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Updated: 4 min 48 sec ago

Scriptnotes, Ep 154: Making Things Better by Making Things Worse — Transcript

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:25

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

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

How are you, Craig?

Craig: Um, I’m doing spectacularly well.

John: Good. You and I are both taking trips to go off and write projects, and so we’re recording this a week ahead of its launch. So, by the time this episode comes out, everything in Hollywood might have changed.

Craig: That’s right. But I feel like that’s the case normally. I mean, anytime we do a podcast there’s always at least a day or two.

John: Just a flag.

Craig: Everything can… — I mean, you know at some point we’re going to do a podcast and the world will end.

John: Mm-hmm. But the question is, if the world ends will Stuart still be around to push the little button that makes the podcast go up on the Internet?

Craig: Again, this is not scientific, but I’m going to say yes.

John: So, if a podcast goes out in the world and there’s no one to hear it, was it ever really podcasted?

Craig: Well, somebody will be out there. I do see Stuart covered in radiation burns, slowly crawling over the course of 24 hours, to finally push the button with a finger that is more bone than flesh. And then dying with a smile on his face. “I did my duty!”

John: It really is an inspiring moment. It’s sort of like The Postman, that sort of post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner delivering mail.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Except it’s Stuart Friedel, so it’s automatically 10% better.

Craig: That’s right. Everything is 10% better with Stuart.

John: Well, today on the podcast we’re going to talk about making things worse, and how making things worse for your characters is honestly the best way to get your story working in many cases.

We’re also going to talk about what I call the organization of narrative information, which is sort of how you structure your story so that people know the things they need to know when they need to know them. So, that’s our podcast today.

But first we need to tell people about Austin. So, you and I are both going back to the Austin Film Festival this year.

Craig: Going back.

John: We had a very fun time last year. We will have a fun time this year. We are going to do a live Scriptnotes show there with an audience and questions and things.

Craig: Yeah.

John: We might do a live Three Page Challenge. There will be other fun things. There will be drinking. So, it’ll be a good, fun time.

Craig: Will there be a dunking booth?

John: I have never seen a dunking booth, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a dunking booth.

Craig: Well, I’ll hold out hope.

John: Yes. There’s always hope.

So, Austin Film Festival this year is October 23 through the 26. If you register for it and you use the promo code Scriptnotes, all one word — Scriptnotes — they’ll give you $25 off your conference and producer’s badge. So, there’s a limited number of those Scriptnotes little special pass things, so if you know you’re going and you want to use that promo code, absolutely, why not use it? $25 saved.

Craig: That’s great. It’s getting a little, I mean, not only do we not ask you people for money. Now we’re just trying to give you money.

John: We’re basically just giving things away.

Craig: We’re just giving you money now. What is it — what do we got to do?

John: I don’t know what we’ve got to do. I think we need a stronger business sense or something.

Craig: Something. I mean, we’re not getting it from Stuart, that’s for sure.

John: Well, in many ways we are a classic startup though. We’re trying to get big and then we will figure out monetization later on.

Craig: Step one, start podcast. Step two, question mark. Step three, profit.

John: So, I will say in the monetization front, since we’ve ended this little side bar topic here, we make a little bit of money on the show. And how we make money is some people subscribe to the premium channel through scriptnotes.net. That gets you all the back episodes and occasional bonus content. That’s $2 a month and so once we split that with Libsyn who hosts us, it’s about $1 a month for each person who subscribes to that. And it’s not honestly a lot, but it helps pay for the transcripts, so we do transcripts for every episode. And it pays for Matthew who cuts things.

It doesn’t really pay for Stuart, but Stuart would be part of this enterprise anyway because Stuart is Stuart, he’s my assistant. So, it is useful. So, if you do want to support us in that way, we do really appreciate that, so that’s good.

Craig: When you say we make money, you mean we gross money. We have revenue but we don’t we actually profit.

John: Exactly. So, there’s money coming in the door to do that. Sometimes it works out enough money to actually pay for things. But, eh.

Craig: Cause you know it’s a big point of pride for me that this will always be a money-losing operation.

John: It will always be a money-losing podcast. Trust us on that.

Craig: Yes. We will never — we promise our shareholders that they will never, ever see a profit.

John: But I have asked Craig, like Craig used to have to write a check every once and awhile, because hosting was costing us so much. But we’ve taken care of those things, so we’ve made some smart business choices. But we’re sort of like one of those non-profits, like where you’re just trying to balance the books.

Craig: We’re like a church.

John: We’re like a church.

Craig: We’re like a church. And, John, you’re like our Jesus.

John: Thank you! And you are like the angry — are you the St. Augustine? Like are you the, who are you?

Craig: Oh, I like that. Yeah, I can see that. Actually, that does make sense. St. Augustine, I just wander off into the desert, super angry and shaking my fist. Although you could also suggest that perhaps I’m John and I’m having just whacked out schizophrenic hallucinations about hell and the beast and all the rest. That’s probably what I am.

Was that John in Revelations? I think it was, yeah.

John: Yeah, I think it was. Hmm, I’m not good at remembering Revelations. But I think it’s interesting that you picked both John and Augustine which would both be really good choices for me.

Craig: Wait a second. I think we, honestly, we just wrote the sequel to Angels and Demons. What was that — is it Dan Brown?

John: Dan Brown. Yeah, Dan Brown is listening to this podcast right now and he’s taking notes.

Craig: Somewhere Dan Brown is like that is a story I want to write with a lot of adverbs.

John: So, let’s give Dan Brown some helpful thoughts about creating a good movie narrative, because really essentially what he’s writing is books that will become movies starring Tom Hanks. So, let’s give him some help here.

Craig: Okay.

John: You’re going off to write your movie, I’m going off to write my movie. And so I’ve been working through some stuff on my movie this week and it was stuff we haven’t really talked about on the show. The movie I’m writing is a two-hander. And I should define a two-hander for people who don’t work in our weird little business.

A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story. So, romantic comedies are generally two-handers, but really it applies to a lot of other kinds of movies, too. Lethal Weapon is a two-hander. The Sixth Sense is a two-hander. Identity Thief is a two-hander.

Craig: Yeah, you’ll see two-handers typically in the buddy cop genre, road trips, if you do a story that’s like a father/son kind of story, or you mentioned one that was also very common, like you see it all the time. There are certain genres that lend themselves to being two-handers, and others that don’t.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Which is this one of yours? Can you say?

John: This is a drama I’ll see. A drama or a thriller. And thriller two-handers sometimes happens. Like The Bourne Identity is a single hero and that’s very common in thrillers, but there’s two-handers in thrillers you see pretty often as well.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, in a two-hander, generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals. And the work I’ve been doing this week has been each of these characters in my story has his or her own individual goal, and it’s been figuring out sort of which of those goals we sort of publicly state first and we sort of let them get started on achieving their thing.

Craig: Right.

John: I describe it honestly like a fuse. So, basically once a character has explicitly stated the thing they’re going off to try to do, you’re sort of lighting that fuse for that character. And then if you go off and do something else with the other character, or have to use your character to do something else to the other character’s plot line, you’re like, but wait, that fuse is already burning. Why are we doing this — you already said you’re going to do this. I want to see them do their thing.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: So, what I was juggling, it’s just sort of at the index card stage, or I’m just doing a little outline in WorkFlowy right now. It was figuring out which character’s storyline was really going to get precedence at the beginning of the story so we could basically get one of their things really going before I dealt with the other character explicitly stating what he was after.

Craig: Right. And sometimes that comes down to examining what is essential to the plot of your story. That will often give you a clue. One person’s story is more interconnected to the plot. They’re the ones that have to begin the adventure and then perhaps another person joins them.

So, for instance, you mention Sixth Sense. It begins with Bruce Willis. So, his want becomes — it lights the fuse in a sense.

John: But take a look at some of our movies. Like let’s take Stolen Identity right there.

Craig: Right. Identity Thiefy.

John: Identity Thiefy. So, we have to know that Bateman is going after Melissa McCarthy first. And he has to go on the road to get to her and actually has to find her before we should know anything about her agenda. Because if you had stopped and given us all sorts of her deal and her life we’d be like, wait, no, no, no, he’s not even met her yet. So, you had to start the story getting it from his side.

Craig: Yeah. And that was something that we ran around and around on. And where we ended up wasn’t exactly what I would have preferred, at least in the beginning, because I knew I wanted to see a hint of her in the beginning. I wanted to essentially show kind of a force of nature out there. And then indicate that she had stolen, she was using somebody else’s identity. And then I wanted to meet that person. And at that point I was happy to just stay with him.

And stay with him all the way through until he goes to find her. You know, in the battles that are fought sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

John: But I would say there’s a difference between meeting a character and like knowing who the character is and having them articulate that thing that is that they’re going for. And in Identity Thiefy, you pushed back her real — you pushed back her danger and sort of what’s at stake in her life until they’re actually together.

Craig: That’s right. Exactly.

John: So, she’s not in danger until they’re together, which I think is a crucial.

Craig: That’s right. Yeah.

John: A similar dynamic happens in Romancing the Stone. So, Kathleen Turner is going down to find her sister I believe who’s missing somewhere in South America. And we do not know that much about Michael Douglas until they meet and until they are together, because if we had done a lot of cross cutting between the two of them it would have really hurt her motivation for getting down there. It would have sort spoiled her perspective on getting down there.

Craig: And this is something that you’ll see all the time in romantic comedies, even though they are movies about relationships, one person has a crisis that pushes them out of their loveless comfort zone and into some kind of arrangement that they have to navigate with another human being, whether it’s While You Were Sleeping, She sits in the toll booth, or the ticket booth at a train station, somebody gets pushed in front of a train. She has to act.

And in Shrek, you know, the kingdom confiscates his beloved swamp. And he has to act. And then they meet these people and, so you’re right, and that’s why you look at the plot — unless, if you don’t know what the plot is, you just know what a relationship is, then it’s kind of wide open. But typically you’ll have some sense of what the hook of the movie is.

John: And so the movies I was talking about are really two-handers where it’s like Character A/Character B and you just have to pick which one you’re going to sort of go with first. But it can also happen in more complicated movies. So, Go, as an example, there’s three basic plotlines, there are three sort of protagonist plotlines. You have Ronna who is trying to make this very tiny drug deal. You have Simon who is trying to get laid in Vegas, and you have Adam and Zack sort of as a group character who are trying to get through their situation with Burke.

And when I wrote that first section with just Ronna and sort of her trying to pull off this tiny drug deal, it was nice and tight and clean because it was very clear like this scene led to this scene led to this scene led to this scene led to this scene. There’s a good sense of consequence of each person’s actions.

When I went back to make the full version of the movie, one of my first decisions was, well, am I going to just try to intercut these scenes between the different plotlines, and I recognized it just wasn’t going to work at all, because once I had started the fuse of Ronna trying to make this drug deal, anything that wasn’t about that was going to not work. And I was going to hurt all of the other storylines by trying to interweave them.

So, being able to keep those storylines separate and let them each be their own chapter let each of those stories actually be the best version of that story.

Craig: Yeah. It’s very hard to do a true, I don’t know how you would describe the kind of Altman or Tarantino approach, or Paul Thomas Anderson does it as well, where it’s almost, I guess it’s like an anthology where you’re following different stories that have similar weights to them and you’re moving in between them.

John: But I think Tarantino is actually a good counter example, though, because if you look at sort of — Tarantino does tend to clump all of those plotlines together. So, like everything that’s going to be about this one character and what they’re doing here is going to stay together as one chunk, rather than cutting back and forth between a lot of different perspectives on something.

Craig: Yeah. Yes. That is true. I mean, they all tend to turn around a story. But I’m thinking of for instance in Kill Bill Volume 1 when you take a break from the narrative of the movie that’s clearly being driven by The Bride and her desire for revenge, and you watch an animated presentation of the history, the origin of O-Ren Ishii.

John: Yes.

Craig: Which is fascinating. It doesn’t really impact what happens in the main narrative, but it is its own side narrative that’s amazing. And it’s a tough thing to pull off. It’s a style choice, but in this case I think when you look at Tarantino’s stuff you’ll see, well, all the side stories actually have very high stakes to them. They are often all about violence, and love, and these deep passions.

If you have a story like that in your framework, and the other ones are just not quite as commanding or as urgent, then yes, the audience will get fussy.

John: They will get fussy. And, again, I have not watched Kill Bill Volume 1 for years, but my recollection is we stay with Bride’s story for a period of time and obviously her journey of revenge is going to take over two movies to get to, so we don’t have the expectation that we’re going to get through all the way to her revenge before we see any of these other stories. But you have to take her a certain distance.

I’m trying to remember what her first obstacle is. I mean, at times she has to get out of the hospital, or she has to get one thing done. And so as long as we sort of know that she was going after one thing, and she got to that one thing, then we’re sort of fine with like, okay, she was trying to do this one thing, she accomplished that one thing, now we can move on, or at least we got her to a place where we understand where she’s at. It’s when you leave something as dot-dot-dot, as a frustrating dot-dot-dot that it gets to be frustrating for the reader, for the viewer.

Craig: Yeah. If you’re going to distract us from a story that you’ve asked us to care about, and that story has elements that demand our concern, if you want to distract us from that, go for it, but you then need to also give us something that will be equally as demanding of our attention and concern. Or we will get fussy.

John: Absolutely. So, when we had Aline on the show two weeks ago we talked through tone which I loved that conversation and it was really great that we talked about that topic. And it got me thinking about sort of the questions we ask about a movie. And those sort of fundamental questions are really the same questions that they taught us in journalism class. And I’m sure you know the fundamental questions you’re supposed to have in a news story. Do you remember what those were?

Craig: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?

John: Exactly. So, the 5 Ws and 1 H. And those are the thing they teach in every Journalism 1 class and that every news story is supposed to be able to quickly answer those questions so that you could theoretically lop off the news story at any given paragraph and it would still make sense.

I looked it up on Wikipedia and it turns out those questions are actually much, much older. And so it was the rhetor Hermagoras of Temnos who came up with Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis, which is who, what, when, where, why, in what way, and by what means. And so our conversation with Aline about tone I think was really those two halves, the in what way and by what means. It’s not what’s happening but what does it feel like? What is the sense of it?

And I think the conversation we’re having right now is really the when question.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: Structure is really about when things happen and when you reveal certain information. And I get frustrated by screenwriting textbooks because they always talk about structure as when in the sense of like on this page you’re supposed to do this, and on this page you’re supposed to do this, and hitting these page counts, when really it’s so much more subtle than that. It’s when are you giving a piece of information to the audience so that they have — it’s how are you dolling out the information to the audience to get the best sense of what your story is.

Craig: I agree. The endless frustration with the screenwriting textbooks and the prima facie evidence that the people who write them aren’t really practitioners of the craft is that they typically make the mistake of thinking that plot is just about what, and what goes where when, I guess. As if these positions in linear time were there because they’re supposed to be there, because, it’s just a tautological way of thinking about structure.

Things that happened, the whats and the whens are connected to the why, I think. Everything is a choice. Yes, you can certainly see the patterns. Pulling patterns out of movies and saying, “Well, it does seem like typically the hero experiences a low point at the end of whatever we think of as Act 2.” Absolutely. Well noticed.

Here’s another observation: it does certainly appear that as we progress into the summer months that the day grows younger. Neither of those statements, the first statement about screenplays won’t help you write a screenplay. The second statement about the lengthening of days will not help you create a universe.

John: Nope.

Craig: It is just an observation. But why? Why? Why?

John: Yeah. When we had the episode about tone, which I thought was a great conversation, there were a couple tweets and a couple of questions that came into the account saying like, “Well how do I get better at tone?” And I was like that’s fundamentally a silly question. But you hear the same thing all the time about how do I get better at structure or how do I get better at character. And people try to answer these questions individually. And I think what I’d like to stress is the answer to all those questions is so deeply interconnected.

So, let’s take a look at those questions. Who. Who are the characters? Well, those characters are the people who are determining the what. They’re determining the plot. They’re determining what is actually going to happen in the course of your story. They’re usually affected by the where, by the locations that you’ve chosen, by the world in which your story is set.

Craig: Right.

John: The world in which your story is set, if it’s a revenge story set in Westeros versus a revenge story set on Wall Street, those are very different kinds of stories that affects the how in many ways. It affects whether you’re dealing with swords or some sort of stock selling revenge to get back at somebody, some sort of Trading Places kind of revenge.

Craig: Yeah. They’re also defined by the when.

John: Yes.

Craig: When do we meet them? What just happened to them? Why are we meeting them now?

John: Yes. Why did the movie decide to start right at this moment versus three days ago or 30 years later? And those are fundamental questions that are all interconnected. You can’t be good at one of those. You can’t say like, and you will hear people talk about like, “Oh, she’s really good at character stuff, but plot is not her strong point.”

Craig: Uh-huh. [laughs]

John: Or you’ll more hear about this about sort of beginning screenwriter people, but like, “I just need somebody who is good at structure. I’m really good at story, I’m just not really good at structure.” Well, that’s fundamentally a deep component of it.

Craig: Oh yeah. My favorite is, “He writes great dialogue, but the characters and the story…” Well what is the dialogue, what would be the purpose of that? That’s like a painter just throwing paint into the air. What?

No, this is what we do. No one has ever said to a sculptor, “Well, you know, what you’re really good at is curves. Not so good at the straight lines.” Nobody cares.

John: No. Now, is it absolutely — to me it’s absolutely true that you can read a script and say, “These are some aspects that were not working. And they weren’t working because of… I feel like you have the possibility of a good story here. But these are the things that are getting in the way.”

And then you might talk about some of the character issues that are getting in the way. You might talk about, “I think you’re setting this in a really boring location that’s not giving you the best potential.” But you can’t spray on a better location and suddenly everything is going to make — it’s not going to fix all the problems.

Craig: I totally agree. And similarly, you can’t wipe off something to reveal something great underneath. I’ve heard some people say, “Listen, it’s a really god script, it’s just that the dialogue isn’t very good.” So, if you just wipe that part off and then put new dialogue on top of this very good thing, but in fact, no, because what dialogue is is an expression of tone, of what the character wants, what the character is thinking. It is an expression of the relationship between two characters or three and how it is progressing.

No, there’s no such thing. Unfortunately, this is where the books that analyze these things analyze them as everyone analyzes everything. The idea is to take something that seems complicated and break it down into constituent pieces. And talk about how those constituent pieces all exist and then must be assembled like Lego bricks into this gestalt. But in fact while that is a useful thing for a beginner to do simply to understand what is roughly going on, it is very quickly useless to you. It is as useless to you writing an actual screenplay as, oh, I don’t know, fundamental arithmetic is useless to somebody who is trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. You’re beyond that and that point. Way beyond that.

John: Yes. It’s a beginning math textbook talking about like these are the rules of how you add two numbers together, but then ignoring the actual execution of it. Basically, ignoring that you actually have to do that work, as if execution doesn’t matter. As long as you follow these simple steps and simple guideline, here is the net result.

Craig: Which is why these people make money. It’s the same, you know, how should I lose weight? Follow these steps. How should I get a boyfriend? Follow these steps. How can I get a better job? How can I win friends? How can I win influence? Follow these simple steps.

Nothing that is worth anything can be achieved through simple steps. It is the children in us that are looking for parents to give us instructions to follow. And we are all children looking for parents everywhere. In the end, however, in order to achieve anything of value you have to be your own parent and you have to be a grown up and you have to confront the messiness of it. And the messiness of screenwriting is this: the plot is the character, is the theme, is the dialogue, is the narrative, is the choices.

John: Is the location.

Craig: Is the location. The how is the what is the why is the when is the where is the how. Isn’t that awful, but that’s the way it is.

John: It’s just the worst.

Craig: It’s the worst.

John: I can’t believe you have taken something that was so simple and made it so complicated, Craig.

Craig: I’m a terrible person.

John: You’ve really been a huge disservice to screenwriters everywhere.

Craig: That’s right.

John: Because this is a thing that should be straightforward and you made it completely un-straightforward.

Craig: You know my favorite objection whenever I go on about these charlatans who take your money in exchange for nonsense, people will say, “Well, it’s easy for him to say because he works already.” Which is my favorite like, yeah, and how did that happen, through what? What, did I win a lottery or something?

And then the other one is, “He’s trying to keep us out by taking away the things that would give us the secrets that let us…” Oh, okay.

John: How dare you take their magic beans, Craig.

Craig: Yeah, there’s secrets. That’s it. It’s really just a secret. That’s like a lot of times when I’m in a restaurant I think, “I could make this food, I just need the secret.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: Just need the secret.

John: Whenever I watch one of those home improvement shows, or especially if I watch the New Yankee Workshop, it’s like I could do what Norm Abram does. I just need that table saw and those spinning spindle things, the lave. God, if I had a lave there’s no end to what I could do.

Craig: That’s why my favorite thing to watch when I was a kid was Bob Ross.

John: Oh yeah, so good. Happy Little Clouds.

Craig: Happy Little Clouds. And I have no ability to illustrate, to draw or paint. None. I can see things in my head, but my brain connecting to my hand is incapable of reproducing anything that is true in terms of painting or drawing or anything like that. I’m just terrible.

So, I watched Bob Ross and what I always was struck by was that for awhile, oh, and there was another guy, even better than Bob Ross. There was a guy named Robbins, I believe. There was a show on PBS, it was a reading show, and while somebody read a children’s story –

John: Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about, Craig.

Craig: He would illustrate it, right? You remember that guy?

John: Absolutely. Because that’s actually where I learned sort of like forced perspective. Yes.

Craig: That guy, what always blew my mind about that guy was I had no idea what he was drawing for awhile. He would start making these lines, and curves, and shades, and shapes and I would think, well, this is just a mess. It’s a mishmash of nonsense. And then suddenly in a moment the image would appear. And it was just remarkable how integrated it all was to the point where — the way he broke it down, and was able to then construct it, what made no sense from a post-analysis way, none. You would have never thought to break it out.

And, by the way, I feel it’s the same thing. Like if people saw how you built something or I built something, they would say, “Well that’s not applicable to a book for other people. And then we would say, yeah, that’s right. It’s not. Go figure your own way out.

John: Well, it’s interesting you bring up these drawing examples, because you look at Bob Ross or this other perspective guy, or, you know, that simple like paint-by-numbers kind of thing, where draw from here, to here, to hear, the simple little instructions. You know, on some level it’s good if it’s getting somebody to actually sit down and do the work. I full commend that. And if it gets somebody who may actually have an aptitude for it to get started, and try it, and sort of keep working at it, then that’s not a bad thing necessarily.

But it’s when they’re selling you on the idea that all you have to do is exactly what I’m doing and you will be able to make great art, that’s incredibly unlikely.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. I found the guy by the way, just so you know. His name is John Robbins.

John: John Robbins. Very good. We’ll have a link –

Craig: It was called Cover to Cover and the Wishful Artist. Oh, god, so cool. Anyway.

John: Well, I do remember, I think he basically had like a big white board and he would just have a little marker and he would draw little things. And there would be little creatures coming out. It was great. I loved it.

Craig: Yeah, awesome.

John: This also reminds me of the conversation we were having about the — I think it was a New Yorker critic who was writing about how screenwriting is not really writing.

Craig: Eh.

John: Eh. Because if you were to try to tell someone like, “You can write a great American novel, just follow these simple steps.” Everyone would say, well that’s crazy. You can’t be Steinbeck. You can’t be Faulkner. There’s not a way you can reduce that to a simple pattern. Yet, we want to be able to do that for screenwriting because it seems like, well, it should be that way because I’ve seen a lot of movies. You can look at a script, it doesn’t seem that complicated. How challenging could it really be?

Craig: Well, yeah, I mean, this is where unfortunately the reason that these people exist and the reason they push this nonsense is because there is still a Gold Rush mentality about screenwriting.

John: That’s true.

Craig: You know, people still think that this is — the deal is that you’re going to sell you spec, make $4 million, hobnob with movie stars, marry an actress, and live happily ever after. And, no.

John: But I think we’ve also, helping the novelist, or what keeps people from going for that novelist dream so much is we’ve romanticized the idea of writing a novel as suffering.

Craig: Right.

John: And people don’t want to suffer. People just want to get it done and then like be a success. And we don’t have the idea that screenwriting is suffering. We have the idea that screenwriting is that lottery, like it was really so easy, I sat down, two weeks later, in 21 days I wrote my script. And then I sold it and now I’m a huge success and I have a pool.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And that is the dream but that’s the image that is being put out there in the world for people who aspire to write movies. People who aspire to write novels, we’ve not given them that dream. We’ve given them the dream of misery, and heartache, and at the very best maybe you’re David Foster Wallace, but then you still kill yourself.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. It’s true that there is a certain economic benefit to screenwriting that maybe isn’t there for the vast majority of novels. Individual novels obviously will break through. But people think, well, you know, every year somebody goes and sells a thing and they make a thing. And that’s true, but then saying that you’re five times more likely to make money as a screenwriter than you are as a novelist — so?

They’re both really, really small probabilities. And the only way you’re going to succeed as a novelist or as a screenwriter is if you have some innate talent and you understand how to integrate these various things and that you… — If you start approaching this stuff in a workman like way with these books, you’ll never integrate. You’ll never understand. You won’t be honest. The material just won’t be honest and true. And, by the way, I’ve gone through it. You know, there have been times where I just felt like I’m just plotting through this. I’m painting by numbers. This isn’t honest.

And I’ve really been making an effort over the last few years to be as honest as I can, even at the risk of somebody saying, “Well, but you know, we wanted the fake thing. We didn’t want you…”

John: Or, “We expected. We expected what we expected and you didn’t give us what we expected and therefore we’re confused.”

Craig: Yeah, like cherry flavor when you’re a kid is red. It’s that red fake cherry flavor. And then occasionally you would run into somebody who is like, “No, no, no, this is made with real cherries.” And you think, ew, it’s so gross. They’re like, “No, this actually costs money and it’s far, far better.” But I wanted the fake thing. I understand that impulse, but I can’t do it anymore, so.

John: My mom was telling me that this summer in Colorado they’ve had a lot of hikers killed by lightning strikes, so there are these storms that will pick up in the mountains late in the afternoon and if you don’t get off the mountain by two in the afternoon there’s a really good chance that you’ll encounter a lightning storm. And so they’ve had several hikers killed already this summer.

I could look up the real statistics, but it’s actually entirely possible that you’re more likely to be killed by lighting than sell a spec script.

Craig: I would imagine there’s a whole rafter of things, dying of viral meningitis. I know, it just seems like there’s so many things that happen more frequently than selling a screenplay. You should write screenplays because you love writing screenplays. And not for any other reason because, you know, any energy that you slop out in expense of any other thing is wasted energy. You know, caring about breaking in and all the rest of that, you should — you could do that, I guess, when you’ve finished your writing for the day, but better to just concentrate on writing well.

John: I agree. The other topic I wanted to talk about today was making things worse. And it occurred to me because I’ve been catching up on other TV shows over the summer and as you watch one-hour dramas especially, but also half-hours, you recognize that while the one-hour form especially has gotten so good lately and so many wonderful things have happened, there’s a fundamental challenge in television is that you have to be able to create stories that can repeat themselves. You have to be able to create something that can duplicate itself, so that you can actually have multiple episodes.

And, yes, there may be an overall journey over the course of episodes, but you kind of cant burn down the house every week. You can’t make things as bad for the characters as you can in a movie.

Craig: Right.

John: And that may be actually one of the fundamental characteristics of a movie is that a movie is something that should theoretically be able to happen to these characters only once in their lives, versus a TV show which is theoretically going to be happening over the course of their lives, or over many years of their lives. So, it’s a very different nature of story.

And as I’ve read some scripts recently, I really approach them from the perspective of are the writers willing to make things as difficult as they can for their heroes, for their protagonists. And in many cases I think they’re sometimes too sympathetic to their characters.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: They don’t want their — they love their characters They don’t want them to suffer. But it’s only through making things awful for them that they’re going to actually be able to overcome the real challenges you want them to overcome.

Craig: That’s right. And it’s not necessarily true for real life. You know, it’s quite common that you grow and achieve without suffering. However, that’s not good drama. In good drama we require the suffering. We need the sacrifice. We need blood. Even if it’s all metaphorically done, if the character experiences something early in the movie or in the midpoint of the movie and is surviving and continuing forward then apparently you haven’t hit them hard enough. At some point they need to be disintegrated by you so that they can be reintegrated as something better.

And there are movies that take this to extremes. Mel Gibson tends to do those. He loves to, you know –

John: Yeah. I think it’s written in his contract he must be beaten at a certain point in each of his films. Tortured.

Craig: He must experience a Christ-like, what is the word, the — not the Passion, is it?

John: The passion play aspect of it all.

Craig: The bad experience. So, in Braveheart it’s not enough for him to be poor. It’s not enough for him to be oppressed. It’s not enough that his wife is killed. It’s not enough for him to suffer in battle. It’s not enough for him to even be betrayed by a friend. He must be tortured publicly and humiliated publicly. And sometimes, of course, those characters do die and in dying they are transformed and they succeed. But in all cases, it’s not enough to get them into a bunch of trouble and then have them work their way out of trouble. There is always, and Pixar also, masters of this.

Pixar will punch a character repeatedly, and some of them will be jabs, and some will be nice right hooks, but they’re saving the big one for the end. They’re saving it — like how much more of a beating can Rocky take? Oh, watch this. That’s what’s I think at the heart of a lot of their success is that they have no problem really hurting their heroes.

John: Well, it’s one thing to have the movie hurt the hero, so some external force hurting the hero, but it’s often much more rewarding that the hero’s own choice is a bad choice. And they’re suffering the consequences of their decisions. And that’s a thing I don’t see happening enough in many scripts is where the character has to make a choice, and that choice either by necessity is going to lead them down a darker path, or they think they have made a choice, an easy choice, that has consequences down the road.

Forcing your characters to take action, even when sometimes those actions are more dangerous or sort of more harmful than the normal thing would be.

Again, in real life, if you gave a character a choice they would probably choose to go home, or call the police, or just get out of the situation, which is a reasonable response. So, your challenge as a writer is to find ways to take away the option of those reasonable responses and force them to take bigger actions.

Craig: Right. And Shakespeare, for instance, would typically look to the characters themselves and their tragic flaw as the reason that they make the choice that perhaps you might not. And those choices would get everybody into trouble.

John: Yeah. So, in Aliens, Ripley has no desire to go back to that planet, but she reluctantly agrees. She has no desire to actually go down to the planet itself, but she reluctantly agrees. She doesn’t want to have to be in charge of anything, but she ends up having to step up and take charge of something. She ends up having a relationship with Newt. She’s trying to protect Newt and trying to just get the hell off the base.

The movie very cleverly keeps adding new escalations to things. But it’s ultimately Ripley’s choice to go after Newt that makes the end so incredibly dangerous for herself. It’s her finally sort of coming into her maternal rage that powers the last part of that movie.

The movie makes things worse for her, but she’s also making the movie worse for herself, and that’s when movies are working really well, that’s what can happen.

Craig: Yeah. I also think that there’s something wonderful that can happen as the product of a series of bad choices and bad things. Your character may make mistakes and may make bad choices and get themselves deeper and deeper into trouble. But what that sets you up for in the ending is the realization that they now know what the right thing is to do. And that thing is even harder to do than all of the other stuff they’ve been doing. And then they’re really — they’re really, that’s why endings to feel so much more final than the middle parts of things because we understand that they are now asked to do something that is because it is good for them and because it goes against the grain of who they’ve been all along. It is now the hardest and most painful choice.

John: Yes. They had the opportunity to get the thing they’ve always wanted and they’re going to have to maybe sometimes surrender that thing for what they know is the right thing.

Craig: That’s right.

John: And it can be challenging.

Craig: In fact, that’s oftentimes very clearly the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist. The antagonist will not change. They refuse to let go. They can’t, and that is their downfall. That in some ways is the purpose of stories is to entice us to be brave enough to change.

John: So, I want to take a look at some television shows because my thesis was that it doesn’t often happen in television shows because television shows have to be able to repeat themselves.

So, you look at a show like Homeland, which did you watch Homeland?

Craig: No, you know I watch two shows.

John: You watch two shows. So, Homeland is a spectacular show and it’s essentially a two-hander. There’s other characters, but the Carrie character is fantastic and the show does a brilliant job of making things as incredibly difficult for her. And in many ways does what I’m saying in terms of like continually escalating and forcing her to make choices that make things much, much worse for herself. And she’s constantly losing allies and things are melting away.

But it ultimately paints that show into a very challenging corner because you can only destroy everything a certain number of times before it just becomes kind of silly.

Craig: Right.

John: Another counter example is Game of Thrones, which you do watch, and Game of Thrones has the luxury of having so many characters that it can actually sort of make things much, much worse for a character and ultimately kill a character, or kill a lot of characters because there’s room in that world to keep killing characters.

Craig: Well, I will say, answer this question for me about Homeland. Do you think in watching Homeland that the people who created it and currently make it, do you think that they conceive of it as something that will go on as long as it can go on? Or is there a story that they have with an absolute ending and when they get to that ending they’re going to say, “We’re not making Homeland anymore, no matter what our ratings are.”

John: I assumed that was going to be the end of season two. And I have not watched season three. So, there is a plan to continue into now season four, but they’ve made some fundamental character changes. I don’t know what those are ultimately going to be.

Craig: Because I look at Game of Thrones which has an endpoint. It’s moving towards an end. Breaking Bad is an even better example because it’s shorter, so there are five seasons of Breaking Bad, I think, is that correct, five?

John: Yeah.

Craig: And they played out as a long movie, a very long movie, and over the course of that long movie Walter White changes dramatically and irrevocably. There’s no kind of backing up the way, you know, in soap opera characters become evil, then they become good, then they become evil, and then they become good. That’s kind of the fun of it.

But in Breaking Bad there is a descent. It is a little bit like Heart of Darkness set in Albuquerque. Marlow goes down the river and is inexorably changed. And we watch those — so maybe that’s why, I mean, look, I love Breaking Bad for so many reasons, but I think as a television show I really appreciated it, but in a way by the way — I love The Sopranos, but The Sopranos was never laid out that way.

The Sopranos kind of just existed and did its stuff and then suddenly said, “Okay, we’ve got to bring this to an end,” so there was almost like a rush of changes that occurred. But not so Breaking Bad. It felt deliberate and like a very long movie.

John: Yeah. And I would say that many TV series, and many successful series are kind of all middle. And a given episode could happen anywhere in the order of the show and it basically feels the same. Possibly one of the reasons why a show like Heroes was a little bit frustrating is that a big super hero story doesn’t feel like it should all be middle. It’s meant to have beginnings, middles, and ends, and it just got to be weird that you were suddenly in the middle of this thing for so long.

Craig: Right.

John: I think our expectations of a super hero story is more a feature kind of expectation. Even in comic books they have those arcs and, yes, Heroes would try to have those little chapters or those little arcs, but it always just sort of felt like you were bound to what TV was supposed to be doing which is giving you the middle.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s why, for instance, I think it’s very smart what Nick Pizzolatto is doing with True Detective or what they do with American Horror Story. Okay, we’re going to do a season and we’ll do as many seasons as you give us, but each season is a story. So, we get to actually change people and have a beginning, middle, and an end.

This is a problem that sitcoms have because they are not designed to deliver story per se, they’re designed to deliver situations and laughs. They are literally defined as, you can call a situation comedy middle comedy. It’s second act comedy. And so what you’ll see in a long-running sitcom, take Friends for example. So, this one likes this one, but this one likes that one, but then they switch, but then they get married, but then they get divorced, but then somebody has a baby, then somebody does not have a baby.

It’s like you could see them just every year they’re like, “Well, let’s just go with this one and this one and make a new middle.” But you never get anywhere until at long last there’s some emotional farewell. But even those emotional farewells aren’t about story. They’re just about saying goodbye to people that we really liked hanging out with.

John: Absolutely. It’s like you were with them for five years of college and then now you’re done and you’re all doing your separate directions. So, you fell in love with the characters, but it was never about the journey that they had together.

Craig: By the way, that’s why I’m going to be an iconoclast here and say that my favorite final episode of a sitcom is Seinfeld’s last episode, which I know at the time was derided, but what I loved about it is it didn’t do — every other sitcom as far as I can tell, most of them, would turn into kind of a maudlin goodbye. And Seinfeld, [laughs], Seinfeld is great because it basically was like we’re now going to judge you. The series was not about hanging out with people that we now have to wistfully say goodbye to. The series was essentially we the audience are god, we’ve watched these people live on earth, and we will now judge them. And we judge them to be lacking.

John: Yes.

Craig: And they are now to spend the rest of eternity like the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos together. Together. In their own hell. How about that? How about that for fancy?

John: That is fancy. I’m trying to think of my favorite last episode of a sitcom. I don’t know that I necessarily have one.

Craig: They’re often forgettable.

John: They’re often forgettable. They’re often just like, you know, I remember Cheers ending, I remember Frasier ending, I remember liking all those characters but not feeling necessarily like, well, that was a transcendent episode of what they were supposed to be, partly because the nature of a sitcom is they’re designed to deliver laughs. They’re designed to deliver this situation. And then that situation is resolved and then you come back next week and you see the new situation. So, it’s a very different experience.

Craig: Yeah. Everybody loves the ending, that famous Newhart ending where it was all a dream and they bring back Suzanne Pleshette, and that was great because it was so clever, but –

John: It wasn’t part of the series. It wasn’t –

Craig: Yeah.

John: It didn’t have anything to do with that.

Craig: Yeah. It was clever.

John: Yeah, it was clever.

Craig: Usually those, it’s interesting how sitcoms try and become about story in their end. Suddenly they rush to grow up and become adults at the end of their series because they feel like that’s the only significance that those characters can actually have. And essentially they’re a movie that has been a second act for ten years and then five minutes of third act.

By then we don’t really care.

John: We’re done.

Craig: Yeah, we’re done.

John: Cool. All right. Well, let’s wrap this up. Do you have a One Cool Thing this week?

Craig: I do have a One Cool Thing this week. And my One Cool — well, I guess I have two now, because John Robbins is one of my Cool Things and we’ll find — I’m sure there’s some great videos and you can just watch how this guy makes an illustration out of a bunch of garbled up lines. Ah, what a genius.

John: I kind or remember him having like a number seven line. Like did he have names for the different lines he was doing?

Craig: I don’t know. I can’t remember that. I just remember that he had that very soft voice and a mustache and he was super ’70s out in a kind of like cool high all the time way. And he was just so talented.

My One Cool Thing this week, I’m taking a class at my son’s school, the headmaster has a summer great books class for adults who wanted to take it. And so I took it and it was great. And I read a short story that I had not read before that I thought was just amazing. And I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t read it before, because then when I did a little research, it’s sort of a seminal short story that I suppose I should read at some point. And it truly is short. It’s by an author named Delmore Schwartz who was something of a celebrated literary figure of the ’30s and ’40s. A poet and a short story author and editor. But by his own account never really was able to top his big debut which was this short story that he wrote when he was 23, I believe, called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

It’s a fantastically written short story about the terror of choice and of our own past, our present, and our future. Beautifully written and done. If you Google it you just might find a copy out there that you could read, although of course as content creators we always urge that you purchase it somehow responsibly. But it will take you ten minutes to read and probably the rest of your life to mull over. It’s really, really good.

John: That sounds terrific.

Craig: Yeah.

John: My One Cool Thing is a book I’m reading right now called The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean and has such a good setup. So, it’s a nonfiction. It’s a true story of this guy David MacLean who suddenly found himself in a train station in India with no idea of who he was. Complete amnesia in a way that is sort of what you think about in movies where someone literally has no sense of who they are at all.

So, he believes that he was a drug addict and that he may have hurt somebody and these people sort f take pity on him. He ends up in a mental institution in India, which doesn’t seem like an ideal place to end up in a mental institution.

Craig: No, not a good summer holiday.

John: And then ultimately the book sort of follows him trying to figure out who he is and sort of get his brain back together. So, I’m not spoiling anything to say that it’s based on a real thing that does happen, which is an allergic reaction to Lariam, which is a big malaria drug. And on a previous episode when we talked about Datura and like how no one should ever take Datura because it destroys your psyche, this was fascinating to me because where he was lacking most was a sense of inner narrative. He had no idea who he was because he had no story to sort of connect all these little bits and fragments of pieces.

Craig: Wow.

John: And so when he finally finds his family again he has all these photos that he’s in but he doesn’t know what they really mean, so he’s sort of artificially trying to force the memory, or he’s faking a memory for what these are so that it all makes sense to him. It’s a really well written story, and written in a very fragmented way that seems completely appropriate for the narrative.

Craig: That reminds me of that great line from Her. The past is a story we tell ourselves.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Just love that.

John: One of the things it brings up is that we have an expectation about memory that’s so strange and specific. So, like we sort of kind of remember what books we read, but you don’t really remember the details about the books we’ve read. There’s like a threshold about what we expect ourselves to remember or not remember. And it’s only when you dip below that threshold that everything just sort of falls apart.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Deep. We both got a little deep there.

John: We got a little deep there. So, a reminder for folks, we have a few of those USB drives left that have the first 150 episodes of Scriptnotes on them. So, if you are a newcomer to the podcast and want to catch up, it’s a chance to get all those episodes at once. So, you can go to store.johnaugust.com and you will see them there and you can order those if you want to.

Craig: 100 Quatloos on the Newcomer.

John: Yup.

Craig: Is that right? Is it 100 Quatloos on the Newcomer? Do you know what I’m talking about?

John: No, I don’t know what that is.

Craig: It’s from Star Trek, the good, the original Star Trek. I’m almost said the good Star Trek and then I realized I was going to start a huge fight because I like Star Trek: The Next Generation, too.

John: Is it in Mudd’s Tavern? What’s going on there?

Craig: No, I think it’s like the thing where they all have to fight each other like –

John: Gladiator style?

Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Quatloos.

John: All the best. And do they have the little neck things around them?

Craig: I think, is it 100 Quatloos, or 1,000? I don’t know. [laughs]

John: The exchange rates these days, it’s really so hard. To value the quatloo, it’s really tough.

Craig: I don’t know how many quatloos, yeah, like the dollar to quatloo exchange rate is probably way out of whack at this point.

John: It’s got to be crazy. I started watching the original Star Treks with my daughter on Netflix. And it’s really fascinating because they went back through and they cleaned up the visual effects, which do make the show look a lot better and less cheesy, but the cheesiness is actually an inherent part of how the whole thing works.

So, they can fix the visual effects, but you can still see like, oh wow, you shot this whole thing on just like three sets.

Craig: Oh, yeah, you can change the visual effects, but you can’t change the fact that sometimes like the set seems to be shaking a little bit. [laughs] Yeah, I mean, come on, don’t clean it up.

John: Just leave it.

Craig: No, you should leave it as it is. I don’t understand that.

John: Well, what they did is when the Enterprise is circling a planet, that looks much better now. So, that was a useful thing to cleanup.

Craig: I guess. I guess. I liked it. I think that’s part of the fun.

John: Well, if you have an opinion about Star Trek and its cleaned up visual effects, you can tweet at Craig or John. Craig’s Twitter handle is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust.

If you have a longer question, you can write to ask@johnaugust.com, and we answer some of those questions on the air. If you are on iTunes at this moment and wish to subscribe, you click that subscribe button. That’s always great and handy. You can also leave us a comment.

If you’re listening to us through [Stitch] or one of those other apps, that’s awesome, go ahead and do that. But it’s also great if you subscribe through iTunes just because that way other people can find us, or at least leave us a note there. That’s great. If you would like to listen to all those back episodes, you can go to scriptnotes.net, or you can go to the iOS or Android app for Scriptnotes and you can subscribe to all of those back episodes. Always good and fun.

Our episodes are produced by Stuart Friedel. They’re edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week, and that’s it for our show.

Craig: Yeah. How many quatloos is the USB drive?

John: It is, I think, well, in American dollars I think it’s $20 or $19.

Craig: Okay. I see. In quatloos it’s like 0.0001 quatloos.

John: Yeah, I mean you have to use your special quatloo calculator thing because it really changes based on the –

Craig: Well, lately, too, god, the dollar is just being crushed. They say that you don’t want the quatloo to go too high.

John: Well, actually because then it really hurts your export market.

Craig: It does.

John: Then no one can actually afford to buy your domestic tribble grains. Sorry, the quatloo lately, it gets way too expensive.

Craig: It’s really bad.

John: Yeah, it’s really tough.

Craig: Quatloos.

John: Craig, have a wonderful writing vacation.

Craig: Thank you. You, too, John.

John: And we’ll talk next week.

Craig: Fantastic. Bye.

John: Thanks.

Links:

Disney’s corporate synergy, 1957 and today

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:16

I love this graphic from 1957 showing how the various elements of the Walt Disney company fit together.

You could make the same chart today.

Here is a partial list of the properties Disney owns in 2014:

Features:

  • Walt Disney Pictures
  • Touchstone Pictures
  • Disneynature
  • Disney Animation Studios
  • Pixar
  • Lucasfilm
  • Marvel
  • The Muppets
  • DreamWorks (distribution)

Music:

  • Walt Disney Records
  • Hollywood Records
  • Disney Music Publishing

Destinations:

  • Disneyland/Disneyworld worldwide
  • Disney Cruise Line
  • Disney Vacation Club

Theatrical Group:

  • Disney Theatrical Productions
  • Disney on Ice
  • Disney Live

Consumer Products:

  • Disney Store
  • Disney Baby
  • The Baby Einstein Company

Books:

  • Disney-Hyperion
  • Marvel Press

Broadcasting:

  • ABC Television Network
  • ABC Family Worldwide
  • Live Well Network
  • A+E Networks (50%)
  • Disney Channels Worldwide
  • Radio Disney
  • Disney Television Animation
  • ESPN Inc. (80%)
  • Hulu (32%)
  • A+E Networks (50%), includes Lifetime and History

Online/Interactive:

  • Disney Infinity
  • Disney.com
  • Maker Studio

Comics:

  • Marvel
  • Disney Comics

Almost every one of these items is a huge business just by itself. Which raises the question: If one were to make a new version of the 1957 chart, would Theatrical Films still deserve the central marquee spot?

Yes.

I’d argue that in 2014, film properties are probably still worth keeping near the middle of any Disney flowchart. The company makes money in many ways, but feature films are still the key drivers. You don’t get Cars merchandise without the movie.

The success of Frozen is an example of how Disney can capitalize on a hit film by using it in other divisions: Disneyland attractions, TV tie-ins (Once Upon a Time), music, books, merchandise, and possibly a Broadway musical.

As screenwriters, there are pros and cons to this kind of corporate synergy.

Giant corporations like Disney will keep making movies because it feeds the engine — and the better the movies, the bigger the multiplier in success. You can criticize individual films, but the juggernaut franchises have sprung from well-executed movies, and all of these movies began with screenwriters.

The challenge for screenwriters is that it’s increasingly difficult to get momentum on any movie that doesn’t seem to have the potential to work across divisions. An R-rated blockbuster like The Matrix can’t become a theme park ride, so why spend $100 million to make it?

Looking at the list of top-grossing R-rated movies, Warners and New Line made seven of the top 10. With talk that Fox may buy Warners, I wonder if they would still be making those movies post-merger.

Getting 2-Up preview in Highland

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:24

Over the weekend, we sold the most-ever copies of Highland, thanks largely to the Mac App Store’s “Explore Your Creativity” promotion.

With new users come new questions to the support desk, including this one I’m surprised never came up before:

Is there any way to see two pages side-by-side in the preview?

There is!

In the preview, right-click (or control-click) and you’ll get a menu letting you choose the layout. Highland defaults to “One Page Continuous,” but you can choose “Two Pages Continuous” to get a 2-up view.

You can find more answers and tips in Highland’s FAQ.

During the Mac App Store promotion, Highland is half-off, just $14.99.

Making Things Better by Making Things Worse

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 08:03

John and Craig talk structure and escalation. Structure is simply what happens when. Escalation is how things get tougher.

In features, characters are usually going on a journey that can only happen once, so you need to make sure that the events in your story are constantly challenging your heroes in new ways so they can continue to grow.

In television, you’re often telling stories in which the character themselves don’t change much, yet the sequence of events within the episode (and in the season) needs to feel like it’s pushing forward.

Along the way, we discuss Intro to Journalism’s Five W’s, and what people mean when they say a two-hander.

John and Craig are headed back to the Austin Film Festival again this year for a live show and other special events. Use the code SCRIPTNOTES to get $25 off our Conference and Producers Badges.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Impostor Syndrome, and unknown unknowns

Mon, 07/21/2014 - 16:08

On the podcast, Craig and I have discussed Impostor Syndrome, in which successful people secretly feel like frauds.

Apenwarr, who works for a major tech company, wonders if Impostor Syndrome is actually a good thing:

The people with Impostor Syndrome are the people who aren’t sure that a logical proof of their smartness is sufficient. They’re looking around them and finding something wrong, an intuitive sense that around here, logic does not always agree with reality, and the obviously right solution does not lead to obviously happy customers, and it’s unsettling because maybe smartness isn’t enough, and maybe if we don’t feel like we know what we’re doing, it’s because we don’t.

Impostor Syndrome is that voice inside you saying that not everything is as it seems, and it could all be lost in a moment. The people with the problem are the people who can’t hear that voice.

Scriptnotes, Ep 153: Selling without selling out — Transcript

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 16:55

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: Hello. My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

So, Craig, last night at 1:30 in the morning my phone rang.

Craig: Hmm.

John: So what do you do when your phone rings in the middle of the night?

Craig: Well, I have to answer this hypothetically because I turn all my ringers off at night. But if the ringer were on and it rang at 1:30, I would definitely answer the phone.

John: Yeah, because there’s never good news at that time of the night so you’re going to have to deal with it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Something is going to happen.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So the phone rings. It wasn’t my cell phone which is always downstairs. It was my house phone, so I pick it up and it is a wrong number.

Craig: Oh.

John: Or if it’s not a wrong number, because the guy on the other end sounded just as confused as I was. So it could have been somebody who actually just like was being a dick and just called two random numbers and connected them.

Craig: Oh, you can do that? Oh, when you put the phones together?

John: Yeah, or I think you use like three-way call to people.

Craig: Oh, that’s actually kind of brilliant. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: Kind of love that guy. [laughs]

John: A whole new kind of terrible pranking –

Craig: Right.

John: For awful people.

Craig: I like it.

John: So anyway, so it’s 1:30 in the morning. I’m wide awake suddenly now. And so my brain is sort of stewing and ruminating. But the best thing happened. So this product that I’ve been sort of thinking about for quite a long time and I haven’t really started writing because there was a thing that I couldn’t figure out about it, I suddenly figured it out like 1:30 in the morning.

Craig: That’s the way it works. Yeah.

John: Yeah. So I was up until 4:30 in the morning sort of actually –

Craig: Oh.

John: Working it all through.

Craig: Is this all a way for you to say that this is going to be a terrible podcast where you’re super sleepy?

John: No. I’ve had a lot of coffee. It’s going to be either one of those podcasts where I’m super sleepy or I’m a little bit too wired.

Craig: Oh, I like that.

John: So we’ll see how it all goes.

Craig: Very exciting.

John: But if three years from now you see a movie that I’ve written where one of the key plot points is she’s looking for her phone that she lost, that came from last night.

Craig: That was last night.

John: Everyone was part of the genesis of that moment.

Craig: You know that they say that generally speaking that we are at our most creative neurologically in the very beginning of the day when we wake up and at the very end when we’re going to bed. So there are days where I actually just wait, and then as I’m going to bed I’d start thinking then in that kind of weird middle-dreamy place. And it is amazing how often in that little place you will figure out things.

John: Yeah. That’s our liminal state between fully awake and asleep.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: Today on the podcast we’re going to be answering a whole bunch of questions. People write in with questions, sometimes on Twitter we can get to them right away and we answer right when they send us their question. But sometimes people send in longer questions to ask@johnaugust.com. We have a whole bunch saved up and we are going to get through those today. So you’re ready, Craig?

Craig: Yeah.

John: Great. Well, let’s start with some follow up because one of them is from this guy James Topham who writes, “I hope you don’t mind, but as an alumnus of the Three Page Challenge, I thought I’d drop you a line to let you know how I’ve got on since your kind feedback.” His script was the one with the killer robots in the desert called Proving Ground and I kind of vaguely remember that. Do you remember that, Craig?

Craig: I don’t but I like everything that he said, so. [laughs]

John: [laughs] Exactly. I like that he likes us. So –

Craig: I like that he likes me. Yeah, so I’m going to say that it doesn’t matter if I remembered or not.

John: It’s true. “Last year the script went out to a number of producers in LA and here in the UK with your notes faithfully executed of course. I flew stateside for a week to do a whole series of generals and met some great people. Since then I’ve been talking with some producers here. And the last couple of weeks I have sold my first feature pitch.” Congratulations, James.

Craig: Excellent.

John: “It’s a micro-budget horror but on the slate of a great company but I want to say thank you for your direct feedback and for all the advice in the podcast for the last couple of years. For those of us remote from LA and support networks out there, the show provides such a resource to aid our understanding of the craft and gives me hope that there’s a slim chance of forging a career. So thank you.”

Craig: What a great — that’s fantastic. I mean, you know, the whole purpose of the Three Page Challenge was really just to help focus people on some of the very practical things that we deal with when we’re putting together a scene and so it was never really meant to be promotional in any way but I kind of love that that’s sort of what happened here. First of all, I love that we were right [laughs] because we really liked it apparently. And the company that he’s sold his pitch to is a very good company, it’s a top notch, A-list production company here in town.

So obviously, we’re brilliant, that’s really the point. I mean, I understand that James is proud of what’s happened to him but I think what he’s saying is, “Once again, John and Craig, you are brilliant.” [laughs]

John: [laughs] Well, let’s see if we can be brilliant today for other folks. So –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Here are some questions people wrote in with. We’ll get through as many of them as we can.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And we have to start with Lynette Oliver because how can we not start with Lynette Oliver.

Craig: Lynette, she’s my favorite.

John: Craig, why don’t you read Lynette’s question –

Craig: Absolutely.

John: Because she will like that.

Craig: Yes, she will.

Lynette writes, “Recently, Craig was part of a Twitter conversation that basically ended with the advice to write query letters to get representation or get your script to somebody rather than just relying on The Black List site, my preferred method before this conversation. I definitely want to do the proper research before querying. My question is how does one do that research? InkTip, IMDbPro, some other subscription service? I’m a good researcher and in this case I have no idea where to begin, what listings I can trust since everyone and their Hollywood insider dog wants to take money from people like me in exchange for ‘access.’”

What do you think, John?

John: So, I don’t know people who’ve gotten agents through or managers through query letters but I know it does happen. So what she’s really asking is, “How do you find it? Who is the person who you should even sort of bother sending out that email to, sending that, you know, reaching out to because who do you know who’s real and who’s not real.” I think, it’s, you know, paradoxically, there’s more, just better research than there ever was before, so you can actually just look stuff up on the Internet in ways that you couldn’t and you can see what people’s credits are. But there’s just so many names that it’s just kind of overwhelming. Craig, where would you start if you were Lynette?

Craig: Well, I’m a little confused because the question implies that I gave the advice to write query letters rather than just relying on The Black List site and maybe I did but if so I’m recanting it because I actually don’t really think much of query letters. I know that people are constantly talking about query letters. My whole problem with query letters is that they’re kind of self-selecting. The people that answer query letters are precisely the people that you don’t want answering your query letter.

The better people don’t answer query letters because they don’t have to and that’s what’s so good about The Black List is that it allows the better buyers and the more reputable and powerful buyers to access your material. That aside, you’re right. I mean, I assume that query letters must have worked at least once or twice or people would finally stop unless it’s some kind of cargo cult.

I don’t know anything about InkTip. I can’t imagine there’s much of a point in spending money on a subscription service other than, I mean, The Black List is the only one that I think actually has gotten results as far as I can tell, So…

John: Yeah. I mean, there’s probably some bias just in that we know, you know, we know Franklin, and we know people who have gone through The Black List and so therefore there is a confirmation bias that’s sort of inherent to that.

Craig: Sure.

John: Where it really comes down to is a push versus pull. And query letters are a way of like pushing your script out into the world and saying like, “Hey, please look at this thing.” And maybe that’s effective sometimes, but everyone I know who’s gotten agents or gotten managers it’s been a pull situation where that agent or manager has asked to read something because someone else has said, “This is really good,” or they found this through a competition, they somehow came up across this writer, this idea, and they wanted to read it. And most the people I know who’ve gotten representation recently, it’s been that situation.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: So, a writer who I was working with recently who I just had lunch with just last week, he did the more classic thing where he was working at a desk at an agency, was able to get himself on as a writer’s production assistant on a TV show and they noticed that he seemed good in competent.

Craig: Right.

John: And they asked to read his stuff and that got him started and that got him that whole process beginning. That’s much more typical than the sending out a query letter to the world.

Craig: I absolutely agree and let’s remind ourselves that these services, all of them, simply didn’t exist, say, I don’t know, 15 years ago or all the way back 19 years ago when you and I got started and somehow still people were discovered and hired.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So they are not necessarily. You know, I’ve always, you and I have been fairly consistent on this that what a lot of these services are doing is essentially charging you a fee for dipping your toe into the pool as opposed to jumping in.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And that is attractive for people who prefer that method. The problem of course is that it’s simply not as effective out of a general population. Of course, none of those general statistics apply to the outliers and, of course, it is the outliers that tend to do well no matter what the restrictions are. So, I don’t know if that answers the question but it’s certainly complicated and long-winded enough. I think, [laughs], I think I did that part right.

John: The only last sort of data point I’ll give is as I mentor to five writers who are sort of new WGA members. And one of them Jonathan Stokes, I don’t think will be upset to hear his name in the podcast to say that he wrote a ton of scripts and nobody would read them. And so he had this whole trunk full of scripts and then he finally wrote a script that someone through various means read and was like, “Oh, this is really good. You’re a good writer.” And that went on The Black List, like the list of best scripts.

Craig: Right.

John: And then he suddenly had this other trunk full of scripts and like they’ve all just sort of sold and been out there because he was a really good writer. It just took awhile for people to notice that he was a really good writer.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And that’s the awesome part of it. Actually, more consistent to the real story of how these things happen then I wrote a query letter to exactly the right person who is looking for it and therefore said, “Yes, I will represent you.”

Craig: You know, that also brings another thing to mind that I think we’ve talked about before. Most of the services that are available are, I guess, sort of wide net averaging services, you know, so people will evaluate your script and give you a general rating.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: But, we don’t achieve success through general ratings. We are again about the outlier scores. So we’re about the Russian judge that gives you the 10 instead of the eight that everybody else got.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: That’s the person that’s going to buy your script. More importantly, in Hollywood typically what happens is people follow passion. So when one person gets very passionate about a certain screenwriter’s screenplay and people respect that person, they just presume they ought to be passionate about that writer as well.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, it’s all led by the outliers both on the talent side and on the acquisition side.

John: Yeah. What I don’t want this to sound like is a recipe for, well, just do nothing and somehow magically it’ll all come to be. You have to put your script out there in a way that people can find it and that people can talk about it and then discover that it’s good.

So, you know, there’s a middle ground between spending six hours a day sending out query letters and sticking everything in the trunk and then not letting anybody read it. We sort of really encourage people to let people, you know, have people read your scripts because that’s the only way people are going to find that you’re a good writer.

Craig: Absolutely. And sometimes I feel like the query letter thing becomes a job onto its self. You know, people send query letters, then they feel the need to send the follow-up query letters, and then the follow up to the follow ups and how long should I just wait before I follow up and it never ends.

John: It’s also weird that we call them query letters when they’ve got to be emails at this point.

Craig: Yeah, well, they’re emails and they’re not, what are they, what’s the question?

John: Yeah. “Hey, would you read my script?”

Craig: Right. They’re not query letters. They’re sales letters.

John: Yeah, to sound good.

Craig: By the way, that’s how everyone views them too. They’re basically spam. It’s sales spam.

John: Yeah, speaking of it. This last week we did a press release that we had to push out to the world for the new Bronson Watermarker and so I was writing and rewriting this press release and I just hated it so much because it was so incredibly boring.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: But it kind of needed to be boring because I could look and see like, well, what is the net result of this press releases on all the sites that end up running these press releases, and they’re kind of boring. And so I had to do kind of exactly what Lynette is describing which is like figuring out like, “Who was it worth reaching out too? What is right address? Do I find the person’s name that I can send this to so it’s not just going into a general tips ad or whatever line?” And that never really stops.

Craig: Yeah, no. It’s just, it’s too much.

John: It’s too much.

Craig: It’s too much.

John: Ryan from Singapore writes:

Craig: Yeah.

John: “I understand your writing process starts with cranking out a large number of pages very rapidly. How sloppy is too sloppy for a first draft? Do you force yourself not to think about it and go with your gut even if things don’t make total sense? What about refining what you’ve written? Is it something you only do once you completed the script start to finish?”

So there’s two kind of things that we’re talking about here. Some writers talk about the vomit draft which is sort of just like everything as fast as you can, get it down on the page. I don’t do that as much as I do barricade myself and handwrite something so I can go back and rewrite it. But in both cases, I think sloppiness is a fair question.

Craig, what is your barometer for sloppiness?

Craig: Yeah, well, I don’t do any of this. I don’t crank out a large number of pages very rapidly and I definitely try and write my first draft as if it was going to be shot.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: I know it’s not going to be shot but I should have said as if it were going to be shot.

John: Yeah. Subjunctive is your friend.

Craig: Subjunctive. I know it’s not going to be and I know that I am going to have to refine and refine and refine and rewrite and rewrite. Nonetheless, I am not writing something just to say, “Look at me, I made it to the end. I’m writing something that reads like a movie.”

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: It’s going to help and more than anything, first of all, it requires you to work harder which is important because that’s work you need to do. If you don’t do it now, you’re going to have to do it later, might as well try to do it now. I find it very difficult to write things that don’t, like he says, “Go with your gut even if things don’t make total sense.” Well, if they don’t make total sense then maybe there’s, A, a problem with your gut. Or, if your gut is correct and you just haven’t figured out the one part, unfortunately everything that’s built on top of that will suffer from the foundation not making sense.

You’ll start to lose some unity to the piece and I want the people that are reading it to be able to give me the best feedback possible which I think they can only do if it reads like a movie. So, I’m actually very careful about how, I mean, The Huntsman, by the way, that’s an example. So on The Huntsman, I wrote one draft and I wrote it as if they were going to shoot it and they’re going to… — Well, I mean, you know, they got Frank Darabont to do it, so if I had just done a sloppy draft, I think everybody would have said, “Now, can you do it for real?” You know?

John: Yeah. I can see Ryan’s point here in that sometimes perfectionism can be a trap. And so, you can go through and sort of diddle with every scene so carefully that it’s like pristine and precise that you never actually get the whole thing done. But I think I’m much more in your camp where I always write a scene, even if I’m handwriting a scene that I still have to type up, I write it as if what if I never get the chance to go back and fix it?

Craig: Right.

John: So I always write it as if this has to be able to be shot and I won’t let anything go in the script that doesn’t feel like it could be shot. All the time knowing that I’m going to go back and do another pass through there, things are going to be improved just by a second look at things.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But I definitely write sort of for the final version of things. Where sloppy can be your good friend is if you’re just trying to figure stuff out about who the characters are, what they are, I’m a big fan of writing off the page and writing a bunch of scenes that you know are not going to be in the movie but just to get the characters talking.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: Figure out what their voices are like. And that’s an absolutely fair and valid process. And that’s kind of a thing where just kind of being stream of consciousness can be a really smart move because you get to hear what those characters’ voices are, what the world is like, just it’s, you know, it’s just getting your mind in a more fluid place. That is totally valid. But when it comes time for your real scenes, don’t shove crappy scenes into your script because they’ll be there.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, ultimately this is our job is to write a movie and to write scenes that feel like scenes and have harmony and expression and theme and character and purpose and all that stuff. I mean that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. When I hear that people are doing vomit drafts or just chucking stuff down a page, I feel like they’re trying to figure out the plot through writing screenplay pages which is a terrible way of figuring out a plot anyway.

So, yeah, I, like you, I get to be as sloppy and as verbose as I want to be when I’m writing down notes and doing my index cards and redoing my index cards, all that stuff. But if you write your screenplay carefully, I guess is how I would say it, just sort of do it with attention and care and craft. I mean, I typically, you know, on a decent day I can write three pages. And while that may not seem like a lot to the vomit draft people, I’m sure it isn’t, in six weeks I will have a screenplay no matter what.

John: So there are days that I will do 17 pages, 21 pages early in the process. But those are good pages but those, and it’s also because I’m writing like 12 hours a day. I’m literally on sort of a lockdown just doing it –

Craig: Right.

John: And not out of a panic-fear situation but a genuine sort of mania and love for this thing that I’m doing. So honestly, my 1:30 in the morning phone call got this movie figured out in a way that I probably will go off and barricade myself and do some of those giant page days.

Craig: Right.

John: They’re not all going to be like that. And at the same time, like those pages I write will hopefully be really good. They’ll hopefully be the kinds of scenes I want to have in the final movie. They’re not going to be, you know, approximations of them. They should be shootable scenes. We’ll see.

Craig: Exactly.

John: Next one, you?

Craig: All right, yeah. So we’ve got Laura in London and she writes, “I’m a UK writer. My first pilot is set in the UK has some interest from a US producer with a first-look deal at a big network. I have two producers already attached, both with a proven track record in film but not television. The US producer made some great stuff in the ’90s and not much since and has offered to option the script with a view to taking it out to cable. However, he wants to bring in a more established US writer to write a US version of the pilot. So my question is threefold. One…”

Oh boy, this is a complicated question, hope you’re taking notes.

“One, once I sign the option, what are my rights as the series creator? Obviously, it might go absolutely nowhere, but in the unlikely event it does go to pilot and get picked up, will I get to be in the writer’s room? Will I get to write an episode of my own idea?”

John: Let’s stop there and just sort of address her questions one at a time.

Craig: Okay.

John: Once you sign that option, there’s no magic contract about how these are supposed to always work. And so you have, you know, as we often say in the show, you control everything now because you control everything. And so you can dictate some of those terms about what’s going to be happening in that room, what the relationship is going to be like with another showrunner that they have brought in. You can say no and sometimes you may want to say no.

Craig: I agree. And I’m going to read, let me just jam the next two through because I think they kind of all connect together.

John: Okay.

Craig: So that was the first one. Number two, “Is this a step forward in my career? My goal is to be a working screenwriter and I would love to be based in the US in the future. So is this a step in that direction or should I write a US version myself, try my luck elsewhere? Three, the neurotic bit; he wants another writer. I know this script’s not a total steamer.” I guess that’s a –

John: A bad thing.

Craig: Local. That’s local custom. Yeah, so a steamer’s a bad thing. “And the script’s not a total steamer. It has won and been a finalist in a few writing comps, I’d give it a B minus at least. But still, I get that I’m new, untested and British, but there are plenty of shows on now that have newbie writers teamed with experienced showrunners. So what does him passing my script really mean and how it will be viewed?”

And to me, this is all, I guess, Laura, this is all leading to me picking out what your instinct is in the way you’ve even set this up and are asking the question. I think you know the answer to all of these questions. I think what you’re saying is, “This isn’t right, is it? This isn’t a good idea, is it? This isn’t going to help me, is it? This isn’t what I want, is it?” And it seems to me like the answer is, no, it’s not.

I mean, look, you’ve written a pilot and you have producers, I assume they’re UK producers, and somebody in America who perhaps is getting a little long in the tooth likes the idea of it but wants to hire people that he’s comfortable with and make it over here in the US. I don’t really see how that helps you one bit. And I’m not sure would you be the series creator? Do you want to be the creator for a series you have nothing to do with that isn’t like your show at all? I don’t know. I don’t –

John: I think you’re taking the most pessimistic view of what the end result of this will be.

Craig: Shocker.

John: Because let’s also remember most TV shows don’t happen.

Craig: Right.

John: And so that’s an entirely possible situation here as well. So –

Craig: Wait, that’s the optimistic? The optimistic view is that the show never even happens? [laughs]

John: I would say that in TV, you go into TV knowing that a show not getting picked up, a show not running, like failure is not the same kind of failure in TV as it is in features. And so getting anywhere down the path to progress is considered success.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: So a couple of things that I’d talk to Laura about. First off, there was a WGA panel I did with Kelly Marcel a couple episodes ago, we’ll put a link in the show notes, where Kelly talked about her experience on Terra Nova which actually sounds kind of similar in that here’s a British writer –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Who’s come in who got partnered up with people she didn’t necessarily believe in.

Craig: It’s eerily similar, yeah, although the people that she was paired up with were not like some guy that made some great stuff in the ’90s. It was Steven Spielberg.

John: No, no, they were big.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah, he’s made some good stuff in the ’90s and other decades, too.

Craig: Yeah, that’s right.

John: But I would encourage you to listen to that and listen to her experience about it because it was really hard for her to walk away from that but she ultimately realized she needed to walk away from that. But I would also say, look at what the upsides of what happened with Kelly because of her decision to at least pursue with the process partway. She got to meet a bunch of folks in Los Angeles. She had a reason to be in Los Angeles and to be in rooms talking about her writing. And that could be a good thing even with this producer situation you have here.

So if their option is saying you are meeting with the American writer, you’re going in and you’re talking to US television, at least you’re suddenly now in the rooms with those people who are reading your script and thinking like, oh, here is a British writer with an interesting voice. That is a positive step in your career.

Craig: Yeah. I would say that Laura picks out the key to success here when she says there are plenty of shows on now that have newbie writers teamed with experienced showrunners.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And I think that since she controls this property completely, it is fair to say to this producer, “If you want this and you want to put a different writer on it, then I have to be paired with that writer and I’m going to be working with that writer on it and that’s that or you don’t have it.” And at least then you’re buying your way into an experience. And if it goes terribly south, then like Kelly, you can walk.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: But at least you took your shot, your name is on it in a meaningful way, and you got involved and learned, you know, along the way.

John: Yes.

Craig: You really have to look at… — The worst outcome here is that this guy takes your thing, puts somebody else on it, they make something else that has no resemblance to what you wanted to do and it’s on the air and you had nothing to do with it. Or they take your thing, it does resemble what you did and you have nothing to do with it and you get no credit for it either. That would be terrible, so yeah.

John: It would be terrible but, again, the lesson we often come back to in Scriptnotes is that a writer is not one script.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: And so if she wants to have a career as a screenwriter working in Los Angeles, this may be a way to get her closer to that dream even if this project itself doesn’t work out magnificently.

Craig: Yeah, you just don’t want to have to beg your way into your own writing room, that’s all.

John: I completely agree.

Craig: Yeah.

John: John writes, “I am a college grad with degrees in psych and communications with no family obligations. Here’s my concern. I’m a practicing full-blown Mormon.”

Craig: Hello!

John: “I support marriage equality and I believe I differ from most of the negative stereotypes associated. That being said, I don’t swear, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I feel like that would be found out quite quickly even if I attempted to keep it on the down low.”

Craig: [laughs]

John: “My concern is that given my faith’s very overt stance, will it hurt my chances? Lord Umbrage” — that’s you Craig.

Craig: Oh, yes, yes.

John: “I will say that if I write a great script, that’s all that will matter. But I worry that my particular subgroup will be bearing the burdens of Orson Scott Card and others for quite some time.” So what’s our advice for John?

Craig: “Turn it off like a light switch. Just go click…” Um, you don’t have to worry about this, John.

John: I don’t have to be worry about this at all.

Craig: Not even one iota. Look, Orson Scott Card isn’t just somebody who is a Mormon, he is outspokenly against the idea of marriage equality. He’s made it a big huge thing and he also has a lot of other very strongly held political beliefs that he’s pushed out there in an overt way. This town has all sorts of folks ranging up and down various religious axes. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, then I really don’t see what the problem is. You know, I live in La CaÒada. We actually have quite a decent sized Mormon population there, so like two families. [laughs] That’s a Mormon joke.

No, no, there’s a lot of Mormon families and they are lovely people. And frankly, I’ve known people in my town eight or nine years and then my wife would say, “You know that they’re Mormon?” I had no idea, had no idea. I mean, it’s not like they’re not walking around with a big M sign. You know that. I think it’s great that you support marriage equality and this won’t cause you any trouble.

John: Yeah. Yeah, you will find so many people who don’t drink or do drugs who are essentially Mormon in all but faith all around you. You’ll find there’s actually a ton of Mormons that you wouldn’t realize that they are Mormons working in the industry anyway. But also, I feel like it’s, I don’t know, I want to say, wow, like white people creating problems for themselves.

Craig: [laughs] White people.

John: Only in the sense that like, here’s John writing in and saying like, “Oh, I’m coming in with this giant handicap being a Mormon.” It’s like that’s crazy. Like if you want to come in with, you know, issues that are going to make it more challenging for you to start, that’s like the least issue you could possibly imagine.

Craig: Right. Yeah, I agree.

John: So right now I bet there’s a whole bunch of sort of like, you know, black women writers who are going, “Who is this person and why is he complaining?”

Craig: [laughs] Well, you know, I understand because the truth is, he’s not here and I think that he’s receiving a kind of view of Hollywood as a politically monolithic place that rejects Christianity, religion. It rejects conservative ideologies and all that stuff. And look, there have been times when people have been outspoken about things and, but this will not be an issue for you. By the way, don’t drink and don’t do drugs, go ahead and meet half of Hollywood that’s in a recovery program.

So when you don’t accept a drink in a bar, people will just assume you’re a recovering alcoholic and that’ll be cool. [laughs] I don’t…this is not.. — By the way, I know a lot of Mormons in Hollywood too and every Mormon I have met who works in the film or television business, as far as I can tell, they’re all gay. Gay, well, gay ex-Mormons.

John: Yeah, gay ex-Mormons.

Craig: Gay ex-Mormons. A lot of gay ex-Mormons.

John: Yeah. Our next question comes from Thomas in Charlotte, North Carolina. “A friend of mine has talent representation at CAA. I’m a writer-director, and the friend introduced me to his agent for the purpose of having her forward my resume/work to her literary rep colleagues. A few weeks later, she told me that one particularly literary agent at CAA would meet me “for coffee.” I live in the Southeast but make frequent trips to Los Angeles, so I’m currently in the process of trying to schedule said coffee meeting for this month.

“This is my first meeting of this nature with an agent. What sort of weight or expectations should I be putting on this meeting? Is it a significant first step, is actual landing representation still a ways off? What should I do at this coffee to make sure it’s the right step?”

Craig: Coffees are great ways to meet with people without feeling like you’re trapped necessarily in a long lunch or that you’re not torpedoing the middle of your day.

John: Yes.

Craig: But in a sense, they work as a proper meeting. And I never put any weight or any expectation on any meeting ever in my life.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But when you sit down with this person, you should have some things in mind that you want to get answers to, you can have questions. The worst thing that happens when I sit down with people is that they’re boring.

John: Yeah.

Craig: They have nothing to say. They can’t hold up their end of the conversation. They have no questions or interesting things about them. So be prepared to talk about yourself, have questions and don’t be shy about saying, “Listen, the next step for me is representation. What do you advise here? I need to kind of get this thing going.” But more than anything, you should be your impressive interesting self.

John: 100%. Coffees are fantastic because it’s such a flexible definition of what it’s supposed to be. So it could be 10 minutes, it could be half an hour.

Craig: Right.

John: It doesn’t have to be more than that and it’s fine whatever that duration is. If I were Thomas coming into this coffee meeting, I would be able to talk about the things that you’ve done, the things you’re looking at doing, and the questions about sort of, you know, this is what I’m planning to do for my next step. What do you think? What would you advice? And about representation, exactly what Craig phrased it as is basically what would you want to see that would convince you to represent a writer-director in my situation?

Be able to talk about some of the other clients there, clients who are similar to sort of what you’re doing or it doesn’t even necessarily need to be a CAA client but you could point to, you know, recent successful writer-directors who’ve made smart choices and just be able to talk about them. They want to see that you’re not a crazy person.

Craig: Right.

John: They want to see that you kind of get how things work and that you have an interesting voice, that you’re somebody they could imagine putting you in a room with an executive and that executive will say, “Oh, yeah, the guy seems really cool.”

Craig: Right. I mean, passion, all the things that work when you’re meeting somebody for the first time on a date, these are the things that work in these situations. I mean, agents in particular look at us, they evaluate us, not just by the material but by our appearance and I don’t mean to say “Oh, this is a really hot guy.” It’s more about does this person look like a weirdo, do they look presentable?

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And also by the way we come off, you know, are you passionate, are you funny, are you interesting, are you smart? They really like smart people.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, they’ve had, if you are a kind of just middle of the road, bland person, what do they need you for, you know? That’s not a prescription to go nuts. I’m just saying, you know, you just don’t want to be boring more than anything.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

All right, Justin from Vancouver writes, “I was wondering if doing Scriptnotes has changed how studio executives and producers treat the two of you when in meetings. It is easier to have your opinions be taken seriously because they know you and your personalities from the podcast. Have you gotten work?” I feel like we’ve gotten this question before. “Have you gotten work because of the podcast?” John, have you gone from an A writer to an A++ writer because of Scriptnotes?

John: I know. I honestly feel very few of the people I work with on a daily basis know the podcast exists, at least at the big executive and studio producer level.

Craig: Yeah. I’m kind of there. I do think that on the assistant level, people listen a lot. I mean, occasionally, an executive will mention to me that they listen. But no, it seems like the stuff that gets you work is the stuff that always got you work. They like your script and/or your last movie was a hit, et voila. [laughs]

John: Et voila.

Craig: Yeah, there’s really, no, nobody takes me more seriously because of Scriptnotes, no. It would be cool if they did.

John: I think it will be interesting 10 years from now as this generation of assistants rises up –

Craig: Ah. Yes.

John: And replaces their forefathers. Will they look at us with affection and hire us when we’re no longer, you know –

Craig: Right. When we’re gum in their food.

John: Yeah, when we are no longer young and in our 40s, but the creaky old men in their 50s.

Craig: The grumpy, yeah, grumpy, “Yeah, yeah, I did the Scriptnotes. I also wrote movies.” [laughs] Yes, you know –

John: So really, this is an investment in our future.

Craig: Yeah, this is like a pension. It’s like an IRA. We’re just throwing money, well, I hope that that works one day, but no, for now, Justin, no, not at all.

John: So, Nicolai writes what’s sort of a long question but he kind of perfectly described one of my frustrations with certain screenwriting software, so I’ll get through it.

Craig: Okay.

John: “I’m desperate to switch to a sleeker, no filler screenwriting app. So why can’t I buy Highland on my Android devices?” That’s a simple question, because we don’t make it for Android because we don’t know how to make it for Android. “But I recently tried unshackling myself from Movie Magic in favor of Fade In, but I stuck with Movie Magic purely because it requires the fewest amount of key strokes to type a script.

“The most basic example: in Movie Magic, hitting tab always brings up a new dialogue line whether from a proceeding line or scene direction. Hitting enter always begins a new slug line/scene description. But with Fade In, hitting tab creates another parenthetical within dialogue which I try to avoid anyway or a line break even within a block of dialogue. The results, ending your line of dialogue requires two key strokes, enter/tab plus tab, whereas Movie Magic only needs one. It’s a tiny difference that adds up to a huge drag over five to 10 pages. How does Highland deal with this controversial issue and why won’t you let me give you my money? Thanks.”

So, again, Highland is Highland. Highland’s the app we make and it’s very sort of minimalist and stripped down. But what he describes about sort of like you’re in a box, you’re in dialogue and you’re moving from character to thing and you’re hitting different keys to move to the next point. It can get really annoying and you get to have a muscle memory for how a certain app does it. And I’m sure you found that too, Craig, is that you’re now using Fade In –

Craig: Yeah.

John: As your main screenwriting app. And so you’re totally used to it, right?

Craig: I don’t even know what he’s describing. In Fade In, I write a character name and then I hit return and I’m in dialogue. I’m not sure what he’s talking about. I don’t see any difference between that and the way Movie Magic works whatsoever. I honestly don’t know what he’s talking about.

John: Yeah, the issue of –

Craig: Maybe he’s hitting tab when he should be hitting enter, I don’t know.

John: Yeah.

Craig: The one thing that Movie Magic does that I really like is when you’re in dialogue if you hit an open parentheses, it moves you into a parenthetical with the theory being how often do you actually want to have a parentheses in your dialogue.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I always thought that was very smart. But, look, if you are incredibly fastidious about key strokes and, again, I don’t know that he’s correct here but regardless, then I think a stripped down version of things would be perfect for you. If you are like most people and the extra key strokes become invisible to your process, then it’s not a problem. But I honestly don’t know what he’s talking about.

John: So I made a video about writing in Fountain and one of the points I made in that, I’ll put a link to that in the show notes, but one of the points I made to it is that as you’re writing in the sort of more traditional screenwriting app, so Fade In, Final Draft, Movie Magic, you’re constantly thinking about sort of what element is what element. And so you’re always hitting those extra keys to sort of move and that becomes character name and there’s a parenthetical underneath it, and now you’re in your dialogue.

And it is a small tax that you’re placing on your writing to do that. And so one of the advantages in writing all in the left-hand margin, the way you can in a plain text editor or you can in Highland or Slugline is that you don’t have to think about that. The word processor, the text editor is doing that for you. So you’re just putting in the words and it is smart enough to figure out what those words would end up being. So that’s the thing. So the kind of situation he describes where he gets stuck in the wrong element can’t happen in Fountain because you’re never actually changing those elements consciously.

Craig: Right. For me, I think that because I’ve been using what I’ll call a formatted format for so long, I mean, I started on Final Draft, then I went to Movie Magic, and now I’m in Fade In. That process is invisible to my brain.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I think if you start on Fountain, then you would — that’s what you would want and the other method would be very cumbersome. So it is about what you’re used to, to some extent. And there’s no right or wrong here. I guess, I would say to Nicolai, if you, I don’t know. Oh, because he doesn’t have Highland on his Android devices. Why is he writing on an Android device? What is this guy doing?

John: [laughs]

Craig: I’m starting to get angry. Why are you writing on your phone? Now I’m like David Lynch. “Watching movies on your phone, watching movies on a fucking phone.” [laughs] He’s the best. I mean, why are you writing a script on a phone? Get out of here.

John: While we’re talking about screenwriting software, what is your feeling about like auto complete and Smart-Type? Do you like it when a character name fills itself in –

Craig: Yes.

John: Or does it drive you crazy?

Craig: No, I do like it a lot. And I like it for two reasons. One, because particularly when I’m writing a scene where there are two people having a conversation, it does flow beautifully. And two, it confronts me when I’ve created characters with similar first letters or the same first letters, I should say, because then sometimes I get the wrong one or it gives me that stupid menu. So that I do like quite a bit.

John: Yeah, I do like Smart-Type when it makes sure that I’m spelling the character’s name the same way every time because that can be a huge problem.

Craig: Yes.

John: When there’s five ways you could spell it and now you’re spelling it the one way. What always drives me crazy with Smart-Type lists is when it really wants to fill in sort of the wrong character’s name. For me what always happens is I’ll have a situation where you have like two characters talking at the same time, so like Sandra/Laura.

Craig: Yes, yes, yes.

John: And then like, ugh, so then you have to manually go through and delete that Sandra/Laura so it doesn’t do that.

Craig: That’s right. That is the one thing that is very annoying and you do have to go to your Smart-Type list and blow that one out because for whatever reason, it defaults to the long one. You know what, I’m going to have to talk to Kent at Fade In and tell him to default to the shorter one in those circumstances.

John: Yeah, that’s probably a good solution.

Craig: Yeah, I think it is.

John: We’re making software better on this very podcast.

Craig: Yeah. And I’m not writing it on my phone. [laughs]

John: I’m going to let you take the Iceland question.

Craig: Yes. Erlinger, oh god, I get the best, I don’t know how to do the Iceland accent. Is Björk from Iceland?

John: She is?

Craig: She is so cool.

John: The coolest.

Craig: You know, I was listening in my car the other day and I was just, I had my phone on random songs and Human Behavior came up.

John: A great song.

Craig: It’s so weird. And when you listen, yeah. It just doesn’t follow [laughs] any kind of normal song structure, melodic structure and yet it totally does in its own way. What a cool, that lady is cool.

John: So I saw Björk with the Sugarcubes at Red Rocks in Colorado.

Craig: Wow.

John: And it was one of my favorite concerts ever.

Craig: Yeah, “Human behavior — if you ever, ever, ever, ever, ever…” Okay, so Erlinger from Iceland writes, “I’m a long time listener and a big fan of the show from Iceland but based in New York. And I wanted to ask you about credit when it comes to treatments in actual screenwriting. It was reported recently that Shane Black would be directing the new Predator movie and that his old Monster Squad buddy, Fred Dekker, would be writing the script based on Black’s treatment.” Very exciting news by the way says, Erlinger.

“And I started wondering how does that work credit-wise. Will Shane Black, an accomplished screenwriter with a very specific style be credited as a writer on the movie or just have a Story by credit?” Oh, there’s so much about this question that makes me angry.

John: Yeah, I knew it would be the perfect question for you, Craig.

Craig: It’s not your fault, Erlinger. I’m not angry at you. I’m angry at the universe. Let me just boil down the part that infuriates me. Will Shane Black be credited as a writer on the movie or just have a Story by credit?

Story by is writing.

John: It is.

Craig: Story by is writing credit. It is, there is story credit and there is screenplay credit. Story credit, the credit that, Erlinger, you are sort of implying isn’t really writing credit, is the credit to which separated rights are attached. In many ways, it’s the more important credit. So in this case, if a screenwriter is writing a script based on another screenwriter’s treatment, then a couple of things happen.

First, the screenplay automatically moves out of original screenplay mode into non-original screenplay mode. In this case, it would have been anyway because it’s a remake or a sequel. And if this were the only writing arrangement, so Shane Black writes a treatment, Fred Dekker writes the screenplay, they shoot the movie, then in fact the credits would read, Story by Shane Black, Screenplay by Fred Dekker, and both would receive a writing credit.

John: Yes. Now, it’s entirely possible that Fred Dekker would also receive a shared story credit if his screenplay contributed tremendous story elements that are not present in Shane Black’s script. Shane Black directing this doesn’t change the nature of the story by credit. The only thing that it will cause is that because he is a production executive on it because he’s directing it, it would go through arbitration automatically. It would have to happen.

Craig: That’s right. There is one other potential. And that is, if it’s a remake, well, I’m assuming this is a remake.

John: Yes.

Craig: Okay, in the case of a remake, a couple of interesting things. First, simply writing a treatment doesn’t guarantee you a story credit because if your treatment isn’t sufficiently or significantly different from the story of the first movie then you won’t get story credit and you know who will? The writer, the credited writer of the first movie.

So the credited writers of the first movie become participating writers in the remake, they become writer A in fact. So a lot of interesting, tricky little things going on there. But I think more importantly then the specifics of the question here is just for me to remind everybody that Story by is a writing credit.

John: Yes. A zillion years ago, I was in the discussions to do a Predator movie and did not proceed with it. But I love Predator as a franchise. I think Shane Black will do an amazing job.

Craig: Predator is a fascinating movie because it came out at a time when a lot of movies like that were coming out. There was a Schwarzenegger era.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And you had a bunch of guys in that movie that were sort of that steroidal ’80s action film. You know, Carl Weathers was in there. So it was a bit of, you know, some Rocky guys. Jesse Ventura was from wrestling, and of course, Schwarzenegger. And so I remember when I saw the ads I thought, okay, I’ll go see this because, hell, if I saw Commando, I should see this, right, I mean –

John: Totally

Craig: I basically, you know, I’ll go see whatever this guy does. And it was a great example of when you walk into a movie theater and say that was so much better than it had to be.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Yeah. It didn’t have to be that good at all. I mean, I still to this day, time makes everything better.

John: Yeah.

Craig: At the time, I remember thinking, I’m sorry, did Arnold Schwarzenegger just outrun a nuclear explosion? Did he just dive in front of a nuclear explosion and land in a ditch and he’s okay now?

John: Yeah.

Craig: And at that time I just thought that was insulting. Now, of course, it feels somehow brilliant. Time has made it brilliant. It’s made it an audacious choice.

John: [laughs] Well, he didn’t go into a refrigerator. So there wasn’t that.

Craig: Yes, he did not go into a refrigerator. They literally, they dispensed with any kind of lead lined box.

John: Arnold Schwarzenegger is his own refrigerator.

Craig: Yeah, that’s right. He just, you know what, it’s that scene we’d seen a million times where somebody runs and then as something explodes in the background they dive away and they did it this time but with a nuclear explosion, with a mushroom cloud.

John: I haven’t seen the movie in a zillion years. I remember watching it the first time on VHS over at my friend Matt’s house at like a slumber party and so we watched that and Purple Rain and other stuff, but loving it. My recollection of the movie is that after a certain point, it becomes essentially a silent film because it’s basically a two-hander between Schwarzenegger and Predator.

Craig: Right.

John: And none of them is talking which is just kind of great.

Craig: It turns out that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a far better silent film actor than he is a talking film actor. And you can see that in The Terminator.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because in The Terminator, he says, you know, “Are you Sarah Connor?” It’s only four lines, you know. “I’ll be back.” He’s a great silent actor.

John: “Fuck you, asshole.”

Craig: Yeah, exactly. He’s got a great silent actor face. He’s all physical. The more he talks, the less well it tends to go. So, of course, we made him the governor of a state. How stupid. How stupid are we? I don’t care what your politics are. How do you make that guy a governor? What? And then Jesse Ventura became governor. Two governors in that movie. From Predator.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Why isn’t Carl Weathers a governor? What’s he –

John: In an alternate universe, Carl Weathers is the president.

Craig: Carl Weathers. President Weathers.

John: Oh, it’s going to be good.

Craig: Oh, it’s so great. Oh, I love it.

John: Is Carl Weathers Action Jackson?

Craig: You know he was. Action, Action Jackson.

John: So Craig, let’s wrap up questions with my question to you.

Craig: There was a guy, a friend of mine went to a movie. And it was an action movie, but it was not Action Jackson. And there was a kid sitting in front of him, 14-year-old kid. And every time some action happened, and this was about a year after Action Jackson came out, every time any action occurred in the movie, the kid would go, “Action, Action Jackson.”

John: [laughs]

Craig: [laughs] And it was incredibly annoying. But then by the end of the movie, it became better than the movie.

John: Of course.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s great.

Craig: Action.

John: So Craig, my question for you.

Craig: Yes.

John: How was Dungeon World?

Craig: Oh, Dungeon World was great. So we had talked about the fact that we were going to play Dungeon World and it was your One Cool Thing before we played Dungeon World.

John: It was.

Craig: And our Dungeon World Group was a great group. We had Phil Hay of Ride Along and many other wonderful films.

John: R.I.P.D.

Craig: Clash of the Titans.

John: Yes.

Craig: We had Chris Morgan of The Fastest and Furious franchise. We had Michael Gilvary who writes on Chicago Fire. We had Malcolm Spellman. He’s written the, what was the family movie, the family…it was at Fox.

John: Yeah, and now I forget the name of it.

Craig: The something Family Wedding.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But he’s also currently working on a television show, Lee Daniels’ new television show called Empire. He’s on that. This is a great group and myself and you.

John: We had played over four nights I think.

Craig: Yeah, I think it was four crazy nights. And you were the Dungeon Master and whipped together a fantastic story with a great twist ending. It was such a good ending that my character was strongly contemplating suicide.

John: You know you hit a good point in the story where a character’s reasonable choice might just be to kill himself.

Craig: That’s right. But I thought it ran exactly the way it was supposed to go. You had the basic bones of a story. So there was a back story that connected to the end. There was a destination, some goal posts along the way, and there was one key artifact.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And then we kind of put it all together as a story as we went, you know. And with you guiding us, that’s exactly how it was supposed to happen. And there was a lot of deaths. Chris Morgan and I were the only characters to survive and even our survival was ironic and Twilight Zoney, a little Monkey’s Paw-ish.

John: It was a Monkey’s Paw. I found Dungeon World mostly pretty good. So for people who aren’t familiar with what Dungeon World is versus Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeon World is an attempt to make an incredibly stripped down version of a game like Dungeons and Dragons where you’ll be rolling two six-sided dice. It’s much more about the conversation and talking back and forth rather than looking up charts and doing that kind of stuff.

And one of the goals is that the players themselves should have much more responsibility for the storytelling. And that’s where I thought you guys really stepped up. And it’s also nice that you have like, you know, five screenwriters doing it. But you guys found some really great interplay between your characters and sort of I could let you roll with things and most of the times it was really good. For each night of play, I would create sort of two encounters and then let you guys figure out how you were going to get through them.

Craig: Yeah, to me the most fun really was in the way the characters interacted and how they solidified and became certain types. I think of all the character interplay, I guess my favorite of all that was when Malcolm’s character, Big Luther, continually harangued Michael Gilvary’s character, he’s ranger character, Patty, for attempting to shoot arrows through animated skeletons.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It was just a terrible choice.

John: It was a terrible choice. And that was the first night and he never gave up on it.

Craig: Yeah, he really never, yeah. And I like that Patty in his kind of depressive Eeyorish way kept saying, “That could have worked.” [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: It’s pretty great. But I also liked the interplay, my character was definitely the Loki of the group and sort of a selfish, liar. And he was a thief, so he’s all about, you know, profit. And Phil Hay’s character, Reynard, was the pompous, sanctimonious cleric. And those two guys hated each other. It was great.

John: Yeah. So one of the smart things about Dungeon World was you start with this concept of bonds and so as you’re figuring out your character, as you’re figuring out what their bonds are and sort of what their relationship is with each other. And it reminded me of a similar dynamic when we were playing Fiasco with Kelly Marcel, is that before you start the whole process, you figure out the relationships between the characters and then you figure out the characters.

Craig: Right.

John: And that was really helpful because I remember playing D&D growing up. It was so much about like which character class you are and what the plus was on your sword.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And it wasn’t about the story. And this, to its credit, was very much about the story.

Craig: Yeah, it was very, it’s funny actually, I was looking, because, you know, you and I are now talking about continuing on with you as a player and us doing a campaign in the new Dungeons and Dragons, the fifth edition which is on its way out. And I was looking, just reading a little bit and I thought, you know, I’m really interested in creating a character that’s the wrong race for the class.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: I just think that would be a cool way to begin, you know, because the truth is, yeah, does it hurt you a little bit statistically in the beginning? I suppose. But, you know, by the time you get to level whatever, who cares?

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s just more interesting.

John: It is. If I had an overall criticism of Dungeon World, I felt that it was so stripped down at times that when you actually got to fighting things, it became really hard to figure out when should you roll again. And so, you know, if Luther is fighting this guy over here, how often should you be getting back to Luther and having Luther try to attack this thing and roll his dice versus the results.

Craig: Right.

John: And that was sort of a mess. And that was me not being especially, you know, great with the structure and the rules of it all, but it didn’t seem to scale especially well to the five of us. And so the lack of initiative which is basically a system for going through and figuring out who’s turn it was to do something got to be a bit of a problem.

Craig: Well, we’ll see how it goes with this next thing, but I had a great time regardless. And I’m looking forward to the next. And mostly because my wife hates it. She doesn’t hate it like, she’s not angry at it, it just more like, “Oh God.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: You’re going to nerd, I literally put it in my calendar which she can see, I write down Nerd Fest.

John: Fantastic.

Craig: Yeah, yeah.

John: All right, it’s time for One Cool Things. So Craig, what have you got?

Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is not a repeat, although, it might sound like a repeat. It’s David Kwong who I’ve talked about before. But today, right now, on Friday the 11th of July, his TED Talk is up and available and we’ll have a link in the show notes to that. It’s a great example of what he does.

So in the TED Talk, he talks about the idea that we are all hardwired to solve and he even talks about some scientific research with infants. And then he does a trick, and the trick has a component that involves that day’s crossword puzzle. It’s very intricate, it’s very meta. David always figures out how to be meta and the meta on top of meta and meta on top of meta on top of meta. It’s a great trick, I don’t know how he does it. It’s brilliant. You should all check it out. And the best news of all it’s I think like a 13-minute video.

John: Yeah. So actually I haven’t seen the TED talk as final, the final version of it, but I got to see a rehearsal for it over at Aline Brosh McKenna’s house several months before he did it. And it’s great and he’s super smart. And just this last week, my daughter came home from summer camp and she wanted to show me a card trick and it was a mess, it didn’t work at all. And so like, I went on YouTube and like, “Let me show you David Kwong doing a real card trick.” And it was terrific. And there’s actually one YouTube clip where he actually shows you how to do a very simple card trick that would impress most people at parties.

Craig: That’s such a great father-daughter moment for you. “Oh, that’s terrible, sweetheart. Here, let me show you the best guy.”

John: [laughs]

Craig: “This is the guy who’s the best in the world. You’ll never be as good as him.” Behold, behold, have I crushed every ounce of passion out of you for this? Good. Good. You be a screenwriter like your father!”

John: To be fair, she had actually gone with me over to see David’s rehearsal so she knew who he was.

Craig: Oh, okay.

John: So it wasn’t just like… — He was fantastic. But it was actually a good father-daughter moment where she asked me, “Papa, why do you know so many famous people?”

Craig: Aw. Because daddy is special.

John: Daddy is special.

Craig: Yeah.

John: My One Cool Thing is actually related to last week’s –

Craig: Wait, she calls you –

John: Procrastination talk.

Craig: She calls you Papa?

John: I’m Papa.

Craig: She calls you Papa? That’s so German, I love it.

John: Well, we’re a two-dad family so –

Craig: I know, but see to me it I would just be dad and dad. But papa, or papa is, whatever. Let’s say, okay fine, you want two different dad type names, but papa is so wonderfully old school. It’s so Little House on the Prairie.

John: Oh, thank you.

Craig: Papa.

John: Papa.

Craig: Papa. Why, Papa?

John: But of course whenever she really just wants something, she doesn’t care who it is that gets her the thing, she’ll go, “Daddy, Papa.”

Craig: Oh, I like that.

John: It’s like one thing like, I don’t care who does it. Just one of you do this thing.

Craig: Yeah, one of you –

John: Yeah.

Craig: “Guys. Hey guys.”

John: Guys.

Craig: “Guys. Guys, I need a thing.”

John: My One Cool Thing is related to last week’s procrastination topic and it’s how I actually came upon those procrastination articles was I was in a deep click hole researching the Fermi paradox, which you’re probably familiar with.

Craig: I am.

John: So the simple way of stating the Fermi paradox is that if you assume that the Earth is not special, the Earth is mediocre in terms of places in the universe, that our solar system isn’t special, that our Earth, our planet is not that special in terms of its possibility of existing. If you look at it that way, there should be tremendous numbers of civilizations out there across the universe, across the galaxy. And our galaxy is actually fairly old, so there should be some younger ones out there that would have progressed to the point where those civilizations should have been be able find us or at least done something that we can see. But when we look out into the galaxy we don’t see any other civilizations. So the Fermi paradox is basically, where is everybody?

Craig: Right.

John: So it turns out there’s some really good explanations about, you know, why we may not be seeing other people and it could be everything from the universe, the times spans are just too huge, the distances are just too huge. It could be that there’s, the most troubling article I went through is that there may just be some filters and there may be some filters that sort of prevent civilizations from progressing beyond a certain point to where you would actually leave your home planet and travel across the wide empty spaces. So a really interesting thing. I’ll put three articles in the show notes this week.

Craig: It is interesting. There’s a lot of possible explanations. I have to say that I’ve always been the sort of person who wondered where all these people were and why aren’t they contacting us. And then I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think it was Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about this thing. I don’t know if I mentioned on the show before. He was talking about how we all wish to meet an alien intelligence and we always presume that when we meet them they’ll be basically like us.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: But he says, you know, we share something like 99% of our genetic material with chimpanzees. And the genetic material in that last 1% is that’s the difference, that’s why we are as smart as we are compared to a chimp. What if the people that we meet improbably are 99% is similar to us. That’s how similar they are to us. But unfortunately that 1% difference makes us as chimps to them.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Oh my god. We wouldn’t even understand what they’re saying and we would be like children to them.

John: Well, I think of the different possibilities with Fermi paradox, my default answer to this point is that version of we’re asking the wrong question because essentially when you get to be so advanced that you could travel across the galaxy, there’s suddenly something else that’s much more appealing to do. And so –

Craig: I see.

John: One of the ways they described that as beings is like if you were building a freeway and you pass by an anthill, you wouldn’t care about the ants on the anthill. And it’s very possible that’s we’re just the ants in the anthill. And we’re not even really aware of the freeway that’s being built.

One last bit of news on my side, I’m hiring somebody. I’m actually hiring a new employee.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So it’s very possible that someone listening to this podcast is that right employee for Quote-Unquote Films, Quote-Unquote Apps, my app development company that makes Highland and Weekend Read and Bronson. We are hiring a full time position, a UI designer. Somebody who’s really good at designing interfaces for apps both on the Mac and on iOS. We’d love somebody who is a combination of good design skills but also coding ability. We want somebody who can actually build things in Xcode. So if you are that person, there is a job posting on johnaugust.com and you should send in your resume because you might be exactly the right person.

Other bit of news and announcements, we have the first 150 episodes of Scriptnotes are now packed onto those little USB drives. So if you are a latecomer to the show and want to get caught up, that’s an easy way to get all those back episodes. So if you go to store.johnaugust.com you can buy that little USB drive that has all 150 episodes of the show, both in AAC format and mp3 format. So you can see where it all began.

Craig: How much does that cost?

John: It’s a really reasonable question. And I don’t know, I think they’re $19.

Craig: Okay. So what is a year of tuition at the worst film school cost?

John: Oh, God, I don’t know, $10,000?

Craig: Yeah, that’s minimum. That’s 10 grand for the worst experience.

John: The worst.

Craig: The worst. And then upwards of what, 30, 40 for like an NYU or USC?

John: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Craig: Yeah. So we’re –

John: Yeah, USC has got to be 40 or 45.

Craig: Right. And so you said we were $19,000 for this?

John: [laughs] No, just $19.

Craig: What? $19?

John: Move that decimal point.

Craig: Oh my, that’s crazy.

John: Yeah.

Craig: All right. Well, I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t buy it.

John: So it’s a reasonable thing to buy, if you want to buy that. Another choice if you want to go all the back episodes is you can got to scriptnotes.net and if you sign in there, if you get a premium membership there, it’s $2 a month. And that gives you access to all the back catalog. There’s an app that you can use to listen to that back catalog. There’s also occasionally we have some bonus episodes and you can find stuff in there too. So that’s another choice. $2 as opposed to $20,000, if it makes sense for you, go for it.

Craig: No, $2,000 a month is way better than –

John: Yeah, it’s way better.

Craig: Yeah, way better.

John: Oh God, if we charge $2,000 a month that would be crazy.

Craig: We would just need one person.

John: We can do one person.

Craig: And we would finally cover our bills.

John: One student at $2,000 a month.

Craig: We, as always, run at a loss.

John: We do run at a loss. Proud of that loss.

Craig: Proud, that’s our pledge to you.

John: If you have question for Craig Mazin, you should write him at @clmazin on Twitter. I am @johnaugust on Twitter. These longer questions like we answered today on the podcast, write your email to ask@johnaugust.com. If you’re on iTunes, click subscribe so that people know that you’re subscribed to this and leave us a comment while you’re there, that’s always nice too.

Podcast is produced by Stuart Friedel.

Craig: Yay!

John: The editor is Matthew Chilelli who will have his work cut out for him this week. And we love outros. And so we’re not sure which outro we’re going to use this week. But if you are a person who writes music and you would like to write an outro for our show, go to johnaugust.com/outros, I’m guessing that’s the URL. And you’ll listen to many great examples of previous people who’ve done outros and you should write us an outro and send us a link because we would love to feature it on the end of our show.

Craig: Yeah, man.

John: And so I’ll also say this is our first time ever trying to do a live broadcast, the live stream online. It kind of worked.

Craig: What did our people in the chat room, what are they saying?

John: People say –

Craig: Boo?

John:“John and Craig, great show. Thanks. Do you have time to take some questions from the people in the live audience?”

Craig: Oh, we should have done that. That would that have made –

John: Well, because we didn’t do it, but maybe next time we’ll try it again.

Craig: Your answer to we should have done that is, oh, we should have done it but we didn’t do it. That’s the answer. Why we didn’t do it? Because we didn’t do it. But I hope you people in the chat room see what I’m working with here.

John: So maybe at some point in the future we will do another one of these live-ish kind of shows. We should probably do them at night if we’re going to do them because –

Craig: Yeah, yeah. For sure.

John: People are going to be at work. But we will try to do another one of these, is at mixlr.com, M-I-X-L-R.com/scriptnotes is where we live-streamed this and it seemed to kind of work.

Craig: That’s awesome.

John: So maybe we’ll do that again.

Craig: Well, you know, I did a lot of preparation and research into this. So I’m glad that my whole system of doing the live podcast… — Never mind, I don’t do anything. Everyone knows it. I’m useless.

John: Craig Mazin, you host a great podcast and it’s all we could ever ask of you to do.

Craig: Right, that is in fact all you could ask of me because I have no other skills. [laughs] All right. Thank you, John.

John: Craig, thanks. Have great week.

Craig: You too.

John: And thanks everyone in the chat room.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Highland and other screenwriting apps on sale

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 14:38

Apple asked Highland and several other screenwriting apps to be part of their Explore Your Creativity promotion on the Mac App Store. It’s a great time to check out these apps at discounted prices, and perhaps pick a new favorite.

Highland is the app we make. It’s half off during the promotion, $14.99 rather than $29.99.

Over the past year, Highland has become the second-bestselling screenwriting app in the Mac App Store, after Final Draft (which is also on sale for $124.99). Users choose Highland for its speed and minimalism. You just type; Highland figures out which elements are which.

For the past year, I’ve done all my screenwriting in Highland and love it. You can see more about it, including a video, at our website.

Slugline is Highland’s longtime pal, also on sale for 50% off ($19.99 versus $39.99).

Slugline’s editor does more on-the-fly formatting, with text moving while you type. If you’re used to traditional screenwriting apps, you may find it comfortingly familiar. If you’re used to plain text editors, you may find it distracting.

The great news is that Slugline and Highland share the same format (Fountain), so you can freely move back and forth between them. In fact, at these prices you can get both Highland and Slugline for the cost of one, so if you’re curious about working in a plain text app, get both.

While it’s not strictly a screenwriting app, Scrivener has many fans for its extensive feature set, including corkboards, outlines, tables and images. In many ways, it’s the opposite of Highland’s minimalism, but if you need an app that can handle an thousand-page research report, Scrivener may be a good choice. It’s half-off at $29.99.

Fade In isn’t part of the Mac App Store promotion, but if you’re looking for an app that does many of Final Draft’s production features, Craig swears by it. (It’s $49.99.)

I’m excited that there are more choices than ever for screenwriters. I hope this promotion gets more users trying out alternatives, and picking the apps that suit them best.

Selling without selling out

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 08:03

In their first-ever live streaming episode, John and Craig open the mailbag to answer a bunch of listener questions.

  • What research should a writer do before soliciting an agent or manager?
  • What should a writer be willing to give up in order to make her first sale?
  • Does a Mormon writer face special challenges in drink-and-drugging Hollywood?
  • Why doesn’t Highland exist on Android?
  • What determines “Story by” credit on a feature?
  • How did we like DungeonWorld? (John asked this question.)

All this, plus the Fermi Paradox in this episode of Scriptnotes.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 152: The Rocky Shoals (pages 70-90) — Transcript

Fri, 07/11/2014 - 17:01

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: Hi! My name is Craig Mazin.

Aline Brosh McKenna: And my name is Aline Brosh McKenna.

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

Aline Brosh McKenna is here with us!

Craig: The Joan Rivers of Scriptnotes podcasting.

John: See, I debate that. I think she’s actually now the Steve Martin or the Alec Baldwin or the Tom Hanks, the returning guest host on Saturday Night Live.

Aline: Do you know which woman hosted the most?

Craig: Wait, wait, hold on. Let me think about this.

Aline: I’m almost about 62% sure this is right.

Craig: The woman that hosted — it’s a great question.

John: Melissa has only hosted twice, right?

Craig: I’m going to go with Candice Bergen.

Aline: That is correct!

John: Nicely done.

Aline: That is correct, may man.

Craig: Thank you. Thank you.

John: So, you’re really the Candice Bergen of the podcast.

Aline: Oh, I would be thrilled to be the Candice Bergen of anything.

John: And so your father was a famous ventriloquist we’re going to learn later. That’s the third act reveal is that maybe you were actually his puppet who came to life.

Craig: Why do I know that?

Aline: I don’t know why you know that.

Craig: It’s kind of weird, right?

John: I think it’s because I have seen old clips of Saturday Night Live where Candace Bergen was the host.

Aline: They did that skit when Justin Timberlake, I think it was, joined the Five Hosts. And she was in it.

Craig: Right. The Five-Timers Club.

Aline: And I think she might have been the only woman in the Five Hosting, yeah.

Craig: I wouldn’t be surprised if she would be. Paul Simon is also a member of that club.

Aline: John Goodman.

John: Oh, yes, John Goodman.

Craig: Nice. Well, you’re the Candace Bergen of the… — I like keeping the gender appropriate.

Aline: Yes. I like it. I would rather –

John: I think it’s good stuff.

Craig: You’d rather be a lady.

Aline: Yeah, I’d rather be a lady.

Craig: So would I.

John: Aline is here today because she wrote in with two topics that she really wanted to talk about. So, we’re so happy to have you here. The topics that you proposed to us, actually maybe kind of three topics really, the Rocky Shoals, page 70 to 90, that end of your second act going into the third act and the challenge that is for a writer.

We’re also going to talk about tone and sort of how important tone is in your script and how to create tone, how to keep tone.

We’re going to talk about mentors. And we’re also going to talk about procrastination. So, it’s going to be a busy podcast.

Craig: So much to do.

Aline: So much.

John: Four topics. Three hosts.

Craig: Plus we have Aline, which is already adds another 40 minutes of bizarre analogies.

Aline: Analogies. I’ve got my Dan Rather going on.

John: So, we’re here recording this live and in person. Usually we’re on Skype, but we’re all actually looking at each other. And I think the last time I was in this space was with you when we did the Frozen podcast which was a great episode. And last time you were here, Craig, was the Final Draft episode.

Craig: [laughs] Last time I was here –

Aline: Which is a classic.

Craig: Was one of my favorite days.

Aline: That’s a classic. It’s a classic.

Craig: It is in fact a classic.

Aline: It is a classic.

Craig: It’s hard to say that about something you’ve done, but that episode should go in the podcasting hall of fame as far as I’m concerned.

John: So, we’ve set a very high bar. But let’s get started. Let’s get started with those rocky shoals. So, talk to us about what you mean by this topic.

Aline: Well, this is something that I’ve always found to be true and in talking to other writers I have found it also true for them. Which is the first act tends to be the funnest and easiest to write. You often overwrite the first act. You often write the 38 pages when it needs to be 29, but it’s usually because it’s the thing that you spent the most time on which is the setup and the idea and you have the most information about it.

And what I’ve found is that after the first part of act two, where you’re sort of setting up the pins to knock them down — analogy — in the second part what you’re really doing is sort of building that on ramp to the third act. And I know Craig has talked many times about how you need to know that third act to write the movie, and it’s best if you know the third act, and I agree with that. And I find third acts not, I would say, on a par with first acts in terms of difficulty to write.

But if I’m going to have an existential crisis, if there is going to be a moment where I drive home from work and say to my husband, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how I’ve ever written one of these before, I don’t understand how these work,” it will always be around 71 where I start to feel like, you know, it should start to spit out material, and it’s probably the stuff you have the least of in the outline. But it should start to spit out steps to this thing that you know you’re going to.

So, often I know exactly what the third act is and I can see it. And it’s just over the crest, but I need those steps, and 70 to 90 are those steps. And if something is wrong, if you’ve conceived a character incorrectly, if the action in the third act is in fact wrong, if your thematic are wrong, that’s where it’s all going to fall down. It almost never falls apart in act one. For me it almost never falls apart in act three. It’s always 70 to 90 is the moment where I think, oh boy.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: In act one you’re setting things up. And that’s the part of the movie where you had the best idea of what it really was. That was probably what got you to start writing the movie. You had this idea, and that was probably act one.

Act three, you’re closing stuff down. You’re cutting off those threads, you’re tying stuff up. Final confrontations. But there is not a defined thing that’s sort of supposed to happen in that stretch that you’re talking about. There’s probably been some big thing that happened in the middle of your second act, but now you’re kind of waiting for this third act thing to happen. You’re waiting for either the worst of the worst, or this big twist, this big reveal, and you don’t want to do anything before its time. But, yeah, it’s a tough moment.

Craig: Well, it is. Although I kind of feel like that’s the point. You know, your character is going through this process and that’s the part of the movie where they’re lost, right? Your plot is building in a certain way and that’s the part of the movie where the plot and the simplicity of what’s supposed to happen doesn’t work anymore. It’s natural for us to get to that place and start to feel overwhelmed. Oddly, we give ourselves a break from page 30 — well, the ending is far away, I’m relaxed.

When you get to page 70 you think, well the ending is supposed to be coming up soon but it also still feels far away. It feels further away now that I’m at 71 then it did when I was at 30. But I feel like that’s the purpose of that section. In a weird way pages 71 and 90 in every movie is a horror movie, in every genre. That’s where the horror is. It’s where everything is supposed to basically fall apart, otherwise your ending is kind of a “who cares?”

So, if you start to embrace the fact that you’re supposed to feel that way, particularly if you’re connected to your main character and the movie is supposed to fall apart. You have to break it to fix it. Then maybe, you’ll still be scared, but at least you’ll understand why.

Aline: You know how Ted Elliott talks about that stuff where you make those first couple decisions about a movie and then you’re sort of — you have the consequences of those you can’t ever get back. I feel like to use one of my tortured analogies that to get — you’re going to have a lot of stuff and you’re winnowing. The process of a movie really is winnowing down thematically and plot wise.

And I always feel like it’s like you’re at the edge of a river. You’re Tarzan. You’re trying to get to this place across and there’s ten vines. And you can only pick a couple to swing across on. And I just have had a couple times where I’ve gotten there and thought which one is taking me, is the right path to act three. And I think that’s probably the section that I rewrite the most because often I have an act three I really like, but it might not land if the onramp is not — if I have not picked the right thing to swing across on.

John: One of the things I think you’re describing may be part of the problem. If you’re describing it as an onramp then you’re not describing what the actual — what’s the joy of that part of the movie? If it’s only doing work, then there’s not a joy to that part of the movie.

Aline: Right.

John: One of the scripts that I was working with at Sundance this last year, as I was talking with the writer we were trying to figure out how to move some scenes around, or sort of what could go where. And I had him really rethink the whole thing in terms of sequences. And so basically like imagine this is the sequence that goes from here to here, the sequence that goes from here to here. And within that sequence, those are the edges of your sequence — what is the movie? Like imagine that little sequence as its own movie.

And maybe that’s the key to what the 70 to 90 is, is think about, well, given where we’re at what is the movie of 70 to 90 and how can we make the most interesting movie in that place?

Craig: That movie also is… — One thing, it’s funny, I actually have a weirdly opposite point of view that it is true, as we make choices, the breadth of choices that are available to us begin to narrow. But that section to me is actually the one place where you get to not worry about that because, for instance, that’s the point in movies a lot of times when somebody gets really drunk, or gets high, or has a vision, or a dream. That part of the movie you’re allowed to almost become non-linear. And then arrive at something kind of –

Aline: But you need propulsion. It’s too late in the movie to not be propulsive. And I often find I’m in that section cutting stuff because it feels early act two-y.

Craig: Maybe so. I mean, to me if you’ve gotten your character to a place where they are disconnected from the life they had, but they are no longer at the life they need to live, then you’re allowed to get arty horror, I guess. I don’t know how else to put it. You’re allowed to break the rules of your movie and actually plunge them into a moment where out of it they can have an epiphany or something.

I was just telling John before the show began that I’m plotting out the story of the script that I’m about to write and I got to this point. And I understood that my character needed to have an epiphany, but well how do you have — it’s hard to create an epiphany. If you can create it that simply then it’s probably not that satisfying.

So, part of what I did was just relax. I don’t know how else to put it. Like you can start to beat yourself up when you get to that section because you feel like, oh my god, ugh. And then it has to make this half propulse and make the ending happen and all the rest. I just weirdly just relaxed.

Aline: But I do think it’s the point where the audience starts to get shifty. It’s just the part in the movie after the first hour and it’s the thing that I always refer to in meetings as you really don’t want people to be sitting there going, “Did I park on P2 or P3? Honey, was it P2 or P3?” And they’re thinking that. And that’s where if it’s going to go south it’s going to be there.

I mean, you have such tremendous goodwill in act one. You really do. And I always find, I have a friend who watches movies going, “I’m at an A. I’m at an A+. I’m at a B. I’m at a B-. I’m at a C.” Like that’s how he experiences a movie. And so often you watch a movie and you’re like, I’m at an A. I don’t know why people didn’t like this. I’m at an A. I’m at an A. But getting back to you’re like at a B. And then it’s always an hour in where you’re like, oh, we just wandered into D- here. Like we’ve lost our way.

That’s always the — that really is. That’s why I say, “Rocky shoals, men from the boys, you know?”

Craig: Yeah. Because you can get into a treading water syndrome where you kind of think, oh, I’m not allowed to have my ending yet. I need to do some work. You actually don’t. Like for instance one solution to your 71 to 90 problem is that it’s really 71 to 80.

John: Yeah, you’re cutting it short.

Aline: And you know what I will say? I worked with Alex Kurtzman and he said something to me that I really think about all the time. He’s like, “You always need less stuff than you think you need.”

Craig: It’s so true.

Aline: It is so true. You pack up for your screenplay and you’ve got like giant suitcases and a duffle and a carryon slung across you. And you always get through and go, “Why did I bring all this stuff? I didn’t need all this stuff.”

Craig: But you don’t know what you need until you get to the resort.

Aline: You don’t know what you need until you get there!

Craig: Yeah, but you should just be willing to not wear everything at once. Right.

John: Well, let’s talk about like that heading into that last section. If we talk about a movie as being a character’s transformation and hopefully you’re going to have this arc of transformation. They start at one place and they end up in a different place. And that transition to act three is really the lowest of the lowest, that moment of great transformation. Everything seems lost. All hope is gone.

There may be an opportunity in that 70 to 90 phase for the character to try a new thing, to try a new persona, to try a new approach that may not end up succeeding, but you can see it’s a step on their way to this next thing. So, they wouldn’t get to the character they’re going to be at the end if they hadn’t tried this new thing. And that could lead you into the new thing.

It may also be a moment for — I’m a big believer in burning down the house. Like literally I will burn down the house as much as I possibly can. And sometimes you’re burning down the house at the start and that’s instigating the whole story. But sometimes you’re burning down the house at the act two moment, that’s like that was the worst of the worst and their house got burned down. But it can be a fascinating time to literally burn down their house or destroy everything they have at that moment before the real end of act two. And so this is a section where they’re forced to sort of be on their own. They’re force to sort not be able to go back.

Aline: I’ll give you a somewhat, it’s not super specific, but in the script I’m writing midway through this character has had a relationship with — a woman has had a relationship with a man. And halfway through she realizes he’s not who she thought she was. And the third act is her realizing, oh, he’s a good guy. I’m going to go help him and save him.

But in between, oh, he’s not the person I thought he was, in that 70 to 90, she’s trying to decide or figure out is he the good guy or bad guy of this story. That’s really what’s she’s doing is she’s going back and forth between trying to figure out was I right to be drawn to this person or not. And at the end she’s, yes, and she goes — so, she is in a treading water kind of a thing where she’s investigating and it is a little bit like a horror movie because she’s sort of going down halls and trying doors.

And my challenge has been to pick the things that allow her to be in a little bit of a suspended state, which you often are in that section, right?

Craig: Without feeling like –

Aline: Without feel like –

Craig: The movie is just flat-lining across. I know what you mean.

Aline: Yes. Exactly.

Craig: Well, sometimes also the way to approach those sections is to think of them as false endings. So, okay, in her mind this movie needs to end on page 90. So, perhaps then she just decides I’m going to make a decision. I don’t know if it’s the right decision or not, but I’m making a decision and I’m going to confront this person and I’m going to blow this thing up. And that’s going to be the end of this movie. And she does it. But then it’s not, you know?

Aline: Right. Right.

Craig: Or sometimes if it is a heist movie, this is where we’re going to do the thing, oh my god, it just –

Aline: Well that’s exactly, really smart, because that’s the part in the heist movie where everybody is moving in and getting the thing and the acrobat is in the box and all that stuff is happening. And I think one of the reasons really truly that I find it challenging is not often because I don’t know what to do, but because the execution of that, if it’s elegant and wonderful like it is in Ocean’s, if it’s an elegant, wonderful, surprising thing, it elevates the movie and if it’s the kind of thing where the audience goes, yeah, yeah, okay, so that’s the part where blah, blah — I think the onus on the level of execution in that particular thing is quite high. I just think they’re not in a — an audience is not in as forgiving a mood.

Craig: Yeah, no, you have to write it well.

Aline: Yes.

John: [laughs]

Aline: The solution to all your writing problems is write things well.

Craig: Yeah, you have to do that part good.

Aline: But I do find, I always think of it as like going down a rapids thing and then you get there and you’re like, oh, you know, here it is. Rocky shoals.

John: Part of the challenge may be with your project, but all projects in that 70 to 90 phase is that you want to sort of keep your hero active. So, right now in your case like she’s opening doors and she’s investigating, but that character doesn’t necessarily know where the end is. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for.

Aline: Exactly. That’s right.

John: And I think part of the reason why movies often feel aimless in this part is you’re not communicating to the reader and to the audience what the character is trying to do and where the character thinks they’re headed. And so sometimes you just literally need to put a place or you need to put — explicitly state a goal, like I need proof that he is this person. I need proof that he really did this thing, so we know what they’re really trying to do.

Aline: I’ve noticed this a lot in action movies where they wrap their movie up on page 85 and they start a new movie.

Craig: Right.

John: Yup. Absolutely.

Aline: Every action, I mean, I actually really admired in X-Men it did not feel that way, the latest X-Men. I felt like it was a true continuation. But a bunch of the super hero movies I’ve seen and the action movies I’ve seen recently, it seems like you all just stop at the end of act two and then there’s new creatures, and new stakes. And then they go to a… — And that’s a note. In the third act you often go to a new setting, a new environment.

Craig: I actually don’t love that syndrome. And I think that’s part of the new creature of movie as theme ride theme room.

Aline: That’s exactly how it feels. It’s like that thing where you’re in that strap in a ride and you get around the corner and you see that last thing.

Craig: Right, you’re like, oh, I thought I was done, but there’s one more thing. You know, and that’s fine. But for an integrated story that you’re telling, I think, John’s got the exact right advice. There’s a — even if the character doesn’t have clarity, that’s good. But the audience needs clarity.

Aline: That’s right.

Craig: And you need clarity to know what the hell you need to do.

Aline: She doesn’t need to know what’s going on, but you don’t want the audience to be like, “What is she doing?”

Craig: Right. Even if she sets an artificial thing up, okay, I’m giving myself 48 hours. I’m like a jury now. I’m going to collect evidence over 48 hours and then I’m going to render a verdict. Verdict: you’re not good; I’m dumping you.

Aline: Right.

John: Another possibility would be to shift POV. So, if your story has really locked POV to one character –

Aline: That’s when you can switch.

John: That might be the right moment to switch and actually see things from the other point of view.

Aline: Listen, you guys are very expensive, so if we do a lot more of this on the air I’m going to be owing you guys a lot of dough.

Craig: Uh, you already do.

John: Yeah.

Aline: That’s a great idea because you know what’s funny –

Craig: As John Gatins says, “The meter is running.”

Aline: It’s funny when you have a single perspective movie, it does get exhausting. And that’s a great kind of technical tip just to try, even if you don’t end up keeping it, which is go to the other lead, go to the other main relationship and write what they’re doing for awhile and see if that is — because that creates a nice intriguing mystery for the audience, which is you want to get back to your lead. That’s an excellent tip.

John: One of the other exercises I do with people when I’m sitting down and talking about their scripts is I’ll ask them like, okay, you have written a thriller here, but let’s imagine this as a crazy comedy. Let’s imagine this as a western. This imagine this in a completely different genre.

Aline: Yes

John: And sometimes you’ll figure out what the beats would be in that other kind of genre and that you won’t necessarily be able to apply those directly, but it will get you thinking in different ways.

So, in your case, if your movie is predominately not a thriller, but these are thriller moments, like let’s talk about the real thriller of this, and then you can sometimes bend those elements back into your –

Aline: Well, I don’t think it’s funny because this is sort of what Lindsay Doran’s thing is, but every movie I’ve written in any genre, you always start going — someone always says, or you say to yourself, “This is really a love story about these two people.”

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: All movies are.

Aline: Always. All movies are.

Craig: If they’re done right.

Aline: They’re always a love story between two people.

John: 21 Jump Street is a love story.

Aline: Sometimes you have the wrong people. I mean, name any movie we love, ET, even movies that are — every Hitchcock movie. I mean, they’re love stories.

John: Cast Away.

Craig: All movies have a central relationship. All of them. And knowing your central relationship and playing that through. And she has this great thing. She talks about how some movies it’s do a thing, and then you get the relationship. And some movies the relationship is the thing.

Aline: That’s right.

Craig: Which I love. I love both kinds.

Aline: That’s great.

Craig: But I think it’s not — the Rocky Shoals aren’t so rocky. You know, we know this because we get through them. Once you’re done with it, and you’ve fixed it, and you know what you’re doing and you’ve solved that problem, when you look back you go, “There’s no rocks. There’s no shoals.”

Aline: Yeah, well, of course. Any writing problem once you fix it it’s like why was that a problem, yeah.

Craig: So, I guess my point is that over time, we’ve been doing this long enough to know, when you get to that place, see if you can’t subtract the fear of it from the equation. The answer may come, I don’t know if it will be a better answer, but it will probably come quicker. I do believe that. I believe that relaxing and not tensing up will probably make it go faster. I love speed.

John: Yeah, speed is good.

Craig: Speed.

John: Speed is also a solution to our next issue.

Craig: Segue Johnny.

John: Segue Johnny.

Craig: This is my new character, Segue Johnny.

John: So, on episode 131 we talked about procrastination. And there was this great article by Megan McArdle that we talked through. And her thesis was essentially –

Craig: She was great in Annie.

John: Megan McArdle was the best.

Aline: She was amazing. Amazing.

Craig: She was amazing.

John: And now look at her. She’s writing for The Atlantic.

Craig: Unbelievable. Oh, wait a second.

John: It’s really just incredible. No, possibly a different person. McArdle’s thesis was essentially procrastination especially for writers stems out of the fact that we were probably raised being the best writers in our class. Everyone was like, “Oh, you’re so good,” and it was really easy for us. And then we actually sit down to really do writing and it’s hard. And then we start to wonder, wait, am I even good at this. And that was the sort of thesis in her piece which I thought was terrific.

This last week I went sort of down a click hole and I came across this great article, this two-part post by Tim Urban on this site Wait But Why, where he looks at procrastination less through psychology and more as a process. What does it actually feel like to procrastinate? And when you go into deep procrastination, what is that really all about.

And I thought it was great. So, I sent links to you guys.

Aline: Well, here’s the thing. I was supposed to read it.

Craig: And you didn’t read it?

Aline: I procrastinated for too long. And I also know that John will always summarize things.

John: Oh, I’m going to summarize the hell out of this.

Aline: So well.

Craig: John always summarizes things.

Aline: So, I kind of felt like –

Craig: You didn’t have to do it?

Aline: No.

Craig: Well, that’s not procrastination. That’s just laziness.

Aline: It is. That’s right, they’re close, but they’re not the same.

John: Well let me talk through it, because I thought it was a great article, and we’ll have links to both of these posts, but talking through his thesis is a good way to sort of get into it. He sort of rails against fake procrastinators, and a fake procrastinator is the people who are like, “Oh, I look at Facebook two or three times a day.” It’s like, well that’s amateur. That’s not real procrastination.

He defines real procrastination as when the instant gratification monkey shows up and basically sends you through a stack of small little tasks and he calls it the dark playground, which is all things which would be perfectly well and good if you were in your real leisure time, but you’re not in your leisure time. You are in work time. And instant gratification monkey wants you to look at this thing, and look at that thing, and look at this thing, and that thing. Or, if you’re making plans, they’re like these really kind of vague plans, these sort of dreamy plans that don’t actually take you anywhere.

And eventually instant gratification monkey takes up so much time that like, oh, it’s too late to really get started tonight, so I’m going to have to get started tomorrow. And everything gets pushed back. The challenge with this kind of procrastination is eventually a panic monster will show up and scare the monkey away and you will get those things done that you have to get done. But all the things you kind of want to get done will never get done.

You’ll never actually do those things you kind of would love to get done because it’s only the most emergent situations happen. So, I thought it was a great article, a great sort of description of sort of what it feels like when you’re in that deep procrastination hole. And –

Aline: I could have been learning Spanish.

John: There’s so many things you could have been doing if you hadn’t been feeding that stupid little monkey.

Craig: Well, I love the dark playground metaphor. It was great, because he nailed the bittersweet pleasure of goofing off when you know you shouldn’t be goofing off. You are doing it because it does provide some instant gratification, but it’s bitter. You know you’re not doing the right thing.

John: It’s not actually as much fun as it would be.

Craig: You can’t really enjoy it and you start to feel — and all this comes from self-loathing. Look, all of the procrastination that keeps you from what he calls flow, which is the point where you finally just start doing the thing. And he says, “Look, everybody has got to go through,” I think what does he call it, the tunnel, the crisis tunnel?

John: Yeah. There’s like dark woods that lead you to the tunnel.

Craig: The hardest part when the monkey is the most angry is when you’re about to start. But when you finally do it and you get through and you get into the flow of it, then it is the happy playground, because you’re doing something that’s positive and good and you’re free. And you lose track of time and it’s wonderful.

But all this procrastination, all the tip-toeing, and the dipping your foot in the pool and then backing away, or reading email all at once, and so on and so forth is about your fear of what it means for you to be doing this thing that you on the one hand want to do, and on the other hand are terrified of doing, either because you’re afraid that you’ll fail, or you don’t think you’re very good, or you think — or all you can remember is the hard parts of it, but not the fun easy parts.

And, you know, I liked everything. I mean, I thought he laid it out beautifully. I will say in defense of procrastination that sometimes when I read stuff like this I think, well, you’ve absolutely described the process that we can generally look at as negative. And you’ve given us a prescription to avoid it, but we can’t really avoid it. I mean, we are human, and it’s going to happen no matter what.

And to some extent I’ve given myself a pass.

Aline: I have, too. After many years I have, too.

Craig: A loose rigid thing, like okay, I know I’ve got to be here, but I can wander to get there.

Aline: I’ve come to believe that it’s so widespread that I’ve just come to believe it goes with the territory. Nick Hornby has a hilarious thing about his day and how he starts writing at four or five o’clock and all the things he’s done before. It’s just so widespread that I feel like it must be part of it. And one of the things, you know, writers are so protective of their whole day. Like I don’t like to have to relocate.

Like if I have a writing day and it’s going to start at nine or ten, and I’m going to write till five or six, I don’t want a lunch.

Craig: Right.

Aline: I don’t want to go anywhere. And it’s not totally rational because within that, but I know, the reason for that is I want to get all my procrastinating done once. I want to just bang out as much baloney that doesn’t need to get done one time. And if I go away and come back, I’m going to have to have another session of –

Craig: Started up again.

Aline: Airbnb, whatever. And I don’t want to do that again.

Craig: Airbnb?

John: [laughs] That’s your click hole? Finding vacation destinations for trips you may never take.

Aline: That’s a new one. Get on there, because there is some really good stuff.

Craig: Airbnb, huh?

Aline: Oh my god, any place you want to in the world. Anywhere you want to go in the world. Some fabulous places to stay.

Craig: Really? So that’s better than hotels?

Aline: Yeah, because it’s someone’s fabulous house.

John: Oh, it’s much better.

Craig: That’s what I should do.

John: That’s what we did in France last year.

Aline: It’s less expensive. It’s great.

Craig: I was thinking of maybe going to London with Melissa. I should Airbnb it?

Aline: Oh, must talk to Ling.

Craig: Must talk to Ling? All right.

Aline: Yeah, it’s a great click hole. But I’ve learned that that’s why I don’t like to write at my house and then go write at the office, because then I know… — And the funniest thing is when you get into the productive work part, every time you’re like, what was hard? This is great. I enjoy this.

John: This is fine.

Aline: I enjoy doing this. Why don’t I just sit down and do this?

Craig: It takes effort to start.

Aline: Have either one of you ever once when you were not in production, because in production its different. Have you ever once when you were writing a first draft ever sat down, opened your computer, opened the document, and started?

Craig: Never.

Aline: Never.

Craig: Never.

Aline: Never. Have you?

John: I don’t think so.

Aline: Never.

Craig: Never. Why? I mean –

Aline: I have stuff to do.

Craig: Yeah, and you know, Dennis Palumbo has often said that procrastination for writers, I mean, procrastination is basically like masturbation, which of course is its own procrastination.

Aline: Yes. Yes.

Craig: When you’re not looking Airbnb.

John: Let’s talk about an instant gratification monkey.

Aline: And I actually think one of the reasons it feels sort of tawdry is because it has this onanistic quality.

Craig: Right. But, you know, if you masturbate too much, like I remember when I was a kid I would listen to Dr. Ruth and she’s like, “It’s okay. Masturbation is fine unless it’s destroying your day.” And I thought, listen, that’s good. Because it’s not destroying my day. I’m getting stuff done. So, I’m cool with this. So, assume that it’s not destroying your day. It’s okay.

His whole theory is that procrastination in part is allowing the subconscious writing mind to kind of just do some stuff. And we can’t access it, so it doesn’t even seem like anything is happening. But then when you sit down and write like, okay, things were kind of — we weren’t ready. It’s just you weren’t ready to write.

Aline: That’s exactly what I think.

John: Yeah, I think that’s an excuse a lot of times.

Craig: Ah, here comes the German. [laughs]

John: But truly, and this is as a person who has done some professional procrastination. I can say like, oh, I was really kind of thinking about stuff, but I really wasn’t thinking about stuff. I was just sort of clicking through headlines or doing other stuff. I generally have the experience, like Aline says, is once I actually finally sat down and actually started writing I was like, once I was 20 minutes into it I was like, oh, this is fine, this is good, this wasn’t nearly as bad as I figured.

Aline: And the funny thing is then if I need to take a break to go check an email or whatever, I can get back into the work. Once I’ve really started I can take little tiny breaks and get back in.

Craig: Sure. Because you’re in a groove.

Aline: But if I walk away for the day, or I go have lunch with somebody, and that’s the thing, it’s –

John: You’re never going to get back into it.

Aline: It’s an engine. And what’s frustrating is we don’t really know how to start it or keep it running.

Craig: Well, you know, the thing that I think is so frustrating about starting and scary about starting is what if you start and nothing happens. Right?

There’s that thing of the first, when you just start typing you’re like [gibberish] because it’s like you’re waking up and you’re supposed to running. What if I can’t? What if I can’t? But then it starts to be, okay, you essentially defeat the fear that you’re not going to be able to do anything, because of course if you start, what if there’s the day that you start writing and nothing happens? That’s it. You’re done.

Aline: Well, also we all know that sometimes you have days where you write great stuff. And some days you have days where you write terrible stuff. And you don’t know which one of those days is coming.

Craig: That’s true.

John: Absolutely true.

Craig: That is true.

Aline: And I think that’s a huge part of it is putting off like the verdict.

Craig: I will say that’s why I am a big believer in preparation, because I don’t mind having a bad story day. I have a bad story day, screw it. I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ll redo the index cards.

John: A bad writing day you really feel like that’s –

Craig: A bad writing day is like a punch to the guts. So, when you know that you’ve got your story laid out and it is the summation of only good story days, and all bad story days have been subtracted out of it, it’s hard to have a bad writing day.

John: One thing I will say in my defense: I write out of sequence, and so part of the joy of writing out of sequence, if I kind of sense that I’m not going to have a great day, I can do the less important scenes. Because there are always going to be some moments in a script that are kind of people walking through doors. And it’s really more about sort of the connecting A to B rather than like the best, most brilliant dialogue.

Aline: What I think is hard for people who don’t write to understand is it’s not like there’s a house there and you need to go paint it and you’re standing there with paints and you’re not going over to paint it.

What’s happening is –

Craig: Another one –

Aline: You’re standing there with paints. And there may not be a house there at all. There may be nothing there. And sometimes you get over there with your paints to go paint the house and you’re like, this thing has one wall, no roof.

Craig: I just can’t wait to see the animated version of all these, again.

Aline: That is the true fear is that, because I love to write dialogue. Scene work is my favorite thing. But that’s not the fear. The fear is that you’re going to get there and it’s not going to make sense, it’s not going to be purposeful. And anybody whose written everything knows what it feels like to delete 40 pages.

John: Yeah, it’s brutal. So, if you’d read the articles you would see that –

Craig: But you’re lazy.

John: They use that metaphor of a house often. And basically the idea that nobody builds a house. You sort of put down brick and you put down a brick, but you can’t really build a whole house. And really a screenplay is the same way. You can’t write a screenplay. You can only write a scene. And you can’t really write a scene. You can only write this little part of a scene.

Craig: You can only write a word at a time and a letter at a time. I mean, there is a comfort to sort of saying, oh, I don’t have to write a script. I just have to write some words today.

Aline: But what if you do all those bricks and then you realize like this whole chunk over here needs to go?

John: It’s incredibly frustrating. Yeah.

Craig: But no matter what, even if you get all the way to the end and you didn’t have to do that, you’re going to then have to do it. That never stops. But the point is then, okay, remove the burden of saying I’m writing something that we’re shooting. You’re not. You’re writing something that’s going to begin a conversation about whether or not we should shoot this and what should we shoot.

Aline: And it’s so much easier to write when you’re in production, because you have to. You just do it.

Craig: Well, it’s also you know you have the cast. You have the locations. You have the places.

John: Well, you also have the panic monster, though. That panic monster showed up, because if you don’t deliver, there’s nothing to shoot. And everyone is relying on you. So, the panic monster shows up. The little monkey is terrified. It goes running for the woods. And suddenly you’re just there like, oh, I guess I’m going to have to write this thing.

Craig: Well, the other thing is in production I have to say that’s when our self-esteem generally at its highest. We’ve gotten a script made. We are the writer. Everybody is waiting. We actually feel like we’re a big boy or a big girl.

Aline: Doing something purposeful.

Craig: You have like a job, like a real job that you have to show up to.

Aline: That’s right.

Craig: Suddenly we feel quite good about ourselves. It’s when we’re at home, either masturbating, or looking at Airbnb that we’re kind of like, is this…?

Aline: What is this?

Craig: If I went into a coma for a week, no one would know and it probably wouldn’t even change the process that much.

Aline: No, nothing feels better than when someone says, “Can you write this scene where we get from here to there,” like a really specific, purposeful scene that you know is going to be in the movie and you can just make it awesome with some paint.

Craig: Yeah. Somebody actually gives you a path to accomplishment, which we never have. And that’s why I often think when I’m in Ralph’s, I would like to work the night shift here because I know I could, if given the task to put these boxes on that shelf, that at the end of the night I would feel good.

John: Well, the thing I loved most about school was like it was really clear that I could finish.

Aline: That’s just what I was going to say.

John: Yeah, so like I loved being graded, I loved getting tests, I loved turning –

Aline: And that’s why it’s not smart people… — I mean, a lot of screenwriters are smart people. But a lot of people who are really book smart/school mart who try to be writers are very frustrated because you can’t just do your calculus homework and write your history paper and hand it in.

Craig: No extra credit.

Aline: And there’s none of that. And the completion can often be fake completion. And –

Craig: And effort is simply not enough. You could triple your effort and things get worse. It’s brutal.

John: Yeah, even like –

Craig: Why would anyone do this?

Aline: I have no idea.

John: Even like coding, like you’re building an app or a game, either it runs or it doesn’t run. Fundamentally there is a bullion sort of outcome. Like, yes, it worked or it didn’t work, versus this sort of mishmash where you just don’t know what actually ended up happening.

So, let’s wrap this up –

Craig: Worst job ever.

John: Worst job ever. Don’t do it.

Some of the standard advice for avoiding procrastination or to actually getting started can be looked at sort of through this lens. And so we often talk about Freedom, that little utility that you can put on your computer that shuts down your internet connection. It’s just a way of taking away your monkey’s toys. That basically the monkey has nothing to do because you’re not letting him. So, either turning off your internet connection, getting a computer that doesn’t have internet, or in my case I often will just go someplace and barricade myself in a hotel room without computers and without anything else for a couple days and break the back of a script.

Because I find I just can’t get started if I don’t sort of have a certain critical mass of material.

Craig: Yeah. I find that if I turn my email off, that sometimes is enough. It’s okay for me, like once I’m going, to just jump over, check Twitter for two seconds, or check the Yankee game or whatever.

But it’s the email is the killer. That’s the one where somebody will write something and now I have to write to respond to them and now I’m writing, like I shouldn’t be writing anything other than what I’m writing.

Aline: It’s so funny how when you’re procrastinating you’re grateful for every email because you’re like, ooh, I have to take care of this. And then when you’re writing it’s like why are you people bothering me?

Craig: If my phone, if people are texting, sometimes I’ll get into like a group text with some of my friends. And the texts are coming in. I’ll just turn the phone off, like completely. I don’t even hear the [vibrate noise]. I don’t want to hear any of it. I get so angry that anyone is infiltrating my little world.

John: How dare they?

Craig: How dare they?

John: Aline Brosh McKenna, you suggested the topic of tone. What shall we talk about with tone?

Aline: Tone. Well, it’s funny, it’s something that I feel like I have thought a lot about more over the years. And one of the things I’ve noticed is when someone gives me a script that I think is unsuccessful, often I think because information about screenwriting has proliferated, people are able to do sort of the basic building blocks of a story, but often it doesn’t feel like anything. It’s toneless. It feels like you don’t know how to feel.

And I’ve noticed that in scripts of people who are starting out, that writing tone and establishing a tone is actually very difficult and something that we don’t talk about a ton. And it’s a real intangible. And I have also found that when you’re developing a screenplay you can outline it, you can talk about it, you can talk about the characters, you can really talk and talk and talk, but the tone is the thing that you can’t really describe to people until it’s on a piece of paper.

Craig: You can use another movie as an example. I mean, I always think of tone, people talk about all the time about the rules of the world of the movie. Okay, so this is what physics is like in the movie. If it’s science-fiction, these things can happen. If it’s a certain kind of movie, people can get hit and not get hurt. Those are the rules of the world.

Tone is almost the rules of the way humans interact and express themselves. Is it the kind of movie where people can say and do outrageous things and it just kind of goes by? Is it the kind of movie that’s very hewing towards our natural understanding of the way the world is? Is it a tone where everyone is super buff and action hero and if you get punched you don’t really feel it? And if somebody dies you can quip?

All that stuff is about the rules of human expression and interaction.

Aline: And often when you’re reading something that’s not successful you’re like all those things are happening, competing things are happening. But, you know how when a movie starts and in the first ten seconds you feel like you’re in good hands or you’re not? And I always think of the beginning of True Grit. There’s that voiceover and then there’s the shot of the guy goes flying out of the bar and is on the ground and then the snow falls and there’s voiceover.

You just feel like, oh, I know how I’m supposed to feel. And that’s not theme. That’s a feeling. And because as screenwriters we don’t have actors, and we don’t have costumes, and we don’t have photography, we just have words. And establishing it through word choice and how the characters behave, your diction, all these things which I think are very hard — I think you can only learn them by doing them and by understanding that if you are writing a fast-paced action thing and you’re writing in staccato phrases and underlining things, it just will feel a different way.

Or if you’re writing a comedy and you’re putting jokes and asides, and I was writing with this young woman, we’re doing this Showtime pilot, and she was really surprised at how florid my scene descriptions are. And they have gotten over time, like I’ll put — instead of a line of dialogue, so it will say how are you today. And then in the scene description it’ll say, “I’m fine, thanks.” But there’s no line.

And that’s because over time it’s like the actor may not need a line. If it’s just a shot of them –

Craig: Making an expression. Without words.

Aline: Exactly. And I often will put in jokes and asides and comments, not in a distracting way, but in a way that says this is the tone of this piece. And in the piece we were writing it actually was important to establish the tone outside of just the dialogue and the description because just a flat description of what you’re seeing is continuity, it’s not a screenplay.

And it has been one of those things that it’s your voice, it’s the voice of the script, but we spend a lot of time talking about the mechanics and I understand why because they’re very difficult, but one of the things that Craig talks a lot about, which is theme, I feel like people don’t talk about theme enough. But I also feel like people don’t talk about tone enough and how to make it feel on that first page, you should feel like I’m in this movie and I know what movie I’m in. And then when you are developing a script it’s often that’s the thing that people either connect to the tone, knowing that you can always move the building blocks of a story around. And you’re going to be doing that.

You’re going to be shuffling those things around. If the tone is not successful, that’s a very difficult — that’s such a pervasive thing. So, it’s something to think about before you start writing. And as Craig said, you can point to other movies, or look at other screenplays. If you read that True Grit script, the script has just all that tone in it. You want people to feel, to understand the — not just what you’re trying to say, but how you’re trying to make them feel.

John: When hear tone I often think about the soundtrack for the movie. And honestly when a script has a very successful tone to it, I can sort of hear what that soundtrack is going to be just by looking at the page. It’s sort of suggesting what this world feels like, what kind of music I would be hearing underneath those things.

And what you’re talking about with word choices, that’s the same kind of thing. Those staccato sentences for the action sequence, that’s giving you the sense of what it kind of feels like to be in that moment, both how it’s cut, but also what the soundtrack sounds like, what the sound effects sound like. What those quick little moments feel like.

When you have those long florid sentences it gives you the sense of like this feels like a camera moving slowly through and panning across these things.

Craig: Pacing.

John: But also I love what Craig said in terms of it’s about what the characters are doing that often sort of really speaks to the tone. Like how the characters would interact with each other. How a character responds to something is really very key to the tone. And when you hear that in those first couple pages and really get a sense of like, oh, I get what this movie feels like.

Chris Terrio was up at Sundance and we were talking about Argo. And Argo has two vastly different tones if you remember the movie. There’s the FBI, really three tones — there’s the FBI people, and they are sort of walking quickly down hallways and talking at a little bit of a hyperactive kind of pace. You have the Hollywood people who are sort of doing their Hollywood thing. It’s basically a comedy when we’re there with them.

But then when we get to Iran –

Aline: Hostage drama.

John: Hostage drama, it can’t be either of those things. It has to slow down. It has to be very real. It has to be like real sort of moments of fear and uncertainty and anxiety. So, the challenge of that movie is how do you balance these three very different tones and make them all feel like they’re part of the same movie.

Aline: And the other thing that I realize more and more is that it’s so much about getting inside character’s heads. And tone is just so important for the interiority. And if you feel like you don’t have enough tone, write those scenes from the perspective of the character, how they would react to stuff.

That’s why I put comments, things that the character thinks in their mind or would say but doesn’t say. I put them in the scene description so that we know what they’re thinking and what they want to say and don’t. The interiority really, when I am reading a script and it seems blank, it just seems like it’s not being told from anyone’s point of view, or even an authorial point of view.

Craig: I know what you mean. Sometimes the way that you can establish tone is by establishing it almost in opposition to a different tone. I often think about how until Unforgiven came along, westerns had people constantly getting shot. And western heroes were constantly shooting people and then going, you know, quip, right? Or I don’t care –

Aline: That is a masterpiece of tone, that movie.

Craig: In that movie they make this choice, I mean, from the start he has trouble getting on his horse. Right off the bat, you know, so westerns, typically the tone is I jump on a horse, I ride. It’s a little bit like superhero stuff, you know. Here it’s like an old man who is struggling to get on a horse.

When the Schofield Kid shoots somebody for the first time, you can see his terror and his horror, because he’s never done it before, and it’s disgusting to him. These are tonal choices.

But then again, there are good and successful westerns that I love that are in the mold of the classic kind of — they’re great action –

Aline: But this is saying to you this is the kind of story we’re telling here.

Craig: That’s right. Sometimes you see an action movie and you’re like that was just fun. That was fun. The Matrix was, I mean it was cool, but it was fun.

Aline: But that had an amazing, cool, specific tone.

Craig: Wonderful specific tone.

Aline: That buoyed you over, even if you didn’t understand what was going on.

Craig: Correct. So that tone was like mysterious, S&M, leather, awesome superhero-y Whoa, and all that was really like cyber punky/awesome/cool, and it was fun. But I can also see a movie where somebody gets punched in the face and they are in terrible pain and they can’t get up and the person who hit them is petrified that they might have killed them. That’s a totally different tone. It’s all about that –

Aline: That’s right. And it was interesting, I watched Mud with my kids when we were on vacation and they’re accustomed to watching superhero movies where people just get killed, just all willy-nilly. And there was a scene in Mud where just the little boy was in peril for a minute and my son got really upset. And it was because the tone of that made you feel that pain.

Craig: That it mattered.

Aline: Exactly. And so the great thing as a writer, you’re in charge of that. That’s what makes you god is your ability to choose the tone. And one of my favorite movies is Tootsie, partly because I think it’s just a — that movie could have been so goofy, and silly, and corny.

Craig: 99 times out of 100.

Aline: 99 times it would have been.

Craig: Cross-dressing comedy, it’s Bosom Buddies.

Aline: And the masterful tone of that movie and keeping you in, you feel real at every step. So, I think it’s a little bit of a lost art and I think and I think it’s partly because it’s such an intangible. We don’t teach it. We don’t talk about it as much as we do.

I know you get exhausted by this, which is the endless act one break, act two low point, blah, blah, blah.

Craig: Structure, structure, structure.

Aline: Yeah, structure, structure.

Craig: Well, because the people that teach these things, that’s what they know. They don’t know tone because they don’t have a voice.

John: Well, the challenge is you can sort of teach structure because you can put it up on a whiteboard, or you can have slides to sort of go through it. But tone is all about the very specific words on the page.

Aline: Right.

John: One of the first projects I got paid to write was this –

Aline: By the way, Go is an amazing — the tone of the screenplay of Go is really bracing.

John: Thank you. Yeah, what characters would say in Go and do in Go is very, very specific to the world. And you can’t break that world. And an example of breaking it was I was over at Paramount and I was writing this thing for them. And it was sort of a cross between, it was like Clueless in an apocalypse context. And so it was these two school girls that have to save New York from the apocalypse.

So it had a very specific tone. But there was like one line, one of my favorite lines, that I was really trying to wedge in there. But it was too much of like a Heathers line. It did not quite fit the world. And I was so proud of that line and finally Maggie Molina who was my executive said like, “I know you love this line. It does not fit in your movie.”

And really what she’s talking about is it’s not the tone of the movie. It breaks the expectations of what this movie can be.

Craig: And then the line will never work the way you want it to, which is the most frustrating thing.

John: Yes.

Craig: It’s interesting, when you talked about that concept, a lot of times the key to tone is in the concept. Certain concepts want certain tones. So, when I hear, okay, two privileged schoolgirls in Manhattan have to save the world from Armageddon, it can’t be too real. It can’t be too serious, because the concept –

John: The concept is absurd.

Craig: The concept is demanding that it be funny. I think the concept allows that the two girls can have a relationship that is meaningful to each other and dramatic for each other, but that the actual adventure of the world, they need to be able to see some crazy things happen.

Aline: But if you think about it, a lot of our filmmakers that we revere the most, contemporary filmmakers are people like Wes Anderson, and Quentin who have just very distinct tones, that have a very distinct, and their movies vary, but they have a certain feel to them.

John: I would single out Rian Johnson. Because Rian Johnson’s movies don’t all feel alike, but each of them has such an incredibly specific tone.

Aline: Right. Writers don’t just have one tone. I mean, the Coen Brothers are a good example. The tone of True Grit and the tone of –

Craig: And Raising Arizona.

Aline: Yeah. I mean, they couldn’t be more different. They just — what I love about them.

Craig: But they’re true to their own tones.

Aline: Love the movie or not the movie, whatever they’re doing it is total commitment to the tone of this. We are going full on to Hudsucker Proxy. We’re going full on to Big Lebowski. We’re going to embrace that tone.

And I think if you make a mistake, it’s better to do that as an aspiring screenwriter, because I would rather read something that had tons of tone and was like a little bit of a mess as a story than something where it sort of checked all the boxes.

Craig: Yup.

Aline: But it just felt like –

Craig: You can fix the story.

Aline: But it just felt like an unpainted wood. When somebody made those stores that are like unfinished wood furniture.

Craig: You’re like so into the paint and the wood today.

Aline: Yeah, I really am. Paint and wood.

John: You’re saying tons of tone, and I just worry that somebody could look like, “Oh, I should add some more tone to this.” That’s the last thing. It has to be really inherent to sort of everything. So, when you read a script that tonally is so unique and consistent, that’s when I start to think like, oh, this person has a voice, this person has perspective, this person has a point of view.

Aline: Is anything worse than going to see a movie and going, “What is this? What is it?”

Craig: I mean, it’s rare that you go to a movie where you think the tone is all over the place.

John: There are some.

Craig: I know.

Aline: I can think of some.

John: Indie films, you’ll see a lot more of that.

Craig: Well, yeah, that is true. I get that. That is true. I do agree though that when I read something that somebody has written and they are an aspiring screenwriter, that’s all I’m really looking for. I’m looking for — I would say specificity and tone and a general understanding of the music of speech. And if the script, if nothing happens in the movie but, boy, all the things along the way were really well done, well just write about something that’s interesting. But you can, which is so much better than being a bland writer.

Aline: And how many of the movies we love either the story is rickety or it doesn’t do any of the things it’s supposed to do. And you love it anyway because it has this great feel to it and these great characters and these great moments?

Craig: We’ll forgive.

Aline: We’ll forgive a lot.

Craig: We’ll forgive bad narrative for great character. And characters and tone go hand in hand.

John: Let’s talk about mentors. So, that was a suggestion of yours.

Craig: Where did Segue Johnny go? [laughs] Segue Johnny has left the building.

Aline: That was called a Hard Segue.

Craig: Topic over. New Topic. That was the McLaughlin. Next topic!

John: Next topic! Did you have a mentor when you started writing?

Aline: I did. I had many mentors. I had amazing mentors. I mean, right from the beginning I took a six-week screenwriting class. I talk about him a lot, this teacher named Dick Beebe. And we had to write a class –

Craig: I’m sorry, what?

Aline: Amazing name. And we had to write a script in that class. And he was the one who said you should be a screenwriter. And then he read that script three more times, which I now look back and think how did I have the balls to ask him to keep reading it.

Craig: Well, if he liked it I can see why he would keep reading it. I do that sometimes if I like it.

Aline: But the reason I wanted to talk about this today, and we can talk about mentors in general, but the reason I want to talk about this is you guys have spent a good amount of time on this podcast talking about why there are not more female screenwriters and directors. And we’ve talked about it also. And one of the things that studies have shown in the business world is that women are not as good at attracting and maintaining mentors.

And if you’re in a male-dominated field, you’re going to have to attract male and female mentors. And so one thing I want young women to think about is if you’re starting out as a screenwriter either right after college or right after film school, right after undergraduate, or even after film school, you’re going to go into a business which is dominated by men. And I think a lot of times we talk about mentors we think about giving women female mentors and that’s sort of how our brain works. She’s a woman, she needs a woman to help her and guide her.

For whatever reason, most of my mentors ended up being men. And it is a tricky dance when you’re a young woman to pursue men heavily for work without it seeming…

Craig: Sexy time.

Aline: Sexy times. They’re often way older than you and if you’re single, particularly if you’re single and they’re single, but if you’re single and they’re married, and I just think saying to women you can only have female mentors or pursue female mentors is not great advice in a business where 83% of the writers are male. So, I learned very early on that you had to find a way and to get a mentor you have to pursue them. And I had a funny experience where I went to something where there were a bunch of students and they wanted to talk to me. And a lot of them handed me their card.

And I was like, okay, thank you. I’m not going to take your card and call you. And then there was one kid who talked to me for a long time and then went to the organizer of the program and asked for permission to get my email. And then emailed me and said, “I hope it’s okay that I emailed. I enjoyed speaking with you. Ten minutes of your time. If I could have aó”

I mean, all the things you want to say. You have to pursue if you want a mentor. You can’t go up to someone and say, “Here’s my card. Please call me and mentor me.” In fact, if you are a young woman and you went to a man and said, “Here’s my card, will you mentor me,” and he called you, that’s bad.

Craig: That’s a problem.

Aline: You have to go to them and say, “I’m a writer. This is what I’ve written. Let me show it to you or let me talk to you about it.” You have to make a case for yourself. And it can be intimidating and it can be tricky, but what’s interesting and I think what we should say to women is for whatever reason that first teacher I had, that was a guy, then the first producer that I worked with consistently, who really, really championed me was a gentleman named Bobby Newmyer, just loved the movies that I wrote.

You know, that was his tone. He loved those kinds of movies. And then I had an agent for many years who is a woman and she was an incredible mentor and guide. So, I had both.

But, I really think to break into the business, male or female, you have to learn how to make people want to help you. And the best way to do that is to be awesome.

Craig: [laughs] Is to be the kind of person that needs help less than all the other people.

Aline: Well, no, I don’t mean to be an awesome writer. It means to have awesome deportment.

Craig: Be a good person.

Aline: To be friendly. And helpful. And when you make that coffee date, show up on time. Express interest in… — Like I have this kid that I’m mentoring. Every time I see him he’s looked up online what things I’m working on and he says, “Oh, so tell me how this is going, how this is going.” And last time I saw him I said, “God, I don’t have a lot of time. I don’t really need to talk to you about my stuff. I just want to hear about your stuff, you know, trying to break in.”

And anytime I’ve interacted with younger people that I’ve wanted to help, I’ve just noticed if you have — it’s not a mystery. Be awesome. Be polite. Be respectful. Be educated about the person that you’re going to.

I’m having drinks today with someone that I met at the live podcast, the cocktail, it was an interesting woman and I wanted to help her. And it took me a long time to find a time that was convenient. But she was patiently saying I’m here whenever you –

You’ve got to have a certain deportment. But I would say for women, absolutely look for female mentors, but be prepared to find a way to seek out, to attract and seek out male mentors. And what I would say to you is just make sure your messaging is very clear about what you want and that you want help with your work and that there isn’t sexy times afoot. I mean, if there is, god bless you.

But if you are trying to just attract a mentor for mentor’s sake, particularly before I got engaged and married I would just sort of over correct a little bit. Don’t meet for drinks. Meet at 9am for coffee. And if you have a number of interactions where you’re making it clear to this person you have a boyfriend, whatever it is, you’re not interested, and you’re very educated, have great questions about work. You’ve listen to these podcasts. You know, you have the right questions to ask.

People want to help. They want to be helpful. John has dedicated his life to helping young writers.

Craig: Dedicated.

Aline: It’s true.

Craig: St. John.

Aline: It is true. You?

Craig: Not so much.

Aline: A little bit.

Craig: This is what I do. Tough.

Aline: Yeah. But people want to help. I mean, I remember during the strike John would say if you’re a young writer come and walk with me.

Craig: [laughs] Like St. Francis of Assisi. Or Jesus. Come walk with me.

John: But also during the strike one of the great things about like if you’re a young writer, even if you’re not WGA represented, just come out and join us in the picket lines because we have nothing else to do, so we’ll talk to you.

Craig: Right. We’re super bored.

John: And we’ll give you some advice.

Aline: Yeah. And when I’m helping somebody and I say can you stop by my office at nine o’clock, the people that I have helped and befriended who became successful writers were in the lobby at 8:15 and had brought a paper.

John: Yeah.

Aline: And the people who came flying in at the last minute and wanted to tell a long story about why they relate and how they couldn’t find a parking spot, you know, that’s not — you have very few opportunities to demonstrate to people that you deserve to be mentored. And I would say, you know, try and avail yourselves of them. Don’t be creepy. Be polite. Understand boundaries.

But for young women, don’t be afraid to go up to male writers in your field who you think might be interested and say, “Help me out,” and in general across the board to be successful, even as successful writers you have to attract and maintain the sponsorship of people who are more successful than you.

Craig: I actually think that goes too for male writers. Don’t be afraid to find female mentors. I actually –

Aline: That’s true. I mentor girls and dudes.

Craig: Because there’s not a lot of them, because there aren’t a lot of female screenwriters.

John: I had the equivalent of like a Lindsay Doran coming out of grad school and she was hugely helpful. So, it’s often that teacher role.

Craig: Well, yeah, I didn’t go to film school. And frankly all the people that kind of mentored me early on were men, but I’m not necessarily sure they were good mentors. I think they were more benefactors than mentors, which is a different deal.

And I think that’s a good thing, too, by the way. Finding somebody that both appreciates what you do and is going to pay you for it can be terrific because that’s how you really learn.

But, at this point now I actually prefer working with women. I do. I just — I’ve come to the place now where I realize I just need mommies. I do. I understand myself a little bit better now. I need moms.

But I also find that they, for whatever reason working with women calms me down a little bit. I feel a little bit better about myself.

Aline: But, you know, we often have this conversation and men say like, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t be on the Women in Film Committee and I can’t be on this panel. And I can’t do that.” And I always say to them find a young female — if you really want to help have there be more female writers in Hollywood, find a young… — By the way, feel free to only mentor talented people.

John: Oh, absolutely, you should. I mean, you’re doing nobody a service if you’re mentoring really horrible people.

Aline: That’s right. They’re going to look for you and the reason I wanted to talk about this is I want to encourage people to look for mentors in a respectful and once again uncreepy way. But I also want to encourage established people to look for people to mentor. It’s awesome. It is a great feeling when you’re helping someone and you see them start to succeed and you get those emails that say, you know, and one of the things I love about this podcast is you guys do that en masse. And you constantly get feedback from people who say –

Craig: But it is important, so for instance John and I both do the mentoring program at the WGA. And I did a mentoring program separately through the Writers Guild East I think last year. So, there’s a young woman who I thought was terrific and I kind of did this process with her for about a year.

I’m also doing one through the Universal — I don’t know what the name of the program is.

Aline: Oh, yes, I know. Andrea talked to me about that.

Craig: Yes, it’s essentially, what is it? It’s for racial minorities and –

John: Diverse writers?

Craig: It’s for diversity. It’s for racial minorities and it’s for women. I think but mostly racial minorities. And that frankly is — I love that we do this. And this is great. But this is not mentoring. It’s different.

John: Yeah.

Aline: No, I know. But it’s resources, it’s true. But I just want people to think about –

Craig: This is just replacing bad film school.

Aline: But I’m saying, like in this discussion of tone, which people don’t talk enough about, we don’t really talk a lot about mentoring. We don’t teach women in particular how to do it. And it’s, again, it’s one of those intangible things which is super important and no one teaches you how to do it. And some people have an instinct for it and some people don’t.

Write the thank you note after someone has sat down with you. I was shocked at the number of people who sit down with me and then I never hear from them again. They never send me an email or a card that says thank you for your time.

Craig: I’m not. People are terrible.

Aline: Yeah, but it doesn’t advance their cause.

Craig: They don’t know what their cause is. They don’t know how to advance their cause. Let me just get a little upset for a second.

Aline: Okay, here we go. I wound you up.

Craig: You did. There are people who simply don’t know how anything works. I don’t know if they were loved too much, not loved enough, they just are genetically broken. I don’t know what their problem is. But they just move through life like this.

And then one day they look around and say, “Why is everything going wrong? Why is my life no good?” Because they’ve made a terrible, a string of terrible decisions like that. They don’t realize that they’re terrible decisions. They just don’t see it. They don’t see it.

And part of being a mentor is identifying those people very quickly. By the way, we can within seconds. You — you don’t have what it takes to be a successful anything. So, why would I waste my time trying to help you be a successful thing that’s very hard to be successful at?

Aline: But so much of it is deportment.

Craig: I love that word. Deportment. She’s so French.

Aline. You know, people who come up to you and then want to talk obsessively about themselves or tell you some dramatic story or some sob story. Complaining is not attractive.

Craig: The waves of crazy coming off.

Aline: Yes, complaining is not a good. And so they’re critical. They’re critical for women to get ahead. They’re critical because every study has shown you need to be mentored to get to the next level. And you know what? If you’re worried that someone is going to gossip because such and such, you’re single, and such and such married man is helping you? So what? If you know what’s happening and not happening, and truth is the work speaks for itself. The work speaks for itself.

And if you do good work consistently, people will see that you are talented and they won’t look back and say, “Oh, that’s because she’só”

Craig: She slept with all those mentors.

Aline: Yeah, maybe that’s why it didn’t work out so great.

Craig: I slept with both Weinsteins. That was a mistake.

Aline: Oh my god.

Craig: Why did I do that?

John: Huge mistake.

Craig: I should have just slept with one of them.

John: Yeah, together.

Craig: No, John.

John: That’s gross.

Craig: No, bad. Bad John. Terrible.

John: So I have four mentors now assigned by the WGA.

Aline: Mentees.

John: Mentees, yes. It would be great if I had four mentors.

Craig: Yeah, that would be cool.

John: People would take pity on me. We’ve got to help John August with his career. But I have four mentees.

Aline: You could apply to the program.

John: I could. I totally could apply.

Aline: Who would you get? No, it would be great if you applied to get a mentor. Who would John get?

John: That would be fantastic.

Craig: Zak Penn.

Aline: Zak Penn.

Craig: That would be the best.

John: I want Zak Penn and David Koepp. And sort of all those –

Aline: J.J. would be good.

John: J.J. would be great.

Craig: I want Leslie Dixon to mentor me. That would actually be awesome.

Aline: That would be great.

Craig: That would be pretty great.

John: So, but mostly my function with them is stuff will just come up in their work life. Like I don’t know what to do here. And so to be on the other end of that email saying like you’re not crazy. That’s a weird situation. Here’s what I would do. That’s what I’m actually able to provide.

Because I can’t really provide — I’m not reading their writing. I can’t provide great writing advice, but I can just — how to get through that day advice.

Aline: My young people, I often say to them, because a lot of times they’re wondering is this a real guy. Somebody wants to option my script or meet with me, is this a real person, you know?

John: You have a radar for that. So, one of my mentees emailed to ask, “I turned in my script and now they’re asking me to send in the continuity. I don’t know what that is.” What do you think they meant by the continuity?

Craig: So, I’m sorry, they sent in their script and they’re also asking for continuity? I would imagine that that would be just a list of scenes. No?

John: They meant the FDX file. They meant the original file rather than the PDF.

Craig: That’s the stupidest –

John: It’s so stupid. So, I emailed back saying like I don’t know. That’s actually not really a thing. That’s not a thing we provide.

Craig: No, continuity like in post-production is the list of scenes.

John: Yes, the list of scenes.

Aline: Well, that’s a great, another thing –

Craig: Who are those people?

John: And so I said I think they probably don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, A.

Craig: So scary to me that –

Aline: Let’s not work with them.

John: No.

Craig: By the way, that’s what I would have said. You’ve got to pull this project. They literally are dumb. I feel really bad for those people if they listen and love and they’re like, what, it’s just a vocabulary term.

Aline: When you’re coming up you don’t know whether you can say, “What is that?”

John: Exactly. And so I gave him permission to ask.

Aline: Right? The most freeing thing about having tons of experience is the number of times you get to say, “I’m sorry, what? What do you mean?”

Craig: Yeah. I don’t know is a great answer.

Aline: I don’t know is a wonderful thing. But when you’re young you don’t want to be walking around saying I don’t know. So, it’s great to have someone email and say, “Is this a thing?’

John: [laughs] It’s like the answer is no. It’s not a thing. It’s not a thing we provide, so ask them if they want the FDX file because it’s probably what they mean. Because probably they want to do a breakdown on the budget and so they really wanted that thing that they could feed into.

Craig: That is so weird.

John: They just wanted to use a fancy word for it. That’s crazy.

Aline: Are they from a foreign country?

John: They’re not from a foreign country. They’re from a big American country.

Craig: A big American country?

Aline: Wowser.

John: Yeah, one of two North American countries. They’re one of those two.

Craig: They’re from one of the two North American countries.

John: It’s time for One Cool Things.

Aline: Time has flown.

John: Craig, you start.

Craig: Yeah, you know what? I don’t have one. I mean, look, this has been a very long podcast. Nobody wants to hear my One Cool Thing this week. I do. I have five. I have 12 One Cool Things. I have 12 Cool Things, but I don’t feel like sharing any of them.

John: I have Two Cool Things. I have two movies that people can watch on iTunes or on-demand. First is David Wain’s They Came Together. David Wain was a guest on our podcast and his movie I saw on iTunes on Friday. It was delightful.

Craig: I’m going to iTunes that tonight.

John: You should. Absolutely. Because the things he talked about on our show –

Aline: iTunes the hell out of it. Don’t just iTunes it.

Craig: I’m going to iTunes it twice.

John: If you haven’t listened to the podcast, watch the movie then listen to the podcast, or reverse order. But he talked in the podcast about sort of the wraparound scenes they shot. And it’s so hard to imagine that movie without them. So, it was a great movie to watch.

Also, another movie, Mutual Friends, by Matthew Watts and Amy Higgins is also on iTunes starting this week. Matt and Amy had this idea where they were living in New York and they had a bunch of sort of screenwriter friends, like film school friends, and they said what if each of us wrote a little short film and the only rule is that everyone has to be headed towards one birthday party of this guy. So, they gave that guy a name. And basically it’s a whole bunch of little short stories that all lead up to one place.

And so everyone wrote their pieces and then they sort of stitched it all together in an Altman-esque way that ends up at one birthday party.

Aline: Oh cool.

John: So, it’s a great example of I think sort of a good film school idea, a great kind of first film way of doing it. And it turned out nicely. And it’s on iTunes now for you to watch.

Aline: Well I’m about to change some lives with my One Cool Thing.

John: Go for it.

Craig: Oh, boy, here we go.

Aline: What am I holding here?

Craig: That’s an iPhone purse?

John: Purse kind of thing.

Craig: What the hell is that?

Aline: This has changed my life. And every time I wear this people sprint across the room to find out where I got it and how they can get it.

Craig: Notice that neither John nor I even noticed you had it.

Aline: No, this is a lady thing primarily.

John: Can you describe it?

Aline: Please describe it.

John: So, I see her iPhone and it is sort of a gold case. And at the bottom of the case where it would plug in at the bottom there are in fact two hooks that go to a gold strap.

Craig: Like a purse strap.

John: Like a purse strap. And so now she’s stringing it over her body like a Bandolier.

Craig: So it’s like the iPhone becomes the purse body.

Aline: Yes so here’s the thing. You’re always clutching your phone in your hand, especially as a mom. You’re always clutching your phone in your hand. This is a very slim case that goes right around the phone, so there’s not a lot of case-y-ness to it. And you don’t have to pull the phone in and out of a little big. It’s basically a sling for the phone. Goes over one arm. It’s called Bandolier. It’s called a Bandolier and the website is Bandolier Style.

Craig: By the way, the Bandoliers, those were the things that held the bullets. Weren’t those the things that held the bullets?

John: Yeah.

Aline: You don’t have to take this in and out of your purse. You just wear this all the time. In fact, I was in a production meeting yesterday and the woman said I was trying to figure out why you were wearing your purse the whole time. And then she saw it and then she said where can I get that. I have given this to so many people. It’s mostly a lady thing.

It’s basically an iPhone sling. And I have the gold and I have the snakeskin. There are ones with studs on them. There are many colors. Bandolier Style.

Craig: Oh, there’s ones with studs on them? Oh, then now I am going to get one.

John: Yeah, John Gatins would get the one.

Aline: He would get the most bling’d one out.

Craig: He would get the rhinestone number.

Aline: It’s life-changing. I’ve changed lives. Lives.

John: And so I see in the back that there’s actually a slot for credit cards, too. So, you could use that in lieu of –

Aline: And you know what this is particularly good for?

Craig: What’s that?

Aline: Room key.

Craig: Ooh…

John: Ah!

Craig: But doesn’t have your room key against your phone erase the room key?

Aline: Ah-ha, yeah, that can be an issue. But it didn’t, we just went on vacation and it didn’t do it.

Craig: It didn’t do it? I feel like the room key science has gotten better. That they know now to not –

Aline: Ugh, the room key used to be such a crapshoot.

Craig: The worst. Like you’d put it anywhere near anything.

Aline: Yeah. True. But this is really good for — you know, this is also for the ladies who want to go to the night club. Put a couple bills, your ID, and your credit card, and have your iPhone, and then you’re not schlepping a big purse. This is also great when you’re in production because your phone is on you at all times. If someone emails you it’s not stuck in your purse.

Craig: And you don’t have a pocket for instance?

Aline: Women don’t put their phones in their pockets.

Craig: Now what is that?

Aline: Because it messes up the line of your pants.

John: Yeah. Makes sense.

Craig: Messes up the line for pants?

Aline: Women don’t put wallets, keys, coins, or phones in their pockets.

John: Their pants are slimmer, and so it creates this weird bulge. And it’s like well what’s wrong with your body?

Aline: You don’t want bulges.

Craig: You don’t want bulges?

Aline: No, you want no bulges.

Craig: Because you think that men don’t want bulges?

Aline: No, you don’t want lines or bulges. It messes up your line.

Craig: But why? I don’t care about bulges.

Aline: Because of your aesthetics. Aesthetics. Aesthetics. Aesthetics.

Craig: I’m just trying to tell you as a straight man the aesthetics that we’re looking for don’t really get disrupted by –

Aline: You don’t want a girl with like weird bulgy things in her pants.

Craig: You’d be correct. You don’t understand what I’m looking for.

John: Craig’s eyes never go below the navel.

Aline: Here is what I’m going to say to you. Next time you see a hot girl, check for bulges.

Craig: No, but my point is I wouldn’t. You see, the next time you see a hot girl, you could have just ended it period.

Aline: She won’t have budges.

Craig: You could have just ended it.

Aline: She won’t have bulges. The Venn Diagram of people who have bulges and hot girls do not overlap. Although I do have friends who can pull off the — you know, there’s a certain Tom Boy thing that certain girls can do. And that allows them to do. But I can guarantee you I have never put my wallet in my pocket.

Craig: Sexy Craig doesn’t mind a girl with a bulge. Sexy Craig is adventurous. Hey.

Aline: A girl with a bulge.

Craig: I’ve noticed you’ve got something bulging there. Take it out. [laughs] Take it out. Sexy Craig wants to see it.

John: And that’s our show this week. If you’d like to leave us a comment on iTunes, we love those comments. You can find us just by searching for Scriptnotes on iTunes. While you’re there you can also look for the iPhone app so you can listen to all the back episodes through there. We also have an Android app if you’re on an Android device.

We also have a new batch of our little USB drives that have all the back episodes on them. So, the first batch only had the first 100 episodes, but now we have 150 episodes.

Aline: I want to listen to them, but you know what happens?

John: What happens?

Aline: I procrastinate.

John: Ah, it happens. You have to listen to podcasts while you’re doing household chores. That’s the best time by far to do it.

Aline: This is really the only podcast I listen to. I tried.

John: You tried other ones?

Aline: I tried. I’m like Craig. I tried like Craig.

Craig: I don’t understand podcasts.

Aline: I’m rather monogamous. I’ve tried.

Craig: I’m somebody that provides things for people that I don’t understand.

John: Slate mentioned us again today.

Craig: Oh, they did?

John: The Slate Gabfest. They were talking about the David Wain episode.

Craig: Oh great.

John: Yeah. That was lovely.

Craig: I wonder if we can get Sexy Craig on their show.

Aline: Sexy Craig also sings.

Craig: No, that’s Singing Craig.

Aline: Oh, singing Craig.

Craig: That’s totally different. And then there’s Segue Johnny. You’ve got to keep these characters straight. There’s a lot of different ones.

John: On the topic of segues –

Aline: I like Hard Cut Johnny, by the way. Hard Cut Johnny I like.

Craig: Oh, Hard Cut Johnny shows up all the time.

Aline: And Hard Cut Johnny has a huge bulge.

Craig: Oh, okay.

John: Hard Cut Johnny will smash his beer bottle and shove it in your face. [laughs]

Craig: Yeah, Hard Cut Johnny doesn’t respect life. He’s got no time.

John: If you have a question for me or for Craig, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Aline Brosh McKenna is not on Twitter.

Aline: I’m not a tweeter.

John: You’re not on Instagram either? You’re just not?

Aline: Not really.

Craig: Can we visit your Pinterest?

Aline: [laughs] You cannot. I did not sign up for that one.

John: Oh, it’s fine.

Aline: I know it’s a real girlie thing but I don’t have one.

Craig: What is your MySpace page?

Aline: You can leave it in chalk on my cave wall.

Craig: Yes.

John: If you have a longer question or a question that you have to get to Aline Brosh McKenna, I guess, you could write to ask@johnaugust.com which is a great place where those longer questions would be. And, let’s see, we talked about subscriptions.

Oh, also we should say if people wanted to listen all the back episodes you can go to scriptnotes.net. That’s where we have all the back catalog for $1.99 a month. You can get access to all those things.

Our podcast is produced by Stuart Friedel and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Thank you for all your hard work on that. And that’s our show this week. Bye.

Aline: Bye.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Hiring a UI designer

Tue, 07/08/2014 - 15:50

Our tiny company is getting a little bigger. We’re hiring a full-time UI designer for Quote-Unquote Apps.

This is a new position, one that combines art and science (design beautiful things…that actually work). Responsibilities will include:

  • Designing art (icons, graphics) and animations for our current and future apps.
  • Building and testing interfaces for apps and websites.
  • Shared responsibility for support email. (Everyone in the office chips in.)

We make apps for Mac and iOS, including Highland, Weekend Read and Bronson Watermarker PDF. We have several new apps in development, and will likely make stuff for iWatches, AppleTVs and other future gadgets. We need someone to help us build cool things.

I’ve hired enough people to know that the job ultimately shifts based the special skills each person brings. But we have a good sense of what we Require and Desire.

Required:

Great taste. We need someone who can make beautiful, thoughtful art and experiences. We should to be able to have a conversation about any app and discuss where it succeeds, where it fails, and how to improve it. It’s one thing to know what it says in the HIG; it’s another to understand where the trends are headed.

Expertise. This person will ultimately be responsible for building interfaces, both as prototypes and in Xcode. They’ll need to be comfortable wiring up little bits that work with storyboards and auto layout.

You can’t learn taste, but you can learn Xcode. What’s important is that this person needs to genuinely love working under the hood, wrestling with constraints and timing and UIScrollViews. Candidates need to be able to muck around with code to figure out why the status bar isn’t displaying properly after rotation.

Prototypes can be a great way of exploring design options, so it’s likely we’d be using something like Origami or framer.js to create mock-ups. We have no musts when it comes to prototypes. Whatever works, works.

We’re not requiring that a candidate have a certain number of years experience working as a paid designer. In fact, it’s more likely we’ll find someone who has been doing something else but Just Happens To Be Great at this.

Our lead coder, Nima Yousefi, was getting his masters in biology. But he’d rather make apps.

We’re looking for someone who’d rather make apps.1

Our Desired list is deliberately broad. No one will tick all these boxes, but we’ve found making apps in 2014 ends up incorporating a lot of seemingly-disparate skills:

  • Web experience in HTML/CSS/Javascript. Many of the apps we’re working on have a web component.
  • Editing skills (Avid, Final Cut Pro). The App Store will soon be allowing demo videos, and we intend to create them.
  • Animation and VFX chops (After Effects, Motion or more-sophisticated apps).
  • Photoshop/Sketch/Illustrator skills. Beyond icon and logo design, we spend hours tweaking App Store screenshots.
  • Copywriting. Sometimes, half the job is figuring out the right word for a UI element, or how to phrase a warning.
  • A/B Testing. We haven’t done a lot of it, but upcoming apps will require it.
  • Broader coding experience. Nima remains our lead engineer, but there’s always too much to do, and a second set of eyes is great.

A good candidate for this position would be able to talk about most of the following with ease:

  • Great opening title sequences of the last year.
  • The design challenges of moving to larger iPhones.
  • Accessibility, and apps that do it right.
  • Are short URLs even worth it?
  • Google’s Material.
  • iOS keyboard extensions, and what’s possible.
  • Localization.
  • iBeacons.
  • Books you’ve bought just for the cover.

We work together in the Los Angeles office twice a week, keeping in touch other days over Slack and Google Hangout. Candidates don’t need to live in LA to apply, but they need to be able and willing to move here if they get the job.2

Salary is commensurate with experience — enough to live in Los Angeles — and there’s health insurance. It’s certainly not Google money, but it’s more than most people are likely to make writing their own apps, with the stability of a small team and guaranteed income.

Here’s the process for applying:

  1. Email digital@johnaugust.com. Tell us about yourself. Include links to your work. If you have apps, send some promo codes.
  2. We’ll be accepting emails through midnight on Thursday, July 17th.
  3. We’ll start interviewing selected candidates via Skype shortly after that.

If you think you’re the right person for this job, apply. Or if you know a great candidate, send them a link.

It’s a great job for the right person. I have a hunch we’ll find someone amazing.

  1. Or, someone who has already made apps. We’re happy to bring someone in who already has her own apps in the App Store.
  2. We’ll consider international applicants, but visas may be a challenge.

The Rocky Shoals (pages 70-90)

Tue, 07/08/2014 - 08:03

Aline Brosh McKenna joins Craig and John to talk about the difficult journey through pages 70-90 of your feature. After that, we talk about procrastination, the Panic Monster and our inner Instant Gratification Monkeys.

Screenwriting books always talk about structure, but never about tone, which is much more important for distinguishing great writing. So we spend some time looking at what tone feels like on the page.

Finally, we talk mentors. Aline has specific suggestions for young women.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Puppet update

Mon, 07/07/2014 - 13:43

Last November, I put out the call that I was looking for an experienced puppet designer for a new project. I got dozens of emails and recommendations, and had several great conversations with designers and directors suggesting techniques and pitfalls.

In March, I met with a great LA puppet shop to begin serious discussions about working together on it. They suggested a terrific illustrator to help create designs for the main character, a non-human creature with very unusual attributes. After a few sessions, we arrived something we loved…

…but it was un-puppetable.

That’s not entirely true, of course. With modern technology — green-screens, motion control, clever robotics — there’s almost nothing that can’t be done with a puppet. But when we looked at all the post-production that would be required to make the character feel like it was interacting with real-world environments and actors, it became clear that a fully-CG character would be a much better fit for this project.

The biggest issue ended up being the character’s walk cycle, which would have been a monstrous challenge for puppeteers. I had nightmare visions of needing to paint out six guys in the background of every shot.

Once I accepted that this character would be virtual, I questioned why I was so insistent on human actors and physical sets. After all, what was special about the project was this main character, who would be drawn in after the fact.

If we’re animating him, why not animate everything?

So that’s what we’re doing now. We’re creating the rough animatic and figuring out next steps. It’s absolutely the right choice for this project, even if it wasn’t the original intention.

But I still love puppets. The process of meeting with puppet-folk has left me eager to find the right project for them. It will likely be something in which their puppet-ness is innate to the concept — of course that’s a puppet; they couldn’t be anything else.

Of the many people I spoke with during this project’s puppet incarnation, one of the most helpful was director Toben Seymour. His video for Herman Dune is a great example of why puppets continue to be awesome.

Scriptnotes, Ep 151: Secrets and Lies — Transcript

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 16:49

The original post for this episode can be found here.

Disclaimer: Hey, this is John. Today’s audio was recorded in two separate sessions and Craig’s microphone was terrible during part of it, so just apologies for that. We got it fixed. If you hear the follow up section, Craig sounds much better, and healthier, and fuller of life, and that’s because we got his microphone all fixed up. So, sorry about that. And enjoy today’s episode.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 151 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

So, Craig, completely different environment for me here. I am sitting atop a mountain here at the Sundance Resort. I’m here for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. And so it’s very much like how we normally talk over Skype, but just I’m in a very different place geographically.

Craig: Mentally, emotionally. Well, you sound great. You know, I was invited once to go do the Sundance Lab and then I had to cancel it because I was stuck in production. And then they never asked me back. [laughs]

John: Oh, that’s sad.

Craig: I’m thinking that maybe they just got… — I mean, it wasn’t like I canceled at the last minute. I canceled months in advance, but yeah, I think that that probably was it. That sealed my fate.

John: Yeah, you get the one shot.

I’ve been an advisor here since 2000 was my first year up here as an advisor. So, in ’99 I had, my movie Go was playing at the Sundance Film Festival and the next year they asked me up to be an advisor. What I didn’t tell them is that I’d actually applied to come to the labs before with a previous script and they had not even considered. I’d been rejected. So, I was never a fellow. I was only an advisor.

But, this process is great and I’ve talked about this on the show before, but they bring up a bunch of filmmakers who are working on their first or second features and in the summer session they are shooting some scenes just on video to sort of practice what it feels like to shoot scenes out of their movie. But they also have these five days where they’re talking with other screenwriters. And we’re reading their scripts and offering suggestions, but more importantly just an extra set of brains to help figure out how they’re going to tell their story. And it’s a great process.

Craig: I saw the picture online. Is that Howard Rodman lurking there in the background?

John: Howard Rodman is a fixture at the labs. He came up here the first year that I came up here. And this year he’s actually — he oversees all the advisors for this process.

Craig: He’s terrific. I’ve gone and spoken to his graduate class at USC a number of times.

John: He’s salt of the earth. A great guy.

Craig: Yes.

John: Today on the podcast, you suggested some topics, and I suggested some topics, and I think we’ve got a good show here for you. So, we’re going to talk about secrets and lies. We’re going to talk about the things that characters are concealing from each other, sometimes concealing from the reader. We’re going to talk about subjectivity and sort of the experience of how a character within a scene perceives information.

Based on all my reading up here, I have seven suggestions for how to pick character names so that people can understand which character is which. And then a reader had sent in a scene and then also the three pages that became that scene, which we thought were fascinating, so we’re going to talk about his three pages and the scene that he actually shot and what we can learn from seeing those two things. We’ll answer a question about following up after a meeting, so it’s going to be a busy show.

So, on the topic of follow up we have some follow up — on an earlier podcast we talked about Aereo, which was a service in New York City and a few other places that led people record live broadcast TV on these little tiny antennas and then stream that video that they recorded to their devices, their iPhones, their computers, wherever else they were. And this was a Supreme Court case, so the networks were suing Aereo saying that what they were doing was a violation of the Copyright Act. And the Supreme Court decided this week. And come down with a 6-3 decision in favor of the networks, saying that this was, in fact, a copyright violation.

Craig: Right. Yeah, so it’s an interesting thing. Aereo’s argument was essentially this: that they’re not really doing anything. This is all about broadcast network. So, broadcast networks send their content out over the public airwaves. And anyone in the public can receive it through an antenna, if they so choose, and then watch it in the privacy of their home.

Of course, now almost everybody is on, you know, uses cable to receive broadcast networks which in and of itself is relevant to this case. But, what Aereo essentially said was our service, all our service is really just a whole big bunch of antennas. They had like 10,000 tiny little dime-sized antennas. And the way the product worked is you would pay them a subscription fee and then if you wanted to watch, say, Big Bang Theory you would just say, “I want to watch Big Bang Theory,” you would send that to their servers, their servers would tune one of those individual antennas to Big Bang Theory –

John: And specifically your antenna, because essentially you’re renting one specific antenna.

Craig: That’s right. That’s just yours. Exactly. So, that one specific antenna would pick up the free broadcast signal of Big Bang Theory and then it would take that signal, put it onto a hard drive. It would essentially make a copy. And it would make a specific copy for each person that requested it. And then it would start streaming that copy with a slight lag behind the actual air time of a few seconds.

You could either watch it streaming at that point where you’d be essentially watching the broadcast signal a few seconds behind the actual broadcast signal. Or, you could time shift it and just watch it later as if it were a DVR. So, their argument was essentially we’re not doing anything other than simply allowing people to use one of our fancy antennas and nothing more.

John: But, they didn’t win. That argument did not go over. And six of the justices said, well, you know what you’re doing actually feels more like cable TV.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: I thought the decision was interesting because they kind of just said that. It’s like it’s sort of irrelevant how you’re doing it. The net result is sort of like cable TV and congress has previously decided that cable companies if they want to carry broadcast channels have to pay the networks and probably I think local people, too, in order to carry those signals.

Craig: This is an interesting area where I think a lot of powerful people’s desires intersect.

John: And also I think consumer’s desires. Consumer’s desire not just for cheaper access to broadcast television, or sort of better access to broadcast television, but just convenience. And Aereo was genuinely convenient and it was a useful thing for people. And so when you take that away there’s going to be some pushback on that as well.

It doesn’t necessarily by the way mean that Aereo has to go away. Aereo went into this saying that there was no Plan B, but of course their Plan B could essentially just do what cable companies do and negotiate terms for coverage on what they’re doing.

Craig: I don’t see what the Plan B is. Their entire business model was essentially built around a gimmick, a trick. And I do think frankly at its heart what they were doing was wrong. And I do think it was more than just ethically wrong. I agree with the court here. I think they were flouting the law. The law may, you know, I don’t know if every specific word was there to cover it. I mean, the law was written in ’76 I believe. Basically they were — I think they were breaking that law.

John: A second bit of follow up. We had a great shout-out from the people at the Slate Culture Gabfest, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens endorsed us as one of their cool things, that’s their equivalent of a One Cool Thing on their podcast this week. So, I just want to return the favor and say how much I enjoy the Slate Culture Gabfest which I listen to every week.

Craig, how did you even find out about it because you don’t listen to any podcasts at all?

Craig: Yeah, I didn’t realize there were other podcasts other than this one. I thought we were it. But somebody sent me a tweet about it and so I clicked on it because I so very often read anything positive about me in Slate. [laughs] And so I listened to that section of the podcast and they were both very complimentary and it was nice to hear that.

I mean, my favorite thing was when they were both done talking about it, the third person with them, a gentleman, there was like a pause and then he kind of John August-ed them, you know, where sometimes I’ll say something and then there’s a pause and you’re like, “So anyway…” [laughs]

John: He segued right out of it.

Craig: Yeah. He was like I’m bored with your Scriptnotes talk. So, I’m not going to talk about that guy. I like the people that like the podcast.

John: I love the people who love the podcast.

Craig: So we were talking on Twitter about maybe doing a crossover.

John: Which would be so much fun. The Nerdist crossover was fun.

Craig: It was.

John: It’s good. We’ll make it happen.

Craig: Awesome.

John: All right. On to today’s topics, so Craig what motivated this talk of liars and liars in scripts?

Craig: Well, I’m working on a movie right now that is essentially it’s a whodunit. And when you start to investigate the world of whodunits you — I’ve been reading a ton of Agatha Christie. I mean, I’ve always been a Doyle fan. And I’ve always been a Poe fan. Poe is really the kind of inventor of the modern whodunit detective story.

For this kind of movie I felt that Agatha Christie’s genre was the most appropriate, and so I’ve been just reading a lot of Agatha Christie. And one thing that I’ve noticed is all of the characters, with the exception of the detective, are liars. Part of the fun of a good mystery is that when you ask the question whodunit the answer is any one of these people could have done it.

And we think that they could have done it in part because perhaps they all had motive, they all have opportunity, but more importantly they are all lying. And it’s lying that makes us suspect them.

But as I started to think about this, I realized in fact everyone is a liar to some extent or another. All humans are liars. Lying is part of the human condition. But there are different kinds of liars. And there’s different kinds of lying. And when we talk sometimes about new writers who are writing and the characters — we’ll say, “Oh, everything seems on the nose or there’s not enough subtext,” in a weird way I think sometimes the mistake people are making is that they’re writing people and those people aren’t lying.

They’re writing truth-tellers.

John: Yes.

Craig: And it’s just less interesting. So I wanted to talk about how useful it is to think of your characters as liars, but also the different grades or categories of lying and lying characters that you’ll find.

John: I think it also feeds into our concept of motivation, why a person is saying the things that they want other people to believe is key to understanding who they are in a scene and overall in the film itself.

Craig: That’s right. The idea of drama and of experiencing a narrative where humans move through it and transform is that they are not at the end who they were in the beginning. And if they were just truth-tellers in the beginning, naturally they’re simply going to say, “Well, here’s the situation. I’m very scared of this. I’m scared of growing up, and I’m scared of telling you that I love you, but I do love you. And I’m hoping that by behaving better I will in fact grow up and whether I get you or not I will be a better person.”

[Yawns] Movie over. You know? Everyone has to be concealing something in some way. But then there are characters who are lying for other reasons. Maybe not such understandable or empathetic or sympathetic reasons.

So, let’s talk about some of the different kinds of lying there is. The most useful kind to me is self-deception. I think every protagonist to some level or another is engaging in self-deception. We’ll say the character has an arc. It is a bad character, a dramatically unsatisfying character who has complete access to his or her emotional states, weakness, flaws, and can pinpoint them perfectly and then throughout the course of the movie go about and achieve them.

One of my favorite examples of this, because it was done so cannily, is Jerry Maguire. I honestly think that Cameron Crowe pulled off one of the most brilliant self-delusional movies of all time. You know, we’ll see sometimes in comedies shine a — hang a lantern on it. If you have something that seems a little wonky in your story just go for it and embrace it and people feel like it’s intentional.

John: Yeah. Call it out to the audience so the audience knows that you recognize that it’s there.

Craig: That’s right. So, what does he do with this character of Jerry Maguire, and the movie begins with a man who in a moment of frustration writes a manifesto about the kind of person that is a good person. But he is still engaged in a very high level of self-delusion. He is in fact not that person. Even the writing of that manifesto is a manifestation of his self-delusion. He’s actually a bad person. The manifesto itself is really more of a temper tantrum, and nothing he actually thinks he should or could do.

As a result of writing that manifesto he loses his job and all of his clients except for two. And actually really what it comes down to is one. And then must struggle over the course of the movie, clinging all the while to his self-delusions, to finally get to the place where he realizes, oh my god, I’m supposed to be the person I wrote about in that manifesto.

That’s how strong self-delusion is, even when you can write down the truth of yourself, you do not believe it.

John: Self-delusion is commonly the starting place for a movie where the journey is for the character to come upon emotional honesty, emotional authenticity. And so when we talk about sort of how useful it is for a character to lie, that’s not that the movie should be lying. It’s that the character needs to have progress from this inauthentic state to an authentic state at the end, and Jerry Maguire is a great example of that.

Craig: Yeah. And I think all protagonists to some level or another have a self-delusion. If they have an arc it means they have a self-delusion.

Going into the world of animation, the character of Marlin in Finding Nemo, he is honest to himself to a point. He honestly believes that he must take care of Nemo at all costs. But he’s deluding himself because somewhere down there is access to a truth, an inherent truth, that this can’t last. The boy will grow up. He must let him go.

John: Even in movies that are more action-based or sort of have more classically sort of like here’s the hero protagonist you often see that the hero at the start of the movie is really kind of a series of poses, it’s acting the part of the hero but it doesn’t actually have the stuff inside him because he hasn’t been tested in ways to really show what it is that matters to him.

Craig: That’s right.

John: What it is that is sort of unique to his own journey.

Craig: Yeah, in fact that can start to give you a clue as to what — everybody is afraid of the second act, but this gives you a clue to your second act. What situations should this person go through so that their own delusion can be laid bare to them.

John: But they’re normal way of doing things and the normal person they’re presenting out into the world is called out in a way or is ineffective in a way and they’re forced to find a new identity.

Craig: Right. And this works in part because it is the function of drama to — why we are attracted to drama is because it illuminates our lives. All of us are delusional.

John: Yes.

Craig: Everyone on the planet is delusional. We are all walking around either ignoring something in ourselves, willfully or subconsciously, or simply misunderstanding ourselves. No matter how much therapy you go through, there will always be a glitch in the system because we’re made of meat. We are rational to a point, but the part of us that is irrational is not accessible by the rational, so therefore it’s happening out of our control.

John: Well, I would also question whether if you got rid of all your self-delusions, if you got rid of all of the lies, would you even have — would there even be a person left underneath there? I think of so many cases are personalities and sort of who we perceive ourselves to be is a narrative that is carefully constructed based on experiences, based on our hopes, based on our dreams. And you are sort of a story. And a story is made up of some fabrications.

Craig: That’s right. Just as you can’t step into the same river twice, every new realization you have changes your mind. It changes who you are and gives birth to a new level of potential self-delusion. One hopes that you, you know, you can improve your life and know thyself is a great goal. But you’re right, it’s actually an impossibility. To truly 100% know yourself, I mean, let’s get really heavy for a second. Are you familiar with Gödel’s theorem?

John: I don’t know Gödel’s theorem. Tell me.

Craig: Well, first of all, a great book. This is my One Cool Thing for everyday. Gödel, Escher, Bach. It’s an incredible book. Douglas, I want to say it’s Douglas Hofstadter I believe is the — and he wrote this I believe in the ’80s. This brilliant kind of mindboggling book that goes into mathematics, artificial intelligence, logic in ranges from Alice in Wonderland to the music of Bach, to the drawings of Escher, and then interestingly in to the work of Gödel.

And Gödel had this very famous mathematical theorem. And essentially what it said is for any given system of mathematics, you know, in math I don’t know if you remember, you can prove things.

John: Yes. Absolutely. That’s crucial.

Craig: Do you remember that? Right. So you have a system of rules and then somebody gives you an assertion. And then you can create a proof of that assertion using the rules and you can proof that it is true and that’s important.

John: Yes.

Craig: What his theorem said was there are — for any system of mathematics, there will always be things that are true that cannot be proven. And that’s kind of mindboggling in and of itself. And it gets to this whole idea of recursion, all the rest.

But what it really comes down to is our brains are closed systems. There will always be things that are true that are brain in its current state simply can’t prove. You’re right; self-deception is inherent to the human condition. So, wonderful thing to think about as you’re creating your character.

John: And if you go in further, if you actually were to strip away sort of everything you think about yourself, your entire narrative, I’ll put a link in, too, Datura, I may be pronouncing it wrong.

Craig: Oh god.

John: But you know that drug?

Craig: The worst.

John: It apparently just lays you completely bare and you sort of see yourself and your wholeness and all of your flaws. And very few people can withstand that sort of spotlight of scrutiny. When you lose yourself, you lose all of your lies.

Craig: Precisely. And that’s why the journey for a character that is struggling with their self-deception is difficult. When we talk about — see, bad screenwriting teachers will always talk in terms of bloodless structure, because that’s all they understand. So, they’ll say things like it’s important that your hero face obstacles. Why? Why? Let’s just start with these really fundamental questions.

Like I remember I took a philosophy class in college and the professor asked a question. it’s good to know that things are true, but why? Why is truth better than not truth? [laughs] Then you go, huh, I guess I should probably think about that. Well, why obstacles? Because if there are no obstacles — the obstacles aren’t the point. The obstacles are the symptom of the difficulty of undoing your self-deception. It’s hard.

John: All right. So, self-deception is a key thing. What other types of lies do you think are fundamental for storytellers?

Craig: So, that’s the first and that’s the most common class. Then there’s this second class that doesn’t apply to every character. And I call this the manipulators. These are people who lie for a purpose. They’re lying for an external purpose. And we can break them out into two subgroups. There is the protective manipulators and there are the manipulators who are lying for game. So, protective liars are people that lie in order to avoid pain or hurt or to maintain some lifestyle that is their best option.

John: So, they’re not trying to deceive themselves. They’re trying to deceive other people to either protect what they have or protect the things they love.

Craig: Right. And you and I have both written movies that have this. Big Fish, Edward Bloom. He’s a protective liar. He is lying because it’s helpful to him. He’s certainly lying more than the average person. He’s not lying to get rich.

John: No.

Craig: And he’s not self-delusional. He’s lying purposely, but in order to protect himself on some level.

John: Yeah. I would push a little bit back on protect himself, is that he’s attempting to — the only thing he can pass on is his vision of how the world should be, so he’s attempting to use these fabrications in order to create an idealized world, a vision for what he wants for his son.

Craig: Yeah. And I actually think that that’s consistent with protecting yourself in the sense that if you don’t do it then you feel inept as a father. You know, that you’ve somehow failed. That this is something he needs to do for his son.

In Identity Thief, the character of Diana lies because she is lonely and unloved and the only way she can survive is by constantly lying. Constantly. It’s become a crutch. And these characters can be very sympathetic actually. They’re frustrating. They’re frustrating, and that’s fun. They create conflict, which we love of course. And they also keep the audience guess, which we love. And then, of course, they have the audience begin to connect with that person. The audience naturally tries to make sense of things. It’s part of what we do as human things.

So, don’t try and make sense of why this person is doing it, and now they’re doing your work for you. They are engaged. And your job when you finally explain why is to explain why in a way that is satisfying to them, that does make sense.

John: Absolutely. So, you’re describing the character’s secrets and lies, which is really the same thing. There is something that they’re not showing. There are cards they are holding back. And that’s a way of engaging the audience’s curiosity.

Craig: Correct.

John: And anything that makes your audience lean in to the story rather than sit back is a very good thing.

Craig: That’s right. Now, the second sub-heading under manipulators are the people who lie for game. And these are typically villains. Sometimes, however, they’re heroes. For instance, Danny Ocean lies constantly for game. He’s a thief. But, you’ll take a look at a villain like Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Wonderful liar. Wonderful, brilliant liar, and lying for game. He also, too, is a thief.

These people who lie for game are oftentimes much better liars than the people who lie to protect themselves or conceal a personal secret. And they’re definitely better liars than people who are simply self-delusional. They’re professional liars. So, you get to write somebody who is not only screwing with the people around them, but screwing with the audience, and this is important.

John: When you say they’re lying for game, it’s not just necessarily monetary gain. If you look at Jeff Bridge’s character in Jagged Edge, that’s a character who is lying with a very specific agenda. He’s trying to protect himself, but he’s also — he gets so much more by establishing and maintaining this lie. It’s his natural way of going through the world is that lie.

Craig: Absolutely. And sometimes the reason, the gain is actually quite noble. Flick, the ant, goes and gets these guys to help save the village, but they’re just circus performers. And this lie has to be maintained until finally it’s laid bare.

There are all sorts of ways that people can lie for gain, but when they do so they have to do so with some skill. And therefore as a writer you have to actually think like a manipulative liar here who is trying to get something. The truth is no longer important. What’s far more important is what you have to say. And the audience shouldn’t always know. I mean, one of the great things about Ocean’s Eleven is that they lie to each other. They lie to Matt Damon. Not everybody knows what’s going on. And then the movie lies to us through their perspective, because we think we’re seeing something we’re not, and then they reveal how they’ve lied. So, that gives you so many opportunities.

John: I think the challenge for a screenwriter is recognizing when it is good to let the audience in and see the liar doing his work, because that can be really rewarding to see somebody be really good at the thing they’re doing. And when you’re better off holding back and keeping the audience in the same point of view as all the other characters where they’re being manipulated as well.

Craig: Yes. And the revelation of their lies should have the punch of some kind of climactic feel, because if you reveal it too soon you’ll simply lose interest. I mean, we understand the basic lie of Hans Gruber fairly early on, but there’s this other lie that he’s hiding from his own guys of what’s going to happen with that last bit of security lock. He hasn’t told them, which is actually kind of great. I mean, because look, realistically if you were leading a gang of henchmen into a building to rob it and you knew that there were seven things you had to get and the last one was an impossible-to-break electromagnetic seal on the vault, you would say, “Don’t worry. What we’re going to do is we’re going to stage a terrorist attack. Eventually they’ll follow the handbook, turn off all the power, and that will open the thing for us. You ask for a miracle, I give you the FBI.”

But he doesn’t tell them.

John: You like at Keyser Söze at the end of The Usual Suspects and you know that he is manipulative, you know that you can’t trust him, but you didn’t know that everything you’re experiencing was a lie. And it was the right choice to save that reveal to the very, very end so it is the punch line to the joke is the revelation of this last lie.

Craig: Right.

John: I’m sure there decisions and he probably went back and forth about like, well, if we revealed a little bit earlier then we could see, we would have the tension about will he get caught. And this was the decision like, nope, the whole movie has to be set up to this point.

Craig: Yes. Exactly. And that’s a great segue to our next category, because Keyser Söze is a perfect example of somebody that manipulates and lies for gain. He’s also a very bad person. But his badness isn’t his lying. His badness is that he’s a murderer. The lying is done to get him gain for his other badness, which is murdering.

But then there’s the last category of liar, and this is the worst liar, and these are always villains. And these are some of the scariest characters you can create. They are bad, bad people. These are the chaotic, pathological liars.

John: Yes.

Craig: These are the people that lie because they love trouble. And they lie to create strife and drama. They can’t control their lying. I don’t think they’re alive unless they’re lying. I don’t think they even know what the truth is.

So, the character that often comes to mind in this case is the latest incarnation of the Joker, the Heath Ledger Joker. One thing that I thought was just remarkable, I think everybody thought it was pretty amazing in Dark Knight was when the character the Joker explains how he got his facial scars. And it was kind of very scary, very revealing confession of a trauma.

John: It made you almost sympathetic for a moment.

Craig: It did. And then there is another scene later where he explains to somebody else how he got his scars and it is just as compelling, and just as terrifying, and just as true feeling, but it’s a completely different story.

John: Yes.

Craig: And that’s when you realize this man is just a liar.

John: Yeah, he’s truly a sociopath. A psychopath. I mean, all he can sort of do is lie. It’s the air he breathes. If he says hello, that’s a lie.

Craig: That’s right. And these characters are very difficult to write because for the most part we aren’t them. I mean, occasionally — god help us — we will run into these people.

John: I worked for a person — I worked for one of those people.

Craig: There you go. And part of the problem is they’re so good that you don’t really know for awhile what’s happening. And then eventually it becomes clear and then part of the struggle is it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that another person is actually doing… — You, like the audience, want to make sense of them. But you can’t, because they are operating in a way that, frankly, they don’t even care about their own destruction.

The Joker doesn’t care if he lives or dies. He has no interest in that. He loves chaos. He loves the chaos that lying can bring. And you’ll see these characters sometimes in noir, these characters will skew towards female, because when you put it in a man you immediately start to think, my god, he’s going to just start stabbing, shooting, killing, and all the rest, whereas women can maybe just scramble your brain and make you second guess your own name and all the rest of it. And then finally Bogart sends you up the river.

But, liars, pathological liars are very scary people. And if you’re going to write one, you just have to know that the movie will be deeply infected by them. That they are going to take over.

John: It’s a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but Kristen Wiig is terrific in a comedy I saw, I guess you’d call it a comedy, kind of a comedy, kind of a drama called Welcome to Me. It should be out later this year. And she’s not a psychopath, but it’s one of the rare cases where I’ve seen just a chaotic, manipulative person really at the center of a film, where she is supposed to be the protagonist, but she honestly kind of can’t protagonate in a meaningful way.

Craig: Right.

John: It’s a really challenging task for a writer and for an actress to put that person at the very center of a movie and not have that person be the villain.

Craig: Of course, because the protagonist at some basic level is trying to achieve something. We ask simple questions of our heroes. What do you want? What are you willing to do to get it? What scares you? This or that.

Well, what does the pathological, chaotic liar want? Trouble.

John: [laughs] Yes.

Craig: That’s what they want. They want trouble. So, the only person I’ve written like this, and I loved writing him, was Mr. Chow.

John: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Craig: Mr. Chow is a chaotic, pathological liar. He does not care if he lives or dies. In fact, he thinks it’s awesome. He just loves trouble. But, because he’s so comic, and also embodied in this kind of very small, physically frail man, it’s funny. I mean –

John: But if you tried to have the Mr. Chow movie, good luck. It’s very, very challenging to put that person in the center of a movie and have them do any of the kinds of things you want a person at the center of a movie to be able to do.

Craig: Absolutely. In fact, Todd and I talked for a bit about the idea of what a Mr. Chow movie would look like. And it was totally different because it was the darkest thing imaginable. And I remember we had this one idea for a scene that sort of sums it up. Mr. Chow comes home to see his elderly father. And he walks in and his old, old father looks up at him and says something like, “Leslie, you returned to us, you came back.” And Mr. Chow walks over to him, and then cuts his throat. [laughs]

And as his father is dying, his father looks up at him and says, “Good job.” [laughs] Because that’s the only — that’s how Mr. Chow is born. It’s just pure, awful chaos and darkness, willful self-destruction. The only goal there is is to blow up the world, you know?

John: Yeah. Those characters are almost un-human, because they don’t work in our normal ways. Crispin Glover and I had a few conversations about taking his Thin Man character from the Charlie’s Angels movie and just doing his own movie. And ultimately nothing will ever come of that probably. But it’s a fascinating character, but such an incredibly challenging character to put at the center of anything because he is chaos. He’s like chaos and death in ways that’s very hard to — he’s challenging. It’s very hard to have insight into that character, because deliberately they’re supposed to be opaque and you just can’t know them.

Scarlett Johansson’s character in Under the Skin is a similar situation, is where she’s just this lioness. There’s not a human — there literally is not a human underneath that. It makes it very challenging.

Craig: Right. It essentially doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. There needs to be somebody in opposition to it, or they need to not be human and that’s sort of the point, and then the purpose of the movie is to illuminate the difference between humans and non-humans. But, they will infect your movie and you have to write them carefully. They can kind of get in your head.

And by all means if you run into one of these people –

John: Run away.

Craig: Go the other way.

John: The classic advice, and I’m trying to remember who originally said this, but the advice to young psychiatrists was if in your first meeting your patient talks about how awful their previous therapist was and how all these things — run away, because that person is probably a psychopath. There are people who are just — you’re just going to fall into their deep well and you’re never going to figure a way out of it.

Craig: That’s interesting. You know, it’s funny, Dennis Palumbo told me that when he sits down with a client for the first time, the first question he asks is have you had therapy before and can you tell me about that experience. All we’ve done now is we’ve given the chaotic liars a way to wiggle out of that.

John: Absolutely. They’ll say about how incredibly helpful it was and the skills they used. And it was really life-changing. They just need a little tune up.

Craig: Yeah. And then they crawl inside you and devour you from the inside.

John: Oh, yes, that’s never a good thing. So, let’s recap what we talked about with liars, because I think it’s really, really useful. So, liars who are self-deception, which is probably true to every character in your script. There’s going to be some aspect of self-deception.

Manipulative liars — manipulative liars who are lying to protect something, or manipulative liars, what was your second case of manipulative liars?

Craig: Or trying to gain something.

John: Exactly. So, protection or gain. And then finally the, I mean, what did you call it, the sociopathic liar?

Craig: Chaotic, pathological.

John: Pathological, yeah, where they can’t stop lying and they will lie for any reason. It’s like kleptomania. They don’t need that pack of gum, but they have to take that pack of gum.

Craig: That’s right, lying even to mess themselves up.

John: So, I had a boss who, when he got bored, this is pre-internet, when he got bored in the afternoon he would just call someone at Variety or Hollywood Reporter and just make up a lie about another project or another person, just to stir shit up.

Craig: Wow.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Wow! Blech.

John: Yuck. And you just don’t want to be around that for long.

Craig: No, that’s, Geez-Louise.

John: One of my favorite things to do at dinners here is to tell our terrible Hollywood stories about people who are just completely awful to us. And really you sort of collect them like little badges, like that was an awful thing but I’m so glad that happened because now I have a story about that.

Craig: It’s true. At some point the tragedy finally has enough time and then it becomes funny. But, oh gosh, in the middle of this stuff it can really just scramble you up. And that’s why we have to — writing is actually a way to maybe pop the balloon a little bit, because it’s fun. Look, it was fun for me to write Leslie Chow because he just didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything. He loved it. He was so excited to die, or for you to die, or for something to happen. Everything is funny. Everything.

John: Yeah. Hilarious.

Craig: Yeah, if a lion bit off his arm he would laugh and then he would tell the lion to choke on the arm and then he would laugh as the lion choked on the arm. He wouldn’t care.

John: Wouldn’t care.

Craig: Yeah. It’s nuts.

John: So, one of the writers I’ve gotten to meet up here at Sundance is Chris Terrio. Have you ever met him before?

Craig: No, I haven’t. But I enjoyed his movie.

John: Yeah, so he wrote Argo which is a great film. And so we screened it last night here and he did a Q&A afterwards. And one of the points he brought up which was really fascinating and I hadn’t really considered it in the way that he framed it. So, he was talking about a scene in which Ben Affleck’s character is driving and then it’s going to cut to news footage of talking about the Iranian hostages. And so it’s existing news footage. And in the edit Ben Affleck was driving and then it cuts to the news footage and he was pushing really hard for the way he had it in the script, which was a pre-lap, is that the Walter Cronkite or whoever is talking while Ben Affleck is driving and then we finally go to the news footage.

And that seems like a very small distinction. Like it’s sort of really when does the sound start. But his point was that by starting the sound while you’re with Ben Affleck’s character, you’re creating the experience of subjectivity. And what we’re about to see feels like it’s inside Ben Affleck’s mind. It feels like it’s that character thinking about it. It’s a way to sort of verbalize thoughts. It feels like it’s running around in his head. And then when we actually go to it we still feel like we’re with Ben Affleck’s experience.

Probably that music is also taking us through. It’s a way of letting that clip happen not just as a thing that happens. It’s inside Ben Affleck’s head. And that experience of subjectivity is really interesting and it makes me feel much better about how often I tend to use pre-lap in my scripts to explain that something is start — like a sound is starting, and dialogue is often starting before we get into that next scene. It’s anticipating the cut.

Craig: I love that. First of all, we’ve done a long discussion about transitions. I mean, it’s just generally a nicer, smoother transition. But I love that observation because, again, we want to try and have the audience do as much work for us as possible. They appreciate that. The bad feeling is when you feel like the spoon is entering your mouth and you already know what that food is and then, yup, it’s that food.

And so see the news report and then you show him in the car, well that was just a news report scene that feel like “and now a moment in the movie where we have to tell you stuff. And now here’s Ben Affleck driving.” But instead, simply by pre-lapping, showing him in the car and then completing the news report, by simply putting that sound and that image in parallel, the movie stops teaching us something and is now telling us that this is an experience that Ben Affleck has had. Either he heard this news report before. I mean, he’s not hearing it right now.

But the movie is essentially implying he knows this and that changes everything because then it’s about him and as Chris points out his subjectivity and his experience. This, by the way, is a great example of what I call the new screenwriter, who not only thinks like a filmmaker, but is involved.

John: Yes.

Craig: So that he can help the director and the producer towards these things because we actually are pretty freaking good at this. And I love the way that the movie business has opened up to the new screenwriter because the new screenwriter provides moments like that, which are great.

John: Sure. What’s also I think crucial about the sense of the pre-lap and the overlap is that it’s taking these things that are two scenes and made them one scene. It’s joined them so that they are fused together as one element. So, you look at like, oh, that’s when he was thinking about this, rather than that was him driving in his car. This is information about the hostage crisis. So, as you look at your own scripts, I think it’s important to really figure out how much information that you’re giving us can you find a way that it’s meaningful to the character who is giving us the information, or that the movie is giving you information. How can you put that in the subjective experience of one of the characters so you’re not just telling us?

And there are many examples of doing that, but it’s really thinking about who is the interesting person to be seeing these events through and how do you experience the movie? How do you find a place holder for who the audience is in this movie?

Craig: Yeah. It’s a good example of how sometimes a problem can lead to a solution. You’re sometimes stuck with something that has to happen but it feel clunky. And oftentimes if you sit back and look at it you realize it’s actually not a problem at all. It’s a benefit.

John: Yes.

Craig: It is clunky to simply show Walter Cronkite talking about stuff. And then it’s even more clunky to show the shoe leather of Ben Affleck driving in a car.

John: One thing, Argo is worth a rewatch. And one of the things you recognize they do really brilliantly is they insert the news footage clips in ways that are very smart. And oftentimes they’re playing on TVs in scenes in ways that are meaningful. Or one of the great examples is a cross-cut between the hostage woman talking about why they’ve taken the hostages and the table-reading of the Argo script. And so you have this really funny moment at this table read of this ridiculous cut intercut with this announcement of the hostages.

And by being able to do both things at once, that’s sort of the key to the tone of the movie is that it’s both a big Hollywood movie about big Hollywood movies and there’s real stakes in terms of these people’s lives.

Craig: Yeah. Anytime you can kind of take two things that maybe separately would be a little flat or a little empty or a little thin and layer them together. Yeah, there are times of course where you know that the dramatic focus is such that you don’t want to do that, you don’t want to get noisy, but one thing that I know about screenwriters is that those things are intentional and they’re purposeful. When he says, “No, it should be pre-lap and like this,” that’s not just a random… — I mean, look, for good screenwriters it’s not some random bit of technique. There’s a purpose.

And I like the fact that people are open to hearing what that purpose is, especially when they’re excellent filmmakers, which in this case Ben Affleck is a very, very good director.

John: Agreed. So, this last week I’ve had a chance to work with five different filmmakers and read five scripts. And I don’t read as many scripts as I used to. I used to read a ton of scripts, and now I tend to read what I’m writing, or read a few things that friends send through. So, when you look at five scripts over the course of a couple days you notice some patterns, and one of the patterns I noticed is that sometimes people are not making the best choices for naming characters.

And so while we were sitting in a meeting and people were talking about other stuff, I wrote up my seven suggestions for character names. So, I want to sort of share those with you.

My first suggestion we’ve talked about on the podcast before is pick different first letters for character’s names. So, if you have a character named John, you can’t have a Jim, or a James, or a Jackson. There should be one character named with a J. That’s a pretty good basic rule of thumb. Don’t double up. And you’re not likely to have 26 characters who really need names, so you’re going to be fine.

Helpful — pick a different number of characters in names. So, if you have a character named Tom and a character named Ben and they’re both talking a lot, people on the page they sort of skim down and scan and they notice different lengths of names. So, Tom and Ben, they’re going to get confused in people’s heads. So, you’re better off with a Tom and a Benjamin and keeping them straight than a Tom and a Ben.

Craig: Right.

John: Not only should names have different first letters, but they should also sound different. Because I think you actually do in some ways sound out those words you’re seeing in your head. So, if you have a character named Gene, G-E-N-E, and a character named John, you’re going to get those confused. They can sort of blur together. So, if you have a soft G sound and a J sound, those can blur together. So, if you can avoid that, that’s awesome.

Craig: Yes.

John: Try to avoid names that are semantically similar. So, if you have a character named Rose, don’t have a character named Tulip, because we’re going to get them confused. Because we thought flower and that’s all we’ll remember. Oh, it’s the girl with the name of the flower. Oh shit, which one is it?

Craig: Yeah, and the world suddenly seems so weirdly small that there are two people with flower names.

John: Absolutely. As much as you can, try to avoid gender ambiguity in names. So, names like Robin, Carrie, Kim, depending on the language, can get really confusing, especially if that’s not a character we see very often. So, if it’s been 20 pages and Carrie shows up again, you’re like, wait, is that a man or a woman, and then you start searching for pronouns to figure out who it is. That’s not your friend.

Craig: Unless you need the guy to be named Sandy.

John: Sandy. Sandy is perfect.

Use diverse names. And so people are not likely to confuse Bill and Sangeet, but they will confuse Bill and John. So, not only does using diverse help the reader out, but it also makes your world a little bit bigger. And hopefully signals to the casting directors and everybody else involved in the movie, hey, let’s look beyond just the five white guys for this movie. Sangeet is your friend.

Craig: Yes.

John: And last point, which I think we talked about on the podcast before, often it’s best to not name your day players. So, if a character only appears in one scene and that character’s function is clear, you might be much better off with Hotel Clerk than giving that person a name. Save names for people who actually need names.

Craig: That’s right. The only exception I would say to that is if you know that you want to actually get somebody really good in for the day. So, when we say day player we don’t just mean somebody that’s there for one day. We just mean basically a glorified extra and I’m sorry to insult people that are day players, but typically when I think of day player I think of the waitress who comes over and says, “What’ll it be?” As opposed to a cameo, because that’s somebody you do want to name.

John: Absolutely. A cameo is totally worth it, because the cameo is probably going to be a character who actually has some weight and substance and is really chancing the scene, is going to have a character — it’s meant to pull focus.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And if the character isn’t meant to take focus, don’t give them a name.

Craig: Precisely. And you’re going to have a hard time getting a good actor to do your cameo when their role is Cop. A name would be helpful. The one area — I love these. These are all correct. And I follow these all the time and I think about names all the time. The one thing I would say though is there are occasionally points where you can play around with names and break these rules if there’s a point.

And the example I always think of is Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood is a man named William Money. And the Sherriff that he goes up against played by Gene Hackman is Little Bill. So, there’s a William, and a Bill, and a Little Bill at that, and there’s a point to that.

John: But I’m trying to remember the Unforgiven script, because it’s been a long time since I read it, but when characters have dialogue, isn’t William Money called Money in his –

Craig: No, he’s called Will all the time by Morgan Freeman.

John: So, Will all the time. Okay. Is Hackman’s character called Bill?

Craig: Yeah. He’s called Little Bill or Bill. Yeah, Will and Bill. They are meant to be two sides of a coin. It’s clearly a thing going on there.

John: All right. Part of the reason why I think this actually matters is to remember that when people are seeing the movie, they don’t see character’s names, they don’t see how things are spelled. So, there are things which watching movie people aren’t going to get confused. It’s just that on the page we don’t have faces, and so all we have are those names. Let’s try to keep those names clear.

When you’re casting the movie, you’re going to try not to cast people who look too much like each other so people don’t get confused. So, don’t cast names in a script that are too confusing, too similar.

Craig: That’s exactly right.

John: All right. Our next thing, a reader wrote in and it’s actually a writer who I think comes from the videogame world and it turns out actually is represented by, has an agent who is a friend of mine, so he’s actually a working legit writer. But he sent through these three pages and said like, “Oh, and I actually shot this as a scene.” And I was like that’s really cool.

So, I thought it was a good example of so often we take a look at these three pages and we always think about what the movie could be like. Here this guy shot the scene and I think it’s really interesting. So, the guy’s name is Rob Yescombe. I hope I pronounced that right, Rob. The scene is called A Gun, so if you want to read along with us there will be a PDF attached in the show notes.

So, our scene starts in the marshlands of rural England. It’s 1352 AD in Birmingham, England. Marshy wet grass. There’s three people riding. There’s Tilton, who is 35 in a Friar’s robe, Roland who is stocky and drunk, and Durwin, who is unkempt and slack-jawed. They’re all in their thirties. Durwin says like, “There it is. It’s just what I said it was,” and it’s this tree that’s been burnt in the middle of this marshland and it’s sort of unusual for a tree, what caught on fire, and the Friar says, “Did you light it on fire? Tell me, honestly if you set it on fire.”

“No, no, God did it.” And as they’re investigating the tree, the drunk guy falls down in the water. He comes up and he’s found something and it is a 2013 Colt M45 Close Quarters Combat Pistol, with a silencer screwed tight onto the barrel. And that’s the end of our three pages.

Craig: Yeah, so I actually watched — I did it wrong, I did it backwards.

John: That’s fine. We’ll forgive you this once.

Craig: I watched the video, then I read the pages. But the thing, it’s funny, basically the things that I liked about the little movie were exactly the things I liked about these pages. And the one thing that bothered me about half the movie was exactly what bothers me on the page. So, in that sense everything went according to plan.

John: Yes.

Craig: And but in terms of the pages I think these are very well written. And there’s the one interesting difference that I would say between the pages and the movie other than like they’re not riding on horses because it’s hard to get horses, is that on page three when there’s the reveal of the gun, it’s a half page of careful sort of drawn out reveal of the gun, which is appropriate I think. When you’re reading you want to make a big deal of something and he made a big deal of it here.

Obviously in the movie it happens, but that’s the difference between audio visual and text. So, it’s okay to play a little bit of a trick with the text here to get that and then not go super — like for instance, here’s a mistake that gets made all the time in a screenplay and it’s made here. He pulls a large brown lump, something caked in soggy grass roots and soaking clay. And then I’ll just skip ahead. Tilton watches. Something shimmers.

They’re not going to shimmer. It can’t shimmer. It’s all covered in mud and it’s a gray day. But that’s okay. Because it’s happening ping — we’re getting the vibe of it, you know. We don’t care that when we actually see it it’s not shimmering. What we like right is that it’s a gun.

So, I thought it was very –

John: I thought that they were good pages. And it very much to me felt like in a weird way like the setup for — like the teaser for like an X-Files, like a medieval X-Files.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And there’s a possible thing and then you cut to opening credits and then you get back into the investigation and what’s actually really happened here. I like almost everything on the page. His use of semi-colons drove me a little bit crazy. Semi-colons are really useful in the rare cases where you really need them. And in the first case, in none of these cases where he was really using them in a way that semi-colons are best for which is where you have to join two independent — two thoughts that could be their own sentence but they’re much better joined together.

And in these cases they weren’t independent clauses. They were just things. Commas would have done the job.

Craig: Commas or dashes.

John: Yeah. Or periods.

Craig: Or periods.

John: But I really enjoyed it. So, the joy and the sort of special bonus we have is that there’s actually — he’s filmed this. And I suspect this was a filmed version just to show as a demo, to sort of show what it might feel like. And so there’s a link in the show notes also for his YouTube clip on it.

And so some of the changes you will notice is here in the script there are horses, in the movie they’re just walking. Walking is honestly kind of great.

He picked a really great location. It’s really just marshy, and muddy, and gross, and terrible.

Craig: And that one great tree, I mean, the focus of this thing is this tree that supposedly was burning impossibly. And there’s just one tree in the middle nowhere. It’s kind of great.

John: Which is great. Some of the challenges, I found — the tree is really great in wide shots. And then when we’re getting close I had a harder time understanding that it was burned. Some of the stuff about that the tree was on fire didn’t play as well in the video as I got it on the script. I think some of it was just shooting. Like we spent too long talking about the tree before we saw the burnt tree, to me.

Craig: Right.

John: Another thing which was a challenge is no one says anything about the footprint. And when I first watched the video I didn’t see the footprint at all.

Craig: Oh, I saw it. I saw the footprint.

John: You saw it clear?

Craig: Oh, yeah, yeah.

John: All right. I didn’t see it. But on the whole I thought it was just really a terrifically well done thing. And it’s the kind of thing we talk about our listeners doing is don’t just write pages. Try shooting some things. And you learn a lot by trying to film something.

Craig: Well, yeah, I mean, you learn a lot and you also impress people. I mean, I watched it and I thought well this guy can do this.

John: He can do this.

Craig: Which is great. He had a sense of composition.

John: He had a good sense of music. He had a good sense of tone.

Craig: Yeah, a good sense of music and tone. The three pages already told me he could do it because he understood how to create a mystery with dialogue. We don’t need to know what they’re talking about until we know what they’re talking about. And even then we don’t need to know what the hell is going on. The point is that they’re confused.

We get that Tilton, who is the –

John: Friar.

Craig: I’ll call him Friar. He already has knowledge these other two don’t. Clearly he knows — he may not know exactly what this means, but he knows something, because he’s just looking at it differently than they are. And that’s something that you can pull out of this and then pull out of the movie, which is great.

The one thing that I think the movie didn’t do as well as the pages was pacing. The pages moved at a certain pace. And the short film I think was a bit too languid. I think it could be paced up just a little bit. It got a little draggedy.

John: The one thing I was missing was, so Durwin is the person who apparently saw this tree burning, but if this is really the first introduction to any of this I wanted Durwin to say what he saw. And so if he describes like, you know, I was coming back from this and I saw it, bright as day, burning. That would actually paint in my mind what this looked like before it went out.

When you see a tree that’s been burned, we don’t know the context of how this guy saw it, what it looked like. That would actually be really helpful to me.

Craig: That’s right. Yeah, I mean, he’s saying, “See? Just as I said.” But it’s not just as he said.

John: Yes. So, if that conversation happened beforehand, better to just put that in the scene here itself.

Craig: I think that’s right. The other thing that I want to point out is that the drunk is just too drunk. He’s goofy drunk. He was goofy drunk on the page. And he’s goofy drunk in the short. And I’m not criticizing the actor. I think the actor did what was here on the page. I think it’s a page problem.

I always have a problem with unrealistic drinking on screen. I just struggle with people that can just drink what appears to be the equivalent of six glasses of wine in the course of a minute and a half. Frankly, then their talking is either way too slurry to be useful or interesting, or far too articulate for their mental state. I’m not sure why they’re that drunk. I don’t know why they need to be. This didn’t seem to call for that much constant drinking.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, maybe one purposeful swig? But it’s funny, even when I brought up Unforgiven, there’s this wonderful scene in Unforgiven where William Money has returned with the Schofield Kid, from killing the guys that there was the bounty on. And he doesn’t know exactly where Ned is at this point because they’ve split up. And one of the prostitutes from the town is riding up slowly with their money. And while she’s riding this kid is talking about how it’s the first time he ever killed somebody. And he’s obviously just distraught.

And the whole time he’s drinking from this bottle of whiskey. [laughs] And he drinks what would probably kill you, I think, you know? I mean, it’s so much drinking. I’m just like, oh my god, slow down. How are you even talking?

John: Yes. It’s because he was drinking iced tea and not –

Craig: Well, yes. But then in my mind I think, well, maybe in the Old West they just watered that stuff down. I don’t know. You know, because it’s so corny and old fashioned. Like men in movies used to be able to drink, like even Raiders of the Lost Ark which is an homage to all those serials, I mean, that drinking contest with Marion and that guy, they each had like 14 shots or something. [laughs] They would be in the hospital.

I know, I’m Jewish, so I think any amount of drinking is like, “Oh my god, how did they drink that much?”

John: Yeah, somehow up here at Sundance, the second year that I was up here, Tiger Williams who is another advisor up here, wrote Menace II Society, he and I got into a drinking contest. And we drank so much tequila. And he says that we had like 27 shots, which is of course actually impossible.

Craig: Impossible.

John: Like we would be dead.

Craig: Dead. Yeah.

John: We would be dead. And yet he maintains this to be true. I just know it was far, far, far, far, far too much tequila. And it was both a wonderful evening and a tremendous mistake. So, it [crosstalk] heavy drinking.

Craig: How bad was the aftermath?

John: So I never threw up. I have not thrown up sixth grade. I don’t know that my body can actually physically throw up. I tried to throw up. It was like that bad that I was trying to get it out of my system.

So, I got back to my room after that and I packed up. So, it was like two in the morning and the vans were going to take us to the airport at like seven in the morning.

Craig: Oh no.

John: It’s like I cannot go to sleep because I might not wake up. And so I just had to stay up all night and just ride it through. It was bad.

Craig: Oh my god. That’s terrible. Listen, you’re German, so I think that there’s a certain ethnic capacity for drinking. I’m not saying all Germans can drink, but they’re more likely to be able to drink than a Jew. If I have, honestly, more than four drinks, I’m in a bad place. I do. I puke. And I have a terrible headache. And I’m just in bed the next day and I’m miserable. I just can’t do it.

John: Sorry.

Craig: It’s probably a good thing.

John: That’s probably a good thing. It keeps you from –

Craig: But, boy, I’ll tell you what, man. I could eat cake. Ah!

John: Mm, cake is good. So, maybe you have built in genetic Antabuse. So, like drinking past a certain point kicks you into your sick mode.

Craig: Yeah. Like I’m on that thing that they give you. Isn’t there a pill that they can give you?

John: That’s what I said. Antabuse.

Craig: That’s what it’s called? I didn’t know that’s what it was. Yeah. That’s the thing that killed Keith Moon.

John: I didn’t know that.

Craig: Yeah, he was on that, and then he decided to go crazy and drink anyway. Keith Moon.

John: Oh, it’s like the people who get their stomach stapled and then figure out ways to manipulate the gastric band and stuff so that they can still eat all the stuff they want to eat.

Craig: That’s kind of awesome. How do they do that? Just milkshakes?

John: No, what you do is, I was talking with a woman who did that. And she was like, “Yeah, so if I try to eat a bunch of potato chips I couldn’t. But if I just let them dissolve in my mouth, then I can swallow them.” It’s like, oh my god.

Craig: That’s not the point!

John: That’s not the point.

We have one question we wanted to get to. So, this is Jonathan who wrote in. He said, “I just graduated from film school at the AFI where at the end of the program we go through a pitch fest. I sent out some scripts to interested parties, a few of whom were interested but passed for a wide range of reasons. My question is this. After someone passed on your script, is there a good way to keep in touch with those managers and agents to submit future scripts without feeling like I’m nagging them to death? Keep in mind that some of the agents and managers I’ve had meetings with and some of them I have not.”

So, if someone has expressed interest but then passes, do you think there is a way to sort of keep that relationship alive?

Craig: No.

John: I don’t know that there is either.

Craig: No. There is no relationship. Let’s just be honest about that. There is no relationship. There are many grades of no. So, there’s pass, or “I love it, it’s not right for us, but I’d love to see something else from you.”

John: Yeah, if they say that — let’s say that happens, because that’s actually the right case where you do need to figure out a way to follow up.

Craig: Right. They’re asking you to. They’ll let you know if they want to hear from you again.

John: So, what is a way that Jonathan could follow up with that person who said like, “But we’d love to see something else.” How often should he reach out? What should he do? What is your advice, Craig?

Craig: I mean, if somebody says I’d like to keep in touch with you and see what else you have. Send them what else you have. If you don’t have anything else say, “Great. I’m working on something like this. I will send it to you when I’m done.” And then just reference, make sure when you do, reference your prior conversation.

John: Yeah, so they remember.

Craig: So that they’ll remember, because they won’t. But if somebody says, “I’m sorry, I listened to your pitch or your material and it’s not for me,” there is no fire to rekindle.

John: Agree.

Craig: This is the girl at the bar has said, “No thank you. I have a boyfriend.” Return to your seat, like a gentleman.

John: So, in those situations where follow up is invited, I would say that the threshold of time for me is probably eight weeks, or two months. If more time than that has passed, I may just kind of forget about you and may forget that I ever liked you.

So, if there’s not something immediate to show them right after that, at least lob in an email — thank god email exists, because we had to do some of this before there was email. Lob an email saying like, “Hey, it was fantastic meeting you. Like you said, I’ll certainly send you this next thing when I’m ready to show it to people. Thank you so much.” That email to sort of like put that pin in there is great. But that doesn’t buy you a year. That buys you kind of like two months.

Craig: Right. And just understand that any email that doesn’t include some sort of actionable content is garbage.

John: Yes.

Craig: It’s just garbage emails. Nobody wants to get emails like, “Hey, just checking in. How are you doing? Just letting you know I’m still working on it.” Nobody cares.

John: No one cares.

Craig: Nobody cares. Send me a script, or shut up.

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s basically the deal.

John: So, that first email though can be a thank you.

Craig: That’s right.

John: That’s the only thing I will say. A thank you email can just sort of like — it’s that one time you can put a pin in it.

Craig: And don’t vamp. You know, everybody out there vamps. You and I get emails from people where they’ve decided this email is their shot to prove to us how smart or clever or funny or what a wonderful grasp of vocabulary they have. Don’t vamp.

John: Don’t do it.

Craig: Just the facts, ma’am.

John: Yup.

Craig: Be polite. Be a gentleman. Be a gentle woman. Be a professional. Professional-professional. Act like you’ve been there. All the usual.

John: All the usuals.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week?

Craig: Yes.

John: What is yours?

Craig: I got this from someone on Twitter. Love this. I like, just about everybody, really, really hate the click-bait stuff out there. You know, this video shows something and what happens next will blow your mind. All this stuff.

Or even the things that are like, you know, news used to like — the headline used to tell you the story and then you would go further. Now like a particular — like for instance, here is a news headline at ABC, “Police: Burglars signed into victim’s Facebook. It’s what he forgot to do that got him caught.”

John: Oh man.

Craig: That’s a headline. Right? That’s a click-bait headline. You’re like, “What did he forget to do?” So, there’s a Twitter account called @SavedYouAClick. And all this guy or woman does is read this nonsense and then even their format is great. The answer to the click-bait question, and then what the headline is. So, for instance, the one I just read you, @SavedYouAClick writes, “Forgot to log out.” Retweet @ABC: Police: Burglar signed into victim’s Facebook. But it’s what he forgot to do that got him caught.

So, every single one of these things leads with the answer. He spoils every — and some of them are really funny. I like this one. And I’ll read the answer second just because it’s more fun that way over the air. Retweet @PostPolitics: What Google Trends tells you about who will win an election. And the answer is “Nothing.” [laughs]

John: [laughs] That’s awesome.

Craig: “Is America better at treating cancer than Europe? Statistically yes.” It’s the greatest thing. You never have to deal with stupid headlines again. So, I love this. I’m following @SavedYouAClick. I love @SavedYouAClick.

Oh, and you know, it says on their page that the tweets are by a gentleman named Jake Beckman.

John: Oh, now we know.

Craig: So, Jake Beckman, thank you for this most excellent service.

John: If you enjoy that Twitter feed then you should also probably The Onion’s new spinoff site called the Clickhole where they create stories for just those , really just parodies of those kinds of stories.

Craig: Is that a Twitter account or a website?

John: It’s a website. So, Clickhole, we’ll have a link to it in the show notes. It has those kind of hyperbolic headlines but also slide shows. And so it’s like, you know, “Reasons I’m glad I’m an American.”

Craig: I know! [laughs]

John: And so you’re clicking through, you’re clicking through, and then like slide number five is Gary Sinise. It keeps going. And like slide number 9 is Gary Sinise.

Craig: I mean, these are, it’s just — god, I hate the media so much. Like “Dr. Nancy, NBC News, on what makes the horrifying Ebola outbreak so deadline.” And @SavedYouAClick, “Very contagious.” [laughs] This guy is the best. I’m sorry, Jake Beckman, you’re the best. I love it.

John: So, my One Cool Thing is actually kind of related. It’s this book called How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg. And it’s a great book on sort of popular mathematics and really a lot of what he talks about is these kind of stories where there’s these really misleading facts or sort of misleading charts or graphs or numbers that maybe not even deliberately but sort of play into our misassumptions about how math works and how the world works.

And so there’s not formulas in it. It’s really about what it’s like, the simple but fascinating things that happen in math and sort of how they affect us in our daily life.

A good example in the chapter I read last night, he talks about there was like this obesity study that was published that says like, you now, by 2048 all Americans will be obese. And it’s like, well, that’s very, very unlikely. But what makes it especially unlikely in the same report they talk about how African American men, their obesity is increasing at a slower rate, so they won’t all be obese until 2072.

Craig: Huh.

John: Of course, the inherent flaw here is that African American men are also all Americans, so which is it? Are all –

Craig: Right.

John: If the African American men aren’t going to be fat by then, but all Americans are going to be fat by then, it’s actually an impossible thing. So, that was his example to talk about limits and sort of like how things approach boundaries. But it’s really just a terrific book and so I think many of our readers would — listeners would really enjoy reading it.

Craig: That sounds great.

John: So, if you’d like to have more information about the things we talked about on the show today, you can click through the show notes. They’re at either johnaugust.com where you may be listening to this, or at scriptnotes.net, which is where we have all the stuff. So, we have links to many of the things we talked about, including Craig’s Twitter feed, and Datura, and all these other –

Craig: Oh, god, Datura. Never, please — please understand this for anybody listening to this who is some sort of pharmacological adventurist.

John: Don’t do it.

Craig: Never do it. I mean, there’s a website where they basically collect first person accounts of taking drugs of all kinds, legal and illegal, and so on and so forth. And that section is one of the most horrifying things you’ll ever read. Never, ever, ever, ever do that. Ever. Please.

John: Ever. No, don’t. Don’t do it.

Craig: Never do it.

John: No.

Craig: Never.

John: But what you should do is if you have something to say to Craig or me, you can send to us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We also love comments on iTunes. So, if you find Scriptnotes in iTunes and click and leave us a comment, that helps other people find our show as well. And we sometimes read those and it’s really nice. You could leave us a rating, too. That’s also great. And subscribe while you’re there, because you may be listening to this on the website or something, but also if you subscribe then that helps us go up the charts and more people find our show.

The last 20 episodes of Scriptnotes are always available on iTunes. The back catalog is available through scriptnotes.net and on our apps. We have an app for iOS and an app for Android. If you’d like to subscribe to those premium back episodes and some bonus content as well, that’s $1.99 a month. A bargain.

Craig: $1.99 a month!

John: A bargain!

Craig: Two dollars a month. It’s a bargain. And to reiterate to people, we do not profit from this show.

John: We are a money-losing venture.

Craig: We are a money-losing venture.

John: Through and through.

Craig: We are proud of being a money-losing venture. If you could help us lose a little less money, that would be awesome.

John: That would just be terrific.

Craig: Wouldn’t that be great?

John: It would be great.

Craig: But, hey, you know what, if you don’t, it’s also okay. [laughs]

John: It’s all good. If you have a longer question like the one that Jonathan asked today you can write ask@johnaugust.com and we will try to read some of those on the air. And thanks. And thanks Robert Yescombe for sending through that clip and the pages. That was really cool.

Craig: You know what? I’m going to get you a gift. I’m going to send you Gödel, Escher, Bach. I think you’re going to love it.

John: I’m sure I’ll love it.

Craig: I would love for people to… — God, that’s a gift. If you haven’t read that book and if you’re a left-brainy kind of person and you love artificial intelligence, and math, and art, and recursion, and brain-scrambly stuff –

John: Oh, is the Escher in there like MC Escher?

Craig: It is.

John: Okay. So, it’s all fitting together. I thought it was one person named Gödel Escher Bach.

Craig: No, no, no. It’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

John: All right.

Craig: The Eternal Golden Braid. By the way, that’s what it’s called Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. And notice that that’s EGB, also for Escher, Gödel, Bach. It’s going to scramble your mind. Great book.

John: Love it. Craig, thank you so much. Talk to you next week. Bye.

Craig: Thank you, John. Bye.

Links:

Internationalizing Bronson

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 11:56

Bronson Watermarker PDF, our app for watermarking and password-protecting screenplays and other documents, has an update in the App Store that adds native support for German, Russian and Chinese.

It looks so cool in Chinese:

This was our first effort at internationalizing an app. We chose Bronson because it’s the simplest overall: one window, a few menus. We’ll be taking what we learned and applying it to Highland and Weekend Read down the road.

We hired Applingua to do our translations, and I’d happily use them again. The process is pretty straightforward: export all the text strings in your app and ship the file. The company translates each string in order, so they’ll fit back into the proper slots when you drop the translated file in the app bundle.

Why these three languages? Based on our download numbers, these were the regions that were already buying our apps the most.1 Translating the app into these languages helps the most existing customers, and (hopefully) attracts new ones. We’ll be keeping an eye on download numbers to see if it was worth it.

These were also good test languages for us, because they forced us to reconsider what our interface would look like if some of the text labels became vastly longer or shorter than they were in English. We found that we needed to reposition some elements to make sure strings never got truncated.

Internationalizing Bronson took about a week. The process was fairly smooth, but there were things we hadn’t considered at the start:

  • “Watermark” is an odd term that doesn’t necessarily have a matching word in other languages. We relied on the translators to figure out what made sense.
  • In English, the button at the bottom might read, “Save 1 Watermarked PDF” or “Save 3 Watermarked PDFs.” We insert the numeral into the string and pluralize as necessary. But in other languages, the word order and pluralization can be very different. We ultimately decided to keep the English usage of PDF(s), with the assumption that these file types are so ubiquitous that users are unlikely to be confused.
  • We asked Applingua to translate our Mac App Store product description, but then realized that we also needed them to translate our screenshots, which have text on them.
  • Even keywords need to be localized so that when a German user searches for Wasserzeichen in the Mac App Store, Bronson shows up.

If you want to test out what an app looks like in different languages, here’s how to do it:

  1. Open System Preferences and choose Language & Region.
  2. Click the + below the list box and choose a new language.
  3. Drag that language to the top of the list.

The next time you launch the app, it will use the localized language bundle if it exists.

With this new build, we’ve lowered the price to $19.99. We sold remarkably well when we launched at $14.99, but the full $29.99 price seemed to be higher than the market would bear.

We’re also offering site licenses for companies. One of our favorite animation studios was our first site license, and it was great to be able to provide them a custom version. If you’re interested, drop us a note through the Bronson support page.

If you haven’t checked out Bronson yet, look for it on the App Store. And if you already have Bronson, we could really use some reviews. Each new version pushes old reviews off the landing page.

  1. Because you’ll ask, here are our top 20 countries, in order: US, UK, Canada, Russia, Germany, China, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, India, Turkey, Singapore, France, Spain, Thailand, Hong Kong, Chile, Italy, Columbia, Peru.

Audio illusions, and the importance of set-up

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 10:45

Your brain is smarter than you think. Here’s an example from Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute:


In this audio illusion, something that seems incomprehensible makes sense once your brain is conditioned for it. Prior information shapes our understanding of the present.

In screenwriting — or any form of storytelling — we call this set-up. A reader’s understanding of a given moment is hugely dependent on what you’ve already established. That’s why the first few pages of a script are so important: you’re teaching the reader what to look for, and ultimately how to read your script.

From WHHY The Pulse.

Adapting The Wizard of Oz

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 10:14

Gregory Maguire, author of the novel Wicked, takes a look at screenwriter Noel Langley’s early draft of the script for The Wizard of Oz:

The differences between this version and the final shooting script? Hardly a page escapes without crossed-out speeches and handwritten substitutions. Plot points abound that are later abandoned (the Wicked Witch of the West has a son named Bulbo?). Only a couple of scenes refer to singing, and none of the famous lyrics appear. What would become “Over the Rainbow,” which I call America’s unofficial national anthem, is referred to as “the Kansas song.”

What this draft achieves is the compression of choice elements from a best-selling, although rambling, children’s book. In the original novel, the Wicked Witch of the West dies on Page 155, but Dorothy doesn’t leave Oz until 100 pages on. If Langley stuffs in extraneous characters for ballast (a Kansas farmhand and his sweetheart among them), he also abbreviates the trajectory of the story so that the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West kick-starts Dorothy’s return to Kansas.

Adapting a book to film means figuring out which elements of the source material really belong on the big screen. It many cases, you end up dropping things not because they’re “un-cinematic,” but rather because they don’t help you tell the two-hour version of the story.

Sometimes, the choices you make feel better than the original:

The American author-illustrator Maurice Sendak believed that The Wizard of Oz film was a rare example of a movie that improves on the original book. I agree with him. Langley consolidates two good witches into one. He eliminates distracting sequences involving populations Dorothy encounters after the Wizard has left in his balloon —the china people (porcelain figures) and the Hammer-Heads (a hard-noggined race).

You’d have a harder time taking these liberties with a popular novel now. The Harry Potter films were faithful and tremendously successful, as was Twilight and The Hunger Games. Studios see this and take note.

Over the last ten years when I’ve been approached to adapt current best-sellers, one of the first concerns has been not angering authors and fans. That may be the smart choice financially, but it doesn’t always result in the best movie.

Had Langely been given this directive when adapting The Wizard of Oz, I doubt we’d remember the movie at all.

Why did Weekend Read spike?

Tue, 07/01/2014 - 17:28

This past Friday, download numbers for Weekend Read shot through the roof for no apparent reason.

To give some sense of scale, those ordinary days on the left range from 50 to 75 downloads per day. The spike is 3,591. 1

Weekend Read is a free app, so it’s certainly possible that an online mention convinced a lot of people to download it.2

Or perhaps it was featured on a section of the App Store.

Was it related to Rian Johnson and his Star Wars news? The scripts for Rian’s first three movies are available inside the app. Maybe someone linked to that in a Star Wars forum.

Or perhaps it really just was a fluke — a flurry of downloads that pushed it up higher and higher in the charts, creating a virtuous cycle. (We peaked at 162 in Productivity.)

Weekend Read sends our server a ping when it’s first installed, but we can’t track the source of download unless it comes from a specially-crafted URL such as this one.

We may never know exactly what happened. Apple currently gives developers no way of tracking where traffic is coming from. Better analytics are coming in a future version of iTunes Connect, but for now all we get are mysterious numbers. It’s our own little Wow! signal.

  1. The graphic comes from the iOS version of App Viz, which I love. The trend line is certainly misleading in this case.
  2. In-app purchases of Weekend Read Unlocked, which gives users an unlimited library, were not up proportionately to downloads.

Secrets and Lies

Tue, 07/01/2014 - 08:03

John and Craig discuss why most characters are liars, and how that’s actually a good thing. John offers seven suggestions for picking character names that will help your readers. Then we look at a three page challenge that’s been filmed to see what worked on the page versus on screen.

In follow-up, we discuss the Aereo decision and our mutual love of Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

Finally, we answer a reader question about the proper protocol for checking in after a meeting.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 150: Yes, screenwriting is actually writing — Transcript

Thu, 06/26/2014 - 16:37

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 150 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, I’m back from vacation. I’m ready, I’m rested. I feel like I’m ready to do a big show because we’ve got a lot of stuff to get through today.

Craig: Normally when people say they’re ready and rested, you also expect them to say, I’m ready, tanned, and rested, but there was no chance you were going to be tanned.

John: I’m paler than I began.

Craig: Wow. How does that even work?

John: It’s difficult but it’s a process of heavy sunscreen application. So we went down to visit Southern Colorado. We went to the Great Sand Dunes. We went to Mesa Verde. We went to Four Corners which is probably the most useless sort of monument you could possibly imagine.

Craig: Yeah.

John: An arbitrary place where four states come together.

Craig: Yeah, the four states with the — yeah, because they’re drawn on longitude and latitude, those borders.

John: Those borders.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yes. But arbitrary really.

Craig: Yeah, of course, but you did the thing where you’re like I’m in one state, I’m in another state, I’m in –

John: Yeah. My daughter did a backbend, so she was in all four states at once.

Craig: That was featured in a Breaking Bad episode.

John: Oh, how nice.

Speaking of Breaking Bad, a friend of ours who directed two of the best episodes of Breaking Bad apparently is going to direct these movies. So he finally got some work. I think it’s really good news.

Craig: Yeah. He is — there’s a… — God, I cannot remember the name of it. It’s a science fiction thing like a trilogy or something and then there was another trilogy. There are just too many of them.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But for whatever reason, you know how it is, they just can’t stop making derivative sequels, crappy derivative sequels, so they’re making more of them. And he’s –

John: And they had to go to a foreign director to do it now. It’s crazy.

Craig: Right. They had to go to a Swedish guy as well. He’s not even doing the first of the next bunch of them.

John: I know.

Craig: He’s only doing the second of the next bunch.

John: Yeah, he’s doing the sequels to the knock offs.

Craig: I mean, god, his name is Rian Johnson.

John: He was a guest on the show. I remember him. He was really nice.

Craig: And this franchise that he’s doing is Star Wars. Star Wars.

John: With an S at the end, right?

Craig: Yes.

John: Star Wars, not Star War, Star Wars.

Craig: Well, maybe a Z, I don’t know.

John: Oh, I like that a lot.

Craig: Star Warz.

John: But I’m sure there’ll be all sorts of toys and things like that.

Craig: Oh, garbage. Hollywood garbage.

John: Yeah. But, you know, all the same, I’m just really delighted for Rian because this is a kid who he’s put in the hours. He’s made some television, he’s made some short films. He did some videos.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I think it’s great that they’re taking a chance on this newbie –

Craig: Give him a shot. And you know what, look, everybody has to start somewhere. So if you start doing the second of a series of Star Wars films, ideally you’ll learn and, you know, I’d love to see what comes next. I guess that’s what you can take –

John: Absolutely. I think in a few years he may be ready to make some real movies. So congratulations, Rian Johnson. And I think it’s going to be — I’m looking forward to seeing what you make.

Craig: [laughs]

John: That actually segues really well to our first bit of follow up, which is Rob Norman wrote in about remakes and reboots which we talked about two episodes ago. And Rob writes, “I wonder if a remake uses the same laws of storytelling, whereas a reboot changes how the story is told drastically. For example, 21 Jump Street not only changed formats, it also changed genres from police procedural to meta-comedy.

“At the core of Star Trek, there were always this chin-scratching philosophical quandaries, lots of standing around debating issues. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek feels a lot more like Indiana Jones than anything Gene Roddenberry every built. But from Robocop to Robocop, what changed? A few details in the narrative were updated. The actors are different but the tone is the same. Spider-Man to Amazing Spider-Man seems very familiar. It wasn’t really rebooted. A few what’s are different, but the how is the same.

“A remake might be the story and the world stays the same, details change, an old movie is updated. A reboot is going back to the original premise and doing a page one rewrite of the franchise. The story mechanisms are replaced with something completely different.”

That’s Rob’s description of remake versus reboot.

Craig: I’ll buy that too. I mean the last definition was a pretty good one. This definition is a pretty good one. I’m not sure there’s that much value in determining what these nonsense words mean anyway. They’re mostly for bloggers and entertainment journalists to bandy about as they attempt to draw clicks to their website. But, yeah, that makes sense.

John: Yeah. I think rebooting, basically you’re going in a new direction. This is like, all that stuff existed and that’s over there. And this is a new way that we are forging forward. I thought 21 Jump Street was actually an interesting example to bring up because I saw 22 Jump Street over the weekend. I really enjoyed it. Have you seen it yet, Craig?

Craig: I haven’t.

John: Oh, you should see it.

Craig: I know. It’s on my list.

John: Yeah, it’s quite good and quite interesting in the way that they, he describes it as a meta-comedy. They go really meta in it in ways that you think are going to be dangerous. Because usually when a movie tries to be too self-aware that it’s a movie, you’re sort of like navel-gazing and yet it does it just geniusly.

Craig: All right. Well, I’m looking forward to that.

John: Cool. A second bit of follow-up. We talked about something like this on the show before, but Charles Forman is a developer who’s been working with stuff in the Fountain. And he came up with this new product for Mac called Storyboard Fountain. And it’s a lot like kind of what Craig had always wanted or described, which is the ability to sort of shift back and forth between your script and the storyboards for your script. And his, in fact, is a drawing tool. So you work on it with a tablet and you’re drawing with the script, you know, right there in the same frame.

Craig: Right.

John: It seems really, really cool. So that was a great product demo. So I’m going to steer people there –

Craig: I wish, I wish, like I’m so bad at drawing that I can’t even draw stick figures properly. I remember I would work with storyboard artists and I would say, well, this is kind of what I’m thinking about and they would get it. You know, they’d understand, okay, I see. You want behind him, you want over his shoulder with him sort of blown out in frame and then this stuff is in the deep background. But when they looked at my stick figure drawings, they honestly looked at me like I was sick. There was something wrong with me.

John: So the last couple of weeks, I’ve been storyboarding this really complicated project. And so I’ve had a guy, Simone, who’s been in the office a lot doing this stuff. And so we’ve been talking through things. It’s always interesting talking with somebody who’s so much better at something than you are. And so you shouldn’t even try to — I just don’t pick up a pencil when I talk to him about it anymore.

But what I found is really useful is to use real things around me to sort of describe what the shot is and sort of use my fingers as the camera. So like, we’re here, we’re here, we’re here. And he can draw that beautifully. But if I try to do it, it’s just, it’s disastrous.

Craig: It’s funny, John, that your instinct when talking to somebody who is better at something than you is to defer to some extent to them. Whereas, if say the thing that you were really good at was screenwriting, the people that talk to us so frequently fail –

John: Yeah.

Craig: — to defer. In fact, they don’t see any mystery in what we do at all.

John: Uh-uh. A monkey could do that.

Craig: A monkey could do it. Anyway, the only reason they don’t do it is just because they’re tired.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s just too hard to — it’s so much typing. But I know what to say.

John: Oh, you do, absolutely. It’s just a matter of putting particular words down on the page and sort of like, you know, making it all work right there. Basically, it’s how to use Final Draft is really 90% of screenwriting.

Craig: 90% of it. My favorite phrase that idiots use is it just needs to be put into writing. [laughs] I love that. Like I have the story, I know what it is, it just, somebody just needs to put it into writing. What does that mean? It just needs to be put into writing. It’s like a doctor. Like, listen, I know that you’re sick. I just need to put you into health and you’ll be fine. That’s all. I don’t have to do it. Somebody could do it. Anybody can be a doctor. You just have to put somebody into health. I know what the problem is.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Could you just put me into health? You –

John: Yeah.

Craig: D’oh! Oh boy.

John: Oh boy. Well, you may want to hold on to some of that anger because you have an important Halloween task which is that you need to play Steve Ballmer for Halloween.

Craig: That’s right.

John: And one of our listeners, Cynthia Closkey sent me a link to a comedian impressionist named Jim Meskimen who I had seen on other shows before but I’ve never seen this YouTube video where he talks through like how to do an impression and basically how he breaks things down.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And this is very important to me because I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to do my Tim Cook so I can be Tim Cook to your Steve Ballmer. And it’s a very clever video because it was not about sort of the technical details, it’s about sort of looking at the world from their perspective and figuring out how they sort of move their mouths and sort of how they project things much more so than trying to match that sound with that sound.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s a very clever –

Craig: It was. I mean, when you listen to Tim Cook, I mean the first thing you’ll notice probably is the drawl because he has a Southern drawl. But he drags his words. It’s really amazing.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It really looks beautiful in your hand. He’s got that long thing on certain vowels, you know. Like those things… — But I really liked what this guy said about the forceful nature, the plosives, as it were, of speech. And, you know, a good — being able to be an impressionist is a helpful thing I would think as a screenwriter because we are doing impressions of other human beings when we’re writing. We’re doing impressions of multiple other human beings talking to each other.

It’s kind of high level mimicry. And so where does the specificity come from? And I think a lot of new screenwriters will go to things that are very textual: long words, complete sentences as opposed to short words, and slang or whatever have you. But even thinking about the forcefulness of the way a sentence emerges will bleed into the dialogue in a way that people will pick up on. They just will. And it’s not so heavy-handed.

John: Yeah. Your example of plosiveness, like the example he gives is like if you have popcorn in your mouth, how far would the popcorn fly when you do it. And he distinguishes between Kevin Spacey, who keeps everything very close to himself, versus a Paul Giamatti who we think of as being this bursting, bursting, bursting out.

That’s why as you’re writing characters, you know, you shouldn’t get stuck on one actor for a role. But if you have an actor in your head as you’re writing a role, it can be very helpful to see like, would this actually make sense coming out of his lips? Like can I believe an actor, one actor would say all these things this way and that can be really helpful to get the voice consistent even if it’s not the actor you end up casting in the end.

Craig: I don’t really know what the point is in writing a character if you don’t have an actor in mind. I really don’t, because you’re just cheating yourself. Have somebody. It doesn’t have to be anybody that you would ever even cast. Maybe it’s an actor that wouldn’t attract a single ticket buyer. But the specificity, I think, is just so critical.

John: Yeah. If we say specificity three more times in this podcast we’ll get some sort of special prize.

Craig: Specificity, specificity, specificity, specificity, specificity, specificity.

John: All right, nicely done. I will say that one of my great joys in my writing career is I got to do three days’ work on a movie that starred Christopher Walken. And so I got to write dialogue that Christopher Walken would say.

Craig: Walken dialogue.

John: And it’s just such a unique joy to have somebody whose voice you can already hear in your head so clearly and specifically as you’re putting those words down. You pick words that you would never pick for any other actor because it’ll just be so amazing when he says them.

Craig: And Walken’s thing also is there’s either , you know, it’s not that there’s no punctuation. It’s that the punctuation is random. So commas and periods will appear randomly in a brick of dialogue without any actual relation to syntax.

John: Yes.

Craig: Which I think is –

John: Well, he’ll put them in. He will take the dialogue and he will pencil them in where he’s going to do them. It’s planned.

Craig: It’s planned but it just , you know, he’ll –

John: It’s amazing.

Craig: [Walken impersonation] He’ll pencil them in where he’s planning to do them. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: It’s so weird.

John: Yeah. But it’s wonderful.

Craig: It’s wonderful. And like question marks instead of periods and it just… — But, look, at some point, it’s, I don’t know. I don’t want to, it’s just so weird like he’s — Christopher Walken has almost become like Al Pacino, a guy that seems to be doing impressions of people that do impressions of him.

John: Yeah. And so I know there are movies that he doesn’t do the Christopher Walken of it all and I just haven’t seen them because people want him to do Christopher Walken I guess.

Craig: The early ones. If you go way back –

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: — to the early days you’ll see –

John: Totally different person.

Craig: You’ll see , yeah, smooth Christopher Walken. Yeah.

John: A final bit of follow-up. Giovanni wrote in. Giovanni from Turin, Italy writes, “In episode 146, you talked about Hopscotch and how it would be awesome to have something similar that works with Minecraft. I’m just writing in to say there actually is. It’s called Kano. And it’s basically a computer that kids can build and they program in it with code blocks for a number of applications and games. Minecraft is one of them. Craig would be happy to know it was funded mainly through Kickstarter.”

Craig: Yay.

John: “Since I’m writing in, I will also say that as an aspiring videogame writer, I find it very interesting when you talk about games and their narratives. Would you ever consider having a videogame screenwriter or somebody who worked in videogames like Gary Whitta or such on the show?”

No. Absolutely no. Gary Whitta? Never.

Craig: [laughs] Well, not Whitta.

John: Oh yeah, anybody but Whitta.

Craig: Anybody but Whitta. That’s actually a great name for the podcast. I mean if we ever want to change it, it could just be called anybody but Whitta.

John: Yeah.

Craig: There’s a guy I met recently. I believe his name is Jesse Stern and he’s written a number of the Call of Duty games. Goyer has worked on some of those as well. But Jesse Stern I think is primarily a videogame writer. And I actually think that it would be great to speak to somebody like that. And we love Gary Whitta, but Gary’s a screenwriter who also writes some videogames. But this guy is like way deeper and more about that world and it would be — I would love to talk to them. I mean, it’s a fascinating area.

The Writers Guild, you know, continues to make fluttering whimpery noises about trying to organize videogame writers. I don’t see any coherent strategy.

John: So you actually, if you’re a WGA member, you could actually get a WGA contract writing on a videogame.

Craig: Yeah.

John: They’re not eager to give it to you but you can possibly get it. And it establishes some things, some minimums, some benefits that you would not otherwise get if you were not doing that, so.

Craig: Yeah. If you were being paid, you know, enough you could qualify for pension and health. The problem is that the payment for many of the positions is very low. So many of the large companies are either located overseas where we have no jurisdiction or they are Walmart-ian in their anti –

I mean, look, the whole, we’ve discussed this before, the entire Silicon Valley world is just brutally anti-union. And, or I’ll call it the technology world because I know that some of these places aren’t just, you know, but yeah, it’s a massive uphill climb.

John: Yeah, it is. But, Gary, what I should say is actually a very, very nice person. So, I’m slagging on him just because we adore him. And Gary Whitta’s actually writing one of the Star Wars movies. That’s one of the things that’s actually announced, so.

Craig: Yeah. He’s doing one of those spinoff movies. So there’s going to be the three, I guess you’d call them canonical sequels. J. J. Abrams is doing the first of them, then Rian and then an unknown third director. And Gary is doing one of these standalone movies. I think there’s going to be another one as well. There may even be two. You know, it’s funny –

John: It’s an exciting time.

Craig: I was talking to a producer today about it and he’s like, “Is there, how many Star Wars movies are going to come out?” And I said, you know what man, they can’t make enough. I honestly believe that Disney can’t lose money on them. It doesn’t matter because if the third prequel, by that point we’d had enough evidence. [laughs] If the third prequel made a ton of money and it did –

John: It did.

Craig: Every single one of these things is going to be massive and of course there’s the dragon’s tail of merchandising and theme parks and all the rest. We are going to find out just how big a movie can be when this first Star Wars comes out.

John: I agree.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Exciting.

Craig: It’s going to redefine big.

John: All right. Topics for today. Three big topics that we have marked out. First is Trinity Syndrome. Second is sitcoms at conflict. And the third is the question of is screenwriting actually writing. So let’s spin the big wheel and start with Trinity Syndrome.

Craig: [Mimics the Price is Right wheel spin]

John: Oh, you went over a dollar.

Tasha Robinson writing for The Dissolve is writing about what she calls Trinity Syndrome which is that your strong female characters in many of these movies, it’s like, great you have this “strong female character” who actually doesn’t do anything significant in the plot and she points out How To Train Your Dragon 2 as an example of this, Lego Movie as an example of this, and the most recent Lord Of The Rings movies as an example of that. Where you have a woman who is incredibly competent and can do a lot of great things, and then she doesn’t do anything.

Craig, what did you think of Tasha’s article and her points?

Craig: I thought, I was almost all the way there with her.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I think that she’s pointing out something that’s absolutely true that making a female character “strong” oftentimes is a weak-sauce substitute for making them actually human and fleshed out. Of her examples, the one that I thought was probably the weakest was The Lego Movie because she was basically, she was parodying the strong.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, the hero of that movie is called The One. You know, The Chosen One. And so obviously they’re kind of parodying The Matrix there as they were parodying a billion things.

But the only thing I wanted to point out I guess to nuance really is that when you ask the question, why is this happening, to some extent I think you can say it’s because the people that are making these movies are sort of casually sexist. But I also want to point out that many times in these sorts of movies the male characters who aren’t The One or The Hero are also just as thin and pointless.

John: I think that’s a really good point because essentially the way movies tend to work, the way sort of action movies tend to work is you have your hero protagonist and then you have everybody else. And in that everybody else, those are hopefully good entertaining funny characters or dramatic characters, but none of them are going to be as integral as the hero is or if there’s a villain, the villain is going to be. So any person, any character in the movie who’s not the hero or the principal villain is going to feel a little bit secondary and can feel a little bit sort of weak-sauce. If they’re just there to sort of give advice or to help the hero out for a bit but don’t have an integral story function in their own right.

Craig: Right. So there are movies that have relationships. And Lindsay Doran has a really good talk that she does about this. There are movies where characters have a task to do: save the world, blow up a building, become the one, whatever. And they do it. And along the way they experience a relationship with another person. And in the end they get that relationship together almost as a reward for having done the task of the movie.

Then there are other movies where really the relationship is the reward, rather the relationship is the purpose. It’s the journey, you know.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then you have movies that kind of hybridize it where you can feel that there’s equal weight to these things. So for instance, Tasha mentions Edge of Tomorrow where the goal, which is to save the world, seems basically on par with this other goal which is to figure out this relationship with this woman that is the key to understanding how to save the world. In a lot of the movies that she talks about, for instance The Matrix, which I think is brilliant and I actually want, I think that The Matrix is a movie that we should do an episode on.

John: Oh, we absolutely should.

Craig: Yeah, because it’s just gorgeously structured. What is the — where’s the dimension to Morpheus? He might as well have a flowy beard and be sitting on a mountain. He is just the wise old man. And absolutely Trinity is the trinity. [laughs] And the villain’s the villain. He’s the rat. The rat’s the rat. The only character in The Matrix that is an actual human who has anything interesting to say that isn’t the one is the oracle –

John: I agree.

Craig: Who is a woman.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So I agree that strong female character syndrome isn’t ideal in one sense, but I would argue that really what we’re kind of talking about is broad weak character syndrome.

John: Yeah. Tasha offers a couple of points and basically a checklist of things to ask yourself when you’re looking at the characters in a movie. So some of them include: “After being introduced to your strong female character, they fail to do anything fundamentally significant to the outcome of the plot or anything at all.” And that’s a thing you do see where this woman is established as being incredibly competent. I think back to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and I think it’s Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, she’s like in disguise at the start she says she’s a great sword fighter and then she never does sword fighting –

Craig: That’s right.

John: Is that right?

Craig: She mostly just gets threatened to be raped which is number two.

John: Exactly. “If she does something to significantly affect the plot, is it mostly getting raped, beaten, or killed to motivate the male hero, or deciding to have sex or not have sex with, agreeing to date, deciding to break up with the male hero, or nagging the male hero into growing up, or nagging him to stop being so heroic. Basically, does she only exist to service the male hero’s needs, development or motivations?”

But this gets into what we’ve just talked about is that if in a lot of these movies there’s one main person and if that main person is the dude and she is the female character, you have to look for what else it is that she can do, what other functions she can have.

Craig: Sure.

John: If it’s a movie that has like essentially one person driving the story, it doesn’t matter if that secondary character is male or female. It’s going to feel extra.

Craig: Well, yeah, because the protagonist is the protagonist. Therefore, every other character exists to service their needs, development and motivation, all of them. I mean, listen, I think that I did a good job in Identity Thief of having a female character who was not a typical female character and who didn’t fall into any of the pitfalls that I think are listed here. And yet she does help the protagonist’s needs, development, and motivation like any other character must in a movie because that’s what the non-protagonists must do or else they don’t belong in a movie.

John: Well, but fundamentally Identity Thief is a dual protagonist movie where they’re causing each other to change.

Craig: Yes, that’s true. I always felt that he was the primary protagonist because I think he had the most — I think he had the most central problem.

John: Yeah, and she was the obstacle to overcome.

Craig: In many ways, yes. In many ways, yeah.

John: And I would say back to my movies, you know, Go certainly doesn’t have a strong female character problem. You have, you know, Ronna is incredibly competent but she’s the protagonist also. Things are changing because of her. But Charlie’s Angels, we had a luxury of, we have the three women, so there’s not — they’re driving the story. They’re doing those kinds of things themselves.

Craig: Right.

John: I think I want to go back to your defense of Lego Movie and sort of the parody of Trinity Syndrome in that because my recollection of The Lego Movie is the Wyldstyle character, the Elizabeth Banks character, she really wants to be the one and she’s really frustrated that she’s not the one.

Craig: That’s right.

John: And so I think she vocalizes the frustration that I think Tasha Robinson is describing. It’s like, why am I the secondary person? Look how competent I am. Why am I not the person being put in charge here?

Craig: That’s how, you know, it’s a natural thing to want to spoof when you see The Matrix because The Matrix begins with Trinity. The story begins with Trinity doing things that we cannot believe. I mean we know that she’s in a building somewhere and the cops show up and an agent says, you know, what’s going on and they say, oh we sent our cops in there. They probably already arrested her. And the agent turns around and says, they’re already dead. And then we watch her just be awesome.

John: Yes.

Craig: So a natural thing you want to spoof is why is that guy the one? He is just a guy, like why? And that’s a great thing to — I guess my point of being that I thought it was unfair for Tasha to pick on that character because that character is kind of on her side, I think, is the point.

John: So what solutions can we offer or what sort of recommendations can we offer someone who is worried that they have a character who is just basically strong female character syndrome? What hope do we offer them?

Craig: Well, I think that there’s a list here of some trope-y things that people do with women that are starting to become really annoying because, you know, what happens… — When we look at characters, there are certain things that we see immediately and then there’s all the stuff on the inside. But if you look at race, gender, and sexuality, I can come up with a whole bunch of trope-y things for race and sexuality that just don’t work anymore because they’re kind of insulting. They’re getting in the way.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I think it’s time to start doing that for, it’s long past time to start doing that for gender. So for instance, Tasha points out some very good tropes that you don’t want to do. “Could your strong female character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?” Is — I love this one — “Is a fundamental point of your plot that your strong female character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest or most experienced character in the story until the protagonist arrives?” And that, by the way, is something you see in Raiders of the Lost Ark which we both love.

John: Definitely.

Craig: But Marion is like awesome. She owns a bar. She out-drinks some huge, you know, Himalayan man and then immediately she’s into screamy-me-me, you know, damsel in distress, but just like that.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because Indy’s there. “Does the male character enter the story as a bumbling screw-up but then spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her while she stays entirely static and even cheers him on. We’ll call that Rene Russo in Tin Cup. It’s nice if she’s hyper cool but does she only start off that way so a male hero will look even cooler by comparison when he rescues or surpasses her?”

We see that all the time. I mean, she’s making real — these are really good tropes you just want to avoid because we’ve seen them forever and they’re frankly starting to accumulate into a morass of fairly insulting points of view on women. We can just calm down about the gender roles quite a bit, you know.

John: The challenge though is like this is a list of don’t do’s. And so what are some proactive steps you can take to make sure that the female characters in your story are going to have, I don’t know, that they’re not going to fall into this syndrome? And I would say that it’s making sure that, track the story from that character’s point of view, the female character’s point of view, and what would the story be like if the hero hadn’t shown up there.

And so ask yourself the question I think they ask in The Lego Movie which is, well, why isn’t she the hero, and find interesting answers for that. Find interesting things for her to do that don’t fall into these tropes, like find interesting reasons for her to make the plot move forward. Have her take assertive actions that change the nature of the plot. And create conflict with the protagonist that’s not just sort of bumbling romantic tension or whatever you want to do or just like, you know, I’m more competent than you are. Have some real stakes there.

One of my frustrations is that women in movies never seem to make ethical choices. They sort of seem beyond it and –

Craig: That’s right.

John: So have that be a fact and have some flaws, have some real issues there so that it’s a three-dimensional character regardless. It can also be really helpful to just look the character irrespective of gender and what is that character’s motivation and how would you write this character if you were writing it as a man and look at all the choices and decisions that the male characters would make and then ask yourself, are you making those same of kinds of choices with the character as a woman.

Craig: Yeah. For me from a practical positive standpoint, I think that when you write a character who is a woman, you need to consider that she is a woman. You have to understand women as you understand men. I don’t think, by the way, that men have any better understanding of men than they do of women. I think people have understandings of themselves and barely at that. We misunderstand members of our own gender aplenty.

But you want to write a woman and you want to consider that gender as part of her identity. But the thing that I would suggest avoiding at least in the beginning, unless it’s integral to the story, is an immediate dose of sexual politics, sexual interplay, romance. Hold off. Hold off. Make this character alive and full and complete without that. Because what happens all too often is the romance substitutes for substance. And in The Matrix, you see it. In the end, Trinity’s character is a soldier who is defined by her blind faith love in Keanu Reeves –

John: Yeah.

Craig: Who does not deserve it until the very end.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And that I think is where things — I mean, by the way, in that movie, it works. But that movie’s already –

John: In a lot of movies it works. I mean –

Craig: Yeah.

John: I think the reason why these tropes are there is because it’s been successful and –

Craig: That’s right. But I think that we’ve moved on is the point. And we’re starting to see different kinds of relationships occurring. You know, thinking about a brother… — It’s funny, Aline McKenna when she saw Identity Thief, she said, “One thing I really enjoyed about the movie was that it was a man and woman together and it wasn’t about romance or sex, and it was just watching a man and a woman become friends and you never get to see that in a movie.” And it’s true. You never get to see that in a movie.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And that’s why it’s funny. In Edge of Tomorrow, I didn’t want them to — have you seen it?

John: I haven’t seen it yet. Sorry.

Craig: Okay. Well, I was going to do a spoiler.

John: Right. Don’t spoil it for me. I do want to see it.

Craig: I’m not going to spoil it.

John: Doug Liman directed it.

Craig: Doug Liman did direct it, absolutely, the director of Go. I’ll just say that for much of it, for most of it, for the great bulk of it I was watching two people become friends. And I really enjoyed that.

John: It’s a nice thing.

Craig: Yes.

John: All right, speaking of friends, we’re going to talk about an article by Todd VanDerWerff in the AV Club where he says that friendship is killing sitcoms.

Craig: God, you are on fire with the segues today, by the way.

John: Thank you very much. Sometimes I’m just in a segue mode. I hop on my little two-wheeled scooter and I just go.

Craig: Aw.

John: Aw.

Craig: Aw.

John: On top of the segue, I may have brought this up on the show before, it’s a word that I was using and never really knew how it was written. It’s the most disturbingly written word. S-E-G-U-E.

Craig: That’s right. Seg. It looks like “Seague.”

John: Yeah, I assumed that that word was a short version of the longer word that actually was segue. I thought it was just supposed to be segue, but it’s really segue.

Craig: Segue. Yeah, that’s right.

John: Todd’s point is that modern sitcoms, and by sitcoms he doesn’t mean just three cameras, but basically half hour comedies on television, have been hurt by the nature of just people hanging out. And so the kinds of shows he’s talking about include Happy Endings, Cougar Town, How I Met Your Mother, even Modern Family. I think Modern Family is a bit of a stretch. New Girl, recent seasons of New Girl, in that essentially the show can be sometimes paralyzed by the characters getting along too well, by the characters hanging out. And when they just hang out the tension in the scenes naturally just sort of dissipates and your motivation for staying engaged and for really watching falls apart.

Craig, what did you think of the article?

Craig: Yeah. I think that that’s a pretty good observation. I generally agree with his assessment that comedy requires conflict and that the best sitcoms were built around conflict. Although the one that I kind of picked out was Cheers, because while Sam and Diane had a will they/won’t they, that conflict was kind of confined to them. That sitcom to me sort of defined the hang out.

In fact, I’ll go one step backwards. Taxi really for me was the first great hang out show. Yes, Louie is in conflict with them, but really they’re not all in conflict with each other. The point of that show was that they were all in the same boat and desperate to help each other through their misery. And so now that I’m thinking about it, [laughs], I’m not really sure I agree with what he’s saying.

John: I will say that you look at Cheers, and so even after Sam and Diane, when Diane left, they brought in the Kirstie Alley to basically be that central conflict again. Fundamentally these two characters will not get along. And she wouldn’t get along with Carla. She wouldn’t get along with sort of everyone else in the show. To a large degree Frasier I think was brought in to — when Frasier Crane was on Cheers, he was brought in to be sort of a force to be angry against or to be frustrated with.

Craig: Sure.

John: Then when we segue that off to Frasier, that whole show is built on conflict, about basically the one-upmanship between Frasier and his brother, the dad looking to have both of them.

Craig: Yes. Yes.

John: So, that’s a great show, and it’s a great show partly because of its conflict.

The reason why I didn’t find Modern Family to be the best example of that is I feel like they do find clever conflicts in there sort of constantly. So, most of the plots are conflicts between two of that extended family members.

Craig: Yeah. And, you know, he kind of lays this all at the feet of Friends. But, Friends has all the same kind of conflict that he’s talking about. Rachel and Ross, and who loves who, and the love kept switching around and there was a baby, and people were going to get married, and then they weren’t going to get married. There was lots of conflict there. Tons of it.

John: One of my favorite episodes of Friends is the one where Ross — it’s a bottle episode where Ross is trying to get everyone to come to this event and basically like the clock is ticking and he’s trying to get everyone actually dressed so they will actually leave so they can leave the apartment on time. And everyone just sort of like gangs up against him in fun ways.

And that’s the nature of what conflict is. And so often if you’re looking at why a scene doesn’t work it’s because the central conflict of the scene is not clear. It’s not clear — you may understand what the two characters want, but they’re not being put against each other in ways that are going to create some sparks.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, every sitcom, I mean the “sit” part is conflict.

John: Yes. Situational.

Craig: Yeah. So, every episode will have conflict. In terms of the DNA of the show, the idea of baking conflict in between the characters is a good one. And I think, for instance, Friends did that. I mean, we knew from the start that Ross was pining away for Rachel and she wasn’t into him. The will they/won’t they just went on, and on, and on.

And, I don’t know, it says “the show ran Ross and Rachel into the ground.” I guess, yeah, I don’t know.

John: [Crosstalk]

Craig: I don’t know. I’m not really sure. I’ve got to be honest with you. I think Todd VanDerWerff wrote a very — he wrote this well, it’s well thought out. I’m not sure if this topic, frankly, deserves this much thought. It doesn’t seem –

John: I think it’s worth pointing out that sitcoms, comedy thrives on conflict. And that when conflict dissipates it can be more challenging to actually find the conflict. So, two of the shows he singles out are New Girl and — I took of the “The” this time. I said New Girl the way the show actually is.

Craig: That’s right. New Girl.

John: New Girl. And Parks and Rec. And I think you can make valid cases for both of these shows in that New Girl I think the writing is terrific, I love the actors, but this last season there’s not been a lot of conflict between the individual characters. You know, Schmidt is — do you watch New Girl?

Craig: No.

John: No. So, the Schmidt character can be horrible, and yet you still like him. But with the central couple actually becoming a couple and then falling apart, it has had less inherent conflict then it could otherwise be. And so they do just tend to hang out a lot.

Parks and Rec is another great show with a fantastic cast, but Ron Swanson who was sort of the Alec Baldwin 30 Rock character who was always like the stern person you couldn’t convince to get onto your side has become more lovable and because of that it’s harder to find the real conflict between the different characters. They brought on Billy Eichner who is just sort of a firecracker who sort of sets everybody off, but it’s more loud than actual conflict.

Craig: You know what I think is missing from sitcoms?

John: Tell me.

Craig: And if I were to write a sitcom today, which I’m not gonna –

John: What would you do?

Craig: I am a huge fan of Laverne and Shirley. I love Laverne and Shirley. And one thing that Laverne and Shirley did so well was physical comedy. They managed to do incredible physical comedy within the confining format of a sitcom. And it’s really hard to do because, I mean, physical comedy can be dangerous. And being funny doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re physically capable of doing a lot of these things. Plus, you can’t use stunt people. Plus, you’re doing it on a locked down set like a living room. And they managed to do the most incredible — and I just love how physical they were. And you never see that on sitcoms anymore.

I would love to see a sitcom with adults being physical. I love physical comedy. I’ve always loved physical comedy.

John: I would say Modern Family does that some. I mean, granted it’s not a three-camera.

Craig: It’s single-camera. Right.

John: It’s single-camera, so they can do more sophisticated things sometimes.

Craig: Yes.

John: But there have been some really good physical comedy moments where they’ve –

Craig: I’ll give you that one. I’ll give you that one. That’s true.

John: Modern Family is a great show. So, I think we’re going to leave it at good to point out that conflict is central to shows. I don’t know that we agree with some of his specific examples or points, but yay conflict. And I think it’s a useful thing as people are writing — if you’re writing a comedy pilot, your fundamental question should be what is the conflict. What is the conflict of these scenes? And not only are my characters saying funny things, but are they saying funny things that is exploring the conflict within those scenes.

Craig: Correctamundo. Silicon Valley does it very well, by the way.

John: It does it very, very well. You have great empathy almost all the characters, and yet they are pretty much always in conflict with each other.

Craig: Right.

John: This will be a quick one, I’m sure. This was Richard Brody writing for The New Yorker. The headline wasn’t provocative at all. It says Screenwriting Isn’t Writing.

Craig: Eh. Meh.

John: Yeah, nothing hyperbolic about that at all. So, the article is talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Faulkner to some degree and their Hollywood careers. And it’s based on an article that Ken LaZebnik did in Written By, which is an excerpt from his longer book, where they’re talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frustrations writing for Hollywood and that he was really trying to write as if screenwriting was an art form and Brody’s point is that it isn’t.

Craig: Yeah. Well, where to begin with this? First of all, let’s just — I just love — the article falls under the heading “The Front Row: Notes on the Cinema,” by Richard Brody. And then there is his bearded, bespectacled cartoon face and above it, of course, the sneering, [laughs] 1800s monocle hoisting New Yorker icon. They both seem so similar to me.

This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read, which is saying something. Because it’s obvious that Richard Brody is very intelligent. He knows how to put sentences together. I think that he strikes me as one of these people that’s been raised in a pod inside of an academy and has never actually seen the world or tasted or touched things. He’s just read about it in The New Yorker.

This is dumb. Where to begin with how dumb it is? First of all, if you’re going to discuss whether or not screenwriting is writing, let’s not maybe limit it to F. Scott Fitzgerald, [laughs], which is just like — so, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a brilliant novelist. He was a brilliant novelist of a time that was 80 or so years ago. And he attempted because he was unfortunately not great with money and not great with alcohol and not great with lots of things attempted to make some money in Hollywood writing screenplays the way that many great authors like Clifford Odets did.

And he just didn’t get it. And it wasn’t that screenwriting wasn’t writing, it was that he just wasn’t giving these people what they wanted. And I think of Barton Fink. “It’s a Wallace Beery picture. Write a Wallace Beery picture.”That doesn’t mean that writing a Wallace Beery picture isn’t writing, nor does it mean that everything is a Wallace Beery picture.

Interestingly, in his article about how screenwriting isn’t writing and F. Scott Fitzgerald is proof of it, he has this quote from a book about how Fitzgerald embraced screenwriting as a new art form.

John: This is the quote. “Instead of rejecting screenwriting as a necessary evil, Fitzgerald went the other way and embraced it as a new art form, even while recognizing that it was an art frequently embarrassed by the ‘merchants’ more comfortable with mediocrity in their efforts to satisfy the widest possible audience.”

Craig: Right. So, there it is. That’s my point. I agree with Fitzgerald one hundred percent. And I don’t agree with Richard Brody. And I have to say, and again, Faulkner — this guy apparently has, I don’t know, maybe he was hermetically sealed in some sort of cryogenic crypt back in 1958 because it seems like the most recent reference he has is Faulkner’s 1955 film Land of the Pharaohs, because it’s more easy to then go backwards to discuss popular touchstones like Tiger Shark from 1933, ’32.

This is my real problem with this. It is absurd prima facie, forget — putting aside the fact that somebody who doesn’t do a thing is deciding whether or not it’s another thing. I don’t — I don’t like reading How To sex guides from eunuchs. But really I think what upsets me about this is that it’s dishonest. This entire essay is dishonest. It’s a lie. Richard Brody knows it’s a lie. He came up with a title that he thought would get a lot of clicks because he was feeling lonely or something. There is no way this man is dumb enough to believe the argument he’s put here.

John: So, I’m not going to stand up for a huge defense of him, but when I clicked through that headline I was like well that’s just absurd, that’s ridiculous. And then I remembered the fact that often the writer of an article does not choose his headline. And so it’s very possible that someone else put that headline on.

And so I’m trying to push past the headline to look at this as what was the point of the essay. And I think if you look at the point of the essay as Fitzgerald, he was really trying to be a screenwriter. He was really trying to do art in screenwriting, and failed at it. Brody’s point seems to be like, well, it was a foolish game anyway because you can’t look at screenwriting as being real writing.

Craig: I’ve got to push back here because in his essay, not the headline, in his essay he writes, “In short, Fitzgerald was undone by his screenwriting is writing mistake.”

John: Yes. I think I said that. I think I got to the point that the headline may seem much more categorical than that one sentence does. He’s, yes, saying that Fitzgerald, this was this one situation. Without that Fitzgerald framing he has no point whatsoever. I’m stating this badly.

But where I think this still falls apart is that I think there’s an implicit idea that there is real writing, sort of like “real writing,” and the question is what is real writing. Obviously this article from The New Yorker isn’t real writing. Is a short story real writing? What is real writing.

And I think his definition of what writing is basically a novel of a certain size. And that’s absurd.

Craig: I guess. I can’t even tell. I mean, this is so sloppily done. If you’re going to drop a bomb like screenwriting isn’t writing, you’d better sit down and do your homework here. And you better be able to explain to me why Paddy Chayefsky didn’t write Network, and you better explain to me why The Godfather wasn’t written, and Groundhog Day wasn’t written. And, I don’t know, I mean, it’s just insane.

John: Well, later in the article he talks about the collaboration. And collaboration in a sense of like a sort of pejorative sense. Like, well, you were working with a director on the project, so you can’t really say that you wrote it, basically saying there is no sense of authorship.

And if collaboration is his definition of what makes something not writing, then the theater can’t be writing either. Shakespeare can’t be writing because he was writing for people. He was writing with people, with theater troupes in mind to try to make this thing happen.

Craig: And editors — book editors are omnipresent.

John: Absolutely. So, it makes it — basically if screenwriting isn’t writing, then almost nothing really could be writing.

Craig: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I mean, look, it is true that screenwriting is unique in the world of writing in that it is not meant to be read by the audience. It is rather meant to be translated into another art form. However –

John: Well, playwriting is the same thing, too.

Craig: Yes, that’s right. Playwriting is the same thing. You’re right. I’ve always said that doesn’t mean it’s not writing. It’s absolute — in fact, when you think about what is required to make a movie and you realize how much is leaning on the screenplay, it becomes almost super writing. It becomes über writing. And I’m not talking about quality here, because listen, if writing a novel of a certain length is writing to Richard Brody, there are good novels and bad novels, there are good movies and bad movies, good scripts, bad scripts. But, of course it’s writing.

I can’t even believe we’re talking about it. It’s dishonest, John. This is dishonest. He can’t believe this. It’s such a poorly written article that cites a bunch of things cherry picked from the first half of the 20th Century. It makes no sense. It’s sloppy. It’s sloppy. Richard Brody, you are sloppy.

John: If we were Richard Brody’s editor and we needed to rewrite this piece, I think I would start with a different headline, “Movies aren’t novels.”

Craig: Right. [laughs]

John: And I would focus on the fact that Fitzgerald had frustrations trying to adapt, you know, he had frustrations moving from a career as a novelist to a career as a screenwriter, a transition which would seem kind of natural, but it’s not natural because not only is the form different, but the profession which we talk about on the show, the profession is vastly different.

The profession is about pitching and meeting with people and incorporating ideas and notes and getting along with folks in ways that is so different from what a novelist has to do.

Craig: Yes. And maybe Richard Brody loves F. Scott Fitzgerald so much that he has to rationalize his failure, Fitzgerald’s failure, by blaming it on screenwriting itself. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald, too. But listen, there are amazing novelists who can’t write screenplays at all. That’s why so many great novelists don’t adapt their own pieces into screenplays. And there’s so many incredible screenwriters who couldn’t write a novel to save their lives.

They are two different things. It is possible that one of the great novelists in history simply wasn’t very good at writing screenplays.

John: Yeah. It’s entirely possible.

Craig: But that doesn’t mean that screenwriting therefore needs to be indicted as non-writing. Oh my god, he cannot believe this.

John: Shakespeare, by the way, was a terrible novelist. I don’t know if you’ve read any of Shakespeare’s novels, but they’re awful. They’re so awful that they’ve been buried and no one has ever read them.

Craig: Well, there you go.

John: Ah-ha! We have some questions in the mail bag, so let’s get to them. Michael writes in. “Now that I’ve been working for a few years on about a half dozen projects,” first off, Michael, congratulations. You’ve been working on a half dozen projects.

Craig: Yes, well done.

John: “I’ve experienced something strange about the process of making deals and starting to work on a project. Here is what happens. I sell a pitch or get hired for an open writing assignment and my lawyer negotiates with the studio’s business affairs about the headline deal points, how many steps, how much per step, etc. Everyone agrees, and then the studios and producers start moving forward. We have the commencement meeting and I’m expected to start writing. All good, except I don’t have a signed contract as my lawyer and studio’s business affairs will probably be working on the nitty gritty details for about three or four months.

“Multiple times I’ve finished a first draft before receiving a contract. Now, this has never really been a big problem because it all works out in the end, but is this normal? Despite my team’s assurances that everything is good, it’s hard not to have fears about everything falling apart. What do you guys do? Do you start writing when the deal is ‘closed,’ or when you actually sign a contract?”

Craig: Great question.

John: It’s a great question.

Craig: Excellent question.

John: Craig, what do you actually do in practice, because I’m curious.

Craig: In practice, I start — assuming that I have all the information I need, that there isn’t a particular meeting that I need to have to sort of figure out what we’re all going to do, when the deal is closed and my availability is –

John: That’s a phone call that says it’s closed.

Craig: Yeah. A phone call says it’s closed and my availability is appropriate, so I’m not finishing up another thing, I start working. There are two levels to contracts. The first is a deal memo, which often goes along with a certificate of authorship. And that is a way, if the lawyers feel like it’s going to take quite some time to work up a long form contract with all the little annoying details like how much you get paid per week if you’re in a medium sized city on location, they’ll come up with this certificate of authorship that basically says this is what you’re going to get paid.

And you’re basically saying, yes, I’m going to write this and, yes, you guys will have the copyright on what I write, because it’s a work for hire, yada yada.

And that oftentimes is enough to release commencement payment. However, there have been times where the contract has taken forever. Now, you should be paid, by the way. You don’t want to not be paid.

John: That’s a fundamental aspect.

Craig: Yes. The very first movie that I ever was hired to do, this is exactly what happened. So, we were told to start writing. We had a deal. The deal closed. And then — it was Disney at the time took months and months to get the paperwork done. And we called up our lawyer, my writing partner and I, and we said we’re done, what do we do? We haven’t been paid, and they haven’t finished this contract. And he said do not turn it in. That’s the most important thing. The day you turn it in you’ve lost your leverage to get the contract done.

So, he called them and said, they’re done, so, A, how embarrassing for you. B, they’re not turning it in until this is signed. And I think two days later it was done.

John: Yeah, so that standard advice is how I’ve worked through most of my situations. Really honesty, and I think the official WGA policy is that you’re not supposed to start writing until you have papers signed. But in practice that rarely happens.

Craig: That’s right. And papers signed — or you’ve been paid.

John: And that’s the thing. Being paid tends to be the proxy for having the contracts done because being paid means that the person employing you believes that the contracts will get done and believes that there will actually — the deal will close. And so there’s the danger, I guess, the possibility that you’re paid to start writing, you start writing, and the contract never closes and you’re in this weird limbo about do you have to get the money back, do you give them the script, sort of what is all that stuff. But, you still have the leverage of having the script and they still hopefully want the script.

Craig: Yeah. I’ve never heard of a situation where the long form wasn’t worked out.

John: Yeah. I have heard of some things, and occasionally if you’re adapting anything you need to be very specific and very pointed about the underlying rights. Because I have been in situations where, oh, this is great, this is swell, and we’re going to do stuff. And then it became clear that the underlying rights were actually much more complicated.

Craig: Right.

John: So, even if I started writing, there’s a possibility that they weren’t going to really close those underlying rights and that’s a bad thing.

Craig: Okay.

John: They should have been paying me, but they did pay me, and then it became clear like I’m writing this thing that we may never be able to make.

Craig: Be able to make. And so the one area of the big document that you’re looking at, one important one to concentrate on is what they call conditions precedent. So, there are certain conditions that have to be met in order for the contract to be valid. Some of them are obvious like you have to be who you say you are and a citizen and a Writers Guild member and la-da-da.

Some of them are things specific to your deal. We have to have the rights to this project and there has to be creative approval before commencement from this particular person. And you need to know what those terms are so that you know where you stand.

John: Yeah. At some point we should really go through a whole contract, but the frustrating thing I often find — and this is worse when I started and it’s become a little bit better, at least for me, but they’ll ask you to have things notarized or have some sort of like certification that you are a US citizen, all this stuff, and it just feels like stalling.

I don’t believe they actually really need it. I think they’re basically just, you know, burning some time so they can not finish closing the deal.

Craig: There’s some quote somewhere that says something like never ascribe malice to that which can be explained by incompetence.

John: Yes. I get that.

Craig: I think that a lot of times it’s simply by the time it gets down to that stuff there’s a person in a cubicle who has a stack of these things and a job. And the job is get W2, I-9, C forms from these employees and they go and dutifully execute those orders.

John: Yeah. But that same person or the person in the cubicle next to them also has the checks that are going out, and some reason like those checks won’t go out until pointed phone calls are made and suddenly those checks start flowing.

Craig: I find that the departments of all corporations that involve incoming and out-coming checks are just the worst. [laughs] And you could say, yeah, because they don’t want to spend money. But they don’t even seem to want to take money either. That whole world, you know, as bad as screenwriting can be sometimes, I’m glad I don’t work in the incoming/out-going check business. I’m not cut out for it.

John: So, my very first job, How to Eat Fried Worms, was over at Universal. And for a time I was dating a guy who was an assistant at Universal. I’m not even sure who he worked for. But he said like, “Oh, your check crossed my desk today.” I’m like, oh, that is just really, really awkward that you know that I have a check for X thousand dollars crossing your desk.

Craig: Right.

John: It just feels kind of odd. And I guess I had to buy dinner that night.

Craig: [laughs] Yes, I mean, your check crossed… — What does that even mean, by the way?

John: Well, it basically means that like his boss had to sign the check or something and so –

Craig: Oh, I see, I see. So, it’s on his desk, he sees it. Listen, people know everything. That’s the truth. Everything. They know everything.

John: Everything.

Craig: There’s no secrets.

John: There are no secrets. Thomas in London writes –

Craig: [British accent] Hello!

John: [British accent] Hello! “I’m an aspiring writer and I’ve been given a little bit of attention for a script on the Black List, the paid site, the year-end hit list. I received this email from someone a few days ago. The email is, ‘My name is blank, and I’ve been an executive producer in feature films in Los Angeles for the last eight years or so working at this studio and this production company. Anyway, I read your script, the title of the script, and I was curious if you had an agent in the states. To be totally transparent, I’m always looking for unrepresented talent to recommend to high level agents so they keep me at the top of their callback lists. Please let me know.’”

So, Thomas writes –

Craig: [laughs] Oh my god.

John: “As a total newbie to Hollywood dealings, I don’t know if this is normal. Do producers recommend un-repped writers to agents purely as a back-scratching tactic? I don’t see anything dodgy in what he’s offering and it’s very kind of him to want to help me, even if he does get something out of it. Craig, what do you think of this situation?”

Craig: I don’t think that is normal. I’m kind of stumped by this. I mean, first of all, it’s such a Willy Loman thing to say, you know. Like, “Listen, I’ve done a lot of things, I’m not doing anything now. But, oh golly gee, I’d love to take your script to somebody so that he might call me back one day about something else.” What?

I mean, yeah, I guess, look Thomas, I don’t see how it would hurt.

John: Yeah. I don’t see how it would hurt, either. I guess I’m trying to look at it from this producer’s point of view is that he’s trying to establish some sort of relationship with you vaguely, kind of establish with you. He doesn’t feel like he can get your movie made, but he thinks you’re a good writer, so this is a way of him saying that I think you’re a really good writer. He could say that and say like, hey, we should have a meeting next time you’re in town. That might be a good way to do it.

I guess he’s genuinely asking whether you have an agent because he doesn’t want to recommend the script to a certain agent unless that person is already represented because then he looks kind of foolish.

But I’ll say it’s weird that this guy is an executive producer because this kind of reaching out would happen much more at like a very junior level. And so basically says like, “Hey, I read your script. I want to give it to my boss. Do you have — tell me what the deal is with the script. Do you have an agent? Is there a manager? I want to know that it’s actually available.”

That kind of thing I think would happen all the time.

Craig: Well, I mean, look. Everything is in past tense here, so I’m not sure if this individual still is working anywhere, but what I just found surprising was the transparency was completely unnecessary. I mean, you just say, “Listen, I really liked your script. I’m not really in the marketplace to buy or produce things, but I do know a ton of agents. If you don’t have an agent I’d be happy to pass this along to some of the ones that I know.”

John: Yeah. That would be a better way to phrase what he was doing right there.

Craig: “To keep me at the top of their callback lists?” What?

John: What?

Craig: What?! That’s cray. That’s cray.

John: That’s cray.

Craig: Thomas, that means crazy.

John: Yeah. That may not have crossed the pond.

Craig: It hasn’t.

John: I will say in general that sense of like recommending a script to somebody else to prove that you have good taste is a thing that happens a lot and so you want to sort of establish like, listen, I found this person, this person has good — this is a good writer. I’m the person who brought them to you, therefore I have good taste. The reason that I got my first agent was because a friend had read my script, gave it to his boss who liked it, who recommended me to his agent.

So, that happens a lot. So, that can be a good thing. You should accept those offers when they come. It just — the nature of his email was a little bit weird.

Craig: Yeah, but you know, I don’t see anything terribly awful about it. No.

John: And it’s why Franklin has the Black List site so that random people who can be helpful to you can read your script. So, I guess it’s a success in that way.

Craig: I think maybe just if you write back just be clear that you have no problem with this person forwarding your script to any agent that you think would be good. As long as you guys are clear that there is not — this doesn’t imply anything, any relationship, any professional relationship between you and this person.

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s all. You just don’t want to suddenly have this guy on your movie.

John: Agreed. All right. Julie writes,”There is a YA novel that I would like to adapt. I am an acquaintance of the author and contacted her to see if her book has been optioned. She expressed interest in my idea of writing a TV pilot, however, she contacted her literary agent and was told that the film rep has been pitching the book for TV the last two years. From that information it doesn’t seem the book has been optioned or has a screenwriter attached.

“How do I continue to express interest in the project to her and the film agent and convince them to give me a shot in writing the pilot to accompany the pitch?”

So, in this situation it’s a little bit weird, like you’re saying it doesn’t appear that it’s been options. Like, either — it’s a binary condition. Either it’s been optioned or it hasn’t been optioned. It sounds like it hasn’t been optioned. It sounds like no one has bit on this property yet.

Craig: Right.

John: So, if you have a good take on it and you want to basically spec the TV pilot, that’s a thing you and your friend can figure out. It doesn’t have to be especially complicated.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, listen. You say how do I continue to express interest in the project to her and her film agent and convince them to give me a shot in writing the pilot to accompany their pitch — you just do it. You just say, “I’m interested in writing the pilot to accompany this pitch and you should option it to me.” And option it for a buck or whatever and give me a shot here.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then they can decide if they want to do that or not. But it doesn’t — I mean, I don’t know why they wouldn’t because nobody wants this thing as just in the form that they’ve been offering it.

John: Totally true.

All right, let’s get to our One Cool Things.

Craig: Great.

John: So, my One Cool Thing is a movie that is out this weekend and this past weekend it debuted in Los Angeles and New York. It’s called Coherence. It’s written and directed by — I don’t even remember his name now — James Ward Byrkit, with a story by Byrkit and Alex Manugian, who is an actor in the movie as well. Another actor in the movie is our friend Lorene Scafaria who is awesome. She’s the writer and director of cool movies. And she’s an actress in this movie. She was also an actress in my movie The Nines.

And if you liked my movie, The Nines, you will probably like Coherence because it’s one of those mind trip movies like The Nines or like Primer where everything is not quite what it seems. And it gets very paranoid because of what’s really going on. So, I really enjoyed. I saw it at a screening about three weeks ago and highly recommend it to people who like that kind of movie.

Craig: Excellent. Is it available in theatres only, or…?

John: Right now it’s only in theaters. I’m sure that it will have a Video On Demand soon, so I think the rest of the world will see it soon, so I’ll give a follow up when it’s available for everyone else in the world.

Craig: I’ve been hearing a lot about it actually. A lot of buzz.

John: A lot of buzz.

Craig: A lot of buzz. My One Cool Thing is a website that I go to all the time to check on things and it’s called Quackwatch.

John: Ooh, I’m excited about Quackwatch. I hope I know what it is.

Craig: “Quackwatch.com, your guide to quackery, health fraud, and intelligent decisions operated by Stephen Barrett, M.D.”

John: Nice.

Craig: They are also associated with the National Council Against Health Fraud and with Bioethics Watch. And they are spectacular. They — listen, you know me, I am a scientist. I am a medical scientist in my mind. And I really, really, really get crazy about the nonsense that’s put out there. Anti-intellectual nonsense. And Quackwatch is just incredible.

They’re kind of the Snopes for terrible –

John: I was going to bring up Snopes. That sounds right.

Craig: Yeah. They’re the Snopes of bad health advice and they also — they will chase down individuals, they are fearless. They chase down websites. Laboratories that are notorious for fraudulent results that are telling you what you want to hear. Obviously they’ve always been on the forefront of the nonsense anti-vaccination.

Can I just say, if you’re anti-vaccine, just stop listening to the podcast.

John: [laughs]

Craig: We don’t want you. I don’t want you. I don’t know about John. I don’t want you. Unsubscribe. Get out of here. There’s now a Pertussis epidemic in California –

John: I know. I know. It’s ridiculous. A disease that should have been completely wiped out.

Craig: Wiped out. Wiped out. Well, because Pertussis is unique. See, there is no true herd immunity for Pertussis because we actually all carry it around. What the vaccine does is prevent us from getting symptoms. But we carry it around. And you can’t vaccinate newborn infants until they’re a certain age. So, in that time we’re just getting babies sick. And you know who’s getting them sick? Their parents.

John: Parents.

Craig: Their parents. Because they haven’t been vaccinated!

John: Or they were vaccinated as kids and the vaccine wears off and –

Craig: And it wears off and you need to get booster shots. Or they haven’t vaccinated their other children in the house. The whole idea is since there’s no herd immunity, the key with Pertussis is what they call cocooning because the baby mostly stays in the house for the first six months. That’s why they tell you, hey, don’t really take the baby to Chuck-E-Cheese when he’s three months old.

So, you’re in the house with people who have been vaccinated and therefore have much less viral load. And particularly aren’t coughing and spewing it out at you. But if your five-year-old snot-nosed unvaccinated kid is sneezing Pertussis at your three-month-old baby, oh, that is. The umbrage level right now. I got red alert. [laughs] I’m at red alert.

John: So, but it’s not just babies. That’s the thing. It’s clearly incredibly dangerous for babies, but like I have an adult friend, you know, a friend in his late forties who got Pertussis. I was like, well, he — who gets whooping cough these days?

He got it because the vaccine wears off and it’s out there in the world now. It’s becoming more common in the ways that should never have been more common. And he was knocked on his ass for weeks.

Craig: That’s right. And by the way, he gets knocked on his ass for weeks and that’s bad. But I’m angry at him for not getting a booster. And, on top of that, if he comes in contact with anybody who is immune-compromised, like somebody who has AIDS symptoms, or if he comes in contact with the elderly who have compromised immunity. He’s going to get them sick. And they could die. Oh my god.

John: Yeah, it’s maddening.

Craig: Yeah. Ugh.

John: That’s maddening, but the things like measles which really were supposed to be done.

Craig: Ugh, measles.

John: That’s just, ugh.

Craig: It’s mindboggling. And, really, I want somebody to tweet angrily to me about this one. This ain’t She-Hulk. I will come out, [laughs], I will come out guns blazing. I will go monkey. I will go insane.

John: All right.

Craig: God, this was a good show.

John: It was a good show. We got through a lot of stuff today.

Craig: I umbraged out. It’s been a long time, and I went crazy I think three times. [laughs]

John: Totally reasonable choices every time.

Craig: Thank you.

John: If you would like to leave a comment for me or for Craig, you can reach us on Twitter. I am @johnaugust. He is @clmazin. You can also leave a comment on iTunes. Search for Scriptnotes podcast. That’s a perfect place to subscribe to Scriptnotes, but you can also leave a comment there. And when you leave a comment or subscribe it actually boosts us up in the ratings there and more people can find us, so that’s always lovely when that happens.

The most recent 20 episodes of Scriptnotes you will always find on iTunes. The back episodes, the whole back catalog the first 130 episodes you can find at Scriptnotes.net. You can also find them on the iPhone at the iOS app and the Android app. Just search for Scriptnotes in the App Store and you will find that there. And through there you can get the back episodes, it’s called the premium subscription, that gives you all the back episodes, and every once and awhile we’ll have like a bonus episode that is sort of like Scriptnotes but not really Scriptnotes, things like interviews with people or stuff like that.

So, if you want to support us that way, you’re welcome to do that. It’s only $1.99 a month, so it’s not like vaccine money or anything like that.

Craig: No, no! And it doesn’t have Thimerosal in it. “Oh god! Ooh, I don’t understand science or chemistry. Argh! I believe in ghosts.”

John: If you have a longer question like some of the ones we read today, you can write to ask@johnaugust.com and we try to get through as many questions as we can. It’s also a good place to write if you have follow up on things we talked about that is bigger than what we can talk about in a tweet, but tweets are sort of preferred because we can get to them right away.

And I think that is our show this week.

Craig: Yeah. That’s the end of what I think is the number one podcast for the non-writing art form of screenwriting.

John: Perfect. Craig, thank you very much.

Craig: Thank you, John. Bye.

Links:

Yes, screenwriting is actually writing

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 08:03

Craig and John take a swing at several of the week’s hyperbolic headlines, from conflict-free comedy to Fitzgerald’s failures to Strong Female Characters with nothing to do. In each case, there’s a valid idea lurking beneath the overstated claim, but it’s important to separate good examples from bad.

We then answer a stack of listener questions, ranging from slow contracts to strange emails to friendly options.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

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