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Scriptnotes, Ep 180: Bad Teachers, Good Advice and the Default Male — Transcript

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 17:33

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 180 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Now, Craig, last week’s episode was full of conflict so I think it’s really good that we have someone here to help balance this out, try to make sure everything is smooth and calm today. We have none other than our own Aline Brosh McKenna. Yay, wild applause.

Craig: Yay.

Aline Brosh McKenna: AKA, The Ref.

John: You are the ref. You are the one who’s going to achieve sort of a calmness of flow to all these things. But we actually were thinking about you last week because several things came up and we thought, well, Aline is the perfect person to talk about this because our topics today are the default male problem, which is sort of why characters are male unless they’re otherwise described. And you’ve talked about this on previous shows.

Aline: Hm-mmm, I sure have.

John: And we’re also going to talk about — so our second conversation is about Whiplash and really that’s about sort of that difficult teacher/student relationship which reminds me a lot of Devil Wears Prada, which is your movie. You wrote that movie.

Aline: I did indeed.

John: So we’re going to do those two topics and you’re also going to help me with some ethical issues that I’m having. So I think it’s going to be a fun show.

Craig: Great.

John: So let’s get into this. So, Aline, we’re so happy to have you here because this is how this default male topic came up this week. And so there was an interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg from BoJack Horseman. And I think it was actually like a sort of online Q&A. But they were asking about sort of how in comedy, it seems like characters are male unless they’re not otherwise male.

This is what he writes back. “The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the business person. But if you also have a thing where both of them are ladies, it’s like this additional thing muddles up the joke. The audience thinks, why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?

“The underlying assumption is that the default mode for any character is male. So to make the characters female, there’s an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being 100% clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it.”

That was the creator of BoJack Horseman talking about — in his case, it was like we have these two animated characters and the illustrator said, like, well, why aren’t they both women? And he’s, like, well, that feels weird. Aline, help us out here.

Aline: I don’t actually totally disagree with that in so far as I think that, you know, our job is to depict the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. That being said, we do a terrible job of depicting the world as it is, which is that women are more populous than men. I think that, you know, as he mentioned in a scene, you want to weed out extraneous elements. And, in fact, one of the signs of a rookie writer is having just too much stuff in there. They’re trying to set up too many things and say too many things.

If you have a female character in something which is anomalous, which is going to cause you and stop and think about it, it may bump your scene a little bit. But that would be in a case where it’s a female Sumo wrestler, something that we just don’t ever see women doing. I think there are a lot of instances where you can just have it be a female character and not have it interfere — create radio interference with a scene. I have been more of an advocate for taking stock characters that were male, and by making them female finding something more interesting or more dimensional in them because they’re not as expected.

But, you know, one thing I would say is that if you really want to populate your scripts with different kinds of people, you have to stipulate because if you don’t stipulate then people do make assumptions. For instance, in the pilot that Rachel and I did, there was a character who was Asian. We gave him an Asian last name and we stipulated that he was Asian and then that’s who the casting department — that’s what they have on the sheet of paper. And if you don’t stipulate, then the casting department doesn’t know who to look for.

I just think there are a lot of opportunities where, you know, if it’s a cop, if it’s a lawyer, if it’s a, you know, a passerby, you can just mention it unless it’s something that will actually do what he’s suggesting, which is detract from the logic or the flow of the scene. I think that’s actually less of a concern than people think. But I wouldn’t make a huge point of sticking in ladies where they’re wildly anomalous and you’re not doing it for any particular reason.

John: Craig, talk us through from the comedy perspective because this point of you’re looking for the cleanest possible joke, is that something you think about as you’re writing?

Craig: Well, sure. That’s where the expression a joke on a joke comes from. You don’t want a joke on a joke. So, you know, in Aline’s example, if you’re doing a bit where a Sumo wrestler is being — this is a terrible joke, but a Sumo wrestler is distracted from his opponent by a sandwich. If the Sumo wrestler is also a woman, which is anomalous, then you’re not sure where’s the absurdity in it, right? You only want one absurdity.

If there are multiple absurdities, then the world is absurd and the joke starts to fall apart. That said, I don’t really understand what he’s talking about here. I agree that we shouldn’t default to males but I don’t understand his point. Like, he seems to be saying that if a dog slobbered on a lady, we would be thinking, why is that character female. Is that part of the joke? No, we wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I don’t get that.

I actually think — I mean, this is not humble-bragging. If this is a problem, I don’t have it. I’ve never defaulted to a male or a female for any particular character. And I don’t think that being a woman is an element of a joke unless, as Aline says, it’s anomalous. Similarly, I don’t think of men as an element in a joke unless it’s anomalous.

If I’m writing a scene in a kindergarten and the kindergarten teacher is a 70-year-old man, that’s anomalous. That’s an element, right? That’s a choice.

Aline: Let me interrupt for one second. So in, let’s just take Identity Thief because I’ve seen it a couple of times. Melissa is a woman. Amanda is a woman. One of the bad guys is a lady.

Craig: Yeah.

Aline: And then a lot of the default characters like cops and — are there other, like — the hotel clerk, was that a man or a woman? Can’t remember.

John: And there were other business people as they’re sort of going into the corporation. So –

Aline: Like if I looked at your character breakdown for that script, do you think it comes out — what percentage do you think it comes out?

Craig: I’m not sure what the percentage is but I know that, for instance, in the hotel there was a male clerk and a female clerk. So in two different scenes, there was a character in — when they break into an office building, there’s a character that’s male but that’s a specific choice because I wanted that to be the mirror image, like basically another Jason Bateman. I wanted him to meet himself in another place. The office was very male. I wanted it to feel really male because I wanted it to feel very old-school and kind of repressive.

But yeah, one of the bad guys is a woman. She’s, yeah, seems like the most dangerous one of them. I just remembered that I made a very specific choice for Jason Bateman and Amanda Peet to have two daughters. I don’t think I defaulted at all. You know, when I’m writing a screenplay, I don’t know, maybe this is different in TV. I think gender is something that you have to be specific and really intentional about every single time.

Aline: Once in a while, you’ll say the hotdog vendor, you know, you’ll say the hotdog vendor, the cab driver, the policeman, and if you don’t stipulate that it’s a woman, casting will come to you with men.

John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –

Aline: Yes.

John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white. And that’s no slam on casting directors –

Aline: Well, we had a funny thing once where we put in — I put into the script any ethnicity and every person that they brought in was a person of color because –

John: Yeah. Maybe that’s good.

Aline: They assumed that any ethnicity meant I was looking for something that was — and I just wanted them to hire — I mean, you’d like to be in a circumstance where they’re just hiring whoever is the best person. But if it is important to you and it won’t distract from the scene, it’s not a bad idea to stipulate there’s two clerks at the hotel desk, one’s a man and one’s a woman. I mean, or just name them, just the act of naming, as you said. Just naming one of them Trish, just naming one of the cops Betty is — then people get it.

So you can do things which are — I think what he’s pointing to is you don’t want to — if you stipulate it strongly, then people wonder why you’re doing that.

John: Yeah. And so there’s always that fine line between do you give a character who’s only going to appear in one scene a name and if they’re only going to — if they’re going to have, like, one throw-away line, I often won’t give that person a name because then it signals to the reader this person’s really important and they’ll show up again. But a person who’s going to be, like, really helping to drive a scene, scripts are full of like Dr. Gutierrez because it makes that person a little bit more specific and, of course, the advantage to, you know, a name with some ethnic heritage to it is it can stick in your head a little bit longer so you can remember that person was — you remember that character. That character shows up 50 pages later, like, oh, yeah, there was a Gutierrez. That’s helpful.

Amine: Right. I mean, one of the reasons I thought of Identity Thief is because the bad guy — those two bad guys, and often, in a movie like that, it just would be two generic male thugs and there was this lady in there.

Craig: Well, yeah, there was a lady in there and she was Latina and there was also — for instance, the character that John Cho plays was not singled out to be Asian-American. So I didn’t single out race there. I do think that default race being white is a problem and that’s something that we do watch out for a lot. But what this guy’s talking about, a lot of, like, for instance, the issue of the hotdog vendor, the cop, the cab driver is an issue for writers to be careful about in television because oftentimes they’re the ones doing the casting.

In features, I don’t want to call out any specifics about the hotdog vendor or the cab driver because if I do, as John says, I’m putting story weight on it for the reader that I don’t want to put there. Sometimes you do want the most bland thing. You want the thing to say meter — you know, a parking enforcer. And then it is up to the producer and the director and the casting director to get out of this mindset of automatically white, automatically male.

You know, when Aline says any ethnicity, the truth is they see the word ethnicity and they go, well, white’s not ethnic. So what she means is anything that’s not white. All of this stuff, this kind of what you would call default thinking, I think is far more serious when it comes to race at least in features, at least for me. Like, I know. I’ll be honest. Like, I am affirmative in my mind about not defaulting to white, meaning I easily default to white.

And so I work to not default to white. But I don’t feel any gear-grinding to work to default to female. If anything these days, that’s kind of where I start with a lot of characters. I prefer it. But I definitely did not understand his example. I don’t understand how in his example the — maybe he just gave a bad example.

John: Well, I can understand his example especially coming from an animation point of view where you’re literally having to draw every person. So it’s not like you’re going through and casting. It’s, like, oh, let’s put out a wide net. How are you going to draw those two characters? I think in his specific example, it was that a strong wind was blowing the slobber from a dog onto a business person. And so I can see where in his example are we thinking that there’s a different context because it’s spit going onto a woman versus spit going onto a man?

There are always specifics to these situations. But I want us to go back down to the default male situation because there’s two anecdotes I heard this last week from other writers as this was being discussed. The first was from a writer who said that she literally — all she had changed for this one character was the character’s name from like a Bob to a Barbara. And the note she got back from the studio was like, oh, the character’s so much more complex now.

Aline: Yeah.

John: Like literally nothing had changed other than the character’s gender and name and suddenly every — all those same lines seemed so much different because we apply a complexity to that character in that role if it’s a woman.

Aline: And that’s what I was saying if you just go through and look at stuff, especially stuff that you’re feeling like is just functional and not interesting and you start thinking about other genders or races or just doing something that makes that character more interesting. But to be honest with you, I have trouble getting too exercised about this because we just need more female leads. We need more female big roles.

And, you know, with women and minorities, there’s a lot of cops and judges and DAs going on. And I wish that instead of — it’s a much bigger problem than the default thing, I wish that, you know, if you’re doing a buddy movie that you think of a woman and a man, you know, if you’re going to do Ride Along and you could do it with a woman just as easily, that’s the kind of thinking that’s, I think, ultimately going to be more impactful.

And that’s why somebody like Melissa McCarthy, she takes movies that could’ve been two men easily and you just put her right into it and you don’t miss a beat.

John: I think Tilda Swinton is the same situation.

Aline: Yeah.

John: Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton. And that’s a role that didn’t need to be a woman. There’s nothing — her gender doesn’t actually factor into any aspect of Michael Clayton. But her being a woman changes that role in sort of a strangely fundamental way in that you rarely see women making those kind of ethical, horrible moral judgments. And that’s what’s fascinating to watch.

Aline: Made it more interesting. I mean, once –

John: The same in Snowpiercer. I mean, she doesn’t have to be a woman in Snowpiercer and it’s great.

Aline: One just small thing. I sense a segue coming. But one small thing is that in Devil Wears Prada, the character that’s played by Stanley Tucci, it’s never said that he’s gay. We never make reference to it. It’s not in anything to do with the story. Stanley played the character a certain way. And it’s funny people assume that he is and it comes up frequently. And it wasn’t ever — it’s not in — it’s not written anywhere. And I don’t know that he is or isn’t.

John: Yeah. Yeah, that’s great. All right, I have questions for you guys because you both have strong opinions and –

Aline: [laughs] No!

John: And you’re willing to share your opinions and you’re also — you’re very confident in your opinions. And so I look to you for some confident opinions on a couple of ethical questions that have sort of come up for me.

Let me raise these. So as we’re recording this, this is the day the Oscar nominations came out. And one of my stipulations is that I will only vote in a category if I’ve seen all the nominees because that only seems fair. But is that really the right idea or am I sort of doing a disservice to all the nominees if I haven’t — if I don’t vote in a category I haven’t seen?

Aline: You voted to nominate having not seen every single movie in the category.

John: Absolutely true, because it’s impossible. It’s an infinite set essentially.

Aline: Okay.

John: But when it comes down to the actual Oscar voting or the WGA voting, I’m only going to vote in categories where I’ve seen all the possibilities. Craig Mazin, I come to you first. What is your feeling about that as an approach?

Craig: I mean, of course, you want to say, look, if you have to choose between five movies and you’re picking who the best director of those five movies are, you — naturally, it is ideal for you to have seen all five. But really, underlying all this is the silliness of the voting itself. You’re voting on five that other people have agreed you should vote on. All those people agreed that these are the five based on some movies they saw, not all.

Look, you know my whole feeling about the Oscars is that it should be more like AFI where it’s like it’s a celebration of the five best directed movies of the year. [laughs] I just don’t understand this pick one thing. But yeah, I mean, ideally, you would, sure. I mean, it seems weird to say well, I didn’t see — I saw one of them or two of them and I didn’t see the other three, but I like this one. I’m voting for that one. That’s a bummer to the people that did the other stuff, right?

John: It is. Aline, I want your opinion.

Aline: I mean, it’s definitely the ideal. You know, I usually have seen all the movies in my category basically. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s better to focus on ones where you feel like you’ve really surveyed the landscape. I think it’s an ideal — I think people do the best they can. And then I think, you know, sometimes people just feel really strongly about one movie and they feel like it’s the best movie they’ve seen among the movies they’ve seen and they’ll just vote for that one.

Craig: Yeah.

Aline: So –

John: All right. That’s actually a more ambiguous answer. I was expecting a sort of a strong firm one. So now, I want you to tell me if I’m a hypocrite or not a hypocrite based on this exception I’m willing to make. The Transformers movies. I don’t like the Transformers movies. I can’t watch a Transformers movie. They’re too loud. They’re too noisy. They’re too chaotic. I don’t care to watch a Transformers movie. And yet they’re always up for sound mixing or sound editing. And so am I a hypocrite if I vote in that category not having seen those? If I make an exception for Transformers movies, is that a hypocrite?

Craig: I would say yes. I get the you don’t have to watch the whole movie. You can watch a sequence. You’ll know which one is the one that the sound guys would hope you’d be listening to and just watch that sequence with an ear on the sound and ignore the other stuff because that’s the point of that category. You and I both know the sound guys, they’re — it’s done. They get the pictures locked. Someone wrote the script. They shot it, da, da, da, da, da, da. They’re just doing sound. So you can’t punish them for the content of the movie. You can only reward them or not reward them based on what you hear.

John: All right.

Aline: I mean, I feel bad for these guys because their work is being watched not the way it’s meant to be viewed. A lot of it is not being viewed in theaters anymore. So it’s not really what they do in those categories.

John: All right, so a more specific question that’s aimed at us, at screenwriters. So we have the nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay both for the Writers Guild and for the Academy Awards. But are you reading all the actual screenplays? Are you basing that vote on what you assumed the screenplay was underneath this movie you saw? Aline?

Aline: I don’t read the screenplays.

John: Craig?

Aline: But I probably should.

Craig: I mean, I’m not in the Academy. They’re never going to let me in. [laughs]

Aline: [laughs] You’re in the Writers Guild.

Craig: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t believe that you should be giving awards for documents. Our job is not to write a document. Our job is to write a movie. And so I watch the movie and I discern from that movie the narrative, the dialogue, the structure, the sequencing, all the characters’ characterizations, all the things that go in that we provide a movie. And I experience it through the movie. That’s our job.

John: All right. Next ethical question. There have been times when people, producers or studio executives have come to me with a project to work on or to adapt. And I’ve passed based on saying, like, I’m unavailable or, like, that just doesn’t really spark for me when the truth is I just know I will never work for that person. And so I’m unavailable. Is that an acceptable lie to tell in that situation? Aline Brosh McKenna?

Aline: Well, you know, Hollywood is really a triumph of Mandarin communication. You have to, like, get a dictionary when you start to figure out what people are actually saying to you. And my favorite story was I had written this script that the main character was in the IRS. And somebody passed on it and they said to me we already have an IRS movie in development. And I walked around repeating that as if that was really the reason they passed on it for like a good year until I was talking to someone else and they said oh, yeah, they were interested in my basketball script.

And then I realized — then they told me they had another basketball script in development. And it hit me like a bolt of lightning [laughs] that that was a lie.

John: That’s a thing you say.

Aline: Yeah. And so there are things that people in Hollywood say that are code for other things. And there’s a lot of screenwriting ones like “lot of good work here.” You know, there’s a lot of things that people say that are not exactly what they mean. And I think in terms of passing on things, you know, this is something that I have talked about with people which is I will often pass on things by saying I’m not going to be able to do a good job on this.

And that’s usually what I feel. You know, if I’m really excited about it, it’s palpable to me. And if it’s not, then I won’t do a good job on it. I don’t think you ever really need to tell people why you’re not taking on their project. It’s sort of like if you don’t want to go out with somebody, you don’t have to say I don’t like the way you look in pants. You can just decline.

Craig: I agree. I mean, this is just basic human stuff. We’re allowed to do it. You know, white lies have value. If you’re not going to be completely honest, then I think all bets are off. You’re never going to say to somebody, “Oh no, no, I wouldn’t do this because I don’t like you. I think that this is stupid. I think you’re stupid. It’s insulting that you would even think I’d want to do this.”

Well, that’s honest but you’re not going to say any of that so you might as well just, you know, go the extra mile and say, “Oh my god, I can’t. I’m so busy.” But, you know, like Aline, I’ll also say to people, particularly people that I have worked with before, people that I do like, then I will. If I don’t want to do something, I’ll just be super honest and say I just don’t get it. It’s probably me, you know.

And God knows that there’s a decent chance that three years from now I’ll be sitting at home kicking myself. And I really do feel that way. And I can’t do it because I just don’t feel it, you know. Everybody respects that.

John: So my last two questions are about friendship. This is a situation that happened to me and I suspect it’s happened to both of you as well. A friend is so excited because they just started working on a new project with this person, and a person who I know to be a terrible person or that I had a terrible back history with. Do I say what happened or do I just keep my mouth shut? And at what circumstances do you say something and what circumstances do you not say something?

Again, it feels like that relationship question. It’s like where, you know, if your friend is dating a monster, do you tell your friend that they’re dating a monster?

Craig: Well, the thing is, one man’s monster is another man’s savior. I have been in this situation on both sides. And I remember I was doing something with someone. And somebody that I like a lot and respect and whose opinion I value said that person is the worst. On a scale of one to ten, they’re an eleven of terribleness.

And I got along great with the person. Great. And it went fine which just goes to show you some puzzle pieces fit together and some don’t. So with that in mind, unless I know that somebody is criminal, they cheat, they steal, they are abusive, you know, stuff that’s really dangerous that I think they need to know, I’ll tell that. But if it’s just I really did not like them, I didn’t like their taste, I didn’t like their work process, I didn’t like their face, whatever it is, I just keep that to myself because they might love them.

Aline: I’ve had something which was strange, which was somebody really heartily recommending someone to me and saying this person is my muse and my angel and everything they say is a pearl of wisdom. And I just had a terrible time understanding what they were saying, getting anything on the boards. And so it’s so personal. Again, I hate to be the chick who keeps bringing up dating stuff but it’s also like that. Like you can have chemistry with someone.

And I think we all have people that we like that other people don’t as much or people that everyone else likes but us. It’s human nature. I mean, in terms of telling someone, I think you can always say, “I had this experience. You may not have this but I just…” It depends on how close they are to you. If it’s a super close friend, I would say, “Listen, just have your eyes open. This is where I think their defect is. And so if you see this red flag come up, there might be more of that where you think there might be more.”

John: In the real life cases where this has come up, I’ve tried to frame it — the conversation saying — in both cases, I think I did say, like, there was a problem. This is what the actual experience was. This is where I think I probably was at fault. Let me explain sort of what the whole scenario was and why this person was under pressure.

And I sometimes describe it as like this is a storm we all endure together. That said, I will never ever work with that person again. And it segues back to the earlier question of why are you passing on this because you’re unavailable. It’s, like, because I had just an absolutely horrible time with that person and I will not forget that.

All right. My final ethical question is at what point is it okay to say in a conversation to refer to somebody as your friend when you’re not sure that the other person would refer to you as a friend? And so there’ve been cases where I’ve heard myself saying, like, oh, yeah, he’s a friend. And then I’ve said that in a way to sort of try to be inclusive, to sort of explain like how I know this person, blah, blah, blah.

And then I realize, oh, wait, would that person actually refer to me as a friend? And it often comes with relative levels of fame. So if I refer to somebody who’s like much more famous than me as a friend, am I being a douchebag? It’s a weird situation. And we all know really famous people so it’s –

Aline: Well, that’s so interesting. You know, there are a lot of writers that I know so slightly. Like I was on half a panel with them or I, you know, met them in some really oblique way and I will refer to them as my friend. I had this with Chris Morgan who I’ve met once. And Chris Morgan — I’m always like, oh, we’re friends, we’re friends. He comes up and I’m like, we’re friends. [laughs]

And now it’s like a thing when I see him. I’m like, hey friend. And that’s so interesting because with actors, I think, I would probably have to have, like, had a solo social engagement with them before I would say that’s one of my friends. That’s kind of interesting. I think maybe I just consider writers default –

John: Yeah we’re all –

Aline: Friends.

John: In the same boat.

Aline: But same with moms, like moms at my school. I might say that I’m friends with her even though we just sort of like stood next to each other in the classroom for two seconds.

John: Craig, what do you think?

Aline: I think I’m rather whorish with this. I think I’m rather slutty and –

John: You’re a promiscuous friendster?

Aline: I am a promiscuous user of the word friend.

John: Craig, where are you at with this?

Craig: I’m the other way. I’m a little stingy you with the word. I’ll say if somebody asks me about somebody I’ll say, oh yes, I know them. You know, we’ve hung out. I might say I know them. But to me, when you say someone’s a friend, you are implying that you have a relationship with them. They’re a part of your life. You’re a part of theirs.

I mean, look, I spent months and months with Bradley Cooper in multiple countries. And I can email him and if I see him we will talk. He’s not my friend. I know that. I’m not his friend. I know that. So I would never say, oh yeah, Bradley’s a friend.

Aline: What about Chris Morgan?

Craig: Well, Chris Morgan is my friend [laughs] because I –

John: Chris Morgan’s a friend to the world.

Aline: Not a good test.

Craig: No. Yeah, because Chris Morgan lives in my town and I know him, his wife, his kids, and we hang out. But I feel like if I were to say, oh Bradley Cooper’s a friend, I am being a douchebag. I’m boasting. It’s boasty. Even when I am actually friends with somebody — like, I’m actually friends with Amanda Peet or Jason Bateman, I’ll say oh yes, you know, we’re actually — we’re close. Our families are close or something like that.

Because to me, if I’m really like friends with you, then you know my wife. You probably have met my kids. Anyway, it’s that kind of thing. So I do think it’s a little douchewaddy. If I’m familiar with somebody, if I know somebody, I’ll just say oh, yeah, I know them, you know, we’ve spent time together. I’ll say something like that.

John: It is interesting with actors because like Ryan Reynolds is genuinely a friend. I’ve been to both of his weddings. He was at my wedding. So that kind of stuff is really there. But there’ve been other actors who I’ve just helped out on a thing or they’ve been in a workshop and so I know them.

Like Hugh Jackman I know really well. I know his wife. But like I’ve never been to their apartment and we’ve never hung out. Same with Will Smith. Like you’ve hung out, you’ve dealt with Will Smith. And so I like him. I mean, he’s an acquaintance. I think he would probably recognize me but he has no idea about my life.

Maybe the test is that he would never — like, Will Smith is never going to text and say like, “hey, what’s up? How’s your day going?” And a friend maybe would more likely do that.

Craig: Yeah. You know, in a weird way, if you play Words with Friends with someone, they’re your friend. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Aline: Well, it’s funny. I just saw somebody that I play this game, Wordbase, which I’m obsessed with. And I just saw this woman who’s a friend of mine and she said — we were catching up with some other people and she said, oh, I don’t need to talk to you, I see you all the time, which is not true. We just play Wordbase every day. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Aline: So it seems like we see each other every day. So it’s slightly another one of those Hollywood Mandarin things about who you say is your friend. And actually, as you’re talking, I think that when actors come up that I know, I think I say something like we’re pals or something. I think I use another word. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Aline: Just to — that captures like we’ve spent time together and they probably know me by sight and –

John: Yeah. I was in a conversation where there’s a director who I haven’t made a movie with him but we worked together on a project. And so he was on the list. And it’s, like, oh, yeah, I really like him. And I didn’t say friend because, like, that would be completely inaccurate. Like, I’m not sure — I have his correct email address now, but I know that if we were in the same room together, we’d get along great.

And so there is that weird middle ground with people you know but they’re not — I mean, they’re acquaintances but it’s a different thing.

Craig: Even somebody that I’m legitimately friends with, if I think it’s going to make me sound douchey — like I’m really friends with Melissa McCarthy and I feel douchey about it. If somebody says, oh, you know, what’s Melissa McCarthy like? Oh, well yeah, she — we’re friends. I’m sort of saying, look what she — she’s my — she likes me. I don’t, like — so what I’ll always say is I love her. I wish I put the arrow the other way, you know. I just like, I love her, she’s the greatest.

Aline: I’m going to use this opportunity to point out that you guys have both name-dropped a bunch of actors that you’re friends with.

Craig: Well, we have to, that’s the topic.

John: That is the topic. What actors are you friends with? Oh, Rachel Bloom.

Aline: Yeah, well, you know, I’m going to be discreet.

John: All right.

Craig: I will tell you that I know that’s, you know, I love these guys. But Zach Galifianakis would never call me his friend. Ed Helms isn’t going to call me his friend. Now, Mr. Chow, yes. But, Bradley — it would be so cool if I could walk around be like, “Well, yeah, Bradley Cooper is my friend. We’re friends.” But we’re not. I love the dude, he’s awesome. But I know that he doesn’t think about me ever. [laughs]

Aline: But it’s partly the actor thing because it really — I’ve done roundtables with writers. And then, you know, after that, I consider them friends of mine.

John: Yeah, you aloud a script together and you pitch jokes. That’s really –

Aline: Yeah, and we have professional camaraderie. So I think I am very loose about it with definitely with writers because I consider them all sort of my friends.

Craig: You are looser than I am because –

Aline: Hooray.

Craig: For instance, I’ve spent time with Simon Kinberg. I love it when we bump into each other at something. But we’re not friends because, you know, he doesn’t call me, I don’t call him. I’ve never been to his house, he’s never been to mine. So it’s weird to say that you’re not friends with somebody because it sounds like you’re in a fight with them. I mean, I think the guy’s awesome.

It would be fun to be his friend. But I know I’m not, it’s not enough for me. I have to, like, actually have a relationship with somebody. What is the value? Why are we talking about this? [laughs]

John: [laughs] Well, if you want to know more about Simon Kinberg, you can go back to the episode in the premium feed where I talked to Simon Kinberg for an hour about writing and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Aline: This is just going to be a long podcast where we go through everyone we know and say friend/not friend, friend/not friend.

John: Weirdly, Simon Kinberg like runs the gamut for us because like sort of not friend to Craig Mazin. Not enemy but not friend. I’ve been to both of his houses, his house in LA and house in New York because our kids were in preschool together. But you are genuinely friends because you’ve like written movies with him.

Aline: Yeah, he’s one of my besties.

John: It’s the range of Simon Kinberg. Let us segue to our third topic for today which is — we started talking about Whiplash and sort of that dynamic of teachers and students which I think is so compelling.

I think maybe for writers, especially because, I think, I know I had writing teachers who were — they didn’t throw symbols at me but they were difficult and demanding and that became part of the process of doing stuff. And Aline Brosh McKenna wrote The Devil Wears Prada which has in some ways a similar dynamic of this person who’s such a perfectionist who’s driving the ship. And you’re trying to please her and there may not be any pleasing to her. So, you saw Whiplash. Did you feel that connection to your movie in seeing in it?

Aline: I did feel some of that but only in so far as I think that Whiplash is basically a horror movie. And I think The Devil Wears Prada is also a horror movie. They’re monster movies. And so, you know, he’s playing a much more — that character is a much more overt monstrous character.

I think that also Prada is a Faust story. So in Prada, she gets pulled towards the monster and becomes a little bit the monster. And that’s not really the case in Whiplash. He doesn’t really start to compromise his values towards — he keeps trying to live up to this guy and then he repudiates him.

So, yeah.

John: But I would argue whether he does fully repudiate him. Because I think what’s actually fascinating about the movie of Whiplash is that he is like the Andy character in Devil Wears Prada is like attracted moth-like to this bright burning flame even though that he keeps getting burned by this bright burning flame.

But there’s a vindictiveness to the teacher character in Whiplash that does not exist in your story. I remember having a conversation with you about The Devil Wears Prada where you were so insistent on trying to find who is the human being underneath the Miranda character. And why was she doing what she was doing? What is the beauty underneath there? And I guess Whiplash does that to some degree as well. But it ultimately leaves the question ambiguous. It’s sort of like why is this person doing this.

Aline: Well, I think one of the fantasies that in mentor-protégé movies, one of the fantasies is that this person is ever going to notice you. And I think in Prada we made a big point of the fact that even after that, you know, through that whole movie, I don’t even think she is totally registering who this other person is completely. She doesn’t really remember her name.

And then, so that scene towards the end where she actually — you see, that she has thought about her. She has noticed that they have similarities. And at the very, very end when she smiles after seeing her, I think what’s enjoyable about that is thinking that this person who is so, so outranks you is noticing you at all.

And I think Whiplash has a great moment — spoiler alert — Whiplash has a great moment where you come to understand that he doesn’t really know — the Miles Teller character doesn’t really know whether J.K. Simmons has really registered his existence. And at the very end of the movie you’ve come to realize that he’s really been thinking about this kid.

And I think that’s what’s part of the perverse pleasure of it is being around this monster who so outranks you. They’re not paying you any attention. And then all of the sudden they focus their gaze on you. I think there’s something. And it has to do with the parents, I think. It has to do with this sort of allure and fear of a small child in front of its parents.

The movie that we really — I did not think about all weirdly when I was writing. But then of course realized very much afterwards was very similar to ours was Wall Street.

John: Oh yeah. Well, let’s talk about movies that sort of fall into this general category. And we could talk about movies that have good teachers and movies that have bad teachers or sort of bad mentors. And so some of the ones we’ve listed as we were making up this list before we started — good teachers: To Sir, with Love, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, School of Rock, The Miracle Worker. In each of these cases, you have a teacher who recognizes there’s something special about this kid.

Aline: Dead Poets.

John: Dead Poets Society. Oh my god, a great one. There’s something special about this kid. I will single out this kid and make sure that the sun shines on this kid. And I may push the kid but I am pushing the kid to a place of safety. And oftentimes, the good teacher is sort of working in opposition to a bad parent. And essentially like things aren’t perfect at home but I’m the person who’s going to elevate you and be that father figure.

Aline: Right. And Whiplash has the opposite.

John: Yes.

Craig: I actually think that one of the hallmarks of the good teacher movies is that they don’t zero in on any single kid, but they actually zero in on a bunch of kids. The formula is I’ve got a bunch of kids, none of whom are reaching their potential, each for different reasons. And I’m going to figure out why and inspire all of them. School of Rock, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, they’re not elitist teachers. They’re actually egalitarian teachers. It’s the bad mentors, I think, that are very elitist and zero in on one person because they see something in them and then attempt to essentially make them blossom by trying to destroy them.

John: Another thing I noticed about the teacher movies, the good teacher movies we singled out here, good meaning like the teacher is good, not that the movies are good because these are all really great movies, is in most of these cases the teacher is the outsider who’s come in to a situation. So it’s an outside teacher who’s come in to a classroom and therefore transformed the classroom and brought to it.

But as we look at these bad mentors, these bad teachers, it’s usually the opposite. Let’s list some of these movies: Amadeus, Black Swan, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Wall Street, The Devil’s Advocate, Whiplash, Devil Wears Prada. In these situations, the mentor was already in that world and we’re looking at a new person who’s come in to this situation and is — come in optimistic, hopefully, and with dreams and visions, and this teacher character is crushing those dreams.

Aline: God I love Amadeus because the agony of realizing that this guy, this flibbertigibbet is more talented that he is, that he’s witnessing this incredible talent. And that the child is not worthy — the kid is not worthy. It’s so great. It’s such a good one.

John: So you referenced Faust, so talk us through the Faust of it all. So what was the dynamic in there that you saw with Devil Wears Prada?

Aline: Yeah, I mean we don’t have her. She doesn’t ever instruct her for the point of instructing her. When she tells her, the speech about the blue sweater, she’s insulting her. She’s saying, you’re stupid. She’s not doing it to edify her. She just wants her to stop saying stupid things in her presence.

And then, you know, she’s putting up with a lot of stuff. Anne’s character is putting up with a lot of stuff. Until the end when she realizes that she’s becoming this person that she thinks is not a good person; that she did something to her friend which is similar to what Miranda does to her friend. And it’s the mirroring. It’s the scene where she says, I see myself in you that causes her to quit.

And it was interesting because in the book it was much more a repudiation. It was much more of like you’re terrible and I’m going away from the terrible thing. And what we wanted to do was more of a story about somebody who says I see the kernel of this callous disregard for others. I see it in myself and I don’t wish to nurture it. I want to turn my back on it. And that’s why she throws the phone in the fountain. So we we’re hoping for something a little bit more nuanced. Whereas in a monster movie, you just need to kill the monster.

John: The Beauty and the Beast is sort of the example of like you need to find the wonderful character underneath the monstrous feature. Or King Kong is sort of you’re coming to love the thing underneath the monstrous facade. But in the case of Whiplash, the case of I’d say Black Swan as well, like there’s not a good thing underneath there.

Aline: Right. I mean, one of the things about writing these movies is that they’re really a swampland of clichés. They’re really difficult. They’re very tried and true. And so I think we really appreciate movies that have a spin on them. And I thought Whiplash was sort of transfixing from the very beginning because the drive of the junior character was so powerful. And what he was up against with was so intense.

So I really have to hand it to him for making that really, you know, refreshing that. Because I think it is a tough genre. Sometimes when you — particularly the good teacher. Sometimes when you see the good teacher come in you feel like you can map out the beats of that, don’t you?

John: Hm-mmm, absolutely.

Craig: The thing about Whiplash that I think sets it apart is that it had — that Damien Chazelle clearly made a decision to not have the devil be the devil. It’s no coincidence that two of our bad mentor movies have the word Devil in the title. And in Platoon, you can see clearly that Tom Berenger is the devil. And in Wall Street, you feel that Michael Douglas is the devil. And in Black Swan, the devil seems like — the devil’s emerging, and so on and so forth.

In Whiplash, what he chose to do is say, look, I’m going to actually have you — I’m going to make you hate him and also agree with him. And then I’m going to force this question on you which is is it worth it? Is it worth this toxic relationship if you get better at a thing? And particularly better at an art. And then underneath that is is great art worth the suffering that goes into it, is the suffering necessary? Could this have happened without this relationship? Was this man doing this in order to inspire greatness or was he doing it simply because he’s a sadist who’s out of control and he happens to inspire greatness?

All these wonderful questions are there for you to decide for yourself. But I think what sets Whiplash apart at least in terms of its characterization is that it did not answer the question in any way.

John: And what’s also I think smart about I think both Whiplash and Devil Wears Prada is it puts those thematic ideas in the mouths of the characters who were best able to speak them. So in the case of Whiplash, you know, the Miles Teller character asking where is that line? Like, where do you go — you know, when do you push somebody so far that they actually run away from the thing that they’re great at? In the case of Devil Wears Prada, you were able to have Meryl Streep’s character really express what it was that she was trying to do and then really be able to speak those things.

And so often, you get very nervous about sort of putting thematic lines in a character’s mouth but you sort of have to. It’s that elegant way of sort of stating it without making it clear that you are really stating it. Or getting to that sort of emotional punch line so that you’re ready to hear it. It’s like, oh, yeah, I get that. And everything else frames around that question.

Craig: I think that that’s one of the great things about this genre is that you can have characters pose those thematic positions because they don’t necessarily resolve easily. It’s easy for the character Fletcher in Whiplash to say, listen, Jones throws the symbol at Parker’s head. Parker becomes The Bird, right? He becomes Bird. Sorry, not The Bird, Bird. The Bird was Mark Fidrych, pitcher for the Detroit Tigers as you both know.

So there’s this kind of thing that then is unspoken. It’s for the audience to then ask. Okay, he stated a theme that is an argument. But did he need the symbol thrown at him or would he have been great anyway? And also, hey, Charlie Parker died young of an addiction. He was tormented. And so the movie casually introduces in an interesting way and then kind of twists the details of it. Another suicide, right? The movie is reminding you of this.

So these characters make these statements. But we understand that the movie is saying don’t necessarily buy this. You know, question even what this character is saying because this character is not giving you the truth. They’re only giving you their truth.

John: Another thing I’ve noticed about these bad mentor movies is we think of them as being two-handers. I think in my recollection, I think of Devil Wears Prada as being Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep. But of course it’s really not just those two characters. You have to have ancillary characters out there who can provide other viewpoints. And so it’s not just the same fight over and over again.

So in the case of Devil Wears Prada, you have Emily Blunt’s character who’s a version of what Anne Hathaway could become. You have Stanley Tucci’s character who is sort of the fairy godmother, sort of showing you like, helping you make that transition.

In the case of Whiplash, you have Paul Reiser’s character who’s asking those questions like this isn’t worth it. I’m here to protect you, let me protect you. And it was interesting reading through the actual screenplay for Whiplash. There was a lot more there and a lot of that got cut out. I think they recognized in the edit that it’s, you know, ultimately they want it to be more than two-hander. So there was a lot more that Paul Reiser’s character was trying to be the voice of, you know –

Aline: Man, I love that scene where he goes home and — are those his cousins?

John: Yes.

Aline: Yeah.

John: The scene with the cousins. And to be able to make your lead character really kind of a dick and not even kind of a dick, saying truly dickish things. But it really got you into his perspective on things.

Aline: But it’s smart because it also shows how the monster is kind of rubbing off on him and how this pursuit of greatness that is sort of a religion, how it’s distorting his interactions with everyone.

John: Yeah. And, you know, Amadeus has that aspect as well where the desire to prove yourself, to achieve something is what ultimately pushes Salieri to these points. It’s that weird case where Salieri is the protagonist/villain sort of your story. I love those things where you feel like there are just those two people but there’s actually a whole world around them.

And I think it’s also interesting that in each of these cases with these bad mentors, they’re very specific, unusual worlds. If you look at Amadeus, like we know nothing about classical music, but we’re being taught this whole world.

In Wall Street, we’re being taught the world of Wall Street. We’re being taught the world of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada. I don’t care at all about jazz or drumming, and yet I was introduced to this world and found it fascinating and believable within Whiplash.

Craig: Also, I would say that the movie would not have worked if nothing had changed other than the instrument. There is something about drumming that we understand to be physical and inscrutable. We don’t know why reaching a certain tempo is so important.

And by the way, I have to say, a lot of the technicals of the movie about jazz, for instance, like the bleeding hands and the tempo and the speed isn’t really true. I mean, it’s not true to life. If your hands are bleeding and you’re holding your sticks wrong, and speed is not the be-all-end-all.

But even the pieces they’re playing aren’t really what you would call like the kind of true crucible pieces for advanced jazz musicians. But if it’s a trumpet, we’re going to listen to it and go, “That sounds pretty good. Right?” Or, okay, I mean either it’s you can play the trumpet or can’t play the trumpet. We can kind of hear that.

But in drumming, there is this like weird spiritual magic to it. It’s the only instrument in the band where you can sweat and bleed on your kit. And it’s physical, and it moves at a speed that seems impossible. I’ve got to give Damon Chazelle an enormous amount of credit for shooting Miles Teller playing that kit and making me believe he was playing that kit. I mean, obviously he was playing it to some extent but not all of it.

Aline: I just also want to talk about two things which are not really on this topic. But one thing I — because I’ve been watching so many movies recently, there’s two things that I know we’ve talked a lot about on the show. I really noticed that your movie’s just got to be about something. It has just got to be about something. And one of the reasons Whiplash is so successful is because it’s just — it’s about that idea of what will you sacrifice to be successful. You know, how much will you bleed, what’s it worth, where you’re going with it. You know, what’s the ultimate for that. It’s just about one thing.

And then the other thing is the thing Lindsay Doran talks about a lot which is what is the relationship here? And it doesn’t mean that that relationship needs to be in every scene or all scenes but, what is the relationship outcome that I’m rooting for?

And I find that when movies don’t work for me, it’s one of those two things. It’s like who did I care about? What relationship did I care about? And also, why did I watch this? More than anything, I think I’m willing to forgive so much narrative shagginess, but if I don’t know what the movie’s about and if the filmmaker doesn’t know what the movie’s about –

John: You feel it.

Aline: And it devolves into what I call a “stuff happens.”

John: Hm-mmm.

Aline: We’re trying to keep it G, a “stuff happens movie”. And I think that the movies that have really been — we have an enormously good crop of movies this year, and I think if you go through them, you could pretty easily, even a non-pro, could tell you pretty easily what they were grappling with thematically.

I think Imitation Game is a really good example of that. It’s really about do we need outsiders, what’s the value of an outsider, how it’s difficult to be an outsider, who’s an outsider, and what their value is, and how we treat them. I think all the movies that have really worked are about something clean thematically, and I know we’ve talked about that so much on the show but, can’t be stressed enough. Know why you’re telling this story.

John: Great. All right, it is time for our One Cool Things.

Craig: You know what, John, I don’t have a One Cool Thing, as always. So, Aline, you’re taking my One Cool Thing.

John: So my One Cool Thing is a thing called Scannable by Evernote. And it’s so, so slick. And so Aline is here in person so I can actually show it to her on my phone. But what you do is if you have a document that you want to scan, so like it could be a receipt, it could be something you hand-wrote, it could be a letter. You just open the app, you aim the camera on your phone at it, and it scans it, it senses that it’s a page of paper, and it scans it and saves it to Evernote, or you can send it to somebody.

So, so often, I’ve had like just something I just don’t want to lose, and so it’s like written down on a piece of paper. I can just aim this app and record it and save it to my Evernote. It’s a really sick, smart system.

Aline: I don’t use Evernote.

John: You can also save it, send it in an email, you can send it –

Aline: So it turns it into type?

John: No. It turns it into a picture, essentially.

Aline: Oh, okay, okay. Because I have this thing that scans documents and turns them into what looks like pieces of paper.

John: Yeah. So this is just a slick version of that.

Aline: Okay.

John: I’m going to show this to you right now. So we’re actually just going to scan a page of Whiplash. So I’m holding this up here.

Aline: All right, okay.

John: And it’s going to see –

Aline: Oh, so it’s like a credit card thing, where it’s looking to see –

John: Yeah. It’s looking for a piece of paper.

Aline: Right. Oh, there we go. Wow! Whoa! That’s much better than the thing I have. That’s amazing.

John: So the tagline for this is, “That’s much better than the thing I have,” by Aline Brosh McKenna. So it’s really slick, and so because I hand-write first drafts, usually what I’m doing is if I’m away some place, I write on paper and I do a scribbled pass first which is unreadable by anybody but me, then I write a cleaner version which Stuart types up.

And so that clean version, I’ve been taking photos on my iPhone and then sharing them with Stuart just by sending him the email that — this is much slicker. It will go right into –

Aline: Will we eventually have something that will take that document and put it in a screenplay format?

John: Probably. Yeah. It definitely — if it was a typed document, it could easily scan that. That’s really simple. My handwriting will never be perfectly scannable.

Aline: Right. Some day.

John: Some day. What are your two One Cool Things?

Aline: I have two Cool Things. I’ll do them really quickly. Are you watching The Comeback? Did you watch Season 2 of The Comeback?

John: And so I have two episodes left of The Comeback. So I did not love the start of it, and then it got so good.

Aline: My mind was blown. I agree the season took a little while to get rolling. And then once it gets rolling, it blows my mind. And I’m actually in that situation where I’m jealous of you because you haven’t seen those last two. The last episode is one of the best episodes of anything I’ve ever seen.

And someone was just telling me yesterday that they had read something about how Valerie Cherish is one of the most nuanced characters of the last ten years and I love that season so much, the end of that season particularly, so much, I went back and watched Season 1.

John: Wow.

Aline: And it is so prescient. That show blows my mind. So if you still have not seen it, I would recommend starting with Season 1. But if you watched Season 1 and you don’t quite remember it, finish Season 2 and go back to Season 1. It is sublime.

John: Yeah. Honestly, I was stalling because I did not love the first couple of episodes of this new batch. They were setting stuff up, but I also feel like they could have maybe made some cuts. But then suddenly it got to this moment where she finally just like unleashes on this one producer and like just really speaks to this thing like, you are awful, terrible people and, you know, you can’t keep doing this to me.

And it was just such an amazing monologue that was great. Because so often that show is sort of making fun of her and she’s sort of half-aware of the joke and she’s sort of not half-aware of the joke. But when she finally just like opens out, it was just great.

Aline: Part of what makes her so nuanced to me is that line where you’re not quite sure how much she understands. But the other thing is, it’s kind of one of the very few things, if not the only thing I’ve ever seen about Hollywood that is dead-on accurate. It’s how it’s done.

And when I went back and watched Season 1, it’s like obviously Lisa and Dan worked inside that world and they have it dead to right. I mean, it is just everything from the table read to the — it really sent chills as how accurate it is.

John: I love the script supervisor in the show is Winnie Holzman, the writer of Wicked.

Aline: Is that right?

John: She’s the script supervisor. And it’s like that can’t be. That’s Winnie Holzman!

Aline: It’s beyond. And then the other thing, my friend, just an exciting day today because Jason Hall, who got nominated for Best Adapted for American Sniper today, is an old, old friend of mine and an old friend of John Gatins. Actually, much closer, very close friend of John Gatins. And we picketed together in 2007. He was on our picket team and he was just kind of, he had been an actor and his writing career was just starting to take off then. He was making his first movie.

He was just about to get married. Now he has a bunch of kids and he’s got this Oscar nomination and he’s really one of just the good guys of the Guild. He’s just a really smart, really cool, really funny, really interesting guy. And the story of how he got this movie made and what he went through in terms of getting to know Chris and getting to know Chris’s family is riveting.

And so, he has spoken about it in a couple of places. He wrote an article about it for Written By. But just so happy for Jason Hall. It’s one of those things where I feel like it’s a big win for us all in a funny way. And you know what? Great, great noms this year. I thought everyone was great. He’s just an old buddy of mine and I’m very happy for him.

John: That’s awesome. So we’ll have a link to some articles about Jason Hall’s story getting into American Sniper and links to all things we talked about on the show notes today. So you can find the show notes at

If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you can tweet at him, he’s @clmazin. I am at @johnaugust. Longer questions, go to, that’s the place to send them. Aline is not on Twitter so you can find her on Instagram?

Aline: No.

John: No. Don’t even look for her on Instagram.

Aline: Nope. You can find me by going to Craig or John’s Twitter and asking them a question.

John: And we will hand-write it down and send it over on a passenger pigeon to Aline Brosh McKenna.

Aline: I’m thinking of going retweet only. Thoughts?

John: Oh, that would be fun. Yeah, that’s nice.

Aline: Do people do that?

John: Yeah. You can do that.

Aline: Are there people whose Twitter feed is just retweets?

John: Yeah. There are.

Aline: Is it irritating?

John: No. It’s actually just fine.

Aline: Yeah.

John: You can do it. Where you’re just endorsing something –

Aline: Yeah. Or like, something that really strikes me as funny.

John: So you actually probably read Twitter but you don’t actually have an account. Is that correct?

Aline: Yeah. Exactly. I read Twitter but I don’t ever tweet but occasionally you find something on there that’s such a gem that you want to retweet it.

John: My friend Ryan Reynolds, I can just say his name 15 times this episode, he’s finally on Twitter. So there have been all these fake Ryan Reynolds accounts. So he finally got on Twitter because he was sort of forced to. At a certain point they just like come to your door and say, “You are now on Twitter.”

And so I was trying to give him advice about sort of how to do it and I basically said do the least possible because basically anytime you say anything as a celebrity on Twitter, it just gets blown up beyond all proportion. You just have to lock that down.

Aline: It’s sort of the same rule as email, and then some, which is if you’re thinking, “Uh, should I?”

John: The answer’s no. Yeah. It’s always no. If you are on iTunes and you’re listening to this in iTunes or you happen to stumble by iTunes, please look for us on iTunes — Scriptnotes — just search for us, and leave us a rating because that helps other people to find the show.

While you’re on iTunes, you can download the Scriptnotes app, which is a way to get to all the back episodes in the premium feed. It’s $1.99 a month if you want to get to all the back episodes and bonus episodes, including our friend, Simon Kinberg.

The show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli, who often does our outros. I’m not sure who the outro is this week but it’s going to be great. If you have an outro that you would like to put at the end of our show, you can write in to ask@johnaugust and just give us the link to where we can find that outro.

Craig, Aline, thank you so much for being on the show.

Craig: Thanks.

John: And Craig, bye, good luck with all.

Craig: Thank you.


Weekend Read 1.5 now in beta, adds iPad and iCloud support

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 13:18

Weekend Read, our app for reading screenplays on the iPhone, will be adding two much-requested features in the next major update:

  • iPad support, including the iPad mini
  • iCloud syncing between your devices

The new features in Weekend Read require iOS 8.

If you’d like to join the beta, you can sign up here:

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* indicates required Email Address * First Name Last Name

This truly is a beta; things will break. The good news is that the stable version of Weekend Read is always on the App Store, so it’s simple to delete the beta and reinstall something solid.

We’ll be adding a few new testers each week, so we likely won’t get to everyone. But we definitely need a variety of users who can test the new version out in the wild, because a lot has changed under the hood.

What’s new

Weekend Read 1.5 adds support for the iPad, both in portrait and landscape orientations. iPad support has been a long time coming, but was never urgent. Reading screenplay PDFs on the iPad isn’t bad even with current apps like GoodReader and PDFPro.

Weekend Read’s big advantage is that the app actually understands how screenplays work, so we can resize text, highlight characters, and offer Dark Mode. Even on the iPad, moving to a larger font size really helps reduce eye strain.

Weekend Read 1.5 is also much faster rendering screenplays, particularly on newer iPhones and iPads. You’ll rarely see the progress bar.

The bigger change — the one that’s been by far the most work for Nima Yousefi — is the addition of iCloud features.

Here’s what’s now possible:

  • If you add a screenplay on your iPhone, it automatically shows up on your iPad. (And vice-versa.)
  • You can organize scripts into folders.
  • You can import entire folders at once from the For Your Consideration lists. So it’s now one tap to install all of the 2014 Awards scripts, for example.
  • If you’re on a Mac with OS 10.10 Yosemite, you can drag screenplays into the iCloud Drive > Weekend Read folder. Super handy.

I should stress that all of the above bullet points are goals, not guarantees. Part of the reason we’re extending this beta beyond our friends and family is that there are a lot of edge cases in which things get wonky. If we can’t make a given feature work reliably, we’ll ship without it.

The work ahead

Weekend Read, and the beta, are free.

When we release the new version, we plan to have all the new features available for folks who’ve unlocked the app via in-app purchase. So to get more users ready, we’ve dropped the upgrade price for the next two weeks from $10 to $5. If you’ve been waiting for a sale, this is it.

If you haven’t tried Weekend Read, you can find it on the App Store. We have 27 of the 2014 award contender scripts available to read, including nine of the Academy Award-nominated screenplays. We also have Scriptnotes transcripts going all the way back to first episode.

Bad Teachers, Good Advice and the Default Male

Tue, 01/20/2015 - 08:03

Aline Brosh McKenna joins John and Craig to discuss the how movies featuring good mentors (Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir with Love) differ from films with bad mentors (Whiplash, The Devil Wears Prada). It’s not just that the teachers are bad guys; rather, the stories are structured completely differently.

John asks Craig and Aline about some ethical quandaries he’s been facing, ranging from awards voting to who is a “friend.”

We also discuss the “default male problem,” especially how it relates to comedy and the cleanest version of a joke.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Screenplays on the Kindle, 2015 edition

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 17:16

A screenwriter friend just emailed me to ask how she could get one of her scripts to look good on the Kindle. She had Googled and discovered I’d written about reading screenplays on the Kindle twice back in 2009. (I was an early Kindle adopter.)

Back in 2009, I found there to be a lot of potential for reading screenplays on the Kindle, but a lot of frustration.

Six years later, what’s changed?

Nothing. Kindles and screenplays are still a bad fit.

Attempting to get screenplays to look screenplay-like on Kindle is a fool’s errand, so let me actively dissuade you from trying. Down this path lies futility and despair.

It’s not the Kindle’s fault.

Kindles are designed for free-flowing text like books. They don’t know anything about how screenplays work, and they will fight you at every step. We know. We tried. That’s a large part of why we made Weekend Read.

If you’re starting with a PDF, the closest you can probably come on the Kindle is to run the script through Highland and save it as a Fountain file. That’s just plain text, so if you then import it into Kindle’s parser, you’ll get a rough approximation, with everything set on the left margin:

INT. HOUSE – DAY Mary and Tom carry in groceries. TOM
They oughta call it, “Whole Paychec— — THWACK! Tom is impaled by a spear. CUT TO:

I write in Fountain, so this looks fine to me. But that’s not what my friend was looking for. She wanted something like a printed screenplay, and you’re just not going to get that on the Kindle.

But you can get closer. If you dig into the text file and carefully set tags for character names and transitions, you can have them centered or moved to the right margin. Or you can bail on the screenplay formatting. Dave Trottier has instructions you can follow to make something that looks more like a published stage play. It’s incredibly tedious, but it’s possible.

With a lot of work, you can make something that looks okay — but only okay. That’s the best you’re going to get, and it’s not worth the effort. So in 2015, I use my Kindle for books and my iOS devices for screenplays. Each is the right tool for the job.

Scriptnotes, Ep 179: The Conflict Episode — Transcript

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 17:57

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: Je suis Charlie.

John: And this is Episode 179 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Could you hear my audible sigh, Craig?

Craig: Yeah. I always hear your audible sigh.

John: Yeah. It was maybe a little louder this time, but we can cut it out, I guess.

Craig: Well, you control the edit, so you do what you want.

John: I just thought we had sort of talked about it, but it’s fine. It’s going to be fine.

Craig: If it’s fine, then it’s fine. If it’s not fine, you’ll just keep, you know, talk about it. Do it.

John: Yeah, okay, let’s talk about this. Because we had this little conversation before we started recording and suddenly we get into this whole, whatever, it’s fine.

Craig: You know what the funny thing is? When something is fine to me, it’s fine and I don’t have to keep saying it’s fine.

John: This is the Craig Mazin approach to things. It’s just basically steamroll pass things and then agree to do something or not do something and just do whatever you’re going to do anyway. So, it’s fine.

Craig: Works for me.

John: All right. Hello and welcome. This is the conflict episode of Scriptnotes.

Craig: That was fun.

John: That was our little scene.

Craig: The funny thing is I actually hate confrontation of that kind when it’s real.

John: It’s really uncomfortable. And I think our basic nature is to avoid conflict in life. And that’s probably a good strategy overall for modern life is to look for ways to diffuse conflict, to make things all happy and copacetic and make everyone feel like it’s all going to be okay.

The challenge is as screenwriters conflict is something you need to embrace. You need to look for conflict. And if you try to sort of take conflict out of situations you are going to end up with some really boring writing.

Craig: That’s right. I mean, the whole point of drama is to present the extraordinary to people so that they have something to kind of experience that puts their ordinary lives in better context because we all have conflict in our lives. As you point out, we either avoid it, or we express it in a muted way. We also can see around us that people that have trouble managing the conflict in their lives end up in prison. So, we have this natural social instinct to suppress this. And movies are a wonderful way to let us experience these eruptions of things safely.

So, we demand conflict from movies.

John: Yeah. So, today’s episode is going to be entirely about conflict, and that’s our one-theme topic for the whole episode. But we can actually start with a bit of news that will pertain to all of this because there was a bit of a conflict this last week because one of the movies that was up for Academy Award consideration and for other award considerations was Whiplash. And Whiplash suddenly showed up in the Adapted Screenplay category rather than the Original Screenplay category.

Craig: For the Oscars.

John: For the Oscars. And that’s the confusing thing is that for the Writers Guild Awards and for all the other things it counted as an original screenplay. And for the Oscars it counted as an adapted screenplay.

Craig: Yeah. So, what happened apparently is that the makers of Whiplash produced one of the scenes from the screenplay as a little short in order to get financing and kind of whet people’s appetite for the movie. And once they had financing they went and shot the movie. And for the Writers Guild, this didn’t violate the originality of the screenplay. It wasn’t like they had made a short film of one sort and then had gone and adapted that short film into a feature film. This was a piece of the feature film. That’s what it was always intended to be.

The Academy for some bizarre reason does not see it that way. I do not get their decision here at all.

John: Yeah. So, I was not part of the meeting where that was probably discussed, and I was honestly, I know there was a meeting where the whole thing was about what was eligible for what stuff happened and I’m on that committee and I was not at that committee meeting, so I do not know the information. I don’t know if I could even say if I did know what that information was.

But, I will say in general it’s an interesting question of like what is an adaptation and what is original. And so the idea of like let’s say you went off and made a short film and then four years later you went and you made a feature version of that movie. Frankenweenie is a great example. Frankenweenie was a short film that Disney made and then we went back and made the whole version of the movie. That’s clearly an adaptation. There was an existing thing, even though it was Tim Burton’s vision in both cases. It was an adaptation of that original work.

But the reality is, especially in indie films, you’re going to be doing this kind of thing a lot now where you’re taking a bit of the script and shooting this little scene to show that you can direct something. And that shouldn’t count against you when it comes time for determining whether something is an adaptation or an original.

Craig: No. There is a common sense argument to be made and all too often the Writers Guild or the Academy fails to make the common sense decision and defers instead to a legalistic decision. Many times they will defer to a decision based on precedent. They’re always concerned that, well, we did it for this movie but not for this movie.

But apparently there is one precedent that conflicts with this one. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but it was a very similar situation where they decided, no, okay, yeah, it’s original still. I don’t get it, but look, I also — I happen to believe that for Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed Whiplash, this isn’t really — this can’t possibly be important.

John: I would have none.

Craig: I mean the truth is that he’s made a terrific film and the Oscars are after the fact things. They don’t turn you into a good filmmaker. They don’t turn you into a famous person. They simply recognize you’ve already done something terrific.

So, he’s done something terrific. I hope that he’s not too upset about it.

John: He shouldn’t be. So, we’ll get back to Whiplash at the end of the episode, but let’s get into this topic of conflict because you in our sort of pre-notes listed sort of seven forms of conflict which I thought were really, really smart. So, do you want to start talking us through them?

Craig: Sure. Yeah. Actually only six. So, we’re already in conflict. [laughs] This is — somebody brought this up on Twitter and we hear conflict all the time. Studio executives love to ask for more conflict, but they’re maybe sometimes not sure why. And sometimes I think people who aren’t writers miss the presence of conflict because they’re only looking for a certain kind.

But I think there are six kinds. This is what I came up with. There may be more. The first kind is the simplest, an argument. This is a physical fight or verbal argument. And we all know that conflict when we see it. That is not, however, the most common conflict. Nor is it often the most effective or impactful conflict in drama.

John: So, the little skit we were trying to do at the start of the episode, that’s an example of this kind of argument. Even if it’s like passive-aggressive, the sort of way I would naturally sort of be in my conflict, that is — you can tell that it’s happening there. It’s really clear. It’s in the moment. There is a disagreement and people are expressing their contrary opinions in that moment.

Craig: Yeah. They’re fighting. Right? We have one word for both punching each other in the face and yelling at each other. They’re fighting.

The second kind of conflict is struggle against circumstance. This could be as simple as I’ve locked my keys in the car, or I’m freezing and I need to get warm. Man versus nature. Man versus object. Man getting laid off by corporation.

John: Absolutely. So, in the scene version of that, what you talk about, like a man getting locked out of his car, locked out of his house, that’s a scene. But then, of course, we can scale this up to the entire movie. So, you have Castaway. You have these big things about a man against a nature. It scales both directions.

Craig: Correct. And you’ll see that in most movies, even if there is one dominating kind of conflict like struggle against circumstance in Castaway, they will find ways to then work in these other interesting sorts of conflicts, even to the point where you can see a conflict coming between Tom Hanks and a volleyball. It’s very smart.

John: Yes.

Craig: The third kind of conflict is an internal conflict. And I’ll call that unfulfilled desire. Essentially I want something that I do not have. How can I get it?

John: The scene version of this is the girl across the bar that he’s trying to get to and he cannot achieve that thing. But the inner conflict is usually driving more a movie level kind of issue. There is a goal in life that somebody has, hopefully is articulated clearly to us, the thing he or she wants. And that is a thing that he cannot achieve.

Craig: And that conflict will drive all sorts of stuff. I mean, Rocky, you know, is about wanting something, unfulfilled desire. Rudy. A lot of sports movies are about this unfulfilled desire, believing that there is more in you. We’ll see this, certainly a ton of this, in Whiplash. This is sort of the — Whiplash really is about two kinds of conflicts: argument and unfulfilled desire.

John: The last thing I want to say about this kind of unfulfilled desire is going back to the Chuck Palahniuk conversation from last week, if that unfulfilled desire is an internal motivation, it’s the writer’s job to find a way to externalize. To find ways to have our characters take action, but lets us understand what’s going on inside their head. It’s the writer’s job to find the words that the characters can say to articulate what is actually happening inside and to create situations that are little blocks along the way that lets them get closer to or further away from that goal.

Craig: A hundred percent. The worst thing you can do when you have an internal conflict is to have somebody explain it as if the audience is their therapist. Incredibly boring. But I always love that scene in King of Comedy where you see Rupert Pupkin in his basement and he’s set up a fake audience and he is performing as the host of his talk show. What an amazing way to get across this unfulfilled desire, you know.

And then in the middle of it he’s yelling at his mother because she’s calling down to him about eating dinner. But you get it. You get the depth of his need and his want. And he’s already at conflict with the world.

John: I’m a hundred percent in agreement with you that we need to avoid that sort of sitting on a therapist’s couch and expressing your inner thoughts and desires. It’s almost always death.

Where that can be really helpful though is, again, that writing that happens off the page. And it may be very useful for writers who if you’re struggling to figure out, like to get inside a character, write that scene that’s never going to be in your movie, but write that thing where they are actually articulating their inner desire, because that way at least you have sense — you have something that you can hold onto to know what it is that the character is going for.

Someone who is writing a musical, those are the moments that are going to become the songs.

Craig: The songs, right.

John: Characters sing their inner wants in ways that is incredibly useful in musicals. They don’t tend to express them the same ways in movies.

Craig: That’s right. And partly because we understand when a character is singing that we are — particularly when they’re singing solo, they’re alone on stage, that we are hearing their inner thoughts. They’re not talking out loud to nobody. That would make them schizophrenic. So, we’re hearing what’s in their mind. What’s interesting about conflict is that we often don’t understand the nature of our own inner conflict. So, early on in a movie what a character says they want may not really be what they ultimately want. They don’t yet have the bravery or insight to express what they truly want. So, at the end they may sing a different song about — or they may say a different thing about what they truly want.

And that makes sense because that’s when the conflict is resolved.

John: Yes. And the best of those songs, while the character is singing their inner thoughts, there’s a transformation and a change happening over the course of it. So, there is a realization that is happening while they’re singing their song. And expressing it to themselves, they actually have an insight and understanding.

A good recent example is Emily Blunt’s song at the very end of Into the Woods. She has the song Moments in the Woods where she actually has all these brilliant insights about sort of what it is that she wants and wanted to have the prince, and have the baker, and have it all. Or at least have the memory of what it was like to have it all. And that’s a great thing that musicals can do that’s actually very hard to do in a straight movie.

Craig: Absolutely true. Yeah, it’s fun to watch somebody start to sing about one thing and then watch it turn into an “I want” song. Or start to sing an “I want” song and it starts to turn into an “I already have” song. It is fascinating. That’s what you get from that internal rhythm that you don’t get really from movies.

John: Right.

Craig: Okay. That’s our third type of conflict. Here’s the fourth kind: avoiding a negative outcome. That is I need to figure out how to do something, but I have to do it in a way that doesn’t get me hurt. So, a very simple kind of example of this conflict is I have to break up with this person. I just don’t want to hurt his feelings. That’s conflict.

John: Yeah. It is absolutely. And this is the kind of conflict that you often see in comedies overall. If you think of any situation comedy, it’s generally one character is trying to do something without the other characters around them knowing that they’re trying to do that. And so it’s classically the I ended up on a date with two girls at once and I’m running between the two things. You’re trying to avoid something embarrassing happening to yourself and you are creating — you’re making the situation worse by trying to just — if you just ripped off the Band-Aid everything would be okay.

Craig: Right.

John: But instead you are dragging it out and you are causing pain by trying to avoid it.

Craig: That’s right. I mean, sitcoms are always very instructive because they are the most basic of these things. That’s where you get the line, “I should have just been honest. I should have been honest with you from the start, but I was just afraid that you would be so upset.”

What’s that great, there’s like a classic ’70s sitcom thing where someone leaves their pet with a neighbor and then the pet gets out immediately. That’s classic avoiding a negative outcome.

John: Yes. You’re next one was confusion.

Craig: Confusion. Right. So, this is an interesting kind of conflict that happens when it’s different than struggle against circumstance. This is a lack of information. Essentially you are at conflict with the world around you because you don’t understand anything. Where am I? What’s going on? It doesn’t last long, but you can see that in a movie like The Matrix for instance where the conflict that we’re experiencing between Mr. Anderson and the world is one of confusion.

John: Definitely. And also you can see it in movies like The Bourne Identity where he literally has no idea who he is. You can see it in movies where people are sort of dropped into foreign lands and they have just no sense of like understanding the rules of the world around them. So, the fish out of water movies are often cases where there’s just fundamental confusion and you don’t know which side is up.

Craig: And you will see this in comedies also quite a bit. Private Benjamin, she’s confused. You know, she’s clearly having arguments and she’s clearly struggling against circumstance, but there is also just that terrible feeling of confusion and being lost in the world around you.

And then lastly dilemma. Very simple kind of conflict we all know. You have to make a choice. The problem is all the choices are bad.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And that’s a great conflict. Everybody likes that one.

John: Sophie’s Choice, of course, notoriously. But really, I mean, any situation between like this guy or that guy. Or Stanford or this? Or do I break up with this person so I can have the opportunity for this person. These are sort of fundamental dilemmas and they feel familiar because we all experience them in real life.

The challenge is a dilemma is hard to sustain over the course of a movie. Dilemma can be like a crisis point, but if you keep your character floating in that in between for two hours, that’s probably going to be a frustrating movie.

Craig: Yeah. We like it when Hamlet waffles for awhile. We don’t want just nothing but waffling. You’re absolutely right. Some of these are better suited to moments. Confusion, for instance, cannot last the whole movie. If it does, everyone will be also in conflict and be angry.

And there are filmmakers out there who seem to delight in placing the audience in positions of confusion. Perhaps confusion masquerading as art? But ultimately the movies that I like the most are the movies that are both brilliant and not permanently confusing.

John: Agreed.

Craig: But, yeah, dilemma and confusion are best used in small doses, for my taste at least.

John: So, for our next section, let’s talk about how conflict works within a scene. Because as we read through scripts, a lot of times I will find a scene that says like, well, there is interesting dialogue here, it’s either funny or smart words are being said, and yet the scene is fundamentally not working. And when the scene is fundamentally not working, one of the most obvious problems I can sort of point to is that there is no conflict.

And sometimes you’ll read a scene where literally all the characters in the scene agree on what’s going on. There’s no sort of threat to anything. It’s just a bunch of people talking. And when that happens that’s probably not going to be the most successful scene.

So, let’s talk about some ways you can sustain conflict within a scene. And so I had a bunch of bullet points here and we’ll see which ones work and which ones stick.

So, first I want to say is you have to understand what each character wants. Yes, you want to know what they want in the movie overall, but literally what is their purpose for being in that scene? What does the individual character hope to get out of this moment? And if you can’t articulate that, then maybe you need to stop and do some more thinking, or may need to look at are these the right characters for the scene. Is this the right scene for these characters?

Craig: No question. We all know that hackneyed phrase, what’s my motivation? And that’s a specifically tuned thing for actors. But for writers, what we have to constantly be asking about our characters is what do they want, because I’m telling a camera to be on them. And everybody in the audience understands inherently that the camera doesn’t need to be on them. The camera could be anywhere at any point. I’ve chosen it to be here. Why?

And it has to be because those people either want something or are about to become in conflict. One of the fun things about characters that don’t want something is when they’re sitting there and they’re perfectly happy and then you destroy their moment, you have the movie crash into it. And now they want something.

John: Absolutely. They want that tranquility back and they cannot get it.

Craig: Right. The opening of Sexy Beast is a perfect example of this. You know, Ray Winstone is just floating in his pool, happy as can be, and then crash, here comes a boulder. You want that, you know.

But sometimes you want to start with the scene where it opens up where somebody really, really wants something. And if you can’t have somebody want something at some point in your scene, that’s not a scene.

John: Yeah, that’s not a scene. The next thing I’ll point to is if you’ve ever taken improv class, one of the first things you learn, probably your first day, is yes and. You’re supposed to accept what’s been given to you and build on it and hand it back. And that next person, your scene partner, says yes and, and keeps going with it.

The real scenes are more likely going to be the opposite of that. They’re going to be but. The characters are going to come into — they’re going to challenge each other. And so hopefully in challenging each other the information that you want to get out will come out much more naturally.

So, sometimes you’ll read scenes that are just exposition factories where basically like we’re going to talk though all the details of this case or whatever. And sometimes in procedurals you just have to swallow your pride and that’s just the way it’s going to have to work. But more likely you’re going to be able to get that information out or get that sense of how we’re going to get to the next scene through conflict and through confrontation. So, someone says something and another character challenges, “But…blah, blah, blah, blah.” “Yes, however…blah, blah, blah, blah.”

The ability to sort of push back against the other characters in the scene is much more likely to get you to a good place than just agreeing all the time.

Craig: Absolutely. And you can use some of these conflict cue cards here if you’re struggling if you have a Harry the Explainer, if you need an info dump, and sometimes you do. Having the person listening, have them be confused. Have them be struggling against circumstance. Someone is talking and they’re trying to escape while the person is talking.

You know what I mean? There’s always ways to avoid just the people talking.

John: That’s a great example. And I like that you go back to these initial sort of six points about what is conflict, because in that explainer scene you could actually be explaining the dilemma. Basically the person, the explainer, could like lay out these are the two options and they’re both terrible. That is a way to sort of create conflict through the action of the scene. And that’s going to probably be awesome.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, look for that. Next thing I’ll point to is the struggle for the steering wheel and that usually one character is driving the scene, but sometimes they can be wrestling over who is sort of in control of the scene, this conversation, this moment, where they’re going to go to next. And that struggle for the steering wheel is real. That happens in real life. And it can happen in your scene.

Obviously, if you’re writing a movie with a central character, that central character should be driving most of the scenes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have other strong characters come in there and sort of express their desire for control of that moment.

Craig: Yeah. And you’ll see this primarily in two-handers. It’s funny, I never really thought of it with that phrase struggle for the steering wheel, but that’s pretty much what’s going on in Identity Thief for the whole movie.

John: That’s literally steering wheel.

Craig: I mean, I don’t think there’s ever a technical struggle for the steering wheel, but the two of them are just in complete — it’s really a battle for control. And that’s what’s going on the whole time. Yes.

John: Sort of a corollary to the knowing what each character wants, but making sure that it’s clear to the characters and to the audience the if/then of the scene. So, if this circumstance happens, then the outcome is going to be this.

And so sometimes I’ve come into a scene where I don’t really know what’s at stake. I don’t know what the goal of the scene is. I don’t know what the goal of this conversation is. And so making it clear to the audience and clear to the characters in the scene what it is they’re trying to do and then what the outcome is that they’re hoping for.

Every time that you are in a conversation in real life, you have a sense of like these are the kinds of things that could be happening next. And you need to have the same sense for your own characters. And hopefully the characters in a scene don’t all have the same sense of where they’re going to go to, otherwise they could just skip forward all those steps and be at that place.

Craig: This very thing, this make clear the if/then is why a lot of first-time writers screw up. Because they get worried about — for whatever reason, I feel like they’re primarily worried about trying to write naturalistic dialogue. Everybody is in a panic about writing dialogue that sounds normal. But all of our normal dialogue throughout the day is not if/then. It’s just this. You know? We’re just going to talk about lunch.

And they don’t understand that movies are about those days or weeks in someone’s life that define their life. It’s the craziest days or weeks in a human being’s life. So, everything is far more important. This is all staked up, you know.

And so when you are in a situation where there are high stakes, then every moment should have an if/then. Every moment. Because you are constantly moving toward your goal and away from pain or mistakenly towards pain and away from your goal. There is no relaxy stuff, you know. People draw all the wrong lessons.

John: Very much related to that is to really be mindful of where you’re coming into a scene and where you’re exiting a scene. Because in real life, conflicts will rise up and then they will diminish. And so if you wait long enough, every conflict is going to taper off and everything is going to get back to normal. But your job as the writer is to figure out, well, how do I get out of that scene before all the conflict has resolved. How do I think about coming into a scene where the conflict is already there?

And so by figuring out where you can first turn on the camera in that scene and where you can exit the scene, that’s going to get you to the heart of your conflict. The part of the scene you really want is generally that hot spot, that flare right in the very middle of it.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. If you’re going to let a conflict peter out, it better be for comedy sake, because it’s a lie. It’s a misdirect. Otherwise, absolutely; nobody wants to watch people make up over and over and over throughout the course of a movie. We need conflict. We must have it.

John: Next point. If your characters are not in conflict, then the external conflict better be really apparent and sort of right in their face. And so if your characters are getting along fine, then the thing that they’re facing should be right there. And so like literally the lion should be right in front of them.

If there’s like a lion in the distance, or there’s a roar you hear in the distance, well, your characters in our present scene should still be bickering or fighting with each other. It’s only when that thing is right of you, then you can sort of drop the conflict right between those two characters that we’re looking at.

Craig: Yeah. And you might say, well, why? If there are two people and a lion is far away, why are they arguing about who is going to have to take care of the lion? Why can’t they just work it out like friends? And the answer is because they’re bad people. I hate to put it that way, but characters in movies should be bad people. I don’t mean bad like evil, I mean bad like they’re not finished.

John: Yeah. They shouldn’t be perfect.

Craig: Right. They’re not idealized. They are messes who are struggling with something that will be overcome by the end of the movie. But because it is by definition not the end of the movie at this point, they have these flaws. And the tragic flaw of any of these characters is going to manifest itself through conflict that should otherwise probably be avoided.

I mean, look, let’s go back to The Matrix because it’s such a basic fairy tale. The whole point of The Matrix is you’re the one, you have to believe. When you start believing you’re the one, you’ll be the one. Well, his tragic flaw is that he doesn’t believe. His tragic flaw is that he is incapable of faith in self.

Well, if he doesn’t have that tragic flaw, they come to him and the guy says you’re the one and he goes, “Great.” And then the next scene he does it. And we’re good.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then they have a party on the ship. You know, the conflict is driven entirely by the fact that he’s not finished baking. So, that’s why your characters must be arguing with each other, even if you like them both about who is going to handle the tiger. I’ve changed it to a tiger.

John: Tigers and lions. They both work really well. You can mate them together, you get a liger. It’s all good.

Craig: The liger.

John: A liger. I thought we’d take a little exercise and just pick a really banal sort of normal scene and think about ways that you can actually create conflict within the scene.

Craig: Okay.

John: All right. The scenario I want to propose is a man and his wife are getting ready to go to a dinner party. And so let’s have them be in their Manhattan apartment and they are getting ready to go to this dinner party. And so what are some natures of the conflict that we could find between these two characters?

Craig: Well, you’ve got, let’s start with the obvious ones. They’re having marital problems and the woman that the wife suspects the man is cheating with is going to be at the party or hosting the party. The man wants to go to the party, the woman doesn’t, and he suspects she doesn’t want to go because she’s anorexic and she doesn’t want to have to eat. And it’s a dinner party.

They don’t want to go to the party because the people that are hosting it have four kids. They don’t have any kids and they’re trying to have kids and this is depressing. I mean, that’s the conflict of you want to give one of them that problem and the other one who also has the problem but is trying to get the other one out of the problem, they don’t want to go to the party because the husband has just quit drinking, but she knows that he hasn’t really quit drinking. And this party is a great way for him to kind of sneak a few.

They don’t want to go to the party because — I’m trying to think of something — I’m actually trying to think of something in the apartment now, like an avoidance of pain kind of thing. But, anyway, yeah, I can go on all day.

John: So, I think it’s their cat is sick and it’s a question of like do you leave the cat. Is the cat going to be okay? Or do you go to the party because it’s just a cat. The cat is going to be fine. We don’t trust the new doorman. The doorman has been really weird. We think there’s something shady going on.

But, again, if both of them have that opinion, then that’s not conflict. It needs to be one of the characters having that opinion in the other person saying like, no, no, you’re a crazy person.

Craig: Right.

John: And I think you’re a crazy person because you really don’t want to go to this party because you’re having an affair with the wife. There should be a second level to it, not just I disagree.

Craig: Yeah. You want one of them — I mean, a lot of arguments basically come down to you’re not being honest. So, if the deal is she’s saying I don’t want to go to this party, I don’t like those people. And he’s saying, um, I think you don’t want to go to the party because it’s a dinner party and you know you’re going to have to eat in front of people and you’re not eating.

John: Yes.

Craig: And she says, “That’s not true. That’s not true.” Now, we’re having a good argument. And it ain’t about the party.

John: It ain’t about the party at all. I’d like to stress, though, conflict isn’t always an argument. So, conflict can be little things about sort of like he’s trying to get her to wear a more tasteful dress, but doesn’t want to actually say anything about it. So, it can be a completely silent scene where he keeps trying to do other little things, or he’s talking about like, “Boy, it’s getting cold out,” and just trying to get her to dress a different way.

So, there are lots of ways you can have a conflict in a scene without needing to get to words spoken or punches thrown.

Craig: Absolutely. So, that would be a good example of avoiding a negative outcome. There is also unfulfilled desire. This guy is excited about going to this party because it’s a social group that he really wants to be involved in and he asks her to go with him and she says absolutely. So, he runs and he takes a shower and he comes out and she’s passed out asleep. What do you do now?

John: Dare you wake up your wife?

Craig: Right.

John: Or maybe she doesn’t want to go, and therefore she poisons him.

Craig: Well, then there’s also that!

John: Yeah, but I mean, it doesn’t have to be like fatal, fatal poisoning, but it could be some sort of minor poisoning. Sort of the Wedding Crashers eye drops thing. The Bradley Cooper, how he was taking in Wedding Crashers.

Craig: That’s exactly right. It could also be, you know, in comedy like your liger example, two people have the same goal, they’re just arguing over who is going to do what and how. These people — this may be the most exciting thing. They’re finally going to go to this party where the two of them are going to get in with this group that they want to be in. And they go to the door and they’re snowed in. And now they’re trying to climb out of windows and crawl through a doggie door and things aren’t working.

You know, that’s conflict. Struggle.

John: Yeah, exactly, a struggle. It’s man against nature.

Craig: Man against nature.

John: But ultimately it’s not just man against nature. It’s their unfulfilled desire. There’s an internal motivation and an external motivation which is what’s good about a scene.

Craig: Have you ever seen the Warwick Davis Show with Ricky Gervais?

John: Yeah. It’s like Small Thing or –

Craig: Yeah, it’s a bad pun title. But there’s an amazing scene where Liam Neeson comes in, because he’s working on a comedy. Have you ever seen this?

John: No. It sounds great.

Craig: Oh, you’re in for a treat. He comes in and he says to Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, “I’m interested in doing comedy. I’m funny. Let’s do some improvisation.”

And so they do some improvisation and Warwick comes up with the ideas. He says to Liam, okay, you’re a green grocer and to Ricky Gervais and you’re a customer with a complaint. And so Ricky Gervais goes, “Uh, yes, hello. Uh, I’d like to lodge a complaint.”

[laughs] And Liam Neeson says, “We’re closed.”

John: [laughs]

Craig: It’s the best improv answer in history.

John: Shut it down.

Craig: We’re closed. Yeah, and he keeps insisting that his characters have full blown AIDS. And everyone gets super uncomfortable and they’re like it’s not that funny. Anyway, we’ll throw a link on. It’s one of my favorite things.

John: But I think it’s great that you bring up Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant shows because The Office is a great example of conflict that doesn’t go to argument. It’s making people really uncomfortable through the actions that they’re taking. And where you get uncomfortable, but yet you’re not able to articulate why you’re uncomfortable because that just makes the situation worse. And so they are great examples of conflict.

That’s why I find the British office kind of so hard to watch because I just cringe so much that I want to like crawl into the couch.

Craig: Yeah, definitely at times is tough, but I loved it because there are these moments, particularly when they didn’t seem constructed to make you squirm, which they would occasionally do with Ricky Gervais’ character, but there was a great moment where Tim has started this new dalliance with this office girl. He’s flirting with her. He’s obviously in love with Dawn, but she’s got a boyfriend. So, there’s this new office girl and he’s kind of chumming it up with her and the two of them are by his desk watching as the best character ever on the British office was the IT guy, god, so great.

And the IT guy is being such a jerk. And Tim says some classic Tim snotty comment about him. And the girl giggles. And the IT guy looks at the two of them and then looks at Tim and says, “So you’ve gone off Dawn then.”

John: Ugh.

Craig: And Tim is just — it’s like a slap to the face. And then he just says, “Shut up. Shut up.” And it’s so real. And that’s terrific conflict. Oh, I love that. You know, pulling someone’s scab off publicly like that out of nowhere, just like a — ooh, it was great.

John: It was great. So, I’m going to circle back to what you were talking about with The Matrix because I think that was a great example of if Neo had just accepted his fate from the start, like, oh, I’m the chosen one? Okay, great. Well, let me do this thing. And the movie would have been ten minutes long.

And I want to talk about that in context of like how do you sustain conflict over the whole course of a movie, because there have times where I’ve read scripts that I’ve really enjoyed the writing, but I felt like, okay, on page 50 we’re done. Everything that needed to happen sort of happened. So, okay…I guess we have another 50 pages to read through, but I don’t know why we’re reading through these things.

So, let’s talk about some ways that you sustain conflict over the length of your movie.

Craig: Sure.

John: First off is the question: are you resolving the central conflict too early? If there’s a thing that the character wants, are you giving them what they want too early? That’s sort of an obvious thing and you’re not going to find that all that often. Like usually people have a sense like, oh, you know, I need to actually wait until near the end of the movie for the person to win the championship boxing prize.

But as Lindsay Doran often points out is that the real nature of victory in these kind of movies usually is not winning the championship match, it’s resolving that conflict with your wife. It is the achieving this inner vision for who you need to be in your life. And if that happens too early, that’s not going to be a good experience to sit through the rest of the movie.

Craig: Yeah. And you can really see this with biopics because biopics are stuck with facts. And when you see a bad one, you’re watching somebody kind of go overcome their conflict and then now they’re famous and stuff. And then you can feel the movie trying to manufacture conflict and struggling to do so or manufacturing the same kind of conflict over and over.

That’s why one of my favorite biopics is What’s Love Got to Do with it because it’s got this incredible conflict going through it that changes and builds and crescendos and finally is resolved. And that’s what we want. You know, that’s why in biopics in particular you can see how the external successes are meaningless. That’s the whole point. Oh, all you thought it was just fun and games and fame, but look what was really going on. We like that sort of thing.

So, you definitely don’t want to make the mistake of the bad biopic. You don’t want to reward your character too soon. You want to hold back — there should be really one reward. And if that — that has to land essentially ten pages before the movie ends. I don’t know how else to do it.

John: That sounds so formulaic, but it’s absolutely so true. And the success of writing is finding ways to get to that place so when that moment comes it feels like a tremendous reward that you didn’t quite see coming that way. That it’s still a surprise to you.

Craig: Right.

John: And that you may not even as an audience quite recognize what it is that you wanted them to achieve, but then they achieve it and like that’s fantastic. Or, they don’t achieve it and that’s tragic. Yet, that is the point of how you’re constructing your movie.

Craig: Yeah. In Up, Carl wants to make good on his promise and take the house and land it on the place where his dead wife wanted to be. And in the end he’s changed that, as we knew he would, and he finally lets the house go. And when he lets the house go, we understand — maybe there’s five minutes left? I don’t know, maybe eight or nine. I don’t know how much we can bear.

But the point is if that in your creation is coming at the minute 30 mark, you have a short film. Just know you’ve got ten minutes after that thing. That’s it. And then stop.

John: It has to be done. Next thing I want to point out is sometimes you’re hitting the same note too many times. So, you’re trying so sustain the conflict, but if you’re just sustaining the conflict by having the same argument again, or having the same fight again, then you’ve lost us. Because we need to see each time we revisit that conflict, revisit that theme, it needs to be different. There needs to be a change that has happened.

So, if the same characters are having the same argument on page 80 as they did on page 20, that’s not going to be successful.

Craig: Agreed. And, again, What’s Love Got to Do with it is a good example of this because the actual nature of domestic violence is incredibly repetitive. A man beats up a woman. The police come. She doesn’t press charges. They go away. A man beats up the woman. And this happens over and over and over and over and over.

Well, tragic, but not movie tragic. The problem is, and it’s terrible to say that in narrative form what happens is we become numb to it. We become numb to narrative repetition. So, what that movie does so well is it changes the nature of the abuse subtly but almost every single time. Whether it’s I’m going to say something to you, I’m going to be cruel to you, or I’m going to control you. Now I hit you once. Now I’m on drugs and I’m out of control. Now I hit you a lot.

Now the problem is now you’re having an argument with somebody else about why you don’t want to leave him. Now you’re having an argument with him about him cheating. We’re starting to change the arrows, you know. You really can’t do the same fight over and over and over. You’ll start to feel very, very bored, unless you have a simple adventure movie where, like martial arts movies oftentimes really are just a video game of increasingly difficult battles until you face the boss, and that’s okay. I mean, that’s what people are going for.

But even in those there should be some sort of internal conflict.

John: Yeah. Generally in those cases those conflict, there will be like dance numbers that are like a different kind of dance number, so each of those fights is a little bit different, so it feels like you have made forward progress. There’s a video I’ll link to that takes a look at Snowcatcher, Snowpiercer, sorry, Snowpiercer. Foxcatcher/Snowpiercer.

Craig: I want to see Snowcatcher.

John: Yeah. It’s basically the guy who can just snowball. He does such a great job. But then his snowball catching coach is like really creepy.

Craig: Right.

John: It’s pretty great. And it’s post-apocalyptic, too.

Craig: Of course.

John: In Snowpiercer there’s a video that shows left or right, which is the fundamental dilemma of the movie. But essentially that movie is completely linear. It literally goes from the left side of the train to the right side of the train, from the back to the front. And so it could have that quality of just being a grind, like fight, after fight, after fight, and yet it’s able to make each of them different and actually change how Chris Evans’ character is facing each of these battles because he’s questioning his own choices along the way.

Craig: That’s right. Each successive conflict point should change the character. It doesn’t have to change them for better, it doesn’t have to change them necessarily for the worse. Sometimes it just changes them sideways. Sometimes they just learn information. But it’s always about character.

And you have to remember through all of these conflicts that the people watching the movie without knowing it are constantly doing this computation of connecting the character’s conflict and tragedy to their own. Constantly.

So, we’re coming up on our discussion of Whiplash. Very few people are jazz drummers. I don’t know how many there are left. But –

John: There are probably more screenwriters than there are jazz drummers.

Craig: There are probably more screenwriters than jazz drummers. But that’s okay. We can all do the computational math to connect it to the analogs in our life.

John: Yeah. So, going back to this idea of sustaining conflict across the nature of the movie, you pointed to this in your last discussion here is that you’re looking for ways that these conflicts are changing the characters and basically how do you make it worse for your hero.

And so there are certain tropes that I sort of fall back on, but they’re meaningful. And to me it’s burning down the house. How are you making it so it’s impossible for them to go back to the way they were before. How do you make it so it’s impossible for them to get back to a place of safety?

How can you have characters betray each other or betray their own visions? How can you pull characters away from the other characters that they love? You’re looking for ways to make things worse so that the conflict actually increases and doesn’t get resolved too early in your story.

Craig: And to use The Matrix as an example, this is what we’re talking about I think is the genesis of one of the smartest choices in that movie. They didn’t need the Oracle character. What they had was a screenwriting problem if you think about it. Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus, is saying I’ve been looking around. I’m really smart. I’m essentially the smartest person in the world based on what the movie is telling everyone. And I believe you are the one. I’ve been watching you. And I think you’re the one.

Now, we have no idea why. Right? And the answer to that question why is because they don’t know either. Nobody knows. It’s just let’s just take it as a given. He’s watched him. He’s smart. You’re the one.

The problem then is, well, Keanu Reeves doesn’t believe he’s the one but I know he’s the one, so I guess I’ve got to watch this jerk not believe what I already believe until he finally believes it. And that’s brutal. That’s just brutal. I’m way ahead of him.

Enter the Oracle character, a brilliant idea from the Wachowskis, who is going to confirm that this is the one. You know, Morpheus — it’s just a little check to make sure. And she says, “You’re not.” Well, she actually doesn’t say you’re not. She says, “But you know what I’m already going to say.”

And he says, “I’m not the one.”

And she says, “Sorry. It’s not all good news. Have a cookie.” Great character. And that was really important. Because what that did was start us all running other computational math. And then it made the revelation later, she told you exactly what you needed to hear impactful.

And, by the way, that comes up in Whiplash as well.

John: It does. Absolutely. Before we get to Whiplash, I want to talk through one of my favorite movies of all time and sort of how it does conflict and how it sustains conflict over the course of the whole nature of the movie, which is of course my dearest most favorite movie which is Aliens.

Craig: Game over, man.

John: Oh, my god, it’s just such an amazingly good movie.

Craig: Why’d you put her in charge?

John: So, if you look at within each and every scene there is terrific conflict. And Ripley is always in conflict with characters. Sometimes she’s arguing. Sometimes she’s disagreeing with what they’re doing. Sometimes she just doesn’t want to go on the mission at all.

Craig: Right.

John: And she’s sort of forced into going on this mission. So, in every moment within each scene she is — if she’s not driving the scene, she is your eyes on the scene and she is your way into the scene. And she is in conflict with everyone around her basically the entire movie.

But if you look at the movie macro overall, it does just a brilliant job of not ever letting her get out of conflict. And actually each point along the way she is getting herself more and more into more immediately dangerous physical conflict with either soldiers she’s sent on the mission with or with a group of aliens, or the Alien Queen. The movie is so smartly constructed to make sure that the conflict is continuously escalating up through the very, very, very end.

Craig: Yeah. He, Cameron had this really — I don’t know if this was, you know, quite this conscious, but he created this situation that was remarkably frustrating. Frustration is a great feeling to inspire –

John: Oh god.

Craig: She knows. She’s the one person who has experienced this thing, these things. She knows and everybody else is being either arrogant or duplicitous. And it’s incredibly frustrating to watch her continue to say this is bad and have nobody else really care, or think that it’s not that bad. And then it’s more frustrating when the truth emerges and all the arrogant people are now cowards, or at least one notably is a coward who is saying, “We got to go. We can’t win.”

And she’s saying, “No, actually you can. I’ve done that before, too, but…” And now she has a kid.

So, the conflict of frustration is wonderful. It makes us angry. And anger is a terrific thing to inspire an audience as long as you can eventually release it with some kind of final triumph.

John: What Cameron was so smart about recognizing is that the audience had the same information as Ripley. And so we and Ripley both knew that the aliens were incredibly dangerous and this was an incredibly stupid idea to go on this rescue mission to this planet.

And he was able to let her articulate exactly what we’re thinking. Like, no, no, don’t go there. And yet we all had to go there together. And it was a very smart setup and a very smart change along the way, because we would make the same choices Ripley made, or at least we hope we would make the same choices as Ripley made to go to try to save Newt, to save the other soldiers, to do what she could.

Craig: Yeah. And, you know, also kind of brilliantly he understood, and I think Cameron has always understood this: that beyond all the hoopla of the effects, and the light, and the noise, and the monsters, we will always care about the person more than anything. And so we don’t care about the monsters.

I bet so many directors saw Alien and thought, wow, it’s about the monsters, man. And it’s not. It’s never about the monsters. We’re the monsters. We’re the problem. Whoa, dude.

John: Whoa dude. Just to delay Whiplash one more moment, as we were preparing our outline of notes for this thing, I started thinking back to my own movies and I wanted to quickly go through my movies and figure out which ones had conflict that sort of basically drove it, and which ones didn’t so much.

And so my very first movie, Go, it’s a conflict factory. Everyone is in conflict at all times. Ronna wants to make this tiny drug deal happen. She sets off this series of events. Claire keeps trying to be the voice of reason and keeps getting ignored.

The second section, the four guys in Vegas, everyone of those guys is in conflict the entire time. And sometimes it’s just bantery conflict, but then it gets much, much worse throughout the thing.

And in the final chapter, Adam and Zack, they seem to be at each other’s throats. We’re not sure why. We find out that they’re a couple and that they’ve been sleeping with the same guy. So, that whole movie is a conflict thing.

But compare that to the Charlie’s Angels movies and one of the real frustrations of the Charlie’s Angels movies is the Angels kind of had to get along.

Craig: Right.

John: They’re supposed to be a team, they’re supposed to be sisters. They weren’t supposed to fight with each other. And so we had to create a lot of external conflict just so you wouldn’t kind of notice that they were getting along so well.

That’s one of the challenges of that kind of movie is if they’re supposed to be a team that gets along great together, well, it’s hard to have it introduced in a scene. Somebody else has to show up to like make there be a problem.

Craig: When they’re not in conflict with each other, sometimes it’s hard just to figure out who’s supposed to talk next.

John: Absolutely true. I was reminded by Max Temkin who created Cards Against Humanity, one of the guys behind that, he had this great blog post this last week about how to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation in 40 hours. And so he basically gives you a viewing list to sort of go through the whole series and understand what made that series so great.

But he points out that Roddenberry did not want there to be any conflict between the characters at all.

Craig: That’s right.

John: So those first few seasons, he didn’t want the characters to disagree with each other unless they were possessed by some other force or something else. And so it became really hard to write those characters in scenes because they had to get along. They had to follow orders.

Craig: It’s strange. I never really thought about it that way. I love that show. I watched every episode of that show. And it is true. You sort of began to see them all as vaguely people, but really more — you were waiting for them to fight someone.

John: Yeah. And so season three, like after Roddenberry was gone, it did change. And you started to see some conflicts between each other which were useful. It never sort of progressed as far as later science fiction shows would take it, but there was some real –

Craig: Yeah. Like Worf would get all grumpy.

John: Yeah. [laughs]

Big Fish. Big Fish, there’s not a lot of conflict in the Edward flashback scenes. It’s sort of his story. Because it is idealized. It is happy and wonderful. But the movie is structured around a central conflict between the father and the son. And my 15-year journey of making different versions of Big Fish, that’s always been the hardest thing is how to have that conflict feel real and meaningful, and yet not have the son become completely unlikeable and not make the father so overbearing that you kind of want him to be dead.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And that is a fundamental challenge of that movie.

Craig: And that was certainly something that we went around and around on with Melissa’s character on Identify Thief.

John: Oh, absolutely.

Craig: And, you know, Melissa and I and Jason all felt pretty strongly that the only way it was going to work was if we just took all of the safety belts off of her character and let her be awful. Just let her be awful. But, in the very first scene had to show, you know, it’s like the planting the seed of redemption. You know, there’s a difference — even Darth Vader, before we really get to see Darth Vader going bananas and being a jerk, Obi Wan says, “Darth Vader was a pupil of mine. He was great. But then he turned to the dark side.”

And we go, okay, well there’s a good guy in there somewhere.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So when he turns we think, yes, finally, he has returned. He’s not turned, he’s returned. When you have these awful characters, you need to set up the return fairly early on. Some sign that they were not just simply born psychopathic, otherwise we won’t expect — we won’t believe the return.

For me, all of my movies have conflict, because comedy is conflict. That’s all it is.

John: Absolutely. So, looking at The Hangover sequels, that is a great and a bad situation in that some of their conflicts would inherently be resolved from the end of the first movie. And so you need to find ways to have those characters have new things, new buttons they can push in each other so that there’s still a journey over the course of each second movies.

Craig: Yeah. In the second movie, part of the deal was that, you know, one of the first things that I said when I came on that movie to Todd was, because the original conception was that Stu was getting married and all the guys were going to go to his wedding and then something was going to go wrong.

And the first thing I said when I came on that movie is there is no way that Stu wants Alan at that wedding. In fact, he specifically does not want him at the wedding. We have to jam him with this guy. And that part of the problem is that this trauma that they survived in the first movie is the only thing Alan has. Alan wants to make it happen again. And that’s the problem they’re living with is that that character is stuck, whereas they theoretically have moved on. And so part of the fun of that question was, well, is there value. What’s the value of Alan doing this to you again? And the answer for us was Stu, who is running away from Alan as hard as he can at the start of the movie, needs to realize that there’s actually — Alan has uncovered something in him that is of value and is worthy of respect.

So, that was kind of the theory there. And in the third one, again, this time Alan was the protagonist and it was about him finally letting, stopping being stuck. You know, he begins the movie even more stuck than he’s ever been, and then his father does, and he has to grow up. And he has to stop doing the same damn thing over and over again. And he does.

John: Yeah. So, I mean, those were structural decisions you had to make before the first word was written, is understanding this is the nature of the journey. This is the nature of how the conflict plays throughout. And then as you approach each scene, you’re figuring out like what is each character trying to do in there and how do I keep these scenes crackling through conflict.

Craig: And the understanding the nature of the conflict helps you figure out what the scenes are supposed to be anyway. So, if I know that the problem — that Ed Helms character is essentially living in fear. He is traumatized and his priority now is security, and avoidance, you know, avoiding a negative outcome type conflict. I want then to put him in conflict with his father-in-law. I want his father-in-law to basically say, “You are mush. You’re not a man. I don’t understand you.”

And in a way like Fletcher and Andrew in Whiplash, he is inspiring Stu — he ultimately inspires Stu through ridicule to man up. Man up!

John: That’s a lesson we can always take from the creators of South Park.

Craig: Got to man up!

John: We’ve delayed long enough. Let’s talk about Whiplash. So, Whiplash is a movie made my Damien Chazelle, I quite enjoyed it. The script for it you can find in Weekend Read. Sony finally published it on their site, so we will have links to both the PDF version and the Weekend Read version of it.

It’s slightly different than the one they actually sent out to us, which is strange, but that’s just the way it happens sometimes. But I was actually fascinated by the way that Whiplash is essentially a two-hander and it’s just a conflict machine. It’s basically the story of Andrew and his drumming professor, his sort of jazz teacher/professor, and their conflict throughout the course of this movie.

Craig: Yeah, you know, there’s so much to talk about with this movie. I’m wondering, should we, because we’re running a little long here, and I’m wondering should we maybe move it to the next show? Because not only is it a great study of how to portray conflict and to escalate conflict and change conflict, but it’s also — it’s got this whole other discussion about art and being an artist.

John: I think we should move the art discussion to the next one, but let’s just talk a little bit about the conflict so we can wrap up this episode and be sort of super conflicty.

What I think is so smart, and I’m going to use one of our favorite words again, I apologize in advance that we use this every episode, is specificity. Is I completely understood what each of the characters was doing and why they were doing it, even though I don’t know a damn thing about jazz bands or drumming. I don’t care about jazz bands or drumming. And yet the specificity of it made me believe that the filmmakers understood it and ever character in this thing loved it and was obsessed with it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so when you have characters who deeply believe in their worlds, and deeply believe in their world visions, who come into conflict, you’re going to have potential for great stuff. And I thought it really achieved that. I understood what Andrew wanted. I understand that he had this vision of himself as being one of the greatest drummers of all time.

I had this vision that Fletcher saw himself as a kingmaker of sorts. He saw himself as the gatekeeper between you’re just a jazz student and you are one of the greats. And yet the movie asked me to keep asking the question is this guy trying to inspire his students, or is this guy just a sociopath.

Craig: Right.

John: And that was just really, really well done.

Craig: Yeah. It’s funny, I made my list of conflicts, conflict types before I saw Whiplash. And as I look through this list I realize Whiplash has done all of them. It has physical arguments and verbal arguments. It even has struggle against circumstance. There’s a sequence where the bus that Andrew is on breaks down and he’s late and he has to figure out how to get to the auditorium on time.

It certainly has unfulfilled desire. The movie is soaking in it. He desperately wants to be great and he doesn’t know how to be great. It’s got avoiding a negative outcome. He’s trying to not be punished at times. There’s a scene where he breaks up with a girl and is trying to not hurt her feelings.

There is a wonderful scene that’s based entirely on a conflict of confusion where he is asked to play something in front of an audience that he doesn’t know.

John: There’s actually a couple of great moments of confusion along the way where like he’s not sure like what — did I get invited to the band, did I show up too late?

Craig: Yes.

John: What’s going to go on here? Wait, why am I not playing this? There are great moments of confusion throughout.

Craig: That’s right, yeah, he’s told to show up for practice at 6:00am sharp. He wakes up at 6:05 in a panic, runs, falls on his face, get up, keeps running, finally gets there at 6:10 and sees outside that actually practice starts at 9:00am.

John: Yeah. So, and then he has that weight of confusion, like wait, was I too late? Was I too early? And –

Craig: Why did he tell me 6:00am?

John: The whole experience.

Craig: Right.

John: But it was incredibly specific to his situation, his moment, and yet it is universal because we’ve all had that thing of like I don’t know if I just made a horrible mistake or what just happened.

Craig: Right. Is this my fault? Or is it his fault? And then lastly dilemma. And it’s got a huge dilemma in it. And that’s articulated between his relationship with him and his father and that is do I — is this worth dying for? Do I have to die to be great?

John: And there are small dilemmas along the way, too, which basically do I send a letter talking about what actually happened, or do I not? And that later becomes a confusion of like does Fletcher know what I did or does Fletcher not know? And the revelation of Fletcher’s actual motives comes on stage in a brilliant way.

And interestingly, if you look through the screenplay, it happens differently in the screenplay. Or, it’s tipped in the screenplay. And so I think we should come back to Whiplash next week and maybe more people will have read the script so we can get a little bit more specific about what is on the page, because the movie has a lot of action sequences without any dialogue, and it does a great job I think of doing that.

But also, you can look at — it’s a great example of what changes between a screenplay and what changes in a movie. And there are little small things, little razor blades that went in there and cut stuff out. And I think they made for a stronger movie.

That said, I’m not sure I would have changed anything in the script, because I think maybe you needed to have that stuff in the script so you would understand what was going on there. But you sometimes don’t need that in the final movie. And the change between what was on the printed page and what showed up on the screen is really fascinating.

Craig: Yeah. There are some big razor blades that came in, too. But, you know, it’s a very comforting thing. A lot of times we watch a movie and we think how am I supposed to write a script that’s as good as that? You’re not. The guy that wrote that movie also didn’t write a script as good as that. That’s the point.

You’re going to make mistakes. And it’s funny. As I read through the script of Whiplash I would occasionally get to a bit that wasn’t in the movie, it would like a mistake, and I would also think I know why he made that mistake. I make that mistake, too. It’s a totally normal mistake. Sometimes that’s the thing. Sometimes it’s not a mistake.

John: Some of the things that get taken out of the movie, you know, I can totally see why they would have worked, or maybe would have worked with different actors. Maybe you would have needed to have that moment to play this thing, but because it’s a movie on a visual stage we get the relationship between these characters. We don’t need any of the words that they just said.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly.

John: All right. Let’s get to our One Cool Things.

Craig: All right.

John: So, you start, because yours is a device for creating very low conflict –

Craig: [laugh] Low conflict cooking. So, there’s this style of cooking called sous-vide from the French “under-vacuum.” And whether you know it or not, it’s being used everywhere in kitchens all around the world, and whether it’s big commercial kitchens or small little fancy restaurants. And it works very simply. You take your food, and a lot of times it’s meat, and you put it in a Zip-Lock bag. You vacuum seal it. And you stick it in this immersion bath of hot water.

The hot water isn’t very hot at all. In fact, it’s something like 130 degrees. And this machine will keep it at exactly 130 degrees. And you will let it sit there for days sometimes. And it will slowly cook for days and when it’s done it’s perfect. It’s uniformly cooked throughout. It’s like you put a steak on a grill, you’re cooking the outside much faster than the inside. Everybody knows that.

Well this thing cooks the outside and inside at the exact same rate, so for instance steak places will sous-vide all of their steaks and then when the order is up they take it out and they slap it on the grill to kind of char it up.

John: Sear it.

Craig: Sear it up and maybe give it a little, like okay, well this guy wanted it medium well or whatever. These machines are kind of big and expensive, so there’s this new thing, this new trend of home sous-vide stuff. And my wife got me this for Christmas. It’s called the Sansaire. One thing I don’t like about it was that it was a Kickstarter. So basically a bunch of people, I think, probably should be rewarded for having invested in it, but oh well.

John: People got to pre-order something that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Craig: Yeah. So, or, people didn’t get to reap the rewards of taking a good investment bet. Regardless.

John: This is the man who put down how much money on your new Tesla that hasn’t shipped yet?

Craig: It’s coming out. I think in a week. I get it in a week. Yeah, super excited.

John: Oh, I’m so excited.

Craig: Oh, I’m going to ride it so fast. Anyway, so this thing brilliantly clips on the side of a big stock pot. You put your meat in the bag, you stick it in the water, and then the thing will keep the water in the stock pot at this temperature for you, so it’s created your own little sous-vide. And so I’m going to start sous-viding everything.

John: I’m excited to see it.

Craig: And it’s $200, which I know it’s not cheap, but compared to what sous-vide was costing before, affordable.

John: Yes. So, I will offer also a link in the show notes to an actual free sort of starter way of trying some sous-vide things. You may have already done this, Craig, where you actually poach eggs in the shell.

Craig: Yes.

John: And so you maintain water at a very specific temperature for an extended period of time. And the eggs sort of softly poach inside their shell. And what’s great about it is then if you were to crack that and fry that egg, it is delicious in ways that you cannot believe. So, that’s a thing that you can just do on your normal stove, but if you had a fancy sous-vide you’d be even better –

Craig: Even better sounding.

John: Cool. My One Cool Thing is actually something that Craig had recommended but I’m not sure he’s read the whole book. You tweeted a link to Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so there is a short story which Craig tweeted about.

Craig: So good.

John: It’s so good. Called Gifted. And that is the story of this family talking through their son was born and he’s clearly — he’s the antichrist. He’s a monster. And they talk about how special he is and how gifted and a special program at Dalton. And he’s just a monster.

The book that Simon Rich has is a series of these stories about sort of parents and children and their relationships and they’re all different. One is told from the point of view of this hamster and he talks about how like they buried his wife today in a matchbox and how basically the terror of being in a third grade classroom.

They’re really just terrific. And one of the things I think that struck me so clearly about these stories is they follow a sort of rule of high concept comedy where in high concept comedy you can change exactly one thing.

Craig: Right.

John: So, it can be from a hamster’s point of view, but there also can’t be like aliens invading. Or your child can be the antichrist, but everything else has to play in the real world around that. And all these stories do that very well. So, most of them are pretty short, but there’s one sort of big epic story at the center which is also fantastic.

Craig: He’s so good.

John: He’s so talented. He has a show coming out this week as well, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.

Craig: He’s kind of a master of POV. You know, like writing from the POV of the hamster in a third grade classroom. Aline McKenna introduced me to a story that he wrote — and he didn’t identify what the POV was. You just had to kind of figure it out. But the POV was of a condom. And it was –

John: A condom in a wallet.

Craig: A condom in a wallet. And it was actually kind of beautiful. He’s got that great combination. You know, you rarely find this of somebody who is insightful about humanity, funny, and writes really well. Really cleanly and really just well crafted. You know, he’s got all that going for him. Good for him.

John: Yeah. So, in another part of my life it would have made me jealous, but now I just applaud it.

Craig: Oh, no, you have to applaud it when you see it. That’s like, you know, it’s like the other Simon, Simon Kinberg. I’m so glad Simon Kinberg exists because it just gets me off the hook of having to feel like, oh, if you work really hard you can be number one. Nope. Simon. [laughs] There’s Simon Kinberg. I can’t beat that.

John: No. Why would you bother trying?

Craig: The guy is out of control.

John: Yeah. It’s good stuff.

Craig: Yeah. He’s a machine.

John: Yeah. That’s our show this week. So, if you would like to listen to more episodes of the show you can go to iTunes and find us on iTunes. And if you’re there, or if you’re there for any other purpose, maybe just like click through and give us a rating on iTunes because that helps boost us up the charts and it makes me and Craig feel really good.

Craig: Yeah, you move us up the charts.

John: It also gets more people exposed to the show. So, it’s always a lovely thing.

Craig: In fact, this time I’m jumping in. I’m commanding you. If you haven’t done this, go to iTunes and give us your stars.

John: It will really take about ten seconds. So we’ll just pause right here.

Craig: [hums]

John: And so while you’ve just finished doing that you could also download the Scriptnotes App which is in iTunes or if you’re on an Android device it is the Android App Store or Amazon has an app store also that has it.

On that app you can listen to all the back episodes, back to the very first episode. That’s part of, our premium service. So, you can go back and get all those old episodes.

Craig: How much does that service cost?

John: That is $1.99 a month.

Craig: Oh, get out of here.

John: There will be bonus episodes you can find there. We also have bonus episodes coming. We’re going to do a dirty show, I promise. That will be fun.

Craig: Yeah.

John: If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you should tweet at him @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Longer questions go to

If you would like to read the scripts for Whiplash or a bunch of the other Oscar contender scripts, we have most of them now up in Weekend Read. So, you can just read them there on your phone. So, you can find Weekend Read in the app store.

Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Jason Young. If you have an outro you’d like to send in to us you can write to and let us know where you have the file hosted. SoundCloud is great, but other things work, too.

Craig, we’ll talk again next week and we’ll get into the art of Whiplash as well.

Craig: Spectacular.

John: Thanks. Bye.

Craig: Thanks John. Bye.


Malawi is flooded, and needs your help

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 10:59

In 2007, Ryan Reynolds and I visited the southern African nation of Malawi. I’ve blogged about that trip and subsequent work on behalf of FOMO, a local charity that runs day centers for thousands of orphans in the region.

Here’s a video I shot on the way to church with the kids:

Over the last week, Malawi has been hit with flooding unseen in 40 years. At least 48 people have died, and 70,000 have lost their homes. Kids literally got swept away. According to weather reports, the flooding could last for weeks.

Floods are always costly, but in a country that relies so much on subsistence agriculture, floods can be ruinous.

After the rain stops, how much of the crop can be saved? Which infrastructure will survive? We won’t know the full effect of the flooding for months.

In the near term, FOMO is raising money for supplies to help children and vulnerable families already displaced by the flooding. I donated to their JustGiving campaign, and urge you to do the same.

I’ve worked with FOMO for seven years; I know they’ll get stuff done right. They’ll keep kids safe.

I hope and assume the big international aid agencies will come to Malawi as well. There will be huge challenges in the months ahead, including rebuilding roads and schools and hospitals.

More than anything, I’d urge you to remember that Malawi exists. Because it’s a small, peaceful, landlocked nation in Africa, it’s easy to overlook. But it needs the world’s attention to avoid greater tragedy.

The Conflict Episode

Tue, 01/13/2015 - 08:03

Craig and John discuss conflict — why it’s bad in real life but essential in screenwriting. We define six forms of conflict common in movies, then look at ways to sustain conflict within a scene and throughout a story.

We also look briefly at Whiplash, both the conflict between its two main characters and the controversy over whether it should be considered an original or an adapted screenplay.

If you can spare the ten seconds it takes, leaving us a rating on iTunes is a great way to help others find Scriptnotes. Thanks!


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Weekend Read, for your consideration

Sun, 01/11/2015 - 12:10

Weekend Read, our app for reading screenplays on the iPhone, now features scripts from 21 of this year’s award contenders.

  • A Most Violent Year
  • Belle
  • Big Eyes
  • Birdman
  • Boxtrolls
  • Boyhood
  • Calvary
  • Dear White People
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • Foxcatcher
  • The Gambler
  • Get On Up
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Into the Woods
  • Kill the Messenger
  • Locke
  • Love Is Strange
  • St. Vincent (de Van Nuys)
  • Still Alice
  • Unbroken
  • Whiplash

Weekend Read doesn’t host any of these files; we’re always linking to the official PDFs hosted on studio websites. In most cases, those scripts work great, but there are exceptions.

This year, the troublesome scripts are Gone Girl, The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything. Weekend Read 1.0.8 — in review now at Apple — handles these screenplays fine. It should be out later this week.

Weekend Read is free, with a paid upgrade option to increase your library storage.

Scriptnotes, Ep 178: Doing, not thinking — Transcript

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 16:12

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 178 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, Happy 2015.

Craig: Happy 2015, John. We made it to the Back to the Future.

John: We made it to that time that was foretold when everything would be just the way it is right now. That movie hit everything exactly right.

Craig: Nailed it.

John: Nailed it. Robert Zemeckis ahead of his time yet again. I think the thing I’m most excited about with 2015 is I will remember that it’s 2015. I think I’m actually going to sign checks properly. For whatever reason, the number sticks in my head properly, because I was signing 2013 for a long time. And I think 2015 I’m good and I’m golden. So, for the next 364 days I am good.

Craig: I have a little theory on this.

John: Tell me.

Craig: And maybe it’s just you and me and none of the people out there, but I find that remembering the odd numbered years is vastly easier than remembering the even ones.

John: Hmm.

Craig: Odd number years — you know, this is going to sound a little weird and it’s going to sound a little idiot savant-ish, but do numbers have certain feelings for you?

John: Oh, absolutely Craig. Come on, we’re screenwriters. Everything has feelings.

Craig: Right. But so certain numbers feel a certain way and like have a certain vibe in your head.

John: Yeah, like fours are blue. Because they’re blue.

Craig: And they’re round. Even though a four is not round, it’s round to me. All even numbers are softer than odd numbers. Odd numbers are harder.

John: They’re pokey.

Craig: They’re pokey. They’re exactly right. They’re pokey. So, even though say four is visually pokier than nine, nine is pokey.

John: 100 percent agree with you.

Craig: Right.

John: I think it’s also the number of dots like on a dice or something like that, because the odd ones are always going to have a little bit that sticks out.

Craig: Yeah. There’s this little extra bit. There’s something off. And so they’re easier to grab. You know, when you’re remembering that date, 2015 for me is so easy, it’s such a breeze to be able to write 15. 2016 is going to be annoying because it’s such a round, soft — because we’re in the 20s now. You know, when we were in the 19s, you have all these great dates that were entirely pointy like 1993. Oh!

John: Yeah. Lots of pokiness.

Craig: So pokey.

John: Well, I would say overall since we’ve been in the 2000s I tend — those years tend to slip away more easily. And also the 2000s. So, I’ll often say like 1998 when I mean 2008. And I think it’s because it slips away.

Maybe it’s also the aspect of Velcro. I think that the even numbered years are sort of like the fuzzy size of Velcro. And the odd number years are like the spiky side of Velcro. And spiky side of Velcro, it scratches and it holds on. It’s easier for me.

Craig: For me, for sure.

John: Also, 2015, it’s a five. And I just remember learning how to count by 5s. And so all the 5s are very natural to me. So, they just feel, I don’t know, it’s like a nickel. It’s a nickel year.

Craig: Yeah. Listen, I have every reason to expect that it’s going to be a spectacular year because –

John: Oh, it’s going to be great.

Craig: Yeah, because I’m a foolish optimist.

John: Yes, sort of positive moviegoing transfers into positive year gazing.

Craig: Why not?

John: And 2014 on the whole I would say had some suckage to it. There were some things that were incredibly frustrating and annoying and we also ended 2014 on a really weird down note. So, I’m excited to rebound into this New Year, this new act.

Craig: Every year has suckage.

John: True.

Craig: So, you and I because we are students of logic, fallacies, and cognitive quirks. We know that the human mind is set up to detect patterns when perhaps that does it a disservice. So, you look at trends and over the long run, over the long run the world is getting better. Hard to tell when you’re in the middle of a down spike on your jagged rise up, but overall the world is doing better.

It’s a hard thing to say to people when they’re currently not doing well.

John: Yes.

Craig: I have this problem where sometimes someone will say 2014 was the worst year ever. And I’ll say no it wasn’t. No, no, not at all. I mean, certainly 1232 in the middle of the plague was much, much worse. And then I realize that I’m talking to somebody who, you know, their parent died or they got dumped. Or they lost a job and they don’t need me giving them historical perspective. And this is why I’m not a therapist.

John: I would also say though I feel like the acceleration of time based on largely social media but just sort of the nature of media overall, things just move so much faster and there were so many bad things that were all stacked together.

In our episode that we recorded together we talked about the Year in Outrage which was Slate’s little thing where they talked about all sort of the year’s events and moments of outrage. And you just look back on 2014 and there were so many things where like that was crazy that that happened and it’s also crazy that the next week we had forgotten about it. Like Russia shot a plane out of the sky.

Craig: Yeah, that’s right.

John: And we just kind of forgot about it.

Craig: Yup.

John: Oh, yeah, that happened.

Craig: We gave villains some great news in 2014. And we also gave the unjustly accused great news in 2014. No matter what you do, no matter how bad it is, in two weeks people will be talking about something else.

John: 100 percent true.

Craig: Two weeks. So, if you are ever humiliated. Let’s say that your email gets hacked and all of it gets out there and you said all these things about people and so on and so forth.

John: Like Angelina Jolie.

Craig: Everybody’s angry at you. You know what you do? You just go somewhere without Internet and you stay there for two weeks. You come back, and you should be fine. [laughs]

John: It’s the two-week cure.

Craig: Yeah. It’s the two-week cure.

John: Today on the podcast we are going to be looking at three Three Page Challenges from people who sent in their first three pages of their scripts for us to look at and we will be discussing them on the air. And I think part of the reason I’m so optimistic about 2015 is this — I think we talked about it before we started recording — this was the best batch of these Three Page Challenges we’ve seen maybe ever.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t think we’ve ever had one where all three were very good and we have all three are very good. We have three very encouraging Three Page Challenges this week.

John: And all three provided interesting things to talk about, too, which is crucial. So, Stuart Friedel, well picked.

Craig: Yes. At last.

John: The other thing we’re going to be talking about today is Chuck Palahniuk has this great advice for writers about not using thought verbs. And so we’re going to dig into that a little bit, both how it applies to literary writing, but how it applies to screenwriting as well.

So, let’s get into it by first doing some follow up on Sony. The last real episode recorded two weeks ago, the Sony hack had happened. The Interview was not going to be released in theaters, or online, or ever. Everything was in chaos. I wondered aloud whether this was our 9/11. And now, again, two weeks later a lot has changed. So, let’s look through what has changed.

The movie got released. We’re recording this on January 3. The movie has been released. It was released in independent theaters, so not the big chains that were supposed to carry it, but it was released on a fair number of screens. And it was also released online, so on YouTube and later on iTunes. And it earned $15 million online.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, that was a significant change. Another thing that has changed is people have started asking more questions about whether it was really North Korea involved. And the administration has come back and said, no, no, no, it really is North Korea. So, as we’re recording this, the administration is still telling us that it was North Korea who was behind the attack.

Craig: Yes. That’s right. Again, this is part of the way news works, and this even applies to people who aren’t normally conspiracy theorists. So, the administration says we have reason to believe it’s North Korea and then a security firm, I believe in this case it was Norse Security says, “Whoa, hold on. We’ve looked at what we can see and from what we can tell there’s no reason to think that it’s North Korea. We think it’s these other people.” Now, at that point I asked a question that a lot of people asked: why not both?

I mean, that’s the way it used to work in the Cold War. You’d pay off some guy working on the inside to get you secrets from Lockheed or whatever. But this got passed around as, hey, Obama liar, [laughs], you know. So, either — it’s dependent on which way your bent was, either it was Obama was a liar, or America is weak and we’re stupid, whatever spin you wanted to put on it.

But point being, yeah, it wasn’t the North Koreans at all. Blah. And look at that, we shut down North Korea’s Internet over nothing. Well, we may not have shut down their Internet actually.

John: Yeah. Again, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s the thing. We have no idea what the administration really knows. If there’s other information about sort of why they believe it’s North Korea. We don’t know if we shut down their Internet. And so we just stumble around in the darkness and point fingers at each other.

Craig: Well, this is the new era. We stumble around in the darkness. We don’t point fingers at each other. We throw headlines at each other.

John: That’s true. That’s what we do.

Craig: We just walk around whipping headlines into each other’s faces while the truth just sits there doing what the truth is, which is remaining immutable and finite. And some people got a little feisty with me on Twitter. “You’re stupid for believing in the government.” Well, it’s just yesterday or today the federal government came out and said, “No, no, no, we’ve read all of your adorable articles, Norse Security. Yeah, we’ve been actually following some stuff for years that we think this connected up with. We have excellent evidence that we are standing by. That this, in fact, was backed by the North Koreans.”

And once again I have to say just because you don’t have the evidence doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t exist, particularly when you’re talking about something that is protected by national security interests, whether you like that sort of thing or not. So, so far I’m going with North Koreans until I see convincing reason that essentially the government is flat out lying to me.

John: I will actually take a contrarian view and I don’t think it was largely the North Koreans. I think they could have been involved to some capacity. They may have hired some folks to do some stuff. But I think this — I think it will ultimately come out that it was not nearly as much of the North Koreans as is now being reported. That doesn’t mean that I believe that there’s a vast conspiracy to hide the truth from us. I just think that we don’t know what they don’t know.

It’s one of those things where I think there are levels of uncertainty here that may never actually fully be resolved.

Craig: Well, if the North Koreans paid off some people to do this, wouldn’t that — because that would count for me.

John: Would that count?

Craig: Yeah, that would count for me, for sure. Oh yeah, absolutely.

John: To me, I think the more interesting looking forward from all this is that it did, I think, initiate the era or the public awareness so that we’re in an era of hackers being able to do major things to shut down individual corporations or sort of whole areas of business.

Craig: Right.

John: And I think that is really the more terrifying thing to come out of this. Because one of the things that I thought was underreported was it wasn’t just like they published a bunch of embarrassing Sony emails. It’s that they actually shutdown Sony largely. They shut down all their computer networks.

I have friends who work there who they had to write checks manually. They couldn’t trust any of their own computers. And if you’re in an era now where you can’t do anything on a computer, you’re really screwed. And so whatever the next industry or the next corporation that gets hit by this kind of attack, it’s going to be really interesting, whether it’s geopolitical or just actually sort of the Die Hard model where it sort of seems like they’re terrorists, but nope, they’re actually just out for some money. They’re just going to try to extort you. That’s going to be really fascinating and scary.

Craig: Yeah. I think a lot of the stuff that went on at Sony was self-inflicted by necessity. Once they knew that their network had been breached there were just huge areas of it they couldn’t trust, so they had to turn it off.

I remember driving over to Sony to see Lindsay and it was, I think, on day three of this thing, and I pull up to the security gate and I give them my thing, “Well who are you going to see?” And I tell her and she goes, “Okay.” They can’t — and I realized, oh, they don’t have, they don’t know who — I’m just me holding up a license that says me saying I’m here to see somebody. And they –

John: They can’t scan anything.

Craig: They can’t scan. They have no computer to tell them yeah that’s true, so just go on.

John: And the poor guard. He had to go out and manually lift the gate up because the little computer that lifts the gate couldn’t do it.

Craig: Yeah. The iPod controlled lift gate. So, they had to — you’re absolutely right. This will ideally serve as some kind of inoculation and hopefully every major industry and certainly every major industry in our town is going bananas on security.

John: The pro side is that hopefully some of the firms will become more serious about security. The flip side of that is that if you are an individual or a group who has an agenda, you see like, oh, look what we can do if we put our minds to it. And that’s a troubling thing, too.

Craig: Well, yes, but in the end — and this is a lesson that it seems terrorists learn very slowly — in the end what you basically get is publicity. But publicity isn’t an ends to anything. It’s simply a means to an end. In the end the movie came out, it made some money, Sony will continue to march on. Their computers will turn back on. People will stop talking about this. It did not bring down the great capitalist empire, nor did it improve life anywhere else in the world.

It did nothing.

John: If it was North Korea and their aim was to embarrass Sony and to make people remember that North Korea still exists, it did that.

Craig: Yeah. Briefly.

John: Briefly.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But, again, two-week rule. It’ll pass away. Russia shot down a plane and we don’t talk about that anymore.

Craig: It’s already — the second — that’s all you have to do. If you’re one of these people that suddenly is the piñata on Twitter and in the news, what you do is watch the news, okay. Just watch the news. And it’s going to be awful because it’s going to be all about you and it’s going to be horrendous. Just…wait…because sooner or later a plane is going to go missing. You’re done.

Go outside, have lunch. Have lunch. Go see your friends. Everything is going to be fine.

John: Yeah. Let’s talk about the release of The Interview as well. So, they followed your advice largely. They did release the movie online.

Craig: Yes.

John: They released it through YouTube and eventually through iTunes. Did you watch it, Craig?

Craig: No.

John: Craig watches nothing.

Craig: I’ve got screeners. I’m going my way through screeners.

John: All right. So, I watched it on YouTube and the experience was actually fine and it looked pretty good on a crappy hotel connection on a laptop and it looked just fine. You watch the movie and you’re like, really? We did all this for this movie? It wasn’t my favorite of the Seth Rogan directed movies. But it wasn’t, I don’t know.

It was amazing that all of this drama happened over what you, I think, were criticizing Obama for saying it’s a silly comedy.

Craig: Clooney. Clooney said that.

John: Oh, Clooney said it. Clooney was absolutely right. It is a silly comedy that had no sort of greater point.

Craig: I think the word that he used was dumb which I thought was — I was just presuming that he hadn’t seen it, but even if he had –

John: If he had seen it, I think he would have said dumb was correct.

Craig: It was a, you know, why editorialize. But the truth is some comedies are supposed to be dumb.

John: Yes.

Craig: And if the world had kept — if this had happened around the release of Caddyshack I think people would have been like, wait, wait, this happened because –

John: Caddyshack is a great movie. Come on.

Craig: Of course it is. But at the time I’m saying, if you had never seen Caddyshack before and then it was like –

John: I predict that 20 years from now we will not be talking about The Interview in the same reverential tones we talk about Caddyshack.

Craig: I suspect you’re right. But, regardless, I feel bad. No movie deserves that kind of — no movie deserves that kind of –

John: Those guys are wonderful. And so I felt so frustrated for them as I articulated two weeks ago with their movie being held hostage and their work being unseen. So, I was very happy for them that they got the movie out in the world. That people got to enjoy the movie. And I want to talk a little bit about the $15 million, because everyone is like, oh my gosh, we should just release movies online if we make $15 million.

Craig: [laughs]

John: It’s like, yeah, no other movie will ever have two weeks of national publicity and all the stuff only to get $15 million. That’s…no.

Craig: Why are people — ?

John: I think it shows how important theatrical is.

Craig: You know what? Here’s a resolution for 2015 for everyone. Stop being stupid.

John: That’s a good thing.

Craig: You know, just stop being stupid. That’s the dumbest. If you say, “Oh, you see that? They made $15 million. Every movie should…” then you need to stop. You need to sit down. You need to admit that you’ve been stupid. You need to admit that you’ve been saying things without really thinking about them. You need to make a resolution. No more being stupid. That’s dumb.

Of course the $15 million is not indicative of anything other than what happens when your movie is the topic of global speculation for two months, or rather two weeks, and also is not available anywhere else unless you live in Austin or something.

John: It’s that classic thing of sort of enshrining the outlier as being the new paradigm. And so it’s like saying, “Look at Titanic. Titanic was so successful. It’s super long. It’s a period piece. And that’s what we should be making.” It’s like, no, you should never try to make Titanic again. That was completely an outlier. And you should never try to do what The Interviewer did because, lord, that’s not going to happen the same way twice.

Craig: No. No.

John: You wouldn’t want it to happen the same way twice.

Craig: No. In fact, I have to admit the $15 million number to me was a little disappointing.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Because I thought, well, okay, that’s almost the maximum that you could expect from a normal movie that has no preexisting interest beyond the scandal. Like if you went ahead and said, “We’re making Harry Potter 8 and we’re putting it online,” or Harry Potter 9 I guess you would say, “and we’re putting it online,” then –

John: Of course.

Craig: Yeah, we’d see a lot of money. But for a little comedy that has all this stuff going behind it, that’s like, okay, that’s an average $40 million movie with all this interest, no theatrical release, now it’s online. It’s only $6, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: And they made $15 million. Not great, you know. Not great. If anything, I think it showed how limited that venue is for an initial release. That that venue — online — really is a good ancillary market. And, hey, good news for the exhibitors who I have been slapping around a little bit lately. People still want to go see movies in movie theaters. And thank god.

John: Yeah. I like movies in movie theaters.

Craig: Me too.

John: So, let’s segue to Chuck Palahniuk had this great little blog post article on Lit Reactor where he urged writers in 2015 to take a six-month hiatus on using thought verbs. And by thought verbs he was talking about “thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, and a hundred others you love to use. The list should also include loves and hates.” Craig, what did you think of this?

Craig: Yeah. Spot on. He’s expanded his list beyond what you call the linking verbs, those verbs that can take adjectives. Like if you ever hear somebody say, “I feel badly about that,” then you can feel free to correct them and tell them that that means that their fingers are numb. They feel bad.

But his point here in expanding this group is spot on. What he’s really saying is these words essentially are stealing your ability to paint the picture or reveal the information in a narratively interesting way.

John: Yes.

Craig: So, go ahead.

John: Well, Palahniuk is coming from a point of fiction. And so the stuff he’s writing is words you’re reading on a page, so you’re reading short stories, you’re reading a novel, and his argument is that if you say “Tom thought back to his childhood and how much he loved his mother.” That’s a sentence anyway, but by saying that he’s thinking back, by saying that he loves his mother you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to actually visualize those moments, to make those moments physical and real, and to give the characters something to do and something to explore.

Instead, you’re just short-cutting right past them and you’re not actually seeing it. It’s like you’re taking a jet from one coast to the other coast and not taking the cross country trip and really exploring what’s in there.

So, he gives some good examples of ways to show one character’s interest in another character by just really physicalizing the moment. And sort of like there’s a scene at a locker where he does a really good job articulating the moment by moment of like what it is like for those two characters to be in each other’s space. That’s writing.

And I thought it was a really smart approach, especially for talking about literary fiction and prose fiction and the kinds of words you’re choosing.

Craig: Yeah. There’s this thing that bad writers will do, or let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, they’re early writers or new writers. They will have their writing describe people, describe characters or moments in a way that the reader or movie viewer would describe them after words. For instance, oh, he hated her. Well, he wasn’t happy to be there. He didn’t like that. He was scared. That’s all how they would describe what they’ve seen or heard. But that’s not what you give them. That’s like basically cooking a lovely meal and then blending it and mixing it with digestive juices and then feeding it to people like they’re bugs. You know, you have to make them work to get that.

Have them open it up. Have them unpack it. Have them draw the conclusion. You want your character to know that this one hates that one because they figured it out, not because one of them says I hate her.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And even in screenwriting where the audience will never be exposed to our non-dialogue work, at least not directly textually, it’s another way for us to avoid that syndrome of writing things that cannot be shot.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: You know, he says here, “Don’t tell your reader Lisa hated Tom.” Well, similarly, when you’re a screenwriter don’t write the paragraph, “Lisa sees Tom coming across the street. She hates him.” No.

John: No. Because here is what you need to think about with scene description is that when you’re writing a screenplay ultimately you’re writing dialogue that characters can say which is lovely and that’s a thing that characters can do, but you’re trying to give the actors something they can actually play. And hating is not a thing you can actually play.

Actors can only play actions that they can do something. And so you need to give the actor something they can do.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to literally map out every little beat of every little thing that they’re doing, every little twiddle of their fingers, but you need to give them playable moments and you need to give the director playable moments so that she can, you know, figure out what to aim the camera at to explain what it is that’s going on in these character’s heads.

So, what Palahniuk is trying to do here is really what screenwriters sort of innately have to do which is that, you know, as screenwriters we’re only allowed to write about the things you can see and you can hear. Everything has to be externalized anyway. He’s urging prose writers to externalize those same kinds of things that screenwriters innately have to do.

Craig: And interestingly a lot of the verbs that he’s singling out here correctly aren’t really things that we do either as human beings naturally. So, we’ll say words like understand. You don’t actually understand something. What you do is you put things together, you make connections. You have a moment. There’s a thing. Eventually you’ll come to say I understand this. You know, believing in something is the summation of a long process. Wanting something, loving something. This whole idea, I mean, love is the best of these words, because what do you walk up to something, oh yeah it happened, I love it. I love it.

No. No. So, Beth can’t hate Don. Beth can have a reaction to Don. Beth can see Don do something. Beth can do something in return. We should watch these people doing human things and thinking human things of the moment the way that we do of the moment and draw our own conclusion from it. So, when you use these kinds of words or when you think in this way, you are doing the audience’s work for them and therefore they are bored.

John: Yeah. So, the one exception I want to propose for this moratorium on these verbs is there are moments in screenwriting where these words can be incredibly useful and helpful. And so the thing that comes to mind is in the parenthetical. And so in a parenthetical I can imagine a block of dialogue where the character starts speaking and then has this moment of realization where they actually finally understand what it is that the character is saying.

So, in a parenthetical (finally understanding) or (considering) or sometimes you need like that simple word that sort of explains what it is that is actually going on in their mental process to make that line of dialogue make sense.

Craig: Yes.

John: That feels like a good case to make an exception for these verbs, because sometimes you really do need to state the internal process for this character so that the line of dialogue makes sense.

Craig: What you’re talking about, and I completely agree, is the use of these words as a reward at the end of a process.

John: Yes.

Craig: A character, if you’ve done your work, and the character then finally has that moment, that epiphany, than you’ve earned it. And then the audience will have it with them and that’s a wonderful thing. You know, at the Christopher McQuarrie screenplay for The Usual Suspects you get to that point where the detective realizes who Keyser Soze is and they give you that. And so, okay, earned. Here’s your reward. Right?

On the script I’m writing now, on the last page it says, “Because she loves him.” And that’s not in dialogue, that’s just in action. “Because she loves him.” And that has never been stated before in the movie. It’s just something that if you hadn’t figured out by then, [laughs], you know. And, in fact, it’s not there to reveal anything. It’s there to reward us all for kind of having followed through. It’s a summation.

John: Exactly. So, you know, clarity and conciseness are things you can get out of these words, but only when they’re used really judiciously and really to sort of articulate an internal process that is at the end of a longer thing.

If you try to write “because she loves him” on page ten.

Craig: Blah.

John: Nah. Like we don’t have enough information about the character to really appreciate what loves means in that context.

Craig: Correct.

John: All right. Let’s talk about these three pages. These nine pages, because there are three Three Page Challenges.

Craig: It’s really 12 pages because they all have cover pages. Good for them.

John: Good for them with your cover pages. So, if you are new to the podcast and this is the first time you’ve heard of Three Page Challenge, here’s what happens. We invite our listeners to send in the first three pages of their screenplay or their pilot or three pages of writing that are in a screenplay like fashion.

If you would like to read these pages with us while we’re going through this, or if you want to pause the podcast and download these PDFs, we encourage that because then you’ll see exactly what it is we’re talking about because we may get really detailed stuff on the page.

So, the place where you can find this is at the show notes for this episode. Just go to and look for this episode and you’ll see the PDFs for these three samples.

So, the first one, should we start with The Grey Stallion?

Craig: Yeah. Let’s do The Grey Stallion.

John: I can summarize this for us because I picked the easiest one by far.

Craig: Please. Do it.

John: The Grey Stallion, Grey with an E, Stallion, is written by Mike Litzenberg and Bridge Stuart. We start in a coffee shop. The whole scene is in a coffee shop, so it’s very easy.

We meet Clarence who is 20s, white hipster, nerdy, more than a hint of Tobey Maguire. He’s at a table at a patio. Across from him sits a second white guy in his 20s, Lawrence. He’s sort of a TJ Miller in Silicon Valley type.

Lawrence is drinking his tea. He complains that his oolong tea tastes like crap. Lawrence talks more and more about his tea. Clarence says, “What are we doing?” Clarence seems to be having sort of an existential crisis and the dialogue between them is just — it’s one scene of dialogue between them. Clarence talking about the Mighty Ducks and how he always felt like from the Mighty Ducks he felt like his team was destined to win, and then when he didn’t that was disappointing.

Lawrence decides he’s going to start a dance troupe, an experimental dance troupe and invites Clarence to join his experimental dance troupe. And those are our three pages.

Craig: Yeah, well summarized. Now, normally — the normal flow of these things is that we’ll say something nice and then we’ll get into the meat of what’s all screwed up. But I’m going to do that backwards. I have a feeling I’m going to do that backwards three times today, because there’s more that’s right here than wrong. So, Mike and Bridge, good job. I want to start with what I thought were some mistakes, and then I’m going to talk about what I thought was really, really good.

And the mistakes are fairly small. While the fact that you called out Lawrence as TJ Miller from Silicon Valley certainly helped me immediately visualize him, it also made me realize that you were copying his voice from that show. And in doing so this felt less original than it should be. In general, I don’t like the screenplay to tell me who the actor is. I have no problem with you knowing who the actor is, but I don’t like you telling me, particularly when you’re describing even how they look on another show.

It’s certainly a mistake to cite a particular actor and then cite them in the context of a particular show.

John: Yes.

Craig: Because that’s not how it works. They have him, see? And the last thing people want — and the last thing, by the way, any actor wants is to be told, “Oh, just do what you do in that other show, but do it for this.” This is not an episode of Silicon Valley, therefore that’s illegal. So, that’s a big no-no to me. The other thing I thought could be better — it’s a small thing — but what I wanted was a little bit of external context for Clarence’s problem.

They’re sitting there at this coffee shop and Lawrence is doing what he normally does. We get the sense that he’s just a creature. This is the way he is. And Clarence is more of a worry wart who suddenly has this crisis. If it were as simple as they had a laptop in front of them and they’re working on something. And Clarence — they’re supposed to be working on it but they’re not, because Lawrence is blah-blah-blahing about his tea and Clarence is finally giving up.

I needed a little something just so it wasn’t so dead. Just so it wasn’t just a guy sitting there and suddenly out of nowhere, because the screenplay tells him, you know, the tiniest little bit of context.

But let me now — that was it. Here’s what I loved. First of all, look at the pages. Everybody at home, look at the way the pages look. So, this is entirely dialogue, right? The scene is two people sitting at a table talking. Look how the pages look.

John: Yeah. Especially page two. I think that’s the winner.

Craig: Yes. You see, the dialogue is broken up by lines of action. There is white space on the page. At no point do any of the descriptions go past three lines, right, two lines or one line typically, which I love, okay? So, all that stuff, that’s the way the flow should work.

The dialogue was basically funny. I mean, I was a little put off by the fact that they are copying what they do on Silicon Valley with Lawrence, but I thought Clarence was saying interesting things. And I liked the way that they used timing. Comedy, everybody knows comedy is all about timing, and yet how do you –

John: Timing.

Craig: Timing. [laughs] How do you do timing on the page? So, look on page three. Even though they didn’t put in parenthesis a lot of overwriting about how this should go, I know how this should go. Lawrence says, “Not so much a dance troupe. Well, maybe a dance troupe. A neo-feminist-core multimedia industrial rap-collision core performance group. I mean I know that’s…a lot of words. I don’t think it’s going to be ground breaking so much as ground healing.

“Are you in?”

Now. That long pause there was not delineated by beat, it just was “Lawrence looks at Clarence meaningfully.” And having one character look at another one is sort of essential to comedic timing. So, I really like that and I think my favorite thing of all about these three pages is without telling us ever in dialogue or in action or in character description, I know that Lawrence is the alpha dog and Clarence is the beta dog. And that is something I was able to conclude from this scene, meaning this scene was working on more than one level. And I really like that.

John: Yeah. I really like these pages as well. And so I want to talk — let me start off with the TJ Miller thing, because I highlighted that as well in my pages. Let me read his whole description and you’ll see why TJ Miller needs to go away there. “A second white guy in his 20s – hipster, curly hair, big swagger, TJ Miller in Silicon Valley – sits across from him.” So, let’s just take out the TJ Miller in Silicon Valley and just what the description is. “A second white guy in his 20s – hipster, curly hair, big swagger, sits across from him.” Great. I got that without that.

And I may picture TJ Miller, but at least I’m not locked only into TJ Miller. And I think big swagger is a great way to describe him. And I think I got it from there, so you could even get rid of the curly hair. Give us something else. Like, describe his chunky bracelet. Describe something else about him that sort of lets us know who he is, but don’t say TJ Miller. The same with the first guy, “More than a hint of Tobey Maguire.” Yes, but you know what, let’s find some other way to do it, because the challenge is let’s say you want to actually shoot these things. Suddenly actors have to come in and have to be Tobey Maguire.

And it’s like, well, I don’t want to be Tobey Maguire. Or they see themselves like I’m not a Tobey Maguire type. How can I do that?

Craig: Yeah. I’m sorry, sir. That was only a hint of Tobey Maguire. We were looking for more than a hint.

John: Back off the Tobey Maguire.

So, I want to talk about what these pages actually are, because I’m not sure that they’re going to be the best way to start a movie perhaps, but I think they’re a great way to start looking at how two characters react and relate to each other. So often I encourage people to just start writing. Just start writing the characters having a conversation. And this feels like just two characters having a conversation. And I think if you were to write these pages you would suddenly like know the voice of these two characters. So, I believe that these writers can write these guys doing almost anything. And they could be doing stuff that actually involved a plot.

Because I’m not sure reading these three pages that it’s really going to involve this dance troupe thing happening.

Craig: No.

John: I think it’s just like two guys shooting the shit.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And that’s fine for what this is, but that may not really be the start of your movie, but these guys can write these characters talking and that’s amazing and useful. And so if I read these pages I would keep reading because I really enjoy their voices and that’s awesome.

Craig: Yeah. There’s some nice moments in here, too, where I always love the idea of writing harmoniously where things are happening in parallel. While Lawrence is talking in the beginning on page one, Clarence isn’t saying anything. He’s not saying anything. And finally he says, “What are you doing? What are we doing?”

And Lawrence says, “I don’t know. I’m just getting my tea on.”

And then Clarence says, “Are we moving forward here…”

And Lawrence says, “Oh god. Here we go.”

That’s a great way to imply more than just I’m not happy with what you’re saying. It also implies this is not the first time we are stuck. You like characters that are stuck in the beginning. We’ve talked about this before. The character that’s in the rut. And it helps — things like that are great ways to get across information, especially when you’re in the beginning.

A lot of people would say, “Look, we’ve known each other for 20 years. And for 20 years you’ve been…”

And I’m like, “Oh, god, no. Please no.”

John: Unnecessary. We know that these characters — this, again, tells us that these characters have had this conversation before. They have a history. It’s not their first time sitting down in this coffee shop.

Craig: You know what else it tells us? It tells us that Clarence has lost before. [laughs] He’s lost the argument before, which I love. Because he’s about to lose it again. And that’s really good. That’s the kind of conflict that’s always fun in the heart of a comedy.

John: So, let’s talk about the specificity of the environment, because I felt it was a little generic around it. So, we start, “EXT. COFFEE SHOP — DAY.” Two people are sitting at a table. And then we don’t really get anything more about the coffee shop. So, I didn’t know where this was taking place. I didn’t know sort of what the vibe of this place was.

Is it crucial? Maybe not, but I think it could be very useful. The other thing I would like to propose, and again, not a must but a possibility is right now the scene starts, we talk about Clarence who doesn’t do anything for quite a long time. And you have the opportunity, you could just start on Lawrence who is actually going to have the first lines. He could talk through some of his first stuff. And then we reveal Clarence, the person he is talking to, who is not paying any attention to him. And is either staring at his coffee or staring around. And that might be an opportunity to paint who else is in this place.

And so then we’re on Clarence, our newer character, and we’re on him right before he says his first line and that could be very useful.

Craig: I agree. I mean, that’s sort of what I was going for with the idea that there would be some sort of circumstantial context. Because if you want to open on Clarence, if Clarence is trying to write. They’re doing that thing where they’re sharing a laptop between them and he’s the only one writing. And while he’s writing this other idiot is just blahing about his stupid tea and his, you know, fey description of it, and all the rest of it.

And finally Clarence just gives up and slams the laptop down. “What are you doing?” You know? You need that. If you’re going to open with Clarence you need to have Clarence doing something other than just sitting there dumbly.

John: Yup. On page two, another small issue I had here, Clarence asks, “So, we could just sit here doing this? Oh god, here we go again. But seriously.” The but felt unnecessary to me. The but was not in response to something. “So seriously.” Get rid of the but.

On page three, a lot of words, “I don’t think it’s going to be ground breaking as much as ground healing,” the missing hyphens there I think hurt the joke. And so putting ground-breaking and ground-healing, it’s a good joke. I think the hyphen would have helped us understand the joke a little bit better. I had to read it twice to actually understand that it was a double structure kind of joke there.

Finally, “Lawrence looks at Clarence meaningfully. Are you in?”

Clarence says, “That’s cool. But I’m not really a dancer.” His “that’s cool” didn’t feel like a possible answer for “Are you in?”

Craig: Hmm.

John: So, just small observations.

Craig: Yes.

John: Just making sure that it really feels like the characters are talking to each other and that they’re saying things they would actually say in the moment and not necessarily their own next line.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. But overall…

John: Overall great. I really enjoyed it. And I’d be excited to see these two characters do something in a movie.

Craig: So would I.

John: Hooray. Next up.

Craig: What do you want to do next?

John: The Devil’s Eye.

Craig: Devil’s Eye.

Devil’s Eye. Okay, Devil’s Eye, written by Meredith DePaolo. Inspired by a true story, which as we all know means nothing.

John: Nothing.

Craig: Nothing. Everything was inspired by a true story, but I get it. It comes up in horror all the time. Obviously this is going to be a horror movie. They love saying inspired by a true story, as if that will make it scarier. Eh, no. [laughs]

John: Amityville Horror.

Craig: No. No. It’s not scarier because it might — it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen. It never happens.

John: A friend of mine believes every horror sort of happened, so whenever something is based on a real thing he’s like, oh, it’s based on a real…

Yeah, okay.

Craig: Your friend needs to go back to my 2015 resolution. Sit down, don’t be stupid, get back up.

John: You know, here’s the challenge is — I’m not saying that my friend is stupid — but people who are stupid, they don’t know they’re stupid. That’s the inherent irony.

Craig: That’s that whole syndrome or whatever they call it. There’s a name for that thing where people who can’t sing don’t know they can’t sing, so they think they can sing.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I can’t remember the name of it. We’ll find it and stick it in the show notes. But, yes, that. Okay, all right, so, sorry Meredith. Devil’s Eye, written by Meredith DePaolo, inspired by a true story.

So, we begin looking out at Kentucky’s Green River Valley, Dawn. And the title tells us we’re in Little Hope, Kentucky, in February 1812. We’re looking out over endless acres of winter forest and then we see a little small mining town there in the distance. We hear the sound of a raptor. We go to a forest clearing, a couple of red hawks are fighting over some raw meat and it is revealed that in fact this is from a dead man in his 30s, splattered in mud. His throat has been cut and the hawks are pecking out his eyes

We go to black. And then cut to more black where we hear the sounds of a child named Albert saying, “Let me out,” and a couple of bullies, Nathan and Tom, who won’t let him out. And, finally, Virginia, who appears to be a school teacher, frees Albert from the closet. We see now that we’re in a schoolhouse and Virginia kicks these two out. Virginia is — well, it’s a nice description of Virginia. She’s in her 20s, I guess, for the sake of this summary. And she comforts Albert by saying, hey, you know what? He’s scared that there’s something in the closet and she says, “There’s nothing in there. When I was a little kid my sisters used to torment me. They told me that when I was a baby I was discovered, abandoned in a cemetery. They told me that one day my real family would come and take me to live with them underground with the worms.”

And she said she had something that her father told her would keep evil away. It’s a protective amulet. And she gives Albert a little red marble with a yellow core. It’s called a Devil’s Eye. She gives it to him and says the devil can’t hurt you if he can’t see you.

And, that, is the opening to Devil’s Eye.

John: Yes. So, I enjoyed these pages. And, again, they look really good. The flow on the page is really nice. And it starts with some very strong imagery which plays really well. Good use of sound overall. So the “Keer, keer, keer of a raptor,” feels very good. And keer was just the right word to pick for that sound because it’s unusual. And so when we see that word on the page we have to think like, well, what does that sound like? Oh, yeah, I get what that is. That’s a very specific kind of bird cry.

A nice cut to as we’re moving from this first opening image to the second opening image. Pitch. Black. Darkness. Cut to: Pitch. Black Darkness. So, it’s a match cut to darkness, which seems unimportant, like why bother repeating the same things, but lets us know that we really are in just complete darkness as we’re experiencing this next moment.

Craig: Yeah.

John: We’re inside the closet with these kids. I wanted a parenthetical extension of off-screen or unseen for these guys, because by the time — there’s a lot of dialogue happening in the dark there, and it got to be a little — I got to start to wonder about whether I was supposed to be seeing anything or not see anything at the bottom of page one.

Craig: Yup.

John: And then we get into the school house. And so I, like you, enjoyed the description of Virginia Dennison. She needed to be upper cased when she was first introduced. “Her porcelain skin contrasts with a dark mane pulled into a loose bun. She is fiercely independent and just about the only pristine thing in this hardscrabble town.”

So, like the word pristine. That’s the thing I liked most about this. The rest of the stuff — I feel like there’s a better version of some of those sentences. Because I haven’t seen the town yet, so I don’t really know what the hardscrabble means. Hardscrabble doesn’t quite mean dirty. If you can contrast her pristineness to the schoolhouse or something else that’s immediately in our environment, that could be great as well.

And then she has her dialogue. And they’re talking about sort of the Devil’s Eye and her history. I looked overall the idea that we are a horror movie set in an 1812 environment. That felt really good. Page three got kind of proppy to me. I don’t know if you noticed this. So, she has a letter opener and then on page three a charm falls from the letter opener. Albert picks it up.

Craig: Yes.

John: A small silver butterfly. And then she’s going to give him this red marble with a yellow core called the Devil’s Eye. It’s like, man, that’s a lot of props.

Craig: Yeah. She’s holding a lot of stuff.

John: She’s holding a lot of stuff. So, that got to be a little confusing, but I think I was overall interested in sort of what kind of horror movie was going to happen in this 1812 town.

Craig: Yeah. I’m pretty much right there with you on all this stuff. I mean, again, I’d love for people to take a look at the way these pages lay out. They look correct. There’s only a couple spots where there is — I mean, for instance on page two the paragraph, the action paragraph “School teacher Virginia Dennison,” that’s the one that goes to four lines and it shouldn’t and I’ll talk about why. But nice reportorial style on page one. The way that the body is revealed is terrific.

Using a hawk to peck out a dead man’s eyes to transition us between scenes, a great example of transition. We talk about how important those transitions are a lot.

I like how confused we are for a moment, but I do think at some point you’re going to want to consider getting a slug line in there sooner, because the question is how long do you want to be in darkness really? Let me out. So, again, we don’t have this off-screen or V/O commentary, but let’s assume that we can’t see Albert, Nathan, or Tom, or Virginia. These are the lines we have in total darkness:

“Let me out.”

“Can you see him then?”

“Is it the creeper? She said he had business with you.”

“Why are you boys still here?”


“Step away. Now.”

And then, boom, way too long. Way too long. We’ll just get bored. Honestly, we’ll just get bored in the darkness. We get it. It seems to me that there may be a better way to do that and we’re going to want a slug line sooner, frankly. At some point someone is going to need to put a scene number on this thing anyway.

I thought that — you want to think, Meredith, about Nathan and Tom here, your bullies. First of all, they sound way too bullyish. “Look at him. Did you pee yourself?” Eh, I don’t think did you pee yourself — did you pee yourself sounds weirdly modern for 1812.

John: It feels 1970s in a way.

Craig: Yeah.

John: There’s got to be something.

Craig: Something was off there. But, more importantly, I think what you’re telling me is that Nathan and Tom and Albert all believe that there is something in there and it’s the creeper. And they don’t — they don’t seem like they’re serious enough in a weird way. They seem like both, they’ve put you in there with something supernatural and also they’re mostly just jerks who want to see if you’ll pee yourself. I was a little confused about them.

Virginia’s description, porcelain skin, dark mane, that’s all good. “She is fiercely independent and just about the only pristine thing in this hardscrabble town.” No she’s not. She’s just a woman standing in a room right now. And I do not know any of that, nor can you rely on me knowing that because of this.

I would cut all of that. Show me. As we’ve just described with the Chuck Palahniuk article. Show me how fiercely independent she is. Have a moment where we see that she is fiercely independent. When she walks outside, then that’s when you can say, as you described the town, that she is just set apart from it. This is not the place to do this.

Let’s talk about the props. In her hands she holds the day’s post. I believe that means mail. You could say mail. Either way, why? [laughs] Is the mail important now? Because she’s going to be doing other stuff with her hands. But I did like how she starts off like this very comforting typical schoolmarm. Oh you. There’s nothing in there, see? It’s just a closet.

And then she just starts on this creepy story. And I hope that the intention is that there is something creepy about Virginia, because this like very calm — it’s like if your mom said, “Look, look, see there’s nothing in the closet. Now when I was a kid, there was something in my closet.” [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: That’s kind of the way it came out for me. I mean, she gives him this story that was unpleasant. And made me wonder if perhaps she does think that there are things in the closet. And if she does, then I’d love a little hint of that prior to this moment. This is not the place to do the silver butterfly. We cannot have a scene where Albert is gathering multiple talisman. But in general, there was a vibe. There was a tension to it. I liked the way that the characters were working with each other.

Albert is undescribed, I should say. I assume he’s the hero of our movie. And all I know about him is that he’s 10.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, I’d love a little bit more there. Even if you delay it, but that’s all I know. So, pretty darn good. Pretty darn good. And, obviously, you could really feel how this was inspired by a true story. [laughs] Oh, baloney, Meredith. But, still, good job.

John: A couple things to look at on the page. Title over: Little Hope, Kentucky, February 1812. Break that into two lines. Because it’s useful I find if you’re going to do a title over, show it sort of the way the title would actually look. You would probably put the February 1812 on a separate line. You wouldn’t run that through as one thing. So, give us your two lines there. That’s nice. Center it.

We talk about the camera twice in the opening and we don’t necessarily need them both times. So, right now the sentence reads, “The camera soars high over endless acres of winter forest.” And [unintelligible] could do very well for us. Soaring high over endless acres of winter forest. Get rid of the camera there.

Similarly, we have, “The camera moves beyond the hawks to a pair of dirty black boots.” Moving beyond the hawks, again, there’s a way of getting rid of that sense that some external device, a camera, is there. Just let us be the audience. We are moving through stuff. You don’t need the “we.”

Craig: I mean, I’ll do the we in those moments. I’ll either do the subjectless version the way you are. Sometimes I’ll do we. I never write “the camera,” ever.

John: Yeah. You don’t need to.

Craig: No.

John: “School teacher Virginia Dennison accosts them.” Accosts? Yeah, maybe not the right verb for this. And I want to talk about sort of the nature of boys locking boys into closets, because I think there was an opportunity here to sort of rethink sort of how the closet stuff started.

Usually in sort of the Bloody Mary scenario where one kid is in the closet, in my experience, and this is just sort of me from scouts maybe, but it’s like it’s a dare. And it’s like, oh, you have to be in there and count to six, but you can’t last 60 seconds in there.

Craig: Right.

John: And so someone goes in and then they freak out. So, if we started with Albert like counting up and then he freaks out and wants to go out and they won’t let him out, that feels like there is tension there that I kind of get.

Here I just, like, well who are those bully boys? It didn’t feel as rewarding. And so if it had been a dare going in there, then I think his coming out and then the conversation he has with Dennison, there would just be — there would be a better narrative going into. And so you can get to all the same stuff with the little Devil’s Eye marble and all that stuff, but I’d understand what had happened beforehand much more easily.

Craig: Yeah. The other thing to consider, Meredith, is that total darkness, oh well actually side note, I am really tired of this Blank. Blank. Blank. Thing. You just period. Don’t. Get it.

I see this constantly. It’s very, I don’t’ know, I just find it very affected. Pitch black darkness is perfectly fine as opposed to Pitch. Black. Darkness.

But Pitch. Black. Darkness. is not actually scary, because there’s no chance you’re going to see anything. We’re not scared of nothing. We’re scared of something. I wonder if there is a possibility that we could see maybe a little.

John: Yeah! A little is better.

Craig: And if he’s in there and he’s scared of these bullies or scared of something and then there’s like a little noise or a rustling and he turns in the closet and he sees something that we see that scares the hell out of us. And then the door opens. It’s just a glimpse.

And then when the teacher kind of takes him back in there he realizes, oh, it was just a blank and a blank. Because then at the end of these pages we’ll look back at the closet, the door slightly ajar, and we’ll probably get a hint, oh, but maybe actually there was something in there. I mean, that feels –

John: That’s what you want. The lights filling below the door, or split or coming in through the keyhole.

Craig: Yes.

John: That’s probably going to be better for you than the absolute darkness.

Craig: Pitch. Black. Darkness.

John: Darkness.

Let’s look at page three. There’s a parenthetical here in Virginia’s second block of dialogue. “You know, Albert, when I was your age my sisters tormented me terribly. (Whisper) We’re not meant to dislike our family.” So the parenthetical should be its own line. And they’re not usually capitalized, so just look at sort of standard formatting for that.

Her third block of dialogue. “They told me that when I was a baby my father discovered me abandoned in a cemetery.” Wait, did they tell you this when you were a baby?

Craig: Ha!

John: So, the when is ambiguous there. So, there is a better sentence you can find there. They told me my father discovered me as a baby in the cemetery. Or there is a version that makes it clear when this actually happened.

Craig: Yeah. There is nothing wrong with not writing this like an essay. They told me my father found me in the cemetery. I was a baby. I mean, people don’t talk in these full flowing completely sentences. You don’t have to — you definitely don’t want to get too clausal — clausal is not a word — but you know what I mean.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Clausy.

John: I think clausal is a word.

Craig: Clausal?

John: Clausal?

Craig: Clausal.

John: It’s a clausal disappointment.

Craig: [laughs] That was terrible.

John: [laughs] That was terrible. Let’s go to our final Three Page Challenge. Do you want to do this one?

Craig: Sure. This is Going Om as in Om, written by Mimi Jeffries. So, we are in Cincinnati, Ohio. We’re inside a suburban home, the Stanton household, in the bedroom. It is 5:59am.

A grandfather clock’s minute hand clicks to 6:00am and chimes. We see Allen Stanton, he’s 75, wakes up, rolls to his side, and there is his wife, Eleanor, who is dead.

He turns back and stares blankly at the ceiling. The clock stops chiming. We are now in the bedroom where a body bag is zipped over Eleanor’s head. Then we go outside. Allen sits on the steps with his dog while the EMTs unceremoniously put Eleanor in the ambulance and drive away not in any kind of rush. And he just sits watching it.

Now we have a title sequence where Allen drives his rusty Chevy through a neighborhood of old, well-loved two-story homes, listening to Johnny Cash, passing crop fields covered with winter frost. A closed strip mall. And, finally, ending up at a drab one-story building. This is the Real Copiers’ headquarters. And Allen walks in, goes through — it’s obviously holiday time. The cubicles are all decorated. The only other person in the building is a female janitor he just walks by. Goes to his office, where Mallory suddenly appears. She’s his pudgy, eager-to-please secretary.

She’s all sorts of bubbly. He’s not. He’s just about business. And then he asks her for help. He is making copies of coffin — he’s printing out basically what looks like a coffin catalog. And he tells Mallory, “Get two coffins.” And those are the three pages of Going Om, by Mimi Jeffries.

John: And I adored these pages.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I love characters who are under-reacting to horrific events. And I really could see this and feel this. And I wasn’t sure what was going on all the time, but I felt confident that Mimi did know what was going on and that my attention was going to be rewarded for going on this journey with her.

So, there were some moments at the very start that I worried like, oh, this is going to be overwritten. Our very first scene header is two lines long and doesn’t necessarily need to be two lines long. Whereas CINCINNATI, OHIO – SUBURBS – STANTON HOUSEHOLD – MASTER BEDROOM – JANUARY 3, 2013 – 5:59 A.M., a shorter — you could get rid of that subhead, that scene header all together. And I think I would be just as happy.

But I love that it’s just like deadpan and flat and just sort of moves through it. And then we get to our title sequence. A perfectly good way to sort of set up the nature of the town and what things are like. Is it ambiguous whether it’s the same day or the next day? Yes, but that’s kind of okay, too.

Ultimately, we’re going to realize it is the same day. He’s in the Copier Headquarters. I like the idea of Mallory. She has a line on page three that I didn’t think was quite earned.

“How many copies do you want?”

“One is fine.”

“Stapled or paper-clipped.”

“Which ever.”

She says, “This is going to be the best year yet, don’t you think?” And I was like, ooh, that felt a little much of a stretch. If she could be a little bit more specific about this is going to be our biggest sales year ever, or I think we really have a shot this year. I think we could beat last year’s numbers this year. If it’s something that wasn’t just so generically in opposition to what we know we just saw I would feel better about that line.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: And then it ends on coffins. And like, you know, the contemplation of like, oh, if you get two coffins then it’s a discount. That’s just a great, I don’t know, deadpan moment again. I just was really excited to see where this was going to go.

Craig: I agree. Loved them. Mimi, great job. Once again everyone playing at home, look at the way the pages lay out. There is not one paragraph — I feel like we’re getting to people. Honestly. I’m going to give myself credit for this. I feel like we’re getting to them.

There’s not one action paragraph that’s longer than two lines, personally love when people put the extra space in front of the slug lines the way she did. I’m a slug line bolder, so I was particularly happy with this, too.

John: Yeah, so this script uses double returns plus bold headlines.

Craig: Which is the Mazin method. So, this is all about informing me two things at once. And this is what — I keep talking about this notion that we cannot live in scenes that give us one glimpse of what we want people to feel. We need to give them multiple glimpses. We need to know what’s happening and we need to know how that matters to the people in it. And by that we learn about the people in it.

I’m learning about Allen Stanton, the character, through this reaction and experience of his wife’s sudden death. And I can tell you a lot of things, just from this first scene, which has no dialogue and has one action essentially. Allen rolls over, sees his dead wife, rolls back and stares at the ceiling. I know that this is not something that he was not expecting. I know that he is depressed. I know that he is beyond depressed. And I also know that his life is about to change completely.

This is all great, from this little tiny moment. I love that. I also thought there was something quite beautiful about these two lines. “TWO EMTs unceremoniously carry Eleanor to an ambulance on the street. They effortlessly lift her into the back.” Let me just stop there. This is why I can just say Mimi is a good writer. And we can talk all the time about structure and techniques and what to do and what not to do. And we saw and how many lines in action. You cannot teach this.

You cannot teach a feeling for what matters to people. And you cannot teach insight. So, here’s a man watching his dead wife being taken away. And Mimi so smartly says they effortlessly lift her into the back. She’s nothing. She’s literally nothing to them.

And then, “The doors slam shut. Allen watches as the ambulance drives off, its sirens silent, not in any rush.” Ah! Ah! It’s just so good. So good. Right? And I love that he’s watching, you know. It’s a choice to have characters watch things. That’s the kind of writing that’s a gift to a director.

John: Well, it’s a gift to a director, and I felt like the director was Alexander Payne. Like, literally by the end of the first page I was like, oh, Alexander Payne would direct this movie, because it felt like that world of like it’s a comedy but it’s not like uproariously funny. It is a characters in situations in really grounded, real environments who are sort of doing the best they can.

And I got that off the first page even before we actually hear him say anything, which is great.

Craig: It’s terrific. I see that there is a call out for a title sequence. I’m a big fan of calling out title sequences if you want one. Mimi, you don’t give us enough to justify a credit sequence here. You give us basically a montage of Allen driving around this rust belt winter town. That’s not going to really carry you through a title sequence, unless it just goes on and on and on, or unless you imply that it goes on and on and on.

Anyway, something to think about. Given what you have here, I’m not sure you need it.

I had a little bit of confusion — a couple points of confusion here. So, Allen goes to the Real Copiers Headquarters. And it’s decorated but no one else is there except for female janitor. Now, I think the idea is that later the place will be properly open and everybody will be there.

John: That it’s just early.

Craig: Yeah. But I didn’t get that. I got confused. At first I thought it was he’s come in on a Sunday or something. But then suddenly his assistant is there, even though we just heard there was only one other soul in the building.

So, help me out with that. If time has gone by, show me that time has gone by.

John: Yeah. My hunch is what she means is so Allen goes in and like no one is there yet, and then when the assistant comes in, Allen has been at his desk for awhile and she’s just now arrived.

So, if you had her like putting down her purse and like poking her head in the door, that might tell us that, oh, the assistant has just come here and we see other people like going to their desks or something like that. The day has started.

Craig: Yeah. I’m not sure that that would be enough for me. You know, when somebody is sitting in a place, and then the next moment with that person sitting in a place is an hour or two later, I need something. I need either to see some sign — visual sign of progress, or something, or cut outside to see cars now pulling in.

I need a little something.

John: Or the coffee maker starts, or someone is putting the coffee maker in. Like getting the day started.

Craig: Yeah. I need to know that time has jumped. I got a little confused there with that. I like that he’s all business. I wish I knew — this is another just small thing, Mimi, but I find like 90 percent of my conversations about my own writing come down to these “how can we not make the reader confused about things that aren’t important so that they can really appreciate the things that are.”

He works at a company called Real Copiers. But this is not like a Kinko’s Office because it’s an office building. It’s like the supervising office of a chain of stores called Real Copiers, I think, because it has cubicles and stuff. But now he’s going to do copying.

John: Yeah. I got confused about that, too. So, it’s just like, wait, so it’s like a guy who works for Xerox who makes Xeroxes. And it’s like, but wait, is it important? And I think it’s probably not important that he’s making copies.

Craig: It’s not. Or he’s printing out from a crusty printer. But it seems like if you’re a copying headquarters. I don’t know. I got really confused by that. And so that’s just something to think about if there’s maybe a way to help me with that.

I totally agree that Mallory felt constructed for irony. And it’s perfectly fine to have people say things that are ironic if it feels natural. We don’t want to feel like you rigged the game.

John: 100 percent. And I felt like it was a little too rigged for her to say that.

Craig: Yeah. But at the end, you get the sense also from this glum thing of if you get two it’s 25% off, actually when he says — or “Allen pours over the coffin printouts. Mallory stands nervously.”

Allen, to himself, “If you get two, it’s 25% off.”

I almost think that should be reading. You know, like he’s actually learning about this. Get two. I would actually say if you get two it’s 25% off. If he takes out his credit card he should repeat those words: get two.

But also it’s great, because it’s giving me — it’s telling me how fatalistic he is. It’s telling me he’s depressed. It’s also telling me that he believes he’s about to die, too.

John: Yeah. He’s cheap. It gives us a great world outlook on Allen at this moment.

Craig: Exactly. All really good stuff. I mean, who knows where this goes, but the good news, Mimi, is that not only were you able to structure three pages well and accomplish a lot in three pages, and honor the precious real estate of these first three pages, but you actually have interesting insights.

You’re a smart person who is seeing things. You know how to build moments. Very encouraging. So, bad news is we are now expecting you to do well.

John: Agreed. The only last thing I want to point out is midway through page three, “Several pages lurch from a crusty printer. Its pages filled with different makes and models of coffins.” The “its” doesn’t apply to anything. So, their pages, if it’s meant to be the pages, then it has to be their pages. But I think you can actually just get rid of that and just stick a comma there. So, several pages lurch from a crusty printer, each page filled with different makes and models of coffins.

Craig: Right.

John: Those two sentences together tripped me up because it was actually an impossible subject.

Craig: Yes. And also take a look at page one you’ve got a couple of errant capitalizations. In the first, “Allen turns back and stares blankly at the ceiling. The Clock stops chiming.” That’s miscapitalized. And down below, “Allen passes crop fields covered with Winter frost.” That should also be lower case.

John: Yup. But really, really good.

Craig: Really good.

John: It is time for our One Cool Things. So, I actually have a trio of One Cool Things, but they were all gifts from Stuart Friedel. Who, Stuart Friedel who is also the producer of our podcast, but also weirdly his secret talent is he’s the best gift giver in the planet.

Craig: Really?

John: Like literally he’d been working for me for two weeks and it was my daughter’s birthday and he found like the absolute perfect gift for himself to give my daughter. So, he’s just really good at this.

Here are the three gifts that he got me. And all three things will be links in the show notes. First he got me a cake mold that creates 20-sided dice, like D&D dice.

Craig: I love that. Love those.

John: So, they’re like little cupcakes, but, you know, they’re 20-sided dice. And it seems impossible, but it works really, really well. It’s one of those rubbery molds and you pour in from the top and it was great. He got me a Too Many Cooks shirt featuring Smarf, but it’s in French.

Craig: Smarf en Francais?

John: En Francais? And he got me a Death Star ice mold, so for making ice cubes that are in the shape of a Death Star.

Craig: Wow. That’s spectacular.

John: It’s well done Stuart Friedel. So, those are my three One Cool Things are the gifts I got from Stuart Friedel.

Craig: That’s just spectacular. Stuart, oh Stuart. He’s the best.

John: He also got my husband a bunch of Japanese Kit Kat bars, because that was just like a random conversation they had about how much the Japanese love Kit Kat bars.

Craig: Okay. So, when Mike eats those Kit Kat bars, what he has to do is take a bite and then put his hand in front of his mouth and giggle.

John: [laughs] Perfect.

Craig: Hehe.

John: He does that anyway.

Craig: [laughs] I love it. I got one D&D themed gift this year from Missy. She gave this — it’s actually kind of cool. They say it’s a true unweighted die. And it’s this big plastic D20. And you roll it. And if you do get a D20, it lights up and flashes.

John: That’s awesome.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Critical Hit.

Craig: Critical Hit Die. I have a feeling that it’s not truly weighted, so it will not be considered — Kevin will not let us use it.

My One Cool Thing, my first One Cool Thing for 2015, is Vitamin D3.

John: I don’t know what this is.

Craig: Well, it’s a Vitamin. Do I need to go back to that? Do you know what Vitamins are?

John: You know, honestly, if it really comes down it, I’m not sure I could totally tell you what a Vitamin is. But I want to learn what Vitamin D3 is. Because I know that you take Vitamins because they’re a central component to good health and they are things that your body sometimes produces and sometimes takes in from other foods.

Craig: Vitamins are chemicals that essentially help our bodies metabolize certain things, including certain chemicals, molecules, that we need to live or stay healthy.

And if you’re listening to this, you know from many, many rants in the past that I am a very skeptical person. Generally speaking, the idea of Vitamin supplements is baloney. Vitamin C, we are awash in Vitamin C. It is a total waste. It does not prevent colds. People take Vitamin B12 shots are wasting their time. The doctors are stealing your money. It does nothing. You do not have a Vitamin B deficiency.

Vitamin A, we get plenty of Vitamin A. It’s all in food, basically. It’s in food. We don’t need it. Our bodies make some of it.

However, there is a real legitimate issue in this country with Vitamin D deficiency. And when I say deficiency, I mean something that they can literally test and quantify. You’re supposed to have a certain amount of Vitamin D in your blood. And most people, including myself, repeatedly when they get tested have a legitimate, quantifiable Vitamin D deficiency. Why?

Because generally speaking we stay out of the sun now. Vitamin D primarily is manufactured in the skin when it is exposed to ultraviolet radiation by the sun. But, of course, we either use sunscreen or we stay out of the sun because we don’t want skin cancer. And milk is fortified with Vitamin D. It’s not necessarily the most absorbable version of Vitamin D. And a lot of people just don’t drink milk. I don’t sit around drinking milk.

So, what do you do if you’re a pasty, white, Jewish guy like me that doesn’t drink milk and doesn’t go outside? You take supplements. Vitamin D3 is the supplement you want. And why? What does Vitamin D actually do? Well, there’s a lot of stuff they say it does that it doesn’t really do. But the biggest — the biggest thing that it does, it seems to help the immune system. It does seem to be correlated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment as you go on and on.

And it does seem to have some effect on your bone health. That’s the one that people are most aware of. You know, there’s not a direct link between Vitamin D supplements and preventing osteoporosis or something like that, but they do feel that there is some degree of help in say reducing things like fracturing of bones as you get older.

It doesn’t take much Vitamin D3 to get you to where you should be via blood test. But if your doctor doesn’t test for Vitamin D deficiency, ask them to. You may be surprised to find out that you are deficient. And if you get really deficient, then you get rickets. [laughs]

John: Oh, no rickets for me please.

Craig: No, you don’t want rickets.

John: Well, like Homer when Burns put up his sun-blocking machine and he had enough of these damn rickets.

Craig: [laughs] Exactly. Rickets! When I was a kid, I had this book, it was basically a big medical book for kids and they had one little section on vitamin deficiency diseases. And there was one picture of a kid who had pellagra which is a vitamin-something deficiency. I don’t know which one. Vitamin B something. And it was his face. And it had disfigured him.

And that scared me more than anything. The kid with pellagra. Oh my god.

John: So you ate your Flintstones chewable vitamins after that point.

Craig: Well, the truth was there was no chance — I mean, it was a picture of a kid from 1930 Appalachia and, you know, I was in Staten Island. I wasn’t going to get pellagra. I was going to get something else from breathing in the dump air.

But, you definitely do want to take Vitamin D3 supplements if you are Vitamin D deficient, not if you are not.

John: I think that is wise advice.

Craig: Yes.

John: Yes. So, that’s our show for today. I want to thank our writers for sending in their samples. If you have three pages of your own that you would like us to take a look at, the place to visit is And there are instructions there for how you can send in those pages to us so we can take a look at them on the air.

If you have a question for me or for Craig Mazin, something that is short that we may answer on Twitter, ask us on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. For longer questions you can write into

You can find us on iTunes. And if you’re on iTunes, leave us a rating, because that helps other people find us and listen to our podcast. While you in iTunes, you can also download the Scriptnotes App. That’s also in the Android App Store. And through those apps you can listen to all the back episodes. There is a premium feed for $2 a month.

Craig: Two.

John: Two minor dollars a month. Gives you access to all the back catalog and special bonus episodes. We have an upcoming dirty show that we need to get recorded.

Craig: Oh, yeah, we got to do that.

John: Yeah, we got to do that. And get that out to all of our premium subscribers. So, that is something you can do as well.

You can find out more information about the premium feed and all those back episodes at is where you actually can sign up for that.

Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week. Matthew does a lot of our outros, but we also have some other great composers who have written outros for us, so if you would like to send us one of those outros, you can put it up on SoundCloud is great and tag it Scriptnotes, but also send us an email to and let us know it’s there so we’ll listen to it and put it on the end of a show.

And, that is it for this week. Craig, Happy 2015.

Craig: Happy 2015. A nice pointy year. And I’ll see you next week. Bye.

John: All right. Bye.

End of Recording.


Doing, not thinking

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 08:03

John and Craig start the new year by discussing Chuck Palahniuk’s advice to avoid thinking verbs. Then it’s a new round of the Three Page Challenge.

We also do follow-up on the Sony hack.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Don’t use “thought” verbs

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 10:00

I love Chuck Palahniuk’s advice to writers:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

Palahniuk argues that every time you use one of these verbs, you’re robbing yourself of the chance to describe something fully — to show rather than tell.

For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take..”

A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

In screenwriting, we’re already forced to do a lot of this self-restriction, since we can’t directly state characters’ inner lives. And Palahniuk’s absolutism isn’t always suited for screenplays; there will be times when a parenthetical (realizing) is exactly what you need.

Still: it’s great advice.

Cutting Pages and Fixing Holes

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 08:03

It’s a clip show! John and Craig discuss cutting pages from your script, fixing plot holes, and what we’d do if we ran a studio. We’ll be back with all new episodes in 2015, the year of post-outrage rationality.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 176: Advice to a First-Time Director — Transcript

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 17:57

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 176 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the show we will be talking about advice to a first-time director. We’ll be talking about the perfect director, part of our Perfect Series. And, finally, we will be looking at the Logic Police and why the Logic Police are our friends or our foes as it comes time to get our stories in their best shape.

But, we could not go into this week without talking about the big story which is Sony pulling The Interview and all of that madness.

Craig: Yes.

John: So I should say that we are recording this on Friday. And by the time this episode comes out on Tuesday who knows what will have happened. As fast as the story has moved, it’s very likely that some of what we’ll be talking about is out of date. So, I think we can only talk in sort of our general fears and frustrations and wonderings as we’re recording this on Friday.

Craig: Right. So, let’s sum up what we know. What we know is that Sony was hacked. We now know from at least according to the United States government that the hack was perpetrated by individuals backed by the State of North Korea. We know that it was done in retribution for Sony’s production and imminent release of the movie, The Interview, in which the North Korean dictator is assassinated. And we know that the movie is not coming out.

John: Yes. I want to stipulate that we don’t know some of these things. We know that the US government is claiming that North Korea is behind it, but we also know that in previous instances where the government has said this is what is actually happening was real, later on we find that not to be true. So, we know that as of today the US government is saying it was North Korea. So, we do know that to be true.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I would also say that an event that happened this last week that changed it from a story about embarrassing leaked emails to the movie being pulled was that there were direct threats about like if the movie comes out there will be violence in theaters.

Craig: Correct.

John: It shifted from a like, oh, here’s embarrassing information to there is now danger. And it was the theaters who said we’re not going to show your movie.

Craig: Correct. That is all true. And what has been manufactured by the Internet outrage machine is some form of the following out of conventional wisdom. Sony is a bunch of cowards, they just capitulated to terrorism. This is the death of creative expression.

John: Yes.

Craig: Now, permit me if you will, John, to fashion my own umbrage which is not outrage but rather umbrage about the situation and what I think should happen and what I think did happen. First of all, I do think it’s North Korea. I’m just going off of a gut feeling here, plus the federal government telling me it was North Korea. You know, I tend to believe them on stuff like that. Color me naïve.

I do think this was state-sponsored terrorism. I think that Sony was in a nearly impossible situation and currently they’re being blamed for something that really we should be putting at the doorstep of the exhibitors. So, the hackers threatened violence in theaters that show The Interview. There are only four or five major theater chains in the United States. If they drop out, you essentially have no real movie release, or certainly not one you can support with a marketing campaign and expect to ever make money back and so forth.

Those big exhibitors said we’re not showing this movie. Well, let me step back. Sony said, hey look, if you don’t want to show it, we won’t hold you to your commitment to show it. And they all said, gee thanks, we’re gone.

So, the primary act of cowardice if you want to call it that came from them. But, of course, from their point of view also understandable because, hey, we live in a society where if you get a warning that there is going to be violence in your theater and you run the movie and there’s violence in your theater, count the lawsuits that will emerge. Whether they’re justifiable or not, whether they’re winnable or not, this is the world we live in, at least here in the west. Lawsuit phobia.

And it’s Christmastime. A lot of these things are in a mall. It’s just a mess, right? So, they all say we’re out of here. Sony then looks at the situation and says well we can’t release the movie because it doesn’t make any sense. How are we supposed to release a movie when there aren’t theaters to put it in?

And furthermore we don’t want to release a movie and then, again, some theater blows up somewhere and now we look like, I mean, write the headlines, right? So, either you’re a coward or you’re callous profiteers who think that the ticket sales are more important that human lives. You can’t win, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, I want to say this, and I think this is important. What just happened here in Hollywood with this hack is the most significant thing that has happened in our business since I’ve been in it, by far, as far as I’m concerned. This is a huge disaster. And it’s a disaster in part because information was leaked. It’s a disaster in part because people were embarrassed. But primarily it’s a disaster of the community of the Hollywood studio business.

The real cowards, if you ask me, are the other studios. Because if I were one of these other studios, I would get everybody together as a consortium and say, look, this is not Sony’s problem. This is all of our problem. We’re all scared, okay, and we all have problems here and we’re all desperately afraid that we’re going to be exposed like poor Amy Pascal who, oh my god, if you saw my email — Amy Pascal is a saint compared to what’s in — by the way, compared to what’s in anyone’s email inbox.

John: Yeah.

Craig: She’s a saint! Anyone, all these people out there that are pointing fingers at her or even Scott Rudin — Scott Rudin who by the way basically talks in email the way he does to your face as far as I understand it. I think almost everyone complaining about this has far, far worse in their private correspondence with people. So, what a joke that is, okay.

But that aside, the studios — and I still believe there is time for this — should come together and say, look, what does this movie cost, $40 million? Everybody chip in. We all own this movie now. Everybody kick in $5 million which we won’t miss. Now we all own the movie. And then put it out on the Internet for free for the world. This is not something where we can pretend that it’s our responsibility to hide the movie. It is our responsibility to do the opposite.

And George Clooney wrote something about this recently which I largely agreed with, except for the part where he called it a “dumb comedy,” which I thought was just egregious and pointless considering that many comedies that have been called dumb are far more culturally important than a number of George Clooney films.

This is what I think the studio should do. I think Hollywood needs to band together now and do this together because if any of these studios think that they’re not next, they’re wrong. All that happens if they let this continue this way is that they are individually asking for someone to do this to them. They’re begging. So, that’s my position.

John: I’m in thorough agreement that the studios need to band together. And it’s tough for the studios to work together because they perceive themselves as being at odds with each other. But they’re 100% in the same camp on this. They cannot allow this to happen. And it was foolish for them to stand back when the emails were getting released, but now that it’s come to this they need to stand together.

The releasing on the Internet is actually complicated because they could just put it out as a torrent, which they could basically put it out in the same way that all movies have been pirated and that would be probably in many ways the cleanest way to do it. Because if they try to go to Amazon or Netflix or anybody else, one of those companies can say like, “You know what? The hackers come after us next and our entire business is digital.” So, you don’t want to be Amazon or Netflix and be the next target of that.

And this is what I think is the most dangerous thing about this whole thing that’s happened is that I don’t know whether six months from now I’m going to be looking at this event as being sort of the next 9/11, where basically the entire world changed because of this incident that happened. And how we do business had to completely change because of how this happened. Where everybody is running scared of a perceived attack from, you know, some foreign power, some international cabal and so the movies we make and how it gets released, television shows we make, and how everything works could fundamentally change because of this event. That’s what frustrates me the most is that I just don’t know.

And I don’t know whether I am overreacting or under-reacting to what has actually happened.

Craig: I think you are reacting appropriately.

John: So, the one thing that hasn’t been as acknowledged is that Sony, when you think of Sony as being like, oh, that studio in Culver City, but they’re also a Japanese corporation. And so it’s very easy for us to say here in Los Angeles like, oh, come on, North Korea could really not do anything, but North Korea could do something to Japan which is right next door. And so I think there is a national/international response that probably looks a lot different if you are Sony in Japan versus Sony here.

And it’s just a mess. And I’m so frustrated for everybody. I’m frustrated for our guest on Scriptnotes, Dan Sterling, who wrote it. He was at our Austin show. And so I’ve been thinking about him through this whole experience of like, oh congratulations, your movie is coming out. Oh wait, your movie just no longer exists.

Craig: I know.

John: And it no longer exists because of some person probably in North Korea who decided, you know what, we’re going to do everything in our power to keep this movie from coming out.

Craig: Well, look, I think that your 9/11 analogy is apt. And that’s saying something because I’m the person that thinks all 9/11 analogies are inapt. But this time it’s apt, because everyone is absolutely taking this deadly serious — every company is taking this deadly seriously. And by way, it’s untenable for Netflix or Amazon or Apple to take the position that they can’t put this on their service because then they’ll be hacked next, because if that’s true they’re getting hacked next anyway.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: So, I think that, you know, in 1993 Islamic terrorists attempted to blow up the World Trade Center. And they failed. And everyone went, huh.

John: Phew.

Craig: What a bunch of idiots. Couldn’t even blow up the World Trade Center. Ha-ha-ha. And lo and behold eight years later they did it. That is a very governmental kind of reaction. Governments tend to be that way, but not business. Business is focused autistically focused on making money, on protecting its shareholder value. And I think the response from every major corporation that is reliant on information services, and that means every major corporation, right now is in crisis mode. Every major organization is going through their cyber security with a fine tooth comb. If they’re not, they are organizationally mentally ill.

So, I do think that there is going to be a point where we are protected against this. It doesn’t seem like this was unavoidable. It seems like this was a collision of aggressive action and lax security. But you can put it on the Internet. You can create a — buy a host somewhere, you know, in freaking Sweden where all the piracy is hosted, [laughs], and just create a website that’s nothing but The Interview streamed online.

John: Yeah. Maybe you could. Maybe you could essentially put it out on just the normal kind of torrents and stick like a tip jar for people to put in their money for it and sort of buy their virtual tickets. Maybe that’s possible. Here is where I’m worried about sort of for the future is that in this case this was this movie that specifically made fun of North Korea and that’s what the focus of the outrage is. But like what happens when it’s George Clooney says something inflammatory and so therefore they say like, oh, Warner Bros, you are not going to release that George Clooney movie or else. I mean, it just becomes this cycle –

Craig: Exactly.

John: Where it becomes impossible to get things made. And it also becomes impossible to get those movies insured, because one of the things we don’t know quite yet as we’re recording this on Friday is Sony has said like, oh, we’re not releasing the movie at all. That’s what they’re saying right now. But it is entirely possible the reason why they’re doing that is they’re declaring a forced measure on it and they’re basically going to make a big insurance claim for $40 million or whatever that they cannot release the movie.

Craig: I don’t think that’s going to work. I’ve read that, but I don’t understand how you can make an insurance claim based on a decision you make. You know, if the movie had been literally obliterated from existence by a cyber attack, that’s one thing. But if you say, you know what, I could release the movie but I’m scared to. I don’t see how that’s an insurance claim at all. I think that’s a red herring honestly.

John: Maybe so. But I think insurance will be more difficult now than ever and more expensive than ever to get insured on a movie, even because if they’re stopping a movie from being released they can also stop a movie during production.

Craig: That’s right.

John: They can do things to derail a studio trying to make a certain kind of movie.

Craig: That’s right.

John: And so if you are a person who has to make the decision which movie to green light and you’re like, oh god, I don’t know if I can even get insurance for this movie. I think it’s going to be just not worth my time and my hassle, then you’re just going to only make the really, really safe movies and that’s a recipe for everything getting worse and worse.

Craig: As if that weren’t already the tendency.

John: Exactly.

Craig: In fact, we’ve seen it happen already. Steve Conrad has written a movie called Pyongyang and that has been — that was green lit with Steve Carell to star at Fox, I think New Regency. That has been un-green lit because of this. And this is precisely why the response has to be so defiant, because if it’s not — I mean, everybody knows this from the playground. Either you fight back or you’re the one that gets bullied every day. There is no reason for them to not do this again. There is every reason for them to do it again. How obvious is that? So, the Hollywood community, the business community, which by the way comes together very effectively to fight their prior terrorists of concern — the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Actors Guild — they have no problem joining together to do that.

They must join together right now and be incredibly defiant about this, over defiant. They need to go beyond. That’s why I think honestly they need to have this movie out to the world for free, including ways for it to get in to North Korea, because if they don’t, they are asking someone else to do this again. They’re begging for it. This is why you don’t negotiate with terrorists, right? Everybody knows that. You negotiate with terrorists, you’re just asking for more terrorism.

This is not rocket science, or brain surgery, or rocket surgery.

John: All these surgeries which are so difficult because you keep adding variables.

Craig: Because I keep adding variables! Anyway, I do honestly think that everybody — that the studios need to gather around Sony as a brother or sister, however the studios relate to each other. They need to own this together. They must. This was not an attack on Sony. This was an attack on Hollywood. And if they’re smart –

John: Yeah. And I think don’t stop at the studios. It has to be the studios coming together. Theater owners have to come together and recognize that, you know what, if you stop this then you’re going to eventually stop all movies and they have nothing to show in their movie theaters, and the guilds need to come together with them, too.

Craig: Well, you know, listen, the theater owners, they’re also terrorists by the way. They are. Anybody that works in Hollywood knows that theater owners are the problem. And I think you go to the theater owners and say, hey guess what you guys, you pull this again and you’re just going to see a whole lot more day and date. You’re going to see a lot more, because you know what, everybody thinks you’re dying anyway. Either we’re in this together or we’re not.

And it just has to be that way. This is war. This is war. We don’t mess around in war. I take this incredibly seriously. And if we don’t — if we can’t figure out as a community and particularly the business community, how to achieve solidarity on this and not turn this into a — oh god, I hope I’m not next, then we’re doomed. Then we’re doomed.

And, honestly, I don’t care. Here’s the god honest truth: I don’t care what any of these people write in their emails. If there were a thousand emails about me and they were brutal, I still wouldn’t care. Because I don’t care what people think. I don’t care what people say to each other in private. I only care about what people do, what they say to me and what they do.

Unfortunately, the press — this miserable excuse of a press that we have in this country — delights in this baloney. Delights in it. So, you know there is no way to avoid this. If it happens again it’s not like The New York Times is going to change their bizarre and stupid policy of we won’t do it until somebody else does it and then we’ll publish it because, blah, blah. Pathetic. So it’s inevitable. I’m saying to Paramount and Disney and Universal and Warner Bros and Fox: it is inevitable that they will come for you unless you guys band together and put The Interview out for free to the world.


John: All right. Done.

To our real topics. Our first is a question that comes from Matthew Chilelli who is the person who edits this podcast. So, he wrote this question and I said, you know what, we’ll answer your question on the air and you’ll get to hear it first because you’ll edit the episode that has the answer to your question.

So, Matthew Chilelli and his writing partner are directing a movie that they raised money for on Kickstarter. And his question was what advice would you give to a first-time director of his own script. And I’m like that’s a great question. And so I had some thoughts and I’m sure Craig will have some thoughts, too, because we both directed and we both learned a lot.

My quick bullet points of advice are to remember that you’re not there to throw a party. And one of my sort of first real worries about directing a movie is I wanted everyone to be happy. And I wanted to make sure that the set was comfortable and that everyone was having a good time. And then I realized, you know what, this isn’t a party. It’s not my job to make sure everyone is having a good time. It’s my job to make sure that everyone has the information they need so they can do their jobs really, really well.

And so once I stopped thinking about myself as host and started thinking of myself as the person who is directing the movie things got much happier and better and everyone was happier.

You will be facing a thousand questions. And I was terrified of the thousand questions. Should it be a green shirt or a red shirt? Like this? Like this? Do you want a wider lens, a tighter lens? Here are some things: you will usually have an answer. And just pick an answer. And answers are great. Although you can also say, “I don’t know.” And you can solicit their opinions. You can figure out sort of what the choices really mean.

You can also say, “None of the above.” And if the none of the choices that are presented to you are the correct choices, say none of the above and let them come back to you with more choices.

While you’re directing, always remember what the intention is of the scene and what the intention is of the moment. Because when you’re in the middle of directing a scene and things are going crazy and you’re turning around shooting from one side to the other side and things are just nuts, it’s so easy to forget what the scene is actually about. And so making notes to yourself before the day starts, like the scene is about this is incredibly useful. Like the minimum viable scene will be about this, rely on that.

If you are directing actors, directing actors I find works best with verbs. So, it’s very hard for an actor to be happy, be sad, be angrier. Give an actor a verb to play. So you can say don’t let him walk through that door. Or, you can sort of give them a simile. Can we try that same moment but as if he’s just said the most horrifying thing imaginable to you? That’s something an actor can do. An actor can’t be an adjective. So, those are my quick run throughs of advice.

Craig: All spectacular suggestions. I agree with every single one of them.

John: Cool.

Craig: I’ll only add the following.

John: Please.

Craig: When you’re directing a movie that it’s your first time and you’ve written the script, you will have a natural tendency to want to be the person that is defending the guy that came before you, the screenwriter. So, in other situations where we’ve written a script and somebody else directs it we go, oh my god, what are you doing to my screenplay, and it’s bad. And you think, well, when I get in there I can defend this.

However, that’s not the person you should be worrying about. When you direct, the person that you should be solely concerned with is the you in the future who is in the editing room. That’s the person you’re taking care of. That is the person who needs you right now to figure this out.

So, give that person options. When you’re a first-time director, you may think I’ve figured out, I know exactly what I want to do with this. And you may think that’s the name of the game. But sometimes the name of the game is collect options. And then you’re going to find this movie and write this movie in editorial. And Matthew is an editor, so he understands this better than most. To that end, I believe in shot-listing, particularly for a first-time director, and especially if you’re dealing with limited time which typically a first-time director is.

You don’t have a lot of days where you can go, “Yeah, we didn’t figure it out today, I’ll figure it out tomorrow.” It doesn’t go that way for you. You’ve got to get the day’s work done. So, shot-list.

As a writer we are obviously absorbed with all writerly things: character, dialogue, theme, scenario. As a director, take a moment to just think about aesthetics. Think about your color palette. Think about movies that look the way you want this movie to look. Think about how you want to move the camera. Do you want long lenses, wide lenses? By the way, if you’re not sure what those things are, pick up a book. There are all sorts of instructional things online now so you can learn.

But really think about how you want it to look, how you want the camera to move and feel, because that is essentially the directorial equivalent of theme for the screenwriter. And without theme as a screenwriter we tend to just wander without some sort of unifying visual concept as a director. You’re just collecting footage and making a big TV show.

So, work on all of those things, but most importantly really, really care for your future self who will be in editorial because that future self is the one who is going to — every director, first-time, 20th time, at some point in editorial will curse themselves for what they didn’t do. So, you want to try and limit the amount of cursing of yourself you end up doing.

John: I think that’s fantastic advice. Let’s talk about what shot-list is, because I think sometimes people get confused about that term. So, there is storyboarding, and storyboarding is when you are sort of sketching out what you think the shots are going to be like to build a sequence. A shot-list is a much more practical thing. It’s literally a thing you’re probably holding in your hand, which is like a bullet point list of these are the shots I need to make this scene.

Craig: Right.

John: And that’s something you probably would do in preproduction. You’d figure out like what the shot-list would be for a scene. But honestly it’s a thing you might do in the morning before you’ve started that day’s work and you’re going to hopefully have people you can trust and talk through that shot-list with.

The people who are so crucial are your first AD. And your director of photography. And I found it to be so useful to like walk through with Nancy Schreiber, my DP, and my line producer, like these are the shots I need in this scene. And she could tell me like, “Okay, well let’s prioritize this and prioritize this because of light.” That was so useful.

Also, when you’re making your shot-list, prioritize within that. Because there are going to be some shots you’re just not going to get. And so you need to be able to tell the scenes, even if you never got that second close-up that you really wanted, okay, but that’s why you put that at the bottom of your list. So, no matter if you’re making a tiny movie or a giant movie, there is going to be stuff that you just don’t get. And protecting that future editor self, you want to make sure you get as much of the stuff you do need and this extra stuff is just gravy.

Craig: That’s absolutely right. That is a perfect description of a shot-list. And what you find as a first-time director is that directing — whatever you thought about directing is wrong. And that a huge amount of what directing is is breaking moments down geometrically. It is literally figuring out how to capture a moment through angles. And the angles could be moving and they could be different sizes, but ultimately you’re fracturing a moment into various geometric angles that will be repeated so that you can edit them together.

And understanding the geometry of your scene is really important before you shot-list, because sometimes if you think about it you’ll say I don’t want to break this down. I actually think this is a one-er. I think that’s how this works. I don’t want coverage here. I want this to be about these two people playing something in the moment together. And if it’s a one-er and you know it’s a one-er, no problem. Everything is a tradeoff, right? You’ll probably do nine takes of that, but there’s no more coverage, so you’re done with it, right.

If you’re doing traditional coverage with two people talking, you’ve got yourself a master, and overs, and closes. Okay. So, you don’t have to do as many takes of each one, but there’s a lot more setups.

So, one thing to do as the first-time director of your own screenplay is to go through your screenplay and start asking yourself this question: how would this moment be best broken down geometrically? What do I want to see and how? It will help you make your shot-list. And then as you said your DP and your first AD will have all sorts of great ideas to add to it and to make it more efficient.

John: One last thing, thinking about that future person you’re going to be when you’re in the editing room, a lot of times as you’re watching a shot happen before you you say like, oh, that was good, but this thing wasn’t good, that thing — like it was almost right, but this wasn’t quite right. If you know you’re going to be cutting it, it doesn’t have to be flawless all the way through. It would be great if it were flawless, where you had that one take that’s fantastic, but pushing for that eighth take to try to get one perfect take through on one person’s coverage is almost never worth it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: If you know you have the moments, if you know that I can see and feel what this is like, then you’re wasting a lot of your day to try to get to that perfect eighth take when you have the stuff you need in those earlier takes.

Craig: It’s why you need — before you direct anything you must have experience editing something. You must. You need to know where the scissors come in and where the scissors can’t come in. You need to know when something is married to something else so if one half of it is no good and one half of it is good, it’s no good.

But Matthew happily has that experience, so that’s a huge part of it. It’s how you figure out how to break a moment down very often.

John: Yup. So, a great segue to our next topic which is our Perfect Series. And this time it’s the Perfect Director. So, I want to take a look at the perfect director from the writer’s point of view since we’re a mostly a writer’s podcast. But also from what a perfect director looks like from an actor’s point of view, from different department heads’ point of view. Because how does a director do her job the best and what are the tools and techniques she’s using to make the best movie. So, obviously a very wide topic, but Craig how should we start?

Craig: Well, let’s start with what we’re most comfortable with, I suppose, which is how — what we want from a screenwriting point of view when we work with a director what do we want. And I’m going to dispense with the obvious ones. We want them to be good. [laughs] We want them to know how to shoot. We want them to be visually interesting. We want them to know how to work with great actors. We want them to be really specific, make terrific choices. But, of course, what a lot of screenwriters will say is we want them to shoot the script.

Well, I don’t want the director to shoot the script. I want the director to shoot the movie of the script. But here is what I want most of all: I want the director to presume respectfully that if something is in the script it’s there for a reason. I think the biggest mistake directors make vis-‡-vis screenwriters is when they read a screenplay they presume that some of it is just whatever. There’s moments that have to happen, but then there are moments inside of the moments that are like, eh, you know what, I actually would love to do this, or I’d love to do that or it would be more fun if the camera was here, more fun if the camera is there. This just feels like a waste of time.

And, not always, depending on the quality of the screenwriter, but I would argue if it’s a good screenwriter 99% of the time that is a huge mistake.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It is not a mistake to ask the screenwriter how can we do this differently. It is a mistake to say quite arrogantly, “Some of this isn’t important.” It is as much of a mistake as it would be to open up a human body during surgery, grab a hold of some little gibbet and go, “Eh, this probably doesn’t mean anything,” and just pull it out.

Because we put things in on purpose. And then, of course, what happens is three or four weeks later you might get a call like, “Uh, this doesn’t make sense.” Yeah, well, because you took that thing out and you didn’t realize because you hadn’t lived in it the way I did.

So, when you want to change things in a screenplay, and it’s perfectly fine to say, look, we’re changing it. We must change it for the following reasons, even if one of the reasons is my directorial taste. Tell me. How can I change this so that I don’t hurt anything? First do no harm.

That’s what I want from a director more than anything else in terms of how they interact with me and that involves obviously a certain amount of respect and acknowledgment that the screenplay isn’t just a “suggestion” or even a “blueprint,” which I’ve never understood, but rather is a conceptualized movie.

John: Yeah. So, what I’m looking for in a director is someone who can come in and channel this vision of a movie onto the screen. And it’s really like a person who can experience the movie internally and then has the skills to be able to put that up on a screen. And that is such a unique skill set. And there are people who are just amazingly good at it. You can do things that I would just never think of to do. And that’s what gets me so excited is when you see a director who can just do these amazing things.

So, I cannot underscore enough is that I don’t want this person to make my script. I want this person to make my movie. And make her version of my movie. And I want that movie to be fantastic.

So, when there are suggestions, or changes, or concerns, or things they don’t like, that’s awesome. Let’s talk those through. But don’t try to change them on the set without getting some feedback because, yes, everything that’s in the script was there for a reason and there was a reason why this whole carefully constructed puzzle fits together one way. And there are other ways it can be assembled, but there was one way it was supposed to work. And if you can talk with me about that beforehand, that’s awesome.

In those first conversations, a lot of those first conversations with the director is basically just kind of talking through the whole movie so I get a sense of what the movie looks like in the director’s head. And sometimes that really does mean as a screenwriter I’m kind of explaining scenes and like, well, I wrote it and now I’m actually talking through the whole explanation of it, but it’s so important that we be on the page. Literally the same page written, but also the same idea about what the intentions are of those scenes. And the times where things have gone not especially well have been cases where the director really thought the scene was about something completely different than what I thought the scene was about.

Craig: Right.

John: And it’s fine for us to have a difference of opinion, but we didn’t have a difference of opinion. Like, he just shot a different scene than what I kind of meant that scene to be. And then that scene no longer shows up in the movie and there are problems.

Craig: Absolutely true. And the other thing that I think the perfect director exhibits is patience. Now, directing, I’ve said this before many times, directing a movie, a feature film, is the hardest job in show business. And so directors cannot be patient with everybody. In fact, most directors really have only a very tiny amount of patience that they reserve entirely for their actors. They must be patient with their actors because if they yell at their actors or are impatient with their actors they’re getting bad performances. And, of course, this all about what they’re getting on screen from their human beings, unless they’re all computer generated robots.

I would ask the perfect director to extend that patience to actors to writers. That we need actually the same amount of patience. And the reason I say that is not because we’re sensitive flowers, but rather because you will get a better movie if you’re patient with the screenwriter. Frankly, there are a lot of directors who are least patient with the screenwriter. They find the screenwriter and the screenplay to be this kind of offensive reminder that this world that they’re creating is not entirely their world. It’s disruptive of their confidence.

And I understand that. And there are screenwriters who get fussy about changes. The perfect director is patient with the screenwriter because they will get better work and they will make a better movie if they are. I always tell my fellow screenwriters to be patient in return to the director. They need us at our best in order to survive and we are all in the same boat of trying to make a good movie.

But a good director is patient with the screenwriter.

John: You talked about how incredibly hard the director’s job is and I completely agree. And it’s like you’re a general leading your troops into battle. And the crucial thing is that you have to have the trust of your troops. Your crew has to trust and believe that you have a vision for how you’re going to win this fight, how you’re going to succeed in doing this thing.

And that means that you had a lot of planning. You really knew what you were going to do ahead of time. You were able to read the lay of the land and see like, okay, on the day we’ve arrived at this location, this location is different than how I’d expected it to be and I’m flexible enough to roll with what needs to actually happen. Because the directors who are inflexible, who everything has to be exactly the way they had storyboarded it are not going to be able to roll with the changes and roll with the punches.

The great directors can also recognize and really remember the intention of the scene. And so if an improv’d moment comes up that’s actually better than what was there, they will be able to incorporate it and be able to both have the version of the scene as it existed, but also recognize like this new version is better, funnier, more dramatic. It does something unique and wonderful and I’m so glad I’m going to have that in the editing room as well.

Craig: Right. Yeah. And that reminds me of just another bit of advice going backwards for Matthew Chilelli as he approaches his first movie. A good director leads the crew, but also understands that the crew will not be able to tell her or him that they’re making a good movie. All the crew sees are dailies, right? That’s what they say. They see live dailies going on. And they may see funny moments. And they may see an actor do a hysterical thing or a beautiful thing. But as the old saying goes, there’s nothing better than your dailies, and there’s nothing worse than your first cut.

John: Yeah.

Craig: They don’t know what the movie is.

John: They don’t.

Craig: Don’t ask them what they think and don’t be encouraged or discouraged if they offer their opinions. No one except for you and your editor has any sense really of the movie that is going to result. You’re the only ones that have seen the completed jigsaw puzzle. You’re just making pieces now, right? So, don’t overreact to that whole thing. There’s the — in comedy we call it a dailies laugh, where the crew just goes, “Oh my god,” and they’ll come up to you at lunch. “That was so funny.” And in your heart you know, ah, it’s getting cut out of the movie.

There’s something about those moments, those moments that are so funny in the moment so often just do not live in the matrix of the put together film.

John: Yeah. So, any last bits of summary for our perfect director? I mean, I would say there’s not one perfect archetype for a director. And I’ve worked with directors who I love who are vastly different from each other. And that’s fine and that’s okay. And they all have different ways of communicating their vision to their department heads, and to me, and to everybody else who has to see what it is. And sometimes it’s not immediately clear to me. Like I have no idea what you’re doing, but it all works.

The directors who I sort of admire as a viewer I don’t necessarily know what they’re like on the set, but if people are working with them again and again there’s probably something that they’re doing that’s really, really good. And they’re probably treating their crews with respect, they’re probably able to communicate what it is that they’re trying to do so that people can do their very best jobs. They’re able to inspire the best work out of people. And that’s how you make great movies.

Craig: Yeah. I think that frankly the best directors, the directors that I love as I run down the list in my mind, they’re either writers, or they really respect writers. And the directors that I find ultimately are disposable, who disappear, or who just make stuff I don’t like are directors that are notorious for not giving a crap about the script. That the script is a ha-ha-ha, I’m a director.

John: So let’s go to our final topic which is from a director.

Craig: Yes.

John: And his question is about the script itself. And so he is working on a studio feature and he writes: “I find that 70% of the notes I’m getting deal with ‘logic,’ that is a producer or exec is bumping me on something that doesn’t track for them, like why wouldn’t the daughter just call the donut shop? Why wouldn’t they go to the police? Why would she do that if…?

“Fair enough. Here’s my question. Where do you two professionals draw the line on the logic police notes? When does the tail start wagging the dog for you? I think we all know how much of the ‘logic and exposition” hits the cutting room floor, especially in comedies because nobody cares. When do you run the risk of answering a question the audience isn’t asking? When does [print the legend] apply?

“I’ve never left a movie and said, boy, that was a real stinker but so logically sound. Good for them. To me so often these logic notes are easy ways for an executive to ‘score points’ in a story meeting. See all these logic holes I’ve helped out and I’ve fixed? But seldom if ever do they actually make the movie better.”

He goes on to citing an example of Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks comes back to his Seattle home to find that his son has left a few hours ago. What does he do? He buys a plane ticket to New York City, rushes off to find his son on the Empire State Building and finally meets Meg Ryan when there’s a thousand other things he could do that would make a lot more sense.

Craig: Yeah. So, it’s a great question and everybody has a different tolerance for this kind of, well, is that logical, does that make sense, why wouldn’t they do this, or isn’t there an easier thing. And really what these questions all come down to is either is this rational or is this something that an average person will think is a sensible course of action for a human to take.

I generally err on the side of being a logic Nazi. I believe in logic. I think it’s particularly important for comedy because comedy is so much about contrasting the absurd against what we understand to be the proper rules of the world.

And generally speaking the more we get away from something that’s logical the less likely we’re willing to laugh because we start to feel like the filmmakers essentially rigged the game. It’s a cheat. It’s not as funny to see a joke that you know they had to alter certain facts to achieve. It’s far more funny to see something that existed completely within the constraints of the world and behaviors. We understand it. So, when I think of a movie like for instance All of Me.

In All of Me Steve Martin is possessed by the spirit of Lily Tomlin. The two of them are in the same body. And that is obviously an enormously broad high concept. It’s illogical, but that’s point, it’s magical, right? So, we accept that. You get one. But then what’s great about the movie is that things happen the way they would happen. So, the first thing that happens is he goes, “I’ve got to get rid of you. And first of all I’m crazy, and I’ve got to get rid of you.”

They go through all the expected things. Similarly in Groundhog Day, you watch him react in a way that somebody would logically react.

So, I’m a huge believer in logic. There are times when you must cut some corners here and there or else your movie falls apart. And you try as best you can to avoid those. There are also times when you find after screening the movie that there is a little bit too much, or the audience doesn’t need all that explanation here. I will tell you though that there have been times where we’ve got some of that extra logical explanation out and they didn’t miss it but they were the beneficiaries of us having thought about it, because it felt okay. It was interesting. Like it felt real around it because we had done the homework of putting all that in.

So, I got to say I’m a big believer in this.

John: Well, here’s what you’re describing, both in your All of Me example and Groundhog Day is you’re talking about what is the internal logic given the rules of the world you’re setting up. And so the logic rules for Men in Black is going to be different than the logic rules for The Bourne Identity, because there’s different levels of reality of the world. And so once you’ve created that world and you created sort of the universe of rules within that world, as long as you’re consistent with the rules of that world, you’re golden. It’s when we don’t understand what the rules of that world are that so many of these logic notes come up and people start to question things. I am sympathetic to this director on the sense of sometimes people are trying to score easy points. And so they’ll ask these questions like well why doesn’t she do this, why doesn’t she do this.

And, like, well, if you let characters do the things they could automatically easily do they would just call the police all the time and wait for the police to show up and help them. There are times where characters in movies are going to do things that are dramatic and that’s because they’re going to be doing dramatic things. So, hopefully you’ve built a story in which characters are not allowed to make easy safe choices, that they have to make bigger choices because that’s the nature of the world you set up and the nature of the stakes you’ve set up.

But sometimes there are other logical things that a normal person could do, but they’re not in a normal situation anymore. And so that’s my frustration. And I’ve definitely been in this director’s position where I get some just asinine notes that they are theoretically about logic but they’re also just about talking and sort of bullet points on a piece of paper.

Craig: Yeah. That is true. When I get stuff like that I tend to be patient with it because I don’t actually care why they’re saying the note. I mean, they may be saying the note because they need to talk more in meetings to get rehired again when their contract is up. But, ultimately I don’t care. My job is to listen to the note and go, “No, actually, it’s logical what they’re doing.” Or, “Okay, I see your point, we should shore that logic up.”

I mean, ultimately if a human being is asking the question, it’s likely that an audience member could ask the question. Audience members will rarely tell you your movie made no sense. They just won’t like it as much.

John: And you say there’s one gimme, and I think there’s in general sometimes you will have to sort of lean in to that one gimme that the audience will give you. And so if you’re in a high concept comedy, it’s like they’re sharing a body. If you’re in the movie Gone Girl, there is a thing that I was always worried about in Gone Girl when I read the book is like well how are they going to handle this transition that happens in the midpoint. Basically the voiceover completely shifts at the midpoint. And the truth is, and I’m sure they had these discussions or disagreements, and someone must have said, either Gillian Flynn or David Fincher said, “You know what? I think we’ll have enough audience goodwill that they won’t even notice that we completely changed the rules on how the whole thing works.” And they were right.

And so sometimes you just have to answer that logic question with, well, this is what we’re going to do.

Craig: Yes. And sometimes I will say, listen, we are always the beneficiaries of what I call the law of intentionality. The audience presumes that everything on screen is there because that’s exactly the way you wanted it to be there. So, they will automatically give you a certain amount of leeway because they’re presuming you meant to do it that way.

Now, we on our side know a lot of times we did not mean to do it that way at all.

John: No, we completely saved that in post and it’s a completely hacked job.

Craig: Or that it was kind of a cheat. Or our backs were against a story wall, whatever it is. But, yes, you just want to try and make that the last resort rather than, I mean, I remember I was in a meeting years ago. I was working on a screenplay at a studio that will remain unnamed. And one of the — and I was talking about the script I was about to write. It was a rewrite. And one of the people said, “Well, you know, what if we did this.” And I said, well you know, I’m not sure that would make sense, because if that happened then wouldn’t people just simply do this, or this, or this?

And the executive said, “Yeah, but you know, our last hit movie didn’t make any sense.”

John: Ugh.

Craig: And I said, you know, I suppose you can get to that place, but we should not start there.

John: Yes.

Craig: That’s a bad place to start because it’s not like things get better, and better, and better. [laughs] I mean, the unfortunate effect of production is things tend to get worse, and worse, and worse. So, yeah, that was dispiriting to say the least.

John: One last point about your intentionality. Jane Espenson on our last podcast we talked about some terms used in the story room and Hang a Lantern on it is one of the terms she brought up. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about is sometimes there’s a thing that could happen or is happening that someone would say like, wait, does that make sense? And hanging a lantern on it is somebody in the script calling out saying like, yes, I know that this is a thing that maybe doesn’t make sense, but this is really what’s happening.

There’s sometimes elegant ways to sort of acknowledge to the audience, yes, I see this thing here. You’re not crazy. And it’s going to be okay. And those are the kinds of things, sometimes they’re throw away lines that you put in there and then you see if you actually need them in the final cut and they can magically easily disappear if no one is asking that question.

Craig: That’s right.

John: So, let’s get to our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing this week is a little short film called Interesting Ball. It’s by Daniels, who are a directing team that I actually met up at Sundance who are incredibly clever. It is a wonderful story of a bouncing red ball and the people that it encounters. It reminds me a bit of the Red Balloon, but absurdist, and disturbing in ways that I think people will find delightful.

Craig: I’d like to think that I am also absurdist and disturbing in ways that people find occasionally delightful.

John: I would say 52% of people find it delightful.

Craig: At least. At least 50 to 52% of people. My One Cool Thing is a bit of technology that is currently in I guess alpha or beta, but it seems inevitable that it will be widespread sooner or later. And it comes to us from Skype and Microsoft I believe. Does Microsoft own Skype? Is that the — ?

John: I think they own it now. I think they bought it from eBay.

Craig: Yeah, so Microsoft/Skype. And it’s called Skype Translate and it’s quite brilliant. So, we know now that we have this ability to talk to our computers and they will transcribe what we’re saying, speech to text. And what Skype Translate does is essentially take that one step further. So, you are on a Skype call with someone say in Germany. You say something, Skype turns it into text and then translates the text into that person’s language and speaks it to them.

How freaking cool is that? Now, if they get this down we essentially have the Babble Fish from –

John: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

Craig: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Thank you.

John: Nice. I have not even read Hitchhiker’s Guide and I knew what –

Craig: And I’ve read all of those and yet I’m old now and sometimes, god, isn’t that the worst feeling when you’re like –

John: It is the worst feeling and it happens all the time right now.

Craig: I know this, but those neurons apparently are on strike.

John: I both forget things I should know and I have started to have that thing where it’s really hard for me to read small print.

Craig: Oh, you know what? I got to tell you, I’ve been holding on. I don’t know why I can. My wife has to wear the glasses. All of my friends hold menus a foot away from their face. I still have total ability to read stuff close up.

John: That’s great. Congratulations.

Craig: Yeah, well, I know, but I mean, what are we a year away from it falling apart?

John: Yeah. It’ll all happen.

Craig: It’ll all happen. But I can still –

John: But that will be in 2015. 2014 will come to an end and you will sail out this year with your perfect detailed vision and your vision for a grand world in which the studios come together and push back against cyber terrorism.

Craig: They have to. They have to.

John: They have to.

Craig: They have to. I can’t — they must.

John: Craig, thank you for another fun podcast. If you would like to subscribe to this podcast, go to iTunes and click Subscribe. That’s all you have to do. We are also having a premium of our show which is available at The premium feed has a whole bunch of bonus episodes and it goes all the way back to the very beginning of time to early episodes.

Next week’s episode is actually going to be drawn from those early episodes. It’s going to be a clip show. It’s going to be great. We already recorded it so I can tell you that it turned out just fine.

If you would like to leave a comment for us, you can do so on iTunes, but you can also write directly to me or to Craig. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

If you have a longer question you would like to ask us, write to is also where you can find the show notes for today’s episode and all of our episodes. We also have transcripts going back to the very start of the show.

Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli who asked that great question earlier. It is produced by Stuart Friedel. And, Craig, have a wonderful rest of 2014.

Craig: Have a Merry, Merry Christmas, John, a Happy New Year, and I will see you in ’15.

John: Fantastic.

Craig: Bye.

John: Bye.


Advice to a First-Time Director

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 08:03

John and Craig offer advice to a director taking the plunge, with guidance on both getting the work done and getting the performances you want. From there, we segue into a discussion of the Perfect Director, the next installment of our Perfect series.

We also pay a visit to the Logic Police, whose notes are often frustrating but sometimes correct.

But we couldn’t not talk about the messed-up situation with The Interview and North Korea. It’s a terrible precedent, but the mistake is putting the blame on any one studio. Without coordinated group action, it’s only going to get worse.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Left or Right

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 16:09

This link has been sitting in my queue for months, but it’s still worth sharing. Tony Zhou looks at how character choice is framed as going left or right.

You see this technique in movies going back to the dawn of cinema, but no recent movie has used it as fully as Snowpiercer, in which the entire film moves on a linear track.

On the page, you’ll rarely call out “right” or “left.” But that sense of forcing characters to choose between two visual possibilities is a fundamental and frequently-useful paradigm.

Scriptnotes, Ep 175: Twelve Days of Scriptnotes — Transcript

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 15:27

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hey, this is John. So, today’s episode contains lots of swearing by lots of different people, so probably not an episode to listen to loud at work or in the car with your kids. Otherwise, enjoy.

Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is the Episode 175 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

We are here live at the LA Film School. There’s really an audience here. Applause so people can hear. We’re actually really, really glad that you’re here, because this has been a rough afternoon I’d say.

Craig: Yeah, it’s bad.

John: Yeah, it’s bad. Things happen, and everyone sort of knows what’s happened this last week. And so there were the hacks at Sony and so on the podcast I talked about, oh, I was worried that like, you know, I had written things for Sony, you hadn’t written anything for Sony.

Craig: No, I thought I had gotten away with it, but –

John: Sony obviously got hacked and the emails got out. And this last week you didn’t want to be some of the certain executives at Sony. And things got out that were embarrassing. Because when we think about it really, Craig, anyone’s personal emails would have some things in them that are kind of embarrassing.

Craig: Oh, everyone’s. Everyone’s.

John: That’s a crucial thing. Think about your own emails and there’s going to be some stuff you really wish wasn’t public.

Craig: Like really disgusting stuff.

John: So, we found out that the Scriptnotes email had gotten hacked into. And so –

Craig: Not good.

John: There’s a real danger that please don’t pull out your phone now. Don’t look on Deadline. But, there’s a real chance that some of the stuff about our podcast and about our show tonight has gotten out. So, we wanted to get ahead of the story a bit and really talk through and really provide context because so many things can seem so awful out of context, but with context I think we’ll get some sympathy, hopefully.

Craig: Well, yeah, we just want to own this and share what’s coming out with you guys.

John: So, there’s obviously going to be many apologies coming up the weeks ahead, but for tonight we just want to focus on a little section of that and really talk through what we said and own it.

Craig: It’s an email chain basically about tonight’s event.

John: All right. So, this chain started November 3, 2014 and I wrote to Craig, “If we’re done playing the blame game, we need to start thinking about guests for the live show on the 19th. How about Chris McQuarrie? Or do you have a beef with him, too? And I think we can get Aline back if you apologize.”

Craig: I wrote back on November 22, “Did I ever answer this? I’m not talking to McQuarrie. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m pretty sure his wife faked those texts from me. And either way, that’s what he gets for being out of town for six months making Mission Who-Gives-A-Shit 7. And fuck Aline. She says she’s French. She’s not. She’s from fucking New Jersey. Enough with her. I’m not having this conversation with you again.”

John: All right. November 22, the same day, “Derek Haas just Facebook messaged me that he wants to be on the next live show. It’s like, ‘Hey, about I come over and take a dump on your lawn and you clean it up.’ Jesus, at least it’s not Michael Brandt. Did you hear back from Edgar Wright? Maybe he could teach you how to do comedy. So, we got to get some guests or we’re going to be facing another Richard Kelly vortex.”

Craig: November 29th. “I would have written back sooner, but for the last week I completely failed to give a fuck. Jesus, Derek is desperate. Fine, let him be on the show. We’ll edit it out later to limit the boredom to the suckers who paid for tickets. So far nothing from Edgar. Why are we chasing him so hard? If we need someone to fill the geek cred director slot we can get Rian Johnson whenever we want, which turns out to be never. By the way, do not threaten me with a Richard Kelly vortex. You need to watch your tone. We’ve been friends for ten years and I’ve put up with this kind of thing because the plusses outweigh the minuses, but I will flush the whole down thing down the crapper you start pulling the Richard Kelly card. P.S. who’s Michael Brandt?”

John: Same day. You’ll notice I reply on the same day he sent emails. November 29th, “Michael Brandt is Derek’s writing partner. He’s the Adnan to Derek’s Jay. That’s a Serial reference if you listen to any other podcasts. Okay, updates. Jane Espenson is in. Try not to say anything controversial that will scare her off, like about women superheroes, especially green ones. Basically ask yourself what would Goyer do and don’t do that.

“How do you feel about B.J. Novak? One the plus side, he’s an actor, so he has a teeny, tiny bit of name value.” I am embarrassed about this, too, but like this is what comes out. “On the minus side, I hear he’s a diva. Apparently all the characters on Entourage were based on him.”

Craig: December 2nd. “What if Serial Logcast? Glad that Jane Expensive is on. I promise I want talk about She-Bulk. I love B.J. Nopack. He’s the guy who played the penis in Saving Masturbates, right?” Sent from my iPhone.

John: All right, so this week, December 14th, “Okay, we’re good to go. There’s a sound check at 6pm. Ha, ha, ha, like you’d come. But reminder that Matthew can’t cut in fake sirens to cover your vaping, so no E-cigarettes. Also, let’s talk more about Sony’s hacked emails because they’re such idiots for writing that shit down.”

Craig: I think now you get it. You get where we’re headed. Thank you.

John: You understand sort of the situation that we –

Craig: Tough week. Rough week. Very rough week.

John: But your applause really help us through these difficult times. So, thank you so much and several of these guests actually did choose to show up regardless, so that’s awesome.

Craig: And thank you guys for coming. It’s great to see you all here and as always this benefits the Writers Guild Foundation which is a terrific foundation. So, thank you all for coming.

John: When Craig goes off his scripted parts, then things just fall. But I think we should start this show by welcoming sort of our — the third leg on our stool. Aline Brosh McKenna.

Craig: Yes, Aline Brosh.

Aline Brosh McKenna: Stool. Gross. Yuck. That’s gross. Can we get like eight or ten more water bottles up here?

John: We have a lot of guests.

Craig: The criticism has started early. Usually she takes a 40 second warm-up.

Aline: I haven’t made fun of your clothes yet.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So I wore the clown outfit today. This is why I’m on radio. Yeah, I can wear what I want.

John: We didn’t even plan our Christmas colors, but I’m wearing green, Craig is wearing reddish. I’m not even sure there’s a color –

Craig: It’s a melon.

John: Somewhere in the Pantone color book there that color exists.

Craig: It’s a melon check.

John: And Aline is dressed in a sparkly sort of — is that a demi-jacket? What do you call that?

Aline: I believe it’s a cropped jacked.

John: Whenever Aline is on it becomes a fashion show.

Aline: Yes.

John: We want to talk about things that you are actually also really well versed in, which is this last week Universal — well, Scott Mendelson at Forbes had an article about how Universal actually kicked ass this last year and made more profits than ever before and they had no big movies. They had no big tent pole movies and they still did really, really well. And you’re a person who writes those not giant franchise movies and, hooray?

Aline: Well, it seems, you know, the business seems to have ratcheted down into like big, big movies and then the smaller movies that we’re seeing now. It’s like it’s become sort of popcorn or Holocaust. It’s like those are the sizes that the movies come in now. And that kind of mid-range of like adult comedy/dramas that were really the ones that I was most excited to write that would be like the Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe, sort of mid-budgeted about how people live their lives have kind of moved into the indie space and I feel like now David O’Russell and Alexander Payne have sort of picked up the slack of that. And there isn’t really a lot in the studio space.

And it doesn’t sound like Universal was doing this intentionally really.

Craig: I think they were.

Aline: You do?

Craig: I do. I think they were. So, interestingly, the guy that wrote this article a few weeks prior had written an article that I think we were a little critical of on the podcast because it was another one of those “Hollywood is dying,” and I love that these guys who write a Hollywood is dying article then three weeks later write “look how great Hollywood is doing” and they never mention, “also I fucked up,” and they never say that.

But I think that after Battleship and 47 Ronin, Universal took a very careful look at how they were spending money. And, look, they love franchises as much as any studio, but they –

Aline: But they also don’t have the kind of built-in franchises that some of the other places have. And they have been trying with their monster movies. They’re trying to sort of make it that. I don’t think they’re trying to exempt themselves from that.

Craig: No.

Aline: But it’s sort of worked out. What we’re all hoping, I think we’re all hoping is that this shows people that you can do well with those kinds of movies.

John: So let’s actually run through the list of the movies they had out this last year because it’s an interesting mix and you wouldn’t think like, oh, those were all the same year. So Lone Survivor, Ride Along, Endless Love, Nonstop, Neighbors, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Purge — second one, Lucy, which was a huge hit, Get on Up, As Above, So Below, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Dracula Untold, Ouija, Dumb and Dumber II, and then Unbroken which is the last one.

So, in the article they stress that like Fast and the Furious 7 was supposed to come out this year. That was supposed to be their giant tent pole. But weirdly for having all of these quite a bit smaller budgeted moves they did great.

Craig: They had a record year. And interestingly the highest budget of all those was Dracula Untold and it was $70. That was the most money they spent on movies.

Aline: The Lucy profitability is insane.

Craig: Insane. By the way, maybe not as insane as Neighbors, because Neighbors was like $18 million.

John: It’s $18 million, $268 million, so that’s a great — you want to be in that business.

Aline: What was Lucy’s number?

John: Lucy’s $40 million budget and $458.

Aline: I mean, it’s insane.

Craig: Insane.

Aline: And also, of course, the Lucy thing is always greeted by this wave of shock and amazement that people want to see women in movies. That’s the other article that’s coming next is like, “What?”

Craig: Right.

John: Before this article existed, it was more challenging to make the movies that you wanted to make, and so you did what we’re all told we should be doing is you actually went off and you made a TV show.

Aline: Yes. Well, that was not intentional at all. And I think we’ve maybe talked about this before. I had done TV at the beginning of my career and I was not looking to go back at all. And every once and awhile somebody would ask me, but this idea of just going in to TV to do TV, which a lot of features do, feature writers do. They just kind of wander over there because it’s there and people say it’s groovy, I wasn’t interested in.

And then in my procrastination I was on Jezebel and I saw a — yup, which I know you guys are all on.

Craig: Totally. Yeah.

Aline: And I clicked on the animated video of a satiric take on Disney princesses with this amazing singer. And I went to see who had done this thing and you obviously can’t see who — I didn’t realize that the person who wrote it was also singing. And then I got bumped to her other videos and it was written and sung by Rachel Bloom. So, I went to — she has a YouTube Channel.

Craig: If only she were here!

Aline: And I went to Rachel’s YouTube Channel and I watched all the videos and I got really excited. And I called my best friend, who is my actual best friend, not my showbiz best friend, but my actual best friend Kate who works in showbiz, who works for a television studio and I said you’re going to love this, I know you’re going to love these. This girl is amazing. You should meet with her. So, we had a meeting with her and she’s, in the videos Rachel is very like sexy and super hot.

Craig: But in reality –

John: Yeah, there was a conjunction coming that was not going to be your friend.

Aline: I was expecting, well, I was expecting like someone from the planet Glamazon, like I was expecting a very actressy thing to show up. And she showed up and in my mind she was wearing cargo pants, which she does not own, so she claims she wasn’t wearing them. But she was wearing sort of like jeans and a t-shirt.

Craig: Is that bad?

Aline: And she was wearing like what Craig wears.

Craig: Well, that sounds pretty great.

Aline: [laughs] So, she came in and I could see right away that she was like a writer girl, you know, and she’s also an amazing actor, and singer, and all of these things. But in her heart of hearts she’s really a writer girl.

John: So, we should bring her up.

Aline: So let’s bring her up.

Craig: Yeah, let’s bring her up.

John: Rachel Bloom, everybody. Rachel Bloom!

Rachel Bloom: I don’t know how you guys cannot curtsy for an audience this big. Like I usually perform in like 20-seat bar theaters. So, to perform — this is like five bars. I just kind of want to do an hour-long set and workshop new material. Anyway, it’s not my show.

Aline: So I found Rachel and we went to –

Craig: Aline just didn’t care what you said at all.

John: That’s what it’s like having Aline on the podcast.

Craig: That’s what I mean. I try and be entertaining –

Rachel: Sometimes, but that’s how I tell when a joke works, is like she doesn’t boo it. She just moves on like it never happened, which is much kinder.

Craig: Is that why you do that to me? [laughs]

John: Sometimes.

Aline: No, John and I are just both really controlling and trying to keep the thing going.

Craig: I know. And the two of us are just Jewish clowns.

John: So, Rachel, your background, you truly are a writer. So, you’re an actress and a singer, but you really are a writer. And that’s what you’ve been doing for your living, correct?

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. So, I started out, I mean, in my heart of hearts I started out as a musical theater kid and I went to school for musical theater at NYU. And while I was at NYU I got into a sketch comedy group and it was a group where we wrote and performed a new show every month and I just fell in love with doing that and I became kind of like a sketch writing robot. I just really, really instantly fell in love with it.

And so when I graduated I knew I wanted to do kind of a mix of comedy writing and musical stuff, but I my career started, I started making money from TV writing. And so that’s where I first started.

Craig: And so now you guys have a pilot that you have done directed by –

Aline: It’s done. Directed by Mark Webb.

Craig: You guys know 500 Days of Summer.

John: He has a movie called Spider-Man.

Craig: One of the Spider-Mens.

Aline: Spider-Mens.

Rachel: And he’s single, ladies.

Aline: And he, like Craig, is a guy who likes the musical theater.

Rachel: Yes, he does.

Craig: You left out the word straight, but fine.

Aline: Yes. He knows a ton about it. Yes, he was a great, I mean, when we finished the pilot Showtime said we want to send it to Mark Webb to see if he wants to direct it. And I said, “Mark Webb directs this pilot, I will pee my pants.” And every once and awhile while we were waiting to hear I would just send them an email that says, “Pee my pants.”

Rachel: And the whole time I just kind of had this thing of like, sure. Like you want to make a TV show with the woman who wrote The Devil Wears Prada? Sure! Yeah, let’s show it to the Queen of England. Like stop jerking me off. This isn’t going to happen. No one gives a shit about musical theater. [laughs] You know?

John: So, Rachel, talk to me about the first contact with you and Aline, because Aline can be overwhelming. Did she reach out to you directly? Did she go through your representative? How did that all work?

Craig: I feel like she could hold her own. I don’t know.

Rachel: She went through my rep. So, I got an email from my rep saying A-line Brosh McKenna wants to meet with you. And I was like who is this dress that wants to meet with me.

Craig: Even I understand that.

Rachel: Okay, good. I’m trying out material. It’s good. I’m doing a tight five at the improv after this on that. And we got a meeting. And she was great because she’s so enthusiastic and like the thing is I had just — I had literally in the past year pitched two musical shows that no one gave a shit about. And so when I got into this room with her and the heads of CBS being like let’s do a musical show, I was just like, okay. Like, yay, if you think it will work, I mean, let’s give it a whirl.

It was like really surreal. It was really crazy. And I don’t think I let myself be that nervous. I don’t think I let myself truly realize how awesome it was because I like didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Aline: One thing that might be interesting people is like there were a couple times, because it was such a blind date, where Rachel would sort of say to me something which resembled like, “But why?” You know, why?

Craig: And you just yelled at her.

Aline: And what said to her is like basically at the beginning of your career all you can do when you’re starting out and you don’t know as many people — she actually knows a ton of people — but when you’re first staring out, you just try and be awesome and hope somebody notices. And hope that the people who notice you like. And that’s all — everybody here, everybody who works in the business at all, you just go around trying to generate good work and be a good person and hope — see who notices.

And some people are really willing to get in on the ground floor, but it wasn’t like I did it out of any altruism. Rachel is like so talented. I feel so lucky. And at every step, it was funny, because we wrote the pilot and that was really fun. We had the best — I wasn’t going to write the pilot, but we were having such a good time, we wrote it together. And then when we were about to shoot it, somebody said to me at some point like she can act, right?

And I was like, yes, no idea! I had no idea. I mean, I knew from the videos I had like a sense, but I had never really seen her act without singing. And she just exceeded every expectation — everybody’s expectations. I mean, she was — people on the set were, now this is all compli-me indirectly, but people were sort of really blown away by how amazing she is and how multitalented she is.

Craig: You have to explain what a compli-me is, because I don’t think these people — that’s a term that Derek invented.

Aline: A compli-me is when you are complimenting yourself basically. It’s a humble-brag, but it’s a little bit more –

Craig: It’s when you’re complimenting somebody else so that you can compliment yourself.

Aline: Yes. Rachel was so amazing in our amazing show we created.

Craig: Right.

Aline: But it’s been really great for me to work with someone just a little younger. [laughs] It’s been really fun. It’s been really great. And you know when I was starting people did that for me. Somebody said, “Hey come here, write this movie. You should sit at this table. Come and sit at this table.”

Rachel: Yeah. And that’s what’s been amazing about working with you is I think for a long time I didn’t really think about like being a woman in Hollywood because coming from like, I don’t know, coming from like alt-comedy, especially in New York, it just feels like very on equal ground, like equal footing. And then you come out here and it’s just like different. Like suddenly you’re the only women in a room full of men and it just feels different. And I definitely did the thing, like I’m not a shy person, but I definitely did the thing where I — I’m always like afraid to make people made at me and I’m afraid to rock the boat. And that’s like a thing that women do a lot that I didn’t notice that I did.

And so it’s been great to hang out with Aline because she just doesn’t do –

Craig: She makes everybody miserable around her.

Rachel: She doesn’t do that. But not in like a, oh god, and this even feels like –

Craig: She gets it.

Rachel: I’m trying to find like a non-misogynist way. You’re not a bitch. You just act like, yes, this is how I should be treated. And I’m going to treat you with respect. You treat me with respect. Whereas like I feel like I go into rooms sometimes, especially like pitching a show and it’s like thank you so much for having me. I really don’t deserve to be here. Like I know you probably won’t buy my shitty stupid show. I’m a piece of shit, I know.

But it’s a thing that girls do because we’re taught to not make anyone mad at us, because god forbid we should make someone mad at us, so we’re supposed to be very accommodating. And I feel like I’ve gotten just a lot better as just like a woman conducting myself in show business from watching Aline. She’s amazing.

Aline: We’ve had a couple of things. This is for a different show, but there are a couple things that came up that were like amazing, well, because Rachel is also very young and was the executive producer of the show. And we had an instance where we interviewed someone for one of the jobs on the show and he decided to say sexually harassing things to her.

Rachel: Can we say — we can’t give specifics of what he said? Okay.

Craig: Sure you can.

Aline: He decided to say inappropriate things to her, and I said, and he then called her agent, you know, his agent, and I said, you know, make sure he knows that I don’t want him to work with us because he’s a misogynist. But also I don’t want to work with him because he’s stupid. Why did you insult this woman who is going to be your boss?

Rachel: And the interesting thing is I didn’t even notice that, which shows like my accommodating nature because he said this thing which we won’t say, but it’s not that bad, but it’s bad. And he said this thing insinuating that I was a slut, basically. I can say that.

Aline: Yeah.

Rachel: And instead of being — and what I did in the moment was I basically — the improviser in my like yes-and it where I was just like, oh yes, yes, blah. And I basically did an improv scene with him, but then he denied. It was a whole thing. He like didn’t even play the improv scene right. And that’s what tuned me off where I’m like, okay, well you’re also just like not funny and you don’t know the basic rules of improv.

But then after he left the room I was like that guy was like okay. And Aline was like you’re going to be his boss. And he calls you like a slut? And I was like, oh yeah, I guess. And that just shows how much probably that shit is being said to like not only me but like girls all the time.

I mean, I remember I was doing a standup show in New York and someone intro’d me and was like, “Yeah, Rachel Bloom. Usually women aren’t funny, but she is because she’s hot.” It was something like — but it’s shit like that where it’s not even like — it’s just someone trying to be funny and failing. And it’s stuff you don’t even notice until someone points it out.

Aline: Well, one thing I wanted to say because in terms of transitioning from film to TV is I think sometimes there’s this thing where people say, “Oh, writers are treated so much better in television,” as if the people in television are just nicer or cooler. And that’s not the reason. It happens that way because you need empowered, intelligent showrunners who know what they’re doing and are in charge. That’s what the job is.

Craig: And sometimes you get Derek.

Aline: And sometimes — and those shows that are run by people who know what they’re doing, and are talented, and have authority and whatever, those are the shows that have done well and have made these companies millions and millions of dollars. That’s why they treat you well.

Craig: I want to hear some of this.

John: I want to hear a song.

Craig: Yeah, I want to hear a song. I want these people to get a little glimpse.

John: Is there anything you can — I mean, can you sing us something about your journey, or at least what it feels like to be in your place?

Rachel: Sure. So, I brought something — first, I would like to invite my colleague Jack Dolgen on the stage.

John: Jack Dolgen, everyone.

Rachel: This is Jack Dolgen.

John: We’ll give you the stage.

Rachel: There we go. That’s a bow. Jack has been my collaborator for many years and he was actually the head of the music department on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the pilot we just did. So, basically I heard a couple months ago that every composition John Williams writes he adds lyrics. And I’ve been too lazy to actually research this fact to see if it’s true, but it makes a lot of sense because when you think about John Williams’ music and his themes, they all kind of have this really strong melody line that kind of works with the title, right? [Hums Star Wars theme] This is a Star War, this is Star War, it’s a Star War.

You know, or like the classic one, you know, [Hums Jurassic Park theme] it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Jurassic Park, there are dinosaurs. You know, I’ve heard that a lot. I don’t know if you guys have. So, I thought, you know, Scriptnotes has a theme, but you guys don’t have lyrics, so I thought I would add lyrics to the very short Scriptnotes theme about what I thought/think as a young writer listening to Scriptnotes and the questions that I hope Scriptnotes will answer. So, this is the lyrics to the Scriptnotes theme. Thanks.

[Sings] How’d you get your agent? How’d you get your start? How do I get famous, tell me I how do I get famous? Stop with all the bullshit about outlines and denouements. Tell me how do I get famous.

Second verse.

[Sings] What’s your advice for a young writer? What book should I read? How do I get on the Black List, not that show with James Spader, or the communist thing in the ’50s, although would that make me famous? Tell me, how do I get famous? Should I become a communist? Is that what the Black List is?

It’s a confusing name for a screenwriting competition. Right? It sends a lot of mixed messages. The Crucible was written about it. Any other name but the Black List. Third verse.

[Sings] Are people buying specs? Is that worth my time? In Final Draft or Fade In? Which software is better? Which software would get me famous? Which software has more connections? Which software might know Ron Howard.

Last verse.

[Sings] Interior. My head. Close up on my face saying how do I get famous. I want to get fucking famous. So I can start my own podcast. Called how do I get famous. Won’t talk outlines and denouements, just spend hours telling people how the fuck they should get famous. And rich.

Thank you.

Craig: Well.

John: Well. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you, Jack. Our second guest –

Craig: Is that really what people — I guess that’s what they want to know, right?

John: Yeah, they do.

Craig: Is that fair to say? That’s what you want to know?

John: Hollywood dreams.

Craig: They’re not saying they don’t want to know. Segue Man, I’ve just given you kind of a softball there. Something about famous.

John: You can pick up a softball once.

Craig: Oh, I’m going to do it? No, I’m not going to take away Segue Man’s job.

John: All right. Our next guest is famous. Hey! That’s the segue. I’ve felt it now. He was a writer-producer-actor on The Office. Since then he’s starred in everything from Inglourious Basterds –

Craig: One of my favorites.

John: To Saving Mr. Banks and The Newsroom. This year he came out with two books to make us all feel really lazy. He had two books. One More Thing: Stories and other Stories and The Book with No Pictures. Let us please welcome B.J. Novak.

B.J., thank you so much for being here.

B.J. Novak: My pleasure.

Craig: How do I get famous?

John: So, tell us, how do you become famous? Rachel wants to know, so, I mean.

B.J.: I think Rachel figured it out. Yeah, well done.

John: Yeah, be on a TV show. That’s a great thing to do.

B.J.: And here you go.

John: There you go.

Craig: Or, yeah, be on a podcast, which doesn’t get shit done, but a TV show is probably better. I wanted to ask you about this book. I don’t know if you guys have seen this video. So, B.J., we know B.J. from television and we know him from movies, but you started as a writer.

B.J.: Mainly television.

Craig: No, but you are Utivich. Inglourious Basterds. Thank you.

But you wrote this book, it’s a kids book called There are No Pictures.

John: No, no, it’s not that. That’s not the title, Craig.

Craig: What’s it called?

John: The Book with No Pictures.

B.J.: Thank you.

Craig: Right. The Book with No Pictures.

John: I’m just going to watch and wait for him to say something wrong. Have you read this book?

Craig: No! I didn’t have to read it because I watched him perform it. The title is irrelevant, let’s face it. So, go on YouTube and watch B.J. read this book to kids. It’s spectacular. And just tell us a little bit about why a kids book in particular because you’re not yet a dad. Why you wanted to do a kids book and why you approached it that way?

B.J.: Well, I felt empowered to write a kids book because I had just written this other book and it was not too different from what I had done in the past in terms of having an idea, really believing in it, and psyching yourself up not getting demoralized on the weeks when it’s going terribly. And thinking I’m just going to commit myself to this and not judge whether or not I should be doing this, which took me many years to get to that stage, especially in things that were outside my comfort zone.

But once I had done that, and then I had this idea, I was reading a book to my best friend’s son who is two years old, and as he handed me the book I thought what is his dream — he doesn’t know what’s in this book. What is he hoping will happen when I open this book? Probably that I have to say all these silly things that he knew I had to say. You know, so that was the premise of this book. So, I got sort of the bigger existential answer is that I felt empowered that if I had an idea I thought was good I could follow through and be a perfectionist about it and send it to someone and see.

Craig: I love that. I actually feel it’s a very good sign for any writer to have to get to that. The writers that are born with that I find are often just terrible. Do you know what I mean?

B.J.: Well, there’s a flip side to it which I guess balances what I was able to do well which is that I am a relentless inviter of criticism. And so I started as a standup and you learn from that that it’s really the toughest test of whatever you think is brilliant to stand in front of people and to know viscerally what you hate saying because it doesn’t work, as opposed to just presuming that what you wrote is great.

So, I from that became someone who wanted to test everything I did. I wrote the stories in the last book and read them to an audience in a theater about once a month and crossed out everything in front of them that wasn’t working. And then with the kids’ book I read it to lots and lots of kids. So, I think if you are ruthless with yourself, that is a good balance to the confidence.

Craig: Agreed.

John: So your voice is literally your voice because you’ve read all these things aloud, so they have to make sense within your internal presentation.

B.J.: Yeah. I guess I have written almost nothing in my life that I haven’t read out loud in a performance setting. A few things, but little.

John: So, your book of short stories and your kids’ book, those are small enough that you can actually perform them. But if you try to write something bigger, will it scale I guess is my question? Are you trying to writer longer pieces?

Craig: Because you are, right?

B.J.: Well, on The Office, obviously I had like two lines an episode. So, it’s hardly like I performed everything I wrote if I wrote an episode. But we would still in the writer’s room, it was sort of the dessert of the day was to get to read the script out loud for all the other writers whatever you had written on your own. And we would fight, even if it had already been approved and it was like, all right, no, it’s in the script. We’d be like, no, we want to perform it. It was fun.

John: So, on The Office, were there characters that you consistently performed who weren’t, you know, the Ryan character?

B.J.: Oh, great question. Yeah. I guess I did Dwight a lot. Yeah, I don’t know.

Craig: That must have been fun.

B.J.: Yeah.

Craig: That must have been fun. But you’re heading into screenplay waters now, feature screenwriting, that’s something you’re getting into here.

B.J.: I want to, yeah.

Craig: You want to?

B.J.: Yeah.

Craig: Because you and I were talking beforehand that the experience of writing a book, the scary part and the wonderful part is it’s you. But it’s never just you when you write a screenplay by design unless, by the way, you’re Quentin Tarantino. There is a group that starts to come in and do things. I know on The Office you had that experience, but those stories are generated as a group anyway.

B.J.: You know, if I’m lucky, or even if I’m not, I’d love to come back one year from tonight on the next podcast and tell you. Because I know whatever happens, good or bad, it will throw me for a big loop.

Craig: All right, done. Done. You can come back and cry.

B.J.: But here I am, on the verge of finishing some screenplays. Yeah, I listen to the podcast. So, I don’t know. I had to learn publishing. I had to learn television. And a lot of what you learn is frustratingly irrelevant to the creative aspect.

Craig: That is accurate.

John: Tell us your backstory. How did you get on to The Office and what was your writing before then? So, you were writing from college on? And what were you writing?

B.J.: I was, you know, I was the editor in chief of my high school newspaper, the Lion’s Roar, no big deal.

Craig: It’s a good paper. That’s a good paper.

B.J.: Thank you. Some Lion’s Roar fans in the front.

John: Royal Banner, editor in chief. High school paper.

Craig: I was the editor in chief as well of my high school paper.

John: Oh, success.

Craig: And I cannot remember the name of it.

B.J.: Wow.

Craig: It’s the Freehold High School…

John: Did you have a John August in that time to sort of help you get stuff done?

Craig: I probably did. I can’t remember him, either.

John: That’s going to be great.

B.J.: You should replace the Car Talk guys.

Craig: Aw.

John: Aw. You had to bring death into it.

B.J.: Well…

Craig: B.J. Novak everybody.

John: [laughs] So high school newspaper, then were you trying to do funny at that point? Or was it just journalism?

B.J.: Yeah, that’s what I would — I would always write funny things.

Craig: Did you ever get in trouble? I got in trouble.

B.J.: Yeah. I loved it.

John: I got in trouble.

Craig: Great. So, if you haven’t been the editor in chief of your high school newspaper, get out. Ain’t happening. You’re done.

John: The ship has sailed. Or somehow find some way to go back, like that can be the high concept comedy premise is that you decide you have to go back to edit the high school paper.

Craig: Worst movie ever. So –

John: Kevin James stars as.

Craig: Poor Kevin.

John: I think Kevin is lovely, but.

B.J.: That’s the yes and to how do I get famous.

Craig: Yes and.

B.J.: Oh, I was not expecting that.

Craig: The editor and chief of your nerdy high school newspaper.

John: So, from high school to college comedy as well? Were you doing standup? What happened?

B.J.: In college I wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.

John: I’ve heard of that.

Craig: But you did not attend Harvard? You just would wander in?

B.J.: As I tell people, I went to school in Harvard Square. That’s my way of getting around that.

Craig: What a douchebag.

B.J.: And I put on a show my junior and senior year called The B.J. Show which was a variety show. And my senior year we invited Bog Saget. Just called him cold through his manager and asked if he wanted to be honored by the Harvard Lampoon, which is confusing. It sounds like Harvard is giving a degree kind of, and he said yes, and he came and performed on the show.

And I wrote, I guess my first TV spec was an episode called the Lost Episode of Full House, which we had him perform. And it was really filthy. It was fantastic.

Craig: Oh, that sounds great.

B.J.: Danny Tanner teaches his daughters about sex. And Uncle Jessie overhears and realizes that he doesn’t know what sex is, and so he teaches Uncle Jessie who then becomes obsessed with sex. It was a lot of fun.

Craig: Too many cooks. Too many cooks.

B.J.: It’s funny to reminisce on that. Unbeknownst to me he was starting up a sitcom called Raising Dad on the WB and hired me to be the edgy young writer.

Craig: Wow. That’s great.

B.J.: Any Raising Dad fans here? Yup.

Craig: There he is. I’m so puzzled why it got canceled.

B.J.: Not as many as the Lion’s Roar.

Craig: Yeah. [laughs] It’s actually got fewer people than the Lion’s Roar.

B.J.: Yeah. Fewer people than my high school paper.

Craig: It lost in the ratings to the Lion’s Roar. Oh, man, that’s awesome. Now, you also — you had an experience that I am so envious of and that is that you got to perform in a Quentin Tarantino movie. And I am such a big, big fan of him. What was that like getting a screenplay from Quentin Tarantino?

B.J.: That was exciting just to read. I was going to San Diego, The Office cast was going to Comic Con early in The Office. And I got that script which if anyone ever got a hold of it, the cover page was red and handwritten. It was dramatic. He’s very dramatic. Even the cover page was dramatic. And it was very exciting to have this Quentin Tarantino script. And I’m reading it.

At this point I’m sure everyone knows what happens in Inglourious Basterds, but it’s this fantastic screenplay. The first 20 pages were the best 20 pages I had ever read. And it just went on from there. And there are three simultaneous plots to kill Hitler. And I’m getting towards the end of the movie wondering how these plots are going to fail.

And 15 pages away, ten pages away, and I’m thinking they seem pretty on track. I guess like poor guy, it’s like what’s going to happen. And then like five pages from the end I was like, holy shit, I think they’re just going to work. And they did and it just blew my mind that this movie had so much creative freedom. It assumed so much creative freedom that it could be relatively realistic, although in retrospect there were all kinds of things that were complete fantasy. But they seemed to be worthwhile artistic tangents to an actual historical setting. And then it ended up being as imaginative as anything you’d see in science fiction.

And at the end of a Tarantino movie, and yet it made perfect creative sense, but you never would have thought of it.

Craig: Right. You were saying that it just came to you as you finished it that, oh yeah, that’s right, this is fiction.

B.J.: This is fiction.

Craig: Yeah, you forget.

B.J.: A writer, and the movie thing. Come on.

Craig: There is a great lesson in that. Copying Tarantino is the worst thing you can do.

B.J.: The whole ’90s taught us that.

Craig: Yes. Precisely. But his fearlessness and you see it in other filmmakers and other writers, too, who write screenplays and they have no concern with you or anybody reading it and going what the fuck. In a way that reaction is a good one.

B.J.: Yeah. People copy the wrong things about Tarantino.

Craig: They do. Exactly. Like some of the wordiness.

B.J.: Yeah, like the surf music, or the leather jackets, or the few times that there’s a distracting camera move to show off. What should be imitated about a Tarantino movie is the sense of surprise, the sense of absolutely joy in storytelling which actually makes his movies much more accessible and even linear, even though they’re often told in non-linear forms. The scenes are actually usually shot very simply and very easy to understand. And if you compare it to the larger trend in filmmaking with complete chaos of movement and lack of static composition for any reason whatsoever, the movies are sort of old fashioned. And they’re actually so much more riveting and easy to follow.

And the way he works with actors is like the way a college drama teacher would take extra care in what your backstory is and what you’re feeling. I mean, he’s the most old fashioned director out there, even though what people often take from him are the few things that are so youthful and new, which are exciting, but you just take for granted the basic things that should be copied.

Craig: And you get to be in the last shot of a Quentin Tarantino film, which is amazing.

John: What you’re describing is the confidence. It’s the confidence you see in the directing style, but it’s the confidence you see in the writing, too. So, the decision to kill Hitler at the end — a spoiler — at the end of Inglourious Basterds, that’s a confidence. And you felt the confidence the whole way through.

B.J.: Yes.

John: I remember the first screenplay I ever read twice like back to back was his script for Natural Born Killers. And I was in college and I read it and got to the last page and was like well I have to read this again like right from the start. And you sense that he had — this whole world of the movie made sense and it all fit together in a way that I desperately wanted to see.

And that’s a case of copying the right things. Copying the spirit, the inventiveness.

B.J.: I wonder how much of that was his determination to direct them. And I know he didn’t direct Natural Born Kills, but I wonder if you approach it assuming that everything is going to be exactly as you wrote it, if you might approach it differently as opposed to trying to make sort of the perfect screenplay, you try to make the screenplay that’s most you. There might be a difference there.

Craig: We do say to people all the time that the only way they’re ultimately going to break through the clutter and the noise of all the people that are trying to write is to be somebody that is unique. And it’s hard, because frankly a lot of people just aren’t unique, but then I think a lot of people are and they take all the wrong lessons from the cottage industry of how do I get famous.

Well, you don’t want to do that, and you don’t want to do this, and you don’t want to do that. Well, why are you saying that? Because most other people aren’t doing it. That’s why you might want to do it, you know. That’s why you might want to write a kid’s book with no pictures in it. I mean, that would be a first, I think. No one else has done that, unless did you rip somebody off?

B.J.: I hope not.

John: All right.

Craig: Awesome.

John: So, you’re writing for features now and we’re going to see an awesome movie out of you I think. I think you’re going to make a really kick ass movie.

Craig: Agreed.

B.J.: Thank you.

John: Is this a movie you would want to direct yourself, or something you would want someone else to come onboard to do?

B.J.: We will check in a year from now.

John: One year from now.

B.J.: I want to, yes, I want to direct what I do.

John: All right. We want you to direct what you’re going to do.

Craig: We do.

John: I’d like some applause for B.J. Novak directing his movie.

B.J.: Hey, thanks guys.

John: B.J., thank you so much for being on the show.

B.J.: I love the show. I listen all the time.

Craig: Thank you. Look at that.

B.J.: This show is my One Cool Thing.

John: Aw.

Craig: Aw. Thank you, B.J. B.J. Novak.

John: Thank you so much.

Craig: Segue — Segue Man.

John: Segue Man. So, we’re going to do this sort of like the Academy Awards where we have to read off the same thing.

Craig: Oh, we are?

John: Next up we have two guests joining us. She is a writer-producer on shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Tru Calling, Andy Barker, P.I., Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, and Once Upon a Time. She is also the co-creator of the web series Husbands which is also available as a graphic novel and is great.

Craig: He, Adele Nazeem, has written features including Too Fast, Too Furious, Wanted, and 3:10 to Yuma, and co-created NBC TV shows Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. He’s also a novelist with many series, multiple series, including the honored Silver Bear trilogy. Please welcome…

John: Jane Espenson.

Craig: And Derek Haas.

Derek Haas: Good to see you.

John: Oh, Derek.

Derek: I feel like I was the butt of all the jokes earlier.

Craig: Not yet.

John: Extra material saved.

Craig: Oh yeah.

Derek: Oh god.

John: We’ve been talking a lot about TV and that’s partly why I wanted Jane Espenson here, because no one has taught me more about TV honestly than Jane. So, people who have been around for awhile, have you read Jane’s blog?

So, she created this amazing blog which is sort of in archive now. You’re not updating anymore.

Jane Espenson: I haven’t updated in many years. But, you can’t tell that because the entries aren’t dated. They just have the month. So, everybody thinks it’s still new and fresh.

John: And it’s still new and fresh because there are things on there that are just great and there are terms that I did not know existed until you had blogged about them. So, I want to go through some terms and just get the live version answer of what some of these things are.

Jane: Sure.

John: Hang a lantern. What does hang a lantern mean?

Jane: All right. So, these are terms that are used in writer’s rooms, and some are specific to one room, and some are sort of universal. And hang a lantern is universal where if you want to let the viewer’s know, and yeah, let the viewers know that something isn’t a mistake, that it’s something you’re doing intentionally, you just hang a little lantern on it. So, you put a little thing in the script that says something like, “You don’t know yet that this character has a secret, but keep on them because you’ll know in the next act,” or something like that where you just indicate in the script a little something that’s just you sort of whispering in the ear of the reader or viewer.

That’s also something that you can do — and maybe the more typical use of it is if you have a character say out loud something like, “Well, that seemed like an odd coincidence.”

Craig: It’s like covering a mistake kind of thing.

Jane: Yeah. I think that’s the more common usage of it. It’s halfway between covering the mistake and letting the audience know it’s not a mistake. You’re pointing out something before the viewer can criticize it. You’re pointing right at it.

John: Yeah. Look at this thing I just did right there.

Jane. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s sort of the equivalent of like saying, “I know I’ve got a big zit on my nose, but what are you going to do?” You say it before someone else can say it.

John: Yes. Sort of like our emails. I was owning the story before it happened.

Jane: Right. Exactly.

Craig: I forgot about that. You reminded me.

John: I’m sorry. We’re having a good time and I bring up bad things. A joke on a joke? You also are hat on a hat, banana on a banana.

Jane: Yeah, bananas and bananas. Yes, this is — it’s really hard to think of examples of it. You know it when you hear it. But so I was sitting there trying to think of one and I thought there is a joke in an episode of husbands that Brad Bell and I wrote where they’re talking about one of the guys really likes cleaning out the pool and he says, “Because I feel like a teeny man with a giant spoon,” and it always gets a big laugh, I mean, not here.

Craig: Hanging a lantern.

Jane: Yes! But when a professional actor performs it, it’s hilarious. And I was thinking like we could have ruined that joke by going like you know what, like we’re working with this image that it’s like the swimming pool is a big thing of soup, and what are the floaty things called in pools? They’re called noodles. Well, that’s got to fit in that joke somehow. “It’s like I’m a teeny man with a giant spoon and giant noodles.” And then you’re like the audience doesn’t know which bit of the joke to laugh at. There’s two jokes that are fighting each other there.

John: Great. House number. I don’t even know what this is and you suggested house number.

Jane: House number. That’s when you know, it’s a sort of this but not this kind of pitch, when you’re saying like this isn’t the joke but this is the house number of the joke.

Craig: Like you’re on the street. Or this is the key of the song. It’s not the melody, or that kind of thing?

Jane: Yes. I have never heard a definitive explanation from where it comes from. The best explanation I heard is just like in sort of a jazz club, the jazz band may have just sort of the house number, the thing that they play when they’re just sort of noodling around without playing a specific song. So, it’s like you say, well, I don’t know what the joke is, but I’m pretty sure it’s a joke about Liza Minnelli-ish, you know, it’s something.

Craig: Ooh, I like that.

John: [Crosstalk] for Liza Minnelli. Leads very well into clam. Tell us about clams.

Jane: A clam is any old familiar joke, pretty much any joke you’ve heard before.

Craig: There’s no way I’m going to go to that party.

Jane: Yeah. I mean, that’s a flip joke, a specific type of joke.

Derek: He’s coming back in three, two…

Craig: Hey guys.

Derek: Is he right there?

John: Oh yeah, is he right there. Yes.

Craig: He’s right behind me, isn’t he?

Jane: All of those. And you’ve heard them a million times and you can say them along with the TV. And you’re obviously in your own writing — you avoid those. Don’t — sometimes very young writers usually, none of you people, but very young writers will often feel like they’re on the right crack because the words are really flowing, and they know it’s funny because they’ve heard it before. And it’s like that’s the trap of the clam.

Craig: Derek, do you have those, I mean, do you have any special terms? Because you have an empire of television. You’ve got two primetime hit shows running simultaneously that are both in their same universe. Do your writing rooms have like terms that are specific to you guys?

Derek: The only one, see, I had never done television until two years ago, so all of this was pretty new to me. But the only one that we have is when there’s an absolutely home run out of the park idea then you get the double overhead shaka which is this, but with — but you can fake them out. You can be like, [yawns].

Craig: That was pretty boring and you’re fired. Yeah.

Derek: But we, I mean, all of these terms are just pretty common screenwriting terms, but I hear it different ways. Like you’ll say it will be something like — not this, but something like this.

John: Yeah.

Jane: Which helps you, because I mean, yes, in comedy rooms and drama rooms, part of the trick of pitching is that you have to be able to pivot away from your own pitch so that you can quickly get on board with whatever sells. So, you often don’t want to go in with too much, “I’ve got it,” because if you don’t got it, how do you then commit to thing over here. So, you often downplay your own pitch.

Craig: That’s crafty.

Derek: We’ll say building on that. Okay, building on that, blah, blah, blah.

Jane: Yes.

Craig: I wouldn’t last a minute because I’d be like, “I’ve got it. Everyone, I’ve got it. And if you disagree you’re dumb.” And then that would be it.

John: So, Craig and I have never been –

Craig: Right? I’d be fired.

Jane: Well. Maybe.

Craig: If I get fired, I want to be fired by you. You’re nice. You’d be like, “Well, maybe you’re fired.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah. You are.”

John: So, Craig and I have never done a real writer’s room for TV. Are you allowed to say things, well, bad version but. Is that an okay?

Jane: Oh bad version, that’s the quintessential version of that.

Craig: Do you guys do that over in Chicago Fire, too?

Derek: Yeah, we do the exact same thing.

John: And do you ever film a good version?

Derek: [laughs].

John: Sorry. [laughs] I’m sorry. I don’t know why, that was me. I apologize. I’m so sorry.

Craig: Do you know how — he’s going to have $40 million in like a year.

John: Oh, no, he already –

Derek: Oh please.

Craig: It’s going to be amazing.

Derek: That’s all brand.

John: It’s all brand.

Craig: [laughs] It’s all brand. Whose brand?

John: So, you’re allowed to pitch, okay, this is the terrible version, but this is going to get us to where we need to go? So you’re trying to fill the big white board of like how we’re going to do this moment?

Jane: Yeah, but you’re taking it too literal. You actually say this is the bad version even when it’s the good version.

John: Oh, okay, that’s the trick.

Jane: It’s the trick. And it sounds –

Derek: That happens a lot where somebody will say, okay not this, but something like this. And they say it and you’re like, no, no, that.

Jane: That’s it. Yeah.

Derek: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing.

Jane: Exactly. And it sounds bad, because it sounds like the exact thing that any like management book will say don’t do this is like, you know, have confidence in your idea. But because TV is so committee driven and you have to be ready to get behind whatever horse is leading the horse race of whatever the showrunner is liking, you have to under pitch.

Derek: That reminds me of the bad thing you get in the writer’s room is the repeater. So, somebody will say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if Mouch had a dog?” And you’re like, “Oh, you know what I like about that is if he had a dog, Mouch would, he’s have that dog.” You just took up ten seconds of my life.

Craig: And kind of indicated that your brain is empty.

Derek: Yeah. That happens a lot.

John: All right, so since we have two people who have experience with writer’s rooms, a thing came up this last week and you guys could actually help us figure this out. This was on The Newsroom, and people have actually probably read stories about this. So, this last week there was a controversy, it’s the Aaron Sorkin show The Newsroom and there’s sort of two controversies.

The first was about a plot line on a recent episode which was a campus rape and the whole story with the characters in there and sort of what they do. And people were not delighted about sort of the things that happen in the show. The controversy that matters to us is a staff writer on the show, Alena Smith, she tweeted about the show and this is what she tweeted. So, I’m running all of these tweets together.

“As Emily Nussbaum points out in her review of tonight’s episode, you can’t criticize Sorkin without turning in to one of his characters. So, when I tried to argue in the writer’s room that maybe we skip the storyline where a rape victim gets interrogated by a random man, I ended up getting kicked out of the room and screamed at just like Hallie would have been for a bad tweet. I found the experience quite boring. I wanted to fight with Aaron about the NSA, not gender. I didn’t like getting cast in this outdated role.”

So, these are tweets that happened from a staff writer after the show aired. Sorkin came back with a longer statement, but the gist of it was –

Craig: Surprisingly, it was a very long statement.

John: A long statement.

Craig: But to be read very quickly and it was very articulate.

John: It really was.

Jane: While walking into [crosstalk].

Craig: Exactly.

John: It’s more of a walk and talk. It really was great.

Craig: Really good statement.

John: In part, I’m just going to read part of it, “I was even more surprised when she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writer’s room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private intimate details of their lives in hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.”

So, this was a situation on The Newsroom, and obviously we don’t know everything about this situation, but I want to ask you guys about that sense of the confidentiality in the room and how important is it that the stuff that happens in the room stay in the room in general?

Jane: I mean, I’m torn about it because I think we are maybe a little precious with writer’s rooms. Particularly I wish that people whose job is to review TV had the experience of coming in and sitting in a writer’s room and seeing how it works. I think there’s a lot of misconception among writers and fans about how a writer’s room works.

On the other hand it’s true, you need the freedom to express your opinion in a writer’s room and bring up personal things. And it’s very much like a family. You’ve got stuff that happens in your family. If you go to school the next day and say what you saw — what you heard mother saying about the neighbors, you know, it’s not cool. The family has its own privacy unless there’s something that you think that’s so harmful that’s going on in your family that rises to the level where you feel that you have to — that there’s something that goes beyond privacy.

And clearly she, I have no idea if it was justified or not, but she felt that it was worthwhile to break that privacy.

Craig: Derek, what do you?

Derek: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not torn about it. I hope that the room is confidential. I mean, the shit we say in that room that generates the good ideas or the bad ideas, but gets us somewhere. I mean, we’re constantly thinking of the worst thing that a character could say, or the worst thing that we would say about a situation and, I mean, if the transcripts got out, we’d all be fired. The whole point is to generate discussions that make things interesting and surprise people and surprise the viewer.

And if you don’t feel like the stuff I say in here is now going to be broadcast out to the world, which sounds more and more like that’s the reality, it’s going to be a disservice to the creativity of the show.

John: Well, it strikes me that coming from a features side, I’m used to like the whole writing is happening in my brain. And so my brain can do everything it needs to do and think these terrible thoughts. But that thinking happens out loud in a writer’s room. And that thinking, it’s a group brain doing this, and so all that terrible stuff will come out sometimes.

Craig: This had come up before. I think it was a lawsuit by a writer’s assistant from Friends.

John: You’re right.

Craig: And in the depositions she was reporting on some of the things they had said. And part of the deal with writing rooms, and B.J., maybe you’ve experienced this on The Office is you kind of have to go too far in order to go far enough. Like, okay, that’s too far. One back, we’re good, because otherwise everything will be mild.

But this is a slightly different situation because this is really one about, I mean, this is I think perhaps unique to a Sorkin show. His show is about controversial political issues. And it sounds like they had a pretty passionate impassioned debate about the specific issue. And the writer felt that the show was taking a point of view that was hostile to what she thought was right.

I don’t know the timeline of whether or not she was there to write that episode, or if she was there all season.

John: I checked and the credit on the episode is Aaron Sorkin, but apparently –

Craig: Again, no surprise.

John: Yes, but from what it says, and from people who have worked on shows with him, there’s a writer’s room that generates sort of the story and then he writes the script. And I don’t know what the situation was on this.

What I worry about though is, Derek, in sort of having that absolute sense of like everything has to stay in the room, a lot of terrible behavior could happen in that room. And if you are a writer who is suffering some mistreatment in that room, it’s going to be challenging. Or it could be a challenging for a woman or a minority or someone else to –

Derek: I just think we’re going to go — we’re in a culture now, I mean, not to get too much into it, but we’re in a culture now that everybody is waiting to be offended and also everybody is waiting to broadcast to it the masses and to catch people and embarrass them. And it’s happening on a gigantic scale right now. I don’t know, if I had to — if you have to worry about it, what you’re doing, and then you’re trying to make a creative endeavor, I just think of all the people in history if they thought that their innermost thoughts or even group thoughts were then going to be broadcast, what ideas wouldn’t have been generated?

Craig: Like Hitler?

John: Yeah. What is the rule whenever like Hitler gets brought up the discussion is over?

Craig: I Godwin’d it.

John: Yeah, Godwin’s Law. Yes. We’re in a strange time now, because the fact that she could tweet this and she had a broadcasting mechanism in Twitter, even five years ago she wouldn’t have had the ability to sort of publicly state these things and get the attention of national press. So, it’s a really unique situation.

Derek: Well, it also becomes a he said/she said in a lot of ways, too. Because what somebody else perceives may not be, you know, it takes intention out of it. There’s all sorts of, like somebody who is aggrieved, not to blame the victim, all of that kind of stuff, but there are two sides to some of these stories and it’s like, you know, maybe if you had a writer who you thought wasn’t doing as well and then you went into their office and said, “Look, you’re going to have to up your game and blah, blah, blah.”

And then they tweet something about somebody yelled at me in my office, well that’s not what happened. But now I feel — not that that’s happened — but I can just see where an aggrieved party now has a voice to make it, I don’t know.

John: Well, let’s talk about the writer’s voice, though, because you guys both have shows on the air. And do you have to tweet, do you live tweet your episodes, Jane?

Jane: I do sometimes, yes.

John: Sometimes, yeah. So, is that a thing that is expected of you now, or is it something you do just because you’re awesome?

Jane: I think it varies from show to show. Some shows, yes, you are expected to live tweet your episode. I have not been asked to, but I like interacting with people on Twitter.

John: And Derek?

Derek: John, you live it when I love tweet my shows.

John: I love it when you live tweet your shows.

Craig: You do the best thing where you do the ten questions. I got to wake up early and do that again with you.

Derek: I do ten questions on Wednesdays and Sundays only because then I don’t have to answer questions the rest of the week. But we do live tweet the shows and NBC is gigantic on social media, wanting everybody, cast and crew and producers, to tweet it.

John: So, but my question is how much do you really engage with the fan base because particularly on a show like Once Upon a Time, there’s got to be people that are so invested in sort of these two characters, how personal do you get with them, or do you engage them on their — ?

Jane: Yeah, I try to be considerate of everyone. My catchphrase is I love all the ships, because I think there’s a feeling right now that you’re not being a good fan if you’re not advocating for something, or you’re not agitating for one particular aspect of the show. So, the people who ship Hook and Emma versus the people who ship Regina and Robin Hood and sort of see themselves in competition, and so I try to just like — I think there’s a perception that what we do in the writer’s room is like, oh, and I’m a fan of this ship, and I’m a fan that ship. And it’s not what the show is about.

Craig: Did that start whole Team Edward/Team the other guy? What do you want a team of a guy who’s not real?

Jane: No, because this goes farther back. There were Buffy people versus Spike people. That’s one reason that I kind of wish people knew more of what was going on in the room and what the process of writing is like and why I am glad there are things like this podcast that you get sort of an inside view of what the room is like, because we love all the ships. We are invested in every single relationship on the show.

And so I think — I enjoy interacting with the fans and hearing what they think and what they want to see, but I hope they don’t feel too much like they are letting down any particular storyline that they want on the show if they aren’t out there lobbying for it because that can be a bit –

Craig: I have a question for you two on behalf of what I presume are a number of people here who would like to be where you guys are, in the writing rooms, working on television. When we started in the business, and probably when you guys started in the business, the deal was if you wanted to get on a show you would write a spec of that show. So, you’d write a sample episode of Once Upon a Time or Chicago P.D. and they would read it and go, yup, this is seems like the sort of thing.

Jane: So you wouldn’t be writing it for the show that you were trying to get on.

Craig: You’d be writing for some other show.

Jane: Right. Exactly.

Craig: So like if you wanted to get on Chicago Fire you’d write one for Chicago P.D., no, I’m just kidding. But that’s gone. It seems like the trend now is you guys want to see people’s original work. You want to see essentially either a feature film or a feature screenplay rather or a script for their own pilot.

Jane: A spec pilot. Well, everybody seems to read except me. If I were staffing a show, I like the old fashioned system because you have to see if someone can write for voices they didn’t create. But –

Craig: What do you think, Derek?

Derek: I think the best way into a writer’s room if you can get a job working as an assistant or a PA in the office around the production and you’re around the writers and you get into that writer’s room and we hired two of our assistants for PAs last year on the staff. And they wrote specs of the show. I bet a majority of the staff t was original pilots because to me it’s not that hard to imitate a show that has 60 episodes, but I really want to see you surprise me with those first ten pages, or those first 20 pages.

And we’ve hired a couple of playwrights. It doesn’t matter the format. I feel like you can figure out if people can write.

Jane: So, the assistants who get bumped up to staff, you’re saying you asked them to write a spec of the exact show?

Derek: Well, they all did. They could do whatever they wanted, but that’s the choice that they made.

Jane: Oh, I love that. That’s very cool. Because then you can really see if they can write, not just write, but write your show. That’s what I really love.

Craig: That seems like a good blend, because I see both of your points. I mean, you don’t want somebody that wows you with their script and simply cannot write for anything that you’re doing. On the other hand, if all you want are mimics, then you already have a room full of people doing the show, so I can see the balance of it.

Derek: But I want original voice and original, you know, I mean B.J. mentioned surprise — to me that’s the best, like if you want to be screenwriter that’s what you’ve got to do on almost every page is surprise me with dialogue or surprise me with a plot twist or surprise everybody. The viewers are going to be surprised when they see it. And I feel like you can do that easier with an original spec than you can with writing one of our shows.

Craig: Awesome.

John: That’s great. It’s time for plugs. So, you are Once Upon a Time right now.

Jane: Once Upon a Time, yeah.

Craig: My daughter loves that show, by the way.

Jane: Oh, yay.

Derek: Once Upon a Time is Frozen [crosstalk].

Jane: This half-season. But the Frozen arc is concluding this Sunday and then new stuff starts happening.

Craig: She’s been just binge-watching those. She loves them. Loves them.

John: So, you have this and that’s taking you through the end of –

Jane: This season.

John: Through the spring, yeah.

Jane: And also Husbands, the online show that I created with Brad Bell, which we are hoping to make an announcement soon about more of that.

John: Awesome.

Derek: Great.

John: Congratulations. And, Derek, what should we look for? Another book?

Derek: I’m hopefully going to have another book out next December, so I’m supposed to — it’s due in February, but I don’t know how I’m going to do it.

John: The laziness of not writing a novel while writing two shows.

Craig: Yeah, because you’ve written 12 novels and you have two television shows. So, come on, man.

Derek: I got to step it up.

John: And has this taken over all your future? I don’t honestly know.

Derek: No, I mean, we’re fully on, I mean, we have 46 episodes to put out this year.

Craig: It’s amazing. Just amazing.

John: I want you to give Derek Haas from two years ago some piece of advice about TV. Like something you didn’t know going in that you now understand so much better.

Derek: Wow. Derek, I think –

John: If you had a full head of hair.

Derek: Yeah. The hardest thing for me was a writing staff. I had never done, like you guys, I had never done it before. I’d never been in that room before. I didn’t know how to tell someone that I didn’t like their idea. I feel bad. Or, letting the best idea win. All of those kinds of things.

So, I think the me now if I could go in and tell him like listen and the good ideas are going to emerge. Don’t be frustrated in the first five minutes. All of those kinds of things.

Craig: Awesome.

John: Awesome. Jane and Derek, thank you so much.

Craig: Thank you, guys.

John: All right, so in lieu of One Cool Things, we’re going to — my One Cool Thing is going to be Craig Mazin, I think.

Craig: Oh, I’ve got a little treat for you guys.

John: Craig is going to treat us to a musical performance. And that’s pretty great. So while he’s getting setup, I want to give some thank yous.

So, I want to thank all of our amazing guests. Thank you very, very much for being here. You are terrific.

We need to thank the Writers Guild Foundation. So Chris Kartje and sort of this whole Writers Guild Foundation, this is a fundraiser for them, but they’re awesome and they do great work with veterans groups and kids groups, young storytellers. They’re awesome, so thank you very much for hosting us.

Thank you to LA Film School for literally letting us use their theater. That’s really great. There will be links to the things we talked about at show notes,, standard routine.

Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel. This is the actual Stuart Friedel. He’s right here. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Matthew, please stand up. Matthew is the one — Matthew also does our amazing outros, so he did the Peanuts intro tonight. He’s just the best. So, thank you very much.

Craig: That was Peanuts.

John: Peanuts. With a T there. It’s crucial. And, Craig, would you play us out?

Craig: Play us out, play us off, Keyboard Kat. Well, it’s Christmastime and I thought you guys would like a little Christmas song. This is by a couple of my favorite show tune composer-lyricists and it’s, I mean, it’s a standard tune. Everybody sings it all the time, but it’s how I feel the most at Christmastime. So, I thought I would share it with you. It’s nice and brief.

[Craig sings The Lonely Jew on Christmas from South Park].

Craig: Merry Christmas Scriptnotes listeners. Thank you. Thank you.


Shipping 8,000 Kickstarter rewards in one minute

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 17:55

Last week, we shipped out 8,000 Writer Emergency Packs to our Kickstarter backers. The bulk of the packing happened in three days, so I set up a time-lapse camera to document the process.

Here’s the finished video.

You can read the full update about how we did it in the Kickstarter update.

Twelve Days of Scriptnotes

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 08:03

Craig and John welcome special guests Aline Brosh McKenna, Rachel Bloom, B.J. Novak, Jane Espenson and Derek Haas to talk about writing books, movies and especially television.

Aline and Rachel just finished shooting a pilot called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We discuss the genesis of the project, and how sexism is just stupid.

B.J. tells us about the joy of reading Inglorious Basterds, and how the key to success is apparently editing your high school newspaper.

Jane and Derek teach us what really goes on in the writers room, from secret lingo to codes of silence.

Plus there are songs!

Recorded with a live audience at LA Film School as a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation. Huge thanks to everyone who came and supported the show.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 174: Hacks, Transference and Where to Begin — Transcript

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 13:33

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 174 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, first most important question — what are you going to wear to the live show on Thursday?

Craig: Oh, right, yeah, wardrobe. I was thinking I would maybe deviate from my normal outfit and wear pants and a shirt again.

John: All right. Shirt but now sweater? Because I don’t want to be twinsies. That’s the thing I worry about most in life is being twinsies.

Craig: Twinsies. Yeah, no chance we will twins up with you in a sweater. I don’t wear sweaters. I never grew past the sweater is itchy phase.

John: All right. That makes sense. So, I know the best dressed person will be Aline Brosh McKenna.

Craig: Always.

John: Because she’s Aline. Rachel Bloom, who is the guest that she’s bringing, I also suspect cares about what she wears because she’s an actress, but I think she probably wears clothes that suit the character she’s playing.

Craig: Frankly, I hope she’s a slob, because I need help. I need comparative people to look — I hope she looks like a disheveled wreck.

John: Well let’s go through all of our guests on the live show and figure out whether we think they care about what they wear. So, Jane Espenson, I bet she dresses for comfort most of the time, but if there’s a reason to dress up, like a costume kind of thing, I bet she is the one who is so in to the costume thing.

Craig: Yeah. So I think that we’ve got some geek chic going on there with Jane. I would say that she will be just perfectly casual and classy looking, but nothing over the top. And she won’t be as carefully crafted as Aline.

John: Yes. There won’t be brands necessarily, but there will be an idea behind it. There will be a theme behind it.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s the important thing.

Craig: Because Aline is half French. People don’t know that.

John: Yes. That’s a crucial thing.

Craig: Yes, so she has the French person’s sense of style.

John: Aline is actually coming over to my house on Wednesday to speak French, just to speak French.

Craig: Oh, really?

John: That just happens. She has a French conversation group.

Craig: Why not?

John: So, B.J. Novak, does B.J. Novak care about how he looks?

Craig: Yes.

John: I think he does.

Craig: 100 percent.

John: So, we’ll see what he looks like dressing live. Now, Derek Haas, people might think that Derek Haas dresses down, but they don’t know that Derek Haas is a major polo player and he really does dress up in that sort of Ralph Lauren look a lot. So, I’m fascinated to see what he wears.

Craig: I think what you mean is that Derek’s wife dresses him up in that look.

John: Well, exactly, well the same way that you dress up little children to look adorable. She does that.

Craig: Yeah. Kristi just sort of looks at him as a paper doll. Plus, he’s bald so you can put on wigs, hats.

John: The fun never stops.

Craig: It never stops. Never starts.

John: If you attend the show live on Thursday, and there might be some tickets left. Who knows? They may have released some. You would see what we wear. But if you’re just going to listen to the audio podcast you’ll miss out on that sort of visual experience of the show.

Craig: Right.

John: So, next week’s episode will be the audio from our live show cut down with all the terrible and slanderous things taken out.

Craig: Yeah. This time we’re going to take the terrible things out. [laughs]

John: It’s a lesson we learned from last time, Craig.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t know what we were thinking.

John: We weren’t thinking very well.

Craig: No, you know what? We forgot that people pay attention.

John: That’s a dangerous thing.

Craig: Well, look, the good news is that the internet tends to take things in stride, carefully consider them, and them, and then make reasoned, thoughtful commentary about them.

John: Yes. I think really what the comment button, when they put that timer on it that says 15 minutes, basically like you click the little link and then it gives you 15 minutes to think about it. And then it asks you like, hey, did you really want to post that? And then you can decide, yeah, maybe, yes, no. And that 15-minute pause that they put in on all comments on all sites, I think that’s really helped the conversation.

Craig: I actually have been kind of quietly excited by the slow disappearance of comments. You know, the major publications are just getting rid of them now. They’ve given up. I mean, they just know what’s coming.

John: I was ahead of the curve on that one, because I used to have comments on the blog.

Craig: You were.

John: And it’s just exhausting. And you used to have comments on your blog. You used to have a blog and now I saw that it actually has fallen away. It has disappeared.

Craig: Yes. I had a blog way back when called The Artful Writer. And it was most active I would say around 2005 to 2010, those five years, which were I think peak blog years anyway. And it might have gone longer but during the strike it was under enormous scrutiny to the point where the Wall Street Journal did an article about it. And I was not prepared for that, frankly, nor was I prepared for the amount of attention I would need to give to it. And, also, the strike was a big newsworthy event and when it was over it just seemed like I kind of lost so much vim and vigor for the whole enterprise.

That said, the worst part of it were the comments because, I mean, frankly I was writing about a lot of controversial things during a controversial time and, you know, we had crazy people. A lot of them. A lot of crazies.

John: Crazies are crazy.

Craig: Angry.

John: And so it was abandoning your blog which sort of led me to think about, hey, Craig might still have opinions and might share them in an audio format, and so that became this podcast.

Craig: It did. And I was so glad when you called me because I thought, oh, thank god, I can stop writing.

John: Mm, it’s a nice thing.

Craig: You still do it though. You still write. Although not the way you used to.

John: I blog a lot less than I used to, but I still do blog sometimes.

Craig: I mean, god, if there’s more to say after this hour every week after 100 — this is our 174th!

John: It’s madness. But let’s get to the topics for today. Today we’re going to talk about this big Sony hack and what it means –

Craig: Oh boy.

John: And what it doesn’t mean. And how frustrating and infuriating it is for everybody involved. We’re going to ask the question how far back do I go, how far back do you need to go into your characters’ back stories in order to understand them well enough to be writing them in your movie. And we’re going to talk about transference and what it means on a psychological level and what it means for writers and their process.

But, first, we have some news that the good folks at Sundance, so I’ve been helping out at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab for many years. And Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab is a fantastic program where they take filmmakers and we sit down with them and we talk about the scripts and it helps them get their scripts into great shape before they shoot.

This last year was the first year they did an episodic storytelling lab. So, episodic meaning television or things that are kind of like television. And they’ve asked us to open the floodgates so they can get new material in there for the next episodic story lab which will be in the fall of 2015.

Craig: Great.

John: So, this is an open call for submissions. It’s a February 11 deadline, so don’t dilly or dally. But essentially what they’re looking for are emerging writers and writer directors from all different mediums, including probably people who are listening to this podcast. These can people who have written a pilot script for a show but they have not had anything produced yet for television.

The goal is to get these people into the program, and then the same way that in the Screenwriter’s Lab they’re sitting down with professional screenwriters. You’re going to be sitting down with people who are big showrunners and they’re going to be talking you through how you would make this show. How you would work your pilot into the best possible shape, but how you actually run a show, which is such a crucial and very different thing than making a movie.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, there will be a link in the show notes for where you can find out information about applying, but it’s really a great program and I’m so happy that Sundance has broadened its mandate beyond just making great indie films, to start making great television as well.

Craig: The Writers Guild has a fantastic program that was started many years ago by Jeff Melvoin I believe primarily called the Showrunner Training Program. And it’s actually supported in part by the companies, because they have a vested interest in making sure that they’re people out there who can actually run these shows. And hopefully the folks that go through the Sundance episodic story lab do appreciate that they’re getting this fantastic insight into one of the strangest jobs in Hollywood, which is writer/showrunner.

You’re an artist and you’re an executive. And it’s a fascinating combination of things to have to think about all of the stuff that we think about as writers — theme, and character, and episodes, and all the rest of it — and also salaries, staffs, scheduling, budgets. It’s such a strange thing.

For those of us in features, it’s foreign to us. But in television, it’s everything.

John: The other big challenge in addition to the management function is to be able to think about story, not just in the context of this one two-hour block, but think about how story will feel over the course of many, many episodes. And what the experience for an audience will be encountering these same characters week after week, or episode after episode depending on how it’s structured. It’s a very different kind of thing. And I think the Sundance folks were very smart to be looking at who are the television equivalents of these advisers that they’ve been bringing in for the film lab.

So, I think it should be a great program.

Craig: Awesome. Good for them.

John: Less good for anybody was what happened at Sony this last week.

Craig: Good god.

John: So, basically essentially all of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computers got hacked in a very massive way. As we’re recording this on Sunday, it’s not entirely clear who did this. It’s not entirely clear what the endgame of it will be, but if you work for Sony Pictures your last week has just been horrible.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a really bad situation. I mean, the rumor is that it was the North Korean government in response to the upcoming Sony/Columbia film The Interview, which is a parody I guess of the North Korean government. And that may be true. I mean, the one thing that it does seem is that this was far more of an aggressive planned attack than your average script kiddy going bonkers, or even a more impressive like Anonymous targeting something.

This was really big. And it didn’t help that Sony did seem a little unprepared. I read a — I mean, they rushed out a letter from the firm they’ve hired now. They’ve hired a cyber security firm and the cyber security firm says, “Gee golly, no one could have ever seen this coming,” which is a fairly decent job of covering your butt except, yeah, you can see it coming.

Everybody should just presume it’s coming. That’s part of the problem. So, they made the hacker’s job a little easier. Apparently they were keeping passwords in unencrypted Word files. I mean, that’s a disaster. That’s not something that you need a North Korean cyber terrorist to untwine. So, it seems like this was a combination of a very bad malicious effort with, frankly some, or let’s just say less-than-best security practices.

But, unfortunately it’s one of those things that reveals people’s true natures. So, they put this information out there, much in the way that the phone hacks had released nude photos of celebrities, now we have apparently salary information out there of executives and so forth.

And I was just shocked that Deadline decided it would be appropriate to publish that stuff. Shocked. Did you see that?

John: I did. And so essentially this last week Deadline Hollywood, the website, published the salaries of essentially the top Sony executives, which was information that had been linked through this hack. And so of course everyone was like, oh, well how much does each of these people make. And, of course it’s not showing their bonuses, but it’s showing how much these people make and the way that salaries can sometimes essentially reflect rank, or sort of who is overpaid, who is underpaid.

And immediately you think like, well, why is she making this salary when this is what’s been happening at the studio. Why is this person’s name on this list? So is she making less than a million dollars? All those kind of issues came up.

What was fascinating about the Sony hack to me is that there are so many different things happening sort of simultaneously. We’ve had movies leak early. That’s a thing that’s just always been happening and it usually comes from a post-production lab or something else, but Star Trek, the movie, will leak early. And so when this first happened I was like, oh no, Annie got out, like that sounds terrible.

But it really was much more than that, because we have the second tier which is all of these sort of inside business information getting out, so it’s people’s salaries, but it’s also like the whole Adam Sandler thing. Was all these internal emails complaining about like why are we making all these Adam Sandler movies.

This third thing we have, which is I think a little less reported but is actually much more paralyzing is that their computers as we’re recording this are still deeply, deeply messed up. So, you have an entire company who cannot use their computers to do the things they need to do. So, if you’re a studio that’s trying to be in business making movies and releasing movies, it’s incredibly difficult if you don’t have access to your fundamental computers. You cannot talk to anybody else in your company.

Craig: Yeah. Well, for starters you can be sure that much in the way — we had mentioned awhile back when The Avengers came out that every studio was going to immediately look to try and Avengerize some part of their own library. And lo and behold that has happened. Similarly, as this happens at Sony, every single studio now is going bananas with cyber security experts trying to lock everything down.

Because this is going to impact Sony actually in a very serious way for a very long time. This isn’t one of these deals where it’s like a week of my email is messed up. Beyond heads rolling, and they will, not the aforementioned executives but the people in charge of actually maintaining the computer network structure at Sony, this is just tarnished. It’s a tarnish. It’s an ugly affair. And that’s why, frankly, not to get back to Deadline again, because you know me, I love to harp on entertainment journalism, but I thought it was, and this is just a general thing — I think it’s irresponsible of any news outlet to publish images like that, images of either stolen photos that are not about busting some political scandal, or hacked salaries of people. This is stolen information. And I just wish that everyone had been a little more restrained.

Because, you know, these are human beings and they’re human beings working for the human beings. And whether or not you think people should be making that much money or any of that stuff, it’s not really ours to talk about. I just found it so — I found the whole thing so depressing.

John: Let’s personalize this for a bit. I’ve written for Sony a lot. You’ve written for Sony. At some point, somewhere in this big data dump are all of our contracts, all of our salaries, our Social Security numbers.

Craig: Yeah, yours. [laughs] I actually, I think I –

John: Oh, you’ve never written for Sony?

Craig: I think I did one thing for them once in 2002 or something like that. Just luck of the draw, I’ve always been a Warner Bros/Universal kind of guy. And Disney. So, I think I’m okay, but I hope that — yeah, I don’t want my friends to have their stuff leaked out there. That would be disaster.

John: Yeah. And I don’t know the degree to react or overreact or under-react. And it’s not entirely clear like, you know, people freaking out about their Social Security number, but like, well, there’s other ways people could get my Social Security number. But there is sort of fundamental information about how much I got paid on these things, sort of how it all worked and fit together. And that is — that would be frustrating for some of that stuff to get out.

I mean, obviously there are scripts I’ve written that were produced or were not produced, and those could also get out. And whatever happens, that feels more like just a movie leaking out there in the world. But it’s the information about sort of like, you know, what I was writing when would not be ideal to be out there.

And in all honesty, the emails between back and forth with executives would not be ideal as well. It’s made me much more aware of exactly what I put in an email to somebody because you never know where that email is going to end up.

Craig: That’s true. And I think for Hollywood and I suspect that Hollywood is behind a lot of other industries in this regard, well I hope that they view this in the way that security changed after 9-11, but didn’t at all change after 1993 I believe it was when terrorists initially attempted to blow up the World Trade Center. That was just like, oh geez, wow.

John: Eh.

Craig: Well, that could’ve been bad.

John: Good thing that didn’t happen.

Craig: Yeah, boy. I hope that everyone takes this as seriously as possible, because Hollywood for better or worse will always be a target because unlike most businesses people are inherently interested in our business. It doesn’t matter, frankly, if you hack a car company’s and you pull a terabyte out of Chrysler. The vast majority of it would absolutely put you to sleep.

But these companies, emails back and forth with big movie stars and all the rest of it, it’s just — I hope that they’re being much, much more careful, because this will happen again.

John: It’ll happen again.

Craig: Or at least somebody will attempt to do it again.

John: All right, second topic, this is something you suggested which is how far back do we go when we start to figure out the history of our characters.

Craig: Well, yes, it’s not just the history, but I was also thinking, because I was talking to a young woman last week. She has a baby, she’s a mom, about 18, and she was talking to me about her script. And one of the questions that she had, which I thought was really interesting, was where do I start. I know what the meat of the story, but should I show the character before this part of the story? Should I show them even before that?

But really the question is where do you start with your character because we all know that there is this length of story. And I thought it was a really interesting question. So, I wanted to throw out a few possibilities of just general places we can choose to start with our characters in the movie itself. That is what we’re presenting to people in the film.

And so here are just four possibilities, there’s likely more, but these are four common ones. The first is childhood. Even if you are telling the story of an adult, very frequently a movie will begin with that character as a child because it gives us an insight into something that is either tragic or determinative, or shows us how they haven’t changed at all since they were a kid. Sometimes it’s two children who are bonded together by an incident and we understand the nature of their relationship later much more easily.

The second is what I would call a new beginning. The movie begins with someone getting married, someone getting divorced, somebody graduating. There’s a party. There’s an affair. There’s somebody crying. And then they go, okay, now what do I do? And from that, by starting with the new beginning we understand that they are about to go on some sort of adventure of growth so to speak.

The third is what I would call in a rut. This is where we don’t actually wind the clock back before a story. We, in fact, show that somebody in the moment now is living as they have been living for quite some time. And that’s the point. They are stuck. Either they’re in a rut of things being great and then suddenly tragedy strikes, or in the rut of things being bad and tragedy strikes again and makes them worse so that they can get better. But the point is this is the way it’s been. You could have started the movie a week earlier or two years earlier and you would have seen the same thing.

And the fourth possibility is mid-crisis, where we don’t — we dispense with all of this run up and we open with somebody in the middle of a war. So, Saving Private Ryan. We don’t get scenes of Tom Hanks becoming an officer. We don’t see scenes of him getting on the boat. We don’t see scenes of anything except him getting off a boat and starting to shoot people and getting an assignment, because the events of the movie dwarf everything that comes before it. And, frankly, the idea of the movie is that we will be revealed, the character will be revealed through the action itself, rather than through a sort of chronological explanation.

John: I think those are four really good ways of looking at sort of how we start telling a story. And what you’re really talking about when you’re talking about these kind of stories is in a movie there’s a two-hour journey that’s about to happen. And are we starting our journey literally on the road to this place, or are we starting before the character has decided to go someplace. And that’s — each story is going to have a different way they’re going to want to tell themselves at the very beginning.

I want to go back to the Saving Private Ryan, or you also cited like Raiders or The Sixth Sense, which start right in the middle of something. Even those stories, a lot of times they’ll start with this big action set piece, or this big sort of important thing that happens, but then a normalcy will return.

And so even if it starts with a big shocking moment, you do get a sense of what the normal situation is after that. So, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re going to go back to the Raiders episode, of course it starts with that great set piece. But then we go back to the university and we see like this is what his normal life is like before he’s chosen to take this new adventure.

Craig: Right.

John: So, as you’re figuring out the right way to start your story, I guess it’s also important to figure out what is the nature of your journey, and is the place that you’re going to take this character, do you need to set up all that stuff about who they were as a child, what the normal day was like in order for that journey to be meaningful. Or, is the journey itself enough of a change that you don’t have to go all the way back to those early days?

Craig: Yeah. This is one of those things you have to kind of feel out. And it’s also something that I think you should think about when you’re looking at movies and stories that you like, because it is only natural for us as victims of the illusion of intention to believe that this was really the way the story — this is the only way the story could be told.

John: Yes.

Craig: Incorrect. [laughs] Incorrect. And this is one of the first big decisions you make actually when you figure out your story. Where do I start with my character? At what point do I want to see them in the beginning? What would help me the most? And this is where you could play this game with lots of movies and suddenly you can see, yes, there actually is a plausible version of Saving Private Ryan that begins in the United States with someone getting the assignment that they have to go and they’re not really sure why. But this is going to be a big invasion and they’re learning about it.

It could start with the three brothers being shipped off. It could start with Matt Damon. You know, there’s a hundred ways to start it. And you have to decide in a brave way which is the one that you think is going to actually help your story the most.

John: Like most things in screenwriting, you’re trying to do two things at once. You’re trying to create the best moment to start your story, so basically from the audience’s perspective that they are clicked in and enjoying your story immediately and that they are on this ride with you. But you are also trying to setup things that are going to be useful for later on. And when you pick the right one, hopefully both of those things are working simultaneously.

We’ve all sat through movies that feel like, okay, come on, start the story already. There’s all this backstory being setup and you’re going please start the plot of your actual movie. And sometimes those movies, it’s worth all that long lead up, because you got to this great moment. But you also start thinking, well, what if you just start it. What if Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas all that time, but just showed up in Oz? And it would be a very different movie.

And the movie where Dorothy starts in Oz works fundamentally differently than the movie that starts in Kansas.

Craig: That’s right. And you have to understand, therefore, you can’t make the choice of why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it, unless you understand how the way you’re doing it affects the movie. It should be intentional. You know, you make these decisions.

If you’re going to start the movie with someone as a child and then jump ahead to them as an adult, that must be necessary. You must understand not only that them as a child is a huge informer for us of who they are as an adult, but frankly that needs to be paid off later. It can’t be the last time we understand that their childhood was relevant.

Similarly, if you’re going to start with what I would call the new beginning move, you need to be aware that it’s been done so many times that you are already in danger. So, you need to find a much more compelling reason for it. If you sense that what you’re doing is kind of just saying, oh you know, like all the other movies that do this, well I’m doing it so you’ll get that feeling that you got from all those other movies. Maybe you don’t need it.

Maybe it’s built in, you know?

John: Maybe you don’t need the character waking up and hitting their alarm clock.

Craig: Right.

John: We know exactly what that moment is. And we don’t need to see that moment again. So, and one bit of advice just for all writers is never start with a character waking up and pressing their alarm clock. It’s such a horrible cliché moment. So, unless you have like the most brilliant way of subverting that trope, please don’t start with an alarm clock and a character waking up.

Craig: Yes. So, the alarm clock and the character waking up is a time-honored way of presenting in a rut. Oh, I’m hitting the alarm clock, I’m getting in the shower, I’m bummed out. I’m getting dressed, brushing my teeth, going to work. Sitting there huffing and moaning. That’s all very typical ways for a movie to tell us this person is in a rut.

But if you understand why people, why that has become a cliché, which is to say this person is in a rut, well now you’re free to come up with other more interesting ways to show that they’re in a rut. And there are. And people will get it and they will appreciate you trying to show them the same thing but in a different way because after all that’s all movies are: the same things in different ways.

John: Yes. So, if you have a character who is in a rut, find a way to visualize that, that is comedic or dramatic, and interesting and new. Doug Liman has this theory about showing a party. And if you show a party and people are having a bad time at a party, you’re trying to film a boring party, it just won’t work because it just looks like a bunch of people are just standing around. So, you have to show people’s reaction to this party being a terrible party. And it’s a subtle difference, but it’s really all about sort of what the character is doing in the moment rather than just like aiming the camera at a boring party, because if you aim a camera at a boring party it’s just nothing.

Same thing with a rut. If you’re just aiming a camera at a rut, like, well I don’t see what that is. It’s all about what the character’s reactions are and the character’s actions within those moments.

Craig: Exactly. It’s incumbent upon us to understand why it’s there. If we don’t, we’ll never be able to do a new version of it or an interesting version of it. Same goes for new beginning. There’s probably other ways to show this beyond just a graduation. Even if the point is I’ve just graduated and I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, which is a very common topic for 20-year-olds writing screenplays, there are other ways to show it.

Think about the other interesting things that happen to you after you graduated. After I graduated college I spent one week working at — I went back to the convenience store that I had been working at in summers to basically get enough money for gas to drive across the country. And that was a terrible week. Terrible. Because a part of me thought, I’ve graduated college and I’m working at a convenience store, and I could just stay. And they asked me. By the way, they asked me to stay, you know.

So there are all these — I guess the point being if you understand why these things are there, then you can figure out how to give them a new twist. But this question, I have a feeling that a lot of people don’t even ask the question. They just say, oh, it starts with this. Why? Because it could start later. And it could start earlier. So, why?

John: And this is fundamental whiteboard stuff. This is the time when you’re thinking about your story in a big macro sense. Because usually when you start to write a story, you get excited about this first thing, this first act stuff that you want to start writing. And those may be the right moments, but you may not be starting your story in a way that’s going to get you to where you want to be in the second act and in the third act.

And so this is why we urge people to really think about their whole movie before they start writing it, because otherwise you could be spending a lot of time — you might write this brilliant first act that sets up this kid’s childhood and all this stuff, and then you realize like, oh wow, I’m never going to need to go back to his childhood for the rest of the movie. That’s not going to work well, at all. You’ve burned a lot of time writing this thing that is not serving your movie.

Craig: And unfortunately when people burn a lot of time writing things that don’t serve the movie, they become very attached to them. It’s hard to just throw out a bunch of work. It has a lot of ramifications for us and our sense of self worth. And so you try as best you can to cut things out. Like on set you’re like maybe we should cut this before we shoot it. And when you’re writing, maybe we should cut this before we write it. It’s a good plan.

John: One more option for where do I start, which is a pretty common one, is you start at the end, or you start at some crucial moment later on in the story and then you jump back. And so that’s a thing where, again, you’re showing the audience this is where the story is going to go. This is the moment it’s going to happen later on. And now I’m going to show you how we got there.

Craig: Yes.

John: And it can work well in some movies. Go does it. Certainly some Tarantino movies do it. It can also work horribly. It can be incredibly frustrating where you feel like, well, I now know that he’s going to make it to that point, so nothing bad could happen to him up until that point.

Craig: We like to call this Stuart’s favorite, from when he continually picked Three Page Challenges that did this.

John: That’s true.

Craig: I find that this is — it seems like it’s wearing out its welcome. Very frequently when it happens I think you’ve done this because you didn’t have an interesting opening. You didn’t intend to do this. Your movie started with something that you felt was a little bland, so you decided to zest it up by opening with somebody — have you seen John Wick by the way?

John: I haven’t seen John Wick.

Craig: I really liked it. I liked it a lot.

John: Good.

Craig: It did this, and it didn’t need to. It was one thing that I just thought — I wish they hadn’t. But I understood why they did it because I think their actual first scene just felt a little too ho-hum, but that’s just a reason for you to really think about what that first image is. You know, Spielberg has done a talk about his first image is he tries to put a metaphor for the entire movie in his first image. You’ve got to make that opening thing really sizzle, because, look, if you have a twisty movie with all sorts of crazy stuff going on and reversals all over the place, then yeah, I think starting with a “look, this is what happens,” and then go backwards is great because really what you’re doing is telling people, oh, you’re going to try and see how we get there and you’re going to be wrong.

But when you don’t have that, when it’s like “you’re going to see how we try and get there,” and you’ll be right because that’s how we get there. That’s not good. Yeah, that’s bad.

John: Absolutely. It is a very, very bad thing.

Craig: It’s bad.

John: I like that on our podcast we are generally about positive moviegoing and not venting about movies, but there was a trend that — you know, you were talking about some things that annoy you a little bit, one of these being the sort of Stuart’s Favorite, like let’s jump forward to the end.

A trend I’ve noticed, just because two movies I saw back to back did this. So I’m going to call it Special British Snowflake movies. And it’s this weird thing that usually it’s like Weinstein Company movies that I perceive it. The King’s Speech is one of the first ones I could sort of point to. It’s like, oh, this terrible thing has happened to this one lovely British man, and therefore the story we are telling because he’s so special, and so it’s Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.

But then I saw The Theory of Everything, which is the Stephen Hawking movie. It’s also a very special British man and he’s a special British snowflake and we should celebrate him for being special British snowflake. And then I saw The Imitation Game which has Benedict Cumberbatch as a special snowflake as Alan Turing. And in all these cases, many of the tropes that we’re talking about rear up.

So, there’s this boy as a child and we’re going back to these moments of his childhood. Or we are jumping forward and seeing an interview or a speech that they are giving and sort of setting up these whole things.

There’s something about these movies has just started rubbing me so wrong. And I’m trying to figure out what it is that bugs me so much about it.

Craig: Well, biopics are the most formulaic movies. They are more formulaic than the dumbest comedies. I like biopics, but they live or die on the strength of the events of that person’s life.

I was actually talking about this with John Lee Hancock the other day because he’s got some biopic cred.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: I mean, he did The Blind Side which was kind of a biopic, and Saving Mr. Banks, which was kind of a biopic. And he was saying how, because he gets sent as you would imagine a lot of these things, that the trick is to find somebody whose life is both interesting circumstantially but then also personally interesting in a way that your neighbor’s life could be interesting.

And so — and that’s correct. But then what happens is, of course, that’s what you get every time. So, you’ll get a story of somebody doing something that is impactful to the world and it is contrasted against a personal drama such as stuttering, or ALS, or secret gay, and therefore they will always start to take on this shape. They’re very, very formulaic.

That said, a lot of times they’re very well crafted and they can be really fascinating.

John: And all three of these movies that we’re citing, there’s tremendous craft and there’s tremendous performances behind them. So, I don’t want to sound like I’m just slamming on these movies, because that’s not really my intention. I get frustrated by the movies that a character does something and then there’s five title slides at the end that tells you what happened the rest of their life, or in the case of Alan Turing, and then he killed himself.

Craig: [laugh] Yeah. Spoiler alert: he kills himself.

John: So, I think that is my frustration. And as I look at the movies like The Blind Side, or Saving Mr. Banks, or Erin Brockovich, you want to talk a great biopic.

Craig: Yup.

John: Those are stories in which there was a clear arc for what they were trying to do in the course of the time of this movie and it wasn’t trying to tell their whole life. And I think my frustration with some of these Special British Snowflake movies is that it’s supposed to be this journey that this person took, but it’s basically like a bunch of stuff happens and then there are some slides, and you’re supposed to feel good about it.

Craig: Yeah. I actually liked The King’s Speech perhaps more than you did. I liked it quite a bit. Mostly because I thought that it focused in on a fairly narrow band of time and down really to one moment.

John: I do agree with you that it did focus on — his objective was really clear. And sometimes these movies, their objectives are not clear.

Craig: That’s right. And sometimes the idea is look how fascinating this person is, now sit with them for awhile. So, for me a less successful version of this was Ray. The movie Ray definitely does the thing. Here’s somebody that made an impact on the world circumstantially. Privately there was all this pain, heroin abuse, the dead brother. He’s blind. And so we get the shape, the normal shape of things, but we’re just getting episodes of his life, one after another, after another, until he’s old and we’re supposed to go, “Awesome, you made it.”

Yeah, or — or –

John: Or, choices.

Craig: I could sit at home and just listen to some incredible music and be just happy enough listening to Ray play the piano, you know what I mean? I don’t actually need the other stuff.

John: Well, it’s a question of like there are people who are tremendously talented who are deservedly famous who did great things in the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to see the long movie about them.

Craig: Right. Like there’s a James Brown biopic out right now. And I love James Brown. But I love James Brown music, and I’m not sure I — I hate to say it — I don’t really care about James Brown’s life so much. I mean, I love The Beatles. I don’t care about their lives so much.

John: Yeah. I don’t want to see another Beatles movie.

Craig: I don’t need a George Harrison biopic. And it was a really interesting life on so many terms. But, you know, I’m frankly biographically more interested in other people, which is why I think I liked The King’s Speech because I felt like I actually know nothing about this man. I only remembered that there had been someone who abdicated the thrown to marry a woman. I knew that fact. I didn’t realize that his brother ended up doing this. I had no idea about the stutter.

And what’s fascinating actually about that movie is that you can hear that speech, the actual speech, it’s on YouTube. And there it is. And you can hear, oh my god, yeah, he’s a stutterer. And it’s World War II, which I find fascinating, more fascinating than say whatever issues James Brown might have had. I don’t know. I’m going to get yelled at again by James Brown fans.

John: You won’t get yelled at.

Craig: Thanks.

John: So, getting back to sort of the how far back do I go, biopics are a special case of that because you have to figure out like, well, what is the story that I’m trying to tell. And with a biopic you have the choice of going from the day they were born till the day they die. And you have to decide, well, within this time period what are the most interesting moments.

The reason I’m singling out Erin Brockovich is like it picks a very specific interesting moment to focus on. And she has a clear objective. We meet her in an interesting way. And some of these other movies I just feel like, well, we’re meeting them at Cambridge because everybody goes to Cambridge apparently.

Craig: Well, that’s the thing. Again, you try and resist formula as much as you can I think in movies like this because they’re so formulaic. What I find fascinating is that comedies and action movies tend to be punished for being formulaic. These movies tend to be rewarded for being formulaic. One of the things that I thought really well about Saving Mr. Banks was that it was a parallel construction, so you weren’t trapped in that — I mean, you could have taken the movie and done the way that they have taken the Godfathers and made a chronological super cut out of them. You could do that with Saving Mr. Banks.

But I think the point was let’s actually run a parallel thing and show how someone was a child and now they’re an adult and they are playing out the same things that happened as a child. And until they figure that out, they’re kind of stuck.

John: Yup.

Craig: So, at least it broke out of that rigid constraint that you see so frequently. And I hope that more movies do. They could be a little more adventuresome.

John: Well, the challenge of most biopics is that it becomes “and then” rather than “because.” And an event happens, and then an event happens, rather than you’re seeing the character make these choices that leads to these next events. And that’s the real frustration.

Craig: You know what’s a great biopic? A biopic I love?

John: Tell me.

Craig: Is What’s Love Got to Do with it.

John: Yeah, Tina Turner.

Craig: I love that biopic. And it runs a lot of years, but because it’s less about the biography of Tina Turner and Ike Turner and so much more about — it’s really Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s like watching two people battle each other physically and mentally. So, it’s really a psychological thriller dressed up as a biopic.

John: Yeah. I remember seeing What’s Love Got to Do with it in a theater and when she finally fights back you hear the men in the audience cheer.

Craig: I know.

John: It was a really empowering moment.

Craig: Yeah. Angela Bassett.

John: Yeah. All right, let’s get to transference which is the next topic you put on the little WorkFlowy sheet here, which I think is a great thing for us to talk about.

Craig: So transference, this was something that had kind of come up last week for me. And I did a talk and one of the things I noticed, I was suddenly aware of it that if you talk in front of a group of people, you’re holding the microphone, we do this when we do our live shows and stuff like that. That you become aware as the talker that people are investing an amount of authority in you that you may or may not deserve. And this is something that we all do. We also do it to other people. This notion of transference, this old psychotherapeutic idea I think coined by Freud originally. And the idea is that we’re only capable of a certain kind of relationship in our lives.

There are limited relationships. We can be partners with somebody. We can be children to them. We can be parents to them. So, when we’re working with people, we begin to transfer authority to them at times. We begin to essentially look to them like our parents and hope that we get something from them that is parental, but also perhaps take what they say and do and interpret in a way that we ought not to, because we have cast a kind of authority on the relationship that it frankly hasn’t earned.

So, I wanted to talk about this because I feel like a lot of times as screenwriters one of the reasons we get so hung up about the notes we get or the people that we’re working with is that whether we realize it or not, we have transferred an amount of authority to the producer, or the studio executive, or the director, and we’ve begun to think of them like mommy or daddy. And we’ve begun to seek their approval which would show us some kind of love. And we also then cast their criticism in a harsher light because we feel like we’re being let down by our mommy and daddy. But they’re not our mommy. They’re not our daddy. And if we are aware that we’re doing this, probably would mitigate some of the pain that we feel when it goes wrong.

John: It ties into something I often say that never put somebody else in charge of your self-esteem. And there are times where I’ve found myself most frustrated is when I recognize that I have let someone whose opinion I don’t really care about hugely influence how I feel about myself and my own work. And there are cases where it truly is transference where I have — I think so highly of some person that I am so worried about disappointing them. And that is, I think, probably more classically the transference.

Craig: Yeah. It is. And part of what’s — it’s unfair to you and it’s unfair to them, because ultimately they’re just people. And they’re not always right. When I think of my screenwriting heroes, I can come up with two or three movies that each of them have done that I just hated. It doesn’t mean anything. They’re still my heroes. That’s probably an exaggeration; maybe just one movie that I hated. But regardless, they’re not always right.

So, there’s a huge difference between saying I have enormous dispassionate reasoned respect for your talent. I am really interested to hear what you have to say about this because I suspect there’s a high probability that I will get some good insight from you. That’s healthy.

Here’s maybe troublesome. I look up to you. You’re my hero. I wish I were like you. Your approval would make me feel wonderful because I need it. So, when you tell me what you think of this, that’s going to basically make me feel the way I would when mommy or daddy told me that I was good or bad.

John: In last week’s episode we talked about the perfect reader, and I described how a friend when I was giving her a script to read she quite candidly asked, “Do you want me to tell you that it’s really good? Or do you want me to tell you what’s wrong with it?” And that was recognizing, I think, that transference aspect of I wanted affirmation. And I wanted affirmation in the same way that when I would write my little short stories when I was ten years old and I would have my mom proofread them. I didn’t really necessarily want them proofread. I wanted her to tell me that they were really good.

Craig: Right.

John: And that’s an important psychological function, but it’s not the same as necessarily getting notes.

Craig: God, that’s such a great — I would love to have been there and your mom says, “Well, I’ve gone through it. This should have been a comma here. And this was miss capitalized.”

John: Ah-ha.

Craig: And then you say, “Is there anything else?”


“Nothing else to say about it?”

“No, those were the only two errors.” [laughs]

John: Indeed. Everything else was formatted properly.

Craig: Everything else was formatted properly. So nothing else to say? No.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then just a weird German silence.

John: Now, Craig, you’re the one with the psychology degree, so tell me what transference really means in the classic therapeutic sense?

Craig: Well, in the classic therapeutic sense when they talk about transference they talk about basically people falling into parent/child relationships in ways that can be damaging, but also they acknowledge that they’re important and necessary at times. Classically, it’s the therapist/patient relationship that gets the most examination through the lens of transference. So, the patient begins to transfer a lot of authority and emotional weight to what the therapist says.

The therapist –

John: So it’s not necessarily that you fall in love with your therapist? That’s what I always think of it as.

Craig: It’s not. However, at times what will happen is a patient will believe that they are falling in love with their therapist. And the therapists are trained to understand that that is transference and that they need to be able to explain to the patient that this is why this is happening and that it’s okay and necessary because if you’ve never been loved by a parent before, perhaps you’re allowing me to step in and be that. But we’re going to get — this is a merely crutch for now. Eventually we’ll get to a healthy place where you love yourself.

But, similarly, the therapist needs to be aware of their own transference issues with their patients. Suddenly they become attracted or in love with their own patient because they feel like they need to rescue them, or save them, and that’s all about the therapist’s issues of needing to be a parent to a child. But, you know, look, Freud, who was wrong and right. It’s just amazing how right he was and how wrong he was.

So, Freud expanded the notion of transference to be far too wide reaching. His initial theory of male homosexuality was transference, that men were trans — [laughs] I just don’t understand how he ever got there. It just doesn’t work that way. So, I mean, there have been many crazy theories about where homosexuality comes from: the frigid mother; male transference –

John: The absent father.

Craig: The absent father. And it just turns out it comes from the same place heterosexuality comes from. [laughs]

John: Or left-handedness comes from.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, duh. But to this day, however, I think, and I understand why it makes sense, that psychotherapists are trained to recognize transference as it happens and try and encourage it in good ways.

And, by the way, I think that’s true for any of us. When you’re speaking in front of a group of people and you hold the microphone, you should be aware that people are investing authority in you. You know who is really aware of it? Con artists.

John: Oh yes.

Craig: They, believe me, they are plugged in. The preachers that are asking you for money are engaging in the most blatant form of transference. They are essentially becoming god for you. They are practically saying it. And so you’re transferring all of your childlike need for the almighty onto this individual. And then they’re taking advantage of it.

So, it’s normal and at times it can be healthy, but we have to be aware of it because there are times, for instance when you feel like you’ve put your self-esteem in control of someone else’s you put it. That’s where maybe the transference has become, well, there’s over-transference, or you’re just not aware of it enough and you’ve got to really take a look at it.

John: A thing I also find happening and I think it’s increasingly happening is you’re transferring upon something that’s not even one person, but is actually a horde, a mass. And so Twitter can be that. And where Twitter has turned against you, or you are looking to Twitter for validation about this thing you did being good or being bad.

I noticed it somewhat to a degree during this whole Kickstarter. It was like, you know, as the numbers kept ratcheting up, more and more of my time and my focus and my personal energy was on this Kickstarter and making sure that everybody sort of felt heard and rewarded, because it was like having comments back on on the blog. But fortunately it was for a limited period of time and then I could step back from it and not be involved with it.

You’ve not read Lena Dunham’s book yet, have you?

Craig: Only the three pages that everybody read. [laughs]

John: That everyone talks about. So, there’s a great chapter that I would really recommend you read. It’s when she, I don’t know, she’s 10 or 11 and she started seeing a therapist. And sort of figuring out who was the right therapist for 10-year-old Lena Dunham. And that whole issue of how much do you know your therapist and how much space should there be between a patient and a therapist. Was exactly in Craig’s wheelhouse because it’s that sense of that person is not your parent, and is performing some of the functions of a parent in terms of offering structure and guidance for sort of how you’re going to figure out your life.

Craig: No question.

John: I think you’d really enjoy that.

Craig: You actually can’t. I don’t think you can have a successful therapeutic experience if you don’t transfer a certain amount of authority to this person. That’s kind of why they’re there. Ultimately, 99% why we go to therapy is because of issues with how we were raised and children. Sadly, there are things that happen afterwards that are traumatic, but if those haven’t happened to you, then a lot of it is how you’re raised as a child, which means the therapist kind of has to model to you what a good parent would be like.

And so transference naturally occurs and, you know, but you just want to be careful because — Dennis Palumbo famously says people come to Hollywood seeking the approval that they did not receive as a child. And ironically Hollywood is the worst place to seek approval if you didn’t receive it as a child.

We are all here looking for applause for a reason. And the people who are in charge of us either are aware of it and are exploiting it, or they’re not aware of it and they don’t understand how they’re being viewed by us in some ways as surrogate mommies and daddies and how our feelings can get hurt that way.

Even when we talk to each other, I don’t think we realize how quickly writers and actors and directors fall into this trap of being a child or a parent.

John: Yes. And anyone who has listened to the podcast for the last couple months is probably identifying sort of you and Lindsay Doran as like, well, there’s an aspect of that to your relationship on the script that you’re writing, because this is a producer who you trust who is involved, who is seeing every bit of what you’re writing and you’re having these long conversations about these things.

Are you aware of that? Is that an accurate reflection?

Craig: Well, I don’t know. I’ll tell you this, and you tell me if you think I’m aware of it. I call her Script Mommy. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: Which she does not like, because she feels it sounds too old. And she would prefer Script Friend, or script something. But she is Script Mommy. And I’ve happily transferred because she is really — she is an excellent person in which to invest that kind of emotional need. And what’s great is once you’re aware that you’re doing it, then you can say, look, should I be doing this with this person? Are they safe? Can I trust them in this regard? And if you can, then what happens is you’re able to learn how to take the good and the bad in much better ways, you know.

John: Well, let’s look at this from Lindsay Doran’s point of view, too, because you and I are both sort of Lindsay’s with other people in our lives, and it’s recognizing that someone has transferred upon you. And that you have to be careful with them because they may be fragile or they may take things too personally. And so it’s recognizing that the kinds of things you’re saying to them may have more weight than you think.

So, it’s going all the way back to what you said about being in front of the audience with a microphone is that you may not realize how much that microphone is wired in to their souls.

Craig: That’s right. And I think that for people who do it well, and Lindsay is one of them for sure, it’s a combination of just an inherent gentle nature and experience. I mean, Lindsay was partners with Sydney Pollack for many years. And Sydney, who was just a flat-out genius, was –

John: And a gentleman.

Craig: And a gentleman, was as creatively quirky and difficult as the rest of us. He wasn’t a bad person, but he had his quirks. We all do, you know. And so you learn over time as a facilitator of creative people to accept a lot of the way they are and to either love it or don’t. You know, I mean, the thing is she — Lindsay loves writers and directors. She loves them more than she loves memos and synergy. And so it comes through.

John: All right. It is time for our One Cool Things. Craig, why don’t you start?

Craig: Right, my One Cool Thing this week is, god I hope that this spreads. Google has taken a look at the most annoying thing on the Internet which is CAPTCHA. For those of you who don’t know the name of it, you’ll know what the thing is. A CAPTCHA is when you’re asked to sign up for something on the web and they say to verify that you’re not a robot could you please type in the following impossible to decipher numbers and letters.

They’re usually smeared, [laughs], they look like numbers and letters that have been smeared and then perhaps a line is drawn through them. It’s ridiculous. And, more to the point, it appears that it’s not that effective because in the arms race between bots and spammers and the people that are trying to weed them out, I guess they’ve been coming up with ways to actually sell these CAPTCHAs, including just hiring thousands of people in third world countries to sit and decipher CAPTCHAs.

So, Google has come up with this new thing called reCAPTCHA and this is how they verify you as a human being. You sign in your information and then it says, “Click here if you’re not a robot.” And you click and you’re done.

Now, how does it work? They’re not exactly saying. But it seems like what it’s doing is picking up on how your mouse moves to click the thing, how much time you take, because the name of the game for the spammers is to have bots basically blowing through these CAPTCHAs really quickly, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. You might as well use actual human beings.

So, I’m hoping that Google reCAPTCHA works. There’s an article on it at Wired. If you want to check that out we’ll include the link in the show notes.

John: Great. My One Cool Thing is a game for kids for the iPad and for the iPhone called Endless Alphabet. And it’s really smartly done. So, I saw it this week because Dustin Box who works for me has a two-year-old and Dustin was showing it to me on his phone. And I taught my daughter how to read and we did this — I’ll put a link in the show notes for this thing as well. We did a Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read which was a really well, smartly setup system. Phonics are sort of how you should get kids introduced to the sounds of the letters so they can figure out how to decipher words.

This app called Endless Alphabet does that but in a really, really fun way. So, if the word is like fluffy, those letters will be distributed around on the screen and kids will drag them in to the space. But when you touch on the F, it goes Fafafafafa. You touch on the U it goes Uh-Uh-Uh and it wiggles in a really fun way.

Craig: Can you do the F again for me?

John: Fafafafafa.

Craig: Well, that’s Lecterian. That’s Hannibal Lecterian.

John: Ha-ha. It’s delightful.

Craig: It’s the scariest thing ever. That is Babadook scary.

John: That’s great. So, it’s Sexy Craig and Fafafafa. It’s going to be the best.

Craig: Oh god. Ooh. Blah.

John: So, anyway, the app seems really, really smart. It does all the right things in terms of engaging kids and they get to touch the letter. They hear the sounds. It’s so important that kids hear the sounds of the letters. Much more important than actual name the letter is to know the sound it makes. And so it’s really good for helping kids decipher all the words around them. So, I would strongly recommend you check it out. It’s $6.99 on the App Store.

Craig: All right.

John: So that is our show this week. Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel and it’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you would like to know more about the things we talked about on the show, join us in the show notes. Those are at

On iTunes you can find us. Just search for Scriptnotes. Also on the iTunes store you can find the app for Scriptnotes that lets you listen to all the back episodes. There’s an equivalent Android app as well. For $1.99 a month you’re a premium subscriber. You get the bonus episodes. You get all the way back to the very first episode of the show.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah. If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you should write to him @clmazin. For me, I’m @johnaugust.

Longer questions go to We will see so many of you at our live show on Thursday.

Craig: Very exciting.

John: That will be next week’s episode.

Craig: Yes. No eggnog, right?

John: No eggnog. It’s an eggnog-free event.

Craig: Oh yeah. Wait, wait, say that again. Say it’s an eggnog-free event.

John: It’s an eggnog fafafafafa-free event.

Craig: Ah! I knew it. I knew I could count on you. Chilling.

John: Yeah. I’m reliable sometimes. Yeah.

Craig: Chilling.

John: [laughs]

Craig: Chilling. It’s terrible.

John: With a nice ch-chianti.

Craig: Oh god.

John: Oh, it’s good stuff. And I think that is it. Craig, have a wonderful two days and I will see you on Thursday.

Craig: Uh, this is where your mom would say, “John?”

John: Yes?

Craig: “You made almost no mistakes during this podcast.”

John: That’s good. I love you, mommy.

Craig: “Yes.” [laughs] I’ll see you next time.

John: See ya. Bye.


Scriptnotes, Ep 173: The Perfect Reader — Transcript

Wed, 12/10/2014 - 17:50

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: [laughs] My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 173 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today, we are going to be talking about the perfect reader, loan-out companies, and how to record a podcast. But, Craig, all of our listeners want to know first and foremost, how was your heritage turkey?

Craig: I got to say home run.

John: Oh, fantastic. Glad to hear it.

Craig: Home run. So changed up a couple of things this year for those of you playing the home turkey game. I got a heritage turkey from a company called Mary’s Turkeys, about a 17-pounder because I had a lot of people. I brined it — I always brine but this time, instead of brining it in a bucket or a cooler, I went with a brining bag.

John: Ah, those are the dry briners –

Craig: No, no, I’m a wet brine guy. I believe in the wet brine. But that’s a whole north/south, east/west civil war but I’ll –

John: Yeah, which is the right barbecue sauce, too, while we’re at it.

Craig: I mean, I don’t even get in the middle of that.

John: [laughs]

Craig: But, no, I’m a wet briner. But the nice thing about the brining bag is that you put the turkey in this big — it’s basically an enormous super heavy-duty Ziploc bag. So it goes over the turkey, you fill it up with the brine, and the nice thing is you can put it in your fridge. Because, otherwise, you got to put it outside in the garage with a bunch of dry ice in a cooler. It’s a big pain in the butt.

And the other thing I did this time was I added some brown sugar into the brine. By and large, you know, people throw in, like, what I call potpourri into their brine. You know, like lemons and sprigs and things. That stuff, all those oil-based things, like, from citrus, that’s not going to dissolve in the water and it’s not going to go into the turkey. You’re wasting your time. Anyway, it came out fantastic.

John: That’s great. And how long was your bird in the oven?

Craig: This is also the simplest oven-cooking of all time.

John: Right.

Craig: I went with no basting. I did an olive oil rub.

John: Yup.

Craig: Put it in at 325 degrees.

John: Yup.

Craig: 3.5 hours later, it was done to perfection.

John: Fantastic.

Craig: Did not do anything.

John: So this year, I did what I’ve been doing the last couple of years which is the high-heat method.

Craig: Okay.

John: So you think yours is simple. This is how simple mine was. A little olive oil rub into a 475-degree oven.

Craig: Woo.

John: For two hours. Done. And so not only do you not have to do anything other than sort of clean and dry the bird –

Craig: It’s faster.

John: Yes. And you don’t even truss it. You sort of deliberately untruss it. So you have to stick forks in to sort of hold the legs out away from the bird so the heat can get everywhere.

Craig: Interesting.

John: And it worked really well.

Craig: Yeah, I did fail to mention that I trussed. I’m a trusser.

John: You’re a trusser?

Craig: Yeah, my method is –

John: Well, that’s really your bondage thing coming through there.

Craig: Yeah, Fifty Shades of Grey’d that thing.

John: [laughs]

Craig: Yes, the turkey will see me now. I did the slow-and-low method. But the truth is that if you put it in, you know, as long as you don’t have to do stuff with it, it doesn’t really matter.

John: It doesn’t matter. Time is irrelevant as long as –

Craig: Time is irrelevant. But I have to also, well, I’ll save my One Cool Thing because I did a — I made a lot of different things. I made a pumpkin pie. I made an apple galette, I made acorn squash, I made garlicky green beans with roasted pine nuts. I made a ton of things. But one thing I made, oh, pumpkin scones, which were spectacular.

John: Oh, good. Yeah.

Craig: But I’ll save my favorite thing for my One Cool Thing.

John: Fantastic.

Craig: Yeah. How about you? So did you have a great Thanksgiving?

John: We had a great Thanksgiving. We had some friends come over. We had a good simple outdoor Los Angeles Thanksgiving.

Craig: I know. My sister is in town with her husband and kids and, you know, it’s freezing in New York and they’re swimming today, so they’re super happy.

John: Yeah, life is good.

Craig: Life is good.

John: So life is also good on December 11th. That is the live Scriptnotes show in Hollywood. So as we record this on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, there are still some tickets left. I don’t know if they’re still really out there, because you, Craig, are bringing in a whole entourage. So I know that you requested, like, 20 tickets for you and your posse so –

Craig: I believe I’ve requested four tickets.

John: All right.

Craig: Yeah.

John: A lot.

Craig: [laughs] That’s too much. That’s way too much.

John: Way too much. You’re disrupting everything.

Craig: Yes.

John: Our other guests are going to be, so it’s me and Craig, Aline, Jane Espenson, B.J. Novak, Derek Haas, actress/singer/funny person Rachel Bloom, all those people will have entourages as well. So we’re not sure how many tickets are going to be left but if you would like to come, you should come. So go to, click Events and you will have the option to purchase the tickets. Come join us on December 11th at 8:00 pm.

Craig: Let me do a little hard sell on this, by the way.

John: All right, sure.

Craig: For those people that listen to the podcast but haven’t been to one of these things, they’re great. It’s just a more relaxed, fun atmosphere. There’s something about it just being all together in a room is fun. You also get to meet other people that listen to the show and people have made friends at these things. You know, it’s like a little community.

John: Yes, and we’ve had some babies created out of –

Craig: We must have had some podcast babies. I probably made a few podcast babies. I mean, don’t tell anybody. [laughs]

John: [laughs] Don’t tell Melissa. Does Melissa listen to your show?

Craig: Hey, Melissa, I made, like, 14 podcast babies. [laughs]

John: That’s absolutely not true and is the worst.

Craig: Not at all true. No.

John: Not at all true.

Craig: I don’t do that.

John: But the shows are genuinely fun and while we’ll, of course, ultimately have this show up for listening, it’s not going to be same thing as being there because we will cut it down and we will cut out, the audience Q&A will probably get cut out.

Craig: Right.

John: So that’s why you kind of want to come.

Craig: Yeah, there’s a great Q&A. I’ll probably do 40 minutes on She-Hulk again [laughs], so that should be terrific.

John: Oh, don’t, no, don’t.

Craig: Oh, I shouldn’t do that? I shouldn’t?

John: No, no more She-Hulk. I think we’ve banned that discussion ever happening again. What I will say what’s interesting is because for my Kickstarter I had a video of me talking about it, some people wrote in and said, like, “Wow, you look nothing like I thought you would look like.” And that is a strange thing about listening to podcasts is that –

Craig: Yeah.

John: You have, just human nature. You form an image of, like, who you think goes with that voice, and apparently, I don’t look like my voice at all.

Craig: I also don’t look like my voice. Neither of us look like our voices.

John: Yeah. That’s a good thing.

Craig: I remember as a kid, you know, it’s funny, podcasts have kind of brought back an experience that you and I had when we were kids. And then I felt like it sort of went away because radio started to go away.

John: Yeah.

Craig: When I was a kid, I remember wondering like what does Howard Stern look like? And what does Robin Quivers look like? What do any of these people look like? And then that sort of went away because — and now, it’s back.

John: I remember being in Los Angeles, well, as I first moved here and listened to KROQ, and there was Kevin & Bean in the morning. And I had this image of who I thought Kevin and Bean were.

Craig: Right.

John: And then I saw them at some live event and like, wow, that’s not even remotely what I thought that would be. It’s jarring.

Craig: They looked pretty much like I thought they would look like.

John: [laughs]

Craig: Yeah. I used to listen to Kevin & Bean every morning. Kevin & Bean, and you know, people don’t know, like, that’s where Adam Carolla came out of, that’s where Jimmy Kimmel came out of.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Yeah. It was a great show but, you know, it’s radio. What are you going to do?

John: Yeah. I remember when Go was being launched, I mean, that was an incredibly important platform for us to get our actors and I think Doug Liman may have even been on that. And like Doug Liman on the radio, it’s just, “Why would you do that?”

Craig: [laughs] I know.

John: But we were promoting our show. But, like, Breckin Meyer, Jay Mohr on that kind of show killed it.

Craig: Right, absolutely. Yeah, I know. It was a big deal back in the ’90s, yo.

John: Yo. Another thing we talked about on the previous show was Franz Kafka and we had a reader, Kevin, from Tokyo wrote in with a long response to that and I thought it was great so I thought I would read this aloud. “It was a pleasant surprise to hear Franz Kafka come up on the podcast. I spent many years studying his work and life, visiting the places he lived and wrote, archives, holding his manuscripts and so on. I’m writing to let you know that Craig’s literature professor lied to him.”

Craig: Mm-hmm, liar.

John: “The mention that Kafka’s works were only published after his death and against his wishes is a persistent myth. The truth is, Kafka oversaw the publication and translation of many of his short stories and novellas, including Metamorphosis. He fretted over details and illustrations, cover designs, and tracked the sales records of his books.

“It is true they asked his friend Max Brod to destroy his unpublished manuscripts in fragments which he considered incomplete. One justification Brod later gave for ignoring this was that after making the request, Kafka continued to actually publish his work. He was working on correcting his proofs for the collection that contains The Hunger Artist when he died. I certainly do not mean to criticize you since Craig brought up Kafka as a springboard for talking about writers’ feelings about their work. Your podcast is not about Germanic literature and the whole thing started by Craig’s professor lying to him.”

Craig: [laughs]

John: “I guess the professor wanted to leave out the facts to make a juicy story like the entertainment journalists who were the target of your umbrage. Thank you for your entertainment inspiration. Kevin in Tokyo.”

Craig: Well, thank you, Kevin in Tokyo. You know, this does happen. Sometimes these myths persist. And look, we are trusting Kevin because Kevin sounds informed. He could be lying to me also, [laughs], right? I mean, we now know that I am susceptible to these kinds of lies. But in this case, I think Print the Legend, that’s my theory.

John: I think it is a Print the Legend situation. So I was doing just a little bit of cursory research and it does seem that Kevin has other people in his corner backing him up. There’s a book by James Hawes and there’s a review I read by Joanna Kavenna in The Guardian, and I’ll read a little quote from her because I thought it actually really summed up sort of what we’re talking about. “Hawes strongly believes the myth surrounding Kafka has clouded the perception of his writing to the extent that his translators believe he should sound like some ghostly, plodding sub-Sartre rather than someone whose, ‘black-comic tales of what happens to modern people who can’t give up on the Old Ways’ could hardly be more timely.”

And I think that’s actually a really fascinating aspect of the Print the Legend because when you print the legend, it’s going to influence all the choices you make about that person’s work.

Craig: Right.

John: And in the case of Kafka, you are translating these things and so if your image of the person you’re translating is, like, “Oh, he’s dark and it’s all about, you know, gloom,” then you’re going to make choices that support that thesis rather than try and define, you know, the funny or the satirical aspects of what it is that he’s writing.

Craig: That’s true. And I suspect that this is all accurate because I know that I didn’t study Kafka anywhere near the extent to which Kevin has, obviously, but I did do a lot of Nietzsche studying in college and there are a ton of myths surrounding Nietzsche as well, that he had syphilis, which is not at all the case, that he was an anti-Semite, which is not at all the case. There’s just a lot. It happens, you know, and all these guys lived well before the time of over-examination. No more myths can possibly exist, it seems to me. Unfortunately, we repose mythology now.

John: Yeah, it’s very possible we are. I can think back to Columbus, for example, if you want to talk about a person who is sort of built around a myth. And so you and I grew up celebrating Columbus Day and, like this was the day of discovery and there’s all this imagery about sort of who Columbus was and now as we sort of discover more things about, like, “Oh, you know what? Maybe Columbus wasn’t such an awesome guy.” We have to sort of look at all this text we’ve read as a kid and say, like, “Wait, huh? Is this really the right thing to be talking about with Columbus?”

Or Thanksgiving, for example, Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. I would not want to change anything about the modern celebration of Thanksgiving. But if you look at sort of what is the legend behind it, it probably wasn’t anything like what we want it to have been.

Craig: Oh, no question. America itself, essentially, is the product of, I mean, the American dream, the American stories, all mythological. I see mistakes cropping up all the time. In fact, I was listening to, somebody had put on Facebook this bit that David Cross does in an audio book where he’s rebutting Larry the Cable Guy who was complaining about him. And at one point, Larry the Cable Guy is complaining that America’s on the verge of banning Christianity which David Cross correctly finds absurd and says, “You know, this is a country where, you know, George Washington was christened.” Actually, most of those guys weren’t Christian.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists. They weren’t even Christians.

John: Yeah.

Craig: There’s just a lot of bad info circulating out there. And now, I’m circulating it as well. So good. Tune in next week for more disinformation.

John: Well, speaking of David Cross, David Cross’ frequent collaborator, Bob Odenkirk, is associated with our next –

Craig: Segue Man. [laughs]

John: A follow up. So on the last episode, we were talking about Simon Cowell and the aspect of, like, criticism and how criticism itself becomes a form of entertainment. And I said, like, “Oh, well, somebody should make a show where they just like criticize a stick of gum and it should be all about that.” And Jonathan Bell, a reader, wrote in, a listener wrote in and pointed us to this great Bob Odenkirk sketch which is on Funny or Die, which is all about — it’s called American Contestant.

And it’s a spoof of American Idol but it’s really just about the judges criticizing this woman who thinks she’s on a singing competition. It’s, like, “No, no, this isn’t about the singing.” It’s, like, “Well, I really want to go to Hollywood.” “We want to see that you want to go to Hollywood but, you know, you have to prove it.” And it just becomes about the nature of criticism and how criticism becomes a popular culture. So of course, I did have a good idea but about six years ago, Bob Odenkirk did a funny series of sketches about it.

Craig: Once again, trumped by Odenkirk.

John: Yeah. It’s not going to be the last time, I suspect.

Craig: No. No.

John: No.

Craig: Did you see the new Star Wars teaser?

John: I did. So we we’re recording this on Friday. So as we’re recording this it is a big deal because this new teaser came out so –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Craig, how erect were your nipples when you saw it?

Craig: Like I could’ve cut glass with those things.

John: Yeah. I’ll pause for a second. When did cutting glass with nipples become a thing? Because it is a common phrase. How did it happen?

Craig: Well, I don’t know how it happened out there. I cut glass with my nipples all the time. [laughs]

John: [laughs] Indeed.

Craig: Oh, yeah.

John: Basically, whenever you need to do a jewel heist, you have to get really, really excited so you can actually cut through the security glass and steal the jewel.

Craig: I have to sort of rotate my torso in a planar, circular fashion. Yeah. No, I do it all the time. I loved it. But rather than talk about the teaser trailer, I just want to tie in to what you were saying that it just seems like these things come out and then there’s just this horde of people just waiting to say, “Meh,” and “I don’t like it.”

John: I have to say, as we’re recording this on Friday, I have not heard a single “meh.” I’ve heard a lot of sort of like, “Holy cow, that was much better than I was expecting it to be.”

Craig: Well, look, it is exactly as good as I was expecting it to be but then again, as we know, I’m a positive movie-goer. I expect every teaser trailer to be awesome. I truly do. And then, you know, I start from a place of hope and then, you know, we’ll see what happens. But yeah, there was just a bunch, but you know what, sometimes when I’m on the Internet and this is a weird thing for somebody who does a podcast to say, I just want to — I wish there were a button like a shush button, and I could just shush the Internet, just shush. Everybody shush.

John: You can. You can close the window.

Craig: No, no, no, no, I want other people to shush. [laughs] I want everyone to be quiet, even on their own.

John: So on a previous episode of Scriptnotes, we talked about this list that a guy put out saying, like, you know, a list of reminders, sort of an open letter to J.J. Abrams and a list of reminders about Star Wars. And it is interesting that, J.J. Abrams is not a stupid person and it seems like he did a lot of the things on the list not because that list existed but because, like, they’re the right kind of ideas.

Craig: Right.

John: So the universe does definitely feel old. It doesn’t feel new and shiny. And, like, the helmets look battered and damaged. It definitely looks like it takes a place on a frontier.

Craig: Right.

John: It looks, you know, like there’s mysterious things happening.

Craig: Well, it also looks like it is part of the universe of the first three movies. It has the palette of the first three movies, those wonderful Ralph McQuarrie illustrations. It looks like those. The colors are like those. Obviously, we know from advanced publicity that he’s been erring towards the side of practical objects that are maybe enhanced by CGI as opposed to pure CGI creations. It just looks like a Star Wars movie whereas the other ones just didn’t, you know, so –

John: Very shiny.

Craig: Yeah, they were shiny. So, I’m super excited. I do believe that this movie will be the biggest. I believe it will be the biggest movie. I think –

John: It could be the biggest movie of all time.

Craig: I think it will be. I think it’s going to outdo Avatar.

John: Yeah. I think you’re probably right.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Hooray for everybody involved.

Craig: All right.

John: Last bit of follow-up. On the last episode, I asked if there were listeners who had insights about retail that could help me out as I’m trying to figure out Writer Emergency Pack and in 2015 we’re going to try to put it out in the world, both retails like physical retail and online retail. And about half a dozen people wrote in with like really, really good helpful suggestions. And so I just want to thank everyone who’s written in and if other people have thoughts about that.

And it’s a good segue to our first topic which is, I recognized this last week that we’re actually going to have to put Writer Emergency Pack in a whole separate company because right now I’ve been running it through my own loan-out company and it should not, for accounting reasons, it should just not be part of the loan-out company. So I thought we’d start by talking about loan-out companies.

Craig: The loan-out company, which is a quirk of the entertainment business. It really is, you know. It’s not something that anybody really should know about unless they are considering becoming a writer, an actor, a director. That is to say an individual who sells their own art that isn’t — and they’re not objects but rather us, our expression, our individual expression. So what happens is if you achieve a certain amount of success and you want it to be success that you expect to be repeated, not just a one-time deal, then everybody, every tax person, your agent, all of the people around you, your lawyer will say, “You need to form a loan-out company.” What is that?

It is a corporation. Typically, it’s an S-corp. Some people do a C-corp. And you become a company. So for the sake of argument, you’re the Joe Smith Company. The Joe Smith Company is controlled entirely by Joe Smith. Joe Smith owns all the stock. Joe Smith is the sole officer of the company. When you are hired to do things, let’s stick with writing because we are Scriptnotes, the studio makes a deal with the Joe Smith Company, not with you. The studio pays the Joe Smith Company. The Joe Smith Company, in turn, warrants that it is there to provide the services of Joe Smith. And then, of course, you set up something where the Joe Smith Company then pays Joe Smith.

John: Yup.

Craig: What’s the deal with all these hoops? What does it come down to? No shock, taxes.

John: Mostly taxes. So let me back up and make sure that a few terms are clear along the way. So when we say success, it’s not, like, “Hey, you got an Academy Award nomination.” Success means that you are earning a certain amount each year.

Craig: Correct.

John: And so when I first became a corporation, that threshold was about $200,000. They said, like, if you’re making more than $200,000 a year, then you should incorporate so that you could have a loan-out and things would just become much simpler. That bar may actually be a little bit lower now just for –

Craig: That’s what I read, yeah. Now, I think maybe even $100,000. But back when we were starting, yeah, $200,000 was the number that I heard as well. So every actor you see in movies, pretty much every working writer, every director, everybody has a loan-out company.

John: So some of the advantages for this are taxes. And so it’s a way of, Sony is paying through a loan-out corporation. Your loan-out company has that money. Your loan-out company can take write-offs against that money for things like your agent and things like your manager and things like your lawyer. Some of the things are going to being paid as a corporation, so they’re not being charged to you individually. That’s very useful.

In almost all cases, the overall balance of your company will be zeroed out of a year. So they’re ultimately going to pay you but it’s a way of delaying paying you as an individual writer for a little bit longer, and that can be very, very useful. It can also be useful because if you have legitimate research that you need to do, trips you need to do to study something for something you’re writing, if you have an assistant like Stuart Friedel, that person can be paid out of your corporation.

Craig: Right.

John: And it’s generally much better to pay things from a corporate perspective than to pay as an individual.

Craig: Yeah. As an individual, taking business deductions is arduous. It is often a red flag. A real simple thing, for instance, I have an office in Pasadena. That’s where I am right now. If you’re an individual and you have a home office, the IRS is, like, “Do you really? Because that’s something that a lot of cheaters say they have but don’t really have. Is it really just your bedroom?” But if you have an office-office and it’s a corporation, it’s an office. They don’t have a problem with that. They expect that. So you’re right. And there’s something called the alternative minimum tax where as an individual they’re like, “You can deduct a bunch of stuff but then where if you deduct too much, we’re just going to add on a new tax because we don’t really believe you.” That gets circumvented when you’re talking about the — having a corporation.

The other huge tax benefit to having a loan-out is that you can then access different levels and expanded levels of tax-deferred savings. I’m talking about retirement plans. So you can save, you know, as an individual, you have your IRA where, I don’t know, they let you put in $2,000 a year. As a loan-out, you can put in six figures. You can put in a lot of money in tax-deferreds for retirement. You will pay taxes on it one day but it gets to grow without you having to pay the taxes upfront and it’s better.

John: Absolutely. And I think we should stress for writers is that if you were a screenwriter, you’re going to be a member of the WGA. And so there will be a WGA pension. The WGA pension, while good for most industries, it’s probably not going to be sufficient for you to be carrying on for the rest of your life. And so socking away money as a screenwriter during your most productive years is really quite important. And to be able to do that in a tax-deferred way through a corporation is fantastic.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a must-do.

John: Yeah, it’s a must-do. I mean, it’s not just silly, it’s actually dangerous not to do that.

Craig: Correct.

John: Well, an interesting that’s happened to me is like I’ve had some employees long enough that they have actually become vested in the corporation and therefore, like, they have retirement plans with me, which is just weird but also kind of great. So assistants who’ve been with for, like, five years –

Craig: Right.

John: Where now they have a pension, which is wonderful.

Craig: That’s amazing. Yeah, that’s terrific. You have all sorts of options and flexibilities when you are a loan-out corp. Some people will say that the other benefit is that, you know, you’re shielded a little bit from some legal issues. Not really.

John: Yeah.

Craig: The truth is that if you do something wrong as an individual, you can’t really hide behind that loan-out corp. That’s so easy. They call it piercing the veil. It’s so easy to say, “No, it’s really just you.” The other thing is that when we sign contracts with studios, one of the things we sign is a certificate of authorship that says, “We’re going to write this.” The individual is going to write this. That’s what the loan-out company is promising. And as an individual, we are warranting that we’re not ripping anyone off. We’re not infringing. We’re not making any, you know, bad mistakes.

John: Yeah. So let’s talk about this from a newer writer’s perspective. And people might be listening and saying like, “I’m an aspiring screenwriter. Do I need to form a loan-out corporation?” The answer is unequivocally no.

Craig: No.

John: So it’s one of those things like getting an agent, getting a lawyer, getting all that stuff, it’s all stuff that happens down the road. And when it has to happen, it just has to happen. Actually, here’s the best parallel. It’s the kind of thing like joining the WGA. You don’t need to join the WGA until you need to join the WGA. Like, at the minute you sign to write a script for a studio that’s a signatory or you sell a script to a signatory, then congratulations. You have to join the WGA and you are now a WGA member. The same kind of thing holds true for incorporating is that at the minute you need to incorporate, your agents, your lawyer, your manager will tell you, “Oh, about that time. You got to incorporate.”

Craig: Right.

John: And there will be a whole process to do it because literally thousands of people have done it before you.

Craig: That’s right. There’s a fee involved to incorporate in the State of California. You know, it’s tempting to think, “God, what I should do is incorporate in Nevada because they don’t have taxes there the way that we have taxes here.” Yeah, it don’t work that way. You got to –

John: No.

Craig: Incorporate where you live, in the state you live. But they will tell you — it’s good information though to have in your pocket for those of you, especially if you’ve just sold your first thing, if you’re on the verge, this is something you should start talking about with your attorney because it’s a huge benefit to you. You will actually save a lot of money. By the way, do you, question.

John: Yes.

Craig: Do you use a business manager?

John: I do use a business manager. So I will get into that. But first I want to back up one step and say that the first thing I sold, Go, was the first, actually, that wasn’t my biggest sale. I sold two things which I was paid as an individual, neither of which got produced. And those were just paid to John August. And I sold Go and that was just paid to John August. It was after Go that I incorporated. So I still get checks sometimes for just John August money. It’s not my loan-out money.

Craig: Yup.

John: And it’s fine. It’s just a little bit weird that there’s some stuff that falls outside that veil and falls outside that –

Craig: I’m in the exact same boat. My first two movies, RocketMan and Senseless, were both –

John: Yeah.

Craig: I didn’t have a loan-out.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So the residuals go to me personally for those. But everything else, they go to the corporation.

John: So actually back to your question about a business manager, yes, I do have a business manager, Carrie, and I love her to death. And so she is responsible for keeping track of the corporate money and keeping track of sort of the individual John August money. So I get quarterly statements. She files, you know, the estimated taxes, the quarterly taxes that have get through and make sure that all of the stuff happens.

And again it goes back to the heart surgery thing. She does this for a lot of other writers, a lot of writers that you and I both know. And because she’s seen all the stuff before, it’s just gets done, and it gets done right. But you do not if I can remember correctly.

Craig: I don’t, no. Because I kind of like this sort of stuff. I mean, some people have different arrangements. Some business managers do everything for people. They pay their bills. You know, they talk to, “Oh, I need to switch my, the guy that does my exterminating.” Okay, we’ll handle it. So I don’t do any of that. I pay all of my bills. I like Quicken, you know, I’m a Quicken guy. I do have a tax guy that I work with and I have financial investment managers that obviously I don’t , you know, I don’t know what stocks or anything like that. I don’t do that sort of thing.

But the other stuff I handle, you know, it’s not that bad. It’s pretty simple. And, you know, with computers now, it gets even simpler than it used to be.

John: So the conversation I had to have this last week with my business manager and with my accountant, and ultimately with my lawyer is that my company, my loan-out company, has been doing all the stuff we do for apps and it’s worked out just fine. So I have employees and we do stuff. The challenge is the company works, the corporation loan-out, works as a cash-based business. That’s fine when you don’t have inventory. But once you start having inventory –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Things get a lot more complicated. So the only inventory we’ve had to date, has been literally like our 150 episodes Scriptnotes drives and our t-shirts and those just sell out and then they’re done and nothing sits around.

Craig: Right.

John: But these will sit around and there will be orders coming in and orders going out and there’ll be this whole timeline thing, and first in, first out. And it’s just going to be very complicated and wrong to try to bend this company to deal with that kind of situation. So it will end up being, I think, a whole separate company that will end up being the distributor of Writer Emergency Pack and other things we hope to make.

Craig: As well as it should, yeah, because when you have — I remember talking with my late father-in-law about this. He was a Burger King franchisee. So he owned a couple of Burger Kings and you would have to do the same thing with your new company if they get in to profit and loss statements.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: It’s just a whole other world. See, the loan-out company exists and can exist because it’s so simple.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, we don’t have stock, we don’t have inventory. We don’t even have profit and loss because our overhead is such a joke, you know. I mean, let’s put it this way. If your overhead is so great that it’s eating up all of your money, I mean the idea is whatever your overhead is as a writer, that plus the money you pay yourself should equal all of the money you’ve earned.

John: Exactly. The goal is to zero out everything, every –

Craig: Right.

John: Every year, every financial year. And as a writer, that’s really simple to do. As someone who has inventory, that’s just not going to be possible.

Craig: Right. Because if you don’t, then ultimately you end up paying taxes twice.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because the corporation is making money, it has to be taxed. And then it’s going to send it to you, and then that’s going to be taxed again. Anyway, this is something that you, I know it’s all wonky, money, annoying stuff. But if you want to be a screenwriter, you kind of got to know about it.

John: You do.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And you need to think about it at the time that you need to think about it. And so awareness of it before it happens is great. And then when the time comes that you need to do it, you do it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So my questions are mostly the writers I know from loan-out companies are feature writer people but it happens in television too.

Craig: Sure.

John: And at a certain point you’re getting paid enough money, and you’re being paid as both a writer and producer, and that’s going to be enough money that that will happen. But I wonder, are professional athletes a loan-out company?

Craig: I believe they are. Yeah, I can imagine –

John: And musicians are probably the same. Like Taylor Swift, I’m sure is.

Craig: Absolutely.

John: She is a multibillion and whatever. But I think any time that you’re being paid a lot of money as an individual –

Craig: Yes.

John: That’s when you want to be paid as a loan-out.

Craig: And particularly when you are essentially an individual actor not performance actor but an individual person doing something. So, you know, it’s the difference between now becoming an employee of a company temporarily as opposed to a corporation that’s being contracted and providing a service to somebody. It’s just a better thing. By the way, a little bit of advice for those of you out there who are successful enough to incorporate and have your loan-out company. Don’t name it something stupid.

John: Because that name will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Craig: And it’s super hard to change it. So –

John: Yeah.

Craig: When I started out, I was working at Disney. And when I had to set up my loan-out, I remember that my business card from Disney, it said The Walt Disney Company. I thought, “Oh, if it’s good enough for Walt Disney, it’s probably good enough for me. I think The Craig Mazin Company is probably, that sounds like a good name.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: Did you pick something silly?

John: I picked something good, it’s Quote-Unquote Films Inc.

Craig: Oh yeah, that’s totally fine, it’s respectable.

John: But unfortunately, it doesn’t actually make sense with things that aren’t films, so –

Craig: True.

John: You know, the new company name will be something different that it makes more sense for that. And if you want a good advice on picking a good name, I would go to the recent South Park episode, I think it’s Go Fund Yourself where they actually picked names for their startup venture. And it’s fantastic.

Craig: Those guys are the best.

John: So our second topic is the Perfect Reader. So this is the third installment of our Perfect series. We have no idea how many installments there’ll be. Craig, how many installments will there be? Thousands?

Craig: Thousands, yeah.

John: So we previously talked about the perfect studio executive. We talked about the perfect agent. Today, we want to talk about the perfect reader. And by reader, we really kind of mean two different things. We mean a reader who is a professional gatekeeper, somebody who is the difference between your script moving on some place and not moving on some place.

We’re also talking about the sort of casual reader which is the friend or acquaintance or compatriot who you’ve given your scripts to and that person is reading your script and they’re both looking at your script and judging it and hopefully giving you some feedback on your script. But there are very different goals behind it.

So we just want to talk about what it’s like to be a great reader.

Craig: Well, why don’t we start with the friend version?

John: Sure.

Craig: And then we’ll get to the professional version. So I do this all the time. Just in the last month, I’ve read a script by Scott Silver. I read stuff by Koppelman and Levien. And the first thing that I think that the perfect reader has to do is make sure they understand what the person giving them wants.

John: Exactly.

Craig: And you don’t always get it right, you know. Sometimes you get it wrong. But it’s important for me to know, okay, has anyone read this before? Are you looking for a wide open what do you think? Or is this something that is already set up and you’re having questions about A, B, or C?

Is this targeted? Do you want to know what I think about what I would call like inside the scenes or do you want to think about the total thing? And you try and get a sense of that so that you don’t, so that you don’t go too far or just bore them with stuff that’s irrelevant or that they can’t do anything about.

John: I sent a script to a friend and her first response back was, “Do you want me to tell you that it’s really good or do you want notes?” And it was such an honest response. And I sort of split the difference saying like mostly I want you tell me that it’s really good. But if there’s anything that sticks out that says like, uh-uh, that part doesn’t work, please let me know. And it was such a wonderfully, upfront way of addressing sort of what I was looking at –

Craig: Right.

John: For the experience.

Craig: That’s the other thing is that sometimes people send you something and that’s what they want. They want validation with some little bon mot of easily done work.

John: Yes.

Craig: Sometimes people really do want shotgun to the face. In general, when I read things, what I say to people is, look, my default position is what I would want which is shotgun to the face. But if you’re not looking for shotgun to the face, let me know, and I’ll adjust.

And again, you know you don’t — everybody’s different. Like not every reader is right for every writer. You know, so like Scott Silver and I, we have a good, like I really like reading his stuff and I feel like I have a good, and the same thing with Brian and David. And Scott Frank and I read each other’s stuff. And so you find people that you’re like, okay, yeah, this is actually working, this is a good deal.

Then other people maybe you’re like I don’t think I helped them or whatever. But when you’re doing this for somebody else, the most important thing, I think, the perfect reader does is not think how would I rewrite this, which is a mistake I think a lot of writers make. And it’s natural because most of the time when you’re a professional writer and you’re reading someone else’s script it’s because the studio has given it to you and said, “Would you rewrite this please?”

John: Yeah.

Craig: So your natural instinct is to go, all right, I’m going to read this now and imagine what would I do. That’s not helpful for your friend. What’s helpful for your friend is, I’m just going to read this and then I’m going to say to you here’s where I got confused. Here’s where I wasn’t sure what to think. Here’s where I thought what you wrote didn’t feel good. You know, it’s all about just pure audience style reaction. And then ideally you offer some solutions. They don’t have to be hard and fast solutions or overspecific because you want the writer to feel like they’re going to write their work.

But it’s not enough to say, “You know, this scene felt a little bit too much like that other scene.” It’s better to say, “You know, this scene, when these two people talk like this, these two other people are talking the same way in this other scene. So what if instead they did something like this or this or this, just so I didn’t feel that repetition because I like what’s happening in the scene. I just feel maybe, it felt repetitive to me.” That kind of thing.

John: So it’s a different experience when you know the person whose script you’re reading and when the person is a stranger. And so I love reading scripts from friends who are tremendously talented writers. A lot of times I’m reading scripts for things like Sundance, The Sundance Institute. And so I’m reading their scripts and but the first thing I always think about is, “What movie are they trying to make?” And I’ll never sort of — it’s dangerous — you should never ask that question first because that just sets you off on a path of like talking about things rather than talking about the movie itself.

But again, I don’t want to think about, “What movie would I want to make?” I’m saying like, “What movie did they seem to be trying to make on the page?” And when I think in the sense of what movie is it that they’re trying to make, then I can really look at it from perspective of like, “Are these scenes helping them tell the story that they seem to be wanting to tell?”

Craig: Right.

John: Which scenes best encapsulate this vision of what they have and which scenes stick out because they’re not actually getting to where I think they want to be going. And that way, I can sort of start the conversation with them, saying like, “Here’s what I think is so awesome and amazing. Here’s where I think this movie is. Tell me if I’m wrong, tell me if this is the right thing you’re aiming for. And if so, then let’s talk about how well these things are working and why these things might not be helping support that vision of what you have for your movie.”

In general, if you can talk about your reactions in terms of this future thing, the movie rather than this thing that’s sitting there in front of them that they’ve been slaving over, they’re going to be much more free to extrapolate and expand and move away from decisions they have made because it took them so long to write that moment.

Craig: That’s right. And I think what you’re zeroing in on is that when we are reading things for our friends, we have to read them like we’re producing the movie rather than that we’re rewriting the movie, you know. And a good producer is there to say, “I’m going to tell you how I felt not as a writer because I’m not a writer. I’m an audience member. I watched this movie in my head. Here’s what I thought of the movie. Here’s where I thought it worked, here’s where I thought it didn’t work. Here’s what I think, like you said, the movie is or wants to be. Here’s something that I loved and wish there was more of.”

It’s just an honest expression of your reaction. And it is not at all clouded by anything other than a pure audience member rooting for the movie as opposed to, “Oh, I don’t like this sort of thing,” or, “I don’t write like that,” or “Why would you? Your character, you know, is always like the way you do action.” No one needs that, you know. And particularly when it’s a fellow professional, one of the nice things about reading scripts from fellow professionals is that I never worry that there’s a subtext of, “I’m evaluating you as a writer.” Because I’m not. We’re all good writers, we all are professionals. I’m just evaluating the movie.

John: So let’s talk about the other kind of writer, the other kind of reader, I should say. This is the kind of reader who is working for a production company, for a studio, for a producer, a director. Is reading through a bunch of material and has to render a decision about like, “This is a script that I think is worth this next person reading or I think we can pass on this right now.” And I used to have this job. I think you used to do some reading as well.

One of my first jobs in Hollywood was as a reader at TriStar. And so I would have to read — I was reading 14 scripts a week and writing up coverage on them. And that’s a very different kind of reading because while you’re still flipping the pages and sort of taking notes and looking at what’s working and what’s not working, ultimately your audience is not the writer who wrote that script, but it’s some other decision maker. And so what your job is is to encapsulate, well, this is what is actually here and this is what’s working about what’s here. This is what’s not working about what’s here.

And there’s a third thing which I think is also really important which is a thing you don’t do when you’re talking to an individual writer is you’re saying, “Here’s the good writing and here’s the bad writing. Here’s strengths I see in this writer and here are the weaknesses I see in this writer.” It’s a very different experience because you’re not trying to think about being supportive, you’re just trying to be kind of blunt.

Craig: Right.

John: And honest about sort of an assessment of what this is in front of you.

Craig: And these people not only read, I mean we’re all familiar with the notion of new writers who are sending their work in and it’s getting coverage somewhere, and they’re hoping that it gets passed to somebody, and that’s true. But frankly, for you and for me, this also occurs where studios, internally, have work that they’ve commissioned to be covered by their own readers. They want that as well.

So we all live in the world of these people. And by and large, I think they do a good job. I’ve read some, lots of coverage, some of my works, some of other people’s work. And what I think is the best kind of gatekeeper reader is not so concerned with jamming the movie into a box. They’re not a production executive, they’re not trying to figure out what would be good in our slate or would this make a lot of money or any business concerns. They just concern themselves with the script and with the craft of the script and whether or not the script is true to itself and is well written. So they avoid some of that stuff.

I find that the good ones tend to leave out what feel like personal axes. If you don’t like violence, if you think that violence is distasteful, don’t cover bloody R-rated action movie scripts. They’re not for you and that’s just not an appropriate, you know, reason to ding a script. So you leave out your personal ax grinding.

I remember Todd Phillips showed me coverage that was done of a script that he and Scot Armstrong wrote many years ago and it was really, I really like the script and so did the reader. But then the reader — there was one joke. It was a 9-11 joke and it was, I think it was — the script was covered like on 9-12. And the reader was just outraged and wrote an entire paragraph about how this joke was the worst thing ever. And I just thought that’s a bad reader because that’s not relevant.

The joke will be cut — if it doesn’t work, guess what, it gets cut. We don’t even shoot it at all. That’s not why you’re there, to argue about a line in the movie, you know. So that’s less than ideal. But, you know.

John: Yeah. So quite earlier in my career, when I think I first had an agent, I was working at a production company and I had readers who worked for me. And so there was a slow week and there really wasn’t quite enough to cover. So I’ve slipped this reader, who I thought was a really good reader, my own script under a different cover page. Just to see like, oh, let’s see what he thinks about this. And he slammed it. He just really ripped it to shreds. And it was so fascinating. Both to see what he wrote, but also to sort of internally look at my own reaction and sort of like how I was gauging my own work that other people really liked because this one reader has sort of slammed on it and it sort of gets to the nature of all criticism. But I will tell you that that never actually kind of stops.

And there’s one project that I have that is dormant at a studio. And I’m pretty sure one of the reasons why it’s dormant is because someone snuck out the coverage, the internal coverage at the studio. And it’s really negative coverage on this project that they paid me a lot of money to write.

And it’s just so fascinating that after, you know, being employed to write this thing and having people like it and, you know, getting directors on board, this one piece of coverage apparently does, I’ve heard from other people, continues to hurt it.

Craig: When you say snuck out, you mean put it online?

John: No, no, no. Like somebody at — I think my agency or someone else’s agent said like, “You know, the coverage there is really bad.”

Craig: Oh, yeah. And this can, this is a real problem because you would think, “Well, look, all of these people are paid a lot of money to decide what movies to make. They’re the president of a studio or the senior vice president or whatever.” And then there’s a guy that they pay, I don’t know what readers got paid, but not a million dollars a year. And this person takes a dump on the script and they all go, “Well, it got bad coverage.” And that becomes kind of the path of least resistance to sort of yield to that.

John: Yeah. I think it has been a bit of a momentum killer on this particular project. Now is that insurmountable? Hardly. We can totally get past that and getting one director or one piece of talent on it will completely change everything. If Cowboy Ninja Viking gets bad covered someplace and then it gets, you know, Chris Pratt attached, well who cares about that coverage.

Craig: Right.

John: But it is a piece of momentum, you know, early on in the process.

Craig: It’s true. And frankly, you know, I was — happily Cowboy Ninja Viking got very good internal coverage. If it hadn’t, the problem is there’s just suddenly less of an impetus to get the script out to agents, and managers, and big actors because internally they kind of lose a little bit of their love for it and that’s a weird thing. But it’s a true thing, and I have to say that those people, we don’t know them. They’re very powerful.

There’s one reader at Universal, in particular. I don’t know him, I don’t even know his name. I just know the legend of him that he’s kind of their guy. And he’s a very powerful person. And, you know, in a way I’m glad he’s there because he’s like that silent, unseen person that is in the back of my head when I’m writing. I’m just thinking, you know, you can’t really get away with stuff because one day that guy is going to read it. And that guy isn’t thinking about marketing. He’s not thinking about the schedule or, “Oh, we need a movie that fits into this particular box because we don’t have anything like that.”

He’s just going to read the script and say is this good or bad and I like that. Actually, if you’re writing a script that’s off the beaten path a little bit, then that reader actually could be your best friend which, let me just say is another thing that I think the perfect gatekeeper reader does. They don’t shy away from different or ambitious. They kind of like it.

John: Well, I’m going to disagree with you on a bit of this because I worry about mythologizing this terrifying reader as the person who is going to stop you from being able to make your movie. I know I just said that it was a momentum killer on this one project. But I don’t want to sort of ascribe too much power or fear among this one person because if your studio executive loves the project and it gets bad coverage, yeah, you’re going to be fine. So it’s not the one sole gatekeeper. It’s the person who’s writing their opinion down and therefore it matters.

I will say as the person who was reading at TriStar, so you know, I looked through my coverage when I left and I had just covered like 110 scripts. And I had given two really enthusiastic recommends on two things. And in both cases I was called to the matt for having wasted people’s time.

Craig: Ooh.

John: With these enthusiastic recommends. And that was incredibly frustrating. One of them was a really good Billie Holiday biopic and they were just like, “Well, who would want to see a Billie Holiday biopic?” And I was like, “You know what, I bet you can make a really good one now and I bet it could be really kind of great.” But I got called to the matt for wasting people’s time.

Craig: Really? See, to me that’s outrageous. Because I mean, and this is why I — look, I wasn’t a studio reader and I would have been fired immediately because I would have said, “That’s not my job. My job isn’t to tell you who would go see this or why you should make it. My job is –

John: Absolutely.

Craig: “To tell you is this good or not? How about this, you didn’t waste your time. You’re not going to make a Billie Holiday pic but look how good this writer is. Do you have something else you want to make that this person could write? You know, she’s really good, read her stuff.” That’s just dumb.

John: The other one I remember recommending was a script called Full Honeymoon. It was by a writing team. And it wasn’t perfect but it was a very good solid romantic comedy. And you could sort of see where it was going but it was a very good version of that. And the ability to say like this is a really good version of this kind of movie. So, while you may not make this movie, these are writers you should probably consider hiring for other stuff. And I remember being called to the floor for that too. So I have tremendous sympathy for readers as well.

Craig: Yeah, I do, too.

John: And many screenwriters are going to be readers along the way. And my recommendation is reading is really a great way to learn about scripts and learn about sort of what things never work on the page. But you have to get out of being a reader before you just get that hole burned in your brain. Because it’s impossible to read 15 scripts a week and actually write your own.

Craig: Oh, yeah. I totally agree. I think that any overconsumption of something is bad for you. Overconsuming movies the way that critics do because they have to is bad for them. It skews their appreciation of movies because they’re not intended to be consumed that way. And the same thing is true for scripts.

If you’re writing, I mean, I know, I don’t know about you. But when I’m writing something, sometimes someone will say, “Hey, do you want to read this script? It’s kind of in a similar vein.” I’ll say, “Absolutely not.” That’s the last thing I want to do is read anything that’s in the same tone because I just know the way I am. It’s going to bother me, it’s going to affect my choices. I want to be able to choose freely and not worry like, “Oh, but they kind of did a thing that was sort of like that. Or I didn’t like the way they did that, maybe I should do something else.” I could see where it would become a little toxic.

John: Yeah. And I have a hunch, though, as we do with Perfect series we’re going to come back to the same characteristics for every perfect person. But I think they’re going to come down to honesty, clarity, kindness/forthrightness, the ability to sort of to speak the truth but speak it in a way that understands what the audience for it actually is.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And as we talked about a studio executive, those are the characteristics to look for. As you look at an agent, those are the same characteristics. And the same is true for a reader, be it a professional reader who is, you know, deciding which movies the bosses should read or it’s a friend reading a script. You want those people to take their jobs seriously and be able to communicate effectively what it is that they’re seeing.

Craig: I agree. And I guess I would throw on there another unifying quality to all these perfect professionals is a lack of cynicism. That they approach their tasks with a rooting interest and a desire to see success occur as opposed to the opposite which I think does affect quite a few people.

John: I agree. So our last topic for the today is Dan Benjamin who runs the 5by5 podcast network has been doing podcasting really from this whole new area of podcasting. You could trace a lot of the stuff back to him and sort of the shows that he created on his network. And so when we started to do our show, I remember looking for like what equipment should we use. It was one of his blog posts that became the go-to for sort of which microphone should we use, how should we do this. And so this last week he updated his blog posts with some new recommendations and so I want to point to that because it’s really, really good.

So if you’re thinking about doing a podcast, this is probably the first place you should look in terms of hardware and software recommendations. So it’s Dan Benjamin. The URL is and it’s just a really terrific expert’s opinion on sort of how stuff should work.

Craig: Are we still doing it right?

John: We’re doing it right. And so it’s interesting because we are using a lot of the stuff that he is recommending. And so let’s talk about our microphones. So we used to use these accent microphones. So you still use the Audio-Technica 2020?

Craig: I don’t. I now use the Apogee –

John: Ah-huh.

Craig: Something, something.

John: All right. And so you are using a condenser microphone. And a condenser microphone classically records voices really well but also records the surrounding environment, which in your case, your office is pretty well padded, so there’s not a lot of –

Craig: No.

John: Bouncing around happening.

Craig: Right, yeah.

John: So other than the sirens, it’s all good.

Craig: If there were no sirens, it would be perfect.

John: And so I used to use the Audio-Technica 2020. I just switched three episodes ago to the Heil PR-40 which is a dynamic microphone. And that is because my office is really bouncy and noisy and so my side of the audio I always felt was a little bit too live and a little too present and echoey. And so after some negotiation and discussion, we switched to this microphone. And I think I’m happier. So I’m going to give you an example of what’s so different about my microphone.

So here, I’m talking into the microphone. And if I move a little bit off to the side, my voice really completely fades away.

Craig: That’s right. Whereas if I do that same test, I’m over here, I’m over here, I’m over here, it’s probably the same.

John: It’s about the same.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So that is one of the useful differences. And because I’m working in a busy office, honestly the guys downstairs can have a conversation, you wouldn’t hear it up here. So it’s really useful this dynamic microphone. If I’m directly talking into it, it’s awesome, otherwise you can’t hear me at all.

Craig: Well, I’m glad that our setup is still pretty good for what we do. But, you know, it’s not about the setup, man. It’s about the content, bro.

John: It’s all about the content. I would much rather hear a poorly recorded podcast that has interesting things being discussed than a terrifically recorded podcast that’s boring.

Craig: Right.

John: So we are recording this on Skype. So you and I are very rarely in the same room together. So we are on a Skype call. You’re recording your end locally on your own device, I’m recording my end locally on my own device. Just QuickTime, hit record. Recently we started using Call Recorder, so we actually are recording the Skype call as well. So when Matthew Chilelli edits the podcast together, if he needs to, he can grab this Skype recording of the whole thing together and use that if anything goes wrong on one of our sides.

We cut the show, I believe Matthew’s he’s cutting it on Logic these days, but we still end up going back to GarageBand because GarageBand let’s it put in chapter markers. And I want to step up for chapter markers for a second because so many podcasts don’t do it. I think they’re so useful.

So in our podcast, in most podcast players, you can hit the jump forward button, it’ll jump to the next topic. And so Stuart puts in those little chapter marks, so if you really don’t care about loan-out companies, you can skip over that whole segment.

Craig: But who doesn’t care about loan-out companies?

John: Everyone should care.

Craig: You know what we should do? On the chapter marks for this, under loan-out companies it should just say sex tips.

John: That’s nice.

Craig: Yeah. Everyone will check that out.

John: So GarageBand is also where you put in all your metadata, so information about the show itself. And that’s what shows up when you are in your podcast app and you want to see what the episode is about, it’s all there.

Craig: You know who loves sex tips?

John: Who?

Craig: Sexy Craig.

John: I walked right into that.

Craig: Hey, dude, how was your Thanksgiving, man? Did you stuff that turkey? Did you stuff it?

John: So it’s time for One Cool Things.

Craig: [laughs]

John: My One Cool Thing is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It is a great Iranian vampire western. Did I say Iranian?

Craig: You said Iranian and I thought maybe you meant Randian like Ayn Rand had written a vampire Western.

John: No. Iranian, Iranian, both of those would be better choices than what I just said.

Craig: Iranian. Yeah, Iranian.

John: Iranian vampire western. It’s by Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s just great. It is black and white. I saw it at Sundance. It is terrific. It is, you know, set in Iran. It is a vampire movie. It is a western. It is sort of period, it’s black and white. It’s just terrific. And so I highly recommend people go to see it. It’s in five theaters in the Los Angeles area, including the Sunset 5. And so if you have a chance to see it in a real theater, I would definitely go and see it in a real theater. If not, come see it when it comes out on video. It’s just great.

She’s really talented. And I don’t think all the details about her next movie are released yet. I am fascinated to see what she’s able to do with it because it’s really ambitious and could be really, really cool.

Craig: All right.

John: But this movie that she made is a great example of picking things that, you know, you can do and letting your limitations be empowering. And so she didn’t shoot this film in Iran, but she was able to find places in Southern California that looked like Iran. And by shooting it in black and white, she can create this really unique and special world that supports, you know, just cool things we’ve never seen in a vampire movie before. So I highly recommend it.

Craig: All right. That’s good enough for me. I’m there. I’ll go check that out.

John: Cool.

Craig: My One Cool Thing is something that you need to file away for next year.

John: Right.

Craig: It’s a recipe.

John: I love it.

Craig: I don’t know if I’ve ever cited the best recipe as my One Cool Thing. It should be. The best recipe is the big Omnibus Cookbook put out by Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen where they take lots and lots and lots of recipes of things and they basically do every version they could find, get a hold on and then say to you, “This is the best one and here’s why.” And they’re very scientific about it. They love to talk about molecules and things. It’s great.

However, sometimes the best recipe is not the best recipe because one size does not fit all, you know. However, I did make the best recipe stuffing, specifically the bacon, caramelized onion, sage, and apple stuffing.

John: Well, that sounds great.

Craig: It was spectacular. Rave reviews from everybody. Best stuffing I’ve ever made. Best stuffing they ever had. If you’re looking for a good stuffing, and I’m not a stuff inside the turkey guy. I don’t do that.

John: No, no.

Craig: Yeah, that’s just –

John: Dangerous.

Craig: It’s dangerous, it’s going to dry your turkey out because your turkey takes too long to cook, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, the point is it’s not easy to make, it’s annoying to make, it’s spectacular. It’s really, really good. That is the stuffing recipe.

John: And Cook’s Illustrated could probably point out the reason why it’s so successful is you’ve combined, you know, smoky, salty, sweet –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Carby.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Because it is stuffing.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Whatever you quality you want to say sage has, it’s –

Craig: Savory. You’ve got the tartness of the apples, a little sour from the apple because you’re using Granny Smith’s. It really does hit every part of your tongue. And texturally, it’s super crunchy because you start with a baguette that you slice up and leave out overnight. Then you chop that up into cubes and leave that out overnight and then it burns really super hard, which is great because then as it cooks, it sucks up some of the liquid so it’s still crunchy but soft. It’s just perfect.

John: So I have two stuffing related bits of follow-up. First off, Ike Barinholtz who is a talented writer and actor on The Mindy Project, he Instagrammed today, “Oh, this is my breakfast.” And so he basically took leftover stuffing and then cracked an egg on top of it and baked it with some cheese on top. Is that not a genius idea?

Craig: I mean, generally the day after Thanksgiving is when you’re trying to unclog your arteries, but yeah. [laughs] That sounds awesome.

John: And so my only stuffing modification this year, because I had a very classic, you know, celery, onions stuffing — cranberries. And just, you know, we had fresh cranberries. And so I microwaved them a bit so they softened up, added some sugar so they weren’t incredibly tart, and mixed those into stuffing. Delicious.

Craig: Well, spectacular.

John: Spectacular.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Oh, yeah.

John: If you would like to know more about the things we talked about on the show, join us at There you’ll find show notes for this episode and all of our other previous episodes. You’ll also find transcripts for our previous episodes. We’re one of the few shows that does transcripts, so please look those up if you’re curious.

If you would like to find us on iTunes, just search for Scriptnotes. You can also search iTunes to find the Scriptnotes app for your iOS device or also on the Android Store and the Amazon Android Store. And that’s where you can find episodes of our premium show. Premium subscription is $1.99 a month.

Craig: That’s it.

John: $1.99. A bargain.

Craig: So easy.

John: Let’s you get to all the back episodes and bonus episodes that we put up as well. If you would like to come to our live show on December 11th, go and join us for that. If you would like to reach Craig Mazin, find him on Twitter. He’s @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. Longer questions, go to

And our outro this week is provided by Betty Spinks.

Craig: Yeah, Betty.

John: Thank you for running that in. Yay, Betty. I think Betty Spinks is a pseudonym for somebody but –

Craig: Okay, all right.

John: Thank you, Betty Spinks. If you have an outro for our show, something that uses the [hums theme] in a clever way, please write it and please send us a link to that so we will know to find it and use it as the outro to our show. And that is our episode this week. Craig, thank you for a fun podcast.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: All right, talk to soon.

Craig: Bye.