You are here

John August's Blog

Subscribe to John August's Blog feed John August's Blog
A ton of useful information about screenwriting.
Updated: 40 min 53 sec ago

Scriptnotes, Ep 171: Finishing a script, and the Perfect Studio Executive — Transcript

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 13:51

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: Sshh, me Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 171 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig: That are interesting to screenwriters.

John: Oh, you’re my echo now.

Craig: You have latency.

John: Oh, do I have latency?

Craig: No. [laughs] I’m just pretending to be your latency.

John: Ah, you’re the worst.

Craig: I’m the worst. No one gets it.

John: No.

Craig: By the way, people do get it. [laughs]

John: [laughs] Today on the podcast we are going to be talking about finishing a script. We’re going to be talking about this data that fivethirtyeight crunched about screenwriters and their screenplays. And we are going to be talking about the perfect studio executive.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: Mm-hmm. But there’s follow up to start with. And follow up about future events, including the December 11 live show.

Craig: So exciting.

John: I’m so excited. So, I put a little teaser at the start of last week’s episode, but now you and I can both talk about how excited we are that on December 11 at 8PM in Hollywood we will be welcoming our guests including Jane Espenson. B.J. Novak. Derek Haas. Aline Brosh McKenna. Plus one special musical guest that’s not even announceable yet.

Craig: Fantastic. I mean, that’s a great roster even including the person that’s not announceable yet. I was watching, you know I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan.

John: I do.

Craig: And just the other night I decided, you know what, I’m going to watch Inglourious Basterds again, because I want to. And I forgot, because I hadn’t seen it in a long time, B.J. Novak.

John: B.J. Novak.

Craig: He’s Utivich. Utivich, I think that’s his name. He’s awesome.

John: Yeah. Just yesterday I was reading The Book With No Pictures, which is a kid’s book that B.J. Novak has at the top of the bestseller charts.

Craig: Very, very creative.

John: It’s a great little book. And so I was reading it to Chad Creasey’s little daughter who was over, and she loved it. And this is a kid with a limited attention span. And she loved it. Because whenever you get the chance to make silly noises to a kid at that age, they’re in heaven.

Craig: She’s also notoriously picky. Not an easy review to get out of her.

John: Oh, absolutely, no. She has set opinions. And they’re usually about where is my mother, where is my father, why are you not either of these people.

Craig: Right. I’m tired.

John: So, last week Chad Creasey, who is a writer on Castle, was live tweeting his show, because the new thing is you’re supposed to be live tweeting your show so the fans can talk with the creators of the show as the show is actually happening.

Craig: I see this all the time. Derek Haas does this.

John: Yes. And sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s kind of annoying, because maybe Derek — I don’t need to see like the 20 tweets about Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. Or the crossover episode between Law & Order and Chicago P.D., which is just — that’s like two hours of Derek Haas tweeting.

Craig: Wait, that was Law & Order?

John: So, Law & Order, the New York show, or Law & Order SVU, I’m sorry.

Craig: Oh, okay, yeah. Okay. SVU. Right.

John: SVU crossed over into a Chicago P.D. episode. And so I happened to catch part of this change over because I don’t, honestly I’m sorry, I don’t actually watch either of these shows.

Craig: Oh!

John: The TV was on and I saw this crossover. And it was just so weird like, oh, that’s a thing that happens.

Craig: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s actually a very rare thing to have happen now because there are very few, I mean, Dick Wolf kind of stands alone. Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre are the two people that have multiple shows. Oh, no, and Shonda Rhimes.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, actually the three of them could get away with it.

John: Yeah. But no one else can get away with it. And so I was watching this thing happen. Of course Derek live tweets his show. Chad was live tweeting his show. And I had to interrupt Chad live tweeting his own TV show in order to arrange childcare for our children.

Craig: For both of your children?

John: Because that’s what it’s like to be a Hollywood writer is basically you’re supposed to live tweet your show to the mass audience and then figure out who is going to take care of your kid because you’re working late hours making Castle, the TV show.

Craig: Sometimes I’ll send out some tweets to people just because I’m at home and I need to arrange childcare for my kids because I’ve got to go score some heroin. Do you know how you know that I don’t have a heroin problem?

John: Uh, I don’t know how. How do I prove a negative?

Craig: Here’s how. I just said, “I needed to go score some heroin.” That’s not what they say. Right?

John: Yeah. Scoring is actually a really interesting word, this is going to be my awkward segue into Writer Emergency Pack, or maybe it’s a brilliant into Writer Emergency Pack.

Craig: It doesn’t really matter, does it? [laughs]

John: Because I made the transition?

Craig: That’s right. Transition Man.

John: We’re here now.

Craig: Segue Boy.

John: So yesterday we were going through all the text on all the cards just to make sure that everything was right and we were not disagreeing about any commas, and Stuart Friedel who genuinely loves basketball was arguing that I had said, in the card I said, “You could score three baskets in a certain amount of time.”

And he’s like you can’t score baskets. You can make baskets. But you can’t score baskets.

Craig: That’s right. Correct.

John: And I’m like, well, you’re being nitpicky. And then we looked on the Internet and he was right.

Craig: Yeah. Of course he was right. That’s correct. Just as you can’t make runs in baseball. You score runs. It’s just the parlance of the sport.

John: It is the parlance of the sport.

Craig: And similarly there is a Stuart Friedel of heroin out there listening to me and saying, “No, no, you don’t say I’m going to go out and score some heroin, you dork.”

John: Yeah. What do you need to score heroin? How do you get heroin? What is the verb for obtain heroin from a person?

Craig: I think we’ve established that I don’t know. At all.

John: [laughs] If you do know, if you are a heroin addict who knows the lingo, or even better yet, a heroin dealer, please write in to @clmazin on Twitter and let him know.

Craig: Let me know. By the way, this is one of the best arguments for drug legalization I’ve ever heard was from my friend [Gene Yin]. Because I remember I was saying, well you know, yeah, sure, legalize drugs. But heroin, I don’t know. And he said, “Let me ask you something. If you wanted heroin, do you think you could get some?” And I was like, yeah, I guess I could.

John: I don’t think I could. You know, honestly, that’s a fascinating sort of six degrees of separation. Like how many people would I have to go through to get heroin. And the way my life is set up right now, it would take awhile.

Craig: It would take awhile, but you could get there. It’s not hard. By the way, anyone can. Especially now. Go to the marijuana dispensary. Get your marijuana card. Hang around the people in the lobby of the marijuana place and be like, “Anybody have any heroin?” Somebody will hook you up.

The point being, if you want it, you can get it. But we don’t get it because — the law is not what’s stopping us. It’s our understanding that heroin is just bad.

John: Yeah. Heroin is bad.

Craig: It’s bad.

John: Lessons we’ve learned on podcasts.

Craig: Heroin is bad, you guys.

John: It’s not good at all.

Craig: Breaking news.

John: So, going back to the Stuart Friedel basketball conversation, the reason why we’re editing all these cards is because we are nearly done with the Kickstarter campaign. So, this is the last chance if people want one of these cards in the early part of 2015 is to go to our Kickstarter page. So, we are nearing 5,000 backers, which is crazy.

Craig: That’s great.

John: We exceeded our fundraising goal. Thank you, Craig Mazin.

Craig: Yeah. I’m one of those backers.

John: Which is fantastic. So, this podcast comes out on Tuesday. Thursday at noon the campaign shuts down. And it’s a hard out. Because when you actually set up the campaign you set the end date and that is the end date for all time.

Craig: Forever.

John: It’s done. No more. So, if you’d like a pack, that’s where you can get it. If you’d like to support the youth writing programs that we’re partnering with, that’s also a great place to go.

Craig: Hey, not to undermine the Writer Emergency Pack situation, but our live show on December 11th, tickets are on sale now for that?

John: They are on sale now. I can’t believe we left that out. Yes. So, if you would like to come to our live show in December 11, go to the Writers Guild Foundation. They’re the people who are selling the tickets. It’s wgfoundation.org. There will also be a link in the show notes. And the seating is quite limited, so really if you haven’t gotten tickets yet, you should maybe pause this podcast and go over there and get some tickets, because it will sell out, especially with those great guests.

Craig: And the money goes to charity. Once again, we lose.

John: Yes. Once again, a money-losing podcast.

Craig: Awesome.

John: Awesome. The last bit of follow up is previous weeks I described how I had this phone pitch and it was on a Friday at 4PM, which is the worst time for a phone pitch, but it went really well. And so now I think I can announce that the deal happened. It closed. And I’m going to be writing this movie.

Craig: Congrats.

John: So, it’s called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It is a kid’s book that you kind of probably remember from your childhood.

Craig: I totally remember that book from my childhood.

John: Yeah. So it was one of the most controversial and one of the most banned or sort of like on a lot of parent not favorite lists throughout our entire childhood. It’s written by Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. It’s a great collection, an anthology of sort of all of the stories that you sort of remember being creeped out by as a kid, so including like “the worms crawling, and the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout.”

All of that stuff is in there. And so it’s going to be I think a potentially really cool movie, but I’m not supposed to spoil how we’re going to do it, but I think it’s going to be a very interesting and innovative way to make this movie.

Craig: I think that’s great. That’s a very cool project. My daughter in particular is a big fan of, there’s a current kid’s series that’s like a Goosebumps kind of series, but I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, the idea of horror movies for children is great.

John: Yes.

Craig: I loved like all the ghost stories when I was a kid. I loved all that stuff.

John: So, what I will tell you is that while this book is for children, the horror movie that we’re making out of it, I think hopefully captures how scary those books were when you were a kid, but is not strictly a kid’s movie. In fact, you should not take certain younger kids to this movie. To the degree like I can’t actually take the art into the house, because if my daughter saw it we would have nightmares.

Craig: Is the idea that it’s a — you don’t have to say anything that you don’t want to say, but is it a PG-13 kind of thing?

John: We are aiming for a PG-13.

Craig: Got it.

John: The same way that I loved Poltergeist.

Craig: Right.

John: Or that I loved The Ring. Movies that are not gory, but man they can freak the bejesus out of you.

Craig: I love that. That’s the best kind of horror as far as I’m concerned.

John: So, we have high hopes. Lord knows anything can happen, but it’s been a very fun couple of weeks getting this all put together.

Craig: Where is this?

John: This is at CBS Films. And it’s such a strange experience going into CBS Films because I get there and I’m talking with the producer, and he’s like, “Oh, I don’t know if you saw in the trades today.” And I’m like, oh god, what was in the trades today? And so Lions Gate is not distributing CBS Films’ films. And that was a change, but also like, oh, well Lions Gate is kind of awesome at doing this exact kind of thing. So, it feels like it’s going to be a change that will benefit the making of movies like this.

Craig: Who was distributing their movies prior?

John: They were self-distributing. They had their own distribution company.

Craig: Oh, yeah. You know what? Good. That’s smart, frankly. Nothing wrong with –

John: Distribution is expensive.

Craig: Distributions are.

John: And distribution is expensive to maintain even if you don’t have a lot of movies going through it. That becomes the real stumbling block, without enough product like you have this team that you can’t keep continuously employed.

Craig: And distribution, we know as we discussed before that the big trick of distribution is that you need big huge right hand punches to sell your left hand jobs, you know. So, a movie like this that’s new IP and it’s not like say Hunger Games, right. A movie like this needs the weight of a Hunger Games behind it, so that Lions Gate can say, “Hey everybody, you want Hunger Games? Here is our package. Hunger Games, Scary Stories You Tell in the Dark.” You know what I mean?

John: Yeah. And that package is important throughout the entire process. So, that’s how you get the great theaters. That’s how you get the ArcLight versus the thing in Gardena. That’s how you get –

Craig: The thing in Gardena. By the way. Terrible name. Great, great cinema.

John: It’s one of the highest qualities that you can find anywhere.

Craig: Heading down to the thing, yeah.

John: Except for that one stain on the screen where somebody threw their Coke at the screen.

Craig: That was me.

John: All right. The old theatres that were across from USC, the USC Cinema Schools, there was this village, I think it was a three-plex or a four-plex. I remember going to see Last of the Mohicans and there literally was like this brown stain on the screen, because someone had just like taken a Coke and thrown it at the screen. And like they never washed it, they never cleaned it.

Craig: Wow.

John: And so you’re watching this movie that obviously a lot of care went in to making it. And there’s this brown stain.

Craig: Why do you think someone did that for — was it that movie or a prior movie?

John: No, I’m sure it was some previous movie. Some previous movie that really deserved to have a Coke thrown at it.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, that movie didn’t really.

John: No.

Craig: I mean, unless somebody was like, “Look, this is an embarrassment to the work of James Fenimore Cooper. [laugh]

John: “Stay alive no matter what occurs.” Splash.

Craig: Splash. “That was not in the book!”

John: No.

Craig: Yeah, some USC lit major.

John: Yeah. Daniel Day Lewis hater.

Craig: Oh, all one of them.

John: All one of them. So, anyway, it’s incredibly fun to be making this. My last point about sort of distributing in a package, it becomes important to get your film into a theater. It’s also important for getting your money out of that theater, which sounds really obvious.

Craig: Yeah, no, that’s right.

John: They will pay you very slowly unless you say like, “Oh, wait, you still haven’t paid us for that movie and we have The Hunger Games coming.” They are more likely to actually total up that money and write you the check that they need to write.

Craig: That’s true. Plus, you have a marketing department that likely just through the experience of marketing more movies and generally larger movies will be very, very good.

John: That is the hope.

Craig: Terrific.

John: Excited to be writing that.

Craig: Awesome.

John: But, Craig I’m so excited that you just finished your script.

Craig: I did. Well, let’s just say that the two words that screw writers up more than any other two words in the English language are The End. We type The End and it is not at all the end. But, you do feel kind of an ending. It’s a very strange feeling, isn’t it?

John: It’s a little post-partum depression. You’re so excited to be done. And at the same time you’re like, but, but, but, especially in those last few weeks as you’re finishing something up. You are a person who writes this script. Like your entire being becomes consumed in the writing of this thing. And so when that thing is done, well, who are you?

Craig: That’s right. You have molded your day-to-day life around a routine of creating this thing. You are living in that world. And it is a world of possibility. And it’s still a world of possibility. But when you write the end and you get to the end of it, no matter how good you have felt along the way, or about the moments, suddenly it’s just a script. Isn’t that the hell. It’s just the worst feeling.

Like I’ve been living this thing and breathing this thing and imaging a world, creating — all the wonderful woo-woo stuff that writers say about being kissed by the cosmic joy. But then you print it out. And so it’s a PDF. [laughs] It’s like, huh, all that and this isn’t shooting rainbows out of its butt. It looks like every other script.

John: A couple memories that brings up. The first is finishing something and printing it out for the first time, and laser printers used to be quite so slow. And so a page would print out and I’d take it out of the printer and look at it. Inevitably I would find a typo just because I had pulled it out of the printer. And so it was like these weird things where like because it’s coming to you at a page at a time I started to recognize all these things and want to go through and fix them.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Second is that advice that I remember being told like all the way back in probably junior high school is like well when you finish something, you put it in a drawer for two weeks and you don’t look at it. And then you pull it out so you can look at it fresh. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve never been able to sort of just completely walk away from something and look at it fresh. It’s like one of those great ideas in theory that rarely is practical or possible, partly because I’m generally giving it to someone trusted to read and I want to be able to have that conversation with them before two weeks from now.

Craig: Yeah. You can look at things in a fresh light, I suppose, after a year or two. No real reason to put something away for a year or two. Better to just hand it to somebody you trust. Or, if you are writing professionally, you don’t have a choice.

John: Nope.

Craig: You’re a week late. No matter how fast you write it, you’re a week late.

John: Yes you are.

Craig: Yeah. If you write it in three days, you’re a week late.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: It’s like reverse Scotty.

John: So, in your situation, you were showing pages the whole time through. So, did that change your process? Because that doesn’t seem like what you would normally do. I think of you as being a Craig does the whole thing himself and then someone gets to read it. In this case, you were showing stuff all the way through. Did that change the process for you?

Craig: Not as much as I would have thought, in part because part of my process — this is one area where I know you and I are very different. You quite religiously don’t go backwards when you’re writing. I quite religious do go backwards. I’m constantly — every day I’m reviewing the prior eight pages.

And then that’s kind of how I ramp in to the next work. So, by doing it this way with Lindsay I wasn’t doing actually anything different than I normally do in that sense. The other very helpful thing is that she was incredibly supportive. And so all of her notes came in the form of questions. It was never, “I don’t like this.” It was more, “What did you mean by this? What if this happened? What about this?” And these were all just very positive things. And, of course, there was a lot of praise along the way, too. Not, of course. [laughs] Surprisingly I should say, there was a lot of praise along the way, which is something I’ve actually never had because when I’m writing by myself and my creative associate, Jack, can attest to this, mostly I just sit and go, “This is the worst thing anyone has ever done. I’m the worst.”

Actually, what I used to say is, “I don’t even know what this is.” You know, there’s a lot of that that goes on. So, it was great to have somebody say, “I know what this is. This is good. I like this.”

John: That’s great.

Craig: Yeah. So, we’ll see what happens now.

John: Was there any good boy syndrome kicking in though? I wonder if having someone like Lindsay who is mom-like in the best ways, did that motivate you to work harder, work differently? How did it change your approach to the daily work? Did it?

Craig: It did a little bit. Yes. For one, she has a strong emphasis on clarity. Not just clarity for story sake, but also clarity for the reader. And her emphasis on clarity is actually very admirable and very optimistic. Her emphasis on clarity is this: we’re making this movie. I and you, and if it happens Scott Frank will be directing, the three of us are going to be in rooms with people who are going to ask us questions. Let’s answer as many of those questions as we can now, without breaking the script or making it — and sometimes, occasionally I would say, “Okay, I can’t do that. That’s just ridiculous.” [laughs]

And then she would agree. Mostly. John: I should stress, when you say answer the questions, in some cases you’re really talking about taking away the questions.

Craig: That’s right.

John: Basically making it so that question doesn’t even come up.

Craig: That’s exactly right. So, we had many discussions about where people were standing and how we could get across where they were standing and how far away they were and all the rest of it.

But, that did change the way I was approaching things because when I was writing I then kept in mind a certain amount of clarity, which in the end actually didn’t really — I think it helps the read. Actually, I liked it. I like that style of it.

There was a good boy syndrome in as much as there were times when I disagreed with her. But there were most notably what would happen is we would have a discussion, she would say here’s six things to consider. I would consider all six things. And then come back and say I’ve done four of them. These two, I do not. And you know what? She never once said, “No, no, no, you have to.” Every time she said, “Well, if you thought about it and that’s your reason, I agree.”

It was actually kind of great. I guess the point is that I’ll always have good boy syndrome because I want to make people happy. You can’t work in our business and not want to make people happy. But, it wasn’t a toxic good boy syndrome. And Lindsay also had good producer syndrome. It is interesting. She wanted me to like her notes.

You know, every now and then she would say something and I would go, oh my god, that’s why we get along so well. She would say, “Here’s something.” And I would say, oh, that’s very good. I like that. And she’d go, “Well thank you. I thought it was good. I was hoping you would think it was good.”

It’s the same. We’re the same. You know, so many of us are the same no matter the different jobs we do. We just want to be liked.

John: The other thing I think is probably crucial about the way she was framing these conversations was this is the movie we’re trying to make, so that way it becomes not a criticism of your words on the page, but it’s about this shared vision and this shared goal of like let’s make this movie. And so let’s always frame these discussions in how are we going to make this a great movie, not about this work that you just did, Craig, and whether it’s good or bad.

Craig: That’s right. And ideally if it goes well, then instead of what I normally have which is I wander into a room, at least initially alone, and then rally people to the cause through the script. Now I walk into the room with an ally, which is nice. It’s new.

So, I really enjoyed it. It’s not something that I would do I don’t think with anyone else. No offense to everybody else in the world. But, it takes a certain amount of deep trust there. And even then, who knows, it might have not worked, but it did. At least, I can’t speak to the [final] product –

John: Well, you can speak to the process. You can at least speak to like that you got through this script is terrific. And so I don’t know if you know that I was racing you and I wanted to finish my script before you finished your script, because we started our scripts at about the same time. But you finished and I did not finish.

Craig: Oh.

John: So, I am past the midpoint, but I got pulled off to do another job, and then of course this Kickstarter. So, you finished first. Congratulations, Craig.

Craig: Well, I can’t really take — there is no prize for first. Also, you had a good excuse. You had one good excuse, another job, and one ridiculous, awful excuse, a Kickstarter.

John: The Kickstarter madness.

Craig: Just disgusting.

John: I will say, I did write the last scene. And that is always an incredibly important part for me, because I tend to write that pretty early in the process so I know kind of where I’m going to. And the ability to sort of have that last moment fixed and encapsulated is in many ways as important to me as knowing what that first scene is going to be.

Craig: I agree. In fact, where I differ from you is I don’t write it, but I know what it is. And I couldn’t wait to write it because it should be your favorite scene in the movie, frankly.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And so it was held back as this little reward for finishing. And so, you know, but man, when I finally finished it I was, you’re right, when you finish a screenplay, even though it’s intermediate, even though there will be another draft. Even though there will be changes. Even though it will be transformed into a movie and the document will disappear, as it should. You do feel like you accomplished something and it’s a weird thing for us as screenwriters to acknowledge that we have accomplished something and yet also at the same time we have accomplished nothing. [laughs] It’s very odd.

John: It is. Yet, there’s something very special about that first draft, which is entirely yours, before the building starts to get built. Before all the necessary changes that have to happen to change it from this idealized form to its actual form, there’s something really terrific about that first draft.

Craig: No question.

John: Congratulations on that.

Craig: Well thank you. And congratulations to you on your new project and congratulations to Stuart for being — staying alive.

John: For being Stuart.

Craig: Staying alive.

John: Next thing we want to take a look at is this article that everybody tweeted at us this week by Walt Hickey. It’s in fivethirtyeight, the data science blog. The headline, which is umbrage-inducing, “How Data Can Help You Write a Better Screenplay.”

Craig: Hold me back. [laughs] Hold me back.

John: And so I read this headline and I’m like, oh no, that’s just Craig bait. That’s like little someone has an algorithm for like how can we make Craig Mazin angry. That’s the headline.

Craig: The best part was that when I saw that headline I thought, okay, calm down. It’s not going to be that bad. And it was actually worse than I thought it would be.

John: Oh, see, this is going to be fun, because I actually thought the article itself was not nearly as inflammatory and actually had some things –

Craig: I hated it.

John: That were interesting to talk about. I don’t think useful for screenwriters necessarily, but interesting to talk about as a general sense.

Craig: If your praise is “not useful for screenwriters” and the title of it is “How Data Can Help you Write a Better Screenplay,” I actually think that’s a brutal condemnation here.

John: I strongly suspect that Walt Hickey did not write his headline for his article, because it doesn’t — because his article does not support that headline at all.

Craig: Uh…

John: Because there’s nothing about helping you write a screenplay. There’s nothing about that in here at all.

Craig: Uh…

John: So, here’s the proper headline. Here’s I would say is the actual fair headline that does not attract as much umbrage or clicks, but is actually accurate to what the article is about: “In a statistical survey of the blacklist.com’s scripts, these are the patterns we’ve noticed.”

Craig: That, honestly, is useless. It’s useless. And this is shocking to me, because honestly these guys should know better. And Nate Silver who runs fivethirtyeight.com should have really said, “Hey, wait a second. I mean, our bread and butter is being rational.” And this is just irrational nonsense. First, yeah, go ahead.

John: We should frame what is actually happening here. So, this article takes a look at the data from fivethirtyeight.com and basically anonymized a bunch of the reviews — so they weren’t looking at the actual projects themselves, but just the genre, the reviews of things, the most frequent criticisms of these different projects. And they were able to look based on genre and based on response what types of scripts are getting positive reviews versus negative reviews.

Now, I think this article tries to go too far and say like, well these are the kinds of scripts that get these good reviews and therefore become these kinds of movies. There’s actually no evidence at all to support that. All they’re really looking at is the people who have put their scripts on the blacklist.com and had them reviewed, this is data that they’re pulling from that information. Nothing about the actual finished movies. So, when it says — the first two paragraphs where they talk about Interstellar, that’s just random BS that should not be in there.

Craig: It’s all bad. This is all bad. And let me get to the heart of why I was shocked by this. Shocked.

John: Shocked.

Craig: Shocked. Yes, obviously the massive flaw floating at the surface of this mess is that they are attempting to analyze what makes a good screenplay from a population sample that is not at all accurate. Sorry, a sample that’s not at all accurate to the appropriate population. The sample that they’re using are Black List screenplays, which has nothing to do, frankly, with the sample of say professional screenplays from which most movies are drawn.

The Black List is open. It’s just people throwing their stuff in there. But the real — the real problem with this is that what they’re doing is they’re looking at trends. Trends have absolutely nothing to do with success. In fact, I would argue that they have the opposite to do with success. Let me explain.

They’ll say things in here like, he’s talking about courtroom dramas, I think.

John: Yeah. We make a lot of courtroom dramas, don’t we Craig? Our cinemas are overflowing with courtroom dramas.

Craig: So, you know, he talks about these courtroom dramas, and he’ll say take courtroom dramas. “Because of the legal eagles writing them,” that’s an unfounded comment, “only two percent of such scripts were flagged as having logic holes or unanswered questions. However, a whopping 47 percent of them suffered from unnatural, clichéd or on-the-nose dialogue.” So, he’s finding this problem that seems to exist with courtroom dramas, but it’s not a problem. Because here’s the fact: success in screenplays is an outlier. Success should be anti-statistical. We are looking for things that are not a trend.

Here’s the most uncommon trend in screenplays: quality. Okay? So if you have a situation where, well, 50 percent of our comedies rate an average of seven out of ten, but only two percent of our courtroom dramas rate a seven or higher out of ten, you might think, well, comedy is the way to go.

Wrong. Because, we don’t know how many of those comedies sell. We also don’t know how many of them are seven, eight, nines, or tens. And here is the other important point: all the courtroom dramas, all of them, could be a one, but one of them is a ten. That’s a great script. That gets made.

None of this analysis has any relevance. None of it. It is flawed. It is both flawed internally and flawed externally. It is a terrible — this is terrible. And, Walt, I think you know. I think you know that this was a mess. Don’t do this anymore. This doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, come on, critical thinking here. Ugh. Look here’s my problem, honestly John, this paragraph made me angry. Following what they’re talking about, you know, the complicated relationship between genres and a best picture nomination, which again has nothing to do with quality.

John: These amateur scripts in Black List.

Craig: And not even anything to do with quality. Being nominated for Best Picture is just what the Academy thinks. Okay, anyway, he says, “This is also part of a larger question about the difficulties of writing a good movie. What makes a screenplay good? What makes it bad? Are writers in certain genres at an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to certain elements like plot, premise and characters? And if so, how can we show this?”

Get ready. Hold on. Hold on. Grab something now, because this is what he says, “And if so, how can we show this? All we need is a data set to draw from.” That’s all we need! That’s it! And we’ve solved –

John: More data!

Craig: Yes. All we need is a data set and we’ve unlocked the mystery. You’ve unlocked the mystery of nothing. First of all, your data set sucks. And, no, all you need is not a data set to draw from. You don’t have the answer. You’ll never get the answer from a data set because the whole point is that the answer exists counter to the data. Counter!

And that, my friends, that is the umbrage of the week.

John: And mic drop.

The final chart in this thing lists the most common problems in amateur screenplays. So, if you take nothing else from this article, the final chart in here shows the most common problems in amateur screenplays, which I think could actually be useful if you were a person who had your script on blacklist.com and you got flagged for one of these things. You would at least know like how often are they flagging for these things.

These are the list from most commonly flagged to least commonly flagged. Underdeveloped plot. Underdeveloped characters. Lack of escalation. Poor structure. Unnatural dialogue. Logic holes. Commercially unviable. Derivative or unoriginal. Not cinematic. Or too long.

The only reason I kind of like that too long being last is that it’s the first thing that everyone is freaking out about. They’re like, oh my god, my script is 122 pages, it’s going to be too long and they’re going to say it’s too long. No, that’s actually one of the least likely things they’re going to flag it for.

They’re mostly going to say like your story sucks, I didn’t believe your characters.

Craig: Well, yeah, okay. So, this is a list of problems that a screenplay can have. This is a percentage of problems that those readers had with that pool of screenplays. We can also point out that, again, on the outlier theory, any script that actually emerges from the Black List and gets produced, and that’s been happening happily, my guess is at least one or two of their readers would pick one of these things.

John: 100 percent.

Craig: So, again, it doesn’t reflect success. I have a different theory about the too long, and it’s a pessimistic theory actually, John, because I’m in a pessimistic mood.

John: No one sensed that.

Craig: Your theory is that people should feel free to ignore the admonition, the — I agree — inaccurate and unnecessary admonition, “Keep you scripts short,” because look they’re not really having a problem with the length of scripts. My theory is they’re not having a problem with lengths of scripts because everybody is freaking out over the length of their scripts and refusing to send in anything that is longer than 115 pages. So, they’re not getting long scripts anymore, because everybody has lost their freaking minds about page length.

John: Yeah. That’s probably more likely the case.

Craig: I read this thing and literally I needed beta blockers when I was done with it. [laughs] I don’t actually take beta blockers, but I think I could have used beta blockers.

John: So, here’s a possibility, and I wonder if this is a statistical study that would be meaningful. So, I don’t know if you know that there are districts across the country, they do this thing where they can sort of measure teacher’s effectiveness by taking a kid from one class and then checking to see in the next grade whether that kid progressed or did not progress in that teacher’s next room. So, it’s a way of sort of tracking kids through time. And therefore you can measure the kids in this teacher’s class tend to have progressed more than kids in another teacher’s class.

Craig: Okay.

John: So, it’s a rough way of doing that. I wonder if you could do the same kind of thing by basically rating the reviewers as a place like blacklist.com. Basically saying like how often does this reader give negative reviews to writers. Is there a specific genre that they always give bad reviews to? In cases where something has been reviewed twice, how often is it likely that they are the lower reviewer rather than the higher reviewer?

There probably is data there somewhere if they’ve done enough of these things. You could actually check and see sort of like, you know, a profile of what these reviewers actually like and what their tastes are and whether they agree with the consensus or are outliers from the consensus.

Craig: But the problem is what do you do with it? Because let’s say you have one guy that’s just remarkably grumpy.

John: Then if you’re Franklin Leonard, maybe you fire him.

Craig: Maybe. Or maybe or you go, this remarkably grumpy guy was the only one that loved this script that actually got bought and made.

John: Yeah. He was the truth teller.

Craig: That’s the problem is that this whole thing is all about trends and the middle, the big thick middle. So, for instance Ms. Hagen, this is Kate Hagen. Kate Hagen, does she work for the Black List?

John: She works for the Black List. Yes.

Craig: So Kate Hagen says to Walt Hickey, “Sports dramas tend to do really well on the site because you’ve got a fusion of a real-life concept or event to then structure a narrative around.” Okay. But what does that have to do with the purpose of the site? The purpose of the site isn’t to do well on the site. The purpose of the site is to get the hell out of the site. You see what my point is? So, that actually doesn’t mean anything.

It reminds me of a story that someone told me, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but I love it. In the early days when they were first making Seinfeld, they had to test it, and it was notoriously the lowest testing pilot in NBC history. That, I think, has been talked about before. But as the story goes, what happened was they tested it and the numbers came back terribly. And they sat down with Warren Littlefield, who was running NBC at the time, and he said, “Listen, this one low number here for this particular thing, we know that’s an artifact. We know that in television shows that have this kind of arrangement,” for instance like a show set in New York, “will always get a lower number on this, but it actually doesn’t translate to the success or failure of a show. It’s a statistical artifact.”

And they were like, okay, well that’s good to know. And he said, “But anyway, we should change it.” And they said why. And he was like, “Well, because of the testing.”

Now, you’re just chasing the testing. You’re not chasing what the testing is supposed to test for. And my sense here is that all this is doing is really just trying to figure out how to get a pretty decent middling number on the Black List. Your job, if you’re on the Black List, honestly, the perfect script is the one that gets a bunch of ones and a bunch of tens. You know, like in my mind, who cares if everybody agrees it’s okay.

John: Yeah. A bunch of sixes is not the same. And so you could have two scripts and if the average score was a seven, that doesn’t mean as much as if there were a bunch of tens and a bunch of ones and it drifted down.

Craig: You want to be the outlier.

John: I’m trying to do a max/median/mode, and I don’t have the right numbers for it, but that’s the thing. If there’s people who love it, those are your champions and those are the people who are doing to say, “I want to make this movie.”

Craig: Yeah, the least useful thing, frankly, I mean, I suppose the only useful part of this average overall score is that it might inspire some people to read that script who might not have been interested to read it. But, see, if I were running the Black List, I don’t know how they do it. If they just provide a mean overall score, that’s actually not as interesting to me as a chart, a graph, you know, where you show a one to ten and then you show the amount of people that have broken out between one and ten. I think IMDb does this for their stuff.

Because if I see spikes at the bottom and the top, that’s way more interesting to me than sort of a blob. I want spikes.

John: A bell curve distribution opinion on your script is not likely to be a good sign.

Craig: That’s right. I want spikes. I want outliers. So, this article was bad. And Walt Hickey, I want you to do better. And I think you can do better. Nate Silver, no, no, no.

John: Let’s move on to our series, I think you’re proposing this as a series.

Craig: A series.

John: That’s the new trend in podcasts is series. So, let’s make this a series. And the first topic is the perfect studio executive.

Craig: Right. So, the idea –

John: Talk us through what a perfect studio executive might consist of.

Craig: Well, the idea of the series is that we want to do something called The Perfect series where we go through each kind of job in Hollywood and talk about what the perfect version of that job would be. So, we might as well start with the studio executive because they’re sort of the bosses sitting at the top of this whole thing making these decisions.

So, you know, it’s an interesting thing. The studio executive job has changed over time, even in my time. I think you’ve probably noticed it, too.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: As the studios fell under a much more corporate control, and as they reduced the amount of movies they made, and as they began to rely more heavily on tent poles, there’s less of the old kind of job that they used to do which was read a bunch of drafts of a script and give a bunch of notes and try and try again. Now, it’s really about managing these projects that are sort of born as movies that cannot be stopped.

But to me, the perfect studio executive is somebody who is willing to focus on the filmmakers, the writer and the director. And who will support them and when things run counter to what we’ll call quality, to sit them down and explain honestly what’s going on and then ask how can we have our cake and eat it, too.

Far too often I think studio executives hide the reality because they’re ashamed. They’re embarrassed that they just got their leash yanked because there needs to be some character in there for some market. Or they’re having a bunch of problems, or somebody above them is demanding a car chase.

John: So, I think honesty is a fundamental quality you’re looking for in a studio executive. I would also say intelligence. And intelligence I’m going to sort of combine with knowledge, is that sometimes you encounter studio executives who will come to you with an answer, saying like we need to have a car chase here, or we can’t do this, or we can’t afford this. And they’re just — they’re basically telling you what they’ve been told, because they don’t actually fundamentally have the information about what it is that needs — why that thing needs to happen that way. They’ve just been told that, and they are parroting it back.

And so you want the person who has either the knowledge, or the intellectual curiosity to find the answer for why this thing needs to be a certain way. I remember being on the set of a film and we were doing this night shoot. And there was a real concern that like is there actually going to be enough light. And so the two studio executives showed up and they’re like, okay, where are the lights.

And I’m like, the lights are those giant condors above you that are providing the light. Because it’s actually the middle of the night and it looks really bright. Those are the lights.

And so it was frustrating to be talking with — I lost some trust and faith in these executives because, wait, I thought you’d made a bunch of movies. They really didn’t have a fundamental understanding of the filmmaking process.

Craig: Yes.

John: That’s crucial. You have to have had some time on the set, in the trenches, in the editing room. I have to believe that you really know what this is like, even if you’re not good at doing a director’s job. Great. That’s terrific. You’re a studio executive. That’s fantastic. But you need to know what it is a director is doing.

Craig: That’s exactly right. And it’s easier for them to wrap their minds around what writers are doing, because that involves reading. But directors and studio executives often clash because, you’re right, there are studio executives who are under-powered in the experience department. And that’s not helpful for them. And it’s not helpful or the director. The truth is, we want to make studio executives happy. What I always look for in somebody is somebody who will be honest with me about the why something has happened and then is respectful of the fact that I want to still make, do as a good of a job as I can. And there have been times when I’ve just, somebody has just pointed a finger at me and said, “No, I’m sorry. We’re actually saying we don’t want it to be good. We want it to be this.”

And that’s hard because you, I’m just saying to my imperfect studio executive, the Goofus, look at Gallant. Gallant sits there and gets what he wants with the filmmaker, and the filmmaker still feels good at the end. Goofus just points a finger and says, “Do what I’ve been told to tell you to do.”

And by the way, if you are Gallant, what happens is you will — the perfect studio executive has close personal loyalty-based relationships with key filmmaking partners. That actually is more job protection than just doing what you’ve been told, I’m guessing. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

John: I think experience will — I think the data scientists will be able to figure that out. Because essentially if having a hit movie, that may buy you some time in that seat, but you know what — did you really make that movie? If you were the person who helped James Cameron get his vision onto the screen, that’s going to count for a lot more.

Craig: That’s right. Saying, look, this director that we trust wants to work with me. I’ll tell you something, studio executives, you have a nice situation in a weird way, the way that screenwriters kind of have a nice situation. There’s a lot of people out there doing your job poorly. It doesn’t take much to shine. So shine. And you will be rewarded. You will be rewarded. And if you get that pool of writers and directors that you know deliver wanting to work with you, that’s pretty great.

John: So, my next point about the perfect studio executive is that he or she is really good at the stuff that filmmakers are not good at. And that means a lot of times dealing with other departments. Dealing with marketing. Dealing with distribution. Dealing with all of the other layers of corporate stuff that has to be dealt with that we are not privy to and we’re not good at it.

So, the great studio executive has a vision for what this movie is. And when she goes in to talk with the marketing department and they throw a bunch of stuff back at her, she can say, “That isn’t the movie. That is not what the movie is. That’s not how this is going to be.”

It’s a person who can communicate the vision of the movie to all the different people, like the merchandising people from Hasbro about like this is what the movie is and can get their feedback and communicate it back to the filmmakers that it has to happen in ways that makes sense.

Craig: It’s funny. That actually is a way that I think things have changed. Because for a lot of studios now, the traditional relationship which is what you just described, has changed into, “No, the marketing department is telling me what the movie is. And the merchandising people are telling me what the movie is. All the more reason for the perfect studio executive to turn back to her writer and her director and say here’s honestly what’s going on, let’s not freak out, let’s help each other. Let’s together, I’m going to give you what I know, you’re going to give me what you know, and now I can go back to them with some substantive alternative plan. And let’s see if we can win this one.

So, something to think about, again, as you’re choosing between Goofus or Gallant, by two favorite twins.

John: They’re the best twins.

Now, some of what we’re describing overlaps with what a producer does, because a producer should also have some of that role of insulating the filmmakers from some of this craziness, but the producer is fundamentally CEO of this little corporation that is the movie, versus the studio executive who is part of this giant corporation that’s making ten movies at once. And there’s all this stuff going on that we’re not going to privy to and honestly we probably shouldn’t be privy to. But hopefully we’re going to have a champion in there who is making sure that when it comes time to our movie it’s being treated really, really well.

Craig: Correct.

John: All right. Let’s get on to our One Cool Things. Craig, I see what yours is on the list and I’m just so happy that you’re keeping true to the spirit of Scriptnotes in that we are a show about women’s reproduction.

Craig: Correct.

John: We are a show about razors. And we are a show about cooking.

Craig: Correct. I think in the past one of my cool things was brining. I’m a big briner. This Thanksgiving my sister and her family are heading out to the west coast to join us and I opted to get a Heritage turkey. And I’ve just been doing a lot of turkey reading, you know, so the turkeys that we get in stores like Butterball and so on, they are — essentially they’ve been bred over time, selective breeding over time to be super breast heavy. Yeah, hey, you know who’s back, Sexy Craig.

John: Uh-oh.

Craig: Hey.

John: Yeah, Sexy Craig comes back every Thanksgiving. It’s the holiday for Sexy Craig.

Craig: I like my turkeys with huge breasts. Huge. They’re so big that those turkeys actually can’t really stand up straight. I mean, it’s amazing actually what we’ve done.

John: We’ve created these deformed animals.

Craig: They are. But, you know, if you like breast meat and American stew, yeah, then that works. And they’re not, you know, for all people’s handwringing over corporate factory farming genetic freaks of nature, they taste pretty good.

But Heritage turkeys are turkeys that are essentially from an unselectively bred line of the original three or four different kinds of turkeys that ran around America back in the day when we were genociding our way across the continent. And they are different. They’re smaller breasted, bigger thighs, and wings. God, this is so sexy.

John: [laughs] I know.

Craig: It’s so sexy.

John: Yeah, when you talk about wings, everyone just immediately goes there.

Craig: Smaller breasts and bigger thighs. Honestly, that’s kind of my thing. So, anywho, and it’s a different kind of flavor. I’m not opting for this because, you know, I think GMO is perfectly fine. I’m a skeptic and a pro-science guy. And I know that almost everything we eat has been genetically modified either through science or just people growing stuff the way they grow them.

John: Look at the history of corn and you’ll see that corn is completely made up.

Craig: Oh yeah, bananas. Bananas, like the yellow banana we have, that’s the most GMO’d thing on the planet. Not by Monsanto, by banana farmers. Anywho, as Seth Rudetsky says, anywho, I’m giving this Heritage turkey a try just out of curiosity. I want to see if it tastes better, different, more interesting. It is certainly more expensive. I will say that. But I like the fact that it’s an option.

So, I will have a turkey review for you all post-Thanksgiving.

John: Fantastic. I did a Heritage turkey a couple of years ago and it worked out just fine. It wasn’t the best turkey I ever had, but it wasn’t bad, and it was interesting and it was different, so I salute you in attempting to do it.

You will discover that it will take longer to cook because it is heavier dark meat. You may actually just want to change some of your technique and basically pre-cut it down so that you’re doing your legs and thighs first before you’re trying to do your breast, because it may just be forever in there. But you’ll see.

Craig: What I like to do, a little method, I’m a big believer in Cook’s Illustrated, they’re geniuses.

John: Oh my god, they’re so smart.

Craig: You foil tent the breast, so you can actually let it — the legs and thighs and wings will cook faster — they’ll cook hotter, I guess.

John: Sure.

Craig: Slows down the breast cooking, speeds up the, yeah, anyway. We’ll see how it goes. And if it’s a disaster, guess what? Everybody is there for the side dishes anyway.

John: 100 percent. So, my One Cool Thing this week is the show that perhaps people have already watched, but I just started watching it and it’s really good. It’s Transparent on Amazon. Jay Duplass is a friend who I got to connect up with again in Austin for the Austin Film Festival. He is great in the show. Everyone is great in the show.

And I will admit to being skeptical of Amazon when they started doing their TV thing. I was especially skeptical about this whole process where they shoot a pilot and then put it up for there for everyone to look at and then they decide what shows are going to shoot.

I’ve actually been convinced that maybe that’s not such a bad thing, because having shot pilots that never aired or never got seen by the world, at least in the case of the Amazon pilots, they exist out there in the universe. And so people loves Transparent from when it was a pilot. The rest of the show is also really, really good.

So, I would urge you to watch that if you have the opportunity to watch it.

Craig: Guess what’s coming?

John: It’s a siren.

Craig: Multiple sirens.

John: I love it. So, what have you done this time, Craig?

Craig: It’s not good. [laughs] It’s not good. I actually really, most of the time when I commit a crime, you know, I just do it because I feel like it. And I feel fine afterwards. That’s, you know, like a real sociopath. But this time honestly I crossed the line. I should not have done that.

John: Yeah. Somewhere between victim number three and number four, you stopped to think for a moment like, wow, I may have gone too far. But by the time you got to victim six or seven you’re like, you know what? This feels right.

Craig: Sometimes the only way out is through.

John: 100 percent. Sometimes you’ve just got to put the accelerator down and just keep killing.

Craig: Just keep killing. JKK.

John: And that’s our show this week. So, if you would like to talk to Craig about his murder spree, you can find him @clmazin. I am @johnaugust on Twitter. Longer questions you can write to ask@johnaugust.com.

That’s also where you’ll find the show notes for this show and all of our other episodes. On iTunes we are — just search for us on iTunes. We are Scriptnotes there. That’s also where you can download the Scriptnotes app, so you can listen to all the back episodes there and on the Android store of your choice.

We have just now crossed 1,000 paid subscribers.

Craig: Oh yeah.

John: So, we are going to be recording a dirty episode that is just for our premium subscribers. If you would like to be a premium subscriber, go to scriptnotes.net and that will let you listen to all of the back episodes, some special episodes we’re putting up this week, and the dirty episode when we get that recorded.

Craig: So dirty.

John: It’s going to be so good.

Craig: It’s going to be filthy.

John: You can also join us on December 11th in Hollywood. The Writers Guild Foundation is throwing our live Scriptnotes Holiday Spectacular.

Craig: And that’s going to sell out.

John: That’s going to sell out. And that will be — I’ll bet it’ll be dirty in person, but then Matthew will probably cut it down so that it’s clean for air. So, if you want to hear the dirty version, maybe show up live. That would be great.

Craig: Yeah. For sure. And just get your tickets quickly because we are the Jon Bon Jovi of podcasts.

John: We’re the Elton John/Bernie Taupin of podcasts.

Craig: Correct.

John: Plus, our special guests are super special this year, so I think it’s going to be great.

Craig: It’s actually a spectacular lineup. Oh man, you know, B.J. Novak, he’s in that last shot of Inglourious Basterds, looking down at the swastika they’ve carved into Christophe Waltz’s head. It’s fantastic. It’s great.

John: It’s pretty great. This is the last week for Writer Emergency Packs, so Thursday at noon is the cutoff. And so if you want one, get one. Thank you to everyone who has joined us and backed us there. Our outro this week, well, I should say first off our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli. It is produced by Stuart Friedel. Our outro this week comes from RJ Sampson, who didn’t compose this, but he found this thing on the Internet. It is actually a TV spot for Restasis, an eye drop, for people with chronically dry eyes.

And, weirdly, it’s exactly our outro.

Craig: What the…Restasis.

John: Restasis. I just love that you pick five notes, people are going to pick the same five.

Craig: Of course. Restasis, do they list the side effects of Restasis on the website?

John: Yeah, umbrage.

Craig: Oh yeah, here we go.

John: It’s terrible. Craig, thank you so much for a fun podcast.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: I’ll talk to you soon.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Franz Kafka’s brother, and the perfect agent

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 08:03

John and Craig talk about why writers are often reluctant to show their work, and how film journalists love to focus on the director — even when there’s no director in sight.

Then, it’s part two of our Perfect series, in which we look at what constitutes the perfect agent. Underlying the agent archetypes — advisor, advocate, connector — is a relationship based on honesty and trust. How do you build it? How do you maintain it? We offer our opinions from the writer’s side of the phone sheet.

Come to our live show on December 11th in Hollywood! You’ll find the link in the show notes.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Finishing a script, and the Perfect Studio Executive

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 08:04

What are the odds that fivethirtyeight.com’s statistical analysis of screenplays will make Craig angry? Always bet on umbrage. Fortunately, he just finished a script, so we talk about that, and John’s new gig writing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (which was the project he described phone-pitching the past few episodes).

Then we talk about what makes for the perfect studio executive. It’s a series we plan to continue, looking at the prototypical awesome person in various categories.

Our December 11th live show is likely to sell out, so don’t delay getting your ticket. And Thursday at noon is the last chance to get a Writer Emergency Pack. Links to both below.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 170: Lotteries, lightning strikes and twist endings — Transcript

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 14:43

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hey, this is John. Before we start the show today, I want to let you know about the live show happening on December 11th in Hollywood. It’s Scriptnotes with me and Craig and Aline and special guests Jane Espenson, Derek Haas and B.J. Novak. So we did this last year. It was a tremendously fun time. You should come.

Tickets go on sale tomorrow, November 12th. So if you would like to come, please go buy a ticket. There’s a link in the show notes but you can also go to the Writers Guild Foundation site. That’s wgfoundation.org. As always, it benefits the Writers Guild Foundation which is an awesome charity. And we had a fun time last year. We’re going to have a fun time this year. So come join us if you’d like and we’ll get on with the show. Thanks.

[intro tone]

Hello and Welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 170 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

So Craig, last Sunday I had a really strange experience.

Craig: Tell me all about it.

John: I went to Long Beach where I saw the West Coast premiere of Big Fish: The Musical.

Craig: Oh, that must have been both disorienting and pleasing at the same time.

John: It was. It was surreal in the best possible ways. So this is the production that actually bought all of our stuff when we closed on Broadway. So they bought our sets, our props, our costumes, our wigs. And so it’s that weird experience of seeing something that is incredibly familiar yet incredibly different at the same time. So it’s the same production in terms of the script and the music but it’s just different because it’s different people doing it. It’s a different stage. It’s at this really quite big house, the Carpenter Theatre in Long Beach. And I kind of loved it, at the same time it was sort of an out-of-body experience.

Craig: I know that it’s hard for a lot of people to have seen the Broadway show because it’s in New York only but it was my pleasure to see it. And one of the big show-stopping elements were these big elephant butts, which sounds kind of crazy when I say it like that, but they were. It was very impressive production design. Did they have the elephant butts?

John: They have the elephant butts.

Craig: Wow, that’s awesome.

John: Yeah. So here’s what was so fascinating is because this production is original theatre, it didn’t have automation of the stage. So they had a lot of our set pieces but they didn’t have all the magic under the stage things to make stuff move around. So they have to like push things around. And they did a remarkable job sort of accommodating what they needed to do for that. And they were able to do a lot of the choreography with the Broadway production but not all of the choreography.

So it was actually just genuinely fascinating. It’s an experience that, as a screenwriter, you and I would never have.

Craig: Right.

John: To see the same text but with completely different people and being done without any of your sort of direct involvement. And so in many cases, people are making similar choices to the Broadway production because it’s just that’s the text. I mean like you’re going to play things a certain way because that just is what makes sense. But then sometimes a person will do something that is just different than intention. And sometimes that was kind of fascinating.

So Amos Calloway who, in the movie, is Danny DeVito, in the Broadway stage production it was Brad Oscar who was fantastic. The Amos that I saw in this version was sort of like I would say like a drunken cowardly lion, which is just a very different choice but it kind of worked. And so it was cool to see something very different.

So I would recommend anyone who makes a Broadway musical [laughs] to go visit a regional production of their own show because you’ll find it fascinating and surreal.

Craig: That’s spectacular. I’m glad it’s enjoying a second life and hopefully many more lives to come. I can see the show being done in schools.

John: We will be doing it in schools. So we have 60 productions this year of Big Fish across the country. Abilene Christian University did it in Texas. There’s a lot of university productions. Eventually there will be a Big Fish junior version like a school version –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Which will probably be different because I think a fifth grade musical about death is probably not the most ideal subject matter. So I will do some book changes to accommodate those needs.

Craig: There is actually some very interesting junior versions out there. My son was Jean Valjean in the Junior Les Mis in which some people actually were allowed to die.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So Éponine was allowed to die but Fantine was sent to a hospital [laughs] but then returns later as a ghost. So you just sort of understood that maybe the hospital wasn’t that great. But various changes were made. No one ever referred to prostitution or things like that. But your show, I think, wouldn’t require much.

John: No. I mean, our show is incredibly wholesome and family-friendly. The challenge is just how do you , you know, the idea of a father dying is quite a bit to put on the backs of a grade school cast. And also the split between the past and the present, that’s kind of sophisticated. And then to be able to show that and really act that when you have maybe a 12-year-old doing that could be challenging.

So I think we will find a way to simplify aspects of the storytelling so that it can best be the story of a son wanting to learn the truth about his father’s tales within the framework of what Big Fish should be.

Craig: Yeah. And I think you’ll find also that a huge part of the job of juniorizing the musical is making it much, much shorter and taking out — choosing which songs should just go because they can’t sing all of them.

John: Absolutely. And which songs can move from being a solo number to a group number because –

Craig: Right.

John: You have so many kids.

Craig: Right. That’s right.

John: So today on the program, let us answer some questions from listeners. We have a whole bunch that have been stacking up, so we’ll dig into that mail bag. We’re also going to talk about The Five Types of Twist Endings, this great blog post by Alec Worley. And I want to talk about lightning strikes and lotteries and sort of that sense of whether something becomes popular or successful because of its inherent awesomeness or just because magic happens.

Craig: Right.

John: So let’s get to it, but first a tiny bit of follow- up. Last week I announced Writer Emergency, this pack of ideas and prompts that we’re starting on Kickstarter. And Craig, you had to venture to the Kickstarter site.

Craig: Here’s the sick part is that I gave you money –

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Because you’re my friend.

John: Aw.

Craig: And then today, I gave our editor, Matthew Chilelli, some money because he does a really good job.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But it’s killing me.

John: It’s killing you. I really just want to dig into what it felt like to press that green Back This Project button. How did it feel when you clicked that and knew that you were supporting the Kickstarter economy?

Craig: It felt like I was betraying everything that I believe in. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: That’s basically I felt like I had turned my back on my values and had contributed to the weakening of civilization.

John: Craig, I want to thank you for that because you’ve helped and I want to thank, we’ve had so many backers. We had more than 2,000 backers and we –

Craig: Yeah, you guys did great out there.

John: We did great out there. So we were trying to raise $9,000. As we’re recording this, we’ve crossed $57,000 which is just nuts. So that’s fantastic. So now it’s pushing through the rest of the Kickstarter and putting these out in the world and then getting them to the hands of kids in creative writing programs across the country and around the world who could hopefully benefit from these. So I want to thank you, Craig, personally –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Because I know this was not an easy thing for you. But you broke through that seal, that barrier just for this one and then you supported Matthew Chilelli and now you’re just not going to be able to stop supporting Kickstarter projects.

Craig: No, no, no, it’s very easy for me to stop. In fact, what I really want is for Stuart to have a Kickstarter that I don’t support [laughs] just as a matter of principle. I don’t care what it is. He’s getting nothing. By the way, do you think you’re going to make money on these things? Do you think you’ll profit at all?

John: We might profit a little bit. So here’s the deal. It’s like as I described on the first podcast when we talked about this, is printing playing cards scales pretty well. So they’re really expensive to make those first batch of decks, but the more you can make, the cheaper per unit it is. The challenge is we’re actually doubling that because we have to, we’re sending them out to kids. And then there’s some things that don’t scale like postage and like sending stuff out to backers around the world.

Craig: Right.

John: So we’re not going to make a lot out of it but I think we’re going to sort of do what I wanted to do out of the project which is sort of bend the universe in a slightly better direction. So it’s been exciting to do that and sort of engage with that community which has its own sort of esoteric rules and customs and try to both be a part of that world of Kickstarter and also introduce that Kickstarter kind of world to people who are backing their very first projects like Craig Mazin.

Craig: Well, now that I hear that you are going to make some money on this, I’m full of regret because I would have just given you the $9,000.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I would just have bought you out, given you the $9,000.

John: Yeah.

Craig: This is like Shark Tank for –

John: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Craig: For 100 percent equity in your company, it’s just, but now I’ve given money and –

John: But you’re going to be getting a deck of cards. And you said you actually wanted to donate –

Craig: Yes.

John: The extra cards. So I think you did like the 12-pack.

Craig: Yeah. I want all the cards to go to the less fortunate budding screenwriters out there.

John: Great. And that’s a thing that backers can always do. So when you get your survey at the end of this asking for your mailing address, there’s this little field saying Special Instructions. You’re can just say I’m Craig Mazin and I want to give all my cards to the kids.

Craig: Yeah, that’s right. You can just say I want to Mazin this.

John: I want to Mazin this.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s really the term that we’re going to use for this. And so when Stuart sees that on the instruction sheet, he’ll know, okay, this is the Craig Mazin special.

Craig: That’s right.

John: Awesome. Let’s get to our things today.

Craig: Fantastic.

John: So first up is this Five Types of Twist Endings, which is a blog post by Alec Worley, and whoever sent this to me, thank you because it was great. It’s been sitting in our show notes for a while. But it was really cool.

So this blog post talks through twist endings and it defines twist endings as “the moment of revelation within a story that throws into question all that’s gone before.”

Craig: Right.

John: And it’s not hard for us to think about twist endings in movies because some of my favorite movies have twist endings.

Craig: Yeah, and I thought that this was a pretty good summary of how these things work. We can go through them one by one. I’ll take the first one, reversal –

John: Sure.

Craig: Reversal of Identity in which someone turns out to be someone else. So your parent is actually not your parent but your grandparent. Your best friend is actually a shape-shifting monster so –

John: Yeah. The Crying Game where the woman you love is not –

Craig: Is not a woman.

John: Ta-da.

Craig: Ta-da. Or in Fight Club, Brad Pitt is not actually a person. He is your alter ego.

John: That would also maybe play into the third version which is the Reversal of Perception. And Reversal of Perception is the way you thought the universe was built is not the way the universe is actually built. And so there’s a fundamental thing that is not the way you thought it was. My movie, The Nines, has that aspect where quite early on in the film you realize something bigger is going on. And so it’s not a twist in the sense of like, oh my gosh, I didn’t expect that at all. But you know that there is a revelation coming, that the universe is bent in a way that you were not expecting.

Craig: Yeah, the universe is a bent in a way or time is being bent in a way. So Alec cites An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which is an amazing short story by the great Ambrose Bierce and was clearly the inspiration for Jacob’s Ladder in which it turns out the entire movie is the fantasy of someone as they are dying.

John: Yeah. And short stories are actually a perfect place for twist endings to happen because in some ways, a novel, a twist at the end of a novel could feel like a bit of a betrayal. But a short story, you have just the right amount of investment in the reality of the short story that the twist ending feels great and rewarding. Where I would wonder in a novel sometimes you spent eight hours on this thing and like then to say like, oh, I’m going to pull the rug out from under you, it might feel like a betrayal.

Craig: No question. Twist endings have always been the stock and trade of science fiction and fantasy short story authors. In part, it works so well for short stories because a good twist makes sense of some confusing facts. And we can only bear to be confused for so long before we just give up. So short stories work beautifully for that.

One of the other twist endings he identifies is the Reversal of Motive.

John: Yes.

Craig: I thought he was after this but he’s really after that. So he cites Seven where we realize in the end the serial killer isn’t actually helping them. He’s setting up Brad Pitt to become, Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt’s wife to become his final two victims.

John: Obviously reversal of motive is often found in comedies also where you have a misunderstanding of what a character is trying to do and that’s sort of driving things. So in Go, in the third section of Go, Burke and his wife, they seemed to be trying to seduce Adam and Zack like some weird kinky sex thing is about to happen and it’s revealed that they’re actually trying to sell them confederated products.

So their motive was very different and that was the surprise. That’s the jolt that you weren’t expecting. And part of what was fun about that is it was a good misdirect. So like, oh, that’s the twist and then the next scene, you’re going to see that they’re actually, Adam and Zack were a gay couple this whole time and they’ve been fighting.

Craig: Right.

John: So sometimes you can misdirect twice or like you can lead the audience into one misdirection and then surprise them with a second misdirection.

Craig: Yeah, for sure. And some of these things overlap. You know what just popped into my mind is that great character from Monsters, Inc. I can’t remember her name but she’s the one who talks –

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: And she is both the reversal of identity and the reversal of motive. It turns out that she’s actually there under cover and she’s not a file clerk. “You forgot to file your paperwork.” But she’s the head of some sort of internal investigation and that was her motive. So those things always, you’re right, they work well in comedies.

And here he also has Reversal of Fortune in which, this one was a little, I guess it’s kind of a twist ending. It’s really more of the kind of Monkey’s Paw theory — what you thought you were going to get you’re not quite getting.

John: Exactly. So it’s pulling defeat out of victory or that thing that at the very end you realize like, oh, you actually didn’t get what you wanted. He cites someone we talked about before on the podcast, Emma Coats from Pixar who writes, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating”. And so this is basically there’s a coincidence often at the end that ends up pulling the rug out from underneath that character. And that can be rewarding in the right kind of movie. I think of noir movies sometimes having this or certainly like that Twilight Zone kind of fiction –

Craig: Yeah.

John: May have that like suddenly at the end the great and short version where he finally has time to read and then he breaks his glasses.

Craig: Yeah. This is the hallmark of the ironic ending.

John: Yeah.

Craig: One of my favorite Simpsons jokes was a Halloween episode. Homer eats the forbidden donut. He sells his soul for a donut, doesn’t finish it. [laughs] So he doesn’t have to go to hell but then he does finish it and he ends up in hell and he’s sent to the Department of Ironic Punishment –

John: [laughs]

Craig: Where he’s put on a conveyor belt and –

John: And force fed doughnuts.

Craig: Force fed doughnuts except that he never stops eating the doughnuts. He’s perfectly happy to eat as many doughnuts as they give him. And the demon says, “I don’t understand. James Coco broke in 15 minutes!”

John: [laughs]

Craig: Anyway, this would be the Department of Ironic Punishment.

John: Yes.

Craig: And then we have Reversal of Fulfillment.

John: Which I found the most challenging of the ones he describes and how you differentiate that from reversal of fortune.

Craig: Yeah. And so what he’s saying is, somebody is going to achieve is kind of subverted by what somebody else achieves. And I think the best example he gives is the gifts, O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi where two people individually sell their most beloved possession to sacrifice for the other and then find out that they’ve done this.

John: Well, it’s not only that they’ve done this, but like one of them has bought a comb, but she’s sold all her hair.

Craig: Right.

John: Yeah.

Craig: The gifts are now useless for each other. So that was, yeah, that works. Again, it’s a little bit of an ironic. That sort of kind of is also –

John: It’s ironic too.

Craig: It’s a reversal of fortune in a sense too.

John: Yeah. What I think is important about all these discussions about the twist ending is it’s really looking at what does the reader know? What does the reader know at every moment in the course of the story? Because in order to create one of these twist endings to make sense, the entire narrative has to make sense without the twist. And so that the journey you’re going on seems to make sense. And then when you provide the twist ending the reader needs to be able to go back and say, “Oh, it still completely makes sense with this new information.”

So you’re withholding a crucial piece of information and then at the end providing it and that changes the perception of everything that came before it. And that could be a rewarding experience for the reader. It can also be a very frustrating experience for a reader. And if that’s kind of the only thing you’re story has going for it, it’s unlikely I think to be completely satisfying.

Craig: That’s right. You don’t want to start and I think you can see the problem in the progression of the career of M. Night Shyamalan. You don’t want to start with this edict that the twist rules all.

John: Yep.

Craig: It does not. The script that I’m writing now is essentially a neo-Agatha Christie Who Dun It? All Agatha Christie stories had a twist ending, all of them, because the person that you thought did it wasn’t the one who did it and you never could figure out who did it and then you find out. And she used these reversals of identity and motive all the time.

Interestingly, never a reversal of perception, a reversal of fortune or fulfillment. It was always the motive and the identity were the things that were constantly shifting with her. And what’s so interesting about her success as a writer was that she understood that her audience knew it was coming. And that’s quite a high wire act to do when you, it’s not like — we all went and saw The Sixth Sense. I did not- I wasn’t sitting there thinking I wonder what the twist is. I just watched the movie and enjoyed the twist. But no one sits down to an Agatha Christie book and thinks, well… [laughs]

John: Well, this is going to be straightforward. I am going to know who did it.

Craig: Just like, yeah, it’s like a true crime story or something.

John: And so it’s sort of there’s a meta level of expectation is that she has to write the story knowing that everybody is expecting there to be a twist ending.

Craig: Right.

John: So therefore, everyone is going to be reading everything she writes into it with the expectation of like, oh, but that’s not really true. And so she has to both honor that expectation and then surpass it in ways that continue to be rewarding and surprising. And so that’s a challenging thing.

What the frustration would be is if Agatha Christie ever tried to write just like a straight story, something that didn’t have that at all, everyone would be a little bit weirded out by it. I could imagine her writing under pen names because anything with the Agatha Christie brand on it is going to feel like, well, that has to be that situation. M. Night Shyamalan has a similar kind of jinx to him because three times is certainly a pattern.

Craig: Mm-hmm. No, for sure. I mean, and frankly it started to feel a little desperate. I mean we don’t want to feel like our filmmakers are sweating to cook us the meal that they think we want. We want them to be expressing something competently and then we can enjoy it along with them.

By the way, Agatha Christie’s first big hit novel was called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I think it was called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And at that time, she was a new member of this Mystery Writers of England organization. That’s not the real name, but it was essentially that. And this caused a huge uproar with the mystery writers organization because they felt she had violated the rules of the craft.

Because the twist in the, and so The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a first person account. A guy is living in this little town and Hercule Poirot is renting the house next to him and he describes how a man is murdered and Poirot goes about attempting to solve the crime. And at the end, spoiler alert, it turns out the murderer is the narrator.

John: Yup.

Craig: And everyone just lost their crap over this. But boy, it really works in the novel. It’s great.

John: Yeah, we like that.

Craig: Yeah.

John: In many ways, I think that kind of reversal of expectation, that’s a reversal of the form in a certain way. Like you thought this was going to play by the rules and it’s not playing by the rules at all. And I certainly love that when that happens.

Craig: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

John: It reminds me of Too Many Cooks. I don’t know if you’ve seen Too Many Cooks yet.

Craig: Well, it’s my One Cool Thing.

John: Oh my god. And so Too Many Cooks is fantastic. And so I will let it remain your One Cool Thing. But I think that also reverses the form. You have an expectation of like, oh, I know what this is, I know what it’s parodying.

Craig: Repeatedly. [laughs]

John: Repeatedly. And then it just through its length and its form and just how nuts it goes, it becomes something really transcendent.

Craig: Indeed.

John: All right. I want to talk about two other little Internet things that came up this week. First is Alex from Target. Do you know this whole meme, this thing that happened?

Craig: I do. And I have to say, this is where the Internet just occasionally pukes something out. It just randomly decides you — I’m going to make you a star.

John: So Alex from Target for people who weren’t aware of it or who are listening to this six months later and wonder what the hell was that? So this is what happened with Alex from Target. There was a teenage checkout boy at Target, someone took a picture of him bagging groceries and another girl on Twitter wrote, “Yo, like so hot.” And that became like a viral meme sensation and then it got remixed and it just became this whole big blowup of a thing.

But then another company, a marketing company, claimed credit for having started it, but it looks like they really didn’t, which is juts nuts also.

Craig: Yeah.

John: If someone can try to jump on and claim credit for something they didn’t do at all. But it’s just so obvious we check that they didn’t really do it. So it was just a fascinating moment of kind of these Internet lightning strikes where this is not a person who, this Alex from Target, he didn’t do anything.

Craig: He did nothing.

John: He was just, he did nothing. He was just suddenly in a place and his photo went crazy and by all accounts, at the time that we’re taping this, he seems to be handling it remarkably well in the way that I think young people now who’ve always grown up with the Internet are sort of just kind of ready to be famous in a way that we never were. [laughs]

There’s that expectation like you could be famous tomorrow.

Craig: Well, also, I mean Alex understands inherently that he didn’t do anything. [laughs]

John: Yeah, exactly.

Craig: I mean, there are people that want to be famous and start doing things to be famous and then they become famous either because what they do is legitimately good or it’s legitimately terrible.

John: Or it’s ambiguous in a way that’s, yeah.

Craig: Yeah. Or it’s just bizarre or amusing, whatever it is. Alex literally did nothing. [laughs] He did absolutely nothing. This is one of those, this is like when there’s a glitch in the matrix and this happens.

And I think for him I can only assume that he’s like, yeah, this is just the Internet being Internet. I don’t have anything to do with this. It could have been me, it could have been anybody.

John: Basically, all he did was reflect light. And that was the extent of it.

Craig: Literally, all he did, it’s not even a well-framed photo.

John: No, I think that’s partly what makes it so incredibly great and charming. So I wanted to just take a minute or two to talk through what the Alex from Target movie would be, because I guarantee you that at least a thousand screenwriters go like, oh, that’s an idea for a movie. Like what if you suddenly became famous and like for no good reason. And I wanted to think about sort of what that movie would be because we’ve made other movies, good movies, about sort of the rise of Internet culture. I mean, Social Network, one of the best of them.

And I guess in Social Network of course, he’s creating Facebook, he’s actually doing something. But that sense of being plucked from obscurity and put up on this great stage and suddenly weirdly having a platform when you kind of shouldn’t have a platform is fascinating. And there’s potential there’s something to be made there but there’s also so many pitfalls in a character who has and wants nothing and suddenly gets everything.

Craig: Well, one of my favorite movies of all time is the old school version of this and it’s Being There.

John: Oh, certainly.

Craig: Yeah, and I think that I could easily see an Alex from Target’s version of Being There. If you were to make Being There now, that’s probably how it would go. Somebody is bagging, I mean, I don’t mean to suggest that Alex from Target is mentally challenged in any way [laughs] the way that Chauncey Gardiner was.

But somebody who’s unremarkable and perhaps even sub-remarkable becomes famous because the Internet has a weird burp and they end up being the president.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah, it could totally happen.

Craig: It could happen.

John: Yeah. So I think there will likely be competing Alex from Target movies in development. And I suspect none of them will happen. But I suspect we will see this idea in general explored not because of Alex from Target but just because it’s an idea that sort of needs to be talked about in the universe is this sense of suddenly out of nowhere you can just have this giant spotlight on you and you have no way of anticipating it, controlling it, making it start, making it stop.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And that’s a weird time that we’re living in.

Craig: Yeah, and somebody out there is pitching Jimmy from Taco Hut.

John: [laughs]

Craig: And probably selling it.

John: Yeah, probably.

Craig: Yeah. Probably.

John: Low six figures, yeah.

Craig: Low six.

John: Low six. The management company is involved as a producer, they shopped it around.

Craig: Right. The studio is, even though they haven’t gotten the script yet, they’re already thinking about who’s going to come and rewrite it.

John: Yeah, they are. And they’re probably going after like some of the Teen Wolf cast like Dylan O’Brien or somebody like kind of person for that role.

Craig: Totally.

John: Totally. So in a related thing, this was already on my show notes to talk about, is this great talk that Darius Kazemi did at XOXO, this sort of, I’ll summarize and say it’s a sort of TED Talk like, but his speech was actually really fascinating because it was like the most brilliant parody of a TED Talk speech. And so I’ll link to it in the show notes, but essentially he talks about how he made it. And we’ve heard a lot of speeches about how people made it and sort of how they became successful and how they built a community.

So what he did was he played the lottery. And he would, every day he would play the lottery and really think about what numbers and he started a community and he started like a blog where like he talked about his favorite numbers and like he’d mix it up and like played numbers in different combinations or sometimes like on his mom’s birthday he’d actually play his dad’s birthday to really throw things off. And eventually like he hit it and he became like super rich.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so it’s this brilliant parody of like how I made it but what’s so great about his speech is he actually segues into this idea of lotteries and this idea of lighting striking. And he’s a person who, this guy in real life, he makes sort of little Internet memes. And so he makes this little Twitter bots that combine random things. And so he gave a demonstration of like 50 of these different things that he’s made and combined.

And some of them are incredibly successful and some of them aren’t incredibly successful. And he can’t predict what goes viral. And his suspicion is that there is no reason. That it genuinely is just random, like Alex from Target, and that you cannot funnily predict it and shouldn’t therefore beat yourself up if something doesn’t work and you shouldn’t praise yourself when something does work because it kind of is random.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, look, there are way, there is good work and bad work. There are ways to do better and there are ways to do worse. But the magic that occurs when something takes off is unpredictable and does incorporate an enormous amount of random factors.

John: Yes.

Craig: And that fascinates me. I talked a while ago, one of my Cool Things was Gödel, Escher, Bach, which is a great book, which I think is –

John: Which I bought, which I –

Craig: Wait, I sent it to you.

John: No, you sent it to me.

Craig: I sent it you.

John: You sent it to me. You sent me the physical thing. It’s like 1,000 pages.

Craig: Yeah, it’s a massively long book. But Gödel was a mathematician and his — and I always worry that I’m not quite getting his theorem correct, but I believe this is essentially what he said was for any system of math with rules, there will always be things that are true that cannot be proven. There must be things that you can’t — that are true regardless of the fact that you can’t prove that they’re true which is fascinating to me. And I feel like entertainment is the same way. There will always be things that are good and there’s no way to prove why. And you could have never gotten to them intentionally. They just happen.

John: Yeah. I think that absolutely is true. What is interesting about this idea of lightning strikes or lottery tickets is that in a weird way you’re more likely to win the more things you do. And so I would say for people who are looking at a writing career or like trying to get into the movie business, the more times you’re at bat, the more likely you are to hit a home run.

And so you’re much less likely to sell a spec script if you’ve written exactly one script and you’ve shown it to one person. So that exposure to many opportunities and taking many chances is much more likely to get you into a situation where you can suddenly find yourself lucky.

Craig: Yeah, you have to strike the balance of course because there are people that shotgun a lot of things out there. One of them happens to click, but that’s the end of them because really their success was a product of nothing more than the shot-gunning.

When they talk about animal behavior, they talk about two reproductive strategies. I can’t remember, they’re defined by letters. But regardless, one of them essentially is a low quantity, high quality reproductive strategy which is a very human way of approaching it. Elephants do it this way.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It takes a lot to have a child, so therefore you’re going to have fewer of them, but really put a lot of resources into protecting them and raising them. And then there’s the other way which is, screw it, I’m going to have as many kids as possible and then a bunch of them are going to die but maybe a bunch won’t. [laughs]

John: Yeah.

Craig: And what you find, actually, even in humans, is that when humans are in situations where there is plenty, they will go for the low-quantity, high-quality reproductive strategy.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And vice versa.

John: The other thing which I think the lightning strikes theorem kind of misses is, especially in creative work, is iteration, in that sense of like, you know what, that first thing may not be the right idea, but by going back and tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it, that’s sort of how you find what is the thing that takes hold. And, you know, with all the sort of Twitterbots this guy did, that’s not really iteration, it’s a bunch of like things moving in parallel versus sort of serially going back through and seeing like, what, how can I make this thing better? How can I take the system and tweak it and make it better, and how can I make that experience better.

Craig: Right.

John: And so, in rewriting a script, that’s iteration. That’s taking feedback and looking at the script again and saying like, okay, this is the better version of this. And you’re honestly iterating on your own ability to write because I’m certainly a better writer than I was 10 years ago because I’ve had the experience of looking at my work and saying, okay, these are strengths, these are things that are not strengths, and I can actually do things better through all that iteration process.

Craig: And for those of us who are making movies, our goal is to make something that is permanent. We don’t always succeed, but we try. Whereas when you’re doing pursuits like the kind that Darius is doing, there is no expectation of permanency.

John: Yeah.

Craig: What you’re hoping for really is a combustion, you know.

John: That’s true.

Craig: But everybody knows that when the combustion consumes the fuel it’s gone. I mean, there’s no chance that a meme will last forever. You know, Grumpy Cat will not be popular 10 years from now.

John: Yes. And so, we can love Grumpy Cat now, we can celebrate its impermanence.

Craig: Yes.

John: But we can’t try to emulate its impermanence. We can’t try to like, to make the next Grumpy Cat. That’s probably not the right idea. We should try to make the next amazing thing. And the next amazing thing could end up blowing up like Grumpy Cat or could be a long slow burn that is remembered 10 years from now.

Craig: Yes, yes. But when you’re trying to make things that are permanent the high-quantity approach often will bite you in the butt.

John: I would agree. Let’s take a look at some questions.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So the first one I have here is Jason from White Rock, British Columbia who has a location question. “How specific can you place action in the real world? Can you really place a scene on a specific street in a specific town with perhaps even a specific address? I’m a suburban Vancouver-based filmmaker, and we Vancouverites don’t have a lot of experience watching movies that are actually set in Vancouver. Mostly our city serves as a stand-in for other American towns. I probably know as much about the way addresses work in New York as I do about Vancouver itself. So when addresses are needed in your script, how specific can you make them?”

Craig: Well, yes, you can make the address as specific as you want. Generally speaking, it should be as specific as it needs to be.

John: Yeah.

Craig: There’s no point in saying that the building is 35 West 56th Street if you can say, well, it’s a building, you know, Midtown, you could say, or corner of 56th and 5th. But, you know, if you’re telling the story where the address becomes a matter of importance, for instance it’s a crime story and someone has lied about where they live, sure. Well then, that makes sense, yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Put the specific address in.

John: Yeah, I think Craig and I are generally always pushing for specificity. And specificity doesn’t necessarily mean the street address, but it’s describing things in the kind of detail that makes it this house versus that house and lets us know the kinds of people who live in this house versus the kinds of people who live in that house. And so really think about what information will help your reader understand what is unique and special about these characters and their world.

And if that means really nailing down to what that street is like, great, tell us the street, but also make sure you’re giving us words that describe what that street feels like so, because we’re not going to know this. Don’t just put in a link to Google Street View, like really describe the street.

Craig: Yeah. What we want to know really is about people more than anything. So places exist for people to be in and we need to know what that place says about the people that are there. So, yeah, be specific, but don’t be over-specific. If the detail adds nothing for the reader it’s probably dispensable.

John: It is. So anything that provides feelings, sentiment, emotional detail, that’s what you want.

Craig: Right. Okay, well, next question is Matt from LA. And he asks, “After a long time toiling in the entertainment industry, I’ve been lucky enough to make the leap into fulltime writing and directing. As a freelancer I’ve been very busy and I’ve taken every single job that’s been offered. Now, they may not be the best projects but I’ve learned a ton and I’ve always felt good about the decision to take the job. But I foresee a near future where the various companies that have been offering me jobs will present something I don’t think is worth my time or the paycheck. As two very successful writers — “

John: Ah…

Craig: “Very successful writers, I’m sure you’re offered projects that you feel compelled to turn down by reputable studios.” I think he means I’m sure you’re offered projects by reputable studios that you feel compelled to turn down. “How do you turn down opportunities without souring relationships? Any tips would be greatly appreciated.”

John: That’s a really good question.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And that happens a fair amount, I’m sure, I mean, to both of us. And so someone will send us something and say like, hey, we’d love you to do this thing. And I will read it, and I’ll say I don’t want to do this. And so how do you answer back in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a jerk saying like that’s a stupid movie, I don’t want to make it, but also doesn’t leave you on the hook for trying to write this movie for these people?

Craig: Yeah. There are a couple of reasons why you’re not going to want to do something. You either think it’s dumb or just not your thing, or you think this isn’t, it’s just not something that I want to do or that I think I could add something great to or that I could succeed with. What you want to do is always turn down things with that second reason, [laughs] even if they’re not always that second reason.

John: [laughs] Exactly.

Craig: Nobody minds if you say, listen, this is very cool, it’s not quite — I’m not quite sure what I could bring to it or it’s not quite what I’m looking for right now. John Lee Hancock has a great phrase, “This isn’t a pitch I can hit.”

John: Ah, nice.

Craig: You know, like so I’m putting it on me. I will often say, you know, it’s probably not something that I think I could succeed with, but I look forward to being embarrassed when this thing wins an Oscar for somebody else.

John: [laughs]

Craig: So, you know, I try and be humble about it. I mean, people are offering you things, you should be polite. But, you know, they’re not unaccustomed to this.

John: Yes.

Craig: Just as we are not unaccustomed to hearing no.

John: And that’s absolutely true. And so, often what I will say is truthfully I am too busy, so like, maybe I’m just not actually available to do it, and that could be a completely valid way to get out of something. The danger is sometimes they can come back to you with that same thing when it becomes clear that you are more available. Or they’ll say, we’ll wait. I’m like oh god, now I actually have to explain why I really don’t want to do it.

The other thing that I will say, which is often true, is that someone will come to me with a project and I’ll say, you know what, this is actually kind of like something I already planned to do myself. And so I sort of have my own version of what this kind of thing is, and yours is going to be great, but I sort of want to do mine at a certain point.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s another way to approach it. So from you, as a writer-director, Matt, I would say, always say thank you. Make it clear that you really did really look at it, that you’re not just dismissing it out of hand, that you don’t want to work for those people. Just say like I didn’t spark to it. It didn’t feel like it was my thing, but I’m excited to work with you in the future. And if you mean that, then they will come back to you with more stuff.

Craig: Yeah. By the way, something that I will often do is I’ll say, after I’ve said no, I’ll say by the way, I really like this. For this part, think about this. I’m just saying like here’s just some thoughts in general. It doesn’t cost me anything and it shows that I wasn’t just being a jerk.

John: Exactly. And you may actually have a suggestion of like a person who is the right person for it. And so that’s always a good thing, too, if you can get someone else who would be fantastic for it involved.

Craig: Great point, great point.

John: Jay writes, “Can you go over the correct format for writing different scenes in the same room? For example, a bar where protagonists split up and do battle separately but in the same room. Do I still separate each scene with slug lines? If so, how should it look since they’re in the same master scene location? If not, can you give an example to how you would phrase this?”

Craig: Okay. Well, I personally wouldn’t do separate slug lines here. The slug line ultimately is a tool for the production to know where they’re shooting this thing. And if it’s all in one room, they’re shooting it all in one room.

John: Yeah.

Craig: What you can do is, say something like OVER BY THE BAR, you know, in all caps, and then write some of that and then say OVER BY THE ENTRANCE and then some of that, you know, so that people will understand that the camera is picking off two different areas of the same room.

John: Yeah. So what Craig is describing is often called the intermediary slug line. So it’s not an EXT/INT. And you’re not changing going from a new, it’s not a new scene, it’s just like a new part of where you are at in a scene.

And you’ll see that a lot. And as you read more scripts, especially action things, you’ll see that happens a lot, when you’re in sort of the same general space but there’s sort of scene-lets happening. There’s moments happening over here, and there’s moments happening over here, and sometimes characters — you need to make it clear that characters are not in the same space and can’t interact, because they’re in different parts of an environment. That’s totally fine.

I would say, in general, as I read scripts from newer screenwriters, they tend to throw in too many slug lines and make things seem like there’s too many scenes. And a lot of like “same, continuous” they get so freaked out by the format, and sort of like moving through a house takes like three pages because there’s so many slug line.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s not how it really works in the real world. If you’re in a house and the character is moving through space, let them move through space and don’t worry about each little new location.

Craig: Well, it’s just in part it’s the toxic impact of all these know nothing scripted advisers and so forth who fetishize the rules and put the fear of god into these poor people that their script is going to be thrown out if a slug line is misused. It’s absolute nonsense. The screenplay is there to inspire a movie in the reader’s mind and that’s what you should be aiming for. Don’t panic over things like “this is the way the slug line has to be!”

John: Yeah. Or that it should say “same” rather than “continuous.” It’s like no, it doesn’t need to be either of that. You probably don’t even need the slug line.

Craig: It’s just crazy.

John: In general I’d say like save those scene headers. Let’s really call them scene headers because it’s a header for a scene. The movie has moved to a new place and time in general and if you really haven’t moved to a new place and time but you’ve just like moved to a slightly different part of the room, just keep going and just let us be in that place.

Craig: I mean, there are times when you need a different slug because it’s the same time but you have two people in the bar and then at the same time behind the bar outside two guys are climbing in through the rear window.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: You know, people need to know, okay, it’s a cheat to not kind of call out that you’ve made a big location change, because again, it’s really, it’s for the production. I mean, that’s what it’s there for. Frankly, readers tend to glide through these scene headers. It’s not the stuff that our eyeballs snag on, so.

John: I think, honestly, I doubt, most times as a reader I’m not really reading those, I’m just aware that there was and INT and EXT and it was all upper case and so therefore, okay, I’m in a new scene.

Craig: Right.

John: So it’s a sort of piece of visual punctuation that lets me know that, okay, I’m in someplace new, and I’m going to figure it out once I start reading it.

Craig: Precisely. All right. Well, we’ve got a question here from Jim from Durham, North Carolina. And he writes, “My question concerns use of paragraph breaks in a block of dialogue.” All right, we’re in the format session of our Q&A?

John: We are.

Craig: “Admittedly, in most scenes, there’s a lot of back and forth, so it’s not common that a character goes on for half a page, but it can happen. My natural instinct when writing a long speech like that is to use normal paragraph breaks, a blank line. However, I was chastised for doing this. In fact, I was told by a person who seems to know all the rules that I had to put, in parentheses, beat, between each paragraph. I didn’t really intend for a pause any longer than the normal speaking pace, I was just trying to make it more readable and less run-on. “

Well, there wasn’t a specific question there but I think that the implied question is who’s right? [laughs]

John: Who’s right? Can you put that blank line in a long speech?

Craig: Yeah. What do you say?

John: I think you can. But I would agree with whoever said that it’s not standard and that it does sort of throw you because we’re not used to seeing it. And if I were to encounter that in a script I might wonder is this a mistake, did something get dropped out, is there something wrong, because I’m used to seeing a continuous block of dialogue being a continuous block. And if it’s broken up by anything, it’s broken up by beat or something else.

Craig: I agree. I mean, the problem isn’t that you’re putting the break in there, the problem is that the reader might presume that something went wrong and obviously that’s not what you intend. Beat is a perfectly good way to break these things up. Most people don’t read beat as long pause. If I want a long pause I’ll write in “long pause.”

However, I have to also say, if you don’t intend for any pauses or anything and it’s a half a page of a speech, try it without the pauses. I mean, just write the half a page. I’ll tell you this much, if it’s a half a page speech, better be a damn good speech. But if it’s a damn good speech, I’ll read it.

John: And you have other options rather than just beat and for that parenthetical. And there may be some good reason why there’s sort of a special moment of action or emphasis that it makes sense, like sort of like in the parenthetical, you might say like, you know, (to Jim) or like (straight down the barrel), or like some kind of a color line that you’re putting in that parenthetical that actually helps make the speech make more sense, and it’s also visually breaking it up. I think Jim’s overall instincts, like oh my god, this is going to be a very long block of dialogue if I don’t break it up, that’s the right instinct.

Craig: It is.

John: I would just that overall a use of a parenthetical or honestly just breaking out in speech to put it in a line of scene description and then going back into the dialogue is generally a better approach.

Craig: I agree, I agree. It’s a good instinct to break it up unless you’ve got something that really works best as a kind of spat-out run-on deal.

John: Yeah. So Clarence, from Canada, asks a marathon question.

Craig: [laughs] This needed to be broken up by beats.

John: Yes. So it’s in little bullet points in WorkFlowy here. So I’m going to read this and it’s going to be kind of long, but I think it’s interesting, so I’m going to get into this here.

“Two years ago, I wrote, directed, produced my second feature film with a meager budget of $7,000. It was solely financed by me and my own production company. I had screened it at a film festival in Los Angeles and was fortunate enough to be able to attend. Before arriving in Los Angeles, I got in touch with a handful of sales agents that the festival announced would be in attendance.

“I met with those three who were interested in representing the movie for international and domestic distribution. Two wanted to make changes to the cut, so I went with the one that didn’t.”

Craig: Act one.

John: “The deal was this. The company would own the distribution rights for my movie forever and ever. And they would work hard to sell the movie to territories worldwide because otherwise they wouldn’t make any money either. They had a number of other movies under their belt that range in size from no budget like mine, to about the $1 million range.”

Craig: Midpoint.

John: “Since its initial release on VOD and DVD in North America last year, it has also been released in 30 countries. But here’s the thing, I haven’t made that much money. It’s not necessarily the number that bothers me, it’s still a huge return on a $7,000 investment. What bothers me is that my sales agent has made much more than I have, about a 60/40 split. They take a 22% commission right off the top of each sale, and they recoup $20,000 they invested into marketing, like poster design, travel to film markets, et cetera. What’s left is mine. Unless the film reaches $100,000 in sales, then they recoup $15,000 additional marketing expenses. The movie has pushed past the $100,000 mark, and most markets have now been sold, giving a little room for much more income to trickle my way.”

Craig: Denouement.

John: “So finally, my question, is it normal for a sales agent or potentially distributor to make more money than the production company that actually made the movie? Not to mention put up the cash in the first place? Is this just the cost of doing business?”

Craig: Okay, so let’s summarize this Cecil B. DeMille production of a question. So he’s made a micro budget movie for $7,000. He has some sales agents that have sold it on VOD and DVD, and basically he’s not getting as much money back from the sales as they are.

The movie has grossed, I think is what he means, pushed past gross $100,000. There’s not much more that he thinks is coming towards him. So while he’s made some money here, it’s not what he was hoping.

Yes, this is normal. And here’s the problem. When you’re in this micro budget business, and you’re having an independent sales agent going out there and slinging this thing around, you are essentially, it’s like the pink sheets in the stock market. You’re penny-stocking it, you know?

John: Yup.

Craig: And so there’s this enormous built-in risk to these things. Some of these deals, the fact that the movie cost you $7,000 doesn’t mean anything to them. What they’re worried about is that they have to spend in this case, $20,000 to actually market and distribute this thing.

That $20,000 is at enormous risk. So the only way for them to make money is to build in the failures into the successes. And unfortunately, you’re not just paying them for what they did for your movie, you’re paying them for what they did for other movies that lost everything.

John: Yes. They’re sort of building a slate after the fact. They’re gathering up a bunch of movies. And in some ways it reminds me of sort of like the housing crisis where they packaged up a bunch of mortgages, and like put them into different bins and sort of like, you know, marketed them as one thing.

They probably were able to cut deals with VOD places and other stuff for like a whole big bundle of things. And yours was one of those bundle of things. And I think it’s unlikely that you’re going to see a huge windfall from that sort of situation.

Craig: Yes.

John: Here’s the good news for Clarence though, like he made a $7,000 movie which got released on VOD and DVD. That is full of win.

Craig: Right.

John: And I think you have to take that as a victory. And the fact that your movie exists in the universe, is a really good thing especially if you like your movie. That’s a really good thing. Many, many filmmakers, Lena Dunham’s first films never had that kind of release, so you’re ahead of her from that perspective.

I wouldn’t stress out about this. I would kind of forget about this movie, this distributor. Work on your next thing, and then if you have a thing that has multiple people who want to distribute it, take a stronger look at sort of what those terms are and if there’s a possibility for better terms with a better person, maybe that will be the case.

Craig: Yes. Michael Eisner once famously said of negotiating for deals, “You can get what you can get.” And this is what you’re able to get.

John: Yes.

Craig: So when you roll with these kinds of guys that are doing these high risk investments, yes, this is the way it works. There’s just no way around it. But John is absolutely right, the victory here is that you made the movie, people saw it, now it’s time to trade up and see if you can get into business with some people that aren’t necessarily in the, what my grandmother would call the schmatta business. John, that’s Yiddish for low quality clothing.

John: Ah-ha, I learned something today.

Craig: You learned something. Patrick in good old Blighty writes, “If I’m a British writer, writing a US-based script, most likely targeting a US production company or agent, should I be taking measures to alter my language and spelling accordingly? Hopefully, the dialogue should read as authentic to the setting. But should I be writing mom and not mum even if it’s against my nature? Would this freak an American reader out? Or would be people be able to accept the British-isms if it’s not affecting the story?

“I want to be able to write the script the way I feel comfortable. And I would feel as if I’m being inauthentic or misrepresenting myself as a writer by trying to remove or hide part of my identity from it, but I’m also worried at the same time it will be jarring, or take people out of the script. So what do you think I should do?”

John: You should absolutely not write mum instead of mom particularly in dialogue. Anything a character says needs to be written in the way that the character would actually say it. I mean, not going crazy into sort of like regionalisms or colloquialisms or trying to describe specific dialects accurately, but you don’t say mum instead of mom if it’s an American kid. That’s just not going to be natural. I wouldn’t worry about sort of every last little spelling. That’s fine. If it’s spelling in scene description, that’s going to be fine, but the big words, the words that are actually going to be said, those have to be American words if this is going to be a US production.

Craig: 100%. This is a slam dunk answer here. It’s not you, you’re not saying these things. You’re writing a screenplay with American characters, they have to speak as American people would speak. I’m on my second script in a row that is primarily populated by British characters. They speak like British people. What I don’t do is, for instance, if it’s a word that has a different spelling but the same pronunciation, I don’t go that far.

John: So honor, color, valor.

Craig: Precisely. If someone is going to say color, I just write it C-O-L-O-R. But I certainly, I take very careful, pay very careful attention to not use words that they simply don’t use over there. I mean, specifically if it’s in dialogue. For instance, in Britain, dumpsters aren’t called dumpsters. So I’m not going to have a character say dumpster. I’m not going to have an English character say dumpster.

This is an easy one, Patrick. Go ahead and write them however you want when people aren’t talking, but when the characters are talking, they have to talk like the people that they are.

John: Yes. John in Orlando writes, “I’m an attorney and screenwriter who is in Florida. I have a good friend who happens to be childhood best friends with a major showrunner you both surely know.

Oh, now I have to think of who this could be.

“We have hung out in social situations, but I’ve never revealed that I write scripts. I really hate to be ‘that guy,'” in quotes, “lest it change the social dynamic between the three of us, but I would like to at least pick his brain about some things. My dream would be to have a project gain traction first, and then mention it, but I feel this guy probably knows a ton that could help me at this point. Any advice for broaching this subject? This must happen to you with friends of friends who want advice.”

Craig: Yeah, it does happen with friends of friends who want advice. I think what nobody wants to hear is read my script because they already have scripts they have to read. There’s legal issues with reading a script, and so on and so forth, and of course, what’s hanging over it more than anything, is that they don’t want to be in that terrible position of having to tell you that your script is atrocious.

John: Yes.

Craig: However, I don’t think it’s a problem if you’ve hung out with this guy in social situations and you live near him to say, “Hey, can I just buy you a drink or a cup of coffee, an hour of your time, no more, no less? I just want to ask you some questions.”

That’s an easy one for somebody to say yes to. Frankly, it’s also an easy one for somebody to say no to. If they say no, then you just let them off the hook and that’s the end of that. But if they say yes, at least then you get them there. And if your concept comes up in the discussion and they get really excited by it, then they’ll ask you if they want to read it.

John: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think broaching it in a way that is sort of both direct but also not sort of confrontational, so like putting it in the context of like coffee or a drink is going to make things probably feel a little bit better. I’d be leery about having like someone else sort of broach the topic like having the wife call the wife or any of that stuff. That’s going to just be a mess. If there’s a friend of a friend and you are friends with this person, and it hasn’t come up yet, but it could come up, let that come up.

If it’s a situation which like you’re going to the Austin Film Festival and that comes up naturally in conversation, then clearly you are a screenwriter and they will know that you’re a screenwriter and that’s awesome.

Craig: Yeah, easy. All right. Here’s our last question, I think. Jawaad from Fort Lauderdale writes, “My question is about a recent fear I’ve been having about being trapped underground in a box.”

John: That’s not true.

Craig: No, I misread that, “About being trapped in one genre.” Sorry. I misread that word. [laughs]

“So my question is about a recent fear I’ve been having about being trapped in one genre. So far, I’ve been a comedy writer, I’m the head writer of my university’s sketch comedy show, done quite a bit of improv. However, lately I’m starting to realize that I may not love comedy as much as I initially thought. I realize with comedic features,” and he says here, “I just finished my first feature, a kids’ comedy and it’s definitely not as funny as it should be.”

All right. “There is a high expectation of laughs per minute and I’m not sure that’s the type of writing I ultimately want to be doing. Do you think there is an easy crossover for somebody who’s only done comedy to start writing dramas? I feel like sprinkling a little comedy into dramas would be an asset that would make my writing stand out.” John, what do you think?

John: So Jawaad is in college. He’s written one script and he’s worried about being pigeonholed.

Craig: Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

John: That’s actually crazy. And so, I put this question on here because I love it because it’s that sense of like I worry I’m going to be trapped in a genre having written one thing and being in a comedy troupe in college. That’s not how it works. If you had like a hit sitcom that ran for five years, then yes, you might be pigeonholed as a comedy person.

But you are at the start of your life. You can literally do anything. And so you should go off and write the drama if you think you’re a drama person. You are not trapped at all. The sense of being trapped is completely an illusion.

Craig: Yes. If a tree is pigeonholed in the forest and no one’s there to read it. Yeah, no, Jawaad, you are pre-pigeonhole, my friend. Nobody knows what you’ve written here, and it doesn’t matter. Your gut is telling you something, however, that is important and that’s you don’t want to write a certain kind of movie. You don’t want to write broad comedy, and you may not want to write comedy at all.

The fact that you maybe identify as a funny person or that you like writing sketch comedy, so you like writing comedy in sketch format as opposed to feature format, that doesn’t mean that that’s all you can be or all you should be. You should write the kind of movie you want to write. That’s really the only sort of movie that you are ever going to have success with anyway.

Sprinkling a little comedy into dramas is a good thing if that’s what the movie wants to have. I would not think in terms of assets. There’s a lot of calculation inherent to this question that I would advise you abandon.

John: Exactly. It’s always like, it’s trying to figure out like, well, what if I build this mansion and I don’t like the bathroom in this mansion that I build. It’s like, well, you don’t have a mansion yet, so like, stop building your mansion and actually like, you know, go to work. It’s one of those sort of like, what if I don’t –

Craig: It’s a Steve Martin joke. You know, how to not pay taxes on $1 million, step one, get $1 million. You’re not there. This is not something you should be worrying about. You have all the ability and time to write precisely what you want in the manner you want to write it.

John: I agree. Craig, it is time for One Cool Things.

Craig: One Cool Things.

John: My One Cool Thing is so short. It’s Tim and Susan Have Matching Handguns. It’s a documentary by Joe Callander. It is 1 minute and 47 seconds long. So I shouldn’t say too much about it because I could actually talk longer than the actual documentary is. But it’s just a perfect little gem that I just love. And it reminds me of like an Errol Morris film, but it’s 1:47. I loved it.

Craig: You had me at 1:47. I’ll be watching it as soon as we’re done recording. My One Cool Thing is the aforementioned too many Too Many Cooks by Chris “Casper” Kelly. So Chris Kelly, who goes by Casper Kelly because there are four billion Chris Kellys out there, he’s done a lot of shows on Adult Swim which is the Cartoon Network, I believe. And he did this thing that may be the greatest thing actually that anyone has ever done in an Internety way. This is the best of the Internet. If Alex from Target is the sort of most pointless of the Internet, this is the greatest.

Adult Swim has this thing where they do these infomercials which aren’t infomercials at all, but they fill in an 11 minute gap at 4am.

And so he floated this thing out there and lo and behold, a few days later, it is a sensation. And it truly is a sensation. We talked about subversion. The concept is a simple comic concept. We’re watching the opening credit sequence of what is sort of like a Full House sitcom. And the gag is that the song is super cheesy and everybody in it turns and looks at the camera and smiles when their name appears underneath them.

And you think, okay. And then the joke becomes, oh, there’s actually way more characters than there should be on the show like there’s like way too many characters and you think, okay, that’s a joke. But every 40 seconds, Chris Kelly says, “No, that’s not the joke. This is the joke.” And then, about seven minutes in, it’s not a joke anymore at all.

It’s actually something brilliant, and subversive and kind of existentially gorgeous. And where it ends is quite beautiful actually. Smarf, that’s all I say is Smarf.

John: Smarf. I’m going to watch it again because I’m not sure I got to the moment of existential beauty. I got to a moment of just tremendous appreciation for sort of just the ongoing genius of it. And to me, where it crossed over is there’s a moment where a young woman is hiding in the closet, and it’s one of the most sort of bizarrely brilliant little ideas. So I just loved it.

Craig: I think my mind went into a Nirvana space when the names rearranged themselves as people, and the people appeared as the names. That’s when I just thought Chris “Casper” Kelly, and really, I’ll just say this, why I love it so much is that this is truly a marriage of chaos and discipline.

John: Yes.

Craig: We typically just get chaos on the Internet. It’s easy to be weird on the Internet. Super easy, and there’s lots of it. But this was absolute madness within a structure that was so good. So anyway, it’s out there, by the time this airs it’ll probably be, everybody will be like, oh, we all know about Too Many Cooks, but if you don’t, my god, Too Many Cooks.

John: Check it out. So we will have a link to that in the show notes, and also there’s a piece I read in Entertainment Weekly this morning about an interview with him talking about sort of why he did what he did and how he did it. It was just remarkable.

You’ll find links to that in the show notes in addition to other things we talked about. You can find those at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. If you want to subscribe to Scriptnotes, you can join us on iTunes, and click subscribe there, you can also leave us a comment which is always lovely and helps us out.

If you want to listen to the back episodes, and also the special bonus episodes, we’ll have special things with the Three Page Challenge from Austin. We’ll have Simon Kinberg. Those are found at scriptnotes.net and you could subscribe there. It’s $1.99 a month, it gives you access to the whole back catalogue.

Craig: $1.99.

John: $1.99. Craig, we are super, super close to the 1,000 full-time premium subscribers, so we’re going to have to do that dirty episode and I’m so excited to do it.

Craig: You said you had a great idea. Do you want to say what it is?

John: I don’t because I’ve not reached out to that person yet.

Craig: Okay.

John: Yes, but it’s a great idea.

Craig: Okay. Well, I trust you.

John: Well, I told you who the person was, right?

Craig: No.

John: I did. Craig, your memory is failing. It’s a person who, I’ll tell you again after the show. But you said, I told you after the last show, you said oh my god, that’s a great idea.

Craig: Oh, really?

John: Yes. Wow, Craig. I’m sorry, maybe you should like have a medical professional because last week you asked about the whole Retina iMac and the display –

Craig: Right.

John: You said like you wanted to get the Retina display but without the iMac and I explained why. And I explained that I’d done it before.

Craig: Let me put your mind at ease. I have a 13-year old son. He’s destroying my mind. [laughs] It’s just him. It’s not medical. It’s just my son.

John: It’s not medical.

Craig: No, he’s just consuming me. He’s consuming my mind because I have to remember all of my stuff and all of his stuff.

John: Yes, it’s a burden.

Craig: Yes, huge burden.

John: If you would like to jog Craig’s memory, you can reach him @clmazin on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. If you have a long question like the ones we answered today, you can write it to ask@johnaugust.com.

If you want to get a Writer Emergency Pack, you can just go to writeremergency.com, that’s a link to the Kickstarter. There will also be a link in the show notes. Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week, who also has a Kickstarter project, so back that.

Stuart Friedel is out sick today. He will be back next week.

Craig: Good, good. [laughs]

John: How do you dare say that?

Craig: I hope it’s fatal. [laughs]

John: Craig gets very mean late in the episode. This is the one where everyone turns again Craig Mazin.

Craig: Exactly, I don’t know why. I think this is my new theme is that Stuart is bad.

John: Stuart is all things good.

Craig: I’m sorry, Stuart. But it’s, what if he’s dying?

John: Well, it could be Ebola.

Craig: Oh, sweet.

John: All my staff went and got their flu shots because the flu sucks and it’s much more likely that you’re going to have the flu than to get Ebola.

Craig: Slightly more likely, yes.

John: Just a little –

Craig: Just a touch.

John: Just a tiny bit, but I learned that everyone who works for me is afraid of needles.

Craig: Oh, what a bunch of babies.

John: I know. [laughs] Like it’s very rare that I run around with a needle and stab them.

Craig: Like what a bunch of, first of all, the flu shot, you don’t even feel that needle. It’s the tiniest, skinniest needle.

John: I know. And it’s so rare that I stab them. And for them to have this sort of, you know, instinctive reaction just because I’m running around with a needle is weird. [laughs]

Craig: Honestly, it’s so bizarre. Wait, you gave them flu shots?

John: Well yes. It kind of saves them money.

Craig: I like that you sit them down and just start injecting. No wonder Stuart is sick. It’s your latest concoction over there at Quote-Unquote.

John: I told them it was the flu serum.

Craig: Yes, it’s not Stuart.

John: You’ll never know.

Craig: Yes.

John: It’s not.

Craig: Yes.

John: Craig, thank you for another fun episode.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: Bye.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Lotteries, lightning strikes and twist endings

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 08:03

John and Craig look at the nature of fluke hits, everything from #alexfromtarget to huge spec sales. Is luck just luck, or is it about how often you play the game? Where does talent fit in?

We walk through a great breakdown of twist endings by Alec Worley, looking at how expectation both inside and outside of the story shapes the experience.

Then we answer a bunch of listener questions, on topics including using real-life locations, breaking up dialogue, and passing gracefully when you don’t like a project.

The Scriptnotes Holiday show is December 11th in Hollywood, featuring guests Aline Brosh McKenna, B.J. Novak, Jane Espenson and Derek Haas. Check the link below for tickets.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 169: Descending Into Darkness — Transcript

Mon, 11/10/2014 - 17:39

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: Uh….my name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 169 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, it’s been far too long.

Craig: Been far too long.

John: You were not around last week. You were doing something else, so I had to do a podcast without you. I survived, but it’s good to have you back.

Craig: Well, thank you. I was at the wedding of excellent screenwriter Ted Griffin and remarkable Broadway performer and film and television performer, Sutton Foster. It was a beautiful wedding. Had a great time. But I did miss you. I missed Austin. I mean, I haven’t missed Austin in years. So, that was a bummer.

And then I wasn’t there to do the show. And that was a bummer. But I did listen to it. The first podcast I’ve ever listened to in my life. And it was good. Everybody did a really good job.

John: Yeah. We had Susannah Grant stepped in and was the co-host in your absence. One thing that may not be completely clear to people who are listening to that episode is so we’re in this church, but the actual layout of where we were was incredibly awkward. So, a church has pews, which is lovely, and then there’s like two steps up and it gets to where actual services happen. And the steps are very important because that’s why you can actually see what’s happening.

But they had us set up in front of those steps, down at the same level as the pews, so sight lines were actually awful. In many ways listening to the podcast would be a lot like attending the podcast because it was very hard to see anything while you were there.

Craig: I did notice on the schedule that they had you in that church. And I confess that I thought to myself, oh, John is going to throw a fit. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: Because why did they put you in a church? Why weren’t you in the regular room?

John: Because it was one of the biggest available rooms. The biggest room at the Driskill was actually bigger than this would have been, but this was what was big and available at the time. So, once again, I want to thank the Austin Film Festival for having us there at all. It was a great experience. We had great guests. It was super fun.

We also did a Three Page Challenge with people who were in the second round of scripts for the Austin Film Festival.

Craig: Oh, terrific.

John: And that was really cool, too.. So, a few weeks from now we’ll have the audio up for that. We had Franklin Leonard and Ilyse McKimmie as the guests for that. And they were so insightful, because these are people who read scripts all the time. They’re sort of gatekeepers. And their perspective on stuff was just terrific. And to be able to have the actual writers of those three pages in the room to explain sort of this is what the actual full movie is like is so useful, because we could talk about — that movie you’re describing sounds great, here’s the movie I thought I was reading based on these three pages. Let’s try to get these things a little closer together.

Craig: And that right there is the core of what a good relationship between a writer and a development person should be.

John: Absolutely. So, today we’re going to be doing a new batch of Three Page Challenges. We have three new scripts to look at, so that will be cool. And they’re actually really interesting scripts, so I’m eager to get into them.

But we have so much follow up. We could do a whole episode with just the follow up stuff. So, let’s burn through this stuff first.

Craig: Okay.

John: I’ve set it up in two previous podcasts, there’s this thing we’re working on called Writer Emergency, and it is a deck of cards for when you are writing something and your story just gets stuck. And it’s the kind of thing where — Aline mentioned this on an earlier episode — where sometimes just someone needs to give you a nudge, an idea, saying like what if this. And sometimes everything just breaks open, like oh, I suddenly get how to do that.

You don’t always have that person to give you that idea. And these cards are just full of those ideas. So, you saw these. I sent you a deck of these cards.

Craig: Yes. I saw an early version and they’re adorable.

John: Thank you.

Craig: And they’re full of very cool little exercises and exercises are good things. I mean, they get you — it’s kind of like the text version of writing in a different place. It just jostles you out of your normal which is always a good thing.

It’s funny. On Twitter when you had mentioned that you were going to be bringing something like this but you were being intentionally vague, a whole bunch of people thought that you were about to launch some sort of pay me for notes service. And I just thought that was hysterical.

John: That will never happen.

Craig: Ever.

John: Ever.

Craig: Ever! No, but this is a great little deck of cards. And it seems like if I made a list of gifts you could get for your writer friend, it would be — I don’t know, what do you get writers?

John: Yeah. It’s hard to get things for a writer. So you get them like pens or backpacks.

Craig: Or Advil. I mean, we don’t need anything. But this is a fun stocking stuffer. I think you’ve timed it well for Christmas.

John: Yes. So, we cannot actually guarantee Christmas delivery. It’s something we would love to be able to do, but we are working with suppliers who have to print these things, and we have to ship these things, so that could be complicated. But it could be possible.

The most fascinating thing I’ve learned over the past six weeks as we’ve been trying to put this thing together is that shipping physical goods is really challenging. I always make apps and things, podcasts, things you can ship out digitally. When you have to ship physical things to far away countries, it gets to be challenging.

And so we’re dealing with these suppliers that are sort of all over the world. But it’s turned out really cool.

One of the most interesting things about this whole process, and the thing that made me most nervous about my conversation with you, is how we’re actually launching these into the world. We’re using Craig’s favorite thing in the entire world. Craig, what is your favorite thing in the entire world?

Craig: Uh, well, my number one favorite thing is death by anthrax. And then my second favorite thing is Kickstarter.

John: Yes. And we had a whole episode about your love of Kickstarter.

Craig: Love it!

John: You love it to death. And so I was really nervous when I sent these to you and said, and Craig, we actually went through a lot of different ways, and the best way for us to make these is actually to do a Kickstarter campaign. And you said…?

Craig: What was the lie I told you? [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: That it was okay? Did I say it was okay? It’s okay.

John: I think you said it was okay.

Craig: It’s okay because you are essentially using them like a store. You’re saying, look, you buy this and we’ll give it to you. You’re making them. It’s not like you’re saying we might one day make these.

John: It’s not like you’re investing in something that we are getting all the profits from. The goal behind this is, so, every deck of these cards that we give away through Kickstarter, we’re also giving a deck to a kid’s writing program. Because these things are actually really great for learning about story and how you would talk about story. And so we’ve been doing exercises with kids to figure out what actually works and these cards work really well.

But Kickstarter is a good way for us to be able to make a bunch of these at once. And when you make physical goods, the more you can print at once, the cheaper each unit becomes. That whole like curve of economics thing, it actually kind of works when you’re dealing with physical goods. So, we have to make enough so we can actually print enough so that it’s actually worthwhile to do. So, that’s the goal behind doing the Kickstarter of it all.

Craig: Look, I make an exception for you. What can I say?

John: Ah, thank you. It means a lot that Craig is not angry at this Kickstarter.

Craig: Can I just say as an aside…?

John: Please.

Craig: [laughs] It is kind of sad that my podcast character, I mean, Mike Birbiglia called me the antagonist of Scriptnotes and it made me laugh. But, you know, Lindsay Doran, she’s been doing this independent producers thing lately where she goes and talks to independent producers about, I don’t know, producing stuff. I guess it’s like Sundance Labs for independent film producers.

And somebody brought up that she was working with me and they had heard this on the podcast. And they’re like, is he okay? Is he mean? [laughs] Do I yell? And she just started laughing because I’m actually — I’m very nice.

John: You’re actually very, very nice.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t yell. I’m not a jerk.

John: No. Maybe three times in our entire relationship have you been sort of really, really angry. And they’ve never been directed at me, because I would never want to be the focus of that rage. But I was actually genuinely concerned, because I know you have deeply held feelings about Kickstarter, and so I actually approached this Kickstarter thinking like how would I build something that Craig wouldn’t hate.

Craig: Yes.

John: That’s really how I go through my life is how do I do things that Craig can possible stand. So, we designed the pledge tiers at levels where like no matter what you’re doing, you’re getting the thing.

Craig: That’s the thing. I mean, look, you’re delivering the product, so you’re not asking people to give you a bunch of money so you can go buy a bunch of lunches for yourself for a year and then not deliver. And, also, you’re donating these to charity. I mean, it’s just — it’s the best possible version of this. So, how could I — by the way, it’s the same thing that Franklin Leonard said when he called me about the Black List.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: He was like, I really was just thinking how can I get you to not hate this. [laughs]

John: I was asking myself what would Franklin do, and how can I get Craig not to hate this?

Craig: There you go.

John: You were the two standard bearers for me. Aline factors in there, too, so I actually showed these to Aline right away. And significant changes were made based on Aline’s feedback.

Craig: She’s tough. She’s tough.

John: She’s tough. So, if you are interested in seeing these decks of cards and perhaps getting one, the Kickstarter campaign will probably be up the morning that this podcast comes out. If I don’t have the URL tweeted, you can just go to writeremergency.com and there will be a link to the Kickstarter campaign. It’s a super short campaign. It’s like two weeks or so. So, you don’t have a lot of time to dilly and dally, but the people who listen to this podcast, they’re on it, they’re buying t-shirts during limited windows.

Craig: Yeah. They’re good.

John: It’ll be fine.

Craig: We have the best listeners.

John: Well, we do have the best listeners. And I met so many of them at Austin. It was really nice.

Craig: What a lovely thing.

John: At Austin I always see Scriptnotes t-shirts, which is great. And now that there’s multiple generations of Scriptnotes t-shirts, I see the different eras, the different colors, the different everything. But I saw one of the very few shirts we ended up selling that was sort of Frankenweenie inspired. It was a quote from my Frankenweenie script. And they want what science gives them, but not the questions science asks.

And someone was wearing that shirt. And it was just so nice to see, like, aw. That one shirt.

Craig: I didn’t even know. Is that a Scriptnotes shirt?

John: We sold it through the same store. We sold it through the same johnaugust.com.

Craig: Well, I will, for all of our listeners who do attend Austin and those who are thinking about attending, I will absolutely be back next year for sure. No one else is getting married that I care about.

John: Absolutely. And you will be at our next live show. And on the next podcast we will be able to announce the dates and possibly even the guests for that. And that’s going to be great.

Craig: Good one. It’s going to be a big one.

John: Cool. Further follow up. Last episode that you and I were talking, I got a new computer and it’s so nice.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: It’s the 5K Retina iMac.

Craig: Yeah!

John: I would encourage — if people are on the fence like, oh, will it really make a difference, it’s so nice.

Craig: Yeah. I’ve been reading some reviews. People are just tripping all over how awesome it looks. I’m waiting now for the Retina Cinema display, because it doesn’t exist yet, but I have to assume it’s on the way, right?

John: We talked about this last week. It’s actually incredibly hard to build that because there’s not a cable fast enough to get the –

Craig: Oh that’s right. We did.

John: So you may be waiting awhile.

Craig: I’m like your grandpa that just now he’s repeating stuff. [laughs] That’s just sad.

John: It’s okay.

Craig: It’s just sad. Someone tuck me in. Tuck me in and give me soup.

John: The podcast, we’ll forgive you.

Craig: Yeah, I’m old.

John: Last podcast we also talked about the Marvel superheroes. We talked about all the superheroes and that there were 31 superhero movies coming out.

Craig: And now we know who they all are, right?

John: We do. So, the published the list with actual names for those dates. Because I had kind of mocked Marvel for like saying, oh, these are Untitled Marvel movie in this slot. And it’s like well that’s cheating. But they decided to stop — because of me — they decided they had to actually decide what movies they were going to make.

Craig: You are at the hub of our industry. You are the beating heart.

John: The same way that I look to you and Franklin Leonard, Kevin Feige says, “What does John August think?”

Craig: Yeah.

John: He probably wakes up in the middle of the night going, oh my god, what does John August think?

Craig: They call you the Eye. The Great Eye.

John: We’ve talked about Kevin Feige a lot and I realized that I actually met him a zillion years ago because on the very first Iron Man I came in and did just this tiny, tiny bit of work on it. And even back then I predicted success.

Craig: I also met him many, many years ago. He was super nice. I remember he was super duper nice. It was a general meeting and I remember he gave me his card. It was like a Marvel card.

John: Aw.

Craig: Yeah. Now look at him. Now look, our boy is all grown up. Yeah.

John: Exactly. So, the movies are Captain America: Civil War, which was predicted. Doctor Strange, which was sort of predicted, but it had been un-slated. Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Thor: Ragnarok. Black Panther. Okay, sure. Captain Marvel, which just makes things incredibly complicated.

Craig: Yes.

John: Idea wise, because Captain Marvel is the original name of Shazam and they’re also making a Shazam movie, but Shazam is DC and it’s confusing. But Captain Marvel is a female superhero with sort of — she does superhero-y things. So, that could be good.

Craig: You struggled through that a little bit, I think. You were like, “Who does…” You wanted to say female superhero-y things, didn’t you?

John: No, no, I was trying to say that she did Superman kind of things, but I perceive her as having flight and strength and stuff, but I don’t actually know the details and limits of her powers. I will confess my ignorance to that.

Craig: I’m right there with you. Honestly. Like for instance, I know that Black Panther is black. I don’t actually know what his — I’m kind of reaching the edge of my comics knowledge. So, I don’t know actually what his powers are, or Captain Marvel. I mean, I know Doctor Strange. Who else? Oh, yeah, Thor.

John: Thor.

Craig: I know Thor. He’s got a hammer.

John: He’s got a hammer. And we know that his evil brother is –

Craig: Loki. And his dad is Odin.

John: Yeah. But his dad is dead.

Craig: Right. Oh, yeah, forgot.

John: Yeah. The Avengers is a two-part thing, which of course, why wouldn’t it be a two-part thing?

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s the Infinity War. And so that deals with a lot of stuff that’s been set up in the universe so far. All those infinity stones and it’s been through all the different –

Craig: I don’t know, the infinity stones, I don’t know about those. I’ve never followed that story. I know that they’re there and they have something to do from Guardians of the Galaxy, but I feel like I’m totally — like obviously I didn’t know anybody from Guardians of the Galaxy. I honestly didn’t know about Hawkeye. [laughs] I just didn’t. There’s so many of them. I just don’t know.

John: But I think your life was pretty fulfilling even not knowing that. So, when you do know it, it’ll just be an extra plus.

Craig: I think there should be a team, like Guardians of the Galaxy was a team of people that theoretically most people didn’t know. But I think Marvel should make a movie of characters that most people do know, I just don’t. So, it would have Hawkeye and Captain Marvel. Like Ant Man? I don’t’ know.

John: No idea.

Craig: Does he get small? I assume he gets small?

John: Yeah. Yeah. We’re going to say small.

Craig: Small.

John: And, finally, Inhumans, which is November 2, 2018, and almost nobody knows the Inhumans since they’re a completely different thing.

Craig: Yeah, I don’t know them. [laughs]

John: The best description I heard of what they will represent likely in the Marvel universe is because the Marvel universe for Disney does not have X-Men, and they actually apparently can’t even say the word “mutant.” Inhumans apparently do — may serve a similar function in that universe.

Craig: I see. Okay. Well, they can be in the movie of characters that other people know that I don’t know. Which, as we can see, is going to be an enormous movie because I’m grandpa. This is a Craig as grandpa day.

John: Yeah. We divide the universe into two things –

Craig: What I know.

John: Things Craig knows. Things Craig doesn’t know.

Craig: It could be a great movie. Everybody knows who we are, except for Craig.

John: Final bit of follow up, last podcast I was talking about — the podcast we did together — I was talking about how I had had this phone pitch and then I had to go in and do the real pitch and sort of what the difference was between that first impression, everything happening on the phone, and having to really dig in and figure out story.

And so that digging in and figuring out story, that went really, really well. But, I listened to a podcast that actually had a guy having to give a pitch that was so smart. It’s such a good version of this that I want to share it with people. It’s a podcast called the StartUp. And it’s Alex Bloomberg, who was a reporter from This American Life and Planet Money, and he’s attempting to start his own podcasting company. And so he’s trying to raise money for it.

And so he’s going to investors and pitching his podcast company. And pitching a company, a startup, and pitching a movie, they’re different skills. They have different terms of art and sort of ways you do things, but what was so insightful in this first episode he’s trying to pitch Chris Sacca, who is a big investor guy, on his company. And to hear it go horribly, and then hear Chris Sacca pitch that same idea back to him in ways that actually mean something to him.

And it was just a great episode to listen to. The differences between how you perceive your own idea and how someone on the other end perceives your idea and what that idea could be. It was just a fascinating version and that happens all the time in Hollywood, which is where you are describing the story you think you see, and they will sometimes describe back the story that is actually meaningful to them. And you have to decide is that even a movie I would want to write.

Craig: Do you watch Shark Tank at all?

John: I don’t. But I know what that is. That’s the thing where people have these inventions and things?

Craig: Yeah. They have ideas for businesses, basically. Sometimes it’s an invention. Sometimes it’s a service. And they come in and there are five people there who have a lot of money, like Mark Cuban, who is a billionaire. And the individual investors make decisions about how much they are willing to invest, if anything at all, and how much of the company they want in exchange for their investment.

And it’s based on, there was an English show that my wife and I used to watch years ago called Dragon’s Den. And it looks like they just ported it over and called it Shark Tank for the United States. Same idea. And we’ve always loved it because it is people pitching and it is them telling a story. Everything comes down to some sort of narrative.

But there is that remarkable thing that happens where somebody comes in and they are inherently likeable. They are — it’s a single mom who has fought really hard. Sometimes they’re kids. It’s a 16-year-old who’s got this brilliant idea. It’s a man who has been downsized and he’s getting back on his feet with his own thing. And there are these very likeable stories, but there’s always that moment where they hear the story, they really appreciate the story, and they show this guy some empathy and love, or this woman some empathy and love, and then the wall just drops. And it becomes business.

And they couldn’t care about that at all. It’s amazing to watch it happen. Like you see it literally flick, like a switch. And I think the same thing happens in Hollywood. We come in and we have these great opening moments and I love you, and you love me, and everything is wonderful, wouldn’t this be wonderful. And then you pitch. And then they just flip a switch. And now it’s business.

John: So, what’s so interesting about that situation and what happens in the room when you’re pitching a movie is you start by talking why the story is meaningful to you, but at the same time you have to be able to describe it in terms that are going to be meaningful for them in terms of what their actual decision-making process is. And so you have to be able to talk about how it’s resonating with you, your personal connection to it, who you are, why they should trust you. But at the same time you have to be able to then flip it and say like this is why this is going to be a thing that needs to happen in the world. This is why this is going to be a movie you’re going to want to make and green light and spend all your money and all your time doing.

And it’s easy to figure out why something is meaningful to you. It’s hard to figure out sometimes why it’s meaningful to them. And it’s practice is what does it. You start to hear these investors talking about sort of what’s meaningful. You start to hear the words they use. Things like what’s your unfair advantage, which I’d never actually heard before until Chris Sacca said it. And then I was an investor pitch earlier this week and a guy slipped that in. I’m like, oh my god, that felt kind douche-baggy, but also wonderful.

The same way that we would use “end of the second act.”

Craig: Right.

John: Or at the midpoint. The way we would use those kind of terms or tent pole, they use these kind of terms and you have to be able to understand why they’re looking for those things because those are meaningful parts of their decision process.

Craig: Yeah. When you are pitching something, it’s great to start with that question you raised. Why should this movie exist? And you need to have a good reason for it. Not a good intellectual reason, but a good passionate reason. You have to actually believe your answer, because that’s what’s going to power you through writing the script. Only through believing your answer and having faith in your answer do you have a prayer of having them agree with you.

John: And one of the toughest matches though is sometimes you can pitch a movie that you actually have no interest in writing. And I’ve encountered this a couple times where I’ve gone in on a project and I can sort of see like, oh, there’s a movie there. I can see what that is. I can see what they’re going for. Or, sometimes I’ll be sent some adaptation and I’ll be like I see why there is a movie there, I just know I don’t want to write it. And I know that it’s the process of trying to write this thing is going to be terrible. And that same kind of thing happens in this StartUp podcast, where there’s a version of what an investor is looking for that is not at all what Alex Bloomberg is trying to create.

Craig: Right.

John: And he has to question himself, like, I see why they want this thing, I’m just not interested in doing that thing. I don’t think I’d be good at doing that thing. I think everyone is going to be miserable if I try to make that thing.

Craig: And then you have a choice.

John: You do.

Craig: Because, it’s funny, when Lindsay and I went around pitching the thing that I’m writing now, we had terrific success. A lot of people said, yes, we would like this. After about three, I think our first three meetings were big successes. And then the fourth one was just terrible. Terrible meeting. Not because they were being mean, it just was awkward from the start. It was a rough one. And we knew it wasn’t going to be a yes. It was going to be a no.

And in thinking about it later, I was just so grateful that that hadn’t happened to have been the first one.

John: Yup.

Craig: Because you just don’t, sometimes it’s just that’s the one person, or even if it’s the two people, and you have to ask yourself, okay, is it me or is them? And, of course, when you’re looking for a big investor, or in our case, when you’re looking for that one investor, all it takes is one.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You just need one person to love it. You don’t need everybody to kind of like it.

John: Exactly. And sometimes that decision process of who do you go to first can be so important because, you know, sometimes it’s good to go to sort of the softer place that you’re not that invested in them saying yes or saying no, just so you can practice what it feels like to you telling it to somebody else.

And so in times where I’ve done TV pitches, I’ve noticed that I often do schedule the most unlikely place first, or the least exciting place first, because that way you sort of get all the butterflies out.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a little bit like you’re scheduling your movie, you always try and pick something that’s kind of a layup for day one. You know, oh yeah, we’re just going to shoot two people talking in a restaurant. That’s easy. Easy first day.

John: I was out a dinner with Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who wrote 500 Days of Summer.

Craig: Great guys.

John: Great guys. Love them to death. And I had met Scott before, but this was the first time meeting Michael.

Craig: He’s the best, isn’t he?

John: They’re wonderful.

Craig: And he’s like, and Michael is like, he’s 12 as far as I’m concerned.

John: Yes.

Craig: So young. Yeah.

John: So young. So, one of them lives in Los Angeles. One of them lives in New York. And so they often have to do pitches or meetings on the phone with people. And they talked about how difficult it was to plan for it. And they had to actually sort of be really meticulous about who is going to say what, because otherwise they’re just talking over each other. And they need to make sure that all the points get made. It’s really, really difficult to do in person and then to try to it on the phone, too, it’s a challenging world we live in.

Craig: Yeah. I had lunch with — or coffee or something with Michael in New York and I was fascinated by this, how they managed to do it that way. But they do. I’ve spent time with both of them now, but never in the same room.

John: Yeah. So, this was my first time ever — they’re rarely together, so it was nice to have them both there at Austin.

Craig: I mean, but then again, look at us.

John: Look at us. We’re never in the same room. It works out fine.

Craig: Yeah, we’re the Elton John and Bernie Taupin of podcasts.

John: Oh my god. I think that’s a much better comparison that the Van Halen of podcasts.

Craig: Let me ask you a question. Which one of us is Elton John and which one is Bernie Taupin?

John: I’m Bernie Taupin –

Craig: No question.

John: You’re the flamboyant showman.

Craig: I’m the one in the boa and duck glasses. Yeah.

John: I’m Bernie Taupin because I have no idea what he looks like, but I sense he’s really the power behind the whole relationship.

Craig: He’s certainly the serious one. Yeah. He’s the one who’s like, okay –

John: He’s like, “Elton, no, got to get this done. We’ve got to finish this.” That’s completely my function. In Big Fish with Andrew Lippa, and I adore Andrew Lippa, but I always the one who had to say like, okay no, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to finish this song. We’ve got to get this thing happening because we promised these people. I’m always — that’s my job.

Craig: Yup. And I’m the guy in the Mozart wig and sailor outfit.

John: Yes. You put something on the show notes which I think is potentially fascinating, because it’s something that you’re writing right now. On the show notes you write, “Descending into darkness. When you have to write terrible, tragic moments.”

Craig: Yeah, I actually did it this morning. And I’m just going to be incredibly honest because this is the place where I’ve learned how to be honest, I think, on the podcast. I wrote this sequence this morning, and then I — honestly, I bawled. I bawled. I cried my little eyes out, because it was so sad. And it just made me so, so sad.

And if that sounds like something that you find laughable, maybe this isn’t for you. Because I do feel like this is part of what we have to do. It’s not something that’s come up frequently for me, because most of the movies that I’ve written over my career have been lighter fare. And while there are sweet moments or dramatic moments in lighter fare, it’s never quite so gut-wrenching. I mean, you just don’t want to kill — you don’t want to deflate the soufflé of lighter movies.

But when you’re writing a movie that has room for tragedy, sooner or later you’re going to come to that point where you have to go to a bad place, because you have to write something that is terrible. The sort of thing that if it happened to a friend, you’d feel it in the pit of your stomach and you would be horrified.

And it’s not easy. And I’m not sure, I sort of wanted to ask you if there’s anything you do particularly to prepare for those moments and how you go into those moments because for me it seemed like the only way to prepare was to not prepare and to just let myself experience bad things.

John: So, yes, I’ve had to do this actually quite a lot. And so Big Fish was sort of the most notable example, where that last sequence where you’re sort of taking Edward Bloom to the river and he passes away, that’s opening a bunch of veins. And writing that sequence, I’ve talked about this before and sort of not secret knowledge, what I would do is in my bathroom at my old house there was this big mirror and I would sit in front of the mirror and I’d bring myself to tears. And then I would start writing the scene. I would write it all by hand.

And it sounds very, very method, but in a weird way your brain switches to a different place when you’re in that kind of heightened emotion. And you can sort of capture that emotion when you are writing, sometimes when you’re feeling that same way.

And so I didn’t have to necessarily bring up horrible memories of my past. I didn’t have to do any of that stuff. But I let that moment be really real in my head to the point where it would bring me to tears, and then I would write through it.

The danger and difficulty of doing that is that same sense memory will come back every time you see or reencounter that scene. And so as I had to sort of go through the script again, and again, and again, I couldn’t get through that stuff, reading it sometimes, without evoking that same memory and those same tears.

Then, of course, I went off and did the Broadway version and to write that sequence with Andrew Lippa I had to bring us both to tears, and then we had to write the song, and then figure out the scene that goes around it and stage it and perform it ourselves like 100 times. So, that whole moment is deeply, deeply wired in to sort of how I experience the show, how I experience the movie.

And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just the reality. You have to remember that you are the first performer of this moment that you are creating. And so if it doesn’t have an emotional impact for you as you’re writing it, it’s not going to have an emotional impact for someone who is watching it.

Craig: That’s right. And in many ways while it is uncomfortable to feel these emotions as you’re writing these things and to cry over what you’re writing, it is the reward of a lot of good work that you’ve done before that. A lot of logical non-emotional work you’ve done. Because the only way you’re going to get to that place — tragedy ultimately while felt irrationally is constructed of rational things. Circumstances make things tragic. Not emotions.

And when the circumstances align in such a way, then they allow the emotion to occur. So, this is your reward. You’ve done your job. If you are crying when this happens, it means you have carefully constructed the proper recipe for tragedy. But then going through it, it’s interesting — I didn’t start crying before I did it. I just started doing it and then started feeling those moments where I would begin. And that’s how you know it’s true.

I mean, this is where I have to say drama is easier than comedy. Because when you write something funny, I don’t know anybody that sits there writing — any comic writer who sits there writing and then suddenly starts laughing as they type. I’ve never seen such a thing. It’s because it is so, I don’t know how to, I want to say intellectual.

John: But comedy is ultimately a function of surprise. Comedy relies on that sense of like something that you didn’t see happening happens, or someone says something that you didn’t expect, and it takes you by surprise.

Craig: And you know the surprise.

John: And once you know the surprise, it’s not going to be funny the same way. Same reason why you watch any movie that you love as a comedy, you may still love it, but it’s not going to be as funny the second time.

Craig: That’s right. And so you have to — the only way to write a funny moment is to know the surprise at the end and then it build it backwards like a magician designing a trick. But that’s dangerous work because there is no instinctive moment where you say my lizard brain has just informed me that this is impactful.

You know, when you cry, that’s not you. You’re not crying. The sense of who we are as people is all about our consciousness and our frontal lobe. This is the animal underneath. So, not only are you the first person performing this part, but then your limbic system is the first audience member listening to it, in a true sense different than you. And so you have to listen to that and you have to be on top of that.

And if you get to a place where you’re descending into the darkness, and none of this is happening, then you have to ask yourself if you’ve constructed all the circumstances necessary to make this moment tragic, or if you were just leaning on the moment itself. It’s not enough to watch somebody die. We have seen people die in movies 14 billion times. Why are they dying? What did they do to die? Who is watching them die? What does that person mean to them?

All of those questions are what makes something tragic as opposed to just henchman number four falling to his death.

John: It is your emotional investment in those characters that it makes those moments have stakes, have meaning. And so it’s not necessarily your emotional investment in a character who is dying, but it could your emotional investment in the characters who are witnessing that death who are affected by that death. That is what’s meaningful.

You’re absolutely right in that if in a movie you see a character die in a car crash, that’s not necessarily going to bring tears. It’s not necessarily going to have an emotional impact. Only to the degree that we love that character or relate to that character or see ourselves in that character, or someone else who we can identify with who we can feel that connection to the character. Then we can feel it. Otherwise, we don’t feel it.

And your point about construction of a joke is absolutely true with drama as well. And I often describe Big Fish as one very long joke and the punch line is tears. In that it really is very carefully constructed to set up this expectation of we know from the start that Edward Bloom is not going to live at the end. The question of the film and the question of the musical is what is going to happen with this relationship between Edward and his son, Will. And we are paying that off right at the very end and the surprise of the movie — I’m going to spoil everything for you — but the surprise of the movie is that Will actually finally does get there and is able to deliver that last moment.

And so it’s that happy tears thing can happen because you’ve spent so much time and so much energy making it possible to have meaning in that moment.

Craig: Right. Now, there is a danger hidden behind all of this. And the danger is this. You will write this and you will care deeply about it. It will be emotional for you. And sometimes it’s emotional for you because it has a resonance to you personally, separate from the story. However, you must remember that the audience, either the people in the theater or someone reading your screenplay owes you nothing.

John: Zero.

Craig: Nothing. And it is absolutely within their right to say this didn’t move me, or I think it would be better if this, or I think it would better — you don’t have to agree with them, but what you can’t do is hold them responsible for your emotions. Either you have managed to welcome them in to your limbic theater, or you haven’t. And so just be careful not to force people to be accountable for what you feel, just because you felt it.

John: Absolutely. And so sometimes you will encounter a script where there’s clearly supposed to be this emotional payoff and we’re not feeling it. We’re not feeling those moments. And something along the way did not click fully. And someone got off the ride. And if someone got off the ride, they’re going to see this moment and say like I should feel something, but I don’t feel something, and therefore I don’t like it.

Craig: Yup.

John: And that is really going to happen. And obviously the same thing happens in comedy, too. When you feel joke-oids or things that should be funny but aren’t funny, there’s something that’s just fundamentally not working there. And it’s your job to put aside your experience of that moment to really be the scientist to figure out why is this not working the way I thought it was going to be working.

Craig: Absolutely.

John: So, let’s take a look at these Three Page Challenges and see if we can get them working the way they want to be working. So, as always, if you want to read along with us, we have the PDFs for this Three Page Challenge are attached to the show notes at johnaugust.com. So, go to johnaugust.com and click on this episode and you’ll see the PDFs for these things so you can read along with us.

So, Craig, which of these Three Page Challenges should we look at first?

Craig: Well, the first on my pile, because I like to print these out, is –

John: Oh that’s right, old school.

Craig: Old school. It’s the signal by Cody Pearce.

John: Let’s go for it. Do you want to do it or should I do the summary?

Craig: I’m happy to do it.

John: Summarize!

Craig: Okay. So, opens with a pair of gloved hands. One of them is holding on to a leather satchel. The other is grabbing a large knife and hiding it within the folds of an animal skin coat.

We see the hermit, this is our hero that we’re following, moving out of a rustic cabin in the pines and then wearing a pair of earplugs. They put the earplugs in the ears. We don’t see a face.

The hermit moves through the woods, moving past some hidden bear traps. And then eventually arrives in a town, a small town called Pine Brush. And it looks like it’s been abandoned for decades, kind of post-apocalyptic.

As the hermit walks down a street we see a family coming. They avoid the hermit. Interesting. And then the hermit enters a general store which is run by Bob. Just this average guy. And he offers to help the hermit with something. And then the phone rings and a high pitched noise comes out of the phone and Bob suddenly stops being Bob and becomes controlled by something. He’s channeling some other voice and he attacks the hermit who is now revealed to be Michelle, a 30-year-old woman.

And the voice says, “Oh, Michelle,” through Bob says, “oh Michelle, you look terrible.” They have a fight. Bob is trying to pull out her earplugs and saying please let me help you. And eventually the fight ends when Michelle rams the knife in between Bob’s ribs. And that is our three pages from Cody Pearce. John, take it away.

John: So, I was intrigued by this overall. I was excited to read pages four through ten at least and see what this whole situation was going to be. Clearly The Signal is this thing that can take over people and the hermit, this character Michelle, has good reason to be isolating herself in the woods to do something.

I liked a lot of this. I was a little ahead of Cody. For whatever reason I tipped that the hermit is probably a woman dressed up under all this other stuff. But on the whole I dug it.

It was interesting to hear your summary where you say, so this is the bottom of page one. “The buildings of Pine Brush haven’t been updated in decades. Most are abandoned, businesses closed and boarded up. A few old, beaten-up cars scattered about.” Now, you read that and said post-apocalyptic. I don’t think that’s the intention. I think the intention is it’s just like a rundown town.

But, it was ambiguous, and that ambiguity hurts because those are two different universes. And I think a little bit more — I’m going to say that word — specificity could help us here. Because I need to know what kind of universe we’re in. Because I think I’m probably more right because Bob’s general store is running.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so it wouldn’t be running otherwise. But it was a reasonable choice and I read it both ways the first time.

Craig: I agree. Many, many promising things here. I always like to say, hey, you can do this to somebody. I think, hey Cody, you can do this.

Let’s talk about what works. The style here is right for the material. There’s a lot of whitespace on the page. Very short descriptions. I’m not hearing these overdone elaborations of what the pine trees look like and how the footsteps sound in my ear, all this stuff. It’s nice and punchy and good. I was completely with you that I was ahead that something was up with the hermit. Either it was going to be a child or a woman. And the reason why is because when you write something like, “Out steps…THE HERMIT, age unknown, wearing the animal skin overcoat, his face hidden beneath a large hood.” And then, again, “We do not see his face.”

Well, then it’s not a him. You’re kind of cheating on your misdirect. If it’s a big deal that this is a woman and that we can’t see her face and that we’re supposed to be misled, I would just underplay it here in your description. Finally we see this person’s face. And not make a big deal of holy gosh it’s a lady.

John: Yeah.

Craig: At first I was a little surprised by “Howdy. Can I help you with anything?” because that seemed so corny. You know, nobody really talks like that anymore. But then I thought, okay, once the little squeal-y sound happens, maybe that’s sort of Bob, that’s all that’s left of Bob’s personality. I don’t know.

John: See, I took this as Bob really was Bob from the start. And that was genuinely him. And then that Signal took over and he became a different person. So, I would want to take this as, and I don’t know Cody’s intention, but everything actually is fine and normal until The Signal takes over.

So, The Signal is specifically looking for her.

Craig: I see. Well, in that case “Howdy. Can I help you with anything?” is –

John: Howdy is a dangerous word.

Craig: Just bad dialogue. The action I thought was very well written. I understood what was going on. Personally, so okay, Cody has an issue here. There is a cinematic concept whereby characters that we see onscreen are occasionally going to be possessed by some unseen intelligence that will speak through those characters.

And what Cody says, what he writes for us is in brackets: “[NOTE: from here on out, whenever a character is under the control of the Signal his dialogue will be show " -- instead of shown, that's a typo -- "(tapped)]” And then in parenthesis tapped. And so as a parenthetical every time Bob speaks with the Signal voice it says, “(tapped) Oh Michele, You look terrible.” Again, another typo Y is capitalized. And then again, “(tapped) Please…Let me help you.”

I’m not sure that’s going to work here. We’ve got, I assume, at least 90 pages of this. A lot of people are going to be talking this way. Tapped is a very strange word for this. I understand that it may make sense later, but to see it over and over and over. Plus, you’re stealing your ability as a screenwriter to put a different parenthetical in if you need to. What if the Signal voice is sarcastic or angry? Or whispering? How are you supposed to do that?

So, my argument would be that instead maybe everything that is a Signal should be in italics.

John: That’s exactly my suggestion.

Craig: Yeah, it would just make more –

John: Yeah, I think it makes more sense. So, keep the same note, just say that when under the control of the Signal, everything will be in italics. We’ll get it. It’ll be fine. And I agree with you. Tapped, I think, is a weird choice of that word anyway because tapped implies a physical reaction, like something is actually physically happening and that’s not what’s happening.

Craig: Right. My last comment for Cody is this. As screenwriters, sometimes we get trapped by convention. One of the conventions of screenplays is that when we meet characters for the first time we present their name in capital letters, we give you the age, and then we give you some brief description. Devastatingly handsome. Plan girl next door with a light in her eyes.

Well, that’s what he’s done here. “MICHELLE, 30, cute but very tired. Bangs cover her forehead.” Here’s the problem: when we see her it’s because Bob, under the influence of the evil Signal, has ripped her hood off revealing her face. That’s the last point in a movie where you want your character to be described as tired. [laughs]

John: Well, it’s also the last point when you want to have her described as cute.

Craig: Cute.

John: Cute is not very helpful.

Craig: Right.

John: So, find some words that will tell us, might give us a sense of her size, but also her tenacity, whatever. Give us a little bit that’s going to cue us into the action sequence that’s about to happen.

Craig: I mean, and plus, it’s perfectly fine to say Michelle, 30 frightened, you know, blurry-eyed, scared, whatever. Something that’s appropriate for the moment. Unless her forehead is marked with some fascinating information, I definitely don’t need to know about her bangs at this point.

And even if it is a tattoo on her forehead of something brilliant, I still don’t need to know about the bangs right now.

John: Exactly. You can save some of these character descriptions till a moment after this bite has happened. And make it a story point. There’s a reason why she brushes back her bangs to reveal that thing if that’s an important story — because if something about her forehead is important, put a light on it. And you can do that after this.

Craig: Right.

John: So, she’s still going to have bangs in both places, even if you don’t say it.

Craig: Yup. But all around, I would say very good stuff.

John: Yeah. So, a couple things on the page that I want to talk about. Page one, middle of the page, “The hermit moves swift and silent through the dense forest.” So, classically that’s swiftly and silently because it’s an adverb, but this swift and silent works for this. Grammatically those should be adverbs, but we tend to sort of use swift and silent. I was fine with it. But I wanted to point out that it’s the kind of thing that you can do it right or you can do what sort of works on the page. And I felt it worked on the page really well.

Craig: I actually prefer this incorrect method.

John: Yeah. And then, top of page three, first line of real action, “Michelle hits Bob’s arm, causing him to let go of her coat. She pulls out the KNIFE she had hidden in her coat.” So, awkwardness here. Causing him to let go of her coat. That is really weak. Michelle hit’s Bob’s arm, breaking free of his grasp. Causing him to let go of her coat is just really weak and passive and it’s not indicative of sort of the action that you’re describing.

Craig: Right. He pulls away in pain. Something other than a very clinical description.

John: Exactly. And both sentences are ending with her coat which is just not ideal

Craig: Yeah, you don’t want to do that.

John: So, always look for repetitions between two sentences and there’s going to be reasons while you’ll want those repetitions, but most of the times you don’t want those repetitions. And this is a case where that was getting in his way.

Craig: 100 percent.

John: Cool.

Craig: All right. What’s next, John?

John: Next let’s do Eric Webb’s script and I will attempt to summarize this. Immortal Coil.

We’re starting in Seattle, Washington, sunset. Winter scenes of the scene transition into night, intercut with the sun setting behind the Olympic mountains. We’re seeing sort of details of the city, Pike Place market, college students, the sun dips, we hear a jingle, jingle, jingle off-screen. In the central district of town, we’re at dusk, there’s a pockmarked street with shabby apartment buildings.

Inside the bedroom of one of these apartments a form is shifting under heavy covers. The only other light in the room is a temperature controller for an electric blanket. So, there’s somebody in here asleep. Moments later, the person gets out of the bed, opens the drapes.

We’re going to meet Kaleb and Kaleb is covered in blood. Let’s see what the actual description is. “He is half undressed, his crumpled clothes twisted at awkward angles around his frame from having been slept in. He is covered from head to toe in SPLATTERS OF BLOOD, but no wounds are apparent.”

He’s going to be taking a shower in the bathroom and we notice after the shower there’s a faint glimmer of reflectivity can be seen in the pupils of his eyes.

More details of his apartment. Getting dressed. He tells himself you forgot something. He puts on a charming smile and drops the smile and say a word that we’re not going to say on this podcast because it’s PG-13. And then he goes out into the street. It’s night. And as he’s walking through the snow he seems to be enjoying and sort of soaking up the energy of the people around him.

He seems like he’s potentially a dangerous person. And that is the bottom of our three pages.

Craig: So, I can’t say that I was in love with these. Most of the issues have to do with the content as opposed to the style, but there are some style issues as well that we need to discuss. So, I guess I’ll start in with those.

We’ve got the first half of page one, for all intents and purposes reads like the introduction to a Christmas movie. We’ve got a sun setting behind the Olympic mountains. Businesses in Pike Place Market being shuttered. College students building snowmen.

And then a cell phone alarm that says Jingle Jangle Jingle, which in my mind means Christmas. [laughs] It’s just Jingle Bells. Jingle Jangle Jingle. I just think like, oh, we’re on our way to a Christmas party or something. And now we’re into this — then he reestablishes, he goes from sunset to dusk which is — I know that DPs know the difference, but the average reader doesn’t.

And actually we went from sunset to dusk to dusk. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.

Obviously the sun setting is the important part because we’re dealing with a vampire. And I know this because Jingle Jangle Jingle, which I know realize, okay, yeah, for sure, this is not a Christmas movie anymore, there’s a guy who’s hiding from the sun under this bed.

Now, at the bottom of page one we have a five line action block which in my mind becomes mush.

John: It’s five lines, but actually almost nothing happens.

Craig: Exactly.

John: I think that’s really the tragedy of the five lines. It’s not describing this amazing moment from a war. It’s basically like there’s somebody under the blanket for five lines.

Craig: Right. He’s under the blanket and he’s turning his alarm off, which we’ve seen a billion times. So, now he wakes up and, I’m just going to read this because it just doesn’t work. “From behind, we see the occupant of the bed throw open a set of black-out drapes revealing make out a man’s silhouette against the battered blinds that cover the windows.”

Guys, this needs to be like sewn onto a pillow as what to not do. Obviously there’s a mistake in there, but it’s a run-on sentence. You’re missing commas. We see the occupant of the — you never want to say something like we see the occupant of the bed throw open, because people just see bed throw. The words don’t go together. It just — what’s wrong with just saying the man throws open the set of drapes. We see a silhouette.

John: Yup.

Craig: It’s just so over-written. And now he’s parting the flaps of the blinds close on his eye. You want to capitalize CLOSE for me, otherwise people are going to read it as close on his eye. As he peers out at the last embers of daylight in the west. This is just — you and I talk about purple. This is purple.

Okay. But the point being at this point I’m for sure I know we’re dealing with a vampire. And I’m already a little annoyed because his name is Kaleb with a K. And this is starting to just feel very YA and very well-trodden ground. He is described as “in his early twenties with pale skin, a slender build, and long jet-black hair.” AKA, every YA vampire ever.

And, this is really where — ugh — I started to get a little squirmy. “He is covered from head to toe in SPLATTERS OF BLOOD, but no wounds are apparent.”

First of all, don’t tell me no wounds are apparent. He has just woken up. If he’s covered in blood, he’s okay. It’s not his blood. He’s been sleeping all night. He’s not screaming. It’s not dripping. He looks at himself in a mirror and we see “there are channels cut into the crusted mask of blood that covers part of his face, carved by tears when the blood was fresh. New tears now trace those same paths.”

Forgive me, but at this point I’m starting to feel like I should be laughing. Because that’s so over-the-top, I’m not sure what to do. And then he takes a shower and we are told, all capital letters, “THE BLOOD WAS NOT HIS.” We know. We know. We get it. This is making so much more of something that frankly we’ve seen.

John: My biggest challenge overall with these pages is it is totally valid here is a vampire in Seattle, great. But this introduction — benefit of the doubt, maybe it’s not a vampire movie. There’s some special details about this that it’s a different kind of supernatural thing we’re going to go into, so it’s taking the vampire tropes and it’s going to push against them. But from these three pages it feels like a vampire wakes up. And that’s sort of all we got. A vampire wakes up and takes a shower.

And I wasn’t seeing special things that let me know what kind of movie I’m in. Well, I sort of knew what kind of movie I was in, and I was not excited to be in that movie because I’ve seen this movie before.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It felt like too familiar of a setup and everything to begin with. And the writing felt like book writing rather than screenwriting. It felt like the kind of sentences that are trying to very painterly, you kind of over-describe everything because you’re trying to paint these whole scenes that you don’t really need to do in screenwriting because screenwriting is about this happens, and this happens, and this happens. It was too much at all times.

Craig: Yeah. You have to remember that we, Eric, we control time as screenwriters. We can present things in a remarkably compressed manner, or we can drag them out so that they are painfully slow. And there are times when you want to do one or the other. And there are times when you want to just move at a general neutral speed.

What you’ve done here is you’ve dragged time out to the point now where you’re describing the color of the wallpaper and the color of the carpet and how the carpet smells, none of which is relevant here whatsoever.

The only information that I get from this is that there’s a vampire in Seattle and it makes him sad that he has to kill people to eat stuff. And that’s fine. It’s not new. And I’m certainly not — look, if it were me, god, I would much rather prefer this thing open in a bar and a woman is there and this guy comes along and starts talking to her and they’re actually getting along great. And he really likes her. And we can tell he really likes her. And then he kills her. And then he cries.

I mean, just get me into this somehow other than vampire wakes up looking just like a vampire doing vampire stuff like hiding from the sun. And then he’s got vampire blood on him. And, bummer.

John: Well, honestly, it’s the two kind of tropes that happen so often in these movies which is sort of like here’s the vampire and he’s being a vampire. And here’s a character waking up, here’s a character’s alarm clock going off the first thing in the morning and that’s how the movie starts. And so it’s weird that you’re sort of doing both things at once, but not weird in a fantastic way.

And Seattle is an interesting place to set, and maybe this can be some kind of artisanal vampire thing happening. That there can be something very specific about it that could be great. But Twilight is also set in the Seattle area, so that’s not even…

So, the only thing I want to say that I think is really useful for talking about craft is on page two, we’re in the bathroom, and there’s these stacked scenes where it’s like moments later, angle behind mirror, this type of thing. And it’s an example of making things much more difficult than they need to be.

And in real scripts that shoot, you’re going to find this stuff is simplified greatly. Each of these little moments, you could slug them individually, but you could also just sort of just talk through them in paragraphs. Because if it’s just a time cut within one little space and it’s just a montage of things that happen, you can call that a scene and everyone will figure out what’s supposed to happen in it.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the good news is clearly you guys, you, Eric, sorry, saw this scene in your head. You saw all of it. You did what you’re supposed to do. You imagined every detail of the moment, down to the colors and smells and angles. But you can’t actually then just go and dictate all of that out. You have to decide where and what to let other people in on. It’s important for you to know everything. It’s not as important for the reader to know everything.

John: Much more important than sort of this geography stuff, and so the color of the walls is what it feel like. And I didn’t get a great sense of what it actually felt like and what this is supposed to feel like to a person. So, like, does this apartment feel like an old grandmother’s apartment that someone inherited? Does it feel like the most seedy rock club you’ve ever been in? What does it feel like? Just give me that one line of description. Would have done a lot more good for telling the story than all the stuff that I got there.

Craig: Yeah. Tweaker pad. Flop house. Unfurnished corporate apartment. There’s so many ways to just get this out there and I get it. By the way, hipster vampire is not a bad idea. Like if you just did a movie about just like bearded flannel-wearing, mutton chop, handle bar mustache vampires who sort of quibble over like who they drink blood from. Like are they on antibiotics. Like I don’t drink blood from anybody that’s been vaccinated. [laughs]

John: [laughs] Absolutely. The anti-vaccination vampire.

Craig: The anti-vaccination vampire is awesome.

John: The last thing I want to point out, so this script is called Immortal Coil, and it’s written by Eric Webb, story by Eric Webb with Casey Ligon. And the “with” is just a really weird thing. And it’s not an actual thing that exists in the world. And would be what that would look like.

Craig: And.

John: With doesn’t exist as a credit in film land.

Craig: All right. Our last three pages is called Nexus and it’s written by Carlos Aldana. And I put the hard stop there because I really want to say Carlo Saldana. Carlos Saldanha is the director of the Rio movies. But this is Carlos Aldana. And it’s called Nexus.

I shall summarize thusly. SUPER: “November, 2014″ We’re in darkness and then the sound of metal screeching. A big door opens up revealing Lucy. She’s 35 years old. And she’s telling some people to hurry and four people running after her, just silhouetted. She guides the group up an emergency stairwell in a building. They all carry guns. They’re all dirty and tired.

Ryan, who is 39, Ashley, 17, Earl, 44, and Eddie Jeong, 23. And they’re asking how much longer. And Earl is saying you better haul ass if you don’t want to get caught by one of those things.

John: We’ll come back to that line.

Craig: We’re going to come back to a lot of these lines. So, then we get in to the office. Something is growling. And it turns out, oh, it’s not a monster. It’s just a dog. This is an abandoned office. Lucy opens up a safe. Rather, she tells Jeong to open up a safe. And Ashley says mom. So, that turns out to be Lucy’s daughter, Ashley. And she’s looking at the Los Angeles skyline, except the buildings are destroyed and abandoned. I think I’m now safe to say this is post-apocalyptic.

John: Yeah. I think it’s fair. I think there’s been a recession. There are issues. But I think we’re now safely post-apocalyptic.

Craig: Right. So, Lucy is reminiscing about a Los Angeles that once was. And Jeong opens up a safe.

Now, here’s what’s in the safe. A disk the size of a quarter, a key card, and six high tech pucks called either DITs or D-I-Ts. It’s hard to tell. And they are futuristic objects that stick together and also do not stick together and also stick to concrete. And she throws them at a wall. There are some geography issues. The point being that they create a portal. That these things open a portal up. And the portal appears to reveal another place that’s just like the place they’re in. It’s like a mirror, but a mirror into another place.

You know, if I’m running out of juice on the summary, you know there’s some trouble. [laughs] I’m not really sure what happened. That’s the god’s honest truth, John. I’m not exactly sure what happened.

John: So, I thought the idea of you throw this thing at the wall and it opens up and forms a portal, yeah, I’ve played the game Portal. I like the game Portal. So, maybe there’s something really great to do there. So, I wasn’t nuts about the description of it, but I was intrigued enough to say like, well, what kind of movie is this.

The thing that obviously intrigues me right from the start is it says November 2014. And it’s like, well, that’s now. That’s actually today. But it’s a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. So, something has changed. Either the timeline has changed, or Carlos actually wrote this a couple of years ago and made some bad predictions.

Craig: Well, but on his front page he writes May, 2014. And also copyright 2014, which by the way, Carlos, not necessary to write.

John: Not necessary. Also not necessary to have the comma after May, but that’s fine.

Craig: Correct.

John: So, something has happened. I think it’s a deliberate choice to say this is an alternate timeline. There’s something else going on. And given that we’re able to bend the laws of physics in order to create these portals, maybe the time has moved, too.

Unfortunately, while it’s generally great to start in the middle of action, that’s usually a really good thing to try to do, I don’t think it’s helping us so much here because I don’t know who these characters are in a useful way. And I’m not particularly intrigued, just based on the little bits of dialogue that I’m getting.

And so, “How much longer? Almost there.” Okay. Fine. “You better haul ass if you don’t wanna get caught by one of those things.” I don’t know what this world is, but these people seem to know what they’re doing, and no one would say that if they’d been through this before.

Craig: Yeah. Why would you say that about the most important and dangerous thing. Like if you were working in the Ebola zone, and you saw somebody, like one of your fellow doctors without a surgical mask on, would you say, “You better put your surgical mask on, or you’ll catch Ebola.” That’s the equivalent. I mean, it’s just crazy.

John: It is truly the equivalent. And so that felt weird and it just took me out of the movie because it so made it clear we’re in a movie.

Craig: Well, if that didn’t make it clear that you’re in a movie, how about these descriptions. And talk about these descriptions for me, please, these character descriptions.

John: Okay. Let’s read through them. So, Lucy is 35, petite and brunette. That’s all we get.

Craig: Petite and brunette. I think you’ve got to just stop there. We cannot — I get that we have lived in a world where men have reduced women in movies frequently to the girl. We can’t do this anymore. You cannot define a human being by their physical height and then their hair color.

John: Well, to be fair, Lucy is 35, petite, and brunette, while Ashley is 17, petite but tough.

Craig: [laughs] Okay. She’s tough. Okay. Fair enough. She’s also petite, though.

John: So, women in this movie so far we’ve learned can be brunette and they can be tough.

Craig: You certainly can’t be both.

John: And it’s possible they can be both. So, what we’re really saying is that Lucy is the first person we’re introduced to. We need some description of her that tells us what she’s like, not what she looks like.

Craig: Correct. Unless Lucy dies on page four as a big shocker and Ashley has to become the hero of the movie, we need more from Lucy, because right now she feels like the hero. And it it’s true that Lucy dies suddenly and Ashley has to become the hero of the movie, then we need more about Ashley. Either way, nobody — the script has given us no information about who we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

John: So, two things about this. First off, is the misdirect is that Lucy’s going to die on page four, the misdirect has to happen on the page, too. So, give us a little bit of stuff about her so we have sense of who she is, because then it’s actually going to be rewarding for us that she got killed off. So, give us a description that sort of lands for us and anchors us.

But, the bigger issue here I think, in addition to the specific choices of the words we’re using to describe these characters is you’re shooting us, all four of them at once. There’s that shotgun approach. Here’s four characters and they’re running and doing things. That’s really hard to be great in any circumstance, because we don’t know what we’re supposed to pay attention to. And we’re desperately looking for things, but you have them running and doing all this other stuff. It makes it just very hard for us to relate to any one of your characters because you’re giving us four all at once.

Craig: I mean, this is what you’re suggesting. Screenplays are proposing to an unseen, unknown director, what to shoot. What you are proposing here that the director shoots is Lucy guiding people up stairs. And as they walk our camera just sees each one of them. And none of them say anything until the last one. So, we’re just literally watching this lineup of four people.

This is ultimately what we know. Lucy is petite and brunette. Ryan moves and carries his gun like a pro. Definitely military or police. Ah, okay. We won’t know that in any way, shape, or form. Ashley, petite, but tough, looks a bit old for her age. We won’t know her age, so none of that matters. And then, Earl, 44, big muscular black guy in mechanic overalls. Lastly, Eddie Jeong, pale and skinny Asian, clearly tired going up the stairs.

Not only does this read like the kind of group you see in B-level zombie videogames, but it’s a bad version. It’s kind of racist. It feels like — like what race is Ryan? What race is Lucy? What race is Ashley?

John: That’s a very good point.

Craig: I guess they’re white, because you don’t mention it.

John: The default is white.

Craig: The default is white and that’s just not cool. Like, especially if you’re going to end in big black guy and skinny Asian dude land. Eh…

John: Yeah. So, let’s talk about, let’s say that you needed to introduce these characters in the stairwell. A way you might want to do that is if Lucy’s in front, we meet Lucy, and she’s like, “Hold up.” And she’s looking for something. We’re on her for a moment and she’s talking to unseen people. And then she finally gives the go ahead for them to follow her up. And so then we have a moment with her. Okay. Here’s a spotlight on her. And then she’s going to move up. And then we can meet one or maybe two more people and see what their dynamic is. And then we’re finally going to meet those last two people.

But right now getting all of these people on screen at once, it helps nobody.

Craig: It’s impossible to do well. The truth is you kind of need somebody to say something before you give a damn about who they are. Or, they have to do something before you give a damn about who they are.

So, if it were me, I would probably have Lucy and Ashley together, talking quietly with each other. Nobody else. And then when they make sure the coast is clear, they open up another — like they’ve wriggled through a window and now they open up a door and there’s a guy saying, “What took you so long?” Some terrible movie line, but the point being, okay, and now we can see who that is.

John: Or, they split up in two groups. So, two of them are searching one place and two of them are searching another place. And then they’re going to cross paths again and they’re looking for something. Obviously they are looking for something, so separate them and then bring them together. And establish stakes that way. So, we don’t even know what the relationship is between these people. Are they on the same side or opposite sides? Just create some tension there by not giving us all these team together at once.

Craig: And you know you have a problem when already on the top of page two, just page two, you’ve now shorthanded the most important human beings in your movie to “our group.” That’s bad. That’s a bad sign.

John: So, I want to talk a little bit about some of the word choices on page one. “A gap opens and light shines at the camera.” Okay. So, we’re talking about the camera, but did we need to? A gap opened. A light shines through. Ah, I got rid of the camera. “The door finally gives in, the light floods in and we see the silhouette of LUCY.” I’m not opposed to we sees, but there’s a lot of we sees here. And we don’t need this we see. The door finally gives in, light floods in. The silhouette of Lucy. Better description for Lucy.

“They rush up a set of emergency stairs in an unnamed building.” [laughs] In an unnamed building? It’s unnamed because you haven’t given it a name.

Craig: Yeah.

John: You can’t say that you’re not telling us something because you’re not telling us something. Rush up a flight of stairs in an office building. In a something building. Give us something.

Next paragraph. “We can barely see them in the dark. But we can tell they’re tired and dirty.”

Craig: What? What? How?

John: Yeah.

Craig: How? If we can barely see them, how are we supposed to tell they’re tired.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And dirty.

John: But we don’t need those two we cans. There’s ways to write around that so you can save those we’s for when they’re actually really important.

Craig: Right.

John: So, that’s my stumping for — I hate the script rule say you can never talk about the camera and you can never say “we see” or “we hear.” You can do all those things, but you have to be really judicious about when you’re going to pull out those tools, because sometimes there’s no better way to do it. So, you use those things. But in all these cases there were ways to just describe things and not have to say we-s.

Craig: I agree. I mean, in general, if I’m going to use we see, it’s because we are seeing something shocking, or I want the screenplay to let the reader know that we in the audience are seeing something that the character on screen is not.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: But you’re right, this is just sort of peppered in there. If the other stuff were working I wouldn’t mind that stuff so much. The building that has no name is described later as, again, as a generic office building. And, again, sunlight floods and blinds — we’ve got a sunlight flooding in at people. Not sure why. It’s kind of unmotivated sunlight.

The bigger issue is what the heck is going on on page three. I mean, let’s just jump ahead. [laughs] Because, you know, first of all, let’s talk about this description. You’re introducing new technology to us. We’re in a zombie movie, presumably, or something like a zombie movie. But, also, you have a twist which is portals. Okay. Fine.

So, what comes out of the safe is some mysterious disk which we’re not going to address at this point, a key card which is a key card and we won’t have to deal with it at this point, and “six high tech pucks called DITs.” What the hell am I supposed to think from that? Like, all right, I’m the prop guy. What’s a high tech puck? What is that? You’ve got to give me more.

John: Because I don’t know. I saw pucks and I didn’t think about the high tech of it all. I bet they’re glowing LED pucks.

Craig: Are they? Are they?

John: I don’t know.

Craig: Are they glowing? Do they have buttons? They have grooves? Are they metallic? Are they intricate? I mean, these things are central to the movie. You’ve got to describe.

John: Yeah. Do they look like human technology or some sort of alien artifact thing? Yeah. I agree with you there, Craig. And it’s obviously going to be central to our story, so it’s worth a little bit of time right here to do. This just wasn’t the best way to do it.

The only other thing I was to point out on, halfway through page three. “The 4 pieces spread until the light rectangle is about the size of a door.” He used the number four rather than the spelled out four. Just follow general kind of AP rules. Numbers that are less than ten, spell out. Numbers that are in dialogue, kind of always spell out. Because that’s the only way you’re going to get people to pronounce things properly, the way you expect them to be pronounced. But there was no reason to use the numeral here. It slows you down.

Craig: Yeah. No reason at all. Take some time to make us love the DIT. I think you’ve got to — help me out here. Is it a DIT or is it a D-I-T? Also, don’t tell me what it’s called if these people aren’t going to say anything. If someone is going to talk about it later, that’s when I find out what it’s called. I don’t need this information now because it’s not being used by me or the people in the scene, the name of it. See?

John: Yeah. And it would be a simple thing that I would actually buy if the character opens the safe and is like, “Got ‘em. Six DITs.” And it’s like I see there are six things. They must be called DITs. I know what to call those things now.

Craig: Exactly.

John: So, it’s very doable. This is always a fun process because people send in these pages and they are being incredibly brave to show the work that they’ve done and let us talk about. In the case of two of these scripts, we dug in and we didn’t like sort of what we were seeing on the page, but it’s still incredibly useful I hope for other writers to look at their own work and see, oh, these are the kinds of things I’m doing that work or don’t work. And maybe I can make some different choices.

Craig: That’s right. And for those of you today, the two of you who kind of got a little bit of a beating, and even our other guy who got a little bit of a beating, just take comfort in this: these are the beatings that we give each other. And these are the beatings we get ourselves.

Lindsay Doran and I spent, I don’t know, an hour the other day talking about two paragraphs, two small paragraph descriptions. And if it were clear, or how to make it clear where somebody was standing. This is the kind of OCD level of detail that you need. And you need to love it. And this is part of the game.

John: Well, it’s that crucial ability to see this is what my intention was and this is how it’s coming out on the other side. So, for these people who sent in these pages, they clearly had an intention. There was a reason they wrote these pages. And they didn’t land with us the way I think they thought they would land. And so that is hopefully a valuable experience. So, that’s why we do Three Page Challenges. That’s why we did it in Austin and why we’re doing this one.

But I need to thank these writers for sending them in and all the writers who send in Three Page Challenges. We have like a 250 script backlog of these samples. And, honestly, Stuart picks the ones that are pretty good. So, that’s a sign that people are, you know –

Craig: Yeah. They’re struggling out there.

John: They’re struggling and they’re also making choices that can hopefully be improved by just having someone take a look at them and really look at them critically.

Craig: Yeah. And if you are playing the home game, take a look at your first three pages and ask yourself how would this go with John and Craig? [laughs] You know? Because, honestly, we are not particularly hard on this stuff. I really do believe that. I know it feels that way, but this is the name of the game out here. It’s the way it goes.

John: So, if you have three pages of your own script that you want to send in to have us take a look at, the proper URL to send them to is johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out. And there’s a form you fill out and you check some boxes and you attach your file and you send them through.

We still call it the Three Page Challenge, it’s really meant to be like the first sequence of a movie. But three pages ends up being about the mountain we can actually talk about usefully in a show. So, for now we’ll stick with Three Page Challenge.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: Mm-hmm. So, Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?

Craig: Yeah. We’ve got a big long show, so I’ll be quick about my One Cool Thing this week. Yosemite, the new operating system for Macintosh, has an excellent new feature that works in concert with their new version of iOS and it’s called Family Sharing. And I find this incredibly useful because I used to give my kids an allowance of, I think I gave them $10 a month to spend on apps. And then they would do that, but I didn’t really know exactly what they were getting.

And then, inevitably, if they wanted something that was more expensive or two things, and they were worth it, they’d have to come to be, and it was annoying. So, Family Sharing is great because now every time they want to buy anything, if it’s an app, or a song, or anything, they request it. And the request comes to me on both my MacBook and also on my phone and on my iPad and on Melissa’s phone, and on her iPad, and her computer.

So, either one of us can hit approve or deny. And therefore we’re in charge of all of it which I find very satisfying.

John: That is a really good thing. Mine is also short. It’s this collection of Aesop’s Fables that have been rendered as web pages using Google Fonts collection. So, Google Font’s, like Typekit, has all these amazing typefaces. And so these designers took the Google Fonts and told the stories using these amazing typefaces. And it’s a great example of sort of how expressive type can be on the internet now. And this is all real type. This is isn’t just picture graphics. This is actually — you can select every word there and it’s just done programmatically with fonts. It looks great.

And so it’s a good inspiration for anybody who is designing something on the web in 2014/2015, to really look at the expressive power of typefaces.

Craig: Mm, good show.

John: Good show. Good long show.

Craig: Good to be back. Feels good to be back.

John: Back at my place.

Craig: You know, I can smell all these people, John. They’re aiming for my job. They’re gunning for me. I know Birbiglia wants this gig.

John: Oh, he absolutely wants this gig. And Susannah Grant was great. She put in a great audition.

Craig: Yeah, Susannah, actually, I think would be better than I am.

John: Susannah is pretty great.

Craig: She’s awesome. But Birbiglia. Huh.

John: He’s got that comedian thing. It’s dangerous.

Craig: It’s Steal-giglia.

John: Yeah. I confessed to Mike that I actually wrote him in as a part in this one thing I’m hoping to do. And so I’ll get to work with him regularly if that were to happen.

Craig: That’s very clever.

John: See? You should do that, Craig.

Craig: No, I’m not going to do it. He deserves nothing. [laughs] Nothing.

John: He deserves nothing. He’s a job poacher.

Craig: Exactly.

John: As always, you can find some links to things we talked about in today’s show at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. If you go to scriptnotes.net, that’s where you can subscribe to all the back episodes and all the bonus episodes. We’ll have two bonus episodes coming up really soon. We have an interview I did with Simon Kinberg for the Writers Guild Foundation.

Craig: Nice.

John: And we’ll have the Three Page Challenge we did at Austin. So, both of those will be going up as bonus episodes, so if you want to listen to those. We are so super close to having a thousand subscribers at scriptnotes.net.

Craig: Dirty show.

John: For the premium feed. And, Craig, off recording I will tell you the best inspiration I had for a guest for the dirty show. So, people, sign up.

If you want to subscribe to our normal feed, that’s in iTunes. While you’re there, leave us a comment. It’s because people left so many great comments that iTunes featured us as one of the best podcasts, which was just so nice of them to do.

I am @johnaugust on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. Longer questions you can send to ask@johnaugust.com.

If you are interested in Writer Emergency, those decks of cards we are starting to do in Kickstarter, go to writeremergency.com and there will be a link to our Kickstarter campaign for that.

Craig: Wow.

John: That’s a lot.

Craig: So much.

John: Stuart Friedel produced the podcast. Matthew Chilelli edited it. Thank you, Matthew. And he has a Kickstarter campaign, too. So, there will be a link up in the show notes for Matthew’s Kickstarter campaign for –

Craig: Ugh, god.

John: A movie he’s doing. Craig, you’re going to be the last person with a Kickstarter campaign.

Craig: Uh, yeah.

John: You are going to start a Kickstarter campaign to shut down Kickstarter.

Craig: [laughs] I might. I just might.

John: Yeah, it’s going to be good.

Craig: That’s dividing by zero.

John: [laughs] Good stuff. Thank you. Have a great week.

Craig: You too. Bye.

Links:

In praise of flat adverbs

Mon, 11/10/2014 - 16:45

Emily Brewster of Merriam-Webster offers a cogent defense of “drive safe,” “take it easy” and other cases in which adverbs seem to be missing their -ly ending:


It’s not simply a matter of do-what-you-want. These words really are adverbs, they just look like their related adjective forms. A good example is “near.” It’s an adjective, a preposition and adverb — even though there is also an -ly form.

It was a near miss. [adjective]

I work near the train station. [preposition]

The deadline draws near. [adverb]

Christmas is nearly here. [adverb]

They’re all related, but you can’t use them interchangeably.

Last night, Stuart corrected something I wrote in a Kickstarter update. Instead of “look close,” he suggested “look closely.” Both work, but there’s something I really love about the flat form.

Thanks to Bryce Edmonds for the link.

Development Emergencies

Mon, 11/10/2014 - 11:58

Vineet Dewan, who was nice enough to co-star in the Kickstarter video for Writer Emergency Pack, decided to film his own version pitched at development executives:


So, yeah. Sigh. I can imagine Writer Emergency Pack being used this way, as a shortcut to actual notes about an actual script. But these wouldn’t be the worst notes I’ve gotten in a meeting.1

If pulling a card from a deck fosters a good discussion about the script, at least it’s about the story and not useless minutiae.

Meanwhile, the real Writer Emergency Pack is roaring ahead on Kickstarter. With 10 days to go, it’s fully funded, with 2,400 backers. Huge thanks to everyone who’s joined us.

  1. The worst note I got was, “She should be a flight attendant. Women aren’t airline pilots. It’s unrealistic.” This was from a female producer.

Scriptnotes, Ep 168: Austin Forever — Transcript

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 16:31

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Susannah Grant: I’m Susannah Grant.

John: And this is Episode 168 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

We are live at the Austin Film Festival and, Susannah, I cannot believe you and I have done 168 episodes.

Susannah: 168. It’s been such a long road together.

John: It’s been kind of amazing. Like, what were your favorite episodes that we did?

Susannah: [laughs] You know, there was one guy who came once, I think his name was Craig, he was really kind of nice. I liked having him –

John: Yeah, he was belligerent.

Susannah: Unpleasant, but in a nice way.

John: I mean, I think my favorite episode was Episode 34 with Aaron Sorkin where he went on that long rant about robots.

Susannah: Right. That was great.

John: It was so odd, but he really had a passionate defense for why robots should be ruling society. Then the last year we had a live show and it was Callie Khouri and Vince Gilligan. They got into that rap battle.

Susannah: Right.

John: I had never heard –

Susannah: That was a good one, too.

John: I’ve never heard such profanity from Callie Khouri.

Susannah: Really?

John: Yeah, well, yeah.

Susannah: You need to talk to her a little more.

John: All right. She can throw down. She can throw down and she can drop a beat. And that was the crucial thing I learned. This episode of Scriptnotes, this live show, probably won’t have as much profanity because we are in a church.

Susannah: Yeah. So watch yourself.

John: Yeah. It’s odd. We’ll paint the scene for people who are listening at home. There’s literally stained glass all around us.

Susannah: Beautiful stained glass.

John: It’s really, really pretty. It feels kind of inappropriate for our podcast, but I think we’re going to make this one PG-13. There will be no F-bombs dropped in this sanctuary, I hope.

Susannah: Really? Okay. I can do that.

John: All right. Now, usually Craig Mazin would be here. And the official reason for why Craig is not here is that he is at a friend’s wedding, and so therefore could not come to the Austin Film Festival. The official reason is not necessarily the most interesting reason. So, I thought one thing we might do is let’s draw a card and pick a different reason for why he’s gone.

So, this is a thing we’re experimenting, we call it Writer Emergency. And it’s when you sort of get stuck on an idea.

Susannah: You’ve come up with a bad solution like he’s not there because he’s at a wedding. And you know that’s way too boring, so you have to come up with instead he’s the victim of a zombie attack.

John: Yes.

Susannah: Much better.

John: It’s a much better thing. So, someone who eats Craig Mazin, and eats Craig Mazin’s brain, is that a more powerful zombie? It’s an angrier zombie.

Susannah: [laughs] Angrier zombie for sure. I think the zombie army is stronger with Craig Mazin’s brain.

John: I’m going to pick on. I just want to say Craig Mazin is not here because…stop talking is the one I got. So, that would be a good lesson for us, and also perhaps why he couldn’t be here is because he’s been struck mute by some strange reason.

We are going to bring up our first guest who is Richard Kelly who has been a frequent guest on the podcast. Richard Kelly, come up here. Richard Kelly, writer and director of films such as Donnie Darko, The Box, Southland Tales. Today on the show I really want to talk about the experience of being a writer and a director. When do you stop writing and when do you sort of put on your director hat as you’re approaching a project?

Richard Kelly: I’ve found that the writing process never stops. That it’s endless. Literally it’s in your head forever. I’m still rewriting movies that I directed years and years ago. I’m still editing them in my mind, you know. So, there’s what’s happening in your mind, and then there’s the limitations of the real world and as you get older and as you mature as an artist, hopefully you’re good at setting parameters for when you need to be finished with something and when you need to transition into the next phase and move on.

So, what I’ve found, in the past I would not have enough discipline, I think, in terms of editing the screenplay and getting it to a point where it’s more or less locked. And the actors can do a little improvisation. There are going to be some surprises on set that are going to be wonderful surprises, we hope, but in the past I would just keep adding stuff.

I would be caught up in the moment on set and you’re only there for a limited number of hours. And you have all of these wonderful tools at your disposal. And sometimes I would get caught up in the moment and I would just keep adding more material and adding new scenes. And, you know, that’s fine, but then it becomes a real headache in the editing room because you end up with just way too much material.

And then maybe that time might have been better spent really focusing on what’s essential. So, as you get older as an artist you hope to become more efficient and be able to compartmentalize things, I guess. So, compartmentalizing the writing and then compartmentalizing the directing.

John: Susannah, you’ve written and directed. Is that your experience that you keep trying to write even though you’re in your directing mode, or do you break off?

Susannah: I think there’s an interesting tension in what you’re talking about because that spontaneity can sometimes yield the best piece of work in the whole piece. I don’t know, I find that kind of exciting. Like it could be a colossal waste of time, and it could be the thing that puts it over the edge, which is kind of interesting, you know. You feel like you’ve gotten better at knowing which it is?

Richard: Yeah. And I also, having ended up with like a three-hour rough cut that I want to open up a vein thinking about how to cut an hour out. It’s so hard. And sometimes my movies end up, they’re like algebra theorems sometimes in terms of like a science fiction logic and they’re really hard to sometimes deconstruct because without one component the whole thing doesn’t make sense. So, I don’t know. It’s trying to make room for those surprises, and make room for improvisation, but at the same time just try to always improve my level of discipline in terms of making sure that I’m focused on keeping everything in the correct timeframe. And that I’m not going to just end up with a lot of superfluous material.

But at the same time, you do want those surprises. You do want them, but this is also — excited to hear Cary talk, because when you’re dealing with something like television, boy is there time to play in television. Boy, is there just an extended canvas where you can have the shoe leather and you can have the quiet moments or the deleted scenes in movies end up becoming some of the best scenes in television, you know, because you have the time, the breathing room I guess.

John: Susannah, you’re just out of the editing room from shooting this TV pilot. So, are you able to sort of look at the stuff as a writer, or are you looking at this as the producer has to make the show going forward? What is that like for you?

Susannah: Because you go into it knowing you’re going to be shepherding it, you know, you’re going to be the authority on it all the way through. It felt like all of a piece, the work all felt like it was feeding into each other. But I ended up with exactly what you’re talking about. I ended up with a feature-length pilot initially and it took a lot to get it down into shape.

I think it’s partly because you’re looking ahead at what could be a pilot and it could be seven years. So, you’re thinking I’m going to have the time to play this stuff out. And that’s a real luxury. So, you’ve got the long view from the get go with television, you know.

John: In the moment as you’re shooting a scene, whether you’re the director or you’re the writer who is on the set, you’re watching the thing, I find the thing I have to keep reminding myself is what is the scene actually about. Because it’s so easy to get caught up in the mechanics of how you’re filming something. There’s that one little thing that’s annoying you that’s so easy to forget this is why this scene is in the story at all. And sometimes it’s a function of a writer, whether you’re the writer-director, or just the writer who happens to be on set, is the person who can remind everyone that this scene is important because of the thing that happened before and the thing that happens after.

Because when you’re just on the day shooting a scene it’s so easy to forget why that scene matters and why it exists. What the storytelling purpose is in that moment.

Susannah: I have a friend who is a writer-director and before she shoots anything she takes every scene, puts it on a little note card, punches a hole in it, and she puts them all on a little ring and attaches it to her hip. And on it she writes “the point of this scene is,” because as soon as you’re in it there are so many other factors and something can really excite you and she always has that and then she just rips it off when she’s done with the scene.

And I think it’s a really smart thing to do.

Richard: Well it’s also good to always remember what comes before and what comes after. I actually, I usually do a big diagram of the movie. I’m all about drawing diagrams. And a lot of it is the timeline of the movie and the characters and the sort of tension flow. It’s good to show the actors that and to have this diagram for the actors because you often have to shoot things out of chronology.

And so this is what happened to your character yesterday. This is what’s going to happen to your character tomorrow. So that you can keep them anchored in the timeline. And if you can have actually a visual reference, whether it’s something like she described — note cards on a belt, or a diagram of some kind — even if the actors can have some sort of visual access to the macro world of the movie and where they exist within that timeline. It can be really helpful. I mean, even going back. I remember working with Jake on Darko. That character goes through a really intense journey. And we had to shoot a lot of it out of sequence and do block shooting for the dinner table stuff, because we just had no time.

And so it was really important that I could just remind him. It’s like, you just saw the bunny rabbit, or you’re about to meet Grandma Death, you know. You’re about to have a schizoid attack. It was a lot to balance, but chronology and I have a friend who is always reminding me, and I do this in my scripts, to remind your audience what the chronology of your story is.

If your story takes place over a month, a week, a day, make sure that your audience understands the timeframe of when the story is taking place. That’s important.

John: I think one of the challenges we all face as we are going into production on our projects is the experience of reading a script is like the experience of watching a movie. Things move forward in time and it’s all very natural. You start here, you end up there. The experience of production classically is not that at all. And so you’re shooting things completely out of sequence. And so what you’re describing in terms of being able to talk with an actor about like this is what just happened, this is where you’re going to, you’re trying to give them a map for sort of this is what the journey is. Here is where we’re at on this journey, even though we’re sort of skipping around how we’re actually filming it.

And it’s a hard thing to appreciate until you’re there on the set and it’s two in the morning and they don’t understand sort of why this moment needs to be this moment. It’s a challenging thing.

You brought up TV. And we actually have two directors here who are fantastic TV directors. So, I want to ask those kind of questions. Let’s get them up here and send you back.

Richard: Excellent.

John: I want to invite up Cary Fukunaga from True Detective. Director of True Detective. Writer and director of Sin Nombre. Jane Eyre, which I just loved. So, thank you very much. This is such a weird space, because I know when we sit down we’re sort of hard to see, and so we’ll just stand. I also want to welcome up Peter Gould from Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul. Peter Gould.

All right. Bigger canvases. Longer stories. Things that don’t have to fit into small boxes. And yet they’re shorter, they’re episodes, and there are constraints on how long a thing can be. As you’re approaching a Breaking Bad episode, you know what’s happened in the series before then, but you haven’t necessarily even seen that thing being shot. So, you have a sense of where things are going, but you have to prepare this thing that isn’t quite a moment yet. Can you talk us through prepping an episode of Breaking Bad and sort of when you come on board, whether it’s something you write, or something you’re just directing. What is the process for getting an episode together.

Peter Gould: Well, for me the process centers on the writer’s room. And it centers on a group of writers, some producers, writer-producers sitting around a table and asking that question: what just happened? What will be the result of that? And we often will have things that we want to have happen. We have goals. We have brainstorms. We have crazy ideas of things that we’d like to do, but ultimately we have to earn them. And so we want to be true to what’s just happened as much as we can.

So, in some ways, having the previous episodes or having the pilot is a lot like you’re little deck of cards. It’s like you have writing prompts that are embedded in the work you’ve already done. And you have writing prompts embedded in the things you know about your cast. And then when you start watching dailies you see things that work or don’t work. And those also become kind of writing prompts in their own weird way.

So, for us, and just the approach that we used, it’s very much about figuring out the story. It’s what Richard was talking about, too, is trying to figure out, trying to pre-visualize the episode as much as we can. And so sometimes we’ll ask ourselves, if we get stuck, it’s like what’s the first shot in this scene? What’s the transition between these two? Is this a new costume?

We try to think — and John, you and I met at USC and I was your teacher at USC. And it was all about making movies that weren’t necessarily dialogue centered, which a lot of people had a hard time getting their heads around. And for us, and the approach I like, is to really think about the story and to think about how little you can do.

As Susannah was talking about pilots, and I think the challenge with a pilot in a weird way for the audience, it only has one goal in my mind which is to get them to watch the next episode.

Susannah: Right. Come back.

Peter: Come back to the next episode. But on the other hand, there are a lot of impulses that people have. Let’s do everything. Let’s show the entire scope of what we’re intending to do, all in one 47-minute episode.

Susannah: Let’s take every character on a journey.

Peter: Yes.

Susannah: And get them to an endpoint.

Peter: Yes, go big moment, big moment. I’ve heard the phrase, thank god we never hear it with the folks that we’re working with, but I’ve heard the phrase “keep turning cards over.” Keep turning cards over. Keep making. Keep switching it up. And I think that’s actually antithetical to good storytelling to my mind. And that didn’t answer your question at all.

John: No, but it was a very good start to it.

Peter: It works out.

John: I want to switch over to Cary because you had the pilot-less experience. And so talk to us about True Detective and sort of your coming into the project and this wasn’t going to be made in a normal way.

Cary Fukunaga: Yeah. I was listening to Peter’s experience and I couldn’t even imagine what that would be like actually to have to — I would feel insecure just talking to the actors about how they accomplished some scene in a previous episode because there’s that communication, the one-on-one dialogue between a director and an actor. And, of course, in a longer running series the actors essentially know their parts. But there is a director there still for a reason.

So, like what if you’re saying something completely of, you know.

John: But it happens.

Peter: You wouldn’t do that. You would never say something off!

Cary: Never. No.

Peter: But also you have to have the freedom to, well, obviously this is my belief: you have to have the freedom to make an idiot of yourself at all times. So, but you had the experience of directing, was it 10 hours, eight-hour movie?

Cary: Eight hours.

Peter: How did you even — I just have to ask — I just came off of shooting one episode of television which kicked my ass by the way. I can’t even imagine how you would even prep. Is it just because you have enormous prep while you’re shooting? How did it work?

Cary: Basically what happened is the last three episodes weren’t quite ready yet to prep. And even if they were, you could really only prep about five hours ahead of time before people lose their capacity to retain all that information. And whether that be index cards with the intention of the scene written on it, or graphs, everyone sort of had their personal system to try to order the information. And since we’re dealing with a crime story, clues and character clues as well are essential, I mean, in terms of logically adding up.

And maybe it helped having one director in that sense that we didn’t have to educate four to eight other directors on exactly what was going on. It was just sort of one chain of communication. But then you had an overload of responsibility. And what ended up happening by the last half of the shoot is that we were scouting for locations for the last episodes before and after shooting, having production meetings at lunch. I would go home to the edit after those location scouts, after shooting, and then edit for a couple hours because we had to turn in episodes before we were done shooting. So, I was getting like four to five hours sleep a night, and then moving on to the same thing next day.

Susannah: So you had no break in production?

Cary: We had our “hiatus days.” Weren’t breaks. They were just getting caught up on –

Susannah: But you weren’t shooting for a couple days?

Cary: We only had about I’d say three or four hiatus days the whole time.

Susannah: Good lord.

Peter: Can I ask a geeky question? Did you cross-board? Did you shoot each episode complete? And then move onto the next one? Or were you at the same location shooting several different episodes?

Cary: We pitched the series to the networks as we’re going to shoot this like a feature. We’re going to shoot this like a long form story, so we’re going to cross-board locations. What that means, you know, producers like to hear that because that means they can shoot out an actor within a week or two, or shoot out a location and then you’re not kind of holding these places over the course of five/six months of shooting.

And I think everyone quickly realized that’s really impossible. So, I think this next season is not going to be shot that way. They’ll probably do it in blocks, like one or two episode blocks. Stop. Regroup. Go again. Which is the normal sort of humane way of doing it for all involved.

John: Well, it’s an opportunity for course correction, though, too. Because I feel like that must be one of the real challenges. When you’re making a show in a more traditional schedule, like Breaking Bad, if something is not working, you can see like well that’s not working, so we need to — could you? I mean, if you sense that like, wow, this character is not doing the thing we wanted to do, how quickly could you fix that? Or is that naÔve of me to think?

Peter: I’m trying to think of a situation where we had that.

John: Well, everything was perfect the first time. That’s the luxury.

Cary: Tell us about what didn’t work in Breaking Bad.

Peter: You know, it was a comet, lightning bolts. We were very lucky. But, you know, you do — sometimes you do. I mean, sometimes there’s an actor who is not available. Or somebody is not, or a location changes, or something. And then you have to do some frantic rethinking. But that’s the worst. Fortunately the producers, the physical producers, really protected us from having to do that an awful lot.

Susannah: Did you guys have the entire season mapped out before anyone went off to script?

Peter: No. I wish.

Susannah: No, right.

Peter: I wish. No, no, we were always — it’s television. The treadmill of — and on Better Call Saul, which is in some ways is more like True Detective in one sense is that we didn’t have a pilot. We shot the pilot and literally the day we wrapped the pilot we were shooting episode two. And Vince and I would talk and say, you know, if we had really thought about it, maybe we would have taken a little break there and cut the first episode so at least the other directors would have had something to look at.

And as it was they mostly had just us wind-bagging at them in a long meeting. Then they would go and make something wonderful.

John: I had friends who did a show for Netflix and the model for it was kind of clever in that they got a 13-episode order. But they shot the first episode and then they had three weeks off deliberately so they could cut it and if something wasn’t working right they could course correct.

Peter: Do this.

John: Do this. It’s a good idea.

Cary: Does that just mean firing people, or?

John: Yes. They would recast some people. If things weren’t working- and in some ways it allowed them to be bolder, because they didn’t have to make safe choices. They could make a bold choice and if a bold choice didn’t work there was a chance to fix it.

Another option I’ve seen is another 13-episdoe order, they shot the fourth episode first. And then they went back and shot the first episode figuring that they would understand the show better by the time it came back to shoot the first episode.

Susannah: What show was that?

John: It was one of David Goyer’s things. Da Vinci’s Demons I think did it.

Susannah: That’s interesting.

John: Which was an interesting choice, again, where that fourth episode, maybe some things aren’t going to work quite perfectly, but you’re going to know your show better by the time you’re actually shooting your pilot, or shooting the first episode that’s going to air theoretically. So, choices.

Cary: I would say if I were an actor or even from the director perspective, I would much rather start chronologically somewhere from the beginning, if the fourth episode was jumping back to some prior moment. Because I do think for the actors, even for like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective, I was really pushing to have the interrogations as far back as possible. We were going to shoot them last, but we sort of needed them to start constructing episodes and make sure they were working.

But, there were so many things they were going to go through over five or six months of shooting that in the bubble that is production, which sometimes time moves at a completely different rate, and one month can seem like an entire year. The experiences you have do affect your performance on all parts. And I was still learning about how I wanted to shoot the show by the fourth week of shooting. So, I’d much rather start at the beginning, I guess. But I see, it’s an interesting experiment.

John: So, talk to us about writing these episodes, you were deeply involved in the creation of things. What is your conversations and with crew about intention. I find it fascinating to listen to how directors talk to people about what a scene is about. What kinds of words do you use to describe — after cut, what do you say to an actor? What’s your extinct for getting the thing to the next level? You, first, Cary.

Peter: You go.

Cary: Me first. I mean, it’s pretty intimidating the first time you’re working with like a Fassbender or a Judi Dench, you know, like what do I say to someone who has worked with the best directors in the last 50 to 60 years. Incredibly, you still find something to say. If you know what you want out of the scene, usually these great actors are delivering it. But there’s minor adjustments you can give them. Or even they want to hear something. They might prompt you for a question.

But typically I think with some of these sort of high caliber talent it’s all kind of conversations that took place ahead of time. And it’s even conversations that are worked out while we were blocking and rehearsing. So, once we’re shooting, I just kind of give them the space to recorrect themselves. They know what they want to get to and they know when they’re not quite getting there. So, we’ll just go again until I’ve got everything I want and they’ve got everything they need, unless obviously it’s not always that ideal obviously. But, you’re being pressed for time, but as much as we can get in that period of time.

Peter: I sometimes make them go first. How do you feel about that? And then sometimes, I’m not an experienced director, but as a writer-producer on the set, sometimes you end with a little huddle with the director and with the actor, and especially when I’m not the director I try to say the least possible directly to the actor. It’s just more respectful and it’s more useful, I think, for the director to do the directing.

But, you know, I’ll say to the director, isn’t there a little — usually, it’s interesting, because people, especially in television are so used to a headlong rush. They want to get through the moment so quickly. They’re used to scenes. And you’re working with feature folks, and maybe it’s a different deal. But in television, there seems to be this drum beat of going faster and faster. Oh, we don’t want to bore the audience.

So, frequently the work for me is saying isn’t there another moment there? Have we gotten everything out of that? And the actors will sometimes be — actually I had Robert Forster tell me, “You’re the only director I’ve ever had who told me to go slower.”

Cary: There’s like certain rules they say, like when you’re in film school you’re not supposed to say, you’re not supposed to give a line reading to an actor. You’re not supposed to say like faster or slower. But incredibly quite often that’s all you need to say. Like can you just do that a little bit slower, or faster often, because you’re like stuck in the edit with someone taking an incredibly long time to walk around a corner.

Peter: Yes!

Susannah: I heard an interview with Paul Newman at one point talking about that faster direction and he said whenever somebody says to me faster, I translate that in my head to fill the moment. If he’s asking me to go faster I’m not filling the moment. So he would then do a take in which he would fill every moment and find ones he hadn’t been filling. And he said inevitably somebody says cut, print. And you ask the script supervisor how long it was and it was longer.

So, you know –

Peter: That’s beautiful.

Susannah: Yes. It’s a really great story to hold on to.

Peter: And it’s something you notice when you’re cutting. When you’re cutting, the performance that is more specific is easier to cut. And you can watch with a wonderful, like a Bryan Cranston, or a Bob Odenkirk, there are just these natural places to cut. You can get the scissors in, you can see when things are resolved. You can see when the ideas cross their faces. And we’re so reliant on these guys.

John: Peter, you were talking about that you made television and he was making movies. And you’re both making shows that are broadcast on boxes, and yet do you perceive Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul as television?

Peter: No. I see them as movies. I mean, we talk about it as being one thing, but it’s not — it’s interesting because there’s the sense that people have that if you didn’t work it out at the beginning, if you didn’t have the whole thing worked out from soup to nuts, the moment you started, that somehow it’s less legitimate.

And the truth is that I think all writing to some extent is an active improvisation. I mean, no matter what you’re improvising. So, it’s a question of when are you improvising. Does that make any sense? I’m not answering your question. I’m just going around it.

Cary: You were asking earlier about the writing hat and the directing hat and that’s all about preparation really. And Richard had said that you never quite take it off which is true, but then you also start feeling at a certain point like you’re neglecting other responsibilities. You’re noodling with the screenplay. And I found, I just did a film, we spoke about outside, Beasts of No Nation in Africa, and we had all kinds of complications heading in to production and then within production.

And I was having to write because actors were in jail or something. And I had to rewrite their roles, or parts in the script, and hoping that it all added up and not really sure till we got to editing that it did. So, the fluidity between the directing hat, the writing hat, and then having to make executive decisions was all happening at once. Ideally though you’re able to prep as much as you can ahead of time and then you can just focus on the creative aspect. But I guess that’s what makes film exciting, too, is all the problems.

Peter: Is it okay if I ask a question?

John: Ask a question.

Peter: Could you talk about your directing, specifically what kind preparation you do as a director? When you have a script and you’re working by yourself, what is your approach? What kinds of things are you doing with the script? What kinds of preparation do you do?

Cary: Gosh. I always start off with an outline, first off. It’s sort on the hero’s journey. And that’s my index card in a way because then I know my steps that are there and the scenes that are sometimes combos of things and sometimes individual scenes that mean something, or getting the character to a place.

Then once I’ve written the screenplay to switch into directing aspect, mainly I actually it’s in casting. And that’s not only casting the actors, it’s casting the heads of department who are going to help me bring this to screen. And that’s, you know, when you talk about reordering stuff, and stopping to reconfigure, it’s essential when you find weak links to get rid of them. Because you’re working as hard you can to get it done. And when you know there’s always one person or a couple people that are slowing down the process, and it’s an unfortunate thing.

It’s not always their fault. Sometimes it’s chemistry. Sometimes they’re just not right for the material. But, getting rid of those people so that everyone is sort of in line is one of the most brutal lessons you have to learn, I think, being a director. Otherwise, you know, the creative aspect of it, that inspiration, that spark, we’ve all had it since we’re children. Every human has. So, I guess it’s kind of learning to be discerning and harder.

John: Peter, can you talk about your preparation for an episode? So, whether it’s an episode you wrote yourself or someone else’s episode that you now need to go off and shoot, what is it like when you get the script and you have to figure out — what is your prep for that? So, obviously you’re going to meet with, there will be a first AD and you’re going to scout locations, but what is your actual work with the script to figure out how you’re going to do it?

Peter: Well, you know, we had the advantage that we have spent on any episode at least two weeks, sometimes as long as a couple of months breaking the episode in the writer’s room. and so we’ve talked through every single scene in great detail, annoying detail, navel-gazing detail.

John: Can you just describe the writer’s room? So is this all up on a whiteboard? Or how does Breaking Bad work?

Peter: Breaking worked and Better Call Saul works, really it’s based on a system I think that Vince Gilligan learned from Chris Carter on X-Files, which is it’s a very rigid, apparently rigid system where we end up with 3×5 cards on a corkboard. And I think it’s insane.

John: Is there a color code?

Peter: There’s no color code. They’re very neatly written. They’re somewhat comic booky descriptions of each scene and sometimes even a scrap of dialogue. Sometimes there will be little pencil notes in there. And there’s a certain amount of space you have for each act. We work, we think about acts and teasers. And because –

John: Because you actually had –

Peter: We shot the show for commercials. The show had commercials, which was very intimidating to me before I started because I had never, I think only once had I ever worked on a project that had commercial breaks, because most of my work before that had been cable movies.

But what I learned was that almost any well structured story, there are moments where you just wonder what the hell is going to happen next. Hey, that’s a good act break. So, it’s not as insane — it’s not as difficult or as ridiculous as it sounds. Although I will say I think once you get — is your show on ABC, Susannah?

Susannah: Yeah.

Peter: And how many act breaks do you have?

Susannah: Oh, it’s five acts. No teaser though.

Peter: No teaser. Oh, so we have a teaser and four acts. So, it’s –

John: Let’s talk through what that means, because I think some people might not know sort of what the terminology is.

Susannah: It means you break four times for commercials.

Cary: What’s the teaser mean? Like what are the wants of a teaser?

Susannah: Well, Breaking Bad a really great, like that little piece in the beginning that’s just intriguing enough to make you go, what?

Cary: Like a cold start?

Susannah: Yeah, yeah.

Peter: And then there would be the titles.

Susannah: Right. It’s the pre-title thing.

Peter: In the first couple of seasons there would be no commercial, and then hey, there was a commercial there. So, we had to pay the rent.

We had the advantage of talking it through in detail. And also, you know, there’s also the familiarity of knowing the DP, production designer, costume designer, because we’re working with those folks constantly, even when we’re in Burbank or Toluca Lake as we are now, there’s a constant interaction. We’re looking at every costume. We’re looking at props. We’ll look at ten different frying pans for every scene.

And the directors will be also. There’s a familiarity with the people you’re working with which is great. But, personally, my preparation, I just sweat over the script a lot. I keep wondering if it’s right. I keep going over it and finding little things that I want to change. And then I’m fascinated by trying to keep things as visual as possible. And I’ll do thumbnail sketches. There are sequences that I’ve actually worked with storyboard artists on which I love to do. If I had more time I’d do even more of that.

But you’re really racing the clock in television because you essentially have seven days, as a director you have essentially seven days of prep with the script and then eight days of shooting. And where the weekends fall become very, very important to you. You really hope that you get an episode where you shoot Friday and then you have the weekend.

Susannah: Two weekends.

Peter: You have the weekend to recover and kind of plan out some more. So, that’s — and casting, of course. But in a television series you have this stable of regulars and usually in some episodes you’ll have one or two roles that are very, very important. In fact, I just finished an episode where we — and I don’t want to give anything away — but the casting of this one character became so — who was not in that much of the series became so pivotal that that was my great anxiety. I was bugging — every time I was on the phone with our casting people and I said we need to see more people for this. When are we going to start seeing this guy?

And then, of course, we saw the guy and he was incredible.

John: On your shows, did you have the chance to do table reads where you could read the whole script with your actors? Cary, did you get that?

Cary: Yeah, we didn’t always have the whole cast there because we were doing it in New Orleans and some of the cast were having to travel. So, we had the local actors come in and read multiple parts. But for everyone that was sort of around and can be featured, we brought them in and we did a table reading of the first four scripts, right at the beginning, and then we did a reading — I can’t remember if we did the last four, or broke it up two more times.

Susannah: You did all four together?

Cary: Yeah.

Susannah: Oh, nice.

Cary: It was a long morning.

John: Talk to us, did things change based on that reading? Because especially when you have these two powerful actors and –

Cary: I can say yes. One particular role definitely changed after that reading.

Susannah: Because the casting was wrong or — ?

Cary: Yeah. The casting was wrong and HBO felt out of that reading that they’d seen enough to make a change.

John: So HBO is watching this, so it’s both for your benefit, but also so they can see what the show, a preview of what the show is, right?

Cary: Yeah. Script readings are funny.

Susannah: Everyone is auditioning all over again.

Cary: It’s auditioning, but sometimes tone is strange in a script reading. And it tends to lean towards the comedic and that could be really misleading. I’m always in favor of people seeing as little as possible until we’ve got a cut of something. I wasn’t even in favor of the casting choice. This isn’t a change, but it was okay. It worked out in the end.

John: So, for Better Call Saul, you had a table reading before the pilot? Do you do it for every episode? What happens on that show?

Peter: It’s just not logistically possible for us to do a table read for every episode because everybody’s shooting and they’re exhausted. And the guest cast often flies in like moments before their costume fitting. It’s just in time manufacturing. We will do the table read at the beginning, and you know, it’s interesting because I don’t feel — I hate to say it — I think it’s always fun and it’s a great crystallizing moment for everybody to get together and say, hey, yeah, there’s a show here and this is an interesting story.

But I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever learned — this is a terrible thing to say — I don’t think I’ve ever learned an awful lot from it.

Susannah: Really? I feel very differently. I feel like I, you know, I’ll hear a table read of something I’ve written and think how could I not have seen how false that rings. It’s a real bullshit detector for me because, you know, I know that I can do that. It shows me my flaws before you’re having to stand up, stop the whole crew for 15 minutes while you figure out to make it real, as opposed to fake.

So, I find them really helpful as a writer.

John: I find the most helpful thing about a table read is it’s evidence that the actors have read the whole script at least once, because otherwise they will honestly just read their part.

Susannah: No, but you know what, if they’re only living that part of it, sometimes that’s fine. If as the character you’re now aware of all that other stuff going on?

John: But there are some actors who will make sort of selfish choices because they don’t understand the world in which they’re living in.

Susannah: Oh, right, the tone and the demands of the piece.

John: So it gives them one chance for them to be able to see sort of what the whole thing is.

Susannah: It’s not all about them.

John: But your point about something being — there’s times where I’ve been forcing a lot, I’ve been faking something. It just isn’t there. And it’s so much better to have that realization or that conversation with the actor around a table than like with the whole crew watching.

Susannah: It’s a much cheaper place to fix it.

Cary: It’s too bad they don’t have like better voices for the Final Draft talk feature.

Susannah: Right. That would be really good.

Cary: Ways as like Terry Crews, you know, [unintelligible] turn left or right. And be like, Terry Crews like, “Interior Bus Station.”

Susannah: That’s actually a great idea for Final Draft.

John: I think there’s an app to be made with just Terry Crews doing that.

Susannah: They should cast that, man. You should be able to cast your Final Draft read, you know.

Cary: The Final Draft guys are around here somewhere. I’m going to pull them aside.

Peter: I think maybe Highland needs that feature.

John: Yeah, we’ll do it in Highland and Weekend Read. It will have a little read aloud feature. It will be good. It’ll be fun.

We actually, our next guests are here because they’re going to do a reading. So, maybe we should wrap this up and bring them up. But, guys, thank you so much for this and we’re going to have questions at the end, so stick around because we’re going to answer some more questions at the end, okay?

Cary: Okay. Thank you very much.

John: Thank you very much. Our next guests are here because they’re doing a reading tomorrow afternoon, I believe. So I want to welcome up Dan Sterling and Mike Birbiglia. Come on up. So, Dan Sterling here is a writer-producer-director. He did projects including the Sarah Silverman Program. I’ll make things up and tell us which ones are lies, okay? You did, let’s see, The Office?

Dan Sterling: True.

John: You did Breaking Bad.

Dan: That is a — that’s true.

John: You did Breaking Bad?

Dan: No, no. I just wanted to see if I could get a reaction. No, no.

John: But you’re here because you have a feature that you actually wrote that he is going to be reading it. Is that correct?

Dan: Yeah, that is true. And this is Susannah Grant.

John: Susannah Grant.

Dan: This is very exciting.

John: And this is Mike Birbiglia who has actually been on the show before. Yeah, we’ll introduce you anyway. So, Mike Birbiglia is a writer-producer-director-comedian-actor. Actor, that’s true. Can I say that you’re in that next season of that show?

Mike Birbiglia: Yeah. Orange is the New Black.

John: He’s in Orange is the New Black, next season. Fault in our Stars. Lots of things. But also –

Mike: I’m an avid listener to the show.

John: Yeah, he’s an avid listener.

Mike: And I wanted to say, and of course we won’t keep this in the final cut of it, but the show without Craig is phenomenal. I mean –

John: He’s essentially been –

Susannah: You’re advocating a permanent change?

John: The anchor that’s been dragging the show down this whole time.

Mike: And I just feel like today’s episode really lacks an antagonist.

Susannah: That’s rarely a good dramatic choice.

John: It’s all happy smiley.

Mike: And also I wanted to ask the gentleman who wrote and directed True Detective whether he enjoys the True Detective Season Two memes. They’re all over the internet all the time, or speculation about who is the cast of season two. Also, I want to urge Scriptnotes listeners to create a John and Craig True Detective Season Two.

John: We would be pretty amazing.

Mike: Does that already exist?

John: I’ve seen one of them.

Susannah: Really?

John: Where they pasted us together. Yeah. Because really good cop/bad cop. You know, there’s a lot of stuff going on between us. It would be fantastic.

Mike: Does he think it’s funny? Do you think those are funny?

Cary: Me?

Mike: All right, he doesn’t think they’re funny, even though he’s saying he does. I can see it in his face. But it’s all loving.

John: It’s all loving and it’s all good. So, you are a writer-director yourself, and you often have to direct yourself in a movie.

Mike: True. Yeah.

John: Is that good or bad? Are you a good director to yourself?

Mike: I’d like to think so. So much of what I believe in as an actor has to do with relaxation and just existing and living in a moment. And not doing acty-acting. And so I feel like if I were doing something in an extreme genre, or something that required a lot of acting heavy lifting, I don’t know how I would do that. But like I directed Sleepwalk With Me. And some other shorts and things. It’s not that hard because the type of acting I enjoy is sort of like just throw it away.

Susannah: Do you watch your takes on playback? Between?

Mike: I do, but only when I’m about to move on.

Susannah: Just to make sure?

Mike: Yeah. After five or six takes. Just like let’s just make sure we have one that looks good enough and then we’ll move on.

Susannah: How often do you go back after watching playback?

Mike: I’d say like one in three. Yeah.

John: So, something like Sleepwalk With Me, or even My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, those are based on things you’ve done a lot. So, you have the rare case of being able to — you performed these ideas before. You’ve been able to practice them in ways that writers normally don’t get a chance to practice their ideas.

Mike: Yeah. And also, and this speaks to sort of why I’m here with Dan this weekend, we’re doing a reading of his script called Flarsky, which is such a funny script. And one of the reasons I was interested in coming to do the reading, I love the process of work-shopping stuff through readings. And I feel the way that you were saying earlier. So, I’ve been having readings at my house all summer of a screenplay that I’m working on to direct my next film. And I always find I just — I’m hitting myself during the whole thing. Just going, oh my god, that rings so untrue. I can’t believe I even wrote that on paper.

And then I fix it. So, I was glad to be sort of an instrument for Dan’s reading.

Susannah: You can also hear the other thing, which is how did I not open that next door? You know, how did I not walk in that next room? There’s an obvious next step for this. And how didn’t I see it? I find them incredibly useful.

Dan: Although writers that are here today are so mature and disciplined, because I just dread table readings because I don’t want to have to change anything. I’m quite satisfied with all the things that I wrote and they’re all so precious. And I’ve always resented table readings. They were always super important, but I dreaded them.

Susannah: Do you love them after you hear them, too? Do you stay in love during the whole process? Or do you turn on yourself?

Dan: Well, I go through a process of denial where I assume that it was the performance that the actors are reading it cold and that they didn’t… — But, you know, basically whatever happens, every piece of criticism and notes from an executive or whoever that I’ve ever gotten just always makes me go and do what I think turns out to be something better. I just don’t want to. I’m lazy.

Mike: I also want to say because I know like I’m a listener to this podcast and I know a lot of the listeners are people who write and want to create things or do create things. And I think having readings like with your friends is one of the most cost-effective things you can do because they’re super fun. You order pizza. You hang out. You read a thing. And then you socialize afterwards and you learn. And it’s free.

And one thing about making movies is it’s so expensive. It’s like bleeding money. It’s literally like you got shot with a machine gun and you’re just bleeding thousands of dollars a minute. And you can’t even believe how much money it costs to make a movie.

And so having readings I think is a phenomenal thing.

John: So, you don’t like readings, and yet you came to Austin, Texas to have a reading of this script. So, tell us what this script is. That might be a useful setup.

Dan: I mean, I could not actually be more excited about this reading. It’s a hugely flattering thing to have a bunch of people come and read your thing for no money and probably at their own expense getting here.

Yeah, I wrote this, I’ve been a television writer and showrunner for a bunch of years, and then a few years ago I wrote this spec script, because I wanted to start to transition into movies. And so I wrote this script, and then Seth Rogan sort of picked it up and that began our relationship and we’ve since made another movie together that’s coming out in Christmas.

John: That’s The Interview, correct?

Dan: That’s The Interview with Seth Rogan and James Franco. It’s crazy. They go to North Korea and try to kill Kim Jong Un. I won’t tell you how it ends. But, yes, so –

John: Does it end in North Korea going to war with us? That’s the meme.

Susannah: I think it ends in some diplomatic challenges. [laughs]

Dan: Yeah, too much. I guess I hope not, though. I always just want my work to make an impact of some kind. Nuclear war seems like it would be very memorable. I would go down in the canon, which is super important.

John: That’s true. I mean, who’s going to remember anything else we do, but they’ll remember a war because millions of people will die.

Dan: In theory, yes.

John: If nothing else, you killed millions of people. That’s really the accomplishment.

Mike: You will be so remembered if that happens. People will be like what idiot thought it was a good idea –

John: Poking the bear.

Dan: I hope so. It’s possible that, you know, the screenwriter, how many people remember. Maybe they’ll just credit Seth to that.

John: [laughs] That’s true.

Dan: I’ve been saying that if death threats really start coming in and they only go to Seth and not to me, I’m going to feel very left out.

John: Yeah. It’s a danger. Tell us about Flarsky. So, what is the inspiration behind Flarsky? What is this movie that you’re trying to get going?

Dan: Well, so I just wanted to write something that was sort of partly personal and partly political, because that’s sort of what I’m attracted to. And it’s a screenplay about this very down and out newspaper opinion columnist who’s writing for like the equivalent of the LA Weekly or something and has maybe got some drinking and pill habits and stuff.

And he is encouraged by his insanely optimistic friend to pursue the most powerful and glamorous woman on the planet, the married Secretary of State, who would be a youngish, beautiful woman, and who is married to a senator. And when I was starting to write I was just trying to — for some reason I was thinking about, this is going to sound very pretentious, but I was thinking about Candide. Because I just always love this idea of like there’s this guy who grew up with a philosopher who told him every day these very positive things and all this for the best and the best of all possible worlds.

And then the rest of the book is nothing but rape. And they go out into the world and see that, no, everybody is being raped and enslaved and chopped into pieces. And so I wanted to have this sort of conversation between two best friends, one how is very pessimistic and one who is optimistic. And then in the movie the friend encourages the pessimistic friend to go and pursue the most glamorous, powerful woman on earth.

John: So, Mike, to get ready for this role you had to start drinking and pill-popping and really inhabit the character, right?

Mike: Yeah. I grew out my beard. That was it. And then I’ve just been drinking quite a bit, yeah.

Susannah: Austin is good for that, right?

John: It’s a good town for that. So, in doing this reading here, is this for kicks and giggles? Is it for you to learn more about it? Is it to build momentum for making this into a movie? What are the outcomes of doing a reading like this?

Dan: Well, I’ll report back to you on the outcomes if anything does come out. But I’m doing it because they asked.

Mike: The Black List, right?

Dan: Yes. This script got on the Black List. The Black List invited me to do it. And I’ve just never done anything like this because this is a reading to some extent to entertain. I mean, I’ve done table reads for television and stuff like that where there’s just a few executives. But this is actually totally sort of new ground for me. I mean, we’re going into our first rehearsal in a couple of hours, so I don’t know what to expect. But I did see a Black List reading a couple of weeks ago and it was really fun. I mean, it was a comedy and it was really well paced. And also the Black List told me that doing this — a lot of people who have done these Black List readings — these scripts have gone on to be made.

So, that was appealing. In this case, the script, it has maybe some attached cast, so it’s got producers and stuff and we’re sort of trying to figure out a director. So, I don’t even know whether this reading, other than to help me see where it’s working or where it’s not, I don’t know what other outcomes beyond that except my ego.

Mike: I was promised that the film would be made and that I would be the star.

John: [laughs] That’s good. There’s also, pizza was promised to you. And that’s a crucial thing, too.

Mike: A lot of things were promised and now I’m learning that it’s meaningless.

Dan: There is a real pizza thing in Mike Birbiglia’s work I’m noticing. I mean, one of this great quotes, or at least I think is about falling in love is like eating pizza flavored ice cream. It’s too much joy to process.

John: Fantastic. Because we have an audience here, I want to open it up for some audience questions. And so it can be questions for the people who are up here, the people who were up here before. It can be about television. It can be anything.

The only thing I would ask is it actually be a question. And so let’s just –

Susannah: I’m going to demonstrate. This is a question. Mike, much of your work has been work that you’ve done in another form. Do you have a hard time breathing new life into it when you turn it into a movie? How does that happen?

Mike: That’s a good question.

Susannah: Like that.

Mike: Oh, it was a question. Yeah, it is hard. It’s challenging. I mean, Sleepwalk With Me, it was a book, and it was a one-person show that I developed over about seven or eight years. And so it had grooves to it, where it had things where I’m like I know this will work. I know this will work. I know this gets a laugh. I know this has some kind of pathos or relate-ability to it.

And then you move to cinema and cinema is an entirely visual medium. And so it was very, very challenging. Actually, it was so challenging that right now the script I’m writing that I was just saying I’m doing reading of it in my house is completely from scratch because I wanted to build it from pictures this time.

Susannah: Because I would imagine chasing, I mean, it’s always hard to chase a laugh you got the night before, right? So, to do that after seven years must be really hard?

Mike: Yeah. And I have to say like one of the reasons I started writing these one-man shows was because I was a screenwriting major in school and then I got out of school and realized that screenwriting is a profession you can apply for. Isn’t that a wild realization? Like you can study it and then you’re like, oh, I guess there isn’t a job.

John: No.

Mike: And then I was doing standup comedy, I was pursuing that –

Susannah: Right, because that’s an easier –

Mike: That’s a job. And people do it. And I was working the door at a comedy club, and that’s a job too. And so then I moved to New York City. My writing professor actually said, from college, actually gave me advice. He goes you should just put on a one-man play because it doesn’t cost anything. It’s just you and two or more people in the audience.

John: Low thresholds.

Mike: Yeah. That’s the rule of theater is there has to be more people in the audience than on stage. And it’s a glass of water and a stool. And you know how to write a play and I taught you how to write a play. And so go do it.

And that’s how I started writing Sleepwalk With Me. And then from there I did My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. And from there I made Sleepwalk With Me, the movie.

But it’s funny because I listen to the podcast a lot. It’s very encouraging. But one thing that I feel like people, it’s hard to grasp sometimes is that for someone like me, I wanted to make a movie when I was 19 and I wanted to direct a feature when I was 19. I directed my first feature when I was 32. And I think that’s totally fine. I’m comfortable with that. But, yes, it’s good for people to know that that’s sort of marathon duration of how long things take.

John: All right. Some questions. I see a first hand was right there. Sir?

The question is how do you know that you’ve found a third act? How do you know you’ve found an ending to your story that is satisfying? Susannah, in writing your features, when do you feel like this is the ending? Do you know your ending before you’ve gotten there, or is it only the process that’s taken you to that point?

Susannah: I kind of know the destination. I hope I don’t know the specifics. I mean, I have kind of this rule of thumb with any scenes. I don’t think it’s done until I’ve written something other than what I went in to write, until I’ve surprised myself in it. And then like how do you know when it’s — I mean, it’s never really good enough, right? But then maybe it is. I don’t know.

You just kind of, it vibrates right or wrong within side you. I don’t think there’s a formula.

John: Peter, talk to us about it. You got to end the whole series. So, what is it like leading up to that thing and how early on in the process did you sense like this is where we’re going to end this show with these characters? This is how we’re going to get to that moment? Was there an ah-ha moment in the writer’s room where it all came together? Talk us through that, please.

Peter: Wow, I’ll try to remember it, because it’s all kind of a blur to be honest with you. It was a lot of pressure. You know what it is? I think the big thing is just to explore every freaking thing you can possibly think of. And that’s one thing — if there’s any method to doing this, it was just to try to think, okay, what if Walt is in… — Well, first of all, we have things that we’ve set on the show which we know that Walt’s got cancer. We know he’s going to have a giant machine gun. And we know he’s going to probably use the damn machine gun. And who is he going to use it on? That was a big question.

So, we really, I mean, it’s almost like just by talking the different possibilities through, eventually one just starts emerging and things start connecting to it. And you start seeing that that’s, okay, that character is, that’s going to help resolve that character’s storyline. And that’s going to — it all starts snapping together, but it doesn’t start snapping together until you’ve talked through everything you can possibly think of.

And so we had versions where Jessie was in prison and Walt came with a giant, the machine gun, and he blew away all these prison guards. And it went on and on and on. Just any bizarre idea you can think of was at least given serious — I think maybe that’s the trick is to give honest consideration to pretty much anything that occurs to you, no matter how freakish.

But then at a certain point it starts narrowing down and then you start feeling your way through it. But, you know, it’s also it’s easy for me to say because ultimately on Breaking Bad we were all talking through it, but it was ultimately Vince’s choice. And we knew that Vince was going to write and direct that last episode. And so we knew he was going to use the machine gun, so.

John: Chekhov’s gun.

Peter: Yes.

John: Another question? Her question is how do you become confident, which is kind of a valid question. Because I’ve been incredibly non-confident, especially as I was starting. And maybe we could sort of talk through those early awkward meetings. Because I remember my first water bottle tour of Los Angeles where you go and you have the general meetings. And it’s so incredibly awkward. And you feel like the imposter syndrome, where you feel like I don’t belong in this room and people are going to figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing.

That never went away for me. I don’t know if other people have that same experience. Dan Sterling, are you confident?

Dan: Well, you know, Thursdays at 4pm I have this standing appointment with a woman with a degree in psychology and I sit and I talk to her. And, I mean, I’m getting closer. Only because I’m having some success, but you know, I mean, I had my first show-running job, and it was completely absurd. I was like, I tricked them. I don’t belong here at all. And there’s nothing to do but sort of rely on that very cliché but true thing of, god help me for saying it, fake it till you make it.

And I think faking confidence is super important in a lot of areas in life and I’m probably doing it as I speak, but –

Mike: Yeah. I totally agree with Dan. I recommend this. If you haven’t listened to it, this Charlie Kauffman speech, is it BFI? The British Film Institute? And he just says this thing that I think most writers relate to which is that all you have to give to writing is yourself. And that’s — I mean, I’m paraphrasing it in sort of a terrible way, but he very eloquently says it. And that he doesn’t call himself a writer. He calls himself a person who has written some things and is going to try to write some more things.

Susannah: Yeah. I have this moment when I finish every script. I always look at it and think, god, who cares? And then you realize, well, everybody cares. Everybody cares about each other, basically, so just put yourself there. Don’t worry about it. Ignore that question. I mean, everybody has that feeling of like who cares about me and what I think, you know?

John: So, my first experience with you, Cary, was at the Sundance Labs and you were talking about Sin Nombre and how you had gone and done all this research. You were riding on trains with people. And I remember thinking like, wow, that kid is really, really brave. But that sort of carries through in the other stuff you’ve done. You’ve made sort of brave choices. Back then when you were making your first movie, did you have confidence? Were you faking it? Talk us though — these people want to make their first movie. What did it feel like and when did you feel like I belong to be behind this camera making this movie?

Cary: I’m going to have to agree with everyone else here that ignore that question because no one ever 100 percent feels confident in what they’re doing. And fixed income they do, they’re definitely lying. Or if they say they do, they’re definitely lying. And if they are really confident in what they’re doing, they’re probably not doing anything that deserving of confidence.

So, I think with Sin Nombre what happened was it was a bit by bit process moving into that story. I started off with a short film based on a real event that happened in Victoria, Texas, where a trailer filled with immigrants was abandoned and many of them died. And in doing research for that story I learned about the trains.

So, when I went down ultimately to do research in Mexico on the trains and travel with immigrants, at a certain point you start to accumulate experience. And then with the people you meet you start to feel a sense of responsibility then to tell that story, so maybe you can replace that confidence with a need to tell a story now that you feel the most equipped to tell it.

And definitely when I was making it, you know, with my crew members and educating them on the aspects of the journey that I knew about and, you know, as my production designer started to fill his room with references and pictures of what the gang areas would look like, or immigrant areas would look like, I felt pretty confident that I knew most of the nitty gritty details.

And maybe it just comes with doing the work as well. You know, it’s confident enough.

John: One more question. Who has a hand — we’re going to take over here. Gentleman?

Male Voice: The question is for Peter. You said that Breaking Bad feels like one big movie, but was it, or felt more cinematic. Was it each season felt like a movie, or the whole thing?

Peter: What do you think?

Male Voice: Each season?

Peter: You know, I think that’s absolutely legitimate. I always hoped — I remember early on talking to Bryan and saying, it was season two, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we have a story and there’s going to be a row of DVDs and it’s going to be a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it’s going to come to a conclusion.”

And Bryan was absolutely convinced that that was going to happen. And he was right. So, to me, it’s one story, but what makes it that. To me, cinematic, it’s visual. That’s really — that’s the thing that makes it most cinematic to me is just that it’s visual. And I’m standing here next to some incredibly visual filmmakers. So, I’m a little intimidated by that. But that’s really — that was the thing that appealed to me about the approach that we used on Breaking Bad is that we tried to tell the story using pictures.

And if it feels cinematic, I think ultimately that would be why.

John: Great. I want to thank our amazing guests for coming up here. This has been great. Thank you very, very much. Susannah, thank you very much for co-hosting this with me.

Susannah: Thank you for having me. I’m sorry I wasn’t as cranky as Craig.

John: You were awesome. So, a thing that Craig and I would normally do at the end of the episode is a One Cool Thing. And so do you have a One Cool Thing ready for us.

Susannah: I have a One Cool Thing and I’m not alone in this. But if anyone here does not have Birdman on your list, put it on your list. I loved it.

John: So, what is it about Birdman that is so great? This is the Michael Keaton movie. IÒ·rritu.

Susannah: It is, well, first of all I love the idea of it which is what does it take to regain your authentic self once you’ve sold it away. And how close to death do you need to come to find it back. Which, to me, is a great question to play around with. And then it’s everybody working at so the top of their game. Everyone involved in the movie is just firing off at such a high level. And you go to it and think, yeah, there are a million things wrong with the movie business right now, but if I can pay $12 and see this, there are also some things working right.

John: That’s fantastic. My One Cool Thing is Serial podcast, which probably a bunch of people here are listening to. It’s really good. And so it’s that kind of thing where like everyone says it’s really good and you’re like, uh, but no, it’s really, really good.

And the best part about it is you’re not that far behind. And so you can actually just download all the episodes and stick them in your queue. And I listened to half of it on the flight here to Austin. So, I highly recommend it. I love it. And as a person who makes a podcast, it’s so fascinating to see what the art form can become, because it really does feel like its own new thing. The same way that Breaking Bad is telling a story over all these episodes and it’s cinematic, it’s sort of cinematic podcasts, which is such a n unusual thing.

And so the fact that it’s happening live in front of us is kind of exciting to see.

On the topic of live and in front of us, I’m The Transitioner, so I have to always transition from one thing to the next. This has been great to have you guys here with us. I want to thank the Austin Film Festival. Let’s give them some applause here. You can find us at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. We’re also on iTunes, so you can click subscribe there and listen to this.

And, thank you guys so much for coming. Thanks.

Links:

Writer Emergency Pack, and the secret history thereof

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 16:01

After four years of discussion, three complete do-overs and two print runs, we finally launched Writer Emergency Pack.

It’s a deck full of useful ideas to help get your story unstuck.

Here’s a video we made to explain it:

It’s on Kickstarter. It’s already fully funded. It’s been an exciting 24 hours.

How we got here

Writer Emergency Pack was originally called Unstuck, and it was supposed to be an iPhone app. In fact, it was our very first app, built by me and Nima Yousefi before I’d even met him in person.

Here’s an early drawing I did for the launch screen:

The original idea was that you shook your phone, Magic 8-Ball style, and a suggestion would appear.

When I hired Ryan Nelson as my Director of Digital Things, we re-conceived the app, giving it a vintage survival guide vibe. Here’s Ryan’s mockup for the iPad version.

We built it. We hated it.

It was sort of a book, but not really. Something about pulling out your phone to deal with story problems felt wrong. When you’re writing, the phone is a distraction, not a solution. Once you’re looking at that little screen, you’re tempted to check email, or Twitter, or play a quick game.

The iPhone was the wrong tool for the job.

So we never released it. Instead, we focused on the apps that would become Highland and Weekend Read.

But there were aspects of Unstuck we loved. Ryan Nelson had designed amazing artwork inspired by vintage Boy Scout handbooks. I’d written a bunch of the suggestions for the app. And we’d commissioned terrific illustrations by David Friesen.

And then we lost the name Unstuck. Technically, you can’t lose what you never owned, but it still felt like a loss. A self-help project called Unstuck took the URL and started making apps and registering trademarks.

Nameless = aimless

Our Unstuck was basically dead. Every week at our staff meeting, Unstuck would be at the bottom of our list of projects. “Yeah, that’s still kind of a good idea,” I’d say. Then I’d remember there were lots of other projects we were working on, and this one didn’t even have a name. So for three years, it was always the lowest priority.

But two ideas arrived together to make us look at the project again.

First, the idea of using playing cards. JJ Abrams’s company always sends cool holiday gifts, and one year they sent a deck of custom Bad Robot playing cards. A few months ago, I found the deck again and marveled at it. “How expensive is it to make custom cards?” I wondered aloud. Some googling led to the answer: playing cards are very expensive to print unless you’re printing a bunch at once.

Then at Jordan Mechner’s wedding, each guest received a limited-edition deck of cards. The design was terrific; the printing was extraordinary. More googling led me down a rabbit hole of card designers and collectors, many of them connecting through Kickstarter. There was a whole community making cards. If they could do it, we could do it.

Cards felt like an appropriately tactile solution to story problems. After all, screenwriters use index cards all the time. And unlike an iPhone, if you’re pulling these cards out, you’re focussed on writing, not Twitter. I started to think about how I could rewrite my suggestions to fit in a smaller format.

Then, on episode 161 of Scriptnotes, Aline Brosh McKenna joined us and described how she’d recently solved a nagging script problem by deliberately upending her own expectations about one character. It was exactly the kind of suggestion I wanted Unstuck to provide.

If Unstuck existed. Which it didn’t.

I asked Ryan to mock up his drowning-man artwork as a playing card box. He did. It looked great.

But of course, it couldn’t be called Unstuck, because there were a lot of other trademarks in the way.

The drowning man felt like a screenwriter being pulled underwater. He was a writer having an emergency, and this object was a pack of cards.

Putting it all together, we got Writer Emergency Pack. Once we had a name, we had a unifying concept: a survival kit for “writer emergencies” — stalled stories, confused characters, plodding plots, alliterative et ceteras.

From there, it was still a tremendous amount of work to figure out how to actually do it. We printed demo decks. We showed them around. I rewrote everything. But we finally had a clear destination — something we were lacking for four years.

Quite appropriately, making Writer Emergency Pack has been a lot like writing a screenplay. When you’re trying to fix a broken idea, it’s a thankless grind. When you’re executing an idea you love, it’s a treat. It’s been tremendously fun to figure out how to make these cards.

And now that we’re funded, we’ll get to make a bunch of them.

The Kickstarter phase of the process is a very quick 16 days, so don’t miss out on the chance to preorder. There’s no guarantee we’ll have any extras, so this may be the one opportunity to get them.

You can find Writer Emergency Pack exclusively on Kickstarter. Choose “Back This Project” to reserve your deck.

Scriptnotes, Ep 167: The Tentpoles of 2019 — Transcript

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 10:52

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 167 Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, huge news on my side. I am finally buying a new computer.

Craig: Oh, thank god. So, are you going to get the 5k iMac?

John: I’m going to get the 5k iMac.

Craig: Love it.

John: And so I’ve been looking at the same monitor for the last eight years.

Craig: Wow.

John: Had this monitor for eight years, which is a very long time. And I’ve had different computers that have been driving it, but I’ve always been really far behind because I I’ve always thought like, oh well, there’s going to be the computer that’s just right for it.

So, usually I get castoffs from Ryan Nelson who is a designer who needs a much better computer because he’s doing stuff that needs a good computer.

Craig: Right.

John: But finally I’ll have a good computer.

Craig: So, have you been like on a MacBook and a Cinema Display?

John: Yeah, I’ve been on an old MacBook Pro and then a Cinema Display. I have a 30-inch Cinema Display which there is just the one year they made that.

Craig: That’s big. Yeah, it’s huge.

John: It’s huge, but it’s nice. It’s not especially sharp anymore.

Craig: Right. Plus I don’t think it was Thunderbolt and all that stuff.

John: No, none of that.

Craig: I assume that you updated to Yosemite.

John: I did.

Craig: As did I. And I’m so far very pleased. But the one thing I noticed is that, so I have the most recent MacBook Pro, and a fairly recent 27-inch Cinema Display, so it is Thunderbolt and all the rest. But it’s not Retina or –

John: And you notice it.

Craig: Okay, I do notice it. It’s a huge difference.

John: Yeah. So the fonts in Yosemite are Helvetica Neue and it looks really good on Retina and looks really not so great on things that aren’t Retina. So, I said that I updated to Yosemite, but I’ve only been using Yosemite in the betas on my 11-inch MacBook Air. And that has a sharp enough screen that it looks pretty good.

Craig: Yeah. Well, not so much here. Which is okay, because I split my time between — usually when I’m on the Cinema Display it’s because I’m writing and Fade In looks very nice on it, although I have noticed that when I export to PDF, and I don’t know if it’s just a function of the way Courier Prime is or all fonts are, but now when I export in PDF on the Cinema Display the printed Courier Prime just doesn’t look very good. It’s like jaggy.

John: Well that’s not good.

Craig: No.

John: It should look great. And so –

Craig: I know. It’s Yosemite.

John: It’s that constant challenge. Trying to balance the representation of what the computer knows the thing looks like to itself and how it’s portraying it on the screen are very difficult things. And that’s why these 5k displays have very custom circuitry to hopefully make things look as good as they possibly can.

Craig: Well, the bummer for me is I don’t want to get an iMac. I like being completely mobile. So, what I guess I’m waiting for now and I presume is inevitable is a 5k Cinema Display.

John: Yes. And those will happen. The challenge is that the actual bandwidth required to get from your computer to that display is huge. And so even Thunderbolt 2 by itself won’t be able to power that.

Craig: Ooh.

John: It will have to be a Thunderbolt 3, which doesn’t exist. So, it could be a little while to wait. I’m sorry.

Craig: But is 5k equivalent to Retina, or better than Retina?

John: They’re calling that Retina. Retina is really just I think a term of art for anything that has dots so small that you could not possibly see them.

Craig: Right. And so I don’t even know what the Retina resolution is, but –

John: It’s sharper than what you’ve got.

Craig: Yeah, it’s sharper than what I’ve got on the Cinema Display. But everything looks fantastic on the MacBook Pro screen, which is Retina Display. And by and large I think design wise this is pretty great. I love it.

John: Yeah. The MacBooks are fantastic, but I love having a big screen, so I’m looking forward to having this and having a nice sharp display.

Craig: Well, congrats.

John: Thank you very much. It is my Tesla. So, I’m excited to finally get it.

Craig: You know, I am getting the –

John: Yes, everyone on the podcast knows that you’re getting the new Tesla. Because you have to be able to accelerate to, what was it, zero to 60 in three seconds or something?

Craig: 3.2 seconds.

John: That’s just absurd.

Craig: That’s super car speed. It’s got 691 horsepower. And I just like the idea that I have that many horses. I’m like a horse magnet.

John: I love that we talk about things in horsepower.

Craig: Well, of course we do.

John: Of course we do.

Craig: Everything should be in terms of horsepower. Like computers we shouldn’t talk about gigahertz or processing or clock speed. We should just talk about how many clerks the computer is duplicating. Like, the clerks from Brazil with the little visors.

John: That’s what you need.

Craig: Like my current MacBook Pro is four billion clerks.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s good. Today on the podcast we are going to be talking about superhero scheduling and the 31 superhero movies that slated for this next decade, which is absurd. Not even decade, like seven years.

Craig: I know.

John: We’re going to talk about this great article about copyright. We are going to talk about developing a pitch. And we’re going to look at three –

Craig: Developers, developers, developers. [laughs]

John: Oh, god, you’re going to make me never use the word developer again, Craig.

Craig: Developers. Developers. Developers.

John: Let’s look at synonyms. So, figuring out a pitch. Perfecting it. I don’t know.

Craig: Rowing.

John: If our listeners have suggestions for words they can use other than develop, so that Craig never does that again –

Craig: Developers, developers, developers.

John: And we’ll be looking at three Three Page Challenges from our listeners.

Craig: Do you ever listen, this is going to shock you, but I did listen to a podcast once.

John: Oh my gosh. I’m standing up, but still I’m sitting down.

Craig: I think it’s called Comedy Bang Bang. It’s the Auckerman, Scott Auckerman, is that right? And they have this ongoing thing, like years ago whenever they started it, whenever somebody would say my — they had a whole thing about how Borat goes “My wife” and now it’s their thing. Whenever somebody is on their show and they happen to mention the phrase “My wife,” one or more of them will just quietly go, “My wife.” And somebody made a super cut of all the times it happened and it’s one of those things like The Simpsons rape gag that just gets funnier and funnier because it never stops.

And I think maybe developers is our “My wife.”

John: “My wife.” Either that or it’s “Uh-huh.” My tacit thing. It’s interesting, this last week I was at Singleton and we were talking about podcasts. A lot of people there make podcasts. And we were talking about some people have these long monologues. And it’s that choice of whether you say the Uh-huhs or you just leave it out and just let the person monologue for like five minutes.

Craig: Oh.

John: And I’ve always done the Uh-huhs because it just makes it clear that I’m actually paying attention and listening.

Craig: Have you ever spoken with somebody that does this, they’ll keep saying, “Right, right, right, right,” as you talk?

John: So many development executives do that.

Craig: Right, right, right. Right.

John: Right. I’m checking in with you, yup, I’m with you, I’m with you.

Craig: Right. Right. Right. Yeah, and they don’t know they’re doing it. I can tell they don’t know they’re doing it. It’s the weird — and it’s the most annoying thing.

John: It’s almost the Tom Cruise like constant eye contact thing, where it’s just like, oh, you’re freaking me out. You’re just too present in this situation.

Craig: You’re too present. Exactly. I need you to ignore me just a little bit.

John: Just back off just a little bit and then I’m good.

Craig: Let your mind wander.

John: Right.

Craig: Right.

John: Follow up. This week, and really our next episode, is the Austin Film Festival. So, there’s two things which Scriptnotes listeners may want to participate in. First off, we’re doing a Three Page Challenge, and these entries will all be the second rounders from the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition.

Craig will not be there, but I will be there with Franklin Leonard of the Black List, and Ilyse McKimmie from Sundance Labs. So, they will be up on stage with me. And I picked them because I think they’re going to be great, because they’re reading a lot of scripts and they’re sort of gatekeepers to their respective domains. And I want to talk with them about sort of what they see as they start reading scripts and what their experience is like. And so I think that will be a fun time.

Craig: I think that’s great. And, you know, now that you mention it, and I’m so sorry I’m missing it, but for the next time we do something like this together with the Three Page Challenge, we should really think about getting, routinely getting an executive or producer up there, because it is so useful to hear that perspective from them.

John: It should be fun, so I’m looking forward to that. That will be Friday at 9am if you’re coming to the Austin Film Festival. It’s an early session.

Craig: Early, yes. People will be hung over for that.

John: They will be. I will not be.

Craig: Yeah you will.

John: And then we’re doing Scriptnotes Live on Saturday at 12:30pm. Susannah Grant will be my co-host.

Craig: So great.

John: I’m excited about that.

Craig: So great.

John: And our theme is all about writer-directors. And weirdly like everyone on stage I think will be a writer-director. So, I’ve written-directed, so has Susannah. We’ll have Richard Kelly. We’ll have Peter Gould from Breaking Bad.

Craig: Very cool.

John: And Cary Fukunaga, just announced.

Craig: I mean, how did you? You’re just rubbing my face in it now.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Can you please tell Mr. Cary Fukunaga how much of a fan I am?

John: He’s a genius. And I actually met him at the Sundance Labs, with Ilyse McKimmie, many years ago when he was doing Sin Nombre. And I didn’t work with him there, but he was clearly one of those, oh, you’re a super talented person. And I’m so happy when my predictions prove correct.

Craig: It’s amazing. And Peter Gould really is, sometimes TV directors don’t get their due. And he certainly deserves because obviously he was a writer on what I believe is the greatest television show in history, but also a director of that show as well. And you can’t go wrong with Richard Kelly. Please, for those of you at Austin, go see this, if only to look into the unfathomable bottomless cruel eyes of Richard Kelly. Stare into the abyss of Richard Kelly and tell me if it does not stare back into you.

John: Indeed. There will also be special guests that I’m not allowed to announce, but I think you will enjoy some of these other people who are going to come to the show. So, please come to that. That’s 12:30 on Saturday at the Austin Film Festival.

Craig: That’s great. That’s a must do. I don’t care what else is going on. If you’re going to Austin and you’re going to be there, and I’m so sorry I won’t be there this time. This time only. I’ll be back next year. But Saturday at 12:30. If you don’t go to this, you’re just dumb.

John: Yup.

Craig: Stupid.

John: So, a little protocol. If you see me at the Austin Film Festival, it is totally fine to say, “Oh, hello, hi.” But know that I may be running from one place to another, so if I am brief with you it’s only generally because I’m trying to move from one facility to another facility and things are sort of spread all out.

But if you do see me, and you see me in a moment where I have some time, I will have on my person this thing called Writer Emergency which is a website you can go to. It’s this thing we’ve been working on for four years. And I actually have a physical thing I can show you. So, if you would like to see it, I will show you this small pack of suggestions that I will be carrying with me. Because we’re sort of beta testing them, so I need to show it to actual writers.

So, if you see me at Austin, I will have it on my person.

Craig: I was quite sure that you were going to say if you see me, feel free to talk to me, but do not touch.

John: Yeah. Do not touch. Do not touch me. Just maintain a safe distance.

Craig: Do not touch John August.

John: If you’re wearing a Scriptnotes t-shirt, I will probably notice that. So, that’s a thing you might do.

Craig: Yeah.

John: My trainer today was wearing a Scriptnotes t-shirt. It was the first time I’d seen one in the wild, and I’ve got to say it looked really good. Now, as we’re recording this, Craig, you just said that you have not actually physically gotten yours because you live out in the hinterlands, but everyone else, if by the end of this next week you have not gotten your thing, something is wrong and it’s probably Stuart’s fault. So, you should probably email orders@johnaugust.com and let Stuart figure this out.

Craig: Now I’m hoping I don’t get it because I want Stuart to suffer.

John: I think we did a really good job shipping everything out. We’ve gotten much better at it. But as we were shipping them out we realized, wow, there is one Highland t-shirt, like one person ordered a small Highland t-shirt, and we were out of small Highland t-shirts. And we realized like after we’d already gone to the post office we put someone who had ordered XXL and we sent them a small.

Craig: Ooh, no!

John: So, fortunately our wonderful listeners, he emailed us and so we were able to get that t-shirt back and give it to the right person.

Craig: Oh good. Good. Good. Good. Because, wearing a too-big t-shirt is perfectly, but a too-small t-shirt.

John: That would just not be good. No.

Craig: It’s no good. It’s no good. It shows all the soft squishy parts.

John: Yeah. Unless you’re wearing Spanx, which is something we learned about from Aline.

Craig: Man Spanx.

John: Man Spanx. People who may need Man Spanx are all of the actors who are going to be in all the superhero movies that have now been set for the next seven years.

Craig: Are you starring in Transition Man? [laughs]

John: Oh, I’m Transition Man. That I locked down. But this last week just got crazy. So, I want to just take a minute and talk through all of the superhero movies that are currently on the slate, and then we can talk about the reality here and sort of what’s going to happen.

So, I’m pulling from a list that was at News-a-Rama, but I think these are all sort of officially announced things. For 2015, here are the superhero movies:

May 1 is Avengers: Age of Ultron.

July 17 is Ant-Man.

August 7, the new Fantastic Four that Simon Kinberg is producing. And Simon was a great guest this last week at the WGA.

So, that’s three for 2015.

For 2016 we have Deadpool on February 12.

We have Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, on March 25.

May 6 we have Captain America 3, which is reportedly Civil War, which is kind of going to be great.

May 27, X-Men: Apocalypse, also Simon Kinberg.

July 8 is an Untitled Marvel film unofficially widely believed to be Doctor Strange.

Craig: All right.

John: August 5 is Suicide Squad, which is a Warner’s project and DC project.

November 11, Sinister Six, from Sony, which I think is Drew Goddard if I’m correct. I hope I’m not wrong.

So, that was, I’m counting up here as we do this, that was seven movies for 2016. Seven superhero movies.

Craig: Seven superhero movies in 2016.

John: But, 2017, not to be outdone.

Craig: Surely there won’t be anymore.

John: Oh, there are a few more.

Craig: Oh!

John: March 3 of 2017, the Untitled Wolverine sequel.

May 5 is an Untitled Marvel Film.

June 23 is the Wonder Woman movie.

July 14 is the Fantastic Four 2.

July 28 is Guardians –

Craig: Wait, they already know they’re doing a 2?

John: Yeah.

Craig: They don’t even care if number one does well. They’re like, screw it, we’re doing 2. I love it.

John. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 on July 28.

Craig: Sure.

John: November 3, another Untitled Marvel film.

Craig: They should just keep that title. It’s good.

John: Yeah, I think it’s pretty good. Just say like the Marvel Movie.

Craig: It’s just Marvel. Just show up.

John: Marvel. Show up.

November 17, Justice League, Part 1.

Craig: Okay.

John: Which I think is potentially the expansion upon whatever happens in the Batman vs. Superman.

There are two unspecified in 2017. One is a Sony female Spider-Man spin-off. And also a Sony Venom: Carnage Spider-Man spin-off.

Craig: Okay.

John: So, I’m going to quickly count this. 10. I’m counting ten for 2017.

Craig: Great. Yeah. More.

John: Ten superhero movies, not too much.

Craig: More.

John: Yeah. Then, 2018: March 23 of 2018, The Flash.

Craig: Hold on a second. This can’t — 2018, they’re just guessing.

John: Oh, it’s going to get better than this. Just wait.

Craig: All right.

John: So, The Flash, March 23.

Craig: Sure.

John: May 4 is an untitled Marvel film.

July 6 is an untitled Marvel film.

July 13 is an untitled Fox Mystery Marvel film.

Craig: Uh…all right.

John: So, I think, I’m talking that to be –

Craig: Like an X-Men sort of thing?

John: Yeah, something that is in the canon of the stuff that Fox owns would be part of it.

Craig: Right. Which will be the X-Men vs. Fantastic Four.

John: Oh, that would be great.

Craig: It’s inevitable.

John: Yeah, they have to.

Craig: Yeah. Ugh.

John: July 27 is Aquaman.

Craig: Oh, finally.

John: Jason Momoa.

Craig: Oh, oh, I thought it was what’s his face? [laughs] I thought it was the guy from Entourage. Okay.

John: No. [laughs] Yeah, it’s James Cameron finally got around to making the Aquaman film.

Craig: Finally got around to making, okay.

John: November 2, an untitled Marvel film. I think they’re cheating. I think you’ve got to pick some titles. But, all right.

Unspecified date for the Amazing Spider-Man 3.

Craig: Oh good. Is that a reboot of the last Amazing Spider-Man? Oh, no, there’s only been two. Okay.

John: So, I take all the Sony things with like a huge grain of salt, because who knows what they’re actually going to do because the Spider-Man franchise is in transition. But do I believe that they will make some movies? I certainly do.

Craig: All right.

John: So, back to a little bit of reason, there’s only seven movies, superhero movies, slated for 2018 right now.

Craig: Oh good.

John: This is 2014 though still we’re in right now?

Craig: Right.

John: Okay. 2019, this is why I wanted to do the list. April 5: Shazam. So, I’m so excited that they’re going to do Shazam in 2019 because back in 2007 when I wrote the Shazam movie, I remember having to scramble because Warners was like on my ass about delivering because they wanted to get in production and do budgets. So, I’m just really glad that I sort of canceled a vacation back in 2007, so 12 years later –

Craig: Well, they had to get ready for 2019.

John: So, this is supposed to have the Rock, Dwayne Johnson, as Black Adam, which is perfect casting and was also perfect casting 12 years ago when we started this process.

Craig: Now, let me ask you something. Is this still your script?

John: It’s still my chain of existence. It’s still the continuous development on the same project.

Craig: But they’re not, in other words, they haven’t just been sitting with your script for 12 years? [laughs]

John: No, I think other people have clearly come on and done this. And this was Pete Segal when I was doing this, who is clearly not going to be directing this now. But it is just bizarre.

Craig: That’s insane. Wow.

John: May 3 is another untitled Marvel film.

Craig: Great.

John: June 14, Justice League, Part 2.

Craig: Yeah, because, you know.

John: Because.

Craig: Because.

John: 2020 is Cyborg.

Craig: Oh, good, 2020. Are we even alive?

John: It’s really a strong prediction of like what will the world be like in 2020. That is six years from now.

Craig: I mean, we all know that phones will be implanted in our ears.

John: So, April 3 is Cyborg.

Craig: Oh good, Cyborg. Everyone has been begging for that.

John: Yeah. And then June 19 is Green Lantern.

Craig: Worked well the first time, let’s do it again. [laughs]

John: It did! You know what? I think part of the lesson of Green Lantern is that you just jam a movie into existence, it’s going to work.

Craig: So, listen.

John: 31 movies! 31 movies stretching in to 2020.

Craig: First of all, this list is highly suspect once you get past 2017. What happens is the real estate during the prime movie months of essentially March through July, really March through June is truly the big months now, because summer has sort of shifted up, it’s so treacherous to release a big movie because you’re always worried that you’re going to go up against two other huge movies. So, people start squatting on these dates. A lot of this is just nonsense. It’s nonsense posturing, and squatting, and some of these movies will move.

So, for instance, when Marvel says, look, on May 4, which is a huge weekend, in 2018 we’re putting a movie out. What they’re really saying is everybody be worried about us, but maybe they will, maybe they won’t. You never know.

A couple of things come to mind when I hear this crazy long list. One, you know, movie studios are businesses and they’re giving people what they want. People keep going to these movies, so why not? And a lot of them are good.

But, two, and this is really the big one, this is the Marvelization of Hollywood and I’m not sure that other people really are doing it right. Marvel is doing it right. And Marvel has a massive catalog. Massive. The Marvel universe has always been famous for having thousands of characters that are all interrelated in this huge soap opera universe. It’s very Game of Thrones in that way.

So much so that they can even, for instance, Nicole Perlman as we had on our show, picks an obscure comic out of a pile and lo and behold it’s now Guardians of the Galaxy and it’s a franchise.

DC never really had that depth. You can see them trying, because they’re colliding Batman and Superman the way that Avengers collided Iron Man with Hulk and so on and so forth. So, they’re trying, and I get that. And they should, frankly, Marvel should roll out things Dr. Strange and so on. I’m sure they’ll do very well.

Where we start to get to the Justice League I begin to worry because I’m not sure that DC really does have the depth there character wise, interesting character wise. Frankly, even Marvel was struggling a little bit. I mean, no offense to Jeremy Renner or Joss Whedon, who did as good as they could do with Hawkeye, but he’s just — he shoots arrows. [laughs] It’s not really, I mean Olympians do that.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, it’s starting to get a little thin out there. Certainly by the time we get to Aquaman, your eyes should be rolling a little bit. Shazam, I don’t, I remember –

John: Shazam I think, I mean, I will defend Shazam because I wrote Shazam. Shazam is actually a great idea for a movie, because it’s big with super powers.

Craig: Right. The little boy can say Shazam and he becomes awesome.

John: Absolutely. So, it has the potential for both big superhero movie and sort of comedy. It has the ability to sort of — that wish fulfillment comedy aspect of it. But this is going to end in tears.

Craig: I mean, the problem is you and I remember Shazam because there was a television show when we were kids. It was, do you remember, it was paired with Isis.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Not the beheading ISIS, but the –

John: It was the Shazam/Isis Power Hour. And I remember as a person who was excited to see Isis, there were only like three episodes of Isis, so it was almost always Shazam.

Craig: I know. And I loved Isis, too. My sister and I were –

John: It’s the power of the pyramid. Come on.

Craig: It’s the power of the pyramid. And I thought she was hot. I really liked Shazam and Isis. I liked Isis more. But I don’t think Shazam is particularly — and look, it doesn’t have the cool factor that Guardians of the Galaxy had because the whole idea was that they were kind of bad ass misfits, which is always fun. So, I’m just wondering if that property is going to appeal to a 17-year-old male.

John: I should step back and make clear that I don’t that Shazam is actually the problem. I think Shazam independent of all this stuff could be a huge success because I think it could actually do that crossover kind of — you can take seven year olds to it and make it feel like a good family movie, but I think the overall — you were worried about that thinness of the character slates. I just think the real problem here is the thickness.

I think you are painting, there’s just too many superheroes trying to jockey for attention. And people will get sick of it.

Craig: Well, I mean, they haven’t yet. They haven’t yet. So, and some of these things we know will do great. I mean, we know that Batman vs. Superman will be a huge movie. I would like to see that. That sounds like fun.

Captain America is sort of on its, perfectly well on its own steam. It’s a good series. I like that they’re calling it maybe Civil War because hopefully the villain this time will be dysentery.

John: You know that the actual premise is essentially Captain America vs. Tony Stark.

Craig: Oh, I thought it was going to be more just like, oh, gang green set in and we’re running short on black powder.

John: Oh, see that would be really good.

Craig: Yeah.

John: A little north, a little south.

Craig: Right. Oh, oh, we need to amputate. Here, drink this bathtub hooch while I saw your leg off. [laughs] That I would go see.

John: Now, Craig, indulge me in a thought experiment because let’s take, let’s step aside and like not look at this as superhero movies, but let’s just say there’s some other genre that was tremendously successful. And so let’s say westerns are the tremendous success, but westerns are really, really expensive.

My worry is that by sinking all of our time and energy into making these incredibly expensive westerns, we are going to be screwed when westerns stop working. Also, we’re limited in our ability to make other kinds of movies, or other kinds of big movies because we’re spending all of our capital making these giant westerns.

Craig: I will give you a rosier point of view on it. Most of this stuff is a guaranteed hit. Yes, at some point the bubble will burst, but when the bubble bursts and the sixth Spider-Man movie fails to turn a profit, that’s okay. It will be absorbed by the five that came before it. And the same for all of the Marvel films and all of the — I mean, good, another Wolverine. Thank god, right?

So, the truth is these are the safest bets Hollywood has. And, yes, they cost a lot, but they also know that they’re going to generate enormous profits because they have so far. And they have to the extent that when it finally ends they’ll be okay anyway.

And, I would argue that the profits that these movies generate are essentially what is funding every other movie they make, whether those movies are big or small. These are the things that allow them to take a little tiny bit of risk here and there. It’s not like what they used to take, but without these, I’m not sure they would be in the movie business at all. That’s the scary part.

John: So, they’re not actually as guaranteed though. If you look at the ones that have not worked, there are some notable things you can single out. Green Lantern did not work. This last Spider-Man did not work to the degree that they needed it to work in order for it to propel the franchise forward. So, you can’t say that they’re a lock. And, you know, I’m so glad that Guardians of the Galaxy turned out so well, but as you look at that movie, a 20% worse version of Guardians of the Galaxy would have been a disaster. It was one of those things that had to be executed perfectly.

Craig: That’s true. And I’m not saying that they bat a thousand. I guess what I’m saying is that if Green Lantern fails, that’s a failed movie. If Green Lantern succeeds, it’s five hits. And so, for instance, Fantastic Four, the first Fantastic Four movie just didn’t really click.

So, what are they doing? They go back to the drawing board and they’re like, no, no, no, we can make this work and we’re going to put Kinberg on it. It’s going to be a different kind of vibe. And my guess is it will work.

John: Yeah.

Craig: They’re learning how to make these better. And there are two twin pillars of superhero success. No, three. Three triple pillars of superhero success.

There’s what Bryan Singer actually deserves a ton of credit, I think –

John: I agree.

Craig: For kicking this thing off with X-Men. And to me those were the first superhero movies that got out of pure cheese mode and really went great. Obviously you’ve got to give Nolan a ton of credit.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Nolan, however, they’ve tried to Nolan other movies. Doesn’t work as well because Batman is perfect for Nolan. Batman is unique. Really no one else is like him tonally. And then you’ve got to look at what Whedon in collaboration with Kevin Feige at Marvel has done. Right?

So, they’re all learning from each other.

John: I would say Whedon is fantastic, but I would say the arc of Iron Man into The Avengers is already sort of well, you know, you make The Avengers because you actually already made Iron Man.

Craig: Right. I mean, Kevin Feige deserves — Kevin Feige may be the greatest movie business genius in the last, well frankly since I’ve been working in the business.

John: I would give the Pixar folks a bit of that, too.

Craig: Pixar folks are creative geniuses who are business successful because they’re so brilliant creatively. Kevin Feige doesn’t write and he doesn’t direct.

John: True.

Craig: He’s like, you know, you have to go all the way back to like, I don’t know, Thalberg, and guys like that to find these really powerful, very smart guys that actually made like a good creator-like impact on the movie business. He may be our generation’s, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it, Zanuck or Thalberg. One of those guys.

John: Yeah. Okay.

Craig: Look, I’m not a huge superhero movie fan the way that a lot of other people are, but I pick and choose ones I like. Business wise I think this actually generates money for them to make other kinds of movies. They do make other kinds of movies. Without them I worry that movie studios just start to stop down to more of a Disney-like existence of two or three movies a year.

John: So, let’s take a look at the range of studios here and sort of who’s not making them and who might be able to prosper by just doing something else. So, Sony is trying to do things in the Spider-Man universe. And so female Spider-Man, Venom, that kind of stuff. Sinister Six is theirs.

You have Fox with X-Men and Fantastic Four, which love them, grateful for that.

Over at Warners you have this whole DC universe that they’re trying to do.

Craig: Correct.

John: At Disney you have the whole Marvel universe of things they’re trying to do. That leaves Universal without a superhero –

Craig: Well, but they’re trying. And you know what they’re trying with.

John: With the Monsters.

Craig: Correct. It’s not the same.

John: And maybe that will work that it’s not the same.

Craig: Because it’s not the same. And I know that Chris Morgan and Alex Kurtzman are shepherding that. And that’s obviously something that they are well aware they don’t have. And it’s interesting that all the studios essentially are saying how can we Marvelize stuff. How can we Marvelize — let’s just look through our catalog. Find intellectual property with multiple characters in it and then Avengerize it. They’re all doing it right now.

John: And then Paramount. So, Paramount has Star Trek. I’m trying to think what else they have that is I that vein?

Craig: Well, they had Iron Man but they’ve lost it. Is that the idea?

John: Or Dare Devil, right?

Craig: Dare Devil I thought was –

John: Oh, Iron Man was always Marvel, wasn’t it?

Craig: No, Iron Man was Paramount.

John: It was Paramount, but I think maybe they still have some distribution rights on it, but it’s back now in Disney’s hand I think.

Craig: Oh yeah, they had it and it’s gone. I think Paramount doesn’t have any. They have Transformers. Well, Transformers are kind of theirs.

John: Yeah, that’s at DreamWorks/Paramount, right? Or is it Amblin/Paramount? It’s all confusing.

So, yeah, the challenge is, and maybe the opportunity is if you are not in that business, maybe you stay out of that business and find ways to thrive in some other –

Craig: Yeah, like you know Lions Gate’s superhero franchise?

John: Twilight.

Craig: Tyler Perry.

John: Oh, that’s true. But they also had Twilight. They also had –

Craig: Well, Twilight and Hunger Games are there, but they’re limited. They’re like Harry Potter. They end because the books end. I mean, obviously you can see now that Harry Potter is not ending.

John: Nope.

Craig: When you talk about like a character that can renew over and over and you can just making new episodes with that character, Tyler Perry, Madea. Madea is their superhero.

John: Madea is the superhero. Speaking of Tyler Perry, did you end up finally seeing Gone Girl?

Craig: No.

John: No, you didn’t.

Craig: No. But I’m gonna.

John: You’re gonna. You’re gonna sometime. Because then we’ll have a special podcast just about that.

Craig: Yeah!

John: Yay. Anything more on superheroes before we move on to the next topic?

Craig: No.

John: Next topic. Copyright. And so copyright is fundamental to the things that we do. There was a good article this last week by Louis Menand — who knows how he chooses to pronounce his name — but it was in The New Yorker. It was an article called Copywrong. And there will be a link to it in the show notes.

And I thought it was an interesting assessment of where we’re at now and really how we got to this place. And his thesis is that, I’m just taking a thesis from other folks, but is that copyright was established with this idea that you want things to be protected for a short time, but ultimately fall into public usage so that everyone can benefit from them. And that has been changed and altered in a way that is sort of the opposite of that. And so it’s holding stuff to the individual, to the creator of things for such a long time that things never fall into the public use.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah, it is an interesting article. I mean, the root of copyright ultimately was to encourage works for the public benefit. The idea being if you could give creators some exclusive right to their work for some period of time, it would be enough of an incentive for them to then do those things so that they could eventually move into the public domain for everyone’s use, a bit like the way that drug companies are allowed to own their drugs for awhile and then it becomes a generic.

What’s happened since then is a collision of two different forces, both of which I don’t think the initial copyright theorists could have foreseen. One was the rise of corporate intellectual property. And the other is the information revolution and the prevalence of cheap, easy, quick piracy.

So, on the one side we have companies that have used their influence over the legislature to extend copyright far beyond what it was initially intended to be, sometimes out of pure greed, a lot of times out of a kind of cultural panic that Mickey Mouse will be in the public domain and that doesn’t seem right. But really ultimately it’s about protecting the pockets of the people who pay for and distribute intellectual property.

And for us, of course, that interest is aligned with ours in a purely selfish way because that’s what puts money in our pockets.

John: Yeah, I want to step back to that idea of the public benefit because it is in the public benefit for people to write things, to create things because that is moving culture forward, it is dissemination of ideas. And so the idea behind public benefit in those initial years is really valid, because you want people to be incentivized to make things and share things and publish things so that it can enrich sort of everyone.

And so it’s in people’s public benefit for those creators to be able to charge for things and be paid. That makes sense.

The question becomes how many years after that is it more than public benefit for people to be able to use and share and reuse and do new things with that material. And originally it was like 17 years and it’s now up to 95 years because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Act. And the issue that’s come up, and Howard Rodman from the WGA has actually sent a survey around asking us about things, like have you ever encountered dead books. And by dead books it’s meaning like books that you would love to adapt or love to do something with, but it’s impossible to figure out who actually owns this. Sometimes things are copyrighted, but there’s no actual way to find out who it is.

Craig: They’re called orphans.

John: You can’t publish it. They’re orphans. And that is a situation that has come about almost uniquely because of these extensions of the copyright term is that normally these things should have easily clearly fallen into public domain and yet they are not.

Craig: In fact, the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild have worked together to petition Congress to assign the copyright to orphaned movies to the writers and directors of those movies, which is not the same thing as saying put it in the public domain, but rather, no, no, we should have — keep the copyright, but we should get it. Copyright can last a very long time, particularly when it’s framed as a certain amount of time after the death of the author.

For instance, the movie that I’m writing right now is inspired by the general genre of Agatha Christie’s works. I mean, it’s based on a different book entirely, but the idea is that it’s an Agatha Christie style whodunit. There are only two Agatha Christie books in the public domain, the very first two books she wrote. And they date back to the ’20s, I believe. So, you could see how long copyright lasts.

Now, on the other side of the equation, you have this fact that the vast majority of intellectual property that is downloaded over the internet is pirated. The vast majority.

John: Okay. The only thing I’ll push back on that is that pirated in terms of this is a completed work of art and you are downloading the whole thing and using it. The challenge is like when you’re using a snippet of it, something that should be fair use, something that should be I am using this in order to make a statement on it, or to do something with it that is useful new work, it becomes very difficult to know whether that is a legal use or an illegal use.

And companies are, especially now in the age of corporate copyright, companies are extraordinarily aggressive at stomping down on anything they perceive could be an infringement on their copyright. So, it creates this chilling effect that new work is not happening because you are terrified that someone is going to come after you.

Craig: Well, I’ll push back on that a little bit. Fair use is really about use. It’s about the duplication or sampling of the republication of. But it’s not about the purchasing of. So, I can make a fair use argument that I’m allowed to put a clip from The Dark Knight on my website.

John: Yes.

Craig: But what I can’t make is a fair use argument that I’m allowed to download The Dark Knight for free. We know that, for instance, there are — I mean, god knows, millions of pirated copies of Game of Thrones globally. So, what we have now is a weird storm like collision of a cold front and a hot front of this hyper-extended legal copyright and this hyper-truncation effective copyright.

And we are trapped in between right now. And so the people that follow the laws are being unfairly injured, I think. The people who are creating property are being unfairly injured, I think. Everybody is suffering right now. And I’m not sure what the answer is other than to say this: as somebody that creates intellectual property in conjunction with corporations, I must be on behalf of myself and my family ever mindful of the other sides, I guess I would call it hypocrisy when companies — the distribution companies or the provider companies like Google or Amazon bang the drum of copy fight and intellectual property freedom when really they don’t care about that at all and, in fact, defend their own intellectual property brutally. They just want to make money.

John: What this article points out though which I’ve also noticed is that you have tremendous legal teams with vested interest in maintaining the current copyright laws and extending them even further. You don’t have — to the degree you have Silicon Valley who wants to sort of make things free, whatever — but they’re not organized in a way to push for lower, like to rein back the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, to bring it back from 95 years to something much more reasonable.

There is no business model for that and therefore you don’t see the organized fight of lobbying and trying to get some of these copyright laws written a little bit more sanely.

Craig: Well, I think the sad thing is that they don’t have to because they know it doesn’t matter. I can go on YouTube right now and watch, you know, big chunks of all sorts of the movies that I’ve written that have just posted on there. Google owns YouTube. They’re distributing the content. They know they’re breaking the law. They don’t care.

John: But, Craig, I’m talking about the things that you and I do. So, exactly the situations where I would love to adapt this book, but I cannot adapt this book because it is still under copyright because of craziness. And so things that should have fallen in to popular culture that I should be able to use and adapt and work with are not available. And I think, and we’re talking, also I would say you and I will make the distinction between fair use and sort of piracy, but if you are a Disney company, you will come after both with the same hammer because you have one hammer and it’s an incredibly effective hammer.

Craig: Yeah. So, in the end the people that suffer are the wrong people. There’s no reason that you and I, if I wanted to work a little more freely with a novel that was written in 1931, it sucks that I can’t. It also sucks that my residuals are impacted by the fact that people can just go on YouTube, a Google Corporation company, and just watch that stuff illegally uploaded for free.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, once again, John, you and I are getting screwed.

John: [laughs] Indeed. I wanted to debate it. I don’t think we’re going to find any meaningful answers. What I would love to see though is — I would love to see the Elon Musk of copyright law who is going in and saying, okay, this is crazy, this cannot continue along these same lines. We have to both protect copyright from piracy, from real piracy during that initial period of profitability on a new work, but then recognize that copyright is designed to protect new work and not to give you a century of profits.

Craig: Yeah, well…

John: I don’t know that we’re going to find that person.

Craig: I’ve got news for you. If we can find the Elon Musk of legislation, there are other things I would like him to work on first.

John: That’s true.

Craig: We are in dire straits. Dire.

John: Yeah. Let’s not zoom out too much. Yes, things are bad.

So, next topic.

Craig: Next topic!

John: Next topic. So, I’m going to set this up and you will tell me like this is just the classically bad situation. I got sent this thing to look at. It was an adaptation and they’re like, “Can we just get on the phone with your really quick and just sort of talk through it. I know you don’t have a lot of time.” And so I got this thing on like a Wednesday and I’m looking through it and I’m like, oh, it’s sort of sparking and I can sort of see what the movie might be here. And it’s like is there any way we can get on a conference call, like four of us on a conference call, like me and four other people on a conference call on a Friday afternoon at 4pm.

Craig: All right.

John: Would you say that’s a good idea or a bad idea?

Craig: Well, considering that the Sabbath is right around the corner, John, I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.

John: I think in general you don’t want to have a first pitch or kind of meeting on something to be on a conference call with four people you don’t know, especially Friday at 4pm.

Craig: You don’t want to be on a conference call. You don’t want to be with four people you don’t know. And Friday at 4pm, everybody is essentially done.

John: They are done and they are dead. And so classically a bad idea, but I was traveling, I was going to be traveling so I was like, uh, it’s the only time I can do it. So, I did it. And, remarkably, it went really, really well.

Craig: Oh, good.

John: Which is great. Which is very exciting. And I think maybe partly because expectations are so low at that point, that I could just do it. I think, also, the fact that you and I do this podcast every week, I’ve gotten much better at just sort of like talking on my feet.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So I talked through it. So, anyway, that went great. And so now I actually have to go in and pitch the real thing. Because on that first phone call I could just pitch like this is what I’m thinking. I think it’s more like this, I think it’s like this, I think this is the world, this is the universe. And that was sort of kind of easy.

I could sort of do the elevator pitch of it really, really well. So, now I have to go through and figure out the whole pitch of it. And that’s a very different skill set.

Craig: It is.

John: And so I just want to talk a little bit about sort of moving from that “here’s the idea” to “here’s the expectation of what you are going to be delivering when you go in and talk through a pitch.” And I know you just did that pretty recently, too.

Craig: Yes.

John: I thought we could give some helpful tips for people.

Craig: Well, there’s different kinds of pitches. So, the first thing you’ve got to figure out is what’s the kind I’m doing. For most people starting out, they do need to deliver a fairly detailed pitch. The purpose of which is to convince the other person that you know what you’re talking about.

There are times when people don’t really need you to give them the whole movie. They just need the big points. They need the big data for what’s going to kind of happen in the movie plot wise, act breaks, and twists and reveals, and the general idea. Every now and then you get to kind of just talk conceptually, which is always the best thing. But, you know, for instance, in your case you kind of did the conceptual and now it’s like, okay great, at least give us the big data.

So, when I think about putting these things together, I try and — I keep in mind who I’m pitching to.

John: Yup.

Craig: It’s not a movie audience. It’s not my friends. The people that are listening to this are going to make decisions based on marketing, they’re going to make a decision based on how they feel in the moment and they’re going to make a decision based on how they can conceptualize this movie in the context of other movies that have made money.

John: Yes.

Craig: So, I do try and pitch the concept with an emphasis on the characters which I think plays better in a pitch than “And then, and then, and then,” which gets really boring. I try and pitch with an emphasis on the big moments that I know in their minds they’re already putting in a trailer. And I also try and pitch with any context, so I can say in many ways it’s like this movie except that it’s not because of this.

John: Yeah. And that’s classically that thing you hear in sort of the elevator pitch is like, “It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but in Space.” Or, you know, it’s this but it’s that. It’s not exactly this, but it’s these other two things combined.

And this thing I pitched, there are movies that I can sort of do that two things handoff with. And it’s very glib but it’s helpful because it provides a frame. It’s like the kinds of things that would happen in these kinds of movies –

Craig: Right.

John: Is useful. And then you end up distinguishing but these are the things that sort of make it unique and different. These are the unique elements that are going to be helpful for marketing, but also sort of make this movie a movie worth making. Like why you’re going to have the kind of response you want from this.

And so for me with this pitch, weirdly I’m going to be pitching quality because it’s a genre that you don’t necessarily associate with quality that often and sort of detailed character work. Hopefully it’s the kind of movie where the expectations about sort of what characters are supposed to be doing in it are incredibly low, but then so to push beyond that will be useful. It’s the kind of movie where the characters hopefully don’t recognize what genre of movie in they are in.

Craig: I think that’s always a good idea. I think that when you’re pitching something, you are in that wonderful moment where you are on your first date and you and your date partner can fantasize freely about the life you live.

Later on down the line when you wake up in a doublewide, and you’ve both gained weight, and you’re out of work, you can confront reality. When you’re pitching, it should be ambitious. It doesn’t have to be ambitious — budgetarily it should be creatively ambitious. It should be audacious. You should be willing to say I want this to be great. Because everybody wants it to be great. Nobody wants to, “Well, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to deliver pretty much just what you’d kind of ho-hum about.”

John: Yeah. So, it’s that moment to not be cynical at all. Like, I’m going with really the expectation of like, you know what, I think we can make something really, really, really cool here that will be surprising. And the same way like Guardians, again, was surprising in that it was doing things like, wow, I didn’t necessarily anticipate you were going to do that. And this movie succeeded so well in large part because you did these things. That’s a crucial thing.

I often describe the great pitch is really as if you just saw a fantastic movie and you’re trying to convince your best friend that they have to see that movie.

Craig: That’s right.

John: It’s that level of excitement that you’re trying to communicate.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s why it’s also good when you’re doing “It’s like this thing” to say something that’s surprising. When you hear something like, “Well, it’s like Raiders in space,” people go, okay. So, it’s Raiders except that they’re in space.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But if you say something like, “It’s a romantic comedy and it’s Raiders,” you go, well wait, how does that work? “Let me tell you.”

But I can already feel people leaning forward. It’s like, well, how does that work? You want to tweak curiosity. I mean, I always think that the Matrix must have been the best, I mean, I don’t know if they pitched it or spec’d it, but what a great pitch. Like, “Imagine this kind of Blade Runner-y, sci-fi world with this incredible martial arts. Yeah, it’s that, and also it’s not real. It’s Philip Dick. It’s this. It’s that. Now, let me explain how that’s going to fit together.”

And if you can pull off how it fits together, well, that’s what movies are. It’s basically — you know, we always say you put your character in an impossible situation and then you get them out of it. Put your pitch in an impossible situation and then get yourself out of it and you will be rewarded, I think.

John: Yeah. So, anyway, that’s going to be happening in these next couple of weeks, so.

Craig: Great.

John: I will let people know what the outcome of that was. But it was one of those sort of fun situations I think people don’t — writers of all levels will find themselves in a lot, where you had the sort of initial, you know, oh, that’s a really good idea, come and pitch me the full thing, and stepping from that whole like, oh, I think this is potentially really interesting to here is the whole movie I’m going to try to right is a challenging transition sometimes, because you start to recognize like, oh, that’s actually going to be a lot of work. And so it’s going to be a lot of work for me these next two weeks, but I’m looking forward to it.

Craig: It will. But I will say to you that I’ve never, even when they say we would love to hear the movie, they don’t really want to hear the whole movie. So, like everybody at some point starts to — they love listening to the first act. They love hearing how the second act works. And by the time you’re done with that, they just want to know, oh, so like what happens in the end?

John: Yeah. And this is an adaptation. So, there is already expectation about like these are some of the kinds of things that are going to happen, so it’s really I can tell them about like this is how I’m going to do this thing. And that is great because it’s both they have the expectation like, oh, he’s going to need to be able to do this thing. Oh, that’s how he’s going to do it.

Craig: Right. Exactly. They just need to be able to say to the person that runs their life, “No, this guy has got it,” you know, “she knows what she’s doing,” which is why frankly if I had a choice between knowing every single scene of the movie or being able to deliver three moments that they would think, oh my god, those are great trailer moments, I go with those three trailer moments.

John: Oh, absolutely. Always.

Craig: Because that’s what they’ll end up pitching.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And that’s all it’s going to take.

John: Yes. Craig, are we going to do these Three Page Challenges, or are we going to save them for another week?

Craig: I see we’ve blabbed a lot today.

John: We blabbed a lot this week.

Craig: So much blabbing.

John: So, should we save these for another week?

Craig: I think we should save these for another week.

John: I do. Because I don’t want to rush through these because they were interesting things to talk about and I don’t want to sort of slam through them. So, I’m going to save my notes in these and we will get to them another week. So, we apologize to — fortunately we never even mentioned the names of the people, so they will never know that they could have possibly been a part of it.

Craig: But they will be. They will be.

John: They will be.

Craig: Do we need to do any questions and answers? Or should we just –

John: I think we’re good. Let’s do our One Cool Things.

Craig: Great. Oh, should I do mine?

John: I can do mine. So, my One Cool Thing is this app that a friend of mine who was at Singleton who I didn’t know was going to be there, but she was there, and she recommended this thing that her daughter loves to play on the iPad. And I checked it out and it really is just great. It’s called Dragonbox. And it is a game for iOS, both on your iPhone and your iPad. And it looks like a simple pattern matching game, where you’re trying to clear these levels by moving these tiles around.

And there’s sort of the board is divided into two halves and so anything you do on one half of the board you have to d the same on the other half. And so it becomes a sort of logic puzzle.

What’s so ingenious about it is it’s actually algebra. And they’ve sort of abstracted it all away. So, you think you’re just moving these colored tiles around, but as you go through levels you sort of realize like, oh, this is actually algebra, the same way you have to balance both sides of the equation.

Then eventually they start to introduce some tiles that sort of look like numbers. And you go through and it’s like, oh, wow, you’re actually doing algebra and you’re actually solving for X but the X is just a Dragonbox.

So, I played through, you know, almost all the levels now and they keep introducing concepts that I would say like, well, they’re never going to be able to deal with things in parenthesis or distribution of stuff. And they have these ingenious metaphors for what that’s like. So, parenthesis are like these bubbles and so it’s everything inside a bubble. And then you can break the bubble and pull the stuff apart, but you have to do it a special way.

It’s really quite ingenious. So, everything up through single variable algebra is actually presented in it, but I think you can actually — a kid could get through all of it and not really know they’re doing algebra, which I think is smart.

Craig: I think that’s awesome.

John: So, it starts, you know, there’s a version for like five year olds that’s obviously very, very basic. And then there’s the version I’m doing now, my daughter is nine, and she can totally do this. So, Dragonbox.

Craig: My daughter is nine. I’m going to start her on it today.

John: And weirdly I’ve been playing it like while watching stuff on TV. And it’s kind of fun.

Craig: I just sit down and do proper algebra when I’m watching TV.

John: Well, that’s always a good choice.

Craig: I will say that one thing that’s kind of funny, were you a good math student?

John: Yeah, I was good. I wasn’t brilliant, but I was good. I was always honors.

Craig: I loved math. I just loved it. But it’s been so long. And my son who is 13, he’s now in algebra and occasionally something will come up and I’ll just think, oh, I’ve just got to — like the other day he was working on some simple trigonometry, tan, cosign, etc.

John: You will never use that again in your life, unless you’re a scientific.

Craig: But here’s what’s so cool. So, I’m like, okay, he needs some help on his homework. I haven’t done that in forever. Give me two minutes. And I sat there and I just flipped through and I’m like, oh, okay, okay. And what doing that now as an adult teaches you is that we’re so much smarter now than we were when we were kids because we know how to read things and understand them.

It’s not fair. Literally I relearned that stuff in two minutes. I was like, oh…

John: Reading the actual stuff in the book, you were able to do it.

Craig: Yeah. Because we’re used to reading things in books. Like when we were kids we were forced to and it’s just like, oh my god, a book, and I better wait for them to tell me how to do it. Now you can just do it. You can teach yourself anything. We’re geniuses now.

John: We are geniuses. All of us.

Craig: Compared to when we were 13.

John: Yeah.

Craig: All right. Well, speaking of geniuses, Transition Man, Lockheed. So, okay, I love fusion. I love nuclear fusion.

John: I was hoping you were going to talk about this. So, we’ll see if it’s real. I’m worried it’s not.

Craig: Well, a lot of people are worried it’s not. So, fusion reactors are the dream, unlike fission reactors which are all the nuclear reactors that work today, fission reactors work by basically neutrons colliding in to each other and smashing atoms apart, which releases an enormous amount of energy, but has some inherent dangers, see Chernobyl and Fukushima.

John: And they always leave horrible stuff at the end.

Craig: And they do leave horrible stuff at the end that lasts, that remains horrible, for basically longer than we’ll probably be here on the planet. There’s problems with it.

On the other hand, nuclear power doesn’t release a single bit of carbon into the atmosphere. Has zero impact on global warming and climate change.

John: To be fair, you actually have to get the ore somewhere. So, you’re doing some carbon by getting the –

Craig: It’s so minimal.

John: But much less.

Craig: It’s much less. So, it’s vastly preferable to burning coal. So, fusion reaction is entirely different. Fusion reaction is when two light atoms collide together and form — they fuse together to form one big one and in doing so release a lot of energy. What’s interesting about that is that the fuel itself ultimately comes from seawater. So, you don’t need to go mining around.

The fusion reaction has to take place under such specific containment that if there was any kind of failure of the containment the reaction would stop immediately. So, there’s no melting down. There’s no release of dangerous radiation. I think the worst case scenario would be minor radiation within the fence line of the property of the fission reactor.

And also the byproducts in the end while somewhat radioactive, maybe are dissipated within 100 years or so. So, at least they’re not going to be there forever.

Problem with fusion reacting is that it takes an enormous amount of pressure to smash these atoms together and up to date it’s been very hard to get more energy out then it takes to actually smash them together.

John: So, we’ve been able to make bombs out of it, but not make a sustainable fusion reaction.

Craig: Correct. Sustainable fusion reaction, it’s hard to run at a surplus of energy, which is the whole point. You certainly don’t want to run it at a deficit. They’ve had these large things called tokamak reactors, tokamak fusion reactors, the ITER which was a prior Cool Thing of mine which is the French version they’re working on.

But Lockheed all of a sudden comes out and goes, whoa, whoa, we actually figured out a way to make this really small fusion reactor and because it’s so small it’s going to be way more efficient and we think in ten years we’re going to have a perfectly well-functioning fusion reactor running on seawater that would be the size of a truck that could power a town or something.

John: Yeah. So, if — let’s just stipulate — if this could actually happen, that would be incredible. It would be incredible for the future of energy, for the future of American industry, for the future of — it would be incredible.

Craig: Yeah. It would be the single greatest industrial impact on human civilization. Period. The end. Because what we would do is eliminate the notion of energy resources. The one thing that we are not running short on on the planet is ocean water and frankly even then the reaction is very efficient.

So, essentially what we would do is we would say, globally, no globally, we have a safe pollution-free, endlessly renewable source of energy that we can put everywhere.

So, oil, done. All of it. Just oil, natural gas, coal, all of it, done.

John: There are some things, okay, so to be fair there are some things which fusion power is not great for. It’s not great for flying planes.

Craig: I disagree.

John: All right. How do you make a nuclear jet? A fusion jet?

Craig: Oh, if the Lockheed engine is correct, it would be no bigger than the big gas-powered engines on planes. You would have, absolutely. In fact, planes would be the first thing that would probably go, would be a fusion-powered plane.

Look, we already have fission-powered submarines. They’re dangerous. We have them.

If you have a small fusion reactor, yeah, for sure. You would basically tank up your plane with seawater and off you’d go.

John: Well, I mean, Craig, I know that you are looking forward to charging your Tesla off of this. I don’t blame you.

Craig: For sure. Now, here’s the downside. They may just be full of crap.

John: There’s an incredibly high likelihood that they are.

Craig: Right. So, let’s look at the balance sheet of the full of crapness. On the plus side in their favor, it’s Lockheed. It’s not like Ponds and Fleishman going, “Cold fusion,” which was nonsense. This is Lockheed. They’re pretty big and they’ve been around for awhile. And they don’t tend to just make stuff up and lie.

On the downside, there are a lot of scientists saying we don’t even think that’s theoretically possible. And the more concerning thing is that Lockheed is asking for private investment in this project. And as one scientist pointed out, that would sort of be like if the White House wanted a military project, them going to like a small town Savings & Loan.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s weird.

John: It’s weird.

Craig: Why isn’t Lockheed just funding it themselves? They have billions of dollars? So –

John: Yeah. If they started a Kickstarter for it then Craig would be really, really furious.

Craig: Oh my god, I would lose my mind.

John: Ha-ha.

Craig: My mind! But anyway, I hope that it does change the world forever, and ever, and ever.

John: I like to have hope. Hope is a nice thing.

Craig: I sure do like hoping about these things.

John: Well, I hope I will see many of our listeners at the Austin Film Festival next week. That will be our episode for next week. Assuming nothing goes wrong with the audio that will be our episode for next week.

If you would like to tweet something at Craig, maybe wishing him a very happy attendance at his wedding –

Craig: Yeah. Well, it’s not my wedding. I mean, I’m already married.

John: At the wedding he’s going to.

Craig: At the wedding I’m attending. It’s going to be a great wedding.

John: He is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We actually have this new Twitter account set up for a thing we’re working on here called @writeremergency. If you tweet Help to @writeremergency, we will tweet back to you. And we have interns standing by who will write back to you with hopefully helpful suggestions.

Craig: [laughs] No.

John: [laughs] No.

Craig: No.

John: You should give up. Give up on your dreams. That’s what they’ll say.

Craig: Quit now. Quit now. You’ll never make it.

John: Never. Never.

Craig: Yeah.

John: If you have longer questions, you can write to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also, johnaugust.com is also where you’ll find show notes for the things we talk about. You can sign up for the premium feed. We are so, so close to getting 1,000 subscribers on our premium feed at scriptnotes.net.

Craig: Dirty show.

John: If we hit that, we’re going to do the dirty show, and man, we have some really good ideas for special guests for the dirty show. That will only be available for the premium subscribers. So, that’s yet another good reason to do the subscription.

Craig: Yeah.

John: iTunes, just search for Scriptnotes. Thank you, again, to the iTunes Store for highlighting us as one of the best podcasts. That was terrific. And that’s also because people who subscribed left a comment and the iTunes people notice that. So, that’s lovely when you do that.

That is, I think, it for the show.

Craig: Good.

John: Oh, sorry, it’s produced by Stuart Friedel, who is actually not here today, but he does produce the show, so thank you, Stuart. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli who does a masterful job making us sound coherent. And that’s our show. So, thank you. And join us next week.

Craig: Have fun in Austin.

John: Thanks. Bye.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Descending Into Darkness

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 08:03

Craig and John shake off their Halloween candy hangovers by taking a look at three new Three Page Challenges, full of post-apocalyptic portals and strange signals.

We also discuss writing dark things. Weepy things.

John just launched his first Kickstarter, and we all know how Craig feels about crowdfunding. Will Craig be a backer or bah-humbugger?

In follow-up, we look at the now-announced Marvel superhero slate, and a terrific podcast about pitching.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Highland is great for novels

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 16:17

In addition to being a swell time to grow a mustache, November is NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month.

Over the next few weeks, aspiring Hemingways and Flynns will attempt to hit their target word counts so that by Thanksgiving they’re finishing a draft. Godspeed to them all.

While novels can be written in just about any word processor, more-sophisticated apps like Scrivener allow for notes and images and virtual corkboards. In my experience, the more bells and whistles an app has, the more time I spend playing with the bells and whistles, and the less time I spend actually writing. That’s partly why I made Highland, a writing app that lets you focus on the words, not the formatting.

Because I’m mostly a screenwriter, Highland is largely tailored towards screenplays. But I also write fiction, and I didn’t want to give up any of my Highland comforts.

Since version 1.4, Highland has included a manuscript mode that strikes a good balance between helpful and distracting. Choosing Format > Document Format > Manuscript adds a single line to your file…

Format: Manuscript

…and with it, makes Highland a surprisingly good choice for writing fiction. When you print or export, you’ll find Highland double-spaces text to common publisher standards, perfect for paper editing.

For an example, compare an original file to the pdf Highland creates.

Highland 1.8.2, new in the Mac App Store today, adds a few extra features novel writers can appreciate, such as on-the-fly word count. (Just click the page icon.)

Want to put a header on every page? Add it below the format line:

Format: Manuscript

Header: MOBY-DICK ORIGINS / Caswell Barthowly

Want to start a new chapter? Use a hashtag, such as

#Chapter Six: The Wailing Whaling

Highland will automatically insert the page break, and center the chapter heading on the next page.1

Highland’s notes, synopses and omissions work the same as always. [[Text in double brackets]] won’t print. Same for a single line preceded by the equal sign =. And you can keep your scraps handy; select a range of text and choose Format > Omit. You’ll leave it in the file while hiding it from export.

In Preferences, you can adjust column width and line spacing, and set your favorite colors for Dark Mode.

If you’re tempted to give Highland a shot for writing your November novel, we have it marked half-off through November 7th. Give Manuscript mode a spin, and see whether its minimalism can maximize your page count.

As always, you can find Highland on the Mac App Store.

  1. Fountain purists are likely scratching their heads at this choice. Truth is, this untitled manuscript format is actually more like Markdown than Fountain. It feels correct for section headers to be printed.

Austin Forever

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 08:03

John and guest host Susannah Grant sit down with Richard Kelly, Cary Fukunaga, Peter Gould, Dan Sterling and Mike Birbiglia to discuss the role of a writer/director, the wonder of television, and the purpose of table reads.

Then it’s questions from the audience: How do you know you’ve found your third act? How does one become confident? Does impostor syndrome ever go away?

This episode was recorded live at St. David’s Episcopal Church as a certified blasphemy-free part of the 2014 Austin Film Festival.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Writer Emergency Pack, now in pre-launch

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 14:00

As I mentioned on the podcast yesterday, we’re getting close to launching a new project called Writer Emergency Pack.

The cover looks like this:

As the name suggests, it’s designed as a survival tool for writers. It’s not an app or a book. It’s more like a crowbar for getting unstuck. It’s for screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, students, writing teachers — anyone who deals with story.

We’ve actually been developing it on-and-off for four years, but it became real in the last six weeks. We’ve had a fun time showing prototypes to other writers and gathering feedback. It’s gonna be cool.

Because it’s a physical thing, we’ve had to plan and budget much more carefully than we do with our digital stuff. Atoms scale differently than bits. Make too few, and you run out. Make too many, and you’re sitting on boxes of inventory. Figuring out how to actually make and ship something like this is easily half the job.

When we launch — sometime after Halloween — there will be a short order window to get into the initial run. To make sure no one misses out, we’ve set up a mailing list to let writers know the moment it’s available.

If you’re at all curious, I’d advise you to sign up at Writer Emergency today.

You can also follow on Twitter, @writeremergency. (Tweet ‘Help’ for a teaser.)

The Tentpoles of 2019

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 08:03

Craig and John discuss the 31 superhero movies slated for the next few years. Is it good business or a trainwreck in the making?

How do you move from a vague idea to an actual pitch? We talk about what you say when you’re in the room pitching on a project, and why passion trumps plot in most cases.

We also look at copyright and how the current system is broken for everyone.

Next week will be Craig-less, because we’re recording live at the Austin Film Festival with a bunch of amazing guests.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 166: Critics, Characters and Business Affairs — Transcript

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 20:07

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode has the F word in it like four times because we read this letter aloud. So if you have your kids in the car, maybe don’t listen to this episode with the kids in the car because it’s kind of not safe for kids or for work. But it’s safe for almost everywhere else. Thanks.

Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is episode 166 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, this was a really busy week. I saw you a lot.

Craig: You did. We first delved into a cavern together that contained a Nothic.

John: Indeed. We did some virtual spelunking and did some D&D. It was fun.

Craig: Yeah, it was fun.

John: We kind of made a mistake with the Nothic.

Craig: We made a huge mistake.

John: I’m not sure we –

Craig: We made a huge mistake.

John: Yeah.

Craig: We have a tendency as a group. Not my character. My character is [laughs] to a fault wants to love everyone.

John: Yes.

Craig: But as a group we seem to want to just kill everything we see. And I don’t think we should have attacked that thing.

John: Perhaps we shouldn’t have. I mean, it looked gruesome and so therefore we killed it. But that may not have been the best choice.

Craig: Yeah, it was kind of racist.

John: Yeah, it could have been a little bit racist.

Craig: Yeah, it was racist because he had one eye.

John: Speciesist, yeah.

Craig: Speciesist, yeah. So we did that but then we also saw each other at the Live Slate Culture Gabfest event –

John: In downtown Los Angeles.

Craig: In downtown Los Angeles. And that podcast has already aired. They turned it around right quick.

John: They did. So that was a tremendously fun evening. It was at The Belasco Theatre. We had a good crowd. It was us. It was Jenny Slate. It was Natasha Lyonne.

Craig: Yeah.

John: There were the hosts. So thank you, Slate, for having us there. Thank you, Andy Bowers and Julia Turner and Dana Stevens, Stephen Metcalf. It was fun to be a guest on someone else’s show.

Craig: It was fun. They ask good questions and we had a lively discussion.

John: Mm-hmm. It was fun for me not to have to segue all the time so that somebody else could be the person responsible for “And now let’s move on to the next topic.”

Craig: Yeah, he wasn’t necessarily better at segues than you.

John: Well, I think it’s one of my true callings is the ability to get from this place to that place.

Craig: The Segue-ist?

John: I am The Transitioner.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But that transition is a good way for me to get into talking about today’s show which will feature our little package from the Slate Culture –

Craig: [laughs] You just did it, you did it.

John: I can’t stop transitioning.

Craig: The Transitioner.

John: [laughs]

Craig: That’s like Marvel’s worst movie in 40 years and they’re really just out of everything. They’re like, um, The Transitioner.

John: He’s really good at the cocktail conversation.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Or it can also be like, you know, it’s the next thing after Transparent which is apparently a really good Amazon show. It’s like they could make The Transitioner who’s like constantly moving from one thing to the next thing.

Craig: Oh, I like that.

John: So today, we are going to have the audio from our section. So in case you didn’t hear it in Slate, you can listen to it on our thing and then we’ll talk a little about what we talked about after that. But we have some new topics as well including something you and I talked about after our segment on the show which was that I was writing something this week and I realized that the problem I was having is I had sort of one character too many.

It’s a recurring theme that I’ve seen again and again, it’s like sometimes you have too many characters and rarely too few characters and figuring out what that problem is can be a real solution for many screen emergencies.

Craig: Yes.

John: And then we’re going to talk about business affairs.

Craig: Hmm.

John: And that’s going to be a happy conversation.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Hmm.

Craig: Argh.

John: But first, some follow-up. Tonight, October 14th, if you’re listening to this the day the podcast comes out, Tuesday, October 14th at 7:30 PM, I’m going to be talking with Simon Kinberg at the WGA as a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation.

Craig: Nice.

John: And we’re going to be talking about X-Men: Days of Future Past, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, Star Wars Rebels and producing movies and writing things and it will be a great conversation. So join us if you’d want to join us. There’s still like maybe 10 tickets left?

Craig: Well, you should grab those tickets. Simon Kinberg is a rarity, I believe, in our business in that he is a very good writer, he’s a very good producer, he’s extraordinarily successful, and he’s really nice.

John: He’s a really nice guy.

Craig: How about that? Just a good egg. I really like Simon a lot. You know he’s English?

John: I do know that he’s English.

Craig: Yeah, but you wouldn’t know it because he has no English accent.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I’m very –

John: Just like you, you had a New York accent growing up –

Craig: Right.

John: But you completely lost it.

Craig: Just completely lost it.

John: He shed his –

Craig: He shed it.

John: Yeah.

Craig: He shed it, but that’s an extreme shedding.

John: It’s an extreme shedding. Well, you can’t talk about British accents without bringing up the Nolan Brothers because one of them is British and one of them is not British and it’s so odd.

Craig: I know. It’s weird. And I always think to myself, well, if somebody’s lost a truly foreign accent, that’s verging on sociopathic behavior. [laughs] They have the potential to be a villain.

John: They do or they are a Canadian actress because we actually had a Canadian babysitter this last week and I detected something like — something is — you’re really, really nice in a way that you’re probably not American. And she was in fact Canadian. But she was an actress and so she had very — I asked her like, you deliberately got rid of your accent? She’s like, yes, I worked really hard for a year to get rid of all my Canadianisms so that people can’t tell I’m Canadian.

Craig: Losing a Canadian accent is a bit like losing a New York accent. In fact, a strong New York accent is probably more violently different than standard American English than a Canadian accent.

John: A strong New York accent is pretty much an assault.

Craig: It’s an assault and I had one and then I lost it. So I guess I’m one of those sociopaths, too [laughs].But I’m fascinated by people… — We were talking about this, people who can and can’t lose accents. You know, there are people who have lived in, like Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a good example. Brilliant woman, speaks many languages, has lived in New York for decades, has the strongest German accent.

John: Another great example is Arianna Huffington.

Craig: Right.

John: Who, you know, incredibly successful in the US and yet, she’s thoroughly Greek in sort of how she talks and presents herself. And it’s become sort of her signature. You can’t imagine her without that accent.

Craig: Right. And then you have Madonna who spends four days in England and suddenly she’s like, [British accent] hello mate.

John: Yeah, there’s that middle of the Atlantic situation that happens sometimes when Americans cross over and it doesn’t all together work.

Craig: No.

John: No.

Craig: No.

John: So last bit of follow-up is if you ordered one of the Scriptnotes t-shirts, they’re in and they’re actually out. Stuart and Ryan are packaging them up as we speak and so they’re going to be leaving the Quote-Unquote offices because that’s where — they really are offices but our company is called Quote-Unquote Films.

They’ll be leaving the offices today, so you should be getting them this week, the week that you’re hearing this podcast if you’re in the US, maybe a little bit longer if you’re overseas, but thank you so much for all the people who bought those because those help keep the podcast going.

Craig: And, of course, reduce the amount of money that we lose but not to zero [laughs].

John: Never to zero.

Craig: Never to zero.

John: All right, first segment. Let’s talk about the Slate Culture Gabfest. So let’s just set it up for listeners so they know what it is they’re going to listen to. Craig, could you set the scene for us, like let us know where it is that this event is taking place and what it feels like?

Craig: Sure. So The Belasco Theater is downtown, it’s a small theater but it’s very typical for Los Angeles downtown. You don’t know it’s there until you arrive. You walk inside and you think, oh my god, what a great space. It’s old, it’s obviously been around since I would guess the ’20s, gorgeous space, very dark and cavernous. There was a green room downstairs which, in fact, was illuminated entirely with red light bulbs, so it was a bit like, I don’t know, what I imagined No Exit to look like or something.

Large stage, very nice audience with a bar in back to keep people liquored up. And so we sat up there on stage with the hosts of the show. It was a little hard for me to hear. They didn’t have monitors. So when you’re on stage, usually you want a couple of speakers that are facing back towards the people talking so they could hear themselves.

All I could really hear was the echoey sound that was traveling above my head and out. So in a way it kept you on your toes and you had to really pay attention. But it was terrific. Jenny Slate was very, very funny and we did our thing and Natasha Lyonne was very, very interesting. So we had a nice chat and you can hear the audience, you know, fairly, they were –

John: Yeah, Craig got laughs and it was good that you got laughs. I liked that.

Craig: I got laughs, yeah [laughs]. Well, I was trying to, well look, I was trying to be on my best behavior. And I really did think I was on my best behavior. I got a couple of little shots in but they weren’t really shots as much as just –

John: Yeah, they were playful taps.

Craig: They were playful jabs. Playful jabs.

John: And so the other thing I should set up for our listeners so they understand is that each guest was up sort of in their own segment but not the other segments, so you’re going to hear me and Craig but you’ll also hear Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens. So let’s go to that and then when we come back we’ll have a little recap and wrap up.

Julia Turner: I’m such a fan of your podcast.

John: Thank you.

Julia: It’s so fun to have you guys on the same stage. I’m sorry Stephen.

Stephen Metcalf: Please, dig right in. Actually, I want to start by saying I had my very — this is actually a true story. I had my very first Hollywood pitch yesterday.

John: So how did it go?

Stephen: Do you know the phrase, “Bought it in the room?” That didn’t happen. [laughs] You know what, I’ll give you, and I had another one today. I’ll give you a very honest response was, there was — I kind of loved it for the reason that it was like nothing I’ve ever seen depicted in all the silly movies that depict Hollywood. And in fact, they were just professionals who knew their business and it was no drama Obama.

Craig: No Weimaraners, no crack, no OxyContin.

Stephen: Exactly right. And no Jaws meets this or whatever. It was like very, very, very intricately smart people who understand the relationship between narratives that work and people who will pay money to go see them. I mean, right –

Craig: And so they rejected you? [laughs]

Stephen: Mazin. I just want to say, Craig, I love the movie Go.

Craig: Oh yes, I heard that.

Stephen: That movie is –

Craig: I heard, yes.

Stephen: Perfect, it’s like Swiss watch work.

Craig: It’s the most adorable thing you’ve seen ever.

Stephen: It’s Swiss clockwork lubricated by butter.

Craig: Yes.

Stephen: Just gorgeous.

Craig: John’s films are gorgeously lubricated.

Stephen: It went by like that.

Craig: No question.

Stephen: Anyway, we want to get into the subject of who authors the film which is a rabbit hole we can kind of go down, half down, or ignore completely but it’s an interesting one to me. But I want you to just, if it’s okay, really quickly to describe your careers and how you got where you are. You’re having a dream career. How did that come about? John, why don’t we start with you?

John: I was a journalism major. I went to journalism school at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. I realized halfway through that I didn’t really want that major but I loved the writing I was doing. I loved that sort of structured writing that journalism is. And I found out there was such a thing as a screenplay, that there was such a thing as film school and I applied and got into USC, moved out here with my rusted Honda and started, you know, reading scripts for people and I started writing. And I started writing Go, the screenplay that first got made, while I was still in film school. And so it was very much that experience of being 26 years old and seemingly immortal. And that became my first movie.

Stephen: That is fantastic. And the Weimaraner was suddenly seated next to you in the car.

John: [laughs]

Stephen: Craig, what about you?

Craig: I was a pre-med student in college and around my senior year, it became very clear that I just did not want to spend — I was going to be a neurologist and I just… — I still am fascinated by the brain and by neurology but not by people with neurological disorders.

It’s a bummer, I don’t know how else to put it. They do die on you a lot. And I was fascinated by the entertainment business. I was fascinated by entertaining people. I loved movies and I loved television shows. And so, and you had a rusted Honda, I had a rusted Toyota. I drove out here, I didn’t know anybody and I got a job because I could type and sort of worked my way into a position where I could pitch movies and write movies. And I’ve been doing it since 1996, now, 1995/1996.

Stephen: That’s amazing.

Craig: Yeah.

Stephen: Okay, so you’ve just watched a movie, let’s say the credits come at the end, you admire it, you think it was, you know, in some ways, narratively elegant, the characters were very alive, you got lost in the world, no fat to be trimmed, and the name comes up and it says, Screenplay by, you know, and it’s a single credit, a credit to a single person. How confident are you that what you just saw was authored by that person?

John: You don’t necessarily know whether that screenplay credit reflects what actually made it on to the screen or not. Credits for films are determined by the Writers Guild and there’s a whole process you go through. It’s as good as we can make that process but it’s still not perfect. That you’re competing, there’s two competing forces. You want the credits to accurately reflect who wrote the movie but you also want to not dilute the credit by sharing it among a bunch of people who, if 12 writers did little bits on it, you don’t want to sort of necessarily make it seem like 12 people did little bits on it.

So what I will say is different is when we see that credit going by, we already know. We sort of, actually everybody really does know who did the work on the movie. And so there’s lots of movies that will not have a certain writer’s credit on them but everyone in town knows they’ve worked on it and that’s very helpful for their career.

Craig: Yeah, I think it’s actually gotten better. We have changed. I’m one of three co-chairs of the credits committee that reviews the rules and then puts rules changes to the membership. And we’ve had about two or three rounds of rules changes that have been successful. And they’ve been good changes and I think that they have made the credits more accurate. It’s a difficult situation. There have been miscarriages, no question. But John’s point is absolutely true. We know who wrote the movie. We, who are in the business, we know.

Stephen: And what do you — I’m curious what you especially admire about a screenplay, what makes you wish you had written one when you get to the end of the film or you read it on the page? What elements of story or character or shape or –

Craig: Well, you know, when I think of movies where I’ve really zeroed in on what I thought was fundamental to the screenplay, it was a question of harmony of elements. That there were scenes that internally were using plot to reveal character, character revealing plot, plot and character revealing theme, conflict revealing potential resolution. And then taken as a sum, those scenes all work together to create some sort of thematic whole out of that. That often is what I admire, but sometimes I just am entertained.

And more than anything when I go to the movies it’s to be entertained.

John: When you read a screenplay, you recognize that it’s a form of incredible efficiency. You have to be able to convey with just a few words in 12-point Courier what this whole world feels like and what these characters are like and so every word counts in ways that doesn’t necessarily in a novel. A novel can spend three pages talking about how soft the sheets were. The movie doesn’t actually have those senses, you can’t describe things you touch or feel. It’s only what you can see and what you can hear. So you’re finding ways to describe and set up this whole world with just these very limited windows into it.

And so, the best screenplays I’ve read, they have these characters that take these amazing journeys through amazing worlds and you can’t believe that they did it all just on the page there.

Stephen: Give me a couple of names of movies that you wish you had written or that you especially admire?

John: You know, it’s one thing to see a movie on the screen because that’s the finished product and you have to remember that a screenplay is really the blueprint for this building that’s not built yet. And so one of luxuries, we sometimes get to read screenplays well before they’re filmed, or things that never got filmed. And so I remember in film school reading Quentin Tarantino’s original script for Natural Born Killers. And it’s just brilliant. And I got to the end and I flipped back to page one and started reading it all over again. It was incredibly important.

People, you know, these guys might not recognize that like Aliens is an incredibly important script for people in our business. We read that script and it actually transforms sort of like how you describe action on the page.

Stephen: And this is the second in that –

John: This was James Cameron’s Aliens.

Stephen: And James Cameron did the screenplay as well as directed it?

John: Yeah and so the way he described action was incredibly important and so all action movies from that point forward probably owe some debt to sort of what he was doing on the page.

Female Voice: Wait, so what was the innovation? What did he do differently?

John: There was innovation, there’s a way of talking about the camera, talking about like how we’re moving through things. Cameron wrote both a scriptment which is like a 70-page document of the movie without the dialogue, sort of. And then he wrote the full version of the script and sort of everyone of my and Craig’s generation who read movies at that time, read action movies, that was the one we sort of kept going back to.

Craig: Yeah. And, you know, John is making a really interesting point that the question that you’re asking is a little impossible because the truth is I never see a movie and think I wish I could have written that movie. You can’t write that movie. That movie is not just written, it was written and it was then rewritten and it was performed and captured and edited and scored, so it’s not possible.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But what we can do is we read screenplays. Jerry Maguire is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read. Absolutely just perfect for me. Not objectively perfect, but for me, it was perfect. I saw Ocean’s Eleven, I saw Out of Sight, and I thought I would love to meet the guys that wrote this movie, you know, and I did, that was great. But I understand that it’s not possible to say, well, I wish I could have written that experiences.

Stephen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Dana Stevens: That brings me to something that’s seems like, it’s key to your podcast which is really great for somebody on the critical end to read which is, I mean, to hear on your podcast, which is that, you’re sort of anti-auteurist, right? I mean, you are really not so focused on a movie as the production of one director and you really know from the inside out that it’s a collaboration and that vast numbers of people have to be on the same page in order to make a good movie.

John: There was a podcast that you guys did about two weeks ago with Jeff Koons, the artist and the visual artist, and you guys saw Balloon Dog and all that stuff. And it was amazing as you’re walking through with this curator and he was talking about sort of the intention and sort of how things came to be. It was a great episode. But it struck me that you can talk about a virtual artist that way because even though he has a team of people doing stuff, it’s really all his vision, like that thing is one person’s thing. And I think there’s this instinct sometimes for press and for critics to think about works as having a single creator. You guys are almost creationists sometimes.

And really the process of getting movies made is almost like this Darwinian survival thing. There’s all these movies competing to get made, and you’re only seeing the ones that sort of got made. And it doesn’t mean they were the best ones. It doesn’t mean it was like clean or pretty how they happened, but they are the ones that made it to the theater.

Craig: And even the product itself is the function of an internal evolution among a lot of people fighting. I mean, for instance, you guys just had a discussion about Gone Girl and you disagreed about some things. You really thought one passage was cool, you thought that was weak. You liked the parents, you thought they were not so great. These fights happen constantly on every movie except that one of you is the boss.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Okay. This is a problem obviously but some decision has to be made. The movie is — anybody who thinks that movies are authored by one person is higher than the highest crack can take –

Stephen: Has never gone anywhere near the moving-making process.

Craig: Yeah, they’re just so divorced from the process of what it means to make a movie.

Stephen: Okay, but I have a question for you. Sorry, I’m stepping on you, boss, lady.

Julia: Go for it.

Stephen: Because I’ll forget it if I don’t ask it right now. Okay, so we are all post-modernist Darwinian evolutionists, anti-authorship, you know, post-auteur, cognoscenti.

Craig: Stipulated.

Stephen: And yet, it begins with a room of one’s own. It begins with you doing the paradigmatic writer thing. You’re alone with the blinking cursor and your own conscience and the Internet and email and on and on and on. I mean, you have all the, you know, classic struggles of self-battling that a writer has. How is it to then also be in a medium that’s utterly collaborative and evolutionary and your darlings are going to get killed, but not even by you?

Craig: Well, it’s an endless struggle. And this is why screenwriters are stereotypically whiny. I mean, watch Adaptation, you know. It’s very difficult and it’s incredibly difficult because it’s emotionally painful. We are required to create something that we believe in that is entirely within our control and is in fact authored.

And then we are required by the nature of film making to cede control of it and to see it re-authored because unlike any other form of writing, screenwriting is not meant to be read, it is not meant to be consumed by anyone, it is meant to in fact be transformed into something else entirely. So we are always on the razor’s edge of this emotional pain. And then of course somewhere down the line after we’ve survived the many, many –

Stephen: You get paid $900,000.

Craig: I get to Dana’s review. That’s my reward.

John: [laughs] That’s the reward, yes.

Stephen: You made me laugh so hard that my gap flashed the whole room. That was good. Okay, well let’s end it on a positive note. I could talk to you guys all night but unfortunately we’ve got to move on. But Craig Mazin and John August, thank you very much for coming.

John: Thank you very much.

Craig: Thank you for having us. Thanks guys.

John: Great. So that was lovely and there were applause which is always a fun thing. I really enjoyed being a guest. It’s so nice to be able to have the chance to like make my own points and not have to elicit points from other people.

Craig: Yeah, for sure. I thought it was very valuable. It was a good conversation to have. I think frankly the more that critics can personally interface with the people writing and directing movies, the better they will be at their jobs.

Craig: I agree with you.

John: I don’t think it’s going to make our jobs any better or worse but it’s going to make their jobs better. Frankly, one thing that kind of surprised me was the discussion was predicated on this question, what is it that we critics don’t know but should know about the way movies are made? And I found the question fascinating because, mostly because I thought why are you asking this now? I mean wouldn’t you have thought to ask it a decade ago or 20 years ago or whenever you started doing this?

There is such a gulf, I mean, even in the beginning of the show before we came on, Stephen and Julia Dana were talking about their, what they called LA alter egos and it was essentially their spin on what they thought Los Angeles is all about. And it was very cartoony, but you could tell really that they are quite proud of the fact that they’re out there and we’re out here and the gulf is cultural.

There is a cultural gulf. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting and worth studying.

John: I think it comes back to the question of intentionality is that you’re looking at this work as it’s finished and then you’re trying to ascribe intentionality for like this is what they meant, this is what they were doing, this is what the artist was attempting to voice or achieve. And ultimately I think that’s sometimes unknowable, or if it’s knowable, the only way you’re going to actually find that out is by asking the person who made the thing.

So instead what you’re really doing is you’re looking at your own reaction and saying, well, this is my reaction to this thing and that’s completely a valid experience but it doesn’t necessarily give you any insight into what the intention was behind something. It goes back to what we talked about before, the difference between journalistic writing and academic writing. In academic writing, you often find yourself trying to ascribe intention and motivation to things that are not really part of the text because you’re just desperately searching for something.

And so you find reasons to believe that the plot of this book is really about this other thing that you wouldn’t necessarily notice. And it’s like you’re trying to ascribe, trying to create logic after the fact.

Craig: That’s exactly right and what was driven home for me more than anything by interacting with them is how academic they are. And I imagine that for many film critics, I’m not even talking about reviewers but people who are doing film analysis, that their background is academic. And in academics, you’re precisely correct that the whole name of the game is to take some arena and find some angle on it that you can make your thesis and support it. So it’s rhetorical.

However, it’s a very poor instrument in my opinion, academic analysis. It’s a very poor instrument for something like movies which defy the meaning of which is really not in that kind of literary analysis or academic analysis, for me at least. And certainly the process of it makes many of the literary analyses absurd. And even, you know, I mean, you could see they’re trying, like… — By the way, it’s partly our fault in the business because when there’s a success, somebody will attempt to take credit for it and say, me, me, me, I am the author of this, it all comes down to me. But that’s not ever true.

John: The other thing I definitely noticed is you’re talking about cultural criticism, but culture is a thing that is constantly moving. So I sometimes get frustrated when I read a film review and they’re talking about current events in relation to this movie and seemingly unaware that this movie was green lit two years before those events came to be.

So there’s, you know, if there’s a school shooting and this movie comes out, it’s in reference to this school shooting or, you know, Gone Girl in the reference of like this domestic violence case. I understand that it’s cultural criticism because you’re looking at sort of how does this movie fit in to the current cultural conversation. But you can’t therefore take a time machine back and say like, well, that is the reason why this movie exists. The movie is coming out at a certain place and time but it doesn’t mean that this movie is reacting to those events or this place and time.

Craig: Yeah, I’ve, because I’m going to see Gone Girl this weekend and they have a big discussion about Gone Girl and I’ve been seeing essentially headlines of gobs of critical essays about Gone Girl and what it means about, or what its implications are for marriage, for misogyny, for the relationship between men and women, domestic violence. And all I keep thinking is these people are talking to each other. I don’t know who else cares.

The people that got to see, the people that read the book, appreciated the book for what it did for them, it’s a personal experience, it is not an academic experience. No one goes to a movie in order to contextualize the world around them. They go to a movie for the opposite, I believe, which is to contextualize something within them. It is a personal experience.

This is why movies are made the way they are. You can go see Argo and what you are taking away is something about what’s inside of you. It is a personal story set against the backdrop of the world. But a lot of times I think critics and film analysts ignore all that to talk really about what they’ve been trained to talk about. In the end, I think they are talking to each other. I think they are engaging in a kind of a cross debate.

John: Well, oftentimes, I think they’re talking about the conversation rather than the thing itself. And so in the case of Gone Girl, you’re talking about misogyny or what it means, or the feminist meanings or anti-meetings in the film. The degree to which it’s worthy to talk about in a culture context isn’t necessarily the film itself, but why we are talking about it.

So, the degree that Gone Girl being the incredibly successful popular movie out there in the world right now is sparking a cultural conversation, yes, sometimes by just the people who are writing these articles. But I also think just actual audiences are coming out of the movie thinking like, wow, I’m not sure how I feel about the characters I just saw and particularly that movie which has, you know, again no spoilers, but an unsettling ending and sort of a resolution that is unexpected does provoke things. And so the degree to which a movie can provoke a conversation, well, that’s a thing that’s happening in culture, so if your job is to write about culture, then it’s great to write about that movie. But you have to be mindful: are you really writing about the movie or are you’re writing about people talking about the movie which are sort of different things.

Craig: And the movie exists specifically to inspire people to examine their relationship with it. Individual relationship, how did that movie make me feel? Did I feel anything and if I did, what did I feel? Do I agree with it? Do I not agree with it? A good movie isn’t supposed to be like a good historical explanation of why things happen.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s not supposed to be, whatever, a Doris Kearns Goodwin book explaining how Lincoln’s cabinet worked. It’s entirely about individuals.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And I don’t think that’s the way they approach it sometimes. And they can’t because what does that come down to? It’s sort of exposes the fatal flaw here which is, well, so you have your opinion? Good. I do too, you know.

John: I guess, it’s a chance for people to listen in on what someone else’s opinion is and sometimes a very well-articulated opinion can get somebody thinking about what their own opinion is. So that is, I would say, as a defense of the kind of work that they’re doing both in writing and in the podcast is they’re having a conversation about their reactions to things and sometimes that may trigger a person to have their own reactions or give new thought to something else. And if that happens, then that’s a good thing.

Craig: I agree. It’s fun listening to smart people talk about stuff.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I tend to like to listen to smart people talking about things that are not cultural because I do experience culture in a very personal individual way. I like listening to smart people talk about politics, economics. But, and I was very struck by how their conversation between the three of them was no different than any other kind of conversation people have about movies.

I mean, essentially, regardless of the level of their vocabulary, they talked about the movie and then one person said, I really like this and then another person said, really? That was the part I didn’t like at all. Well, these are exactly the kinds of conversations we all have.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And ultimately, that’s all there is. There is nothing more to it. It’s supposed to be individual and personal, which, again, I think is the fatal flaw sometimes of the — it’s not of criticism, but rather it’s the fatal flaw of the critical style which is to say, this, let me illuminate you as to what is happening here. That is a fatal flaw because in fact, you can’t. Because what at least on our side, what we are intending to happen is for an individual to have an individual relationship with the movie. We know some of those are going to be bad and we know some of those are going to be good. But we also know there is not one illuminated correct response.

John: Absolutely. So, again, I want to thank Slate for having us on. It was just tremendously fun to be there and it was a really great event. And thank you for people who showed up for it because it was really neat to have some of our fans in our t-shirts out there in the audience.

Craig: For sure. Always good to see. And, boy, a very lovely woman came up to us afterwards and she — I won’t go into her story, but she said some very nice things. So she’s gone through some hardships and happily she’s better now. But it was very, very sweet. It’s nice to hear, and look, honestly, endlessly surprising to me that anyone listens to the show at all [laughs] but that for a lot of people who do, they really get something out of it. It’s very, very uplifting for me and I’m sure it is for you.

John: It is. Now just to cut into that tender emotion, I thought this might be a great opportunity for us to read a letter we got from one of our listeners.

Craig: [laughs] It’s the best letter ever.

John: It really is the best letter ever. So people sometimes will write in, sometimes on Twitter — I’m @johnaugust, Craig is @clmazin. Or they’ll write longer emails that they’ll send to ask@johnaugust.com. And this is one that we got this week which I thought was great. So I shared it with you and you said in all caps MUST READ ON AIR IN TOTALITY.

Craig: [laughs] I know. So it’s a little long, so bear with us. The subject essentially is we talked a couple of weeks ago on the podcast about a video that somebody put on the Internet. It’s very funny. All they did was they stripped out John Williams’ score from the final scene of Star Wars: A New Hope where Luke, Han and Chewie are getting their medals.

And it’s a very long scene and there’s no dialogue. And so when you take away the score, it actually becomes this beautiful opera of awkwardness. [laughs] It’s fantastic. It’s very funny. And I thought frankly the spirit, I mean, we had a whole discussion about why it was interesting. And my whole takeaway was, hey, directors don’t panic when you see your footage that’s intended for score because it’s going to really look weird. But then look how great it will look when it’s done.

John: Yes. And so perhaps we didn’t stipulate as clearly that we thought the scene as it shows up in the movie is fantastic. And I would not change a thing. But Patrick from London, England did not take it that way.

Craig: No.

John: And in fact, well, why don’t you start, Craig?

Craig: Sure. “Subject: Star Wars Umbrage.

“Dear John and Craig, I have to take extreme umbrage at your mocking the final scene in Star Wars in your last podcast. I get that it’s mildly amusing someone took the music off the final scene and it seems strange because it’s so iconic. You could do that with any number of famous films and achieve the same effect.

“What is distressing is your assertion the final scene in Star Wars is somehow strange/weird/bad because it has no dialogue. That scene is one of the things that makes the film iconic for fuck’s sake!” Exclamation point. “Sometimes when I think about that scene it baffles the brain. What major blockbuster film would end on a scene driven entirely by visuals and score? None.

“We’re always told film is a visual medium, show don’t tell, blah, blah, blah, yet when a film achieves a satisfying conclusion through moving images and music alone like a silent movie, you mock it as strange/weird/bad. What more did the film need to do? They blew up the Death Star. Obi-Wan said the force will be with you always. Han came back and displayed some honor and loyalty. I emphasize displayed. He didn’t say it. The end. What more did you want?

“Did you want a speech like the end of Independence Day? We will not lie down. Today’s our independence day against the empire. God bless America, blah, blah, blah. Would that have approved the ending of Star Wars?” [laughs] You want to read the second half?

John: “I think the problem is you work in Hollywood where everything is decided by committee. So anything idiosyncratic or unusual is viewed with suspicion or derided as strange/weird/bad. I noticed on your Raiders podcast when you pointed out that today the opening five-minute exposition scene wouldn’t fly and would be watered down by committee. And that this was perfectly acceptable.”

Craig: [laughs]

John: I don’t think we said that at all.

Craig: No, I think the point was that it was not… it was unacceptable. [laughs] Oh man, this is great. Keep going. It’s awesome.

John: “When the final scene in Star Wars was produced, maybe someone said, err, is it strange/weird/bad?”I love the strange/weird/bad.

Craig: I know. So he –

John: I’m omitting the slashes –

Craig: I know. It’s this thing that he does when he goes strange/weird/bad all as one thing. And it’s like his mantra.

John: “That there’s no big speech at the end. And maybe George Lucas said, ‘It’s my film and that’s how I want to end it. So fuck you.’ Or George and Spielberg said, ‘We want there to be a really long exposition scene at the beginning of Raiders and if you don’t like it, money men, you can go fuck yourselves.'”

Well, so now we have to have this — I have to record a little warning at the start of the podcast –

Craig: I know.

John: Because he said fuck three times.

Craig: I know.

John: “Depressingly on your podcast, you seem to advocate conformity — “

Craig: Oh.

John: “And do not encourage idiosyncrasies’ originality. It’s kind of like don’t rock the boat. This is what is expected of you by the committee, so this is what you should do? The final scene in Star Wars should be something you celebrate, not mock. Star Wars is one of the most exciting and amazing films ever made and definitely the top 10 most influential. So it doesn’t need my or anyone’s sympathy or support. But it’s sad that one of its fun quirks is derided on your podcast because it doesn’t fit the present day studio formula you bow to.”

Craig: We bow to.

John: We bow to. “However, the controversy over why Chewie didn’t also receive a medal has not gone away and is a troubling aspect to the film’s conclusion up for debate.” Well, good. I’m glad we got to the Chewie of it all because that’s really what I’ve been focusing on.

Craig: [laughs] I like that this guy’s like, well, let me let you off the hook on the Chewie thing, great point.

John: “Anyway, end umbrage. I’d like to echo your other listener who praised the podcast for informing and inspiring people. It’s a great thing you do and an essential resource for anyone who’s interested in writing films. Cheers.”

Craig: Cheers. [laughs]. Okay. Well, Patrick –

John: Patrick is great. So, I genuinely thank you for writing this letter.

Craig: Yes.

John: We’re really kind of not mocking you but just one of those things we’re like, oh, I can’t believe you thought we were –

Craig: Yeah.

John: You know, slamming on that scene because we weren’t at all.

Craig: No, I think, Patrick, the reason I wanted to read this entire thing is because I think unwittingly you managed to satire an unhinged Star Wars fan. [laughs] Look, to be clear and I think it was clear because, frankly, out of all the people that listened to the show, you were the only person that had this issue or at least spoke about it.

No, we love the ending of the movie. All we were saying was that it was funny to watch it without the music because it is funny. And I remember specifically saying, in fact, I said — I sent that video to Rian Johnson. And I said, Rian, when you see your first dailies, don’t freak out, right?

Because a lot of times, science fiction, epics, when they don’t have all of the post-production trappings laid over it, can look ridiculous. I mean, for instance, there’s footage of Darth Vader when he first enters the diplomatic ship and he interrogates Princess Leia. And it’s the actual dailies. And so I think it was David Prowse I guess is the guy who was in the actual, so it’s his voice.

And it just sounds like a bunch of English guys and it seems ridiculous. And the point is, but okay, as filmmakers, we deserve to have faith that the full process will make it come to light. That was our point. I don’t think it’s weird/strange/bad. I don’t want everything to be decided by committee. [laughs] I don’t want there to be a speech at the end about God bless America. I do love –

John: I think it would be kind of great if there were a speech about God bless America –

Craig: God bless America.

John: At the end of Star Wars.

Craig: It actually would be cool.

John: I think Star Wars is not American enough.

Craig: Right.

John: I want to start a whole campaign about that.

Craig: Like there should have been –

John: No one is wearing a flag pin.

Craig: Like if they had unfurled a big American flag behind them as they got their medals, it would have been awesome.

John: Visual effects, we can do it.

Craig: Visual effects, we can — he can get back in there, you know, if Greedo shot second then we could do that. No, I love the, I wouldn’t change a frame of Raiders and I wish modern movies would take more time in their opening exposition. No, I don’t believe that John and I advocate conformity or discourage idiosyncrasies’ originality. Quite the opposite.

We don’t really like the committee. We do celebrate the [laughs] last scene of Star Wars. It’s amazing how wrong you are, Patrick. I mean you really are, I got to give you credit. You’re batting a thousand so far. [laughs] But really, why I wanted to read it out loud was this bit about Chewbacca because that was just — you’re like, okay, you got through your umbrage but then you’re like, well, now, granted there is a serious [laughs] debate about why Chewie didn’t get a medal. Dude, no one cares why Chewie didn’t get a medal, whatever.

John: Once again, racism.

Craig: Yeah, nobody cares. No one cares.

John: Chewie is the Nothic of the whole Star Wars saga.

Craig: You know why Chewie didn’t get a medal? Chewie don’t need no medals.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Chewie doesn’t care about medals. Maybe that’s why he’s yelling. Anyway, fantastic. Thank you for the kind words at the very end. Patrick, I’m sorry, you just got it all wrong here. But we love you anyway and we thank you for listening and please come on back and just know that the people that you want us to be, we already are.

John: Awww. So our next topic, so after we did our segment at the Slate Gabfest, we found this little outdoor terracey patio thing which is really nice at the theatre.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so you and I were just sitting and chatting for a bit. And I brought up that the thing I’m writing right now — we’re both in our first drafts. And the thing I was writing, I was sort of stuck because I was trying to — I realized it was because I was trying to service a bunch of characters and things just weren’t fitting right.

And so there’s an exercise I do every once in a while which I’d recommend to anybody is basically, what happens if I killed the hero? Like right now, what if the hero died? And I would go through it like, I thought through like what would actually happen if the hero were to die right now. And that didn’t help the situation so I just go sort of one by one and I kill off all the characters and sort of mentally run through what would happen.

And I realized if I killed off this supporting character, life would be so much easier and happier because it would force the other characters in the rest of these sequences to do more of the work. So I didn’t end up killing her but I ended up just getting rid of her because she could do her function that she needed to do and we kind of just didn’t care anymore. She had recurred, she was done, she’s gone.

And it was incredibly helpful and useful. And I thought in a general sense it would be great to talk about sort of how many characters you need because — so I read scripts that aren’t working. A lot of times I find they’re trying to service characters, too many characters too long in the script and they just sort of get muddled.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Craig, have you found this to be the case?

Craig: I have. And this is another reason that I do like to outline beforehand because every character — I think that there’s times when we get a little, our appetites get a little big. You know, we have this idea of all these wonderful characters. And the problem is that every character has to be there very, very intentionally. They each need to serve some very important purpose.

Some characters are single-use K-Cup characters. They show up and then they’re gone. We talked about the Ghost –

John: I like, Craig, I have to single out the K-Cup metaphor.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Terrific.

Craig: K-Cup.

John: One shot and they’re gone, throw them away.

Craig: One shot. Throw them away. So they show up, they do their thing and they’re gone. Movies are full of great characters that show up like that. But for the characters that you’re going to be traveling with, they need each of them to have their story. They need to fill a place. They need to provide you with a tool to tell your story.

There are all sorts of tricks. I mean, some people will tell you, well, every character is just an aspect of the protagonist, which is, you know, it’s interesting. Sometimes I suppose in some kinds of movies that might be true. But for the most part, it’s not. So the questions you have to ask yourself are this. What does, for every character, what do they want? What’s their problem? Who are they really into? Who do they have a big problem with? How are they going to end?

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then if I understand those things and on top of that I know what they do for the plot, they must do something for the plot, then, well, I’m not going to have a problem writing them am I?

John: No, you’re not. And in my case, you know, I had outlined up to a certain point. But I sort of knew who the characters were going to the last section, but I hadn’t thoroughly figured out sort of who was responsible for what things. And it was as I was trying to write the outline for this section that I realized like, argh, something’s not working right here.

And I wouldn’t have singled out that this character was the one who needed to go away because she served an important function and I thought I would need to bring her through to the end of the movie. What should have been my tipoff is that I didn’t really have any specific place I wanted her to end.

Craig: Ah.

John: There was no sort of great way to send her out of this movie. And that was a good sign that maybe she didn’t need to make it to the end of the movie, that maybe she could leave. And the functions that she would have been doing in this last section of the film, someone else could do them. And probably someone more important could do them and would have more reason to be in those moments because it’s a challenge for her to be performing these actions.

So a lot of times I’ll avoid having too many characters in a scene, but a lot of times if a scene isn’t working it’s because you have too many people in them because you’re trying to service these characters who don’t have enough time to speak. This was a case where I had too many characters in this whole sequence and one of them had to go away.

Craig: And sometimes in a circumstance like that you can fold some characters together.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: You can reassign a duty to another character which can help a lot. One of the danger signs that you’ve triggered here is the too many people within a scene because there’s too many people in general. But then there’s the other problem with too many people in one scene. And you can feel it when suddenly you realize a bunch of people aren’t saying anything.

John: Yes.

Craig: And on set, I’ve seen this happen and it’s a very scary thing. When you’re writing a scene, you may say the five of them sit down, you know, at the table. The person that they’re talking to begins talking and then the leader of the group begins talking back to them. And it reads fine because what these two people are saying to each other is fascinating and moving the story forward and all the rest.

And everybody is like, cool, great. There is a, you know, a second AD who’s going through the script and going, okay, let’s see, who’s in each scene because I need to make sure they’re there that day. Okay, they’re in that scene, they’re there that day. And there they are. And then everybody looks and goes, why are all these people here? And why are these actors sitting around? How do I shoot the scene so it’s not the most awkward thing in the world while a bunch of people are sitting there quietly?

Naturally, as an audience, if we see you, we want you to do something.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s not like real life [laughs] where we sit around do nothing all the time. If the camera is on you, it needs to be on you.

John: Yeah. There has to be an intention.

Craig: Right. So that’s a warning sign that you’ve got too many people in your scene.

John: Yeah. And you’ll see that happen a lot. And there’s cases where you want all those people around that dinner table because that’s part of the stakes and the drama of that scene is people’s reactions to those things. Wedding Crashers has a great, really complicated dinner party scene where a bunch of people are around the table and each of those reactions is important.

And, by the way, if you’re trying to ever shoot one of those things, you will go insane because you’re having to shoot angles for everybody looking at each other and trying to match eye lines and you’ll go mental. But sometimes that’s really, really important.

Other times, it’s not and you need to look for ways to sort of get those people out of the room so you can have moments between two characters be between two characters or three characters. I think one of the reasons why we have this instinct to now add a lot of characters to things is we’re used to great TV dramas. We’re used to things like Game of Thrones where you have these giant casts.

Craig: Right.

John: Well, you couldn’t have that giant cast in the feature version of Game of Thrones. It wouldn’t make any sense at all. The feature version Game of Thrones would focus on like three guys and like Daenerys and John Snow and somebody else. It wouldn’t be all those people. It’s because you have 20 hours to explore all these characters that you can do that in a one-hour show. You can’t do it in a movie.

Craig: That’s absolutely correct. I mean, you’ve called out an interesting thing about the dining room scene because we’ve all done those. And for those of you, if you’re going to write one of those, obviously everybody needs to be there. And John’s right. Not everybody needs to say something, but everybody needs to have a reaction.

So if someone’s there and they say nothing, they’re there because they’re the person who’s going to deliver a key reaction and you should write those reactions. It’s a big thing with me. That’s how the actors even go, okay, I understand, I’m participating in this, I’m there for a reason, the camera will be on me and I have a job. Actors understand that their job goes beyond mouth moving, sound coming out. Reactions, I mean look, comedy-wise, people tend to laugh at the reactions to lines, not the lines themselves.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: So write those. Then what you’re talking about with Game of Thrones is interesting to me because in television, since you have essentially endless episodes — they’re not endless, but as many as you want — you get to carve your space up and then drill down. So Game of Thrones does have a hundred characters, but really it has four characters. And the four characters are the characters within that segment.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So if there’s a story going on with Tyrion, that has to do with Jaime and his father and his sister. Those are the four characters.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So they’re only, they’re reducing down as well. In movies, when you have large casts, inevitably what happens, because there’s no other way to keep people’s attention, is you have a protagonist, like at the top of a pyramid, right? And they have the most focus, the most depth, the most richness. Then underneath them are two people that have a little less. And then underneath them are some other people that are little less. And eventually you get to people that are one note.

So eventually, like for instance if you think about Police Academy [laughs], you know.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, so at the top you’ve got Steve Guttenberg and he’s, you know, for a broad comedy, he’s a typical broad comedy protagonist, a man-child who doesn’t want to grow up. He wants to crap out of this thing, but he’s kind of into a girl and lo and behold, he starts to find that he is going to grow up and he is going to live up to the expectations of all the people that believe he’s something special and he’s going to win the day.

At the bottom of the pyramid, you have somebody whose entire character is making funny noises. That’s it. Because that’s all you can bear after, you know, you’ve placed your 15 people in the script.

John: The story could not have withstood that guy having a whole plot line and whole thing.

Craig: Yeah.

John: If it were a TV series, yes, give them business, give them ongoing things that, you know, let us know who he is as a person. But for the feature version, he’s the guy who makes funny noises and that’s all you kind of need to know.

Craig: Like in the TV version, he goes home –

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: We actually see that he’s got this like really tough life. He’s got a girlfriend, but she’s been, like she’s actually been sick and he’s taking care of her.

John: And she’s deaf.

Craig: Right, so –

John: So she has no sense of what noises he makes.

Craig: Which is really troubling. He tells her that he’s doing great there and everybody really is impressed with his intelligence, but he knows that’s not true. And then he sits there at night alone and learns new sounds because that’s what the guys kind of like.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But he’s so sad and morose because he really doesn’t feel like he’s good at anything except that.

John: Yeah.

Craig: That would be, that’s a cool, that’s the –

John: Yeah.

Craig: Let’s watch it.

John: The saddest Police Academy movie ever.

Craig: I like sad Police Academy, so I should make that movie. [laughs]

John: And just to circle around again to the movie you haven’t seen, in Gone Girl, I’d read the book and I saw the movie, I like them both very, very much. Gone Girl, the author, Gillian Flynn, she removes one character, Ben Affleck’s best friend, from the movie entirely. And I didn’t even know he was missing until someone pointed it out. And that’s a great example of like that character was important for the book because it gave Ben Affleck’s character some grounding and lets you know sort of what was going on there. But he would have gotten in the way in the movie. He would have just been standing around for too much of the movie. So getting rid of him made a lot more sense.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. And so you can see there is a case of an author. It’s her book.

John: It’s her book. And she’s smart enough to know.

Craig: Yeah. She meant that character to exist, but she also understands that a movie is different. Now, there’s the opposite syndrome which is the not enough character syndrome.

John: We talked about that with Ghost.

Craig: Right.

John: Ghost feels a little light.

Craig: Well, yeah. So what happens is the movie begins to feel a little small. You’ll hear this from executives sometimes. And they’ll say, the movie feels small. They sometimes say this if the movie is, it’s very located in interiors. They’ll start to say it’s smaller, claustrophobic or if there aren’t enough characters, the movie feels small. And what happens is, if you’re telling the story of a movie and you’re shooting in the great wide world of planet Earth and you only have three characters that are really noticeable as human beings at all –

John: Yeah.

Craig: It starts to feel a little bit more like a play.

John: Mm-hmm, it does.

Craig: And that’s a little rough. I mean look, Ghost wasn’t off by much. I think it was really off by one, you know, one other character to make that red herring work and all that stuff. It would have been great. But if you start to feel like your movie is just three people and no one else feels real or fleshed out or purposeful to the story, you know, you have to sort of stop and ask yourself, are there enough obstacles here? Is this is world well-fleshed out? Who am I one-noting that really should have some life in this because a movie can bear more than that?

John: Yeah. These are challenges I think you find when you have too few characters in your story is that the audience just gets away too far ahead of you because we start to be able to figure out everything that those characters could do. And so then when they do them, it’s like, well, well yeah, we sort of knew that was going to happen. It becomes harder to surprise your audience because we kind of know who all these people are and what they’re capable of doing.

Craig: John, that is a genius point. That’s a genius point.

John: Thank you.

Craig: You’re absolutely right, because when we only have three people to look at, we are studying them so carefully, yeah, of course we’re not going to miss anything. Part of misdirection is shifting our focus, just like magicians are constantly misdirecting you, they’re waving their hand around or yapping while they’re stuffing a bird in a vegetable or something. [laughs] I don’t know whatever they’re doing, cutting up cards behind their backs. Your ability to misdirect people is vastly reduced. Excellent point.

John: Thank you. So our last topic of the podcast of this episode is business affairs. And this is something that you and I both talked about. So let me explain what business affairs is. If you are hired to write a movie for somebody, so it could be a first draft, it could be rewrite, it could be sort of anytime that you are employed as a writer for a studio, business affairs is the lawyers who make your deal.

So your agent and your lawyers are talking to business affairs at Sony or Fox or some place and trying to come to a deal for your writing services. And that may just be scale. You may not be getting sort of above the normal rates. But you have to get that all figured out, basically how long you have to write, what they’re going to pay for each step along the way, other sort of deal points. There’s boilerplate, but it’s not all one standard deal.

So these business affairs people are important. And they are vanishing. I’ve become increasingly frustrated. I think over the last few years, that it feels like takes longer and longer and longer to make deals. And it’s not because we’re being difficult or they’re being difficult. They’re just not there. They’re overworked. And it feels like there’s not enough business affairs people.

Craig: Yeah, this is the general squeeze down on the business. We know that there are fewer and fewer movies made, fewer and fewer executives. And yes, I’ve felt it too. I don’t have numbers obviously. We’re not privy to the payroll of the companies. But it does seem that business affairs has been narrowed through fewer and fewer attorneys. And it is frustrating. Look, it’s a frustrating thing to deal with business. The phrase business affairs is unique in our business because other than the fact that it sounds almost sexy and yet so it’s the opposite of sexy.

John: Ooh affairs.

Craig: Ooh, business affairs. It’s a great title for like a Skinemax movie, but in fact it’s not sexy at all.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But it has this incredible binary emotional impact. When you are trying to get a job or trying to sell something, when you finally hear okay, business affairs will be calling, you go hooray.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s happening. I’m getting paid. I’m being hired. I got a job. And then business affairs makes you hate them. [laughs] Because, you know, you have, and this is by design. Just as we separate creative from business by hiring agents, the studios separate creative in business. So the creative people say, we love you, we love your idea, love, love, love. Artists come here and let us kiss you all over your face. And the business affairs people are like, uh-huh, according to my spreadsheet you get half of what you think you deserve or so on and so forth.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then you start to grind your teeth.

John: But that’s how it, I would say that’s how it’s supposed to work in a weird way.

Craig: Yeah, yeah.

John: And it’s supposed to be that horrible, uncomfortable, like it’s negotiation. And no negotiations are fun. That’s just the nature of it. What is frustrating is that I feel like the negotiation it just doesn’t even start because there’s just no one to actually even begin the negotiation or you end up waiting a really long time because those poor guys are just overworked.

Now why does this matter? Well, it matters because as a writer, you’re not getting paid. Well, that’s obviously a huge headline concern because you can’t get paid until the contract is figured out. They’re not going to cut you a check until there’s a contract to sign.

But more importantly, I think this is actually the bigger crisis in the industry right now is, you know, projects will just stagnate for a long time while these deals get done. And so you could go in and just like kill them with a pitch and it’s just fantastic and everyone is so excited to have you start writing this thing. And then it’s six months before they actually get these contracts figured out.

And in that six months, you haven’t been able to start because you’re not sure the deal is going to be possible to make. And that is awful because by the time you actually get to start writing the thing, it’s done, like your motivation has –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Has left.

Craig: I haven’t experienced that kind of lag, but I certainly have experienced more of a lag than has been there before. There are some tricks you can do. If all the major deal points have been agreed on then you can sign a certificate of authorship, get paid and then everybody works out all the inky-dinky details in the long form contract. But the wheel does seem to turn much slower than it used to.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, I do sympathize. Business affairs people are in a tough spot. They know that they have to be the heavy. They also know that sometimes they’re being used. So creative people will give everybody a big hug and tell them that they love and then turn around, call business affairs and say, we do love them but we can’t really, we don’t want to pay more than this. So can you please just be the heavy?

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because the deal is, if we do end up making a deal, I have to work with these people and I don’t want them to be angry at me the whole time. I just want them to angry at you. [laughs] So –

John: Absolutely.

Craig: A little of that goes on. But yeah, it’s gotten slow.

John: Absolutely. I completely sympathize with business affairs people. I know they have to be heavies. I kind of in a way just want there are going to be more heavies. And I wish studios would hire more people to do that job because I think they’d be able to move faster and more nimbly if they actually could make deals for the things they want more quickly and get their scripts back faster.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So often, studios will say like, oh takes us forever to get this, we’ll make a deal and it takes, you know, eight months for us to get the script from the writer. It’s like, well you know what, it took six months for you to make a deal. So maybe you could speed up a little on your side.

Craig: And to give folks out there context who are maybe attorneys, these are not complicated deals.

John: They really aren’t.

Craig: They are nearly boilerplate contracts by the time you’ve been — either you’re a new writer and it’s fairly boilerplate or you’ve been around for a while and your deals have a ton of precedents and they’re fairly boilerplate. And what it really comes down to is how much are we paying you? The rest is baloney, you know, like how many tickets you get to the premiere and do you fly first class or business? I mean whatever.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s not hard.

John: And ultimately, you and I both had the experience where deals are dragging on for a long time then finally in one afternoon, there’ll be a bunch of phone calls back and forth and it will be done. And that afternoon of phone calls could have happened several weeks ahead of time. And it didn’t.

Craig: Yeah, which also makes me feel bad for business affairs because then I feel like they’re living their lives in a constant state of crisis because they’re understaffed. So the deal that they’re doing today is the one that’s about to literally blow up because they couldn’t get to it.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So every day is a crisis. It’s no way, but this is what these companies have done. They’ve just cut, cut, cut everywhere. And, you know, the other thing that’s rough is like, it’s hard when you’re negotiating deals because, you know, if you’re like a new business affairs lawyer, you know, I don’t know what you’re getting paid. I don’t know what the starting rate is for a brand new business affairs attorney, but my guess is it’s, you know, I don’t know, a couple 100 grand or something? And, you know, some writer is like, “What, $300,000, screw you, you’re a jerk.” And they’re like, “Ugh, am I, am I the jerk?”

You know, it’s a tough gig. And I feel bad for them.

John: And do too.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. We won’t solve this problem, but I just wanted to bring it up and shine a spotlight on it. Craig, and it’s time for One Cool Things, do you have a One Cool Thing this week.

Craig: No. [laughs]

John: Oh you forgot about it.

Craig: I totally forgot.

John: Yeah. I’ll stall for you and I’ll tell you what my One Cool Thing is.

Craig: Okay.

John: Mine is this movie that I’ve meant to watch for a long time that I finally watched on the plane. I’m in Montreal as we’re recording this. I’m asked to give a speech at Çingleton which is a great conference. But on the plane, I watched Indie Game: The Movie which everyone had recommended and they were right. It’s a really good documentary about these guys making indie games, indie games for, in this case, Xbox.

And it follows the ups and downs and the travails. And even if you’re not a gamer or a person who would make video games, it’s a great look at sort of that part of the creative process where, you know, you’re living that delusion of like, okay, there’ s a game out there that I can make, that I can deliver and it’s going to happen and then you have a launch day and then you just see.

And that’s what the experience is of making movies and the experience of making Broadway shows and all sorts of creative endeavors is that you are so internally focused for so long and you’re killing yourself to make this thing and you’re exhausted and then finally that day comes and you can’t believe it’s finally here. But you have sort of both excitement and post partum depression and it’s all out of your hands. And the variables are unforeseen.

So it’s a really well-made documentary. If you watch it, then you can look up about the people involved. You’ll see there’s other controversy about sort of the nature of the documentary, but I thought it was just a terrifically a well-made thing. It’s on Netflix right now, so if you have Netflix streaming it is free for you to watch.

Craig: Awesome. Well, I guess my One Cool Thing, it’s, you know, we try to make One Cool Things accessible to people. This is not, but it is so so cool. So did you see that Tesla came out with the Tesla P85D model?

John: I have no idea what it is. So tell me all about it.

Craig: They took a Tesla. [laughs]

John: Yeah.

Craig: They took the model S. They added a second motor to it. So it’s now all wheel drive, two motors. They added a ton of driver assistance features that essentially make the car able to drive itself.

John: Great, love it.

Craig: It reads speed limit signs. It sees the lane markers. It keeps distance from the car — basically, I think Elon Musk said, “If you punch in your address and fall asleep in the car, it will get you there,” which is pretty amazing.

John: Wow.

Craig: But more importantly, it goes from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds. It is as fast as a McLaren F1. It is in fact a supercar.

John: Well.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So Craig, how does it feel to have a shitty Tesla now?

Craig: Well, the thing is I just already, [laughs] begun the process of seeing how it might work on a trade-in because –

John: Oh, that’s good. Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So we’re a very accessible podcast here. I talked about free movies on Netflix. And you’re talking about supercars.

Craig: I’m so sorry.

John: It’s fine. If you would like to ask Craig more questions about his supercar, you can tweet at him.

Craig: I don’t have it yet. I don’t have it yet.

John: He’s @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust on Twitter. Longer questions like the one we got today, well it wasn’t really a question? It was just a venting of umbrage.

Craig: [laughs] It’s so great.

John: You can send those vents to ask@johnaugust.com. We’re on iTunes. So if you’re subscribing to us through iTunes, that’s awesome. If you’re not subscribing to us in iTunes, like maybe you’re just listening to us at the johnaugust.com site, go over to iTunes and click subscribe and leave us a comment while you’re there because those are lovely.

You can find show notes for the things we talked about on this episode and almost every episode at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. We have a premium app on iTunes and for Android. There’s a premium site at scriptnotes.net. If you sign up for that, you’ll hear all the back episodes and little bonus things that we do every once in a while. That’s also where you’re going to hear the dirty episode when we hit 1,000 premium subscribers which we’re getting pretty close. We are going to do a dirty episode. So people sent some really good suggestions for who we should have as a guest on the dirty episode.

Craig: I thought the funniest one was Mike Birbiglia because he’s so not dirty.

John: He’s not. He’s the sweetest, nicest, not dirtiest man.

Craig: I know.

John: But we’ll find somebody. I have some hunches about some really great people we can have on the show.

Craig: All right, good.

John: All right. And I think that is our show for this week.

Craig: Awesome. Good show.

John: Craig, thank you so much.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: All right. Bye.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Highland works great with Yosemite

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 13:50

We had quite a few inquiries from Highland’s support page this weekend, including:

Is Highland compatible with Mac OS 10.10 Yosemite? Of all the apps I’m running on my Macs, Highland is probably the most important. I won’t upgrade until you give the all clear signal.

Green light. The version of Highland in the Mac App Store runs fine under Yosemite.

In fact, we’ve been running Highland with the Yosemite betas for months, so the past few builds all run fine. Except for a few small UI changes (such as using the green dot to go full-screen), you won’t notice any significant differences.

We update Highland quite frequently. Version 1.8.2, now in review, addresses bugs that users helped us identify under both old and new OS versions. Highland keeps improving because we have seriously committed users.

If it’s been a while since you’ve looked at Highland, you may have missed out on its new line spacing options. You can now choose Tight, Normal or Loose line spacing in the editor view. This ability to customize the editor for maximum readability is one of the clear advantages to Highland’s just-the-words philosophy.

You can download Highland in the Mac App Store.

Critics, Characters and Business Affairs

Tue, 10/14/2014 - 08:03

John and Craig were delighted to join the Slate Culture Gabfest on stage to talk about the gulf between critics and creators. We have the audio from that, and additional thoughts on the issue.

Then, how many characters does your movie need? We talk about how to figure out the Goldilocks spot where you have enough characters to make your world feel real, but not so many that they’re tripping over each other.

Finally, business affairs, and how understaffed legal departments create problems for writers and studios.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 165: Toxic Perfection Syndrome — Transcript

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 16:31

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 165 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Before we get started, I need to warn listeners that my audio in this podcast will be kind of terrible. It’s because of my own fault. I set a setting wrong. So, this is me speaking after the fact with a better microphone connected properly to my Macintosh. So, Matthew Chilelli has done a heroic job trying to make my audio sound better, but it’s a little bit worse than usual. My apologies. And we’ll be back to normal next week.

[Transition tones]

John: Craig, how are you?

Craig: I’m okay. I’m coming off of a cold, though. I think it went from my kids, to my wife, to me, but yeah, you know that day when you finally feel better? That’s the day you finally feel better.

John: Yeah, it’s sort of the 90% day. Where it’s like you’re mostly recovered. There’s still a trace, a little trace of that cold.

Craig: Yeah, that’s right. But not too bad. I might hack a little bit during this.

John: That’s fine. Matthew Chilelli will edit it all out. There will be sirens to cover it anyway.

Craig: Exactly. I’ll just time it when the sirens come by.

John: Nima Yousefi who is our coder for Quote-Unquote Apps who does Highland and all of our stuff, he was out sick all of last week with the flu. And so this is my annual reminder to everyone to get your flu shots, because the flu just is awful. And you shouldn’t get the flu. And you don’t have to get the flu. So just get a $20 flu shot.

Actually, to tell you the truth, our health insurance –

Craig: It’s free.

John: Free. So, just get your flu shot. The flu sucks.

Craig: Yeah, I know, the flu is stupid. Don’t get that. Is he sure it was the flu?

John: He’s pretty sure it was the flu. It certainly wasn’t a cold. He was out in a bad way.

Craig: Well, it’s probably the flu.

John: It’s probably the flu. And a reason to do it this year I think especially is because if you get the flu shot, you know, it’s not Ebola. So, it can be the situation where you’re like, oh, I’m coming down with Ebola. It’s like, no, you probably have the flu. But now you don’t even have to have those mysterious symptoms that you think are Ebola because you won’t get the flu.

Craig: It’s not Ebola.

John: It’s certainly not Ebola. And you won’t even be the flu if you get the flu shot.

Craig: Right.

John: Right. Today we’re going to be talking about Netflix and the Adam Sandler deal. We’re going to be talking about Turkey City Lexicon, which is this great compendium of science fiction terms and it’s also about writer groups. I thought it was just a great article that Craig linked to, so we’ll talk to that.

Toxic Perfection Syndrome, which is a Craig topic as well. And we’re going to talk about the WGA in 2014. Elections just passed and we should look at what the WGA should be doing and focusing on in the next few years. Big show.

Craig: It’s a big show. We’re stuffed.

John: We’re stuffed. But we have to start with some follow up, and the first bit of follow up is to thank Apple because Apple featured us this last week. They featured Scriptnotes as one of their top podcasts.

Craig: Boy, that made a difference. So, I never really look and see, you know, where we are in the podcast ranks, because of course we make no money off of this, so I don’t care. But we were like the number six podcast in the world for a bit there.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And it’s pretty great.

John: We were number four at one point when Stuart was checking.

Craig: Oh my goodness. That’s awesome. Wow.

John: It’s just crazy for a podcast about screenwriting. It’s wonderful.

Craig: I didn’t even know there were that many podcasts.

John: Exactly. You’ve been on like three and that’s basically it, right?

Craig: Yeah, so I thought being number four was the biggest insult ever. [laughs]

John: [laughs] Yeah. Craig Mazin’s solipsism knows no boundaries. But it was very nice of them to feature us last week.

Craig: Yes, very nice.

John: If you are a new listener joining us from last week when we had Nicole Perlman on, stick with us please.

Another podcast you may want to tune into is the Slate Culture Gabfest because that is happening live tomorrow. If you’re listening to this on Tuesday, it is happening tomorrow on Wednesday. That is downtown in Los Angeles at The Belasco Theatre. Doors open 6:30. There is a bar. And there will be drinks. Craig will be drinking.

Craig: Yeah.

John: You’ll be drinking, right?

Craig: Pretty heavily I would imagine.

John: Yeah, because it’s a podcast. You got to get them before a podcast.

Craig: Right.

John: And the show starts at 7:30. So, if you do not have tickets, go to Slate right now and get some tickets. And join us, because it’s going to be really fun. And Natasha Lyonne is actually going to be the other featured guest. For a long time it was just me and Craig, and then when they got Natasha Lyonne, there’s now a giant picture of Natasha Lyonne and we are like — “and John August and Craig Mazin.”

Craig: That’s appropriate. That is.

John: This last week Slate and Vulture did a piece on The Simpsons. And they had a bunch of famous people talk about their favorite moments from The Simpsons over these gazillion episodes. And so they emailed me weeks ago and so they had written this very good intro, so I wrote a really good answer which was the Homer’s Enemy episode, which is the one with Hank Grimes — Frank Grimes.

Craig: Frank Grimes.

John: I can’t remember his first name because he’s just Grimes. And so I had written this good answer and I was like when are they going to run it. Well, they finally ran it this last week. We’ll put a link in the show notes. And there’s these much, much, much more famous people than me. So, I got like the bottom answer on it. But it was nice.

Craig: They’re asking you for your favorite joke?

John: No, favorite episode.

Craig: Favorite episode. And you went Grimes.

John: And of course, it’s like picking your favorite child. You could say Mr. Plow, come one, there’s so many amazing episodes.

Craig: It’s an easy one for me. I think it was the one where Krusty loses his show. And it’s the Krusty Farewell Special. That may be my favorite.

John: Yeah. I love The Day the Laughter D ied. I love Lisa’s Valentine.

Craig: There’s so many.

John: This could be a whole episode about our favorite Simpsons episodes.

Craig: Yes. Yes. True. True. But what is your favorite single Simpsons joke?

John: God, I would say actually, I’m going to bend that as saying favorite song, which is probably Monorail.

Craig: Pretty great. I think my favorite Simpsons joke is in the episode where Homer was dressing up as Krusty because Krusty was sort of franchising himself, when Krusty and Homer dressed as Krusty — both appear in the mobster hangout. And one of the mobsters rubs his eyes and says, “I don’t believe it. I’m seeing double. Four Krustys.” [laughs] That’s just –

John: It’s so good.

Craig: So good. Ooh, I don’t know how they think of that. That’s so good. Four Krustys.

John: Continuing our follow up, Austin Film Festival, Craig will not be there because Craig is going to be at a wedding. So, putting friendship above his duty to the podcast, which is completely unrespectable.

Craig: Yes. Yes.

John: But luckily Susannah Grant has agreed to fill in and take your place.

Craig: Well, she’s a much better looking version of me. And she’s smarter.

John: She’s kind of a terrific writer.

Craig: She’s smarter than I am. She’s more successful than I am. She’s better looking than I am.

John: There are a lot of reasons why she’s a better co-host than Craig Mazin.

Craig: I mean, she’s nicer than I am. [laughs] Oh, that’s a great get. I love it.

John: So, Richard Kelly will be a guest as will Peter Gould from Breaking Bad. Peter Gould who was my film teacher at USC.

Craig: Well, spectacular.

John: Also, there are some other guests to be announced, so that will be fun. We’re also doing a Three Page Challenge there which will be second rounders from the Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition. And the panelists on that one will be Franklin Leonard and Ilyse McKimmie, so Franklin Leonard from the Black List, and Ilyse McKimmie from Sundance. So, that is going to be a fun time, too.

Craig: Wonderful.

John: Craig, we had announced on our previous show that if we got to 1,000 premium subscribers we would do a dirty episode just for subscribers.

Craig: Yeah.

John: How close do you think we are?

Craig: I’m going to say that we picked up 600 people.

John: That would be inaccurate. But we are now at 906.

Craig: Whoa!

John: So within the next week or two I think we will be able to cross over that threshold.

Craig: Oh, that’s great.

John: So, if you’d like us to cross over that threshold, go to scriptnotes.net and sign up. It’s $1.99 a month. You get all the back episodes. You get the bonus episodes. And you get the dirty episode. But we need to figure out who should be our guest for the dirty episode. So, if you are a premium subscriber, please tweet at me and Craig and tell us who you would like to see as the guest on the dirty show.

Craig: On the dirty show.

John: Because it’s going to be good.

Craig: It’s going to be dirty.

John: It’s going to be dirty. Let’s get to today’s business. So, you linked to this article that Adam Sandler has made a deal with Netflix for four movies. Tell us about it.

Craig: Yeah. Well, it’s a pretty big deal, actually. I mean, you know, I’m the guy that’s always going, oh well, look, people are jumping up and down saying this is the new way of doing things in Hollywood and no it isn’t, but this might actually be the new way of doing things.

So, Netflix signed an overall deal with Adam Sandler where they’re going to make four movies and he essentially has, they’re kind of implying has pretty much control over those movies. And he’ll be given an ample budget. And I’m assuming that because, you know, he had a pretty lucrative deal and was making pretty big movies with Sony. And what’s remarkable about this is that Sandler is sort of saying and Netflix are both saying we think that big movies can now be piped directly to an audience and skip the theater experience completely.

And that’s a little earth-shattering I think.

John: So, the article you linked to, it was unclear. You think that they’re not going to even just do a token theatrical run? You think they’re only going to go directly to home?

Craig: Absolutely. Why would they do it in theaters? I mean, the whole point is to get people to subscribe to Netflix. So, no, I think it’s going to be exclusive on Netflix. And I have to say, you know, I’ve read a couple of articles that predictably said, “Oh, Netflix, what — Adam Sandler is stupid, blah, blah, blah.”

Yeah, you’re stupid. It’s not about what the movies are that you like or don’t like. It’s about Netflix having access probably to better metrics than anybody else in our business. If you think about what — their database of what people watch, where they watch it, how frequently they watch it. My guess is they looked at their numbers and saw that Adam Sandler movies are extraordinarily popular with their subscription base, which I should point out is international.

Adam Sandler’s movies tend to do extraordinarily well overseas, particularly for a comedian. So, I think they ran the numbers and they’re like we can’t miss on this. And it’s also intriguing to me because Adam Sandler movies aren’t really movies that demand a theater viewing. They tend to be more appreciated frankly in their ancillary release after the theater experience when Adam Sandler fans purchase them and watch them over and over, often while they get high. [laughs]

John: I was going to say dorm rooms. We were in the same brain space there.

Craig: I’ve got no problem with that. Or, or, that’s one kind of Adam Sandler movie. The other kind is a family movie like Grown Ups and Grown Ups 2, which are then watched over and over by kids. And so I actually think this makes an enormous amount of sense. And I suspect that a lot of agents woke up this morning or yesterday when this news came out and said, “Uh, I should probably get this for one of my guys.”

John: Yup.

Craig: And the question now is does this become something that we start to see a lot of. And if that happens, then the people that got to start worrying are the movie theaters.

John: Yes. So let’s think this all the way through. So, let’s first talk about who else is like an Adam Sandler and it would be another actor or be a filmmaker who makes a consistent kind of thing, because there aren’t a lot of actors I can peg and say there’s an Adam Sandler movie. Adam Sandler is very much identifiable with every movie that he’s in, as opposed to Kevin Costner who is like an actor in movies and sometimes a director.

Craig: Yeah, Sandler kind of runs his own little Sandler studio over there.

John: Melissa maybe?

Craig: Maybe, yeah. I mean, Melissa I think is starting to get that way. I think a guy like Tyler Perry –

John: Tyler Perry. Absolutely.

Craig: Could easily do something like this and probably should. I think he’d probably end up making more money. I mean, because remember, one of the things that happens when you make a movie is if the idea is I’m going to get paid some money and then get a piece of this movie, your piece of the movie is negatively impacted by anything that costs money.

Well, what costs a lot of money? Distribution. Marketing. Huge costs for distribution and marketing. Typically larger than the cost of the movie itself.

Well, unless you’re on Netflix, because then –

John: But Netflix is going to do tremendous marketing — they’ll have to promote the shit out of it, but then they don’t have to do all the other distribution expenses.

Craig: Well, yeah, A, they’re promoting it heavily on their own thing, right? Whereas even though, for instance, Disney owns ABC, Disney has to pay ABC to run ads. And they have to run ads on other channels, too.

Netflix can promote their own stuff on their own system which people are using frequently. And obviously they’re trying to get more of a subscription base. But the distribution costs are essentially zero. And that’s enormous. It’s a huge advantage to them.

So then if you’re an artist, you theoretically would be dealing with a much lower overhead situation where your percentage of the returns would trigger sooner and be against a larger base. So, guys like that run their own show, I mean, for instance Woody Allen, who I suspect is probably way too wedded to film and the cinema experience, but Woody Allen could do this if he wanted to.

John: Absolutely. If you have an identifiable brand. If you came in with like people know you and want to come see your things regardless. Kevin Smith maybe could do this.

Craig: Yeah. If you have a brand, I could see absolutely Netflix. Now, I think they’ve signaled with this deal it’s not going to be enough to be Kevin Smith. We we’re actually aiming for people that have and can make $100 million regular movie theaters. So, they’re making a big bet here but they’re also signaling to everybody else, hey, you know, come on over. It’s interesting. Really interesting, I have to say.

John: So, we could probably find the transcripts from when we talked about Netflix going into television, when it did House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. And that seems like, well, that’s foolish, or at least weird, because we had never really seen Netflix as being a company that was in the television business. And suddenly they were trying to be in the television business, well that’s crazy.

But it ended up being very successful for them. So, I wouldn’t bet against Netflix.

Craig: Yeah, well, Netflix is becoming the other HBO. And we know that HBO spends money on things that attract people to their subscription base. I mean, I think that probably what we had commented on was that Netflix wasn’t going to kill network television, and it hasn’t. It hasn’t come close to it. Nor do I think this will kill traditional film distribution.

But, this may be good news for those of us who are screenwriters because as we talked about often one of the things that’s really impacted us negatively is the reduction of feature films that are being made, because there are only so many theaters and only so many studios that make these things. If Netflix is serious about this, they could become a viable new option. I presume that they will make these movies under a WGA deal.

John: Yeah, it would feel really strange not to. It would feel strange because the people who write Adam Sandler movies have traditionally been WGA writers. And so for them to start to try to make these movies with people who are not in that stable feels really strange.

Craig: It would feel strange. And I’m guessing that Orange is the New Black is a WGA show. I presume as much. So, hopefully that’s the case. That becomes a very enticing thing. Suddenly there’s another studio making movies. But this is a really — it’s an interesting development. I’m — this one, of all the new media is changing the world stories that I’ve read, this one could mean something.

John: So, Craig, you write big expensive comedies. You haven’t written an Adam Sandler, but you could write an Adam Sandler comedy. I wrote a Kevin James thing that never got made. If we were to write these movies, what kind of deal would we be taking because, you know, in looking at this there’s potentially no residuals, correct?

Craig: Yeah.

John: There’s no secondary market. The whole market is for that. And are you writers as a made for television, or what’s the contract?

Craig: I think there are some residuals. I think if you make something that’s direct to video there is a certain formula for residuals on it, depending on the airings. I think. I would have to look into that.

But, essentially on something like this you would have to negotiate with the people making the movie who have a fixed budget for what percentage of portion of that budget you get. And, again, that’s why it makes sense with Sandler, because Sandler has guys that he writes with. He writes with Tim Herlihy, and he writes… — So, you know, they can sit down and go, okay, well here’s the money we have, this is what I’m taking because I’m Adam Sandler, here’s what we have left. I think we can carve this amount off for you. Okay, that sounds good. Great. Now, we’ll just go.

Because he’s not going to get into a thing where it’s like, well, we’re going to develop for awhile and then we’re going to hire another writer, and another writer. And it just won’t be that, you know.

John: Yes. So, my question which was also unclear in any of these articles it they’re going to make these four Adam Sandler movies, but is Adam Sandler free to make other moves at other places?

Craig: It appears that he is. Yeah, that’s what I read, that he’s not married to them. I don’t even know if it’s a first look or anything like that. He’s going to make four movies for them. And he’s kind of the perfect choice because he will make four movies for them, no question. I mean, it’s not like he’s ever disappeared for six years. I mean, the guy makes a movie a year, practically, right?

John: Yeah, I mean, he makes more than a movie, maybe two.

Craig: Maybe more than a movie a year, right.

John: And his movies are not complicated to make. I mean, because they are generally high concept comedies with kind of a rotating cast of the same — Rob Schneider probably, wow, I’m going to make more movies for Netflix. The same people are going to be showing up in his movies again and again. They know how to make those movies.

Craig: Right. And he has a stable of directors that he works with. There’s a whole machine in place. They are a kind of self-sufficient, they are a group of people, you know, Frank Coraci and all the guys that he works with, that you can kind of go, okay, money in/movie out. We don’t need to build a whole machine there. It’s built.

So, it makes sense for everybody. And my guess is that Netflix looked at some numbers and went we can’t lose. This is a zero miss proposition.

John: So, let’s take four Adam Sandler movies out of the business — basically pick one Adam Sandler movie a year out of the box office, it’s not the end of the world. Like, none of these movies are the top grossing movies of the year. But they’re profitable for most people to make them.

Craig: Well, maybe, that’s the thing. Some of them are and some of them aren’t. And the reason why is because it costs so much to market and distribute. So, you know, when you have a movie like Grown Ups, absolutely. Hugely profitable. When you have something like maybe That’s My Boy or, is that was it was called? I think it was called That’s My Boy. It just didn’t do that well at the box office. You put those earnings against what it cost to release, it’s a tougher proposition.

And so that’s why this is kind of a win-win for everybody. I’m fascinated to see how this works out. And I have to imagine that we’re going to see more of this.

John: So, second is an article that you lined to called Turkey City Lexicon. Where did you find this? Did someone send this to you?

Craig: Yeah, it was tweeted to me. And I just loved it. I loved it.

John: I loved it, too. So, what we’re looking at is an article from The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. And the blog post, this one is edited by Lewis Shiner. There’s a Bruce Sterling second edition here. But it’s talking through the science fiction writing workshops. And before we get into sort of the terminology of the Lexicon, I thought their description of the writing workshop process was really fascinating.

They described this process where you get the writers together. Everybody has to print out some of their short stories, science fiction short stories, and then you trade them and everybody sits and reads them and marks them up. And in the process of giving notes to people was very much like an AA meeting in a way, where you had to go around in a circle and you’re not allowed to sort of speak back until everybody has spoken their peace about your story.

Craig: Right. And it sounds awful.

John: Yeah, it does sound — it just sounds awful.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t like it. I understand how it could be very valuable for new writers, particularly new writers who don’t have access to decent criticism. But it sounds frankly like too much. I mean, it’s hard enough to hear one or two people go through a lengthy critique. But to have ten of them do it? It just seems like it would take forever. It’s boring. At some point it’s just too much. You start to shut down. [laughs]

I don’t know, I just didn’t like that part.

John: The only thing I could sort of say in its defense is it gets you to think sometimes critically about your own writing because you’re seeing the mistakes other people make.

Craig: Yes.

John: And as I started out as a screenwriter, reading a bunch of screenplays and reading a bunch of terrible screenplays at times made me recognize the things I never wanted to do. So, this may be an opportunity for people to take a look at writing that’s not the best Ray Bradbury science fiction writing of all time, but is sort of more on their level and see like well these are the mistakes that this person is making. I’m not going to make those mistakes.

Craig: Right. And so what they’ve done is they’ve compiled with very cute names some of the mistakes that keep popping up over, and over, and over. And some of these are very specific, I think, to science fiction, but some of them I think we could imagine easily occurring in screenplays.

John: Absolutely. And they’re just terrifically well named. I mean, from the very start, the Brenda Starr dialogue. Brenda Starr dialogue referring to the Brenda Starr comic strip which often had these speech bubbles that were sort of floating above the city. And it’s like, but who is that? And so this Brenda Starr dialogue refers to when there’s long passages of dialogue that seem unconnected to a place. It’s like you’re not really establishing a place where this speech is happening.

Craig: Yes, and we will see this in screenplays. I call it ticker tape screenwriting where it’s just streams of dialogue and where are they, what do they look like? So, there are things like this. Some of these things, again, they are more connected to novels, but in looking for some of the ones in here that work with our thing.

John: I like Gingerbread. So, Gingerbread is their — sort of when you use a really expensive, fancy words and fancy structures to do something just sort of like to distract you from the fact that there’s actually nothing there. And because in fiction you’re actually reading the physical words as the reader, you notice that. But sometimes that even applies to movies where you see like people did something in a really fancy, complicated way when there’s really sort of no reason to do it in a fancy, complicated way.

Craig: Right. And they have something called False Humanity, which I think is such a clever term. “An aliment endemic to genre writing,” and I would argue to a lot of screenwriting, “in which soap-opera elements of purported human interest are stuffed into the story willy-nilly, whether or not they advance the plot or contribute to the point of the story.” And I will see that in screenplays where suddenly people are talking about, you know, how they’re suffering from cancer and this has nothing to do with anything that’s going on. It’s just poking me in a button and making me supposedly feel something for them. It’s just irrelevant to anything else.

John: Yeah. It’s sort of spray on notion.

Craig: Right.

John: Like it’s not actually endemic to the nature of the story or to the scene. It’s almost like someone giving notes like I really want to love that character more. And so you sort of give them some weird backstory that has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. It’s frustrating.

There’s a thing here called Not Simultaneous, which is also kind of Ing Disease, I-N-G disease, which is that sense of, they describe it as “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.” And sometimes you will see that in screenplays where you’re trying to combine a bunch of action into one sentence, but that’s not all happening at once. Screenwriting especially is such a present tense situation that those are separate things. Those are actually separate whole locations. And so you can’t just sort of bunch them all together in one sentence.

Craig: And then here is Signal from Fred. “A comic form of the ‘Dischism’ in which the author’s subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ‘This is really boring.’ ‘This sounds like a bad movie.'” And I’ve seen this in screenplays where someone goes, “None of this, this doesn’t make any sense.”

There’s one screenplay I read where two characters are doing something that is physically impossible. And I go, wait a second, that’s not possible. And one of them says, “This doesn’t even make sense, does it?” And the other one says, “Eh, just go with it.”

John: Just go with it, that’s the sign.

Craig: Signal from Fred. I like it.

John: Other terms I loved were Card Tricks in the Dark. So an “Elaborately contrived plot which arrives at (a) the punchline of a private joke no reader will get or (b) the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the author. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the author, but it serves no visible fictional purpose.”

And, man, I’ve seen that a lot where you were able to do something really, really clever, but it didn’t actually pertain to the story that I just saw. And Card Tricks in the Dark actually is a great description for that.

Craig: It’s so good.

John: We’ll see why that’s magic because there’s no lens on this at all.

Craig: Yeah, we don’t get it. One of my favorites is: You can’t fire me, I quit. [laughs] That’s an attempt to diffuse the reader’s incredulity with a preemptive strike, as if by anticipating the reader’s objections the author had somehow answered them. “I would have never believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: [laughs] Yeah, except that you made him see it yourself and none of us do believe it. And I see that a lot, too. I mean, these are all, like some of these are versions of shining lanterns on things, but a lot of times it’s just — you’re just trying to get away with stuff, you know?

John: Yeah, with that last one you sort of picture the cutting to grandpa on the rocking chair on the porch like, “I never would have believed it if I hadn’t…”

Craig: Yeah. “It was one of those amazing coincidences that can only take place in real life.” Yeah, well, yes.

John: And this is a genuine concern for a lot of movies is Idiot Plot: “A plot which functions only because all the characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits the author’s convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own.”

Craig: It’s just so true. And this happens all the time. [laughs] Idiot Plot. It’s so great. I mean, it really is –

John: Especially in comedies, especially if it’s a high concept where like people have to just go with it to establish that this thing could possibly happen, but I think if we have any recurring theme on this podcast it’s getting back to being honest with what characters in that moment would do. And if you need characters to do something that doesn’t fit your moment, you actually probably need to — you can either change your characters or change the moment. But just forcing them to do something that is not natural for them in the moment is never going to be a good choice.

Craig: It’s never a good idea. And then my last one I’ll give out is Funny Hat Characterization. “A character distinguished by a single identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on his shoulder, etc.” And you do often see this in movies where somebody is just — they’re the one thing.

John: They are the one thing. And the one thing characters, I find them actually to be fine if they’re going to show up in one scene.

Craig: Yeah.

John: If that helps you remember them in one scene, or kind of if they’re going to be in two scenes that are long time apart, having that one thing lets you sort of remember them — that can be great. But if they’re going to be along for the ride, you got to find something else that’s going to distinguish them and make them feel like they’re integral to things, because so often that one thing is just weird.

Craig: It just becomes grating. I mean, you’re right, if it’s a day player and they’re job is to be the guy pumping gas who says three things, sure. Like a good example is in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles the guy that picks them up in his truck and he’s just sort of like [snort/snoring noise], you know, he does that thing with his nose, that’s a Funny Hat Characterization. But he wasn’t a big part of the movie.

Yeah, if you’re going to actually have somebody in there for awhile, yeah, you got to give us a little more than that.

John: An example of it done well for me is in Pitch Perfect. I can’t remember the character’s name, but the girl who sort of whispers under her breath.

Craig: Lilly. Right?

John: Lilly. Yes. And we talked about her on the show before. And she’s great, but there’s a build to it. It’s a rounding device. It keeps coming back to her doing things and then finally you get these little great bits and moments. It’s sort of her one trait, but it’s funny. And so you like every time that you get one of those little moments with her.

Craig: Yes. And you can, I think, get away with — you know, Pitch Perfect is a kissing cousin to Police Academy. The sort of ensemble broad character comedies where you’ve got seven people and each one of them has a specific talent, you know.

John: Yes.

Craig: So, that worked there. But, yeah. Anyway, this is a good list. I really enjoyed reading it. Anytime we pick up these lists of clichés it’s just fun to read. And a decent reminder to us all that people are watching, [laughs], and they know what we’re doing.

John: Yes. So, Craig, next topic, you described it as Toxic Perfection Syndrome.

Craig: Yeah. So, I was thinking about this lately. And, I could be wrong, but I think that this is something everybody does. Every writer does this, whether they’re professional or aspiring. And the idea of Toxic Perfection Syndrome is you write something and you begin as it’s being completed, perhaps in the time between your submitting it and your receiving feedback, you begin to daydream about this overwhelming positive response.

John: Yes.

Craig: In which somebody is going to call you and say, “This is the single greatest screenplay I’ve ever read.” And they are full of unconditional love and approval and it’s just a complete — it’s just “Don’t touch a word of it. It’s perfect. It’s amazing.”

The cousin of that is the Oscar Speech in the Shower Syndrome, where you very tearfully thank the Academy for understanding how brilliant and perfect the screenplay is.

I suspect that this is something that a lot of writers do naturally because it’s an offshoot of the psychological effort required to actually finish a screenplay. You need to believe that what you’re doing is good. And that part of it is fine. As long as we understand it’s not real once you turn it in, because what happens — the toxic part of Toxic Perfection Syndrome is the feeling that you get when you’re suddenly hit in the face with this icy blast that is nothing at all like the daydream.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Nothing at all. And it’s hard enough to accept criticism and to not judge yourself, but to do it when the context was that in fact this was going to be the biggest thing — it was prefect and everyone was going to love it. That’s wrenching. That is soul-wrenching, and that’s where it gets dangerous.

John: Yeah. So, let’s talk about that space between you’ve finished a draft and you are getting your first reactions back from people. And I know that feeling so well is that you have been through this marathon to finish this draft. And there were ups and there were downs. There were moments where you doubted yourself. And then you finally, you have this thing finished and you have poured everything you have into it.

But then you look at it and you’re like, wow, this is really good. This is going to be a fantastic thing. And then you start imaging like, well, how are you going to get it to these people, how are you going to get it to these people. It’s like, oh, what if this actor wants to do it, what if both of these actors want to do it. How can we…?

You just start to visualize all the things that are going to happen, but then like what if we do a sequel and then you start going forward, forward, forward, forward. And on some level it’s completely understandable that we as writers do that, because it is our job to imagine things that don’t exist.

Craig: Right.

John: And so we are imagining a future for this script we’ve written and it’s pretty understandable that given our process of writing the thing, that we would continue the chart of the success way up into the future. We think like, oh, it’s going to continue exponentially on this path into the stratosphere and it will be Titanic. We will be the unstoppable movie of all time.

And on some level that’s, I don’t know, I never want to sort of kill people from daydreaming because I think being a little bit delusional is required for success in almost any industry.

Craig: That’s right.

John: Particularly one that’s all about just making stuff up.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But how — I’m actually really genuinely asking the question — how do we bring ourselves back down to earth in a way so that when we do start to hear that feedback it isn’t just bewildering and shocking and seems like it’s coming from Mars.

Craig: Well, I think we do what you and I are doing right now which is essentially acknowledging that this happens. Because if we don’t talk about it, then we might think it’s just us. We won’t recognize that it’s a syndrome.

But you’re absolutely right when you say that we’re prone to this because we invent narratives for a living. That’s what we do. So, naturally we’re going to invent a narrative about our own work. And about ourselves and about our careers and how this is going to be received. And in that narrative we’re going to indulge in all of our dramatic tendencies.

The underdog wins. The bad guys lose. Somebody that doubted you all along is sitting in the audience just chewing their Oscar program, you know. And that’s wonderful. And we should feel to indulge in that because it’s a lovely fantasy, as long as we recognize that it’s a fantasy. That no movie that has ever done beautifully in the world started with a screenplay that somebody said, “This is perfect. Change nothing. You’re the best. Let’s shoot it. It’s perfect. Everything is great. Oscar. Legend for all time.”

It just doesn’t happen that way ever. So, if we can acknowledge that it’s a fantasy, then when we’re confronted by reality it won’t be so shocking.

John: Yeah. That makes complete sense, just emotionally and internally I’m trying to figure out how I would talk myself through that process and talk somebody else through that process, because you want somebody simultaneously to be completely passionate and engaged and they have fallen in love. It’s honestly a really good analogy for it is you had somebody wonderful and you are so excited to go out on that first date. Maybe like you met somebody on Match.com and you traded emails. And like, wow, this is going to be perfect — we click so well. Maybe you even talked on the phone.

But then you get into that sort of actual first date and it’s not what you think. And you had built this whole narrative about sort of like who he is and how it’s all going to fit. And then it’s just not that. And then you start to doubt, here’s what I think it is: is that you start to doubt that person, you start to doubt yourself, you start to question how did this narrative even come to be. And you sort of destroy everything rather than sort of acknowledging what was possible there.

Craig: Absolutely. And I think that the only solution to that, the only preventative is something that Dennis Palumbo talked about and that’s allowing yourself to indulge in the warmth and comfort of a fantasy without assigning real life meaning to it.

So, if you’ve discovered it’s a fantasy, that doesn’t mean that you’re a delusional idiot who knows nothing. It just means that you’re a human being that indulged in a very comforting fantasy. Similarly, if somebody who you in your mind fantasized would accept you and love you completely is in fact not doing that, but instead is providing conditional affection and criticism, that doesn’t mean they’re no good. They may be the best thing for you.

We just have to allow ourselves to do it but know what we’re doing. Toxic Perfection Syndrome is toxic if you don’t know that you’re fantasizing and you think, in fact, you’re predicting.

John: Yeah. I absolutely agree. Now, Craig, have you ever tried the opposite where you assume that it’s going to be terrible and that everything is going to go horribly, horribly wrong? I can’t sort of name the project, but there was one in which I was like well this is going to be just a disaster. This is not going to work well. This is doomed. I’m only doing this because I have to do this.

And weirdly, of course, it works out great. That may just be luck. But in a weird way it was sort of — I think by giving myself an emotional protection I never got my hopes up too high and I was probably a little bit more realistic with sort of what this situation was.

Many of the times rewrites are kind of that case, where I’m going in and I know like I’m not going to get this to an A. I’m going to try to get this to a B, because there’s not a way to get to an A. Emotionally that’s an easier thing for me to deal with.

Craig: Yeah. There obviously are some projects where you don’t have as much emotionally invested because you are coming along and helping to sweep up, mop up, finish the game, whatever analogy you wish. I will routinely while writing things think to myself, “Well, this is a disaster. I mean, I do this all the time.” Usually, though, by the time I get to the end I’m happy.

And I’ve tried to play the game of let’s do the bad fantasy, let’s fantasize the loss. But I usually stop because I realize I can’t — I’m not doing it well enough. This doesn’t match what actual bad news feels like. Bad news feels so much worse than this.

John: Yeah. Bad news feels like melting through the floor.

Craig: It does. It does.

John: It’s the worst.

Craig: You just feel — you feel like the inside of you is being flushed with something cold and dead.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s really — and that’s how you know, by the way. That’s how you know that you are a real writer. If you feel that terrible feeling, ugh.

John: Yeah, it’s a sense of like loss and no one died, but just like all this time that I put into this thing, it’s just like evaporating right before you and you see sort of no end to it.

When I described after seeing the first cut of Go, and I remember praying like maybe we will just never release it because it’s that bad. That’s what it can be. Sometimes it’s just like a phone call you get. It’s like, well, that was just awful.

I was coming into the office yesterday and I saw this look. Stuart had just hung up on the phone and I saw the look on his face. I’m like, oh no, something terrible has happened. And it was. He had just gotten a piece of bad news. And it’s just a physical, visible thing.

Craig: Yeah. And we have to acknowledge that. You know, when we get this bad news and we feel this, that it’s not precious to feel these things. It’s totally normal and it’s nasty. Nasty to feel these things. But, in a weird way once you kind of let yourself feel it, it gets a little bit better.

John: It does. And the other thing I basically said in Episode 99 with Dennis Palumbo is when you feel yourself getting these really strong emotions, I find it very useful just to turn on the record and see the little red light on the edge of your vision and just actually experience what it feels like. Because you are a writer and you’re going to be writing character’s with strong emotions. So, feel what it feels like to feel this emotion. And what does your body feel like? What does the world feel like? What are the words you would use to describe how you are feeling?

Craig: Right.

John: Because there’s going to be situations where you’re writing characters feeling this thing and you’ve got to have a memory of what that is like.

Craig: Absolutely. Or, alternatively, [sings] “Turn it off like a light switch.”

John: Just push it way, way down and never let anybody see it. That’s another really good solution.

Craig: Form it into a small tumor.

John: Let’s talk about the Oscar Speech in the Shower. I’ve totally been guilty of that.

Craig: Every writer has done this.

John: Oh, it’s so pernicious. When I’m not fantasizing about like my Oscar speech, and basically the order in which I’ll thank people, and I’ll be classy about it.

Craig: Wow. I love it.

John: Because you’ve got to be classy. How am I going to get done with my Oscar speech before they start playing the strings.

Craig: Right.

John: It’s tough. It’s really a challenge. And do you do the Soderbergh where you don’t even really acknowledge the film. You’re really trying to give a message to the world about creativity and writing? Or are you thanking your mom? Who are you thanking?

Craig: Right? Are you going to do the thank thing? I mean, after all, everyone thanks somebody. I mean, maybe I should do something different. Should I not thank people? I mean, but it’s so funny because the concern about, okay, I got to get this speech done before the time is such a writerly thing. I guarantee you no actor ever thinks about that. Ever.

John: No, exactly. They’re thinking is the camera on me? The camera is on me? Great. Everyone is paying attention to me? Awesome.

Craig: The actor is like what should my face be like? Should I be like bewildered by all the love? Like should I do the Sally Field bewilderment? Should I do graceful, calm appreciation? Should I act like I’ve been there before, or should I just let all of my emotions pour out?

Meanwhile, we’re like, all right, I need — I have 45 seconds. If I speak at a rate of four words per second…classic.

Yes, we all do it. We all do it. It doesn’t make you dumb to do that.

John: Yeah, it’s dumb. And you’re wasting a lot of water because you’re in the shower and the water is running.

Craig: But you’re dumb. But you’re not dumb. You’re sweet and human for doing it. And, you know, we are in a drought, it’s true. That is true. You could always reduce the flow of water while you do your Oscar speech –

John: Sure. A good time to write an Oscar speech, or fantasize about your Oscar speech might be like when you’re on the treadmill or you’re doing some other exercise that’s just incredibly boring.

Craig: Right.

John: Do it while you’re there. Because then at least you’re like you’re burning calories and you’re planning your Oscar acceptance speech.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. But I can’t imagine any screenwriter has avoided this.

John: So, when I’m not planning my Oscar speech, the other thing I found myself doing way too much of is figuring out like if Beyoncé were to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, how she should do it?

Because it’s really, the National Anthem as we’ve talked about before, is a challenging song to sing.

Craig: Yes.

John: My latest theory is that you are asked to do it, so you’re Beyoncé, and you’re asked to do it. So, it’s really advice for one listener if Beyoncé listens to the podcast.

Craig: Obvs…

John: If you are Beyoncé and you’re going to do it, I think you actually start with America the Beautiful and then from “Sea to shining sea” you hold the Sea into “Oh beautiful.”

So, that first part can be — you can get some big energy out America the Beautiful and then segue that into –

Craig: Oh, that’s interesting.

John: Star Spangled Banner.

Craig: Well, yeah, that could work. I mean, but what if she’s Sasha Fierce? Then it’s a whole different — we got to give her a different vibe.

John: But I think that way you could actually get a little Sasha Fierce with like, because America the Beautiful is lovely. Star Spangled Banner is actually kind of militant. It’s kind of fight. And so then she can get a little Sasha Fierce and I think she’s done the “we’re all brothers and sisters together and now it’s time for let’s fight.”

Craig: The problem with doing the National Anthem is that Whitney Houston did it the best and it’s over.

John: That’s why I think you can’t do the National Anthem like the National Anthem anymore.

Craig: Yeah, it’s done. She nailed it years ago.

John: 100 percent. She just completely — that’s the best you can do.

Craig: You can’t do better.

John: Nope. Done. While we’re making sure that things are the best they can possibly be, the WGA, Craig. So, what does the WGA need to focus on in 2014?

Craig: Yeah, so we’ve got a new board, which is a little bit of meet the new boss/same as the old boss. I mean, mostly incumbents. We picked up a couple of new guys. Jonathan Fernandez, who is terrific. Shawn Ryan, who while he’s new to the board is not new to leadership. He was very active in negotiations for a number of years now.

So, I’m just thinking, well, okay, this is all great. And every time we have an election people talk about the same stuff. Read the book, I’m like here we go.

John: Here we go.

Craig: Here comes the list of all the things that are going to change suddenly when we elect these people and they never do. Ever. And I’ve started to ask this question in a fatalistic sort of way, but also in a realistic sort of way. What the hell can the WGA actually do different or better than it currently does? Because the answer may be nothing, which is a little bit of a bummer because it doesn’t function brilliantly right now, but I’ve been wracking my brain and, I mean, look, ideally enforcement, but they don’t seem to have the capacity for it. And the nature of our rules are such that they’re difficult to enforce.

John: I would say there are two things that I would love the WGA to focus on in this next round. And weirdly they are sort of two internal things and the two things that are so unique to us as an organization as opposed to any other unit. First off, we are the only union that is — we are actually hiring ourselves a lot. And so we’re one of the few unions where this showrunner is hiring these writers, and these writers are working for this showrunner. That’s a unique situation. And I think we have to have a closer look at sort of what that relationship is.

And sometimes the hiring practices that they encounter, both in terms of diversity of representation but also the way we paper team writers. It really comes back to how are we employing ourselves. How are we hiring our fellow writers in television. That feels like something that we need to take a look at.

And it’s not a going to be a comfortable thing to look at because if you are a showrunner, you’d love to have a bunch of teams of writers, but you have to make sure you’re actually treating them well, and you’re treating them fairly.

Craig: Yeah.

John: My second bit is also really about teams. You don’t hire acting teams. You don’t hire directing teams. You can hire directing teams, I guess, but it’s really rare. But you hire writing teams all the time, writing partners all the time. And it’s how you deal with them in features and how you deal with them in television. There needs to be a little bit more parity because right now when you hire a writing team for your show, you pay one salary, but you get two bodies. And how you are able to use those bodies is sometimes challenging. Even two brains, and sometimes you’re not supposed to separate them, but you send one person to set and you keep one person in the room, or send people to different rooms to break stories. That feels crazy. And I don’t think we should be doing that.

Craig: Yeah, you know, yes. Those are all true things and I hope they change. If I had like an overall complaint, like a very generic, generalized complaint about writers, it’s that when we are en masse we tend to be very brave. And when we are individual we tend to be very cowardly.

John: I agree.

Craig: And I don’t like that. And I think you see that where we’ll have showrunners band together and make a big deal of it during strikes, but then individually they just turn a blind eye to all this stuff, which is not cool. Things like paper teaming is just really bad.

John: So, for people who don’t know what paper teaming is, paper teaming is: oh, here are these two writers I want to hire; I’m going to tell them that they are now a writing team and we’re going to basically pay one salary to hire two of them.

Craig: Right. So, you should be paying two people a full salary. Instead you just said, “Hey, you guys are both going to be working like individuals, but I’m going to call you a team just for the hell of it so I can pay each of you half of what I’m supposed to.” And that’s just wrong and we should be fighting that like crazy. And we should call in every single showrunner we have and just say, “Explain yourself. Explain yourself if you are allowing this to happen on your show.”

John: So, it’s not that there needs to be rules against paper teaming and those rules got disbanded, it’s like there were changes in practices and the union was not able to step in and sort of acknowledge that this has changed and it’s not acceptable. This is costing our members.

Craig: That’s right. So, what you have is a situation where every year there’s an election and people say, “Here’s what’s wrong with the guild and here’s how we’re going to change it.” And every year I think to myself, forget what you’re going to do to make the union better. How do you stop the erosion? It’s just been a general, slow erosion and I don’t know if it’s just that there’s nothing sexy about saying, “I have no ideas how to make this union better. I just want to keep it as it is right now and not have it be any worse.” Maybe that’s not a very sexy way to win an election.

It’s dispiriting. And I don’t have the answer. I don’t. I don’t know what to say to the WGA to say here’s how you’re going to make a bright new future for writers. I mean, other than digging in, you know, and holding the line here and now. I’d settle for that.

John: Yeah. Are there any examples of places where you don’t think they are holding the line?

Craig: I think there was an opportunity when they saw that culturally two steps were shifting to one step. There was an opportunity, because it wasn’t a guarantee that there would be two steps. And our contract to maybe shore up two steps for writers who were earning less than a certain amount, which I think would have been a very positive thing.

The paper teaming should have just been jumped on. That should have just been all out legal war on that one. And, frankly, tremendous pressure on the writers who were turning a blind eye to paper teaming.

So, Scott Frank’s very good movie, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is out right now. Have one of the great, I love this tag line from the poster: “People are afraid of all the wrong things.”

The WGA is afraid of all the wrong things. While we were staring into the void and whipping ourselves into a frenzy about what would happen if the network got to air another episode of The Office on your iPad, people were literally losing half of their incomes. We’re afraid of all the wrong things. So, there’s a monomaniacal focus on the companies and these big moves that they do and then just no real attention paid to what’s actually grinding people in the moment on the ground.

John: So, I have a counter example that’s really from this last negotiating committee, which was options and exclusivity.

Craig: Yes.

John: It was a thing that actually did change. That is acknowledging a new reality on the ground with respect of writers on TV shows were being held under option where they couldn’t work on any other shows for a year at a time because the TV season had changed in ways that everything was just upside down.

And so this was one of the few things we really dug our heels in on this last time. And we made some progress. So, I would have loved to have seen that same attention being paid to paper teaming and to these other things, but that’s an example of something that did change.

Craig: You’re right. That’s an example of something that changed. And it also indicates the kinds of changes that I think the guild probably — if I’m going to anything sort of hopeful or constructive here, I think the guild should be focusing on what I would call quality of life issues for writers.

John: Agreed.

Craig: And focusing less on how to combat multinational corporations and internet neutrality and consolidation, vertical integration. Get off of it. We can’t stop any of that. It’s just a waste of time. It’s a huge waste of time. And every day while they’re wasting their time on that nonsense or trying to litigate old battles of old dead things, what they should be doing is addressing quality of life issues for writers because it’s hard enough to get jobs. Then you get them and then suddenly there’s this new world of pain you’re in. That’s what they should be concentrating on.

And that’s a good example of one.

John: Yeah. And so I would list the situation for writer teams to be a similar kind of quality of life thing, because it’s made it incredibly difficult for writing teams to even stay together, or just to make a living writing for TV shows.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, you just have to be careful to not put a rule in that makes it even harder for them to get a job at all.

John: Absolutely. That’s one of those challenging situations where — but the fact is true I think for all union situations, isn’t it Craig though? Where the rule that could ultimately help the writers as a whole could hurt some individuals? And that’s just the nature of trying to do stuff union wide, is that you’re not always going to make the thing that’s best for this individual, but it may be best for the overall class of people trying to do this thing.

Craig: Well, yeah. And now what you have to be careful of is let’s say you said, all right, we pay a writer X. And we currently pay the two members of a writing team X divided two. Well, the new rule is we’re actually going to be paying a single writer X, and we’re going to be paying a team 1.5X.

Well, I could easily see people going, let’s just avoid hiring teams. Let’s just hire individual writers instead. The actual hiring wouldn’t change. It’s just that people in teams would suddenly be disadvantaged. And be disadvantaged by the very thing that was supposed to help them.

You know, that’s where you’ve got to be careful. And, look, we could certainly start with the paper teaming. Like that’s just so to me a quality of life issue that’s just got to stop.

John: The Directors Guild, who often frustrate me, and people who are genuinely writing teams get frustrated by the Directors Guild because Directors Guild does not want two directors on a project partly because they’re I think nervous of sort of this kind of situation happening, where two people are being forced to sort of share one job and to share one salary.

And so paper teaming doesn’t happen in the director’s chair because the DGA is very, very strongly opposed to it.

Craig: Yes. That’s correct. And they don’t like teams for a whole bunch of reasons. Maybe the prime one is that they feel that the single director is the thing that gives them this certain authorial respect. And they’re right. I mean, the singularity of the director does solve a lot of problems for people that are reporting on who made a movie.

But the Directors Guild has, to me, always been better about worrying entirely about quality of life issues for their membership. They are entirely about that. And the guild is not. The guild is entirely about some sort of political stance against corporations. As far as I can tell, that’s their focus.

So, for instance, if you direct a movie under a DGA contract, as I did, you are visited twice on set by a DGA representative who has a pretty involved discussion with you. And make sure that they’re following the rules and ask questions. And then stands and watches for awhile. Nobody come to you in the middle of a production and says, “Let’s go down and see how you’ve been…”

What they do is they call you after it’s over and say, “Hey, how were you treated?” Does it matter how I was treated? You know? Shouldn’t it matter how I’m being treated now? We don’t have that. We don’t do it. We’re just too oriented to a once every three years battle with the AMPTP. We’re too angry at these companies to spend time doing this other stuff. Yup. Yup.

John: Yup. Let’s get on to our One Cool Things.

Craig: Great.

John: Craig, what is yours?

Craig: So, John, begun the drone deliveries have.

John: Ah, I’m so excited about drones.

Craig: I know. So, they’ve been talking, it just seemed like the most ridiculously thing. I didn’t believe it would ever happen, but it’s happening. So, there’d been talk that Amazon was going to try and basically create a drone army of little mini helicopters that would deliver packages to you, because the Holy Grail for Amazon is to skirt around UPS and the US Post Office and FedEx.

Well, DHL, which we’re all familiar with, it’s a big international shipping company, they’ve begun this in a very, very small way. There’s this little island called Juist that’s off of the north shore of Germany. And they’re only accessible by a ferry. And so DHL has created a system of little helicopter drone things that now daily carry packages between the mainland and Juist.

And it’s automated. It’s an automated flight. And it lands in a designated spot where a guy that works for DHL put them all, all the packages on a truck and drives them around and delivers them.

I do think that this makes sense. That we’re actually going to live in a world where there is preserved air space for drone traffic and we’re just going to get stuff delivered to us by drones.

John: See, I think that this example where it’s landing in one place, that it’s a hub and spoke system makes a lot of sense. I think the drone coming to the house is going to be problematic. Just, I’m looking at my house, and we have a backyard, but it’s going to just be weird and uncomfortable. And so your two-year-old runs out there and starts attacking the drone. It just — there’s so many variables that I worry that in actual normal residential life it will be problematic.

Craig: I think they’re going to figure it out.

John: All right.

Craig: I do.

John: I don’t doubt the future. I just think the future is going to probably look a little different than what this is right now.

Craig: I don’t know. But I just like the idea of just streaming done traffic constantly above us, bringing us our stuff.

John: So, your drone could deliver my One Cool Thing. So, two or three weeks ago on the show you mentioned that you had a new razor that you love that has 19 blades and is, of course, great.

Craig: Swivel Thingy.

John: Swivel Thingy. And so sort of follow up to that, that same week I got this thing called Blade Buddy. And I heard about similar kinds of things and this one was well reviewed, so I tried it. It’s a $20 thing you get and it’s basically sort of like how you have a sharpening skill for like a fancy kitchen knife. So, just take the edge and the curl off of a blade, so it’s not like wet stone that’s taking the edge off. This thing is for sharpening normal Gillette kind of razor blades.

And so what you do, it’s this sort of rubberized little stand thing and you brush the blade against it 20 times. Takes like ten seconds. And it just takes the dents off the blade. And so you can use one blade quite a lot longer than you normally could.

Craig: And it works on multiple blades, like the kind you use?

John: Yes, it works great.

Craig: Buy now with one click. And done.

John: And done. But here’s the thing: I do find that the new razor blades are really good and they do make shaving delightful and comfortable. But they’re so crazy expensive.

Craig: They’re ridiculously expensive.

John: You can get, I mean, if you can double the life of one of those blade heads, that’s money very well spent.

Craig: Yeah, this sounds awesome.

John: So, anyway, you will try it out and maybe next week you’ll let us know how it is.

Craig: Great. Done.

John: And that’s our show. So, as always our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. Is edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you like the show and want to subscribe to it, just go to iTunes and click subscribe and leave a comment there. But if you’d like to subscribe to the premium feed, which has all the back episodes and bonus content, you go to scriptnotes.net and click on the little banner thing. And it says Premium Stuff. And then you put in your information and then you can listen to us on the apps for the iPhone and for Android.

Craig: How much does that cost again?

John: $1.99 a month.

Craig: I mean, it’s insulting now if you don’t do it. And you know our pledge. What’s our pledge, John?

John: We are a money-losing podcast.

Craig: We will always be a money-losing podcast.

John: We will always be a money-losing podcast.

Craig: Don’t you worry.

John: If you have a question for Craig Mazin you should tweet at him, @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust on Twitter. Longer questions go to ask@johnaugust.com

johnaugust.com. is also where you’ll find the show notes for today’s episode, so things about the drone helicopters and science fiction lists and Adam Sandler. It’s also a place where you can click to find tickets for the Slate Live Culture Gabfest which is tomorrow. And maybe we’ll even find something about why you should get a flu shot, because you should get a flu shot.

Craig: Yeah, get the flu shot.

John: Get the flu shot. Come on. That’s our show. Craig, thank you.

Craig: Good show. Thank you, John. See you next time.

John: See you next time.

Links:

Pages