite Stove. Have you seen this at all?
John: So, it’s a wood burning stove. And it’s kind of nice it’s a wood burning stove because you can fill it with anything that burns, basically stick it inside, but really wood, cardboard –
John: Pine cones, anything you want to stick in there is great.
Craig: Human hair.
John: Yeah. It’s about the size of like a Folgers coffee can. It’s about that size.
Craig: All right.
John: What’s clever about it is that it actually has attached to it is a battery pack that has a fan. And so what the fan does is it blows extra air into it. You know sort of how you blow on a campfire to get it started, it burns much hotter, and it really gets going. Well, this fan is blowing on it all the time. And it blows much hotter. And because of that it’s much hotter than sort of trying to boil water over a campfire. It’s a good hot flame.
And so we were able to boil water in ten minutes, like a big pot of water in ten minutes, and it was really impressive. What’s clever about this battery pack is that it has a heat exchanger in it so as the fire is burning it’s actually recharging the battery.
Craig: Ooh. It’s a perpetual motion machine.
John: Well, it’s not perpetual motion because you’re having to burn fuel, but it’s burning sticks and twigs.
Craig: Of course.
John: And you can also charge USB devices off of it.
Craig: That…now you’re talking.
John: See, that’s the technology thing that I thought you would really appreciate.
Craig: When shit goes down, and I’m dismembering people in my front yard, I want to be able to take a human hand, the hand that tried to strangle me and that I severed, [laughs], I want to take that man’s hand, put it in a tin can, light it up, and get on Twitter.
John: Yeah. I mean, when civilization falls apart Twitter may not really work so well, but you could at least play some Threes.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: You can pass some time.
Craig: I will tell you that even when everything goes down there will still be porn out there.
John: Oh, there has to be.
Craig: Has to be. Porn never goes away.
John: So, I’ll have a link to this in the show notes because I was really impressed by it. So, the downsides of it is it’s still essentially a fire, so we were testing it out at lunch yesterday and so I wanted to make sure it worked really well, and it did work really, really well. But your clothes smell like smoke because you’ve built a little hot campfire.
John: So, it has that drawback. But, the fact that it can burn anything is kind of amazing.
Craig: That is amazing.
Well, I’ll tell you my One Cool Thing is something that I could theoretically attach to your flesh burning tin can. I’m obsessed with the idea of just putting human parts into this thing. It is — did you play Infocom games when you were a young man?
John: I did. Zork.
Craig: Zork. So, for those of you who are annoyingly young, or too cool, Infocom was an early videogame company and video is really stretching it because they created text based games. There was no artwork whatsoever except for the game boxes which were totally misleading.
So, an Infocom game was basically a text adventure. They would describe where you were and then you had choices to make — move east, west, north, south. Pick this up. Show this. Hand this to this person. Buy a thing. Limited text commands. And you had to move through an adventure. And in these adventures you could die and have to start over, which was super annoying.
And some of them were notoriously hard, verging on impossible. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy probably the most notable example. So, when I was a kid you’d have to scrimp and save to buy an Infocom game. Well, there’s no an app called the Lost Treasures of Infocom.
Craig: And it has not all of them, but most of the games. It’s got all of the Zorks, which was like essentially Dungeons & Dragons. It’s got Ballyhoo and Border Zone and Cutthroats. And it’s got Trinity, which is a great one. And Infidels and Planet Fall and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. All of these games that I remember.
And you buy the app, but I think they give you Zork for free. But for $10 you get them all.
John: That’s great.
Craig: You get all of them. And the nice thing about text based games is that it plays so well on your iPad or your iPhone. I mean, it’s such a goof. Because I really don’t like — when they try and duplicate analog controls on the iPad or the iPhone, I don’t like it. So, anyway, if you remember those Infocom games and you love them, $10 you can have them all. And they come with hint systems and, you know, I don’t know.
John: And also now we have the internet, so when you really get stuck you can just go to the Wikipedia article and figure out what you’re supposed to do.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And I kind of like these apps more than anything because I feel like I’m literally laughing — not literally — figuratively laughing in the face of my younger self. Like, ha-ha, stupid. I have all the things you wanted. All of them, for $10.
Craig: On this futuristic thing.
John: Yeah. If you’d only waited you could have had them this whole time.
Craig: Right. All of your whining, I have them all!
John: I do remember a couple of years ago, do you remember they sold, what was — like the old Atari joystick, but it actually had all of the games built into the joystick. Itself.
Craig: I bought it.
John: Yeah. And I played it for awhile. And then at a certain point I realized like, you know what, the other games I have are much better.
Craig: Yeah, they’re terrible. But that — to me that’s a great example of I’m just buying this to insult my past.
John: Oh yes.
Craig: Like look at what I can have.
John: A giant middle finger towards nostalgia.
Craig: Yeah, look what I can have that’s cheaper, smaller, and I don’t even want it.
John: I put it in recycle.
Craig: What will the future bring?
John: Who knows?
That’s our show for this week. So, you can find links to the things we talked about in the show notes at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. It’s also where you can find transcripts for our previous episodes.
You can listen to all of the back episodes, both on the site and through the Scriptnotes app for iPhone and Android. Check there. And, if you want to listen to all of the first 100 episodes, we still have a few of the USB drives left where it has all 100 of them on. So, you can just buy the USB drive and we will mail it to you and you will have them all.
You can find that store.johnaugust.com. We also have a few random weird sizes of t-shirts left. If you have a question for me or Craig you can find us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. He is @clmazin.
Scriptnotes is produces by Stuart Friedel who picked those Three Page Challenges. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
And longer questions go to firstname.lastname@example.org. And our outro this week is provided by Jeff Harms. So, thank you to everybody who sent in the outros because they’re amazing. So, we have a big stack of great outros now that will last us many weeks.
Craig: I love those. I just love those. I just think people are so creative.
John: Awesome. So, if you want to hear all of the outros, in the show notes there is a link to all of the outros that have ever been used in Scriptnotes and it’s just a good sort of fall into a hole and listen to them for 45 minutes because there have been some great variations.
John: Word. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Word! Thank you, John. Bye.
- Get tickets now for John’s WGF panel, From First Draft to Feature
- Lab Rats on Disney XD
- Screenwriting.io on multicamera script formatting
- Three Pages by Chris Sandiford
- Three Pages by Aaron Kablack
- Three Pages by Jessica Wiseman
- How to submit your Three Pages, and Stuart’s post on lessons learned from the early batches
- BioLite Woodburning Camp Stove
- BioLite KettlePot
- Lost Treasures of Infocom for iOS
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Jeff Harms
Yesterday, two users separately asked for folders in Weekend Read.
It’s something we’re considering, but it’s a significant UI challenge, so I thought I’d talk through some of the issues in blog form.
In Weekend Read, one of the main views is called the Library. Here you see a list of all the scripts and other files you’ve imported.
These files are “inside” Weekend Read on your iPhone, both conceptually and programmatically. That means that if you’re offline, the files are still there. If you modify the original file in Dropbox, the version in Weekend Read is unchanged. If you delete the app, you’ve deleted these files. Most users seem to intuitively understand this setup.
The challenge comes when a user wants to keep 10, 20 or 50 scripts in his Library. We offer the ability to sort the list (Recent or A-Z), but there’s no way to keep the Library organized. It can be hard to find what you want.Enter folders
On the desktop, folders have been a useful way to group and label things, so it’s natural to think of them for iOS.
For Weekend Read, a user might have a To Read folder and an Archive folder. Or she might have all the scripts of a certain show in one folder. An actor might keep audition sides separate from other scripts.
On the desktop, you drag-and-drop a file into a folder. Unfortunately, that behavior doesn’t have a great parallel in iOS. Tapping-and-holding on a scrolling list might mean you just want to scroll it.
iA Writer pulls it off pretty well, though. Tap-and-hold sucks the icon up from its slot in the list view. You can then drag it to an existing folder, or create a new folder by dropping it on another file. (Much like how app folders are made on the home screen in iOS.) To get a file out of a folder, you drag it to a button where the back arrow would be.
The more common solution you see in iOS is using Select to choose items from the list view, then offering the choice of moving them into a folder (or making a new one). This follows the tradition of Photos, and feels like the Apple Way. GoodReader and Byword both do it this way.
(Sidebar: Like Rene Ritchie, I wish Apple would follow the path of Photos and create something like Files.app to serve as a repository. It would greatly simplify interoperability between Weekend Read and apps that create Fountain files.)
Once you have files in folders, you have to figure out the right way to navigate through them. On the iPhone, we’ve come to accept that tapping on a folder moves you one screen to the right, where we show you the contents of that folder.
For Weekend Read, that mostly makes sense, but we’d have to put a back arrow where we current have the + to add a file. Not awful, but logically it might be nice to hit that plus and mean, import a file into this folder.
- Does deleting a folder delete all the files inside it?
- How do you rename a folder?
- Can you nest folders?
At our meeting today, Nima wondered if we could get by with just one folder called Archive. This tracks well with how people use Gmail, and might be enough for many users.
Essentially, everything you see in your Library would be stuff you’re reading now. Stuff in your Archive would be out of sight — still on your phone, but not cluttering your view. That’s not unlike the experience with Kindle, where you can always download something you’ve deleted off the device. It’s organizing by getting rid of things.
From a UI perspective, we’d probably make Archive a choice next to Delete when you swipe right-to-left. (And in the Archive, an equivalent choice would move it back to the Library.)Tagging
With folders, a file can only be in one place at a time. A script can be in the To Read folder or the Hannibal folder, but not both.
With tags, that script can be in both categories simultaneously. Evernote and Vesper both use tags extensively, and recent versions of Mac OS have encouraged tagging over folders.
In Weekend Read, we’d presumably allow users to tag files the same way we rename them, by tapping-and-holding on the file. One could also tag by Select-ing a group of files and applying the same tag to all of them.
Once tagged, we’d provide filtered views that only show matching files. (But how? Possibly by tapping on the Library title.)
There’s a lot to love about tagging, but in my heart of hearts, I just don’t see people embracing it. It feels like a power-user feature, and overkill for what we’re trying to do.Search
Regardless of which — if any — of these options we choose, one thing we will look at adding is a search field. On both Mac and iOS, I’ve gotten increasingly comfortable with just searching for what I want rather than trying to find it.
As it stands now, I’m leaning towards the one-folder solution, but I’m eager to hear more feedback from users and other folks interested in UI. Weekend Read is free in the App Store. You can find me on Twitter @johnaugust.
John and Craig talk Lab Rats, multi-cam, and what scenes might mean in their imaginary screenplay format. Craig clarifies what “spec writing” is, and when it’s permitted, both legally and ethically.
Then they dive in for another round of the Three Page Challenge, with entries ranging from second-grade bullies to cargo ship pirates to teenage crime.
- Get tickets now for John’s WGF panel, From First Draft to Feature
- Lab Rats on Disney XD
- Screenwriting.io on multicamera script formatting
- Three Pages by Chris Sandiford
- Three Pages by Aaron Kablack
- Three Pages by Jessica Wiseman
- How to submit your Three Pages, and Stuart’s post on lessons learned from the early batches
- BioLite Woodburning Camp Stove
- BioLite KettlePot
- Lost Treasures of Infocom for iOS
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Jeff Harms
One of the most common uses of Weekend Read is to open a script someone has emailed you.
Here is the “right” way to do it:
- Go to Mail.
- Find the email with the file attached.
- Tap and hold on the file, then choose “Open in Wknd Read.”
The trouble is, it’s entirely reasonable to go to Weekend Read first. We let you import a file from Dropbox or a clipboard URL. Why don’t we let you import from Mail?
Because we can’t. Apps are sandboxed, and there’s simply no way for Weekend Read to reach into Mail and see what files are there to be imported.1
Yet it’s a normal, natural instinct for a user to want Weekend Read to work this way.
So for Weekend Read 1.0.2, I asked Ryan and Nima to add a Mail option that would simply switch the user over to Mail. Basically, “Oh, you want to import a file from Mail? Here, let me take you to Mail.”
But you can’t even do that. Apple provides a URL scheme for creating a new message in Mail, but not to simply switch to the inbox.
Faced with these limitations, we still wanted to make adding a file from Mail as pleasant as possible. I asked Ryan Nelson to come up with a new animation that would show exactly how to add a file. I’m really happy with the result.
Now, whenever the user chooses Email from the list of import options, she is presented with a card acknowledging what she’s trying to do: “It’s easy to import a file from Mail.”
If she clicks on the “Show me how” button, she gets a looping animation that walks her through the process.
It’s entirely possible that a user will forget how to add a file from Mail and click on it again. That’s okay. The experience is consistent and predictable. If you’ve forgotten how to get to a file in Mail, you can learn again in 12 seconds.
Here’s the animation Ryan made:
Screenshots can show you what something looks like; animation can show you how something works.
But they can also be really annoying. When Facebook’s Paper app launched, it was criticized for its intrusive hand-holding. But I think this is a different case. Here, the animation only plays when you specifically ask for it. You want to know how to do it? Okay, let me show you.
If you want to see what the animation looks like in context, Weekend Read is free in the App Store.
ETA: As I was writing this, a new release of Weekend Read (1.0.3) went live in the App Store, which addresses a minor display bug.
- GoodReader skirts around this by asking for your email login information and checking the mail server itself. That’s more responsibility than I felt comfortable having as an app developer.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hey, my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 135 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, how are you?
Craig: I’m all sexy, John.
John: Oh, no, you cannot keep doing that voice. That voice has to stop right now.
Craig: Because it’s making you uncomfortable?
John: Yes. Even through Skype it’s just making me really uncomfortable. Can you imagine if people did that to you in like real life?
Craig: I think it would be spectacular. And I’m kind of puzzled why people don’t do it more often to me.
John: There’s a lot of things that puzzle me. But we won’t solve all those questions today, but we will talk about some things that are good for us to talk about. Craig, we’re going to finally talk about True Detective.
Craig: Yes. Finally we can because the finale aired and we can’t get yelled out.
John: Exactly. So, we’re going to do that at the end of the show, so it’ll be the last topic so you can — if you’ve not seen True Detective and you don’t want to listen to us talk about True Detective we will get to that point and we will say, “Now we will start talking about True Detective,” and you can just stop listening. And then you won’t be spoiled for anything we’re going to say, because we’re going to spoil everything.
John: But also today we’re going to talk about the situation where you have written something and then you see it in a movie and it’s like, wow, that is so much like the movie I just wrote. We’re going to talk about that and specifically how it’s often not related at all. Sometimes just ideas are out there and there’s a good example that just came across our desk.
And you also wanted to talk about world-building, didn’t you?
Craig: Yeah. That was something that someone brought up on Twitter and I thought, wow, that’s a really good topic and one that I think I can kind of quiz you about because I think just based on the movies you’ve done you’ve had more experience with that than I have.
John: Cool. So, we’ll talk about all those things.
First off, though, we have a bit of news. I will be hosting a panel on Saturday July 12 at the Writers Guild Foundation — for the Writers Guild Foundation and the Austin Film Festival. Our own Kelly Marcel will be with me and Linda Woolverton and we’re going to be talking about moving from the first draft to the final feature film, that whole how do you get from inception to a completed thing. This is part of one of those whole day WGF things they do. I think when you and I did that Three Page Challenge thing.
Craig: That’s right.
John: It’s that same kind of event. So, it’s a whole day where you’re buying a ticket for the whole big thing, so you can’t just buy one little section. You have to buy the whole thing. But if you would like to come see me, and Kelly, and Linda Woolverton on July 12 you can do that. There will be a link to that in the show notes.
My second bit of news is that Weekend Read just came out as we’re recording this, so it’s out in the App Store right now, and among the other things it includes is all the scripts to Rian Johnson’s films. So, he was nice enough to give us all his scripts.
We have the entire first season of Hannibal. Plus, we have the transcripts to every episode of Scriptnotes is now inside Weekend Read.
John: So, if you have not gotten Weekend Read, if you have not upgraded to Weekend Read do so now because it’s free and it’s in the App Store.
Craig: Great deal.
John: Great deal.
Craig: Great deal.
John: You had some follow up I saw in the notes.
Craig: I did. Yeah. We had a discussion I think in our last podcast when we were answering lots of questions. And we had a question from one listener about — well, actually, I don’t even recall what the question was that led me to the answer I gave. But we got a follow up question or response actually from one of our listeners named David Maguire.
And we will get these very nice letters every now and again, but this one I thought actually was worth sharing with everybody because one of the things that I’m always trying to put out there in the world is that your individual problems as a screenwriter are not in fact uncommon. Most of us share them, if not all of us. And I like this letter so much I thought I would read it. And so David gave us permission to go ahead and read it.
And he wrote, “Hey John and Craig, I’m an avid listener of your podcast and love that content you provide. Being an aspiring screenwriter your words are weighted for me and provide guidance for how I should move forward. Gushing aside,” and, now this is me — feel free to gush as long as you want. You know, when you guys write in, do it. Just gush.
John: Just paragraphs. Just gush.
Craig: “Hey, how you doing, I’m Craig Mazin.”
John: Craig’s a gusher.
Craig: Oh, so gross.
“Gushing aside, I wanted to comment on what Craig said during your last episode, Lots of Questions. He was answering a letter from a screenwriter who had just had surgery,” oh that’s right, now I remember. This was the very tragic question that we got.
“The screenwriter just had surgery, lost a relationship, and was deciding to focus on his screenplay and have that be his golden ticket. Craig said that you shouldn’t put all of your hopes in one script as it creates — and I am paraphrasing — an unrealistic expectation and stress. I found this bit of advice to be really what I need.
“Recently I found myself going to a pitch slam down in LA.” John, you’re familiar with these pitch slams?
John: Yes. I love a pitch slam, don’t you?
Craig: I mean, I super love it. [laughs]
John: I don’t love it at all.
Craig: No, me neither.
John: My sarcasm might not be coming through. I find them incredibly frustrating. But, maybe they’re helpful for some people, so keep reading.
Craig: For those of you out there, you show up at these things and you pitch stuff really fast, just lines of people, and it’s kind of like speed dating for screenwriting, and frankly I find the whole thing very disturbing.
“So, having no real idea of what that experience would be like, I went down there with an idea, no complete script, and a hope that my charm would wow them. Sadly, that did not work. The first session I watched said unless you have a near finalized script you shouldn’t be here. At that point I felt about two feet tall and foolish, but wanting to have the full experience I sucked it up and went to the pitch slam only to be rejected at every table except for one.
“A small production company told me that they didn’t want my half-realized drama and that they did action movies or horror movies, or even family-friendly action movies as they were more profitable. He gave me a card and said call him. I get home and I start trying to pull a story together under the idea that they are interested and want to work with me. So, I need to make this script a reality.
“After quickly outlining I got to start writing and I can’t — I just can’t seem to be happy with the script. That discourages me. And then that discourages me even further that I can’t get something out and I feel like this opportunity is slipping away. But Craig’s advice helps alleviate that stress and worry. And I suddenly realized that I like to write not so that I can make buckets of money, but because I like to tell stories. So, while it may be awhile before I get the action story figured out to a point where I feel comfortable with it, at least I’ll know I’m writing it for me and not for money.
“I’m sorry to drone on,” well, that’s never stopped me or John. “I’m sorry to drone on but I just wanted to say how appreciative I am for you guys and your show. Thanks, David Maguire from San Jose, California.”
And thank you, David, for writing. What a brave thing for you to write. And, also, pinpoint something that never goes away. It doesn’t matter where you are at any stage of the game. And that is this feeling like you have to write something to make somebody else happy so that you’ll be a writer, so that you’ll feel better about yourself. And unfortunately down that pathway is much danger and trouble. Trouble, I think. What do you think, John?
John: Yeah. I think that’s also a classic example of putting your self-esteem in the hands of somebody else. In this case the “somebody else” being that person you’re pitching to, or this person who expressed some interest in your idea and said like we’ll do it this other kind of way and then we might like it.
The minute you sort of hand off how you feel about yourself to somebody else, you’ve really weakened your position. You’re unlikely to have good outcome if you are putting how you feel about yourself in somebody else’s hands. And that’s a good lesson for work, but it’s also a good lesson for life. I think a lot of times in our personal relationships we tend to put way too much pressure ourselves and other people for how we’re going to perceive ourselves. And that’s not helpful and it’s not good.
Craig: Yeah. Well put. You really don’t want to give anybody that gun. And they will play the game where obviously it’s to their advantage in some ways to have some sort of power over you. I think what a lot of buyers don’t realize is that by doing that they have probably made the person they want work from that much worse of a writer.
It’s very hard to write for somebody else. We have to find a way to find common ground and an agreement with somebody else and then we write for ourselves. There’s no way around it.
John: And what I would stress is that you never really outgrow this. You may become more aware of when you’re doing it, but you won’t stop doing it. And that’s both as being the person who is putting yourself in these positions where you are fixated on what someone else is going to think. That still happens to me. It happens to me every — not every day, but every week. And especially the stuff I’m working on because I really want people to love it. And there are certain people who I want to love it.
Sometimes I’m just more aware now of not trying to please the people who kind of don’t matter in a strange way. So, to me that’s like I’m not going to knock myself out to please this junior executive on something because while she may be lovely she’s not the real opinion leader in this situation.
But I also find it, and tell me if you find this also, Craig, is that now more people are sort of working with you and for you, sometimes you recognize they’re trying to please you. And I don’t ever want to make someone feel like pleasing me should be their end all goal in life.
And so as we work on stuff there may be times where people are bringing us things and I try to always stress to them that like this isn’t working for me here right now, or this isn’t quite what I’m looking for. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. That doesn’t mean you did bad work. It’s just not what I need right now.
And that’s a useful thing I’ve tried to do more of as I’ve been working with other folks is to make sure that they understand that in no way should this reflect how I think of them as a person. It’s just like this is not what I need right here at this moment.
Craig: Yeah. I’m the same way. I have no problem saying, listen, I don’t want to spend the time writing that because I don’t know how to write it or my heart is not in it. Somebody else’s heart will be in it and they’ll do something great.
You know, every time I pass on something I say, “I’ll see you at the Oscars with this,” [laughs] because I always feel that I passed on it, someone else is going to do it. They’re going to do it brilliantly and I’ll watch them at the Oscars. And I’ll be happy with it because it wasn’t for me. We can’t be everything to all people, nor should people feel the same towards us.
I will say that when it comes to listening to people, I don’t really — I never really concern myself with who matters. I only concern myself with who is right. If somebody — I don’t care who it is. If the lunch lady gives me an insight that I think is going to help me make my script better, I’m going to take it.
So, what I’ve done is I’ve tried to just tune out the fact that these are all people that I should somehow be pleasing and tune in just the content of what they’re saying. And then making decisions on the content, as if I were receiving these things over the wire as anonymous messages — what about this? What about this? What about this? And I go, well, no to that, no to that, yes to this, no to that, no to that.
John: Absolutely a great point. And you have to consider — when I’m saying like which notes I’m sort of I feel fine ignoring form sometimes a junior executive at this point in my career, it’s that there are sometimes you get feedback that you’re going to have to do something with even if it’s just to reject it. For certain other stuff I just let it sort of roll past and I don’t even sort of pay attention to it as much anymore. Because I’m always aware of the end of this is to get to something — to get to a great movie. And so if that note is helping me get to a great movie, I’m delighted to hear it.
If it’s going to be a note that’s going to get in my way of making a great movie, unless it’s from somebody who I really need to worry about, I don’t worry about it so much. And in people’s normal life, before they’re dealing with that, it may just be your friend who read the script who just didn’t get this one thing.
John: And it’s good to listen to it, but that doesn’t mean you have to address everything that everybody says.
Craig: That’s right. In the end you have to be the one doing it and this is — I’m sure you’ve had the experience of writing something where you realized at some point I am not writing this for me anymore. I’m writing this either to make somebody stop yelling at me or to make somebody else happy, but not me. And it’s gross.
John: It’s gross and yet sometimes it’s necessary, because sometimes you recognize that you are link in the chain and you are not the final arbiter of what’s going to happen. And you have to make those decisions about whether to keep working on this in that capacity.
Craig: Right. Great.
John: Well, one thing we’re going to work on in a small capacity, in a five-minute capacity, we talked on the last show about this idea of what would a screenwriting format look like if we were to start from scratch, if we weren’t beholden to everything that had come before and wanted to do something from the ground zero. What would it be like?
And so you and I emailed back and forth this week, but you proposed like let’s just talk about it on the air. And I think it’s a great thing to talk about on the air, yet I don’t want it to take over the entire show. So, my proposal is that we will talk about it for exactly five minutes and then we will stop.
Craig: What if we don’t take up the whole five minutes? [laughs]
John: If we don’t take up the whole five minutes then everybody wins.
Craig: Then we vamp.
John: All right, so tell me when to start.
Craig: Okay. So, one thing that we’ve been talking about is getting away from the idea of pagination entirely. Thank you Final Draft. You inspired us. The idea being that until you are actually on set and handing out sides, which is something that happens at the tail end of a minority of development projects, everybody is reading the screenplay on some sort of device: a laptop, or a tablet, or a phone in this case.
So, one thing we wanted to do was get away from pagination because it’s irrelevant to that. We wanted to get away from pagination because it sort of is an old school physical object thing that no longer has meaning on a computer. We wanted to get away from pagination because the rule of one-page per one-minute is nonsense. And everybody knows it’s nonsense. Even if you think it’s real, you’re still stuck between screenplays that run roughly between 90 to 130 pages, which means that the page length is pointless anyway.
And we wanted to find something that is more useful in terms of how to actually break a screenplay up into pieces that matter, not 8.5 x 11 pieces, but purposeful pieces. John?
John: So, when we’re talking about breaking into purposeful pieces, the natural breaks would seem to be sequences and scenes. So, a sequence is a collection of scenes that tell a certain portion of a story. And a lot of times when we’re talking about a sequence sometimes they’re comprised of very short little scenes. So, if it’s just a few lines — a scene header and a few lines — it’s not really a scene in and of itself. And so sequences may be a good logical way of thinking about the breaking down of stuff.
The goal would be that even if you’re writing the document all as one flowing thing it can easily be broken apart into these pieces. And so as stuff gets moved around it can be recompiled into a full document again if someone wants to look at it as a full, more like a conventional script.
Craig: Right. So, the idea of the sequence is that we get away from orienting the screenplay around scenes based on locations. The reason that that happens is because in production people need to know is this inside or outside. Am I building something? Am I waiting for the sun to go up or down? And all the rest of it.
But in development that’s not quite as important. What is important is sequences. That’s actually the building block of storytelling, not whether I’m in a house and then I walk outside. If it’s all one motion and it’s all one sequence, narrative sequence, then that really is the building block. So, we want to get away from scenes in a weird way. We don’t have a problem with the idea of locations, but the word scene isn’t serving us as well as we think sequence would.
We also want to be able to deliver a format that is modern. So, music cues are clickable and playable while you’re reading. Sound effects are clickable and playable. Locations are clickable and visible. We want to be able to give people who are reading the context that they need.
If you describe something and there’s a great YouTube video that explains it perfectly, click it. And show it and watch it.
John: Yeah. So, what we’re ultimately describing here I think is a database that consists of the text elements of what the written screenplay is like, but also keyed up to each of these scenes or sequences can be additional information. And that already kind of exists.
As a film goes into production it is broken down. It is literally broken down into little strips, little bits of scenes that you would shoot. And that kind of information is stored along with that. So, it’s a different person that comes in and does all that work, usually the first AD and the line producer do all that work of breaking it down into these are the key components of what happens in this sequence and then storyboards are generated off of that based on those scene numbers.
That kind of stuff is there. It would be a way of here’s the text part of it and you can also flow through and see everything else that goes with it. And there should be a smart way to do that. If you are not bound by paper, that’s a thing you could very easily do.
Craig: How much time do we have left?
John: We have one minute.
Craig: Okay, great. One last thing. People are going to get freaked out by this get rid of pages thing. And I understand why.
First of all, we’ll have a solution for production. We understand how to do that because we work in production. But putting that aside for now, what people get scared about is how long is the script — what does that even mean? It doesn’t matter how long the script is. All that matters is how long the movie is.
Let’s first accept that, A, we don’t know how long the movie is going to be based on the script. We see that all the time when we turn in 100-page scripts and we hear that it’s actually a two-hour movie. Or when you turn 130-page scripts and we hear that it’s actually an hour and a half.
So, don’t worry about that. And also, I have to say, I think that we now have an inherent understanding of how long a movie is going to be based on just reading it. We get it. We have an internal clock running of our own. What matters is not some arbitrary number length, but how our interest is held. As such, by getting rid of pages we can also start doing things like using better fonts instead of stupid Courier.
John: Yeah. Which gets into the actual formatting on the page, which can be part of our next conversation because we’re down to 10, 9, 8…oh, we also have a way to do logical pages so we can still calculate page length if we have to. And 2…and…
Craig: And better revision marks. Excellent.
John: And we’re done.
John: That was five minutes.
John: So, Craig, let’s get onto our new topics for this week.
Now, I had a blog post that was up about two weeks ago where it was actually a first person post. And a guy wrote in saying about his experience where he lives in China someplace and he had watched a trailer for a movie and went, “Oh my god, that’s the premise of this movie I wrote.” A script he’d written that had never gotten any traction. He sent it around by never got any traction.
So, he watched this trailer and is like, “Oh my god, what am I going to do?” And he was writing to me really with the question of should I watch this movie? What do I do? I’m freaked out. And so in the time between when he saw the trailer and I answered his letter he watched the movie and said, “It was bizarre watching it because it was the same premise but like kind of every choice they made along the way was vastly different.”
And so this thing where he originally thought like, I’m going to sue, he realized like, well, that’s crazy town. So, a thing came up this week that I thought was really fascinating so I wanted to read some things aloud. So, I’m going to read you the premise of two TV shows.
John: And I want you to try to keep them straight. So, TV show number one: “This series follows the residents of a small town whose lives are upended when their loved ones return from the dead, un-aged since their deaths. Among the returned is Jacob Langston, an 8-year-old boy who drowned 32 years earlier. Having somehow been found alive in China, he is brought back to America by an immigration agent. His surprise return inspires the local sheriff, whose wife presumably drowned trying to rescue Jacob to learn more about this mystery.”
That is the first TV show.
John: So, having heard that –
Craig: Got it.
John: A second TV show: “In a small mountain town many dead people reappear, apparently alive and normal. Teenage road accident victim Camille, suicidal bridegroom Simon, a small boy named Victor who was murdered by burglars, and Serge, a serial killer. They try to resume their lives as strange phenomena occur. Amongst recurring power outages, the water level of the reservoir mysteriously lowers revealing the presence of dead animals and a church steeple. And strange marks appear on the bodies of the living and the dead.”
Two separate TV shows. Do you recognize either of these premises?
Craig: Well, to me, I immediately think of Pet Sematary.
John: Yes, oh yeah, Pet Sematary, the great Stephen King.
So, these are two TV shows that are currently on the air, which is what’s crazy.
Craig: Oh, I don’t watch TV, so –
John: One of them is called Resurrection and it’s on ABC. The other one is called Les Revenants, it was a French show that is now being aired on Sundance as The Returned. I dare anybody from a distance to tell those two shows apart. They sound really similar, don’t they?
Craig: With the exception of the occult baked into the second one? Yeah, I mean, basically it’s a small town where dead people are returning.
John: Yes. There’s water imagery in both. There’s a returned kid in both.
John: So, here’s what’s crazy — the French show, Les Revenants, is based on a 2004 French film, so that’s back from 2004. They made a TV series that was based on this old French film. Resurrection, the show on ABC, is based on a book called, confusingly enough, The Returned, which is by Jason Mott, which is what the Sundance show version of the French show is called.
Craig: Okay. That is confusing. They’re sharing titles now.
John: So not only are they similar premises, but the title of one book is actually the title of the other series in English.
I bring this up because if you were to look at these from a distance you would say like, “Well, clearly one is based on the other.” They’re largely the same idea, and yet they’re not at all the same idea. Like there’s no lawsuit happening between these two because they’re actually separate ideas, and yet they’re so incredibly similar.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Well, as always, the idea itself you can’t sue over anyway, so the question is what is unique about how they spool out. And this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. In the slightest.
John: And yet every time I see one of these things about somebody is suing Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible 3, that’s exactly my idea. Well, like, was your idea as specific as the dead returning to life in a small town and everyone is freaked out by their loved ones coming back? That’s a pretty specific idea. And then you add in like, oh, these people drowned, there’s water imagery, and the same kind of sheriff. And that seems incredibly specific and it seems like, well, no two people in a vacuum could have come up with the same idea, but they did.
And you even said it. The first thing you thought of was Pet Sematary.
Craig: Yeah, of course. If you want to go back further, let’s go back to the bible when Jesus comes back from the dead. Coming back from the dead is not special. Coming back from the dead is a deep-seeded old, old animal-brain desire of humans.
Death is confusing to us. It is a repudiation of the logical sense of the world. It is absurd. Naturally people have sought to cheat death forever, and so the theme of the dead walk again has been done billions of times in so many different ways. And you just start looking down a list of things and you realize not only is it common, it’s like you can’t get rid of it. Frankenstein. And every ghost story. People are constantly coming back from the dead. Reincarnated, and da-da-da-da.
It’s natural. You write something. Writing something is an act of — an extraordinary act of ego. I dare to create something and put it in the world, create something unique. It is my expression. And it is therefore somewhat expected that the person would allow that ego to slop over to, “And nobody else could have possibly done it.”
John: Well, here’s the thing, it was an original idea to you.
John: It was the first time you’d ever had that idea.
John: And so in our solipsism it always seems like, well, it’s the first time I ever thought of that idea, so it must be the first time anyone ever thought of that idea. And even if we kind of know that’s logically unlikely, it still feels kind of right because we can only have our own experience.
Craig: That’s right.
John: There’s a Slate article that I’ll also link to in the show notes that they talk though the other shows that is surprisingly very much like.
There’s a 2002 Japanese film called Yomigaeri where the dead are mysteriously resurrected in the city of Aso and then investigated by a representative from the Japanese Ministry of Welfare as they attempt to reintegrate into society.
There’s also In The Flesh, a BBC 3 series in the fictional village of Roarton, Lancashire.
And there’s Babylon Fields, which is a CBS pilot a few years ago that now NBC is doing a pilot that is a similar kind of idea.
So, that’s just an idea that’s out there. It’s like an asteroid hitting the planet idea. It’s going to keep recurring.
My frustration over New Girl and that whole crazy lawsuit, like, “Oh my god, it’s a girl and there’s three guy roommates.”
Craig: That was the worst.
John: It just drives me crazy. And I just thought this was a great demonstration of sort of how the same idea can occur multiple times.
Craig: Not only in what we do, but in science. I’m trying to think, it was Newton and I think it was, was it Leibniz? Two people separately at the same time came up with calculus.
Craig: Which is insane.
John: Which is crazy.
Craig: It’s crazy.
John: It happens.
Craig: It happens. Look at what happened at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. The French team and the American team both working on trying to isolate the cause of AIDS and both sort of oddly simultaneously in a weird way coming up with HIV. Granted, that’s a complicated story, but these things happen. There’s a time for ideas to come forth. They are affected by all sorts of things. We don’t walk around in isolation. We pick up cues from the world.
But more importantly I want to single in on something that you said which is you having an original idea doesn’t make it the only possibility that someone else can have that idea. If two people think of something apart from each other, in isolation from each other, it is original to them. And that can happen. And we shouldn’t think that our idea is so — do you know how hard it is to come up with an idea that not one of the other, I don’t know how many humans have lived, 80 billion humans. I mean, really?
John: Well, it’s misleading because while it’s entirely possibly to come up with an original sentence, the pure number of possible sentences in the world is essentially infinite. Like you could come up with an original sentence, but an idea is both so amorphous and so specific.
The elements of this thing, like I’m going to combine these elements in a way that no one else will ever think of — well, no you’re not. I mean, it may be that no one else has published that idea yet, but someone else has sort of come up with those building blocks.
Craig: Of course.
John: A good example is let’s take baby names. Because what’s always so surprising to people is like how did that name become so popular, like where did that come from? And if you ask any individual parent they’re like, oh, it just suddenly came to me. Like I have no idea why that name came to me, but like why is it now in the top ten of all names?
Well, it’s because it was out there in the universe. It was going to happen. That’s why suddenly there are Madisons. There weren’t Madisons before. Why did it show up? Because it showed up. It’s the thing that it snowballed and it happened.
John: Well, Splash, that’s actually a bad example because Madison is probably coming from Splash.
Craig: Yeah, but then again, it’s like, okay, so they named her Madison because he looked at the sign for Madison Avenue and then people pick up on that. But a lot of people who name their kid Madison, they’re just naming their kid Madison because they might have heard somebody named Madison somewhere who then is derived from Splash and so on and so forth.
And it’s okay. I mean –
John: It’s fine.
Craig: Honestly, if you’re going to come up with an idea that is interesting to millions of humans, it needs to be universal. It needs to have some piece of borrowed tradition. I mean, look, this particular example, you’re talking about dead people coming back to life. Perverting and overcoming death, right off the bat — you just start with death. Okay, well, there’s 14 million ideas. All right, well what about people that used to be dead but now they’re back. Now you’re down to like four million ideas. It’s just so — it’s such a typical area for drama because it’s dramatic.
Death is dramatic. Sex is dramatic. Violence is dramatic. Love is dramatic. Children are dramatic. Parents are dramatic. How could we possibly ever come up with one of these things and think to ourselves and no one has ever thought of this before? The idea isn’t what matters anyway. It’s what you do with it.
John: I agree. And really what this comes down to is your premise is based on the world is normal except for one thing, which is really what this premise is. You’re going to find a lot of overlap.
And I think that’s a great segue to our second topic which is world-building, which is how do you build the universe in which your story takes place, whether there is one thing that’s different or everything is different like some of these shows have happened.
Some of these shows create these universes that are so amazing and different and detailed and complex. And yet they have to have some grounding in our understandable emotional reality or they don’t make any sense at all. You can’t make heads or tails of them.
John: So, let’s talk about some world-building.
Craig: Well, what interests me about the phrase — I think first of all let’s define our term if we can. Every time you sit down and you write a screenplay you’re world-building. You are — even if you’re telling the most mundane mumblecore story of two people in Brooklyn having a series of discussions over coffee, you’re building a world. You’re populating it with people. And you’re picking where you want to go.
But, where I think the term is typically used and where it’s valuable is in a story where you are creating a world that is not like ours. You are — it is a fantasy world or it is a science fiction world, a vision of the future, or a vision of long, long ago. So, part of the value for the person watching the movie is that they are entering a world that is not like ours. That even the mundane things in this world like buildings and language and weaponry and religion have changed dramatically, or are dramatically different from ours, and that’s part of the fun of it.
So, for instance, if you were to write Lord of the Rings, or if you were to write Star Wars, or if you were to write Her, you’re world-building. And that’s something that you’ve done because I know you did Titan A.E., which was science fiction and world-building, right?
John: Yeah. Absolutely. And pretty much all the Tim Burton movies have a huge world-building component.
Craig: Exactly. Right. All the Tim Burton. Because Tim Burton likes to basically say come into the world of Tim Burton.
John: Exactly. And even to some degree I would say the Charlie’s Angels movies, they take place in this heightened sort of it’s always sunny, shiny California universe that is very specific. And there are things that can fit into a Charlie’s Angels universe and things that can’t fit into a Charlie’s Angels universe, the same way certain things can fit into a Lego universe or Muppet universe and couldn’t in other universes.
So, yes, anything that doesn’t take place in a really readily identifiable place, there’s going to be some component of world-building.
Craig: And so when you sit down, John, and you know that you’re telling a story in a world that you have to build, my guess is you have at least some basic understanding of what the dramatics of the story are. They will involve human beings who have problems — problems are really built. Problems are problems we’re all familiar with. But when you think about designing this and building this world, how do you go about doing it?
John: I think it starts with a visual ideal of what it would look like to be inside that world. And what it would look like both with your eyes, but what it would feel like to be inside that world. And with the changes from a normal world to this world, how would everything else flow out of that? And so if you are in a universe where Corpse Bride, where you’re in the land of the dead, and everything is incredibly colorful, everything is sort of the opposite of sort of what you think death is supposed to be like. What is a restaurant like there and what would they serve.
You’re having to figure out all these details. And you start — that’s actually the most fun part of any screenwriting for me is all that figuring out what the world is like. The challenge is that you figure out these details and most of them you’re never going to use. Most of them are things that are just over on the edges and you will never actually see any of those things, because really the experience can only be what could our hero encounter or interact with.
If you’re in WALL-E you’re going to see everything from WALL-E’s point of view. So, WALL-E is interacting with trash. And, well what is the trash? Where does trash come from? What is the world like? What does WALL-E do when he’s not working? Answering all of those questions is letting you build your character’s story, but also define the limits of what we’re going to see about the world and the universe.
Craig: Yeah. I think that when I watch a movie that has built a world sometimes it’s the small unremarked upon details that bring me the most joy. I remember when I saw Star Wars as a kid, when they go to the Cantina in Mos Eisley, just the way the drinks looked and everything, the glassware, you know. That there were these little things and world-building really is a — when they talk about film being a collaborative medium, it’s not as collaborative as people think. I always think that really it’s a directed medium. That people — the writer and the director — create a set of marching orders. And then it is an executed medium where people serve that.
But when you talk about world-building, everybody gets to kind of pitch in and design things from costumes, to hairstyles, to — I mean, everybody noticed the pants in Her. That is a nice built detail that nobody ever says, “Boy, I really like the way these pants turned out in the year 2040.”
John: To me an even more specific detail in her that was just so spot-on terrific is that Joaquin Phoenix is walking around with Scarlett Johansson’s character in his pocket, the little camera in his pocket. And so that she can see he has a little safety pin in his pocket, in his shirt pocket so that the camera is up high enough so that she can actually look and see what he’s seeing. It’s such a small little detail, but it’s so terrific and important. It’s not remarked upon in any way by the movie, but you say like, “Well why does he have a safety pin there?” It’s like, oh, so that the phone is high enough that she can see. It’s such a smart little detail.
Craig: Yeah, which also goes to the notion that you don’t want to overkill it. That when you build a world you are asking people to enjoy the things that are different, but not to the extent where nothing is the same. You can start to fall into a silly place where forks don’t look like forks anymore. And doors don’t work like doors. And you realize that the movie has just become obsessed with the notion that everything will be changed in the future.
Her went the other direction and said actually, no, you’re still going to open your mailbox with a key. And if you want to do something in your pocket, you’re not going to put a magneto Levitron phone lifter. You’re just going to use a safety pin. That didn’t change, you know?
John: I remember there was an episode of Buck Rogers and the 25th Century with Gil Gerard and they were eating food. And they have like little magnetic forks to eat their food.
Craig: Ugh, bingo.
John: It’s like that’s not an improvement. It’s clear like that didn’t make anything better the way you’re doing that right now.
Craig: Yeah. That would be the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” syndrome. It’s a good way to approach the future. And you see it sometimes where people just go nuts, you know. I mean, the fact that, look, in the future doors can go whoosh — or they can just open. And if you think about it, opened doors just swinging unhinged, it’s really useful.
Or, if you needed to save space and you were on a spaceship, just sliding the door like a pocket door would also be very useful.
Craig: But why would you have this incredibly complicated system where doors go whoosh, whoosh.
John: Yeah. Unfortunately on radio I don’t think people are seeing probably how you’re moving your hands for that.
Craig: You know I’m going whoosh, whoosh. [laughs] Yeah, you know what I’m doing. Everybody knows what I’m doing.
John: I know what you’re doing. The way that it’s not like a pocket door but it’s actually moving past each other in a really complicated –
Craig: And on its own and it’s electronic and you know that it’s a guy like, “Oh my god, the door on deck seven, the whoosh door, it’s not swishing.” “Oh, okay, well we got to get the guy to come and he’s got a backlog, so it’s going to be a few days, so you’re going to just stay in there.”
John: Obviously when we talk about big fantasy or sci-fi films, there’s an aspect of world-building which is going to be a conversation between the director and all the different designers, from costume, production designer. All those things are going to be influenced by it.
But since we’re mostly a podcast about screenwriting, let’s talk about what it’s like to be building a world on a page, because where you see this going wrong sometimes is where those first five pages are incredibly dense with like all these details crammed at you about sort of what this world is like.
John: And the ones that have done it well, to my reading, have introduced you slowly to what this world feels like. So that the world starts in a way that lets you know the general sense of where this movie is going, what kind of universe we’re in, but it’s not hammering you with details. And so lots of readily identifiable behaviors, readily identifiable characters from the start. And then if they need to show you a big thing about how the world is different, they might not do that on page one. They might give that to you a little bit along the way.
Even The Matrix, which is about as complicated and confusing of a world that you could find, it starts in a more grounded way as you’re first meeting Neo, so you understand that there’s some basis of reality underneath all of this.
Craig: That’s right. And similarly when you have movies that take place entirely in a built world, like say Star Wars, there are points of reference, because you’re shooting here on this planet. Okay, Tatooine is a desert. It’s a small oasis town in a desert. Very good.
What’s happened now is we can make anything because of computers. So, there is a tendency I think sometimes for people to just go nuts and describe everything because their minds are blowing up with all of these interesting ideas.
I agree with you. You have to parcel it out carefully and meaningfully so that people don’t think they’re just reading a brochure for some house you’re trying to sell them, or a city you’re trying to get them to move to.
I have to say this is also frankly where a change in format would be enormously helpful. Text is a very clumsy way to describe a picture, which I believe has been calculated to be worth 1,000 words. It would be nice to just be able to click something and go, okay, I understand what they’re going for here. That would be useful.
John: I feel Frank Herbert’s Dune, I mean, Dune is a dense book and there’s a lot in Dune that is sort of world-building. It’s establishing this complicated world, the complicated rules, and the environments and all this stuff. A challenging thing to do as a screenplay because you’re going to have to be efficient about how you’re getting through this.
And so you want the audience to be able to make some leaps with you about sort of what world this is. Tatooine is a great example from Star Wars, because it’s mostly kind of like a little small tiny desert town. You can use a lot of your expectations about what a little desert town would be like, or a little desert dwelling would be like. And you don’t have to be introduced to every single new little thing.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And they’re not choking you with all the details.
The other thing I think writers are especially responsible for is figuring out what the character’s voice in your created world is going to be. And you may not specify that people are speaking with some sort of Irish brogue, but you’re making word choices about the ways people speak within your world. And that can be a crucial thing, too.
If you’re making a Lord of the Rings-y kind of movie, there’s an expectation that characters are going to speak in that sort of kind of English way. That sort of almost like received pronunciation Shakespeare kind of way. You kind of get that for free if you want that. If you don’t want that you’re going to have to make a deliberate choice that it’s not that and deal with the sort of reader pushback that you’re going to find from that decision.
Craig: Yeah. The other thing I’ll mention is for those of us who write comedies, there are times when you need to world-build in a comedy. And in comedies you tend to not get quite as much credit for building some elaborate “original world,” in part because we like funny things to be in contrast to ordinary things. It’s harder to laugh when the world around you is so outlandish and creative.
I’ve never seen Pluto Nash, but just from the trailer I thought I’m not sure how any of this is going to be funny in this elaborate space station. It’s just too fancy and frankly kind of ambitious of a setting, no matter how well or not well it was executed for me to be laughing at the mundane things that happen inside of it.
With that in mind, one great example of comedy world-building is Defending Your Life by Albert Brooks. And he was building heaven, which is something that other movies have done. And his choice was to build that world against the expectation and just set it basically as kind of a lovely hotel resort for middle aged to senior citizen type people, you know, with buffets and lounge acts. It was kind of like a mid-level Vegas hotel, which was brilliant.
John: Yeah. You’re bringing up Pluto Nash. The funny sci-fi film I can point to is Galaxy Quest. And what Galaxy Quest so smartly did is it didn’t rely on sort of what real science fiction would be like. It relied on what we already knew about what a science fiction TV show should be like. And so therefore it could work with all this stuff that we already had in our database for like this is what a TV show version of what a starship show should be like. And it could push back off of that.
Craig: That’s exactly right. In fact, Galaxy Quest, among its many brilliant choices, Bob Gordon wrote a fantastic screenplay there, among the many brilliant choices was that when the aliens come to abduct or choose the heroes of the movie who played these characters on a Star Trek like show, the spaceship, their actual spaceship, they built it to the specifications of the show.
So, it wasn’t a built world. In fact, it was a very familiar world to us that was designed to look exactly like something that was fake. So, they could react to that and we didn’t feel like they were in a fancy ship, because they weren’t. They were actually in a very silly looking ship that was essentially created by tropes with which we’re all familiar.
John: Comedy is essentially expectation and then surprise. So, in comedy you have to have expectation about what’s going to happen next, and then a surprise that either something was said that wasn’t what you expected, or an event happens that isn’t what you expected.
If everything is brand new you kind of can’t have expectation. And therefore you kind of can’t be surprised in a way that’s funny. And that’s usually a huge problem with science fiction comedies.
Craig: Yeah. The word grounded comes up constantly when you’re making comedies. And even when we did spoof movies, when I did spoof movies with David Zucker one of the things that he was very adamant about and properly so is that if you’re going to spoof a scene from a movie the set needs to look just like that movie. It doesn’t need to be some funny version of that set. It needs to be just that set. And then funny things happen in it. You need to be grounded.
John: So, as you talk about sets, as we sort of wrap up this world-building thing: in general if I’m doing something that is a complicated production that is existing in a very different world than what I’m normally in, I will spend some time, you know, a couple days, although you can fall down deep k-holes and just go far too far with it. And just look up the imagery of the kind of thing I want these worlds to be like. And so you get to have a sense of style. Like this is the kind of universe this takes place in.
So, for Big Fish I did have some of that visual imagery of this is what this kind of fantasy nostalgic south of the past would be like. For other projects I’ve put together kind of a look book of this is the universe of what this world is like. And that’s incredibly helpful for you as the writer to be able to remember like, okay, that’s what I was going for there.
And even if you see that imagery, you can then start to think like what words would I use to describe what I’m seeing, because those are going to be the same kinds of words you’re going to use on the page to evoke this feeling for the person reading the script ultimately.
Craig: No question. Until you and I revolutionize screenplay format.
Craig: Which we’re going to do, by the way. We’re doing it.
John: We are. But first we should talk about a show that has done a great job of world-building this last season on HBO. And this is the time in the podcast where we’re going to talk about True Detective. So, fair warning, we’re going to spoil everything if you’ve not seen the show.
So, True Detective, Craig, I thought it was just a terrific show. How about you?
Craig: Yeah, it was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The execution of it was not quite like anything I had seen before. And going back to our discussion of originality of ideas, two odd couple — odd couple detectives on the trail of a serial killer. Oh, you know, I don’t know –
John: Yeah, that’s tropey, tropey, tropey.
Craig: I mean, good lord. And they’re in the south. And I think I’ve seen that a bunch of times. And then there’s infidelity and, yup, yup, seen it, seen it, seen it, seen it. Even the notion that what’s behind it is a large conspiracy of powerful people and satanic rituals — done, done, done, done, done.
But what this show did better than any other, I thought, was create these two characters and let you — give you license to care more about those characters and where they were in their lives and the choices they were making than you did about the mystery itself.
Granted, I think some people didn’t. I think some people were just obsessed over the mystery to the point where the show could have not possibly satisfied them.
I thought that Nic Pizzolatto — Pizzolatto? Am I saying it right?
Craig: Pizzolatto. And Cary Fukunaga made an amazing team. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, brilliant performances. Best I’ve ever seen from them. Just a beautiful, beautiful show to watch. And as a student of Nietzsche, which I know you hate, I saw Nietzsche throughout the whole thing. I mean, this Nic Pizzolatto clearly a student of Nietzsche. No question. No question. And a smart student.
John: So, I was late to the show and sort of caught up. And so by the time we got to episode five or six I was watching it in real time. And I found it just fascinating. And fascinating in the sense of like when I first saw the promos for it I’m like I don’t know why I would watch this show, because I don’t watch procedurals, and it’s basically it felt like — from a distance it felt like a cop procedural staring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, both of whom I like but I’m not going to go racing to go see, set in Louisiana which I’m just so sick of Louisiana. I have no desire to see Louisiana again. And it felt tropey, tropey, tropey, trope.
And so it wasn’t until everyone told me like, “No, no, it’s brilliant. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant.” And it’s really when people talked about the — when I decided I had to watch it was when people talked about the big shootout sequence, the sort of incredibly long tracking cam shot — the tracking shot that does all that that I know I had to catch up. Because I refuse to let this be another Breaking Bad where I’m behind everybody else on it.
So, what’s fascinating though is let’s go back to the reason I didn’t want to watch it is because on an idea level I’m like that doesn’t sound interesting to me at all. And where True Detective succeeds is in execution. Execution in acting. Execution in directing. But especially execution in storytelling, so I really want to focus on the decision to have the start of the show, at least the best parts of the show, the first six episodes, with the framing device of the interview.
John: As we come into the show we’re seeing this murder investigation happen where there’s a dead woman, and there’s a tree, and there’s a crown and all that stuff. We’re seeing the same detectives interviewed and we’re not quite sure if it’s even about the same case. We literally see the video camera footage. Like what is happening here? And we start to piece together that these two detectives are being interviewed years later about these events and that they are going to be essentially narrating the story of their own solving of this case, or their own investigation to this case, which was just genius. And it was just so incredibly well done.
Every time we cut from the present day storyline — which was the interviews — to the past and back, the show gained narrative speed. And we did the show where we talked about long takes, I remember there was a blog post I did about long takes. There’s an amazing amount of scene-setting and world-building you can do when you have these very long takes, but there’s also a tremendous amount of power in cutting. And this show knew exactly when to cut and when to pass the baton between the past and the future. That tension between the past and the future was as much a narrative theme as anything else in the show.
Craig: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone do it quite the way they did it on True Detective, so maybe exclusively until now movies would start with people and they’re remembering something and you flash back and you see it all happen and then you come back again to present day and they finish up and it’s a nice conclusion to the whole thing. And that’s fine. And that can work really well.
What was so terrific about the way they did it here where they kept it going through six episodes is that they were short-circuiting something that we’re all accustomed to watching and pulling out of narrative which is character development. They were showing you the end. They were saying this is how it ends. This guy is a drunk and a mess. And this guy is without a wife and a bit of a stopped up unfulfilled man. And that allowed them to play around with things in the past in a way that made it a little more meaningful. If I know that Matthew McConaughey ends up as a mess, watching him walk around perfectly shaven and coiffed and in complete control of his environment is far more interesting now. And I also don’t have to watch the breakdown. I just understand that I’m watching it now.
I’m seeing it and he doesn’t, which is great. Love that.
John: So, one of the key things to understand about True Detective is, again, at its best it maintained very vigilant POV, so every scene is not only involved but is driven either by Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson’s character. You don’t get any scenes that don’t have them in it with very, very rare exception.
But by having the past and the future there’s really essentially four characters. There is the characters in the past and the characters in the present day, or the near present day, who are being interviewed. And it is the tension between the older and the younger versions of themselves is often as fascinating as anything else. The things that you see them promising in the past and how those promises are unfulfilled in the present are so rewarding, because your brain kicks into gear and tries to fill in all the missing pieces about how these things could possibly relate. And you see in the present day storyline during the interviews there is narrative tension within those scenes, too.
It’s not just that they’re narrating story. They’re trying to figure out information from the people who are asking them questions about what’s really going on.
John: You start to realize like these interviews aren’t happening simultaneously. They’re trying to find out information about each other in the present day storyline as they’re talking to these interviewers.
Craig: Yeah. And where it got, I think, where the series hit its dramatic climax and the climax I guess of its efficacy was in the episode where they finally got to the shootout in the woods. This was something that they had been talking about for some time, even early in the episodes both detective that are being interviewed keep asking the ones interviewing them — I assume you just want to ask us about the shootout in the woods. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened to them in their lives. And they’re not asking about it. “Not just yet. We’ll get to that.”
So, we know there is some crazy shootout in the woods. Where they finally got to juice all of the power out of their two-timeline structure is when we finally see the shootout in the woods and we hear present day McConaughey and Harrelson narrating past-day McConaughey and Harrelson and we realize that the story that they’re telling these guys is not at all what we’re watching. In fact, we’re watching something completely different.
John: It’s a complete fabrication. And it’s a fabrication they agreed to tell the same way so that they could keep their story straight.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And it was an ingenious way of sort of getting us through that moment because it was a moment that had enough narrative tension stakes anyway. It’s the first time people are actually shooting at them, and yet you’re also fascinated by the present day storyline where they’re telling these conflicting versions and you want to see if they can actually keep their stories straight.
Craig: Exactly. Because we’re learning, even as we’re watching this incredibly entertaining thing and this incredibly dramatic thing that also includes plot points, we are learning that these two men — separated by time and some enmity we don’t yet understand because of the incident in 2002 — they have each other’s backs still to this day, separate and apart from each other. That’s fascinating information that we’ll finally understand.
In that sequence, every now and then you watch something and it makes you feel something beyond just an emotion but rather you feel an intense narrative satisfaction. And for me it was when I was watching that and they’re describing it and I certainly had no idea what was coming. And I had no idea that they were going to be lying. And they start describing it and what I’m watching isn’t what’s happening, but in a very subtle way. Just like, “Well he went this way and I went that way,” but they’re not quite going that way.
And I, for a second I think did they make a mistake? And then four seconds later it locks in and I go, “Oh, oh, this is going to be good.”
John: Yeah. And it was good! It was great.
Craig: And I knew it was going to be good because as soon as I realized what was happening I thought, A, it’s great that they’re lying and not narrating what actually happened. But also it’s going to be good because whatever does happen is something they have to lie about.
John: Well, I also remember once I realized that the lie was happening you start watching that sequence again thinking like, but wait, they’re going to say there was a shootout but like no one actually fired a shot. How are they going to deal with that? And then you see in real time like McConaughey has the idea of basically staging the whole crime scene so that it looks like there was a shootout even though there wasn’t a shootout. It was all terrific.
Now, let’s talk about satisfaction because I think I was one of those people who wasn’t entirely satisfied by how the show ended. And I think it raises a whole question of like in some ways it didn’t used to matter how shows ended. We didn’t even used to have a sense that a series was supposed to end. But this is a rare case where everyone knew that this was going to be just a one-off thing, at least with these two characters. This was going to end.
And I think our degree of satisfaction was weirdly influenced by the way that this was released. So, this was released in a more conventional sense here in the US that it’s once per week. And so the expectation or build up from the Sunday to the next Sunday about like, oh, what did this episode mean, what is going to happen in this next thing, who is the Yellow King, which is never really resolved, is Rust really behind these murders. All these theories could percolate which sort of revved up the excitement and probably certainly revved up the ratings.
And you like in some ways I think lessened the likelihood that most people would be happy with it. If this were a Netflix show where they put all eight episodes in one block that wouldn’t have happened.
Craig: You might be right. The show became a victim of its own success, to some extent, because people began to obsess in between episodes about what everything went. And it reminded me of Lost mania where the numbers showed up and people were finding references and going crazy. It was a very similar thing when people quickly seized on references to the book, The Yellow King, or The King in Yellow, I should say. And everybody just wanted to hyper drive about this, as if this show would somehow give us an insight into the cosmology of our universe that we weren’t capable of understanding ourselves, which is insane.
I actually think that the show did show us the Yellow King. Maybe I’m the only one, but in the end when our detectives are going up against the ultimate bad guy, Lawnmower Man, in that room — or near that room — there was this kind of a statue or diorama made of skeletons and wings and it looked like he had built himself a god. And it was yellow. The skulls were yellow. And I just thought the Yellow King is this creation of a mad man. And my guess is that he wasn’t the one that created. It was created a long time ago. That they had built an idol to worship.
John: Yeah. And that’s a totally reasonable expectation and I think it would have been easier for most people to come to that if they’d seen the whole thing without that build up from week, to week, to week. That build up from week to week to week is what made it a phenomenon. I think if it had come as a chunk like Netflix would have people would have still loved it and it would still be absolutely as good of a show, but I don’t think it would have become the phenomenon it became with that week, after week, after week.
Craig: You might be right. I mean, some of the conjecture out there was mind-boggling to me. Obviously simple, sort of Shyamalan twist style guesses that Rust Cohle is the killer. Or one writer I know kept insisting to me that they were the same person and that we would find out they’re the same person. Like that’s simple not possible.
John: The Fight Club? Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. It’s not a Fight Club. They didn’t do it. And then there were deeper ones. People who — and I love the internet because people are like, “You’re all stupid. You don’t understand this, and this, and this, and see the stars on the beer cans and…and the girl with the dolls.” And, you know, again, anybody that was hoping for this show — and it’s funny, the show even comments on it that we have this need to find stories to give us meaning to the secrets and mysteries of the world. And the show kept telling us, don’t — you’re not going to find that in the bible. You’re not going to find it in books, you’re not going to find it in culture. We try and impose the order of narrative on the world and the world continues to defy it.
Now, was the ending brilliant? No, but I only think it wasn’t brilliant because it didn’t have enough episodes to be brilliant. You know, the ending of Breaking Bad is brilliant because no matter what anyone’s quibbles are about it, and few people had some, in the end it connected us to an emotion. And the emotion was earned between Walter White and the only thing he ever created that made him feel like he had been alive. This was his work of genius. This was his masterpiece, his imprint on the world, blue crystal meth. And he did it.
And that relationship was something that we needed to have five years invested in for us to give a damn about it. This show, eight hours of TV. And I thought very smartly they ended the show with these two men and finally showing the strongest of them, the one who never cried, the one who seemed to understand everything not understanding anything. I thought it did a fine job. It simply could not deliver what I think people suddenly wanted. I loved it.
John: I think that’s a fair perspective on it. It’s so hard not to play the “I wish they would have” with it where you sort of play the game like if they’d known what they actually had before they started shooting the whole thing, I think there’s a way they could have reminded us about the relationship between those two characters and their young versions. Basically I really missed the young versions in those last two episodes.
And that the tension between the past and the present was essentially all kind of forgotten. Or the times we tried to reference it, it was just two characters talking and not talking about especially interesting things. Whereas we used to be able to see it. And so I would have loved to have had some more moments — a reason to have some more moments with the younger versions of those characters to remind us of the journey that we went on with them. That we saw them from these younger selves to where they are now.
I feel like the realization that McConaughey’s character comes to at the end, which is basically like he thought he had the answers in the sense of there not being any answers and now he’s not even sure of that could have come home even more if I’d seen the younger version of him.
John: The confident younger version of himself.
Craig: I agree. Once the show lost the past and situated itself entirely in the present it gained an immediacy that demanded, you know, it demanded more than those guys just talking. We didn’t mind watching them talk and drive around in the past because we understood that it was in the past and things were going to happen and the past doesn’t recall itself on our time schedule.
But once they were in the future I got very antsy with them in the car. Like shut up. Go. Do something. [laughs] You know?
John: Also it was the only time in the series where for an extended period of time we broke POV and stayed with the killer’s perspective. And while it was terrific, it wasn’t the best thing we’ve ever seen. And it wasn’t our two guys. And so I honestly felt like we did a better job — the show did a better job of that arriving at the farm with him in episode four or five, or whatever it was, that shootout worked better because we didn’t know what we were getting into. Versus just breaking all the POV and just going in there and seeing what Lawnmower Man’s life was like.
Craig: That said, it did give us I believe the greatest euphemism for weird, creepy incest ever. “I’m going to make flowers on you.”
Craig: Wow. “Don’t you want to make flowers on me?” Oh, that’s just great. Yes I do. Yes I do.
John: They’re making flowers. So, anyway, that ends our talk about True Detective. It really was an amazing accomplishment and congratulations to everybody involved in making True Detective.
John: And so my criticisms are only because it was just remarkably good and I feel so lucky to be able to have television like that.
Craig: Yeah. I have no criticisms. I take it as it is. I thank you for it as it was. And can’t wait for season two.
Craig, it’s time for our One Cool Things.
John: So, my One Cool Thing is actually something a listener sent in and we had been talking about, you and I were playing Dungeon World, which was a great sort of non-traditional role-playing game, or a stripped down role-playing game. Someone wrote in — I forgot who wrote in — but someone wrote in to suggest this thing called Fiasco by Jason Morningstar.
And Fiasco is like a role-playing game but without a DM or GM. There’s no one leading it. It’s just the rules are all in the book about how you do it. But it’s a narrative storytelling game where three or four people get together and rolling dice and following these sort of rules and orders you create a story that’s kind of like a Coen Brothers movie, it’s all about like sort of small time capers gone bad. And so it can be in a small southern town or at a station in the Antarctic or in the Old West. But it’s all about sort of like things going wrong. And it looks like an incredibly fun game.
So, I’ve not actually played the game through with other people, but I’ve read through the book and sort of seen what I can do. And it’s a very ingenious idea and it makes really smart choices about how you set up a world — very applicable to our discussion today — and how you create complications for your characters. And so I really recommend it to anybody who is telling stories to sort of see how this is doing it. I mean, this is being done with dice and yet it creates some really interesting situations and conflicts.
It’s called Fiasco.
Craig: Maybe we should do it. Should we do it?
John: We should absolutely play it. So, my fantasy would be to get Kelly Marcel over here and play it some afternoon.
Craig: Kelly Marcel is the spirit of Fiasco.
John: Yes. She’d be fantastic.
Craig: “This is a total fiasco.”
John: “It’s a fiasco.”
Craig: “It’s a fiasco.”
John: Yeah, we could do something in London. It could involve — it could just be like a Guy Ritchie movie.
Craig: Ooh, I like Guy Ritchie movies. Hmm, all right.
Well, mine is far more mundane. I am in love with this new Mac OS email client called Airmail. Did you use Sparrow like I did?
John: So, I use Sparrow for all the questions that come in. I use it for certain accounts. So like all the ask@johnaugust accounts, I look at those in Sparrow. The rest of the stuff I use normal Mac Mail for.
Craig: Yeah. Mac Mail is fine. Mail.App is fine, except that lately it’s been annoying. It has certain behaviors I don’t like, one of which is occasionally it’s just glitch. I mean, there’s an acknowledged issue with receiving mail sometimes and sending mail. Sometimes you have to quit and restart to get it to do what you want. Also, I really don’t like that the delete key defaults to trashing emails as opposed to archiving it, which I think for IMAP it’s better to archive.
And so I used Sparrow for awhile, but then Sparrow got bought by Gmail or Google I guess technically, because I guess Google just wants to eat its guts and put it into its own system. But as such it just stopped getting developed and it’s never a good thing to use deprecated software. And then along comes this app called Airmail which is essentially they’ve taken Sparrow and just spiffed it up and started redeveloping it. And it looks great, it works great. Delete does in fact send mail to archive.
Setting up accounts was really easy and it’s gorgeous. It’s just well-designed. And lo and behold it’s available in the App Store for $2. What?!
John: That’s nuts.
Craig: $2. So, it’s kind of a no-brainer. They have a Twitter account at @airmailer, because I assume Airmail was taken, so they’re @airmailer. But the app is called Airmail. I love it.
John: Cool. Great. Well, that’s our show for this week. So, you can find the links to the things we talked about in our show notes which are at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. It’s also where you can find transcripts for all of our back episodes.
You can listen to all of the back episodes there or through our apps. So, we have a Scriptnotes app for iOS and for Android, so just check your applicable app store and find us there.
Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel. Yay Stuart. And edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Blake Kuehn. And if you’d like to write us an outro we’re actually kind of running low on outros, so send it to us. So, you send it to email@example.com. And we love links from SoundCloud which is great for us. Just make sure it’s publicly available and that we can download it and tag it as Scriptnotes.
But we’ve gotten some great ones even when I put up the call yesterday for it we’ve gotten some great new outros. So, thank you for that.
John: If you have a question for Craig, he is @clmazin on Twitter. I am @johnaugust on Twitter. Longer questions or things like what we read from the guy at the start of the show you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. And that is it.
Craig, thank you so much for a good show.
Craig: Thank you, John. [creepy voice] Hey, John, hey, thanks man.
John: You’re making me very uncomfortable.
Craig: Yeah, hey. How you doing? [laughs]
John: All right. Cut.
Joanna Cohen is a writer in New York. For nine years she worked as a reporter and editor at Sports Illustrated. She’s since made her living in daytime television, most notably earning three Emmy nominations as a scriptwriter for “All My Children.”
When she isn’t coming up with dialogue about evil twins and babies switched at birth, she’s working on TV pilots, revising her debut novel, writing first-person essays for The New York Times and, most important, being a mom.
“Pepperoni.” That’s the shorthand my husband, Evan, and I use to tell one another I’m in the writing zone. Please come back later.
Why do we need such a silly word? Can’t we pause, look up from our computers and simply say we need a few more minutes of solitude to write?
The zone is sacred and elusive. Once you get there, you don’t mess with it. You don’t take time out to be polite. It’s as if you’re possessed, almost high. Some force has overtaken your being, and whatever it is you produce — sentences, songs, jump shots — flows from you exactly as you’d wished, seemingly without effort.
To be jerked out of this state by a ringing phone or car alarm or a question from a well-meaning spouse can be devastating.
It reminds me of a moment from the 2004 Olympics. Four miles from the finish line, a Brazilian marathoner was cruising to a gold medal when a protester darted out of the crowd and pushed him to the curb. Unable to regain his lead, he ended up coming in third.
Okay, maybe it’s not that heart-breaking. But it is maddening, and has led to interactions in my house that go something like this:
Evan enters our bedroom, where I’m typing away.
So what do you want for --
Could you just --
Lemme know when you’re done.
I slam the laptop closed.
To be fair, Evan’s work also involves a lot of writing. He understands the zone and respects it. So if he interrupts me, it’s because he thought I was sending email or surfing the web. Same goes for me.
Neither of us is a mind-reader and we didn’t want to keep having the same fight. We needed a signal, a way to communicate immediately that it wasn’t a good time to approach. We agreed it should be a single word. Simple but memorable. Pepperoni fit the bill.
We came up with this idea shortly after I’d made the career transition from being a journalist who worked in an office to a television writer who worked from home.
I loved doing my job where I lived, mostly because I could set my own hours. I’m an early bird. My best time is between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. I could go straight from my bed to my keyboard, stopping only to pour a cup of coffee, then crank straight through.
Early mornings were when I was most likely to find the zone. The sun would rise, the caffeine would kick in and the pages would fly from my fingers. Evan, a night owl, would either be asleep or I’d see him coming, hit him with a “pepperoni” and he’d let me do my thing. Problem solved.
Until we had a child.
When I was pregnant five years ago, I had visions of peaceful mornings, my baby sleeping by my side as I typed. I imagined she’d slip seamlessly into the routine, cooperative and joyful.
My daughter, Bee, would invariably awaken just as I was hitting my writing stride. I’d call for Evan to come take her. He always did. But it was too late. The moment was gone.
For months, I tried everything I could think of to preserve my precious mornings. I’d put Bee in her bouncy seat on the floor next to my desk, tapping it with my foot as I typed. I’d sit cross-legged on my chair, creating a spot in my lap where she could sleep as I hunched over her to reach the keyboard. Nothing worked.
As I prepared Bee’s bottles, I’d take my frustration out on Evan, who was only doing his best to help me. He sympathized when I ranted about what losing those hours was doing to me. Every time I was about to ride the wave of creativity, it would come crashing down. I’d pop up on the board, pumped and ready, and the lifeguard would blow the whistle and order everyone out of the water.
Evan’s proposal: Go surfing at another time of day.
I found the suggestion outrageous. (Writers can be a little sensitive.) I was supposed to change when I felt most inspired? Perhaps I could also grow another hand so I could type faster.
But then I realized Evan was right. If I lived alone in a log cabin, controlling my schedule would be easy. But I was a new mother, living in modern-day Manhattan.
Renting office space would be too expensive. I wasn’t about to give up writing to become an accountant. And I couldn’t Jedi mind trick my kid into sleeping whenever I needed to work. If I wanted to avoid resenting my family and get back to feeling good about writing, I’d have to change my habits.
The first step was learning to write outside of our apartment. In the beginning, it was tough. Every time I walked into a café, I’d stress over whether it had wifi or if I could get a table near an outlet where I could plug in my computer as it ran low on power.
There were plenty of outlets at my gym, so I tried working in the lounge there. It was like writing in a club — techno music thumping and sweaty, scantily clad people all around me. I found a nice terrace behind a local museum that had free wifi, but no outlets or bathrooms.
I’d walk a mile to my sister’s apartment, which was comfortable, private and had all the necessary equipment. But she works at a school and would come home earlier than I could afford to knock off. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I’d often finish the day on park bench or the steps of a brownstone.
At home in the evenings, I’d complain to Evan about the anxiety-producing work conditions, all the schlepping around and the seven-dollar pots of tea I didn’t want, but kept ordering just to buy me a few more hours at the café. I feared I’d swapped one set of frustrations for another.
But I hung in there — and, in time, discovered I was more adaptable as a writer than I’d thought. I learned to tune out the techno, became friends with the café manager who did his best to reserve an outlet table for me, and found that I actually could produce good work after 10 a.m. Soon I even felt confident enough to tackle another challenge: finding a way to write at home once in a while.
As Bee got older, we began to use the phrase “Mama’s working” and she’d occasionally let me stay behind closed doors while she played with Evan or my sister or a babysitter. Of course, there are plenty of days when she won’t go for it and I’ve ditched the Act Two scene that was finally coming together to make Play-Doh cookies.
But we’re miles from the bouncy seat and 5 a.m. wake-ups. These days I mostly have the pre-dawn hours to myself. Before long, I think Bee might even respond to “pepperoni.”