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A ton of useful information about screenwriting.
Updated: 1 hour 32 min ago

Psychotherapy for Screenwriters

Tue, 03/28/2017 - 08:03

A pernicious cold has stolen John’s voice, so he and Craig reach into the vault to unearth their conversation with screenwriter-turned-psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo, in which they discuss writer’s block, procrastination, partnerships and more. It’s a can’t-miss episode for aspiring writers and professionals alike.

In fact, this was most-reviewed episode in the still-nascent Listeners’ Guide. We’ve included a few of the reviews to give you a taste.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Underground Railroad of Love

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 08:03

Special guest Irene Turner joins Craig and John for a new round of “How Would This Be a Movie?”

In this episode, we look at Jake Halpern’s article on Canada-bound refugees, Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s moving personal ad for her husband, and the porn-filled saga of Prenda Law.

Irene’s latest film, The Most Hated Woman in America, debuts March 24th on Netflix.

Stay tuned after the closing credits for a bonus segment from the new rom-com podcast You Had Us at Hello by Tess Morris and Billy Mernit.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

We’ve had enough of these freeloading lottery winners

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 03:29

The American Health Care Act is only 122 pages long. It’s so short that White House spokesman Sean Spicer gave us yet another meme when he compared two stacks of paper to show how lean it was.

Clearly, this is a tight and focused document. No cruft, no useless bureaucratic nonsense.

Except for the six pages about lottery winners and whether they are eligible for Medicaid.

No, really. You can download the full thing and check it out for yourself.

This bill is bad news for nearly everyone but the very rich. So why does the lottery winner section bother me so much?

I think it’s because it so clearly shows the Republican animus towards the poor. It’s another chapter in the fiction of “makers versus takers” and “welfare queens.”

I’m certainly no fan of lotteries. I think they’re a way of shifting state expenses onto citizens who can least afford to pay for them.

But targeting lottery winners for special scrutiny is ridiculous scapegoating. It’s ginning up a problem that seems easy to solve, rather than actually addressing health care in America.

Scriptnotes, Ep 292: Question Time — Transcript

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 13:27

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 292 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the program, we’ll be answering listener questions about credits and casting, pilots, and professional experience. But first, Craig, we have some follow up.

Craig: Let’s do it. Let’s follow up.

John: So the biggest announcement in last week’s episode was about the live show and we have news about the live show.

Craig: Yeah. So maybe people were wondering, hey, when will the tickets go on sale so that I could see Craig talk to Rian Johnson. And the answer is not yet because we have been postponed, not indefinitely. The folks that are running the charity asked for a little more time because they’re trying to find the right venue. So, I think probably instead of at the end of this month, which is what we were talking about, we’re looking more towards the end of next month. So, calm down, take a deep breath. We promise we will give you plenty of lead time to purchase tickets once we know where it will be.

John: Because we do have people who like fly in from across the country to do this. So I hope no one actually bought the tickets for that time, but if you did buy tickets to come at the end of March, maybe come anyway. I mean, if you look around Los Angeles carefully enough you’re likely to find Rian Johnson somewhere. He’s got to be here somewhere, right?

Craig: Well, or people that look like Rian Johnson, and there are so many.

John: That’s really true.

Craig: There are so many.

John: A baby-faced genius is what you’re looking for. That’s Rian Johnson.

Craig: Baby-faced blond genius with circular glasses. Basically, you remember Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch?

John: Oh, absolutely. Of course.

Craig: Cousin Oliver, age him up, stick the glasses on. You got it.

John: Yeah. Rian Johnson ruined The Brady Bunch but he saved cinema. So, it balances out.

Craig: You know, to defend Oliver, The Brady Bunch ruined The Brady Bunch. And I say that as a Brady Bunch fan and aficionado. But Oliver didn’t make it worse.

John: I apologize to Cousin Oliver, because of course he did not ruin it. It was just a late season addition. It was the Pucci of the show.

Craig: That’s right.

John: And you can’t really blame Pucci. It was just a bad addition.

Craig: Yeah. Pucci died on his way home to his own – I also have to apologize. Because last week during our Three Page Challenge I made an error, a grammatical error, which as you know hurts me so. But important to correct these things. You know, because we live in a time when our leaders make it clear that when you mess up, you should fess up, right?

John: Yep. Completely.

Craig: Yeah. That’s obviously what’s going on. So, a gentlemen named Richard Komen called me out on Twitter and he was correct when he said that I was wrong to say that nervously cadenced should take a hyphen. This was in Carne, I believe, was the Three Page Challenge that we were reading last week. And he said, no, it shouldn’t take a hyphen. It’s an adverb modifying a noun. That’s that. And I checked. So I checked, because I was like, hmm, that does sound compellingly true.

And here’s what I found. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is a pretty good reference, says you should only hyphenate combinations like that if the adverb doesn’t end in LY. Sorry, it’s adverb/adjective, so for instance much-needed takes a hyphen, but nervously cadenced does not. So, in the adverb/adjective combo, if the adverb doesn’t end in LY, you stick a hyphen in there. Otherwise, you don’t. I was wrong. I apologize Thank you, Richard. You were right.

John: I want to just open this up a little bit. So Chicago Manual of Style is a good reference source for writers looking for how do I actually get this thing on paper and make it make sense. But Chicago Manual of Style is not the end all/be all of everything. And so I believe you will find other references or other authors, other works that do put the hyphen in there. So I don’t think you were necessarily wrong to suggest that a hyphen could be put there. It’s all style and usage. Again, it’s like there are no hard fast rules here.

So the Chicago Manual of Style does not call for a hyphen there. I would not be upset to have a hyphen there. I can see sort of why your instinct was to put the hyphen there. I don’t know. And the difference between an LY adverb and an adverb that doesn’t have the LY is really a very arbitrary distinction. Would you agree?

Craig: Well, so much of grammar is arbitrary. And I know that ultimately clarity prevails. But in this case, well, at the very least I was wrong to say that it was wrong to not have it. So, yeah, sure, if you say, well, it’s my preference. Nobody, just to be clear about this, because people do get really wound up about this stuff when they talk to ding-a-lings and charlatans and frauds about how to write screenplays that no one is going to grade your screenplay like a test paper in tenth grade English.

John: No, not at all.

Craig: So, clarity should rule the day. But I was wrong to suggest that it ought to be that way. If anything, it probably shouldn’t. But, yeah, I agree with you. If you want to throw a hyphen in there for funsies, because you feel like it makes it read better, throw it in.

John: I have a hunch that if people went through all my scripts and looked for those situations where I was doing this, I probably was putting the hyphen in there and I suspect you were, too.

Craig: Well, it was clearly my instinct. Yeah. So I’m sure I did. And you know what? John, it hasn’t slowed us down, has it?

John: No. Somehow we’ve been successful despite our over-hyphenation.

Craig: So successful.

John: Another thing we sort of referenced but is not actually available in the world from last week’s episode, so Roman Mittermayr is a guy who has written I think outros for us. He’s also a coder. He’s done some great things called FRUJI, but he also created this app for Amazon’s Echo. So, I don’t have Echo because they don’t work here in Paris. Craig, you don’t have an Echo, I believe. Is that correct?

Craig: No, I’m a little – I don’t like it. [laughs] By the way, let me just say, I don’t – my problem with the Amazon Echo and all the rest of it isn’t that I’m worried about surveillance, although I am kind of excited about this new crop of crimes that are being solved by Amazon Echoes. But that aside, my problem is I just hate talking to the Internet. I feel like such an idiot to say, “Hey Siri, Hey Alexa.” I just feel so dumb. I feel dumb.

John: Yep. So what you did just did there just annoyed a bunch of people because they were driving in their car or they’re at their house and you now activated a thing. So, we’re going to let that one pass. But we’re not going to do that anymore. So any future instances where we accidentally do it, we’ll have Matthew bleep those out.

So, I end up using Siri on my phone a lot for certain things. I use it for setting timers. I use it for starting exercise on my watch. I find it really good for that. It’s now on my computer. I don’t use it at all. So, I’m not a person who is used to being in my house and sort of using it for things, but I’m used to using it on the go or like when I’m in my car.

But Roman most crucially has built a skill for Amazon’s Echo. So, you can now say, “Lady in a Can, enable Scriptnotes.” So, Lady in a Can is the name of the – it’s the ALEXA word. I’m just saying Lady in a Can so you don’t actually, it doesn’t trip it on your–

Craig: Why don’t you just say Aloxa?

John: Oh yeah, just mispronounce it. So, Aloxa, Enable Scriptnotes. If you do that, it will install the skill. And then you can say, “Aloxa, ask Scriptnotes for latest episode,” and we will start playing.

Craig: Yeah. I’m never going to do that. I’m just being real clear.

John: You’re never going to do that, but you know what? People with this Lady in the Can, they might do it.

Craig: Maybe can we call her Malexa? What about Malexa? Does that trigger it?

John: That sounds a little evil.

Craig: Right.

John: But, yeah, it’s so interesting how you have to name these characters and make them seem like they’re helpful.

Craig: Right.

John: So Alexa I think is always female, but Siri is actually male in certain markets. And so I think in the UK Siri is default male.

Craig: My son has rigged his Siri to be an Australian man. [laughs]

John: Fantastic.

Craig: I don’t know why. Every time. And by the way, kids, I will say, well–

John: They love it.

Craig: I’m going off of my sample size here of one teenager, because my daughter is not yet a teenager, but my son and his friends, they talk to their phones all the time. It’s terrifying.

John: I mean, and dictation on the phone has gotten so much better that I will sometimes find myself starting to type and realize like why am I typing? This is going to be so much faster if I dictate it.

Craig: I love typing.

John: And 80% of the time that dictation works great.

Craig: I love it. I love typing.

John: You love typing on your phone?

Craig: I do. I love it. I just love typing in general. I feel like–

John: I hate typing with my thumbs.

Craig: Really? I’ve trained my mind to think through typing. I mean, right now I’m not typing, so I can speak. But when it comes to composing something intentionally, my fingers just start to go. The neural pathways have been wired so directly to the manual activity of typing that I just have to do it.

John: That’s absolutely true when I’m at a real keyboard, but on the phone it just does not work the same way. And so a lot of times I’ll be so far ahead of where my thumbs are at with my thoughts that speaking aloud is a much better case.

Craig: I want to write that song, by the way. I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are at.

John: [laughs] It could be a song about typing or about hitchhiking.

Craig: Well, it just sounds like a great show tune. It’s an 11 o’clocker. You know? It’s a big song.

John: It is.

Craig: It’s like you finally realized I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are at.

John: I don’t think it’s an 11 o’clock number, Craig. I think it could be an I Want song in a certain way, about the vision you have.

Craig: No, I don’t think so.

John: Or it could be an end of the first act. [sings] I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are at.

Craig: See, I think it’s more like [sings] I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are. Anyway, we’ve lost listeners. We’re losing listeners in droves.

John: So many listeners. Who has two thumbs and no listeners? This guy.

Craig: Segue Man.

John: Let’s get to our questions this week. We have a whole bunch of questions. We’ll try to speed round some of them. Other ones we’ll dig in deep. Owen writes in to ask, “How long should it take your agent to read your script?”

Craig: Exactly 3.7 days. Next question.

John: I say a week. And if you haven’t heard back in a week, then you should ask, “Hey what’s up?” Because your agent should read within a week. And a week needs to include a weekend, because basically no one reads anything except over the weekend, which because Hollywood is messed up.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s about right. Basically the first weekend they have available. They’re your agent. They should read it. If you are – look, you got to know your place in the world. If you’re the lowest man on their totem pole and you’re a brand new client and you’re just starting, it may take them two weekends. And that’s fair. I mean, the larger question is who cares what your agent thinks about your script. But I know it matters. I know it matters because they’re the ones that have to go and sell it and they have to understand it.

But as I say to my agents all the time, “Yeah, you can read it if you want to.”

John: Let’s pause here for a second, because it is interesting like how much more important it was for our agents to read our scripts when we were new. And now it’s like it’s good that they read them, because that way they can have meaningful discussion with people about next steps on things. But like it’s actually not that important that they read them. And so [Cramer] calls, like, “Hey, do I need to read this?” Not really. It’s sort of the thing you read before. It’s fine.

Craig: Sometimes my guys will be like, “Can we read this?” Yeah, if you – oh, yeah, of course. It’s not like you can’t read it. But it is true, at some point their purpose really does shift out of advocacy for you and into more of they’re mediative. You know, they’re about getting you a deal and then handling problems along the way as they might crop up. But they’re not really advocating for you specifically about things as a writer.

They never stop being advocative for talent, you know. I mean, I hate that word, because writers are talented, too. But we’re called literary and then on the other side is talent. So actors, they’re constantly advocating for actors. That never stops.

John: Yeah. Because they’re trying to make sure the actor is positioned properly for this kind of role. Or you might not have thought of her for this, but she would actually be great as that.

Craig: Right.

John: And because writers like ultimately people can read us. They can see the movies we’ve done. They can talk to the people we’ve worked with. It’s not the same kind of thing. And so once you are established, there’s less of that need. So, there may be a reason why let’s say you’re a writer who has been writing low budget thrillers and now you’re trying to segue into something different, then yes they need to be able to read you and sort of position you differently. But that’s kind of the exception. That’s not really–

Craig: That’s right.

John: Where most people are at.

Craig: Yeah. And by the way, it’s the same with directors, too. They advocate for directors. I got a call the other day from an agent saying, “Hey, for this thing you’re doing, have you considered my client blah-blah-blah to direct?” And they do that because directors and actors both are to some extent waiting for script material. Whereas we’re not, because we’re writing it. But you’re right. When you’re trying to break out of a mold, and particularly when there is an open assignment, your agent can lobby for you and make a case. And in that sense it’s good that they know what you’ve written.

But that was a very long answer. Owen, oh, a week or two. How about that?

John: That sounds good.

Craig: All right. We have Thomas writing in who says, “On the poster for Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford has two credits. Screenplay by Tom Ford and Directed by Tom Ford. I realize the writer on a movie gets a credit on the poster in the same font size and weight of the director, but did they have to be separate for any reason if it’s the same person? For instance, on There Will Be Blood, the credit is Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Both appear to be screenplay credit.” I’m not really sure what they mean by that.

“Or, does Tom Ford just like seeing his name on things over and over?” John, do you have guesses about this?

John: I believe the answer to the question is that if you have the director’s name on the poster in a certain size, you have to have the writer’s name on. You can say Written and Directed by, but the challenge with Tom Ford’s movie is that it is based on preexisting material, so therefore he cannot have Written and Directed by because Written by includes both story and screenplay. So, it has to say Screenplay by Tom Ford. There can be an exception for Written for the Screen. And so we’ve seen it here in Paul Thomas Anderson’s credit. I’ve seen it also for the Coen Brothers.

So, I believe his credit could have read Written for the Screen and Directed by Tom Ford. Is that your understanding?

Craig: Not sure about that last one. I have to check on that. Written for the Screen and Directed by may refer to somebody who has gotten screen story and screenplay credit. Or that may just be an alternate way of saying Written and Directed by. I have to check on that. But I think you’re absolutely correct though that when you say Screenplay by Tom Ford and Directed by Tom Ford, this is not Tom Ford’s choice. It’s because he does not qualify for a Written by credit.

Unless maybe Written for the Screen does qualify as screenplay and maybe he could. I don’t know. I have to check into this. The truth is I’m not sure.

John: So, I was pulling up this Written for the Screen and Directed by Coen Brothers, which I think was off of True Grit, which was a remake, so therefore they wouldn’t have gotten story credit, but they could have gotten screenplay credit. So that’s my assumption for why that and for Paul Thomas Anderson it made sense. I agree it looks just weird. And so you would love to be able to combine things in ways that are nicer, but it’s here because the WGA is trying to protect writers from getting knocked off the poster.

And the WGA is very particular about what things you can combine. So, you can combine written and directed. You can’t combine written and produced. You’re not allowed to sort of stick those guys together. So I was a writer and a producer on Go, so we asked if it could say Written and Produced by John August. You cannot. Written by has to be its own thing.

Craig: Yes, you definitely can’t combine producing credits with that. So, we’ll double check with our intrepid credit staff and I will get the firm answer on this one.

John: If you’d like to know more about sort of the politics of credits, not sort of the business of credits, but sort of like why directors and credits are such a complicated thing, I’ll put a link in the show notes to this Vanity Fair article by Margaret Heindenry, where she talks through the history of A Film By or A Blank Film, and sort of how complicated it has been in Hollywood and sort of the arguments between the DGA, representing the directors, and WGA for the writers. And the mess it has become.

So, that’s another sort of in depth look at sort of where we’re at in terms of possessory credits for filmmakers on their movies.

Craig: What a dumb – I hate that credit.

John: Yeah. All right, let’s try Sue in the UK’s question. She writes, “I’m reasonably clear about how writing credits for features are worked out, but what if a producer buys a feature spec and then develops it as a TV show instead? What credit would the original writer be entitled to in that scenario? If they’re not involved in writing the TV show, might they get some sort of producer or creative consultant credit instead?”

Craig, what’s your instinct here?

Craig: If they develop it as a TV show, and I guess what Sue is saying is that the person writing it for television is somebody different. So, Sue, let’s say they buy Sue’s feature spec, and then they just turn around and hire somebody else and say, “Start writing a pilot that is based on this.” I think that’s kind of what she’s getting at, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, a couple things. First, the question is, because Sue is in the UK, was the spec script written under the WGA? If it wasn’t, then we have an easy answer: it becomes source material. Just like a novel or anything. And in fact I don’t think you’re really guaranteed much of anything at all in this circumstance.

But if it was done under the WGA, and then the next person goes and turns it into a television script, I mean, first of all usually when you sell feature scripts there is a deal that says that you get the first shot at writing a television adaptation. But I don’t know. That’s a tricky one, too.

John: So, I do know. And I know that the answer is complicated. So, I don’t want to reveal which projects are involved here, but there are recent shows that have been based on films. Sometimes produced films or sometimes not produced films. And this issue of whether the underlying script was literary material, that it’s an adaptation from that, or that it was actually sort of WGA material, that it was actually script material became a very important issue in arbitration.

So, ultimately arbitration did happen. And there had to be sort of pre-hearings. It becomes quite complicated.

So, I can talk through sort of my own experience. If you look at Charlie’s Angels, so Charlie’s Angels is based on a TV show. But at the time I came onboard to write Charlie’s Angels, it was an adaptation of this underlying piece of property called Charlie’s Angels. And so therefore the original writers were credited as like having created Charlie’s Angels, but they were not credited – they weren’t part of the overall arbitration process. It wasn’t like they had screenplay material in the final thing. Other properties along the way, and more recently, they have been found to be actually part of the chain of title that led up to the script and therefore have gotten some WGA credit, which is a thing that can happen.

Craig: You know what I like about these two questions is that they’re the Writers Guild equivalent of Stump the Ump. Have you ever – yeah, why I am asking you if you’ve read a Stump the Ump?

John: I know Stump the Ump.

Craig: OK. So, I mean, there was like a book, I remember as a kid where they would say, OK, here’s the situation. What would the ump, what would you say if you were the umpire? And they’re really complicated. These are like a couple of those. These are definitely a couple of those. They’re tricky. And they depend. So, sorry, ish questions.

But you know what? I’m going to run both of these by credits staff to get firm answers. How about that? We’ll follow up with those next week.

John: You know what? A more sophisticated podcast might have like looked at these questions and actually gone to the staff ahead of time and gotten the right answer. But we’re not that podcast.

Craig: [laughs] You say sophisticated and I say boring.

John: Ha-ha.

Craig: That’s a boring show. This is more exciting. We have a cliffhanger now. Let’s go from England to Canada. Mark in Toronto writes, “I’m looking for an efficient way to make it clear that some pieces of dialogue are basically unimportant. The dialogue is only there so the actors have the words to say, but what they say is intentionally throw away and irrelevant to other things that are happening in the scene. Does it need to be spelled out in the action preceding it? Something like Jill launches into an irrelevant and boring story that no one listens to, followed by her dialogue? Or is there a parenthetical that would work? Something like (irrelevant) or (throwaway)?

So, John, how would you handle that situation?

John: I think trying to – the challenge with irrelevant or throwaway, like throwaway I could see as a parenthetical. That means the actor is meant to be throwing those lines away. But that’s not really what you’re telling – that’s an instruction to the actor, but it’s not really an instruction about the scene. I think your better instinct is to set it up in the action ahead of time and set it up in the reactions of the other characters so we can make it clear that it does not actually matter that much what the speaking character is saying.

And that’s a fine line because you have this temptation to sort of underwrite what the speaking character is saying, but you shouldn’t do that. You need to actually think about what can I have her say that is actually not crucial or germane and will let us tune it out so that we can focus what the other characters in the scene are doing. Craig, what’s your instinct?

Craig: Well, when I was working with David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, they had a word for this, because in their style of comedy a lot of times people are just rambling in the foreground while funny things are happening in the background. And the rambling is part of the point of it all. And they had this Yiddish word for it called [Flucher] dialogue. And I’m not even sure if that means anything. Somebody will let us know. [Flucher] dialogue means anything. But they would call it [Flucher] dialogue. But you would write it. You would always write it out. It was actually very important because you wanted to make sure that the actor was saying it in such a way that the story was clearly intentional from them, right? They weren’t aware that they were just rambling. Otherwise they’re going to run out of words and then the gig is up, or the jig is up.

So, you would always write that out. What I would do in those circumstances is I would put a parenthetical in and it would usually be (drones) or (droning). And then they would start writing. But it was clear that therefore that wasn’t important. And then the next time they would talk, (still droning, still droning). So I would say droning. That was my word for how to kind of get across that they were performing this essential foreground but unimportant task.

John: Absolutely. What I think is good about that parenthetical is make it clear – it’s something for the actor to be aware of. That it’s not just a meta scene kind of thing. Because irrelevant or throwaway is not a playable moment in a weird way, but droning kind of is a playable moment.

Craig: Yeah. Like you’re commenting on its purpose in the movie, and I just want the actor and that character to do what they’re doing. Because the truth is that’s what they’re doing. They’re droning. They’re droning on. And oblivious. The other thing is sometimes I would say (oblivious). Because that was also important that they not notice what was going on in the background, otherwise that dialogue isn’t funny anymore. You know, its function isn’t funny anymore.

So, there you go, Mark. A couple of different ways to handle that.

John: Cool. Next up we have Mickey Fortune which is, again, an impossibly wonderful name. I don’t’ know if it’s a real name. But Mickey Fortune writes in, “If I am writing an original pilot as a writing sample, can I use the first episode of a limited series, or should I try to focus on creating a more traditional pilot for a series that would have multiple seasons?”

So, Craig, you are not a person who staffs TV writers. What’s your guess on whether what Mikey Fortune is trying to do is a valid choice?

Craig: Well, we certainly talk to plenty of showrunners, and every last one of them tells us that what they want is some kind of original work. They want a pilot of an original series. I’ve never heard any of them say and it has to be intended to be an ongoing series. Not one of them. I think if you wrote the first episode, of what was intended to be a six or ten episode series, well first of all, I’m not sure they would know.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And second of all, who cares? Right? They’re not really evaluating you on your ability to generate a premise that could last 12 years. That’s what network executives might be looking for. But they’re just looking for good writers. So I don’t think it would matter at all.

John: I don’t think it matters one iota. You have to write the best 30, best 60 pages of scripts you possibly can write that will keep them incredibly intrigued. And if that is for a limited series, fantastic. And if anything, you know, the fact that it could be a little bit ambiguous whether it’s an ongoing series or something short, that’s something you can talk about in the room if you’re so lucky as to meet with this showrunner, this executive. You can talk about what this pilot was and what it might want to be.

Especially in an era where there are so many great limited series happening, there’s nothing to be avoided about having a limited series as your writing sample. People are making those all the time, Craig Mazin.

Craig: I am making one right now. Steven in Los Angeles writes, “I try to be mindful of representation when describing characters in terms of race. However, in my current project the characters races don’t play any significant role in the plot or interactions with other characters. They could be played by an actor of any color, despite how I’ve described them. Is it better to simply describe the character in colorblind terms? That is to say bright eyes and flirty smile? Or with racial implications, like dark skin and dreadlocks?”

OK, John, how do you approach this?

John: So I think the crucial thing to start off here is there’s no sort of perfect answer to this. And you’re always going to be wrestling with two sort of competing instincts. So, if you as the writer say nothing, the reader will likely default to thinking of these characters as white. Unless you’ve done something in the universe of your script to make them reach a little bit beyond white. So if the other characters in your world are diverse, they might be thinking more diverse about this character. But in general you can kind of safely assume that people are going to think these characters are white unless you give them some other reason not to think that they’re white.

The second thing to keep in mind is that every choice is a choice. And so the more specific the choice, the more important the reader is going to think it is that you’ve made that choice. So, they’re going to be asking like why is the boss Jamaican? They’re going to feel like there’s going to be some good reason why that boss is Jamaican. It’s going to pay off in some way. And so you might be sort of over-signaling things you don’t mean to signal.

So, you have these sort of weirdly competing things where you’re trying to be both specific about who your characters are, and also not just go back to default white on all these things. So, as an example, let’s think about a character in your script who is like a paralegal. And do you specify a race for that paralegal who is in like two or three scenes? It’s really hard to say. Craig, where do you come down at defining race for a character who is going to recur but whose race sort of by nature is never going to be a crucial aspect of the plot?

Craig: Well, I don’t call it out, but when I don’t call it out I am aware of something which is that I have a certain influence over these things, at least now in my career. So I can say to – when I submit, a lot of times when I submit the script to the producer or the studio, I will say, “By the way, here’s some of the people I was thinking about.” And in that email I will include people who obviously have race. Everybody has a color of some kind, right? White, black, or whatever. And so as I call people out, some of the actors will be what they are. And they will get a general understanding, OK, that there is no default white in this script, at least I didn’t write it as default white.

If I call it out specifically in a script, it’s because that character needs to be that race for a reason. So, for instance, I’m writing a movie for Disney and there’s a character who is largely CGI, so we’re really talking about a voice. And I’ve recommended somebody who is not white. But I don’t say that they’re not white in the script, because they don’t have a race at all. Similarly, there’s another character who is a human being and I’ve sent in a couple of recommendations that are different races, because the race is not important. It’s really about age and gravitas and other things that are just more important than skin color.

So, I think it’s fair for you, if you’re writing – especially if you’re writing a spec script to include here are some general ideas of who I was thinking when I was doing this, and that gives a general sense. Even that, that small thing, will unlock people from default white. They can start to see a more appropriately reflective cast to actual humanity.

John: Yeah. I think it’s also worth looking for how do you sort of try to figure out race when you don’t have any more information, and what you probably are looking for is description, like as you’re reading through books how you’re trying to figure out race or to what degree are you aware of race as you’re reading things. And some of the things that tend to tip people towards certain choices are character’s names, their first names and their last names. So if you’re giving a character a first name and a last name, or however you’re identifying that character, that’s going to signal something about race. And so you can choose to be explicit by giving somebody a last name like Kim that strongly suggests that they are Korean, but you can also be mindful of like don’t give them a name that makes it sort of very difficult to imagine them as something other than that race.

And so if everybody in your script has a very Swedish or Norwegian name, those characters are unlikely to be cast as anything other than sort of white people. And so be mindful that you’re not putting up weird roadblocks in your script by naming characters certain names. And so it’s a balancing act.

Craig: Yeah.

John: To the degree you can suggest people, you know, outside of the script for things, then you’re doing your job to sort of help make sure that the world of your movie is diverse and inclusive and representative of the world you’d like to see. But you’re always going to mindful of what you’re putting on the page there, so you’re not over-limiting your choices.

Craig: That’s the thing. I think sometimes what ends up happening is people start to get nervous. And it’s white people that are getting nervous. Let’s be clear about this. White writers get nervous, not all of them, but some of them about seeming racist or falling into some kind of trap. And so they overthink. And they start to suddenly pepper the script with all these racial descriptions to signify look at me, look at me, I’m not default white. Which is fine, except that you’re actually doing something somewhat artificial at times. Because it doesn’t really matter.

If you have a waitress and her job is to look up and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you forgot your credit card,” that’s not necessary to call race out there. The script starts to feel almost pedantic in it’s like everybody gets a race.

Race is – you know, my whole attitude towards race is the ideal world is nobody gives a crap, right? And that’s the ideal world where it’s just like it doesn’t matter. Now, it does matter in the world today, so we have to be aware and conscious of it. But you don’t want to be artificial about it. It starts to remove the reader from the experience. I think it’s better to just think broadly in your mind about actors who are not just white or male.

John: Yep.

Craig: And then write and then let people know here are some of the people I was thinking about. It’s just a more artistically honest way of approaching it. I guess that’s how I would put it.

John: Yeah. I would say as I’m working on a project I’m trying to do a lot of diverse casting in my head as I’m writing it. So this sounds like what you’re doing for your Disney project as well. You are trying to envision the world of your movie as a diverse place and having lots of different kinds of people in it. And so I’m thinking about certain roles and certain actors in certain roles. And that may naturally sort of tip sort of some of the choices I’m making writing towards that theoretical actor. But you want to make sure that in writing for that theoretical actor, hopefully a whole range of actors could play that. And the degree to which you have influence over the process of actually making the movie, try to make sure that, you know, good choices are being made by everybody else.

Craig: There you go. I think that’s the perfect way of putting it.

John: Cool. Greg in Los Angeles writes, “As I listen to Episode 285, specifically the discussion about Sea Monkeys’ creator, I couldn’t help but think of the Spirit of St. Louis. It may seem like an odd connection. But when writing that film, Billy Wilder chose to ignore the racist aspects of Charles Lindberg’s life. Obviously when writing a film based on a real life person, we cannot include every aspect of their life. But would you consider it amoral to ignore such a defining characteristic, especially when considering such a crucial part of someone’s personality could to some degree affect the general public’s historical understanding of that specific individual?”

Craig, what do you think? So we talked about this, you know, on that episode where we talked about Sea Monkeys, like do you go into the racist stuff or do you not go into the racist stuff? What’s your thought overall about historical people?

Craig: It’s tough. You know, when I was a kid, I read – my dad had that book, The Spirit of St. Louis. So, I’ve never even seen the movie. I’ve just read the book. And it was pretty good. It was a good book. It’s a good story. An impressive guy. And also a Nazi. [laughs] So there’s that.

Yeah, you know, do you ignore these things? Let’s put it this way: it’s getting harder and harder. We live in a time now where no one is going to be turning a blind eye to any of that. If anything, people are looking for it. And I don’t think you can really get away with it anymore. It’s just about the culture. I think it feels too salient. So there are people still that because I guess they’ve been grandfathered in – Roald Dahl notoriously said some terrible things about Jewish people and, you know, we’ve kind of grandfathered him in, you know, function of his time and all that.

Then, you know, Lindberg you could argue function of his time. So, yes, the Founding Fathers were slave owners, but it’s so widely known and understood and people have contextualized it as, OK, yes, so George Washington clearly was a slave owner. And Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. And they’re on our money. And we have had a long national discussion about that. When you’re introducing new people that people aren’t quite as familiar with, like for instance the Sea Monkey guy, I don’t see how you can avoid it. Because somebody is going to dig it up and go, “Uh, did you not think this was worth mentioning?” You know?

John: Yeah. I completely agree with you. So, there is a different responsibility when you’re being the first sort of movie to introduce the world to this person. And especially a person who you could frame as a hero, it’s really problematic if you’re framing this person as a hero and the reality is they did some horrible things. That will come out. There’s no clean way to do that.

But I want to circle back to the Founding Fathers, because I think it is actually a really challenging time to make a movie about the Founding Fathers, because you sort of can’t ignore the slave stuff now. I think 20 years ago if you made a Washington movie, oh, you could sort of like do a little lip service to it. But you sort of can’t get away from that stuff now. And I don’t know that we really have had sort of the thorough national discussion about what slavery was like. I think it continues to sort of – more stuff does continue to get out. We still are grappling with sort of how we’re going to deal with that.

So about two years ago I went to Mt. Vernon and I’d been there as a kid, but going back there as an adult, they completely changed everything around and about it, so they were very much more upfront about sort of here’s Washington’s slaves’ house, and this was what it was like to be a slave on Washington’s plantation.

And so there was still the pretty house, and there’s still the family, and still sort of the normal Washington stuff, but it was all in the context of like these are the slaves and this is sort of what the reality of their life was like. And I have a hard time imagining a movie about Washington right now that would not go back and explore that. So, you look at Hamilton and Hamilton was able to sidestep some of that, but by making the racial aspect of it both a focus and sort of a recontextualization.

Craig: Yeah. But even in Hamilton, someone as brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda has to at some point submit to the demands of narrative. So, he makes a point of Jefferson being a slave owner repeatedly. Jefferson even says, “Sally, be a lamb,” refers to Sally Hemings, famous slave that he had an affair with in the first song that he sings, What Did I Miss? And it is to Jefferson that Hamilton says, you know, talking about the south, “Keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting.” And they talk about slavery a lot.

Washington is never mentioned in the context of slavery. And Washington is presented really as a pure hero in that musical. That’s part of the problem with slavery is that it unfortunately unwinds all heroism and all goodness. So, choices have to be made even in a show like Hamilton so that you can root for someone. And it doesn’t start to feel like it’s nihilistic because these are very difficult things. And when you’re creating a narrative, you are forced to simplify. And you could make a good argument that simplification is an inherently amoral act. It’s a very complicated topic, to say the least.

I would love to talk with Lin-Manuel Miranda about that very thing. I’m very curious how he approached that character of Washington given the circumstances of how – because the show is so clearly – goes out of its way, not just through the casting, but through the subject material itself and the lyrics to comment on slavery repeatedly.

So, interesting.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Let’s see. We’ve got Jason writing in. “For an aspiring screenwriter, how much weight does the industry give toward professional experience in a given field? Me, Jason, I have 19 years in law enforcement, specifically detective work. If I write something that uses that experience, a crime thriller for example, would my biography and background give me an advantage beyond hopefully a sense of verisimilitude? Basically, do pieces speak for themselves, or is the writer as a person taken into account?”

That’s an excellent question, Jason. John, what is your answer?

John: So I think Jason has a leg up in a couple ways. So, he definitely has experience. Hopefully he’ll be able to translate that experience into the words on the page. If he can’t translate that experience into the words on the page, his real life experience is not so helpful. But I think he’s starting from a great place in that he actually does understand what the real life is like. And that should help him in his writing.

Secondly, the degree that he actually gets in the room with people, that’s fascinating. And so I think that sort of experience would help get him staffed on a TV show or help get him a certain assignment to do a police thriller because it’s like, oh, this guy actually knows what he’s talking about in a way that’s incredibly useful.

In general I would say that if you have a lot of experience as like an emergency services dispatcher, that’s going to be less valuable than sort of a cool cinematic experience like being a police detective. Craig, what do you think?

Craig: Yeah. There’s no question in my mind. No question at all. If you have this kind of background, I think people love that in Hollywood. They actually love it too much. So, it is a great calling card. They will immediately grant you a certain legitimacy as a writer. Definitely if you are writing something that draws on that experience, it’s a great calling card. It’s a great way in. If you’re writing something that doesn’t, obviously it’s irrelevant. But there are some writers who were physicians and then turned to writing. Zoanne Clack, for instance, is one. And they tend to work on medical shows. I think David Shore–

John: He’s a real lawyer.

Craig: Oh, he was a lawyer. Because he worked on House and–

John: Oh, maybe he was a doctor.

Craig: But, no, he also worked on Law & Order, so he might have been a lawyer. Look, there’s a ton of lawyers. I think there’s so many lawyers that turn to writing that that doesn’t mean anything anymore. But, being a detective in law enforcement I think would absolutely grab people’s attention. So, I would encourage you if you’re interested in writing material based on that, you should. Yeah, I think you use the phrase leg up. Perfect phrase for it.

John: David Shore. Prior to becoming a writer, Shore was a partner for a law firm in London, Ontario.

Craig: There you go.

John: Canadian there. Where he practiced corporate and municipal law. But yeah, people coming from law firms who then write legal thrillers, the John Grishams, that’s a really common experience. For you to go from being a police detective for 17 years to then writing those things, that could be great, but it’s ultimately going to come down are you a really good writer? Because that’s going to be more important than your experience really?

Craig: We should get Zoanne Clack on this show. So, Zoanne Clack worked on Grey’s Anatomy and – is that show still on the air? Is that on the air?

John: Grey’s Anatomy is still on the air. Yeah.

Craig: Maybe she still works on it. Sad, I don’t watch the television. But, she is a real doctor. Real doctor. She actually worked even for the CDC. So that’s obviously a huge boon, certainly if you’re going to be writing a medical show. Can’t beat that. So, yes, Jason, go for it.

John: You know who we need to get on the show? Shonda Rhimes. I know she’s been a fantasy guest for a long time, but we know people who know her. I don’t know why we – maybe when I get back to Los Angeles, that will be a goal. We’ll get Shonda on the show.

Craig: I feel like we don’t need to know people that know her. We just call her up. Just say hey.

John: I went to film school with Shonda Rhimes. I used to hang out with Shonda Rhimes way back in the day.

Craig: Then you know you who knows her.

John: I know me who knows her. But it’s been years. But it would be great to catch up with Shonda Rhimes.

Craig: There you go.

John: Let’s go to Sam in Australia who writes, “How do you implement a broad ‘make it funnier’ note? For example, you submit a scene and the reader doesn’t think it’s that funny, so they say, ‘Make it funnier.’ On one hand, it’s your audience, so you should try to appeal to them. On the other, you love it and you think it’s hilarious.” Craig, make it funnier.

Craig: No. [laughs] That’s not a note. That’s stupid. That’s a failure. Look, that is an indication that something has gone terribly wrong. Either you’re not as funny as you think you are, or there is a mismatch of sense of humor here. Or mismatch of tone. Now, sometimes comedy technicians can get together and say, OK, here’s why I think this isn’t as funny as it could be, and here’s what I think we would need to do to make it funnier. That’s different. That’s the sort of discussion that – and I call them comedy technicians. I’m one of them. Because if you write comedy, and I’m talking about comedy-comedy, whether you’re on a sitcom or you’re writing like heavy comedy movies, like comedy-comedy-comedy, jokes-jokes, jokes, there is technique involved. There is a lot of machinery involved. It is a science.

And so that’s one thing. But if you’ve got some note-giver, a producer or an executive sitting there going it just needs to be funnier, well, you’re done. There’s no – I don’t know what that means. So, no.

John: Well, I do know what it means. I’ve never actually given the note Make it Funnier, but I definitely have thought the note Make it Funnier, where like I see a scene that sort of feels like it’s jokeoid-ish. Like it has the – it feels like it wants to be funny, but it’s not actually funny. And sometimes I can be specific about like this is why it’s actually not working for me. But sometimes it’s just like this just isn’t a funny way to do it. Or like you’re trying to make a joke out of something that’s not really a joke.

And so I will never give the note make it funnier, but I will try to focus on why this is not making me laugh. Now, this note that you’ve gotten, if this is the third time they’ve read the script, that Make it Funnier may be partly because they’re just sick of it. Jokes aren’t funny like the third time through. And so it’s hard for you as the writer to remind them that like, you know what, that is actually funny. It was funny the first couple times they read it. It’s just it’s not new to them anymore. And I’ve encountered that with real life stuff where like a movie that’s been in development for a year and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, it would be great if like this relationship was funnier.” It’s like, “Well, it actually is funny, but you just don’t remember it being funny because you are seeing it for the 15th time. And when you stick actual actors saying those lines, it will be funny.”

And that’s hard for you as the writer to say. But sometimes that is the reality.

Craig: Look, comedy is the hardest. The hardest. And the truth is we don’t really know. I mean, even the best – best, best comedy people – are guessing, all the time. That’s what writing comedy is. It’s an endless series of guessing that you are going to put this combination of words and actions together and shoot it and edit it in such a way that people are going to have this involuntary physical reaction and start laughing at it. You’re guessing.

And nobody bats a thousand, right? I mean, that’s why things get cut out all the time. You just want to be batting as high as you can. But I can’t tell you how many times I have been surprised by how strongly people have laughed at something. And then also on the other hand, people just, no. Nope. That doesn’t work at all.

You know, most of the time you get the response you expect. But there are those things on either end. So it’s just very, very difficult. Sam, the truth is you may be really, really funny and this person may just stink.

John: Yep.

Craig: Or, you may not be that funny and they’re just telling you. Or, something in between. There’s really no way to know. But if you think you love it and you think it’s hilarious. That’s it, right? That’s what you think. And now really what it comes down to is does anyone else agree? And if you can’t find anyone to agree, then there is a mismatch between your sense of humor and the rest of the world, which happens.

John: It does happen. This last week I posted a long blog post and someone pointed on Twitter, which was absolutely true, like you’re blogging a lot. Are you avoiding other work? I’m like, yes, I’m avoiding other work. I’m trying to avoid starting on something, and so therefore I’m blogging a lot.

But I blogged about this Twitter joke which I thought was just fantastic and was so clearly destined to become a clam, which is Hold My Beer. So, one of the first times I remember seeing this joke set up on Twitter was around the election. And so this was a Tweet from Brian Pedaci. It says, “BRITAIN: Brexit is the stupidest, most self-destructive act a country could undertake. USA: Hold my beer.”

So the structure of the joke is basically like, you know, speaker A says something outrageous and impossible to top and speaker B says, “Hold my beer,” like I’m going to get in this, I’m going to be able to do this.

And so I wanted to sort of look into why is that funny and why does it work and why does it not work? Because one of the great things about Twitter is you can search for phrases or exact matches of phrases and figure out like how are people trying to use this joke and sort of what are the actual requirements for this to be funny?

So, I say this not to our Australian friend to encourage him to study the structure of comedy jokes and try to figure out why his jokes aren’t working, but there can be sometimes clear reasons why a person’s joke is not working. So, for the Hold my Beer joke to be funny, you have to know who speaker A is. And that’s sort of a fundamental thing in most jokes. Everything about the premise has to be incredibly straight forward for us to be able to understand it. So, you have to understand who speaker A is, the thing that speaker A says has to be reasonable for who speaker A is. Speaker B has to be recognizable. And the Hold my Beer has to relate to something they’ve just done, or something they’re just about to do.

And so almost all jokes, whether they’re like this sort of Twitter joke, or the kinds of things you’re setting up in your scene, there is a fundamental kind of logic behind them. There has to be a very simple believable way to get into it and the payoff, the surprise, has to be related to it in a meaningful way. And so this is a long discussion of like spoiling a really funny Twitter joke that was very clearly destined to become a clam.

Craig: I think you just killed it. [laughs]

John: As I sort of wrote the post, I recognized that like it was destined to die anyway. So, I just wanted to actually look at it and also a lot of times in a dead joke beautiful things grow in the bones of that dead joke. And so I’ve seen already some really good second wave of those, which is like, “Girlfriend: I’m sick of people barking patriarchal instructions at me. Me: Hold my beer.” That was a Tom Neenan joke.

So people who use the format of the joke to make sort of a meta joke. And that’s the delightful time we live in.

Craig: We do. We do. Yeah, that one has been around for a while. I feel like that one has been around for a while. It’s kind of the grandson of Now Watch this Drive, which was based on a George W. Bush moment.

Yeah, but Hold my Beer, it actually goes way back to – it used to be just something that dumb people said before they did something stupid and then hurt themselves.

John: Yep.

Craig: And now it’s evolved into this thing. But I’m pretty sure you just assassinated it.

John: Back in 2014 it really was the setup. It was the frame around a stupid thing that someone was going to do. And so by putting it as the punchline though, I think it’s actually a much better form and a much better form for Twitter. It’s going to die, and so I think I hastened its death, but that’s fine.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And I also loved the variant forms of it. So like there’s obviously Hold my Drink, or Hold my Juice Box, but I also love Hold my Earrings, because just the idea of a woman taking out her earrings because she’s going to like go into somebody.

Craig: That’s different. That’s a whole different thing. Yeah.

John: That’s an amazing – because you can see the action when someone is taking out their earrings. It’s just great.

It’s come time for our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is an episode of Girls from this season called American Bitch. And so it is written by Lena Dunham. It is directed by Richard by Shepard. And it’s a two-hander. It just stars Lena and Matthew Rhys, the guy from The Americans. And if you’ve not watched Girls or if you’ve watched a few episodes of Girls and sort of stopped watching it, it’s absolutely worth going back and taking a look at this one episode, because it’s all self-contained. It’s two characters on a set talking. And it is remarkable.

And it deserves all the acclaim it’s gotten. So, I’ll link to an Emily Nussbaum article. She wrote about it in The New Yorker. But I think it’s just actually a great study in how much you can do in a short basically real time piece of two characters in a room talking. So, in this case you already know Hannah’s character, the character Lena Dunham plays. But to set up a character and set up the conflicts to allow the viewer to sort of fill in the details of what must have gotten them to this place, it was just great. It started in the middle of an action. It was just a really well done episode. So I strongly encourage everyone to watch American Bitch from this last season of Girls.

And while you’re falling back in love with Matthew Rhys, you should watch the new season of The Americans because it’s a great show and he’s great on that.

Craig: Well, I’ll put that on my list of things that you know I’ll not get to.

John: Craig, I would argue that you would very much like this episode. And doing the things you need to do in television these days particularly, it’s so remarkably well done.

Craig: What if I hate it? What if I hate it?

John: If you hate it, it’s 25 minutes of your life.

Craig: Oh god.

John: 25 whole minutes.

Craig: Do you know what I normally do with those 25 minutes?

John: We know exactly what you do with those 25 minutes. The door locks. Yes.

Craig: Yeah. John. Locks from the outside so you can’t get in.

John: Ugh.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That doesn’t make any sense.

Craig: No. I don’t have to make sense. I just have to make love. Oh, Sexy Craig, beat it. Well, my One Cool Thing is – this is not at all what you said. It’s totally different. Yes, it’s another app.

You know, I’m on an app kick lately, but my son introduced me to this one. It’s one of these games that you can play with your friends and it’s called Stop. But it’s very, very clever. So the game, Stop, that’s what it’s called. And it’s essentially just like a category game where you spin a wheel, a letter shows up, and then you have five categories. And you just have to fill in a word that fits that category that starts on the letter that you’ve picked.

But, the little brilliant twist to this is that at any point if you’re the first person, so if you won the last round you get to go. You can hit stop. So, if you look at the five categories and you’re like, oh god, I only know one of these. I’m typing in real fast, I’m hitting Stop. That amount of time you spent is the only amount of time the next person gets. But they don’t know how much time they get. So, when you’re going after somebody, part of your equation is like, oh god, how much time do they take? How much time do I have? How should I prioritize my answers?

Very clever little game. Lots of fun. You should play it.

John: Very good. It sounds like there’s some game theory involved in the game itself.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Nice. Cool. Before we wrap up today, I want to thank everybody who submitted their reviews for the listener’s guide, or the Scriptdecks, or whatever we’re going to call this big compendium of user reviews for Scriptnotes. Basically what episodes do you think are the “can’t miss” episodes of Scriptnotes for new listeners.

So, we’ve gotten more than a hundred now of people writing in to review sort of which episodes they think are crucial for listening to. And surprisingly few repeats. I mean, there’s some which I sort of knew were going to be really popular. But like from all seasons from all years, there are things that have been singled out. So thank you very much for everyone who has contributed. Please continue to do so. Whenever we have enough of these, I don’t know what enough is going to be, but we’ll figure out some good form for those. It could be a book. It could be another site. Some other way for people to experience Scriptnotes. So thank you for that.

Craig: Awesome.

John: And that’s our show this week. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.

Craig: Boom.

John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Pow.

John: Our outro this week comes from Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Boom.

John: If you have an outro, you can send it to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s where you can also send questions like the ones we answered today on the podcast. On Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We love to answer your short questions on Twitter. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Also search for Scriptnotes in the iTunes store and leave us a review there. That’s lovely when you do that.

We have an app for both iOS and for Android. That lets you get to all the back episodes, all nearly 300 episodes of the show, including some bonus episodes. To subscribe, you go to Scriptnotes.net. And it’s $2 a month and is a bargain at that price.

Craig: Bargain.

John: You can find the show notes for this week’s episode and all previous episodes at johnaugust.com. You’ll also find the transcripts. They go up about four days afterwards. And that’s our show. Craig, thank you so much.

Craig: Thank you, John. Let’s do this again next week.

John: We will.

Craig: Bye.

John: End of Recording.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 291: California Cannibal Cults — Transcript

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 13:15

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 291 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, it’s another round of the Three Page Challenge, where we take a look at listener’s scenes and offer our honest critique. We’ll also be discussing techniques for letting the audience know your characters’ names. Plus, Craig has been stockpiling his umbrage for weeks and may have found a worthy target. So, hold on.

Before we get to the umbrage, Craig, we have exciting news.

Craig: Yes we do. So, last year fans of the podcast might recall that we did a live show here in Los Angeles to benefit the charity Hollywood Heart, which is a wonderful charity. And our good friend, John Gatins, is the connection to that. I believe he is on their board of directors. Well, we’re doing it again. This year, in fact, it’s coming up fast. It’s going to be March 28. Now, do we have tickets on sale yet? As of this minute of recording, no. But very, very soon.

You will want to get them. Obviously, John, you will not be with us because you’re in France.

John: You have a pretty amazing replacement guest host for this event.

Craig: We do. So we have Dana Fox, who is the best version of you I can imagine. So, screenwriter, television writer, director Dana Fox.

John: Former John August assistant, Dana Fox.

Craig: That’s right. Basically everybody that’s successful in Hollywood is a former John August assistant as far as I could tell. But for all of you out there in film fandom, you might want to check this out because we have a number of guests, but perhaps our featured guest we’ll say is Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson. Also, the screenwriter of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You’re going to want to see Rian Johnson, aren’t you?

He’s probably going to tell everybody in the audience what happens.

John: Probably so. Assuming like small nondisclosure agreements and it’s the only chance you’ll ever get to know what happens in Star Wars ahead of time. By the way, that’s not his only credit. He’s directed many other incredibly great movies and episodes of television. But, the thing we may want to talk about this time is how you go from directing those amazing movies to one of the biggest movies of all time.

Craig: Yep.

John: So, I cannot contain my jealousy that you will get to talk with him then live. I will be asleep while you’re recording it, but I will send through some sort of prerecorded welcome to all of you people. Or, I’ll give Dana special instructions for how to really get under your skin.

Craig: Dana can’t get under my skin. It’s just – I love her too much. Here’s the problem. You’re going to tell her to do things that if you had done them would get under my skin. And when she does them, they’re just going to be adorable.

John: Yeah. She’s a pretty wonderful person.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, if you are interested in coming to this live show, there will be a link in the show notes assuming that the tickets are actually available by the time the episode posts. If not, keep following us on Twitter because it’s going to be a popular show. I suspect it will sell out, so you will want to–

Craig: It will.

John: Follow us to make sure that you will get a chance to see Rian Johnson and Dana Fox. And a third guest to be announced soon.

Craig: And it will be a third guest of high caliber. We don’t just, I mean, you know what we do. Last year we had the Game of Thrones guys. We had Jason Bateman. It was a great show.

John: It was a good show.

Craig: Yeah. This time we have Rian Johnson, Dana Fox. It’s only – frankly, it can only get better from there. So I presume Steven Spielberg. I haven’t checked with Steven Spielberg. Maybe I should check with him.

John: You know who it should be? It should be Stephen King.

Craig: Ooh, I would love Stephen King.

John: Yeah, I don’t think he’s going to fly out to Los Angeles.

Craig: No.

John: But Stephen King would be great.

Craig: But we have Rian Johnson.

John: And Rian Johnson is fantastic. So, if you are curious about what Rian Johnson might say, you may want to check out the previous episode that Rian Johnson was on. A live show in Austin where he was one of our featured guests. That is a segue to my next topic, which was the Scriptnotes Index. So, last week we talked about this idea of, you know, there’s all these back episodes and people are coming to the show and they are staring at 300 episodes and trying to figure out like where do I even start.

So I proposed, and Craig stole the idea and co-proposed, doing an index for the show in which our listeners who have listened to every episode could point new listeners to. These are the episodes you don’t want to miss. And so this might become a book. This might become a website. We’ll figure out the best way to get this out in the world. But, so far 47 of you – this is only three days after we announced it – have written in with recommendations on the can’t miss episodes.

So, if you would like to add your own recommendations for which episodes listeners need to make sure they hit, it is johnaugust.com/guide. And that’s where you can leave a review for individual episodes. Let people know why they should listen to it and who it is for.

Craig: I think we should call it the Scriptdecks. I like Scriptdecks.

John: Scriptdecks?

Craig: Scriptdecks.

John: All right. We’ll workshop that. So, it’s definitely a contender. We’ll put it on the whiteboard.

Craig: I don’t like the sound of that.

John: So, at least we can always fall back to Scriptdecks.

Craig: You know what you did? You just Kellyanne’d me. You dodged. You bobbed.

John: A little bit. But people should know that Scriptnotes is actually Craig Mazin’s title for the show. He was the one who came up with the title Scriptnotes.

Craig: That’s right. But I’m going to be honest here. I might have Camel cased it if the typography had been up to me. So, phew. Bullet dodged.

John: But it wasn’t.

Craig: Yeah, it sure wasn’t.

John: Bullet dodged. But one bullet will not be dodged which is the next bullet–

Craig: Segue Man.

John: Craig has put in the chamber and he’s been ready for this all week. So, this is a person who runs another website. Craig and I are not really bloggers so much anymore. I still have my site. Craig sort of let his site disappear. But this is a site called ScriptShadow. And it is run by a person names Carson Reeves, who I’ve never met, but I sort of encountered online various times. And a person who has very strong opinions about screenwriting, which I generally do not share.

But this was a breaking point for Craig. So, Craig, for our listeners at home or people who are driving who can’t actually pull up the blog post, could you just read aloud the moments that really set you off?

Craig: Sure. So, this is from ScriptShadow who puts himself forth as an expert on screenwriting and screenplays and how to become a professional screenwriter, even though he is none of those things. And here’s what he wrote recently. “Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea won the Adapted and Original screenplay awards respectively. And they’re both terrible screenplays. There isn’t even a discussion to be had on the matter. They’re awful screenplays that display no skill in the screenwriting department whatsoever.

“How can I say such a thing? One of the easiest ways to judge a screenplay is to ask, “Can someone else have written this?” Is the skill on display at a level where other writers could’ve written something similar? I can say without hesitation that there isn’t one writer of the 10,000 members in the WGA who couldn’t have written either of these scripts.”

John: Wow. So, first off, welcome King George to the podcast. So, he seems to be claiming that all 10,000 members of the WGA could have written Moonlight. They could have written the story of a gay black kid growing up in Florida over three different periods of his life. Because that’s, you know, it’s a universal experience and we’ve all had that. We all could have written that script.

Craig: How many times have we seen that movie? He’s right. I mean, it’s like the staple of Disney sitcoms. And not only could any of the 10,000 members of the WGA, which I wonder if he’s even one of them, not only could any of them have written it, they would have all written that way.

You know that scene where he’s cradling him in the water. That obviously would have written that way with those words in that sense. And similarly Manchester By The Sea just feels so obvious in all ways that, you know, it’s kind of weird. Like why haven’t all of these people written these screenplays? Seems kind of crazy, right? Since we all could have, why didn’t we?

John: Absolutely. And it’s also why are these two films so acclaimed when they clearly are just coasting on good cinematography and good performances. Because what ScriptShadow is teaching us is that the screenplays themselves really have no bearing on why the films turned out well. Which seems ironic considering it’s a site about screenwriting and the importance of screenwriting. So–

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s all a conundrum really why these films turned out so well despite not being good screenplays.

Craig: But here’s the strangest thing of all. You and I are having a discussion on this matter. And ScriptShadow has told us quite clearly there isn’t even a discussion to be had on the matter. Because ScriptShadow, as far as I can tell, he is either an idiot or he is suffering from delusions of grandeur. To say that two screenplays that have won these awards are both terrible screenplays is something you’re allowed to say to a friend if you choose. Your opinion is that they’re terrible screenplays. I understand.

It’s usually not the case. Even when movies win an Oscar award and I think, oh, I did not like that movie. It’s not that they’re terrible. It’s just that I didn’t love it that much. And so it goes. But what this idiot is saying, and he’s saying publicly so that we can all see him be an idiot, is that they are objectively terrible screenplays, both of them, that display, “No skill in the screenwriting department whatsoever.”

And I must ask, of course, what makes him the arbiter of skill in the screenwriting department? By the way, I’ve seen something that ScriptShadow has written. I’ve seen an actual piece of work that he wrote. Did you know that?

John: I think I do remember this. This was years ago, but yeah, I do remember this.

Craig: Yeah. He sucks. I mean, like sucks to the level where he would not be picked for our Three Page Challenge. That Godwin would just go, oh yeah, this goes in the slush pile. He’s terrible. So when he asks rhetorically, “How can I say such a thing,” the actual proper response is, “Idiot, delusions of grandeur.”

John: All right. Enough ScriptShadow. Let’s get on to our real business today. This was a question that came to us on Twitter. Erin McGinley wrote in to ask, “Can you do a bit on the ways to introduce character names? How do we escape, what’s your name, or hi I’m Sally?” Erin, that is a great question.

Craig: So good.

John: I don’t think we’ve ever done an episode about this. If we had Scriptdecks we could look that up. But I don’t think we’ve really talked about this as a topic.

Craig: It’s catching, isn’t it, by the way? [laughs]

John: I know. I’ll say it three more times and suddenly it will feel like, oh, well of course that’s the right answer.

Craig: Yeah. This is one of those things that plagues us all, Erin, so thank you for asking this question. And certainly we all know the worst way. Actually, you haven’t even noticed the worst way, because you’re saying how do we escape, “What’s your name? Hi, I’m Sally.” Sometimes, “What’s your name? I am Sally,” works – depending on context.

The worst way is just when two people who know each other are taking like John and I are talking right now. And I’m like, well, you know John, out of nowhere I just mention your name. Scott Frank always blows up about this. He’s like how many times do we use each other’s names when we’re talking to each other? Zero percent of the time. We both know each other’s name. That’s always the worst.

John: It is the worst. So, but I think the reason why we try to do it, and sometimes do it awkwardly is that the audience really does want to know characters’ names. I think there’s an inherent story sense that as we’re watching something, if a character feels important, we want to know their names. And if we are not told their names pretty early on in the story, we will just assign them our own name. So we will assign like, oh, Albino guy, or French Idris Elba. Like we’ll assign something that sort of takes the place of name just for simple mental categorization.

So we are always listening for a name. And so let’s talk through some ways to get that name out there. The horrible way tends to be sort of like two people having a conversation and awkwardly using their name. But if you have more people in a conversation, then there could be a natural way of like, you know, you’re distinguishing who you’re actually talking to, or you’re calling to somebody. That can sometimes do it, as long it doesn’t feel forced.

Craig: Right.

John: You can sometimes show it. So, there’s ways sometimes you will show a name on a desk, on a door, on some other bit of business that will naturally do it. That can feel really forced as well, but it’s sometimes a way to get that name out there. Craig, other thoughts?

Craig: Yeah, you know, there are moments where your name gets called for things. You’re waiting for something at an office and somebody calls your name. There’s pieces of paper that might have your name on them that you’re filling out a form and then we have phone calls. Sometimes the best way to learn someone’s name is through two people that aren’t that person. So, we see – a very typical thing in the beginning of a movie is we see our main character and she’s working at her desk. And then we see two other people who are across the hallway and they’re like, “What’s with Virginia this morning? I don’t know. She’s…”

So, sometimes that happens, because it is natural at that point. You wouldn’t say what’s with – if there’s more than one person, you wouldn’t say what’s with her. The person would say what’s with which one, which who.

So there are ways to do this. Here’s the thing, Erin, and all the rest of you. It’s all annoying. It’s all annoying. I hate it. It’s one of my least liked – well, because it’s hated – parts of screenwriting because it always feels artificial. The truth is I have no problem writing a script where nobody ever knows somebody’s name. In fact, I do it all the time. And here’s the crazy part. Usually people don’t notice. Every now and then, somebody towards the end will go, “Is anyone going to ever say that person’s name?” And I’ll just no. They won’t. You know what? They’ll just know who they are, because they’ll see them.

But, you know, everybody seems to want to try and get the name in. I hate it. I hate it.

John: I completely agree that there’s characters in scripts who you don’t ever need to know their name, and just whatever their category of that they do is fine. But I think she’s talking about a principal character in your film. If we don’t their name, and sometimes it is awkward to get that name out there. And so you can imagine scenarios in which a person is alone for a lot of the movie, if you didn’t get that name out there pretty early on it’s going to be really challenging.

If you can have a character speak their own name, it’s simple, but it has to be sort of natural to the world of the story. So it’s like they’re introducing themselves or like they’re signing in at a reception desk. They are on a phone call. Like, hi my name is blah from this. So, Big Fish does that. My name is Will Bloom calling from the AP. That’s the kind of thing where people do actually use their name.

So, I would also just recommend as you go through life over this next week, this is sort of everybody who is listening to this, listen for times where people say their names or you learn somebody’s name in a natural way. And just take note of that. And maybe you’ll find other good ways to get that name out there in your script.

Craig: There’s also games you can play with it. In Identity Thief I had Melissa McCarthy tell her name to Jason Bateman, and then we hear somebody else yell her actually name, so we get that she lied when she was telling him her name. So you can play around with it.

You know, I’ve never actually written a scene, I just thought of this, but I assume that people have introduced names in movies by having somebody order a coffee at Starbucks. Because they always ask you your name.

John: I’ve absolutely seen that. So, it feels kind of TV, but–

Craig: Right. It feels TV because it’s such a boring scene to put in a movie. Somebody ordering coffee.

John: Yeah. But, it’s a way to do it. It gets it out there in the world.

Craig: I hate the name thing. I really do.

John: I hate the name thing, too. [Unintelligible] wrote a whole movie about it, but yes, I hate it, too.

Craig: Yep.

John: All right, it’s time for our big marquee feature today, the Three Page Challenge. So for people who are new to the podcast, every couple weeks we invite our listeners to send in the first three pages of their script. It can be a screenplay. It can be a pilot. It can be anything that looks like a movie or TV show. And we will read it. And Godwin sorts through all the entries. He picks the three that he thinks are most interesting for us to talk about. So, what we’re about to share with you are people who wrote in to say like, hey, please critique this.

So, unlike ScriptShadow, who is just critiquing other people’s stuff, we are inviting people to send stuff in. And so people have very nicely agreed to let us talk about these things. We will have the PDFs for all of these entries linked in the show notes for the show, so you can read along with us. But, because you might be in a car or someplace where you can’t actually open the PDF, we do a summary before we start.

And the summaries are not always our most favorite part of this. So, a few episodes ago we tried having a guest reader, and so we had Jeff Probst come on. He did a fantastic job.

Craig: He did.

John: Doing the summaries. And we thought we might try to top that. We might try to go a little bit more. So, we reached out to Elizabeth Banks to ask if she would be willing to read the summaries for this week’s Three Page Challenge. And she said no. But eventually we convinced her, and she said yes.

So, this is Elizabeth Banks. She’s an actress, producer, director from Pitch Perfect, The Hunger Games, Wet Hot American Summer. She’s Rita Repulsa in the new Power Rangers movie.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So she’s the real deal.

Craig: I’ll tell you what else.

John: What?

Craig: She’s fantastic. You’ve worked with Elizabeth, right, at some point or another?

John: I never have. I only know her socially.

Craig: Spectacular. Very, very smart person. Sometimes I have to be like, I don’t want to use the word alpha, but in working arrangements I feel like I’m driving the bus somehow, just because sometimes as a screenwriter that’s what you have to do, especially if you’re coming in and you’re rewriting stuff. She so drives the bus. She’s the bus driver. So, I sit next to her on the bus, but she’s driving the bus. She is in charge. I love that lady. Excellent person.

John: I played Catan against Elizabeth and her husband. And, man, they’re hardcore Catan players. They don’t mess around.

Craig: Again, yeah, and Max, who is a great guy. They’re bus drivers. Just there are people in life – I feel like there are bus drivers, there are people who sit next to the bus drivers. And then there are passengers. They’re bus drivers.

John: They are bus drivers. So, we can ask Elizabeth Banks, will you please introduce our first entry in the Three Page Challenge?

Elizabeth Banks: Carne by John Lambert. In a sterile room we see a pair of gloved hands turn over a slab of red meat for inspection. The meat is then dropped onto the sheet of brown butcher’s paper. A thump from outside. The hands freeze for a moment, then hastily wrap and tape up the meat. A pair of feet rushes down the hallway and out a set of steel doors. The package is tossed into an igloo cooler in the passenger seat of a Chevy van.

The van drives off through the streets of New Orleans. The unseen driver of the van meets up with Levi Cheval, a prick in his 30s. Levi asks the driver what he brought. Flanks and tenderloin. Levi asks about the ribs, insisting that he always wants the ribs.

The driver drops the package into Levi’s trunk. Levi hands over a thick envelope. The van drives off revealing a decal that reads Cheval Funeral Home.

Later, a butcher’s cleaver cuts into a slab of meat. We read the embroidery on the chef’s coat. Levi Cheval, Chef de Cuisine.

Craig: So, we’ve got ourselves a nice little short film here to open up a pilot and it certainly is going to tell us the topic of the show which is that a chef is using human body parts in his restaurant. This is kind of a thing now. There’s that, what is called Santa Clara Diet?

John: Yeah, Santa Clarita Diet.

Craig: Santa Clarita.

John: Drew Barrymore and Tim Olyphant.

Craig: Right. People are eating people now. It’s en vogue.

So, let’s just talk about the – there’s a broad issue, and then I’ll get a little more granule. The broad issue is that we are stuck, I think, in a situation where we can’t see the driver’s face, because we’re not allowed to for some reason. I assume it’s important later. And it’s just too long. There’s two pages and it’s a two-page conversation. That’s a two-minute-ish conversation, ish, where we’re not allowed to see one person’s face. And it’s really awkward and uncomfortable that we’re not seeing his face.

You can get away with that for a page, I think, maximum. A page. Two pages and I’m like, why is the camera just avoiding this? And now I’m not watching the scene. Now I’m like show the freaking face already, because there’s no reason for me to not see his face. If there were a reason. If I had a better sense of why I was not allowed to see this person’s face, because he was an important person, or a dangerous person. But he’s not. He’s actually submissive to Levi. He’s clearly just a work-a-day guy. He’s a little scared of him.

And so I really don’t understand why I can’t see his face and it’s really annoying. And the second issue is that we – we kind of are a little ahead of the reveal, I think.

John: Yeah. I think we’re way ahead. And this is really my fundamental issue with it is like by the third paragraph I knew what this was. By the time I see the meat on the butcher paper and it’s called Carne, I was like this is going to be about cannibalism. And so that’s my first thought. And then everything is just backing it up. And so I feel like I’m 2.5 pages ahead of where this three pages is. And that’s a real challenge.

And so my proposal, and this is just John take this for what you want, but I think you cut out that first scene. Cut out the meat. Don’t show the meat. And get to the delivery, get to something else first. And maybe then open up the package and see that there’s meat inside there, because I was just way ahead of you for far too long.

Craig: Yeah. I understand that on page three when Levi says, “How is he?” And the driver says, “Same as always,” clearly he knows somebody that the driver knows. So they have someone in common. And then when the van drives away it says Cheval Funeral Home. OK. And then the next thing we see is that his name is Levi Cheval. This is actually kind of bumming me out. It’s one reveal too many.

I wouldn’t mind the reveal that Levi Cheval, the cannibal chef, is buying meat from a funeral home. But then I would make the second reveal – I would hold it back. Because that’s another thing. He’s related to, I guess his dad or something who owns the funeral home.

Frankly, for something like this, I would do this backwards from the way that you have done it, John. I would start in a restaurant. And I would start with somebody eating and it would be delicious. And the chef comes out and compliments, “It’s the most amazing. It’s just fantastic. Thank you. We go through remarkable lengths to procure the finest.” And then he goes back in the kitchen and someone is like, “Oh, the meat guy is here.” And he goes, “Oh, great, great, great.” And he comes outside and it’s just business as usual. “What’s going on man? You’re supposed to deliver me blah-blah-blah and blah-blah-blah.” “Sorry, I got held up. We couldn’t get that, but we have these.” And he’s like, “All right, I’ll take them. Thanks.”

And the guy drives away and then we see funeral home as the reveal. I would just do this backwards. And I would also make it so much more mundane because it helps inform the audience that this is not new. This has been going on for a while, you know. I always feel like criminals who are stuck in a kind of recidivist, repetitive criminal act are as work-a-day about it as anybody at any job.

This felt very cloak and dagger and unnecessarily so.

John: I agree. You know which movie had really great work-a-day criminals in it? Moonlight. You know, good street drug dealers. Felt like it was their ordinary business.

Craig: Anyone could have written.

John: Anyone.

Craig: Why didn’t ScriptShadow write that script? If only just to get the notoriety of having an Oscar. Because what he’s saying is he could have written it. So, he should have really written it.

John: He really should have written it.

Craig: That’s just silly. That’s just business silly.

John: It is business silly. So, let’s go back to John’s script here. And I think it’s an opportunity to look at some of what he’s doing on the page and highlight some things that are working really well and some things that could work better. If you are using dashes at the end of a line, so it’s an abbreviated line, it’s two dashes, not one dash. In another Three Page Challenge we’re going to look at, it really is just – I know this sounds horrible as a person who comes from typography, but it really is. It’s two dashes. It’s not an em dash. There’s no such thing as an em dash in Courier really. So it’s just two dashes.

So, there’s a couple times here where I’m seeing a single dash, which just doesn’t cut it for me.

Midway down the first page, INT. HALLWAY. Day? Night? It’s just normal to put the day there. And I know it seems weird because we’re not necessarily seeing the sunlight, but you put the day. It’s just standard.

I liked the sort of two-thirds the way down the page, as we get to the asphalt parking lot, it sort of feels like quick cuts. “IGLOO COOLER ON PASSENGER SEAT Opened. Fresh ice. The package is tossed in. Cooler shut. THE GRILL OF A WHITE CHEVY VAN SHAKES as the engine ROARS to life.” Great. I get the feeling of movement. So nicely done there.

With “VARIOUS SHOTS. STREETS OF NEW ORLEANS. DAY.” That’s an Exterior. Give us an EXT. It’s fine to say various, but again we’re outside. Just let us know we’re outside.

At the bottom of page one, this is the paragraph as written. “It pulls into an empty parking lot, in a seemingly empty industrial district. Empty, aside from a murdered-out Cadillac coupe in the corner, which it parks next to.” Too many empties. Kind of an awkward phrasing there.

Craig: Yeah.

John: A simpler version of this might be, “It pulls into a parking lot in an industrial complex. Empty, aside from a murdered-out Cadillac coupe.” Great. So just simplify.

Craig: Simplify is a good thing. I like to use capitals the way that John does. I like to call out things with all caps. And I don’t necessarily do it in any rigorous way. Sometimes I call out things. Sometimes I call out actions. Sometimes I call out signs. So all the things he’s doing here.

When you do call out things with capitals, I think that’s when it becomes helpful for the reader if you bold your slug lines. Because the capitals start to mush. And even though slug lines have an extra line break in front of them, the bolding of the slug lines really helps you kind of focus. And it helps make the other capitals pop more. Otherwise you start to feel like you’re taking a slight moment to determine, especially if you’re not going to put a traditional EXT/INT in front of something. Is this – am I being told a location here, or is this something that’s actually happening in the scene? And any tiny little pause is bad for the read.

John puts periods at the end of his slug lines. They’re not necessary. I don’t do that. I don’t think many people do. But none of these are fatal sins.

John: No, not at all. I will say that there’s some terminology which is a little blurry here, and it’s just the nature of screenwriting. So, I will apologize on behalf of screenwriting for it. Slug line can mean the INT/EXT, but you can also call that a scene heading. And scene heading is a little bit clearer, that you’re really talking about the start of a scene.

Craig: That’s right.

John: Slug lines can also refer to what Craig is talking about, which are these sort of intermediary slug lines. They’re in the middle of a scene and they give you a sense that you’re looking a different way or it’s a change in the action. They’re incredibly useful. It’s just the terms are sort of blurry over the two of them.

Craig: Yeah. Sorry. So I mean bold the scene headings is what I mean.

John: Yeah. And I agree on bold scene headings. I was a late convert to it, but I think it’s really helpful. Also I stopped doing the extra return before scene headings. If you’re bolding them you can get away with the single–

Craig: Ooh. I keep those in there. I keep those in there. I know, listen, I know that it’s literally six pages on top of my script by the time it’s all done, but I don’t know. I agree that there’s a lot of really good evocative stuff here. In a sense, sometimes it goes a little too far. So I love things like, “The sound of latex snapping against skin.” But then we have “INT. HALLWAY. The sound of quick feet echo, growing louder, as we peer down a long and empty hallway of white sterility, save for the red exit sign and steel double doors at the end.” That’s too much.

John: Too much.

Craig: Too much. Also quick feet echo, that’s a rough three words. The sound of quick feet echoing is probably what I would put there. That’s where I would want the [unintelligible], because “quick feet echo,” it’s just there’s two nouns in a row there that I struggle with.

John: The reason why we say it’s overwritten is because you’re giving us three sentences for like it’s a hallway. There’s nothing actually that’s going to happen here, so don’t give us this marathon sentence that it’s just, you know, a hallway.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t mind things being described to paint the picture so I can see it, as long as they’re purposeful. So, the red exit sign and steel double doors at the end, it’s really not that important, especially because two steel doors swing open in the very next bit.

This is the epitome of over-writing. “Two steel doors swing open and the nervously cadenced legs hurry past us.” Well, if you’re going to do that, you need to hyphenate nervously-cadenced, but more importantly, no. Right? That’s just crazy. Two steel doors swing open. Someone hurries past us. Or we see legs hurrying by.

This is starting to get purple, right? When we say purple we mean ornate, overwritten, Rococo, pick your – baroque, pick your adjective here.

John: Pick the most baroque word for Baroque, and that will be the right one.

Craig: And so there’s little too much going on here. And none of it is impactful. What’s so much more impactful is the “THE GRILL OF A WHITE CHEVY VAN SHAKES as the engine ROARS to life.” I get it.

John: Got it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, I want to talk about something I really liked on page two. So Levi is having the conversation with the driver:

Fiiine. Whadya’ got.

Just flanks and tenderloin.

No ribs?

Too skinny. You would’ve passed.

We’ve gone over this. Allow me to pass.

Okay. You would’ve passed though.

That feels like sort of the ordinary give and take. That feels like the flow and it tells me a little bit about their relationship. It tells me about Levi in terms of like he’s just kind of being a prick there about this. But that he’s looking for a specific thing. So that got me clicking back into what was actually happening here.

There definitely are moments here I can sort of see the shape of what this wants to be.

Craig: Yeah.

John: This is supposed to be a pilot, and so I am curious sort of like what the series out of this would be. But I’m not sure just based on these three pages if I would have made it to the end of the first act, honestly.

Craig: I think it’s the wrong opening. I think that there is a – I think it’s backwards, personally. I think there is a better opening and a better reveal. But, there is promise. I mean, I think that John has a very good sense of sound and sight. Maybe just needs to pull back a little bit on how much he gets into it. By the way, that one line that you read, I really liked it once I understood it. “We’ve gone over this. Allow me to pass.” That’s where you actually want an underline or an italic on the word me. Because the phrase “allow me to pass” is actually an unnatural enunciation of that phrase. Normally it’s allow me to pass, as in let me go by. So, it’s, “We’ve gone over this. Allow me to pass,” and I’m like allow you to pass what?

Allow you to pass?

John: Oh, yeah, exactly right.

Craig: Yeah, so allow me to pass.

John: Underlining either allow or me would have made it clear that that’s what you’re trying to say.

Craig: Right. Right. Right. So you needed a little bit of emphasis on that one. But, by the way, I swear to god, the biggest issue here is you’re forcing the camera away from somebody for two pages. That is nearly impossible to do well.

John: That’s really challenging. All right. I think it is time for Elizabeth Banks to come back and talk us through our next summary for our Three Page Challenge.

Craig: All right.

John: Elizabeth, take it away.

Elizabeth: Cult of Personality by Nathaniel Nauert. High in the hills of Topanga Canyon news helicopters and law enforcement agencies surround an old ranch home. They’re eating KFC and drawing analogies to bin Laden. Inside, 30 cult members sit in a circle holding hands. These are the Valentines. They chant in unison while their leader, Simon Ducis, stands alone. Simon decides it’s time to face the music. Getting ready to give himself up. Stephanie, one of Simon’s disciples, throws herself at his feet, unwilling to let him go. Simon reassures her that his physical absence changes nothing. If they destroy the school where you learned, do you lose the knowledge you gained there?

He then instructs another Valentine, Beth, to take everyone to Andromeda if the plan fails. Simon emerges from the house with his hands raised. The police captain tells Simon to lower himself to the ground. But instead, Simon begins to levitate. And that’s the bottom of page three.

John: Nathaniel, I really dug your three pages. And there’s some really exciting stuff here. I have some questions about certain things, but I can see what you’re doing here. I would definitely have kept reading this script if this had been dropped on my desk.

First off, I love cults, so like I’m always a sucker for cults. But I really liked the tone you were able to find here. Because it’s funny without trying too hard to be funny. And that’s a challenging thing. It would be so easy to sort of go for the easy laugh, and you didn’t do that. And at the bottom of page three we have a mystical moment that seems impossible. Well, you sort of sunk your hook there and I thought that was really effective.

We’re going to talk about some things that aren’t working here, but that was my sort of bigger headline is like, Nathaniel, I think you did something really cool here.

Craig: Yeah. If I get to the bottom of page three and he’s not levitating, I don’t love these. But he is levitating, so now I’m kind of loving them. I mean, I was a little more wobbly on the tone than you, only because some of the comedy felt weirdly broad for what was happening. Or what he was saying. So I wasn’t quite sure – like at times I thought is this sort of spoofy? It’s really when he was dragging Stephanie around with his leg. That felt Naked Gun-ish to me.

John: Yeah, but I could also picture it, though, because I could picture the version where like it’s sincere and yet it’s also absurd at the same time.

Craig: Right.

John: And some of our great sort of HBO comedies are able to do that thing where like it’s both believable that that character in that moment would do it, and it’s also just absurd because you shouldn’t be dragged around like a child by a parent.

Craig: The tonal break in a weird way wasn’t that she was doing that. It was that he calmly walked around the room and then we revealed that he’s been dragging her. The reveal is a physical comedy broad way of doing that.

John: Yeah. Agreed.

Craig: To say like, oh, she’s so – that was the only tonal break where I was like, OK, am I in spoof territory or not? But then we do have that last line, where he starts levitating and Jason says, the cop says, “Hold still Simon. That’s an order. You hear me? Quit floating?” So I–

John: I’m a little nervous about that line, too.

Craig: Sounds like Naked Gun to me. Is this Naked Gun cult or is it – I’m not sure about the tone.

John: Yeah. I like that it was a little ambiguous about the tone, honestly. I felt like it could go both ways. So like the cultists are called the Valentines. A bit that I was confused about it says 30 people. But I felt like Nathanial meant 30 women, because I don’t see any men actually singled out or mentioned. And it felt more like a sex cult kind of place because there’s a waterbed and a Jacuzzi.

Craig: Right.

John: So my guess is that it’s a woman-dominated cult, or like he’s the only guy left in there. A major problem, we talked about characters speaking their names. The captain should be named Dixon, not Jason. And so all of his character cues, his character names above his dialogue, it gets confusing because Jason and Simon are just too close together.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: So, you set up a character who feels like he should be named Dixon. Just call him Dixon throughout this whole thing. Even Dixon and Simon are a little bit close considering they’re the only two men speaking. So if you have another name for one of these two characters, I would go for that.

I was singling out in the last script about dashes at the end of lines. Here Nathaniel is using em dashes. He’s using the very long dashes. And in typography you use those all the time. You just don’t use them in screenplays because screenplays are 12-point Courier. And they look weird. They look sort of strangely out of place. So I would just go back, and I know it’s going to kill you, but just go back and do your two normal hyphens. It will feel much more natural on the page.

Craig: So really other than the things I’ve mentioned here, the only other thing that I felt needed looking at was the – and again, this implies a spoof sort of tone – is the first paragraph says, “High in the hills of Topanga Canyon, California, sits a LARGE RANCH HOME, surrounded by lush gardens and grazing livestock. It’s pastoral, idyllic, and tranquil as F.” It doesn’t say F, but I’m trying to keep it clean here.

OK, fine. So, then the next paragraph says, “WHUP, WHUP, WHUP. Maybe not. NEWS HELICOPTERS jockey for position in the sky above the quiet sanctuary. Surrounding the compound, it’s mayhem: LAPD, FBI, ATF, and KFC (delivering breakfast)” – see, it’s a spoof – “crouch in silence, eyes and guns locked on the old wooden structure.”

So, it can’t be pastoral, idyllic, and also mayhem with news helicopters. It’s one or the other. That’s a joke that only works when you’re reading the screenplay, but it’s not really a joke that works on screen, so I would not do that.

John: Yep. I agree with you there. My other notes about stuff I’m seeing on the page is top of page two, Simon says, “He’s right. Dixon’s right. It’s time for me to face the music.” Well, first off, he’s calling him Dixon, so we should call that character Dixon throughout. But why is he saying this to himself? He’s not saying it to anybody around him. And it just felt really strange. It’s a weird moment at the top of page two so he says this seemingly to himself, but everybody hears them, and then they respond to him. I think you’re going to be in a much better place for him to sort of reach the decision and then for everyone to react. So for him to actually just announce it to the group or somehow otherwise expose what his next step is. It just felt too odd that he’s just talking to himself at that moment.

The same kind of thing happens on page three, though. So, middle of page three, Dixon is on the megaphone saying, “Okay, Simon, you’re doing the right thing here… That’s far enough. (then, lowering the bullhorn) Been waiting a long time for this, psycho.” Wait, who is he saying this to?

It’s always really odd the–

Craig: It’s a spoof.

John: Yeah. Maybe so.

Craig: Well, spoof tone. Because that’s a very spoofy sort of thing. Because the traditional spoof mode, not the crappy new spoof mode, but the old school spoof mode is to be like a bad soap opera essentially, where people do these sort of weird mannered things like mutter to themselves and turn away from camera and say, “Oh, I don’t know.”

So, I don’t know. I feel like maybe that’s what’s going on here. It’s hard to tell, but I think it’s well done and I agree with you, I would keep reading to find out what’s happening. So I think overall Nathaniel, you know, he’s on to something here. I’m not sure what it is, but he’s on to it.

John: Cool. Let’s get to our third and final Three Page Challenge. It’s our last chance to hear the lovely voice of Elizabeth Banks. Take it away, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Music Festival by Alexandra Gioulakis. We fly over sand dunes, Joshua Trees, and dried out cattle skulls as we come upon a massive music festival in Tehachapi, California. In voiceover, 18-year-old Dylan tells us that today is the last Saturday before high school graduation. She’s at home while her friends are stuck in detention. As she lounges in the pool, Dylan’s friends show up in a minivan. Dylan introduces them, still in voiceover, as they file out of the van.

There’s Stephanie, Dylan’s butch BFF since childhood. Steph brings the beer. There’s Josh, hot, and Dylan has a crush on him. And Matt. Matt and Dylan have a history, including seven minutes of not-so-heaven in eighth grade. Then comes Madison. Stephanie is secretly in love with her, but Madison is dating Matt. Dylan is Team Stephanie.

Finally, Goldie, the nerd everyone thought would be a computer whiz, but is really just awkward and clumsy. Dylan is the only one of her friends not to get into college. She plans to either kill herself, or go to cosmetology school. That, and travel across Egypt. She’s got plans. With that, we hit the bottom of page three.

John: So, interesting that we had our topic of how do you introduce character’s names. Well, this is one way. You sort of shotgun them out. And as they file out of the van you identify them by name. And talk us through their descriptions. I thought this was a really interesting mess. And I don’t mean that to be disparaging, really. I think there’s some really promising signs of talent here, but these three pages didn’t really work for me.

How did you feel?

Craig: I agree that this feels new. In that it feels like Alex – I’m going to call her Alex because that’s part of her email address – that Alex is approaching this kind of from a neophyte position because it’s doing that thing that new writers do, which is talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. It’s very mannered. And that’s not terrible. I mean, some of that’s just a matter of taste, right? And I don’t really like to get into matters of taste so much. But, this is a case where I think much less would be much more. Because if you clear out some of the extra, then the things that are kind of lovely and interesting start to pop out more.

John: I agree. So, you know, it reminded me of sort of Don Roos’s scripts, so Don Roos, Opposite of Sex, sort of great movies with Christina Ricci and other talented young actresses moving up. It also reminded me a bit of sort of the feeling of the CW teen shows. Sort of the Riverdales where it’s – everything is heightened in a way that’s sort of interesting.

So, that’s where I think the voice is promising. But there was just too much voice. There was just too much being in Dylan’s head and hearing her talk without anyone actually doing anything in these three pages. And I thought that was the real limitation.

So, we start by flying over Tehachapi, and sort of seeing this music festival. But then our initial voiceover has nothing to do with the music festival at all, really. It’s talking about these three friends who are in detention who we’re not seeing, and then we’re coming to her in the pool I really felt like the tone of this movie should be like when we arrive in this music festival she needs to say something about this music festival, or disparages music festivals, or do something to let us know what is her relationship with this music festival before she starts introducing all of these friends in sort of shotgun manner.

Craig: Yeah. There’s also, you know, I love line breaks. I’m a big fan of line breaks. I like making – to me, the fewer words you can get away with on the page, the better off you are. However, too many line breaks in this. This is actually – so congratulations in a way. You’ve somehow managed to out-line break me. We have ten lines of action and description, most of which are half of the length of a line long. It all starts to turn into like – it almost feels like a teleprompter at some point. Those need to be squished together because it’s actually becoming hard to read that way. When usually we break things up to make them easier to read.

And I agree that the opening voiceover doesn’t really have much to do with that. And neither does what she say – I’m going to read what she says. So, the opening line, while we’re watching all this music festival visual stuff is, “Today is the last Saturday before high school graduation. My friends were all stuck in detention while I was lounging at my subdivision pool.” Ok. I’m going to stop there. Stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff.

Then, here’s the last line, “I chickened out like almost immediately because I don’t like tight spaces.” Smash to black. Title card: Music Festival. I don’t know what that has to do with that. I don’t know what the – I don’t know what either of the handles on that speech have to do with the things before and after them.

And if you’re going to throw to a title, kind of needs to feel purposeful and ironic or reflective or something.

John: A big problem I had with the first sentence is, “Today is the last Saturday before high school graduation. My friends were all stuck in detention.” Wait, so is this present tense narration or past tense narration? And it managed to be both in the first two sentences. So, you’re going to need to pick a tense for where her voiceover is at. Is she talking about what’s happening right in front of us, or is she talking like this is a thing that happened?

Later on, she’s decided to stick with sort of present tense narration. So she’s talking about all these people in the present tense. So, that’s great, but if you’re going to do that, do it throughout the whole thing. I also felt like, again, these first sort of single lines that are setting up the music festival, the last two of those, “This is Tehachapi, CA. Population: 8,451 Population this weekend: 72,107.” That’s kind of interesting, but it would be more interesting to have somebody say that than just to read it in a script.

Craig: It’s trivia otherwise. It’s just a random trivia fact.

John: It’s a trivia fact. So, if you’re going to use that, I would say just put that in dialogue or find a way to make that speakable, because it’s not doing anybody any service by putting it in the scene description right there.

Craig: Yeah. Then we get into the body of these pages which is an iteration of her friends and a description of her friends. There is a high degree of difficulty for this. And the reason there is is because you’re telling us who people are. And generally speaking we like finding out who people are. Unless they are a menagerie of interesting side characters. You know, like in Goodfellas you can kind of go, “That’s Tony Two-Times. He said every two times. And that was Maury blah, blah, blah, he wore a wig.” Then, OK, that’s fine because the whole point is I’m going to introduce you to a bunch of side people. They’re not important.

These people seem important. So, you’re just going to tell us who they are. You’re going to tell us everything about them. This is a massive info dump. And what – now, Alex makes it interesting because she’s clever. So, she’s clevering us, and that’s what I mean by mannered. For instance, “She’s my main chap from another mud flap.” That made me laugh. That’s really funny. I never heard that before. Maybe Alex invented that. It’s really funny. That’s not going to necessarily overcome the fact that you’re telling me everything about your relationship with her, who she is, what she wants. It starts to feel like I’m being force-fed something, like one of those ducks that’s being raised for foie gras.

John: You know where this voice would actually be amazing is honestly the YA novel version of this, where you actually are inside the character’s head and you’re right in Dylan’s head as she’s saying all these things. That would be great, honestly, and that would feel really natural. But here just sort of stop the movie just for these long chunks of voiceover from the main character who I think by the bottom of page three no one has said any lines to each other. It’s all just been her voiceover. And it’s just too frustrating here.

But, I do want to come back to like I think there’s really good lines within this. And so like I had high hopes that Alex can write dialogue because she can definitely – she has a voice for how these characters speak, and at least how Dylan speaks. I suspect she can have these characters talk to each other in ways that are really interesting. I would just like to see that, because I don’t think I was going to be enjoying the rest of just seeing Dylan’s point of view on this.

Craig: Well, one of the things that I was sort of desperate for, and it’s not here, is anything that makes me feel with Dylan. There’s actually – one of the remarkable things about this run where she’s describing her friends is how clinical it is. Everything that she says is clinical. There is no real emotion. In fact, there’s general denial of emotion. It’s this high irony, highly detached voice. Even when she gets to herself and she’s describing herself, it feels so dead inside.

And so that may be part of this character’s problem, but that’s a problem that I want to kind of come to experience, and also frankly I never really believe anyone is dead inside. They’re just hiding something. Right?

John: Sure.

Craig: I don’t even know what she’s hiding here, because I get no clue. So I actually don’t know how to relate to Dylan because I haven’t been given that little tiny piece of humanity. A little itsy bitsy bit of something that makes me go, ooh, I love you, or, ooh, I feel for you. Ooh, I’m worried about you. Nothing. I feel nothing for her. And I want to feel something. Even if it’s anger. I just want to feel something about your main character. And right now I don’t. Right now I just feel a kind of intellectual superficial cleverness, but no human underneath it. And that’s where I would attack this to start with, Alex.

Because you’re obviously smart. I mean, you can see the intelligence throughout, but the intelligence is kind of masking a little bit of something here I think.

John: Yeah. I do wonder if this is sort of stealth Stuart Special, in that we see this musical festival and then we’re actually jumping back to an earlier time. And if that is sort of what the play is, I would love to see Dylan at that music festival and we see something that is honest and real about her or genuine moment or there’s something that sort of clues us in there’s a real interesting character here, before we get to this sort of hardened cynical Dylan who we’re seeing voiceover for her friends. That might be an interesting contrast between the two of those. Because then there’s a question that I’m eager to answer.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. I mean, I was trying to think about movies that had these long runs in the beginning and I don’t know weirdly Ferris Bueller came to mind, because it does have such a long monologue. Now, it’s not voiceover. He’s talking to us. That automatically makes us more relatable. And he’s funny. And he just seem engaged with life. Actually the whole point of Ferris Bueller is that he’s so alive and he loves things. There’s like a double removal here, because what Dylan is saying feels removed emotionally, and then she’s not even saying it. She’s just thinking it and we’re staring at somebody floating, which makes it doubly removed.

So there’s just a cold distance. I want to feel more. So, Alex, make me feel more.

John: Aw, give Craig the feels.

Craig: Give me the feels. I don’t need all the feels. I just a feel. I need a feel.

John: Give Craig a feel.

Craig: Give me a feel. That sounds weird.

John: That sounds just horrible. But what does not sound horrible is our fantastic guest reader. So thank you again, Elizabeth Banks, for doing that for us.

Craig: Thanks E.

John: And that’s our Three Page Challenge for this week. So, if you have three pages that you want us to take a look at, the place you send that is johnaugust.com/threepage. There’s a little form you fill out. You attach a PDF. It goes into Godwin’s inbox and he will sort through them for us. So, thank you to the three writers who wrote in this week with your pages. You were very generous to share them with us and I hope that was helpful.

And it’s time for our One Cool Things. So, Craig, why don’t you start us off? Give us your One Cool Thing.

Craig: Sure. You know, I haven’t really talked about what this HBO miniseries is that we’re going to be doing. You know, I may be over where you are next year. Well, not France, but Europe. So, we might be doing a little swappy on this terrible time zone nightmare.

But one of the things we have to do is find ourselves a good filmmaker. And so I’ve been watching television, which as you know I never do. I don’t like watching stuff. But I was pointed at a couple miniseries. They are British miniseries, because we’re going to be based I think in London. And I have encountered this writer that I think everybody must have known about this guy, but I’m just discovering him.

So Jack Thorne is a British writer. He has written movies and he has written lots of television. And the two miniseries that I’ve seen that he’s done there, one I think is six episodes and one is four episodes. So they’re short run series. One is called The Last Panthers. And the other is called National Treasure. No relation to the Nicholas Cage movie here. Their National Treasure is the story of a beloved television personality in England who is late in life accused of a series of sexual assaults, sort of a la Cosby.

And they are brilliant. This guy – first of all, they couldn’t be more different. And they’re both brilliant. I’m kind of in awe of this guy. Jack Thorne. I don’t know how he does it. I’m watching these things and I’m just thinking, boy, is there any mistake here? Won’t he make a mistake? Won’t he upset me at least once? Even just as a matter of opinion. No. Absolutely wonderful work.

He is really, really good. Like if I ran a movie studio, I would say, “Hey Jack Thorne, write a movie. Just write a movie. I don’t care what it is. And we’re making it. If it costs under $50 million, so you don’t bankrupt my studio, we would make it.” I would make any movie this guy wrote. I just think he’s amazing.

John: Holy cow. That’s great.

Craig: Yeah. Jack Thorne. Jack Thorne is my One Cool Thing. Plus, that name. Jack Thorne.

John: Come on, it sounds like a spy hero.

Craig: Right? Thorne. Jack Thorne.

John: Good stuff. My One Cool Thing is a telephone. And, you know, I feel like over the past couple years innovation has really sort of died in phone making. Because it feels like every phone looks the same. It all sort of looks like an iPhone. Whether it’s a Samsung or whatever. They all basically look the same. They do the same kind of thing. They’re like these flat black pieces of glass that are magical. And it’s fine. I think we live in a time of wonder that we have such great phones. But I like it when there’s still some innovation out there.

So, this is the most innovative phone I’ve seen this week. It’s called Beat the Boss 3-in-1 J8 phone. And what’s remarkable about it is it’s incredibly small. So, it weighs 18 grams. It’s dimensions are 68mm by 23mm by 11mm. That’s smaller than many key fobs are. And it’s also 99 percent plastic. You might ask well why is that so good, like who wants a plastic phone that’s so small? And the answer is you could still lit up your butt. So it is a phone that is perfect for smuggling into prisons.

Craig: This is not cool.

John: It’s an innovative use of technology to serve a market that was being underserved. It’s like people who want to smuggle a phone into prison.

Craig: You’re not supposed to have phones.

John: Well, they’re not supposed to have phones, but that is a market and they see the market and they go after the market. And because it has very little metal in it, even a lot of the sort of X-ray detectors like the Boss can’t actually find it. The Boss being a chair kind of X-ray designed specifically for looking for phones up people’s butts.

Craig: That’s terrible. No. Because hold on a second. Some guy is going to get this key fob phone up his butt. He’s going to go into prison. He’s going to hand it over to another guy. And that guy is going to use that phone to call somebody on the outside to murder people. That’s why they use phones. Well, not all of them. But some of them. Someone is going to die because of this.

John: Theoretically someone could die because of this phone, but theoretically someone could die because of any phone. Like, we can’t outlaw all phones. And so this was a market that was underserved. I just think it’s fascinating that there is a–

Craig: Theoretically someone could die from any phone.

John: Yes. I’m doing the Bane defense.

Craig: I smuggled it up my butt. [laughs] Bane Craig is a whole new guy. I just want you to know that when I do Bane Craig voice I actually put my fingers over my – like I make a Bane mask for my own face.

John: It’s important because it not only mimics the sound, but it really gets you into character. You have to really feel like Tom Hardy being strangled while he says that. I’m also sort of bringing up the prison phone up the butt thing, I’ll put a link to the other sort of horrible thing that’s happening with prison phones now is the FCC is rolling back its protections on sort of prison phone price gauging. And so if you are trying to have a phone conversation with a person who lives in prison, the prices of a phone call into or out of prison are just absurd. And they should not be absurd. And it’s a weirdly profiteering way of dealing with people who are incarcerated.

Craig: Yeah. So that stinks. But also–

John: But a phone up your butt kind of stinks, too.

Craig: Ha-ha. Get it. Because it’s up my butt. Bane Craig was born on, what is today, March 7. So many different Craigs. So many.

John: Too many Craigs.

Craig: I don’t like the way you said too many.

John: Too many Craigs.

Craig: I said so many.

John: Too many Craigs.

Craig: You made it too many. Too many Craigs. Too many Craigs.

John: Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Panic Moon. Oh, and it’s a good one. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We love to answer your little short questions on Twitter. We are on Facebook. Just look for the Scriptnotes podcast on Facebook. You should also search for us on iTunes and subscribe.

You can leave us a comment there. Occasionally we read through those comments and we love to see them. You’ll find the transcript for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find show note, the links to the Three Page Challenges will be there, too.

Reminder that if you want to send in a Three Page Challenge, you go to johnaugust.com/threepage to send that in. If you want to send something for the guide, a review of a previous episode, go to johnaugust.com/guide.

Longer questions, send in to ask@johnaugust.com.

You can get all the back catalog, including the previous Rian Johnson at Scriptnotes.net. And if we have a link to tickets, look for the show notes right now, because that link will tickets will be in the show notes. If they’re not there, it will be on Twitter as soon as we have it.

Craig, thank you for a fun show.

Craig: Thank you, John, and I’ll see you next week.

John: Cool. Bye.

Links:

#Trypod reviewsday

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 05:42

In the spirit of #trypod, my reviews this week are all podcasts I started listening to this year.

The goal of #trypod is to help the podcast-unaware by literally taking their phones, installing a podcast app, and subscribing them to something they’ll like.

Here are some good choices:

Science Vs.
Host Wendy Zukerman tackles one topic each week (Acne, Climate Change, Immigration) and sorts the facts from the fiction. It’s delightfully written and produced, and would make a great first podcast for someone transitioning over from NPR-style shows.

Missing Richard Simmons
A great podcast for people who’ve only listened to Serial. Host Dan Tabersky tries to figure out why Richard Simmons has disappeared from public life. Smartly plotted and emotionally generous.

Do By Friday
Each week, hosts Merlin Mann, Alex Cox and Max Temkin face a different challege, from meditating to watching Les Mis. Episodes wander very far afield from their stated topics, making it much more of a hangout show. That’s either your taste or it’s not.

Pod Save America
A weekly politics podcast hosted by Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor. They’re liberal wonks and speechwriters, not journalists, so it’s interesting hearing their unfiltered take on our chaotic democracy.

I’m also leaving these reviews on iTunes. The reason you always hear podcast hosts pleading for reviews is that it affects the popularity algorithms, increasing exposure.

The reality of quote-unquote health insurance

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 09:16

Small business owners are often lionized by politicians as job creators. Innovators. Real Americans.

I don’t usually think of myself as a small business owner, but that’s what I am. My company (Quote-Unquote Apps) makes software for Mac and iOS. I oversee three full-time employees.

After salaries, health insurance is our single biggest expense. It costs more than the servers. It costs more than the App Store’s 30% cut. It’s a lot.

In fact, most months, the amount we pay for health insurance is the difference between our being borderline profitable and genuinely profitable.

An outside consultant might look at our books and say, “Man, you need to do something about those costs.”

They’d be correct.

The way health insurance works in the U.S. is maddening and unsustainable, both for individuals and small businesses.

The way it is now

I have two very different experiences with health insurance.

As a screenwriter, I get my insurance through the Writers Guild. It’s considered a “Cadillac” plan, which seems an appropriate moniker: pretty nice, but not something I would necessarily pick out myself. I don’t pay for it directly. When a studio hires me to write something, they are required to kick a percentage of that fee into the health fund.

So while I’m on my union plan, Quote-Unquote’s health insurance covers my three full-time employees: a designer, a coder, and my assistant.

I honestly don’t know the laws about whether a company our size is required to pay for health insurance. But as a practical matter, I can’t imagine having an uninsured full-time employee.

They’re not just co-workers; they’re nearly family. I care about their safety and well-being. If a medical crisis were to befall one of them, I’d feel morally compelled to help them pay the bills, just as I would for a sibling.1

So they definitely need health insurance. It’s not a question of whether, but how.

We originally had a small company plan, but with the dawn of the Affordable Care Act, it made more sense for employees to pick their own plans on the exchanges.

This shift came with some pros and cons:

PROS:
– The plans are slightly cheaper, mostly because the employees are fairly young.
– The plans are portable. When they stop working for me, they can keep their plans.

CONS:
– Employees have to research plans every year.
– Reimbursing employees for health insurance counts as taxable income.

Bring-your-own-insurance has given employees more choices and more responsibility, but I’m not convinced it’s a better experience overall. Because here’s the thing:

You shouldn’t have to think much about health insurance.

With my Writers Guild plan, I don’t have any choices. There’s no better or worse WGA insurance. It just is. As a union, we can negotiate on coverage and co-pays, but it’s not up to me as an individual to tailor a plan. I can make decisions about whether to see a doctor who is inside or outside the network, but that’s about it.

For my employees buying through the exchange, there’s no limit to the time they can expend comparing plans and choices.

While the ACA requires insurance companies to offer similar plans, there are always factors beyond the checklists. Some companies have better reputations. Others have larger networks. Every choice has trade-offs, and each employee has to decide what makes the most sense.

But the choice itself has a cost, too. It’s time you’re not spending doing your job. It’s mental energy burned and frustration and worry. It’s a tax on productivity.

The way it’s headed

Defending the GOP’s new American Health Care Act, Paul Ryan argues that his plan “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they want and can afford.”

For the poor, the gap betwen a plan they want and can afford seems to be alarmingly vast.

But even for better-off Americans like my employees, Ryan fundamentally misunderstands the reality of getting health insurance.

People don’t want “more choices.” The problem isn’t a lack of choices. It’s a lack of affordable quality health care.

People don’t want “better access to a plan.” They want better access to health care.

“More choices” is the kind of markets-fix-everything logic you hear from people who are already on Congress’s Cadillac plan. Paul Ryan doesn’t have to pick health insurance on the market. Like my WGA insurance, his simply comes with his job.

I don’t know whether the GOP’s plan or something like it will pass. It’s obviously flawed and widely despised, yet that seems to be the hot new trend these days.

As a small business owner, I’m determined to keep my employees covered with health insurance one way or another. Still, I’m convinced that we’re doing it wrong as a nation.

Health care shouldn’t be tied to your job at all. Whether you’re a screenwriter, a Congressman or a preschool teacher, your employer should be paying your salary, not determining which doctors you’re allowed to see. Our current system is a relic of an older age. We’re an aberration among world economies.

As both an employer and an American, I don’t want more choices, more freedom, more flexibility in health insurance. I want health care. I want there to be one imperfect plan that simply works, and to hold our elected officials responsible for its continual improvement.

  1. Paul Ryan would probably say that this is paternalistic, which is a way of dismissing guilt when it’s inconvenient.

Question Time

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig answer listener questions about credits and casting, pilots and professional experience. Does Tom Ford really need his name on the poster twice? Kinda. It’s complicated.

The live show with Rian Johnson has been postponed, likely to April. We’ll keep you posted.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Pour one out for “Hold my beer”

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 04:00

Here’s a delightful structure of Twitter joke that is getting awfully clammy:

BRITAIN: Brexit is the stupidest, most self-destructive act a country could undertake.
USA: Hold my beer.

— Brian Pedaci (@bpedaci) November 9, 2016

Me: you can't have a tornado, be 70 degrees and snow all in one week.

Missouri: Hold my beer.

— John Oliver (@John_oliver21) March 8, 2017

GOP Donor 1: “I just really want to murder poor people.”
GOP Donor 2: “But can we be made richer in the process?”
Paul Ryan: “Hold my beer."

— ❄️ Ashley Lynch ❄️ (@ashleylynch) March 8, 2017

GOP: we haven't said anything mind-numbingly stupid in 24 hours

Ben Carson: HOLD. MY. BEER.

— Young Salad (@houstonbred) March 6, 2017

I haven’t done meaningful forensics on “hold my beer,” but my best guess is that the phrase was originally used as setup rather than punchline.

That’s how the Twitter account @HoldThisBeer uses it:

Hold my beer while I do tricks on two skateboards at once pic.twitter.com/biyZCL7ZZ2

— Hold My Beer (@HoldThisBeer) December 14, 2016

Similarly, this BuzzFeed article from 2014 uses “hold my beer” as context for foolhardy fails. That’s also how you see it used on r/holdmybeer.

In this format, “hold my beer” is the frame, not the art.

But it’s as a punchline that “hold my beer” really comes into its own.

Here’s the generic structure:

SPEAKER A: There’s no way to top this outrageous thing I said or did. SPEAKER B: Hold my beer.

Since it’s destined to die from overuse, let’s look into how it works.

Speaker A has to be well-known — at least to the target audience. If we don’t recognize the name, the rest of the joke won’t make sense. In some cases, a headline takes the place of Speaker A.

"The Patriots achieved the greatest comeback of all time"

Barcelona: "Hold my beer"

— The Soccer Life (@TheSCRLife) March 8, 2017

The thing Speaker A did or said needs to be plausible, with bonus points for recent. There can’t be anything strained about the setup.

Speaker B needs to be recognizable. As with Speaker A, the joke only works if you know who Speaker B is. Either the speaker is already famous, or is temporarily famous because of recent events. The speaker can also be the tweeter:

Friend: Dude, she's lovely, sweet, sexy, smart, funny, and rich. No way you can possibly fuck up this one, congrats bro.

Me: Hold my beer.

— Ike Davis (@IkeDavis10028) March 8, 2017

Speaker B either just did something foolish, or can be imagined doing something foolish. To me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of this structure: it works both speculatively or retroactively. But like all things Twitter, the time horizon is very short. It’s hard to imagine the joke working more than a day or two after the inciting event.

When you encounter failed “hold my beer” tweets — and trust me, I found a lot of them — it’s usually because the writer missed one of these four important aspects.

Life after beer

The carcass of a dead meme can provide home for other jokes that subvert the expected payoff:

GF: I'm sick of people barking patriarchal instructions at me.

Me: Hold my beer.

— Tom Neenan (@TNeenan) January 26, 2017

Ohio State: we're bad
Rutgers: hold my beer
Ohio State: no
Rutgers: please
Ohio State: no
Rutgers: but we're Rutgers
Ohio State: NOT TONIGHT

— Yeezmar Hallarsan (@ramzy) March 9, 2017

And it’s worth paying attention the variant forms that continue to chug along, such as “hold my drink” and “hold my earrings.”

In the end, I think “hold my beer” has been a great joke structure for a time that feels bonkers. Every day as we scroll through Twitter, we silently ask ourselves, “Wow, could it get any crazier?”

Hold my beer.

The Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 07:21

As Scriptnotes approaches its 300th episode, we keep adding new listeners who want to find the best episodes in the back catalog.

When asked for our recommendations, Craig and I are often stumped. Do we send them to the craft episodes, the live shows, the industry talk, the interviews with other screenwriters? There’s no right answer.

You can already search the transcripts for relevant terms, but to do that, you have to know what you’re looking for. What we’d really like to offer is a standalone guide with synopses and reviews pointing new listeners to the can’t-miss episodes.

A “scriptdex” of sorts, but without such an awkward title.

So we’re enlisting the help of listeners to build it.

We’ve set up this page for listeners to leave their review of any episode, indicating who it’s great for, and why it’s notable. In the past week, we’ve had more than 60 reviews come in.

Here are two examples:

152: The Rocky Shoals (pages 70-90)
Recommended for: Absolute beginners
Why this episode: There’s some great meat-and-potatoes discussion of craft in this episode. And as a woman, I found both Aline’s presence on the show, and her comments on how women should think of mentor-seeking in this industry, to be encouraging and freeing.
— Bekah Baldwin

73: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Recommended for: Absolute beginners, Seasoned vets, Non-screenwriters, Fans of craft episodes
Why this episode: Perfect gateway episode to Scriptnotes! A deep dive into a finely crafted script that became an iconic movie, into which fans can dive even deeper thanks to the link to transcripts of working sessions with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan.
— Delories Dunn

Listeners are encouraged to recommend as many episodes as they wish.

We don’t know what the final product will be. It might be a book, or an ebook, or a searchable index. But whatever form it takes, we think it will be incredibly helpful to new listeners as they dive in.

Thanks to everyone who has already contributed. If you have favorite episodes, please consider letting us know.

Tuesday Reviewsday: Trains, Images and Screenshots

Tue, 03/07/2017 - 09:19

My picks this week are all on the Mac App Store.

Mini Metro

This beautifully-designed game scratches so many itches. Like SimCity, you’re trying to grow and optimize. Like Tetris, you’re trying to simplify complexity. And yet the game is surprisingly chill. Even when passengers are freaking out, it never triggers panic. If anything, it’s made me more sympathetic to the challenges of public transportation. (Also on iOS)

Acorn

I work with designers who are masters of Photoshop. I’m not, and have no plans of becoming one. My work with images is mostly for the web and internal mock-ups. For this, Acorn has everything I need. Its layers are intuitive. Tools and menus are where I’d expect them. And it’s rock-solid. I’ve never had it crash on me.

Plus, it’s a steal at $30. Highly recommended for anyone who needs “something like Photoshop” but not actual Photoshop.

Skitch

I’ve had Skitch set to Shift-Command-5 for years, and find myself using it nearly every day. The crosshairs come up; I grab what I need. Yes, you could use the built-in screenshot abilities to do it, but you end up with a bunch of files littering your desktop. With Skitch, they’re ready to be annotated and dragged out — generallly to Slack, where I’m sharing something with the team. (It also pairs well with Acorn.)

I honestly don’t use Skitch for the Evernote integration, and would happily buy it as a standalone.

California Cannibal Cults

Tue, 03/07/2017 - 08:03

It’s a new Three Page Challenge, where John and Craig take a look at listeners’ scenes and offer their honest critique.

We also discuss techniques for letting the audience know your characters’ names. Plus, Craig has been stockpiling his umbrage for weeks, and may have found a worthy target.

Huge thanks to special guest narrator Elizabeth Banks.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 290: The Social Media Episode — Transcript

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 08:23

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, with the WGA negotiations set to begin, we’ll be doing a deep dive looking at how the Writers Guild attempts to make a deal with the studios on behalf of film and TV writers. Then we’ll be answering listener questions about writing for producers versus writing for the audience. And last steps when finishing up a script. But first, and most importantly, Craig, I am so sorry I got you sick.

Craig: Yeah, you got me sick. I’m pretty sure that you put your virus into the microphone and it came out into my headphones. I don’t know any other explanation.

John: Yeah. It’s sort of magical. Basically because of the power of homeopathy, I put it out there in the world and it got all the way over to you. Like the atoms sort of vibrated all the way over there.

Craig: Right.

John: But I’m sorry you’re sick. So, on the last episode we were talking about do you try to push through, do you take care of yourself? What are you actually doing?

Craig: Well, what did I say last time? I said that I never learn. [laughs] Well, I still haven’t learned. It doesn’t even matter that I say I never learn. I still don’t learn. Yesterday, I wrote a little bit. Today I’m going to try again. I mean, I’m a little bit – I have some good news, by the way. So, I think I mentioned a couple of podcasts ago that Future Craig might have some good news.

John: All right.

Craig: And I’m not really going to talk about what it is yet, because I don’t know how that works. You know, I don’t want to jump any publicity guns. But in addition to the movies that I’m working on, I do have a miniseries at HBO that we’re going to be doing. We got our–

John: Well that’s great.

Craig: Yeah. So that’s happening. But, of course, all success with me brings a panic. So I’m a little panicked about getting the work I have to get done done. And doing it as best I can. So, the panic actually is probably what led in no small way to a depression of the immune system followed by a sickness. It’s no good. But I’m going to try today. I feel – it’s early sick days, so what I feel is that empty fatigue and vague queasiness.

John: Well, there’s also an anxiety of like is it going to stay this level, or is it going to get worse? And you really don’t know when you’re at this phase. Like, is this what it is? Is it going to pass by? Or is it going to become a full-on sickness? For me it became a full-on sickness. But I’ve had many situations where I’m sort of where you’re at. And it never really fully kicked in.

Craig: Well, I have taken 4,000 Oscillococcinum pills.

John: That should do it.

Craig: Yeah. So I have diabetes now. Because of the sugar. And also I think at this point I’ve probably worked my way all the way up to one-millionth of one molecule of useless duck liver. Feel good about it.

John: That’s good. Do it. Yes.

Let’s do some follow up. So, on our last episode we talked about Kellyanne Conway’s amazing skills at being able to get out of questions. There was another great explainer this past week by Carlos Maza for Vox. So it’s a video. I will put a link in the show notes. But it does a very good job sort of walking through sort of specifically how she’s getting out of some of the situations she’s trying to get into.

Of course, last week we talked about Kellyanne Conway and then like the day the episode came out she had a total fumble and could not get her way out of a seemingly pretty simple situation. So, no one is magic. No sports player does sports 100 percent all the time.

Craig: Oh, John, that was adorable. [laughs] No sports player does sports. You’re the best. By the way, I agree that this Carlos Maza thing is terrific. And something came out – he was interviewing an old classmate of his who is a national debate champion about the techniques that Kellyanne Conway uses. And he zeroed in on something that was sort of an addition to what we were saying. We were pointing out how she will – like the name of her game is to make her evasion as quick as she can, and then immediately go on the offense to make her point.

And he said the same thing, but what he picked on was something I hadn’t really thought about. In her little evasion section, she routinely will pick a key word from the question and she will then recontextualize that key word so that you feel like you have some weird sense that she’s responding to the question. And then she goes off on her tangent.

So if somebody says to her, “Why would the president say something that just patently isn’t true? We know that it’s not the fact that blah-blah-blah.” And she’ll say, “Well, what I know about facts is, or here’s what I know is true…” OK, that’s just a word that she’s linking to make it seem like she’s answering a question. And then she’s off and running in the other direction.

I wonder if part of the reason she’s starting to get trapped now is because people like this and articles like this are laying bare her tricks for everyone. At some point, once you know how they pull the rabbit out of the hat, or how the sports guy does his sports thing, it’s just not that impressive anymore.

John: We can check the transcript. I do think I brought that up last time when we were talking about Kellyanne Conway. But what’s so good about a video is that they can show you sort of the real time transcript of like here’s the word and here’s her repeating the word. Like that subtitle, that [unintelligible] at the bottom of the screen really does help you see sort of what she’s doing. And it’s a trick you can’t do endlessly. You start to recognize how it all fits together.

So, anyway, we recommend this video. A few episodes we talked about Sinbad starring in a movie called Shazam. That movie never existed. And there was a whole discussion about whether this is some sort of weird metaphysical thing that’s happening. Craig really focused on the neuroscience of it. And an actual neuroscientist really backed him up in this article that I thought was very well conceived, basically talking through a lot of what Craig described about it. The things that trigger in the brain for a memory are often sort of the same things that you’re thinking about in conjecture.

So, Craig, talk us through more of the science in this article.

Craig: Well, yeah, I remember specifically we were learning about the concept of familiarity. And that there was essentially a cognitive algorithm in our minds that said, oh, this is a familiar thing. So that when we see something we’ve seen before, we know that we’ve seen it before. And that that sometimes could misfire and this leads to thinks like déjà vu. And really that’s kind of what’s going on if you think about it with these kinds of false memories of a movie. You’re having déjà vu in a sense.

There’s all sorts of deeper – far deeper – theories about this. And people should read the article, because it’s actually quite good. And really there’s a lot of conjecture here. But it really comes down to the concept of confabulation and the way that the brain is constantly filling in missing gaps of information.

We know this from most visual illusions, right, optical illusions are playing off of the brain’s constant work to fill in gaps in between bits of data. We do it all the time. And some of this of what’s going on, this confabulation, may be leading to things like this. So, people should read the article if they have a deeper concern about how are brains are really bad. Honestly, they’re just bad.

John: Well, they’re designed to do very specific things and those specific things are not remember who starred in a movie about a genie back in the ‘90s. That’s not a thing they were designed to do. So, the writer of this article, Caitlin Aamodt, one of the phrases she uses which I’m sure is a phrase used in neuroscience is neurons that fire together wire together.

Craig: Right.

John: And so often, you know, rehearsing even a fact that something isn’t true strengthens the idea that it is true because those neurons have to work together. So, it was a really well done article, so we’ll put a link to that in the show notes.

My last bit of follow up is actually from 2011. So, on the blog I used to do this series called First Person where I talked about people’s experiences in Hollywood that were different than mine. And one of those people was Allison Schroeder. And I had not realized that this article even existed until one of our listeners pointed it out. So, Allison Schroeder, back in 2011 she was a new screenwriter. In 2017, she is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Hidden Figures. So, in this article she wrote for me she talked about her experience coming up. And what’s great about it is it’s still completely relevant. She’s talking about the work she’s doing every day. So, I’ll put a link in the show notes to this, an article from six years ago by Allison Schroeder who is now an Oscar nominee.

Craig: How cool is that?

John: It’s really cool. I really liked Hidden Figures, too. So, kudos to her on this success but also the success of her career.

Craig: You know who loved Hidden Figures? My daughter.

John: Yeah, my daughter loved it, too.

Craig: She loved that movie. Loved it.

John: So we saw Hidden Figures as a screener here, because it hasn’t come out in Paris, and we went and did the Women’s March, and so after the Women’s March we got together with some of her friends who were also on the march with us, and we sat in the living room and watched Hidden Figures. It was a great American day.

Craig: That is a great American day.

John: Cool. Let’s get to our main topic today, which is the WGA negotiations. So, this actually comes from a listener, a listener question that came in this week. Listener Mike B wrote in to say, “Do you guys plan on doing something on the current rounds of pre-negotiation outreach meetings that have been taking place for WGA members? A lot of my knowledge of union business comes from discussions that have occurred on your podcast, and I’m sure that’s true for many other listeners. So I ask that you give some consideration to addressing the situation on your show. Your opinions would be appreciated.”

So, Craig, we should do that.

Craig: Yeah. We have a very complicated process. It’s not complicated because the Writers Guild makes it complicated. And it’s not complicated because the companies make it complicated. It’s complicated because the process is essentially governed by federal law. I think a lot of writers don’t quite understand just how intrusive all the laws are regarding management and labor. Labor unions, and the Writers Guild, you know, we’re kind of a special union of a sort, but in general the Writers Guild is no different than any other union in the sense that it has to be federally recognized, federally chartered, and then it has to follow federal labor laws.

In exchange for that, it gets stuff, like for instance the ability to say we represent anybody that’s going to write for the following signatory companies. It can collectively bargain. And the companies in return have to follow certain rules as well. Sometimes these rules help us. Sometimes they hurt us. But they definitely shape the way that we go about doing this. It may seem very formal and awkward to members, but it is essentially the only way we’re allowed to do it.

John: Great. So, before we do our deep dive, we should talk about sort of our background and experience with this, because I was on the Negotiating Committee for the last round of WGA negotiations, so that was back in 2014, and Craig you were on the board at a certain point. You’ve been around these negotiations a lot. So the things we’re talking about, like we’re not on the Negotiating Committee right now, but we just have sort of seen a lot of these processes before. So we’re going to talk in a very general sense, not about what’s going on right now, but to sort of what’s gone in the past and the frameworks for things.

I think we should start with kind of an explain it like I’m five aspect of this, because if you’re not a WGA member, some of this may be just completely weird and new to you. So, we should talk about some basic terminology, just so if you’re coming in completely cold to this, you sort of know what’s going on.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, first off, the WGA is a labor union. It’s the same as a labor union for people who drive trucks, or for people who work in service industries. There are two different branches to the Writers Guild of America. There’s the WGA East, which is the writers east of the Mississippi. There’s the WGA West, which is west of the Mississippi. They’re sister unions. You can kind of ignore the differences for most things. And honestly for this negotiation you can ignore largely. You know, any negotiation that’s going to happen is going to affect both guilds at the same time.

Craig: Yeah. Even though there are two guilds, they by their constitutions have to negotiate this part collectively, because it covers screenwriting and television writing members in the east and the west. And because the west is much, much larger, for this negotiation, for all these negotiations throughout our history, the west essentially takes the lead on the negotiations. On the Negotiating Committee which is the, well, we’ll talk about what they do. There are a few members from the east, I think four, possibly two, not – not that many. And in the end both the Writers Guild Board of Directors and the Writers Guild East Council must vote to support bringing a contract to the membership. There are rules involving that that again favor the west. And then the combined memberships of east and west vote to approve a contact, or also to in different circumstances to reject a contact which I don’t think we’ve ever done, or to authorize a strike.

John: Yep. So we’re not the only Hollywood union, quite obviously. So there’s unions that represent directors, that represent actors, that represent gaffers, below the line people. Everybody – well, not everybody – but most of the people whose names you see going past in the credits are represented by some sort of union. Some of what writers do is a little bit different than other unions, of course. Writers write things that could be controlled by copyright. So, in the United States we have this elaborate process where if we’ve written something on spec we sort of then can pretend it wasn’t written on spec so that the copyright can be transferred to the person who is buying the script.

If you’re writing for a TV show, we have work for hire. So, it allows us to become employees of the signatory companies, which is very useful because it lets us do things like collectively bargain.

Craig: Right.

John: So, the Guild has a bunch of sort of important functions for writers. So, it sets the minimums. By minimums we mean the minimum you can be paid for doing a certain kind of work. And it seems like, well, who wants to get the minimum, but trust me, the rest of the world wishes they could have minimums. When I was in Spain a couple weeks ago, talking to their Writers Guild, they’re not a real union like we are. And so they’re not even allowed to talk about minimum rates for the work that they’re doing. Not only can they not negotiate. They can’t even discuss on their website what a writer should charge.

So, you know, as a writer, you would have an agent and a lawyer who would negotiate hopefully money above those minimums, but those minimums are the floor, and that’s the base of which your salary grows.

Craig: Yeah. Minimums traditionally have been more important in the television area than in the feature writing area. For a long time most feature writers, and probably still true that many feature writers, are what we call over-scale writers. So sometimes you’ll hear the word scale. That really just refers to minimum. Essentially the scale of minimums. Technically it’s the schedule of minimums. In television, the minimums have always been important because unlike features where our residuals are calculated by how many copies of a movie are sold or rented, in television residuals are calculated with a couple of different kinds of formulas that are based on the minimums.

Although one of the issues that has been coming up lately is that the minimums have become more and more what they are actually paying television writers. So, minimums are an essential part of any union’s work. They are the floor underneath our feet. And if anything occurs to degrade those minimums, then at that point the union starts to lose its effectiveness.

John: Absolutely. So other functions the Guild has. The Guild collects residuals. So residuals are those things we talked about on previous episodes. They kind of feel like royalties. That’s the amount per DVD sold, amount per stream of your show that the writer gets for subsequent reuse of that material, that TV show, that movie after its initial airing. That’s incredibly crucial to the long-term career of writers.

The Guild supervisors the writer’s pension and health fund, which is crucial for the ability to get your health insurance, to have a pension at the end of the day. And, finally, a very unique thing that the Writers Guild does, it determines credit on who should get credit for that movie, who should get credit for that episode of TV. And so we’ve talked in previous episodes about arbitration which is how the Writers Guild determines whose name shows up as Written By or Screenplay By.

Craig: Yeah. For our international listeners, they may be shaking their heads saying, “Wow, a huge part of your union is getting you healthcare, which you should just have.” Because those of us who live fill-in-the-country-here just have healthcare, like they just have roads and water coming out of their faucet. But in the United States, as many of you know, that’s not what we have. Even with Obamacare, which may or may not survive in some form or another, that is kind of basic healthcare. And even that, you know, is ultimately paid for through taxation.

But for what we would consider to be more traditional health plans that have a wider and more beneficial coverage with more choice, it’s a private healthcare system. The way it works it writers earn money and the companies as part of our collective bargaining agreement and on a percentage above that and send it off for pension and health. I believe, this could be slightly off, I believe it’s something like 8.5% at this point. But I could be off on those numbers, so don’t hold me to them. But for each pension/health.

So, John, if you work on an assignment and you get paid $100,000, you get the $100,000, the companies then send $8,500 for health and $8,500 for pension. They send those directly to the plan, if those percentages are correct. Again, I may be off. They don’t do that forever. They will stop. I believe the cap is at 250. So they will pay that extra amount up to you earning $250,000, what they call the cap, at which point they stop. But that’s essentially how our pension and health fund are funded.

The pension plan, like most pension plans, really does work as this enormous pod of money. We have – our pension plan has well over a billion dollars in it. And the idea is that it grows over time through prudent investments and that we – a lot of the money that we make from it really is about earning interest and capital gains. And so it is that kind of pyramid effect. That’s the way pensions work. With health, it’s far more precarious, because it’s really money-in/money-out each year. They take in a certain amount of money. And not every writer qualifies for healthcare. You have to earn a certain amount. I believe currently in our union you need to make a minimum of something like $39,000 in earnings, writing covered earnings, in a year to qualify for the following year’s health.

John: And one factor that is sort of unique to writers is that sometimes writers are sharing a salary because they’re a writing team, so that can influence people’s eligibility for healthcare and other things as well. But that gets to be a little more esoteric. So the money that’s being paid in, well, who’s paying that? Those are our employers. And those are the studios essentially. They’re the signatories of the Guild.

In order to work as a WGA screenwriter, you have to work for one of these companies. And these are the companies who we negotiate with every three years to figure out the contract and what those rates are going to be. So the rates for residuals, how much money is going to health and pension, how we are going to schedule the minimums for the different kinds of work we do. And so together all these signatories are called AMPTP. The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. These aren’t producers in a normal sense. It’s a little confusing. But we just call them the AMPTP.

And those are the people we get together with every three years to figure out a new contract. And that process of figuring out the new contract, that’s what’s starting right now.

Craig: Right. So, the AMPTP is a strange organization. It’s essentially, I think it’s a trade organization. And it doesn’t actually represent all of the signatories. It largely represents the major ones. And then the major ones return back to all of their minor members and say, “This is the deal we made. You’re taking it.”

So, we ultimately really find ourselves negotiating with a group of people that largely represent Fox, Sony, Disney, Warner Bros, Universal, Paramount, the networks. That’s roughly the big names.

John: Yep. So, I say that the process is starting now, but that’s actually not quite accurate, because the process of figuring out this contract starts years ahead of time. So, it really starts pretty shortly after the last contract was done. Our contracts run for three years, I should preface by saying.

So, the early discussions happen among writers. Generally kind of informal. But it’s private conversations, especially talking with showrunners, other sort of bigger writers to sort of get the temperature of the room to identify what the major concerns are. And to really see if there’s any changes in the landscape that the WGA needs to be focused on as they’re going into the negotiations.

So, I was on the Negotiating Committee for 2014. So some of the things we were hearing is that the change to shorter TV seasons was having a weird impact on writers. It really affected writers, especially for options and exclusivity, which is that if you are hired to be on a show, they will try to hold you under an option for a long period of time for that next season. Well, that wasn’t a big problem if you were on a 22-episode season. So basically you were working the full year. But if you’re working on a 10-episode or a 13-episode season, that was a long time you were being held under option. So that was a thing that was being singled out to us by writers in 2014.

On the feature side, we heard about sweepstakes pitching, where they were bringing a bunch of writers to pitch on a project that may not ever go anyplace. And paper teaming, where they would stick two different writers together who really were not a team, so they could hire them as one writing team for a television show. So those were some of the kinds of issues that were coming up during this early discussion phase of negotiations.

Craig: On the one hand, it would be very easy to negotiate a certain kind of union contract if everybody did the same kind of job in the same sort of place. You could just say, look, what it comes down to is we get paid $12 an hour to work on the line and we’d like to get paid $15 an hour to work on the line. Also, our lunch break is too short. Because we are essentially like freelance employees at the same time, these things come up all the time. And our business is changing so rapidly. We don’t have a factory that keeps doing the same thing. The delivery systems. The kinds of entertainment that we create. The length of the entertainment we create.

I mean, this – for instance, the miniseries that I’m talking about doing. That’s not really something that anybody was doing maybe 15 years ago. If you wanted to tell a story that required a five-hour series in five chunks, I don’t know. Nobody was doing that. That wasn’t a thing. Well, now they do it all the time.

John: Well, they used to do it sort of broadcast networks. Like Aline Brosh McKenna and I will one day do our Winds of War remake, which was a classic sort of miniseries. But I think what you’re describing though is sort of the prestige, The People vs. OJ Simpson, that kind of thing has not existed for a while. And it’s a new thing and it creates real challenges to figure out like what is the business model for writers for that kind of thing. It’s new territory.

Craig: It is new territory. I mean, there was a time when you and I were growing up where networks would make, television networks would make made-for-TV movies. And they would make television miniseries. But then there was a long stretch of time where both of those things went bye-bye completely. And then they start to come back because of new ways of delivering content to people. Similarly, for most of our lives, and for most people’s lives in the United States, television was dominated by the network model of 22 episodes a season. Whereas across the pond in the UK, their seasons were typically more like eight episode, or ten.

Well, we seem to now be moving towards that model because the network model of a season and that many episodes supported by advertising has essentially collapsed into something very, very different, which is a subscription based notion of watching. And we also have the emergence of major new content. I won’t say content creators, but content providers. Netflix and Amazon are two new outlets that are buying up an enormous amount of, well, you could call it TV if you want.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But some of it’s movies. Some of it’s TV. Some of it’s miniseries. What it really is it’s entertainment that you watch on your television. And all of this is putting enormous pressure on whatever the old models were. And our bargaining and our contract, all of it, it is a mature contract, it is all steeped deeply in the tradition of the time in which it was first conceived which was post-World War II America.

John: I love looking through the minimum basic agreement, which is the big contract that sort of shows like how much you get paid for different things and how everything works, because they’ll have these formats for different kinds of shows. Like no one makes that anymore. Like, you know, if it’s a half-hour show involving horses it has to have this kind of, like this is scale for it. There are really strange things that you can’t imagine are used that often, but they’re still in there from when those things were done more frequently.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, I would have to look it up, but the formula, I was talking about the TV residuals formula. And those residuals formula, there’s two kinds. And one of them I think is called the Hitchcock formula, because it’s based on old Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I think and one of them is Sanchez based on some television show that was maybe from the ‘70s. I mean, it is an old contract based in old, old stuff.

So, unsurprisingly, every single negotiation that we have been through since I would argue 2001 has been about trying to address these industry-breaking and contract-breaking developments that are occurring in our industry. I mean, 2001, that was really the first negotiation that earned us a residual rate for work that was rented over the Internet.

John: Yeah. Whole new things. So whenever there are changes you have to be really mindful of making sure that writers are being paid for those things, so that initial outreach is basically to identify those things.

The second stage is survey. So they basically survey the membership to ask, hey, what’s going on? Are you experiencing these things? Basically trying to get some quantifiable data to match up with the anecdotal data they’re getting from these early discussions. It’s mostly for planning. Basically trying to identify what are the big key issues here that writers are concerned about, that it’s not just like those three guys over there that have this problem, but it actually is a bigger issue for more writers.

So, those surveys happen. And then there’s sort of really internal meetings where they quietly sort of talk through what the priorities are, what the strategy should be, what do they think they want to do in this round of negotiations. That’s where the Writers Guild board, but also the Writers Guild Negotiating Committee, which is a separate group, figure out what their plan is for going into the negotiation.

Craig: Yeah. And it is all done in a sort of vacuum. Until they start to talk to the membership at large, they are doing a strange dance internally. And it’s really the only way they can. They look at the landscape. They look at what they know. And they decide this is what we should do. And that is coupled with a creation of a message. This is why we should do what we should do. And this is why our membership should support us in our efforts to do what we should do.

John: It has an aspect of a campaign. Basically you’re testing some messages, you’re testing to see what is it that we think we want to try to do here. And, you know, in this pattern of demands and in these sort of initial outreach meetings to showrunners and to other members of writing staffs and to individual writers, they’re trying to get a sense of like does this accurately reflect your concerns as we do into this negotiation. And that’s the end of a long process, but it continues throughout the process of these outreach meetings.

Craig: Yeah. And the name of the game, really, for all of these things is to balance yourself where you feel like you have enough of a message where you can get the membership to support you fully. And fully means and if you come back to them and say they’re not giving you the things that we all agree we should get, we should walk? Right? So there’s the strike threat. You need that, but you also need to come up with a message that doesn’t feel like essentially you’re saying there’s no way out for us, we have no options here, all we can do is strike. You don’t want to come up with a message that feels out of touch with the membership, that either feels like it’s underserving the membership or vastly too aggressive. It’s a very tricky thing. And it makes negotiating on behalf of a union very difficult because unlike most negotiations in business, where both parties are working privately and then facing across each other at a table, or similarly in politics where people work somewhat privately and then sit across the table, for unions a lot of this discussion leading up to things is public.

It’s open because union members have a right to freedom of speech, even within their own union. It’s specified in something called the Landrum-Griffin Act. And as a union leader, you’re walking a careful line because you don’t want to give away too much. If you’re bluffing, you don’t want to necessarily bluff both the membership and the companies, but sometimes it’s hard to bluff the companies if you can’t bluff your membership. Very difficult line to walk. It’s a hard gig to do.

John: We should also then now think about the other side of the table here. So, the AMPTP, they’re coming into a round of negotiations thinking like what are we prepared to give. What are we prepared to ask for? What do we want out of this negotiation? And they’re having their own meetings where they’re figuring this out as well. They’re taking their temperature among their members. They’re listening to see what’s happening on the writers’ side. And they’re trying to come up with an approach which will be their initial offer for like this is what we think the contract should be. And sometimes that offer is designed to send a certain message about how the negotiation is going to go.

Craig: Yeah. The actual dance that is done is highly formal. And you will hear people on both sides repeatedly refer to it as Kabuki Theater. Both sides will begin the negotiations the way perhaps two animals start their courtship dance. It’s very ritualized. And not surprisingly, so much of the ritual is that the union is asking for so much and the companies are insisting they can’t afford anything. And then once the dance is done, things get down to it.

I was on the Negotiating Committee in 2004. That certainly was going on then. And it’s gone on every time since. What are you looking for are those larger signals and we can talk about 2007 was clearly a different situation. We were sending a very different signal then. And certainly the response from the companies was a very clear signal as well. But traditionally in negotiations there’s a dance. There’s some more dancing. And then the work happens, often very rapidly and in a much smaller room. A room inside a room inside a room.

John: Absolutely. So, let me get you inside the room for 2014. The actual process of negotiations happens over a period, it was about two weeks in 2014. We were at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, like actually the shopping mall. So the AMPTP has a headquarters there and when the negotiations start there’s a room off to the left which is where the Writers Guild Negotiating Committee is headquartered and we are there and we are talking through stuff. There’s a room where the AMPTP, bigwigs and lawyers, are headquartered and they are talking.

And every once and a while they will say, OK, we’re going to get together. We will go into their room. We will make our points about a specific issue on the table. They will ask some questions. We will then leave the room and it will go through this process several times. That’s the Kabuki part of the whole thing.

But what Craig is referring to is a lot of the actual discussions and like the changes that happen happen in other conversations that are not the whole group, but just between a few key members going off someplace else to discuss through one specific point or a different point. Sometimes they’ll be asking for clarification. There’ll be give and take. And then our leaders will report back to the Negotiating Committee and we will proceed to the next part.

I wrote a whole script while I was in that Negotiating Committee room.

Craig: [laughs]

John: Because literally you’re in a room with a bunch of tables. You know, Susannah Grant is behind me and she’s typing away. I’m like, man, if she’s writing something, I got to get down to it. And so it’s a situation where it can be incredibly intense at moments. But then it can just be incredibly like lots of free time.

And so you can chew the fat with people, but you can also get work done. And I took it upon myself to get some work done. It was a really fascinating experience that I don’t necessarily want to repeat again really soon.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the truth is serving on the large Negotiating Committee, which I think is about 17 members, is thankless and the committee itself is required by our constitution. It is a formality. The truth is you could never negotiate anything with 17 people all in a big room asking questions and bickering amongst themselves because, of course, even within a group of 17 writers who are, let’s just stipulate that they’re all largely aligned. They won’t be completely aligned.

So, inevitably what happens is the larger Negotiating Committee is a group of writers who don’t get to do much and they don’t get to decide much. Really all they’re there to do is hear the reports back from the front lines, give their input, which matters or doesn’t, and then vote at the end.

John: Yeah. So I will say that part of our function of being there is that we tend to be sort of writers that they recognize, and so the reason why Susannah Grant was there, or I was there, or Shawn Ryan was there is like these are the people that they’re hiring all the time. So it was useful to have us on the other side of the table looking at them, just because we are – we can speak with some authority and occasionally like Shawn Ryan would speak about a specific issue that was related to his experience in television.

Me, I said nothing in that big room. The only thing I was there to do was in the writer’s side I could ask some questions about things that were going on that I felt weren’t clear.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But that was my function. My function was to be a body there. And I took that as my charge.

Craig: Well, you’re exactly right. That they do choose – I mean, this is a committee that’s appointed by the board, and it’s carefully curated. And the point of having people like you there is we are advertising to the companies that we have our best and brightest. We have our most rational. We are not stocking this committee with writers that they maybe think represent a certain class of employees that they simply could do without. We’re advertising that you can’t do without us because look who’s here.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But in the end, there are sidebars. And by the way, this is the same thing on their side, too. They have so many people. They have individuals representing each of the companies and then they have their lawyers and then they have their labor specialists. All these people. In the end, there are sidebars. And the sidebars typically take place between Carol Lombardini, who is the Chief Negotiator for the AMPTP, and a couple of her chief lieutenants. And then on our side, David Young, who is our Executive Director, and typically then one, two, or in this case we have three co-chairs of the Negotiating Committee. And this year it’s Billy Ray, Chris Keyser, and Chip Johannessen.

John: Yep. So, at the end of this process, which is very intentionally kept under a cone of silence, like no one reports out what’s happening inside this room. And that, I think, has been well maintained and I think it’s a really smart idea. But at the end of this process hopefully you come to a tentative agreement, which is a compromise that neither side is entirely happy with, but they are saying like this is the best we think we can do. And you go to membership. Then the membership votes on it and hopefully approves the contract and then you’re done. For now. And then three years later you’re going to be going through the whole process again.

Craig: That’s right. And while you’re doing this, there is a certain formal process going on on the parts that are not in sidebar. That’s why sidebar is so important in negotiations. When both sides are presenting their formal requests to each other, and when anybody says anything in the big room, all of it is carefully written down. And those notes are considered essentially evidentiary going forward. If somebody – let’s say David Young in the big room said we are willing to sacrifice blah-blah-blah if we can get so and so. That’s written down.

And they will say, “You said you were willing to…” That’s a thing now, right? So everybody is very careful about how they say what they say in that big room. And in the sidebar all the horse trading goes on and on. Those large room notes are also important because sometimes there’s a dispute after the deal is allegedly determined about what a certain deal point actually meant. And so both sides have their copious notes to be able to present to some kind of independent arbiter in the case of a dispute, or, you know, I think it may even go to the labor department if there’s a dispute.

And, for instance, we had something exactly like that at the conclusion of the 2007/2008 strike. And unfortunately what we thought we had gotten we had not. So, those can happen.

John: So, let’s circle back to where we’re at right now which Mike B’s question. We’re talking about the outreach meeting. So that’s sort of step three in the process. We’re not really into the negotiation yet. We’re still figuring stuff out. So the outreach meeting that Mike B went to, or that, Craig, you went to an outreach meeting last night.

Craig: That’s right.

John: These are chances for the guild leadership to talk with the members about what the plans are and also what the concerns are. And so that’s a good thing. So it’s good for Mike B to have gone. It’s good for Craig to go. If, you know, you’re another writer in the Writers Guild, it’s good for you to go just to sort of hear what is being discussed about the upcoming negotiation. So, Craig, I’m in Paris so I’m not hearing any of these discussions. But what I gleaned are sort of the important issues. The health fund is always going to be an issue because we have, again, we are in a system where we have this private health insurance and you have to keep it solvent, so that’s going to be crucial.

A lot of the concerns are TV concerns. Which seems weird in a way because this is clearly a boom time for television. There’s more TV shows. There’s more TV writers. There’s more TV income than before. But when you actual talk to individual writers, a lot of TV writers are struggling. And it has to do with this weird thing about how TV writers work is that they are writing TV shows and they are also producing TV shows. And they’re doing both jobs. But the Writers Guild portion of it, the WGA is responsible for the writing aspect of that. And writers are being paid minimums for that stuff. But those minimums that they’re being paid for, well that money is also being counted against their producing fees.

This may not be such a huge problem if you’re on a 22-episode season that’s lasting the whole year, but if you’re on one of these short shows, ten episodes, 13 episodes, sometimes you’re writing that episode months, and months, and months before you’re producing that episode. And you’re basically having to work as many weeks as if you were on a 22-episode season, but you’re only being paid for that short show. And that’s creating real issues for a lot of TV writers.

Craig: That’s right. And it seems like what’s really at stake here in this negotiation is an extension of the very issues that you and others were dealing with in our last negotiation, and dealt with somewhat successfully in 2014. And I think the great hope is that additional incremental gains can be made in this area. And this – these kinds of gains aren’t specifically about being paid more. Although, the guild will certainly ask for that, as well they should. And every cycle, I mean, so the DGA made their deal, and it’s a very typical deal where minimums are boosted either 2.5% or 3% on a year-to-year basis over the three years. But it seems like it’s more of an implementation and lifestyle problem where the companies are saying we’re going to pay you the minimums, but we are going to own you for a year and for a bunch of that year – and we’re going to spread that amount of money out over so much time of exclusivity that even if you’re not working for us, you’re not working for anyone else. So, effectively your payment, which would have once paid for four months say of your work is now going to pay for a year of your work. And while technically that’s not violating your minimums, it is essentially violating minimums.

Now, this as I pointed out in the meeting last night is a problem that screenwriters are far too familiar with. We’ve talked before about the pernicious abuse where – this is writers up and down, but really more the middle class and starting writers deal with this the most and in the most egregious way – you’ll be hired to write a screenplay and you will write a script and hand it to your producer. The producer will give you notes and say we can’t turn this in. You have to write it again. And you will maybe write seven or eight scripts. Seven or eight drafts of that script, just so you can send it in.

Meanwhile, if you’re being paid close to minimum, that’s a year of your life? A year and a half? For minimum. And so what does the minimum mean at that point? And so TV writers are now it seems dealing with this sort of stuff that feature writers have been dealing with forever. And so what happens as a result of this? Not only does this negatively impact individual writers, of course, but it also negatively impacts our pension and health fund because the fringes of pension/health are paid on what writers are paid. And if they are paid less frequently, P&H gets less money.

One thing that’s important to understand about pension and health is that it is not as simple as if you qualify, you get healthcare and the money that has been contributed on your behalf will cover your healthcare. It does not work that way. Not at all. The way our system works is we presume that a number of writers that qualify for healthcare are going to over-qualify. They’re going to earn much more, all the way up to that cap I described, the $250,000. Those are the people that are essentially subsidizing things for everybody else.

You may only take $39,000 to qualify for your healthcare, but on average the contributions that come out of that do not cover the typical writer’s year of health costs. So, the more writers we have moving towards the lower end of the scale, the harder and harder it is for pension and health to be solvent. And, of course, there’s also been this ongoing problem of how television writers are paid. On the screen side, it has been very frustrating for my entire career to watch as I pay 1.5% of dues on every dollar I make to the Guild and all of my money is pension and health contributable.

But on the writer’s side, we have showrunners who make millions and millions of dollars, the vast majority of which is paid out as producing fees. They don’t pay any dues on that money, because it’s not writing money. And none of it is what we’ll call fringe-able. None of it gets that P&H contribution. So, the Guild is trying to address these things. And, it is a real issue and they have all sorts of choices about how they’re going to try and get those things, but certainly it is a problem. Part of my function at the outreach meeting last night was to say, correct, hey also in screen we have issues, too. We have to be addressed.

John: Yeah. Agreed. And let’s take a look at the other side of the table, too, because we’re not the only one coming in with an agenda. So what is the AMPTP looking for as they’re going into this negotiation? Well, overall they’d like to keep things in line. They’d like to keep the industry running. They’d like to be able to keep making TV shows and movies. That’s crucial for them. That’s how they make their money.

They’d like to keep things in line with the other deals they’ve already made. So they’ve already made a DGA deal. They’re going to have to make a SAG deal with screen actors after our deal, so they’d like to keep those things consistent. So, you know, their goal is going to be to not go above 2.5% or 3% on those kinds of things that are so similar between the different contracts.

But there are things like these options and exclusivities which are kind of uniquely ours, and so that’s a thing they’ll be looking at too because they want to be able to keep making the best TV shows that we’ve ever made. And in order to keep doing that they’re going to have to be able to make this system sustainable. So, I think they’re going to be looking for ways to be able to keep doing the kind of stuff that they’re doing and not, you know, hopefully decimate a class of writers. They’ll hope.

Craig: Right. Well, they have a vastly different approach, as one might expect, to these negotiations. It’s quite typical that writers, directors, and actors will begin negotiations by pointing out how much money the companies are making off of the work that we do. And the companies typically will say, “Oh no, no, no, you don’t understand. Our business is on the edge of disaster.”

In truth, neither point is particularly relevant. No, of course their business isn’t on the edge of disaster. You and I have punctured this myth a hundred times. We did it a couple of weeks ago.

On the other hand, they are corporations. They exist to maximize profits, so the idea that somehow if they’re very profitable this is a problem for them, I mean, they love that, right? Their whole point is we take in as much as we can and we send out as little as we can. I think the things that they are always thinking about in the back of their minds is what is the benefit of labor peace, what is the value of labor peace, what is the cost of labor peace? Because in the end they do get hit by a strike. And they do suffer some costs for that.

So, they are constantly worried about that. Maybe not worried as much as they should be, or as much as we would hope they would be. But they are.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And I think they also in the back of their minds are concerned that they don’t create a situation whereby their ruthless pursuit of maximizing profit by minimizing labor costs doesn’t actually dilute and damage their labor pool to the point where they’re damaging their product.

John: Yeah. You look at sort of what’s been possible to happen in TV and in film over the last ten years and the profitability that it has been able to see, that comes from really talented people who are choosing to make this their livelihood. And if they can’t make a livelihood doing this, they go away. And then they’re sort of stuck.

Let’s talk about these concerns and sort of the fear and anxiety around it. Basically what should you tell your mom if she asks you about the WGA negotiations? And I think I would stress that this does feel different than 2014. Like 2014 I wasn’t hearing some of the same conversations. But then again 2014 was a really different year. And I think some of what I’m sensing is that we’re just in such a really strange place as a world right now. We have protests in the streets. We have talk of union busting and right to work laws that may be coming out of congress. And we have all this anxiety over healthcare which dovetails really closely to our own concerns about our health plan. So, I think it’s natural for us to feel some of this anxiety right now.

But I don’t think it’s useful to push that into real fear. Fear is useful for like ginning up action, but it can also lead to some sort of rushed and sort of bad decisions. And I think the reason why we wanted to talk this long explaining is that the process of negotiations isn’t rushed and hasty and sudden and spontaneous. It’s actually kind of planning. It’s a real process.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s normal I think for writers to be concerned about a strike. A strike is a scary thing. We don’t strike very often. We used to. The Writers Guild in the ‘70s and ‘80s struck constantly. And so it was a very unstable time and I think people probably did live in a constant state of some kind of fear. But since 1988, we’ve struck once. Came close in 2001. And that’s the balance that the Guild has to find. We never want the companies to feel like we are refusing to strike under any circumstances because ultimately that is the leverage we have.

On the other hand, I think the companies and at least a few people in the Guild understand that when we do strike, we are essentially pulling a pin on a grenade, hugging them close to us, and letting it explode. We get hurt, too.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So it’s not something that we’re looking forward to. Essentially a strike – when a strike occurs, it is an indication of a failed negotiation. So I agree with you, the panic and fear are essentially useless. And I hope very much that our negotiators are able to go in there, particularly because they’re – look, there is a deal. We know that there is a DGA deal. Right? There is a certain package and a certain amount.

My basic philosophy is that I hope they get more. They should not bring us back less. It’s pretty simple.

John: So let’s move on to some other questions that are not about the Writers Guild specifically.

Craig: Oh good.

John: Why don’t you start with Conner in Ireland?

Craig: So Conner in Ireland asks, “What do you do after you’ve finished a first draft, but before you start sending it off? Are there any particular things you do to make sure a script is as good as you can make it? Do you have a checklist of things that a character should be doing or saying? Do you map out the plot in each scene and make sure the drama is coming in peaks and troughs? Or, do you just make sure everything is spelled and formatted correctly and just send it out and wait for notes?”

John, what’s your post-flight checklist?

John: So I feel like we did an episode about last looks at a certain point. But it’s an evergreen question. My personal way of going through this is when I’m done with a script Godwin is the first person to read it. He makes sure that it actually makes sense. He checks for mistakes. I leave out words all the time. I’m terrible that way.

He’ll read it. Then I’ll read the same draft and when I say read it, I’ll literally print it out because sometimes I can only catch the mistakes on paper. And I’ll really just try to get a feel for like did I actually accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish? Because sometimes there will be a long period of time between that scene I wrote on page 20 and what I just finished up on page 96. And really make sure that it’s feeling like the same thing the whole time through. That I’m not making really some stupid choices. Or like sometimes I’ll create a character in two places that it’s not really quite the same character. I’ll be doing that kind of sort of idiot check, but I’m not going through to make sure is this scene meeting the character goal of this thing – am I hitting these peaks and valleys? It’s none of that stuff. Hopefully I’ve done my work in the process of writing it that it’s not going to have that sort of fundamental issue.

But I won’t know that until I have somebody else read it. Somebody who is out there in the world.

Craig, what’s your process?

Craig: Very similar. And I agree with you. At this point it’s too late to start asking questions like is this any good? Some people have different ways of approaching how they write things. Some people are much more loosey-goosey. I am very much a planner. So, there won’t be problems like that. However, I’ll forget about Jack who I have here, because she reads things for me the way Godwin reads for you. Let’s just talk about people that are just by themselves. That’s probably most of you. Read it out loud. That’s the best advice I can give you. Read the whole damn thing out loud. You don’t have to read the action stuff. Read the dialogue out loud. And hear and listen. Things will crop up. Little things that are easily fixed. You may sense suddenly that you’re bored. You may sense that you used the same word too frequently. You may sense that something doesn’t quite make sense.

And you’ll make little changes. And then read through the script carefully. And look for those little things. But don’t panic over small, I mean, I don’t think I’ve – typically I will have one mistake in a script. And I really carefully proofread it and I have somebody else, I have Jack who is proofreading for me as well. There will always be one. It’s not the end of the world. It really isn’t. You just don’t, I mean listen, don’t send in a script full of mistakes. That’s a disaster. But just read it out loud. It’s remarkable how much that will do for you.

John: I agree. Some writer, and maybe you’ll remember who this was, their advice was to remove page 17. That in any script you can take page 17 out, and maybe I’ve got the page number wrong, but there’s some sort of classic advice, there’s something early in the script that you just don’t actually need. I think it can be a useful exercise as you’re going through that first draft to just like take a random page out and say like do I really need this. And recognize that your script, even though it’s as good as you can possibly make it at that moment, it’s a flexible document. It can change. It doesn’t have to be – you shouldn’t expect it to be perfect right now. It just has to be the best version of this first draft it can be.

Craig: Writing screenplays is a function of balancing a dozen competing interests that are all functioning in different ways. That’s why we need to do multiple drafts. You fall into a trap if you either expect perfection on your first draft or believe you have attained perfection on your first draft. You have not.

So part of sending screenplays off is also adjusting your own expectations and not thinking so much in a fantasy-like way that what I’m going to do is send this script off and in return applause, tears of joy, and so forth. That’s just not how it works. You always have another draft. And so at some point, send it, just to see what happens.

John: Yeah. All right, that segues very nicely to our second question from Tobias in Sweden who writes, “I read this article on no film school,” we’ll put a link in the show notes, “that argues that instead of writing a story for a reader, newbie screenwriters are often mistakenly writing a movie for a producer. Instead of telling a story, they’re explaining a movie. Can you give some guidance on too much or too little scene description?” Craig, what is your take on this article?

Craig: [laughs] Well, this is an article written by Tom Long who is a screenplay consultant. And I promise that is not why I am annoyed at this article. I’m annoyed at this article because it makes no damn sense. It feels like somebody came up with a vague gimmick for an article and then wrote around in circles. This is what he says. “This is why you shouldn’t think of your screenplay as a movie. For non-established spec writers, a screenplay is a written story that if loved by enough industry folk can then lead to being setup at a studio and hopefully produced in a movie.”

I don’t know–

John: I want to stop right there. That was the point where I wanted to bail on the article.

Craig: What?

John: And so this sense that a script written by a newbie writer, a spec script, is a completely different thing than what you and I are doing is just not true. And that is a thing that has to be killed dead. A script is a script. A screenplay is a screenplay. It’s the same thing. And so the script that I write for Disney or that Karen writes for herself, they’re the same thing, and there’s no fundamental difference between those two things. The rules are not different for me or for Karen. It is the same process. It is the same words on the page. We’re all equal when it comes to those words on the page.

So, the idea that a spec script is a fundamentally different beast than the script that I’m turning into a studio is just wrong. And that’s where I fundamentally lost faith in this article. But I kept reading, so. [laughs]

Craig: That’s funny. So did I. So he goes on to say, “Yes, writers should be envisioning their screenplay as a movie, which means writing visually, externalizing actions and conflicts, and applying form and function. However, the story has to be fully executed on the page first.” What? Yeah. That’s what a screenplay is. What is he – what?

John: Some of what he’s saying does match up to things we say all the time. You have to be thinking visually. You have to be thinking about what is it going to feel like to experience this as a movie. So, that’s why I’m often saying don’t think about writing a script. You’re trying to write a movie. The goal is to make a movie.

Craig: Right.

John: But when he’s getting to – especially as he gets to his examples, I don’t think are selling his point very well. And I don’t think he has a clear logic behind the point. So, people who are listening through to this, you need to click through the article to see the two samples here, because they’re sort of like our Three Page Challenge samples. The little sections of things.

Craig: In reverse. [laughs]

John: Well, yeah. He sort of shows the early version of a scene that had too little scene description. And then like a second version which has much fuller scene description. And I will be generous in saying like if this was the first scene in a movie, then yes, I could see why the second thing would much better set up who the character is and what’s going on, but the second one if it was on page 90 is just completely overwritten for what that moment is. And so I think it’s a useful exercise for people to compare these two scenes, because the second one is – you know, if it’s the initial scene in a movie, I can see why it’s written that way, but it’s not how you would write most scenes in your film.

Craig: Correct. If the scene is in the middle of a movie, and it has to be, because the slug line is EXT. THE GRAVE – SECONDS LATER. So I’m going to just go out on a limb here and say we’re not opening a movie this way. So he says this, “It’s a spec script he consulted on.” And he says, “When I sat down with the screenwriter I explained that the scene confused me on many levels and that I senses there was supposed to be much more here that wasn’t being articulated.”

And so then that writer rewrote the scene per their discussion. If this in fact is a scene from the middle of the movie, I vastly prefer the writer’s original version. And I vastly prefer it because I feel something from it. It actually felt emotional because it was delivering a movie scene to me.

And the second one, I got bored. My god are there a lot of words here. Way too many words. It’s just overwritten. It’s purple. And overdone. And it turns what should be this kind of lovely little moment into a – I don’t know – boring. Boring. And this blows my mind. Blows my mind.

John: Yeah. So going back to the initial question that was asked. I think the amount of scene description is the appropriate amount of scene description for what the scene actually is and where it’s functioning in your script. And so it’s absolutely true that earlier scenes in your script tend to be a little bit denser and fuller because you’re setting up the world, you’re setting up the tone, there’s a lot more stuff to them.

They get a little bit leaner in general as you sort of go through the script. That’s fine. That’s good. I say you got to be thinking about you’re writing a movie and you’re writing a movie that is, yes, a literary document that’s going to be carrying the feeling of the movie. So therefore you do have to do the work to pick exactly the right word in the scene description. But that doesn’t mean you have to write reams of scene description to get that point across.

Craig: Look, I don’t really know what he’s trying to say here. God’s honest truth. I don’t know what this title means: Avoiding a Screenwriting Trap: Tell a Story Instead of Explaining Your Movie. I don’t know what he means by “this is why you shouldn’t think of your screenplay as a movie.” I don’t know why he’s assigning certain kinds of writing to writing a screenplay as opposed to a movie. It’s all the same to me.

I think you and I have the same experience. I just feel like this is just a bad article that misunderstands how we do what we do. And I think the lessons in it are questionable. So, to sum up, don’t read this.

John: [laughs] I think you should read it just to know what we’re actually talking about.

Craig: All right.

John: But don’t take it to heart.

Craig: Don’t take it to heart. Fair enough. Don’t take it to heart. Exactly.

John: All right, it’s come time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Greece. So this last week was French Ski Week, so I was on vacation. We went to Greece, sort of last minute decision. Like, you know what, let’s go to Athens and see ancient things. And for whatever reason, Greece was not high on my list and I think it was because I thought like, you know what, Greece is going to be a hassle. And I got this idea in my head like it’s Greece, it’s sort of hard to get there, you can’t take trains there. It obviously had economic crisis. I don’t speak Greek. It seemed like it was going to be a lot of hassle.

And I don’t know why. I was just so wrong. And so I would just encourage people to go see Greece because I really loved it. We spent some time in Athens. Saw the Acropolis. The Parthenon. All amazing. Then we went up to Delphi to see the ruins of the Oracle, the Temple of Apollo there, which was incredible, too.

People in Greece are really cool. Their economy is basically built on tourism, so they’re really good at it. I just really liked it. And so I’d encourage people if you’re headed over the European direction, go to Greece, because Greece was so much better than I was expecting. And really worth it, especially if you have any interest in sort of how civilization with democracy and really crucial aspects of our culture started. Greece is the center of it all.

Craig: Grease is the word.

John: It is the word. No, it’s spelled differently. Sorry.

Craig: Yeah. I was hoping that you were going to be talking about the musical Grease, then I was hoping that you would talk about just the all-purpose lubricant. But I’m happy that you talked about the country because, you know what, they gave us Steve Zissis.

John: Nothing better than Steve Zissis.

Craig: Nothing better.

John: And the new little Zissis of the world. It’s all good.

Craig: Mini-Ziss.

John: Mini-Ziss.

Craig: My One Cool Thing is one creepy thing but one very cool thing. There is a series of games available for the iPad/iPhone. Again, maybe for Android, but we don’t give a damn about Android. And it’s called Fran Bow. Fran like the girl’s name, and Bow. B-O-W.

And the story is released in chapters. Each chapter is its own game. I think two bucks a game, two bucks a chapter. Fascinating game. Really cool. Very simple controls. You are investigating your world around you and you’re picking up items and manipulating them to solve puzzles. What makes this game fascinating, it is the darkest thing. You play this little girl. She is sweet and so innocent. And she constantly asks sweet and innocent questions of the world around her. Her parents have bloodily butchered. And by the way, this is not a game for children. This is 17 plus all the way.

And she has now been committed to a mental hospital for observation. And they give her pills. And one of the main game mechanics is when she takes one of these pills, the world transforms into this horror show. An absolute horror show. It is disturbing. It is visually gorgeous. The game play itself is the least important part of it. It really is just experiencing the remarkable creepiness of this game. I love it. Fran Bow. Check it out.

John: Well done. So, while you’re on your long flight to Greece, you can play Fran Bow. And you’ll see the glorious wonders of ancient world and the wonders of the iPad. Well done.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s our show for this week. So, as always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Kristian Gotthelf.

Craig: Gotthelf.

John: If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you send longer questions like the ones we answered today. On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Send us your short questions there. That’s always delightful.

We are on Facebook. I do occasionally check the Facebook page, so find us there. Like us. Liking us does something. I don’t know what.

Even more useful though is if you give us a nice review and some five stars on iTunes, because that helps people find the show through iTunes. We are on iTunes. We’re also on Google Play. We’re other places, too, but iTunes is sort of the main catalogue of things.

People often think that iTunes delivers podcasts the same way that people – like you download a song from items. You don’t download podcasts from iTunes. It’s just a catalog. It’s just a bunch of RSS feeds.

Craig: It’s a directory.

John: It’s like old Yahoo! That’s what it’s sort of like.

Craig: Oh my god. I remember when Yahoo! was just a vertical list of websites.

John: Amazing.

Craig: That’s how old I am.

John: Yeah. My daughter has no sense of what the Internet used to be. I mean, she’s never lived in a time without the Internet, and so just like, well yes, everything was always there whenever you wanted it. We had a situation in Paris where our power went out in our apartment. And so I’m trying to find the fuse box and she comes in and she says, “The Wi-Fi is out, too.” I’m like, well of course the Wi-Fi is out. There’s no power. But it hadn’t occurred to her that like without power we don’t have Internet. And so like, oh no. The worst.

Craig: She thought it was more like, well, the power is out. And the water isn’t working.

John: [laughs] Oh my. So, if your Internet is restored and the Wi-Fi is back up–

Craig: Segue Man.

John: You can come visit at johnaugust.com. That’s where you’ll find the show notes for this week’s episode and all the back episodes. You’ll also find the transcripts for previous episodes. They go up about four days after an episode posts. And you can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net. That’s right now the only place where you can find all those back episodes. There’s talk of future USB drives, but at the moment there are none of them, so that’s where you can find them. It’s $2 a month for all the back episodes, the special episodes.

Craig: Come on.

John: The Aline Brosh McKenna specials. Aline was gracious enough to live tweet our most recent episode, so maybe she’ll do that for this one, too. She won’t. She won’t do it.

Craig: You know what happened last night at this screenwriter outreach meeting?

John: Tell me all about it.

Craig: When I got up to speak, [laughs], a woman said, “Sexy Craig.”

John: [laughs] Oh no!

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s so inappropriate.

Craig: No, it was amazing. So I think it’s been so long. I think next week – I’m not going to drop him on you now – but next week Sexy Craig is going to have something to say.

John: Ugh. So a reason enough to tune in or not tune in. Reason enough for me to bring in a guest host for next week to avoid or to have some Sexy Craig.

Craig: You can’t, man. Can’t avoid me. I’m with you.

John: Ugh. Everyone have a great week. We’ll see you next week. Bye.

Craig: Thanks.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 289: WGA Negotiations 101 — Transcript

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 08:13

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, with the WGA negotiations set to begin, we’ll be doing a deep dive looking at how the Writers Guild attempts to make a deal with the studios on behalf of film and TV writers. Then we’ll be answering listener questions about writing for producers versus writing for the audience. And last steps when finishing up a script. But first, and most importantly, Craig, I am so sorry I got you sick.

Craig: Yeah, you got me sick. I’m pretty sure that you put your virus into the microphone and it came out into my headphones. I don’t know any other explanation.

John: Yeah. It’s sort of magical. Basically because of the power of homeopathy, I put it out there in the world and it got all the way over to you. Like the atoms sort of vibrated all the way over there.

Craig: Right.

John: But I’m sorry you’re sick. So, on the last episode we were talking about do you try to push through, do you take care of yourself? What are you actually doing?

Craig: Well, what did I say last time? I said that I never learn. [laughs] Well, I still haven’t learned. It doesn’t even matter that I say I never learn. I still don’t learn. Yesterday, I wrote a little bit. Today I’m going to try again. I mean, I’m a little bit – I have some good news, by the way. So, I think I mentioned a couple of podcasts ago that Future Craig might have some good news.

John: All right.

Craig: And I’m not really going to talk about what it is yet, because I don’t know how that works. You know, I don’t want to jump any publicity guns. But in addition to the movies that I’m working on, I do have a miniseries at HBO that we’re going to be doing. We got our–

John: Well that’s great.

Craig: Yeah. So that’s happening. But, of course, all success with me brings a panic. So I’m a little panicked about getting the work I have to get done done. And doing it as best I can. So, the panic actually is probably what led in no small way to a depression of the immune system followed by a sickness. It’s no good. But I’m going to try today. I feel – it’s early sick days, so what I feel is that empty fatigue and vague queasiness.

John: Well, there’s also an anxiety of like is it going to stay this level, or is it going to get worse? And you really don’t know when you’re at this phase. Like, is this what it is? Is it going to pass by? Or is it going to become a full-on sickness? For me it became a full-on sickness. But I’ve had many situations where I’m sort of where you’re at. And it never really fully kicked in.

Craig: Well, I have taken 4,000 Oscillococcinum pills.

John: That should do it.

Craig: Yeah. So I have diabetes now. Because of the sugar. And also I think at this point I’ve probably worked my way all the way up to one-millionth of one molecule of useless duck liver. Feel good about it.

John: That’s good. Do it. Yes.

Let’s do some follow up. So, on our last episode we talked about Kellyanne Conway’s amazing skills at being able to get out of questions. There was another great explainer this past week by Carlos Maza for Vox. So it’s a video. I will put a link in the show notes. But it does a very good job sort of walking through sort of specifically how she’s getting out of some of the situations she’s trying to get into.

Of course, last week we talked about Kellyanne Conway and then like the day the episode came out she had a total fumble and could not get her way out of a seemingly pretty simple situation. So, no one is magic. No sports player does sports 100 percent all the time.

Craig: Oh, John, that was adorable. [laughs] No sports player does sports. You’re the best. By the way, I agree that this Carlos Maza thing is terrific. And something came out – he was interviewing an old classmate of his who is a national debate champion about the techniques that Kellyanne Conway uses. And he zeroed in on something that was sort of an addition to what we were saying. We were pointing out how she will – like the name of her game is to make her evasion as quick as she can, and then immediately go on the offense to make her point.

And he said the same thing, but what he picked on was something I hadn’t really thought about. In her little evasion section, she routinely will pick a key word from the question and she will then recontextualize that key word so that you feel like you have some weird sense that she’s responding to the question. And then she goes off on her tangent.

So if somebody says to her, “Why would the president say something that just patently isn’t true? We know that it’s not the fact that blah-blah-blah.” And she’ll say, “Well, what I know about facts is, or here’s what I know is true…” OK, that’s just a word that she’s linking to make it seem like she’s answering a question. And then she’s off and running in the other direction.

I wonder if part of the reason she’s starting to get trapped now is because people like this and articles like this are laying bare her tricks for everyone. At some point, once you know how they pull the rabbit out of the hat, or how the sports guy does his sports thing, it’s just not that impressive anymore.

John: We can check the transcript. I do think I brought that up last time when we were talking about Kellyanne Conway. But what’s so good about a video is that they can show you sort of the real time transcript of like here’s the word and here’s her repeating the word. Like that subtitle, that [unintelligible] at the bottom of the screen really does help you see sort of what she’s doing. And it’s a trick you can’t do endlessly. You start to recognize how it all fits together.

So, anyway, we recommend this video. A few episodes we talked about Sinbad starring in a movie called Shazam. That movie never existed. And there was a whole discussion about whether this is some sort of weird metaphysical thing that’s happening. Craig really focused on the neuroscience of it. And an actual neuroscientist really backed him up in this article that I thought was very well conceived, basically talking through a lot of what Craig described about it. The things that trigger in the brain for a memory are often sort of the same things that you’re thinking about in conjecture.

So, Craig, talk us through more of the science in this article.

Craig: Well, yeah, I remember specifically we were learning about the concept of familiarity. And that there was essentially a cognitive algorithm in our minds that said, oh, this is a familiar thing. So that when we see something we’ve seen before, we know that we’ve seen it before. And that that sometimes could misfire and this leads to thinks like déjà vu. And really that’s kind of what’s going on if you think about it with these kinds of false memories of a movie. You’re having déjà vu in a sense.

There’s all sorts of deeper – far deeper – theories about this. And people should read the article, because it’s actually quite good. And really there’s a lot of conjecture here. But it really comes down to the concept of confabulation and the way that the brain is constantly filling in missing gaps of information.

We know this from most visual illusions, right, optical illusions are playing off of the brain’s constant work to fill in gaps in between bits of data. We do it all the time. And some of this of what’s going on, this confabulation, may be leading to things like this. So, people should read the article if they have a deeper concern about how are brains are really bad. Honestly, they’re just bad.

John: Well, they’re designed to do very specific things and those specific things are not remember who starred in a movie about a genie back in the ‘90s. That’s not a thing they were designed to do. So, the writer of this article, Caitlin Aamodt, one of the phrases she uses which I’m sure is a phrase used in neuroscience is neurons that fire together wire together.

Craig: Right.

John: And so often, you know, rehearsing even a fact that something isn’t true strengthens the idea that it is true because those neurons have to work together. So, it was a really well done article, so we’ll put a link to that in the show notes.

My last bit of follow up is actually from 2011. So, on the blog I used to do this series called First Person where I talked about people’s experiences in Hollywood that were different than mine. And one of those people was Allison Schroeder. And I had not realized that this article even existed until one of our listeners pointed it out. So, Allison Schroeder, back in 2011 she was a new screenwriter. In 2017, she is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Hidden Figures. So, in this article she wrote for me she talked about her experience coming up. And what’s great about it is it’s still completely relevant. She’s talking about the work she’s doing every day. So, I’ll put a link in the show notes to this, an article from six years ago by Allison Schroeder who is now an Oscar nominee.

Craig: How cool is that?

John: It’s really cool. I really liked Hidden Figures, too. So, kudos to her on this success but also the success of her career.

Craig: You know who loved Hidden Figures? My daughter.

John: Yeah, my daughter loved it, too.

Craig: She loved that movie. Loved it.

John: So we saw Hidden Figures as a screener here, because it hasn’t come out in Paris, and we went and did the Women’s March, and so after the Women’s March we got together with some of her friends who were also on the march with us, and we sat in the living room and watched Hidden Figures. It was a great American day.

Craig: That is a great American day.

John: Cool. Let’s get to our main topic today, which is the WGA negotiations. So, this actually comes from a listener, a listener question that came in this week. Listener Mike B wrote in to say, “Do you guys plan on doing something on the current rounds of pre-negotiation outreach meetings that have been taking place for WGA members? A lot of my knowledge of union business comes from discussions that have occurred on your podcast, and I’m sure that’s true for many other listeners. So I ask that you give some consideration to addressing the situation on your show. Your opinions would be appreciated.”

So, Craig, we should do that.

Craig: Yeah. We have a very complicated process. It’s not complicated because the Writers Guild makes it complicated. And it’s not complicated because the companies make it complicated. It’s complicated because the process is essentially governed by federal law. I think a lot of writers don’t quite understand just how intrusive all the laws are regarding management and labor. Labor unions, and the Writers Guild, you know, we’re kind of a special union of a sort, but in general the Writers Guild is no different than any other union in the sense that it has to be federally recognized, federally chartered, and then it has to follow federal labor laws.

In exchange for that, it gets stuff, like for instance the ability to say we represent anybody that’s going to write for the following signatory companies. It can collectively bargain. And the companies in return have to follow certain rules as well. Sometimes these rules help us. Sometimes they hurt us. But they definitely shape the way that we go about doing this. It may seem very formal and awkward to members, but it is essentially the only way we’re allowed to do it.

John: Great. So, before we do our deep dive, we should talk about sort of our background and experience with this, because I was on the Negotiating Committee for the last round of WGA negotiations, so that was back in 2014, and Craig you were on the board at a certain point. You’ve been around these negotiations a lot. So the things we’re talking about, like we’re not on the Negotiating Committee right now, but we just have sort of seen a lot of these processes before. So we’re going to talk in a very general sense, not about what’s going on right now, but to sort of what’s gone in the past and the frameworks for things.

I think we should start with kind of an explain it like I’m five aspect of this, because if you’re not a WGA member, some of this may be just completely weird and new to you. So, we should talk about some basic terminology, just so if you’re coming in completely cold to this, you sort of know what’s going on.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, first off, the WGA is a labor union. It’s the same as a labor union for people who drive trucks, or for people who work in service industries. There are two different branches to the Writers Guild of America. There’s the WGA East, which is the writers east of the Mississippi. There’s the WGA West, which is west of the Mississippi. They’re sister unions. You can kind of ignore the differences for most things. And honestly for this negotiation you can ignore largely. You know, any negotiation that’s going to happen is going to affect both guilds at the same time.

Craig: Yeah. Even though there are two guilds, they by their constitutions have to negotiate this part collectively, because it covers screenwriting and television writing members in the east and the west. And because the west is much, much larger, for this negotiation, for all these negotiations throughout our history, the west essentially takes the lead on the negotiations. On the Negotiating Committee which is the, well, we’ll talk about what they do. There are a few members from the east, I think four, possibly two, not – not that many. And in the end both the Writers Guild Board of Directors and the Writers Guild East Council must vote to support bringing a contract to the membership. There are rules involving that that again favor the west. And then the combined memberships of east and west vote to approve a contact, or also to in different circumstances to reject a contact which I don’t think we’ve ever done, or to authorize a strike.

John: Yep. So we’re not the only Hollywood union, quite obviously. So there’s unions that represent directors, that represent actors, that represent gaffers, below the line people. Everybody – well, not everybody – but most of the people whose names you see going past in the credits are represented by some sort of union. Some of what writers do is a little bit different than other unions, of course. Writers write things that could be controlled by copyright. So, in the United States we have this elaborate process where if we’ve written something on spec we sort of then can pretend it wasn’t written on spec so that the copyright can be transferred to the person who is buying the script.

If you’re writing for a TV show, we have work for hire. So, it allows us to become employees of the signatory companies, which is very useful because it lets us do things like collectively bargain.

Craig: Right.

John: So, the Guild has a bunch of sort of important functions for writers. So, it sets the minimums. By minimums we mean the minimum you can be paid for doing a certain kind of work. And it seems like, well, who wants to get the minimum, but trust me, the rest of the world wishes they could have minimums. When I was in Spain a couple weeks ago, talking to their Writers Guild, they’re not a real union like we are. And so they’re not even allowed to talk about minimum rates for the work that they’re doing. Not only can they not negotiate. They can’t even discuss on their website what a writer should charge.

So, you know, as a writer, you would have an agent and a lawyer who would negotiate hopefully money above those minimums, but those minimums are the floor, and that’s the base of which your salary grows.

Craig: Yeah. Minimums traditionally have been more important in the television area than in the feature writing area. For a long time most feature writers, and probably still true that many feature writers, are what we call over-scale writers. So sometimes you’ll hear the word scale. That really just refers to minimum. Essentially the scale of minimums. Technically it’s the schedule of minimums. In television, the minimums have always been important because unlike features where our residuals are calculated by how many copies of a movie are sold or rented, in television residuals are calculated with a couple of different kinds of formulas that are based on the minimums.

Although one of the issues that has been coming up lately is that the minimums have become more and more what they are actually paying television writers. So, minimums are an essential part of any union’s work. They are the floor underneath our feet. And if anything occurs to degrade those minimums, then at that point the union starts to lose its effectiveness.

John: Absolutely. So other functions the Guild has. The Guild collects residuals. So residuals are those things we talked about on previous episodes. They kind of feel like royalties. That’s the amount per DVD sold, amount per stream of your show that the writer gets for subsequent reuse of that material, that TV show, that movie after its initial airing. That’s incredibly crucial to the long-term career of writers.

The Guild supervisors the writer’s pension and health fund, which is crucial for the ability to get your health insurance, to have a pension at the end of the day. And, finally, a very unique thing that the Writers Guild does, it determines credit on who should get credit for that movie, who should get credit for that episode of TV. And so we’ve talked in previous episodes about arbitration which is how the Writers Guild determines whose name shows up as Written By or Screenplay By.

Craig: Yeah. For our international listeners, they may be shaking their heads saying, “Wow, a huge part of your union is getting you healthcare, which you should just have.” Because those of us who live fill-in-the-country-here just have healthcare, like they just have roads and water coming out of their faucet. But in the United States, as many of you know, that’s not what we have. Even with Obamacare, which may or may not survive in some form or another, that is kind of basic healthcare. And even that, you know, is ultimately paid for through taxation.

But for what we would consider to be more traditional health plans that have a wider and more beneficial coverage with more choice, it’s a private healthcare system. The way it works it writers earn money and the companies as part of our collective bargaining agreement and on a percentage above that and send it off for pension and health. I believe, this could be slightly off, I believe it’s something like 8.5% at this point. But I could be off on those numbers, so don’t hold me to them. But for each pension/health.

So, John, if you work on an assignment and you get paid $100,000, you get the $100,000, the companies then send $8,500 for health and $8,500 for pension. They send those directly to the plan, if those percentages are correct. Again, I may be off. They don’t do that forever. They will stop. I believe the cap is at 250. So they will pay that extra amount up to you earning $250,000, what they call the cap, at which point they stop. But that’s essentially how our pension and health fund are funded.

The pension plan, like most pension plans, really does work as this enormous pod of money. We have – our pension plan has well over a billion dollars in it. And the idea is that it grows over time through prudent investments and that we – a lot of the money that we make from it really is about earning interest and capital gains. And so it is that kind of pyramid effect. That’s the way pensions work. With health, it’s far more precarious, because it’s really money-in/money-out each year. They take in a certain amount of money. And not every writer qualifies for healthcare. You have to earn a certain amount. I believe currently in our union you need to make a minimum of something like $39,000 in earnings, writing covered earnings, in a year to qualify for the following year’s health.

John: And one factor that is sort of unique to writers is that sometimes writers are sharing a salary because they’re a writing team, so that can influence people’s eligibility for healthcare and other things as well. But that gets to be a little more esoteric. So the money that’s being paid in, well, who’s paying that? Those are our employers. And those are the studios essentially. They’re the signatories of the Guild.

In order to work as a WGA screenwriter, you have to work for one of these companies. And these are the companies who we negotiate with every three years to figure out the contract and what those rates are going to be. So the rates for residuals, how much money is going to health and pension, how we are going to schedule the minimums for the different kinds of work we do. And so together all these signatories are called AMPTP. The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. These aren’t producers in a normal sense. It’s a little confusing. But we just call them the AMPTP.

And those are the people we get together with every three years to figure out a new contract. And that process of figuring out the new contract, that’s what’s starting right now.

Craig: Right. So, the AMPTP is a strange organization. It’s essentially, I think it’s a trade organization. And it doesn’t actually represent all of the signatories. It largely represents the major ones. And then the major ones return back to all of their minor members and say, “This is the deal we made. You’re taking it.”

So, we ultimately really find ourselves negotiating with a group of people that largely represent Fox, Sony, Disney, Warner Bros, Universal, Paramount, the networks. That’s roughly the big names.

John: Yep. So, I say that the process is starting now, but that’s actually not quite accurate, because the process of figuring out this contract starts years ahead of time. So, it really starts pretty shortly after the last contract was done. Our contracts run for three years, I should preface by saying.

So, the early discussions happen among writers. Generally kind of informal. But it’s private conversations, especially talking with showrunners, other sort of bigger writers to sort of get the temperature of the room to identify what the major concerns are. And to really see if there’s any changes in the landscape that the WGA needs to be focused on as they’re going into the negotiations.

So, I was on the Negotiating Committee for 2014. So some of the things we were hearing is that the change to shorter TV seasons was having a weird impact on writers. It really affected writers, especially for options and exclusivity, which is that if you are hired to be on a show, they will try to hold you under an option for a long period of time for that next season. Well, that wasn’t a big problem if you were on a 22-episode season. So basically you were working the full year. But if you’re working on a 10-episode or a 13-episode season, that was a long time you were being held under option. So that was a thing that was being singled out to us by writers in 2014.

On the feature side, we heard about sweepstakes pitching, where they were bringing a bunch of writers to pitch on a project that may not ever go anyplace. And paper teaming, where they would stick two different writers together who really were not a team, so they could hire them as one writing team for a television show. So those were some of the kinds of issues that were coming up during this early discussion phase of negotiations.

Craig: On the one hand, it would be very easy to negotiate a certain kind of union contract if everybody did the same kind of job in the same sort of place. You could just say, look, what it comes down to is we get paid $12 an hour to work on the line and we’d like to get paid $15 an hour to work on the line. Also, our lunch break is too short. Because we are essentially like freelance employees at the same time, these things come up all the time. And our business is changing so rapidly. We don’t have a factory that keeps doing the same thing. The delivery systems. The kinds of entertainment that we create. The length of the entertainment we create.

I mean, this – for instance, the miniseries that I’m talking about doing. That’s not really something that anybody was doing maybe 15 years ago. If you wanted to tell a story that required a five-hour series in five chunks, I don’t know. Nobody was doing that. That wasn’t a thing. Well, now they do it all the time.

John: Well, they used to do it sort of broadcast networks. Like Aline Brosh McKenna and I will one day do our Winds of War remake, which was a classic sort of miniseries. But I think what you’re describing though is sort of the prestige, The People vs. OJ Simpson, that kind of thing has not existed for a while. And it’s a new thing and it creates real challenges to figure out like what is the business model for writers for that kind of thing. It’s new territory.

Craig: It is new territory. I mean, there was a time when you and I were growing up where networks would make, television networks would make made-for-TV movies. And they would make television miniseries. But then there was a long stretch of time where both of those things went bye-bye completely. And then they start to come back because of new ways of delivering content to people. Similarly, for most of our lives, and for most people’s lives in the United States, television was dominated by the network model of 22 episodes a season. Whereas across the pond in the UK, their seasons were typically more like eight episode, or ten.

Well, we seem to now be moving towards that model because the network model of a season and that many episodes supported by advertising has essentially collapsed into something very, very different, which is a subscription based notion of watching. And we also have the emergence of major new content. I won’t say content creators, but content providers. Netflix and Amazon are two new outlets that are buying up an enormous amount of, well, you could call it TV if you want.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But some of it’s movies. Some of it’s TV. Some of it’s miniseries. What it really is it’s entertainment that you watch on your television. And all of this is putting enormous pressure on whatever the old models were. And our bargaining and our contract, all of it, it is a mature contract, it is all steeped deeply in the tradition of the time in which it was first conceived which was post-World War II America.

John: I love looking through the minimum basic agreement, which is the big contract that sort of shows like how much you get paid for different things and how everything works, because they’ll have these formats for different kinds of shows. Like no one makes that anymore. Like, you know, if it’s a half-hour show involving horses it has to have this kind of, like this is scale for it. There are really strange things that you can’t imagine are used that often, but they’re still in there from when those things were done more frequently.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, I would have to look it up, but the formula, I was talking about the TV residuals formula. And those residuals formula, there’s two kinds. And one of them I think is called the Hitchcock formula, because it’s based on old Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I think and one of them is Sanchez based on some television show that was maybe from the ‘70s. I mean, it is an old contract based in old, old stuff.

So, unsurprisingly, every single negotiation that we have been through since I would argue 2001 has been about trying to address these industry-breaking and contract-breaking developments that are occurring in our industry. I mean, 2001, that was really the first negotiation that earned us a residual rate for work that was rented over the Internet.

John: Yeah. Whole new things. So whenever there are changes you have to be really mindful of making sure that writers are being paid for those things, so that initial outreach is basically to identify those things.

The second stage is survey. So they basically survey the membership to ask, hey, what’s going on? Are you experiencing these things? Basically trying to get some quantifiable data to match up with the anecdotal data they’re getting from these early discussions. It’s mostly for planning. Basically trying to identify what are the big key issues here that writers are concerned about, that it’s not just like those three guys over there that have this problem, but it actually is a bigger issue for more writers.

So, those surveys happen. And then there’s sort of really internal meetings where they quietly sort of talk through what the priorities are, what the strategy should be, what do they think they want to do in this round of negotiations. That’s where the Writers Guild board, but also the Writers Guild Negotiating Committee, which is a separate group, figure out what their plan is for going into the negotiation.

Craig: Yeah. And it is all done in a sort of vacuum. Until they start to talk to the membership at large, they are doing a strange dance internally. And it’s really the only way they can. They look at the landscape. They look at what they know. And they decide this is what we should do. And that is coupled with a creation of a message. This is why we should do what we should do. And this is why our membership should support us in our efforts to do what we should do.

John: It has an aspect of a campaign. Basically you’re testing some messages, you’re testing to see what is it that we think we want to try to do here. And, you know, in this pattern of demands and in these sort of initial outreach meetings to showrunners and to other members of writing staffs and to individual writers, they’re trying to get a sense of like does this accurately reflect your concerns as we do into this negotiation. And that’s the end of a long process, but it continues throughout the process of these outreach meetings.

Craig: Yeah. And the name of the game, really, for all of these things is to balance yourself where you feel like you have enough of a message where you can get the membership to support you fully. And fully means and if you come back to them and say they’re not giving you the things that we all agree we should get, we should walk? Right? So there’s the strike threat. You need that, but you also need to come up with a message that doesn’t feel like essentially you’re saying there’s no way out for us, we have no options here, all we can do is strike. You don’t want to come up with a message that feels out of touch with the membership, that either feels like it’s underserving the membership or vastly too aggressive. It’s a very tricky thing. And it makes negotiating on behalf of a union very difficult because unlike most negotiations in business, where both parties are working privately and then facing across each other at a table, or similarly in politics where people work somewhat privately and then sit across the table, for unions a lot of this discussion leading up to things is public.

It’s open because union members have a right to freedom of speech, even within their own union. It’s specified in something called the Landrum-Griffin Act. And as a union leader, you’re walking a careful line because you don’t want to give away too much. If you’re bluffing, you don’t want to necessarily bluff both the membership and the companies, but sometimes it’s hard to bluff the companies if you can’t bluff your membership. Very difficult line to walk. It’s a hard gig to do.

John: We should also then now think about the other side of the table here. So, the AMPTP, they’re coming into a round of negotiations thinking like what are we prepared to give. What are we prepared to ask for? What do we want out of this negotiation? And they’re having their own meetings where they’re figuring this out as well. They’re taking their temperature among their members. They’re listening to see what’s happening on the writers’ side. And they’re trying to come up with an approach which will be their initial offer for like this is what we think the contract should be. And sometimes that offer is designed to send a certain message about how the negotiation is going to go.

Craig: Yeah. The actual dance that is done is highly formal. And you will hear people on both sides repeatedly refer to it as Kabuki Theater. Both sides will begin the negotiations the way perhaps two animals start their courtship dance. It’s very ritualized. And not surprisingly, so much of the ritual is that the union is asking for so much and the companies are insisting they can’t afford anything. And then once the dance is done, things get down to it.

I was on the Negotiating Committee in 2004. That certainly was going on then. And it’s gone on every time since. What are you looking for are those larger signals and we can talk about 2007 was clearly a different situation. We were sending a very different signal then. And certainly the response from the companies was a very clear signal as well. But traditionally in negotiations there’s a dance. There’s some more dancing. And then the work happens, often very rapidly and in a much smaller room. A room inside a room inside a room.

John: Absolutely. So, let me get you inside the room for 2014. The actual process of negotiations happens over a period, it was about two weeks in 2014. We were at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, like actually the shopping mall. So the AMPTP has a headquarters there and when the negotiations start there’s a room off to the left which is where the Writers Guild Negotiating Committee is headquartered and we are there and we are talking through stuff. There’s a room where the AMPTP, bigwigs and lawyers, are headquartered and they are talking.

And every once and a while they will say, OK, we’re going to get together. We will go into their room. We will make our points about a specific issue on the table. They will ask some questions. We will then leave the room and it will go through this process several times. That’s the Kabuki part of the whole thing.

But what Craig is referring to is a lot of the actual discussions and like the changes that happen happen in other conversations that are not the whole group, but just between a few key members going off someplace else to discuss through one specific point or a different point. Sometimes they’ll be asking for clarification. There’ll be give and take. And then our leaders will report back to the Negotiating Committee and we will proceed to the next part.

I wrote a whole script while I was in that Negotiating Committee room.

Craig: [laughs]

John: Because literally you’re in a room with a bunch of tables. You know, Susannah Grant is behind me and she’s typing away. I’m like, man, if she’s writing something, I got to get down to it. And so it’s a situation where it can be incredibly intense at moments. But then it can just be incredibly like lots of free time.

And so you can chew the fat with people, but you can also get work done. And I took it upon myself to get some work done. It was a really fascinating experience that I don’t necessarily want to repeat again really soon.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the truth is serving on the large Negotiating Committee, which I think is about 17 members, is thankless and the committee itself is required by our constitution. It is a formality. The truth is you could never negotiate anything with 17 people all in a big room asking questions and bickering amongst themselves because, of course, even within a group of 17 writers who are, let’s just stipulate that they’re all largely aligned. They won’t be completely aligned.

So, inevitably what happens is the larger Negotiating Committee is a group of writers who don’t get to do much and they don’t get to decide much. Really all they’re there to do is hear the reports back from the front lines, give their input, which matters or doesn’t, and then vote at the end.

John: Yeah. So I will say that part of our function of being there is that we tend to be sort of writers that they recognize, and so the reason why Susannah Grant was there, or I was there, or Shawn Ryan was there is like these are the people that they’re hiring all the time. So it was useful to have us on the other side of the table looking at them, just because we are – we can speak with some authority and occasionally like Shawn Ryan would speak about a specific issue that was related to his experience in television.

Me, I said nothing in that big room. The only thing I was there to do was in the writer’s side I could ask some questions about things that were going on that I felt weren’t clear.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But that was my function. My function was to be a body there. And I took that as my charge.

Craig: Well, you’re exactly right. That they do choose – I mean, this is a committee that’s appointed by the board, and it’s carefully curated. And the point of having people like you there is we are advertising to the companies that we have our best and brightest. We have our most rational. We are not stocking this committee with writers that they maybe think represent a certain class of employees that they simply could do without. We’re advertising that you can’t do without us because look who’s here.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But in the end, there are sidebars. And by the way, this is the same thing on their side, too. They have so many people. They have individuals representing each of the companies and then they have their lawyers and then they have their labor specialists. All these people. In the end, there are sidebars. And the sidebars typically take place between Carol Lombardini, who is the Chief Negotiator for the AMPTP, and a couple of her chief lieutenants. And then on our side, David Young, who is our Executive Director, and typically then one, two, or in this case we have three co-chairs of the Negotiating Committee. And this year it’s Billy Ray, Chris Keyser, and Chip Johannessen.

John: Yep. So, at the end of this process, which is very intentionally kept under a cone of silence, like no one reports out what’s happening inside this room. And that, I think, has been well maintained and I think it’s a really smart idea. But at the end of this process hopefully you come to a tentative agreement, which is a compromise that neither side is entirely happy with, but they are saying like this is the best we think we can do. And you go to membership. Then the membership votes on it and hopefully approves the contract and then you’re done. For now. And then three years later you’re going to be going through the whole process again.

Craig: That’s right. And while you’re doing this, there is a certain formal process going on on the parts that are not in sidebar. That’s why sidebar is so important in negotiations. When both sides are presenting their formal requests to each other, and when anybody says anything in the big room, all of it is carefully written down. And those notes are considered essentially evidentiary going forward. If somebody – let’s say David Young in the big room said we are willing to sacrifice blah-blah-blah if we can get so and so. That’s written down.

And they will say, “You said you were willing to…” That’s a thing now, right? So everybody is very careful about how they say what they say in that big room. And in the sidebar all the horse trading goes on and on. Those large room notes are also important because sometimes there’s a dispute after the deal is allegedly determined about what a certain deal point actually meant. And so both sides have their copious notes to be able to present to some kind of independent arbiter in the case of a dispute, or, you know, I think it may even go to the labor department if there’s a dispute.

And, for instance, we had something exactly like that at the conclusion of the 2007/2008 strike. And unfortunately what we thought we had gotten we had not. So, those can happen.

John: So, let’s circle back to where we’re at right now which Mike B’s question. We’re talking about the outreach meeting. So that’s sort of step three in the process. We’re not really into the negotiation yet. We’re still figuring stuff out. So the outreach meeting that Mike B went to, or that, Craig, you went to an outreach meeting last night.

Craig: That’s right.

John: These are chances for the guild leadership to talk with the members about what the plans are and also what the concerns are. And so that’s a good thing. So it’s good for Mike B to have gone. It’s good for Craig to go. If, you know, you’re another writer in the Writers Guild, it’s good for you to go just to sort of hear what is being discussed about the upcoming negotiation. So, Craig, I’m in Paris so I’m not hearing any of these discussions. But what I gleaned are sort of the important issues. The health fund is always going to be an issue because we have, again, we are in a system where we have this private health insurance and you have to keep it solvent, so that’s going to be crucial.

A lot of the concerns are TV concerns. Which seems weird in a way because this is clearly a boom time for television. There’s more TV shows. There’s more TV writers. There’s more TV income than before. But when you actual talk to individual writers, a lot of TV writers are struggling. And it has to do with this weird thing about how TV writers work is that they are writing TV shows and they are also producing TV shows. And they’re doing both jobs. But the Writers Guild portion of it, the WGA is responsible for the writing aspect of that. And writers are being paid minimums for that stuff. But those minimums that they’re being paid for, well that money is also being counted against their producing fees.

This may not be such a huge problem if you’re on a 22-episode season that’s lasting the whole year, but if you’re on one of these short shows, ten episodes, 13 episodes, sometimes you’re writing that episode months, and months, and months before you’re producing that episode. And you’re basically having to work as many weeks as if you were on a 22-episode season, but you’re only being paid for that short show. And that’s creating real issues for a lot of TV writers.

Craig: That’s right. And it seems like what’s really at stake here in this negotiation is an extension of the very issues that you and others were dealing with in our last negotiation, and dealt with somewhat successfully in 2014. And I think the great hope is that additional incremental gains can be made in this area. And this – these kinds of gains aren’t specifically about being paid more. Although, the guild will certainly ask for that, as well they should. And every cycle, I mean, so the DGA made their deal, and it’s a very typical deal where minimums are boosted either 2.5% or 3% on a year-to-year basis over the three years. But it seems like it’s more of an implementation and lifestyle problem where the companies are saying we’re going to pay you the minimums, but we are going to own you for a year and for a bunch of that year – and we’re going to spread that amount of money out over so much time of exclusivity that even if you’re not working for us, you’re not working for anyone else. So, effectively your payment, which would have once paid for four months say of your work is now going to pay for a year of your work. And while technically that’s not violating your minimums, it is essentially violating minimums.

Now, this as I pointed out in the meeting last night is a problem that screenwriters are far too familiar with. We’ve talked before about the pernicious abuse where – this is writers up and down, but really more the middle class and starting writers deal with this the most and in the most egregious way – you’ll be hired to write a screenplay and you will write a script and hand it to your producer. The producer will give you notes and say we can’t turn this in. You have to write it again. And you will maybe write seven or eight scripts. Seven or eight drafts of that script, just so you can send it in.

Meanwhile, if you’re being paid close to minimum, that’s a year of your life? A year and a half? For minimum. And so what does the minimum mean at that point? And so TV writers are now it seems dealing with this sort of stuff that feature writers have been dealing with forever. And so what happens as a result of this? Not only does this negatively impact individual writers, of course, but it also negatively impacts our pension and health fund because the fringes of pension/health are paid on what writers are paid. And if they are paid less frequently, P&H gets less money.

One thing that’s important to understand about pension and health is that it is not as simple as if you qualify, you get healthcare and the money that has been contributed on your behalf will cover your healthcare. It does not work that way. Not at all. The way our system works is we presume that a number of writers that qualify for healthcare are going to over-qualify. They’re going to earn much more, all the way up to that cap I described, the $250,000. Those are the people that are essentially subsidizing things for everybody else.

You may only take $39,000 to qualify for your healthcare, but on average the contributions that come out of that do not cover the typical writer’s year of health costs. So, the more writers we have moving towards the lower end of the scale, the harder and harder it is for pension and health to be solvent. And, of course, there’s also been this ongoing problem of how television writers are paid. On the screen side, it has been very frustrating for my entire career to watch as I pay 1.5% of dues on every dollar I make to the Guild and all of my money is pension and health contributable.

But on the writer’s side, we have showrunners who make millions and millions of dollars, the vast majority of which is paid out as producing fees. They don’t pay any dues on that money, because it’s not writing money. And none of it is what we’ll call fringe-able. None of it gets that P&H contribution. So, the Guild is trying to address these things. And, it is a real issue and they have all sorts of choices about how they’re going to try and get those things, but certainly it is a problem. Part of my function at the outreach meeting last night was to say, correct, hey also in screen we have issues, too. We have to be addressed.

John: Yeah. Agreed. And let’s take a look at the other side of the table, too, because we’re not the only one coming in with an agenda. So what is the AMPTP looking for as they’re going into this negotiation? Well, overall they’d like to keep things in line. They’d like to keep the industry running. They’d like to be able to keep making TV shows and movies. That’s crucial for them. That’s how they make their money.

They’d like to keep things in line with the other deals they’ve already made. So they’ve already made a DGA deal. They’re going to have to make a SAG deal with screen actors after our deal, so they’d like to keep those things consistent. So, you know, their goal is going to be to not go above 2.5% or 3% on those kinds of things that are so similar between the different contracts.

But there are things like these options and exclusivities which are kind of uniquely ours, and so that’s a thing they’ll be looking at too because they want to be able to keep making the best TV shows that we’ve ever made. And in order to keep doing that they’re going to have to be able to make this system sustainable. So, I think they’re going to be looking for ways to be able to keep doing the kind of stuff that they’re doing and not, you know, hopefully decimate a class of writers. They’ll hope.

Craig: Right. Well, they have a vastly different approach, as one might expect, to these negotiations. It’s quite typical that writers, directors, and actors will begin negotiations by pointing out how much money the companies are making off of the work that we do. And the companies typically will say, “Oh no, no, no, you don’t understand. Our business is on the edge of disaster.”

In truth, neither point is particularly relevant. No, of course their business isn’t on the edge of disaster. You and I have punctured this myth a hundred times. We did it a couple of weeks ago.

On the other hand, they are corporations. They exist to maximize profits, so the idea that somehow if they’re very profitable this is a problem for them, I mean, they love that, right? Their whole point is we take in as much as we can and we send out as little as we can. I think the things that they are always thinking about in the back of their minds is what is the benefit of labor peace, what is the value of labor peace, what is the cost of labor peace? Because in the end they do get hit by a strike. And they do suffer some costs for that.

So, they are constantly worried about that. Maybe not worried as much as they should be, or as much as we would hope they would be. But they are.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And I think they also in the back of their minds are concerned that they don’t create a situation whereby their ruthless pursuit of maximizing profit by minimizing labor costs doesn’t actually dilute and damage their labor pool to the point where they’re damaging their product.

John: Yeah. You look at sort of what’s been possible to happen in TV and in film over the last ten years and the profitability that it has been able to see, that comes from really talented people who are choosing to make this their livelihood. And if they can’t make a livelihood doing this, they go away. And then they’re sort of stuck.

Let’s talk about these concerns and sort of the fear and anxiety around it. Basically what should you tell your mom if she asks you about the WGA negotiations? And I think I would stress that this does feel different than 2014. Like 2014 I wasn’t hearing some of the same conversations. But then again 2014 was a really different year. And I think some of what I’m sensing is that we’re just in such a really strange place as a world right now. We have protests in the streets. We have talk of union busting and right to work laws that may be coming out of congress. And we have all this anxiety over healthcare which dovetails really closely to our own concerns about our health plan. So, I think it’s natural for us to feel some of this anxiety right now.

But I don’t think it’s useful to push that into real fear. Fear is useful for like ginning up action, but it can also lead to some sort of rushed and sort of bad decisions. And I think the reason why we wanted to talk this long explaining is that the process of negotiations isn’t rushed and hasty and sudden and spontaneous. It’s actually kind of planning. It’s a real process.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s normal I think for writers to be concerned about a strike. A strike is a scary thing. We don’t strike very often. We used to. The Writers Guild in the ‘70s and ‘80s struck constantly. And so it was a very unstable time and I think people probably did live in a constant state of some kind of fear. But since 1988, we’ve struck once. Came close in 2001. And that’s the balance that the Guild has to find. We never want the companies to feel like we are refusing to strike under any circumstances because ultimately that is the leverage we have.

On the other hand, I think the companies and at least a few people in the Guild understand that when we do strike, we are essentially pulling a pin on a grenade, hugging them close to us, and letting it explode. We get hurt, too.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So it’s not something that we’re looking forward to. Essentially a strike – when a strike occurs, it is an indication of a failed negotiation. So I agree with you, the panic and fear are essentially useless. And I hope very much that our negotiators are able to go in there, particularly because they’re – look, there is a deal. We know that there is a DGA deal. Right? There is a certain package and a certain amount.

My basic philosophy is that I hope they get more. They should not bring us back less. It’s pretty simple.

John: So let’s move on to some other questions that are not about the Writers Guild specifically.

Craig: Oh good.

John: Why don’t you start with Conner in Ireland?

Craig: So Conner in Ireland asks, “What do you do after you’ve finished a first draft, but before you start sending it off? Are there any particular things you do to make sure a script is as good as you can make it? Do you have a checklist of things that a character should be doing or saying? Do you map out the plot in each scene and make sure the drama is coming in peaks and troughs? Or, do you just make sure everything is spelled and formatted correctly and just send it out and wait for notes?”

John, what’s your post-flight checklist?

John: So I feel like we did an episode about last looks at a certain point. But it’s an evergreen question. My personal way of going through this is when I’m done with a script Godwin is the first person to read it. He makes sure that it actually makes sense. He checks for mistakes. I leave out words all the time. I’m terrible that way.

He’ll read it. Then I’ll read the same draft and when I say read it, I’ll literally print it out because sometimes I can only catch the mistakes on paper. And I’ll really just try to get a feel for like did I actually accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish? Because sometimes there will be a long period of time between that scene I wrote on page 20 and what I just finished up on page 96. And really make sure that it’s feeling like the same thing the whole time through. That I’m not making really some stupid choices. Or like sometimes I’ll create a character in two places that it’s not really quite the same character. I’ll be doing that kind of sort of idiot check, but I’m not going through to make sure is this scene meeting the character goal of this thing – am I hitting these peaks and valleys? It’s none of that stuff. Hopefully I’ve done my work in the process of writing it that it’s not going to have that sort of fundamental issue.

But I won’t know that until I have somebody else read it. Somebody who is out there in the world.

Craig, what’s your process?

Craig: Very similar. And I agree with you. At this point it’s too late to start asking questions like is this any good? Some people have different ways of approaching how they write things. Some people are much more loosey-goosey. I am very much a planner. So, there won’t be problems like that. However, I’ll forget about Jack who I have here, because she reads things for me the way Godwin reads for you. Let’s just talk about people that are just by themselves. That’s probably most of you. Read it out loud. That’s the best advice I can give you. Read the whole damn thing out loud. You don’t have to read the action stuff. Read the dialogue out loud. And hear and listen. Things will crop up. Little things that are easily fixed. You may sense suddenly that you’re bored. You may sense that you used the same word too frequently. You may sense that something doesn’t quite make sense.

And you’ll make little changes. And then read through the script carefully. And look for those little things. But don’t panic over small, I mean, I don’t think I’ve – typically I will have one mistake in a script. And I really carefully proofread it and I have somebody else, I have Jack who is proofreading for me as well. There will always be one. It’s not the end of the world. It really isn’t. You just don’t, I mean listen, don’t send in a script full of mistakes. That’s a disaster. But just read it out loud. It’s remarkable how much that will do for you.

John: I agree. Some writer, and maybe you’ll remember who this was, their advice was to remove page 17. That in any script you can take page 17 out, and maybe I’ve got the page number wrong, but there’s some sort of classic advice, there’s something early in the script that you just don’t actually need. I think it can be a useful exercise as you’re going through that first draft to just like take a random page out and say like do I really need this. And recognize that your script, even though it’s as good as you can possibly make it at that moment, it’s a flexible document. It can change. It doesn’t have to be – you shouldn’t expect it to be perfect right now. It just has to be the best version of this first draft it can be.

Craig: Writing screenplays is a function of balancing a dozen competing interests that are all functioning in different ways. That’s why we need to do multiple drafts. You fall into a trap if you either expect perfection on your first draft or believe you have attained perfection on your first draft. You have not.

So part of sending screenplays off is also adjusting your own expectations and not thinking so much in a fantasy-like way that what I’m going to do is send this script off and in return applause, tears of joy, and so forth. That’s just not how it works. You always have another draft. And so at some point, send it, just to see what happens.

John: Yeah. All right, that segues very nicely to our second question from Tobias in Sweden who writes, “I read this article on no film school,” we’ll put a link in the show notes, “that argues that instead of writing a story for a reader, newbie screenwriters are often mistakenly writing a movie for a producer. Instead of telling a story, they’re explaining a movie. Can you give some guidance on too much or too little scene description?” Craig, what is your take on this article?

Craig: [laughs] Well, this is an article written by Tom Long who is a screenplay consultant. And I promise that is not why I am annoyed at this article. I’m annoyed at this article because it makes no damn sense. It feels like somebody came up with a vague gimmick for an article and then wrote around in circles. This is what he says. “This is why you shouldn’t think of your screenplay as a movie. For non-established spec writers, a screenplay is a written story that if loved by enough industry folk can then lead to being setup at a studio and hopefully produced in a movie.”

I don’t know–

John: I want to stop right there. That was the point where I wanted to bail on the article.

Craig: What?

John: And so this sense that a script written by a newbie writer, a spec script, is a completely different thing than what you and I are doing is just not true. And that is a thing that has to be killed dead. A script is a script. A screenplay is a screenplay. It’s the same thing. And so the script that I write for Disney or that Karen writes for herself, they’re the same thing, and there’s no fundamental difference between those two things. The rules are not different for me or for Karen. It is the same process. It is the same words on the page. We’re all equal when it comes to those words on the page.

So, the idea that a spec script is a fundamentally different beast than the script that I’m turning into a studio is just wrong. And that’s where I fundamentally lost faith in this article. But I kept reading, so. [laughs]

Craig: That’s funny. So did I. So he goes on to say, “Yes, writers should be envisioning their screenplay as a movie, which means writing visually, externalizing actions and conflicts, and applying form and function. However, the story has to be fully executed on the page first.” What? Yeah. That’s what a screenplay is. What is he – what?

John: Some of what he’s saying does match up to things we say all the time. You have to be thinking visually. You have to be thinking about what is it going to feel like to experience this as a movie. So, that’s why I’m often saying don’t think about writing a script. You’re trying to write a movie. The goal is to make a movie.

Craig: Right.

John: But when he’s getting to – especially as he gets to his examples, I don’t think are selling his point very well. And I don’t think he has a clear logic behind the point. So, people who are listening through to this, you need to click through the article to see the two samples here, because they’re sort of like our Three Page Challenge samples. The little sections of things.

Craig: In reverse. [laughs]

John: Well, yeah. He sort of shows the early version of a scene that had too little scene description. And then like a second version which has much fuller scene description. And I will be generous in saying like if this was the first scene in a movie, then yes, I could see why the second thing would much better set up who the character is and what’s going on, but the second one if it was on page 90 is just completely overwritten for what that moment is. And so I think it’s a useful exercise for people to compare these two scenes, because the second one is – you know, if it’s the initial scene in a movie, I can see why it’s written that way, but it’s not how you would write most scenes in your film.

Craig: Correct. If the scene is in the middle of a movie, and it has to be, because the slug line is EXT. THE GRAVE – SECONDS LATER. So I’m going to just go out on a limb here and say we’re not opening a movie this way. So he says this, “It’s a spec script he consulted on.” And he says, “When I sat down with the screenwriter I explained that the scene confused me on many levels and that I senses there was supposed to be much more here that wasn’t being articulated.”

And so then that writer rewrote the scene per their discussion. If this in fact is a scene from the middle of the movie, I vastly prefer the writer’s original version. And I vastly prefer it because I feel something from it. It actually felt emotional because it was delivering a movie scene to me.

And the second one, I got bored. My god are there a lot of words here. Way too many words. It’s just overwritten. It’s purple. And overdone. And it turns what should be this kind of lovely little moment into a – I don’t know – boring. Boring. And this blows my mind. Blows my mind.

John: Yeah. So going back to the initial question that was asked. I think the amount of scene description is the appropriate amount of scene description for what the scene actually is and where it’s functioning in your script. And so it’s absolutely true that earlier scenes in your script tend to be a little bit denser and fuller because you’re setting up the world, you’re setting up the tone, there’s a lot more stuff to them.

They get a little bit leaner in general as you sort of go through the script. That’s fine. That’s good. I say you got to be thinking about you’re writing a movie and you’re writing a movie that is, yes, a literary document that’s going to be carrying the feeling of the movie. So therefore you do have to do the work to pick exactly the right word in the scene description. But that doesn’t mean you have to write reams of scene description to get that point across.

Craig: Look, I don’t really know what he’s trying to say here. God’s honest truth. I don’t know what this title means: Avoiding a Screenwriting Trap: Tell a Story Instead of Explaining Your Movie. I don’t know what he means by “this is why you shouldn’t think of your screenplay as a movie.” I don’t know why he’s assigning certain kinds of writing to writing a screenplay as opposed to a movie. It’s all the same to me.

I think you and I have the same experience. I just feel like this is just a bad article that misunderstands how we do what we do. And I think the lessons in it are questionable. So, to sum up, don’t read this.

John: [laughs] I think you should read it just to know what we’re actually talking about.

Craig: All right.

John: But don’t take it to heart.

Craig: Don’t take it to heart. Fair enough. Don’t take it to heart. Exactly.

John: All right, it’s come time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Greece. So this last week was French Ski Week, so I was on vacation. We went to Greece, sort of last minute decision. Like, you know what, let’s go to Athens and see ancient things. And for whatever reason, Greece was not high on my list and I think it was because I thought like, you know what, Greece is going to be a hassle. And I got this idea in my head like it’s Greece, it’s sort of hard to get there, you can’t take trains there. It obviously had economic crisis. I don’t speak Greek. It seemed like it was going to be a lot of hassle.

And I don’t know why. I was just so wrong. And so I would just encourage people to go see Greece because I really loved it. We spent some time in Athens. Saw the Acropolis. The Parthenon. All amazing. Then we went up to Delphi to see the ruins of the Oracle, the Temple of Apollo there, which was incredible, too.

People in Greece are really cool. Their economy is basically built on tourism, so they’re really good at it. I just really liked it. And so I’d encourage people if you’re headed over the European direction, go to Greece, because Greece was so much better than I was expecting. And really worth it, especially if you have any interest in sort of how civilization with democracy and really crucial aspects of our culture started. Greece is the center of it all.

Craig: Grease is the word.

John: It is the word. No, it’s spelled differently. Sorry.

Craig: Yeah. I was hoping that you were going to be talking about the musical Grease, then I was hoping that you would talk about just the all-purpose lubricant. But I’m happy that you talked about the country because, you know what, they gave us Steve Zissis.

John: Nothing better than Steve Zissis.

Craig: Nothing better.

John: And the new little Zissis of the world. It’s all good.

Craig: Mini-Ziss.

John: Mini-Ziss.

Craig: My One Cool Thing is one creepy thing but one very cool thing. There is a series of games available for the iPad/iPhone. Again, maybe for Android, but we don’t give a damn about Android. And it’s called Fran Bow. Fran like the girl’s name, and Bow. B-O-W.

And the story is released in chapters. Each chapter is its own game. I think two bucks a game, two bucks a chapter. Fascinating game. Really cool. Very simple controls. You are investigating your world around you and you’re picking up items and manipulating them to solve puzzles. What makes this game fascinating, it is the darkest thing. You play this little girl. She is sweet and so innocent. And she constantly asks sweet and innocent questions of the world around her. Her parents have bloodily butchered. And by the way, this is not a game for children. This is 17 plus all the way.

And she has now been committed to a mental hospital for observation. And they give her pills. And one of the main game mechanics is when she takes one of these pills, the world transforms into this horror show. An absolute horror show. It is disturbing. It is visually gorgeous. The game play itself is the least important part of it. It really is just experiencing the remarkable creepiness of this game. I love it. Fran Bow. Check it out.

John: Well done. So, while you’re on your long flight to Greece, you can play Fran Bow. And you’ll see the glorious wonders of ancient world and the wonders of the iPad. Well done.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s our show for this week. So, as always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Kristian Gotthelf.

Craig: Gotthelf.

John: If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you send longer questions like the ones we answered today. On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Send us your short questions there. That’s always delightful.

We are on Facebook. I do occasionally check the Facebook page, so find us there. Like us. Liking us does something. I don’t know what.

Even more useful though is if you give us a nice review and some five stars on iTunes, because that helps people find the show through iTunes. We are on iTunes. We’re also on Google Play. We’re other places, too, but iTunes is sort of the main catalogue of things.

People often think that iTunes delivers podcasts the same way that people – like you download a song from items. You don’t download podcasts from iTunes. It’s just a catalog. It’s just a bunch of RSS feeds.

Craig: It’s a directory.

John: It’s like old Yahoo! That’s what it’s sort of like.

Craig: Oh my god. I remember when Yahoo! was just a vertical list of websites.

John: Amazing.

Craig: That’s how old I am.

John: Yeah. My daughter has no sense of what the Internet used to be. I mean, she’s never lived in a time without the Internet, and so just like, well yes, everything was always there whenever you wanted it. We had a situation in Paris where our power went out in our apartment. And so I’m trying to find the fuse box and she comes in and she says, “The Wi-Fi is out, too.” I’m like, well of course the Wi-Fi is out. There’s no power. But it hadn’t occurred to her that like without power we don’t have Internet. And so like, oh no. The worst.

Craig: She thought it was more like, well, the power is out. And the water isn’t working.

John: [laughs] Oh my. So, if your Internet is restored and the Wi-Fi is back up–

Craig: Segue Man.

John: You can come visit at johnaugust.com. That’s where you’ll find the show notes for this week’s episode and all the back episodes. You’ll also find the transcripts for previous episodes. They go up about four days after an episode posts. And you can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net. That’s right now the only place where you can find all those back episodes. There’s talk of future USB drives, but at the moment there are none of them, so that’s where you can find them. It’s $2 a month for all the back episodes, the special episodes.

Craig: Come on.

John: The Aline Brosh McKenna specials. Aline was gracious enough to live tweet our most recent episode, so maybe she’ll do that for this one, too. She won’t. She won’t do it.

Craig: You know what happened last night at this screenwriter outreach meeting?

John: Tell me all about it.

Craig: When I got up to speak, [laughs], a woman said, “Sexy Craig.”

John: [laughs] Oh no!

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s so inappropriate.

Craig: No, it was amazing. So I think it’s been so long. I think next week – I’m not going to drop him on you now – but next week Sexy Craig is going to have something to say.

John: Ugh. So a reason enough to tune in or not tune in. Reason enough for me to bring in a guest host for next week to avoid or to have some Sexy Craig.

Craig: You can’t, man. Can’t avoid me. I’m with you.

John: Ugh. Everyone have a great week. We’ll see you next week. Bye.

Craig: Thanks.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

The Social Media Episode

Tue, 02/28/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John discuss how and whether screenwriters should use social media.

We also invite longtime listeners to tell us which episodes are worth pointing out to newcomers, and answer a listener question on writing short films.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

WGA Negotiations 101

Tue, 02/21/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John take a deep dive looking at how the Writers Guild attempts to make a deal with the studios on behalf of film and TV writers.

Then we answer listener questions about writing for producers versus writing for the audience, and last steps when finishing up a script.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 288: Betty, Veronica and Craig — Transcript

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 15:57

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this Episode 288 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at what screenwriters can learn from figures in the news and what I learned from going through the copy editing process on my book. Plus, we’ll be answering listener questions about moving to Los Angeles and whether to use a pen name.

Craig: Hmm.

John: Hmm.

Craig: Hmm.

John: Craig, this last week something the first time happened to me here in Paris. I got sick. I got a cold. And my question for you is, when you get a cold, when you get sick, do you keep writing, or do you just stop?

Craig: Oh, interesting.

John: Because I had this debate on Monday whether I should try to work through it or just call it a day and play videogames. What do you do when you get sick?

Craig: I wish that I were the kind of person who could learn any lesson from my own past. I am not. I am as stubborn as a mule. When I get sick, every single time I say, “Not a problem. Keep going. Keep going.” And then I just find myself suddenly feeling tunnel vision-y and confused. And I just go, OK, apparently it’s time for bed. I’m the guy that still thinks that when a doctor says you need lots of rest that he’s just joking. [laughs] He’s a goof, right?

John: Well, you look at what we do, and we’re not working construction. And we’re not working in public service jobs, like a waiter who is going to get other people sick, so I feel like I’m at home, so why don’t I just keep working? But on Monday I realized like I was so sick that I could do real damage to this script. I just worried that I could actually make things noticeably worse by trying to work on it. And so I mostly just kind of vegged around. And then there was one new scene to write, and I could write that sort of by itself. I could sort of like lay there and shiver and think through the scene. And I wrote that one.

Craig: Aw. Poor John.

John: I got over my cold, but I almost like asked on Twitter, because I couldn’t trust my own judgment, so I was going to run a Twitter poll to say, “This is how I feel. Should I work today or just play videogames?”

Craig: Actually, that’s my theory about why it’s hard for us to do this, and why we don’t trust our own judgment, is because when we were children the only time that we ever made a determination about our own health was when we decided to fake being sick. Otherwise, somebody would say, “You’re sick.” And we would go, “Yeah, seriously. It feels terrible.” Right? But otherwise it’s like, ah, I really don’t want to go to school today. I’m kind of on the bubble. Let me wave the thermometer by the lightbulb and stay home.

And so I think that carries through to adulthood. I just always feel like I’m just – I don’t know – goldbricking, as the old folks used to say.

John: Yeah. I worry that I’m faking it. You know what, I probably could work on that scene. But I don’t want to work on that scene. Because procrastination in an illness are similar kind of symptoms. I just don’t want to do that. Almost anything else would feel better than working on that scene right now.

Craig: Yeah. Well, I love that you thought you would get good answers on Twitter, because I wish to god I could have, I don’t know, organized some response so that you put that up there and suddenly it’s like 98% of people think I should work.

John: All right man. I’ll do it.

Craig: OK. Twitter told me.

John: OK. Twitter told me to.

Twitter told you something as well this past week. There’s some follow up on last week’s episode where we were talking about Hollywood falling apart. What was the follow up here?

Craig: So Twitter user Nick Webber pointed out that I was incorrect when I said that Napster showed up in the early ‘90s. It did not. It showed up in 1999. I don’t know what kind of brain fever was raging through my head there. And I understand that Mike August also pointed out how wrong I was, hopefully to his great joy.

John: Yes. Mike, my husband, is very, very good about when things happened. And I’m not. I just have no skill at that at all. So like you could say, “Oh, you know, back in the caveman days, in the 1400s,” I would – I mean, it all just kind of blurs together for me. So there’s the past, there’s a future, it’s all kind of the same. I’m so much in the moment, Craig. I’m right here, right now. That’s all I worry about.

Craig: Love it. I’m all about the future, man.

John: You are?

Craig: Future Craig.

John: What is Future Craig most excited about?

Craig: Oh, Future Craig is, well, Future Craig actually – if Future Craig comes true, Future Craig could have some really cool news for everybody very, very soon, career-wise news.

John: Yeah, that’s good.

Craig: But Future Craig could also be curled up in a ball crying, which is usually what Future Craig ends up doing.

John: I’ve noticed over the last few months that Future John has been much more nervous about making predictions about projects because you have enough movies made, enough of things happen, and you sort of know that there’s a bunch of bumps coming. And so you don’t know when they’re going to come, so when I talk with my team about like, oh, these are the things. But there’s a very likely chance that this will just not happen at all. It’s because, you know, I’ve just been through this – it’s not my first rodeo. I’ve been thrown from the horse enough times.

Craig: That’s exactly right. It always hurts, but it does hurt less than it used to. If you get thrown off the horse at your first rodeo, I presume you think, “Well, this is it. I’m just going to be thrown off my horse over, and over, and over.” But, you know, then you have a few successful rodeos, and I’m not sure how that’s defined exactly in the rodeo world. Like how do you win the rodeo? Can you win a rodeo?

John: There’s judging. There’s the amount of time you stay on the horse. There’s things you do.

Craig: Yes, time.

John: The Bucking Bronco.

Craig: That’s right. There was a movie, it was called 8 Seconds. Do you remember it?

John: It was called 8 Seconds. Yeah.

Craig: With the guy from 90210.

John: Luke Perry.

Craig: Wow.

John: What new TV show, what hot new TV show is Luke Perry starring in right now?

Craig: Um….you’re asking me?

John: This is my thing where I stump you on current events in popular culture.

Craig: Luke Perry is currently starring on – it’s called Mummy Dad.

John: No, but that would be great. Mummy Dad would be great. Because he’s both a mummy and a dad?

Craig: Correct.

John: I like it.

Craig: It’s a great title. I mean, that’s going to show up on Nick. I feel like that’s going to show up on Nick next year.

John: 100%. Luke Perry is playing Archie’s dad in Riverdale.

Craig: Oh.

John: The CW show.

Craig: And that’s sort of like the gothic David Lynch take on Riverdale?

John: Yes. Craig, really good. See, you got that part.

Craig: Well, you know, I love – did you know that I love Archie comics? Did you know this?

John: I had no idea that you loved Archie comics. So tell me about Archie comics. I don’t get Archie comics at all, so give me the one-minute pitch for Archie.

Craig: Sure. Well, by the way, this is why I will never watch this show because it’s not – it’s an alternate take. I want the real take. I want real Archie. So, my sister and I, we lived in a fairly small house. And we had to share a bathroom. And I had no reading material in the bathroom whatsoever. My sister would pile the bathroom high with Archie Comics Digest, which would include Archie, and then there was Betty and Veronica.

John: Of course.

Craig: Then there were some that were just Jughead based.

John: Wow, just Jughead.

Craig: Just Jughead. But, you know, and on occasion you’d get a little special one like a Dalton issue, who is always great, or Moose and Midge. Big Ethel. Here comes Principal Weatherbee. I know all of them. Mrs. Grundy. I know them all.

I know their last names. [laughs] Just kind of crazy. And so I would read them. It was either that or reading her Seventeen Magazine. And after two issues of Seventeen Magazine, you realize every Seventeen Magazine has two articles. One article is How to Look Sexy. And the other article is Don’t Have Sex. It’s the worst magazine ever. They should just call it, you know, Mind-F Magazine.

But regardless, I would just the Archie Comics. So I have read thousands of them.

John: Wow.

Craig: Thousands.

John: I’ve never read a single Archie comic somehow. And so just through popular culture I knew just Archie, Betty and Veronica, and Jughead. I knew that those were four of the characters.

Craig: Well, you know Reggie, right? You know Reggie Mantle?

John: I have no idea who Reggie is.

Craig: So, Archie Andrews, Better Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, Jughead Jones.

John: Yeah, that makes sense.

Craig: Moose – ooh, I’m missing his last name. I’m not an A plus on Archie trivia. But, yeah, Reggie was the jerk.

John: OK, yeah.

Craig: He was Archie’s competition.

John: So it’s a TV show on the CW. So if you want to watch that show, you can watch that show and see Luke Perry there. A long way back around. So, usually we start with our leading topics and we get to our questions and we sort of rush through them. I was wondering if today we might want to start with our questions and really focus on them to begin with.

Craig: John, you know, that if you ask something my answer to you is yes. Always.

John: Our first question comes from Dorian in Tempe. And he wrote in with audio, so let’s take a listen.

Dorian: Hey John and Craig. My wife and I are having trouble deciding when we should move to LA. She’s a preschool teacher and I’m on my last semester of film school studying screenwriting. Because of the school year and her contract, we have to choose between moving in July of this year or moving out in January of 2018. So I guess my real question is should we wait until the winter before staffing season, or should we just move out as soon as possible? Yours in perpetual umbrage and grace, Dorian Chin. PS, hi Godwin.

John: All right, so Dorian, first off, welcome to Los Angeles whenever you do come. You need to decide July or November of next year, or January of next year.

Craig: January, yeah.

John: I say now. I think you’re honestly better showing up now, because people always say like, “Oh, I’ll move right before staffing season,” but it takes a while to get your bearings. I think you should just come now if you can.

Craig: Oh, Dorian, this is one of those days when you reach out to the people that you think are wise and they don’t help you at all. Because I don’t agree with John.

John: All right. Great.

Craig: I think you should – if your wife is working and earning money, and it sounds like you are not, because you are in film school, you should make as much money as you can before you get out here. You can start writing now. You can start working on spec scripts that you could then lob at studios, but I would always err on the side of saving up as much as you can. Unless your wife is able to line up a new job in LA. If she can, then of course you would come out here as soon as you can. And I would strongly urge that you consider that. This town is punishing to the unemployed. And you can presume that even if you are a fantastic writer, and I hope you are, there will be a break in period at a minimum. So, just make sure that you guys are financially secure. That’s the most important thing. I don’t want you and your wife to end up like so many couples do when money trouble happens.

So, my advice isn’t necessarily different than John’s. It’s just, I guess, a different angle.

John: Yeah. I agree with Craig that Tempe is probably a much cheaper place to live than Los Angeles, but there are preschool teachers in Los Angeles just as there are in Tempe. Dorian can get a job in Los Angeles. Dorian can probably get a job that’s more interesting or relevant to filmmaking in LA than he can in Tempe. So, usually if people are like just out of college, like if they were a senior in college and they just graduated I’d say move to Los Angeles immediately, because you’re used to being able to go someplace to live cheaply and just get started.

Now that you’re already married, you don’t have any kids yet, this might be a great time to do it, but yes, you always have to be mindful of your finances. But if you’re going to wait, waiting till January isn’t necessarily a better way anyway, because you don’t know that your situation is going to be any more stable or grounded in January than now. I’d say move.

Craig: All right. Well, just, Dorian, if your wife kicks you out, you know who to blame. It’s not me. I was your friend to the end.

All right, our next question is from Stuart in Minnesota who writes, “In the upcoming months I intend to submit my television pilot to a number of competitions to make my first foray into the business. These contests don’t let you put a name on the script itself, but the submission forms require a full name. Makes sense. However, I do not want my legal name attached to my script. I have a pen name that is only slightly different from my legal name, same first name, different last name. So as far as I can tell, registering my script with the WGA requires my full legal name. If I submit my script to contests under my pen name, am I running any legal risks or conflicts because it does not match up with my legal name? Should I just bite the bullet and submit under my legal name to avoid confusion? Should I just change my name legally to avoid all this hassle?”

Well, John, you changed your name legally. What do you think about all of this?

John: I changed my name legally. So, August was not my original last name. My original last name was an unpronounceable German name. And I changed before I moved out to Los Angeles, partly kind of for this reason, because I didn’t want the first 15 seconds of every conversation being correcting how people mispronounced my unpronounceable German last name. And also just for ease. Like John August is just a very easy name. And that’s been really useful.

So, Stuart in Minnesota, if you really intend to use this other name, not just for your work but in life, yeah, you could change your name legally. It’s not a bad thing to do. I’ve very much enjoyed having a simple name for my life. It’s been really good.

But, you don’t have to do that for a pen name. And a lot of people write under different names than their actual legal names. I cannot imagine that for this screenwriting competition the difference between your pen name and your legal name is going to be a factor. I wouldn’t let that freak you out. Use your pen name. Use whatever name you want to be identified as as a writer. Down the road at some point, you may need to file some paperwork. Do something to make it clear that this is your pen name. There is a WGA process for making clear what your pen name is. But that’s not really where you’re at right now.

For this form, for this competition, just use whatever name you think you want to be as a writer and send it in and win the competition.

Craig: Yeah. This isn’t really a problem, Stuart. I mean, let’s say your given name, the one that you didn’t want to use, your legal name was Stuart Smith. There are a million Stuart Smiths. Right? So people don’t care so much about the actual words of your name. That’s why we have Social Security numbers and addresses and other things that identify us. If you register your script with the US Copyright Office, which I should say is preferable to registering it with the WGA, I believe you do have to give a Social Security number or some other identifier – driver’s license number, passport number, and your address. I guess you’re concerned that maybe somebody that has your real name or your pseudonym would say, “That was my script because it’s my name.” That’s not the way the world works. I wouldn’t worry about it right now. The only issue really is later down the line, business wise, professionally, what do you actually want to call yourself? Call yourself that. But no legal issues now.

John: We’ve talked about the registering your script in previous episodes, so we’ll try to find a link to that episode. The really short version of this is people always freak out about registering the script with the WGA. That’s just a simple registration service. It’s not an ironclad contract. It’s no sort of like guarantee. It’s just a way of proving that at a certain point you wrote this thing.

What Craig says about registering with the US Copyright Office, the reason you do that is because it provides greater protections in case someone does infringe on your copyright. A lot of writers do neither of the above and it’s also fine and good. If you do register with the WGA, don’t put that registration number on your script, because it’s a dead giveaway that you are a brand new writer who is not versed in the ways of the business.

Craig: Dead giveaway. Do you listen to the Schmoyoho guys? The Songify this guys?

John: I don’t what that is.

Craig: You know the Songify this guys?

John: Oh, of course, the Songify people, yeah.

Craig: They’re the best.

John: They do Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt song as well.

Craig: That’s right. Or was that song in their style? I don’t know if they did it. I’m sure they did. We’ll check it out. The Gregory Brothers. Great guys. They have an excellent one – Dead Giveaway. It’s one of my favorites. Dead Giveaway. So good. I love those guys. And girl. They are guys and girl.

John: They’re fantastic. All right, let’s get to our main topics for the day. First up, Presidential Spokesperson Kellyanne Conway seems like a fictional character, but her real life way of speaking offers some fascinating insight for screenwriters. And a really good counterexample to some of the points we made in our episode a few weeks ago about dialogue. So, this is my true confession. Because I’ve been living here in France, I don’t see cable news. And because I don’t see cable news, I never actually saw her speak. I was only sort of familiar with Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live. And I love Kate McKinnon. She’s brilliant. But it wasn’t until I saw a clip of Kellyanne Conway where I was like, oh no, she’s actually a very different thing from what Kate McKinnon is doing.

Kellyanne Conway, she’s the Trump spokesperson, but she’s the spinner. And I had never actually sort of known what spinning was until I saw her do this thing. And it’s like, wow, that was kind of amazing. Spinning is actually a really good way of describing because it was like those talented acrobats who can spin a bunch of plates while walking on a wire. I just sort of couldn’t believe she was doing it and making it seem not effortless but like it was just a fascinating thing to watch.

So, I wanted to find the clip of the thing that I had seen, and I couldn’t quite find it. But go online and look at how she speaks because it’s really just a fascinating thing she’s able to do.

Craig: Yeah. It’s really instructive, too. Again, we’re just taking the politics out of it. If you’re writing a character who needs to evade someone’s interrogation, she has so many methods of evasion. They’re all evasive. And they are designed to make the evasion portion of the response as short as possible, and then the offensive part to redefine and refocus the conversation the longest part. So, she is – and all of these people to some extent – they are a master of, some of them call it pivoting, some of them call it spinning. Sidestepping very quickly and then attacking. It is an amazing thing to watch.

John: Yeah. And the thing I noticed in this clip, and this was before I read this article we’re going to link to, is that she could listen for the words the person was saying to her, and use those words in a completely different context and make it seem like she was answering the question when she really wasn’t answering the question at all.

So, a really great write up of sort of what Kellyanne Conway does specifically is by Lili Loofbourow. And so I’m going to put a link to this in the show notes. She’s writing for The Week. And she defines some of the terms that she sort of sees Kellyanne Conway doing. She talks about Agenda Mad Libs, Faux Frankness, Impatience Signaling, which is both a verbal thing, but also how she carries herself. When the other person is going on too long, she sort of shrugs her shoulders and like, oh, we’ve got to get on with it. It’s a way of sort of taking away that person’s power. Downgrading Confrontation to Repartee.

Craig: That’s the best.

John: It’s like, no, we’re just chatting. Sexisming, which is basically making it seem like it’s a sexist attack when she’s being pushed too hard. Ice Queening. Mothersplaining. Schoolmarming. Cool Girling.

I really urge you to check out sort of how Loofbourow defines these terms, because they’re so specific and so clever. And they feel accurate to the ways in which Kellyanne Conway is able to apply the different techniques to sort of escape from all these things. It’s like a Houdini way of getting out of an argument. It’s really quite ingenious.

Craig: It is. And I think it’s really valuable for screenwriters because it cuts to – I mean, this article in particular that analyzes her cuts to the underlying psychology and subtext of the words we use. And this woman is doing it on a very high level. Kellyanne Conway does it on a very high level. And so, for instance, Imply Bad Faith. And this goes a little bit back to our dialogue discussion about those connecting words. When she is responding to George Stephanopoulos, she says the following, “And you know full well that President Trump and his family are complying with all of the ethical rules, everything they need to do to step away from his business and be a fulltime president.”

Now, the second part of that is not true. Sort of factually. But the first part, the key part, the part for screenwriters to really carefully look at is, “And you know full well that Trump.” And what the author here, Lili, what Lili Loofbourow – what a great name, Loofbourow – what Lili Loofbourow points out about this Imply Bad Faith, she says, “Note how gently this implies that Stephanopoulos has in some unspecified way mislead the public on the point to follow. And the implication in “and you know full well” is I’ll tolerate your unfairness, but not your dishonesty. That is a brilliant amount of stuff to shove under this little tiny cluster of words. Instead of saying, “Trump, blah, blah, blah,” to say, “And you know full well.” There is this wonderful dialogue undermining of the person, as if to say everything you’ve said you know is a lie and we all know it’s a lie, too.

And then you follow it with your own lie. It’s brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant screenwriting. That’s what makes scenes sing, you know?

John: It is. And what I also think it keys into, which we talked a lot about in the dialogue episode, is that the point of dialogue is to change the other character’s, what’s happening in the other character’s head. You’re trying to create a change of mental state in the other character’s head. But when you see these two talking heads talking, they’re really not trying to change each other. They’re really both trying to communicate to the person watching them. And so they have to pretend as if they’re having a conversation with this other person, but they’re really trying to have a conversation – their point of influence is the person watching the conversation.

And that’s what they’re trying to do these sort of emotional signals for is to say like, no, listen to what I want you to feel. This is what you want. This is what I’m trying to get you to understand. Not the intellectual words, but the feeling behind what I’m saying here.

Craig: Right.

John: And so when I say, “You know full well,” it’s like that other guy, he’s being dishonest. He’s being emotionally dishonest and we all see this, right? It’s really quite ingenious.

Craig: It is. There’s another use for this in a strange way. Kellyanne Conway says these things obviously intentionally. She knows what she’s doing. It’s her job. It’s why she’s paid. But, if you imagine people saying these things earnestly, you have a very funny character.

John: Yes.

Craig: There’s a great line from the first Hangover where Ed Helms says to Zach Galifianakis, “You are literally too stupid to insult.” And Zach says, “Thank you.”

So, here’s one. It’s called the Walkback. This is another one that Lili describes here. The day after an interview aired with a straightforward response, the White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. The day after that, Conway annihilated its usefulness with this. “On taxes, answers and repeated questions are same from campaign. POTUS is under audit and will not release until that is completed.”

Now, what’s amazing is that she’s saying, B, yesterday we said A, today we’re saying not A, and the answers are the same. But by saying the answers are the same, you have confused everything. And if you have a character that literally can’t see that those answers are different, that’s a funny character.

John: Yeah. It’s great. And so looking back at our dialogue episode, we talked about sort of how important it is for characters to listen and there’s a very special thing that’s happening here. It’s like she’s listening enough that she can gather up the material she needs in order to say basically her monologue back. And so it has the aspect of a conversation, but not really – it’s not really fully a dialogue. It’s really sort of two intercepting monologues.

And that can work if one of the characters is trying to do that.

Craig: Right.

John: The challenge comes if too many characters are trying to do that. And so Kellyanne Conway does sort of feel like a Sorkin-y kind of character. Like one who is so hyper-verbal and able to keep spinning things. But you can only have a certain number of those people in a scene, otherwise there’s no one to be able to hit the ball back to her. It’s like she has to have someone to keep throwing her stuff, because it just won’t work.

Craig: Absolutely. I mean, what this says, the act of spinning or verbal evasion is essentially it’s cheating. You are cheating at the game of conversation. You are willfully violating conversational conventions. You are dismissing from the start the purpose of good faith conversation in order to achieve something. You can’t – it’s no fun watching a game where two people are cheating. It’s interesting watching a game where one person is cheating and the other one is trying to hold them to the rules. And that’s what these interviews are like with her.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But in a screenplay and in a scene, you can have one person cheating. And I think it’s also important to note that if somebody is inveterate conversational cheater in your screenplay, the audience will draw a conclusion that they are sociopathic. You have to be aware of that. I mean, sociopathic behavior is not limited to killing people. Most sociopaths don’t do that at all. But conversational good faith is one of those things that indicates that you have a certain moral character or pro-social point of view. And a repeated violation of those rules is the opposite.

John: Absolutely. And what I think is important to note is that by all accounts the Kellyanne Conway we see during one of these interviews is not the Kellyanne Conway in the green room beforehand. And apparently she’s incredibly charming and incredibly nice and gracious during those moments. And so that’s part of the reason why she’s able to keep getting invited back.

And so it’s maybe worth thinking about your own characters is there a performance version of them and then a backstage version of them? And the performance version of them may have some of these characteristics that you wouldn’t be able to stand that character for the whole time, but if you can see behind the curtain and see what they’re able to do when sort of no one is watching.

Some of George Clooney’s characters have this trait where they are so on and then you can see what they’re really like when they’re not in that full glare of the lights. It can be a really nice contrast to see the two sides of that person.

Craig: Yeah. Well that is certainly another place to go with somebody like this, which is to reveal to the audience their conscience. I mean, we hope – look, I think all of us hope, and that’s partly why Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is so endearing – we hope that Kellyanne Conway at home in private thinks to herself, “Oh god.”

John: Yep.

Craig: “Ugh. I hope this changes, because this is very, very hard and I don’t like doing it. I believe in this guy,” I don’t know why she does, “but I believe in this guy, I believe in the program. It’s just that I am in a terrible position each day and I hope that changes.” You hope that that’s the case.

John: So, we’ve talked about sort of Sorkin characters, and you can imagine this in sort of a Sorkin world. But as I was looking at sort of the things that she’s doing, I got to thinking of another show that has a tremendous amount of like really rich dialogue which is Game of Thrones. And yet there’s not – I don’t see characters like Kellyanne Conway in the Game of Thrones situation. And I feel like in most of the talkie-talkie-talkie scenes I see in Game of Thrones, there is a listening happening. There’s always a sense of because you said this, this is the way I can respond. It’s never that sense of like I’m just going to plow through with my point. But do you feel that, too?

Craig: Oh completely.

John: Are there moments in Game of Thrones that are more Sorkin-y? I’m trying to remember, I’m thinking back to – because there’s some true sociopaths in Game of Thrones.

Craig: Oh yeah.

John: I mean, I don’t see them doing quite this.

Craig: Well, no, they don’t do this. The sociopaths usually just reveal their sociopathian quiet moments to another person as a fact and then try and explain to that person their point of view. The most notable example is Littlefinger’s speech to Varys, I think it’s at the end of Season 2. I’m not that good on seasons. Where Varys is saying to him, “Look, what’s going on here, you’re doing bad things that are going to cause trouble and that will lead to chaos. And chaos is a pit.” And Littlefinger says, “No, chaos is a ladder.”

John: “It’s a ladder.”

Craig: And then he goes on this speech about how he sees chaos. And you realize, oh my god, this dude is definitely a sociopath. And he’s definitely scary. But what he’s saying has merit. It’s the ugly truth. I don’t know if the guys discussed it with us when we did our live show with Dan and Dave, but at some point I remember them saying that when they wrote their first season, because it was their first time doing television, they were short. Their episodes were too short. And they had to go back and shoot a bunch of padding scenes. And those padding scenes inevitably for cost purposes had to be two people talking in a room. And they said those are some of the best scenes of the series, because these characters would fence with each other, going back to our dialogue discussion – not at the viewer, but with each other. And it was very much about a little fight. And you always felt at the end – I always feel at the end of a Game of Thrones scene where two people are talking that one person has won. And that’s wonderful.

John: Yeah. It is a wonderful thing. All right, so that’s Kellyanne Conway. I just thought it was a terrific article. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes. And obviously we could spend the rest of the hour talking Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant performance as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.

Craig: Oh god. She’s the greatest.

John: But I think it’s been discussed enough. But like it’s so remarkable to see someone I’ve known and loved for so long just have a moment in the spotlight there and just steal that moment and smash that moment and just make it the best moment of the week.

Craig: Isn’t it just the best part of it is that Hollywood really is not a place where the good guys win. You know? Sometimes, but most of the time bad people do. She is the best person. It’s so – it’s so nice to be able to root for somebody who just can’t not win. She wins every time. And I root for her every time because she deserves it. She’s just wonderful. And, god, was that good. Oh, so good.

John: Yeah. So our second big topic is words and specifically the words I encountered as I was going through the copy edit on Arlo Finch. So, longtime listeners will know that I sold my first middle grade fiction book. It is a fantasy book called Arlo Finch that will be coming out March 2018, hopefully.

Craig: Nice.

John: And I just went through the process of I turned in the book, we went through the notes with the editor, so three passes with that. Just went through the copy edit. And the copy edit is the stage that screenwriters never encounter. So a copy edit is when the manuscript goes into a different editor who goes through it word by word, line by line, checking not just for mistakes but also for little idiosyncrasies of grammar, timeline checking. It was like an autopsy of your book.

And it was overwhelming but also really cool to do. So, two weeks ago I had to sort of go through and look at this Microsoft Word document where she had marked up all of her questions and changes and notes. And what I had anticipated, and this is common, is that in this Word document she will actually just change the things she wants to change.

Craig: Whoa.

John: And then if I want to not change that, I have to mark it as Stet, which is Latin for like leave it the way it was. And then it goes back to the previous version. And so as screenwriters we’re never used to sort of like our script is taken away and they get redone by somebody. That just doesn’t happen. So as a screenwriter, a script supervisor might go through and mark stuff up for her purposes, but it’s never sort of taken away from us. And this sort of got taken away. And so then I had to go through and really look at all of her changes and see which ones I agreed with and which ones I didn’t agree with.

It was a really scary but kind of cool experience.

Craig: That’s remarkable. And I assume that many times when she made a change, you didn’t accept the change, nor did you stet it. You came up with your own twist?

John: There were quite a few times where there was a third way. Where I could definitely see what her objection was and I would word it a different way, or I’d find a way through it. A lot of times she was catching things like, you know, two pages I ago I had used this unusual verb and it just felt like too soon to use that verb again. I so appreciated her doing that, because especially in a book there’s just so many words that it’s so easy to get lost in them. And she was good about not getting lost.

But I wanted to talk about some of the things that were sort of unique for me coming into it as a screenwriter because there’s just things that I never encounter in our normal screenwriting profession. The biggest thing, of course, with writing a book is this is all written in the past. And so screenwriting is a present tense form. We use the past when we’re in dialogue, sometimes, like characters can speak in the past tense, but everything else in the script is the present tense. And so to write a book that was in the past tense, I was like, oh well, it’s just in the simple past. But you’re actually using two kinds of past. You’re using the simple past and you’re using the past perfect.

And figuring out the split between those two was not as straightforward as I would have guessed. You tend to use the past perfect when you’re pushing things further back in the past. So, if the present of the scene is in the simple past, then if I need to indicate something that happened before that moment, I go into like he had walked home that time. But within the course of a sentence, you might be using both forms. It was a really strange thing.

And particularly where when you start doing contractions.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: So like he’d done this, as you speak you often drop off that D. But you need to put that D there for writing. So it was so many of the mistakes I was making were because I had sort of left off the D of the past perfect.

Craig: Well, it makes sense. I mean, you’ve been doing one kind of writing for so long. It’s not that you don’t know how to write prose, but we have a certain writing mind. And when you get into that writing mind, it’s only natural that you would – certain of these things would just feel unnatural. And some mistakes are going to be made.

It’s a wonderful thing to have an editor there whose job is to catch those things. I have someone who works with me and that’s her job, largely, is, well, to listen to me blather and write down notes, but then also when she reads things she works like an editor. Every writer should have an editor. The sad thing about screenwriters is we don’t have editors. We have, well, we have what we have, don’t we? [laughs]

John: Yeah. So I’m very lucky to have Godwin. So Godwin reads everything I write. And so he proofreads stuff. But it’s a different thing than proofreading. Proofreading, like I leave out words all the time, so he’s always catching that kind of stuff. But this was a very fussy kind of thing. So, here’s an example of sort of the ambiguity that would become a problem at points. Take this sentence: On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she mistyped the date.

Is that OK? Or, do I need to say, “But she had mistyped the date?” Or I could say, “She’d mistyped the date.” Was it OK the first time, or did I need to put in the–?

Craig: I would prefer, I think both of those would be acceptable because I would understand them. But I would prefer that the verbs would agree and both would be in the had form.

John: Yep. And I think that would generally be my preference, too. But listen to the difference in this version. So rather than saying mistyped, let’s say mistook. So, “On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she mistook the date.” Or, “On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she had mistaken the date.”

So, that’s one of those situations where because mistook and had mistaken are so clearly different, the sentence really feels very different. Like you notice that change so much more dramatically.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. And those are tricky things. I mean, I assume that ultimately the name of the game is clarity, so that no one is confused.

John: Yep. The other things I ended up going through a lot about where the Oxford comma. I’m not an Oxford comma person.

Craig: Boo.

John: Yeah, you’re an Oxford comma person, aren’t you?

Craig: Yes.

John: So, here’s the thing is I’m entirely a fan of Oxford commas when it clarifies situations that could be ambiguous, but it ends up being a lot of extra commas in places where you don’t need them. Particularly I find if I have three characters in a sentence doing something, it ends up being like one extra comma in there that becomes just really frustrating and annoying.

Craig: Yeah. I think that if you’re talking about subjects of sentences, then I don’t even know if the Oxford comma applies there. So if we said, George, Alice, and Jim went to the mall, I would not put George-comma-Alice-comma-and Jim went to the mall.

John: Oh, but the copy editor would put a comma there.

Craig: Yeah. So to me I reserve my Oxford commas for the objects or the ends of lists. I would not put them in the subjects because I actually want to imply a conjoined action.

John: Yeah. Which makes sense to me, too. So there were a lot of situations where that, where I had to go through and Stet those kind of things and have an overall discussion about commas. But here is another thing which if find I had never encountered before. So, Craig, I’m going to give you a sentence, please tell me what word you’re going to use.

Craig: OK.

John: So there’s an object in the distance. You’re moving in a direction that will bring you to that object. You are headed ____ that object.

Craig: Toward.

John: All right. I would absolutely say “towards.” I’ve said towards my entire life.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so Toward and Towards are – you are an east coast person, I’m a Colorado person. It’s a Colorado book. Everyone is saying towards in my book. But I had to go through and there were like 17 times where I had to go through and Stet the Towards back to Toward.

Craig: Yeah.

John: My whole family says towards. I called my mom to ask her what she said. I double checked.

Craig: Fascinating.

John: There’s other words that are just, they’re on the cusp. And so what I found very useful was to do – Google has what’s called an Ngram Viewer which will show you amazingly all the books that they’ve scanned and they can check by year what word is more commonly used. So you can compare two words.

So, knelt versus kneeled. Which one is preferred right now? Craig?

Craig: I would use knelt.

John: Knelt is still preferred. Kneeled is catching up quick.

Craig: Really? Interesting. OK.

John: How about the difference between each other and one another?

Craig: They sent messages to each other. They sent message to one another. I would go each other.

John: OK. And do you know what the “rule” is between the two choices?

Craig: Well, I’m trying to think. They kissed each other. They spoke between one another. I would put one another as the object of a preposition.

John: No. So the difference is supposed to be each other is two people, one another is more than two people.

Craig: Oh, OK. Oh, so if three people are in a polyamorous relationship, they kissed one another.

John: Exactly.

Craig: Oh.

John: It’s all about kissing with Craig.

Craig: OK. Yeah. Yeah.

John: Which do you think is preferred right now: clearer or more clear?

Craig: Clearer.

John: You’re correct. Weaved or wove?

Craig: Ooh, he weaved a tale, he wove a tale? I would say wove.

John: So, I actually had a debate about this. Weaved is a different word than wove. So, it turns out there are two verbs, one is to weave cloth. One is to sway back and forth. They are similar in all their forms, except wove is for cloth, weaved is for swaying back and forth.

Craig: Now, which one would you use for in my little example was a tale, a story, I weaved a tale/I wove a tale? I would say wove.

John: Wove. Because you’re making something out of it.

Craig: Got it. OK. That’s fine there. There you go.

John: Further/farther? What’s the distinction between further and farther?

Craig: Those are question of distance, like actual physical or measurable quantity versus quality. So–

John: The monster opened its jaw – which?

Craig: Further.

John: All right. But that’s a measurable distance.

Craig: Yeah, but the opening of the jaw feels unmeasurable to me. No, farther. Farther. You’re right. It’s farther. It’s farther.

John: I’m very much a farther is for distances on the ground. So, I’m going for farther–

Craig: Yeah, but I think if he opened his mouth I would say he opened it farther than the monster next to him. Further would be, yeah, more conceptual.

John: Weirdly, I would agree with you. If you’re comparing two things, one is farther. But the beast opened its mouth–

Craig: Further. Yeah.

John: The usage I was using or it, further seemed to make a lot more sense than farther in that case.

Our last one which came up is less and fewer. So, tell us the rule about less and fewer.

Craig: Stannis Baratheon’s favorite. That’s my favorite is when he corrects–

John: That’s right, it was in Game of Thrones. Circling back.

Craig: Fewer. Less and fewer. Fewer is used when you have a specific quantity. Less is, again, a case of quality. So you are less likely to do something. There are two fewer people in this line than that line. Three items or fewer, not three items or less.

John: Ah, but we’ll see. Which is the correct one for this sentence? It was one less drawer to open? It was one fewer drawer to open?

Craig: It was one fewer drawer to open. Well, it depends. Depends. If you’re talking about three drawers, and then someone says, “You only have to open two.” You would say it is one fewer drawer to open. Drawer to open. Drawer, by the way, is a New York thing.

If you were saying, “Ugh, I got to clean out my house and I have to go through all these drawers.” And someone said, “Well, we’ve gotten rid of a bunch of them,” then you could say, “OK, it was one less drawer to open,” because it’s more of a quality of drawer opening. So it’s ambiguous there.

John: It’s actually not as ambiguous, because less is for a single object. So, it’s only one. So it is a single object, if that makes sense. The best answer is that there’s no good answer and you will always be marked wrong, whichever choice you make. And so that was a case where I ultimately had to rewrite the sentence, because there was not going to be a way to write that sentence that a school librarian would not say that’s the wrong word.

Craig: The only way to win is not to play.

John: That is absolutely true. So, that was my adventure in copy editing. It was mostly fun. It was so much more exhausting than I imagined it would be. I thought like when I got the document back like, oh, this will take an hour or two. It was like six, seven hours of work going through it bit by bit.

Craig: I kind of think I would love to do that job.

John: Yeah.

Craig: What fun.

John: It would be fun to do on a book you like, but I can’t imagine having to do it on a book you hated. I was a script reader for TriStar for a year. And so my job would be I would be assigned two scripts, I would take them home. I would read the scripts. I would write up coverage. And then I’d bring them back and I’d just do that every day.

And every once and a while you’d read like a really good script and like, man, I really enjoyed this, I really got it, I was excited to do it. But then sometimes you’re reading a script and you’re like five pages in and like I have no idea what’s happening, I don’t want to do this. And there’s another 115 pages. And then I have to write up notes on this. And that’s when I can imagine being a copy editor on something you just despise is just like, ugh.

Craig: I get it completely. Although there is something at least, look, when you’re script reading you have to summarize it, so you’re regurgitating it, which hurts when it stinks. And then you have to make a recommendation about it, so you’re critiquing it, which never feels good when you don’t like things. At least if you’re copy editing books, it’s like, well, I can just focus in on grammar, sentence structure, verb complementing, repeated words, you know, the usual stuff.

John: Anyway, that was my venture in copy editing. A thing that most screenwriters will never encounter, but it was a good experience.

Craig: Sounds like fun.

John: So it has come time for our One Cool Things, Craig. Do you want to start off?

Craig: Sure. My One Cool Thing this week comes from Chris Sparling, guest of the show, friend of the show Chris Sparling, screenwriter, filmmaker. And he wrote and said, “I wanted to pass something along to you guys to consider for your next One Cool Thing.” Considered and approved. “As it is a powerful and timely initiative that would benefit from the added exposure.” And now, John, the added exposure.

Chris Sparling’s wife has Type 1 Diabetes. So, for those of you who don’t know the difference, Type 1 diabetes is essential congenital diabetes. You’re born with it. It appears usually when you’re a child. In this case, with Chris’s wife, she was diagnosed when she was seven. It’s unlike Type 2 diabetes which comes generally when you’re an adult and largely is connected to poor diet and being overweight, so it’s not a lifestyle thing, it’s a genetic condition.

She’s very active in terms of advocacy and several years ago helped launch the Spare-A-Rose Campaign in association with the International Diabetes Federation. So, the way this works is pretty simple. On Valentine’s Day, people go out, they buy roses. Buy one fewer rose. Not one less rose. I agree with him here. It should be one fewer rose, no matter what your copy editor says. Buy one fewer rose this Valentine’s Day and donate the value of that flower to a child living with diabetes in a less resourced country. And again, less, properly used there.

So, I mean, that’s a wonderful idea. Because diabetes is a terrible, terrible situation for anybody. It reeks all sorts of havoc on the body. It is difficult for people in power countries to manage it because, I mean, the best way to manage diabetes in a child often involves not just insulin but an insulin pump that is connected into the body. There’s maintenance and expense.

So, please would you consider this folks? You don’t have to actually buy one fewer rose. You can buy one extra rose, or take the money for one extra rose and donate it. And so go to sparearose.org and we will put a link in the show notes. It’s something I plan on doing. It seems like a terrific cause. And I don’t know what the price of one rose is. Six buck? Seven bucks? I don’t know. It can make a huge difference to a child. So, Chris Sparling, great idea. That is absolutely One Cool Thing. And we’re happy to support it.

John: Very nice. My One Cool Thing is Eurostar Snap. So, Eurostar is, of course, the train between Paris and London. The one that goes underneath the English Channel. It is great and I love it. And it takes you right from the center of Paris to the center of London. The challenge with Eurostar is it’s not often all that cheap. And sometimes you can buy cheaper tickets on the planes between the outskirts of Paris and the outskirts of London.

So, what Eurostar Snap is, it’s a way to buy cheaper tickets on Eurostar. So, down to like 25 pounds each, which is great. So, with Eurostar Snap, you get to pick your day and whether it’s morning or night, but you don’t get to pick exactly what train you’re going to be on. If you’re flexible, like if you’re coming to visit for a general sense, you’re not there for a specific business meeting, it can be a really great way to sort of get between Paris and London.

You have to book seven days in advance. They only tell you what your train is 48 hours in advance. But for a lot of people it makes sense. So, if you’re coming to one of the cities, I definitely recommend you try Eurostar Snap. If it sounds interesting, it is snap.eurostar.com.

Craig: There you go. See, it’s either you save a child’s life, or you get a slightly cheaper train ticket. This isn’t a competition. Both things are cool. [laughs]

John: You can do both things.

Craig: Both things. Oh, Jerk Craig. Actually Jerk Craig is just Craig, right?

John: Jerk Craig is the real Craig.

Craig: Yeah, just Craig, yeah.

John: And that’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Panic Episode. If you have an outro that you’d like for us to play on the show, you can send us a link at ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you send questions like the two we answered today. On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. That’s the place for all the short questions that you have about little things. And we both answered quite a few little screenwriting questions this week. So, write to us on that.

Craig: It works.

John: We like to see that. We have a Facebook page that Godwin updates and I occasionally check out. So you can leave notes for us there if you’d like to. We are, of course, also on iTunes. That’s where you can download the most recent episodes. You can leave us a comment. We love those. It’s also where you can download the Scriptnotes app. There’s also one on the Google app store. For getting to all those back episodes – it’s the only way to get back to our first 287 episodes.

Craig: Woo.

John: Woo. 287 episodes. You’ll find transcripts for this show and all shows at johnaugust.com. You’ll also find the full show notes for the things we talked about.

And that is our show for this week. Craig, thank you so much.

Craig: Thank you, John. See you next week.

John: Cool.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Betty, Veronica and Craig

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig look at what screenwriters can pick up from Kellyanne Conway, plus what John learned from going through the copy-editing process on his book.

We also answer listener questions about moving to Los Angeles and whether to use a pen name.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 287: Hollywood is Always Dying — Transcript

Sun, 02/12/2017 - 11:20

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

Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 287 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be discussing the end of the film industry, unique character voices, and some things I learned going through the process of copy editing. Plus, we will answer those listener questions that have been sitting in the inbox for far too long.

Craig: Far too long.

John: Far too long. But we have some follow up. We have exciting follow up. The kind of follow up I love, because I love babies.

Craig: Aw, babies.

John: Aw. So, a few episodes ago we had Kelly Marcel on to help us with a Three Page Challenge. She told us on that show that she was expecting a baby with Mr. Steve Zissis, who is another Scriptnotes guest. That baby was born. So, pretty damn excited that we have a new Scriptnotes listener. The first Scriptnotes guest joint project baby.

Craig: Right. The Scriptnotes Baby essentially.

John: It is the Scriptnotes Baby. I mean, I think they were both guests. They now have a baby. I’ll let people do the math themselves.

Craig: It’s a Scriptnotes Baby.

John: Yeah. An interesting thing about this baby. Do you know this baby’s name?

Craig: I do.

John: Yes. It’s not named Craig. It’s not named Mazin. What is its name?

Craig: First of all, we don’t really know that. We know what we’ve been told, OK?

John: All right. Yeah. The official story, yeah.

Craig: But the baby’s first name is Gus. It’s Gus.

John: And that’s short for what?

Craig: For Gustave.

John: No, the baby’s official name is August. So–

Craig: That’s not – I don’t.

John: You know what? August did not used to be such a common name. I think it’s an increasingly common name. And, again, I don’t want to take credit for that. But I have to say like it wasn’t common, now it is common. My profile has risen. I let people draw their own conclusions.

Craig: This is Boasty John.

John: The worst version of Boasty John.

Craig: The worst version of Boasty John.

John: I mostly just want to thank and congratulate. I don’t want to thank them.

Craig: [laughs] I think we should thank them. No, no, no. Let’s thank them.

John: Thank them for being wonderful guests. And mostly I just want to congratulate Kelly and Steve on their new baby.

Craig: I like the idea that this is follow up. Because it’s not really. If we’re going to be technical, it’s follow up to them having sex as far as I can tell. That’s what babies are.

John: They are.

Craig: And in follow up news, a baby was born as a result of sex. Steve, here’s a great thing. So, I always think about first names and last names together. I mean, we do this all the time when we’re writing. We’re so obsessive about names.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: So Gus Zissis has more S-Zissis sounds in there. Gus Zissis sounds like a killer from the future.

John: I like it.

Craig: Gus Zissis.

John: Good choices.

Craig: Yes.

John: This last week we had two episodes. One of the episodes was a little mini episode I did with Nima Yousefi about his experience as an Iranian refugee. A listener wrote in with a great link to a blog series called Their Story is Our Story. So, if you liked Nima’s story, there are a lot more stories that are sort of like Nima’s.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And it’s really well put together. So, I would encourage people to check out Their Story is Our Story. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes.

Craig: Fantastic. See, that’s follow up.

John: That’s truly follow up, because it just happened in an episode and now I’m talking about it. This is also follow up. So, a previous episode, like last week, we talked about those little marker words that sort of indicate that you are paying attention. And so in Madrid when I was there, in Spanish you often hear Vale which is basically OK. It’s just sort of an acknowledgment yes word.

A listener pointed my attention to a Spanish short film directed by Alejandro Amenábar called Vale which is actually delightful. And it wasn’t only at the very end of this delightful short film I realized it was actually a beer commercial.

Craig: D’oh!

John: But it’s a really well done beer commercial. So I will point you to the video for that. It’s quite well done. It stars Dakota Johnson. My question for you, Craig, Mazin, who is Dakota Johnson?

Craig: Watch what I do now? Watch how I blow your mind. Dakota Johnson is, A, the star of 50 Shades or Darker of Grey. And she is the daughter of Don Johnson and another person, as people are, like Gus Zissis. Sure.

John: Isn’t it Melanie Griffith? I’m actually not sure if that’s true. But, Dakota Johnson has a very special relationship with a previous Scriptnotes guest. That is my challenge for you. Who is that Scriptnotes guest that she has a special relationship with?

Craig: Well, Kelly Marcel is one of the writers of 50 Shades of Grey. Is that it?

John: Well, Kelly Marcel, is the writer of 50 Shades of Grey, but there is another screenwriter guest who she has an incredibly direct relationship with.

Craig: Dakota Johnson used to be married to Derek Haas.

John: That is not correct.

Craig: No. Oh. Sorry. I thought that was true.

John: This is going to be really embarrassing when I tell you this. So, are you ready?

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, Dakota Johnson played Kate in Ben & Kate, a show created by Dana Fox. She played essentially Dana Fox’s equivalent character in Ben & Kate. Not only that, she was the star of the movie that Dana produced and wrote, called How To Be Single, that Dana was on the show to talk about.

Craig: Yeah. You think I’m embarrassed by this? First of all, I don’t watch television, so not embarrassed at all. And second of all, I didn’t see her movie. I have no problem telling people I didn’t see – I feel like I’m now shielded completely from any negative feelings about this because people know that basically I just spend all day writing and playing video games and just it’s the saddest thing. It’s so sad.

John: It’s a lovely life.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Our last bit of follow up is about the Amazing Live Sea Monkeys.

Craig: Thank god.

John: Thank god. We’re finally through to the Amazing Live Sea Monkeys. So, Craig Good, a listener, pointed this out. Craig Good, he might actually be named for you. That’s a possibility.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Craig Good.

Craig: Yeah, like Good Craig.

John: It’s like the good version of you.

Craig: [laughs] All Craigs are the good version – everybody is a good version of me, because I am the worst version of me.

John: Yeah, you’re the best version of the Craig Mazin we love. He wrote in to point out that the puppeteer filmmakers that I mentioned who were co-creators of the show, it’s pronounced Chiodo, no Chiodo, but more importantly they’re also the people behind Killer Clowns from Outer Space, which is a cult classic. Which I’ve never seen, but is a cult classic, and I recognize the title.

Craig: Was Dakota Johnson in that?

John: She could have been in that. Craig would never know.

Craig: By the way, I’m happy to believe it. If you tell me it’s true.

John: Let’s get on to our main topic for this week, because I think it’s a pretty important topic. It’s going to be the end of Scriptnotes, basically, I think, because Hollywood is over.

Craig: Hollywood is done.

John: Which is – it’s done.

Craig: Nothing left to talk about really, right?

John: So, we’re going to center our conversation around an article that appeared in the most recent Vanity Fair titled Why Hollywood as we know it is already over. But hopefully we’re going to bridge out sort of beyond the article to talk about this kind of article. This article is written by Nick Bilton, who I actually know. So this is sort of my preamble to say that I like Nick. I think Nick is a really good writer. I’ve enjoyed a lot of things he’s written. And I talked to him originally about a book he wrote about Twitter, which I thought was really good.

I don’t think this piece is good. And Craig thinks this is also not good. So, we’re going to be sort of picking this piece apart sort of as a premise and as some details. But I want to make sure we’re able to circle around about the question of like well what if he’s right, or what if in a general sense it really is going to collapse. And what signs should we look for when it does collapse.

If you get exhausted with us just ripping apart this article, stick around, because I want to look for how we might find out if the premise of the article could be true.

Craig: All right.

John: How do you want to start, Craig?

Craig: We’ll obviously have a link in the show notes, so you folks can read along with this. Let’s just talk first, if we could, about this kind of article. This article comes out every year. Every year.

John: Multiple times in the year, but especially–

Craig: Seasonal.

John: Yeah. But I mean, I’ve read a version of this article for the last 20 years.

Craig: Correct. So, very famously Lorne Michaels once said that every season of Saturday Night Live some brilliant television critic issues a review entitled Saturday Night Dead. And it has now been running for 31 years. And no sign of stopping. In fact, it seems more popular than ever.

The death knell of Hollywood has been sounded repeatedly really since television, I think, was created. And it seems like people take different tacks on why it’s no good, and will go away, and it’s all over, and that’s the end of that. In general, I think people do like writing articles like this because they’re very provocative. And ultimately they are low-risk/high-reward.

No one will remember your fake false prediction about something ending when it doesn’t end. But everybody will go rushing headlong back towards you to say, “Oh my god, this guy saw it coming,” when in fact just on average someone just guessing will “see it coming.”

So, you see this a lot. It is ultimately sensational journalism designed to provoke and feed into a general desire to see things fall apart. We do have this in our hearts, this weird rooting for things to collapse.

John: Yeah. I think we’re also at a very unique moment in American history right now where we are seeing some institutions that you thought like, oh, that could never fall apart, seem to be falling apart.

Craig: Right.

John: I think it’s natural to sort of say, well, Hollywood will fall apart. And, again, it could. But I don’t think it’s going to fall apart for the reasons that Nick Bilton does. So let’s start with the article itself and sort of how he gets us into this, which is that he’s visiting a TV show that’s shooting. He’s in a discussion with the screenwriter on the set. There is a raindrop on an actor’s shoulder. And the screenwriter brushes it off. And the wardrobe supervisor or the person responsible for that actor rushes over saying like, “No, no, don’t do that. That’s my job.”

So, that is sort of the premise that he’s introducing us to the current Hollywood world with.

Craig: Yeah. So, this is a terrible anecdote. Horrendous, really. The anecdote makes the following points. Creating film and television is incredibly inefficient because while he’s talking to a screenwriter about how inefficient things are, there are 200 members of the crew who are milling about – I’m just quoting from the article – “milling about in various capacities, checking on lighting or setting up tents, but mainly futzing with their smartphones, passing time, or nibbling on snacks from the craft service tents.”

Let’s start there, shall we?

John: Yeah. Let’s be… – A person who is not working in film and television visiting a set, I think that’s honestly kind what you would see. And if you don’t sort of know what everyone’s job is, you might see that and say like, “Oh, why aren’t people working?” I would argue that if you were to go into a Silicon Valley startup and see people sitting at their desks, you might have sort of the same question. Like, what are they actually doing? They’re maybe typing something, but are they really working? And sometimes if you look at a film set you might say like those folks aren’t working. They are working.

Craig: Yeah. So film production is not like a typical factory plant where everybody is working. After they clock in, then they get their lunch break, then they go back to work. Nor is it like working in retail. The way films are made, you need a lot of different people who are able to do different things. But, the nature of the crew is that it’s a lot of people, none of whom are always needed, but all of whom are sometimes needed.

It’s just the way film production is. It goes in ways. Like a little bit of a military campaign. When you are engaging in a military effort, not everybody does their job at once. When you are on a football team, half the team is on the bench, the other half is on the field. Are the people on the bench just sitting around, futzing?

So, when you’re turning lights around, the grips and the electricians are working. And when you’re shooting, hair and makeup are working. And when you’re blocking out a scene, you have your ADs and you have the cinematographer, and then you have set-dec, and you have props people coming in and getting approvals. Sometimes they’re on the truck. They’re ordering stuff for the next day.

The truth is, if you don’t understand how film production works, then you might think, “Oh, this seems inefficient.” What’s remarkable to me about articles like this is that the author never stops to ask, “Hmm, do I understand how this works? Is it really just – is the easy observation that it’s all just bizarrely bloated in some kind of crazy way possibly true?” If we were to put a camera in Nick Bilton’s office and just run that 24/7 for a week, I wonder how much work we would see happening, and how much other stuff?

John: Yeah. It would be challenging to see. So, let’s look at – he segues from this scene of a film set, to talking about other industries that were disrupted. So, let’s quickly go through some of the other industries that have been disrupted and sort of what the fair analogies are and the unfair analogies.

Let’s start with the music industry. Obviously there was a massive disruption in the music industry. Recorded music sort of fell apart. And the so the profits that you used to come into the recording industry are not there anymore. It’s a very different industry, obviously, but that was the one that was sort of most directly hit by mp3s, piracy. It all fell apart.

To a lesser degree, you see what happened in the newspaper industry. You saw book publishing. Other industries where disruption sort of upended everything. But the music industry is probably the most direct one, so let’s take a look at that first.

Craig: Well, the music industry was disrupted in this fashion in the ‘90s. We’re talking about 25 years ago now. I think Napster was, and Limewire, and all these sites – I mean, remember Limewire? These were around in the early ‘90s. And I think everybody watching what that did to the music industry naturally said, “How long will it be before the television and film industry falls to the same fate?”

And really the only thing that seemed to be limiting it was just bandwidth capacity and sizes of hard drives, which probably within six years had reached the place where it could happen. And it has not happened. And they keep talking about this like this is the mistake that old people make. Sorry, Nick. I assume – even if he’s my age, he’s old. We think that because we clearly remember this happening that it’s going to happen again right around the corner. That is a quarter of a century ago. And it has not happened.

Why? Huge difference between the way the music industry works and the way our industry works. The music industry was never developing work because music is not massively collaborative. The only collaboration you find in music really is between maybe a producer and an artist, or four or five people in a band. But the truth is, one person with a guitar can make a hit song. The music industry was always about finding those people, the way that indie companies find movies at festivals, and then supporting their work financially like patrons, and then advertising and distributing the work, which is the only apt comparison to the way Hollywood functions for television and film.

It has never been true and it never will be true about movies and shows that one person or two people or four people can do it. In fact, it takes armies of people. The very armies that this guy thinks might not be necessary, but are, to make these shows happen. And so we are simply in a different position. If this industry around us went the way of the music industry, there just wouldn’t be the content. But we know that that’s not true for music. It’s odd to me that the question isn’t why hasn’t this happened to film, rather than the statement clearly this will happen to film.

John: Yeah. I think that’s a great question. It was what I wanted to hit next. And we don’t have time for it today, but let’s try to circle back in a future episode basically why has film and television not fallen apart to piracy the way we always kind of thought it might, because there really is not a fundamental difference in terms of technology of why a television series can still be viable now, even though there is rampant piracy, and we know about Game of Thrones. There’s rampant piracy. And yet it hasn’t happened. So, to predict that it’s going to happen seems naïve.

Moving on through the article, he talks about “Hollywood these days seems remarkably poised for a similar disruption. Its audiences increasingly prefer on-demand content. Its labor is costly. And margins are shrinking.” Craig?

Craig: I don’t agree. First of all, I don’t know what he means by Hollywood exactly. He never quite defines that terms. What is that? When I first showed up in Los Angeles in 1992, in the era of Napster, somewhat optimistically, defying all the predictions of disaster, I remember driving through Hollywood. Actually seeing Hollywood for the first time and going, “Wait, what? This is a slum. There’s nothing here. There’s just a bunch of warehouses and a couple of post-production facilities and graffiti and shambling heroin addicts.”

Hollywood, I don’t know exactly what it means. Yes, audiences prefer on-demand content in one sense. I think they prefer it over the traditional way of delivering television series, which was you get one once a week for 22 weeks. You have to wait. There are commercials inside of the episode that you have to wait. Of course they prefer that. They don’t seem to prefer on-demand content when it comes to movies. At all. That’s just a fact.

But the larger question, I mean, margins are shrinking. We’ll have to take a look at his data on that. But, why is Netflix not Hollywood in his definition? When Netflix employs the same crews, and the same writers, and the same actors, and the same directors, using the same methods that he’s decrying here, to make their shows. How is Scott Frank’s upcoming western miniseries that employed hundreds of people and big Hollywood stars, and he’s a big Hollywood writer-director, for Netflix, how is that – and a big budget – how is that not Hollywood?

John: Yeah. So we talked about disruption, and clearly you can look at Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, they are disrupting the model of standard television. But they’re disrupting it in very kind of conventional ways. They didn’t find a new cheaper way to make television. They just made really expensive television, and made money making really expensive television. So, it’s a weird kind of disruption.

Classically, you wouldn’t think of disruption as like, oh, you’ve changed the distribution model, you’ve changed – we’re able to make things for like a quarter of the cost. That’s not actually happened. And over the years I’ve seen experiments with like we’re going to see if we can do this kind of movie for a million dollars rather than $10 million. And they do one of those and it tanks. There’s kind of a reason why things cost what they cost. I don’t sort of buy the overall “it looks like it should be disrupted, so therefore it will be disrupted” argument.

But let’s do take a look at some numbers, because one of the things he cites in here, and actually I did tweet at him to ask where he got this number, and I haven’t heard back as we’re recording this, so if I do get the answer I will edit this in here. But he writes that, “Movie theater attendance is down to a 19-year low, with revenues hovering slightly above $10 billion.”

So, again, I don’t know what his source was for tickets sold, but for what I saw, 2016 had 1.3 billion tickets sold domestically. 1998, which is 19 years ago, had 1.4 billion. So, it’s lower, but it’s like a point of a billion. So, it’s not like a huge falloff.

I looked at the MPAA statistics, so for 2015, which was the last year I could find them, admissions or tickets sold were 1.32 billion. And average tickets sold per person increased 4%. That means that two-thirds of North Americans saw at least one movie in the theater, which is a 2% increase over moviegoers from 2014. So, that’s actually a pretty amazing statistic that it says two-thirds, actually 69% of North Americans saw at least one movie in the theater. That’s kind of huge.

Craig: It’s enormous. And when you see movie theater attendance is down to a 19-year low, that is classic misinformation. If it’s down to a 19-year low, but it’s down by, like you said, some tiny amount, that’s not particularly meaningful. Nor does his 19-year low take into account what was going on inside those 19 years. So, in 1998, 1.44 billion tickets sold. In 2003, 1.52 billion tickets sold. So, I don’t quite see where he’s coming from here. In 1997, total inflation adjusted box office was $11.6 billion. And in 2016, it $11.25 billion. That seems remarkably stable for an industry that he is suggesting is in some kind of freefall.

I generally do not like these kinds of sensational statistics manipulation because it makes me start to question the motivation here, which I don’t think is evil or malicious as much as over-zealous in support of a grabby click-bait headline.

John: Yeah. And obviously writers don’t pick their headlines, and so a lot of what he’s describing here can be sort of charitably taken as this is sort of the experience of sort of what it feels like here. And as a tech person coming in and seeing this stuff, he sees these patterns which are classically setup for Silicon Valley disruption. But what I find so fascinating is the Silicon Valley money from Amazon, from Netflix, they’re spending the same money. They’re changing some things, but they’re actually still spending all the money to make the big, expensive prestige things.

You look at the kinds of series they’re doing. You look at the kinds of money they’re spending. It’s not actually different.

Craig: It’s not. And by the way, this is not for lack of trying to disrupt. That’s the other thing that’s really important to understand. Amazon, we did an episode about this a number of years ago. When Amazon came into this world of content creation, they absolutely wanted to disrupt it. In fact, their entire model was based on the presumption that is being stated in this article. That Hollywood system was inefficient, clumsy, unnecessarily cumbersome. And that by disrupting it and going straight to content creators and then crowd-sourcing the material and crowd-editing it that they would arrive at much better work, essentially kind of Ubering their way around a taxi cab industry. And they failed not big, but disastrously, to the point where they have just forgotten about that whole thing completely. That was just a complete whiff.

And they failed for all the reasons we suggested they would. So, believe me, they would. Oh my god, would they have disrupted us by now if they could.

John: I don’t think they’re going to. And part of it is also you have to understand the economics of things are not sort of what you might anticipate. He talks about a modest episode of a television show could cost $3 million to shoot and produce. By comparison, the typical startup in Silicon Valley will raise that much for a team of engineers and servers for two years. It feels like a very faulty analogy considering that $3 million you’re spending on that television episode is immediately profitable.

Craig: Right.

John: Because of foreign right sales, that $3 million you’ve spent, you’ve already made it back. Like by the time it airs, you’ve made your money back. So the return on investment on that $3 million is really good. And I think that’s part of my frustration is you see people investing new money in Hollywood all the time, including these tech people, because it’s genuinely profitable.

Craig: Right. That’s the strange paradox at the heart of this. He’s saying that Hollywood is going to be disrupted by Silicon Valley, and yet Silicon Valley keeps giving money to Hollywood. Right? So, you could take that $3 million if you really want to be efficient and just buy bean pickers. You could buy, I don’t know, 10,000 bean pickers in how many bean fields. It’s not the way this works. It’s a dumb comparison.

And here’s the other thing. People routinely make the mistake of applying classic ROI analysis, return on investment analysis, to Hollywood, forgetting one very important thing: that people don’t want to just be in the entertainment business because of the business part. There’s that old saying, you know, it’s not show fun, it’s show business. This is show business. Yes, but the flip side of that is it’s show business, not business-business, not money business. Show business.

You and I could make more money doing something else. If everybody simply went towards what was the most efficient way to make money, then I guess, yes, we would all be hedge fund managers, or I don’t know. But even the business people, the suits, that are in our business want to be in our business because they’re drawn to the show. To the glamour. And the celebrity. And the artistic experience. And the notion of creating culture as opposed to a slightly more feature-laden spreadsheet. And that’s why Silicon Valley is so fascinated by Hollywood. They can say it’s because they need content for all their new delivery systems, but in the end content is fascinating. And a lot of this other stuff like how to maximize server load is not.

John: It’s not. It’s fascinating for certain people, and god bless the people for whom that is fascinating and they get paid well by Google. Let’s bring this a little closer to home and back to screenwriting. Because he talks about if you could give a computer all the best scripts ever written, it would eventually be able to write one that might come close to replicating an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.

Craig: [laughs]

John: It’s very close to the a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters thing.

Craig: Right.

John: Like, yes, that could happen. We looked at the first scripts sort of written by an AI program starring Thomas Middleditch. It was not fantastic.

Craig: No.

John: Do I believe that that kind of stuff will get better? I do believe that kind of stuff will get better. Do I believe it’s going to replace our expectations of screenwriters writing scripts? I do not believe that.

Craig: No.

John: It falls into a line of sort of Amazon’s model in terms of crowd-sourcing things. Or the kind of inevitable A/B testing that’s done on the tech side, which has the equivalence in our focus group being in Hollywood. They are processes. They are processes that don’t necessarily lend themselves to great works of art.

And I think a thing which may be easy to overlook from a distance is that this isn’t like sort of what color should the links be on Google’s home page, which they can test for. It’s like is this movie working? Is this movie going to be the one that’s going to bring a billion dollars in? That’s not the kind of thing you can actually sort of test for. It actually has to be good. And there’s a qualitative versus a quantitative thing that’s very hard to sort of hit to. You have to get filmmakers and a vision behind that for those things to work.

Craig: Well, they keep trying. We will discover every year or so another one of these companies that believes they’ve found an algorithm, and they haven’t. I love sentences like, “If you can give a computer all the best scripts ever written, it would eventually be able to write one that might come close to replicating an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.” Oh, OK. Well, I can’t wait for that day. Here’s what we know about that wonderful day. Aaron Sorkin has to exist first. Aaron Sorkin has to write a screenplay first. This is the kind of thing that people say at a cocktail party and you just go, “You know what, I have to excuse myself to the bathroom,” because I can’t talk to this person anymore. They’re out of their minds.

It’s not that I’m one of these people that thinks stupidly that computers aren’t going to become smarter, and smarter, and smarter. We’re fascinated by this. We talked about this remarkable leap forward that Google took with translation. But they only were able to do that by feeding enormous amounts of data, meaning language, into that computer, and then having the computer parse through all of this stuff.

And you can’t do that with movies. You’ll just end up, I mean, what’s the point? We’ve tested this with everyone on the planet and we’ve come up with the perfect version. Great. They already saw it. It doesn’t matter. What if computers could write Vanity Fair articles? What if computers could make Michelin Star worthy food? What if robots could play baseball? Putting “what if” in front of a prediction adds exactly zero credibility to it. It’s just provocation for provocation sake. And in particular, when you’re talking about movies, what we crave as an audience and as humans is the new. Computers are really good at copying what’s happened before, right?

When we say that Google translation has made a huge leap forward, what we’re saying is they’re catching up to what humans have already done with translation work. They’re not translating hither to untranslated languages. But with movies, we want new. We’re always looking for cultural disruption. Computers will not be able to do that. That’s not what they do. We do that.

John: Yeah. You look at the progress in AI, and it’s always really good at solving games. And so translation you can think of as a game. Like are you getting the right result? And so computers just this last week kicked ass at poker, and they were able to do poker really well, and that was a huge breakthrough. The thing is, there’s not a perfect answer in terms of like what is the right movie. Because you can have the right movie. I’ve seen the right movie. And then I’ve been in like three-hour arguments with producers and studio executives over the right movie that’s already finished and they keep wanting to change things.

There’s not going to be a place where you get to like this is the perfect movie. This is the best movie it can possibly be. There’s always going to be opinions. And there aren’t opinions in poker. It’s clear who won.

Craig: Right.

John: And you don’t have a clear winner in this. But, let’s do that dangerous “what if” and let’s ask the question of what if he’s right, or what if essentially even if he’s wrong on some of the details, he’s right in saying that Hollywood as we know it is going to end, or it’s going to collapse, it’s going to fall, there’s going to be some reckoning coming. What should we look for if that is going to happen?

Craig: Well, you would start to see major studios with names that have great brand awareness shutting down completely. I think if you saw Warner Bros or Universal or Fox or Columbia, Disney, just say we’re out of the business of making television shows and movies, that would be a huge sign. And I think one of those things would have to happen while also not being replaced by some equivalent. So, it’s not like Circuit City goes out of business because Best Buy is just doing the same job but better. But rather we’ve just lost something, the way that brick and mortar stores are disappearing. We know that Sears is disappearing. Best Buy is gone. Circuit City is gone. That’s a sign.

John: Yeah. I would say if you saw a lack of investment, basically money was not chasing Hollywood anymore, that would be a sign that they’re saying like, “OK, we don’t believe we’re going to be able to get our money out of this investment.” And we are not seeing that now.

So, I’m not saying that the money spigots will always be flowing at sort of maximum volume, but I’m still seeing a lot of money coming into Hollywood. You’re seeing a lot of Silicon Valley money coming into Hollywood. And that is considered pretty smart money. They must have a reason why they’re trying to do this.

Craig: No question.

John: I would also take a look at sort of movie theaters themselves. And we didn’t sort of hit on this part of the article, but it’s always that question of like will the big screen experience persist, because you know television, yes, got disrupted, but when you think of movies they’ve actually been very much the same experience for the past 100 years. You go into a big room with a bunch of other people. The lights go down. And on a big screen in front of you, you see a story being told, about two hours long, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And you’re seeing it with this big group of people and they’re all having sort of the same communal experience. The lights come on, and you leave.

Weirdly, that has not changed that much. The theaters have gotten better. The projectors have gotten better. We no longer show film. But it’s the same basic experience. And will that go away? I guess it could? There could be a situation where VR goggles are so much better than the experience of being in that theater that it goes away to some degree. But I think there still will be a social aspect of going out to the movies that persists.

But if we see that the big exhibitors go away, like if money goes away from the AMC theaters, the Carmikes, and all those, then maybe that’s a sign that the big screen movie business – it’s days are numbered.

Craig: Yeah. I think that there is some concern there. There’s a realistic concern about the exhibition business, which I think he is confounding here with Hollywood. Hollywood is not in the exhibition business. Hollywood is in the content creation business. And the distribution and advertising business. But it is forbidden by law, and he acknowledges this in the article, it’s forbidden by law to also then control the exhibition business, which is movie theaters.

Movie theaters have been in trouble for a long time. And they’ve been in trouble for a long time because in part they’re being squeezed in all sorts of ways. And you can see that because they pass along those squeezings to you in the form of $20 cup-full of popcorn. And yet, with all the complaints that people have about movie theaters, and concessions, they still go. We know that. We just talked about the ticket buying practices.

Hollywood continues to try and figure out ways to get around the one price fits all model. And they are constantly butting heads with the exhibitors over that one. Hollywood would love to be able to charge $25 a ticket for a Star Wars movie, which they know people would pay, and the exhibitors are terrified of that because those people are not going to then also spend $25 on Goobers.

So, there’s struggles there. And the movie theaters are struggling. So far we have not seen any kind of wholesale shuttering of those facilities. I don’t think VR is going to – VR to me is completely irrelevant. Has nothing to do with watching a movie. All of us are quite addicted to watching things projected on flat things. Children, too. Where things have changed is when you look at the iPad and little videos of babies trying to touch and swipe magazine pages because they think they can interact with it.

But, no, VR to me feels like a trap, frankly. It just feels like a gimmick.

John: I’m going to disagree with you on VR. I think VR actually probably will become something amazing, but I think it’s a mistake to sort of assume that it’s going to replace movies. I think it’s going to be its own thing. And I think trying to make it be something it’s not is foolish. It’s going to become its own special and probably amazing art form.

But the same way that videogames are not replacing television. They are different things.

Craig: I actually agree with that. I mean to say that I think it’s a gimmick when it comes to movies.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: But I agree with you that the applications are pretty remarkable for other things.

John: Cool. All right, let’s skip ahead to questions, because I worry that we’re not going to get to questions if we just don’t tackle these.

Craig: Yeah, and we’ve been punting these down the line, week after week.

John: So I feel bad for Jessica. Would you read Jessica’s question for us?

Craig: Sure, Jessica from New York – oh – asks, “I am writing a feature loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale The Red Shoes.” Which, by the way, John, have you ever read The Red Shoes?

John: I’ve read The Red Shoes.

Craig: Oh my god, it’s horrifying. Hans Christian Andersen, boy was he a dark dude. Anyway.

John: Yeah, well we talked about The Little Mermaid and what the original ending of The Little Mermaid was, which was incredibly dark.

Craig: And that’s nothing compared to The Red Shoes, where you dance until you’re dead. OK. So, “I’m writing a feature loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale The Red Shoes. Since this is in public domain, I know that I’m good to go. However, The Red Shoes was also a novel written in 2013 by John Stewart Wynne. I haven’t read the book, but I have read the summary. The novel is based in New York, like my story, and addresses similar themes. While I know that my take on this folktale will be entirely different as far as plot, I worry there will be some inevitable similarities. Would I ever have a potential legal issue with the author of this novel if my screenplay were optioned or purchased?”

John, what do you think?

John: So, here’s the place where we remind you that we are not lawyers, so we’re only going to give you our opinions that are not legal opinions. I would say that there’s always a chance that someone could come to you and say like, “Hey, that’s my thing, The Red Shoes, which was set here and was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s whatever.” And then it could be a thing. And you just don’t know it’s going to be a thing. But if you’re paralyzed by that worry now, don’t be.

I would say write your great script, write your great movie, and don’t worry about this other thing. I think you are smart not to have read the other thing. I mean, I mean you did write into a podcast where we’re talking about it, so this wouldn’t be great for a future lawsuit.

There’s no project you could conceive of writing that would not have some other thing out there that could theoretically sue you. So, to be paralyzed by it now is foolish.

Craig: I agree. I’ll even go one step further. There is an entire world of precedent for different works based on the same underlying public domain properties. There have been god knows how many versions of bible stories alone. So, right off the bat, you’re talking about a novel that’s based on something else and you’re basing something on that same thing. So, similarities are inevitable, and the similarities in theory would be ones that are related to the underlying material which is accessible to everyone because it’s in public domain.

More importantly, you actually would I have potential legal issue if my screenplay were optioned or purchased? No, because the people purchasing your screenplay, forget option because they haven’t bought anything, but purchase, they are going to do their due diligence and make sure that you haven’t stepped on anyone’s toes, which you’re not doing. You’re not infringing. You’re not plagiarizing. And at that point, part of your contract is that you’re indemnified.

So, if somebody does sue, then the studios just handle them. And they do. They sue and as John and I have pointed out many, many times, seems like every week we hear about somebody suing, and every never we hear about somebody winning.

John: Write your script, Jessica. Just write it.

Craig: Yep.

John: Our next question comes from Tully Archer. Let’s listen to what she had to say.

Tully Archer: We’ve all read bad scripts, some of them just shockingly, horribly bad scripts, but I sort of cheerily assume that there’s almost always something promising in there. Some cool idea, or interesting phrasing that we can point to to say this script could be good. It just needs work. However, have you ever read something or interacted with someone where you came away thinking, wow, this person will not make it? If so, what was it? What was the thing? Is there something that when you see it you recognize it as that thing that spells irrefutable doom for the screenwriter in questions? Thanks again. You guys are awesome.

John: So, Craig, any signals of inevitable doom as you’ve interacted with other writers?

Craig: Yeah. Certainly. You know, we all have had that experience. I think there is weirdly a kind of freedom that is attached to that experience because you don’t particularly have to worry about hurting that person’s feelings. Life is going to patiently explain to them that this is not for them.

Sometimes these people are deeply delusional. What I tend to pick up on immediately is a series of writing mistakes to the exclusion of anything good. Every possible way you could succeed has been foreclosed. And all you have is bad description, bad characters or nonexistent characters. Really that’s more than anything is just they’re not even there. So the characters aren’t characters. The dialogue isn’t dialogue. The action doesn’t seem to be happening. The place where you are doesn’t seem to be real. Everything is just off completely. And at that point, you could try and explain to the tone deaf person why they’re not going to be a professional singer, but really you could just say, unfortunately, sometimes what I’ll do is, “I just stopped reading at page 10. I had a whole bunch issues, I’m happy to tell you why. But I’m probably not the person that this script was meant for. I just am not connecting with your writing.”

And then you move on because it doesn’t matter. They stink.

John: Yeah. So now if Craig tells you that, that he didn’t connect with the writing, he doesn’t think that you have a shot.

Craig: I don’t read anybody else’s stuff anymore. [laughs] I’m out of that.

John: Yeah. I have similar experience about reading through a script and they just fundamentally don’t get it. And especially if like, oh, this is my third script and like I’m reading through and it’s like, no, this person doesn’t understand sort of what a screenplay actually is. There’s a weird thing where it’s like nothing actually clicks. And you flip a page and it’s like you’re in a whole new movie, or you flip a page and it’s like you’re just reading the same scene again and again. There’s just nothing to it. It’s just empty.

So, that’s the experience on the page. Sometimes I’ll be talking with somebody and they’ll be describing the movies they want to make, or how they want to work in Hollywood, and sometimes they’re just brand new, and they’re naïve, and they don’t sort of know what it is. But sometimes they just have a fundamental misunderstanding of what movies are. Or what television is. And I can’t talk them through all of that. And so I can say, oh, we make a podcast about it. Maybe you want to listen.

But there’s people who don’t seem to fundamentally understand not even the business but the creative endeavor of trying to write for film and television. That it’s a lot. And some people just kind of don’t get it. And you can see that they just don’t get it.

Craig: Yeah. You know you’re in bad shape when you read a few pages and you think what this person needs to do is find one of the most formulaic, basic, by the numbers, copycat movies out there, and read the script for that. They’re not even there yet. They don’t know the alphabet. Never fun.

John: It sounds like, oh, there’s a gleeful sort of – oh, this person just doesn’t get it. No, it’s actually upsetting when I encounter that. Especially when they’re really genuinely nice people.

Craig: Of course.

John: Because you’re rooting for them. You want them to succeed. But you also want to somehow be able to tell them I don’t think this is going to work for you for these reasons. And I’ve never been the guy who can sort of say that.

Craig: Very few people are. You know? If you’re on a television show, and that’s your character that’s fine. You could be Simon Cowell. I always admired that. But in life, there’s really not much of an upside to that. One time I did tell somebody this is not for you. And they took it very poorly. It was probably about 15 years ago. They are not currently a professional screenwriter.

John: I have had the experience of like there’s the people who are actually genuine good writers, but they’re not good at the whole thing. Like they’re good at certain parts of writing movies. And I feel like you need to find a writing partner who is good at the rest of this stuff. Because you clearly have some great skills. You’re really good at dialogue, but you can’t sort of do everything else right. And you don’t seem to have a good grasp of how you should act in a meeting and that kind of stuff. Those are the people who kind of frustrate me most, because I can see the right circumstances and the right combination of elements they could write something brilliant. But, it’s not going to be me who is going to be able to get them there.

That’s honestly sort of the heartbreaking situation. I have friends who I definitely sense could do it with just like the right combination of things.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the truth is if you ask what is sadder, a kid who believes he should be, or whose one dream is to be a major league baseball player, but just can’t make his own high school team, or a triple A player who is almost good enough, but not. It’s just triple A player is sadder.

John: it is sadder. It’s a strange thing. To be so close and not get it. To go to the Olympics and not make it to the medals round.

Craig: Right. Really, you’re so much better than so many people, it’s just that you’re not good enough. That’s rough. Yeah. Well, but happily that’s not what this question was about.

John: Yeah, that’s not this question. The obvious people.

Craig: Complete ding-a-lings. Oh, we have another question from New York. This is New York day.

John: You can take it.

Craig: All right. Alyssa in New York asks, “I’m writing a script where a character is interviewing another character who does not speak English, with a translator acting as a go between. Basically she asks the question, the translator translates it, the woman answers, and the translator translates her response. How do I show this in a script? Do I need to write all the lines twice and indicate that one time they’re in a different language? Or can I just write in an action line Woman talks and then have a line with just the translator saying what was said?”

How would you handle that, John?

John: There are multiple ways to do it. When Aline was on the show, she was talking about her French ladies script that had a bit of this where they had to switch back and forth between languages. And she described it basically there would be lines in French when they needed to be in French, but mostly everything was in English. And I think English is genuinely your friend here. So just stick with the translator in English as much as reasonable or possible. There may be cases where if the person who is speaking the foreign language is actually the more important character, I would probably give them the dialogue header. Like put their character name and then in italics or something else put what they’re actually saying, so that we get the vibe of like this is all being translated in real time. But it’s clear that we’re looking at the person and not the translator who is doing the speaking.

Craig: Yes. Years and years ago I was working on a script and I made the mistake of having people say something in their language, and then underneath putting the translation. And Scott Frank almost killed me. He almost slit my throat over it. Because it’s unwieldy. And ultimately you don’t get any credit for saying, look, I know words.

So, in a situation like this, especially when you’re talking about repeated, and as a conversation, not just one or two lines, I would probably describe the situation. So, Alyssa is asking questions and Jean-Pierre is answering and Jean-Pierre’s translator is serving as the go between. And then when it’s Jean-Pierre’s time to talk I might say Jean-Pierre/Translator and then put his dialogue in italics.

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s probably what I would do.

John: That’s a smart way to do it. And, again, if Jean-Pierre is the more important character, then Jean-Pierre, just give him the lines and just say woman talks in scene description. But that’s probably not going to be the case in the story you’re describing. But I would say just basically never do your own translation work in the script. You’re just burning page and you’re burning the reader’s attention. Because the reader doesn’t want to read those two lines in different languages.

Craig: And god forbid Scott Frank ever picks it up.

John: Oh my god. It’s just the worst.

Craig: And when he wants to cut your throat, he uses script paper. He uses three-hole punch. So it’s like he’s paper cutting your throat open.

John: Well, he’s an expert. He really knows how to do all this stuff. He’s done all those violent movies. And he’s learned some ways.

Craig: A thousand ways to kill you.

John: It’s really good. So, Craig, we’re at the point of the show where we have two more topics that we didn’t get to, so rather than try to cram those topics in, we’ll save them for next week’s show. So, next week we will talk about, oh, there’s good stuff with Kellyanne Conway here. There’s good stuff I learned from my copy editing experience. But they’re kind of evergreen, so we will get back to those next week. It was important that we answered these questions this time.

And so important that we get to our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is incredibly self-centered. I was reading through the comment thread on IMDb about my movie Go.

Craig: Oh my god.

John: I would generally not do this, but someone had pointed me towards it saying like have you seen this thread. And I’m like, OK. And so this thread was started by a user asking this question. “Did anyone else notice that even though the film was shot in 1999, and focused on young people, that no mobile phones appeared in the phone? Unless I missed something, it seems like this was a deliberate decision by the makers of the film. I like the choice.” And there’s an edit here saying that the strip club sort of seems to have a car phone, but it doesn’t explain why no other characters in the movie use a mobile when they clearly had the opportunity.

So, Craig, what is your answer? Why do characters not use mobile phones in Go?

Craig: I’m going to guess it’s because that would have ended the movie in about 40 seconds?

John: No. Weirdly it isn’t. Because most cases in screenwriters and cell phones, I did a whole presentation on screenwriters and cell phones and how cell phones are the death of screenwriting. But it actually wasn’t that. People assume that like, oh, mobile phones were common in 1999, but they actually need to wind the clock back.

So, the movie came out in ’99. The movie was shot in ’98 and it was written in ’97. At the point in 1997 when I wrote the script, these characters would not have had mobile phones. And it’s so hard to remember back in that time, or if you weren’t born at that time, to know that people didn’t always have mobile phones. And these characters would not have had mobile phones and that’s why they’re using pagers.

What I found so great about this thread, though, it goes on for 13 pages. So, hundreds of people wrote in with their theories about why there were not cell phones in Go. So, I found it delightful. I love when people obsess about things that I actually know the answer to. So, it was fun.

Craig: It’s great.

John: It was nice.

Craig: It’s that moment in Annie Hall where you get to be, “Don’t you wish life were always like this?”

John: Yeah. It’s like that. Craig, what’s your One Cool Thing?

Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is the much needed resurgence of journalism. Talking about disruption and industries falling apart, much like the music industry, the newspaper industry was absolutely blown apart by the emergence of online media and suddenly overnight their profit base, which was essentially subscriptions to their print versions, disappeared. And they struggled greatly.

And yet now we find ourselves in desperate need of them. Which must be very nice for them to know. It turns out that we need these people to say the truth. And to question people if they feel that those people aren’t speaking the truth. So, what I would like all of you to consider, regardless of your politics, is to actually subscribe to a reputable periodical. There are disreputable periodicals to the left and the right of the political spectrum. But I’m going to list five here that sort of run the gamut from middle left to middle right: The New York Times, The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times.

These are excellent periodicals that do investigative journalism. They have slightly different points of views. But more importantly, they are experiencing a moment now where everyone says we need you because we’re drowning in nonsense. We live in a time when a presidential spokesperson goes on TV and decries a massacre that literally never happened. And within minutes people will start tweeting about this. And televised news is terrific in its own way. But only publications can really dig down into the, wait, why did she say that? What is that about? What did she mistake it for? What does this mean? You don’t get that from television.

From television you just get people yammering at each other. So, considering subscribing to one or more of these publications.

John: I subscribe to three of these publications. And going back to this notion of disruption, I think podcasts have clearly disrupted some of the traditional media landscape, but what I’ve been so happy to see is The New York Times really stepping up its podcast game. So this past week they started The Daily which is a 15-minute podcast. Incredibly well produced daily podcast that’s looking at one or two stories in depth. So, it’s great to see these venerable institutions like The New York Times really embracing how they can tell their stories now. So, I really do urge people to subscribe to one of these or another great publication of your choice.

Craig: Fantastic.

John: And that’s our show for this week. So as always, it was produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Malcolm Nygard. Thank you, Malcolm. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions, I’m on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We are on Facebook. Some people left some really nice comments about Nima’s episode, so thank you for that. If you want to find us on Facebook, just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can also search for Scriptnotes Podcast to find our app, which is right now the only way to get to all of our back episodes, as you’re walking around. It’s $1.99 a month for all those back episodes. You can sign up at Scriptnotes.net.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts, about four days after the episode airs. And that’s it. So thanks so much, Craig.

Craig: See you next time John.

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Hollywood is Always Dying

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John discuss a Vanity Fair article about the impending disruption of Hollywood and are unimpressed. The better question worth asking: if this were the end of the film and television industry, what signs would we look for?

Then it’s finally time to answer listener questions about folktales, translators and writers who just don’t get it.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

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