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Scriptnotes, Ep 272: The Secret Live Show in Austin — Transcript

8 hours 49 min ago

John August: Hey, this is John. So this is Episode 272 of Scriptnotes. Now usually we go to the Austin Film Festival and we have a big live Scriptnotes show but this year was different because I wasn’t going to be there. So Craig was going to do some little interviews with some individual writers but kind of at the last minute, he got together a bunch of people and they got a big room and they got mics and so they did a big live drunken Scriptnotes show. So this was a secret show that wasn’t announced. People just showed up and it turned out really well. So thank you, Craig, and thank you to Austin Film Festival for letting this happen. The guests in this episode are Katie: Dippold, Phil Hay, Tess Morris and Malcolm Spellman. If you’ve listened to previous episodes with these guests and Craig and alcohol, you might guess, “I bet there is some strong language.” And you would be correct. So this is probably not the best episode to listen to in the car with your kids, but listen to it by yourself in your headphones and enjoy this live secret show from Austin. Thanks.

Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin and this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. And we are coming at you live, although if you’re hearing this, it’s not live but it’s live to us, from the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference where it is now 10:00 AM local time — sorry, 10:00 PM local time. We’ve been drinking a little bit so this will be spectacular. We are going to be a little free form tonight because of aforementioned drinking.

But first, I do want to thank, we have for those of you listening at home, we have a ballroom full of people who have all come to see this. So thank you, guys. Thank you, guys, for showing up. This was — we didn’t put this on the schedule. It’s kind of like a secret thing. We didn’t know if anyone was going to show up. You showed up, so thank you. And we, in return, have a fantastic show for you this evening. And when you hear the topic, I think you’ll be particularly pleased. But I would like to introduce my guests tonight and really maybe the best show we’re ever going to do. Sorry, John August, but it’s maybe the best show we’ve ever done. By the way, I also — John always says what number episode it is, I have no idea. It’s in the 200s, I believe. To my left, I have Tess Morris, screenwriter of Man Up.

Tess Morris: Hi.

Craig: Next, we have Phil Hay, screenwriter of Ride Along and Clash of the Titans. Do I need introduce the next person? Malcolm Spellman, writer of Empire. And then last but not the least, the great and mighty Katie: Dippold, Ghostbusters and The Heat. And we’re all pretty drunk. So in thinking about what we would talk about tonight, it occurred to me that every time I come here, there are, I don’t know, a hundred different topics that you can talk about. You all go to these seminars, they’re all very specific but I think, really, everyone is here mostly for one thing and no one ever talks to you about it, so I thought we would. And it is how the fuck do I get into Hollywood? So at last — oh yeah, for those of you listening at home, there may be adult language in this one. Okay. So, what we want to do tonight is just talk about this topic and I’m going to talk about it with my guests and then we will open up the floor to questions. By the way, questions about anything you want for anybody up here.

Tess Morris: Within reason.

Craig: No. It’s my show.

Tess: Oh yeah.

Craig: Anything you want. But what I want to do is start out by asking these simple questions that everyone has and they’re not easy to answer, which, to be fair, is why oftentimes we don’t really talk about it. But hopefully, in this conversation, we will get a little bit of wisdom that might be of value to all of you who are trying to break into this business as screenwriters. So I’m going to start by asking a question. Anyone, feel free. What do you think is the most important thing that anyone in this room can be doing, aside from like writing a great script, which we all know? Is there any one thing any of these people can be doing to improve their odds of breaking into this business?

Katie Dippold: I can start because my — well, my entrance in was I was at an improv theater, the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. So I was doing improv and sketch there and my first thing was I — we did a showcase to be a performer on Mad TV. And they liked — we had to write your own characters and I felt that I was brought out to test and it was clear that they liked the stuff I was saying but in no way how I was performing them.

And so I gave them a writing packet and that was my first job. But so, for me, my entrance was just doing like a, you know, UCB and doing an improv theater. I started taking improv classes. But the other thing that was important for me was I was also — I found a day job that — it was a temp job and they never asked me to do anything for three years to the point that I–

Craig: That’s a long temp job.

Katie: Very exactly.

Craig: It sort of stretches the boundaries of the word, temp.

Katie: Yeah, it really does. Well, I had this boss who — she would ask me to move like a text box in a PowerPoint slide like just — and I would do it and it would take like a second but I would look like a hero. And I would sometimes worry, was there some longer projects I was supposed to be doing but wasn’t paying attention when they told me? But what was great about the temp job was I could just — I read scripts all day and then just work on scripts. So, to them, I was working away because I was reading and writing, tapping away on the keyboard, you know.

Craig: There’s a lot of obvious effort going on.

Katie: Yes.

Craig: But you weren’t actually doing anything for them?

Katie: Right. Exactly.

Craig: So there you go, that — just get that job. That’s easy. Now, Tess, you did this–

Tess Morris: Yes, Craig.

Craig: From across the ocean.

Tess: I know, all the way in the United Kingdom.

Craig: All the way. And I would venture to guess–

Tess: Craig, if you’re just going to do your British accent every time we talk, there’s going to be a problem.

Craig: No.

Tess: Okay.

Craig: No. No. No. No.

Tess: Are you sure?

Phil: It’s happening. It’s happening, Craig.

Tess: No, not no. No

Craig: No.

Tess: No.

Craig: No. I did promise you that we’re a little drunk.

Tess: Yes.

Craig: Now, most of these people, I’m going to assume almost all of them do not live in Los Angeles. So you have an interesting perspective, you have a unique perspective on this. How did you do this from all the way over there?

Tess: Well, I mean, believe it or not, there are writers in England, at least–

Craig: What? What?

Tess: Are we just going to keep–

Craig: No.

Tess: Okay. We’ve just been out to dinner with a lot of nuns just so you know as well.

Craig: There was a room full of nuns next to us.

Tess: There were 12 nuns next door to us just to share that with you all. We all were incredibly uncomfortable with that.

Craig: I wasn’t.

Tess: You were. I would say there’s no difference at all, really, in terms of what I think is like different things you can do, whether you live in the UK or Australia or America or wherever. I think the best thing you can do, and I’ve said this a few times today, sorry if you’ve heard me, is my favorite quote about writing was by and said by Philip Seymour Hoffman and he said that writers need to fill up. And I’ve always thought about that because I think often we can kind of run on empty and we don’t go and live our lives and we can start to think I don’t know what the fuck I’m writing about or what I’m doing. And I think sometimes the best thing you can do is actually step away and go and fill up a little and live your life and then come back and do some work. I mean, you can’t do that all the time obviously. It’s a bit of a luxury. But I think it’s an important thing for your mind and your brain. That’s quite a serious answer for me.

Craig: Yeah, I know. You’re kind of bringing us all down. So–

Tess: Sorry.

Craig: No, it’s okay. But it’s a really good answer because I think you’re absolutely right, that a lot of times, people, you know, Brian Koppelman, who, along with his partner, Levine. We’ll just call him Levine.

Tess: Levine.

Phil: The Levine.

Craig: Did Rounders and they have Billions on Showtime right now. He had maybe the best advice I’ve ever heard for any writer was calculate less. Because I think a lot of people who are trying to break into the business are constantly calculating, what can I do, what contest should I enter, where should I go, how should I network, what should I write in my query letter, what should I not write in my query letter? I’m sure a lot of you have the stuff spinning around in your heads all the time and none of it actually is going to help you do the job. I think the idea of just living and reading and experiencing life will help you.

Tess: Yeah. Like relax.

Craig: Relax.

Tess: From the most unrelaxed person you’ll ever meet in your life saying that.

Craig: She’s a little — yeah, she can be a little tense. Phil, what do you think?

Phil: I mean, this came up in some discussions I was having today. And I think what these guys are saying is exactly right. And what I could maybe add to it is to try to conquer fear as early as you can and don’t operate on calculation and fear and am I missing out, am I doing something wrong, am I making the right choices, because I think I can tell you from, you know, 18 years of experience that nothing has turned out exactly the way I thought it was. And what I’ve realized is that there’s no way to plan or concoct a scenario that — and then fulfill it if you’re doing this.

And I think what you can is to focus on what you can control, which is your life and enjoying your life and finding stuff to write about by living your life and understanding that in the end, I mean, I guess it’s good advice for life in general. But it’s hard to learn and it took me a long time to learn to try to divorce the process from the result. To try to divorce what you’re hoping to happen from the actual work that you’re doing in front of you. That, to me, I wish I had learned that earlier because you spend a lot of mental energy worrying about the outcome or trying to game the outcome or trying to make good smart choices and the only good smart choices you can make, I believe, are emotional choices of I know this is right for me, I have to do it no matter what other people are saying.

Tess: This is a therapy session, yeah?

Craig: It should be. God knows we all need it.

Phil: I have a quick question for Tess though that it was, you know, a technical question. Do you translate your scripts into American yourself or is there somebody who does that?

Tess: No, I get Craig to do it for me.

Phil: Okay. Good. Yeah.

Tess: And then when I need to be even like do the worst British accent in the world, I get Craig to do that as well.

Phil: Okay. Thank you.

Craig: Well, Malcolm, all these people have said what they think is the right answer, and now, you will tell us the actual right answer.

Malcolm Spellman: I thought Phil’s answer — all their answers were good. I would say.

Tess: Thank you.

Phil: But especially mine.

Malcolm: If I can get specific, because you took my answer by the way. I was going to say try and get better as quickly as you can. I think a common thing for novice writers is to react to feedback the wrong way and they slow down their progression on getting good and they also fuck up their ability to engage. One of the first things that’s going to happen out the gate is people are going to tell you what’s not working about your work. And the sooner you get to learn how to navigate that exchange, the more likely you are to have an ally who might move your shit around and pass it along to people.

The other thing I was going to say, which is it’s a difficult one because I’ve heard it, but I feel like we’ve heard this so many times in festivals and I don’t know if anyone has ever really said it because you’re scared of someone blowing up your life. I will say, if you are younger and do not have a family, you should move to Los Angeles. It is something everyone looks to hear they don’t have to do, that’s how you know you should do it. And in the group of writers we all hang out with, there’s two outliers here now with Kate and Tess.

Craig: The Kate. The Kate.

Malcolm: No, but–

Katie: That’s how I asked to be called.

Malcolm: Up until now, I’ve never been on a panel that didn’t have writers who moved to Los Angeles first. So when you’re dealing with something like the high 90th percentile, that’s one of the starting moves and you’re saying to yourself, well, can I do it without doing something that 90% of working screenwriters do, you’re fucking around in territory where you’re not going to win.

Craig: You got that?

Phil: We are going to give away some JetBlue miles in the night tonight.

Craig: The question that is probably asked most frequently behind how do I get started, how do I break in, is – it’s associated with that, how do I get a representative? How do I get an agent? How do I get a manager? I personally have no idea. I’m kind of fascinated to hear what you guys have to say, “How do people go about getting a manager or an agent?” And address, if you can, the Catch 22 that I know is on their mind. If I don’t have an agent, it’s hard to get an agent. Do you know what I mean?

Katie: Yeah.

Craig: So what do they do?

Katie: I will throw out there that I think it’s almost important to like think like them, like what would make you take on a client and I don’t mean in terms of writing the thing that will sell. Because I think, most importantly, you should write what you’re passionate about. The thing that I’ve written that got me the most like action, so–

Tess: I like that.

Katie: I feel bad about it immediately saying it that way.

Tess: No, it’s good. It’s good.

Katie: But like I wrote this pilot that was super weird but it was the thing I was most excited about wanting to see, you know. And that got me like on Parks and Rec. And then it also became like a sample in features for like general meetings and stuff. But where did I start?

Craig: Like where did you start with this answer?

Katie: Okay. So okay, yes.

Tess: You were having dinner with the nuns.

Katie: All right. So, okay.

Craig: You’re supposed to tell us how you get an agent.

Katie: Where are we?

Craig: This is Austin.

Katie: Austin.

Craig: it’s a city in Texas.

Katie: Austin. Okay.

Craig: You’re not in Los Angeles now.

Katie: My God, there’s people here.

Craig: Katie:, this is real.

Katie: This is happening?

Craig: This is happening.

Katie: This is happening?

Craig: Yeah.

Katie: How?

Craig: Yeah, this is real.

Katie: But, no. I think like it’s just because I have a lot of friends, you know, that are, you know, still trying to break in and I don’t — the thing I said to them like I can give your script to my agent but I guarantee they will only read you one time. So just like make it great, you know. So it’s like they just want to read something that they’re like, “Oh, this is someone that I can imagine is going to, you know, really go places, you know.” So I guess, yeah, just like make that thing great just in — also in terms of what you want to see because I think that’s, you know, what your passion about is the thing. Not just writing what you think will sell, because they see that kind of stuff all the time, you know.

Tess: I think as well don’t you think now in like in the modern world, as my mum might say, like you can now, like I was on a panel this morning where a writer was talking about, you know, he’s making webisodes and doing all that stuff that you don’t even need an agent or a manager for at this point. You know, like now you can actually get your stuff seen in a much easier fashion than when I was first starting out. So, actually physically making some stuff and then being able to send — I mean, you know, now, if I get sent — someone sends me a link now that’s longer than 30 seconds, I’m not watching it. My brain is not going to last that long on a link, you know.

Craig: I don’t know if that’s a great advice. I would say it’s okay to write things longer than 30 seconds.

Tess: No. But what I want to mean is, is that we’ll–

Phil: I’m going to give you some respectful push back on that.

Tess: No. What I mean is — what I mean is, is an agent more likely to watch something that’s a minute long or read something that’s like 20 pages long. And I think now you actually have at your dispense like you can go and make some stuff that they can click on. I mean, obviously, my attention span is not great as demonstrated, but I’m not an agent. But if someone sends me something to watch, I’m more likely to go — I imagine this agent, “Oh, here’s an interesting like minute long sketch. That’s a voice. That’s interesting.” Rather than having sent a half an hour script and they’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve got to read that again.” So I think there’s a brave new world in that sense.

Craig: Well, you know, reading — you’ve reminded me of something that is absolutely true and I think it all the time. I do not like reading scripts, I — which is a weird thing to say for somebody that only writes screenplays. But reading screenplays is hard. It’s a hard thing to do because it’s not what — it’s not an end form of something. It’s not a novel. A novel is meant to be read, that’s it. And a screenplay is meant to be turned into a movie. It’s this weird middle thing. It’s hard to read. It can be arduous. So part of what I sometimes say to people is you need to start realizing before you write anything that you’re in this weird hole with the person that’s going to read it. They’re already angry that they have to read a screenplay.

Phil: You’re trying to defuse their anger–

Craig: Right

Phil: Long enough to inspire them.

Craig: Yeah. You have to almost delight them so quickly and they’ll be like, “Oh my God.” like getting a child to eat vegetables in a weird way. I mean, have you guys seen the Rick and Morty where he has to listen to the man’s tale? Have you seen that? And the look on his face, it’s so true. It’s like, “Oh no, not a screenplay.” But you are in a weird hole and you have to kind of acknowledge it and you have to grab it. And you’re right in that now, unlike when I think all of us started, you have the opportunity to actually make things easily with equipment that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars when I was starting out.

Tess: My first short film had a budget. This is like 1997. I had a budget of £30,000. You can make five movies for that now.

Craig: Right. Right. And, by the way, nowhere to put it.

Tess: Yeah.

Craig: That’s the other thing. You make the movie and you’re like, “I guess I have to enter it into festivals.”

Tess: Yes.

Craig: Now, you can just, “Hey, world. Everyone in the world, you may now watch my movie.” which is a remarkable opportunity. Phil, what do you have to say about getting a manager–

Tess: How long is your attention span, Phil?

Phil: I’m just getting warmed up. I’m not even near taxing my attention span at the moment.

Craig: Phil is at 5% capacity.

Phil: I think that making something yourself is definitely the right thing. And I think I have one maybe practical thing to suggest in the category of making alliances, I think, is the most important thing when you’re starting out, whether that’s with other writers, whether that’s with people who are going to help you shoot a movie, whether it’s going to be, you know, just people who are kind of at the same area, in the same place you are. And I think, and again, forgive me if this is obvious, but I feel like who you really need to be finding are assistants to give your script to. You need to find assistants to agents, assistants to–

Craig: You didn’t mean you have to go hire assistants, I think–

Phil: No. No. You have to hire an assistant immediately.

Craig: Yeah. They’re like, “Whoa.”

Phil: Because in my wealth seminar, I say you show that you are successful and successful comes to you. Would you pass the packets out, please? Packets are coming out.

Craig: Phil is the Tom Vu of the Writer’s Guild. Yeah.

Katie: I think this is a really smart tip because actually my first agent was an assistant first, and so he was looking for material. And I feel like that’s the thing like–

Phil: Right. It’s somebody who can be helped by finding you.

Katie: Yes.

Phil: Whereas an agent who is already established, they would love to find a great client. But they are not terribly motivated to do that. They already have a way to do that. They already have a list. But if you find an assistant, that’s someone who’s in the same position you are. They’re trying to make a move. They’re trying to break in. They’re trying to do something that’s going to standout. And so if you can give them something of quality, that is something that they will be extremely motivated to do their best to share with the people that they work for and–

Craig: Kind of like — it’s like matching hunger, right?

Phil: That’s right

Katie: Yeah.

Craig: The hunger to be a writer and there are people out there who have a hunger to represent writers or to find great screenplays. And it’s so frustrating because sometimes I think to myself, oh you know, somebody may say to me, “Hey, would you like to do this?” And I say, “Oh, I can’t. I’m doing this.” But they say, “Well, who do you think would be good for this?” And I think, “Oh my God, there are a million people who would probably be very angry at me right now because I don’t know their name but they would be good for this.” And so — but finding the people that are actively looking is actually a brilliant suggestion. Now, easier said than done, if you’re not in Los Angeles, again.

Phil: Los Angeles makes that so much easier.

Craig: What do you think about — Malcolm, I will ask you, what do you think about these services that are out there? Franklin Leonard has The Black List. There are pitch contests. There are — there’s a competition here. What do you think about those things? Is that a viable way in?

Malcolm: There seems to be, I say like we’ve joked about this sort of in our group a little bit like 95% of the people who can make it as screenwriters and now with the Internet and with all of these contests, with that system being built in place, that’s the 4% that there’s only 1% of people who could actually make it as a screenwriter that aren’t going to find a way in now. And so I think it’s a really good system.

I’m now encountering writers. I just had a sit down with a young dude who went through the, you know, all the legit contests. He placed high in all of those and that got the attention of probably assistants or whatever that wanted to help whatever and he found his way towards more and more legit people. Now, he’s out in Los Angeles and got into one of these programs or whatever. You know what I’m saying? So, yeah, I think that’s a very, very good way. And if you’re just doing blind submissions, I will say, I think agents are a terrible way to go. You go with managers because agencies don’t do what they used to do. When we was coming up, you know what I’m saying? That’s what managers do now.

Craig: No. That’s an interesting question about managers and I acknowledge that you’re right about this. I mean, look, I question the whole–

Tess: You just said that someone else is right. Yeah.

Malcolm: What did you say, Craig? You just heard that right?

Craig: I do that all the time but only with John August. I don’t do it with you guys, because he’s always right. Do you guys have managers? What do you think about this whole manager thing?

Tess: I only have — I have an agent in the UK and I have an agent in the US. But weirdly, the last few weeks, I’ve been like, “Do I need a manager?” Like a lot of people keep saying it to me. And then I’m like, you know, everyone says, “Oh, but then you’ve got to pay them more and all that like bollocks.” But like — I think like in the UK, our agents tend to do much more of a manager job than your agents here do. So my agent in the UK like manages my career and we talk and we have a schedule and we like, you know, like have a strategy. Whereas here, my agent is like, “Here’s the money. Here’s, like, here’s what you’re going to get.”

Craig: He actually sounds like a pretty good agent.

Tess: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, he’s saying, “Here is money,” which is–

Tess: Well, no, as in like there’s no like, you know, there’s not really like discussions–

Craig: Oh, yeah.

Tess: Of like should you do this job. It’s like you should do this job.

Craig: There’s money.

Tess: There’s money.

Craig: Do the job.

Tess: Yeah. And then I go, “I don’t think I want to do this.”

Craig: Do job.

Tess: Do job.

Craig: Do job.

Tess: Job, do.

Craig: Job, do.

Tess: Job, do. It’s good for my attention span. Okay. Do it. But, yeah. But I do think that I know lots of writers who prefer having a manager than an agent.

Craig: Because most of these folks out here, I think Malcolm is absolutely right, their first interaction is — out of curiosity, how many of you do have a manager? Quite a few.

Tess: That’s good.

Craig: Quite a few. I would say maybe — I would say 20% there. Agent? Less. Much less. Maybe 5% or less. So–

Katie: Can I ask?

Craig: Yes?

Katie: How many people live in Austin and how many people live in LA?

Craig: Holy gajolie. This is — this podcast is a total waste of time. They are all from Los Angeles. What are we doing? Why are you here? What is happening?

Phil: I am taking the JetBlue miles and going to St. Croix.

Craig: JetBlue, off the table. All right. So most of you are from Los Angeles, what the hell? All right. Totally different topic then.

Tess: Anyway, moving on.

Phil: The managers, I would say, I think it has become much more, I mean, since I started with my partner, Matt, 18 years ago and I think it was actually very uncommon for writers to have managers, it was just not really done. And now, I think it’s more common than not it seems. And we had once for a small period, a couple of years we had a manager. We don’t now. For the majority of our career, we haven’t.

Tess: Did you sack him?

Phil: It was interesting, it was a company called AMG that was created. They were managers.

Craig: He fired him hard.

Tess: He fired their ass.

Craig: It was a hard firing.

Tess: Awesome.

Craig: Hard fire

Phil: Hard fire.

Craig: Hard fire.

Phil: No. But what was interesting was they were great, they did great work but they were basically an agency and they were constructed to be another agency, so it’s kind of having two different agents. And I think if you want to have a manager–

Craig: What the fuck?

Phil: There goes Malcolm.

Craig: Malcolm has left.

Phil: He’s jogging.

Craig: He’s literally jogging out. What the fuck?

Katie: Malcolm, bye.

Phil: What is he doing?

Katie: Okay. Malcolm turned to me and he was like, “I have to go to the bathroom. So I should just go, right?” And then I said, “Yeah. Yeah. Like I got you.”

Phil: Yeah.

Katie: And then it was immediately–

Craig: You thought that I got you, you would cover–

Katie: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know what I thought I could do.

Craig: The incredibly obvious exit to the bathroom?

Katie: I thought I would make him invisible.

Tess: I mean, you really, really covered Malcolm there.

Phil: No. No. We both have an improv background. We could easily do a quick object transformation up here while he’s going to the bathroom, if he would have just given us a little more warning.

Craig: Katie:, you’re a terrible friend.

Katie: Yeah.

Craig: Just a bad friend.

Katie: I immediately threw him under the bus. I’m like here’s what happened.

Craig: I know. He wasn’t even out of the door and you’re like, “Okay, he’s going to the bathroom.”

Phil: Yeah.

Craig: All right. So we’ve lost Malcolm.

Phil: My incredible salient point was that if you have a manager–

Craig: Oh, you’re back to you? Oh, you think that you can still keep going like Malcolm didn’t go to the bathroom?

Phil: I can do this.

Craig: Okay. Fine.

Phil: I can pull this out. All right. I’m the Chuck Yeager of podcasts.

Craig: Let’s go, Phil. Push the envelope, man.

Phil: Yeah.

Craig: Face those demons.

Phil: If you are going to have a manager, make sure they do something different than the agent does.

Tess: I thought you were going to do a JetBlue joke again.

Phil: I was — believe me, I was constructing it. But it wasn’t A+. It was a B- and I wasn’t going to do it.

Craig: Never do a B-.

Phil: This is an A+ crowd.

Craig: It’s an A+ crowd.

Phil: And they’re not going to stand for it.

Craig: Most of them are from Los Angeles. They have high expectations.

Phil: That’s right. Yeah.

Craig: Look who’s back.

Phil: Malcolm is back.

Craig: So Malcolm Spellman has returned from the bathroom.

Phil: Yeah.

Craig: So–

Katie: It’s fine. They didn’t notice.

Phil: This is what we call in the improv game, pulling focus.

Craig: We certainly had no idea what was going on and Katie: definitely did not tell us. And kind of an odd question for you guys. But, you know, something that John and I talk about quite a bit is, well, I don’t mean to be grim. But Malcolm is correct. The odds aren’t great. And for a lot of people, they have a dream, a desire, an ambition to be screenwriter and we just know that it won’t work out for everyone. Obviously, it will work out for you. You, meaning, you, not the idiot next to you, but you. But for those for whom it does not work out, I kind of want to encourage people or at least give them permission to say, “I don’t have to do this.” And just an interesting question for you guys because I’m kind of curious, if you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

Phil: Regional airline pilot.

Craig: And you really do have the face for it.

Phil: I still might be.

Tess: Yes.

Phil: I don’t want to be presumptuous. Just Spirit Air. I don’t need to be flying those big birds to Osaka.

Craig: Do you even need to know how to fly, to be a pilot with Spirit Air?

Phil: No.

Craig: You just have to fit the uniform of the guy that died from a heart attack.

Phil: Yup.

Craig: Yeah.

Phil: I just need to drop my voice an octave and just get everybody comfortable and–

Craig: All right folks, at the left side of the plane, you will see… – What about you, Tess? What would you be doing?

Phil: So that’s what I would do.

Tess: Interpretative dancer.

Craig: You know, this is not helping you guys. Those aren’t real things.

Tess: No. Well, no, Craig–

Craig: What?

Tess: They are. Because it would be doing something that I love.

Craig: Interpretative dancer is not a job. You know that.

Tess: It is a job.

Craig: Where? Where?

Tess: In interpretative dance institutions around the world and–

Phil: See, Craig, in England, they have government funding of the arts.

Tess: Yes.

Phil: And–

Craig: They may actually have that–

Tess: Well, not anymore. Brexit fucked us.

Craig: Yeah.

Tess: No. What I would — no. My–

Craig: This is where it all breaks down.

Tess: The link is–

Craig: We’ll be getting to your questions very shortly. I promise.

Tess: Fine. No. The link is that I think I would be — okay, maybe it’s not a proper job. But it’s sort of I could make it a proper job because I would love it enough to do it and I think like–

Craig: Will you do it right now?

Tess: I would if you give me another three Shiners. Four?

Craig: That’s — I don’t–

Tess: But I’ve got a different panel to attend. No. No. Tomorrow morning.

Phil: This is an audio podcast.

Tess: I know.

Craig: Yes.

Phil: That’s going to be–

Tess: Believe me, no, you will be able to hear the dancing.

Craig: I was going to — I was also going to take a video but–

Tess: No. But the point is that I — when I wrote the script — when I wrote Man Up, I was living at home at that time and I was like 33 and I was like I said to my mom and dad, “Oh if this doesn’t — this is my last chance saloon. And if I don’t sell this, then I’ll go and get a proper job.” And I honestly didn’t know what I meant by that, because I’d only ever been a writer. But I do know that I think, in terms of doing something else in my life, I would always want to do something creative.

And I think, also, it might be good for some of you to accept that you’re not necessarily writers, but maybe you’re a producer, or maybe you’re an editor, or maybe you’re a — you know, like, there are lots of writers I know that obviously have come to the conclusion that they might not make their money, everyday money from it, but there are certainly lots of other kind of avenues that you can go down that will still keep you in the filmmaking and television world. And then you can write for the sheer joy of it on the side.

Craig: Which — I mean, yeah.

Tess: Or interpretative dance on the side.

Craig: But all joking aside, there is a remarkable freedom to writing for the sheer joy of it.

Tess: Totally.

Craig: And I sometimes think to myself, look, when I started writing screenplays, I was not being paid to write screenplays. I started as a temp. I didn’t have this incredible–

Tess: Three years.

Craig: Three-year temp job where you don’t do anything. I had a proper temp job where I had to do way too much for the small amount of time I had. And then I would write at night, but I understood, when I was writing at night, that I wasn’t writing for anyone. Just me. And, you know, it’s funny. I was talking to Alec Berg. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Alec Berg. He worked on Seinfeld and he ran Curb Your Enthusiasm, and now he’s the showrunner on Silicon Valley and he’s a brilliant guy.

He said, the other day, he was reading something that he had written years and years ago. And he said, “You know, it wasn’t great, but it was free.” And he said, “And I miss that. I miss being free. I can’t write anything. I have to write what I’m supposed to write, and there are these constraints that have nothing to do with what I want.” And there’s a remarkable freedom that you have that actually, we don’t. That is an advantage, in a weird way, that you have to surprise everybody, and we really can’t.

Tess: Well, I think it’s quite like — I don’t know about you lot, but, like — and I’ve been writing for, like, 17 years, and the best things that I think I’ve written have been things that I haven’t been paid for. [laughs]

Craig: Oh, 100%. Yeah.

Tess: Because, like, I don’t have the pressure and no one’s waiting on anything. Like, to do that alongside your paid work is the best thing you can do. If you are a working writer in this room, which I’m sure some of you are, then that’s another thing that you should always be doing. Like, do unpaid stuff for your own brain as well.

Craig: What about you, Katie:? Where would you be if you weren’t doing this gig?

Katie: CIA.

Craig: Oh, you’d be an agent?

Katie: That was my other dream, and then I would think about — but I had applied and did not get in. So it was never a backup career in any way.

Tess: Did you really not get in? But you are actually in this — yeah.

Katie: No, I truly applied. But I–

Craig: You applied to be, like, at the mailroom at CAA?

Tess: CIA.

Craig: Oh, CIA?

Katie: CIA, yeah.

Craig: I was like, why do you want to be an agent?

Malcolm: She’ll kill you, dude.

Craig: It’s the shittiest job. I honestly was hating you, and now I like you again. So you wanted to be in the CIA?

Katie: I applied for that and the FBI.

Craig: Okay.

Katie: Both rejected.

Craig: Why did they reject you?

Katie: I feel like–

Craig: They don’t say, do they? [laughs]

Katie: No — well — okay. I think–

Phil: You didn’t want to take it down to the ATF? You drew the line at FBI?

Katie: It was honestly, like, the–

Phil: Federal agency, just like any other. Just as good.

Katie: Yeah. I think I was real excited about it, but I had nothing to offer. I had no skillset that would be–

Tess: But you had your temporary job on your resume.

Katie: I did, yeah. Exactly.

Craig: Weirdly, that did not–

Tess: So weird.

Katie: Yeah, really weird.

Craig: Make them think that you were vital to our nation’s security.

Phil: She’s been working in the office from Three Days of the Condor already.

Katie: Can I tell you something someone said to me once? And I don’t know if it’s controversial or very boring.

Craig: We’ll be the judge of that.

Katie: But it had a big impact on me. I was an intern at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and the writers there were all very lovely and awesome. And there’s this writer, Kevin Dorff, and he was giving advice and he’s the best. Me and a couple of other interns were asking about — and I guess this is more about comedy, but we were asking, like, you know, like, “What do you think? How hard is it to break in and stuff?”

And tell me if you agree or disagree, but he said, “If you’re good, you’ll make it.” And, like I weirdly found that inspiring, you know, that — I don’t know. Because I feel like there’s a lot of bad people who make it, you know, but I feel like at least with comedy, if you get to a point where — I don’t know a lot of comedians who are, like, amazing that don’t eventually make it.

Craig: Right.

Tess: Yeah.

Craig: Well, I think that that’s true. I mean, Malcolm alluded to this and Phil alluded to it as well. There is this incredible hunger for quality in Hollywood, which may strike you as odd considering all the movies that they make. But they’re looking for really smart people to make the movies that they want to make. And they are short on people that they think are terrific writers. They’re always, always, always looking.

And terrific scripts do get noticed, there’s no question about that. I mean, in a weird way, when people say, like, “What are my odds of making it?” I just think 0% or 100%, in a weird way.

Katie: Yeah.

Craig: That’s it, you know?

Malcolm: Yeah. I think there’s more professional football players than there are working screenwriters.

Craig: Yeah. John and I have gone through the numbers. There are more NFL players than screenwriters.

Katie: I feel like we haven’t — like, I feel like, if we’re getting really into it, I feel like if I’m in this room–

Malcolm: The CIA talking.

Tess: You are in this room.

Craig: Yeah. Again, this is real.

Tess: You’re in.

Phil: This is happening, yup.

Katie: I feel like I would want to know — if you have this great spec, how do you get that? Like, what do you do with it if you don’t have any connections or you don’t know anyone? Like, my path was the improv theater, but if you’re not doing improv–

Craig: Right.

Katie: Like, I’m not sure what the answer is. If you don’t know anyone but you have this spec, what do you do?

Craig: Well, you know what? I told these guys, when Malcolm and Tim Talbott wrote a screenplay together and it was horrible and wonderful. It was the most disgusting, hysterical, terrible, great thing I’d ever read in my life. And they were asking, like, “What do we do?” And I said, you just put it on the Internet. It seemed perfect for the Internet. [laughs] Because I said, no one’s ever going to make this movie ever in a million years. I think Tim–

Malcolm: Fuck you, Craig.

Craig: No one’s ever going to make it and no one will ever make that movie. It is a crime against humanity.

But it’s wonderful and it so clearly indicates remarkable talent. And not surprisingly, these two guys who were writing under the pseudonym Robotard8000, one goes on to work on Empire, the other one wins the Waldo Salt Award at Sundance for his movie, the Stanford Prison Experiment.

But you can put anything on the Internet if you stop caring so much about, “People are going to steal my…” People are going to steal — stop it. Just never say that to me. Don’t worry about anyone stealing anything. Just put it out there. Put it out there. I think maybe somebody will notice it if it’s wonderful. Or no?

Tess: Also, do you think, like, if you were at a festival like this and – which you all are, hi – we’re all here still, yeah?

Katie: Mm-hmm.

Tess: Okay, good.

Craig: This continues to be real.

Tess: Yeah. No, I just always have to check with her now, so–

Craig: Oh, yeah.

Tess: I feel like Katie: knows. No, but–

Katie: I just stared blankly.

Tess: Yeah.

Katie: I wasn’t sure where we were.

Tess: I feel like if you can tell me your film in one sentence and it sounds amazing, I would want to read it. And I’m not sure how many people can actually do that.

Craig: Well, everybody, go up to Tess after this and tell her–

Tess: No. Honestly–

Craig: Tell her your–

Tess: If you can tell me, like, a new idea — if you can say to me in 20 — obviously, my attention span coming into it again. [laughs] No. But if you can say to me it’s a film about boom, boom, boom, boom and I’d be like, “Wow, that sounds, like, really interesting.” And it’s quite rare to be able to do that. And that’s your job as a writer to get your idea into that one nice little neat sentence, that then someone who is an agent or manager here or whoever, might go, “That sounds really interesting.”

Katie: I think that’s really smart, because I also — it’s like what you were saying before too about having immediately climbed out of this hole, because I think when someone says, like, everyone in Hollywood is so self-absorbed, you know, so, like, the idea of someone coming up and saying, “Hey, can you read this thing?” You know, they’re going to be like, “Ugh,” you know?

So, like, what can be said? How do you get through that thing? What could possibly be said to you that you would be, like, “Oh, okay.” Or, you know, that’s almost like — it’s a weird thing. It’s, like, also coming up with how to not scare someone off.

Tess: Yeah.

Craig: Out of curiosity, just so we know if we could stop talking or not, how many of you have a question that you would like to ask of these people? Oh, barely anyone.

Tess: Don’t have any.

Craig: No. Please, sir.

Male Audience Member: I, personally, as a screenwriter, am a particularly anxious person. I imagine a lot of you can relate to that. You know, you often doubt yourself to a great extent. So I’m wondering, what was the point at which, in your career, you just sort of let go of doubt and realized, yes, I can do this? What did it take to convince yourself that you had what it took?

Malcolm: No. No. No, no, no. It is funny. I tweeted the other day, most of my career, before I got on and even when I got on and went cold, and got on, and went cold again, at no point did I ever think it was really going to work out. And this is probably the first time — I’ve been working professionally on and off for 15 years — this is the first time, like, the last couple years where I actually feel that I got something going on, so you got to have the ability to – like, you don’t even have to have faith that you’re going to make it. You got to have the ability to punch through that shit.

Tess: Yeah.

Phil: You’ve made it, Malcolm. You’re here.

Tess: But I’m the same as Malcolm. I don’t know about you guys, but, like, it’s only in the last few years, having been working for 17 of it, like, that I feel — like, last year, when I came here, I said to you the other night, like, I felt like an imposter last year.

Craig: Ridiculous.

Tess: No, but I really did.

Craig: No. She had a movie here, playing.

Tess: Yeah. And I felt like–

Craig: And she felt like an imposter.

Tess: Because I’m an idiot. But, like–

Craig: No, you’re human. I mean, this is the way we are.

Tess: No, no. But that’s okay because I just — you know, like, it’s — you have to just — you really can’t ever think that anything’s ever going to get made, because when it does, it’s a miracle. Not a religious miracle — maybe it’s a religious miracle, I don’t know. But you–

Craig: We should ask the nuns. They were there. We could have asked them.

Tess: They were right there.

Craig: They were right there.

Tess: All 12 of them.

Craig: There was 12 of them?

Tess: A murder of nuns.

Craig: A murder of nuns.

Tess: A murder of nuns.

Craig: A passel.

Tess: A what?

Craig: A passel. [laughs]

Tess: A passel.

Craig: A passel of nuns.

Tess: A pail of kittens.

Craig: Yeah. Oh, is that a thing?

Tess: That’s what it is. But yeah, I think you have to — I never think anything’s going to happen until it happens.

Craig: Phil, you seem like someone who’s actually bizarrely well-adjusted, probably because you’re not Jewish.

Phil: Tremendously confident.

Katie: Yeah, and just at dinner, you were saying, “I’ve got it all figured out.” Like I’m king of–

Phil: I was saying that.

Katie: King of Industry, I think, is what exactly you said.

Phil: Again, the packets are going to be distributed in a moment and… – No. When I hear you say that, I say, “Here’s somebody who’s probably on the right track,” because I think that doubt is a very good thing to have — I mean, the people that I worry about are people who have it all figured out, and think that they have it all figured out–

Malcolm: They got producers.

Craig: Absolutely.

Phil: Yeah. I don’t think anybody that is on this stage, or any of our friends around that do this for a living–

Craig: It never ends.

Phil: Don’t. And if there’s a day when I feel no doubt, Matt Manfredi is there to give me doubt in myself.

Craig: He’s there to remind you that you’re stupid.

Phil: To remind me of my limitations.

Craig: Excellent question, sir. Yes, sir?

Male Audience Member: Although it’s not obvious, I’m no longer a promising young man. So, I’m wondering, I mean, does that make a difference? You know, even if a script gets me into a meeting, are they just going to go like, “Whoa, this guy’s way too old.”

Craig: Well, you know–

Male Audience Member: I mean, should I just start paddle tennis or –?

Craig: Listen–

Tess: Do that anyway, because that’s fun.

Craig: Yeah. Definitely don’t not start paddle tennis. But I don’t think any of us can necessarily say for sure what it’s like to be — I mean, we are the age we are, okay? But that said, because screenplays — good screenplays are rare, I think that it is not a disqualifier in any way. I will tell you that Hollywood is as subjective, not more so, to all of the human foils and biases that exist in the world. And if you are older than normal, or you are not a — you’re less white than normal–

Male Audience Member: I got that.

Craig: Or less of a man than normal, or less straight than normal, or less able than normal, it’s a thing, right? You’re talking about a business that is routinely casting people to play types. They are only interested in presenting reality with the most beautiful people of all. That’s what they do. They are soaking in it.

But, a great script and a great interaction with somebody will always win. You just have to be aware that you may have to fight a little harder. That’s just reality, I think.

Katie: I think that’s a great point though to throw out there, is I think it is crazy rare for there to be a great script floating around. Like, most scripts are really bad.

Craig: Really, really, really.

Katie: I think that’s motivating. Like, you know what I mean?

Tess: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Craig: Not your script.

Katie: Maybe the person next to you. The person–

Craig: No, but the person next to you, their script is shitty. Your script, awesome. Next question.

Male Audience Member: Hi, my name’s Hunter. This is a question mostly for Katie:, but you guys can answer it, too, about the screenwriting process. So Ghostbusters and I think The Heat as well had a lot of improv in it, clearly. So what’s the process of, like, for writing a comedy for having a lot of improv–?

Craig: Yeah, what do you even do, Kate?

Tess: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, do you even write or — that’s my favorite question. So, like, do you just do blanks and then they just fill in?

Katie: I would say the goal is to write the best possible — like, so, for example, a scene. Just write the best possible scene you can and then when you — you know, if you get someone like Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig, you know, like, the goal is to shoot a version of the scene that you set with, that you know technically works. But then you hopefully cast these improv geniuses that are going to just add so much funny shit and make you feel really lucky when you’re sitting behind the monitors, like, thinking, like, “Oh my god, did that scene work in the first place?” [laughs] You know?

Or also, I would say, like, the best times or, like, if you write the scene the best version you can, and then you get someone like the Melissa and Kristens or whatever, you know, like they start bringing their own stuff, and sometimes what’s great is then you see what they’re doing and then you try to like, “Oh, that’s really funny.” So then you throw an alt back at them and then they’ll take that and do something funnier with it. [laughs]

Craig: Right.

Katie: You know, ideally, it’s like a collaboration still, you know.

Tess: I think, like, all the best improvisers will always give the writer credit because they can’t improvise off of nothing. They have to improvise off your scripts. And I had it with Simon Pegg who he is like one of — he’s an amazing improviser and he would always go to me, “Does that still track?” If I say — you know, like, so we do like what our director called a loosey-goosey.

So we’d shoot 10 versions of the scene and then he shouts, “Loosey-goosey,” and they would basically be able to do whatever they liked. And maybe 20% of those loosey-gooseys were great, 80% were not great. And then you see them in the outtakes and then you think, “Oh, they’ve all improvised it,” or whatever, but you’ve got to have something to start from in the first place.

Craig: That’s the essence of it. I mean, you want somebody like Melissa McCarthy.

Tess: Yeah, oh, my god.

Craig: Or Zach Galifianakis or Simon Pegg or Kevin Hart to be able to do what they do. But what they’re doing is related to the intention of the character, the situation the character is in. Whatever they’re doing ultimately has to arrive at a place you have predetermined.

They begin where you say, they end where you say. They are intending what you say. The actual words that they use for it, or those little funny moments and wonderful little things are amazing but must occur in the context of what you have provided. And you’re absolutely right. The good ones–

Tess: Always acknowledge.

Craig: Always acknowledge.

Phil: It’s a moment that requires extreme vigilance as a writer. It’s where you can be the most useful because in the moment as a comic actor, you have a killer instinct which is to kill, which is to do the funniest best thing that you can imagine. And that’s not necessarily going to serve the story.

And in fact, that may take you out of the relationship that is being developed. The laughter and the success in the moment on the set with all the grips laughing and everyone going, “Yeah,” may turn into a huge problem later because it’s violated something about the scene. And I will say specifically, as someone — I’ve been able to work with Kevin Hart a lot and he is someone who seems to improvise a lot but in fact does not.

Craig: I know.

Phil: Right?

Craig: He doesn’t.

Phil: And because that’s not his approach, he–

Craig: What Kevin is brilliant at is making scripted lines sound improv.

Phil: Exactly.

Craig: It’s incredible.

Phil: And which is a wonderful thing, and why Kevin is — everyone has their own process and all the people we’re talking about are really great actors who all have their specific way in, but it’s interesting because sometimes something you see that feels — the greatest thing as a writer, you hear something that feels very in the moment and feels very spontaneous. A lot of those things are actually scripted and that’s wonderful when it does turn out.

Tess: But your job as well, which is great, is that, like, I would watch Simon do like a brilliant piece of improv and then everyone would like laugh and they’d go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And then I go over to my director and go, “Just so you know, we still have to get that beat just because it needs to make sense story-wise.”

Craig: Right.

Tess: And he’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve got it.”

Katie: I agree with what Craig — you need to have the intent of the scene there and I have to say like Melissa and Kristen Wiig, they also are so good at knowing, like they’re great writers, so they know the story. So, like, they’re really exceptional at improvising. Everything they improvise doesn’t have to be tossed out because sometimes like improv on set doesn’t just mean like saying all these crazy, funny things. Like they also know how to improvise in a way that’s still on story and on character that’s always usable, you know.

Craig: You know, Melissa McCarthy and Zach Galifianakis had a scene together in the third Hangover movie. And we had this bucket of lollipops. They were like props, it was like dressing, set dressing. And she just put it in his mouth and then she took it out and put it in her mouth.

And we were just watching it like, “Oh my god, this is the most amazing. Why would she do that?” It’s incredible, but it was absolutely in keeping with what was happening. They were falling in love but they were both wrong. There was something seriously wrong with both of them in their minds. They were off, terribly off. Like two horrible people are falling in love and that’s what they would do. They would share a lollipop together like freaks.

She’s amazing. Anyway–

Katie: If I give one more example of her?

Craig: Yeah.

Katie: In The Heat, there was a scene in the script that was literally nothing. It was that she was going to go in to see if her prisoner was in the cell and then he’s gone, and so she asked the guard, like — I can’t remember what was in the script, but she was like, “Where the hell did he go?” And the guard is like, “Oh, that agent took him away.”

And then she improvised this telling off and just tearing down this guard about what she was going to do to him for letting this guy go about how she was going to like, you know, rip her — put her fist down his throat. Like it was like the craziest thing I’d ever heard and I was like, “Oh my god, this woman is amazing.” And it was like exactly still everything, like with the scene, exactly what you wanted to get across in the scene but in a way that — I don’t know, I just think she’s magical.

Craig: She is. By the way, great advice, you know, Katie and I can absolutely assure you of this. Just work with Melissa McCarthy. It is just a win. A huge win.

By the way, Zach, also a huge win. Kevin, huge win. So that’s all we really like to do, that’s really the answer to that. I think we have time for maybe like two or three more. We’ll do two or three more. Yes, Ma’am?

Female Audience Member: Hi, my name is Tiffany. And I just wanted to mention that there is another coast that’s super cool. It’s a little town called New York City in case you haven’t heard of it.

Katie: That’s where I started.

Female Audience Member: And that’s where I know where I know my friend Kate is and I’ve also been to UCB, so I just want to say that that’s a really good place to get your start, too.

Craig: Yes. It’s my hometown. You know, I was born there.

Female Audience Member: Oh, well I didn’t.

Craig: Brooklyn.

Female Audience Member: Well, you should have mentioned it. Why didn’t you mention it?

Craig: Staten Island.

Female Audience Member: How come you asked everybody if they were from LA if you were from New York City?

Craig: Because I don’t like to break it out in front of all these other people.

Female Audience Member: Oh, okay.

Phil: Anybody here from the North Coast, Cleveland, Ohio?

Craig: Nobody. No.

Phil: Yeah.

Craig: There’s nothing there but bugs. Literally nothing but bugs. Please continue New York.

Female Audience Member: Yeah. Okay. So I–

Craig: Sorry for being interrupted by this fucking asshole.

Female Audience Member: I know, such an ass.

Phil: It’s my fault.

Female Audience Member: So my question is for Malcolm and Kate who are involved in TV. So I have a new series that’s getting some traction and I actually have a production company who’s shopping it, and I’m going out to LA for my first big agent meeting. And I just wondered if you had any advice.

They are looking for a showrunner for me to be attached to because I’m a new creator and I was just wondering if you had any advice on how to navigate that process. Once you get your meeting that everybody wants to get, then you finally get it, like nobody seems to sort of know how to prepare me for that.

Katie: I’ll be honest because I — if there is a great showrunner, they will always be working. You know what I mean? Like, the great ones are always busy, you know. Like I–

Malcolm: So your showrunner sucks.

Katie: I’m trying to think of like – yeah, because I think it’s good to know who’s new on the scene but at the same time, it’s hard to know. Like there’s a guy named Anthony King who is from UCB New York, who I always thought if I ever have a TV show, like I would want him to show-run it, you know. But I think he’s even — I don’t know, I don’t know. That’s a terrible answer but that’s literally like I thought of, like, this one person. [laughs]

Malcolm: I would say it’s a tricky dance. I did the showrunner’s training program and heard a bunch of like — they bring in like 30 showrunners. And you get to hear the stories of creators who brought on showrunners, and you’re going to have to be really, really honest of what’s your expectation.

If you’re timid about what you expect the process to be, it’s going to become something that by the time you figure out what it is and if you don’t like it, you’re fucked already. You know what I’m saying? And that doesn’t mean you should go on with your guard up at all, but you have to understand just the title, showrunner, says everything about what’s happening.

Someone is going to be handing over $50 million or $100 million dollars to somebody, and it’s going to be that showrunner. And at that point, and once you understand that, then you have to decide what’s your relationship with this person going to be, what’s your disposition. You know what I’m saying?

Like some people are — someone like me is just going to go bad. You know what I’m saying? Like it’s just it won’t work. No. But it won’t. Craig knows it. Like, just that wouldn’t work for me. You know what I’m saying? And–

Female Audience Member: Wait, you wouldn’t–

Craig: That is correct.

Female Audience Member: You wouldn’t work for yourself. Is that what you’re saying?

Malcolm: No, no. If your disposition — you can collaborate, but if you’re creating something, right, and you’re handing it to someone who’s going to run it, then you understand they are the showrunner, they run your show. And at that point, you’ve immediately put yourself in a secondary position and there’s nothing wrong with that but–

Katie: So I have to imagine you — because I have not done this experience, so I’m turning it to him. But I have to imagine you want someone who’s also going to — especially if you’re going to be involved and be there every day, I imagine you want someone that’s going to help you with your vision, right? Like, is that the goal when you find a showrunner?

Malcolm: If we’re going to be honest, you know what I’m saying, if someone’s going to take your show away from you, there is zero you can do to stop it because they get to do that because they know how to handle $50 million, right?

And that just happens when it happens. And we have some dear friends who that happened to and they’re major writers. The more frank and the more comfortable you are being honest, and if you have a sane disposition and you have real clarity, you can start having real conversations up front where you’re not being confrontational. You understand that no one can give you $50 million. You will fuck it up, you know what I’m saying?

Female Audience Member: Yes.

Malcolm: And so–

Craig: Just based on looking at you.

Female Audience Member: Clearly, I don’t know what to do with $50 million.

Katie: So do you think it’s important to be like strong on top? Like, I mean just really start up?

That sounded really weird. That sounded so weird. What I meant was–

Phil: This depends on the relationship.

Katie: What I mean is when you’re having sex with someone.

Malcolm: You cannot be defensive at all. You cannot be defensive at all. If you do not say what you think and what you expect it to be, it’s going to go bad and you need to get out of this person what they expect it to be. And that you do. Strong doesn’t mean you’re trying to control this person–

Katie: Yes.

Malcolm: Because they know — they got it.

Katie: Yeah.

Malcolm: Their title is showrunner, so they got your shit already. Strong is, “Yo, this is how I move. This is what I expect. How do you move? What do you expect? Oh, I’m not going to like that, so let me just tell you right now I probably shouldn’t be in this situation because,” you know what I’m saying? Like that’s what strong means.

Female Audience Member: Got it.

Katie: Can I add one more thing?

Craig: Yes.

Katie: And this is just from experience in features. I feel like whenever a situation is political and shitty, the thing I found helpful is just telling yourself to just focus on the work. As much as you can, take the ego out of it and just, like, what is the best way to make this the best possible thing. And I feel like that usually lends itself well to people wanting you to be involved and just having a better–

Tess: Taking the ego out, that’s the best bit of advice ever.

Craig: That is. It is spectacular advice. I was saying to Malcolm earlier, but the phrase I use is “Keep your eye on your own paper.” You have something that you can control which is what you do. Keep your eye on that as best as you can. But I think Malcolm’s advice is spot on and correct.

Yes, sir?

Male Audience Member: This is to all of you. But based on what Katie: was saying about, she says to her friends, “I can give my script to my manager, but he’s only going to read you one time,” how do you know the script is ready for that one shot?

Malcolm: You’ll know. The one thing that is true is when you write something that stands out, it creates energy. Everywhere it goes, people start saying, “Fuck. I’m going to give this to somebody.”

Craig: But he’s asking even before you give it to somebody, like the first person you give it to–

Malcolm: You have to — but that’s what you do. That’s how you know.

Craig: So you don’t know until you give it to them?

Malcolm: You give it to people and it starts to take on a life of its own.

Katie: But can you give it to people before he gives it to the agent? Do you know what I mean? Or are people, friends and family not really good judges maybe?

Craig: Probably not.

Katie: My mom says it’s great.

Tess: I think you should have like–

Craig: I always give my stuff to your mom, by the way, because she loves it.

Katie: She’s’ really — she’s smart.

Craig: She always says, “This is better than what Katie: does.”

Tess: Why don’t you give it to my mum?

Craig: No, no, your mom hates what I do.

Tess: Oh, okay.

Craig: Hates what I do.

Tess: I would say I have like three or four trusted people that I always give stuff to before I give it to anyone. Actually, sometimes you’re one of them, Craig.

Craig: Thank you.

Malcolm: Everyone gives their shit to Craig.

Tess: I know.

Malcolm: It’s an amazing thing that has happened.

Tess: When is he ever working?

Malcolm: Everybody gives their script to Craig now, except for me.

Tess: But Lindsey Doran said something great in your panel earlier. She said better is better, which I thought was brilliant. And you’re always going to be able to make something better, basically. But if three or four people are giving you the same no and the same thumbs up or the same thumbs down, that’s usually a good barometer that something is at least ready to go to the next stage, I think.

Phil: I think part of it, too, goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is to try to get yourself on the right mindset. If you’re in the mindset of not being in a rush, then you’ll be more capable of judging your own work. Because if you are–

What just happened?

Craig: It’s just unbelievable. He’s selfie-ing while you’re talking. Malcolm decided to just selfie.

Tess: No. Stay on track. Stay on track.

Phil: I’m going to land this bird.

Tess: Come on.

Phil: I’m going to land this bird. Don’t worry. Don’t you bail out on me. Get the landing strip in the Azores.

Tess: Focus.

Phil: My point was it’s not being in a rush. It’s not saying I got to get this out because I’m in a hurry, I got to get the process going. And it’s really hard to know. But I think, you know, for myself, Matt and I wrote — I think the third script that we wrote together was the one that we tried to go out with.

And I think we wanted to go out with the second one and we got good advice from someone who said, “Geez, you guys are really promising but I think you can do better than this.” And we were like, “But wait, but no, no, now. Like, it’s time.” And I think if you can look at it yourself and look at it through the lens of not — don’t give yourself any credit or any benefit of the doubt, and look at it kind of hard and say, “Is this the best that I can do?” And more importantly, “Does this speak for me? Does this say something about me?”

Because I think the other general advice that has come up, to put it in Tin Cup terms, to not lay up–

Tess: Tin Cup the movie?

Phil: The movie. The Kevin Costner movie.

Tess: Kevin Costner.

Craig: Don’t lay-up. Don’t lay-up.

Phil: Ron Shelton.

Tess: And Rene Russo?

Phil: Is, you can’t afford when you’re starting out to lay-up. To take, like, a good kind of reasonable shot–

Craig: A safe shot.

Phil: To get you close to the pin.

Craig: Yeah.

Phil: You have to try to hit a hole in one.

Craig: Yeah.

Phil: And so you have to say, “Okay, is this going to make noise? Is this something that’s going to be me, and it’s unique, and it’s going to make someone say, ‘Hey, who wrote this?’” It doesn’t have to be the most technically perfect script in the world. It doesn’t have to be a great example of how you construct the second act, da da da da da. It just has to be – da da da da. That’s my proprietary, da da da da.

Do you know what I mean? If you can look at it and say this is like something that — it’s like a shout. It’s like someone will say, “Oh, yeah. Okay, great.”

Tess: You know when you’ve written something and you can go, “Oh, it’s not shit.” Like–

Craig: Yes. That is true, but, also sometimes you don’t. You don’t really–

Tess: It takes a long time to know when something’s not shit.

Craig: Yeah. And remember that our business is an outlier business. It is not an averaging business. Even though some services like The Black List, for instance, will provide you with an average, your script is a 7.9. That’s quite wonderful, out of 10. But really, if you get all 1s and one 10, you’re better off than someone who gets all 8s. It is an outlier business. You don’t know necessarily. I wouldn’t get hung up so much on, “Is it ready?” The answer is no, it’s not. Show it anyway–

Tess: Get some feedback.

Craig: Get some feedback. It will be ready when it’s in theatres. God’s honest truth.

Unfortunately, we have time for one last question. I’m so sorry for the people standing in line, but we do have to — yeah, sorry.

Female Audience Member: All right, so I thought this might be a good question for this panel, but please don’t judge me. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch comedies. So, do you have any suggestions for good comedies to watch before 2005?

Phil: Oh, wow.

Craig: No.

Phil: That’s the greatest question possible.

Katie: My answer–

Phil: Tim Herlihy, where are you?

Tess: Tim.

Craig: All of Tim Herlihy’s work.

Katie: I feel like my answer is boring because it’s recommended in, like, every screenplay class ever–

Craig: Groundhog Day.

Katie: But I just think it holds up – wait. Do you know what I’m going to suggest?

Craig: Groundhog Day.

Katie: No, Tootsie.

Craig: Oh, Tootsie’s amazing.

Tess: Oh, Tootsie is like the most–

Craig: The last comedy to win an Oscar, by the way.

Katie: Yeah. Yeah.

Tess: But also, Tootsie’s like structurally the most perfect film. Like, one of the most perfect films ever made.

Craig: Except for Groundhog Day.

Tess: No, no, I put Tootsie–

Craig: Well, you’re wrong.

Tess: Above Groundhog Day. Okay. Maybe not. On the level.

Craig: Fair enough.

Tess: But Tootsie is like — read the script for Tootsie, and then watch it.

Katie: Yeah.

Tess: And then you’ll go, “Go Tootsie, go.”

Craig: It’s incredible.

Phil: I would like to offer what I consider to be the funniest movie of all time for me. But the fact that it is to me, and to maybe other people too, still as funny as it was when it was created is This is Spinal Tap.

Tess: Nice.

Phil: Which I think is incredible. That’s the one movie that I would put above all.

Craig: Lindsay Doran studio executive who shepherded This Is Spinal Tap all the way through.

Tess: I would like–

Phil: That’s why she’s Lindsay Doran.

Craig: Correct.

Tess: Yeah. I would like to put forward a film that is 30 years old, but I re-watch it at least once a year, that still stands up, which is Beverly Hills Cop. Like, just–

Craig: Dan Petrie here.

Tess: Where?

Katie: Come out on stage.

Craig: He’s here in Austin. Would you like to meet him?

Tess: Yes.

Phil: Turn around, Tess.

Craig: Okay. You will. And he comes in like the Kool Aid Man. He’s–

Tess: I’ve got an interpretive dance for him.

Craig: There’s a fair chance he’s down in the bar right now.

Tess: We’re going to find him afterwards.

Craig: Yeah.

Malcolm, what’s a comedy that you think is like a must-see? Let’s go ‘70s, ‘80s. Even a little bit of ‘90s. I’m out of gas.

Malcolm: I’m out of gas.

Craig: What the fuck? You’re on a show. This is a show. You have–

Tess: Was it a donut?

Craig: That was the last thing you had to say, and you’re out of gas?

Katie: No, no, no. It’s okay. Is that a comedy?

Craig: And by the way, the easiest question in the world. Just say Meatballs, and you’re done. It’s like the–

Not Meatballs? Meatballs?

Malcolm: Meatballs.

Craig: Meatballs.

Katie: I got your back. Don’t worry, they won’t notice.

Phil: Can I do one more before you go, because I think you’re going to have the best one, I’m sure.

Craig: Of course you can. Of course. Yeah, please, please, do it.

Phil: The Bad News Bears is another one that I think is — because it is a drama and a comedy and everything, and it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.

Craig: Amazing. You’ve seen Groundhog Day?

Malcolm: Slap Shot.

Tess: Yeah, nice.

Craig: Slap Shot.

Phil: Valid answer.

Craig: By the way, Slap Shot, amazing. Groundhog Day, for screenwriters, I would suggest is the most important comedy to watch, because it is the finest screenplay, I think. Just purely screen play for screenwriters. And it is profound, and beautiful, and amazing, and hysterical. That said, also Airplane.

Katie: Yeah, I feel like I’m missing — we’re missing a chunk of the ‘80s. Like that we’re — I just keep thinking of movies like Trading Places, and all those movies that–

Tess: That’s the Morris family Christmas movie, Trading Places.

Craig: I mean, we could be here all night just for citing comedies for the person that’s never seen one. But, I think we’ve done a pretty good job. Well, with that, it is my duty to say, well that’s our show.

You guys were amazing. As always, since recently, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. it is edited Matthew Chilelli. There you go, you guys listen. Our outro this week comes from someone. If you have an outro for us that you would like to try, please send it in to That’s also a place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions on Twitter, I am @clmazin, and John August is @johnaugust. You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment, and I’ll tell you why — John August loves comments.

He loves comments, you guys. He reads them and he loves them.

You can also find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at, and that’s where you’ll find the transcripts. We try and get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all the back episodes of the show at and also on the Scriptnotes USB Drive at where revenue is generated that I do not get because John is stealing it from me.

I want to say a great thank you to Erin Halligan, and all of the wonderful people at the Austin Film Festival, Austin Screenwriting Conference. They’ve done an incredible job for us. And thank you for showing up to a secret thing at 10 at night. Hey, everyone, let’s go get drunk. Thank you.


You can download the episode here.

The Secret Live Show in Austin

Tue, 10/18/2016 - 08:03

Craig sits down for a late-night session with screenwriters Katie Dippold, Phil Hay, Tess Morris and Malcolm Spellman to finally answer the question, “How does anyone make it in Hollywood.” Plus questions from the packed audience at the Austin Film Festival.

Thanks to our guests, our audience, and our hosts at AFF for a great night.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 271: Buckling Down — Transcript

Fri, 10/14/2016 - 16:31

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 271 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at ways to buckle down and actually finish writing something. We’ll also be tackling a listener question about autism spectrum disorder and how it might impact a screenwriting career.

Craig, I’m so happy to be back with you on the air. It was lovely to hear you and John Lee Hancock do the episode last week but it’s nice to be back with you in person.

Craig: It’s always nice. You know what? I feel like sometimes it’s nice we get a little bit of a break from each other.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then we appreciate each other all the more when we return. A brief absence does in fact make the heart grow fonder.

John: Indeed. It’s always so fun when you do an episode without me because you actually do all that work of all the boilerplate stuff and all the segues and transitions. You really can do it, Craig. So it’s very nice. It’s sort of like when Mom goes back to visit the relatives on the East Coast and Dad has to like, you know, drive the kids to school do all of that stuff.

Craig: Right.

John: Look, oh, Dad can actually do that. Dad just doesn’t usually do that.

Craig: Yeah. No, it’s definitely — it’s — I felt like Mr. Mom a little bit, you know, like I can make breakfast for you kids, I can. You know, but then it is exhausting. Although, look, to be fair, it’s just reading. That’s all it is. [laughs] I mean, I’m not like some sort of, you know, brain-damaged monkey.

John: No. Mostly it is reading. And it’s gotten to the point where there is actually boilerplate that we can copy and paste from outline to outline. So it’s nice that we’re this regularized in our systems that we can do these things.

But it was great hearing you and John Lee Hancock because you guys are old friends and so it’s like hearing a conversation between two old friends, talking about the business that I love. So while you were talking, I was down in the south of France. I was actually at a café table in Avignon finishing up Arlo Finch, part of which we’ll talk about today.

But this week was actually really strange because I made a choice, which was that, it was right before the big debate, the presidential debate and I was kind of stressed out by all of the craziness, and so I just left. And so I took all of the apps that I use to obsess about news, I put them all in a folder, put them on the very back screen of my phone including Twitter, and I didn’t look at it or check it for the entire week. So I had no idea how the debate went, I had no idea sort of how the polls were going.

It was actually lovely. But in some ways it was hard, like when I had to announce that the episode was out and available, I had to like not look at Twitter while I was actually putting a tweet out. It was really strange to be using Twitter just to tweet out and not actually read anything.

Craig: Well, I think you actually did a smart thing there. A lot of people are experiencing great anxiety over this election in a way that I don’t think I can recall in my lifetime.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Look, there’s always been some anxiety, people get worked up. I’ve always been kind of a guy in the middle, politically, you know. So I cannot think of a single election prior to this one where I thought, “Oh, my God. The country is at stake.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: In this one, however, it appears that the country is at stake. [laughs] So anxiety is normal but, of course, completely unhelpful.

John: Completely unhelpful. Especially, you know, I’m on the other side of the world, there was nothing that I was going to be able to do other than obsess about it and lose sleep about it. And I had a deadline and this was a great excuse for like, you know what, I’m just checking out, and it was actually terrific to check out. So I would say I’d recommend to our listeners if you feel like you need to check out of this little process for a while, that’s okay and nothing is going to — things could go horribly wrong but like there’s nothing that you’re going to be able to do to affect what’s going horribly wrong if you need to decide to check out for a little while.

Craig: No question. I mean, what we forget, and because we think — we are under this delusion that we can actually affect how other people vote by tweeting and facebooking. And I think maybe the only time in my life I was able to maybe change like four people’s votes was when it came to Ted Cruz.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because I had personal experience with him. But beyond that, you’re mostly just talking to people that agree with you or talking to people that don’t agree with you. And really the only thing you can do is show up and vote. And I assume that you are going to vote from afar if you have not done so already.

John: If you’re in Los Angeles County, you can register for it and they send you your ballot material. So we actually already got those things and we will be faxing our ballots back in. You actually fax them through a fax service. So it’s not an anonymous ballot anymore because clearly they can identify you or the person who sent that ballot, but I will be delightfully faxing through my ballots in the weeks before the election comes.

Craig: Excellent.

John: So what’s strange though about Los Angeles County, so I don’t know if you’ve seen the voter book yet? It’s so huge. There’s so many referendums and things at this time.

Craig: It’s a phonebook.

John: Especially because of pot legalization. So there’s a lot to read.

Craig: Yeah. No, there always is. And of course, no one reads it. They just show up and begin voting willy-nilly. Perhaps maybe a day or two before, what they’ll do is they’ll get a pamphlet from one of the major political parties saying, “Here’s how we think you should vote.” And, sadly, I think a lot of people just go, “Oh, okay. Well, check, check, check, check.”

John: Yeah. Yeah. That’s how it goes. Or they vote based on what the name of the ballot initiative is. And that’s why naming of things is so crucial because that affects what you think about it. So the same proposal with two different names would pass or not pass based on–

Craig: Right.

John: How it’s titled.

Craig: Yeah. For instance, religious freedom sounds great.

John: Doesn’t it sound so good?

Craig: Yeah, it sounds–

John: People should have religious freedom. We should restore religious freedom. I’m 100%–

Craig: Yeah. [laughs]

John: In favor of restoring religious freedom.

Craig: Right.

John: So it’s really for like — for those people who are like oppressed, those like — those, yeah, absolutely 100%. That’s the one about head scarves, right? That’s what it’s really up for.

Craig: Yeah. No, for sure. I mean, the proper — they had a choice. It was either we can name things religious freedom or no wedding cakes for you, homos. [laughs] They were like, “Hmm. Uh, let’s go with religious freedom. That’s probably — we probably have a better shot.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: We do somehow. So listening to the episode that you recorded with John Lee Hancock, I was nodding through a bunch of it but I was yelling at my podcast player for one moment because you guys answered a listener question about background audio tracks for like ambience for when you are writing things.

Craig: Right.

John: And I had immediate experience with that because these last four weeks I’ve had to use those quite a bit because I’ve been writing in a small apartment or like really busy places with a lot of noise around me and I found them to be an absolute godsend. So for writing Arlo Finch, a lot of what I was writing in this section of the book is like very cold and snowy and winter stormy and I needed to be in that head space. But when I got to Paris, it was like 95 degrees without air-conditioning.

And so, what I found to be so incredibly helpful were these three tracks — I’m going to put up links to in the show notes for. They’re all from YouTube and they’re just eight hours of like winter storms or forest ambience, and they were so incredibly helpful in just like being white noise and sort of like shutting out the chatter around me, but also making me feel like I’m in a cold snowy place when I’m actually sweating in a Paris apartment.

Craig: Well, I get that. I mean, you know, neither John Lee nor I write in busy places. We literally are two floors apart from each other in a building where I guess the most noise is the occasional bus, or as all of us know, the sirens. And this will come up, by the way, later when we talk about autism spectrum disorder. But when the fire trucks go by, I put my fingers in my ears and I stop.

John: I always do.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I always do. And I feel like I’m a child when I do that, but you know what, it hurts my ears and I don’t like it. So if my fingers can stop the hurt, I like my fingers to stop the hurt.

Craig: Even if it doesn’t — even if — because I’m inside, it’s not this level of noise where it would physically hurt, but it upsets me. I don’t like it. [laughs]

John: Yeah.

Craig: And so I put my fingers in my ears. But no, I understand how if you are writing in a busy café in France and you’re writing — you know, one thing about novels as opposed to movies is you tend to live in a space for a much longer amount of writing time, you know. Like if there’s a whole sequence set in the winter, you’re going to spending more days in the winter than you might on a movie where maybe there is, you know, three scenes in winter or something like that. So it absolutely makes sense that you would want some kind of white noise to drown out the chatter and I don’t know what the sounds of France, the baguettes hitting each other and accordion music.

John: There is some accordion music. Just in the subway today, we had the guy step in and play his greatest hits on the accordion, which was kind of charming and also really annoying. [laughs]

Craig: Yeah.

John: So — yeah.

Craig: Did you put your fingers in your ears? [laughs]

John: It didn’t quite get that bad. [laughs] Let’s do one more bit of follow-up. This is actually way back to Episode 267, that was How Would This Be a Movie.

Craig: Yeah.

John: The one that we were like, well, this is absolutely going to be a movie was the PTA mom and the crazy married lawyers who were trying to bring her down.

Craig: Right.

John: And we were like, “Well, that’s going to absolutely be a movie,” and it looks like it’s going to be a movie. So Julia Roberts is now set to produce and star in a film based on those events but not the article we read. The film is based around a book which the victim, Kelly Peters, wrote with a New York Times writer under an alias of Sam Rule. The book is called I’ll Get You! Drugs, Lies, and the Terrorizing of a PTA Mom.

So as of two weeks ago, there was no screenwriter on the project but it looks like it could be George Clooney and Grant Heslov from Smokehouse producing the film. So it’s a bunch of familiar people coming together to make a movie perhaps.

Craig: Well, I think that that — I’m actually encouraged by the fact that they aren’t basing it on that article. Not because that article was poorly done. It was brilliantly done. It’s just that I didn’t see an ending in that article that made me think I’d follow this movie from start to finish, I understand how this all works. Perhaps the book offers more of that. And of course, the fact that the book is being told from the point of view of the victim implies a certain different kind of movie as well.

John: Yeah. We’ll see what that is.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I want to cast Brie Larson as the wife and the lawyer. This is — if anyone asks, Brie Larson.

Craig: Okay. All right. But what about Julia Roberts?

John: Julia Roberts is playing the mom, apparently. She’s playing the victim.

Craig: She’s playing the victim.

John: Yeah. Which doesn’t seem to be a great part, but maybe there’s something in the book that sort of shows why that’s a great part.

Craig: Yeah, yeah. That’s the thing. I’m starting to think like there’s a whole other movie here with that woman that we don’t know about.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But I don’t know. I kind of just want to hear about the villains in this one.

John: I love the villains in this story.

Craig: Yeah, yeah.

John: All right. Let’s get to our first main topic which is buckling down. So the last 40 days have been sort of like the most intense writing period of my life. And I guess I’ve done TV show stuff which was intense for other reasons, but this was the most days continuously where I had to write a lot every day. So the book is about 60,000 words. To give you a sense of that, like a screenplay is about 20,000 to 25,000 words and a lot of those are like the characters’ names and INT/EXT and all of that stuff.

So it ends up being a tremendous amount of words and just a tremendous amount of volume to be sort of typing into your computer at a time. So it was such a different thing for me but I felt like we could have this discussion about really any time that you have to just buckle down and actually write something that’s really long. So screenplays, pilots or the TV staff writer who’s sent out of the room to like actually write the draft, that’s really sort of a buckling down situation.

Obviously, a book or a novel, we have people who are starting their projects for NaNoWriMo at the start of November. But even if you’re not a screenwriter and you’re writing a dissertation, it’s the same kind of thing where like you can plan for a long time but eventually you have to sit down and actually write this thing. So I want to talk about how you write really long things and how you sort of get it done, which we haven’t really done. We’ve done a lot of sort of little bits of scene work and we talked about outlines and treatments and sort of other things, but the day-to-day, day after day work of getting one project done, we haven’t really touched on in, you know, these 270 episodes.

Craig: Kind of crazy that we haven’t, considering that it is the thing that people kind of struggle with the most.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, of all the sub header things that we struggle with, getting the work done. And I love your phrase, buckling down, which is exactly what it requires, is the most common problem for all of us and it doesn’t, by the way, get easier. That’s — it’s — you’d think that with the exercise of the muscle there you — that that pain would start to go away. It does not.

John: Yeah. Well, I think what’s tough about it is that so often the experience of being a writer is the experience of like thinking through stuff and figuring stuff out. But the actual verb of writing isn’t necessarily the bulk of your day. And so it’s sort of hard to tell when you’re writing and when you’re not writing. And so only in those situations where something is actually really due, there’s like a ticking clock and you have to get stuff done and there’s just a whole bunch of stuff you have to get done that you really feel it. And so, I want to talk about like those times in your life and some general structures for like how you plan out that work and how you plan for how you’re going to really achieve it and how you’re going to get it done.

So I would start with, it’s really just making it the priority. It’s like, it’s recognizing that there’s always going to be stuff in your life, there’s going to be family stuff, friends, travel, there’s going to be parties. But I remember when I first got to know Lena Dunham, I had met her right after her movie Tiny Furniture and I thought it was great. But then I got to hang out with her a little bit more up at the Sundance Labs and she was co-writing a movie up at the Sundance Labs, which is the winter labs, and while she was up there at the labs she was also starting on this HBO thing which was sort of like something she was thinking through which ended up becoming Girls.

But what impressed me about her was like not just her talent, which I’d already seen, but her work ethic. And so she was the kind of person who would leave a party early because like “I need to go and write” or you know, she would skip out on things because like “I need to go and write.” And she wasn’t just using that as an excuse, she really had to go and write. She’s the kind of person who, you know, would take a vacation to an exotic place but spend a fair amount of that time, you know, in a room writing the stuff she needs to write.

And I’ve always admired those people who can sort of make their writing life a priority. And there’s only certain points in my life where I really felt like I could do that sort of cleanly. And this — and writing the book here was one of those situations where I really could sort of prioritize. I could say, “Listen, there’s all this stuff I know that needs to happen but I need these four hours of the day to be clean so I can write,” and that’s been kind of a great experience to go through.

Craig: Well, part of the challenge is that when we you say, “I need these four hours of the day to write,” sometimes those aren’t the four hours where you’re actually going to be writing, you know. Because one of the problems is sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t even at different times of the day, which is why work ethic is so important.

To me, I try and look at it like this. Work ethic is about making sure that at the end of some reasonable chunk of time you’ve done the right amount of work, whatever that is for you. We all move at different speeds. So I think of it in terms of a week. When this week has elapsed, this much work must have occurred.

That said, there are going to be days where more happens than less. And I have to listen to myself. So like Lena, if I’m at a party and the back of my head’s going, “I kind of feel like I want to write,” leave and write. Listen to that voice because it might not be there the next day.

John: At the same time you have to be aware that writing is honestly going to be one of the — your last choices of like fun things to do. And so it’s showing up even when you kind of don’t want to show up.

My situation here in Paris is my daughter would go off to school and I would sit down and I would write. I would write for a solid hour. Then I’d take a break then I’d go for another hour. And having a routine where like I literally — like, if I didn’t get that 9 o’clock hour worth of work done, I knew that I would be kind of messed up for the day. It did sort of force a — that regularity was incredibly helpful.

So I’m not going to necessarily do this for the rest of my life, but for those periods where I needed to buckle down, that was really good. It was good to recognize that stuff needs to get done. Even if it’s not going to be the perfect stuff, there were days where I could sit down, like I really had a hard time getting it going. But what I could at least do is like synopsize the things that needed to happen in this chapter. I could work through some of the other, sort of, more piddly things that needed to get done somehow.

In screenwriting, I often would sort of do these things where like sometimes there’s a scene I just didn’t really know how to write, I didn’t really want to write. But if I was sitting down for a session to write, I’ll write that other scene. I’ll write that like sort of less important scene, the things that are sort of people walking through doors. So at least something would get done. And so it’s recognizing that there’s always going to be some things that are bit more challenging for you, but you’ve got to sort of focus on getting some stuff done because if you just always wait for the muse to show up, you are going to be waiting kind of forever.

Craig: I completely agree. There is a push and a pull required. Let’s call the muse the push. That’s something from within you that you have an instinct to want to create and want to write. And those times when you feel that push from within, it’s wonderful, but you need a pull. You need something on the outside that is demanding that work come out of you. And that is not — I don’t think anything you can really teach people. I think that is baked in to who they are. It is a huge part of splitting the world between writer and not writer. That writers just have an innate understanding that there’s a requirement and it needs to be fulfilled, like we’re working for a boss who isn’t there.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Even when we actually have a boss, that’s not the boss.

You know, right now I’m writing a script for Disney. I know who my bosses are at Disney. I know who my producers are. But they’re actually not the people I’m thinking about when I go, “I have to get something done today.” I’m thinking about this just need. And it’s almost like a weird external need that is yet created internally.

John: Absolutely, you’re envisioning this other person of you who’s going to be really upset with you if you don’t get this work done.

Craig: Right

John: That’s a strange thing. You’re trying to please this master who doesn’t exist who is actually you.

So let’s talk about some of the obstacles that are sort of getting in people’s way from finishing things or at least from like really being able to crack the back of the work that they’re doing. And let’s talk through some of the things that are sort of common experiences in our lives that have been in the way of writing.

Craig: Right. So I think perhaps the most common, the king of all obstacles, is the double-sided coin of fear and regret. When we don’t necessarily know it’s happening. It happens so fast in our minds and so subconsciously that sometimes all we feel is just a lack of desire to write. We don’t understand that that is actually a symptom of a process that just occurred in a split second. And in that split second, what’s happening is we think about writing and then we are confronted instantly with, “Am I good at this? Am I doing it right? What will people think? Have I already made a mistake and wasted my time and my energy?” And that cascades to, “I’m no good. I don’t know what I’m doing.” And we don’t hear any of those words. All we get is, “Meh.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: “I’m going to go watch TV.”

John: Yeah, because no one fails at watching TV.

Craig: It’s so true. [laughs]

John: Yeah. It’s absolutely a true thing, because we worry that we set the stakes way too high for the thing we’re about to write. And like, “Oh, if this scene isn’t perfect. If this sentence isn’t perfect, it’s all going to be disaster,” when in fact, it’s not going to be a disaster. You know, every scene and every sentence is going to be rewritten several times. So you’re much better off writing the version of the sentence that is pretty good and moving on. And then, like, being able to go back and say like, “Oh, you know what? I have a better way of doing this.”

But actually starting the process is really key. You know, on a previous episode we talked about how perfectionism and procrastination are really the same thing.

Craig: Right.

John: Is that procrastination is a way of protecting us from fear of being less than perfect. Well, you have to accept that things aren’t going to be perfect right out the gate. That’s why I think it’s so important to, you know, just start writing. And then at a certain point, something often clicks. It doesn’t always click, but it often clicks. It’s like, “Oh, okay, now I get what this is.” And those first things you wrote you’ll fix and it’ll get a lot better.

At the same time, you may encounter problems in — story problems, word problems that you’re not able to sort of justify and like you don’t know how to actually deal with them. But just deal with them as best you can and know that you’re going to have the opportunity to go back and fix them.

Craig: Right.

John: I think that sometimes we sort of — we wait so long because like, “Oh, it’ll come to me eventually how I’m going to solve this problem.” We would, generally, be much better off like moving on, acknowledging that it’s a problem, moving on, and then finding a way back into that problem later on.

Craig: Yeah. We tend to judge our work and progress against completed works, which is a mistake. It’s simply not possible that any half-finished first draft of anything is going to match the standards of completed works. Not possible.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And yet we don’t have any other basis of comparison, right?

John: Exactly.

Craig: It’s not like the Internet has a bunch of half-written first drafts, because they don’t.

John: Yeah.

Craig: For novels or for movies.

John: Yeah. If only Steve Zaillian would like publish like all of his sort of like aborted scripts, everyone would feel so much better. [laughs]

Craig: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, here’s a bad scene that I threw out and I didn’t know it was a bad scene until two weeks later and I’m embarrassed by it and here it is. And I think the solution here is to stop comparing your work to anything because the comparison is useless.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It will not make you better and it will not make the work better, particularly when you’re trying to be honest to your own voice.

John: And I think sometimes on the podcast, we may say things that would lead people the other way. It’s like I do generally think that, you know, trying to break into screenwriting or trying to break into writing, ultimately, you are going to be compared against the people who are doing this professionally for a living. So like, that’s fair at the end of the process. But to hold yourself to that standard in the middle of a sentence is not going to be productive for you or for anybody. So you have to recognize the two things, like allow yourself to be imperfect in this moment and strive for perfection in the finished work. And you can’t do both simultaneously.

Craig: You can’t. And let other people handle the judging business because, first of all, their manner of judging is so foreign to your manner of judging. And based on wildly different criteria. You will be undervalued and overvalued at various times by people. And that’s what they’re going to do. And you honestly can’t — you can’t anticipate it. You can’t game that. The best you can do is just write honestly to yourself and not compare to other people, because inevitably what ends up happening is you subject yourself to the tyranny of the unattainable. There’s always somebody better, there’s always something better, and you’ll just get lost.

Similarly if you’re facing a problem, you know you have a problem in your story, your screenplay, or your novel. Sometimes the existence of it feels so daunting because it was really hard to do the work that got you to the place that you now think is a problem.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But it isn’t so hard to fix it. It just feels so hard to fix it because you don’t know how. And it’s okay to stop and say, “I acknowledge the following. I made a mistake. I’ve wasted time. I’ve wasted energy. I’ve wasted effort. No problem, that is inevitable. So now let me just think about my problem and allow myself to be free to come up with anything. Even if it means tearing everything up. Even if it means that my grand plan to have a novel at the end of a month didn’t happen, right?” And once you free yourself, you’d be amazed how quickly you can solve things. And actually, oftentimes, how rapidly you — the fix is done.

John: Absolutely. Once you get past that sort of sunk cost fallacy, like I’ve done all this work and it has led me to this horrible place, and to try to fix this problem would be undoing other things. Once you sort of let yourself go from those previous things, a lot of stuff becomes simpler.

The other thing to remember is we talk about like you’re comparing it against perfected works you’ve seen. If you were actually to talk to the people who wrote those things, those movies you love, those books you read that you loved so much and you said like, “Oh, well this part was so graceful and effortless, how you did the stuff,” that may have been the author’s most hated and most challenging thing. And maybe the thing that she doesn’t actually love about her book because she knows how much hard work it was to go in there and it doesn’t feel easy and natural to her, but it ultimately worked. And so just because it’s hard work it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a struggle in the end. It may actually be the right thing for you to be having to face through to get to.

An example of my own stuff is Big Fish. The first ten minutes has to set up so much stuff, and that was probably the hardest ten pages ever to write because there’s so many little balls to get moving in the air at once. It took like three weeks to do. A lot of the other script was so much simpler, and yet you wouldn’t know what was easy and what was hard based on, you know, the end result of the movie.

Craig: Yeah. We don’t really have experience of that on the other side of it. As movie goers or novel readers, we don’t get a color coding that shows how much effort went into any particular part. And in fact, because our job as writers is similar to the job of the magician, we’re constantly disguising that effort as best we can. We’re hiding it from people. And if we do it really well, it should all look easy.

John: Yeah, that’s the trick.

Craig: You know, it should look inevitable and easy. And what a shock then that when we sit down to actually write we go, “Wait, this the opposite of inevitable and easy.” And in fact, one of the great obstacles that we face and one of the things that pulls us off the track sometimes is the paralysis of choice because we’re used to seeing things that follow one track inevitably to an end. But when we’re writing, there is no track.

John: 100%.

Craig: We can do anything, and that can be very frightening for people.

John: Absolutely true.

So let’s talk about the actual process of getting those words on the page and sort of how you get it done. So especially when you’re like buckling down, let’s say you have a big thing to write. So it could be a book, it could be a screenplay, it could be your dissertation that’s finally due, you have a lot to do. So the thing you have to recognize is that it’s going to be a marathon of many, many days to write this thing. And so if you try to stay up all night and just power through it, well, staying up all night is going to set you back the next day. So you have to recognize like the amount of work you can do in a day and try to be able to repeat that work day after day, and that way you’ll get through it.

So a lot of times I think that sometimes as writers we’ve been very clever, and so we would just like pull an all-nighter to write that like 10-page paper for a term project. That doesn’t actually work when you’re trying to do a 120 pages or you’re trying to do, you know, a 300-page dissertation. You can’t just stay up all night and power through it. You actually have to plan for how you’re going to do it.

So I like to say it’s like — it’s planning to run a bunch of sprints that ultimately add up to a marathon. And so for me, a sprint is sitting down and I’ll spend about 20 minutes reading through the previous day’s work. Just sort of get a feeling for it again in my head. I may rewrite some stuff while I’m doing it, I’m just changing stuff around. Just sort of get it back under my finger so I really feel like the story is — I’m back in it. Then I’ll set a timer and I’ll write for 60 minutes, and I won’t let myself get up from the desk until I’ve really written for 60 minutes.

Sometimes I run out of juice a little bit during that time, but I still stick at it. And if I don’t have anything great to like add to the scene itself, I’ll just synopsize the next things that are coming up. I’ll sit in that chair for the 60 minutes until I get as much stuff done as I possibly can and then I’ll walk away and take a break.

Craig, do you find yourself doing that at all?

Craig: Yes, although not quite so intentionally. I don’t set a timer or anything like that. I definitely begin by reading what happened yesterday. I give myself as much time. Sometimes I read the whole thing. You know — and I mean, you know, I’m on page 67. Sometimes I sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to start on page 1,” and I’m going to read up until page 67. I want to — I just want to watch this movie again and feel all of it, and then I’ll be ready to add on one more brick.

John: That’s the great thing about screenplays, I will say, is that there have definitely been times where like I just start back at the beginning and read through, because the experience of watching a movie is going to be starting at the beginning and reading through. I can’t do that every day or I wouldn’t get a lot of work done.

Craig: No, no, no, no, no.

John: For a Monday when I’ve been off that script for a while, it’s not a bad idea.

Craig: Yeah. I used to just sort of read 10 or 15 backwards, you know. And when I was working with Lindsay Doran, I was amazed by her insistence every time that she — so I would — you know, I’d move forward and I’d send her some pages, and every time she would read from the beginning. Every time, which I thought was remarkable, and then I started doing it, too. [laughs] And it actually helped quite a bit. But not necessary — I mean I just think, you know, reading back what you have puts you back in the world of the movie. It certainly helps you connect forward.

And then what happens is I begin. And when I begin, naturally, I will write for a certain amount of time. I don’t actually know how much time. I’ve never looked at the clock. I don’t know. What I do know is somewhere between three and six pages are going to come out. That’s seems about right for a screenplay. Now, novels are different.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But for a screenplay, somewhere between three or six pages are going to come out and that’s what I can do. Now, if you put a gun to my head and said, “You need to write 20 pages,” I could do that. But the goal, as opposed to say writing a term paper, the goal in writing something creative is that it be creative, not hitting a length. So, I know that I am probably best — my optimal page delivery is somewhere between three and six pages. That’s what the day looks like for me.

John: Yeah. So writing the book, my optimal day was between 1,000 and 1,500 words. And like that was a good day’s work. If I was able to stay on that schedule, I knew I could finish the book. I knew everything would be good.

Because books are so much longer, it wasn’t possible to sort of like go back to page one and start rereading the book. It would have taken four hours to do that every day. But what I could do is read through like the last chapter or read through sort of where I’d gotten to in this chapter and sort of move forward from there. So I could remember sort of like where the characters were at, what the world was feeling like.

I can also make sure that I wasn’t repeating language again from earlier in the chapter or from the chapter before, because that’s a thing you definitely notice. In a screenplay, you don’t notice repeated language nearly as much, but in books, the way things are phrased, you kind of can’t keep doing the same things again and again. So I had to sort of be a little bit aware of like things I had just done so I wouldn’t sort of be repeating myself.

So I found myself doing the 20 minutes of sort of recapping, sort of getting back up to speed with it. A one-hour sprint, some time off, another one-hour sprint, some time off, another sprint if I needed to. But that way I was actually getting most of my work done while I was actually sort of sharp and focused in the day. And like the afternoons, I was sort of spent and couldn’t do anything else, but it was nice that I could, you know, sort of really focus on just doing writing stuff during those sort of morning hours. It’s sort of the luxury of this life.

Craig: Well, if we divide our day into writing and then after writing, the after writing part of the day is very, very pleasant if you’ve written.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And if you haven’t, not so great.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So think about that when you’re wondering whether or not you should actually sit down and just do the damn thing at 10:30 or 11:00 or noon or 1:00. As the day goes on, you’re eating up more of your not writing part of the day and you may — now, there are days when you don’t have it and you don’t write. And I’ve learned to forgive myself for those days. That is, you know, it’s natural, I think.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And you hope that those days are balanced out by some of those wonderful days that come out of nowhere where you just — you’re on fire.

John: So some general lessons here. It’s to try to be I think both strict with yourself and also forgiving of yourself, to try to really treat the work like the work. I mean, no one ever sort of like looks at a farmer and says like, “Why are you working so hard, Mr. Farmer?” It’s like, well, the farmer has to work hard.

You are a farmer who is growing words, you’re growing stories, and so a lot of that time is sort of spent in the field with your little story as its growing and making sure that you’re actually spending the time doing it that, you know, writing isn’t just an identity for you but it’s actually a verb. It’s actually a thing that you are doing on a daily basis to get stories told and on the page.

I think sometimes, as screenwriters, because our lives get to be so busy doing all the other stuff, a lot of the stuff you guys talked about last with John Lee Hancock, which is sort of the putting together of a movie and making people feel comfortable and trying make all the stuff work, ultimately though it comes down to like can you tell the story on with those words on the page. And making sure that you protect the space that you need to be able to do that hard work.

Craig: Agreed.

John: Lastly, I’ll put a link in the show notes to some great blog post by Chuck Wendig who’s a really good writer. I had recommended his book, Invasive, a couple of weeks ago. But he writes about writing really well. And so he has a really good blog post, Here’s How To Finish That Effing Book, You Monster. Craig will enjoy it a lot because he’s very foul-mouthed–

Craig: Yeah.

John: About sort of like good advice for sort of like getting through that book or really, any long piece of writing. So I certainly recommend that to anybody who liked this conversation.

Craig: Great.

John: Cool. All right, let’s get to a question from a listener. This is Matthew from Los Angeles who wrote in. We don’t have audio for it. Craig, would you mind reading it?

Craig: I would not mind. It would be my great pleasure.

Matthew from Los Angeles writes, “I am writing to you because I’m in a situation where I’m in need of supportive words or harsh truths. I’m about to graduate from college and begin my entry into the job market. I’d like to become a writer of film and television and I’m fortunate enough to have the advantage of living in Los Angeles. However, I am on the autism spectrum.

“My disability is not to the point that I can’t communicate with people but I do have a noticeable impairment when I’m interacting with others. As I’m a fan of several podcasts that focus on writing and regularly interview working writers, I am well aware that the ability to communicate is essential to the job and that my desire to become a writer may be unrealistic due to my disability. I was wondering what your opinions are on this issue and in a broader sense, hoping you can address how having a disability might impact one’s potential for a career in the film and television industry in general.

“If you’re unable to speak to this issue, I was hoping you could encourage people in the industry to speak out in the same way you did for writers living outside major entertainment cities. I feel that disability often gets overlooked when talking about inclusivity as I often hear more about gender, sexuality, and race. I think it would beneficial to speak about disability as it relates to the industry so a person with a disability, like myself, can manage their expectations and set realistic goals when it comes to working in film and television.”

John: That is a great question.

Craig: Yup.

John: And I love it for so many reasons. First off, he’s asking – he has a specific situation, but there’s a universal question here as well, which is how will the facts of my life impact my ability to achieve my goals? How will the situation I find myself in change how it’s possible for me to get the career I want?

Everyone listening to this podcast has a set of circumstances that makes some things easier or harder so it’s important to look at those conditions honestly so you can anticipate the challenges ahead. So it’s also a really good question because it’s a little bit terrifying. I don’t know how you feel, but there’s a pretty good chance that you or I will say something that will upset someone, so before you email in, when we say something dumb, please assume that we’re trying our very best to answer Matthew’s question and not defend the status quo of the industry or society as a whole.

Craig: I will not be cowed by the tyranny of the offended.

John: All right.

Craig: It’s not that I’m incapable of offending people or incapable of being outrageously wrong. We both know I’m incredibly capable of both of those things. [laughs] But we must proceed fearlessly here if we’re going to have any chance of actually helping anyone, helping Matthew, because, you know, I’m pretty sure that Matthew could probably write the platitude version of this for himself. He wouldn’t need to ask us.

John: So Craig, you are the person who knows more about the DSM, so can you tell us what we are talking about with autism spectrum disorder? Because especially I think we have a lot of international listeners who may be using some of these terms differently, so let’s talk about what we’re talking about first.

Craig: Well, autism spectrum disorder is actually kind of a newish term. We used to have a different — and we call these disorders, even that term, you know, is under scrutiny right now. But we used to say, okay, well, some people had autism and autism was — at least when you and I were growing up as children in the ‘70s, autism was basically narrowed down to a fair — actually a smaller amount of children who had some difficulty with being verbal or severe averbality, difficulty in motor coordination, difficulty with rigidity and thought patterns. Oftentimes, there were associated physical issues like gastrointestinal problems.

We — in the ‘70s, I remember in school there were classes for kids and those classes were called “for the emotionally disturbed,” which is kind of a crazy term, but there was emotional disturbance going on with some of the children with autism. And then as time went on, Asperger’s syndrome emerged and that was kind of a milder version where there were issues with social interaction, again, some verbal issues, eye-contact issues, rigidity of thought. And there’s a lot of symptoms for this.

And then there was this other thing that came along called PPD-NOS, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, which is a very bureaucratic way of saying, “Well, this is sort of autistic-ish or Asperger’s-y.”

John: Here’s a bunch of symptoms and we’ll stick them together.

Craig: Yeah. They’re pervasive so they’re not acute, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: This is who you are, but they’re not otherwise specified.

Now, I think in — yeah, I’m looking here in 2013, when they went from the DSM 4 to DSM 5, and DSM is the Diagnostic Statistic Manual, it’s the big diagnosis manual for Psychiatry and Psychology. They decided everything — let’s get rid of those distinctions, everything is now called autism spectrum disorder. And so the idea is there is a spectrum of behaviors, and all the way on the extreme end, you have what used to be considered severely autistic and all the way kind of on the more mild end, you have some of the behaviors that would have probably fallen under PDD-NOS.

John: Yeah. So it’s important that we say like these are kicking into varying degrees. So like no two people are going to have the exact same kind of situation with this diagnosis. It’s a spectrum for a reason. So there’s — I have two people in my family who are both on the spectrum and they could not be more different, so it’s important that we don’t like sort of stereotype people based on a diagnosis. Everyone is clearly an individual and there’s — while there can be some consistency of patterns between different things, there can also be huge variations between people.

Craig: Yeah, no question. I mean, this is one of the issues. I mean, I have probably in my extended family more people on the spectrum than I can count. I probably as a child would have been diagnosed with PDD-NOS. I mean, I had like certain behaviors that the doctor was concerned about, a lot of weird finger motions right up against my face, which I found made it easier for me to think and imagine and you see very typical with people on the spectrum. Especially towards the autism end of the spectrum, there can be flapping behavior where their hands flap around or move in strange ways.

So not only is it important not to stereotype, it’s essentially impossible to stereotype ASD. And that, in its own way, is part of the challenge because if you cannot — I mean, let’s take the word stereotype and remove it from its stereotype which is, you know, you’re a racist and you’re categorizing people and just use it in its purest form, you have collected a pattern of behaviors and are now ascribing it to one kind of syndrome.

The question for ASD is not just what is neuro-atypical, but you have to first ask, “What is even neuro-typical?” In short, “What is normal and who gets to define it as such?”

Here’s one of the challenges here with ASD. When you look at most neurological disorders, for instance, epilepsy, there’s really no upside to epilepsy and we know exactly what epilepsy is. And we can stereotype epilepsy, right? We can say, “Okay, well, this is what happens. You have seizures. This kind of electrical pattern occurs in the brain. It can be mild or it can be dangerous. There’s petit mal, there’s grand mal.” We know these things, right? And nobody with epilepsy says, “It’s super awesome having epilepsy.” But unlike those kinds of standard neurological disorders, ASD often correlates with advantages.

Now, this isn’t causal but correlative, right? We know that people with ASD often do have superior visuospatial ability, mathematical ability, and music and art. So many, many years ago, some people were called idiot savants, right? The idiot part was, “Oh, they don’t know how to talk and they can’t look you in the eye and they can’t read faces and they have no emotional quotient and sometimes their hands flap around,” which actually is not idiotic at all, it’s just part of the symptomology of ASD. But then the savant part was, “Oh, he can” — for instance, there’s a famous case of a man who, upon seeing an image of a city from high up, like an entire city for like five seconds, could then be brought into a room and draw that city and all of its buildings nearly perfectly. Well, that’s extraordinary. And you find people with ASD overrepresented definitely in the fields of visual art and certainly in mathematics.

John: Absolutely. But at the same time, again, going back to the other sort of lucid definition of stereotype, you don’t want to stereotype people with ASD. It’s like, “Oh, then you should have some sort of superpower to make up for other issues that they may encounter.” So that’s one of those sort of rare double-edged swords where there could be an expectation like, “Oh, well, there’s something else that you’re really amazing at because of this.” Maybe. That could be great, that could be fantastic, but I don’t want to sort of like fall into the trap of stereotyping people with ASD or people like Matthew. It’s like, “Oh, well, then he’s probably really good at this thing, so he should do this thing instead.”

Craig: 100%. Yeah. There is — you can presume that just as extraordinary ability in the – let’s call it the neuro-typical cohort is rare. Extraordinary ability in the neuro-atypical cohort is rare. It’s just slightly less rare percentage-wise likely than it is in the neuro-typical community. I mean, the other part of the double edge here is that the term itself has benefits and costs. When you say, “Okay, we’re going to diagnose you — give you an official diagnosis of spectrum disorder,” on the positive end, this often will get people the assistance they need, particularly children in educational environments, and it helps people understand how they might function differently than others which gives them, I would imagine, a great bit of comfort and clarity, especially for people who are struggling or taking care of people with severe debilitating symptoms. But on the negative end of things, saying, “Well, you have an autism spectrum disorder” essentially stigmatizes behavior that in some areas on the spectrum I think could just as easily be considered what I would call alternative normal rather than abnormal.

John: Absolutely. What you don’t want to do is sort of stigmatize something that could be perceived as personality. Like you don’t want to sort of medicalize or put a diagnosis around just the way a person is if that just is the way the person is. And that, I think, is sort of at the crux of where I’m going to get to with Matthew and his specific question.

So Matthew writes in and says, “Listen, I really think I want to be a screenwriter. Is that a realistic goal for me?” And I think we could tell him, “Well, based on the information we have, there’s nothing that suggests that it’s not a realistic goal for you.” This was a well-written email into us. We don’t know anything more about your writing ability other than this one email, but this is a better email than a lot of the emails we get in so far.

Craig: Yes. [laughs]

John: You’re just in college, you already have a strong interest in screenwriting, you already are listening to a bunch of film podcasts. You seem to have a real interest in it. But do you have a talent for it? We don’t know that yet. Some people do, some people don’t. But there’s nothing about your specific diagnosis that would indicate to us like, “Oh, you should not even consider pursuing this.” I think you should consider pursuing it and you should look at sort of what’s going to be possible for you in it.

So we had Peter Dodd on to talk about, he was the agent who came on the show. He said like, “Well, why do I sign a client?” Well, 80% of it is the writing. 80% of it is how well does this person write, and you’re going to be writing this script by yourself. And so the person on the other end who’s reading the script, they have no idea of sort of like what you’re like in a room. They’re just looking at your words. And if you can write those words well, if you can write those words really, really well, there’s a chance that you can make it as a screenwriter. So I think a screenwriter is a relatively good way for a person who has some troubles interacting with people, as you described in the email, to consider a career in the film industry.

And there’s also a precedent for like people who are really good writers who are not great around other people. That’s a useful stereotype for you to consider is that like a lot of really good writers have not been the most comfortable around other people.

Craig: Absolutely. Again, I would probably use the word, correlative, not causal and not a guarantee.

John: Yes.

Craig: But there is a correlation here. I mean, one thing about autism spectrum disorder is that it implies a certain amount of internality that your mind is inside and less about connected to the outside or not — or connected differently to the outside, let’s say. And you know, some people may say, well, if you have like, for instance, Matthew, he says, “I have a noticeable impairment when I’m interacting with others.” Now, some people might say, “Well, then how can you be a writer? Because a writer is all about how people interact with each other.” But there have been some incredible writers who weren’t necessarily soaking in emotionality or sentiment. I mean, consider Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. In fact, their writing really has all the hallmarks in a way of ASD. It’s intricate and it’s mathematical and it’s well-put together and kind of beautiful in its plotting and its rationality. And even the characters are — they are princes and princesses of rationality.

Now, that aside, here’s the best news of all, Matthew. I personally know so many writers in this business who either have been diagnosed with ASD or could easily be so if they bothered to get one. And this has been this way for as long as I’ve been in the business. The Simpsons, famously, especially in the early years when the show was being formed, the principles, the main key writers, the geniuses that made that all work, they were famous for being, well, what we used to call back in the early ‘90s: weirdos, nerds, geeks, strange.

And here’s the beauty of Hollywood, for all of its awfulness, the one thing you can rely on is that Hollywood is a money-eating machine, right? They just want to eat everyone’s money. And anyone that helps them eat other people’s money is their friend and all of the pejoratives that people with ASD can unfortunately hear in their lives, like geek and nerd and weirdo and creep and all the rest of it, in our business, if you are writing material that helps Hollywood eat other people’s money, those words turn to brilliant, unique, genius, authentic, original. You see?

John: Yup.

Craig: And so I think that for you, this should not at all be a problem. You may have other problems. You may not be a very good writer. Right? We don’t know. [laughs] But this, I don’t think is a problem for you.

John: I agree. It’s not a problem.

And I also think the kind of feature screenwriting that Craig and I do, we tend to be able to work more by ourselves. If you’re in a busy TV writing room that’s not The Simpsons, some of those rooms may not be as great for a person who needs to like — there’s politics, there’s all sorts of stuff that sort of has to happen in a room, and sometimes a person who has a hard time reading a room might have more of a challenge. But that’s not the whole business. That is not the only way.

And also, before we sort of wrap up this discussion, I want to talk about the other sort of aspects of the film industry, because I’m sure people who listen to this podcast are not just writers but there’s people who are interested in other areas of filmmaking. I personally encounter directors who I’m certain would be on the spectrum if they chose to be identified.

Craig: Yes, you certainly have. [laughs]

John: But also editors and visual effects artists and cinematographers. The people who are perfectionists, I think there’s — again, it’s not a causal but there’s a correlative thing about those folks and the ability to just really, really dive in on something. I think there’s a natural fit sometimes for people who are on the spectrum to go towards some of those fields.

Now, are those people going to be as likely to be glib producers or casting directors or publicists? Probably not. That’s probably not a skill set that would more naturally tie in to some of these traits, but again, you don’t know. And even when we talked before about sort of like these great writers like Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie who were so mathematical, I don’t want to assume that the way that Matthew’s, you know, ASD manifest, he may have just tremendous emotional insight. Maybe one of those situations where he has a really great gift at being able to see inside people’s–

Craig: Absolutely.

John: Emotional — he may just have tremendous emotional insight. So I don’t want to sort of dismiss those as possibilities either. But as the guy who’s writing in and saying like, “I think I want to be screenwriter and I’m worried about my ability to interact with others,” I would say, “I wouldn’t worry so much about it.”

Craig: Yeah. I’m with you.

Look, your desire to be a screenwriter is natural to you, Matthew. So you follow that desire, just as somebody’s desire to be a cinematographer is natural to them. And yes, there are probably some desires that are more natural to people with ASD than others, but if somebody with ASD really did want to be a publicist, I would put money on them being a terrific publicist. It’s just where does your instinct take you, right? So we can generalize about what ASD does because it is, in fact, a general spectrum of things and Matthew is one point on that general spectrum. But the good news is, if you want to do this, then you do it. And you will not be drummed out of this business because you’re “bad in a room.” You will drummed out of this business if your work is bad and you’re bad in a room.

Here’s a bit of unfairness. There are some people who aren’t great writers but they’re spectacular in a room. And particularly, in the television business, they can kind of wheedle their way from show to show being everyone’s best friend and maybe being a political animal, and they can kind of succeed longer than they should. And maybe that’s not something that is going to happen for somebody with ASD. But is that really the goal? I don’t think so. I think the goal is to be a terrific writer. And, you know, so in that sense, I think you should pursue this with the comfort of knowing that your diagnosis will not be the reason you either make it or don’t make it.

John: Now, Craig, are you aware of any efforts for diversity or inclusivity for people on the spectrum?

Craig: I’m not.

John: Is that something that anyone is like reaching out to try to fill, you know, jobs?

Craig: I have never heard of it. Part of the problem is that — well, I mean, there are certain privacy issues when it comes to health diagnoses.

John: Sure.

Craig: But also, I don’t see anyone looking around the writing community at the very least and saying, “We seem to be really short on people who might be on the spectrum.” We don’t seem to be short with people who might be on the spectrum.

Now, again, that’s anecdotal. I don’t have the statistics. And I don’t know, you know, exactly how to get good statistics on this because we’re talking about a diagnosis, first of all, that’s three years old. So how many people have gotten that diagnosis? How many people have actually had a need to go see somebody to get that diagnosis? We don’t know. And of course, when you talk about a spectrum, the range on that spectrum is so dramatic that I’m not sure asking just, “Are you on the spectrum?” would give you the information you’d really want anyway.

John: Yeah. I think you’re right.

So that wraps up sort of what we know, but there’s a lot we don’t know. So sort of like our question about working outside of Los Angeles, New York or London, if you are a listener who has some insights for Matthew or for anybody who’s like looking at coming into the Hollywood system with a disability and think our listeners should know about it, write in. So write in to, and if we have some other great stories to share with Matthew or people who are facing other situations like that, we will happily share them.

Craig: Fantastic. Good question, Matthew. Thanks for writing in.

John: It is time for our One Cool Things. Mine is really simple. It is a website called the It’s simply–

Craig: I thought you were going to say Wikipedia and I was going to be like, “What?”

John: What?

Craig: We all know about that, John.

John: So Wikitravel is like Wikipedia but just for travel. So essentially, when you pick a city or destination and you type it in to Wikitravel, it tells you like, “Here’s what you do there.” And it’s actually really smart. It’s simple and crowd-sourced. It tells you sort of like — it breaks down like, you know, “Here are the sites, here are the challenges, here are some things to keep in mind about it.” It’s free and open and very publicly done.

So this last week, our daughter was off at a week-long field trip. And so my husband and I decided to go to Avignon in the south of France. And we didn’t know, really, anything about it. So we looked it up in the Wikitravel and it turned out to be great and there were really good suggestions. So we did that, we did [unintelligible] and just really had a great time. So I would just recommend to anybody who’s like traveling to a new place, check out Wikitravel for some good tips.

Craig: You know, I actually have Two Cool Things now because I have one that I need to talk about but yours prompted me. Have you heard of Google Trips?

John: We were just talking about Google Trips today. So describe it for us.

Craig: So I haven’t used it yet, but the idea is that they use an algorithm, essentially, an efficiency algorithm. You say, “Okay, here’s where I am and have this much time. What should I do?” And they basically use an algorithm, base it on your location, even the weather, the time of day, and they’re like, “The most efficient course of action would be for you to go here, see this, spend time doing this, go there, look at that, go here and then come back.” [laughs] I just kind of think it’s amazing. I haven’t used it yet but I kind of want to.

John: Yeah. At first, I thought it was going to be like a traveling salesman problem like they somehow optimized like how you could get to all these different destinations at one time. But it’s more sort of like, “Here’s how to have fun.” It’s Google telling you how to have fun. That’s a scary thing.

Craig: [laughs] Exactly, yeah. Soon we just won’t know how to do anything. All right. Well, that’s maybe One Cool Thing.

Here’s my actual One Cool Thing and it is for our friends at the Writers Guild Foundation. They are holding a Texas Hold ‘Em Poker tournament. That’s going to be on Friday, October 21st, from 6:00 to 11:00. I believe it’s going to be at the Guild, is that right? Yes. It’s going to be–

John: I don’t know where it actually is.

Craig: Yeah. It’s going to be at the — in the library, I believe. And this is a charity event and it is to benefit the Veterans Writing programs, a terrific program that the Writers Guild Foundation does. Veterans Writing Project where they assist veterans who are attempting to break into our business and get writing done. It’s a fantastic cause. And it is $250. $250 — obviously, tax deductible because it’s a foundation. And you know, not paying taxes, John, makes me smart.

John: It makes me so smart, right?

Craig: It makes me smart. I’m brilliant. I’m a genius.

$250 gets you poker chips, it gets you food, it gets you refreshments. And for the first hour, if you’re familiar with how poker tournaments work, there’s $20 re-buys, which is pretty spectacular.

If you do not play poker, that’s okay. You come a little early. At 6:00 PM, there is registration and poker lessons. They’ll teach you how. I have played poker a long time and what I find is that when people show up who have never played poker before, they are the most dangerous players at the table. [laughs] You cannot read them, they do not do what they’re supposed to do, they end up beating you every time. [laughs] So if you don’t what you’re doing, trust me, you’re in better shape than I am. Show up and donate.

So again, that’s Friday, October 21st, from 6:00 to 11:00, and it’s for a spectacular cause, Writers Guild Foundation Veterans Writing Project. Side benefit, if you show up at this thing, you get to hang out with me, awesome, but also Scott Alexander of Alexander-Karaszewski, if you’re familiar with their incredible work. There’s Glenn Gordon Caron, a wonderful guy, Carlton Cuse, you might know his name, Hasson Brant, Winnie Holzman. Are you a fan of Wicked? Winnie Holzman will be there. Simon Kinberg, who writes all movies, Jay Kogen, who is one of the aforementioned founding writers of The Simpsons, Jeff Nathanson, a huge writer, Dan Petrie Jr., if you happen to like Beverly Hills Cop, and I think you do, oh, and Matthew Weiner, if you’re a Mad Men fan. So you have all these big writers there and you could sit at a table, you can take Matthew Weiner’s money.

John: That by itself is the whole goal.

Craig: That’s worth the whole thing.

John: I would fly back just for that. Yeah.

Craig: Yeah. Take it.

John: And that’s our show for this week. So as always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Pedro Aguilera. If you have an outro, you can send us link to That’s also a place where you can send longer questions like Matthew’s today. For shorter questions, on Twitter, I am @johnaugust, Craig is @clmazin. I do check my replies even though I’m not actually reading the main feed of Twitter right now, which is kind of fun and delightful.

You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a comment. Also, while you’re there, you can download the Scriptnotes app that gives you access to all the back catalogue. That’s through It’s $2 a month.

A bunch of people recently have signed up for, so thank you for all you people, premium subscribers. You guys are getting all the back episodes going back to the very beginning, even the bonus episodes, that dirty episode we did with Dan Savage and Rebel Wilson, all sorts of good stuff there.

You can find this episode and all episodes at And you can find the transcripts up about four days later. You can find the links to today’s episode at as well or you could just scroll your app to the links below. And that’s it.

So Craig, thank you so much. It’s nice to be back.

Craig: Thank you, John. We’re back.

John: We’re back. All right. Have a good week.

Craig: You too. Bye.


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You can download the episode here.

Buckling Down

Tue, 10/11/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig discuss the psychological barriers facing writers tackling big projects, and offer practical guidance for getting stuff written.

We also respond to a listener question about autism spectrum disorder and how it might impact a screenwriting career.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 270: John Lee Hancock — Transcript

Mon, 10/10/2016 - 12:50

Craig Mazin: Hello, and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin, and this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. And yes, I am unfettered today. No fetters on me, whatever a fetter is, as John August continues his world travels somewhere in France. But as I am a creature of habit, and I fear change, I went and found myself another John to do today’s show with.

So, today on the show I’ll be talking with, and answering some listener questions with writer/director, all-around tall drink of water, and a man I’m proud to call friend, John Lee Hancock. Yes, the actual John Lee Hancock, writer of A Perfect World, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Snow White and The Huntsman, the inferior prequel to Winter’s War, director of The Rookie and Saving Mr. Banks, and writer/director of The Alamo and The Blindside.

Oh, and was that not enough? Also director of the upcoming movie The Founder, which is the story of Ray Kroc, and the founding of McDonald’s that stars Michael Keaton. Eh, not bad. And John, not to make you nervous but last week this show got about 85,000 downloads. That’s how many people listen to this, so don’t screw this up. Welcome, John Lee Hancock.

John Lee Hancock: Thank you. Nice to be here, I should leave now. I don’t want to bring the numbers down.

Craig: Yeah, they’re plummeting as you talk. And I should mention that you and I share an office building. You are two floors below me.

John: Yes.

Craig: So, the fact that we haven’t done this before is frankly insulting to you. [laughs]

John: I’ve been waiting.

Craig: [laughs]

John: For a long, long time.

Craig: Just sitting there in your office wondering, “When will I get the call?” It’s happened John Lee Hancock. So, I’m going to start by — and I’ll say that, you know, these interviews that John and I do, we try and not do the standard thing because the people that listen to this show are interested mostly in screenwriting, and things that are interesting to screenwriters, but we like to ask maybe questions that you don’t normally get. So forgive me if some of these seem sort of left field-ish, but probably won’t.

Let’s begin with this. We recently did a show about starting out, or breaking into Hollywood from places other than Los Angeles. And I actually thought of you when we were discussing that, because you grew up in Longview, Texas, which is possibly an ironic name, I don’t know. And you went to Baylor University, undergrad, then Baylor Law, which would make an awesome TV show. And then you practiced law for four years, and you were practicing in Texas, correct?

John: Yes, in Houston.

Craig: In Houston. So that’s about as far afield from LA and screenwriting and Hollywood as it gets, just in terms of location, in terms of what you were doing.

John: Right.

Craig: Did you start writing at that time in Texas?

John: I did. I was born in Longview, but when I was in 2nd grade we moved to Texas City, Texas which is where I went through school all the way through high school. And I always had an interest in writing, and just would — just scribbled little short stories, usually sports-related. I guess they were almost kind of like, they’d be the title of the short story might be Cowboys 6 Packers 3.

Craig: That’s a great story.

John: And you know what? What this is is–

Craig: It’s not a realistic story? [laughs]

John: It’s a character movie.

Craig: Okay, I see.

John: Because there’s not a lot of points scored.

Craig: Oh.

John: No monsters.

Craig: Right.

John: This is about the grit that happens in the small plays. Or the one little fumble. Then you might do one that’s, you know, Oilers 57 Chiefs 35. Well, that’s like an action movie.

Craig: Right. [laughs]

John: You know, you have lots of stuff happening. So I would write one of these almost every day. And then, I had the good fortune when I was in high school of having several great English teachers who kind of threw the rulebooks out, and broke it into quarters instead of semesters, and exposed us to lots of different great writing and encouraged us to write. And I consider myself incredibly lucky to have come across these three women.

Craig: And so you are in Texas—

John: Yeah.

Craig: Practicing law. By the way, what kind of law?

John: General civil practice. I mean, I have an English degree from Baylor, and I didn’t know what to do with that necessarily, and I had been accepted at law school so I thought that’s a good way to buy time.

Craig: Right.

John: You know my parents are paying through the nose for it.

Craig: Right.

John: My parents are public school teachers. They’re paying through the nose for it. But it did buy me some time, and I could continue to write. And I enjoyed law school, and then I thought, “Now I’m going to do something.” And I knew that short fiction wasn’t necessarily a great livelihood, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach English or teach in any way, so I went ahead and went to law school, and then after I got out of law school, everybody says, “Well, you should practice for at least three years, because who knows? You might love it.”

Craig: Right. You might end up being, you know–

John: Yeah.

Craig: Some sort of king of Texas civil law.

John: It was — that was always in question. But I took a job with a firm, and it was actually another good piece of fortune for me. It was a firm in Houston. It was a small firm. I probably had 15 attorneys, or something, and it was a general civil practice, which meant that I was exposed to tons and tons of different kinds of cases. And the most interesting cases are always just great stories.

Craig: Right.

John: And you know you’re trying to tell a story for your client, your client’s version of the story.

Craig: Yeah, we talk about the world being cast through narrative all the time.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But, there you are. Your sense of narrative is being applied, whatever you supply to your 6/3 short stories.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You’re applying to law. But you’re thinking, oh, maybe I should just actually do a narrative for narrative’s sake. And not in service of something else.

John: I did. I continued to write. I really fell in love with movies. Not when I was a kid, but when I was in college and I would go to movies a lot. And so I started thinking hard about kind of movie stories, and how they looked on the page, and — this was back in the days before you could walk into a bookstore and get, like, 17,000 books on how to write a screenplay.

Craig: Right.

John: They didn’t exist. I mean, and you were lucky, you could — there was no online at that time. No Internet, so you know there was a place in Hollywood that you could send, and they would send you back a hard copy of a script.

Craig: Right. Was it, like, Samuel French, or something?

John: No, it was a place in the Valley in Burbank, that’s obviously long since gone, but–

Craig: Oh I can’t imagine why. [laughs]

John: Yeah [laughs]. But it was kind of a cool place. They would send you a list of all the different scripts they had, and sometimes it would be Lethal Weapon, 1st draft, 2nd draft — do you want the 4th draft or the 8th draft?

Craig: Wow.

John: It was that kind of thing. So anyway, I, you know, I got my hands on a few scripts and tried to teach myself format, and wrote my first script while I was practicing law in Texas, and it was awful. Of course.

Craig: Right.

John: And it was, you know–

Craig: Wait, what was it? This first one.

John: It was — I think most — I won’t say everyone. But I’ll say most writers write their first script, and it’s autobiographical whether they know it or not.

Craig: Right. And how was this–

John: And when you’re in your 20s and angst-ridden, and not sure what you’re going to do with your life–

Craig: Yeah.

John: Why not write a story about a guy in his 20s in Houston, Texas who’s angst-ridden and doesn’t know what to do with his life?

Craig: Isn’t that amazing that when you’re in your 20s you don’t understand that your life couldn’t possibly be worth a movie. I don’t care even if you were born on Mars.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Landed here as an alien, fought a war at the age of 15, and, I don’t know, invented the cure to a disease by 22 — not enough Live some more. There’s no — but yet, we always want to write that terrible, truncated autobiography.

John: Yeah. Yeah. And it was — you know, I mean, I — the guy had a different name, but he was going through some of the same struggles.

Craig: Fohn Lee Fancock?

John: Yeah, exactly. But anyways, so I wrote it, and I thought, “Well gee, what do I do with this?” And I thought it’d be great to be able to do this for a living. And Sundance Institute at the time had a — they were starting a satellite program. And they were looking — because Texas, and especially Austin, has always been a hotbed for independent film, going back into the ‘70s even.

Craig: Right.

John: And before. And so, they wanted to — they wanted to have one of the satellite programs be a weekend, or a week-long workshop, I can’t remember, in Austin, and they were going to branch out, reach out, spread the brand of Sundance, and they had the festival, but it was very small. And, you know, not like it is now.

So they were coming to Austin, and I read something about it in a film magazine, and they said that there’s going to be a three-day seminar with John Sayles, and Bill Wittliff, and all these different people speaking. I thought, well, that will be interesting because I’d never even met anybody who writes screenplays. To hear somebody talk would be kind of cool. And I signed up, and it also had a thing that said you could — they were going to select, I think, eight screenwriters to go through an intensive four-day worship with Frank Daniel. Frantisek Daniel, who had been the head of Columbia Film School, USC, I think he was, like, Roman Polanski’s Polish film teacher, or something.

Craig: Wow. Okay.

John: And, you know — you know, a big shot.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And, so anyway, the first thing it was, they said send us one page description of your screenplay. And so, I had this screenplay, this autobiographical screenplay [laughs]. And sent in a description of it. And then I got something back, and it said the next stage of this will be send in any ten consecutive pages.

Craig: Interesting. I like that.

John: And I went, “Oh, wow. Okay.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: So I thought about that, and I sent that in, and then they called me and they said, “You’ve passed through the next level. Would you send the entire script? But make sure that you’ve signed up for the seminar which is taking place concurrently. Because we would hate for you to go down this road, and miss out because we are — there aren’t that many tickets left. And even if you don’t get this, you’d still want to hear John Sayles.” I said absolutely.

So I signed up for that, and they said, “And we’ll reimburse you if you get into this.”

Craig: All right.

John: Lo and behold, I got in. So, I’m there–

Craig: Wait, let’s stop for a second. You are in Texas.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You’re a lawyer.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You’ve written what you have deemed a terrible screenplay.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And yet representatives of Sundance — and I can only imagine how many screenplays they received. They said, “Actually, this is one of the eight best ones we’ve gotten.” And I’m stopping you here and saying this because, I — it’s so important for people to understand that even when you are far-flung and remote, that there is a chance, somehow or another, to be noticed if you’ve written something that you think is terrible, and other people still think is good. To me, that’s the sign of somebody who’s actually on their way.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Because you still say, by the way, that it’s terrible. It couldn’t have been actually absolutely terrible.

John: I think at the time it was like pre-mumblecore. But there was a lot of that kind of stuff going on.

Craig: Pre-mumble.

John: You know, it was–

Craig: Prumblecore.

John: Prumblecore. I like that. [laughs] But there was a lot of the angst of the 20-year-old stuff in movies going around. And I think so that probably appealed a little bit. And when they got the 10 pages, I mean, I think you have an ear for dialogue and script construction, story construction, or you don’t. Not that you can’t get better at them, but I think, especially an ear for dialogue–

Craig: Right.

John: It’s kind of — most of it is there. You can make it better. You can certainly make it better, but you either have that musical kind of thing in your head, or you don’t. And so I think, you know, probably the dialogue was readable. And I’m not sure how many people, you know, sent in their scripts. I mean, this being the ‘80s in Texas. But nonetheless, I was — and the thing is, and when we’d gotten into the room, I realized I was the only one that hadn’t actually been paid to write. Everybody there either had a little independent movie made, or was making an independent movie, or had been hired, you know, there were no big movers and shakers, but.

Craig: Right.

John: But nonetheless, these were people that had far more experience than I did.

Craig: Well, that says a lot right there as well. So, this kind of leads to the break, I presume. And you found your way through essentially a contest.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: We had Peter Dodd on. He’s an agent at UTA, and he was saying that these days, contests don’t really work. And part of the problem, I imagine, is that unlike back then, where there were a few, and this was Sundance, there are about a thousand of them now.

John: Right.

Craig: And so one thing that bums me out is that somewhere along the line, people realize, “Oh, I can get people to give me $10 to submit their screenplay. We should run a contest, and collect lots of $10.”

John: Right.

Craig: And then other people went, “Whoa, look at that? Let’s also do contest.” And people are now, like, “Great!’ Every week, I can…” It’s like playing scratchers now.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, contests have become that. But you also at the time, had this other thing going on, which was maybe being an actor.

John: Yeah to a degree. I mean, I just liked — I just like stories. I like scene study. I took classes when I was in Houston, acting classes. Because I enjoyed getting into a character and behind a character, and under a character, and inside a character. And, I also loved to see how actors approached work. And, you know, and for these classes I have to say, you know, there were — there were some good actors. There was a teacher in Houston, a woman whose son I have cast, he is older than I am, who I’ve cast in three movies in Texas. A fantastic actor. And she had been a working actor in Los Angeles.

Craig: Right.

John: So I got better than I deserved in terms of that class, but I thought she was very good in terms of breaking down a character, looking at dialogue, finding your boxes, or whatever inside the dialogue, all the little stuff like that.

Craig: Right.

John: And I also figured out pretty quickly that I could — that I liked to write monologues. I like to write little scenes and things like that.

Craig: Right.

John: And I figured out quickly that I could write something, for — either for myself, or for another actor. It was a great way to meet cute girls, too. You’d go, “I’d love to write a scene for you.” And they’d go, “Really? Would you do that?”

Craig: Wow.

John: And of course that doesn’t work until you put your first scene up.

Craig: Right.

John: And then, you know, there’s two actors that did it, and I wrote a scene for them, these two brats, I can’t even remember, these two brothers, kind of, in a True West fashion, or — you know.

Craig: Yes, of course.

John: Kind of thing.

Craig: Once you say two brothers and scene, it’s True West isn’t it?

John: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it was something, you know, entirely different, but I wrote it, and she had comments. And she said, “But I’ve never — I’ve never heard this piece before.” Because everybody’s doing the old chestnut pieces.

Craig: Right. Of course.

John: And they said, “Oh, well John wrote it.” And she went, “Really? Well done.” And so from that point on, actors would come, they’d go, “Hey dude, you’ve got anything for me?”

Craig: “Can you write something for me?”

John: Yeah, so I did that, and it’s fun. Because you had instant gratification, you would write something, you would hand it over, they would learn it and do it, and then you’d be done with it.

Craig: There’s a commonality here in this story that I pick up all the time when I talk to writers. That they are writing, and other people are saying essentially the — I guess the magic audience’s version of how’d you do that? Right, that there’s a certain, natural how’d-you-do-that-ness to writing, and here you are, somebody who could continue your career in law. Or you maybe could pursue acting. I mean, you’re good looking enough to be an actor. Like an actor that people want to look at.

John: I’m not talented enough to be an actor.

Craig: I didn’t say you were.

John: Unfortunately. [laughs]

Craig: [laughs] Like I said, you were good looking enough to be an actor, and speaking of your acting talent by the way, we’ll include this link in the show notes, but we do have evidence of your acting ability. It is a wonderful commercial you did with the great Gene Hackman.

John: Oh lord.

Craig: It’s a Japanese beer commercial.

John: Help me.

Craig: For Kirin, I believe.

John: Yes. Yes.

Craig: Your character is tall lawyer who pretends to be saying things to Gene Hackman.

John: Yes. That’s kind of it.

Craig: I have to tell you, watching that commercial it’s almost as if the cameraman was instructed to keep the camera away from you.

John: Yeah.

Craig: As much as he could. Every time there’s like a brief image of you, and then the cameraman is like, oh, god, no.

John: That commercial is still–I’ve had a lot of great experiences and moments like, you know, a lot of us have where it’s like I can’t believe I’m here. I’m witnessing this. That’s my best story of Hollywood. That’s far and away my best.

Craig: You and Gene Hackman?

John: No, no it goes — you don’t have the time for this? But all of this was unexpected. From going in and auditioning, to them — it was a Japanese commercial so they didn’t approach it the same way. There was no call back, and there were like 500 of us there in suits for this audition. A woman with broken English told us to do improv, “You in elevator.” And there were like six of us standing there. And I’m going, this is the biggest lank of all time.

So I just pretended to keep pushing the button, while everybody else is talking over each other. Trying to put themselves forward. And so I got the gig.

Craig: You’re the only one not peacocking.

John: I guess. I don’t know. I was just ready to get out of there.

Craig: You thought that you could actually get out of the elevator if you hit button enough.

John: That’s a good acting move. I believed I was in the elevator.

Craig: They believed it, too.

John: And my agent called me, and said — I mean, I had kind of a writing agent and kind of an acting agent at the time. And he called me and said, “You booked the gig.” And back then you could make a lot of money in commercials. But this was foreign, so it was a buyout, but they’re going to pay $5,000 and man.

Craig: Ka-Ching.

John: Ka-Ching. Are you kidding? I was working PA work and doing everything, living in a shitty apartment in Hollywood.

Then he said, “So you show up Thursday.” There was no callback, there’s no fitting? No, they liked the suit you were wearing. So it’s possible that I just got the role because I had a good suit.

Craig: Right.

John: From being a lawyer.

Craig: And I love that they put you through that much of an intensive audition experience. To not be in the commercial, it’s like, you’re somebody that’s sort of near Gene Hackman? At times. God, commercials are amazing. But I’m glad.

John: Some other time, I’ll tell you about how this involves unexpectedly, having my own trailer, sharing it with Playmate of the Year, Shannon Tweed, and my relationship with Gene Hackman.

Craig: I think a lot of people are right now are going to be very upset with me that I’m not having you tell this story. Because I kind of want to. But–

John: Move on.

Craig: Should I?

John: Yeah. Move on.

Craig: All right. I really want to – all right, I’ll move on. I’ll talk — maybe if we have time. So I’m glad that you left the subpar acting behind. And what I can only presume to be the horrendous law practice behind. God only knows what wreckage you left behind you.

John: Yeah. You know what? As jobs go, it wasn’t bad.

Craig: No, no, not for you. I mean your clients. [laughs] God only knows. They’re still trying to put their lives back together.

John: No. I think, I probably left them in better hands. They’re shifting their files to other desks. [laughs].

Craig: Exactly. But instead, well, I could say, well, instead, you become this great screenwriter. I could say, well, instead you become this great director. But the interesting thing about you is, I was just thinking about this, I don’t know, and you can tell me if you do, anybody else working on your level who is so routinely a writer of screenplays that other people direct, and routinely a director of screenplays that other people write, and routinely, a director of screenplays you right yourself.

You kind of do all of that. Am I crazy in saying you’re pretty much the only person that routinely does all three of those?

John: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it much. But I think, I mean, you know, storytelling is storytelling. And I think you wear a different hat when you’re a writer, and when you’re a director, and even when I’m directing stuff that I have written, I try my best to put on that different hat so that if I need to, I can come to the set that day and say who wrote this shit?

Craig: Right.

John: You know, because you need to, because there is the script, and then there is exacting it on film. And you have to be able to interpret because I think every step of the way is an interpretation. I mean, I count on my editor, when he is putting an assemblage together, I want him to interpret the footage. I don’t want to tell him, “Start with take 3 of this, and go to take 4 of this, and then cut here.” I want to see what he comes up with, I want him to interpret the existing footage, just as I’m interpreting the existing script.

Craig: Right. And so the decision process there of how to approach these things, it really just comes down to — in other words, there’s no calculation. I really want to just write something, I’m not going to direct. Or I really want to direct something, I’m going to write. It’s all about the material, as it strikes you in the moment?

John: Yeah. It is. I mean, I do adult dramas. They don’t make a lot of those anymore. So I wish that I could say I was in complete control. Okay, next, I’m doing a movie that I am going to script and direct. It doesn’t work that way, you know, sometimes you will have something you’re writing, and then another script comes across your desk, and you read it. For me, the question is, do I wish that I’d written it?

Craig: Ah, that’s interesting.

John: And do I want to spend a year and a half on it? That’s the first two questions.

Craig: Right. That’s the huge difference between directing and writing. Writing, you know, maybe –sometimes only weeks, sometimes oh, it’s six months. But year and a half — I mean, and it’s not an easy year and a half directing a movie.

John: No it’s not. I remember when I was writing before I was directing. I would — we would go out to – you’d have a script go out to a director, and you would hear back from them a few weeks later. And you’re went, what took them so long? And they finally get back. And they go, it’s really good, but I just — I don’t know, I can’t live in that world for this long, or something like that. And I thought that is the biggest BS excuse I’ve ever heard. Now, I completely get it.

Craig: Right.

John: I mean, are you going to continue to be fascinated by this to the degree necessary to wake up at 4am and do the job?

Craig: Right. You have to essentially say before you really get a chance to co-habitate with another person, I’m going to marry you, and we can’t get divorced for a while.

John: Yes, it’s like a Hollywood marriage. It’s a year and a half. [laughs].

Craig: It’s a year and a half. [laughs] But those are tough.

John: Yes.

Craig: So you have been doing this for like 20 plus years. John and I have been doing it for, you know, almost the same length of time. And there’s something that happened, somewhere in the mid-2000s, this new kind of screenwriter came about, I call it screenwriter-plus. This is a writer who’s not a producer, or director on any particular given project, but they’re clearly doing more than the job of screenwriter.

They become essentially a co-share of authority with a lot of people, and trying to get actors, and directors, and producers, to all kind of come together around a vision. And I think that you are kind of the epitome of that sort of figure. Do you share that same point of view, that the job of screenwriting has changed in that regard over time?

John: Yeah. I’m not sure that role necessarily existed. I think, kind of before I came out here, you would hear about script doctors, people that would come in — but those were just people coming in and doing rewrites on an existing script, but it was a great cottage industry whether you were John Sayles or whoever, to be able to do that. And then in the next stage, I think was, when you had bigger movies, with more moving parts, sometimes it might be necessary to have someone to come in and help.

Perhaps, it hadn’t gone in to production yet, and you’re writing scenes, but you’re also someone who can sit down with the line producer, and feel their pain. And sit down with the actor, sit down with the director, and try to bring everybody under the same tent so you can move forward. And sometimes, it’s in prep, and sometimes, it’s in the middle of production, if there are difficulties, and sometimes it’s in post, whether you’re doing reshoots or not.

Craig: I wonder sometimes if the limitation on the number of screenwriters that serve this role is a function of the fact that fewer movies are made now. Because in order to play that part, you need to have an intimate understanding of how movies work, you need to have had more than one discussion with the line producer before. You need to know what it feels like in their shoes in order to act like you know, you know, what it feels like in their shoes.

Sometimes I think that Hollywood is running out of these screenwriters plusses, because they keep coming back to the same ones. But I also understand why they keep coming back to the same ones. I mean, you and I both know that at some point, when things get scary, they need to turn to somebody who comforts them.

John: Well, I think part of it is fresh eyes because they become so kind of – they’ve really fallen so deep with the project and have been through, and they know where all the bodies are buried, and so sometimes they’re not clear-headed enough, and they would admit this, it’s nice to have someone come in with fresh eyes, and sometimes they’ve got lots of different people to look at it with fresh eyes. I think it goes beyond just being a writer that knows how to problem solve and story-tell.

I think, that there are a few writers that have directed or produced as well. And I think, those are skills that are necessary in helping keep the train on the track moving forward, whether it’s in prep or whether it’s in post and you’re doing reshoots, just trying to — let’s get this home to the station.

Craig: Well, there’s an attitude there that your job as the writer is to try and write a movie. And I say this a lot that — I think a lot of writers fall into the trap of saying my job is to write a script, but then that separates you from the job that literally everyone else is doing, because everybody else is trying to make a movie. And when you try and help them make a movie, ironically, you end up probably doing a better job defending your own writing than you would have if you just concentrated on the script.

John: I think that’s true, I think it’s true. Sometimes it’s a little bit of — I enjoy the fact that some of these rewrites, production rewrites, and post production rewrites become math problems. When someone says we’re going to tie one hand behind your back, and see if you can do this. It’s kind of like, okay, we need a scene between these two people , and here’s their schedule, and so can we shoot this many pages in a half day, and oh, by the way, the set has to be this.

Craig: Right.

John: You go, oh, okay. Let me see what I can come up with.

Craig: It’s kind of fun, isn’t it?

John: It’s kind of fun.

Craig: Yeah. I did one recently where they said, okay well, we want to change this character’s job. So she has a title, but in order to change her job — you can shoot the scene, but we can’t reshoot everything where her job is mentioned. So at that point, not only am I writing new things, but I’m now editing on page, and I’ll put in sort of like loop lines to cover up the edit that we have to make for the title change. It really does become like a little logic problem, and you do have to have — I mean, I think maybe the most important kind of non-writing experience a screenwriter can get is editing experience. Because if you have watched a movie be edited, then you understand, I think, how to write in such a way that you are — you are writing in a way that is editable in a good way.

John: Yeah. Because everything you’re wanting to do, especially when you come into a production situation, we want everything to be additive, you know, and the things is, a lot of times a weight is put on the scene where they say, here are the problems that we have with an existing movie, or an existing script, can we get rid of these three things, have one scene that accomplishes all three tasks.

Craig: Precisely. And you can, sometimes.

John: It’s tricky. It’s tricky. It becomes a test for yourself to see how good your sleight of hand is.

Craig: Right, it does. That is a very challenging — but it’s a fun thing. I think Billy Ray said that — after he does one of those, he feels like by the time it’s over, the week is over, he feels like he doesn’t know how to write anymore, and he needs a week to sleep. Because you do kind of lose yourself in this very rapid and intense environment.

John: It’s absolutely true. And you’re writing to such a specific purpose that when you have to go, and you go, oh, gosh now I got an original idea, and the world can be anything, you have to, you know, adjust your mindset a little bit. That’s why I think you have to be careful with doing too many of these jobs in a row. I mean, the pay is really is good, and you do meet some wonderful people, and it’s actually really fun to be thrown into a movie that’s already had a lot of it done. You don’t have to direct it, you don’t have to deal with it.

Craig: Right.

John: It is fun. But I think it could also be as Doc O’Connor, my old agent, used to call it, the velvet rut.

Craig: No, it’s 100% true. I mean, these kinds — for those who are unfamiliar with this concept, production rewrites are when a movie is either about to be shot, or it’s been shot, and they’re contemplating additional photography. And at that point, they will typically hire an A-list screenwriter to come in and they will work on a weekly basis, typically. And that week, the money they get paid that week is the best money per week that they‘re going to ever get, for anything.

And so the jobs are somewhat sought after or considered, you know, good to get, but they are a little dangerous. I think Doc was exactly right, because when you do a couple in a row, you start to become aware of — I always become aware of this: I’m putting myself in a situation that is medium risk, high reward. It’s not high risk/high reward, it’s medium risk/high reward. I like those odds, right? We know what the reward is, and the medium risk is, I feel like I can help, I told them how I can help. They’re agreeing with that already. They want me to succeed because they need someone to succeed. And also, my job is to get it better, right?

But medium risk doesn’t mean no risk. And I always think, sooner or later, you’re going to trip and fall on your face with one of these, and then I feel like it’s bad. And then I feel like they never — and it hasn’t happened to me yet, but probably because I do manage, like I don’t do every single one that I could, I suppose.

John: And do you find that you — I think when you’ve done it long enough, you realize kind of the strengths you bring to the table, and then some areas where you go, I’m okay at this, but I’m better at this. And so you recognize in a script, if somebody comes to me and they say I look at a movie and they’re doing reshoots or something like that, and they say, well, we need some basic story logic. Well, I’m decent at that, I’m good at that. If they need something, you know, the dialogue between these two brothers needs to be better, or can we add some emotion and heart or character moments. I mean those are things I’m very good at.

So I go, no, I won’t fail you on that.

Craig: Right.

John: If you’re looking for someone to really reimagine, you know, action set pieces or something like that, there are people that are far better than I am at that.

Craig: Yeah, and I guess in a way the business does regulate this for us because they don’t really ask. It’s funny. They’re not going to ask you or me to come in and pump up the volume on car chases. They’re not, you know. Chris Morgan, yes.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because he’s the master, right? But they’re not going to ask us to do that. So it is true like I guess the risk is even lower because they’re kind of asking you because they figure–

John: Yeah, they’ve already scratched us off a list.

Craig: Right.

John: We never get the call, but we were on the list and then we got scratched off. For good reason.

Craig: Yes or somebody wrote the word why next to our names. I want to talk about rewriting a little bit more here. And this is a very specific question because I think a lot of people listening would love to know.

You get a lot of scripts to read. You get scripts to read for you to direct. You get scripts to read for you to rewrite.

I wonder when you’re reading these scripts for either reason, what turns you on and what turns you off? What are writers doing right and generally speaking what are they doing wrong? And how can these people avoid that?

John: It seems like most of the stuff I get now if they want to rewrite, they’re trying to also attach a director. So they’re saying, “This thing needs to be rewritten.”

Craig: So it’s both.

John: It’s both.

Craig: Okay.

John: I kind of rarely get the script that says, “We’re looking for a rewrite, you know, we don’t have a director yet or we have a director but we need a rewrite.” So I don’t take that many of those or don’t get offered those as much I used to. But, gosh, I don’t know, I just want to be surprised and I don’t mean like, you know, in a way that’s not logical.

I want to feel like I’m in good hands in terms of the storytelling. And, yeah, and the dialogue works and you’re involved in the characters. And it’s just being surprised. I just want to be surprised.

I mean, I remember I was sent the script for Saving Mr. Banks by Kelly Marcel, and I was told it’s a terrific script and I knew that it had its bona fide good and all those kind of things. But I just go, “Look, I don’t like musicals. I’m not a huge Mary Poppins fan.”

Craig: Right.

John: I haven’t seen the movie since probably since I was a kid, you know, I don’t know. So why would I do that? And it sat on the desk and got a call from my agent, Scott Greenberg, who said, “You know, here’s the thing. Disney — they’re meeting with several directors and they really want to meet with you on this. So you don’t have to meet with them but I think you should read it because it’s a really good script. And I think you would like it and it’s a quick read, honestly it is, I promise.”

And so I went, “Oh, damn, okay.” So that afternoon, I put my feet up on my desk and rolled out — printed out the script and read it like that because it always feels better to me with the pages. And I read it and couldn’t put it down.

And it wasn’t like there’s some great mystery. There was a great mystery but it was just so specific and you just peel that onion over and over again. And I just I loved it. I got to the end and I thought, one I wish I had written it, two, I never would have thought of it.

Craig: Right.

John: Three, I really want to do this.

Craig: Right.

John: So how do I get the gig?

Craig: Yeah. I mean that’s the thing. The rarer question I suppose isn’t so much like what’s wrong with the screenplay, the rare question is what’s right.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because the bar isn’t to write well. The bar isn’t to write satisfactorily. The bar isn’t to write without making the so-called The 20 Worst Mistakes a Screenwriter Makes. The bar is to write something that blows people away, which is the opposite.

It’s an aggressive — to me it’s an aggressive act to write a screenplay that demands you must continue reading.

John: Right.

Craig: I think so much of the advice people get is defensive advice.

John: Oh you’re right.

Craig: You know.

John: I think you’re right.

Craig: Right? So that they don’t not like you. Not liking you isn’t good enough.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Right? You know, so Kelly writes the script and you read it and it blows you away.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And now — okay, so let’s talk about–

John: But one another thing, you know what? I just thought of this, I mean a lot of times when you’re reading characters, you’re enjoying reading the character whether they’re a good guy, bad guy, complicated guy or whatever, there’s something in there when you know a character’s tale.

I think characters expose themselves through the lies they tell.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And when you read something that you know is a lie, even if it’s a white lie, that’s a complication I always like.

Craig: Yeah. It’s funny we just — our episode last week was about Mystery versus Confusion. And when we read, you know, people send in their Three Pages, which is our shorter version of the ten pages you had to send in, and I just noticed that we were constantly going in between like, “Oh, I like the fact that they’ve set up a little mystery here. Why is this person doing this?”

But then many times, you’re like, “I don’t know why this person is doing it.” And it’s bad, it’s confusing. It’s not a mystery, right? And one of the keys to good mystery is lying. And us knowing someone’s lying and not knowing why they’re lying.

You know, because you’re right, because characters are liars because humans are liars. We’re lying all the time. It’s amazing.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And you know the other thing that — along that line, certainly didn’t come up with this and lots of people have talked about it but I really ascribe to it, the idea that you have to be careful with the screenplay, how far ahead of an audience or reader you are, how far behind and you want it to be a little like a Slinky. Sometimes, you know, if you’re behind — I don’t mind being behind — not having everything figured out if I feel like I’m in the hands of a good storyteller.

Craig: Right.

John: Because all will be revealed. Other times, you take great joy in being ahead of the characters in the movie. But if you’re ahead of them too long, you go, “This is dumb. I’ve already figured it out.” But we congratulate ourselves as an audience or a reader when we think we’re ahead.

And then a really good storyteller will then suddenly put you behind again. So it’s that back and forth kind of accordion effect.

Craig: Right.

John: That I think really makes a script sing.

Craig: Well it’s interesting that you say that because in its own weird meta way, you kind of got ahead of us. I’m going to play this. This is a question from Matthew Kane. So here’s what Matthew Kane had to ask.

Matthew Kane: I’m rewriting my original screenplay now and I’ve changed the setup. So now the audience is in a superior position until the end of the first act. I’ve heard that it’s easier to get the audience to identify with the protagonist when they don’t know any more than the protagonist does especially at the outset. And it’s easier to screw that up when you begin in an audience superior position. Can you share some of the pitfalls of the audience superior position and suggest some strategies to use it effectively. Thanks.

Craig: So it seems like you kind of already answered that question without knowing that that question was going to be asked. So now I’m a little freaked out just by you and you’re weird psychic ability to do that.

John: But I think to the specifics of his question about with your main character being ahead of them from the start of the movie through the first act. I mean I think it depends. It could be a bad thing in that the audience is going, “We already know what’s going to happen. I’m so far ahead.”

It could end up being a great thing if you pulled a rug out from under them.

Craig: Right.

John: You know, or if at least you come to the point where the audience now knows just as much, pulls the rug out from under and knows just as much as your protagonist.

Craig: Yeah. I was thinking about his question and trying to ask myself was there — could I think of an example of a movie where I was ahead of — intentionally ahead of the main character for say whatever you call the first act.

John: Right.

Craig: The first 30 minutes of the movie.

John: Right.

Craig: And I was struggling to come up with an answer there. I think one of the pitfalls is just being bored. We’re not going to get much out of the character discovering the truth. I mean there’s that moment of discovery that can be so exciting in a movie.

I can’t imagine it would be very exciting if they’re just discovering something I already knew unless it was, you know, filtered through another character’s, you know, experience of their discovery of it. But then really, they are not the main character. You know, like it’s an interesting question. I could not think of an example.

John: I can’t. I can’t think of one either, personally. But I think — you know, I’m not saying it can’t be done because every time you say something can’t be done then you’ll read a script and you go, I’ll damned it, they did it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But it is precarious I think.

Craig: Yeah I would imagine that one of the pitfalls would be also that you run the danger of making your hero seem dumb. Well either they’re dumb because they’re not seeing something that you’ve picked up on that the filmmaker has kind of left in plain view of you and them or it’s not that they’re dumb it’s just that the filmmakers told you something and hasn’t told them. But now the movie feels rigged to keep them from–

John: Right.

Craig: Something which is also never a good feeling.

John: Right.

Craig: You start to feel the artifice of the story there. I don’t know, tricky little thing.

John: It is.

Craig: All right. Well we’ll get back. We have a couple other questions but I want to ask you one last thing about you and it’s what’s coming up. So you’ve directed — this is another one where you’ve directed from somebody else’s script.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You’ve directed a movie called The Founder written by Robert Siegel and the cast of mostly unknowns includes Michael Keaton and Patrick Wilson and Nick Offerman, the great John Carroll Lynch – who by the way everyone should be worshipping — Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, and perhaps most importantly friend of the Scriptnotes podcast, B.J. Novak.

Now here’s what sort of — and I’ve seen this movie and it’s fantastic.

John: Thank you.

Craig: Here’s what interests me. You are a big shot director. You make the Blind Side, Sandy Bullock wins an Oscar for it. You make Saving Mr. Banks, it’s a big Disney Film, nominations, Golden Globes, BAFTA, and Oscar nominations.

And then you say, “All right now, I’m going to go independent and small.” Why?

John: To be completely honest, it’s just, you know, why do you rob banks? That’s where the money is.

It’s kind of like, you know, you find a script and you go. And it’s important with producers to go who’s the producer and will they help me make this movie — the version of this movie that I want to see made.

And so the script was sent to me and Robert Siegel is a very good writer and it was a very good script. He wrote The Wrestler and Big Fan which he also directed. So I really enjoyed the script and I thought it was different than any script that I had ever read.

This kind of goes back to the earlier, what grabs you. This was one where I found myself rooting hard for my protagonist along the way. And then somewhere around the halfway point, I kind of was neutral and then toward the end I was actively rooting against him which made me somehow feel complicit in his rise–

Craig: Right.

John: And dirty and a little guilty.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And I thought that was a really a clever thing that Rob accomplished on the page because I never read a script where I was actively pulling for someone and then against them. And, you know, I thought it was Death of a Salesman with a very different last act which I just thought was great.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So I said, “Oh, I know how to do this movie. I know how to do this movie.” It speaks to me in a very nugget kind of way. I mean, you’re always looking for that touchdown theme or idea or thought that will get you through the day.

Craig: Right.

John: Where if you understand a movie at an elemental level, every director makes multiple mistakes every day.

Craig: Right.

John: The greatest director in the world makes a bunch of mistakes every day. If you have that elemental understanding of the script and the story, none of them will be fatal.

Craig: Right.

John: It won’t matter.

Craig: Because they are–

John: Because you’re making a thousand decisions a day.

Craig: Right. But they are at least aligned with one vision.

John: Thematically, they are all headed the right direction. They may be a little off here or there but it doesn’t matter.

Craig: But they’re not backwards. They’re not pulling you.

John: No. No, no, no. And I think from a tone standpoint, you need that idea too. So yeah, so then I met with the guys at FilmNation and Aaron Ryder, who’s terrific, and they seemed– and I think they’d met several directors and they met with me and we were in line with what we wanted the movie to be. And at first actually I turned it down.

I read it and I thought, well they seem to want to make this movie and I don’t think — the third act isn’t figured out yet. So it’s going someplace great but it’s not figured out but they think it’s figured out so that tells me maybe they want to make a different movie.

When I met with them, they said, “No, no, no, no, no. Here’s our thinking. This is Rob’s first draft.” I went, “Wow, it’s really terrific.” He said, “Yeah we think so, too. We wanted to get a director involved to help us go forward with this.”

And I thought, well, that’s really smart actually if you can get the right person.

Craig: Sure.

John: And so then I was able to work with Rob and he delivered beautifully and we were off and running. And from a budget standpoint, I made it for 20. So it’s less than the movie — the budgets of the movies I’ve done before but not that much less.

Craig: Right.

John: So–

Craig: And budgets are sort of elastic to the content anyway.

John: Exactly. So, you know, when you got, you know, Alcon did the Blind Side but they had an output deal with Warner Bros, so it ended up being one those kind of things.

Craig: Right.

John: But the budget was sufficient to the task. And you just — here’s the box — here’s the sized box and the question is, can I put it in that box and will the movie be as good as I need it to be.

Craig: Right.

John: To make it fulfilling and spend a year a half?

Craig: Well, I think you hit the mark again and it seems to me that in looking at the movies that you have directed, particularly the movies you’ve directed because you’re writing and I consider both your credited writing and what I know of your un-credited writing. Your writing spreads all genres or spans all genres, I should say, but when you look at the movies that you’ve directed, there seems to be a John Lee Hancock movie in a way that there was a Frank Capra movie.

And almost exclusively what you’re doing is directing movies about America or some aspect of American life. It’s often about a smaller American life that explodes into either the American dream or the American nightmare. Even Saving Mr. Banks in so many ways is about a British woman’s encounter with the most American of institutions and the epitome of the small/big American dreamer Walt Disney.

What do you think is it about that recurring theme that continues to draw you to that commitment of a year and a half or two years of your life? What are you exploring there?

John: That’s a good question. I don’t think you know why you make a movie sometimes until you finish making it. And then you go, “Oh, now I get it. Now I know why I wanted to invest that much time in this.”

And it wasn’t just because I thought the movie would be good because it better personally challenge you and some of your thoughts or you’re going to get bored.

Craig: Right.

John: Knowing how to make a movie and make it good is not enough to do the movie. So I don’t know. I mean, you think about it after the fact and you go with, you know, A Perfect World, I didn’t direct but wrote, you know, it was an original so that kind of goes in to the same basket I think.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Just, you know, an examination of fathers and sons, and a changing landscape, you know, the Kennedy assassination and then all those kinds of things, especially as regarding Texas where I was from. And then, you know, and then all of a sudden you find yourself doing The Rookie and I felt very strongly that it was about fathers and sons. It was about Brian Cox and what he passed along to Dennis Quaid and what he didn’t pass along and what Dennis is passing along to his son, and what he’s not giving him and those kind of things. I was just interested and fascinated in that idea.

And then, you know, The Blind Side is mothers and sons, and it really is. That was the unique perspective of that book was that I felt that my take on it was, this is a short story about mothers and sons and the protective mother bear and all those things. And so, you know, after the fact, I realized that’s probably why I did it.

With The Founder, I think, I mean, it’s a very American story, and I agree. People have said that before, it’s like, “You’re a very American filmmaker,” and I said, “For good and for bad, I think that’s true.” You know, anybody mentions my name around Capra that, I’ll take association.

Craig: As well you should. Yeah.

John: But, and I’m not, but nonetheless we all try. But, no. I’m drawn to, I mean, I think America is just, it’s a fascinating place and it’s kind of a brand new country in many ways and we’re still figuring things out, and I don’t know. It just fascinates me. And so the idea of a guy that, you know, Ray Kroc who is the epitome of everything that I admire. A hard working guy. The guy, you know, who like America in the ‘50s is shouldering the burden of everything and needs to make it. Just like America.

Craig: Right.

John: You know, just like America. And then, just like America, you know, things change and you go, “Oh, maybe I can cut this corner,” or “Maybe I’ll do this differently” or the thing you can never take away from Kroc is what a hard, hard worker he was.

Craig: Well, yeah. I mean, the movie is, I mean, I don’t want to give anything away that isn’t common knowledge but it’s very much a study of ambition and the two edges of that sword. And certainly brings to mind one of our presidential candidates in more ways than one.

I want to get to a couple more listener questions before we wrap things up with John Lee. So, this next one, I don’t think you’re going to care to answer John Lee, it’s about copyright. Do you feel like, I mean, you are a lawyer. Nope, you’re just pointing at me.

John: You know more about it than I do.

Craig: Again, Baylor Law. So, here is a question from Gary.

Gary: Hi, John and Craig. I have a hypothetical scenario that I’d love to hear you talk about. Let’s say every once and a while I like to go on random forums and read random comments and recently a particular commenter, let’s call him Jim2000, spewed an angry umbrage stuffed rant about his wife’s cooking. Let’s say that I love this rant and I want to use his exact words and inject it into my script, it’s just that good. So if I blatantly stole his words and his story, would that violate copyright law? I would never do this but I’m curious what your take is on anonymity in relation to copyright. Jim2000 clearly wrote this with no intention of it being tied to his real name, but could he sue me? Does he have ownership over an anonymous rant about his wife’s cooking?

Craig: It’s a good question. Although you probably shouldn’t be doing that but you already know that. So the answer depends. I think, I’m pretty sure that if you go on the Internet and you write a comment, that’s yours, and it is essentially copyrighted, but I want to point out that it’s very, very common and perhaps common to the point of obligatory that on most sites that are relying on comments. You’re waiving your rights whether you know it or not to have effective copyright.

So I want to read you this, this is from Reddit, this is part of their terms of service. What it says is, you, meaning the commenter, retain the rights to your copyrighted content or information that you submit to Reddit. Hmm, not bad. Except as described below. You ready, Gary?

By submitting user content to Reddit, you grant us a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies, perform, or publicly display your user content in any medium and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and you ready, Gary? Here’s the best part of all. And to authorize others to do so. So essentially, Reddit is saying, we can use your stuff even if it’s copyrighted and we can authorize all of our people to use it. So, pretty loosey goosey there. I mean, you know, you shouldn’t just lift people’s stuff that they put online, but people who do put comments online, please be aware that you’ve probably signed your life away to be on that.

All right. We have our last question is coming in from Jack.

Jack: So my question involves collaboration. Have you ever discussed or explored the notion of teaming up to work on a project together or producing a spec script, something along those lines? And my second item is a suggestion for One Cool Thing. So oftentimes when I’m writing, I’m always looking for good background music or music to kind of inspire me and I think I found just the site for those special instances when you just really want to kind of block things out. So the site is called and this is an application by Gabriel Martin. And the cool thing about it is it’s set up as kind of a mixing panel look and feel.

So for example, John might really enjoy just a simple coffee shop chatter with crickets in the background. Like Craig may be a little bit more adventurous and want to mix in some thunder, wind, and maybe even some bird sounds. Again, the site is called and I think you’re really going to like it.

Craig: Okay, Jack, the answer to your question. Well, first of all, let me talk about So John Lee, you know, there are these websites where you can pull up ambient sounds like thunder and rain and lightning to help you write like, “Oh, I’m writing a scene that’s in thunder.” I don’t find them particularly useful because they don’t change. I will write to music sometimes but I don’t — I wouldn’t want to write to just artificial rainfall.

John: I mean, everybody’s different. I mean, for the most part when I’m writing, I like complete silence. I mean, what I’ll do if I’m writing something whether if it’s a period piece or something while I’m riding around in the car, I might play music of that era just to inspire me and kind of keep my brain going, but I don’t know, when I write, I like it pretty quiet.

Craig: Yeah, I’m the same way. I’m the same way. And every now and then, if I’m writing action, which can sometimes exhaust me, I’ll put on, you know, like some Hans Zimmer, [unintelligible] you know, just to kind of–

John: Yeah.

Craig: But the other question that Jack wonders about far more disturbing. Should John August and I write a movie together? No. Because we could not — I was going to say, we’d pull each other’s hair out, but that’s a short fight given our situation. But, no, I think that solo artists are solo for a reason. It’s funny you mentioned silence, I like silence. You know, all the time that we spend doing what we do, we don’t, we become incredibly used to our rhythms and our process and we get stuck in our ways. My god, it’s hard enough to do what you do without crutches, so please don’t take my crutch away and one of my crutches is that it’s freaking quiet and I’m alone.

The only times I’ve been able to write effectively with other people is when there was a clear hierarchy in place. So when I was working with Todd Phillips, like, he’s going to direct this movie, he’s brought me on. He’s in-charge. I’m writing this with him, he listened to everything, I listen to everything, there was never a need to pull rank because it was understood that there was a hierarchy of a kind. But have you ever tried writing something with someone where you were on even footing with them?

John: Once way back when, when I was first starting out, I had a — he’s an actor-writer friend of mine and we had an idea that we kept riffing on. It was, you know, well, that’s interesting. Oh what if they did this. And you go, “This is writing itself,” but it takes both of us because we’re bouncing it back and forth, and we sat down and we tried for about a week and it was obvious that it just wasn’t, because the thing is I was too nice and maybe he was too nice as well, but I was too nice in that he would write something, and I’d go, “It’s really good.” And instead of going, “No, I want to change this.” But then if I changed it, he’d go back and go, “But didn’t this,” and you’d go, let’s be friends and not write together.

Craig: Right. Exactly. And not write together.

John: I got a question for you. Do you find, I mean, I’ve just gone through this recently but it happens all the time when you’re directing movies, especially, I mean, if you’ve written them especially, and sometimes if you’ve written them, I mean, if you haven’t written them and the writer’s not on the set, you’ll have this doesn’t work anymore because of the conditions or the construct of whether it’s the set of this or this and we need to rewrite this line, and I think I know the answer for you because you’re really quick at that. For me, actors will look at me like I’m crazy when I’ll go, “Yeah, let me fix it but I need to walk away.” And sometimes it’s only two minutes but I’ll walk away and put a piece of paper down on the hood of a car and then just get in that zone and then I’ll come back.

Craig: No, I’m exactly like you, in fact. And it’s because I have a rhythm and there’s a certain position I get in to do what I do. And you, oh, all the time, you know, a couple of times I directed, I would do that constantly or just like, let me walk around and don’t — no one – just let me be alone behind the freaking honey wagon for a minute and then I’ll come back and we’ll be fine, right?

Same thing when I’m not directing but I’m on set, you know, someone I was working with — so then in that case Todd and I would sometimes walk away. Because the thing is, what you don’t want is somebody listening to your drafts as you’re doing them because it’s going to skew the process.

John: You’re right.

Craig: You know, and then you see it in their faces like, “No, no, I’m not there. The trick is not over.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: So go away, right? And you can’t send them away so you walk away.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, that’s exactly right. All right. Well, I think it’s time for our One Cool Things. John Lee, do you have a One Cool Thing?

John: Boy, did you ask the wrong guy.

Craig: Do you have a one like, for you, Cool Thing

John: Considering the fact that I come to your office to get things scanned.

Craig: I know.

John: Considering the fact that I have a fax machine but no scanner.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It kind of answers itself.

Craig: I mean, that’s cool. It’s now so lame it’s cool.

John: It’s so lame, it’s cool. It’s appreciating once again. [laughs]

Craig: Yeah, every day.

John: Yeah. No, I mean, I’m still — I still jump for joy that I can copy paste and delete as opposed to typing on an electric typewriter.

Craig: Wow.

John: I mean, back in those days, when I first started out, and you’d write a draft to a script and you’re really happy and you’d give it to friends to read and they come back with good notes, and you’d go, “You’re right I’m going to change this.” It’s like you would make all the changes by hand and then you sit down and go, “Okay. The next two days are typing the script.”

Craig: Right.

John: Again and again, and again. 120 pages.

Craig: So this segment should be called One Old Thing with John Lee Hancock.

John: One Old Thing, yeah. Copy, paste, and delete are gifts.

Craig: All right. Well, we’ll excuse you.

John: Thank you.

Craig: The truth is I’m a terrible at it, too. John always has one, a lot of times I don’t. But today I do or this week I do for you at home and this came through from one of our listeners on Twitter and it’s fantastic. This is a bit of science news, and it’s a little premature to, you know, jump for joy, but one of the biggest problems that we have, and I think a lot of people know this, is antibiotic resistant bacteria. So we’ve been throwing antibiotics at each other for decades now and they are amazing things and people today don’t quite understand what the world was like before we had penicillin and albeit the subsequent antibiotics and people would constantly just die because they got infections and you couldn’t stop it. But through overuse and just general bacteria being bacteria, a lot of them have evolved to be resistant to these antibiotics, and some of them seem to be resistant to all of our antibiotics super, duper bad.

A 25-year-old student in I believe Australia. Yes, University of Melbourne. Her name is Shu Lam. And what Shu Lam has done is come up with a way to fight drug resistant bacteria without antibiotics at all. And it sounds so cool that I kind of wish I could watch it happening but I can’t because it’s so tiny. But what she’s done is basically, she’s come up with this thing that’s basically, it’s a polymer which is I guess kind of a plastic, yeah?

John: Yeah.

Craig: And it’s star shaped. And it goes into the body and they don’t hurt regular cells.

John: But it shreds bacteria?

Craig: Because they’re too big to hurt cells but it shreds the bacteria.

John: That’s awesome.

Craig: Yeah, it’s like Mad Max now instead of like, “Oh, it’s chemistry and duh-duh,” no. It’s like Bam! So it’s a much more violent attack on it, but the bigger issue and this is the big, you know, thing that people are going crazy about. They can’t become resistant to that. There is no resistance to being shredded up physically, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s not like the antibiotics that are chemically kind of going inside and poisoning the bacteria and all to help these cells are around them as well. So anyway, Shu Lam might have just solved a huge problem there, and if she has, not only did she save millions and millions, and millions of lives but she also came up with something awesome: Star shaped polymer bacterial death.

John: And as a bonus if you’re writing the Incredible Journey remake and you need a third act twist.

Craig: Here they come.

John: Shit came.

Craig: Boing, boing, boing.

John: And they shrink.

Craig: Because you see them boinging, right? I think they’re working on there right now. Of course they are. All right. Well, that’s our show. As always since recently, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. And our outro this week. Oh my god. Okay, so John, every week we have an outro that a listener sends in. This week, super-duper special. I’m glad you’re here for it. Our outro this week comes from Tim Gurth who’s 11 years old. And here’s what his dad says.

His dad says, “I’m an avid listener. My son is 11 and just starting 6th grade, he loves to tell stories. Every night before bed we have a running story, he improvs with me. I’ve shared the podcast with him in the past and storytelling tips from almost every episode. He’s learning to play the cello.” Learning. By the way, is important because you know, you could tell he’s learning, but he’s way better at it than I am. That’s me talking. Back to his dad.

“When I told him about the outros, he wanted to enter the contest. I told him there was no prize other than being on that one podcast forever. He was still up for it, his teacher did her best to identify the five notes and he took it from there. He wanted this improvised song to reflect both John and Craig. I think he captured them.” He did.

He absolutely captured us. Tim, we love your job on the cello here. We love that you’re 11 and you have the courage to do this and of course I say to the rest of you, if 11-year-old Tim Gurth can do it, so can you. So if you have an outro for us that you would like us to try, please send it into That’s also a place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions on Twitter, I am @clmazin and John August is @johnaugust. You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes and while you’re there leave us a comment and I’ll tell you why, John Lee Hancock. John August loves comments. He loves them. He reads them.

John: Wow.

Craig: And he thinks about them and he keeps threatening to read them on the air, so people really should comment just to make John August happy, right? That’s why we’re here. You can also find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at, that’s where you’ll find the transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all of the back episodes of the show at and also on the Scriptnotes USB drive at

John Lee, that’s the store that gives me no money because John’s stealing all the money. John Lee, thank you so much for being here. Everyone, check out The Founder when it hits theaters and fear not John, not Lee will be back next week. We’ll see you then.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 269: Mystery Vs. Confusion — Transcript

Mon, 10/10/2016 - 12:42

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 269 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we will be looking at mystery versus confusion and how you might have more of the former, with less of the latter. We will also be answering listener questions on flashbacks and capitalizing on festival success. Plus we have three new entries in the Three Page Challenge. It’s going to be a big show.

Craig: It does already sound, and I don’t want to jinx us or anything, like the best show we’ve ever done and we’ll ever do.

John: You know, I’ve been scrolling through the little outline here, Craig, and you’ve got a lot of really good stuff in here. So, we will see if we can — we’ll see if we can finish as strong as we start. How about we start with a correction because I actually messed up in last’s week’s episode? I know this seems impossible because I don’t make mistakes.

Craig: Right.

John: But I did make a mistake in the very first minute of last week’s episode. I referred to Jane Bennet in Darcy. I was referring to the principal characters of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Bennet is a sister, she’s not the principal character. I really did mean Elizabeth Bennet but I think I was conflating her and confusing her with Jane Austin, the author of Pride and Prejudice. So I just wanted to actually get that out of there and make it clear that I have read Pride and Prejudice. I really do know who’s the main characters in Pride and Prejudice.

Craig: It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.

John: It’s a feature. Also, I wanted to make sure that the other Jane Austin, the one who you actually get when you Google it, she’s a professor of political theory in the US and she’s going to be really confused when her name shows up in the Google news alert later today.

Craig: Wait, Jane Bennet is or Jane Austin is?

John: Jane Bennet. Did I said Jane Austin then?

Craig: Yeah. So again, I have to say, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

John: Feature. So somehow, I have a form of aphasia that is limited to Jane Austin references.

Craig: That is so specific.

John: It is but it’s all I can do.

Craig: You know what? Should qualify you for Make a Wish.

John: Yeah absolutely.

Craig: Anything you want and —

John: I’m — clearly, I’m a dying child in some way. My inner child is dying.

Craig: We’re all dying. I have a little bit of follow-up myself. So I believe it was in our last episode where we talked about writers who had broken in from not Los Angeles, not New York, not London. And one of them was Chris Sparling. And he had mentioned in his comment that one of the things he missed was that sense of camaraderie. And I said, “Well, next time you’re out here, drinks are on me.” Guess who I had a drink with last night?

John: How nice.

Craig: Last night, it’s — very last night, Chris Morgan and I and Chris Sparling all sat down, had a drink. I didn’t even have to pay because Chris Morgan paid, which is great.

John: Well, he’s got that Fast and Furious money, so he should kind of always pay.

Craig: Yeah, he paid and it’s his own money, too. I mean, it’s got Vin Diesel’s face on it and everything.

John: That’s good.

Craig: But it’s legal tender. Anyway, great guy, had a terrific evening with him and he got a little bit of it, a little taste.

John: Yeah. So do you think you’re going to get him to move out to Los Angeles? Was there any sense of that he’s going to leave Rhode Island to get out there?

Craig: I did broach the topic. It doesn’t seem so. First of all, he’s got a six-year-old daughter and a four-week-old son.

John: Yeah, that’s young.

Craig: So that’s, generally speaking, you’re not going nowhere and, you know, his whole thing is, look, it’s basically working, you know.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: He said every now and then it’s a little annoying, but he was out here pitching a show. And so he can always jump on a plane and get here. But I think he’s very happy living where he lives. His family is happy living where they are and it’s working for him. So I think, probably, he’s going to stay right where he is.

John: That sounds good.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Before we get to our big marquee topic, which is mystery versus confusion, we have two questions from listeners. So I thought we might bang those out quickly. So first, we have a question from Matt Nai. Let’s take a listen.

Matt: So I’ve written a horror feature that I’ve submitted to a handful of film festivals and screenwriting contests. It has placed as both a finalist and quarter-finalist in four competitions so far. I’m waiting to hear back from a few others and this got me thinking, can this good news be used as any sort of leverage to pitch to studios or do they have to seek out the material? How can you make the most out of a festival win when you don’t have many contacts in Hollywood? Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.

John: So this sort of fits with the pattern of people who are able to get started while they were not living in Los Angeles, New York, or London is sometimes they had something that did well in a festival and it sort of started getting them some attention. The question is, what attention could Matt really expect off of some wins in these festivals?

Craig: Well, not much. Depending on what the festivals are. You know, we did hear from Peter Dodd the other week who said essentially that winning the Nicholl gets you at least a read. Not much else going on. Part of the problem with these festivals is that there are too many. So, essentially, none of them mean much. Everyone, it seems, has been a semi-finalist or finalist in a contest somewhere. And a little bit like that for films, too. I mean, there’s gazillions of these little film festivals. So every independent film will have 14 stamps on it with laurel leaves but you don’t know what any of it even means exactly. Is there leverage to be imparted because you’ve finished well in some festival? Not really, I mean, no. I don’t think so.

John: I think you’re wrong, Craig, because I think the leverage is not with like getting a studio to read it or getting a studio to consider you for other projects. I think the leverage is finding a horror filmmaker to actually make that script. So, Matt’s winning these festivals, they’re probably horror specific festivals. He needs to go to them. He needs like to see who the good directors are. This is all based on the assumption that Matt is not trying to direct this himself. But if he’s looking for a director to direct this script or one of his scripts, this is your opportunity.

So find who are those good directors, who are the ones you think can actually do something and just reach out to them because a lot of times people who are making horror films at these tiny budgets, they are looking for other good new things. And if you are that good new thing, having that stamp of approval from winning this festival might actually mean something to the people who were at that festival. So that, to me, is an opportunity. You also may have a chance to network with some, you know, other writers who actually are represented, who have managers, who have some other sort of next step and it’s a chance to sort of figure out what those options are.

So while I don’t think winning these things is going to get to you the agent, it’s not going to get you the reads at the studio, it may get you some of those early steps with meeting with a filmmaker, a meeting with a manager, something to get you going. And that’s what you should really concentrate on is how do you get something made. And it sounds like you may have written something that could get made, so try.

Craig: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. I can’t quibble with that. I’m just — it’s one of these things where you kind of have to look at the progressive scale of odds and ask where you are on that scale of odds. And are there other things you could be doing beyond the festivals or are things that are unrelated to the festivals that could improve your chances. And to that end, I think, figuring out how to get your script into the hands of that one person who actually can make a difference for you. That person may or may not be at that festival. If they are, that’s fantastic, and absolutely, yeah, leverage your win at the festival within the festival. Sure. But it’s unlikely that that’s going to be as valuable, I think, as, say, being in Los Angeles and handing the script to somebody who can read it or, you know, I don’t know. It’s tough. I take a little bit of a dim view on this. There’s so many festivals. Everyone is a semi-finalist. Everyone. Everyone’s born a semi-finalist of 14 screenwriting festivals.

John: So here’s — if a year from now, Matt has a film in production, here’s what I think would have happened, is I think he would have found a director who did something really good, who was like looking for his next thing. And someone who had done a teeny tiny thing, who is stepping up to do like a Blumhouse movie and read Matt’s script and said like, “Oh, this is great. I want to do this.” I think that is the point of inflection that he might be at, and so I think it’s worth pursuing that. But our standard blanket advice is probably accurate for Matt, as well as everybody else, is it’s going to be easier to do all of those things if you’re in Los Angeles. It’s going to be easier to do these things if you have other stuff to show rather than this one script that’s gotten some awards at festivals.

Craig: Word.

John: Word. All right. Let’s hear about Adam Tourney has to ask.

Adam Tourney: Hey, John and Craig. I wanted to get your opinion on a re-playing audio or video from earlier in a film to clarify a character’s revelation later on. Examples that spring to mind, are Steve Martin realizing that John Candy is homeless in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or the final Keyser Soze scene in The Usual Suspects. Can this device be used effectively today or is it a clichéd cheat?

John: Craig, what do you think? Effective or cliché?

Craig: Possibly but, well, certainly cliché, possible effective. I think that all clichés are one slight twisty thing away from being okay. Sometimes, and we’ll talk about this in our main topic today, sometimes when those moments happen, they weren’t intended to happen. It’s not that someone sat down and said, “We hear these things now.”

What happens is they show the movie to an audience and people say, “We don’t get it.” And then they go, “We have to do the cliché thing so that people get it.” And if you are properly stunned in a reveal, you don’t really mind the cliché because you’re stunned. You’re like, “Wow. This is cool,” you know?

John: Yeah.

Craig: And because you’re actually learning what happened and it’s a big twisty surprise to you. Where it gets really clammy is when you know what it is, then the cliché is brutal. I mean, there is a certain value to that. It does work. It works when the twist works.

John: Yeah. And I think it has to be the twist. It has to be like look at the magic trick I just pulled on you. And like then, it’s like, “Oh, I see what that is. I see how I was misinterpreting that.” That’s great. Because then when you’re seeing that scene again, it’s not just reinforcing that idea, it’s actually reversing that idea. It’s actually showing you like things weren’t what you thought they were. And so the things he cited are, I think, great examples of replaying previous scenes to give you a new sense of the moment that you’re in right now. And I say don’t be afraid of cliché if it’s really effectively serving that moment in your story. And I think you’re going to be — you will have set out to write the kind of movie that wants to have that scene. You’re not going accidentally back into writing that kind of scene.

Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I mean, the value of a great twist is that it re-contextualizes everything that you’ve seen. So part of the fun is to enjoy that re-contextualization and the only way to do that is to replay something and just be happy in knowing that you’re replaying it but seeing it differently now. Don’t worry so much about being cliché or being not cliché. You know, I think sometimes people get caught up in that. If you have a great twist and that’s the best way to reveal it, it’s just when it’s clunky that it’s clunky. I don’t know how else to put it, it’s kind of a goofy thing to say but that’s how I feel.

John: Let’s talk about what that looks like on the page. So if you’re writing those moments in, you want the reader to have a sense of like, really, we’re still in that current moment or I’m just flashing away to those previous things. So sometimes you might repeat these scene headers from where that thing came from. So if it’s otherwise unclear. But sometimes you’re just going to repeat the action lines or the dialogue, it may make sense for your script to put all that stuff in italics just to sort of make it stand out, make it feel like this is a different texture that we’re really into a kind of flashback moment.

You’ll know what feels right for your script. You want to give the reader sense of like, “I’m doing something special here. Pay attention and it’s all going to make sense when I’m through with this section.”

Craig: Correct. Yeah. Anything to echo the dreamy quality of the dream that you’re doing, I mean, right, because all of these moments are dreamy. You’re being very internal to the character. This is something that’s inside their mind so give us that sense and then you’ll be fine. You know, there are ways to do it that aren’t quite so down the middle cliché, you know. Things that you can do or you can even describe in terms of the visuals. They almost look like they’re a water painting or they’re de-saturated or they’re in black and white. You just do something but, yeah, you know.

John: You will do it. So a genre which I see this in a lot are sort of the Agatha Christie mysteries, which at the very end, like Hercule Poirot, like piecing together what actually happened and we get to see like all these little snippets from previous things like, “Oh, that’s when all the stuff was happening.” Which ties very well into Craig’s marquee topic which is mystery versus confusion. So, Craig, get us started why should we care about mystery?

Craig: Well, we should care about it because we care about confusion. You and I talk about this all the time. We get confused so easily. But part of the reason that we can get confused easily is because, clearly, as writers we’re trying to do something and if we do too much of it, it ends up confusing. But why not be completely non-confusing? Well, that seems like a stupid question but it’s worth asking. You know, why not just be obvious about everything?

Well, because, oh well, the audience doesn’t want that. Well then what is it that they want? What they want is mystery. They want mystery in all things. And we get maybe a little distracted by the word mystery because it implies a genre like Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. But in fact, mystery is a dramatic concept that is in just about every good story you ever hear or see. Mystery essentially creates curiosity and curiosity is what draws the audience in. It weaves them into the narrative. The idea is even though you’re not telling a detective story, you’re telling a story in such a way that the audience now becomes a detective of your story because the desire to know is essentially the strongest non-emotional effect that you can create in the audience. It actually is, I think, the only non-emotional effect that you can create in the audience. It’s the only intellectual thing that you can inspire in them but it’s very, very powerful when you do.

John: So as you’re talking about curiosity, it’s that sense of asking a question and having a hope and an expectation that that question can be answered. And so, obviously, as we’re watching a story, we’re wondering, “Well, what happens next?” Mystery comes when we’re asking questions like, “Wait, who is that character and why don’t I know more information about that character,” or “Why did she say that,” or “What’s inside that box?” And those are compelling things that get us to lean into the screen a little bit more because we want to see what’s happening. And so often they can be effective if we are at the same general place as our lead hero in trying to get the answers to these questions. If we see that hero attempting to answer these questions, we’ll be right there with him or her.

Craig: Yeah, and even if we create small moments where perhaps the hero does know more than we do, what we’re tweaking is this thing that is very human, it’s built into our DNA. When we walk into a situation, we are naturally curious, we insist upon knowing certain things. If you walk down the street and you see suddenly 50 people lined up in front of a small storefront that has blacked out windows and a man in the front just patiently keeping people from entering, you want to — there’s no decision to want to know.

John: Yeah.

Craig: What’s in there? Why are those people standing there? Who is that man? You begin to do this, right? So, let’s as screenwriters, let us constantly exploit this. But exploit it in a way that doesn’t get us into trouble, because if we’re going to go ahead and tap them on their knee to make that little reflex happen, we have to reward them.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: And we also have to figure out when to reward them. And this is where the craft comes in.

John: Let’s go back to your example of like the crowd outside the store and it’s blacked out windows, if our characters walked past that and didn’t comment on it, didn’t acknowledge it, if we saw it as an audience but nothing was ever done with it, that would be frustrating and we would have ascribed a weight to whatever that mystery was, and we’d be waiting for the answer. And we might honestly miss other crucial things about your story because we keep waiting for an answer to that thing.

Which is part of the reason why I think it’s an overall cognitive load that you can expect an audience to keep. And if you have too many open loops, too many things that are not answered, or don’t feel like they can be answered, the audience grows impatient, and sort of frustrated, and can’t focus on new things. They’re trying to juggle too much and that’s the thing you have to be very aware of especially as you’re going through your story, as you’re putting all those balls in the air in the first act. Sometimes you’re going to have to take some of them out before you get into the meat of your story otherwise, the audience just can’t follow along with you.

Craig: That’s right. I always think of mystery as the intellectual version of nudity in films. Nudity is distracting, right? So in comedies, when there’s nudity, you can rest assured that the jokes will be somewhat diminished in general because people are too busy staring at boobs and it’s hitting a different part of their brain than the haha, funny part.

So you can do a little bit of boobs, but you can’t do too much boobs because then it just — it’s like, I’m confused, I’m distracted. So when you engage in this very powerful technique of mini mysteries all the time about things, you are creating a contract with the audience. And you’re saying in exchange for this distraction — and I know you’re distracted, I promise that an answer will be given. I also hopefully promise that it’s probably something you could have figured out maybe if you’d really thought it true. It’s not just going to be totally random. Otherwise, it’s not a mystery, it’s just random. I promise you that the answer will be relevant, it will be logical, and it will add value to the story and value to your experience of the story.

And I also promise that someone in the movie knows the answer. Someone, not no one, right? Because then, it’s not really mystery, then it’s just an absurdity that everyone’s finding out together. Somebody knows. This is all contrasted with what I think sometimes happens and we see this when we do our Three Page Challenges with confusion. Confusion, generally, this is how I experience it and I’m kind of interested how you do. I experience confusion in the following ways, I feel like I’m supposed to know something but I don’t.

John: Yup.

Craig: So did I miss it? Was I eating popcorn when someone said something because I don’t know who that is and I don’t know why they’re talking. I feel a mounting sense of confusion when things that are relying on the thing I’m supposed to know keep happening and I don’t know why they’re happening so now I’m getting really worried and distracted. And generally speaking, I am confused when I sense that I’m not supposed to be confused.

John: Yup.

Craig: If I’m watching a David Lynch film and [laughs] suddenly there’s a dwarf talking backwards in a dream, I understand I’m supposed to be confused — this is abstract, okay, go ahead. Confuse me. But I only get confused when I think I’m not supposed to be confused right now and I am so confused.

John: Yeah, so if you were in a Melissa McCarthy comedy and suddenly there was a dwarf talking backwards that would be unsettling. You would start to question the rules of the world in that movie and your own trust in the filmmakers because that’s not the contract you signed when you sat down to start watching that movie and that can be a real thing, that can be a real burden. I agree with you on these points of confusion.

And my frustration honestly is that sometimes in the effort to eliminate confusion, we end up sort of scraping too hard and getting rid of important mysteries that are actually keeping the audience involved. And so I remember when I was doing my first test screenings for my movie The Nines, I asked in my little survey form what moments were you confused in a bad way? Because what I didn’t want to do is to get rid of all the confusions because you were supposed to be confused for parts of the movie. But when were you confused in a way that like pulled you out of the movie? And those were important things for me to be able to understand for like this wasn’t just — this wasn’t intriguing, this was annoying. I didn’t know what was actually happening here.

Craig: That’s exactly right. What — there is confusion in a good way and confusion in a bad way. And when we are confused in a good way, we have an expectation that the pain will go away. And that answers will be revealed and that’s exciting. That makes us want to keep watching. That’s the most important part of mystery. It makes you want to turn the page of the movie.

John: Yup.

Craig: That’s why mysteries sell more copies than any other kind of book.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because you want to know. It’s inescapable. Every Harry Potter book is a mystery. Everything single one.

John: Well, it also stimulates that basic puzzle-solving nature. It’s like you feel like, okay, I have all these facts. They’re going to have to add up to something useful. And what you said before about you feel like if I could think about this logically and really figure this out, I would come to the right conclusion. And also in the case of Harry Potter, you see characters talking about the central mystery and trying to solve the central mystery and after you’ve seen one of these movies you recognize like, in the third act, they will confront the mystery and they will — there’ll be little tiny mysteries but it will get resolved. There’s an implicit deal you’re making when you sign in for one of those books or one of those movies that the third act will be about resolving what’s going on in the course of this thing. And not all of the bigger issues of Voldemort and everything, but what’s been set up in this movie will get resolved by the end of this movie.

The same thing happens in a one-hour procedural, is that by the end of the hour you’re going to know who the killer is and the killer will be brought to justice, or the person who set the fire will be caught. Where the frustration comes in sometimes the big, epic, long, arc stories of an Alias or a Lost where sometimes those mysteries were so big and so spiraling, that you had a sense of like are we ever to get the answer to these mysteries or are there even answers to these mysteries? Are they meant to be just philosophical questions?

Craig: And we just aren’t as curious about philosophical questions. We don’t need to know the answers to philosophical questions. And it’s important I think to say that even though it’s easy to talk about mysteries in the context of actual mystery movies that non-mystery movies feature little mini mysteries all the time. Sometimes a scene is just who’s that and why are they doing that?

John: Yup.

Craig: And then we get the answer.

John: So let’s talk about the different types of mysteries we encounter.

Craig: Sure. Now, we’re talking about little specific crafty things of how we can create or impart mystery in any genre, any scene, any moment. And so very kind of broad, writerly ways of approaching mystery. First, very, very simple mystery: pronoun. So two characters are talking and one of them says, “Well, what are we going to do about her?” And the other one says, “I don’t know.” And we go, okay, who’s her? [laughs]

John: Yeah.

Craig: Who’s her? Why are they worried about her? What is her going to do? Very simple, very easy, and, you know, then your choice is when to reveal who she is. Similarly, you can, “It.” Did you do it? I did it. And? It was hard.

John: Yeah.

Craig: What’s it? Oh, I have to know. [laughs] What is it? What is it?

John: Yeah, so essentially you’re omitting one piece of a crucial information by putting in a generic pronoun and we are desperate to fill in that blank and find out what is that X that he’s talking about.

Craig: And it is absolutely the simplest form of magic trick that we do. And yet it is so powerful. It is our pick a card, any card. People are still talking to this day about what is in the briefcase. What is the “it” in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? You know what it is? Nothing.

John: Yup.

Craig: It’s a flashbulb. It’s not even a — it’s a light bulb, right? And the point is that he literally is saying, when the movie’s over and you don’t find out, the point is that’s it. It was just a mystery that will never solve for you. Just like what does Scarlett Johansson whisper — or Bill Murray whisper into Scarlett Johansson’s ear at the end of Lost In Translation. It doesn’t matter.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It doesn’t matter because you will never know and yet we will talk about that because of our insatiable need to resolve this simplest kind of mystery.

John: So one caveat here is sometimes you can accidentally introduce this kind of mystery that you completely didn’t mean to and the situations where I see it is, you enter into like two characters having a conversation and sometimes it’s just in how it’s cut or like how the actors actually changed some words but it makes it seem like they’ll drop out a pronoun, or they’ll drop out the name of somebody and so they’ll talk about her or she but not actually say who that person is. And then we’re like, wait, is — are we supposed to be confused? Is that a mystery? Should we be looking for what that is? So you have to be mindful as a writer and as a person who’s watching cuts of films that you’re not accidentally introducing this kind of mystery that’s actually just going to be confusion because it’s not there intentionally.

Craig: Correct. And so there’s the treacherous navigation between confusion and mystery but if you can figure out how to put these little ambiguities in that are intentional, that’s great. If you can figure out how to put in a secret between two people, we — I mean, when you see two people looking at you and whispering, you don’t have to decide to be curious.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Right? You are now involved and that’s exactly what we want our audience need to be. We want them to be involved. There’s an interesting subtle way of creating a mystery that I’m personally — I love this version when I see it and every now and then I’ll pull it myself. And it’s what I call the obvious lie. We know what the facts are at any, you know, at this point in the movie. We have a bunch of facts at our disposal. And then someone asks a character something and the character lies, and we know they’re lying because we’ve seen the truth, but we don’t know why. Why are they lying?

John: Yeah.

Craig: Or we don’t know the facts, somebody says something, we believe it’s true, and then we find out that they were lying. And now we want to know why did they lie and what is the truth? Those tweak us immediately. We begin to light up when these things happen.

John: Because we want to understand the whys behind a character’s actions and so to see a lie or to have somebody reveal his lie, it’s like wait, do I not understand that character well enough? Is there something else happening here and I’m curious what that is. Now, on the page, sometimes I think you have to be really careful doing this because the first time you’re reading a script, you’re reading it really carefully. You’re getting it all, it’s experiencing just like the movie. The 19th time you read through a script, sometimes you just like look at the lines and you’re like, oh, wait, he says this but on this page with this and the other page, if you don’t somehow single out that like this is a lie on a time where you’re putting the lie, that can be kind of a trap. I’ve actually encountered this in places where actors or directors will like forget like oh, no, she’s not telling the truth there, that’s a lie there. And it sounds so obvious for me to say it, but like they’re just looking at the individual pages or like looking at like the sides and they’re about to shoot something. And they’re not remembering like, oh, that’s right. This is not actually the truth.

So this is a case where the slightly worded parenthetical or the little action line that sort of underscores like that she’s a terrific liar. Something in there to indicate to the reader and the filmmakers that, like, remember, this is not actually the truth here.

Craig: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. I mean, early on, that’s not necessary.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s later on when you want to think, okay, maybe somebody has forgotten or you don’t have to worry about it so much if the lie and the reveal that it’s a lie, are really close together.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: You know, so if someone says, “Anyway, I got to go. I got a meeting. I got to jump in my car. I got a meeting in like five minutes.” And someone goes, “Great.” And then they walk outside and they don’t have a car.

John: Yeah, perfect.

Craig: And they just sit down on the bench and wait. Then you go, okay, you’re a liar, why? [laughs] I need to know, right? So this is a good little mini mystery.

John: Yup.

Craig: You can have — similarly, you can have mysteries that don’t involve people talking at all. Sometimes it’s just an object like the briefcase–

John: Yeah.

Craig: –in Pulp Fiction. Or, you know, someone is like — you got a camera looking — here’s a little mystery at the end of Inglourious Basterds. You have — I mean, it’s not much of mystery because you can pretty much see it coming but he sets it up as little mini mystery. You’re looking up at Brad Pitt and I think it’s B.J. Novak actually. I think it’s a–

John: Yeah.

Craig: Friend of the podcast, B.J. Novak, looking up at them, looking down at what they’ve done to Hans Landa and they’re talking about it and we are the perspective so we don’t know what it is but they’re talking about it and then we reveal the answer to the mystery.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Which is just — listen, it may seem inevitable to you because that’s how you saw the movie, it was not. It didn’t have to be done that way at all. It was a good choice.

John: Yeah.

Craig: There’s also another kind of simple mystery to do and it’s the what I’ll call no-so-innocuous-information.

So in this idea, someone asks someone a question and they get an answer and it’s very meaningful to them. It’s just not meaningful to us and that disparity between what the character thinks of it and what we think of it, creates a mystery. So someone says, “Hey, did George come in today?” and the person goes, “Oh, yeah.” And the person asking the question says thank you, walks outside and starts crying.

John: Yeah.

Craig: What? Why? Why are they crying that George came in? Nobody else seems to care that George came in. Why does George — what — who’s George? Mystery.

John: Mystery, again, we’re trying to figure out a character’s motivations and they’re not matching up with their expectations, so therefore we’re leaning in and we are curious. And so as long as you’re going to be able to pay that off at some point that could be a terrific thing. It’s when we don’t see that payoff that things could get really strange.

Again, on the page, if that reaction is happening in the moment, like it’s just a subtle reaction in the moment — like a concerned stare or like a look of sudden panic, you’re going to have to script that because the lines of dialogue are not matching our expectation. So you got to script in what that reaction is. And sometimes people feel like, “Oh, you’re directing the page.” Like no you’re saying what is actually happening in the movie. You’re giving the experience of watching the movie on the page.

Craig: This whole directing on the page thing doesn’t even exist. My new thing now is forget not-not doing it. It isn’t a thing. There is no such thing as directing on the page. I don’t even know what that means.

John: Yeah.

Craig: We’re creating a movie with text. So we will do — we should do and must do everything we can, to create that movie and if that means that we are directing on the page — in fact, that’s the only job we have. We should only be directing on the page.

Does that mean — I think people think that, you know, directing on the page means camera moves this way, camera pushes in, switch to this lens, do the angle, angle, angle, angle — no. Directing on the page means you are creating a movie in someone’s mind. Use every tool you can.

John: Yeah. Craig, is there an elephant outside your window?

Craig: It’s a bus.

John: It’s a very loud bus.

Craig: With an elephant on it.

John: Fantastic. All right, let’s talk about some resolutions because there are different scales at which a mystery can happen.

So the short-term mystery, so there’s those little things that happen within a scene that keeps us wondering about like, “Oh, what are they talking about?” and then the camera finally reveals like, “Oh, he’s married the whole time.” Or “Why do they have that object in their hand?”

Those are great ways to just provide a little tension and conflict within a scene. They provide just a little extra spark of energy and get us to pay attention to the things we may not otherwise pay attention to.

Craig: Yeah. This is a great way, for instance, to pull people through exposition. So you can have a character explaining a bunch of information to another person which is okay or have the character explaining that same information to another person, but while they’re explaining it, they are for some reason slowly pouring gasoline around the room that they’re in.

John: Yup.

Craig: Well, okay, I — what’s — why are they doing that? And obviously they’re going to light it up but why are they going to light it on fire and what does that have to do with what he’s saying? I am now interested in the exposition. Short-term mysteries are a great way to make something out of nothing.

Then we have our kind of mid-length mysteries. So mid-length mysteries — I kind of think of those as like middle of the movie reveals. You have people that you’re meeting early on and there are some characters with relationships who seem to know something about the circumstances of the movie that you don’t, they know secret motivations, they know secret pasts of each other. Someone isn’t telling us something. It’s clearly important to them. We will need it. This is the kind of thing we’ll need by the middle of the movie to appreciate it and then understand how that impacts the character moving forward.

It’s not so much fun when two people have a little secret in the beginning of the movie and then at the very end of the movie we’re like, “Oh and by the way that secret is this,” because the movie has resolved itself by then.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So these are good little middle of the movie things. The bad versions of these are, “I lost my brother in an ice skating accident,” you know, but—

John: Ugh.

Craig: Yeah. But typically they are slightly more interesting than that and they help people engage with the character on an emotional level separate and apart from the details of the plot.

John: Yeah. These are the things where Jane Espenson uses the term hang a lantern on things and I’ve seen other people use it as well. It’s like it’s an important enough detail that when you first introduce it, you want to sort of call it out and make sure that the audience is really going to notice like I’m doing something here — so yes you’re right to be noticing it. I am doing something here and I’m going to be doing something with it later on.

Like — you are like — you are marking this for follow up. And so it’s going to show up not at the end of the movie but at some key point during the movie at an important time. And you’ll be rewarded for having remembered it from before.

So sometimes it’s that character who got introduced who you never really knew his name. But then he shows up and he’s actually a hit man midway through the movie. Great. Like you’ve done the right job there because you have established somebody and then you’re using them in the course of the story for an important reason. That feels useful and that’s a great way of like the mystery of who that person is is paying off within the scope of the movie right at the time we want these things to pay off.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. Or you — your main character has a scar and someone says, “Where did you get that?” And he says, hmm, and then maybe somebody else asked “Where did you get that?”

If I’m going to answer the scar question, it’s going to have to happen by the middle of the movie. I will not give a damn by the end of the movie how he got his scar — it won’t matter anymore. If the scar is important to who he is, then I need to be — then I need to know who he is by the middle. Because here’s the thing, if I have a character, she’s gone through half a movie with some big secret that is relevant to who she is, I must know it by the middle. This is a protagonist now. I must know it in order to appreciate how she changes from that point forward.

So these are mysteries that actually can’t survive, you know, much more than half a movie. But there are mysteries that must survive the entire movie. But these, I think, usually come down to what is the big central mystery of the story. It’s harder to pull off the kind of character-based mystery that lasts the whole time.

John: So, you’re saying that these long-term mysteries are really like the mystery genre? Like they are the classically sort of like Agatha Christie like we’re going to wait until the very end for all the reveals. That’s what you’re talking about?

Craig: Kind of because if you have a long-term mystery that isn’t about like a plot mystery and you only get the answer at the end or right before the end, it’s a little bit of a cheat. It’s like, “Well, I’ll solve a mystery right in time to save the day.” That just feels a little, meh.

John: So this last week I saw a movie that actually I think does have that long-term mystery, and it worked really well for having that long-term mystery. It’s Hell or High Water which is in France is Comancheria. So it’s a Chris Pine, Ben Foster movie with Jeff Daniels. And I really quite liked it but there’s a long-term mystery that — which I’m not spoiling anything to tell you that like you’re watching Chris Pine and his brother rob these banks, and you’re really not quite sure why they’re doing it.

Like, yes they’re doing it to get money but there’s — there clearly is a specific reason and there’s a plan but you’re not quite sure what the plan is. And they withhold that information from the audience for a really long time — like much longer than you think would be possible.

And I think it works in that movie because the movie is otherwise really simple. It’s like it’s a very straightforward Texas pickup truck western kind of genre movie. And because it’s so simple, holding off all the reveal on like what their actual plan is, is very rewarding. And so it felt like it was finally revealed at just the right moment.

So it’s definitely possible, but I agree with you that it’s really rare to see movies that hold off all that stuff for so long throughout the course of a story.

Craig: Yeah. It’s tricky to do. Very tricky to do unless, you know, it’s your mystery-mystery. So anyway, hopefully this is helpful to people. Just examples, like practical examples of how to tweak this and exploit this natural instinct in the audience. This is the thing that makes them want to lean in. So if you can make them want to lean in, why not?

John: Yeah. Let’s do it. Let’s take a look at our Three Page Challenge because two of these actually have that sort of mystery versus confusion issue as I read them, so let’s see what you guys think.

So the Three Page Challenge, if you’re new to this, every couple of weeks we take a look at the first three pages of people’s scripts that they send in. So these are scripts written by listeners. They’re almost always features, sometimes they’re TV pilots. If you’d like to send in your own, you can visit and there’s a whole set of rules for like how you submit your pages.

If you’d like to read along with us, the PDFs of these pages are attached to this episode. So you can go to the show notes at or just scroll your little player and you’ll be able to click the link and like read along with us as we take a look at these.

So most weeks, you and I read aloud these descriptions, and it’s honestly one of my least favorite things to do because it just feels so boring for us to be just reading these descriptions aloud. So I thought it’d be fun to have somebody else do this for us and so I wanted to turn to a familiar voice — a trusted voice — a voice who is beloved by Americans for many, many seasons now, it is Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor. So he offered to read these descriptions aloud, let’s start with On Tic by Gabrielle Mentjox.

Jeff Probst: We open on a door. Crystal, a woman in her 20s, opens the door and exchanges cash for two small tinfoil packages. This repeats a few times until one dissatisfied stoner charges inside the apartment claiming he’s been ripped off. Crystal tries to get him to leave but the stoner isn’t budging.

Crystal’s roommate, Chantal, overhears the chaos. She turns on the stereo and joins Crystal in the hallway. She asks what’s going on. And as they argue back and forth, a dog starts growling in the background. Chantal mentions how Bruce is hungry and doesn’t like strangers.

The stoner bolts. Trouble averted, Crystal and Chantal smoke weed from a homemade bong.

Outside, a crappy Nissan drives on the streets of small town New Zealand. Chantal rummages through the kitchen for food while Crystal messes about on Instagram. A car pulls up. An orthopedic shoes steps onto the pavement and we reached the bottom of page three.

John: How cool is that?

Craig: Well — I mean this is the best version of Survivor there is, right? I mean, it’s better than people on an island. These are — they’re writing things to survive.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And you and I may take their torch away.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Ah, Jeff Probst.

John: Jeff Probst. Craig, what did you think of On Tic?

Craig: Right. So first all, I’m fascinated by Gabrielle Mentjox because I’m trying to figure out like how do you pronounce Mentjox? It can’t just be Ment-jox. It’s got to be — I don’t know — something else.

One thing that was really interesting was that Gabrielle, I believe, is from New Zealand and her story takes place there. And she includes a little mention of the specific slang on the cover page to describe what a Tinnie is. And a Tinnie is 20 dollars’ worth of marijuana wrapped in aluminum foil, which I actually thought was kind of helpful.

And a good example was somebody going like, “Oh, I don’t really care what the orthodox nonsense is. I need people to know what I need them to know.” So generally speaking, I thought this was pretty good. I mean it was — I saw everything. I really enjoyed the description of Crystal. It hit all of my hair, make-up, wardrobe notes.

So I could see people and the scene moved in an interesting way. I was moving around the space in an interesting way. I was feeling and seeing things. Ultimately my issue with the scene is just that I have seen it.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I’ve just seen this. There is something generally dissatisfying I think about overpowered heroes. And this situation where it’s like, “Well, we’ve got a dog. So beat it.” And, “Oh, God. Okay.” It doesn’t feel very dramatic. It just feels kind of, you know.

John: So Craig, here’s a mystery versus a confusion question for you.

Craig: Yeah.

John: The way I read it is that there is no dog and that she was turning on the stereo and have a recording of a dog but there’s no actual dog and that’s why Gabrielle like singles out that the roommate Chantal goes into the next room and turns on that stereo. I think that was what was actually playing is the recording of the dog. Is that not what you read?

Craig: I didn’t know that. I didn’t understand that at all. Because dog — maybe it’s – the problem is — I mean, I suppose that’s possible. But she turns on the stereo. What year is this? Maybe that’s part of the problem, like who has a stereo that they turn on and then there’s — that’s the dog recording on the stereo.

I would have to see — I would have to hear the sound of it right then and there for the reader, at least I think to know, “Oh, okay the sound is coming out of that.” Especially because the dog sound gets louder as they’re talking. So–

John: Yeah. So my belief was that Chantal as she was coming into the room, she turned that on and it’s basically they have a plan. They basically have this dog recording that gets louder and louder that they can use to freak out people who are like thinking about breaking in to the house.

So I read these pages with that in my mind and like, “Oh, well, that’s kind of clever. Like these girls are smarter than, you know, your average young drug dealers.” Maybe. Or at least they have a plan. But if you didn’t catch that, and you just thought like was there a dog there somewhere — meh — it’s lost its spark.

Craig: Yeah. To be honest with you, now that I’m reading it this way where that’s what’s going on, I’m also a little bit meh about it because it feels frankly like a very thin plan. What it does is it makes their foe, angry stoner, not quite formidable.

John: Yeah.

Craig: If now I live in a world where people are easily faked out by stuff like that. And I don’t know. You know, here’s the thing — I liked all of the writing, you know.

John: Yeah, so do I.

Craig: So I think that the good news is, Gabrielle writes characters well. They were — they were distinct. It moved around. It was visual. It’s really what it is that I think the scene is missing like plus the concept now. You just want to plus that concept.

So if the idea is how can I show that these two women are really good at dealing with problems, even problem they cause, like ripping people-off, I want them to be smarter than this. This just isn’t that smart. So I need more clever, you know?

John: Cool. I do want to single out some of her good writing. So, this is on Page three, and this is a description of the residential strait.

“A hypnotic doof doof base blasts from the stereo. We’re in a beat-up Nissan, cruising up a typical street in small-town New Zealand. We pass paint-chipped state houses sitting atop bare quarter-acre sections.” Great, I got a visual there, I got a sense of what this feels like. I like the doof. This felt good, this felt competent. I do think Gabrielle can write. I’m just curious to see what would happen next, and where is this all going? It reminds me a bit of Go, my first movie, in a way that I really like. I love sort of young plucky dealers. It’s sort of my thing.

Craig: Young, plucky drug dealers are great, New Zealand is great. By the way, I started watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Yeah, Kate & Kate, one of the Kates’ One Cool Thing.

John: I do want to single out some things on page one, which needs a re-look. So first paragraph, a “young woman’s face peers out, eyebrows raised. This is CRYSTAL (20s, skinny, eyebrows plucked super thin.” Just repeating eyebrows twice, didn’t feel like the best choice. Like we’re only three lines in and we repeated a body part.

Craig: Right.

John: The same thing happens about midway through the page. Angry stoner’s parenthetical says, “Arms folded, staunch,” and then like Crystal stands up, staunched trying to block this guy. Staunch is sort of weird word anyway. So to use it twice in such close proximity, find some different adjectives there.

Craig: Yeah. Agreed. And even if staunch weren’t a weird word, you kind of have to do put separation between these things. No big deal. There are a lot of arms folded, and standing tall.

So the angry stoner has his arms folded, staunch. And then, Chantal has arms folded standing tall. So there’s quite a bit of that. And I don’t think that’s probably that necessary. There are ways to do these things sometimes, for instance — and sometimes, you I think about how the lines are falling. On the bottom of this first page, the action says, “Chantal strides down the hallway towards Crystal and angry stoner.”

Now the word stoner has spilled over to the second line. Wonderful, we now have the rest of that line to do stuff for free. [Laughs] So Chantal strides down the hallway towards Crystal and angry stoner. She gets big in the doorway, as big as she can in the doorway, you know, stares him down. And then, we can get rid of that parenthetical and just have what seems to be the problem here.

John: Yup.

Craig: That sort of thing. So yeah. You should be on duplicate patrol as you’re going through. You know, just again, take a look at this dialogue in the middle of page two, and if you’re going to stick with the dog, when they’re talking about the dog, maybe it would be better here if they weren’t so on the nose about their own rouse, or by the way, not rouse if it’s not a rouse. I think Bruce is ready for his walk, or was it his feed. Oh, oh god, the dog is going to eat me. Isn’t it more of a con artist-y thing, if one them was like, what is wrong with the dog? And like — I don’t know. Well —

John: Did you feed him?

Craig: Exactly. No I didn’t feed him. Did you fed him yesterday? Oh my god, I didn’t feed him yesterday either. Oh, oh, sorry. We got a very hungry, very big dog in there. I’m sorry what were you asking about? You know, like there’s got to be a more — they just got to be smarter I think. If they’re going to be pulling one over on this dude because then I’m more impressed. Because right now, really, instead of being impressed with them, I’m just unimpressed with the angry stoner.

John: The last thing I’ll say is if I’m reading this correctly and the dog is just on the stereo, let us know that’s actually the case, because right now there is nothing to indicate that. So I would say, she turns on the stereo, oddly, there’s no music, like you can say like oddly there because it gives us a sense of we’re going to hang back a bit and it’s weird like that there’s no actual music playing, or at some point there’s a cut away to the stereo and we see like the little bars going up and down. That the dog is just on a stereo.

Craig: Correct.

John: Otherwise, there’s no pay-off to something that, I think, your setup that could be quite clever.

Craig: Absolutely.

John: Absolutely. Let’s go back to our favorite host of a reality TV program. Jeff Probst who’s going to talk us through The Beast with 1,000 Faces by Jesse Gouldsbury and Brendan Steere.

Jeff Probst: 17-year-old North Stewart is confused why his parent are sending him away to space camp. His mom explains that North needs some time away. His dad says they need a break, too, especially from North‘s 19-year-old sister, Triss. Triss teases North for getting sent to space camp until she finds out, she’s going too. She’s pissed but she knows there’s no way out of it.

After a bus ride, we find North and Triss in a space shuttle. They’re in space, yet it all looks quite ordinary, much like a standard airplane, passengers sleep with their windows down. At the bottom of page three, we arrive at a common room in the dormitory.

John: Great. So Craig, this to me had some real confusion issues. Not mystery, but confusion. I didn’t know where I was at as the story ended. I didn’t know if I was in space or on a bus and that’s really a problem on page three.

Craig: I got that I was in space. And, well, first, I was on a bus and then I was in space.

John: I don’t think you’re in space at the end there, Craig.

Craig: Really?

John: So we’re going to skip to the end here. So let me talk you through – I’ll actually read aloud what happens on page three. So North and sister are being sent away to camp. So then we’re exterior, road — day. North rides along, looking out the window of a school bus. Match cut. Interior, the shuttle — day. North is looking out the window of a space shuttle, in space. He’s sitting near his sister in what looks like a run down, but very commercialized space shuttle. Things look no more extreme than people flying in an airplane. Most people are sleeping, windows are down, etc.

North listens to his headphones, our camera rotates 360 degrees around his face as we hear J-pop beats.

Title card: “The Beast With 1,000 Faces”

We push back into North’s face. Match cut to INT. COMMON ROOM — DAY. The middle point of the ships with four walls, each side with a door. Looks like a dormitory common room designed by that RA who loves Star Trek.

So I read this as the match cut to the shuttle was his sort of fantasy version of like being on the bus, and then we’re in the common room of the ship’s four walls. Then like, this is all like a set basically. This isn’t real. That was my confusion three pages in, partly because I didn’t believe we’re in a world where they could be in space, because the first paragraphs felt so real world grounded.

Craig: Okay, you may be right. Now, I read it as he’s going to space and that going to space is a very mundane thing like taking a plane to study abroad in Madrid. And so, now, I would have made a bigger deal out of the reveal of space because — I mean, I think it’s okay to show that the characters themselves don’t give a damn. But we need to make clear like, just throwing on “in space” at the end of a sentence is probably not great also. I don’t like it when people talk about day and night in space, because it is very confusing to everybody. Really. If I start a slug line with INT. THE SHUTTLE – DAY, I think, okay, they’re on a launching pad. They’re going to be launching.

So I think that that’s what going on. I think that the idea here is we live in a time in the future when going to space is no big deal, it’s like going to camp.

John: But see, I’ve got no evidence that we are in the future whatsoever at the start. I think that’s my frustration is that if we are truly in space, there was nothing to tip me off to the fact that we could be going into space in the first two pages. Because what we’re given is INT. NORTH’S LIVING ROOM — NIGHT. Close on his face basically. We have his mom and his dad, but we have no information that this could be something other than present day. The most that we have is that, the room around them looks like it was decorated by someone raised in 2005. Okay, I guess that could be a person — I guess, we could be in the future– maybe that’s how they they’re trying to tip me off that like, we are in the future, but there’s nothing else that’s telling me that I’m in the future. So then when I’m suddenly in space, I’m not loving it.

Craig: Yeah, you are definitely dealing with confusion there. So mystery is why are these people talking about sending their child into space? And the child is reacting like petulantly as opposed to with shock and fear. Okay, this is going to pay-off certainly. They are in the future and people go into space in the future. What is confusing is when you decide that it would be funny if your future people had retro-style because now it’s just — now, you know what a room that looks like it was designed by people raised in 2005 looks like? It looks like right now. Because we don’t know what the hell that means. It just means now.

John: Yeah. So the writers could totally choose to do that, but at some point between leaving that room and getting on the bus, at some point you got to show me something. We’re like, we’re driving by like, you know, in the first Star Trek movie, the first of the new series of Star Trek movies, like the motorcycle goes by this giant like quarry kind of thing where they’re building a spaceship. Like, that tells me like — oh, okay we’re in the future. But nothing here was telling me the future until I’m suddenly in space, and I don’t believe that I’m in space.

Craig: Yeah. Also there’s this thing that happens I think where Jesse and Brendan are trying to get this across again, on page two, when North’s sister Triss says, “You listen to classic rock, North. You like that turn-of-the-century crap, you weirdo.” But, you know, classic rock wasn’t turn-of-the-century. It was like ‘60s and ‘70s, so did they mean, turn of the century, the next century? But then, that wouldn’t be — is that what the classic rock is? Because then she says, Wheatus and I don’t know Wheatus. So maybe it’s a hundred but that’s a lot of math you’re asking me to do, and I don’t want to do math. I just want to absorb and engage as I can.

John: Don’t make me do math.

Craig: Don’t make me — here’s another thing that happens on page two. Again, these are the choices about how to indicate to us what’s going on. So they’re trying, right? It’s just not quite landing. Triss is complaining about the camp, the space camp that they’re being sent to. And by the way, space camp can’t possibly be what people will call space camp in the future. Space camp is what people that don’t have space camp talk about space camp. So she’s going to —

John: It’s like a tautology. It’s actually completely true and brilliant, but like you know, space camp is only for people who don’t have space camp.

Craig: That’s right. That’s right. Once you have space camp, it has a name, that’s a more interesting name than space camp. Because presumably, there’s more than one space camp. Even they say, there’s more than one space camp. So how could you possibly call it space camp? It’s like going to shopping mall. But she’s complaining about the space camp that they’re sending her to. And North says, she’s kind of right, though. It has the lowest FLERP score out of the orbital camps. Okay, so I get it, we’re in the future now. There’s orbital camps, but —

John: Craig, Craig. By the way, Craig is right. I’m reading this now, clearly, we are supposed to be in the future.

Craig: Yeah. We’re in the future, but FLERP score is not good. Because it’s not funny, but it’s definitely not serious.

John: Yeah. It has a joke-oid problem where it kind of feels like a joke, but it’s not actually funny. So therefore, it feels like a joke that didn’t work.

Craig: Yeah. And it also has a tone problem and these are — remember, we always say that these are the pages where you’re instructing the audience how to watch your movie. And what you’re telling them here is, this is a silly movie. The reality is silly. It’s so silly that they call space camp “space camp.” And there’s a score called the FLERP score. Nothing matters here.

John: So let’s talk about stuff on page one and this runner about things. And so mom says, “Well, we thought it would be fun for you and your sister to have some time away from things. And for us to have some time away from things, too. Mostly your sister.” So from this point forward, things is referring to the sister, but I think we’re going to need to stick in some quotes for a moment there, because otherwise it’s too easy to miss what they’re actually trying to say. So when dad’s line says, “Well, you’re a responsible young man, and when you’re both up there, we’d like you to keep an eye on things.” You have to break that word things out, it could be like with dot dot dot. It could be with some quotes, but you have to indicate that we’re not saying things as a throwaway place holder, it really is meant to refer to the sister who’s sitting right there.

Craig: Yes. Part of the struggle that I think you were having and I had, too, in terms of placing this in a sense of time is that this discussion that they’re having is so mundane and weirdly 1950s. That you’re so confused about the time of it all. They are talking like 1950s parents. Weirdly, there are these little subliminal problems that are occurring. His mom and dad (50s — Janeane Garofalo and John C. Reilly). So already the word 50s is in my head, which is a bad thing for a movie that’s set — I got 50s then I’ve got 2005. Also, you keep telling me who these actors are.

Now in general, I’m not going to freak out about this when people say think this person, think that person. But if you’re setting a movie in the future and you’re trying to play a little bit of a confusing mystery game about what year this is with people, this will not help you.

John: Not a bit.

Craig: Because when you get to Triss and you say think Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect, I’m now thinking it’s 2015, that’s who I’m seeing in my head. Plus she has headphones on. Do they have headphones in the future? I mean we don’t even have headphones now, right?

John: Yeah, yeah. Here’s the issues, like the writers are trying to have it both ways. So like you say Janeane Garofalo and John C. Reilly like, oh, okay, those are maybe people you would actually cast in this movie, but you can’t cast Anna Kendrick as 19 years old because she’s not 19 years old. So are you sort of giving us the casting suggestion? Or are you showing us a type? And you kind of can’t do both. You’ve got to make one choice here and like this is not a realistic choice. So like Triss, 19, like the world’s worst Disney princess. Like give us something like that that give us an overall type for her. But I would not like try to give her an actress call out because it’s just not going to make sense.

Craig: Yeah. No, it’s —

John: Yeah.

Craig: All right. So we got some problems here.

John: We got some big problems here, but guys, thank you for sending it in.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Let’s go to our final Three Page Challenge this week and hear what Jeff Probst has to say about this untitled script by Mitchell LeBlanc.

Jeff Probst: In the vastness of space, we encounter a large derelict starship. The quarters are empty, as are the crew quarters, and the social area. The only sign of life is Atom, a humanoid robot. Atom tinkers with a disassembled computer, ripping out fried parts and using a replicator to produce new ones. He puts it all together and it works. Sad music plays throughout the ship. Atom moves on to the upper quarter, where he cleans the observation deck, then back to the social area where he makes a meal he can’t eat.

Later Atom plays ping-pong by himself, and chess. He paints a perfect copy of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. His battery runs low, time for sleep. He turns off the music, hours pass, then another day begins.

John: So Craig, I kind of loved this. I’m hoping that you liked it as much as I did. My biggest concern which I suspect will be everyone’s biggest concern is that I saw the movie WALL-E.

Craig: [laughs]

John: And it kind of feels like Mitchell also saw the movie WALL-E. And so that is a reasonable concern that you have a robot who’s just going about the business of trying to live a normal life. And yet, I really enjoyed these three pages. And I was curious to read what was going to happen next. And I liked Mitchell’s overall writing style. It was a very spare kind of thing. It felt kind of like animation, but in a way that I kind of dug. What did you think of these pages?

Craig: Listen, I’m with you. If I had not seen WALL-E, I would be dancing a jig right now.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And listen, it’s not like there isn’t value here, but so much of the value does feel borrowed. I’m struggling to give as much credit as I would here, because it just feels the pace, the moments, the tone, it all feels borrowed. It feels like I’m watching a copy of another thing.

Now, I love how much white space there is, I love it. I love this kind of writing, I love the way that Mitchell uses bold to best effect and puts little dashes in, and onomatopoeia, and italics, and lot and lots of hitting the return key, I love that. I love, love, love. These were a joy – actually, these three pages read so easily and breezily. But, I’ve seen this movie.

John: But the thing is we may not have seen this movie because like at the bottom of page three, we’re just setting up the basic world of this character. And so like Sam Rockwell in Moon is sort of like in a WALL-E type of situation. There’s other movies where like, you know, we’re in a spaceship and things are kind of this way. I mean the start of Passengers, I haven’t read the script, but it might feel similar kind of way. So we’re only seeing through page three, so I think my good news for Mitchell is I really want to see pages four through 10 to see if your movie is WALL-E or if it’s actually very, very different. And it could be delightfully different, it could be a romance, it could be something I’m totally not anticipating. And I’m very curious to read those next pages because I really liked what I have read so far.

Craig: Well, sure. And I agree with you on that. I mean, look the WALL-E problem isn’t — you’re right, there are a lot of movies about someone alone in isolation, sadly whiling away the time. What set WALL-E apart was that it was a robot. That was the thing, right? So it’s — that’s this. Even if it’s not WALL-E after this, it’s a problem that it’s WALL-E now, pages one through three. Because anyone in the world reading this script is going to go, oh, it’s WALL-E. That’s not what you want, you know, when you’re starting to read a script. You just don’t want that.

John: You don’t want that. So if you’re concerned about the WALL-E, which I think you should be aware that it’s going to be a concern, I would look at sort of like removing like the sad music playing. Pick certain threads and like, you know, look at sort of how WALL-E sets things up and like just go a different direction. And so like take out that sad music, take out a little of the art, take out a little of something. Make us curious about this character more than just sort of like marveling at this person’s beautiful loneliness.

Craig: Yeah. Precisely. It just felt so, so WALL-E. I will say this is a great example of what I think of as good mystery, that we’ll call is a good short term mystery.

John: Yeah.

Craig: The vastness of space –first of all, in the black, the vastness of space, not space — day. So thank you. In the black, the vastness of space and then clink. Then interior, bios II, echoing through the large derelict starship, which by the way is clever in itself. You interior something, what the hell is that for the reader. And then, you answer, large derelict starship. The corridor is empty. Clank. Nobody in the crew quarters. Clink. Or in the medical bay. Clink.

I know what you’re doing here, I can see the movie, I see these big like Kubrick-style wide shots of just empty rooms with a little electrical hum. But then, there’s this noise, what is that noise? Who’s doing the noise? And then we find Atom. It even sounds like – like Atom, Eva, WALL-E, clank. A humanoid robot tinkers. His casing resembles a white spacesuit. Cute. A digital panel for a face, but it’s powered off. I wasn’t quite able to see what that meant, a digital panel for a face.

John: I think it basically has an iPad for a face, but there’s not – it’s just a black glass.

Craig: Ah, yeah. WALL-E. WALL-E

John: WALL-E. [laughs]

Craig: Yeah.

John: So if I have any of like word objections, it’s literally the second line of clink. The minute I hear clink — what do you think of a –what clinks?

Craig: Ice cubes.

John: Glasses, ice cubes, it’s all about like a drink. And so if it started with a clank rather than a clink, I know this seems like so petty and minor, but if it went clank, clink, like starting with a clink makes me think like someone is toasting with Champagne. And so it pulled me out of the next couple of lines, because I thought like, oh, wait, is it glass? No, it’s something else. So I know that’s so tiny and unimportant, but literally starting with a clank would have helped me out here a little bit on page one.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. I like a nice clunk.

John: Yeah. Clunks are good too. The other places where I wanted a little bit more — and so all of this is so spare on the page. If you are not reading this, you know, because you’re driving your car, it’s worth pulling this up as a PDF because almost everything we’re seeing here are single lines. On page two, the daily routine. Atom, gardens in the oxygen garden, cleans glass in the observation deck, analyzes readouts on the bridge. These were the only places where I felt like I was being shortchanged a little bit. What does an oxygen garden look like? Throw us a line about the oxygen garden, throw us a line about the observation deck, throw us a line about the bridge.

We need to have a little bit more painting of our world here because at this point you’re just like, you know, what? Are we supposed to look at the storyboards? Like, gives us a little bit better sense like what is specific about your ship versus the sort of Kubrick ship that I’m picturing in my head.

Craig: Yeah. Agreed. Also, if you can avoid the — on top of page three, passing an old photo of Atom with the crew. Where are they? If you can avoid the photo, if there’s another way, even if it’s just a wall that shows captain, dadada, like you know, employee of the month kind of wall, something. There’s something about the old photo that is very cliché. So if there’s another way around it.

John: I would love to see like a burnt section of the wall like even if he just goes pass that. Like something to say like, oh, something really terrible happened here. I’m not trying to write his story for him, but like something that indicates like, oh, there’s something really bad that we could go to.

Craig: Atom, drifts through a blood soaked room.

John: [laughs]

Craig: Finds his way to a ping-pong table. Very good.

John: I really hope — I hope Atom killed everybody on the ship. That’s my secret hope.

Craig: Well, listen. Clink.

John: Then it’s not WALL-E.

Craig: Clink.

John: I heard the first cut of WALL-E was much darker, a lot murder.

Craig: There’s just blood everywhere.

John: All right. So those are our Three Page Challenges for this week. Thank you to all the writers who wrote in. And thank you for the people who have written in with samples that we have not gotten to on the air. You’re all fantastic. Godwin does read all of them, so he picked these three, but he might pick yours next time through. Extra special thanks to Jeff Probst for reading aloud these descriptions. That was so much fun. And again, if you have your own Three Page Challenge that you want to send in, it’s page. And if you want to read what we just talked about, those are in the show notes for this next week.

It’s time for our One Cool Things. So my One Cool Thing this week is a book that I’ve been reading for forever. And I kind of put it down, I pick it up, and I’m like, oh, I could still keep reading this book. It is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s already a bestseller, you know, Obama recommended it. And people compared it a lot to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Did you read that, Craig?

Craig: I did.

John: Yes. Did you like it?

Craig: Nope. [laughs]

John: Everyone likes it except Craig Mazin.

Craig: I found it weirdly — I didn’t like it. I won’t even go into why. I was unimpressed with its lack of self-critique.

John: I suspect you would like parts of this book and disagree with parts of this book. But the parts I liked so much about it were really getting into the origins of humankind. So a hundred thousand years ago, there are a lot of competing strains of humans running around the world. So like we know about the Neanderthals but there are other kind of humans that could have come to the foreground and they didn’t. And so he’s really looking at sort of why our little branch of this big tree became so dominant. And it wasn’t just our hands and our brains and our language. But he makes a compelling case that it’s our ability to hold metaphor is a crucial aspect to sort of why we were able to organize into such large societies.

So if you have a small group, a tribe, like it can only get to a certain size because there could be a leader, and if that leader is not there, it sort of all falls apart. But with our ability to have metaphors, we can think of a king who we’ve never met. And that we can be in service to a person we’ve never ever seen before. We can have these bigger structures.

And he makes the case that our ability to have metaphor is something really unique of all animals, and that’s probably the reason why we’re able to do so many things we’ve done in such a very short period of time. So as I was reading it, I kept thinking about sort of the acceleration of culture and how as screenwriters and storytellers, we are so responsible for pushing things forward and pushing things faster, especially in our science fiction. We keep describing these things that don’t quite exist and I think because we describe them, we sort of pressure them into existence even faster. So I really dug that section of it. So if you have it on your Kindle and you’ve not read it yet, I would say, open it up and take a look at it. So Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

Craig: Excellent. Sounds good. I’ll check it out.

John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?

Craig: Jeff Probst.

John: Jeff Probst, all right.

Craig: Jeff Probst. [laughs]

John: Are you watching the new season? I just started last night. So he sent me like a code for like an all access thing, but we already bought the season on iTunes, so we’re watching it here in Paris.

Craig: No, but I believe my wife — I don’t watch TV, John. I think we’ve established that. [laughs]

John: I always forget. That’s right. Yeah.

Craig: Or listen to podcasts. [laughs]

John: This season is Millennials vs. Gen X. And I will say that after the first episode, I found it strange that like it’s as if Gen X is like the greatest generation. Like it’s as if like we fought a war or something. Like we’re the ones who work hard and do all that stuff. It’s like, no, we were kind of lazy and entitled in our own time, too.

Craig: Yeah. Just compared to Millennials, we’re the greatest generation. [laughs]

John: Ahhh.

Craig: Millennials.

John: Our show is produced and edited by two Millennials, Godwin Jabangwe.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah. And our outro this week comes from Matthew Chilelli, our editor.

If you have an idea for an outro — not an idea for an outro — if you have actual music as an outro, you can send it in to On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust, Craig is @clmazin. I’m on Instagram, also @johnaugust. You can find the show notes for this and all episodes at, just search for the episode title. It’s also where you’ll find our transcripts. I think we are going to get the transcripts back on schedule in a week or two. So if they’re not there, hold tight, they will be coming. You can find all the back episodes on, which is $2 a month for all the back episodes and all the special episodes, and the dirty episodes, everything we’ve ever done is basically at You will find it there. There’s also a USB drive, which are now back in stock. There’s a link in the show notes, but it’s just And we’ll send you a USB drive that has all that stuff on it as well.

And Craig, I think that’s our show.

Craig: Fantastic show.

John: Fantastic. Craig, may your torch not be extinguished in the spirit of Jeff Probst.

Craig: I know what that means. [laughs]

John: Have a great week.

Craig: You too, bye.

John: Bye.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

John Lee Hancock

Tue, 10/04/2016 - 08:03

Craig enlists the help of another John (Lee Hancock) to hold down the fort with regular John away. The two discuss JLH’s career, starting out as a lawyer in Texas and breaking into the film industry as a writer and director.

We also answer listener questions on mystery, copyright and collaboration.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 268: (Sometimes) You Need a Montage — Transcript

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:07

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 268 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we will be looking at montages and why they’re not the great evil they’re often made out to be. Plus, Final Draft has just released version 10.0 of their eponymous app. Will this be the one that makes Craig finally admit he’s loved them all along?

Craig: Yeah. What a mystery that is.

John: So, I think maybe like you’re the Darcy and she’s the Jane Bennet and like all this time she keeps showing up and you keep dismissing her, but maybe she’s really the one you’re meant for.

Craig: Right.

John: Maybe you’re destined to end up with Final Draft.

Craig: Yeah. I’m waiting for Final Draft to take off her glasses. And then I’ll realize–

John: Yeah, yeah. That’s it. It’s really the glasses that have been the whole problem.

Craig: I just never realized how beautiful your eyes were. [sings] If you leave, don’t look back. Please…

Oh boy. That’s ‘80s Craig. ‘80s Craig is coming out.

John: Don’t sing any more of that, or else we’re going to have to pay for lights.

Craig: God help us.

John: Last week on the program we discussed writers who lived and worked outside of Los Angeles and New York and London. And we had some great people who wrote in for that segment. We also had some people who didn’t fit into that segment, or wrote in late, so we have a bunch of those stories. They’re going to be up on the blog at, so you can read those. And there’s a few audio ones, so we might cut those together as a bonus episode. We’ll sort of see how it works out. But thank you to everybody who wrote in and recorded yourself talking about your experiences working outside of Los Angeles.

Craig: I like this new – I listened to our last podcast, by the way.

John: Oh my gosh. Let me sit down for a second.

Craig: Yeah, so that’s number one. And, you know, it’s not a bad show. I got to say. It’s just not bad. [laughs] After 260-some odd of these.

I like this new feature where people ask their questions as if they’re calling in.

John: Yeah, so we’re never going to be a Karina Longworth. We’re never going to be a You Must Remember This, which is like highly produced and written and just gorgeous and beautiful. But, we do our own thing.

Craig: Yeah, but Karina herself is highly produced and beautiful. We’re, you know, we’re just two guys.

John: Yeah. We’re just two slobs with Skype.

Craig: Just standing here asking for you to love us.

John: Exactly. One of the people who wrote in last week and sent stuff for us to look at was Rachael Speal. And she’s the one who sent us the pre-teen detective story. So, here’s what she wrote after she listened to the episode.

“As you mentioned, the solving the crime is not the real story. I thought of it more as a coming of age story about a girl living in the hood who is caught between two worlds: the world she lives in, where there’s little chance of success, and where she would like to be successful, etc. I’d call it a mashup of Princess and the Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, with some sharp humor.”

I don’t know either of those things, but great.

“I also thought to tie it into the unrest that’s happening with the police and the black community by giving her a brother who is readily harassed by the police. This would be another source of conflict since she wants to become one of the people who regularly harasses your community.”

That was Rachael’s take on this story that she sent in. Craig, what do you think of Rachael’s take?

Craig: I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a big fan of that. And here’s why. Putting aside that I also don’t know what a mashup of Princess and the Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is. It sounds like you want there to be sharp humor. And it sounds like what you want to do is reposition this story into an inner city community and that’s fine. No problem with that.

Where I’m starting to get a little worried is you’re attempting to tack on a very serious social issue onto your teen-as-an-adult genre comedy. And those things don’t really live together very well. Either I’m meant to enjoy this as the kind of inevitably adorable child-solves-crimes type of story, or I’m meant to feel like this is a very real story about a very serious problem. I don’t know how you do both at the same time. I think one would just hurt the other.

John: If you look at her question though, she’s not saying comedy at any point. She’s saying coming of age story. So, I think there’s something that she’s getting at which is essentially the police basically shut her down saying, “No, no, nothing was stolen.” And she’s like, no, there really was. Basically her coming of age is basically recognizing that this system is not there to protect her and she has to take the law into her own hands.

Craig: Yeah. I just don’t believe that story. That’s my problem. I don’t – there are certain things – whenever I go in and talk to a studio about something a lot of times they will have a project where they’re saying everything here except the idea is wrong. We don’t like the tone. We don’t even like the genre. We want something totally different.

The first question I ask is: what are the things that are inherent to the concept, that are baked in, that you can’t really walk away from because then you have essentially nothing? And to me if you have a 12-year-old girl solving crimes, I just don’t understand how that could possibly be serious. It could be coming of age. I could see that. But then if it’s coming of age, I don’t see how the coming of age can be intertwined in any way that takes her “job” seriously. You know, having a brother who is saying, “You’re becoming part of this institution that oppresses our people,” is not compatible with, “I’m 12 and I want to solve a crime.”

It just doesn’t – I don’t see how that connects. I just think that both things would end up undercutting each other and you’d end up with the dreaded fish with feathers.

John: I can definitely see that. There’s something about the 12-year-old girl that it’s not Home Alone, but there is essentially like she’s showing up the grown-ups. It always kind of feels like a comedy and it’s very hard to sort of push yourself completely away from what that is.

And so you’d have to make your world very, very, very dark in order for me to believe that this is what it is. And then I’m not sure I’m eager to sign on to seeing your movie.

Craig: I love a good coming of age story. I think that coming of age stories are wonderful because they treat children like the small adults that they are. The sheep movie that I’ve written, even though it’s a whodunit, is really a coming of age story. That was the thing that attracted me to it the most because sheep are grown animals, but they are childlike. So, it was interesting watching theoretical adults go through a coming of age story. And I think that this is an area that’s underserved. I’d love to see a coming of age story set in the inner city, set among child who are of color. That’s interesting.

And I don’t necessarily want to see that muddied by what is essentially a high concept hook. High concept immediately begins to take you one step away from reality. And so that’s my issue here. I just don’t know if these two flavors go together.

John: Yeah. When I was reading this aloud, I almost said Precious instead of Princess, and Precious is an example of an inner city movie where you have this heroine who is facing such insurmountable odds. And there’s nothing about them that is inherently comedic. It’s just grim kind of throughout. And there might be a way that Rachael could do this movie with – there’s a way Rachael could probably write this movie, but the centerpiece of that is probably not going to be this girl junior detective. I mean, there’s something about that that’s not really at the heart of that.

Craig: No. Because it’s trivializing. I mean, it’s hard to say. Any time children do the adult job, it’s kind of trivializing the adult job. And, you know, a movie that takes a stark blinder-less look at a serious problem can’t afford to then also present something else in a way that feels artificial. In any story in which a child does an adult job is almost certainly going to have that artifice to it.

By the way, we have to have Lee Daniels on the show, because Precious is one of my favorite movies. I’m obsessed with that movie.

John: It’s so good.

Craig: Obsessed. It’s so – it is – that is such a great example. When we talk about specificity of voice, I can’t imagine anyone else in the world making that movie.

John: Absolutely true. Cool.

Our next topic is Austin Film Festival. So, Craig, you are headed to the Austin Film Festival, which is October 13 through 20, but there’s no Scriptnotes. Is that correct?

Craig: There is no live Scriptnotes. However, because you are far, far away, what I am going to do is try and pick up at least two – at least two – very cool interviews for us. Katie Dippold will certainly be one of them.

John: Great.

Craig: So I will get a wonderful interview with Katie Dippold, who wrote Ghostbusters and The Heat and Spy. And I’m going to also try and pick up – I might see if I can get Mike Weber and Scott Neustadter, which would be fun. I’m arguing with Scott Alexander of Alexander and Karaszewski about doing it. He’s like, no, it’s my weekend to have fun. I don’t care, Scott.

John: It could take an hour to do this.

Craig: You sit down and freaking talk to me. So, I’ll work on Scott, because he’s the greatest. And those two guys have had just the most remarkable career. They are very rare in that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything of theirs that’s bad.

John: They’re so good.

Craig: Ever. And they work in every different kind of genre. But I’ll be picking up at least a couple of good one-on-ones. So we’ll get something good out of it for sure.

John: Very, very good. And you’re going to be doing a couple different panels while you’re there, so people can see you at least live in person.

Craig: Again, I will be doing my seminar on structure, which is fun and entertaining and hopefully enlightening for you. It always seems to get positive feedback from the group there. And it’s actually one of the nice things about Austin is that they do ask people. So, I’m going to be doing that again, and that’s a good one. The current schedule seems to be incorrect. I think it was my mistake, because I misinformed them about when my flight was leaving.

So, currently it’s listed for Sunday. It won’t be Sunday. I believe it will be Saturday. I will be doing a panel with Lindsay Doran, which should be terrific. And that’s just Lindsay and I talking about what it’s like to work with a producer, what it’s like to work with a screenwriter. How things can go right, which is a rare topic for us. That will be a nice little intimate discussion which I would love for people to come see.

And lastly I will be one of the judges of the final pitch competition thing, to crown the ultimate winner of Austin’s Pitch Festival competition thing.

John: You are a brave, brave man, Craig Mazin.

Craig: Yes. I will be the Simon Cowell of this thing. I should probably know the name of it if I’m going to be one of the final judges.

John: It’s the End of the Pitch Competition, basically.

Craig: I mean, I did – I don’t know if you ever did this at Austin. One year I judged the finals of the screenplay competition. Did you ever do that?

John: Okay. I think I’ve done the pitch competition. I’ve introduced the pitch competition final thing. As I recall, it was in a place that was like far too noisy and people were trying to pitch in like a crowded bar. It was basically the worst possible place for it. I’m sure it’s evolved from that point forward. But it’s a nighttime thing. You’ll get through it.

Craig: Yeah. I’m actually looking forward to it, because it feels like more of a party frankly. I mean, I don’t know how many people are actually pitching to be in the finals, but I can’t imagine it’s too many. The pitches are really short. And then there’s a party. So, I’m down for the party.

John: Cool. If you are not able to join Craig in Austin, there’s a chance to get a little piece of the Austin experience. So, the Austin Film Festival does this PBS series called On Story where they sit down with the filmmakers and writers to talk about the movies that they’ve worked on. So, there’s a new book coming out, it’s coming out in October, so it’s out in time for the film festival. It’s screenwriters and filmmakers on their iconic films. So, basically they’ve transcribed all of the interviews from these different people, so they have Ron Howard, Callie Khouri, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally, Jenny Lumet, Harold Ramis, and a bunch of other folks talking about it. So, there will be a link in the show notes if you want to see this book that they’ve put together of all of their interviews.

Craig: Those things are terrific, honestly, if you care about what we do.

John: Yeah. Which we do. So, let’s get to some questions from our listeners. And so once again we have audio. I’m so excited to have the audio now. First off we have Eric in Chicago. Here is what he said.

Eric in Chicago: Hi John and Craig. My wife and I are produced screenwriters with one feature released and a second one in preproduction. We’re considering what our next project should be, and we have a script that we wrote several years ago that we still love and would like to pursue producing. But, the catch is the director who asked us to write the script is also claiming ownership of the project because he asked us to write it for a professional athlete who was interested in getting into acting.

He only laid out the barest of premises and we took it from there, developing, outlining, and writing the screenplay. When the athlete lost interest, the director dropped the project and didn’t do anymore with it. We have no contract with anyone and no money ever changed hands. So, who owns the rights?

John: Craig, what do you think? Who owns the rights?

Craig: I do believe based on the circumstances Eric has laid out here that not only do he and his wife currently own the rights, I believe he and his wife always controlled the rights to this screenplay, because no money changed hands. There was no contract. Nobody ever asked Eric and his wife to sign a statement saying that this was a work-for-hire. This isn’t based on underlying material, as far as I can tell. He’s implying that this was a project that was for a professional athlete to act in, but wasn’t about that professional athlete’s life, so that professional athlete doesn’t even have a claim of life rights.

So essentially they wrote a screenplay that is original to them and they own the copyright 100% lock, stock, and two smoking barrels. The only issue for them is that, of course, the fact that you do own something doesn’t prevent somebody from coming along later and saying, “Wait, wait, wait.” I love that the director claimed ownership. I don’t think the director understands what the word claim or ownership means.

However, they may come back if you attempt to sell this and say, “Wait, wait, wait,” at which point it’s customary that they be granted some fake producing title and perhaps a little bit of money or something. But as far as I can tell, you guys own this completely.

John: I agree. I think in the issue of copyright, they’re pretty well set. There was no contract. Nothing changed hands. This director was asking them to write a script on spec, which is basically just like, hey, let’s take a leap of faith together. And then the director jumped off. They still own the script. So, it’s fine.

I agree with you that the reality of this gets made, that director is going to come back and he’s going to ask for something. It will end up being some sort of crazy producer credit. Whatever. You’ll deal with it when the time comes.

The only thing I would say in the general sense is it’s great that you had movies made and a second one in production, going back to your old stuff that you loved and kind of worked on a while back, it’s unlikely I think that you’re going to get that movie made. I would say don’t spend a tremendous percentage of your time trying to get that old movie made. Keep working on the next thing, and the next thing. Because trying to resurrect old, dead projects is just a giant time suck. And it’s not usually the best use of your time and resources.

Craig: That is a great, great point. And maybe the path of easiest and smartest resistance, if resistance can be smart, is if you’re working with somebody who is legitimate and they ask you if there’s any other things that you have. Sometimes they’ll say things like, “Do you have anything in your drawer?” And you can feel free to hand them that. And if they love it, then just say, okay, here’s the situation by the way. These are the facts. But, hey, if you want to figure out how to do this. Now it’s their problem. Now they want to make it. You’re not trying to do anything. And they will handle these other people for you.

And suddenly this problem just goes away.

John: I agree. Our next question from Octavia Barren Martin in Australia. And this is what she said when she wrote in.

Octavia in Australia: Hi John and Craig, as we say in Australia. I’m a screenwriting student here in Sidney, and I’m currently making my second flawed attempt at a screenplay. And I have a question about writing sex scenes. Now, I have a scene that’s not just an excuse for boobs. It’s, you know, instrumental to the plot, but I just want to know how much detail to include.

At the moment I’m kind of vacillating wildly between Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and the deliberately glued together pages of the sexual reproduction manuals that my religious high school kept in their library. Which is best? Thank you. Big fan of the podcast. Cheers.

John: First off, I love Octavia’s voice. And I love the accent. And I’m not quite sure – I’m sure there are people who are actually professional specialists who can tell me what exactly it is that is so special about that Australian accent. It’s not a vocal fry, but it’s like the vocal fry that you hear Australian women particularly do. It’s just kind of great.

So, I just loved hearing that aloud. And if we read it aloud ourselves, we wouldn’t have any of that quality.

Craig: No. Australians manage to shove four or five vowels into the same space where Americans use one. Cry. Cryyyyyy. It’s like, Denyyyyy. Love it.

What a great question, by the way, and it took just a second for me to understand that Octavia was not asking about not five, not seven, but six scenes. No, no, no, not six scenes. Sex scenes. Sex. Sex scenes as we say here.

So, writing sex scenes should be an awkward experience for everyone involved. I mean, writing about sex is – what do they really say – it’s like, I don’t know, dancing about food or something. It’s just hard to do.

And I have written a couple. I don’t really like sex scenes to be honest with you. They take me out of movies. That’s just my personal opinion. I mean, there have been some terrific ones. But writing them is difficult and awkward. I think that the first question you have to ask, Octavia, is what is it that I want the audience to see.

If you’ve decided that nudity is important and explicit sexual activity is important, then be explicit. But then be explicit – my instinct is to be explicit in the way that the camera is explicit. That is to say not flowery. Not “erotic.” But presentational. Because I think that what you’re meaning to say is this is really happening. It is a real experience here. So, let me describe what’s happening.

So, I would probably go more for a “you are there” style and the reader understand that they’re watching a real sexual experience. If it’s meant to be sort of romantic and oh-ah, then I think you probably leave out the parts where you refer to nipples and butts and just speak a little bit more impressionistically. And then hopefully the filmmakers and the producers and everybody will ask for you to clarify, but they’ll get your intent from that.

John: I completely agree in terms of focusing on what we’re actually going to see on screen. That you don’t have to – this isn’t novel writing, so this isn’t where you have to create the actual feeling of what it would be like to be in that moment. This is really like what it would be like to be watching this moment happen in front of you.

The other thing I would say is that I think you and I are both thinking like this is like a 9 ½ Weeks sex scene, or there’s something where it’s a silent sex scene where it’s all about the sex. Like the first Terminator has a really great sex scene in it, and it’s just about the sex. There’s music playing, but it’s just about the sex.

But a lot of sex scenes are actually dialogue scenes. That may be really what you’re going to be focusing on here is like if there’s talking during it, if they’re moving back and forth between positions, but they’re having discussion. If it’s funny. If there’s anything that’s not just the visuals of like these two bodies intersecting, write that part, and then you don’t have to worry so much about all the scene description that’s taking up the space on the page to indicate that this is not just a one-eighth of a page quick sex scene.

Craig: Yeah. I feel like there’s two kinds of sex scenes fundamentally in movies where let’s call them two kinds of consensual sex scenes that you see in movies. One kind is the kind that is a realistic view of sexuality. People may be talking through it. There’s some kind of relationship point that’s occurring. Maybe character changes are happening. Revelations are occurring. It can be fumbling, awkward, adorable. I’m using all these things.

And then the other kind is two people are having sex and you could play Take My Breath Away over it and the camera could slowly drift away towards a fireplace. That second kind, that’s like 90% of sex scenes. So, the Terminator one is a really good sex scene. That definitely falls under the Take My Breath Away/cut to fireplace.

John: 100%. It’s the interlocking fingers. It’s all of those things that I think are now really clichés, but like it was the first time I saw it, so wow, that’s what sex looks like.

Craig: It’s so not at all what sex looks like.

John: It isn’t.

Craig: Sex looks like [laughs] – sex looks like the inside of my shut eyes while I’m trying to get rid of my shame.

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s not true.

John: Maybe we won’t talk anymore about that.

Craig: No, my sex life is wonderful.

John: It’s all good. So, my advice for Octavia is just really look at what is the purpose of the sex scene, what are the – again, we’re going to say specificity, but what is it about this sex scene that is different from other sex scenes? And that may be your clue into how to make this sex scene less awkward for you to write and also more enjoyable for the reader to read.

Craig: Hey, Octavia.

John: Ugh.

Craig: Yeah, Sexy Craig here. Sexy Craig. No faces. Just body parts. I don’t want to look at faces. Tell me more about that book.

John: [sighs] All right. Let’s get on to our big topics of the week.

Craig: That’s a big class sigh.

John: Let’s move onto our big topic of the week. So, we actually have two craft topics this week. I had the first one here. This is because, so I’m busy writing Arlo Finch, so I’m owing them my draft, so I’m cranking through pages and chapters.

So, most of Arlo Finch takes place in what we think about as scenes. So that is you have characters who are in one moment dealing with the things that are right there in front of them. And really most popular fiction that you read is written that way, where characters are in a space, they’re having conversation in that space. And then they are going to leave that space and time and move onto a new place.

When you’re writing that kind of stuff, you often have an omniscient narrator’s point of view, so you can fill in things from the past. You can sort of blur the edges of the present a little bit. But usually you’re kind of in one space in time.

But, that’s not always the way it is in prose fiction. And sometimes you’ll encounter in prose fiction things that have no relation to time or place. They’re not pinned to any one specific moment.

And so an example being Pride & Prejudice, going back to Darcy once again. Most of Pride & Prejudice takes place in scenes, where like you’re in a moment. You’re at this dance and she’s seeing these things happen in this time and place.

But here’s an example from kind of later in the book. She writes: “Nor did that day wear out her resentment. A week elapsed before she could see Elizabeth without scolding her, a month passed away before she could speak to Sir William or Lady Lucas without being rude, and many months were gone before she could at all forgive their daughter.”

So here in the course of two sentences, we’ve gone through months. And you’re filling in a bunch of details that happened, but there’s not like one scene. There’s not one moment that’s happening in those.

That’s prose fiction. But, I think the equivalent that we see in movies is montages, where we’re not so bound to one place and one time. So, I wanted to talk about what montages are and how we can use them effectively in screenwriting.

Craig: You know, there’s an interesting history to montages. The original use of the term montage was really just for editing. So, instead of showing two people in a oner talking and then one leaves the scene, the idea was that you could cut a close up of one person and then a close up of another inside of a master shot and essentially what we call coverage now. And they called this a montage.

And then an editor named Slavko Vorkapic, which may be the greatest name in film history.

John: That’s a great name.

Craig: Slavko Vorkapic came up with this other thing that they started called the Vorkapic which was what we now think of as the montage. A collage of scenes, often set to music, without dialogue, that sped through a longer amount of time in a dream-like way. And he was called upon, you know what we need here, we need a Vorkapic. Get Slavko Vorkapic to do this for us. And he would.

Over time, of course, this just became known as the montage. And unfortunately you and I, children of the ‘80s, ‘70s and ‘80s, we know that the montage became this overused cliché thing that happened in every action movie and every teen comedy where somebody had to get beautiful, get strong, get skilled. And so they did it within 45 seconds set to a terrible ‘80s song.

John: A power ballad usually.

Craig: Power ballad usually. You know, and “You’re the best, around.” I mean, that’s the ultimate, right? The Karate Kid 1. And–

John: But in the South Park Movie, “You Need a Montage.” I mean, it’s absolutely true.

Craig: “You need a montage.” And where it got absurd was that the montage became this kind of lame-o way of doing what’s supposed to be the best part of movies, which is watching the caterpillar turn into a butterfly was reduced down to some 40-second baloney song. And it was just unbelievable. But that’s just an abuse of montage. There are some terrific ways to use montage, and you still see them, it’s just they’re not quite so hammer to the face.

John: Yeah. Let’s talk about sort of why montages get a knock in scripts. I think a lot of times you see a montage, if you see a montage in a movie, sometimes you can sense like, oh you know what, that really wasn’t supposed to be a montage. They were just trying to cut through a bunch of stuff. So, a bunch of little scenes got sort of chopped up into a montage that were never supposed to be a montage. So that’s one thing.

But a lot of times in a script level you’ll see the writer is just basically trying to cheat and rush through a bunch. They’re trying to get their page count down, so they’ll take a bunch of little small scenes and bullet point them as a montage when they’re not really a montage. They’re really just a bunch of small scenes.

The reason why line producers hate montages is they actually take a tremendous amount of time to shoot. Because like you’re going to this location, that location, this location, that location. Well, every time you’re going to a new location, that’s a tremendous expense of time and money for a production.

And so line producers will go through your script and they’ll see a montage and they’ll just shudder because they know that actually is a lot of work. A lot more work than it looks like in the script.

And then, of course, the real problem is they’re just such a cliché. And so so often you’ll see the training montage, the she gets beautiful montage, the whatever to get from one place to another place montage where we’ve seen it so many times that it’s painful to watch it.

Craig: Yeah. You really aren’t allowed anymore to have somebody train in a montage. That’s done. You can’t do it. It’s not that South Park killed it, but South Park simply sang the funeral song. It was already dead.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, that you can’t do anymore. Nor can you do – and training montage isn’t just I’m getting strong, or I’m learning how to fight. It is also I’m changing my appearance. Or perhaps the worst of them all, I’m going to try on clothes.

John: Ugh.

Craig: Whilst my friend – my impotent friend – stands there nodding no, no, no at that hat. And you go, really? And she goes, “Uh-uh.”

John: Yeah. The curtains slide open and close.

Craig: Ugh. And it is lazy. And you’re right. They actually do take an enormous amount of time to do. I mean, we did a montage in – we’ve talked about this one, the one in Hangover 2, where the montage was really a representation of this kind of strange Zen dream recovered memory that Zach Galifianakis’s character was having in which he remembers in these flashy surreal glimpses the night before. Except that the way he did it, he remembered them as children.

So, we had to shoot the crazy montage twice. Once with our actors, and then once with children doing the same things. And talk about an enormous investment for about 90 seconds of movie. They are hard to do.

But that’s okay. I like it when – and we don’t think of them as montages, but when people – characters in movies are experiencing something in a way that is not quite rational. A dream. A memory. They are under the influence of some kind of substance. Then a montage actually makes sense because the montage is essentially presenting what a broken reality should look like.

John: Absolutely. Well, what they’re doing is they’re showing a different texture from the rest of your movie. So, if the rest of your movie is very straightforward, that montage can be really hallucinogenic and it feels different because it’s cut as a montage. That’s one of the reasons why it’s different.

Another example of going to a different texture, like you think back to The Social Network. And that’s a very talky, talky, talky movie. But there’s one real montage in that which is this Henley Regatta scene, where Fincher shoots this boat race as if it’s just some giant sporting event. And it really sticks out and really lets you sort of catch your breath because it’s just very different from the rest of that movie.

The opposite can be true in something like Witness. And so Witness, you know there’s police procedural, there’s thriller, there’s drama, but then they get to this montage where they’re building a barn and it’s happy. It’s a joyous moment. And it sticks out because, well, it’s a montage, and it’s also a very different tone.

And so when you’re shifting textures, that’s often a great use of a montage.

Craig: Yeah. And it follows a certain rule, I think, both of those examples, which is a good rule for you at home to apply to your own potential montage. Is there some kind of interesting information I might be losing if I don’t show this in a montage? I think the answer for both the Regatta and the barn raising is, no.

Then another question is do I feel like I am cheating reality a bit here by showing this in a montage. And, again, I think the answer is no. A race, like a regatta, shows rowers straining to push a boat in water. That will not change. Barn-raising is cutting wood, nailing it together, and raising it. That’s not going to change.

Somebody learning karate, that’s going to change. That’s a long process. It doesn’t happen in an hour. It happens over months. Or years. So, you don’t – and Karate Kid is the greatest movie. It gets a pass. I mean, it’s from the ‘80s and it’s wonderful. But you don’t feel like, ugh, you know, like in real life it takes a year to raise a barn. It doesn’t. It probably takes about a day or two. It’s fine.

So, if you can answer those questions and feel like you’re on safe ground there, then sometimes you want to do a montage. You want to give the audience a break and let music give the experience of pure emotion, which is what music does best, as opposed to a kind of deliberate instigation of emotion which is what dialogue does best.

John: Absolutely. The thing I want to stress about great montages is they really serve the function of scenes. And what do I mean by a scene? Well, scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have a reason for why they’re there and they have characters in one set of circumstances at the beginning and a different set of circumstances at the end.

And so as long as your montages are doing that process of taking characters from one place to another place, or taking the viewer from one place to another place, that’s probably going to be an effective montage. Or at least it’s a reason for trying a montage.

Look at is this the best way to tell this piece of your story? Are you trying to show a multi-step process? Are you trying to show the effects of something that would be really hard to do otherwise? And one of the things I’ve noticed about montages is that they’re a terrible place to introduce new characters, but they’re actually a great place to sort of stick in new characters who you don’t want the audience to care about.

Any character who sort of shows up in the middle of a montage, they’re sort of immediately discounted. And so we know like, you know what, I don’t have to worry about that person. That person is never going to show up again in an important way.

So, that random cop who shows up? Forget about him. You’re never going to see him again. We don’t need to know his name. It’s all going to be fine. And that’s actually a very useful thing when you’re showing the effects of something happening, so like the cyclone is tearing through the city, you can bring in a brand new character there and have them do something and we don’t care to ever see them again. That’s one of the nice things about montages is that the audience knows not to worry about people who show up while music is playing and big things are flying around.

Craig: Absolutely true. There’s always that – in disaster movies you’ll see some disaster hitting some city where our heroes are not. And an old lady is running scared. And we see her face and she just stands in for like everyone who lives in India is this lady. And, yes, you’re right. It’s like, okay, the montage is attempting to make this vaguely human. Something that montages are not very good at.

One thing to think about if you are on the edge of the knife of this decision, montage or not, is to ask is there one scene that could encompass a moment of change or revelation that would change someone profoundly and permanently. Because if there is, if you can do it in one fascinating moment, if it’s the kind of thing that could happen in one fascinating moment, you owe it to yourself to try that first. See if you can find that before you go to montage, because the very nature of montage is to suggest no one moment is particularly important. But rather there’s this normal progression of moments that get you from A to B.

John: Yup. It’s worth remembering that in the early days of cinema when a character was traveling from point A to point B, a character was traveling from New York to Paris, you would see them drive to the airport, get on a plane, and fly to Paris. You would see the Eiffel Tower. You would see them get in another Taxi and take them to the hotel.

Now we just cut to the hotel in Paris. And we sort of get past that. We sort of shorthanded the montage so we don’t see that. So always ask yourself: if this is a place where we normally would have a montage for this thing, what is the possibility of just doing the blunt cut where we just jump ahead to this new thing where we see the character already in a completely different outfit and a completely different hairstyle and everything has changed. Is there a way the audience can catch up with you that’s going to be kind of worth it to have made that really aggressive jump in time? Sometimes there is.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, you have in Star Wars this moment that could have easily been supplanted by a montage where Obi-Wan is training. And there’s another one actually in Empire Strikes Back, an even longer training sequence. And both of those could have been montaged, and people would have been like what the heck – there’s a montage in the middle of Star Wars? What’s going on?

No, because the truth is you can find those key moments. In Star Wars, the key moment is I’m going to cover your eyes. You have to hit this thing. I can’t do it. Well, you’re going to have to figure out how to do it. And in Empire Strikes Back, it was lifting the X-Wing fighter out of the swamp.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And so instead of doing this whole long thing, there is a moment. If you can find a moment, dump the ‘tage.

John: Dump the ‘tage. Let’s wrap this up by talking about sort of how you portray montages actually on the page. And so you’ll see different ways of doing it. I’m not usually a big fan of the asterisk thing, because that’s just honestly cheating. Like you’re trying to cram way too much in there too quickly. Especially if you’re trying to move between different locations, just doing like little starred asterisks. That’s no Bueno for me.

But, what I will often see is short scene headers, a single line. We talked through the Ocean’s 11 montage which sort of goes through a bunch of different places as one of the heists is happening. That’s a terrifically well-formatted thing where it’s not sort of building out full scenes for those, but it’s giving you the feeling for what it’s going to be like to watch that.

No matter how you format it, just make sure it feels like it’s accurate to what it would feel like in the theater watching it on the screen. That’s the most crucial thing. That you’re not short-changing the time or the actual sort of weight of the moments in trying to get it down on the page.

Craig: Yeah. You don’t want to just jam this thick list in there. But, you know, there is a middle ground, I think, between breaking out every single location. You can sort of – I think it’s fair to say, all right, I’m going to do something called INT/EXT Various Montage. But if each thing is clearly its own paragraph and you’re not shoving stuff together or overdoing it and really giving it its space so it’s clear to read, I think that that’s an acceptable middle ground.

But, you just have to do it in such a way that you don’t feel like you’re compressing your montage down on the page to – now I’m just cheating on page count. You know, anything that feels like that is that.

John: It is that. Also in favor of getting rid of the scene headers is that sometimes that is actually more true to how it’s really going to feel. Like you’re not really establishing a new location. You’re just in it and you’re moving through it. So, I will do the INT/EXT Various, but when it comes time for production as long as those things are individual paragraphs those will each get their own scene numbers. It will all be fine.

Craig: Correct.

John: Cool. All right. Let’s talk about Craig’s most exciting news of the week, which is that Final Draft 10 has now shipped. It’s available for people to download. You can download a trial version, which is what Craig and I did this morning.

Craig: No, no, I paid for it.

John: You paid for it?

Craig: I’ll tell you why.

John: Tell me.

Craig: Because I’m a paying customer. So I can say whatever I damn well please.

John: Oh, good stuff. I just did the trial version. So, here are sort of my quick impressions. Craig’s quick impressions. If you want to know more about our history with Final Draft, you can go back and listen to The One with the Guys from Final Draft, which was one of our sort of iconic episodes where the people who run Final Draft came and talked with us about their app and sort of their frustrations with us.

Craig: [laughs]

John: What I’ll say that I liked about it, because you should always start with what worked. If you’re giving notes on a script, you start with what worked. And here is what worked about it for me.

I think their new app icon is much, much better.

Craig: Wait, hold on. Let’s stop right there. That tells us a lot.

John: It does tell us a lot. I would say actually 80% of the icons in the app are significantly improved. And like this sounds like I’m [unintelligible] praise, but I think the icons were so horrible in the previous builds that they actually are noticeably better.

Craig: Well, just to point out, the upgrade costs $80. So, so far for $80 you’ve gotten better icons.

John: Better icons.

Craig: Okay. And?

John: I don’t have a lot else to pose in this initial thing. So, there are a lot of new features and we’ll talk through the new features. And some people might say like, oh, well that’s worth my $80. I’m not sure that it’s worth it for $80 for me.

What I found as I used it with you, and also as I used it more, is wow this thing is so cluttered. And so we’re going to talk about collaboration which was just a mess for cluttering, but I took screenshots of Final Draft on my 13-inch MacBook that I’m using here in Paris and I could see half a page of actual screenplay because there was so much on the screen. There’s all these ribbons and jewel bars and stuff. And you can hide some of them, but you can’t hide all of them.

So I took a screenshot of that, and then I took a screenshot in what I actually use, which is Highland, to show the difference between these apps and their approaches. It’s like someone in Final Draft’s family was killed by white space and they are just determined to eliminate all white space they can possibly see. Every square inch of the screen is filled with some doo-dad.

Craig: Hello white space. You killed my father. [laughs] Prepare to die. Yeah, this is not good. And I swear to you, I opened it up thinking to myself, well, let’s be as fair as I can. They have somewhat predictably done what they can do. Not what they should do, but what they can do. The easiest thing for them to do is keep their underlying code and just slap a bunch of crap on top of it. This is cluttered.

And most of the crap they’ve slapped on top of it is either useless or doesn’t work well. What they seemingly still cannot do is fix simple things like dual dialogue, which is still a broken implementation in Final Draft. That’s apparently rocket science to them.

Their crap that they’ve given you is all crap that swims in the same filthy water as guru books and structure baloney. Story maps. And story storms. And structure fields. And all this baloney that’s basically just useless graphical representations of slug lines. It’s absolutely useless.

John: So, let’s talk through the bullet points of their new features. Basically when you go to their “What’s New in Final Draft 10,” these are the things they’re singling out. So we’ll just talk through what they actually are so people know what they are.

The first is that there’s a horizontal stripe at the top of the screen which depicts page 0 to 120 of your script. And you can see sort of the scenes laid out in there. I thought this was actually a really interesting idea. I think the ability to get an overview of your whole script that way was fascinating. I thought it was a really bad implementation of it. It took me a very long time to realize you had to double click to get to a place in there. I don’t know why you double click to get to a place.

It’s called Story Map. I would call it Story Stripe, but that’s fine. That’s me. But what’s weird is that it assumes that all scripts should be about 120 pages. And so what I opened up was this TV pilot I wrote, which is 60 pages. So it showed the back half of it as being like black. Like I need to write more pages, I guess.

Craig: God. I mean, how dumb.

John: I couldn’t find a way to get rid of this stripe which was taking up an extra three-quarters of an inch of my screen. And so I just clicked things randomly. I look through the menus. View and Hide. It turns out it’s called Story Map and there’s an icon on the toolbar to do it, but it’s not toggle kind of icon. It doesn’t show you that it’s engaged or not. So, you click it once to show it, and click it again to hide it, but there’s not clear way that that’s how you do it.

So, I’m not a fan of the Story Map.

Craig: No. And things like not indicating whether a toggle is on or off or calling something Story Map when in fact it is a Story Stripe and of minimal value – honestly, I find minimal value. And then doing weird things like locking it to 120 pages indicates just a lack of taste. I don’t know how else to put it. There’s no taste behind this. It’s just ridiculous quasi-functions that fulfill marketing checkboxes. But there’s nothing of value, inherent substance there, that makes my life easier as a writer. Nothing.

They just wanted to be able to say, “We’re shipping something with a Story Map. Do you have a problem writing screenplays? Are you not yet making a million dollars a year as a screenwriter? Don’t worry. We have Story Map. That’s the thing that you’re missing. A stripe across the top of your screen with little gray blobs showing you were slug lines are.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: Argh.

John: There’s also a Beat Board, which is sort of like the Index Cards.

Craig: [laughs] Here we go again. Beat Board.

John: You can draw these little boxes and put text in them and kind of arrange them. I didn’t find it especially useful. You can also split-screen to have that on one side and your text on the other side to make your screen even smaller. I really had a hard time envisioning anyone using this professionally, because almost any other tool you might pick to do that, be it paper, or be it some other application devoted to outlining – like Workflowy, what we use for our notes – would be a much better choice for really almost anything. So, I found that frustrating.

What I was most curious to try was collaboration. So that’s why I had you download it, and why we played with it. So, once upon a time, Final Draft had this thing called Collabo-Writer, which I don’t know anybody who really used, but they always billed it as a feature. It kind of went away. This is it back. It wasn’t at all what I thought I was going to be getting. Craig?

Craig: Well, there is a current application of this. A software called WriterDuet which is web-based but also desktop based. It allows for real-time collaboration between people over separated computers and IP and all that stuff. Very similar to the way Google Docs works.

So, if you and I both control a Google Doc, or for instance this Workflowy document online, we can both be editing at the same time. We can annotate who changed what and so on.

Final Draft appears to have caught up to everyone else’s terrible version of their good idea. I don’t know how else to put it. Collaboration works as follows: you start a document and then you invite someone to collaborate. That pulls up a code. That person then goes into Final Draft, says I want to join a collaboration, I enter the code. I am then brought, ugh, to a screen that is that document, almost completely obscured by an un-closable window. That is a chat window with my collaborator. And in that chat window, you and I can talk to each other, like the way you would with iChat or something, although oddly they don’t have word wrap in their text entry, so that’s something that I think was solved 40 years ago by UNIVAC, but somehow these guys haven’t mastered it.

John: Yeah. We should say that by word wrap we mean literally if I type longer than one line, the first line disappears, and so I can’t see what was up there.

Craig: I mean, that’s just madness. That’s not even like, oh, we have a problem with our beta. That’s freaking alpha. That’s just ridiculous. And, again, a sign of just no taste or concern.

Regardless, here’s the biggest problem of them all. And this is really where they should have just said, “You know what, everyone? We should be in the business of going out of business. Let’s just close the doors because we’re terrible at this.”

This problem of synchronous editing that everyone else has solved continues to elude Final Draft. Their solution is one of you can edit the document at a time. And then if the other one wants to make a change, their cowriter needs to press a button that relinquishes command of the document and now you get command of the document.

And when I say you have no command, I mean you can’t even put a cursor or highlight a word. You cannot impact the document if you are not the editing member of the collaboration team at that time. That is absurd.

John: Yeah. So, honestly, the built in tools that are on every Macintosh would do a better job of sharing a document. Of honestly sharing this Final Draft 10 document than the actual built-in tools of Final Draft 10. So, if we wanted to edit this document together, what we should do is just share screens. Just use the screen sharing thing that’s built into every Macintosh.

Craig: Precisely.

John: And just use messages to do it, because then you could at least put the window behind the screen. It was so frustrating that this is how they chose to implement it. And so while we were doing this, I said like, oh Craig, I’m going to save the transcript of this so we could post it, but then I couldn’t save the transcript. And once I closed the window, it was gone forever.

Craig: Of course. Of course. Which is important for writers who are collaborating. You know, when they’re sharing ideas and stuff, it’s important that they do so in a way that cannot be saved. Because as you know, oh, whatever. You know what, if you want to save something, if it’s that important, put it in the Beat Board. The Beat Board, which literally every of these – these functions are all available, done better, by other people for free.

And so they bundled together poor implementations of other people’s work and they’re charging you $80 for it. There is literally no reason, none, to buy this upgrade, as far as I can tell. If they had – first of all, $80 for an upgrade, it should be a major upgrade. We’ve had this problem before. That’s just off of the rest of the world’s idea of what an upgrade cost should be. This should, I don’t know, it should be a $20 upgrade. It really feels like that. If.

But, there’s no reason. I mean, they didn’t change the file format, so why would anybody upgrade?

John: I don’t know why people would upgrade. I think the one thing that was a new feature which, like Aline uses on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I know they will write alternate dialogue, and then when they put it up on the big board and Aline is doing the final pass they will vote on the dialogue. So that’s a thing she might actually use this feature.

But you know what you can also do for alternate dialogue? In Highland you put it in brackets. In any other application, just put it in parenthesis and show the alternate dialogue right there. You’re going to make your decision. So, Final Draft lets you pick one of your alternate dialogues to actually be in the PDF or in the thing, but that’s not so useful. That’s not a big marquee feature for a major upgrade.

Craig: No, it’s not. And this one is the one that actually angers me the most. Because I like it, and I know I like it because it was my idea. I had the idea to give a screenwriter the ability to write alternate lines but hide them and so just put an icon next to a line that says, okay, there’s four versions of this and you can somehow scroll through them one-by-one as opposed to seeing them all on a list, just to keep the page count and the page size realistic.

And so I called up Kent Tessman who is the developer of Fade In Pro. And he went ahead and implemented that. And charged, by the way, you know what the big charge for that upgrade was? Zero dollars. And he implemented it in a very elegant way where you would select, okay, I’m going to add an alternate to this line, and then you would start typing that alternate and a little number would appear with two arrows on either side of it. 1, 2, 3, 4. And you would just click through the arrows to see the various versions.

Well guess what just should up in Final Draft? Alternate lines that work exactly the same way, even with the little number and the arrows. Wow. Wow. So that’s the one cool thing they did wasn’t even their idea and another developer did it who is an independent developer, sole proprietor, and they – I am saying that it appears to me as the layman that they ripped him off. That’s how it appears to me.

John: I can see that being a very probable situation. What I do want to say about – this is not really sort of full in defense of Final Draft, but in acknowledging the reality of the situation, Fade In used a lot of what Final Draft has built in terms of the structure of how the app works. Down to the point where many of the dialogue boxes are nearly identical. So, I fully want to give credit for Kent for implanting your alternate dialogue idea, but I also want to acknowledge that Fade In would not look like Fade In if Final Draft didn’t already exist.

Craig: 100%.

John: Is that fair?

Craig: It is fair. And, in fact, I have great praise – great praise – for a program called Final Draft from 15 years ago, when it seemed like they were still innovating and the code was current and they were really the best option available for the price. Those days are so long gone. So long gone.

It still appears to me to be bloatware. It still appears to be ugly. They are adding functionality that isn’t actually functionality. It’s simply poorly done support for marketing buzzwords. You can see how they continue to concentrate entirely on the market that they say they aren’t concentrating on. They claim to be the industry standard. They are concentrating entirely on suckering in people who are not in the industry by promising them useless tools that will help them get into the industry. They will not.

And, lastly, and this is the most important thing of all. When Final Draft says they are the industry standard, that is insane. The industry standard is PDF. Everyone – everyone – sends and reads screenplays of all kinds on PDF. No one gets what I would call the source word processing file, whether it is a FDX, or an FDR from Fade In Pro, or a Highland file. Nobody gets that.

So, yes, there are people that use the raw files for scheduling and so forth, which is why basically I think every major software, WriterDuet, and so on and so forth, they all import and export FDX files. They are not the industry standard of anything as far as I’m concerned, except bilking people for poorly written, poorly done, highly marketed software.

John: And that is our first take on Final Draft 10.

Craig: [laughs] I wonder if they’ll come back. I mean, I hope they do. Honestly, because I enjoyed my conversation with Marc Madnick. I don’t he was a great representative or ambassador for his own company, which is probably why I would love to talk to him again, because I would love to hear him sort of explain some of this stuff.

John: Yeah. Here’s where I come down with Final Draft 10. I think if you wanted to buy Final Draft, this is the probably better version than Final Draft 9 to buy. So, for whatever reason you’re stuck in your head that you’re going to buy Final Draft, then Final Draft 10 is going to be a better bet than Final Draft 9. It looks better. Probably, I think, some of it runs better. Friends who have been beta testing say it’s less flaky. It’s certainly, you know, it doesn’t hurt my eyes to quite the same degree. It’s like I can’t see very much of the screen. So, there’s that.

Craig: [laughs] It doesn’t hurt my eyes as much. They should put that on the cover of the box.

John: [laughs] Indeed. You know, they always have like J.J. Abrams or James Cameron saying like, “It’s the industry standard.” So, John August, “It doesn’t hurt my eyes as previous versions.” That’s what it comes down to.

Craig: The parts that I can see.

John: We left off four little bullet points. They have these things called Structure Points. They’re like little markers that show you where your act breaks are in your Story Map.

Craig: Oh god.

John: Great. Headers and footers, you can now put the file name in there, which is useful. That would take Nima, our coder, about 30 seconds to implement in any other application. But great.

Scene numbering. They now let you number – so if you’re adding a new scene between scene 8 and scene 9, that could either be scene 8A or scene A9, depending on what numbering scheme you’re using. You can choose between those two numbering schemes. Great.

Craig: I thought they already had that. In my end, both Final Draft and Fade In Pro both had the ability. Because one of them is more of a UK convention. I think they already had this.

John: The last time I had to do production revisions, and realistically every time I had to do production revisions, I end up manually numbering those things anyway because it’s always so strangely complicated. And you really want to do whatever the AD tells you to do.

Finally, the revisions dialogue box is even more complicated than before. Every time I have to do a set of revisions, and like on Big Fish, I did all of Big Fish the Musical on Final Draft because I started in there and there was just really no way to get out of it. But every time I did it, and I had to open that dialogue box, I’m like oh my god, how do you – like figuring out how you build the new draft and what you want to have revised is just such chaos.

And they added some new stuff there, so god bless you.

Craig: Yeah. Now you can bold some of your revisions which I urge people to never do.

John: Yeah. That’s not a good idea.

Craig: That’s just crazy. And just so you know why. I’m a believer that you should have options when it comes to how you designate what your revision – in fact, that’s another thing. I called Kent and I’m like, hey, I don’t want to just have to use an asterisk to show revisions. By revision level, I want the ability to say I want double asterisks, or I want an exclamation point. Because sometimes that does come in useful for people who are looking at multiple revisions at once to see, okay, that came first, and then that came.

But, bolding – like italics – is something that we use in the actual text of the document to imply creative information. You should never, ever use bolding or italicizing to indicate revisions. That is a terrible idea.

John: Yeah. You should not do that.

Craig: Well, but the good news is they’ve given you the chance to do it.

John: Indeed.

Craig: Yeah. Because the one thing we know for sure is that they are not in the business of going out of business.

John: 100%. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a book I just finished reading. It’s called Invasive. It’s by Chuck Wendig who is a screenwriter and a novelist who has written a bunch of Star Wars books and other books. He’s also a really good writer about writing. And so I’ve been following his Twitter feed and looking at his blog. He always has just great advice for writers. And so I’d never actually read one of his books, so I read one of his books. Invasive. It’s quite good.

It is a thriller in sort of the Michael Crichton science thriller way where this is about a developed species of invasive ants, these sort of killer ants that break loose and cause havoc. It was well done. And it was fun to read something that feels like a movie, but done as a book. And it was fun to sort of see what that looks like on the page versus how it would be in a movie.

This is a story with a sort of Clarice Starling kind of FBI consultant protagonist and a lot of ants. It’s very squirmy. So I would recommend Invasive by Chuck Wendig.

Craig: That does sound cool. My One Cool Thing was really our One Cool Thing. We were just talking about it. A lot of people sent us this video on Twitter. The Marvel Symphonic Universe. This is a video done by Brian Satterwhite, Taylor Ramos, and Tony Zhou who was, I believe, also the guy that did that visual comedy video that we talked about a while ago. And this seems like this is kind of his thing to do.

Currently, 2.6 million views on the YouTube.

John: So they really need Scriptnotes to push it.

Craig: Yeah. Well, I’m not sure this is a cool thing. I can’t quite tell. But it’s an interesting thing at the very least. Essentially, they ask people on the street in Vancouver, hey, off the top of your head can you sing the theme from Star Wars, and everyone can. Can you sing the theme from James Bond? Everyone can. Can you sing the theme from Harry Potter, and everyone can.

Then they say, “Can you sing any theme from a Marvel film?” And the answer is no. Which was interesting to me because I thought, oh, yeah, that’s something I didn’t realize I didn’t know, but I don’t know any of those. Now, the video then kind of extends this into a critique. And I’m not sure the critique is valid.

I love movie music and I love wonderful themes. I’m not sure it’s valid to just say these Marvel movies have a certain style of music and it’s not at all as good as John Williams. Well, what is? It’s also hard to argue with their choice of style for music because it seems to be working for them and their fans.

But, at least it’s interesting in the sense that I never really thought about the nature of how Marvel uses music in their movies, which is very much closer to sound design than it is to actual classic melodic score.

John: Yeah. I liked the questions that they were asking. I wasn’t so delighted with the answers they were trying to give. The questions were, of course, why can’t you remember a Marvel theme. And what is the role of temp music in effecting sort of the final music in a movie? So, temp music has become pervasive and to what degree are our choices in temp music really dictating what the final thing is going to sound like?

And I thought that was interesting. The final thing is like melody has kind of disappeared in our movies for better or for worse. And so we think of those great movies with John Williams themes and they’re very prominently used. And the reason why you can remember them is because they had repetition. Andrew Lippa, a friend, says you know what the key is to memorable songs? Repetition.

Repetition is the key to memorable songs. You have to repeat things again and again and people will eventually hear that melody again and they’ll expect the melody because you’re repeating it. You’ve got to keep repeating the song again, and again, and again. And that’s absolutely true.

And so the reason why we remember Star Wars, the reason why we remember the Harry Potter theme is because those are used throughout the movies consistently. And Marvel has not chosen to do that. And that’s, for better or for worse, those movies don’t have a musical signature that tells you that that’s what they are.

Craig: Yeah. I completely agree. And I love that, Harry Potter in particular, I love the way that they did make a choice to use that wonderful John Williams theme and allow the tone of their movies to breathe, to give it room to be played over, and over, and over. That in and of itself is a choice.

When you’re making a kind of frantic, high octane action-adventure, a little harder to do. Not impossible. You know, Terminator has a very memorable theme.

John: [Hums]

Craig: No.

John: Which one are you thinking of?

Craig: [laughs] I’m just thinking of [hums].

John: I think they’re both themes from Terminator.

Craig: Oh really? I don’t know that first one. I just know the percussive one. [hums] And so that was a perfect theme for that movie because that movie was about the relentless march of action as instigated by a robot. And [hums] is not a melody per se. I don’t remember the melody. I just remember that percussive rhythm thing.

And, yeah, I can see how movies that are about that then take that to the extreme. And everything becomes very rhythmic. Sometimes when I’m writing an action sequence, in order to kind of get my blood flowing I’ll put on some Hans Zimmer from The Dark Knight. And it helps. It’s not melodic. It’s percussive. Even as melody is playing, it’s the rhythmic percussive nature of it that kind of gets me going. But, I prefer the Danny Elfman theme from the Tim Burton Batman. That’s a wonderful – and that was repeated over and over. And I think everybody can hum – you can hum that one, right?

John: I’m not sure I can.

Craig: [hums]

John: Oh, of course.

Craig: That one, right?

John: That one.

Craig: Yeah. It was wonderful. I like that. But, you see, Batman has evolved and there’s no space for that anymore. Now we need [hums]. That’s basically the theme to the Nolan Batman. [hums]

So, it’s choices right? I feel like I had the same issue last time with Tony which is that he makes these really – I know he’s working with a couple other people here. He makes really interesting observations but is coating them in a jacket of judgment that I don’t think is deserved.

John: Yup. I would agree.

And that’s our show for this week. So, as always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. We are edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro, which is very, very much on theme is by Rajesh Naroth. I should also say that in addition to Harry Potter being a great movie to see, I went to the Universal Studios Harry Potter thing before I left for Paris. It’s really great. Craig, have you been there yet?

Craig: I was at the one in Orlando a number of years ago. The OG.

John: Similar but delicious.

Craig: Yeah. That’s fantastic. They do a great job.

John: So, if you have an outro for our show, you can send it to That’s also the place to send questions like the ones we answered today.

On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. On Instagram I’m also @johnaugust, so you can see all of my photos from Paris if you’re curious on that.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where we will have some of the bonus stuff from people who wrote in about getting work while they’re outside of Los Angeles, New York, or London.

You’ll also find our transcripts there. Transcripts are going to be delayed about two weeks now, because the guy who is doing the transcripts is taking a vacation. He deserves a vacation. So, if transcripts are delayed, that’s why. Because we are quality employers who let their people take vacations.

You can find the back episodes at And also on the USB drives which are now back in stock at the store at

And that’s our show for this week. Craig, have a great week.

Craig: You too, John. See you next time.

John: Bye.


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Mystery Vs. Confusion

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig compare mystery and confusion, and how you can have more of the former with less of the latter. We use these lessons as we look at three new entries in the Three Page Challenge.

We also answer listener questions on flashbacks and capitalizing on festival success.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 267: Dig Two Graves — Transcript

Thu, 09/22/2016 - 10:44

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 267 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today is going to be a very good episode, because Craig you know how sometimes it feels like we’re crushing people’s dreams and hopes?

Craig: I know. It’s so much fun.

John: I know. But today is all about possibilities. Today is about saying yes. Are you ready to say yes?

Craig: Yes.

John: So, we’re going to be looking at four stories in the news and asking How Would this be a Movie. We’ll also be answering two listener questions about structure and adverbs, but first we got some answers from listeners.

Last week we asked you guys if any of you had managed to build a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles, New York, or London. And quite a few of you responded.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah, so it was good.

Craig: It’s encouraging, actually. Perhaps these are the outliers, but then again as I like to say, we’re all outliers if we’re actually working as writers, right?

John: Exactly. On last week’s episode you said, you know, you don’t want to have a business plan where your plan is to be the exception to the rule. And we couldn’t think of a lot of writers who had started outside of Los Angeles. Who had like really gotten their careers going while they weren’t living in Los Angeles, or New York, or London.

Although the minute we wrapped the episode I thought back Ryan Knighton, who actually came in and met with us, and we had a whole episode about building a career while you’re not living in Los Angeles. He is a Vancouver writer. So, there certainly are cases where people have done that, and they do feel exceptional, but now we have I think four more people who have written in to say like how they got started outside of Los Angeles.

Craig: It’s interesting. Ryan Knighton is from Vancouver. Diablo Cody, who we mentioned in that episode, is I want to say Pacific North-westerner. Yeah? Is that right?

John: That sounds right. Sounds right.

Craig: So, at least they’re in the time zone, right. But here we have some people writing in who are not at all in our time zone.

John: Absolutely. So, let’s start with Angela Harvey from Atlanta. She wrote in and let’s hear what she had to say.

Angela Harvey: I heard you guys this week asking about people who became screenwriters from cities other than New York, London, or LA. And I got staffed as a TV writer out of Atlanta, so I thought I’d give you guys my story.

I was assisting a film producer in Atlanta and he ended up becoming the UPM on Season One of MTV’s Teen Wolf. So working the long hours on set in Atlanta, I got to know the showrunner pretty well. And my boss knew I wanted to be a writer, so he told the showrunner and slipped him a sample of my work. Then during Season Two, I came out to LA to be the writer’s assistant. And then later that year, the network wanted to do this online game where fans could log in and chat with the show characters. And that was a lot of non-union work, and none of the show writers wanted to take it on, so I did.

I spend my hiatus cranking out about 30 pages a week, mostly dialogue, but still was a lot of pages. Then, starting the next season, Season Three, I got staffed staff writer on that show. And now we’re writing 6V, which is going to be Teen Wolf’s last season. Now I’m co-producer level.

I got to LA in 2012 to start writing and signed with my agent and manager here about a year after that. And that’s my story. I think it was a perfect storm of being in the right place at the right time and working with the right people. And then also just working my ass off. And it was a long shot by all measures, but it happened for me in Atlanta. Thanks guys. Bye.

John: Well, congratulations, Angela. I am glad you are staffed as a writer and that you got started, but when I listened to her story I heard so many things that sounded so familiar to me. Which was that she was able to get a writer’s assistant job, and then move up to a staff writer. That she sort of made that one contact and sort of impressed the hell of them with how hard she worked in a slightly different job. And they said like you seem great, I’ll happily read something that you wrote.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s an interesting thing that she’s from Atlanta, because I suppose at this point we could almost put Atlanta in that boat with Vancouver for instance, where there’s a ton of production, because Georgia is one of the states that offers a top-notch tax rebate for film production. Film and television production. I think it’s pretty much the best deal in the Union at this point. Although, I know that some Georgians don’t like to consider themselves part of the Union. But, tough. North won the war.

Anyway, there is a ton of production in Georgia. And a lot of people down there are working quite regularly. Frankly, more regularly than below the line folks here in Los Angeles. So, that’s not surprising to me. And I agree with you that this story is often the same. People like someone. They like their work ethic. They like their attitude. They just like them. And they start to think, okay, well, what is it that you want to do? How can we make more out of you? Instead of you twisting their arm, they start pulling you because, frankly, good help is hard to find, as they say.

John: So, a couple months ago I interviewed Drew Goddard for the Writers Guild. And so you can find the bonus episode in the bonus feed. And talked about how he got started. And it was very much the same story as Angela. He was living in New Mexico. There was a production in New Mexico for like a TV movie. He got on the TV movie to just be a runner, a PA. And he just worked his ass off and impressed the people enough that they remembered him and they were able to get him more work down in the future.

So, his path was a lot longer than Angela’s in terms of getting paid to write, but it was really the same path.

And what Angela describes here could have easily happened in Los Angeles. She could have come out here, been a PA on a TV show or a movie, and just worked really hard. And someone said like, “Oh, I think you’re probably a smart, talented person. Yes, I’ll read your script.” And that could have been her first start.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the benefit of a place like Atlanta is that it is a smaller pond, so there are fewer people to choose from. So, there’s a larger chance that you’re going to stand out. I mean, working for a line producer, you know, people may not know that a line producer isn’t really a creative producer, per se. A line producer is more of the physical production manager. They’re the person that’s handling budget, scheduling, payments. So, it’s not necessarily the way in for creative work, but what line producers can do is recognize that someone is creative and valuable and like the case here with Angela, help promote them.

So, excellent job, Angela. We’re glad to have you from Atlanta. We win. We take from Atlanta, yet again. Victory.

John: Yeah. So while Angela was happy to sort of leave Atlanta and come to Los Angeles where she wanted to work, our next caller did not do that. So this is Kirby Atkins. Right now he’s living in New Zealand. But this is what he had to say.

Kirby Atkins: Hi guys. I’ve had a strange screenwriting career and I’ve never lived in Los Angeles. I began as an animator at Lyca and moved on to a studio in Dallas. I directed the Jimmy Neutron show for Nickelodeon for a while. And during this time I sold a few specs to 20th Century Fox and Miramax, back when specs were still selling in the early 2000s.

After that, I had a pretty good career living in small town in Tennessee, in a house I bought for about $130,000. And writing. And I actually pulled that off for a few years. I even sold a thing to Robert De Niro’s production company. I did have to travel every now and then for meetings, but it was no big deal.

That career did run out after a bit, as the spec market dried up. And now I’m directing something I wrote, an animated feature with the Weinsteins being produced in New Zealand. So, we did sell the house in that little town in Tennessee and now we’re currently living in New Zealand making this movie.

But, I have never lived in Los Angeles. But I love the show. And thanks for getting in contact with me. Bye-bye.

John: Great. So that’s Kirby’s situation. Kirby is now shooting a movie in New Zealand. It feels like he has a specialty. Like he’s in the animation world, and a lot of animation is done outside of Los Angeles, New York, or London. There are places that specialize in doing a certain kind of animation, like Lyca, and that’s where he got started. And it seems like he’s not had to come to Los Angeles to do the stuff that he’s doing.

Craig: Well, it is true that there’s a ton of animation production overseas in Eastern Europe and in India and in China. And in Korea. But, when it comes to the writing of English language animation, that’s actually not that common overseas. It typically does start here in the United States. The big animation companies are here. Or sometimes a production company here in the United States will develop a screenplay and then go overseas to have it produced in France, or Canada, or India, or China.

But, this is interesting. I mean, oh, he’s working with the Weinsteins, so that’s cool. [laughs] good luck there in New Zealand.

John: Yeah, so Kirby’s start with Lyca reminds me of people who start at Pixar. And there are people who just start working as a tech at Pixar. They start working in a very specific area within Pixar and sometimes they have a good enough story sense that they are elevated to being writers or to being on the creative team. So that’s certainly a place you could start. But, you’re already at Pixar, so it’s not quite a fair comparison as starting from nothing. You’re starting at Pixar which is a very high place to begin.

We also got a letter from Jamie Nash in Maryland. He writes, “I’m a fulltime WGA APA-repped screenwriter who lives in Maryland and has never lived in LA. My credits aren’t exactly August/Mazin level, but I’ve been produced and able to make a living since 2008. I made my first dollars around 2005. I currently have a film about to be greenlit by Blumhouse and do a lot of work for Nickelodeon.”

So, here’s a guy who’s gotten some movies made. He’s working. He lives in Maryland. What we haven’t heard from Jamie is how often he’s coming to Los Angeles, how important are those in-person meetings. My hunch is he’s been out here a bunch to do that specific kind of work.

Craig: Yeah. This is rare. This is very specifically the rare circumstance. So you had Angela who was somewhere else and moved here. You have Kirby who is working in animation, which is scattered across the world. But this is traditional screenwriting. And this is rare.

And I’m thrilled that he’s making a living. And been doing so for quite some time now. Eight years at it, which is – for us in screenwriting years, that’s like 100 years. So, that’s terrific. And Blumhouse is a real company. They do big horror movies. Well, they’re small horror movies, but they make lots of money.

John: Very profitable horror movies.

Craig: Incredibly profitable. And he says that he does a bit of work for Nickelodeon, which is obviously a legitimate channel. Now, with Nickelodeon, that’s kind of a curious one, because it’s all television, and Nickelodeon jobs I think are exclusively episodic television gigs. So, I’m kind of curious how that works. And I’m also curious why he’s still there.

John: Yeah. We want more information from Jamie.

Craig: He doesn’t say. Yeah. I mean, it may be that Jamie has a family and they don’t want to leave, and he doesn’t want to leave, and I get that. I can’t help but feel that if you are working steadily for eight years, you could be working more steadily here. Just a gut feeling.

John: That may be true. Why don’t you read this next one? This is from Chris Sparling who now lives in Rhode Island.

Craig: Chris Sparling. That’s from Rhode Island. So, Chris Sparling writes, “Though I did live in Los Angeles for two years, it was way back while I was making a go as an actor. I had left college to do so, and ended up moving back to my home state of Rhode Island to finish school. It was also around this time that I started focusing more on writing than acting.

“Long story short, I stayed in Rhode Island, continued writing scripts, made a few no-budget projects, and then years later I finally found success with the script I wrote for Buried. Now, about eight years later, maintaining a career outside of LA has proven to be far easier than breaking in, thankfully. But it’s admittedly not without its drawbacks. For one, many of my pitches are done by phone or Skype, which makes for a lesser experience than physically being in the room.

“Secondly, there are very few if any people here who do what I do for a living, or work in the film/TV industry in any capacity for that matter, so I don’t have that watercooler coworker experience that LA-based writers and filmmakers have. The latter might seem somewhat trivial, but believe me when I say it does matter.”

John: Great. So, here’s Chris. He’s working pretty steadily. He’s living on the East Coast, so it’s definitely possible. I loved Buried. I thought it was a great movie. And he has a new movie that’s out right now called The Sea of Trees with Gus Van Sant, so this is a guy who is maintaining a career.

Craig: Absolutely.

John: It feels that he’s honest about the challenges that it presents. He’s having to come out to do some stuff. He’s having to do Skype things. I’ve been on panels with him, so he is coming out here sometimes to do that kind of panel stuff, or maybe it was coincidental to when he’s out here. But that’s also part of the job of being a screenwriter is just being there in person sometimes.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, so here’s a very legitimate screenwriter, not working in television, which I think is a help, obviously, because you and I are primarily feature writers. We may live in LA – well, you’re in France now – but normally we’re both living in LA. But 90% of the time we’re living in LA we’re alone. We could be anywhere. We could be on the moon, right.

Television, not so simple. So, Chris, at least the angle that Chris is taking on – and has taken so far with great success in the movie business allows him to be on his own in Rhode Island. But, I really took notice of his point and felt for him when he talked about that lack of the watercooler coworker experience. The funny thing is, years ago when you and I were starting out, even if we were all in the same town, there still wasn’t that much of coworker/watercooler experience. Because, again, we would just go back to our corners and write as feature writers.

But, as the Internet came about, we became far more connected as a group. And I’m happy to say I have dozens of friends who do the job that you and I do. And it matters. It does matter. It matters to be able to show them work and to ask them for advice. And to just go and have a drink with them. Or play Dungeons & Dragons. And feel like you are part of a community, even though you do spend most of your time alone. So, I feel for him. And open invitation to Chris Sparling, whenever he’s in from Rhode Island – Providence, or wherever – to come hang with us. Have a glass of wine and chill out.

John: And, Craig, I think you deserve some credit for how many screenwriters I know and how many screenwriters other screenwriters know, because you’ve been very good at sort of connecting us together. I had my site, you had your site, but we also just sort of got together a lot more. And I remember during the strike, the 2008 strike, that was the first time I really put faces with names for a lot of these people.

Like the strike overall I thought was a pretty big boondoggle, but one of the things I really got out of it was the chance to meet a bunch of writers. Like Jane Espenson, who I saw her name, I saw her on Twitter, but I never actually met her. Then you meet her and like, well, she’s delightful. And every day out on the picket lines I was meeting all these people and really getting a chance to connect with them. So when I would see them later on, or I’d see them at the grocery story, or I’d see them on panels, I really knew who they were.

The other thing which has been so helpful for me was the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, is that as an adviser there I’m getting to meet some of these other really great writers. And a chance to talk with them about the actual craft. And that’s what Chris is missing right now in Rhode Island.

Craig: Rhode Island.

John: All right. Let’s do one from not the US. This is Pete Bridges who wrote in from Brisbane, Australia. And here’s what he had to say.

Pete Bridges: I wanted to let you know that it is possible to work for Hollywood without living in Hollywood. Late last year, I optioned my first spec script to Broken Road Productions which landed me a great manager at Madhouse and two great agents at Verve, as well as a spot on the 2015 Black List with a video introduction by the great John August himself. And this past July we have also just sold and set up another spec at DreamWorks, so so far it hasn’t impacted job opportunities and I get sent a lot of materials and invitations to pitch on different projects.

To make it all work, I fly over to LA every few months to do a week of meetings and the in-between periods are all handled over email and phone. I do the occasional general meeting over the phone if it’s important, but most people seem happy to wait until I’m in town to sit down and talk properly.

If I’m pitching on an assignment, I will usually submit my take by email and then we setup a call and discuss it later. The time difference is the biggest hassle and I sometimes have to set an alarm for 3AM to take a call. But mostly the assistants are pretty great about lining up a time that suits everybody.

Ultimately, I’m looking to move my family to LA as soon as possible, but it is a lot more difficult for us than loading up a truck and driving across a few states to California. My advice for others in my situation: you do not need to live in LA to break into the business, but you need to work much harder to do it and at least have the willingness to move there once you do.

If you’re going to cold query, don’t mention where you live. Setup your email program to send out your queries during LA business hours. Let you work stand on its own until they like it and then break the bad news to them. Be prepared to fly to LA every two or three months to do general meetings and build up your relationships. Calls and emails are great, but nothing beats sitting down with the people who may be looking to hire you on something. In between trips, always be generating spec material that your reps can send out to keep your name and work in people’s minds when you’re not there.

And if you can move to LA, move to LA. Until then, be prepared to work much harder, sleep way less, and travel further than everyone else.

John: Great. So, here’s a situation where he is thinking like he’s happy to be working, but he’s also thinking I need to move to Los Angeles. That’s what his next step is for him.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s no doubt. Look, it’s hard to fly from Australia to Los Angeles and vice versa. Having done a similar flight from LA to Bangkok a couple of times, four times, it’s no good. It’s no good. It’s not something you want to do frequently. He’s doing this every three or four months. Three to four times a year. Not only do you have the stress and expense of flying, and all the jetlag and the rest of it, but then you’ve got to do this thing where you jam everything in. And so everything is high stakes.

It’s just a mess. And I love that he was able to get started from Australia, which does have its own very significant film and television base. But, yeah, I mean, look, he sold a spec recently to Amblin. He’s gotten a spot on the Black List. He – it’s time. It’s time.

John: Yeah. It’s time.

Craig: Listen, here’s the thing. Pete, the hard words, you know, when I listened to what you’re saying, the hard words are relocate my family. And I think we all get how difficult that is. You and I are friends with Chris Miller and Phil Lord. And Chris has a wife and kids and Phil and Chris are off in England now making the Han Solo movie. And that’s a relocate, you know, just like you’ve done it. And I’m sure you can say as well as anybody it’s tough to relocate your family.

John: One way to think about it though is what if you got picked to be a NASA astronaut? Well, you’d move to Florida and you’d just do that. And that would be like of course you would do that. And I think if you have the opportunity to pursue screenwriting, and that’s your ambition, and you have the chance to move to Los Angeles, there’s probably good reasons to do that.

And it’s sort of the career you sign on for. So I can see why a lot of people would want to do it. But I can also see why it’s challenging to be thinking about that at the very start of your career.

On Twitter this last week, a couple people wrote in sort of challenging us on what do you really mean by establish a writing career. Do you mean getting your first sale? Do you mean working continuously? What do we mean?

And I think you and I both came to the point of like being able to make a living as screenwriter or television writer.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Previous episodes we’ve talked about the myth of breaking in, as if there’s this giant wall and once you scale over the wall, then you’re inside the inner circle. That’s not really true. It’s the ability to work continuously is sort of the goal of a screenwriting career. And that’s a much more challenging thing to do outside of Los Angeles than inside Los Angeles. And I think the people who wrote in so far have really said that to be true. That there’s additional challenges that you wouldn’t think of when you’re trying to get all this happening while you’re not living in town.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a rough one. I mean, part of being a steadily working writer is not only being able to support yourself, or the people that rely on you, but having a reasonable expectation that you will be able to continue to do so for at least quite some time. And I love your NASA analogy in the sense that the odds are similar, right, of becoming an astronaut or becoming a screenwriter.

The big difference I suppose, other than the fact that astronauts are cooler and go into space, is that it’s rare for an astronaut to be accepted into the astronaut program, move to Florida, go through the training, and then have someone say, “Oh, you know what? Yeah, we’re actually not going to space. But thank you.” Which happens all the time in writing.

John: Yeah. We decided not to build that rocket, which is basically a screenwriter’s career.

Craig: Oh, sorry. You know what? We went with a more experienced astronaut this time. Yeah. Sorry.

John: So, if you are a listener to this program and you have your own story of how you got your career started, and are hopefully maintaining a career in writing film or television outside of Los Angeles, keep writing in. So, keep writing in to And if there’s some interesting stories to share, I’ll just post them on So, we can see your text there and we won’t have everyone read aloud. But thank you everyone who wrote in. And thank you for continuing to write in and telling us how you are doing it.

So, let’s get to some questions. People can ask us stuff. And so we have two questions today. Both of them have audio. The first one is from Nicholas Salazar who wrote in with a question about adverbs. Let’s take a listen.

Nicholas Salazar: In the last episode, Episode 265, Craig used, “Oddly, John doesn’t react,” in giving an example of an action line. It’s been drilled into my head by both English professors and screenwriting professors that adverbs are lazy writing and the work of the devil and must be eliminated from anything I write. How do you guys feel about adverbs? Thanks?

John: Craig, how do you feel about adverbs?

Craig: Well, you might think that I would rear up in high dungeon and extreme umbrage at this, but I don’t. Look, it’s unfortunate that some pedants take this too far and say things like, “Adverbs are lazy writing and the work of the devil and must be eliminated from anything you write.” That is not true. However, adverbs should be used with restraint. So, in a case like, “Oddly, John doesn’t react,” I’m okay with that. I like a nice introductory adverbial clause. That’s fine.

It’s when you start throwing them in junkily, when they could easily be removed. If I remove the word oddly from that sentence, it’s no good. It doesn’t work. The whole point is that it’s odd that you’re not reacting. But, yeah, it’s not a bad idea to go on adverb patrol, particularly L-Y adverbs. Because generally speaking they are a little junky.

John: Yeah. I’m on your side here. I think the reason why professors and screenwriting teachers tell you to avoid adverbs is that they’ve seen so many bad uses of adverbs. The high school English teacher probably read a bunch of essays where it was just jam-packed with adverbs to sort of pad it out. Or, adverbs are used as a lazy way of modifying an adjective around it, rather than just actually picking a better adjective. So, you know, “He felt very bad.” Like you know, there’s so many more specific choices you could have instead of just modifying bad with a very.

So, I get where it’s coming from, but I think a blanket prohibition on adverbs is really taking it too far. If you’re using an adverb, I would say take a look at it and see if this is really the best choice of how I should be expressing this idea, how I should be emphasizing this idea. And see if you can find a better one. But sometimes, I think in the case of “Oddly, John doesn’t react,” that’s just the right way to do it. And anymore words you try to throw at that are not going to be helpful to you.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s a really easy test, too, to just say, okay, if I take the adverb out, does this still work? The typical junky adverb use you’ll see is someone saying, “Jim ran quickly to the bus stop. Panting heavily, he got on the bus.” We don’t need quickly and we don’t need heavily. “He ran to the bus stop. Panting, he got on the bus.” That tells us everything.

So, a lot of times it’s just a repetitive or redundant sense of things. And especially when you have L-Ys directly modifying action verbs, like right next them. That’s where it feels sort of middle school. You know? I don’t how else to put it.

Of course, the other problem with these people is that they’ll say things like, “Don’t use adverbs,” but there are all sorts of words that we don’t know are adverbs.

John: Completely.

Craig: You know. Like how. So I don’t know if–

John: Or, like the well in well done. So many things are sort of invisible. We only think of the L-Y adverbs and there are so many more that are important.

Craig: Yeah. So the blanket prohibition on adverbs completely does not work. I mean, journalism would stop. But, yeah, I get it, Nicholas. Don’t go crazy with this. But, yeah, reasonable concern.

John: Great. Our last question is from Daniel Lewis who is writing in about structure. Let’s take a listen.

Daniel Lewis: Hi guys. I really love Craig’s explanation of screenwriting guru books. I think it’s in the vein of these are demolition experts telling you how to build a house. But I can never seem to shake the tendency of following prescribed beats when mapping out a story. For instance, X happens on page 20. Y happens on page 45, etc.

In the beginning of a screenplay and eventual movie, how much time do I have to grab the audience’s attention? The knock on the door beat that supposedly happens around page five, how accurate is that benchmark?

If my writing is strong and engaging, can I push it until page 10 or 15 for the first sign of a big plot catalyst? I assume the answer is yes, but wanted to get your opinions on audience attention span in general. Thanks.

John: So, Craig, I think I’ve heard this term “knock on the door,” but it feels so screenwriter bookie to me.

Craig: I know. And, look, it’s not like these things are wrong, right? It’s not like heroes aren’t called to action. It’s not like there aren’t knocks on the door occasionally. They are using the most reductive forms of these things. And I think what Daniel is getting at is the issue underneath them, which is a great thing, by the way, Daniel. I mean, you’re asking the right question, which isn’t should I be doing these paint-by-numbers things, rather why is everyone saying that? Okay, if they’re demolition experts, at least they’ve noticed that this is how buildings were built why they were building them up. Why is that way? And how much time do I have to grab the audience’s attention?

And my response to you, Daniel, is I don’t know. Because I think you never have any time to grab the audience’s attention. You should be always grabbing their attention. They will begin to squirm at some point if they feel like things aren’t going anywhere, but along the way until that thing happens, whatever that thing is, you should be engaging them and interesting them.

I don’t know when the door knock comes in The Godfather in terms of elapsed time, but I doubt it’s five minutes in. I know that movie pretty well. That’s a long wedding.

John: So, I would say my frustration sometimes about this like, oh, we have to get stuff started faster is it’s absolutely true that you want to get the audience engaged. The audience needs to be leaning forward, really looking forward to seeing what’s happening next. You need to get them like hooked on sort of what the world of your movie is. But that’s not necessarily the same thing as like starting all the engines of your plot.

And so often I’ll see in the development process there’s this pressure to like, “Oh, we got to get the story started faster,” by people who know where the story is going. They’re saying like, oh, well let’s get rid of this first stuff and get the actual A-plot going faster. And that’s often a mistake.

The most crucial thing is that we are onboard with your characters and the world that they’re in. And so if they don’t know the specific thing about the actual A-plot yet, that can be fine. So, going to your Godfather, you know, the actual A-plot of that story may not be kicking in right at the very start, but we’re completely fascinated and intrigued by all of the world and the characters we’re meeting in those first 10 minutes. And that’s what’s really crucial.

We know the kind of movie that we’re getting in that first 10 minutes, even if we don’t know the specific plot that we’re going to be seeing.

Craig: For sure. That is the joy of a movie that is operating on its own terms, with confidence. And if you don’t like it, and it’s boring to you, beat it. But The Godfather, the door knocking is Sollozzo showing up to ask about getting the Corleone family to help him sell drugs. That doesn’t happen until after the whole wedding sequence and after the bit where what’s his face, Tom, has to go out to Los Angeles to meet with Waltz and try and get Johnny Fontaine the movie, and the horse head. All of that stuff happens before the “door knocks.”

So, I’m with you. Look, I have said this so many times and it doesn’t matter, because it’s not changing anything. But I’ll keep saying it. They’ve got it – they meaning the people that make you speed up in the beginning – they’ve got it totally backwards.

When I go to see a movie, and I believe most people are like this, we are open and engaged and full of faith in the start. Okay, I’m going to go on a ride with you. I’m here, hoping it’s good. So I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt for a while. I’m with you now. I’m patient. It’s the beginning.

Where I think things tend to go on and on, and I wish they would speed up, is in the end. When the modern studio method often is speed up in the beginning, get it going so we barely know who people are, and then drag the third out to be 14 set pieces all piled on top of each other. It’s so boring.

So, maybe I’m the wrong person to ask this, but I think take your time, don’t worry about hitting some number. If you’re in it, and you’re engaged, and you’re fascinated, some movies have legitimate prologues to them. They do. And it’s totally fine. Totally.

John: I agree. Cool. All right, let’s get to our main feature for today, which is How Would this be a Movie. So this is the segment which we were supposed to do last week, but we ran out of time. So, we’ve had more time to look at these four stories that were in the news. All of these were submitted by listeners. And so I think actually one of them is by Craig, but Craig sometimes listens to the podcast.

Craig: True.

John: Let’s start out with Florence Nightingale and the Woman in Disguise. So this is the true story of Dr. James Barry, pioneering Army doctor who made many crucial reforms. Told off Florence Nightingale. Performed the first successful Cesarean Section. And was secretly a woman in disguise.

Craig: Great. So great.

John: Craig, what kind of movie would this be?

Craig: Well, this feels like it has to be the mood, right. There’s no way to do some side movie about this. You want to just go at it and do it as the movie. You want to do it as an examination of what it’s like to be a woman in the 19th Century, working in a field that is barely – barely civilized at this point. I mean, we’re talking like they had just figured out to wash before chopping legs off. And she is better than everyone and isn’t allowed to practice. And so she becomes a man.

And obviously there’s – it’s a modern story because we are only now really wrapping our minds around the fluidity of gender. And there’s this also like a really interesting twist to this story where Dr. Barry, whose real name was Margaret Ann Bulkley, Dr. Barry spent almost all of his life living with a black man who was her – I guess her assistant, her servant. Not her slave. Man-servant. Wasn’t a slave.

And this guy lived with her for 50 years and there’s this beautiful detail where every morning he would lay out six small towels which she would use to hide her curves and broaden her shoulders. So he was part of her thing completely. And there’s this wonderful combination of two characters who are living lives that are repressed and tightened down by the outside world, helping each other in the strangest way. But she had no – it did not appear to be a romantic relationship. In fact, Dr. Barry had a reputation as a ladies man. Not sure if she was gay, or if this was just a cover. It’s hard to tell. But, I think overall what I found so fascinating about this beyond the – I guess you’d call it the more prurient aspects – is that Dr. James Barry seemed like a real hard-ass.

Like, you know, I love – I think this is the greatest bit in a weird way, is that Florence Nightingale, the symbol of women in medicine, he was just disgusted by her. [laughs] Told her to beat it. Just like everything we know about grouchy jerk doctors. Yeah, you know what? Margaret Ann Bulkley, AKA Dr. James Barry, she got to be as jerky as she wanted. She did the first Cesarean ever. So, I would just tell this one straight up. And I would probably concentrate on her relationship with her servant, John.

John: The other relationship I thought was fascinating was her mother. And so her mother was around during at least the starting part of this, her going to medical school, and was clearly complicit in this whole act about this was not her daughter, but the son. That is a fascinating dynamic, too. So, what is going through the mom’s head as her daughter is doing all this stuff?

You’re also right to point out that even though this is a biopic set in a specific time, it’s a modern movie. And you cannot make this movie without addressing the modern dynamics of what we think about what she’s doing in this time.

So, if you made this movie 20 years ago, it could be sort of a crossdressing thing. But I think you couldn’t do this movie now without looking at like what are the real gender identity issues here. And we have to sort of put a modern label on whatever she’s doing. And you’re going to have to make the decision as a screenwriter how you’re going to portray that. Because you can’t just be ambiguous. You have to really make a decision about like does she perceive herself as a woman or as a man.

Does she perceive herself as something else? What is really driving her? And we have all these fascinating details, but it’s going to be the writer’s job to figure out why are those details there. Like what is actually going on inside her head that is making her make these choices?

Craig: Yeah. I agree. And I think that there’s something – hopefully you find, okay, the circumstances that connect you to now, to audiences now, and I think in this case it’s pretty clear what those are. But then there are the other things you’re looking for, which are the circumstances that connect you to a general human condition that has always been true. Something universal over all times, for all people.

And in this case, the thing that I read in this article that I thought might have been a hint to that, and I sort of touched on it earlier, is Florence Nightingale’s description of Dr. Barry as “the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army.” And there is something about the cost of hardening yourself so that you are not revealed.

And that is really interesting to me. And I would love to see what that cost might have been for Dr. Barry. And why she got so hard. And I think that’s an interesting – you know, there are people who refuse to let the world beat them. She certainly seemed like that person. I’m not going to let the world beat me. I’m going to become Dr. James Barry. I am a male doctor and I will not be pushed around. And no one is going to get in my way.

But then there is a cost. And so that’s fascinating to me. So, this actually is a movie. I think somebody should and could do this. There is a new biography of her called, or him, depending, Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, written by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield. And it is available for £18.99. And I would be surprised if somebody didn’t – if somebody hasn’t already optioned the rights to this.

John: Yeah. There’s an actress chopping at the bit to play that part.

Craig: Precisely.

John: So, we’ll have a link to this in the show notes. This article we read was by Joseph Curtis who is writing for Mail Online.

Our next story is called The Perfect Mom. It was submitted by Brett Thomas in Sacramento. It tells the story of Gypsy, a girl with a litany of debilitating diseases, who grows up loved and cared for by her devoted mother, Dee Dee. Their relationship is admired by all their neighbors until one night a mysterious Facebook post unravels a tale of murder and deceit. The mother and daughter faked the girl’s illnesses for 20 years. The mother seemed to be imposing symptoms of muscular dystrophy and other diseases on the child.

Gypsy’s only escape was to contact her online boyfriend and convince him to help her murder her mother and disappear into rural Wisconsin. The two are eventually captured and tried for murder in the first degree. And, man, this story has everything.

Craig: [laughs] It’s got everything. Yeah. It’s got everything except the thing that I kind of want the most, where I was struggling to find the right way in here. I was struggling to find that thing that would illuminate something else.

This is a real thing, obviously Munchausen by proxy. And it’s a tragic thing. And the woman who was doing this to her daughter was a bad person. She didn’t deserve to be murdered, but she was bad. She was doing a terrible thing. Her daughter clearly was abused mentally and emotionally and perhaps her mental health was significantly impaired. She hooks up with this guy. He seems like a real winner, too. He commits this murder.

And that’s how it ends. And no one is really – who do I root for here? And what do I want to happen? I don’t even feel a sense of justice, frankly, that they’re caught and go to jail. I feel nothing except a general nihilistic – this is a true crime and it could be a great episode of a series in that sense, but as a movie it feels too nihilistic, I guess.

John: I agree with you. So, the challenge of a movie is that you want to have a main character you can follow. And so would either one of these be the main character you follow? Oh, that’s tough. Because if you follow it from Gypsy’s point of view, then you’re in on the ruse, so you sort of know that she’s not actually as sick as she thinks. Unless you were really changing things and she really believes she’s as sick as her mother makes her sort of state. And maybe over the course of the story you’re discovering with her that she’s actually not so sick.

You could do it from Dee Dee’s point of view, but that’s sort of an odd thing, too. Like, when you have your central character being this very dark force, it’s a challenging thing. Talented Mr. Ripley does that. And it’s great. So, maybe it’s the maternal Talented Mr. Ripley, in a way. But it’s a very challenging way into a story.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, Ripley, there’s a reason that that first Ripley novel has been made twice now, and I think they’re contemplating making it a third time, whereas many of the subsequent Ripley novels haven’t because there is something about a sociopath discovering his sociopathy and beginning on a journey that ends in tears and drama that’s interesting. This is not that.

This is basically the deal. This has been going on forever. There’s no other way to do it. You can’t start with a little kid. And just, yeah, I feel like it is a cool side show episode for something, but…

John: Yeah. So I think there is a Lifetime movie to be made about this. And I think the way you get into the Lifetime movie is like it’s one of the neighbors who starts to suspect something and sort of starts to unravel this. And so it’s Dee Dee versus this neighbor who is starting to pull the threads and have everything come apart. That’s a way in. But that’s not really a feature movie. That very much feels like a seven-act Lifetime made-for-television movie.

And there’s nothing wrong with those, but that’s not sort of the big marquee movie we’re dealing with here.

Craig: Yeah. And even in the Lifetime version, the neighbor would be the hero, you know.

John: Completely. And so the other option you have is if it is just an episode of a standard TV show, then it’s a little bit more straightforward because then you have – your heroes are already established. They are the heroes of every episode. And they’re coming in to investigate this thing. So, if it is the equivalent of a Law & Order or a Chicago P.D., they’re coming into this thing with one set of assumptions and there are new things being revealed each time that you go through it.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s much more straightforward.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s fun. Because – I mean, fun in a sick way. You begin to suspect, you know, around right before the second commercial break, or however they divide these things up, that wait a second, she’s not sick at all. Dum, dum, dum, commercials. And so that works, because you know you’re going to be able to wrap it up, send the bad person to jail, or figure out that she was the one that murdered her own mother. And you wrap it up and then two lawyers sit in a room going, “Wow. Life’s crazy, right?” [laughs] And that’s kind of how those shows work, right? Basically, right?

That’s how those shows work. So, yes, good fodder for a procedural, not a feature.

John: So, we’ll put a link to think story. It’s written by Michelle Dean for BuzzFeed.

All right, our next one comes from Rachael Speal, who wrote in with a story of an amateur sleuth. Craig, why don’t you talk us through this?

Craig: So, like a real life Nancy Drew case here. It’s kind of great. There’s this 12-year-old girl named Jessica Maple, which I must say is a great movie name. Jessica Maple.

John: It’s a great movie name.

Craig: So Jessica Maple, also a denizen of Atlanta, she went to a camp called Junior District Attorney Camp, sponsored by the Fulton County DA Office. And at that camp she learned how to be a detective. You know, and you can imagine how cute that is. You know, it’s like a camp for middle schoolers to learn basic detective stuff.

And then lo and behold, someone broke in and ransacked her great-grandmother’s home. And the police, you know, did a little swing by and said, “Well, whoever robbed the home must have entered with a key because large items were stolen and there’s no sign of forced entry.”

But, our junior sleuth, Jessica Maple, 12 years old, knew something wasn’t right, because the only people that had keys were her parents, and they wouldn’t rip off her great-grandmother. So, she investigated the scene and found in fact that on the side of the house of the garage the windows were broken, fingerprints by the glass. And lo and behold she went to the pawn shop down the street, as she had learned to do at camp, and found all of her grandmother’s stuff at the pawn shop.

And that’s how they actually found the guys that did it. So, Jessica Maple, Sleuth.

John: She is a preteen sleuth. You got about ten pages of movie there. You got like a premise. So, here’s the thing: she’s an interesting character, and an interesting sort of setup in a world, but there’s nothing else around that. That can’t sustain a movie just by itself. There’s not a through line there. There’s not a big thing to have happen.

So, if she is a center piece character in this, it feels that this is a thing that’s happening by page 15, or through all this, and then she’s on to some sort of like really grizzly murder. Or something goes way beyond, because you have to be able to sort of push beyond the like, oh, she found her grandmother’s stuff. That’s not enough.

Craig: [laughs] High stakes. Because, you know, great-grandmother needs her TV for the remaining four months of her life. You know, the biggest problem I think here is that we have seen the teen sleuth or the child sleuth in every permutation possible, once a month, for the last 40 years, minimum. It’s just a standard. Take a kid and turn them into a cop or a detective. It’s been done a billion times.

And usually they’ll throw some other twist on to it, just to make it a little more interesting. You know, oh, now he’s a spy or whatever. There’s no oil left in this ground. It is a dry well, I’m afraid.

John: Yeah. Craig, at any point did you pitch on Encyclopedia Brown? Did that ever enter your world?

Craig: It did. And I’ll tell you how. And it was the coolest and yet worst thing. It’s actually a great and sad story about my life.

So, one day Scott Frank calls me up and he says, and this is many years ago, Harold Ramis was still alive. And he said, “I was talking to Harold Ramis about you and he got very excited because he has something that he thinks you would be great for and he wants to talk to you about it.” And I just levitated. I mean, Harold Ramis, for god’s sakes. You know, I mean, just the greatest thing.

And Harold Ramis called me. And I spoke with him on the phone. And he said, “How would you like to write Encyclopedia Brown?” And I didn’t.

John: You didn’t?

Craig: I didn’t. I did not want to write it. And the thing is if he had said, “I’m going to be directing Encyclopedia Brown,” I would have said I’m in. But he’s like, “Yeah, I’m producing it. But we’re going to find a director somehow.” And I could tell it was like, oh yeah, I got this thing in my pile of stuff. Encyclopedia Brown. And I just thought, no.

John: No.

Craig: And I was an Encyclopedia Brown fan and everything, but it’s just, you know, well, you know, obviously, I mean, look at the last thing I just wrote with these sheep. I’m an Agatha Christie kind of a guy. I’m less of a Hardy Boys/ Encyclopedia Brown guy.

John: So, what is Encyclopedia Brown’s real first name?

Craig: Leroy?

John: It is Leroy. And so that was always my premise for the pitch is that he’s Detective Leroy Brown. Detective Leroy Brown does not sound like a 12-year-old white kid in Florida. It sounds like Sam Jackson. And so my pitch for it was always that it was a sort of mistaken identity thing where they thought they were hiring Sam Jackson detective, but they got the little boy detective. And so like the Sam Jackson character and he have to team up to solve this thing. Which I thought would have been fun.

Craig: Yeah. That would have been – but, I’d like to note, you are running away as fast as you can from what Encyclopedia Brown actually is.

John: I think you have to do all the normal stuff with Bugs Meany, and Sally, and all that stuff. That has to be playing in one thing, but also it gets incredibly Michael Mann level of car chases and violence simultaneously.

Craig: But then like inevitably Bugs Meany goes to prison because, you know, he said that he was in the treehouse eating cherries all afternoon.

John: Yes. But where were the pits?

Craig: Where were the pits? Bugs Meany needed a lawyer desperately, because any time he got busted all he would have to say is, “You know, I talked to my attorney. I don’t really think the Where Are the Pits is going to hold up in court, Pal.”

John: Yeah. Probably not. But then again, like, Encyclopedia Brown was being paid a quarter, so the dollar stakes were not especially high.

Craig: [laughs] And how embarrassing for his dad. Embarrassing bordering on humiliating. His father was the Chief of Police.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Routinely could not solve even the simplest of crimes, but Encyclopedia Brown would always solve it before dessert.

John: Is there an equivalent term for like cuckolding there? Which is basically like humiliating your father? [laughs]

Craig: Yeah. It’s kid-culking. Cuck-kilding. Cuck-kidding. It’s Cuck-kidding.

John: All right. So, back to Jessica Maple. We’ll have a link in the show notes for this story. This was from ABC News. It’s really just the slightest little whiff. So, there’s an idea about a character here, but there’s nothing to buy. There’s nothing to make obviously.

Craig: I mean, but good for the real Jessica Maple, though.

John: Great name. You can take the name Jessica Maple. It’s fine.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Our last one, oh, is a doozy.

Craig: Now, I have to say, the little preface here. I was talking to my television agent today. She mentioned this thing. She didn’t know that we were doing this. I believe that she is one of the agents at CAA that is representing this currently. So, they’re going out to the town with this one. And she actually said, you know, would you—

And I’m like, no. But, it’s tempting. [laughs] It’s tempting.

John: So, what we’re talking about which is so good is by Christopher Goffard. It’s a six-part series in the LA Times spaced out over the course of a couple weeks of this story. But it very much felt like to me like a big Vanity Fair piece, because it very much had that sort of like peeling back layers.

It’s the story of this Kelli Peters, a mom in Irvine, California. She’s the PTA president. She gets arrested for drug possession. She denies the charge, claimed she got framed. But who could have done this to her? It turns out it was Kent and Jill Easter. They blamed Peters for an incident involving their son at school. And the couple continued to connive. They tried to get her fired. They planted the drugs. They covered things up. And it was just kind of amazing.

So, the story tracks the trial basically and the investigation onto why the Easters did this and sort of how they did this. And, Craig, how would this be a movie?

Craig: Oh, boy. I mean, so, it’s not a movie. It’s a television show, I think. I think it has to be a series, just like this article is a series. Because the unfolding is where the deliciousness is. The resolution itself is forgone. So, the only – you know, once you realize, once the police realize this lady is the first lady in history who is actually telling the truth when she says people planted – those aren’t my drugs – she’s the first one who told the truth in history. And once they realize that, you have to know already that these other two are involved.

In fact, you want to know. You want the audience to see them squirming and conniving. You want to be part of their squirming and conniving, because that’s where the fun is. For instance, the Mrs. Easter – god, what great names, by the way. They’re just like giving us great names. Mrs. Easter is having an affair, so I want to see that, too. Not only is she getting her husband to plant drugs in this woman’s car and fake calls to 911 using like a weird Indian accent, kind of, but she’s also berating her side piece for not being supportive enough of her when the police come after her. She’s incredible.

So, you want to be involved in all of that. You can’t wait for it to just all fall apart in the third act. It’s got to be like a six-parter, right?

John: I think so. One of the things I enjoyed so much about this piece as presented on the Times website is they have the actual audio of a lot of stuff, so they have like the police interviewing him and other little small calls. And so you actually – it’s one thing to see the transcript, but to actually hear it in their voices. Like, oh man, these people are just not making good choices. Bad choices all around.

So, I agree with you that we have to be able to see sort of behind the curtain and see what the Easters are doing. And they are the fascinating characters. You’re like, Kelli Peters, she’s great. I have nothing bad to say about Kelli Peters, but the fascinating thing is Kent and Jill and sort of what their real dynamic is.

And even at the end of this six-part series we don’t really know what was kind of happening in those conversations about when they were deciding to plant the drugs. We don’t know why he stayed. We don’t know if he was really behind things. If she was behind the things. The most fascinating dynamic to me, though, is that they’re both lawyers and the investigation was so hampered by their both being lawyers, because they had attorney-client privilege, which made it very hard to go through all their emails to find stuff.

Craig: Right.

John: They had spousal privilege about testifying against each other. So, it became this whole game about sort of how you get them to testify. So, there were a lot of really great things, but I feel like they are series things, rather than movie things.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. There is a difficult thing at the center here that would have to really be thought through carefully. And it’s not evident in this article yet. And maybe it’s the most fascinating thing, I suppose, that Jill Easter – and it seems like it was her problem initially – Jill Easter, the thing that makes her so upset, and it wasn’t like there was a history of a problem with this other woman, Kelly. It’s just one day her kid wasn’t out in front from the tennis court where he was getting a tennis afterschool lesson or something. And then the Kelli lady went and got the kid. Oh, yeah, like for three minutes he was kind of unattended on the tennis court. Which is just not that big of a deal.

And just so people understand, this whole story takes place in Irvine. So, when my son was playing–

John: The setting is so crucial.

Craig: It’s crucial. So, my son was playing tournament baseball for a while, and every Memorial Day we’d have to go to Irvine for this massive baseball tournament. Irvine is the most – I don’t know how you describe. It’s like a computer made a nice city. You know? Right?

I mean, the streets are impossibly wide in Irvine. It’s like every street is 12 lanes wide, and there’s no dirt anywhere. So, your kid being alone for three minutes on a tennis court is not the end of the world, and even if it were like you’d talk it out and she’d apologize and that’s that.

But this little thing sends this woman and then by extension her husband into a mania that is just unwarranted even by the merits of crazy people. And that’s the part that really concerns me about the adaptation of this story. I don’t mind villains doing crazy things as long as I understand the little sane kernel behind it. Like, you know, Holly Hunter did that wonderful movie about the true story of the murderous Texas cheerleading mom.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: But I get it. It’s like, okay, the hyper-competitiveness and the need to promote your child. I get that there’s a kernel of sanity that spirals out of control. There’s not even that here. It actually doesn’t make sense.

John: I think it does make sense. And here’s where I think the – this is the universal truth that’s underneath all of this. I think it’s equivalent of like the hygiene hypothesis. You know how like because we are so obsessed with keeping our hands clean and stuff like that we have horrible allergies now that we didn’t use to have.

I think in some ways Irvine and sort of our modern culture, everything is – there’s so little crime, there’s so little danger anywhere that we keep looking for it. And we sort of overreact to things that shouldn’t be things that we react to at all.

And so in her overreaction to this not really big deal, she goes like cavewoman crazy about how to defend her kid. And that, I think, it’s all about overreactions. And I think that is the universal thing you can get to underneath all of this. And that’s why I think the setup for this is also brilliant, because the author does a great job of really just describing how pristine this place is, but also how remarkably competent the police are.

As you were reading through this, weren’t you just struck by like, wait, they can actually trace all of those calls down to a specific payphone and actually find the video surveillance. Compared to like Serial where we couldn’t, like did [unintelligible] even have a payphone? We don’t know. Here they know everything. They know exactly where the cellphones worked for times. They have all these special pinging things. They knew everything kind of from the start. It was remarkable to me sort of how competent the police were.

They have like 20 detectives on this tiny little case. And, again, that feels like an overreaction to something that shouldn’t kind of be that big of a deal. No one got killed. So, it’s strange. The other thing I will say is I felt some sympathy for the Easter’s kids who are very carefully kind of left out of the story, but in a movie you’re going to see them there and you’re going to think like, oh man, something bad is going to happen to those kids because their parents are going to be in jail.

Craig: Yeah. And they are ruined. I mean, at the end of this, what was a very comfortable seems like upper-class lifestyle has been dashed to bits. The marriage is broken. All because of this insane thing. In a weird way, I wasn’t surprised by the Irvine police force’s ability to do this, because I don’t know what else they do. I mean, I’m not denigrating them. I know there is crime in Irvine, but my guess is that they have the time and resources to dedicate to this because it is a pretty safe city.

And I loved the conversation that is recorded, the real conversation you can hear in this article between the cop when he’s interviewing Kent. Because Kent is a lawyer and this guy is just asking him questions like where were you and what did you do and did you hear about this, and blah, blah, blah. And at some point he goes, “You know, I’ve been asking you questions now for a while. I think you know that there’s something probably going on here, right? I mean, you’re a lawyer. You know that cops just don’t chat you up for a while just ‘cause. So why don’t we just get to the point here, right?”

And then Kent was like, “Yeah, yeah.” It’s great. It’s great. That character was terrific. That conversation was terrific. It could be a terrific – yeah, it feels like a series to me, like a mini.

John: I think there probably is – there’s a way we’re not thinking about it that you could do as a movie. Because people say Gone Girl and it’s like Gone Girl could have totally been a series, too, but Gillian Flynn was so smart at sort of finding the way to tell that is a two-hour movie.

And I think there’s something about breaking it half where you actually crossover into the Easter’s point of view on things and really see what they’re doing. And that becomes fascinating. So, you’re going to see it. The universal truth behind all of this as well is like never go for revenge. Like the classic saying is when you seek revenge, first dig two graves. One for your enemy and one for you. And it’s so fascinating to watch how it boomerangs back at the Easters. They’re trying to destroy this woman’s life and in the course of maybe, I don’t know, 20 minutes of stupidity they destroy their own lives and their families. It’s remarkable how completely they’re able to ruin everything around them.

Craig: Yeah. And you get to listen to the actual call that Kent made where he posed as a man with an Indian last name but who did not have an accent until he sort of did. It is a – they should teach it in lying school, because it’s so clearly not valid. You can just smell it. You can smell that it’s a lie. It’s remarkable. There’s a lot of good stuff here.

And, yeah, I think you’re right. There’s a way to do it as a feature, but if you’re going to do it as a feature I think you are going to need license to stray. Quite a bit actually. To get to something at the end that feels like an end. That matters, you know.

John: I agree. So, we’ll have a link to all of these articles in the show notes so you can click through and see how you would make them into a movie, or not into a movie. But that’s it for that.

So, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is potentially depressing, but also really well done, so worth reading for that. It’s an article in the New York Times by Naomi Rosenberg, a Philadelphia ER doctor, called How to Tell a Mother Her Child is Dead.

Craig: Oh god. I’m sure this could be potentially depressing.

John: But I think it’s actually fascinating for screenwriters, because I’m always obsessed with procedure. Like what is the actual procedure when you have to do this thing. When there’s a certain kind of investigation. Well, this is the procedure you go through if you have to go into the room and tell a parent that their child has been killed.

And Rosenberg is incredibly thoughtful about what the experience is going to be like for the physician, what the experience is going to be like for the parent, and how you bridge the two of them. So, I’ll give you a taste here.

“When you get inside the room you will know who the mother is. Yes, I’m very sure. Shake her hand and tell her who you are. If there is time you shake everyone’s hand. Yes, you will know if there is time. You never stand. If there are no seats left, the couches have arms on them.”

Craig: Ugh.

John: So, it’s incredibly well-written. It’s just really thoughtful and smart about what that process is like. Even getting into the you’re not allowed to say that they were murdered. You’re not allowed to say they were killed. You say very specific things. They’re not allowed to see the body because there could be an investigation. It does everything just right. So, I really recommend all screenwriters take a look at it.

Craig: You know what would be a cool scene is if somebody knew this, they knew that when the doctor comes in and sits, even on the edge of the couch, it means the kid is dead. And then they have to go in. And the doctor comes in and site. Ugh. Blech. This is the problem with being a writer. You just think about bad things all day long.

Well, here’s a good thing. Maybe. This is a potentially cool thing, because I haven’t played it yet, and I’ll explain why. Obduction. Not Abduction. Obduction. O-B-duction is a new mistype game from Cyan. The Miller Brothers, who were the creators of Mist. So, it looks like kind of a Mist for 2016. And I’m sure you played Mist.

John: I loved Mist.

Craig: Right. It’s the greatest. So, I am super excited to play it. Ah, but I can’t. And why? Well, it is available for PC and Mac. Apparently the Mac version is having a little bit of problems. But my problem is that the only way to play it is to download it from Steam. And I maybe somewhat imprudently decided to just jump on the Sierra beta bandwagon. So, I’m running Sierra and I think the problem is Steam is like, oh no no, this game isn’t supported on your platform because they don’t recognize my OS version number. So, it’s like a weird thing like you need to hit a number, and if you’re too low you’re no good. And if you’re above the highest number that they recognize, you’re also no good.

So, hopefully that’s what the problem is. And when the official Sierra release happens, maybe Steam updates and then I can play this damn thing. Because I paid for it.

John: That’s good. I should say, Sierra is a challenge on a lot of different levels. So, both Highland and Bronson Watermarker, two apps that we make, they are going to have updates for Sierra because of like one specific thing that changed in Sierra, which we went back and forth with Apple a bunch of times on and they did not get fixed in the build master.

So, if you are using Highland or Bronson Watermarker on Sierra, there will be a new version out in the App Store hopefully by the time it ships on the 20th so that you will be able to keep using those apps.

Craig: Great.

John: But it’s challenging. I agree.

All right. That is our show for this week. As always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. Edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can write into and send us a link for that. Also a place for the longer questions like the ones we answered.

On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. I’m also on Instagram. I use Instagram stories a lot for sort of all my time in Paris. And so if you want to see a bunch of photos of like kids carrying baguettes and little dogs in restaurants–

Craig: [laughs] I don’t.

John: That’s where you can find all of those photos.

Craig: Nah.

John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at

That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. Godwin usually has them up about four days after the episode airs.

All the back episodes of the show are at And on the Scriptnotes USB drives which are I think now just back in the store. We sold out of them, but we had a couple hundred more made. So, if you’d like to buy one of those, you can buy those.

We’re on iTunes, of course, so if you could leave us a review that helps. It helps people find our show. And that’s it for this week. Craig, thank you again.

Craig: Thank you. And adieu.

John: Adieu. Bye.

Craig: Bye.


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(Sometimes) You Need a Montage

Tue, 09/20/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig come to the defense of montages in screenwriting, giving examples of how and when the much-maligned device can be employed to benefit the story.

We also share our thoughts on the latest incarnation of Final Draft, plus new listener questions on sex scenes and resuscitating old scripts.


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Starting a screenwriting career outside of LA (or New York, or London)

Fri, 09/16/2016 - 07:55

In a recent episode of Scriptnotes, we shared stories from screenwriters who managed to build careers while living outside of Los Angeles, New York or London.

We had more contributors than we could feature in the episode, so here are a few more tales from the trenches.

Chad from Nashville, TN: After studying film in college, I moved from NY back to Tennessee to get better at writing screenplays. It took eight years of writing to win Slamdance’s competition. I had been a finalist in others and even won a smaller festival, but they didn’t really matter besides being a barometer for my writing progression. But with the Slamdance win for my horror screenplay JUG FACE, I was able to get most anyone to read it.

I contacted a producer who had made other horror films that I felt my movie fit in with. At the same time, I had been in preproduction on a horror short and was about to shoot it the very next weekend after speaking with that producer. Three weeks later, I sent him the completed short and he called me that night and said we were going to make the movie with me directing it. Five months after that, we shot JUG FACE and it premiered at Slamdance the very next year. The film went on to get world wide distribution and did pretty good for an indy horror film.

Since then I’ve gotten management and have had a number of projects fizzle but have finally made the move to LA to make things happen. My family and I landed here six weeks ago.

Alan from Connecticut: I am a produced screenwriter with screen credits for two Lifetime movies. I have lived in Connecticut my whole life and attended an online college program through the Academy of Art based in San Francisco.

After graduating, I worked on several spec scripts and began the long process of manual queries. I placed in a few screenwriting competitions, but they led no where. I finished a MOW Thriller and used IMDB Pro to get production contacts for niche low-budget companies. After getting a few hits, I used my spec to get my first assignment and it was produced into the film “Her Infidelity”.

All of my meetings, contracts, and contact has been done through phones, email, and faxing. It has worked out fairly well. I have other projects in development, but have not reached a point where I am screenwriting full-time yet. I also edit wedding videos and do a lot of freelance writing to help supplement my screenwriting career.

I may not be a traditional screenwriter, but I am happy and proud of my credits and hope to have more in the future. I just wanted to let you guys know that I have had screenwriting success without stepping foot in California and am still in continual development on projects.

Chris in Arizona: I live in Arizona and recently got hired for my first feature. I had done a few episodes of TV prior to this and as all aspiring writers do, submitted many scripts for competitions and what not.

Unfortunately the show I was originally hired to do never made the light of day (due to the writers strike a few years back), but I have to always assume it’s the norm.

Regardless of that I worked as an exhibitor, a fancy way of saying I worked for a movie theater company. The way things really began is I started building relationships with people in the industry when our theaters would do research screenings and I was assigned to coordination and handling the “talent”. An easy job for me. I started out speaking with many post production supervisors and would ask for introductions to producers, editors, and directors during screenings. Not to pitch or be annoying but the chance to say my name, them to see my face, and do what I was supposed to do for my job.

Over time many of these industry professionals would use our locations consistently and began calling me directly on my cell phone for scheduling changes, requests, etc.. Eventually relationships became more and more relaxed and I was able to have more casual conversations which eventually led into THEIR inquiry of my enjoyment of my job. I never approached anyone myself but allowed the conversations to flow naturally. I didn’t want to be the norm of what I assumed they were used to.

Basically it was a right place, right time, situation for a lot of things but it happened outside of the traditional locations.

JJ in Chicago: I’ve managed to make some money screenwriting from out here in Chicago. So far it has only been in independent films.

It started when I sent a spec to a producer friend in LA. He passed it to another producer who happened to be looking for someone to do a rewrite on his script. He asked for more samples and I was hired a few days later.

After forming a relationship with that producer I’ve been hired for a few more projects since that first one.

That said, I still have a day job and am finishing up another spec with hopes of making it into the big leagues one day.

Isaac in Portland, OR: I graduated long ago with an MA in Film Studies but decided soon after that what I really wanted was to become was a novelist. I pursued that for a number of years, getting five books published, but none that were successful enough to keep me from simultaneously working various day jobs. My first real exposure to the movie industry came when one of my books, Tokyo Suckerpunch, was optioned, first by Fox Searchlight and later by Sony. Talking to folks who worked on it and reading various scripts that emerged from its long development process de-mystified screenwriting a bit for me. I started reading every script I could get my hands on, thinking maybe this was something I could do one day.

I wrote the requisite terrible first script that I showed to maybe two people before burying it. The next script I finished I uploaded to the Black List site. That one attracted the attention of a manager. The next one went out and won a few fans around town. I flew to LA for some generals. The script after that was eventually optioned by an independent production company.

My manager encouraged me to come up with some TV ideas. I was wrestling with a sci-fi pilot for months when I decided to take a break and from that and write this crazy idea that had been germinating in my head for a long time — a Michael Jackson biopic told from the perspective of his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles.

That script blew up in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Within a couple weeks of BUBBLES hitting the town, I was back in LA for a whirlwind water bottle tour — meetings with execs, producers, agents, directors (the experience underscored what you often tell listeners about finding an agent — when you’re ready for one, they will find you). The script ended up atop the 2015 Black List and eventually sold.

I’ve been steadily working since, though given that I’m less than two years into my career as a professional screenwriter, it remains to be seen whether I can maintain any kind of career longevity living outside LA. Moving there is not really an option for me at the moment — I have two young children and love living in Portland. But I spend a week in LA about every three months and my reps understand that if something comes up and I have to hop on a plane tomorrow, I’ll be there. I spend a lot of time on Skype and on the phone, but so far being at a geographic remove hasn’t hurt me in any way that I’m aware of (major caveat: all my work so far has been in features rather than TV). I’ve been told by more than one exec that I’m lucky because writing features is maybe the one job in the industry where you can live pretty much anywhere.

Raj in Toronto: I myself am not a working screenwriter, but I am a producer and have had a successful and busy career in film and tv living exclusively in Toronto, and producing only original content. I work with and engage with scores of screenwriters who live locally and earn a living through domestic (i.e. Canadian) work. Some writers (and producers and directors too) split their time between the US and Canada — either on a calendar basis (e.g. several months here, several State-side) or on a per project basis. Even more stay and work here 100% of the time.

Toronto is replete with the head offices of broadcasters, production companies and distributors, all of which can and do trigger millions of dollars of original production.

One issue we share with the US is that if you want a career in film and tv in Canada, and you live outside of Toronto or Vancouver, it’s possible but very difficult to stay where you are. If you decide not to move to either city, you do have to spend much of your time travelling to pitch and take meetings.

One major difference in Canada is that we have no studio system. Instead, we have a vibrant community of smaller independent producers and prodcos.

Ryan in Vancouver: I am a thirty-four-year-old working screenwriter, living in Vancouver, Canada. I have a literary agent here, and have somehow cobbled together a living writing for Canadian broadcasters, and for TV movies. I wrote for a couple of tween sitcoms that were shot and created in Vancouver and later sold to Disney and Netflix. I’ve also picked up the odd independent feature writing gig.

That being said, I do still aim to head to LA (this is the year, I’m thinking), and I have started making more use of the screenwriting competition circuit (at least the bigger festivals, etc.). On that note, I actually just learned that a feature I wrote is a Semifinalist in the Austin Film Festival’s Best Dramatic Screenplay category. #NotSoHumbleBrag. I’m hoping it will help in my quest for a US agent. Time will tell.

These stories follow a pattern we discussed on the podcast. It’s more challenging to get your foot in the door when the door is thousands of miles away. But it’s not impossible.

Some writers have found competitions to be a good way of attracting the interest of managers. But we have yet to find one that got started based on a query letter, unless writers are eliding that detail.

While some working screenwriters are staying out of LA — often flying in regularly for meetings — quite a few pack up and move here. I call this the Nashville effect: moving to where the business is.

Thanks to all the writers (and producers) who wrote in to share their stories. We may feature more in the future.

Dig Two Graves

Tue, 09/13/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig reprise their roles as development execs in “How Would This Be a Movie?” Looking at four true crime stories, the duo discuss what makes a great screenplay idea, and conversely, which stories work better as a serialized TV drama.

We also attempt to brighten the spirits of aspiring writers living outside of LA, New York and London, sharing the experiences of Scriptnotes listeners across the globe who have found their way into the Hollywood system from abroad.


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UPDATE 9-09-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 266: Stranger Things and Other Things — Transcript

Fri, 09/09/2016 - 09:30

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 266 of Scriptnotes. A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we will be looking at the Netflix series Stranger Things and the writing choices that made it work so well. The WGA elections are upon us again, so Craig will tell you who to vote for. Finally, we will be tackling four recent articles in the news and asking our favorite question: how would this be a movie?

For the first time, all the stories we’re looking at come from listener suggestions, so thank you.

And, Craig, we’re back.

Craig: We’re back. You are currently in Europa.

John: I’m in Europe.

Craig: We are now separated by how many hours? Nine?

John: Nine hours. So it is nine in the morning as you’re recording this. It is 6PM as I’m recording this. I guess that’s our first bit of follow up. At the last episode, I was about to get on a plane to Paris. And I didn’t chicken out. I did it. So I’m now here. I’ve been here 10 days. It’s all going really well.

Craig: That’s fantastic. And you at 6PM and me at 9AM, we should be roughly the same amount of tired.

John: It should be. I’m about ready for some dinner, and then some winding down, and heading into bed. And you’ve got a whole day ahead of you.

Craig: Yeah. But also probably ready for wine and a wind me down. I like to wake up and immediately start winding down.

John: One of the things I found challenging about being in Paris this time is usually when I’m here it’s vacation, so like, sure, let’s have wine at lunch. Sure, let’s have ice cream every day. And actually living here, that’s not a sustainable lifestyle, at least for me. So, I’m having to learn how to pace myself. And what living in Paris John is like versus vacationing in Paris John.

Craig: God, you know, I never thought of that. But it’s true. You’re in a different country and you think, all right, well, it’s the weekend. Let’s go do four things until we’re deadbeat. Eat way too much. And then have somebody clean our room. Nah. That ain’t happening.

John: Exactly. There’s none of that. I’ve had to learn how to do very basic Parisian things, like go to IKEA to buy the desk I need that I’m recording this podcast at. I’ll be sure to include a photo in the show notes of the desk setup I got, because I had to buy a children’s desk, because all of the desks are too big. I could only use a child’s desk in this apartment.

Craig: Aw.

John: Aw.

Craig: Your little, little child’s desk.

John: I’m a little child.

Craig: Is it the [Sturmfuhrer]? Is it the–? No, what is it called?

John: It’s the Pahl desk. It’s the P-A-H-L, but with a circumflex – not a circumflex, the two dots above the A. The Pahl desk is what I have.

Craig: Pahl.

John: So, you know, I had to go shopping for school supplies. I’ve had to do lots of really normal Parisian things.

Craig: And how are you doing language wise? Are you hanging in there?

John: I’m getting by. It’s slowly coming back to me. So, I can get by in French, I’m just not a natural French speaker. And so the goal is to be able to sort of answer back more smoothly as people talk to me. But people can speak at me full speed and I can usually understand what they’re saying.

Craig: That’s amazing.

John: Yeah. It’s pretty good. For folks who are kind of familiar with Paris, there are all the Arrondissements, which are sort of confusing. They’re laid out like a snail. The easiest way to think about where I am in the city is you know how you see those tourist photos of people near the Eiffel Tower. There’s like a great big lawn and they’re usually taking a photo where it looks like they’re pinching the Eiffel Tower or plucking the Eiffel Tower through forced perspective. You know all those really annoying photos?

Craig: Yeah.

John: I live right near where all those people take those annoying photos. So, that’s who I see every morning as I cut through the park.

Craig: Every morning you see Tower pinchers?

John: I see Tower pinchers.

Craig: God. You start yelling at them out your window now.

John: Tourists!

Craig: Go back to your country! Swine!

John: Swine!

Craig: Because, you know, French people speak English, but with a French accent. I don’t know if you knew that? That’s what French is. It’s accented English. Yeah.

John: Very true. Well, actually, you know the British accent is just American English and they just change a little bit.

Craig: Yeah. They make it silly.

John: They make it silly. Yeah.

Two episodes ago we had Peter Dodd on, the UTA agent. And he said that agents read the Nicholls finalists, but they don’t necessarily read the semifinalists and quarter-finalists. And he said there are thousands and thousands of semifinalists. Greg Beal from the Academy wrote in and sort of gave us the real numbers. So, here’s the actual numbers of how many semifinalists there are.

So, he said, “In a single year, the most Nicholls semifinalist scripts ever was 140.” Which is a lot of scripts.

Craig: Yeah.

John: “That means in the history of the competition there’s approximately 3,000 screenplays that have been semifinalists but were never finalists.” So, considering that some writers might have had two scripts, that’s at least 2,000, 2,500 people who can say like I was a Nicholls semifinalist. So that’s a lot.

Craig: It’s a lot.

John: But he also sent a list of the people who were the semifinalist but not the finalist, and there’s some really good names on that list. So, I thought we would end on an inspiring note and say who some of those people are. Names like Michael Arndt. Ava DuVernay. Mark Fergus. Vince Gilligan. Gavin Hood. David Levine. Damon Lindelof. Josh Marston. Melissa Rosenberg. John Spaihts. Frank Spotnitz. Meredith Stiehm.

So there’s a lot of really great writers who were semifinalists but not finalists. So, that’s encouraging.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, the implication – I don’t think Peter’s implication was if you don’t become a Nicholls finalist, and you only are a semifinalist, you’re never getting an agent. I think his implication was you’re probably not getting an agent because of the Nicholls. The script may find its way to him some other way. Or, you may write another script that is more attractive that people find you via. But, you know, our general thesis in that discussion that contests are perhaps overrated and the notion that writers have that contests are their ticket to the big time is probably more of a myth than a reality.

John: I think there’s also a correlation versus causation thing here. The fact that those writers who I listed there were finalists, well, that was because they were really good writers. And they were successful because they were really good writers. But, being a semifinalist was not the cause of them becoming successful. It was a correlation because they were already really good writers.

Craig: That is the rule that is overarching all of this stuff. Because, in the end, if you’re good enough to be a finalist, you don’t need to be a finalist. You’re good enough to be a finalist. It’s one of those things. Somehow or another the good should be borne out. And the cream should rise. And great scripts will be found. So, I guess the advice to people is to think, you know, everything good that might happen because of this script will happen because of this script. I am not trying to use this script to have something else happen. And that’s the thing that makes the good things happen.

John: Yeah. The good writing is the good writing. That is the ticket.

Craig: Yep.

John: We had a question from Andrew in Maryland. And so he was good enough to send in some audio. So, let’s take a listen to what he asked about that episode.

Andrew: Hi John and Craig. I’ve been a faithful listener since the early days of Scriptnotes and have always found the podcast entertaining and extremely helpful. However, I was deeply discouraged by two episodes – the One with the Agent, and Sheep Crossing Roads. It seems you’re saying there is really no hope for those of us who love screenwriting but live in other parts of the country and world.

I have a hunch the burning questions on the minds of your listeners not in LA are what does this mean for us. If we can’t move to LA, do we just hang up our spurs and write novels? I have a young family, so it’s not feasible for me to move to LA anytime soon. Should we even bother pressing toward our goals of becoming career screenwriters? I would love to know what you think we should do, if anything. Your faithful listener, Andrew from Maryland.

Craig: Well, this is a question we get all the time. And the answer, Andrew, is no. We’re not saying there is really no hope. We’re saying there is little hope. But then again, there’s little hope for people here. [laughs] You know? I mean, the deal is, I think I’ve said this before, if it’s a million-to-one shot in Los Angeles, and it’s five times worse in Maryland, then it’s a five million-to-one shot in Maryland. Those are all terrible odds.

So, you know, the problem of course is you have to think that you’re the one in the X million. And then do what’s best. But, it’s tough. We can’t sugarcoat reality here. It’s tough.

John: I wonder though if there’s a reality that we don’t actually appreciate, because we just haven’t found the writers who have actually broken in from outside the system. So, we have so many people who listen to the show, including working professional writers. I’m wondering how many of them actually broke in from some place outside.

So, basically they were Andrew from Maryland, and they wrote a script that somehow got the attention of people here. And now they’re working as a screenwriter or as a TV writer. So, if you’re listening to this and you are a working writer who started someplace else and got it all to work sort of from Andrew’s situation, could you please write us and let us know. Because we’d like to talk to you. I don’t know a lot of writers who have had that situation, but it must happen. So, write in to us. Write into and we’ll try to get your story out there. Because I really feel for Andrew.

Craig: Yeah. I do, too. I would say if you are in New York, excuse yourself from this exercise. That doesn’t count. But the only one I know of is Diablo. I don’t know anybody else that kind of just shot in here from a non-New York or California, or Southern California location.

John: Yeah. Gary Whitta doesn’t live in Los Angeles, but I think he might have been living in town when he started working.

Craig: You know what? Let’s also excuse London. That’s a great point. Because London has its own industry, and they make their own films. So, I would say, because we do get a lot of London writers who come over here because they initially work on London productions.

John: Like Kelly Marcel.

Craig: Right. Like Kelly Marcel. Well, there’s a ton of them. I mean, Tess Morris. And Kelly Marcel. And Gary Whitta, I assume, is a London guy, because he sounds Londony to me.

So London doesn’t count. New York doesn’t count. I’m going to accept every other place in the world.

John: Great. So we’d love to hear your stories if you have been able to start a writing career in film or television from someplace other than Los Angeles, New York, or London. Write in. Let us know. Because we could be wrong.

Craig: Yeah.

John: We’re often wrong. We love to be wrong.

Craig: I mean, John is often wrong. I don’t recall ever.

John: Yeah. We cut something out of this segment just now.

Craig: John was literally wrong seconds ago. [laughs]

John: One thing I’m not wrong about is Stranger Things, which is a terrific show on Netflix.

Craig: Segue Man.

John: Even in France, I am Segue Man. I’m l’homme de Segue.

Craig: L’homme de Segue. [laughs] Stranger Things, so, so much fun. Who doesn’t like this show? Nobody doesn’t like Stranger Things.

John: I found one person on Twitter who I follow who doesn’t like it. And he could be wrong. Craig, I was just so happy you watched it, because I watched it a couple weeks ago and I thought, well, Craig won’t watch it because Craig watches nothing. And then you surprised me by watching it.

Craig: Well, my wife said, “You’re going to watch this show now.” And I said, OK. That usually works. When the boss tells me to watch, I watch. And, frankly, what’s great about my position vis-à-vis watching TV is to me TV is the greatest medium of all time because I only watch the absolute best of shows. That’s it.

I’ve seen Breaking Bad. I’ve seen Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones. That’s what TV is to me. It’s an amazing machine.

John: It must be so intimidating when you try to do television yourself, because you assume that everything on TV–

Craig: How is that possible?

John: –if you turn on any random channel, it’s going to be just a masterpiece.

Craig: Actually, I weirdly assume that television is nothing but advertisements and then Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, and Game of Thrones. How else do they fill their day?

So I was talking to Mike Birbiglia the other day, and I said you’ve got to watch Stranger Things. Because, you know, and I hate telling people watch a show, because I know how I feel when people tell me to watch a show. And that’s basically angry.

But it goes down so smooth. It’s like drinking chocolate milk. It’s just, fooop, it’s in you. It’s so easy to watch. So easy to watch.

John: Now, there’s a good chance that some of our listeners have not watched the show yet. So, what we’re going to do is Godwin, when he listens to this episode, he will note the timecode of when we start hitting spoilers and then he will give you a timecode for when we’re done. So you can just read in the show notes about what you should skip to.

Obviously we have chapter breaks, but if you’re listening to this on a player that doesn’t have chapter breaks he’ll also give you the timecode so you can jump to the next segment if you don’t want any spoilers.

But I think on the whole we’re probably not going to go too spoiler heavy. We’re mostly just going to celebrate the things it did really well.

We could talk about the casting. We could talk about the production design. The terrific direction by the Duffer Brothers. And Shawn Levy who also stepped up and did a great job as well. But I really want to focus on the writing, because what I thought was so remarkable about the show is it took this premise, which to me felt like if we could have a Stephen King book, or an early Steven Spielberg movie, and do it as an eight-hour show, what would that feel like. And they pulled it off so geniusly. They were able to take that idea for a story and break it out over eight episodes in a way that didn’t feel tedious or padded. I was just really impressed by how they managed the control of information, the reveals of character details. It just all felt like it was of one piece. And so it was smartly done.

Craig: Well, you can see how much planning went into it. And this is a good lesson for anyone writing anything. I do think certainly for people writing films. But when you look at these limited series, an eight run series like this, it’s just a long movie is what it is, right, broken up into bits.

And what they did so wonderfully was carefully ration out information in such a way that you never felt under-informed, nor were you ever over-informed. You just wanted more. And that is a tricky balance to strike.

John: One of the other realizations I had is that this show, because it was dumped all as a block, you got to see all the episodes in one sitting if you wanted to. There wasn’t that week-to-week fan engine of curiosity or theories about who this character was or what was really going on. I think they knew from the start, because they were doing this for Netflix, that a person might watch the whole thing all at once. And they built it in a way that was rewarding if you were to watch it all at once, and didn’t feel like it was a show that you had to watch one week at a time.

Craig: I actually loved the fact that it didn’t come out one week at a time. Maybe a little counterintuitive, but because you may think from an executive point of view, a Netflix point of view, we have a problem here: if we dump all eight episodes of the show out, and this is a mystery, with multiple reveals throughout, what’s going to happen after day one when people just go online and start saying, “Here’s what happened. Here’s how it ended.”

In fact, in today’s culture, I feel the opposite is true. I feel that people respect that and don’t do that anymore. What they don’t respect, however, is the time in between time-lapsed episodes. So, if you do release an episode once a week in the traditional way, between your Sunday and Sunday, you have a week of people going bananas online attempting to explain things and guess.

So it’s like watching a movie with somebody next to you constantly whispering saying, “I think I know what’s going to happen. I think that that means this. I think that this is going to happen.” And you just want to kill them. And I don’t like that over-analysis, the interstitial over-analysis that goes on. So I love that this thing just went bloop and nobody had a chance to post endlessly long, boring theories about what you were about to see.

John: Agreed. So let’s take a look at what might have been on their whiteboard as they were mapping out these eight episodes. We obviously don’t have time to dig into the individual things on each individual episode, but what are the big macro notes as they were figuring out who the characters were, what was going to be revealed about each character in which episode, and sort of how the flow of the eight-episode season was going to work.

So, we start with episode one. The whole thing centers around the disappearance of a boy named Will Byers. And so Will Byers is obviously a key character. His mother is a key character. His brother is a key character. His best friends are key characters. And so we’re going to need to establish all of them.

We need to establish all of them. We need to establish the town. We need to establish the sheriff who is going to investigating his disappearance. That he’s not just a functional investigator, but he’s actually a flawed hero kind of character himself. And then there’s one other family that’s going to be very important. And so it’s his best friend, and his best friend’s sister. The family to some degree we’ll get to see. Am I leaving anybody else out of that initial sort of tableau?

Craig: The only other thing that you get early on is they establish a villain. They establish something dangerous and murderous that we can’t see. And they establish a bad guy with very stark white hair.

John: Absolutely. It’s also in the first episode that we meet the girl we’ll come to know as Elle. We first meet her on the run. She goes and she sneaks into a diner. She meets the owner, a guy named Benny, who seems like he’s going to be a useful, important, sympathetic character. He gets killed off very gruesomely. Let’s you know this is the kind of show where people will die suddenly. And that her life is in real danger.

By the end of the first episode, we’ve connected Elle with the boys. And we’ve pretty much established what the show is going to be like. That the engine of the show is the girl and the boys, the cops, Joyce, the mother played by Winona Ryder, searching for her son, and the bad guys.

Craig: Yeah. And what they’ve done is set up a bunch of questions. These are good burning questions, but we’re not overdosed on them. Question, what is in that laboratory? Question, what is the dangerous thing that kills a scientist in the laboratory? Question, it seems like that’s the thing that came after young Will Byers, but instead of killing him, young Will Byers just vanishes. Where did he go? Why would it do that?

And, lastly, the strange little girl, who we presume probably comes from the same lab, I guess, this girl doesn’t talk, and she seems somewhat traumatized. What’s the deal? All great questions. And not too many. Not not enough.

John: Exactly. And I thought it was very important that they show you that, you know what, we’re going to connect threads. This is not going to be one of those shows where people are going to be working in parallel forever. The girl is going to meet the boys by the end of episode one. And it feels, OK, you see what the shape of this is going to be by the end of episode one.

You get a sense of what the series is going to feel like. So, episode two, Barb – who is everyone’s favorite character – she is Nancy’s best friend. I should have explained that this is essentially a John Hughes movie that’s happening kind of in one frame of this. And it’s about her virginity. It’s all very kind of classically ’80s teen stuff, played pretty straight, although I would say some of that stuff goes a little broader in a kind of fun way.

But Barb is just this amazing character who disappears at the end of episode two. Joyce sees something climbing through the walls. This is where the supernatural things have started to intrude into our world. And so it clearly isn’t just the mystery of the disappeared boy. This is something that’s going to keep going on, and people are going to keep being in danger from these supernatural forces.

Craig: Right. And, again, for every bit – and this is what these guys are really good at – every time they gave us answer, they would then give us another question.

So, they give us an answer about this girl, Eleven. One answer is that, yes, she is from the hospital, and yes, bad people are chasing her, and no, she’s not a bad person. She’s a good person. But we also learn that she can move things with her mind. How? And yet still more questions. And she gives, I think, the boys the ultimate question at the end of this episode when she attempts to explain to them where Will is.

And she does it by taking – silently, no words – she shows that – they are all on their little Dungeons & Dragons game board. And then she flips the board over, puts Will on the back of the board, and puts him near a monster.

So, that’s a ton of questions. What the hell does that mean, right? But it was great. We learned a lot. And then they’re like, uh-huh, did you enjoy that information? Here comes more questions. Same thing with Barb. Barb vanishes. We get a little bit of information. There is some blood involved. And then she’s gone again. And someone has taken a picture – Will’s brother has taken a picture. So there’s a little bit of evidence now of something. And we also have this wonderful story of a mother who we all believe, and no one else believes, and that’s always just fun, you know. That’s just fun tension for us.

John: Absolutely. One of the things so crucial here is as an audience we are basically caught up with the characters. So, Eleven obviously has more information than we do. The bad guys have more information than we do. But everybody else is basically where we’re at. In some cases we have more information because we’ve seen multiple perspectives on things. But we’re never given a lot more information than what the characters themselves have. And I think that’s part of the reason why we can relate so well to the characters because we understand their confusion and frustration because we are confused, too.

We’re really wondering what’s happened. We’re wondering whether Winona Ryder is crazy. We’re wondering what the next best thing is to do.

The boys are great, but they’re also cocky and confident in a way that really helps propel the story. And I feel like other probably older, more rational characters, might have taken a step back and really looked at it more objectively. I love that they just went for it. And because they were kids, they just plowed right ahead.

Craig: That’s the gift here. And it’s a great writing lesson. When you have something that’s a problem, you can easily convert into an asset. It’s a problem like to say, well, a policeman or a 30-year-old will look at this in a certain way and just grab this girl by the shoulders and say I’m going to have you now explain to me carefully.

But they don’t want that, so they use 12-year-old boys, who are Labrador puppies. And that’s so much more fun. Similarly, you have a moment in this episode where we see a flashback from Elle where she is remembering her past life with this white-haired villain character played by Matthew Modine. And he’s having her thrown into a little solitary confinement cell. We don’t know why. We don’t know why she’s having just that little scrap of a memory. We don’t know why she won’t speak.

But you know what we do know? She’s clearly been traumatized. And so they’ve taken this problem – why isn’t this person telling us everything she knows – and made it an asset. She’s traumatized. She can’t. It’s very smart.

John: Plowing episode, episode three, we see Joyce communicating with Will, but also Will’s body is found, which was a big shocker. That was sort of a – if this were a week-to-week episode kind of series, you would be stunned by that having happened. At the end of the episode, his body is pulled from the lake. After watching that episode, we took a break. We didn’t watch it anymore until the next night. And I thought for a while like, oh, so I guess he really is dead and maybe it’s a ghost. I mean, it really does change your perspective on the things you’ve seen up to that point, because you’re expecting like, oh, well, they’re going to find him somehow because he is somewhere. His spirit is somewhere. They’ll find him. His body will somehow come back.

And the answer is no.

Craig: This was the only thing where I stumbled a little bit because at this point in the show they have setup Elle as a kind of moral and informational authority. She’s right always. And she has superpowers and she’s been there. And she’s already told them he’s not dead.

So, the part of the show I liked the least was the character of the three boys, it was the skeptic character, because there was no damn reason for him to be skeptical. Once she closed a door with her mind, yeah, I’m in. I’m in. You clearly know what you’re talking about. And the fact that she literally got them to hear Will’s voice very briefly through a walkie-talkie and similarly Will’s mother is experiencing a kind of communication with Will through lights, which is really beautiful and interesting. So, I never believe for a second that that was actually Will’s body.

And I was shocked that even one of the boys believed for a second that that was Will’s body. Regardless, we have certainly more questions. Even if you don’t believe that that’s Will’s body, and I never did, why is there a fake Will’s body in the lake? [laughs] That, to me, is a really good question. And if the obvious answer is because people want to fool you into thinking he’s dead, the question is but why. So then they know where he is. We also – we get an answer to Elle. That this man put her in – that flashback – he put her in solitary confinement because she refused to use her powers to hurt a cat.

But what comes out of that, which is so – then this other question is why is he making her hurt a cat? And why does she call him Papa? And what is going on? You know, you want to know. And what is the extent of her power?

That’s the other thing that’s so interesting, you know.

And then, lastly, the creature who has made little hints that maybe he could come into our world, now very clearly is showing that it can come into our world. And so there is now the question of the threat will this happen again.

John: Yep. I was a huge fan of both Alias and Lost. They were great shows. I watched every episode of both. But one of the challenges those shows had is because they were longer series, and because they had to go on for multiple seasons and the creators didn’t even know how long they were going to be going on in some cases, the mysteries, the little things they would seed, you weren’t sure when they would pay off or if they would pay off.

Going into this series that was eight episodes long, I could see things like Will’s body, is that really a fake body. What’s going on here? And I knew like, you know what, it’s eight episodes. I have a strong hunch that it’s going to pay off. And I think I gave the creators a little extra pass on some things because I knew that they only had eight episodes and that there was a plan for it.

I always felt confident that they knew both where the whole series was going, but also how they were going to structure the information within the episodes. And that’s a very tough thing is how do you make this one hour really enjoyable, but also be a great puzzle piece for the whole eight episodes.

Craig: 100%. And, you know, look, I like the genre of serialized mystery. I really do. But when it isn’t closed ended, it inevitably turns bad. I loved Twin Peaks. I loved it. But at some point it became clear that they were in a space where they were not writing backwards from an ending. And that’s a dangerous thing, because theoretically you’ve lost all sense of unity. And a mystery, unlike other serialized shows, like action shows, cop shows, procedurals, a mystery has an ending. And so it is a dangerous thing to write an open-ended mystery.

You eventually will run afoul of setups that don’t pay off. It’s inevitable. And so, yes, I would not have started watching this if I didn’t know that it had an end. Wouldn’t have done it.

John: Once you know who killed Laura Palmer, there’s no reason to keep watching Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely true, but you can’t frame Twin Peaks as who killed Laura Palmer and expect us to watch after you’ve revealed the answer to who killed Laura Palmer, or sort of a murky half-answer to who killed Laura Palmer.

Craig: It’s like listening to a song, and the song has this interesting build, and there’s going to be a reveal. I’m listening to the Pina Colada song. And what’s going on? He’s taking out a personal ad. He’s going to cheat on his wife. He’s going to meet her in a bar. And she walks in and IT’S HIS WIFE. But, what if it weren’t? What if it’s like, well, and she didn’t show up, so I’m going to try a different thing. And now I’m going to try to meet another lady. And this song is never going to end.

No! End. [laughs] End. You know? And that’s the problem. Twin Peaks, once Laura Palmer’s murder is revealed, you begin to realize they’re vamping. This show has now turned into vamping. And nobody wants to watch vamping. Nobody. Unless you’re going to like an improv show, and then give me a three-minute sketch and get off the stage.

John: Yeah. Challenging. There will be a new series of Twin Peaks coming on Netflix soon. So, we’ll see if they’ve learned that lesson.

Craig: I hope they have.

John: All right. Quickly powering through, episode four, the boys really contact Will, so that’s the radio episode. We connect Nancy with the monster through Jonathan. And that’s the first time you feel like, oh, these different characters who aren’t really interacting about the monster, everyone is starting to have the same kind of information about things.

It’s also where we reveal that the body was fake. And so you can sort of feel like, OK, all of these threads are coming together in the way that a Stephen King novel, like those threads would start to come together, like in The Stand, or these things where you’ve been following these separate people doing their separate things. Now everyone is starting to understand that they have a common enemy, and they’re coming together.

That continues in episode five. That’s where Hopper sees what’s going on. We establish the geography of our world and the other world and how one is the shadow of the other.

We see Nancy cross over. And we also see Elle in the depravation tank in the flashback. And you see like, oh, that’s how she does her thing and establishing that’s probably how the monster got in.

Craig: Yeah. So you start to see an acceleration of answers here. Episode four isn’t really giving us too much new information, other than that Will is definitely alive, and that body is definitely a fake. So episode four was a little bit of a holding pattern, although it did have some fun character stuff with Elle and the boys. Because, remember also, while they’re telling the story of information and mystery, they’re telling a love story between Elle and Mike.

John: Yep.

Craig: And it’s an adorable love story. They also in episode four, they begin to relieve you of some of the burden of frustration. It’s a small town. There are six or seven characters. All of them know things that would help the other one, and they’re not talking, which is normal to create tension. But at some point you can’t keep it up. And in this episode they say no more of that; let’s start connecting our dots together. That really happens in episode five where everyone is sort of now becoming one big team.

But what’s great about episode five is it also gives you a huge answer. And that answer is what the hell is this other place? We don’t quite know until they very clearly show Nancy actually entering it, and then coming out. And then we go, oh, I get it. It is like upside-down our world. I get it now. I get exactly what’s going on.

And all the way back in episode two when she flipped that board over and stuck his little figure on the back of the board, that was actually incredibly accurate.

John: Yep.

Craig: So, you’ve gotten all of these really interesting bits of news, and you also now can position Elle’s origin story. We know that she has these powers. We know that she started by being used by the military to listen to spies. Now she’s going to be helping to kill spies. But while she’s in that zone, right, she was never meant to contact this creature. She was just traveling this other dimension to help spy, but while she’s in there she discovers this bad, bad thing.

John: Yeah. And that bad, bad thing follows her out. So, in episode six we learn more backstory on Elle. We learn about how she came to be. We learn why she calls the man because Papa, because her real mother was part of this secret government program. They did acid and tried to do sort of psychic experiments. She was pregnant with Elle during that time. So, this man who she calls Papa probably raised her. And that is all very, very troubling.

So, it’s not just a name she’s given him. She actually sort of does see him as a father figure. If I have a qualm with sort of how some stuff played out, there was opportunity to see some real affection between the father and the daughter figure, and it was never there. And I don’t know if they just sort of ran out of time, or they decided it was not a thing they wanted to see. But I didn’t have a sense of Frankenstein’s love for his monster, or any of that really manifested through the end of the show. Do you know what I’m saying?

Craig: I totally agree. And part of it is that Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Elle, is such an extraordinary actor that she was frankly more convincing than everybody else at any given time. When she’s crying out to Matthew Modine, our villain, and crying for his saying Papa, like please don’t hurt me and put me in, you know, don’t punish me, I believed that it was the anguish of a child not to someone that she was scared of, but somebody that she loved.

And I needed – I’m so with you – I would have loved to have seen that he had some of that for her. And instead you mostly just get that he’s kind of a stock government sociopath. And I would love if he’s – the implication is he’s no longer with us, but if he does return in season two, that’s something I would love to see explored.

John: I agree with you. If I have any other fantasy wishes for a scene that wasn’t able to fit in here, Winona Ryder I think is terrific in the show, but she has to play sort of one emotion, and she gets to dial it between nine and 11, which is sort of the panic/anguish of a mother who has lost her kid. If she had a flashback, had some other moment to give us some other flavor of who she was. If they’d given us a little bit of whatever her and Hops relationship was back in the past, that would have been fantastic. Because I missed seeing another flavor of Joyce, who in this show only gets to be panicked mother.

Craig: True. But I will give Winona Ryder all the credit in the world. What a difficult task. You have to be basically completely strung out and realistic as a woman whose son is gone and who everyone is telling you is dead, and yet you believe he’s not dead. You deny the fact you’re going crazy. You’re talking to him through your lights. You’re crying all the time. And I believed her. And that was amazing.

I could easily see that in the second season she kind of goes through a Sarah Connor transformation. Like Sarah Connor in Terminator was basically damsel in distress. Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 is transformed by the experience of Terminator 1 into this ultimate hard-ass warrior, which I love.

John: Yeah. I think I just wanted Winona Ryder to have her Emmy reel. And I wanted one more scene for her Emmy reel there, which would have been great.

Craig: Well, she’s got some good ones. I’ll tell you the one that I would put in, which I loved. It’s such a little scene, but she goes to the store where she works. We’ve never seen her actually working her job. She just goes there, confronts her boss–

John: And takes stuff. Yeah.

Craig: Yeah. She needs two weeks advanced pay. And she needs a telephone. And she needs a pack of Camels. I mean, that was great. So well done.

John: All right. So episode six, we got our backstory. Episode seven is where everybody comes together. So essentially all these characters who have been in different spaces, they’re now all under literally one roof. We’re in the gym. They’re building this giant bathtub thing so that Elle can float and find where the missing boy is. It was nice.

It was a thing that you sensed needed to happen at some point. Like everybody had to get together and be working together to do things. And there was still conflict between the different characters. Each of them had some slightly different agendas, but they were all generally on the same page.

We also could really feel the ticking clock that the bad guys were out there and they were going to find them sooner or later. So, everything was coming to a head.

Craig: Yeah. And good writing lesson here. When you need to create obstacles for your characters, try and create them out of elements of the world that you have organically put in there that nobody would expect would then become an obstacle.

So for instance, we have these flashbacks where we’re seeing how Elle first contacts this other dimension and a monster. And to do that, they’re putting her in this isolation tank. And we don’t really understand why, although it seems pretty quickly like, OK, it helps her concentrate and it helps her access her full power. How smart then for them later to say, oh, if we’re going to win the day, we need to reproduce that with her as good people so that it becomes this fascinating obstacle that no other show would have ever had.

We need to fill a bathtub up with water and salt. And how do we do it. How much salt do we need? And where are we going to do this? Very, very smart. It’s a really good lesson, I think, to take the things that you have, that only you have, and turn them to your advantage.

John: Yeah. Being specific rather than being generic. And then finally we get to our eighth episode. And the series has basically promised this from the start. We will go in and we will save the boy. And so Hopper and Joyce go in to save Will Byers. And it’s all cool. It’s all actually really well done. And so we have the tension of them being in this other world, whether they’ll get to the son in time. We have all the bad guys in the real world. We have the monster crossing over to face the boys. You knew that had to happen, but you weren’t quite sure how it would look, or where it would take place.

I mean, the boys at the very first episode, they’re fighting this monster. And now they’re fighting the monster for real. So it was nice to see it all coming together.

Craig: Here’s where all of our big spoilers are. It was not at all surprising to me that she sacrificed herself to destroy the monster and save Mike and the boys. That seemed inevitable from the start. I love my Christ figures so much, so when I see one walk into a movie I think, well, you’ll be dead. And that’s fine. Although, of course, in Stranger Things fashion, you get all of these answers. And the day is done, and then more questions are raised at the end to tease you ahead for the second season.

Maybe she’s not dead. And maybe Will Byers isn’t exactly OK. And the good questions to keep us posted for it.

Now, it’s interesting, when I watched it, it didn’t seem to me like a series that needed to continue with those characters, by the way. I could easily see a second season where it’s an entirely different story with different people.

John: And they haven’t promised one thing or the other, have they? So, there’s no guarantee they’re coming back.

Craig: They have implied, actually, so let’s talk about Barb for a second. So, Barb, the perfectly pitched friend character, the Jiminy Cricket character for Nancy, who’s saying don’t sleep with the boy just because he’s cool – and accurate. She disappears. She’s discovered to be dead on the other side, so that’s sort of the stakes for Will. That helps us know that Will is in legitimate jeopardy on the other side.

That’s really all that ever happened with her. Her mom answers the phone at one point. We never see the mom again. People on the Internet were a little upset. I mean, hold on to your hats everyone: the Internet got upset. Because they felt that she had gotten a short shrift.

Some of the anger came from the corner of gender/queer politics. That she was probably gay and another gay character died. Although, I don’t see why they thought that, just because of her haircut? I mean, I didn’t get that jump. I mean, look, from a writing point of view, Barb existed so that we understood that Will Byers could die. That’s why she existed as a character. But they did say that they heard some of the criticisms about Barb and that Barb would get some kind of justice in season two, which implies a continuity here, yes?

John: Not necessarily. It could be a more metaphorical justice. Like basically the bad things that were done to her will be avenged. Or that maybe Nancy will go out there and take down the bad guys. So we’ll see what happens.

Craig: All right.

John: I leave it to them. But let’s talk about what’s next for them, because I don’t know the development process on Stranger Things, the first season, but I suspect they pitched the pilot. At some point they wrote up a document that was sort of what we were describing. It’s basically the talk through what happens episode by episode. And I’ve had to do those kind of outlines. Craig, you probably had to do the same kind of thing for the HBO show you’re doing, right?

Craig: Sure.

John: And so the kinds of things we’re talking about today, really the broad strokes about what’s happening in a given episode, after you sell a series you’re going to be writing up that document. And that’s the kind of thing you’re going to be talking about with the people who are writing the checks for your show about what’s going to happen in given episodes. And sometimes there’s negotiation. I don’t know sort of what degree they had to wrestle over what things were going to be happening in which given episodes.

But those documents exist before there are ever scripts. And so they’re very important places for planning the big broad strokes of the story. And I thought in those broad strokes documents, I don’t know if they’ll ever be published, they were really good.

Craig: Yeah, for sure. I would love to see their show bible. We call it a show bible. Because inevitably things change. I mean, it’s funny. I’m in the process right now of conforming my – so I’ve written two episodes of the HBO thing. And they’ve asked me to kind of go back now and make changes to the bible to reflect how things changed in those first two episodes, because as they’re talking to other broadcasting partners, they just want all the materials to match up. And things do change. And I’d be fascinated to see where they kind of deviated from their plan, their initial plan.

But I suspect that the big points, in concrete. Have to be, or else I’m not sure how you survive writing a show like this.

John: Yeah. Cool. So if you skipped over our discussion of Stranger Things, please go back and listen to it when you’ve had a chance to watch the show, because we thought it was great. But now let’s get to the WGA election. And Craig will tell you who you should vote for.

Craig: Well, I’ll do my best here. This is what we call an off-year election, so no officer candidates this year. It’s just board members. We’re losing a bunch of incumbents, a bunch of good incumbents. I’m sorry to say we’re losing some feature writers. We may soon find ourselves with a board of directors that has no feature writers on it. It’s just horrifying to me.

Regardless, here’s who is running. Matthew Weiner of Mad Men fame. Glen Mazzara of Walking Dead fame. Zoanne Clack, who is medical doctor and a big TV writer. Jonathan Fernandez, who is an incumbent. Chip Johannessen, who is incumbent. Marjorie David is an incumbent. Courtney Ellinger, I’m not familiar with. Ligiah – I think it’s Ligiah Villalobos who interviewed me and Chris Morgan one evening at the Writers Guild. I can’t remember what it was about. Ali LeRoi, who is a big television writer. And Patric Verrone, evergreen Patric Verrone.

Look, some of these people I don’t know. But I figure probably the better thing is to say who I do know and who I definitely support. I definitely support Glen Mazzara. Glen is fantastic. I can’t believe he hasn’t been on the board yet. He’s hugely active in the Guild. He’s incredibly active in the showrunner’s training program, which is of vital importance. He is a great guy. He is super active in diversity efforts at the Guild. And he’s a practical, smart dude who listens. I love Glen. I love, love Glen. He’s terrific. So, please do vote for Glen.

I don’t know Zoanne Clack, but she’s a medical doctor and I just feel like people that – unless they are–

John: You know who else is a medical doctor?

Craig: Who?

John: Dr. Ben Carson is a medical doctor.

Craig: Well, yeah, I get it. But, see, she’s never said anything cuckoo like Ben Carson. And I’ve got a good feeling about her. Medical doctor. Also, it just seems like she does seem to have approval from a wide swath of people in the Guild. So, I am supporting Zoanne Clack.

John: Great.

Craig: Jonathan Fernandez, incumbent, terrific guy. Very, very pragmatic, again. Good and moderate and smart. We should absolutely get Jonathan Fernandez back on the board.

John: So I know Jonathan Fernandez from the picketing group. Back at the last strike, he was part of my picketing group. We picketed in front of Paramount Pictures. Every morning at like 5:30 in the morning. And so it was a small group of us and he was one of them. And since that strike he’s been sort of my go to person to ask questions about like, hey, what’s really going on here with these issues in the Guild. He’s very smart about younger writers and sort of the struggle of actually bringing home enough money that you can afford to be a writer. And so he has TV experience, feature experience. He seems like a great choice to get back on that board.

Craig: For sure. I can’t really speak to any of the other ones. That doesn’t mean they would be good or bad. Except for Patric Verrone. And Patric Verrone actually finished in ninth place in the last election. So, theoretically he should have been not elected. But one of the people who won an office position was Aaron Mendelsohn who was a board member. So there was a board member vacancy which meant they took and filled that position with the ninth vote getter, which was Patric Verrone.

I want to point out how extraordinary this is. Patric Verrone was the two-term president of the Writers Guild and he is so un-liked that he couldn’t finish in the top eight of board member elections last year. There’s a reason for that. He is a very, very smart guy. He is completely misguided on Guild politics. He has always been completely misguided on Guild politics.

He has one gear. And that gear is in moderation as a virtue. And Patric Verrone’s time is over. It should stay over. And he should find something else to do. So don’t vote for Patric Verrone.

John: Craig, I will guarantee you that I will not vote for Patric Verrone. So, if you are a WGA member, you got an email this last week that invited you to cast your ballots. So, do cast your ballot. It is important.

What Craig was saying is that this is an off-cycle election, so this is not the election where we also elect the president and do all of those other things. But these are quite important decisions you’re going to be making, because these are the people who are going to be taking us into this next negotiating cycle. So they’re not the negotiating committee, but they’ll be setting some of the agenda for going into that, so it’s important because it’s always important. And let’s pick some good people this year.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s important, too, that we have voices on the board who are actual voices. My experience on the board and my experience since in dealing with board members is that nine times out of ten board members do what they’re told to do. They’re told to do by the officers and they’re told to do by the executive director. And they have unanimous votes. And what they quickly become is large, boisterous discussion group that spends an hour or two yammering about stuff and then voting as they’re told. And we don’t want that.

We actually want a group that probably doesn’t spend as much time yammering to hear themselves speak, but also doesn’t rubber stamp things. We want thoughtful, independent, specific voices who are setting policy for our union.

John: I would agree with you. So, Craig, I’m looking at our recording time and it’s clear that we are not going to be able to get through these How Would this be a Movie. So what I propose to do is there are four different things we were going to talk through. And since we know what they are, let’s do that for our next episode. And we can actually put the links to these things in this week’s episode so people will see what they are, and they can read ahead.

Craig: Right.

John: And actually know what they are. So the four things we want to talk about, first is Florence Nightingale and The Woman in Disguise. It’s a story by Joseph Curtis writing for Male Online. It’s about Dr. James Barry. And, no spoilers, but Dr. James Barry had a very interesting life. And that was a submission by listener Craig Mazin, who occasionally listens to the episodes.

Craig: Rarely.

John: The second one is The Perfect Mom, submitted by Brett Thomas in Sacramento. It tells the story of Gypsy, this girl with a litany of debilitating diseases. An incredibly inspirational story of a mother and a daughter who really struggled against a million possible odds. And the community that supported them. And, wow, things go dark. Things go very, very dark.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: So, the story we’re going to have you read is by Michelle Dean writing for BuzzFeed. Our third one was submitted by Rachael Speal. It’s about an amateur sleuth. This is 12-year-old Jessica Maple. Her home was burglarized, but this pre-teen took it upon herself to find the scoundrels and bring them to justice. So, we’ll give you an article that is from ABC News that you could look at for that.

The final one, and it’s maybe kind of good that we’re pushing this back, because new pieces are still coming out and I haven’t read all of it, was submitted by Phil Hay who is a screenwriter friend of ours. One of the writers of The Invitation who was on a previous episode. This is called Revenge in Irvine. It’s a series of stories in The Los Angeles Times about a PTA mom and drugs and accusations. And it seems just great. It seems like a Desperate Housewives kind of story.

Craig: Yeah. It’s wild. Yeah, this guy, Christopher Goffard, is the writer. And I think he’s done four segments so far, and maybe two more coming out. I’m not sure.

John: So by the time we’re recording our next episode, maybe everything will be out and we can discuss the whole thing.

Craig: Excellent.

John: I thought it was just fantastic. So, we’ll have those up for next week we’ll discuss them. So if you want to read ahead, go read ahead.

Craig: Great.

John: All right, time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is oddly related to something we discussed. It is Angelo Badalamenti explaining how he wrote the Laura Palmer’s Theme for Twin Peaks. It’s so great. The music for Twin Peaks is so incredibly important for Twin Peaks. So it’s Angelo Badalamenti sitting at his piano with David Lynch as David Lynch is basically trying to evoke this feeling in him and Angelo Badalamenti is creating the music that matches that feeling.

It’s just a great description of the process for trying to create any piece of art, especially a piece of collaborative art. So, I really loved it. How he worked with composers. It’s one of those really strange things where you’re trying to describe something that you can’t really describe, so you end up using a lot of poetry, a lot of just imagery to try to evoke something. And yet it’s the responsibility of the composer to make that be music. And it worked out so brilliantly here.

So, I recommend everybody watch this.

Craig: Such a great theme. I mean, that theme song does so much to help you watch the episode that comes after it. The Game of Thrones theme song has a similar thing. It just puts you in a certain place, in a certain mood. There aren’t a lot of themes that do that for me for television shows. But, I mean, look Twin Peaks came out when you and I were in college and I can still, you know, I can hear it.

So, awesome. That’s excellent. Well, my One Cool Thing, how could it not be HD 164595? Now, HD 164595 is a star. And it is kind of flipping people out a little bit, because it may be the first time that we’ve actually picked up a signal from space that may not be natural, but rather alien-made.

So, this is our Contact movie story here. And so what they’ve done is they’ve found these particular kinds of spikes of signals that seem like they could be artificial. And it happens to be the case that this star is very much like our sun. It’s really close to the size of our sun, so it seems like maybe it’s in that Goldilocks zone for a nearby planet.

And so they’re now pointing all their stuff at it. Pointing all their stuff at this thing.

Now, to put some – to put a little damper on it. There is one possibility that this is not at all extraterrestrial. One of the things that’s concerning is that the frequency matches military frequencies. So, what we may be picking up is ourselves and we may be picking up some classified military signals from some satellites bouncing back that we just didn’t know were there. And, of course, no one is going to tell them.

But, I don’t know, because the thing is the Russians picked this up first, and now we are looking at it. If it’s not the Russians, and it’s not us, maybe it’s an alien.

John: It could be. Now, in the past when they found these strange signals, sometimes it became part of a revelation of other things out there in the universe. My understanding is like pulsars or quasars, one of those, like we thought at first that signal is too regular, too perfect, that must be the alien contact. But it turns out like, oh no, there’s actually these rotating stars that do cool things.

So, if nothing else it’s worthwhile to explore interesting things to see what’s there. Same situation with that star where it looks like there’s stuff circling it that could be something that people built.

Craig: Yeah. Tabby’s Star.

John: It may be nothing, but it shows us that there’s something we don’t understand about how stuff around stars can form. And so that’s useful to pointing out telescopes out as well.

Craig: They did say that if it is artificial, that it is of such a nature that this would be a very, very advanced civilization, because of the strength and the type of signal that it is. So, I’m always reminded of this thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson once said. He said that on our planet we have, I think, 99% genetic overlap with chimpanzees. And so it’s that 1% that make us so much smarter than chimpanzees and account for everything that we’ve done to our planet and all of our technology that chimpanzees don’t do. And if we meet an alien species and they’re just 1% different than us, which is really close, but their 1% is to us that we are to the chimpanzees, we have a problem. [laughs]

So, you know, hopefully they’re nice, if they are real.

John: Well, I think the encouraging thing is as a world we function very well together, because we have very sensible leaders who really think through about all the possible repercussions of every action. And so I’m sure we would be completely reasonable and act in a very unified manner about these kind of situations.

Craig: What we’re going to do is we’re going to build a wall. And these people from HD 164595, they’re sending rapists. They’re sending murderers. We’re going to build a wall, folks. It’s going to be the greatest wall. And they’re going to pay for it. [laughs]

John: Totally going to pay for it. With their advanced technologies, they can pay for it.

Craig: That’s right. From 94 light years away, they’re going to Venmo us a payment for the wall.

John: Yep. It’s going to be nice.

So that’s our show this week. Hey, it worked.

Craig: It worked!

John: All the way across the ocean and the whole US, we recorded the episode. The show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from John Venable, and oh, it’s a good one.

So, if you have an outro you can send it to us at That’s also the great place to send your experiences if you are a working writer in film or television who started someplace else and actually was able to start a career not living in LA, New York, or London. We’d love to hear from you.

But we’d also like to answer your questions like the question we answered at the head of the show. So, send those to

Short questions are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. You can find the show notes for this episode, including how to skip over the Stranger Things information at That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about three or four days after the episode airs.

You can find all the back episodes at You can also find them on the Scriptnotes USB drive and on the Scriptnotes app which is in the App Store. So, Craig, thank you so much.

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

John: Have a great week. Bye.

Craig: Bye.


You can download the episode here.

Stranger Things and Other Things

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig dive into Netflix’s Stranger Things, discussing how macro writing decisions contributed to the show’s success. (There are inevitably some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you can skip from the start of that segment to the next one, which begins at 41:22.)

We also look at the upcoming WGA election and the candidates.

Next week, we will be doing a new installment of How Would This Be a Movie, so follow the links below to read ahead.

John’s high-tech setup.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

There are no black beans in France

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 00:44

Before I moved here, I knew that some common American foods were rare in France. Plain Cheerios, for example, can only be found in specialty import stores where they sell for €12. Same with boxed macaroni and cheese.

I’d read that kale was only recently re-introduced to France. While I love kale, I can live without it for a year. France has plenty of other delicious green vegetables.

But France doesn’t have black beans. And this is a problem.

I love black beans. I eat them almost every day,1 as does my daughter. For years of her life, most of her calories came from black beans and rice, lovingly prepared by her Honduran nanny.

In Los Angeles, black beans are ubiquitous. Any given supermarket will offer six brands of canned beans in a variety of sodium levels. My favorite is from Whole Foods, where you get a discount when you buy a case of 24. That’s every month for us.

So our first week in Paris, we went looking for black beans.

The stereotype of France is that it’s a bunch of tiny little shops. A butcher here, a baker there. And while those definitely exist, there are also a ton of supermarkets. There are at least ten in easy walking distance of our apartment, each of them bigger than your average Trader Joe’s.

Inside you’ll find aisles of candy and cookies, including American brands like Oreos. Head over to the refrigerator case to marvel at more varieties of yogurt than anyone could ever sample. In one corner, you’ll find Chinese and Thai foods. Near the pasta and rice, you’ll find quinoa grown in Ethiopia.

But you won’t find black beans.

We looked in expat forums and food sites where we found others struggling to find black beans, and other foods from Latin America.

Ultimately, we were able to find dried black beans (haricots noir) at two stores: a Peruvian market in the 15th, and a chain of organic groceries called Bio c’Bon. They cost about €4 per pound — considerably more than the U.S., but hardly a deal-breaker.

Dried black beans aren’t nearly as convenient as canned, but it’s not that much work to cook them. Just follow any recipe you find online or, if you want maximum flavor with minimum effort, invest in a pressure cooker.

Back in Los Angeles, we use a Instant Pot IP-DUO50. I was happy to find Amazon has a 220-volt version for Europe and the UK. They look like crock pots or rice cookers, but with lids that lock on tight. Pressure cookers seem intimidating, but trust me, they’re easy.

And suddenly, it’s a food blog

Here’s my recipe for making a big batch of black beans in a pressure cooker:

  1. Dump one pound of dried beans out on a tray, or a wide bowl. Pick through them, tossing out anything that doesn’t look like a perfect black bean. Sometimes tiny stones end up in the bag. I don’t know why, but it happens. So don’t skip this step. It takes two minutes.
  2. Rinse them in a bowl or a colander. Can’t hurt. Plus it makes them look all glossy rather than dry and dusty.
  3. Dump the beans in the cooker. Add one small yellow onion, cut in half. (Or half of a larger onion.) Add 3/4ths of a teaspon of salt. This seems like too little, but really, it’s fine. Add one dried bay leaf. (They’re called “laurel” in French, which is awesome.) Then add six cups of water. That’s 1.5 liters.
  4. Attach the lid and turn on the machine. Set the timer for 37 minutes. Let it start. The little valve in back should be set for “pressure” not “vent.”
  5. Walk away. Return in about an hour for delicious black beans.

You don’t need to release the pressure valve. It will come back to normal by itself, at which point the lid will unlock. The beans inside will be hot and steamy, so keep your face away when you first open it.

With a spoon, retrieve and discard the onion and bay leaf. You’re done.

This recipe produces way too many black beans to eat at once. Fortunately, they freeze well. And they’re significantly tastier than even the best canned black beans.

You American monster

I suspect that about ten paragraphs back, several readers rolled their eyes and asked, “Why don’t you just eat something else, something French?” or “Why live in a foreign country if you’re just going to make it like Los Angeles?”

These people have a point. I suspect they also don’t have kids.

Also, living abroad is about cultural immersion, not assimilation. If we insisted immigrants only eat the dominant foods of the U.S., we wouldn’t have Tex-Mex or pizza or Chinese take-out, all things we now take for granted.

Black beans are the food of my So-Cal culture. It’s great to have them back.

In my next installment, I’ll be teaching you how to make Cheerios from scratch.2

  1. I’m the one person you know who still eats Tim Ferriss’s “slow carb” diet.
  2. Step one: gather sawdust.

I live in Paris now

Sat, 09/03/2016 - 02:19

Two weeks ago, my family and I moved to Paris. We’ll be here for about a year.

I’m not here for work, or to escape this nightmare of an election. Rather, this sojourn has been in the planning stages for several years, going all the way to back to a screenwriters trip organized by Film France back in 2009. My daughter is attending sixth grade here. We’ll head back to Los Angeles for seventh.

While I’m here, I’ll be writing Arlo Finch. And we’ll still be doing Scriptnotes. We recorded a new episode this week. I think we’ll be able to keep up with our normal weekly schedule.

The biggest adjustment so far has been learning how to navigate Paris as an inhabitant rather than a visitor. For example, setting up a French checking account is a nightmare, but it’s a prerequisite for almost everything else (phone plans, electricity, transit passes). Paris busses are remarkably handy in ways I never considered as a tourist. We don’t have a car, but so far that’s been a plus.

Ex-pat American writers living is Paris is a complete cliché, so I won’t be blogging or tweeting about it much. If you want to see what I’m doing during my days, I’m an active user of Instagram stories. So follow me on Instagram if you want to see lots of pictures of kids carrying baguettes and dogs in restaurants.

Scriptnotes, Ep 265: Sheep Crossing Roads — Transcript

Fri, 09/02/2016 - 13:28

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 265 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we are going to be discussing obstacles, those things your characters hate but desperately need. We’ll also be doing some follow-up on previous episodes and answering a bunch of listener questions.

So, Craig, we should come clean, we are recording this before I actually hop on the plane to Paris. And so while I may sound tired and jetlagged, it’s just because I’m tired and jetlagged from packing, not from actually traveling halfway across the world.

Craig: This is theoretically the last podcast for about a year where one of us isn’t absurdly exhausted.

John: Yes. We have not quite figured out how we’re going to manage the schedule issue. We’re recording this on Skype, like we always do, so that won’t change at all. What will change is that one of us is going to be either about to go to bed, or waking up very early.

So, Craig, you’re happy to get up at like seven in the morning, right?

Craig: I’m going to go ahead and offer myself for the late shift, John.

John: OK.

Craig: I would prefer that greatly.

John: All right. So, Craig will be burning the midnight oil and I will be bright eyed and croissant’d in the morning as we record these future episodes.

But, the episode that aired last week, which we actually recorded yesterday, was the episode with Peter Dodd, the agent, and I thought it was just terrific.

Craig: Yeah. I was thrilled. I don’t know Peter. And I’ve never dealt with him professionally, so it was a total question mark on my end, plus you know me, I just immediately assume that everyone is terrible. So how delightful it was to meet him on the air and he did a fantastic job I thought. Not only of elaborating on how you become an agent and what an agent, but he was very specific in answering questions that I think people are constantly asking and getting the wrong answers to.

So, he was great. We should have him back again. I could easily see him joining us for a live episode where people can ask him questions, because I think they’d be fascinated by this sort of thing.

John: But then they’d rush the stage, and that would be bad.

Craig: We will surround him with your staff, each of them holding a pugil stick.

John: Indeed. We’ll surround him with managers, so that the agent can escape. So, what I thought was great about having him on is that we can say certain things, but they’re not necessarily true – not that they’re not true, but you would not necessarily believe them. But when an actual says, “No, I don’t care about that,” then you can take heart that like agents don’t really care about that.

He reminded people not to worry about log lines. So, maybe log lines are important for a competition, but no agent cares about log lines. Or query letters. He doesn’t sign people off of query letters. I mean, there are whole workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. Does not work on him. Not a bit.

Craig: And those workshops, are they free?

John: I don’t think those are free workshops. I think those are highly paid workshops where people are burning their money unnecessarily.

Craig: Garbage. Garbage.

John: I was talking with my own agent today, David Kramer, and told him that Peter Dodd had done a fantastic job. And he was mentioning that there’s one person who emails him every single day with a new subject heading about this new script he’s working on. It’s like the same person emails every day. And so then David Kramer went up to see Jeremy Zimmer, and Jeremy Zimmer said like, “Oh, that guys’ really persistent. He emails me every day also.”

Craig: Wow.

John: And they laughed. But they don’t read the emails. They just delete the emails, which is what Peter Dodd does, too. That’s not an effective way of getting anyone to read your script.

Craig: No. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear from him that he basically signs people through recommendations. And, again, I want to reiterate how clear the culture is – for me at least, and I’m sure it is for you – on our side of the business where it’s not like your job as an aspiring writer is to convince someone to represent you. That you’ve got to really make them see and make a great argument for it.

No, no, hardly that at all. The only way they’re ever going to represent you is if they’re in a position where they want you so much, they’re trying to convince you.

John: Yeah, I thought it was so great when he was talking about how he will call like on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon if he just read something that he loves, and he will hunt that person down. He will Facebook stalk them. He won’t like bother to try to go back to the original person and get the contact information. He will find that person and call them and tell them that he loved the script, because everyone loves to get that call.

And so I think so often writers are trying to chase down an agent. Well, in the real world, and this is actually what I found, a lot of times the agent is chasing you down. And that’s a scenario you really want to be in.

Craig: It’s kind of the only one that results in success. Because there are a million people trying to get representation, trying to make a sale, trying to get a job, and it’s not possible for anyone I think on the other side of the equation to succumb to things like, well, long, carefully thought out, well-argued debates about why you should or shouldn’t take on someone.

It’s entirely about saying, “I must have this person.” And then they find you.

John: And what they’re responding to, it was very clear from what he is talking about with his reads, is by page 30 he wants to know does this person have a voice. He kind of doesn’t really care that much about the story, or the plot. He’s looking at this as a thing, maybe he can sell this one item, but he’s more like is this a fascinating writer who I’m going to be able to market to the town and get hired to do other things. That’s what he’s looking for. He’s looking for a brilliant voice, not a competent pusher-around of words.

And that can be dispiriting, but it can also be encouraging, because it lets you know that, yes, there a zillion people trying to do what you’re trying to do, but if you are brilliant at it, there’s a good shot that he will see that and respond to it.

Craig: We always said, well, it’s not so big of a deal or a problem if you write an original screenplay and it doesn’t fit into a category or an easy genre, and it isn’t seemingly the kind of movie that studios are making, because they’ll read your script and think, “OK, you’re a really good writer. Now let’s hire you to write what we do want to make.” We always thought of that as a “see, it’s not so bad.” In fact, apparently that’s the only thing they want.

They only want writers who are original and fascinating and unique. They’re not really looking to sell anyone’s screenplay. They’re looking to get you hired.

John: On our last Three Page Challenge, one of the scripts we had, it was a long title that involved Huck Finn. And we weren’t so enraptured with the writing of it, but we were intrigued by the title of it because it was the kind of title which suggested that the writer might have the kind of voice that would be clutter-busting, would be distinctive. That a person would remember and that you could sort of understand why they were recommending you read this script.

That’s sort of what we’re talking about. So just the 19th version of Die Hard in-a-something is not going to be the thing that’s going to get Peter Dodd excited about signing you. And that’s the reality.

Craig: Yeah. It’s also why so many of these people that take your money to instruct you on how to writer screenplays and formulas and structures and all of this nonsense, all they’re doing is pushing your work towards some mushy middle, where it can be viewed as an acceptable replicable of a screenplay.

No one needs you for that. No one. They would much rather that you write something fascinating and greatly imperfect than something that is very well-structured and tight and boring.

John: Absolutely true.

Now, we learn things on these podcasts, too, and the thing that was so striking to me is he said that 80% of his clients had managers, which was a much bigger percentage than I would have guessed. But, again, you and I are from a generation that didn’t have managers, at least didn’t keep managers. And his people do.

And so it was interesting watching his reaction as he raised issues about managers, because he clearly – they’re part of his world, they can be really good, they can be really frustrating. I think he would encourage you not to look at a manager as a second agent, but really like what is the manager bringing to the table. And it seemed like some of the best managers he was dealing with could really help writers focus their writing, just deliver the best possible script. And if that’s a function that you can find in a manager, maybe that’s a good thing.

Craig: That’s true. I’m never going to be the person who says there’s no such thing as a good manager because I know some of them. They are good. The ones that I like tend to be more like producers than managers, and they tend to work at the large management firms.

But, I guess the existential question I would ask, if I could, to the agent and management community is if we’ve gone from a place where no writers had managers to 80% of writers have managers, can you tell me, honestly, that things have gotten better for screenwriters? Because it sure seems like they’ve gotten worse. So, life and the business has gotten worse for screenwriters, but at least they get to spend another 10% of the dwindling money they make.

John: Yeah. That is a real concern. And was that function that the managers are performing, was no one doing that function before? Or, were agents performing that function? Were producers doing that function? Who was doing that job before? Or is it a job that needs to be done? Apparently now it is a job that enough people feel like needs to be done. It’s just – it’s a real good question about making sure you’re paying that 10% to someone else who really deserves it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: The last thing I thought was good for him to be able to answer for us is do competitions matter. And he said winning the Nicholl Fellowship is great. You should do that. You should be a Nicholls finalist. But they don’t really gather together and discuss all the other award winners or certainly not the quarter finalists.

So, while that may be a way that somebody could notice your script, it’s not the way that agents actually find your script. And so maybe that’s a way that someone else who could send something to an agent might find your script, but it does not feel like that should be a focus of a lot of aspiring screenwriters’ time and ambition.

Craig: Much to the chagrin of the people marketing these contests. But while some of them are probably run by good people, and maybe some of them are run by people that have terrific taste, in the end all of the chatter and traffic and Sturm und Drang about what competitions to enter and how they’re run and how high your finish – all noise. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares who wins the Blue Cat. Nobody cares who wins Austin, apparently. Nobody cares who almost wins the Nicholl. They care about one thing, sort of. Right?

And when he said “care about,” what he really said was, “We’ll read those.”

John: Yep.

Craig: That’s all he really said. He didn’t say, “Oh, you’re getting an agent.” He said, “We’ll read them.” Because in the end, they’ll decide. OK, well, I’m glad the Nicholl’s people thought that this was one of the top ten of all the ones they get. Doesn’t mean we’re going to represent that person.

John: So here’s where I think it’s going to be frustrating to aspiring writers who are not living in Los Angeles is that a competition or a query letter, those were all those things that a person who was living in Boise could say like, “Oh, that’s a way that I can get someone to read my script. How I can get my foot in the door. How things can get started.” Whereas it sounds like what Peter Dodd is saying is that the stuff he’s reading is coming from recommendations from people who are in this business. And generally they’re probably reading people’s scripts that they actually met.

So they’re reading like that intern who worked there. Or they’re reading that person that they knew from someplace that they might have read something as a favor and found that it was really good. It seems like it’s going to be harder to get your script read by anybody in this town if you’re not kind of in this town. Which is why I think we’ve always been upfront about this is a town, sort of like how Nashville is for songwriting. Hollywood is the town you’re in when you’re trying to make movies.

And if that’s really your ambition, coming here and getting those sort of entry-level jobs and meeting a bunch of people who are trying to do the same thing you’re going to do is really important. Probably much more important than if you’re going off to write a book someplace. Because there are novelists who live all across the country. There’s no one central hub for being a novelist. But, for being a screenwriter, this is it.

Craig: We sometimes want to ignore the obvious, because it’s so discouraging. But here’s an obvious point: nobody becomes a screenwriter from outside Los Angeles. Now, you can say, well, that’s not exactly true. It happens here and there. And, yes, that’s a fact. But when I say nobody I mean virtually no one. And the virtually no one thing, you don’t want a business plan for yourself that hinges upon you being the exception to the virtual rule.

John: Yeah. Sorry. This is depressing, and yet also inspiring just because he could provide the real answers that we can sort of only talk about in abstract. Also, I thought it was interesting, he said 80% of what he really is gauging about a client is based on what he read. And while the in person part of it is important, it’s not usually what’s going to make or break it. And so having a great interview, having a great sit-down with him is not going to convince you that you are a writer he should represent. He’s looking at the material.

Craig: Yeah. You love it, I’m sure, as an agent when you find somebody who is writing terrific material and then is fun to be with in a room. You know that person is going to work. But we both know lots of terrific writers who probably aren’t great in a room. I mean, Ted Elliott always said that he and Terry were just the worst, always, from the beginning. Just not very good in a room. Didn’t seem to slow them down one bit.

John: They did just great. All right, let’s reach back two weeks to the episode we did about frequently asked questions about screenwriting. And that was centered around this 81-page PDF that we put out, which is based on A bunch of really basic questions about screenwriting answered mostly by Stuart Friedel. And we looked at a couple of the questions in there.

A couple thousand people have downloaded that PDF now, which is fantastic.

Craig: Excellent.

John: And one of the nice things about it being a PDF is we will update it and we will make corrections. There’s lots of typos that people found. So thank you for sending in those typo corrections.

We’ll also update some of the answers. Like Craig had some different better answers for certain things, and so we’ll be updating the PDF and sending out the updates to anybody who downloaded it. So, thank you for downloading it and thank you for sending in those corrections.

But I also think we need to make sure we give an extra big thank you to Stuart Friedel who actually wrote most of those things. And I think if you look back through the transcripts, he got sort of the short shrift of the episode as we were talking through really the heroic work he did on that.

Craig: Yeah. I’m a professional short-shrifter. Stuart did a great job, as he has done with all things we have asked him to do. And it’s – some of these things people are just going to argue over, well, what is a high concept idea. Hey, everybody can debate that till the end of time. And you know I just like to argue. But it’s actually kind of remarkable that he did all of that.

I don’t really know how Stuart did all of those things.

John: Yeah. Stuart did a lot. Basically, I would just tell Stuart like do this thing, and like a machine he would just keep doing it. And so I would sort of forget about for months at a time, and then like, oh my gosh, there’s another 60 answers in there. And that’s Stuart. So that’s remarkable.

Craig: It could have been tragic. If you had asked him to do something that you didn’t intend for him to do, at length. And then just forgot to have him stop.

John: Well, classically that’s how AI leads to oblivion. They’ll create a machine, they’ll build AI for it to say like just keep signing this autograph until whenever. And the AI will say, “OK, my job, the goal of the universe is to sign this autograph onto these baseballs, like these fake baseballs, or something.” And so then it will build other machines to keep doing that until the whole world is just a bunch of fake baseball autograph machines.

Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. But I’m thinking Stuart probably had a little more agency than that.

John: I think he had a lot more agency than that. So, anyway, I want to make sure that we give proper shout-outs to Stuart for actually doing all of that stuff. And so the book only exists because Stuart did it. So, thank you, Stuart.

Craig: He remains our hero. Even in absentia.

John: Indeed. That’s very noise.

Many people’s hero is Aaron Sorkin. And four or five episodes ago we talked about this Masterclass that Aaron Sorkin is teaching online. It is a series of I think 35 videos. They’re like five minutes long. That are talking through screenwriting.

So, we looked at it. We looked at the promo video. We said, “Hey, if anyone out there is actually going to listen to it, or watch it, tell us what it’s like, because we’re never going to watch it.”

And one of our listeners did that. His name is Rawson Thurber. And he is, in fact, a frequent guest on the podcast. He is an accomplished writer-director. Most recent credit is Central Intelligence. He’s also a fan of Aaron Sorkin, and so I sat down with him and asked him what he thought of the videos.

So, Rawson, tell us what it was like.

Rawson Thurber: It was a walk down memory lane. I really enjoyed it. If you like Aaron Sorkin, like I do – I’m a huge, huge fan – it was super pleasant. It’s five hours cut into 35 bite size episodes, I guess, for lack of a better term. And highly enjoyable. Highly enjoyable. If you like Aaron Sorkin. If you like anecdotes. I guess if you kind of want to get a glimpse into what a writer’s room on a television show might be like. If you don’t know anything about that, that might be helpful.

If you are trying to learn screenwriting, it almost has zero value as an instructive tool. You could pick any five episodes of Scriptnotes at random and be three times as well off in terms of your knowledge.

John: When I saw the promo videos, there were other students who were in the class. And so do you get to know them? Do you see samples? What are they up to?

Rawson: Yeah. There are five other writers. Young writers. I think they selected the group out of various graduate screenwriting programs. I think most of them USC, but I’m not sure on that. There’s a section in which each of them brought in ten pages of either a feature script or a television show that they’re working on. And the table reads it and discusses it. Although they only read the first couple pages, and then it kind of fades out and fades back up and they start talking about the pages that they read.

There is a PDF you can print out, so you can read along. You know, it was hard not to draw a comparison or a parallel between the Three Page Challenges that you and Craig do. The one thing Sorkin does talk about a lot is the tenets of his writing, which is intention and obstacle. That every scene has to have an intention, a clear intention, and an obstacle to achieving that intention. Which I think that is really super helpful.

Yes, it’s a founding principle and a driving force, but it’s also kind of esoteric.

John: So it’s billed as a Masterclass. Do you think it’s maybe more intended for people who have maybe written a script or two and have some experience?

Rawson: Oh, that’s a good point. I never thought of that. I guess I imagined it was called Masterclass because a master is teaching it, as opposed to it is a graduate level program. OK. So, then if you know screenwriting, if you’ve written a few screenplays, if you’ve maybe even been hired on something, or paid for your work, it’s really enjoyable and fun. But if you already are kind of at a “master level” or needing to sort of attain that level, I don’t think there’s anything in here that you don’t already know, or wouldn’t have already sort of messed up enough to figure out on your own.

Maybe there’s a sweet spot where you kind of have done it, but you’re still moonlighting a little bit, and you’ve read a few books, and you’ve written a few screenplays. And, yeah, there might be some value there.

So, just to be clear though, it is really enjoyable. It’s valuable in that I really liked – I watched all 35. I learned some fun stuff about, you know, behind the scenes on The West Wing, and how Sorkin does it, which is kind of interesting, right, because if you think of one of the best baseball players of all time, Willie Mays, like great hitter, great player, I don’t think he was a great coach. Like just because you can do it doesn’t mean you’re the best instructor.

It’s a bit of a feathered fish, I think.

John: So, Rawson liked it, basically.

Craig: Well, I’m not surprised. It is Aaron Sorkin. He is a genius and one of the first ballot hall of famers of what we do.

John: And so one of the things Rawson focused on there was how Sorkin wanted to approach every scene characters have an intention and an obstacle. So I thought we would steal that little bit from Sorkin and really focus in on what we mean by obstacles. And how obstacles help us shape not just scenes but the entire movies that we’re trying to write.

Craig: And how did we miss this? I don’t understand. We’ve spoken about intention four million times, and somehow we forgot obstacles.

John: Well, we’ve talked about obstacles in a lot of episodes. So I did a Google search of previous transcripts, and so we bring obstacles, and especially in terms of conflict, and I think that’s a really good way to look at it. Because conflict is what drives scenes.

Craig: Right.

John: But it’s really obstacles are the structure on which you hang conflict. If you just have conflict without a visible obstacle, then it’s just people bickering at each other. The obstacle is really that thing is preventing the hero from going from where they are right now to what their goal is.

Obstacles can be physical. They can be emotional. They can be mental. They can be just other narrative devices. But there’s got to be something that keeps it from being a straight line from, hey, we are going to stop these terrorists to like, oh, we caught the terrorists. There have to be obstacles along the way. And I thought we dig into sort of what kinds of obstacles there are out there.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a good idea. Because I don’t know if people ever really think about these things. You know, what would happen if you took obstacles out. Well, what happens if you take obstacles out is you have your day, today, for most people. I mean, we don’t really deal with obstacles through our day. The obstacles that we do deal with we actually work very hard to build pads around them.

That’s why the coffee machine was invented, so that you didn’t have the obstacle of making the coffee in the morning. So, in our lives we’re constantly trying to avoid obstacles. Which is why our stories require them, because our stories are only interesting because they’re not what our lives are.

And young writers or new writers are constantly being told to throw obstacles in there. Well, sure, but how? And what? And why?

John: Exactly. So, obstacles can be both the big sort of macro issue, so the thing that is sort of the point of the movie. The hero has to get past this thing in order to achieve his or her goal. But a lot of times you’re really talking about the obstacle within a scene. And so the scene starts and there has to be thing that needs to be accomplished for the scene to be over. There’s something the hero needs to overcome in order to get to the next moment.

But sometimes you can break it even smaller, and the obstacle is like how do I convince this person of the next thing. The obstacle could be a very small little thing. How do I get this person to see what it is I’m trying to do? How do I like pick this little lock without them seeing me? What’s weird is they’re all sort of the same thing. Whether you’re looking at the little micro thing, or the big thing, it is what in this moment is stopping the hero from taking the easy way through this path.

Craig: Yeah. And the real answer, the answer every single time, no matter what your situation is, is you, the writer, are the obstacle because you are thinking very carefully about what the worst situation would be here. It doesn’t have to be the worst as in the most calamitous, but rather the most dramatically deserving.

If I want to slow Shawna down, I can slow her down all sorts of ways. I can have a truck drive by and some stuff falls off of it. That’s not what she deserves, though. That’s not what she needs. Because Shawna must be punished by the drama gods for her failures as a character. And so you begin to think about how to craft the world and the circumstances you have in such a way that the obstacles that are put in front of your character are suiting them, challenging them in an extraordinary way, and hopefully also changing them. That would be nice.

John: Yeah. We always talk about world-building as being sort of this big metaphorical like fantastical land, so it’s J.R.R. Tolkien. Like you’re building this whole constructed universe. But really even in stories that are taking place in present day normal life, the screenwriter is doing a tremendous amount of world-building to create a structure around that character to make it challenging. You’re basically putting in obstacles. You’re essentially building the puzzles for the escape room that this character is going to have to go through in order to make this an exciting adventure for us to be following, because otherwise they would just float right through it.

And so sometimes those obstacles are physical. You’re literally preventing them from going to the next place. Sometimes those obstacles are characters. They are characters who are either in direct opposition or are just hindering in some way. It could be the clingy girlfriend who is lovely but is not letting the character do what he needs to do in the moment.

They can be the meddlesome sister-in-law. They can be the principal in any sort of like high school movie. Those are the characters we’re used to seeing as obstacles. But so often the character themselves is the obstacle. There’s something about the character that is preventing them from doing the thing they need to be able to do. It could be a fear, it could be a phobia. It could be something the character himself is not even quite aware of that he needs to learn he has a problem in himself so he can overcome it. There’s something about that character that is making this much more difficult for him than it would be for any other character in the situation.

Craig: Well there you go. So, it’s tailor-made, in a sense, and you should just keep thinking as you are engaging in the “I must create obstacles for my character exercise” how to tailor make your obstacles for that character. And, ideally what you’ll find is that the obstacles that are tailor-made for your character also provide opportunities for your character in success. That’s what we want. We don’t really care if a character has to get something and a pipe bursts and so they have to spend some time mopping up water. Because there’s no opportunity for real success there. Anyone can mop up the water. It’s just annoying.

So, you’re tailoring your obstacles so that they are particularly challenging for this character for some reason or another, and then by definition once they are overcome, particularly rewarding.

John: Exactly. So ideally the obstacle should be related to something the character has done, or the character is partially responsible for having constructed the obstacle. So an example I can think of from my own movies, in the first part of Go Ronna is trying to pull off this very small drug deal. Well, why is she trying to do that? Well, she’s about to get evicted. So, essentially all she needs to do is make a couple hundred dollars. That’s her only real need. And she can do that any number of ways. But she has this sort of clever idea of like, oh, I could try to pull off this really tiny drug deal. And so her first obstacles are her friends who are trying to convince her it’s not a good idea. She’s able to kind of win them over. She ends up sort of leaving Katie Holmes behind as kind of a hostage until she gets back with the money.

She ends up falling into the wrong trap for this drug deal that goes sort of awry. Her best friend, who she’s relying on, ends up taking a bunch of the ecstasy. All sorts of things end up unfolding, but they unfold because she started the chain of events. And she was so cocky, in a way, about her ability to do this thing that she’s set off this whole chain of events and has to figure a way out of them.

The obstacles are created by her initially and then they feel natural to the world. If I threw in a mountain lion, that would not be a natural obstacle. But throwing in the kinds of characters and kinds of situations that believably could exist within this universe, those feel like honest obstacles.

Craig: Yeah, so I call those kinds “self-inflicted wounds,” because that’s basically – and good characters are constantly self-inflicting wounds. And those are very real obstacles. We never question whether or not they are tailor-made for our hero, because it’s our hero that’s creating them in the first place. How could they not be tailor-made?

We all understand that when we wound ourselves we’re doing it for some deep-seeded reason. There is a broken thought process going on, but there’s certainly no lack of intention. So, self-inflicted wounds are great. Another kind of obstacle that I like to think about are ironic obstacles. And they’re ironic because the circumstance seems so outlandish and odd for the character, and yet that’s what makes them interesting.

In my sheep movie, my movie about detective sheep, at some point they realize they have to leave the meadow, which they’ve never left in their lives, and go into the town to start gathering clues. But to do that, they have to cross the road. And it turns out that that is horrifying for sheep. It’s something they’ve never, ever contemplated the world beyond that road suddenly – it’s agoraphobia to the maximum.

So, their great obstacle is taking ten free steps across some dirt path. But, we understand why. It’s made clear why that’s a real obstacle. And so when they do it, you have the ironic enjoyment of watching people do something that should have been easy to do, but clearly wasn’t.

John: Absolutely. So, again, you’re matching specificity to, you know, the nature of the characters, and therefore it’s a good obstacle for them. And so, yeah, an obstacle doesn’t have to be the same obstacle for any normal character. Like, crossing the road would not be an obstacle for Batman, but it’s completely appropriate for the characters you’re describing.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s something to think about that the nature of an obstacle itself, play with it. You know, there’s nothing wrong with playing with it. If I had taken that road and made it a slightly dangerous road, or a road with lots of things in it that make hooves hard to go through, that wouldn’t have been good. That just would have been like, yeah, no, I can see why any – that’s not surprising to me. And that’s another thing you want to try and do with your obstacles is make them surprising, because that’s where we find delight, I think, as an audience.

John: The other thing I want to make sure people understand is that an obstacle doesn’t necessarily mean the main villain of your story. If you look at Ripley in Aliens, so obviously she’s going to face Mother Alien there at the end, but the obstacles are all of the roadblocks that are thrown in her way. She has Newt, they’re about to go off, and then Newt is snatched away. She falls through. And she has to decide whether she’s going to go to the jump ship and go back up to the big ship in the sky, or is she going to go after Newt.

And so she has to make a choice. Choices are always good. Choices are an obstacle. They’re forcing her to choose between two options. And then she has to find a way down to her, and then all the way back up. And there are structural obstacles put in there both structural not just narratively, but literally like she has to get the elevators to work, and the elevators won’t work. She has to figure out how she’s going to find her. There are all these things that are being put in there that feel very natural to the world of Aliens.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s great that you mentioned that she has to make a choice. Because choices can be obstacles, particularly when they’re dilemmas. This is, Sophie’s Choice, you know, talk about an obstacle that a character has to face at some point.

Dilemmas are terrific because they feel like proper obstacles. If it’s a choice that isn’t quite so torturous, then again, probably not that big of an obstacle.

John: Yeah. So, is there any sort of bigger box we can put around obstacles? I think it’s just that when you’re conceiving a story, you really have to conceive of the story in terms of the obstacles. Obviously, you’re going to have a character, you’re going to have a world and a situation, but quite early on you have to figure out what is the thing that they’re going to have to overcome. Because if it’s just a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, well, there’s no obstacles there. But, if it is a – once you get into the specifics of what is it that she needs to overcome. What are the obstacles that are going to prevent her from having that moment of self-discovery? What are the obstacles that are going to keep her from pursuing her dream of ballet? Then you can start to figure out what your actual story is.

Until you know what those obstacles are, you sort of have nothing. And that is the reality of trying to create a cinematic narrative.

Craig: Yeah. I think we have a choice. Some people start with a character and some kind of dramatic/thematic problem. Other people start with an idea. If you start with a thematic problem of, say, a parent who is clinging too hard to their child, then you may ask yourself what would be some obstacles best suited for that. And really what I’m saying is what would be the meanest thing we can do to that person.

But, you could also say we had this idea for a fish who has to find his son and his son is lost in the ocean. OK. So now that I have an obstacle, who is that obstacle the worst for? Either way, however you’re working it, you have to think about your obstacles in context of character. And your character in context with obstacles. So that the obstacles that you put in your movie aren’t merely roadblocks or inconveniences, but rather direct challenges to that character’s state of mind, emotional state, status quo, everything. And obstacles that exist in such a way that when they are overcome, we understand that some kind of dramatic uplift has been achieved.

John: Yeah. Your point about Nemo is great, because a fish lost in the ocean, that’s a huge, great, big idea. But it’s all the little small detours along the way, all the little challenges, the little obstacles of how you’re going to get to that next step, and how he’s going to get a little bit closer and what’s going to happen next – those are the obstacles that you spend months in front of a whiteboard trying to figure out and go through multiple revisions. That underlying idea, that was a great sort of general obstacle, but it’s the specifics, it’s what’s going to happen beat by beat and how is it overcoming each of these obstacles going to really change those characters and make it feel like we are moving forward as a character and not just moving forward towards a destination.

Craig: Et voila.

John: Et voila. All right, let’s get to some questions from listeners. Our first question comes from Matthew Gentile who sent us audio. So, let’s listen to his question.

Question: I’ve written a script for an ultra-low budget feature that I’m directing and producing. The story was in part inspired by a true anecdote I heard over a year ago from a couple friends in the industry. This anecdote inspired me to write a feature script and now functions as a pivotal part in the third act. I recently learned, however, a high profile book has just been published with said anecdote in it. While the script and story has evolved since I heard this anecdote, there are some key elements that still bear resemblance to what I heard and what happened.

The film as of now is not being billed as based on a true story or inspired by true events. And I did register my script with the WGA almost a year before this book’s copyright. However, I wanted to ask you your opinion on what happens if you use a story someone told you in passing about someone and then that someone’s story becomes published. Is it public domain if it’s out there? Can someone claim to have the rights to that? What would you do if something like this happened to a script you were writing? Thank you.

John: Craig, what do you think? What would you do if something like that happened?

Craig: Well, something that is a fact that happens in life is not property that an individual can possess. What somebody can possess is their written version of it. Somebody can say, “Look, this is my telling of this anecdote, so you can’t just start lifting phrases and sentences and things from it.” But I suspect that Matthew is going to be just fine, however, this is an area where, as always, you need to be listening to the LawyerNotes podcast and getting legal advice from lawyers.

Even if you are on the safest of technical grounds, you always have to be aware that our justice system is not as simple as that. And if a studio wants to restrain you, they can make your life difficult. So, my guess is you’re in fine shape, but you should talk to an attorney.

John: Yeah. I think you’re going to be fine as well. So, an anecdote is sort of a weird thing to describe, because like how big is an anecdote. I can think of many examples in my life of like, oh, this little story I heard. That’s not really a story in the sense that there’s a plot, there’s a character, and a whole thing that happens. It’s just like, no, oh, the ice cream shop blew up and that was so strange. That’s not a protectable element. Like an ice cream shop blowing up is not a thing.

So, Craig is covering the legal side of it. And sometimes there’s a legal issue, but most times there’s not really a legal issue. More often, though, there’s sort of an ethical issue. And what happens a lot is – you heard this anecdote from friends – and you need to make sure that they weren’t planning on using that anecdote in anything.

An example, again, from Go is my friend Tom told me about he was working at a hotel and the hotel room caught on fire. And like that’s so strange that this hotel room caught on fire. And he told me the whole scenario. And it’s like, well, that’s kind of great, and I didn’t need anything else from his story but the sense of his hotel room caught on fire and sort of what he did as a manager when his hotel room caught on fire, that was great.

And so when I wrote the scene in Go where Simon is having sex with the two women and the hotel room catches on fire and he doesn’t even notice it, I thought like, man, I hope Tom is not planning on using a hotel room catching on fire, because I’m going to feel really crappy if I’m taking his bit.

And so I emailed him, or I think this is even pre-email. So I called him and said like, hey, were you planning on using a hotel room on fire as of your scenes, because I don’t want to step on that. And he’s like, no, no, no, no, that’s fine, it’s good.

And there’s been a couple things in my life where I’ve been at a place with other writers and something has happened. And we’ve had to have sort of a discussion of like is anyone planning on using that, because that’s a great little moment.

Craig: [laughs] Who gets this?

John: There’s a great episode of Riki Lindhome’s show, Garfunkel and Oats, where she’s starting to date this guy who is also a writer, and something comes up and he like basically takes her joke as a tweet and like tweets it out. And that’s crappy. You got to be really mindful of that.

And so I’m less concerned about Matthew’s question as a legal question and more sort of as an ethical question. Let’s make sure you’re not taking something that someone else really wrote and was planning on using themselves.

Craig: You know what we’re doing, Matthew? We’re helping you keep your friends, OK? I mean, come on. All right, we got a question from John from the UK. And he asks, or writes in, “I was interested in the discussion you had about the John Carpenter court case and the implications it had for an individual screenwriter. Let’s say you sell an original script to a studio. If another party claimed you had infringed copyright on a released film like Carpenter is claiming here, could you personally be found liable for the case?” Very good question.

John, what is your answer to this excellent question?

John: So, I will tell you that when you are selling your script, you’re going to be signing a bunch of legal documents. And one of those legal documents will be saying like I did not steal this from anybody. And they do that to sort of help protect themselves.

At the same time, you know, it can be really murky. I can’t promise you that they would never come after you, but I can promise you that it’s not a common scenario. Craig, you know more about this than I do. What is the thing that you’re signing when you sell that script?

Craig: You’re signing simultaneously two of the strangest comments, separately not strange, together bizarre. On the one hand, you are absolutely warranting that this is entirely your work. So, just as you said, you’re not ripping anybody off. Anything that you are writing for them, or any literary material you are selling to them is wholly yours and not pilfered from anyone else.

At the same time, you are saying, “But, the studio is the author.” So, I swear to god I’m the author, but I’m not the author.

Now, the studio as part of the deal will indemnify you, the writer, from lawsuits presuming that you haven’t ripped somebody off. So, you know, in the case of – I can’t remember which of the Hangovers, some nut job sued and said we had stolen his life story, which still cracks me up. I didn’t have to pay anything to defend myself. The studio sent – I never even had to do a deposition or anything, because it was a ridiculous case. But the studio handled that. They indemnify you.

In the specific question here, John, my guess is that if the concern is that there’s another movie out there that you have somehow infringed upon, the studio would know about that movie. And the studio would have made the determination at this point that the story you’re writing does not infringe upon that.

John: Here’s an example I can imagine, though. Like let’s say that John wrote this script and he was really ripping off this Korean film that no one had ever seen. Like he was just wholesale ripping it off, because I can imagine a scenario in which the studio buying it had no idea that he stole it. That’s a grim scenario. I don’t know what would happen there.

Craig: Well, I think in that case the studio would probably hold the writer in breach of contract, and rightfully so. The studio would probably not have to indemnify the writer from lawsuit, because the writer had breached the contract. The studio would attempt to collect damages from the writer. It would be very, very bad.

What you’re talking about is fraud. I mean, that’s fraud. You’re taking something that someone else wrote and then turning around and selling it to someone else for money. Fraud.

John: Yeah. So what I think would become the murky middle terrible case there is the thing where like you’re really just riffing on a genre, or you’re riffing on a kind of film. And somebody comes who says, “No, no, that’s quoting my film. That’s really a reference to my film.” The way that Tarantino really is quoting a lot of other films. And if somebody came after him and said, “No, no, you stole my movie there,” that’s a challenge. And I’m sure those cases are out there. I’m just not aware of which ones they are.

But, yeah, you’ve got to be really mindful that if you’re referencing something, reference it in a way that is not going to feel like you’re stealing it. And that’s easy to say and sometimes hard to do.

Craig: And be as transparent as you can with the person that’s giving you money. There’s nothing wrong with saying to them, “Listen, before we all do this, here are a bunch of things you need to know. So let’s all have a discussion. Make sure that we collectively don’t get into any trouble here.” Which is perfectly valid. And they now have fair warning. And they can make their own determination about whether they feel that it’s a gray area, or something that they’re happy to defend.

The goal for you is to be honest, to not surprise anybody with any malfeasance, and to therefore protect that clause that says I’m not responsible for the legal defense of the work that you have now said you are the legal author of.

John: Absolutely. Let’s do a simple question. Joe writes, “Can you be a member of both the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild? Do you have to choose one? Is it advisable to choose one over the other? I believe for the Academy voting you have to pick only branch to belong to.”

Craig: Joe, let me unconfuse you here. It is not a question of can you be a member of both the WGA and the DGA. If you meet the membership requirements for either one, you must become a member of either one. So, I’m a member of the WGA. I am a member of the DGA. I’m a member of SAG/AFTRA. I am a member of IATSE. Because in various cases and in various capacities I met their requirements and therefore was compelled to join those unions.

It is a very different situation than a non-union voting body like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That is a club, essentially. And a club can set whatever rules they want, but the unions that you’re describing are not clubs. They’re federally chartered unions and they follow federal labor law.

John: Absolutely. So I can tell you about the Academy Awards club. The Academy has a writer’s branch and it has a director’s branch. And in the Academy you are a member of exactly one branch. And so that is why sometimes you’ll see a person who is in the writer’s branch, but they’re also a director, or they’re directors but they’re also writers. That’s because they had to pick one branch to join. Essentially, one branch invited them to join. They said yes. And then from that point forward they are always in that branch. And so that’s how it works.

So like Julie Delpy, for example, is in the writer’s branch rather than the actor’s branch because she was a writer on Before Sunrise and that was what got her into the Academy.

Craig: And it makes sense because you don’t want individuals to have more than one vote.

John: Nope.

Craig: So, I get that completely. James asks, “Would you ever write the action line ‘John doesn’t react’?” I feel like that action line happens to me in every podcast. “My gut tells me no, as this is a non-action action line. But how else would you describe it when a character does not react to something that any other normal person would react to? An example would be if an alien bursts from someone’s stomach, most people would react. But how would you write it if they didn’t?”

John: So no reaction is a reaction. It’s absolutely fine to say John doesn’t react. It’s a scene description. It’s saying – the function of scene description is describing what a character is doing or what an audience would see on the screen. So, no reaction is a reaction.

Craig: No question. Action line is a misnomer. It doesn’t mean Action. It means Not Dialogue. It means stuff you’re seeing, but not hearing. So, yes, not reacting is absolutely appropriate for it. Let’s call it a description line, and I think that probably would make this a lot easier of a discussion.

If you have somebody who is making, or you as a writer, making a point of having a character not react where other people would, you might even want to say, “Oddly, John doesn’t react. Doesn’t even seem to care.” You can make a moment out of it, so people really get the intention there, as opposed to sort of a passing minor, oh, okay, well, is that important that he didn’t react?

But, no, no question. Not doing something, if it is meaningful not doing something, put it in there.

John: Yeah. I’m going to put a link in the show notes to this video analysis of Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for Gone Girl, which I’ve never actually read the screenplay of it. I’ve read the book, but never read the screenplay. But he sort of shows what the actual stuff looks like on the page. And she actually does a great job with scene description. And she uses colons a lot to indicate those ways that characters are interacting with eye lines. And it’s a great version of sort of how you show someone not reacting to something.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, I love that part of screenwriting personally. That’s my favorite part is storytelling in the description line, which is probably why I get so angry when these ding-a-lings and know-nothings and frauds keep telling people “don’t direct inside your script.” No, go ahead. Direct inside your script. I want to see everything.

It’s insane to suggest to anyone that the only thing screenwriters are allowed to convey are the spoken word and action. No. ridiculous.

John: Kate Powers writes, “Craig, when are you going to do another one of those WGA Finances for Screenwriters talks at the Guild?” She also says, “Also, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, starting listening as an assistant, got bumped to staff writer on Rectify. Now on a Sony Crackle show. Scriptnotes has been invaluable to me every step along the way. Thank you so much. Also, I effen loved Duly Noted.”

Craig: I’m struggling to remember the first time I did a WGA Finances for Screenwriters talk.

John: Didn’t you? I kind of thought you did.

Craig: Did I?

John: Or was it part of like an overall panel? Did you go in to like new screenwriters?

Craig: It may have been. I mean, I do a talk about how to survive the psychological turmoil of development. I do that once a year, typically. I don’t remember doing one on finances.

John: Maybe she was hallucinating. Or maybe she misremembered. I think you would do a great job for a talk on finances. What would be your three bullet points for new Guild members about their finances?

Craig: Well, bullet point number one: save. Save as much as you can save.

Bullet point number two: if you are incorporated, which you will be if you’re earning above a certain amount of money, you have to prepare for your tax bill, which will come due all in one big swift hurrah. They’re not withholding taxes from you and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of spending money that is not actually yours to spend.

And then third, I would strongly recommend to any writer to learn how to use Quicken. Because there are a lot of writers, most big writers I know employ people to handle their finances for them. Not investments and things like that, but I’m saying paying bills and making payments on things, and dealing with the health fund, you know, and sending in forms. Not me.

I’m not paying 1% of my income for that. Hell no. I can do it myself on Quicken and it takes me an hour a week. So, those would be my three big bullet points.

John: That’s great. I do pay somebody. I don’t pay them 1%. One-hour a week is worth more than it costs me to pay that person. So, that’s why I end up doing that.

Craig: I love my one hour. It’s so relaxing.

John: Oh, so you like that stuff.

Craig: It feels good.

John: I can’t agree more about saving. The thing which is so hard to understand is when you first start making money as a writer you’re like, wow, I have some money. This is crazy that I’m actually being paid to do what I love. But, that won’t always be there, and there will be ups and there will be downs. So, you need to have a great big rainy day fund, if possible. But also really be thinking about your retirement, because you’re not going to be doing this forever. And while there is a pension, it’s not going to be adequate. So, you’ve got to save money.

Craig: Well, first of all, you may not get your pension. You have to be vested to get it, which means you need I think five years of pension earnings before they’ll let you get a dime. That’s not coming until you’re sixty-something anyway.

You’re absolutely right. The benefits for saving for retirement go beyond just saving and not spending. That’s also money that you get a terrific tax break on. Anything that you can do to reduce your taxation, which is going to be very high as a screenwriter, is helpful to you and your family.

John: Cool. All right, let’s do our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a media post by Sara Benincasa.

Craig: So great.

John: Which she answers this anonymous question, “Why did you gain so much weight?” And what I love about her answer, and it’s a long post, she really goes for it. She really explains out her boyfriend who was deployed overseas in the army and then her switch to a different antidepressant and how that caused some weight gain. And she really sort of explains all the steps of how she put on weight. And the whole time it’s very, very funny. She’s a really very funny writer.

But what I love about it is throughout the whole thing she’s sort of like apologizing for being heavy, like it’s this horrible thing that she’s inflicting upon the world by being heavy. And the punchline is that she comes to Hollywood, she expects to have the worst issues with weight and such, and she does great. And so she sets up with Diablo Cody and Red Hour and she gets a lot of work done. And she does really well.

And, again, she’s constantly in her head apologizing for her weight. Like how do they not notice that I’m heavy? And it’s a good reminder that so often the things that we think are problems about ourselves are really just things we are creating in ourselves. We’re sort of creating people’s expectations about what we’re supposed to be like, and what we’re supposed to be doing. And when you sort of get past those, and just do your work, sometimes that work is rewarded in wonderful ways. So, it was a great essay. I know a lot of people have shared it. So, by the time this episode comes out, it will probably have won the Pulitzer in media.

But it’s just a great post.

Craig: I loved it, too. I loved it. It was so fearless. And that’s the thing. Basically everyone that gets wrapped up in these things, some idiot sends you an anonymous question like this. And really it may not be what they’re hoping for, but the worst outcome is you get scared. You get scared that people are seeing you a certain way. You get scared that you’re too this, or too that.

She’s so not scared, or even when she is scared, she’s OK to talk about being scared. So, to me, there was just this wonderful bravery to everything. And she also linked to a video piece she did that’s even braver than what she wrote. I mean, really just like I’m so impressed with her and kind of want to – I would be OK with maybe a 20th of her courage. Because I have none. [laughs] So, I’ll take – a 20th seems like it’s a fair ask. I’m not being greedy there.

I’m saying courage is a zero sum game. She would have to be reduced down by 1/20th. But I would take 1/20th of her courage. It would a big improvement for me. So, highly recommend that as well.

My One Cool Thing is coming up in, well, I don’t know when this – well, probably around when this is airing. August 30th or something like that, Nuka World! The final and presumably largest DLC for Fallout 4 will be available. And it looks awesome. It looks so great.

So, you get to explore the post-apocalyptic ruins of a horrible theme park that was built by the Nuke World Company to celebrate their products. It looks awesome.

John: That’s great.

Craig: So we’ll include a link to the trailer. You need Fallout 4 to play it, but you should have gotten Fallout 4. That’s my feeling.

John: Yeah, it was a previously One Cool Thing. So, people are way behind if they’re not doing it. I did not play Fallout 4. I did play the Fallout iPad game, the thing where you’re like managing the little – it was like the SIMS.

Craig: Oh yeah, the shelter.

John: And it was fun. And then it got really, really tedious. But it was fun for a while. And I do enjoy all the little details in their world that build so well together.

Craig: Yeah. Those guys are great. I mean, that whole company is fantastic. The two video game companies that I always perk up when I hear their names are Naughty Dog, which did The Last of Us, and the Unchartered Games, and the folks at Bethesda.

John: Yeah. They’re talented.

Craig: They’re just really good. And they also do Elder Scrolls. So, awesome.

John: Hooray. That’s our show for this week. So, as always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. We are edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Matt Davis. If you have an outro for us, you can send it to That’s also where you can send questions like the ones we answered. You can also reach us on Twitter for shorter questions. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

You’ll find the show on iTunes. If you leave us a review there, those are wonderful. And I actually read through them and they were just delightful. So, thank you for that. That’s also where we have the Scriptnotes app where you can download the back episodes all the way back to Episode 1. You can also find those at And on the USB drive we sell, which has all 250 episodes. Those are at the store, so you can get those.

That’s it. So, Craig, next time I speak with you I’ll actually be in Paris. And we will be tired.

Craig: You’re going to be tired, man. I’m going to be freaking awesome.

John: That’s going to be great. You’ll be sober, I hope.

Craig: Uh…bon voyage. [laughs]

John: It’ll be the first time for anything. So.

Craig: I’ve never done this drunk.

John: I’ve never done this drunk either. Well, I’ve done it with a glass and a half of wine at our live show.

Craig: That’s perfect. We want that.

John: You got to be a little loosened up. But, no, not drunk-drunk.

Craig: Well, there’s a first for everything. Maybe when you’re over there we’ll do it. I’m actually looking forward to it. I think something wonderful will come out of this.

John: Which would be great. Craig, I will see you next week.

Craig: You got it. Bye.

John: Bye.


You can download the episode here.

Sheep Crossing Roads

Tue, 08/30/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig discuss obstacles, those things your characters hate but desperately need.

We also follow up on the great Peter Dodd episode and answer listener questions on writing action, anecdotes as IP and other topics.


You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 264: The One With the Agent — Transcript

Fri, 08/26/2016 - 14:07

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 264 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. So, way back in Episode 2 we discussed how to get an agent. And in the 262 episodes since then the subject of agents has come up quite often, largely from listener questions. Well, today we are going to speak with an actual agent about what he looks for in a writer client and how he sees the relationships between writers and agents and managers and executives. And so that’s our whole episode is just an agent today.

And that agent is sitting across from me. Peter Dodd is a Motion Picture Literary Agent at UTA where he represents a range of clients, including me. Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Dodd: Hello guys. Happy to be here.

Craig: Hey, welcome Peter. Welcome. I’m very glad that you’re here, because as much as John and I ramble on and on for 263 episodes, I think honestly everyone out there has been waiting for us to just – can you please just tell me how to get the damn agent? So, we’re really glad you’re here.

Peter: Thank you. Well, I am happy to be here. I’m excited to try and answer some of these questions, so shoot.

John: Great. Well, let’s start with the basics. How long have you been an agent?

Peter: I’ve been an agent for about four years. I’ve been at the agency for around seven years.

John: So that’s a long time. So how do you get to be an agent? What was the process from starting there to becoming an agent?

Peter: The process is everyone starts in the mailroom, like historically is told, that exists. We start delivering the mail.

John: So, classically, when I started out in Hollywood, you were literally delivering mail from like office to office and doing runs. But there’s probably much more to that now in 2016. What does a mailroom person do?

Peter: Well, it’s interesting, I wonder if there’s more or less, because now that everything is digital, you send all of your scripts over email. So you’re not – so the function of a mailroom trainee initially was to pick up scripts and run them to actor’s houses, or drop them off in the mail to be sent to whoever for whatever purpose. Now, you spend your time in the mailroom, A, sort of collecting all the mail that comes in the day, dealing with all the stuff that agents are sending out, and delivering mail that comes in on a case-by-case basis. A lot of it happens to be Amazon packages.

John: So, you’re doing that at the very start, and then what is the process after you’ve been in the mailroom? Do you get assigned to a desk?

Peter: You start in the mailroom. After you spend a sufficient amount of time in the mailroom, you earn the right to interview for agents. And so that becomes the assistant pool that agents can choose from. So, if there are say 20 people in the mailroom delivering mail every day, I might interview five or six of them to be assistants on my desk. And then you select one of them to become your assistant.

So, then they spend the next year of their life basically answering the phone calls, setting meetings, sending scripts out. You know, arranging the life of the agent and manufacturing everything they need to do from the beginning of the day to the end of the day for the agent and for the clients they work with and represent.

John: Great. So on a desk means that you are an assistant to an agent. So, my first interaction with you is you were on David Kramer’s desk, who was my main agent, and so you were answering the phone. Is that when I first met you?

Peter: Yes.

John: So, what is the process from going being the guy who is answering the phones to the person who actually has clients that you’re representing?

Peter: It’s a tricky one. Basically, you have to stay at the agency for a while. No one gets promoted in their first year, although everyone is overqualified to do the job. That’s sort of not the point. It’s not about whether or not you can answer a phone or set or schedule a meeting. It’s about whether you’re doing the job of an agent. And so typically you’ll work for a junior agent for a year, and then you switch desks. You’ll work for a more senior agent for a year. And then you might switch desks again and work for an even more senior agent. And then at that point, when you’ve been there for anywhere from three to five years, there’s an inflection point whereby you either succeed and you make the jump to agent, or doesn’t feel like it’s going to work out and you leave and go work at another place.

Craig: But that sounds like the ultimate disaster. Right? I mean, I’m sure that it’s not for some people who decide, you know what, the agent’s life is not for me. I don’t actually want to be an agent. But, my god, to put in all those years in the mailroom, and then as an assistant, and then as an assistant, and then as an assistant, and then somebody one day goes, “Eh, meh.” That happens, right?

I mean, people do sort of get pushed off of the platform at some point. It has to, right? Because there’s so many agents an agency needs, right?

Peter: It happens all the time. It happens all the time. And, honestly, the job is a tricky one. It’s arduous. It’s not fun much of the time. And if you don’t love it, you’re going to self-select out anyway. And so it makes sense for people to guide you down a different path if that’s the right thing for you.

John: So, Peter, of the cohort of people in the mailroom with you, how many of those people are agents now?

Peter: Just me.

John: Great.

Craig: Wow.

John: And how many people were in that first group?

Peter: I started on the same day as six people. There were probably about I want to say 20 people in the mailroom overall. But on my day there were six of us. Five of them left. Of the five that left, one has left the industry completely. Works in real estate now. The other four are executives, producers, working in film and in TV. One guy is in reality TV. But anywhere from kids’ stuff to producing movies. So everyone has a career in entertainment, for the most part.

John: That’s great.

Peter: But not everyone stays at the actual agency.

John: And just to back up a little bit more, what was your background before going in there? You had an undergrad degree and then you applied to get into the mailroom? How does that work?

Peter: No, I graduated from Harvard with a degree in religion and political science. And after that, I got a job as a consultant. So I was a strategy consultant for big business for like three or four years. I left there and I worked at the Walt Disney Company in corporate strategy, so doing lots of acquisition work for the company. Always trying to get closer to storytelling and closer to movies. And they were actually quite getting there.

And then after I left Disney, instead of going to business school I decided, you know what, I’m going to try this agency thing for a year. If it works out for me, I’ll stay. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go to grad school and I’ll have felt that I checked that box.

Craig: So you went from working on business transactions at the corporate level to standing in a mailroom with five other people, delivering Amazon packages?

Peter: Correct.

Craig: Wow.

John: I always want everyone to understand the glamour of the industry that you entered into.

Peter: By the way, it’s super sexy. But what’s also interesting is that in the mailroom you have people with law degrees, you have people with business degrees, you have people that went to some amazing schools. You have people from all walks of life. And it’s really, really interesting to see how everyone sort of settles in and how some people last and some people don’t. And the skills that you think it takes to be successful at this job are not necessarily the skills that everyone has. And so it’s an interesting sorting process.

John: What are the skills required for being successful as an agent?

Peter: To be successful as an agent you have to be dogged. You have to be tireless. You have to accept no as only an entry point to a conversation, and not necessarily as the be all and end all of a conversation. You have to love movies, or TV, or whatever it is that you choose to spend all your time in, because frankly you do spend all of your time in it. And in my case, you have to love reading. I love reading. I love good stories. I love writers. That’s why I’ve gravitated towards the literary side is I’m just much more interested in that side of the business. Working with humans, working with actors, working with that side isn’t necessarily for me just yet.

Craig: But you have to find that you also love the kinds of people that you have to represent. And we’re not always the most lovable types. It takes a certain kind of person to be married to a writer. John and I have talked about that. And I presume that you have somewhere in there one of those weird quirky personalities that actually likes talking to writers.

Peter: I guess so. Maybe I do. I don’t know. But for I think the thing that always interested me was, you know, when you work at an agency you’re at the center of all the information. And so you hear everything that’s happening all around town at all times. And I like being at the hub. And I like being able to help disseminate that information to people that I think it’s relevant for, and helping, you know, on the other side to introduce people – buyers, producers, etc. – to people that I think are really special.

So, from my perspective, I’m sort at this nexus point and from either end I can get people excited about new writers or new directors or get new writers and new directors excited about projects or talent that I think are really special. So you’re sort of like at a high level you’re a matchmaker.

John: So, when did you start making matches? When did you have your first clients that were your own? Or when did you start representing other people’s clients? When does that transition happen?

Peter: Well, I have found my way into a lot of client teams just by sheer force and energy. I think if you start doing the job of anyone above you, they will appreciate it, especially at an agency. You know, agents never have enough time to read everything, to know every project, to know exactly what’s going on about every facet of everything. And so what I found when I was an assistant still, even working for David, was if you just pick one or two clients and you say, “Look, I want to work for this person. I want to act as if I’m their agent,” it can become practice.

So I would read for specific directors and I would say, “Oh, these scripts are great. We should call these directors and send it to them.” Or I would say, “Oh, these scripts aren’t so great. We should pass for them, or send it to them with the caveat that we don’t necessarily love it, but they should read it anyway.”

John: You started doing this while you were an assistant for a bigger agent?

Peter: The way that you get promoted is that you demonstrate that you can do the job of an agent. And so while you’re an assistant, you have to do all of the assistant tasks. You have to manage their client lists. You have to deal with all of their submissions. You have to manage them and their phone calls, etc. Plus, on the weekends you are trying to figure out what’s right for their clients, your boss’s clients, and you’re trying to see everything, to read everything, to discover new voices that you can bring into the agency. So, in my – the year before I got promoted, I would just constantly try and bring a new director to agents at the agency that I thought was really special, that I thought they should watch. Or I would try and get a director that my boss represented to take a script seriously.

And it got to the point where I had a relationship with some of these clients where I would just call them myself. I would pitch them material. They got used to talking to me and to listening to me and reading what I sent them. And that worked out really well. So, ultimately, after my assistant time had ended, it’s a pretty natural fit to transition from being an assistant to a boss, to having your own desk, having your own phone, and building your own relationships.

John: So, I introduced you as a Motion Picture Literary Agent, but that may be confusing because people think literary and they just think books, they just think written words, but you represent writers and directors. Is that basically the umbrella of people who are doing that for movies is your specialty, correct?

Peter: Correct.

John: And so if somebody is interested in television, they would also have a television agent who would be representing them for TV at the agency?

Peter: Yes.

John: And you’d all be in conversation about sort of what that person is up to?

Peter: Conversation is one way of phrasing it. I like to think of it as competition for what that person is up to. Because often we have conflicting agendas. I mean, from a larger perspective, we all want the client to be successful, but from a parochial perspective we want the client to be successful in our medium. So I want you writing movies. Your TV agent wants you writing TV. And everyone is competing in a positive way to try and get you work. That’s how it should work.

John: Great. So, who were the first clients that you represented who are sort of your people? The people you brought in and became the people you were representing. You don’t have to say names, but like how did you find those people?

Peter: Pretty much all of the clients that I have, and all of the ones that I’ve signed, have come from recommendations. I am a recommendation based engine. There is so much volume of content and material just out there in the world that it’s very easy for people to get overwhelmed by the 30 or 50 unrepresented scripts they get submitted a week.

So, in the course of my assistant years I spent a lot of time networking, a lot of drinks, a lot of weekends, a lot of commiserating with other assistants who then went on to get promoted as young executives, and those people that survived I think all have amazing taste. And so I sort of cultivated a group of around 15 people whose recommendations I will read always, and quickly. And they are the ones that feed me probably 60% of my clients.

So, all of my early clients came from that group of people.

Craig: And this group of people, they are currently working as producers, studio executives, managers?

Peter: Exactly.

Craig: So they’re not your direct competition.

Peter: No. Because if they were my direct competition, they’re probably looking after the same–

Craig: They wouldn’t tell you.

Peter: Content as well. They’d have incentive to tell me. When you go through the difficulty and the challenges of being an assistant, you know, when you’re that guy trying to set a meeting at ten o’clock at night for 8am tomorrow morning in London with a director client, and you’re on the phone with the producer, or the producer’s assistant who is London and it’s three o’clock in the morning for them, you know, when that happens a few times you begin to develop this connection that exists beyond just email addresses. And so now those people who have been promoted at this point are all people that, you know, you went to battle with, and these people help you, and you help them. And that’s sort of the circle of life.

John: What does that conversation look like? Are they just emailing you out of the blue saying like, let’s invent a writer, let’s say Christina. There’s a writer out there Christina. And so the executives have read Christina’s script and said like, “She’s really good. Hey, you should read her.” Or, are you reaching out saying like, “Hey, tell me who is good?” How does that–?

Peter: No, no, no. It always comes from them. Almost always comes from them. I don’t really solicit.

John: OK. So they start, they say like, “Hey, I read something that’s really great. You’ll want to read her.” And what is the next step for you? So if they said you should read her, are you reaching out to Christina? Are they sending you the script? What’s happening?

Peter: 90% of the time they’ll include the material. They’ll say, “Hey, I just read a great sample for this project. You should check this out. I don’t think this writer is represented.” Or they’ll say, “Hey, I read a great sample. You should check this out. I think this person is unhappy with their agent, or unhappy with their manager. This could be an opportunity.”

John: Great. So, what’s an interesting is none of what you’re saying is about a query letter. Like a writer has not written to you saying like, “Hey, I’m looking for an agent.” Does that ever – are any of your clients based on a query letter, like they reached out to you?

Peter: No.

John: Not a one?

Peter: Never.

John: All right.

Peter: Never happens.

John: No one that you met at a conference who offered you a business card or pitched you a script?

Peter: No. People have tried, but no. None of the actual clients that I work with now have come in that way.

Craig: This is why John and I spend a lot of our time frustrated, because there is – I’m sure you know this – there is a large cottage industry designed to take money from people, and in exchange give them the secrets to getting an agent, and getting representation, all the rest of it. And there’s this obsession over query letters. It’s absurd. It is the most bizarre Fellini-esque circus of nonsense you’ve ever seen.

Peter: And it’s complete highway robbery, because that’s not the way that agents look at or think about material.

John: Do you care about a log line?

Peter: In a submission letter?

John: Yeah.

Peter: I’d actually rather not have a log line frankly.

Craig: I love this. This is so great.

Peter: I’d rather have someone say, “I read this and I love it. You read it and tell me what you think.” Because frankly people suck at writing log lines.

Craig: Well, everyone, because log lines stink anyway. I mean, what are you going to sum up a movie in two sentences? It doesn’t tell you a damn thing. Particularly, it doesn’t tell you if this writer has capabilities to do more than just this one idea, or if they’re the kind of writer that’s written an idea that you now have to go get John August to rewrite because they can’t actually write.

I mean, what’s coming through, which I find so fascinating, and I think it’s hard for a lot of people to get their minds around this who are trying to get into our business is that they think somehow they have to do something to get you. And really what it comes down to is on your side of things you’re looking for people to help you. In other words, you’re looking for writers and somebody says, “This person would be great for you. You should get them before someone else does.” It is an entirely different mindset, but I think on their side they think, oh, no, no, I have to show them how wonderful I am, or something like that.

It just doesn’t work.

Peter: Not at all. You know, I get many, many query letters a day from people that figure out our email addresses and send us these crazy subject lines that obvious click bait. I open them and I’m like what on earth is this, how can delete it faster?

Craig: Oh man.

Peter: I don’t even read them. And if it’s not from someone I know, or I can tell that it’s fake, automatic delete.

John: So, let’s go back to Christina, and so an executive at a production company that you trust, you think has good taste, has recommended you read her script. Has attached the script. When do you read that script?

Peter: That depends on the context with which they send it. So, for example, there was a Christina that was sent to me last year, probably around this time, end of summer last year. The executive that I like said to me, “Managers are chasing this person. He’s meeting with 15 different managers over the next two weeks. This is a hot script. You should read it right away.” I read it that night. I reached out to the writer. Contacted them. Etc.

So, in situations like that where you know there’s a lot of heat and where you feel like that’s true, it goes very quickly. If I don’t know, or if it feels like it might be able to wait, I’ll often just wait till the weekend. And then on the weekends, that’s when I do most of my reading.

John: Great. So, let’s talk about that weekend read that you’re doing. So, you’ve sat down with her script. How much of her script do you read before you decide whether to keep reading or set it aside?

Peter: Honestly, it all just depends on the context of who is sending it to me. Like, typically I will read, you know, the first 30 plus pages. I almost always feel that’s at least giving the person the benefit of the doubt. You know, when I was a young agent I did this exercise. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the thousand hours, or the amount of time it takes to become really good at something. So, when I was a young agent I was like, you know what, I’m going to read every script completely because if I read them all completely I’ll have a great sense of what good writers do.

But what I did was after 30 pages I would always take my notes, whether or not I liked it, who I liked it for, etc., and then I would finish. And then at the end I would look at my notes and say, “Did anything change in reading the subsequent 70 pages from reading the first 30 pages?” And it never changed. You are rarely moved to tears, you are rarely excited by something in the last five pages of a script that you can’t sense in the first 30.

John: Well, it’s also interesting because you’re not looking for is this the movie we want to go shoot. You’re looking at can this person write. Your standards for whether to sign Christina as a client or not are not sort of like is this going to be the best possible movie. It’s like can she write [repeatedly]?

Peter: For us, and for new clients, it’s all about voice. Do you have a voice? And it doesn’t matter if the voice is in the most uncommercial sounding script in the world. That could still be an amazing voice that we can take and use that unconventional/uncommercial script and launch them into the stratosphere as a cool writer.

Craig: I think everyone is listening to this and going, OK, so I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not going to sit here and freak out over log lines. I’m not going to sit here and write cutesy query letters to agents. I’m going to accept the fact that my work has to be of such a nature that now I’m helping them, as opposed to me trying to convince them to help me.

How do they go about getting – I mean, from your point of view, and I don’t know if you know the answer to this because you’re an agent, but how do they get to those people that are going to get to you? How do they start their little chain of recommendations?

Peter: You know what’s funny? I thought this was such a confounding question when I was just getting into the business, because they always say Hollywood is about who you know. And when I moved out here after being in business in New York and in Boston, I didn’t really know anyone that worked at an agency. And so what I did was I went through like my college alumni network. I found a guy who was an executive at a studio. I reached out to him cold. And I said, “Hey, I’d love to come and get coffee with you.” I sort of did the informational interview thing.

And then I asked him who else I should meet. He introduced me to another five people. And it sort of spread like a virus. And it actually wasn’t that hard for me. I sort of feel like everyone knows a person who knows a person in Hollywood. So, if you can get someone to read who is a step or a degree closer to where you want to be, like that’s the way to go. That’s sort of the way in.

So, it’s sort of a non-clear answer, but I think that that at least makes sense to me.

Craig: You don’t stress competitions, contests? Does that mean anything to you guys?

Peter: Yes. Competitions and contests do, if you win.

Craig: You have to win. Yeah, people say like everyone is a semi-finalist. Literally in the world, everyone is–

Peter: Literally everyone is a Nicholl semi-finalist. There are thousands and thousands of people.

Craig: [laughs] Everyone. Exactly. That doesn’t count.

John: So let’s start with the Nicholl finalists. So, would you read through each of those scripts, or would somebody – would your assistant read through all of those scripts? Somebody looked at all of those scripts to see if any of those people are–?

Peter: Yes.

John: So that is actually – they’re going to get read by every big agency in town because they saw you there?

Peter: Correct.

John: How about Austin? Would they read all of the Austin finalists?

Peter: I don’t know. No, not every agent. No. I mean, the ones that people go to are really the Nicholl and the Black List five years ago. To some extent now scripts that are on there and scripts that do really well have already been out in the world, so they’re not as undiscovered gems in terms of representation, even though the rest of the world might not know how great the script is, a lot of them do have agents.

You know, I find another way that we get scripts a lot that works well is by clients. You know, if you were to send me a script, Craig, or you were to send me a script, John, I would trust that a lot more than if my aunt sends me a script.

Craig: Isn’t that interesting?

Peter: Because you’re professionals in the business.

Craig: Yeah. No one ever talks about that. No one ever thinks, “Oh I know, I’ll show it to a writer.” Now, granted, my standard line when people ask me to read a script is, well, A, I can’t. And B, I can’t help you. [laughs] Do you know what I mean?

But, I guess secretly I could.

Peter: But you could, Craig.

Craig: It’s true.

Peter: If you gave your script to your agent, you know, even if your agent doesn’t read it immediately, your agent will have a younger agent read it. And have an opinion.

Craig: If I tell him to read it, he’s reading it. [laughs]

Peter: Right now. Drop everything.

Craig: I will. I’ll make him do it.

John: So, Peter, what would Christina’s script be? Would it be a spec feature? Would it be a TV episode? Like are you only reading features to sign feature client? Or what are you reading?

Peter: No, I’m reading everything. I will read anything and everything that tells a story. So, 90% of the time it is features, but I will read the hot pilot that’s going around. I’ve no qualms about signing a TV writer on the feature side. But the format that it takes is of much less interest to me than the skill that it demonstrates. I’ll read playwrights. I’ll read shorts. I’ll read whatever.

John: So, let’s say you’ve read Christina’s script over the weekend and you like it. What is your next step?

Peter: If I’ve read it and I love it and I have her contact information, I will contact her. I will call her first. I will email her. If I don’t have either of those things, I will Facebook stalk her. I will tweet at her. I will Google search her. I will find a way to get to her.

John: Now, she may not necessarily know that you’ve read her script. Is that correct?

Peter: Yeah. She might not at all. So, often it’s a cold call. But, first of all, every writer or director likes hearing that you like their work, so frankly it doesn’t matter whether they have an agent, or they don’t have an agent, whether they know you’re calling, or whether you’re calling cold. If you call someone and tell them that you love what they’ve done, everyone takes that positively.

Craig: Interestingly, you are going after them. A lot of times what we’ll hear from aspiring writers is, “Well, I know that my script got to an agent. And it’s been a month and I haven’t quite heard back. When can I send them another thing and a follow up and all the rest?” And we give them advice, but in my mind I’m thinking you won’t need to.

Peter: Exactly.

Craig: They’re going to come find you. Or, it’s no.

John: So, my very first script that I wrote, this is while I was in Stark, was this romantic tragedy set in Boulder. And it’s pretty well-written, but it’s not really a movie. And a producer took it over to CAA and she wasn’t really a producer. She was sort of a producer. She took it over to CAA and this agent there was reading it. And four weeks sort of went by. And I just remember looking at the answer machine like why is there no message about this? And then she was like calling to try to get an answer. And then we find out the answer and it’s a no. But it’s sort of course it was a no. it was four weeks and that was just too long. It wasn’t going to be a yes answer.

So, your goal is to read that script over the weekend and then call her on Monday if you like the thing that you’ve just read?

Peter: If I like it, Monday. If I love it, Sunday, Saturday afternoon. Whenever it is I finish it.

John: In that conversation, are you trying to look for other things of hers that you can read? What are you trying to get out of that conversation?

Peter: I love to read second pieces. I think that that’s really important. I think a lot of writers do get signed off of one script, and that’s fine, but I feel like a lot of people have one script in them. I feel like a real writer has two or more. And so it’s important to me to read a secondary piece, just to have that perspective that they’re not just a one-trick pony, or that one script hasn’t been worked on for ten years. Right?

But, no, I’ll call them. I’ll tell them what I thought of the script. You know, if it feels makeable, if it feels like a real play, it’s something we can go after, you know, I might talk to them about some directors or some actors that might make sense for it. And if it’s not makeable or if it’s something that’s super tricky or just less clear path, I’ll just talk to them about where they come from, and their background, and what their aspirations are.

You know, a lot of times you have to suss out whether they really want to be writers or not, or whether they wrote it for some other reason.

John: So, one of the things we stress on the podcast a lot is that agents, mostly they are there to get their clients work. I mean, they are there to be an advocate for their clients. They are there to help support their clients. But mostly they want clients who work. So, at one point do you meet with Christina to see whether she’s a person you think can actually be employable?

Is it all based on what she’s written? Or does that face-to-face meeting change your opinion of whether to sign her as a client?

Peter: The face-to-face meeting is definitely important. I would say it is – if you’re weighting them, I would say it’s probably 80% based on the work. But what you find is that the people that tend to work continuously often are they’re charismatic, they’re fun, they’re people that you want to be around and hang around with.

I mean, in the script process for features, which both of you guys know, it’s a long process. It’s a lot of meetings. It’s a lot of phone calls. It’s a lot of collaboration. And if you are a curmudgeon who can’t talk to people, or you’re someone who writes a script and then thinks that it’s carved in stone, and that it’s not going to have notes, or people aren’t going to have their opinions, then this isn’t the career for you. You should write novels. Or poetry, you know.

So, you have to understand that there is a business side to the art that you do. And that working with other people is a requirement in this business. It’s not just about your words, although it is mostly about your words.

Craig: But you can see how without even pointing it out, it’s second nature to you, but I think it’s surprising for a lot of people that when you read a script by Christina and it is something that isn’t particularly marketable. It’s not something that a big studio is going to make. It doesn’t fit whatever the market is insisting upon at the moment, that doesn’t stop you at all. The idea is, oh good, I found somebody with an original voice. Let me see if I can now get her to work on movies that studios are making. Is that fair to say?

Peter: Right. 100%. And that’s often a part of the matching process in the signing pursuit. When you sit down in that room, you are trying to figure out whether they actually want to make movies and whether they can work. Or whether they want to live in sort of this isolated sphere which is reflected by the sort of beautiful and charming idiosyncratic script that they wrote that got your attention.

John: Great. So, let’s talk about the other side of the equation. So, you have these clients, but you’re also dealing with a whole bunch of other people who are making movies. So, you’re dealing with producers, you’re dealing with executives. How much of your day is spent dealing with them versus dealing with your clients? How much of your life is spent figuring out what they want and how to match up your people to their needs?

Peter: I would say it’s probably 60% spent on my clients. And then 40% spent on what the other people want or need.

John: Do you have like one studio that you are responsible for covering? Or one place that is yours, like within the agency like, “Oh, that’s Peter’s place and he’s responsible for knowing everything that happens there?”

Peter: Yes.

John: OK. And so how do you get that information in general? Is it by talking to the executives? Do you have spies? How do you know what’s really going on?

Craig: Spies. Say spies.

Peter: Spies, yes. That’s exactly it. I spend a lot of time talking to the executives, talking to the producers, and trying to figure out what their real priorities are. You know, every time they make a deal on a project like say they’re going to do a Chutes & Ladders movie, you know, that will be set up at a studio and there will be a producer involved. And the producer’s job is to put that movie together. So the producer will call me and they’ll say, “Hey, we just set up Chutes & Ladders. We’re really excited about it. We’re going to make it like Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s going to be awesome.”

And they’ll be like, “What writers do you have that can write that kind of a movie?” And so I will say, look, these are the ten writers that I think make sense for it. Of the ten, these four are available. And we should send them the material right now. And they’ll be like, “Great. Got to talk to the studio. And then we’ll send you some ideas.”

John: OK. So, I need to come back to you with like, so you say ten and then four, but then those are essentially four of your clients that you’re sort of pitting against each other for this one job. I mean, to some degree you are setting your children against each other to try to get this one thing. Does that weigh on you at all? Is that a factor in sort of how you’re thinking about your job?

Peter: No.

John: No?

Peter: No. you’re not really setting your children against each other, because you also have to imagine that in the larger landscape of any given project. Of Chutes & Ladders, for example, they’re calling every agency. They’re asking every covering agent the exact same question. And if I put one person up, and they put one person up, and the other person puts one person, you know, that’s four or five writers competing. You have the best chance of filling the job as a covering agent by putting up the right people and by putting up a few of them.

Craig: The conflict of interest that fascinates me, and it’s inevitable as well, so I don’t think it’s an ethical thing. I’m just kind of curious how you navigate these waters. Is not between writer clients, but between writer and director clients. When you have a director on a project and you have a writer on the project, and the director is making way more money, and the director say, “I may want to get a different writer from some other place even.” Or, the director wants the writer to do something and the writer is not sure.” How do you navigate that?

Peter: I sort of think you have to keep a separation of church and state. I think you are the advocate for each of these clients individually, but as you address these problems you have to put on your writer hat, or your director hat. And oftentimes if there are real conflicts of interest, like you represent both the writer and the director, you’ll have someone else on the team sort of jump in and be the lead advocate for the writer in this case on a particular circumstance that might happen.

Craig: Because, I mean, ultimately you’re walking this interesting line between keeping something going, but also not ending up favoring one over the over to the extent that one of them leaves, because behind you all the time is this issue of competition. That artists have choices. And they don’t have to stay.

So the tricky job, I mean, that’s the part – you know, when I project myself into somebody else’s job, I always find something that makes me feel very anxious. And I think that’s the thing that would make me feel the most anxious if I were doing the job.

Peter: I feel like the conflicts of interest that you’re talking about though happen very rarely. This is not something that we spend all day/every day agonizing about.

Craig: That’s good.

Peter: These situations do happen, but that is not the day-to-day job.

Craig: Good.

John: So let’s go back to the common scenario, though, so let’s say the Chutes & Ladders movie, and maybe Christina is one of the four writers you want to put up for that, because her spec would be a great sample for that. So, what is the phone call or the email to her to explain what it is? Are you responsible for pitching their take? Talk to us about sort of what that–

Peter: So, the interesting part, you know, you guys bring up conflict of interest and pitting your children against each other as it relates to the selling process. We haven’t even spoken to Christina about Chutes & Ladders. Christina might be like, “I would never write a board game. Why would you even talk about me in this context?”

So, of the four people that I’ve talked about and got the studio approval, and their excitement about, she might self-select out just because she doesn’t even want to participate.

But let’s assume that she does want to participate. So then I’ll call Christina and I’ll say, hey, such and such studio has just set up this project and they’d like you to look at their materials for Chutes & Ladders. In some circumstances, the studio and the producers will have very clear outlines for what they want the movie to be. They might have a treatment or a document or some piece of material they’re going to share with the writer. In other cases, they don’t. They have a title. They have Chutes & Ladders. Come up with a movie.

John: So, classically, the challenge I always face with these is like they were fishing expeditions. You were never quite clear whether there was a movie to be made there, or if they’re just meeting with every writer in town. And so you could be the tenth meeting of the day to go in on Chutes & Ladders. And I felt like I was burning a lot of time doing those.

Like I was lucky to get one of those jobs pretty early on. I got How to Eat Fried Worms, but it was me versus a bunch of very funny Simpsons writers all trying to get this one gig. And I was lucky to get it, but there were a lot of those gigs I didn’t get.

Now a thing I see a lot with these sort of IP titles is these rooms that they’re putting together where they’re basically bringing a bunch of writers on to crack Chutes & Ladders or to figure out how to do all these different board games. What are those calls like for you? And are those good ways of employing your clients? How do you feel about those personally and as an agency?

Peter: Well, I can’t speak entirely for the agency. I don’t think that’s politically correct. But, personally, I don’t like the idea because when you assemble rooms of writers, basically what they’re doing is they’re saying, “I want to pay as little as I possibly can to these people that you believe in as artists and steal their ideas. And then I may or may not hire them to be the writer on the movie.” So, from my perspective, if it’s something that is that ill-formed or that poorly thought out I would rather you write a script that’s original and let me try and sell it. Then have you give your good original idea and let them brand it with a piece of IP or a title.

So, I mean, that’s philosophically how I feel about it. In reality, though, for a lot of younger writers, for newer writers you’re trying to break, it is a good opportunity. Because for a lot of them, A, they get to work with some other writers they wouldn’t know. B, they get to work with someone senior who is running the writer’s room who gets to see how they perform, how they interact, how they collaborate, etc. You know, they get to work with the producer and the studio executive who might not know them. So, in terms of introducing them to the world of features, it’s not that bad.

But, if you’re talking about a writer who has written a lot of movies, or someone who is going to run the room, etc., it’s not really the best use of their time.

Craig: That’s something that I worry about all the time because while there are some new things like these writer rooms, the idea of the fishing expedition and everybody going in to pitch some well thought out ten or 15-minute version of a movie, that’s been around since John and I have been around. But, what’s changed dramatically is the amount of movies that are made and the ratio of developed to made movies, which used to be much, much higher.

So, we have about two-thirds of the amount of movies that we used to get made, and probably a third of the amount that are in development, or fewer. And so I’m kind of curious from your perspective as an agent, are you concerned that the farm system of the newer writers, their only way in are kind of through these arduous things that burn up a lot of time and energy and have a very high noise-to-signal ratio. And that somewhere down the line eventually all of the big money keeps going to the same pool of people. Is it harder to transition writers from baby writer to steadily-working writer to A-list writer?

Peter: 100% yes. Because the only way you move up that chain is by getting your movies made. And so if you spend a lot of time writing and the movies never get made, then you don’t increase your own quote, etc., in the system.

John: All three of us can think of writers who work all the time, but they don’t really have produced credits. So there’s no movies you can point to saying like, oh, that’s that guy’s movie. And they really aren’t moving up the chain. I’m sure they’re making money, which is great, and they’re continuously working, but there’s no way for them to progress because there just aren’t movies with their names on. There aren’t movies that they can really take credit for as being their movies.

Peter: Right. Which is why I think original material is so important. And which is why getting caught in the system and doing just the rewrites and just the roundtables and just the studio types of projects can be a never-ending cycle. You’re just sort of spinning your wheels in a lot of cases.

John: But the spec market is not at all what the spec market was when Craig and I were first starting out. There used to be this truly vibrant spec market where people would sell million dollar scripts it seemed like every week. It was a very frequent occurrence. And that’s not so common now. So, if a Christina says, “OK, I’m going to go off and write a spec script,” do you want her to pitch you what she’s going to write ahead of time, so you know what it is, so you can tell her whether that’s the proper thing? Are you going to try to get her partnered up with a director from the start?

What is your approach to Christina going off and writing her own original thing?

Peter: Well, you’re right, the spec market has totally changed. It’s completely different. You can’t just sell a – I mean, it very rarely happens that a writer goes off and sells a script for seven figures. So, now when we talk about writers writing new material, if they are interested I would love for them to talk to me about it beforehand. I’d love to hear two or three ideas, and then we decide, oh, this one feels like the right one for you.

Often it’s going to be whichever one you’re most passionate about, because ultimately you want a writer to write something they care about. That just gets you the best material for the end of the day. But, if they are interested in input, I would love to participate before they spend two months writing a new piece of material. And then once we get the piece of material, what we try and do is package it with producers, or with talent, or with a director that make the sale more of a fit. That make it going out into the marketplace noisier.

And so you’ll give it to a piece of talent. You’ll give it to an actor or an actress. You’ll give it to a filmmaker because, again, that increases the auspices around that particular piece.

John: Talk to us about managers. So, how many of your clients also have managers?

Peter: Most of them, probably 80%.

Craig: Wow.

John: What is your relationship to the managers?

Peter: My relationship to the managers varies in many situations. In some situations, the managers are nonexistent. In other situations, the managers–

John: When you say nonexistent, like they’re ineffectual? They do nothing?

Peter: Right. In some situations, the managers are on my phone sheet every day and are very omnipresent. And it cuts both ways. You know, oftentimes I work well with managers who are good developers of material. I really like managers who dive into the story and will help a writer sort of crack their story or will read and give feedback and notes and things like that on a script. You know, they can be very detailed and sort of help a writer break a storyline that maybe doesn’t make sense. I like very literary-driven managers. I think they add a lot of value.

I think there are some managers who basically do the same job I do, and they’re calling studio executives, and they’re selling clients, and they’re pitching clients, and they’re sending submissions. And that feels a little bit redundant to me. But my relationship – it’s like any relationship with any person. It just depends on how well you connect with them, what your vibe is together, and what kind of clients, and sort of how you work with these clients.

John: Are there any writer clients who you have declined to represent because they came with a manager you didn’t want to deal with?

Peter: Yes. There are managers I won’t work with.

John: All right.

Craig: Interestingly, you’ve never had to decline a client because they didn’t have a manager. [laughs] That doesn’t come up.

Peter: Correct. Correct. That’s never been an issue.

John: So obviously you’re not going to name names, but how would a writer find out that their manager is a toxic manager, or is a manager who is not well-liked? Any clues that a person could glean, a writer could glean that their manager may not be a good manager?

Peter: I honestly don’t know. Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean, I guess, if the piece of talent were that amazing and the manager was really challenging, I might try and make it work for a period of time and just see if you can tough it out. Because oftentimes you just gravitate towards the material and you work with everything else that comes with it. You know, things that come unencumbered are so rare these days. But, god, you know, you try and protect them if you can.

Craig: I mean, I’m very manager skeptic. I’ve said as much on the show many, many times. I do recognize that there are some managers out there who do work as producers for their clients and in the way that you’re describing, they help them write a screenplay. And I find it a curious position to be in, because sooner or later there’s going to be a different producer on there who will also be producing the screenplay. But, I understand. At least to get it to a place. Very good.

But, it seems to me that a lot of what the management business has become is just a way for people to double up on agents. You can’t have two agents at once. I mean, you can share two agents at an agency, obviously, but that’s the same 10%. You can’t hire CAA and UTA, but you can hire UTA and a manager. And so I agree with you. I think a lot of these people are kind of just extra agents.

John: So, I will speak up for Malcolm Spellman and for Justin Marks who believe that managers are – good managers are fundamentally a blessing. And that they truly help them out a lot.

And I will say that I know some mutual friends of ours who are represented by one agency, yet also have a really cozy relationship with another agency at the same time. It sort of feels like they’re kind of split between two worlds. I see you nodding, so that’s a thing that happens. Is it frustrating when you see that?

Peter: It’s very frustrating. Yes. But I also understand that at a certain level everyone knows each other. You’ve been in this business for long enough, you know, you have relationships that transcend agencies.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, that’s actually really interesting, because I don’t know how that would work. I mean, I’m friends with David Kramer, but I don’t feel like that relationship does anything strange. It’s not like we’re hanging out together at dinner.

What do you mean by the kind of dual agency? I feel like I’m missing out and I should be doing something.

John: Off-air I’ll tell you the name of the person, but a mutual friend of ours, he’s both at UTA and he’s also sort of at CAA at the same time. And it’s always struck me as so strange. But I’ll have conversations with him and like, “Oh yeah, well, my agent at CAA says this, and my agent at UTA says this.” And I think he’s technically only with one of the agencies. Basically he’s managed to not choose between them. And he’s chosen not to choose.

Craig: Interesting.

Peter: I’ve never heard of anybody being that explicit about it, but I do know of people who just have relationships with agents who are at different places, who might run a business question by an agent that doesn’t necessarily represent them that they’re close with. And I’ve heard that and I’ve had that happen before.

By the way, my best friend is a client who is not at my agency. And who I don’t represent. And who asks me questions about his agent all the time. And I’m like, you need to chill out, your agent is doing a great job.

Craig: Good for you.

Peter: I don’t even work with you, but it’s interesting. When you’re friends with a writer, you can really talk to them about what their issues are, and also I think I’ve become a better agent because I get to learn what his particular neuroses are.

Craig: Well, and god help you if he turns to you and says, “You know what? You have to be my agent.” And then you’re like, oh no.

Peter: Yeah.

Craig: I know how crazy you are, bro.

Peter: It’s super tricky. But I found myself defending agents who don’t even work at my agency, just because the demands or the expectations of my friend can sometimes be a bit ridiculous.

John: So let’s wrap this up with Christina. So you’ve managed to land her her first job. It’s an adaptation. So she’s going to be doing it for Sony. What kind of deal are you able to make for her on her very first Hollywood writing job? Is she getting scale? Is she getting scale plus ten? What does that look like for Christina?

Peter: Typically, writers who are making their first adaptation will get scale plus ten. I mean, that’s sort of the starting offer.

John: And we’ll explain scale plus ten. So scale is the minimum that they are allowed to pay you based on the WGA rates. Plus ten means plus ten percent, which basically they have to pay you.

Peter: Right. And then any sort of beyond that is what you get in negotiation based on the heat of the writer, the heat of the project, the talent that’s attached, the importance of the project relative to other projects within the studio. And so oftentimes you can convince them to go beyond that, but that’s sort of the starting point.

John: I bring this up just because listeners may not realize that – we talk about WGA negotiations and everything happens, and WGA only sort of sets the floor. And everything that’s above the floor is the agent’s job, and the lawyer’s job, and manager’s job, I guess, to some degree to raise that floor up higher and higher.

I haven’t talked about lawyers. So, when it comes time to make Christina’s deal, you’re dealing with her lawyer also who is helping you make the deal. Is that correct?

Peter: Mm-hmm.

John: And so what is the discussion between the two of you about what you’re asking for?

Peter: Most of the time, the discussion between the two of us is about what are the justifications for getting them more money than they’ve been offered. It’s not just about – you can’t just say, “I want more.” That’s never an acceptable line of argument. It’s, you know, based on the reviews of their previous movie, it’s based on the box office performance of a previous movie. It’s based on the elements that are attached. It’s based on the need and the demand for the writer. It’s based on their specific abilities within this world that other people don’t have.

So, you have to justify and you and the lawyer work together to figure out what those justifications are as you’re making the calls.

Craig: And you’re not dealing – people may not understand this – you’re not dealing with the people that have hired the writer in the first place, because those people are on the creative side of the studio, the studio executives along with the producer. These are business affairs people who are walled off, church and state style.

Peter: Which is the craziest part of it. The fact that I’m arguing about content, I’m arguing about artists and their skills with people who might not haven’t even seen the movie of the writer we’re talking about.

Craig: Almost certainly haven’t. Yeah, and don’t care. Because they literally have a computer model for what that person should be paid. They talk to each other, so now you have the business affairs lawyer at one studio talking to another one, because they hate setting precedent. If they give you a raise, then they get yelled at by other studios, because the other studio has to pay that higher rate now for your client.

And it’s a very – the only time I ever feel bad on my side as a client is when they’re like, “Well, business affairs says they should only pay you this.” And I’m like, well then no, screw them. And then someone calls them and says, “Stop being a jerk.”

But it’s got to be difficult when you keep coming back to these same people after you just had a fight with them an hour ago, to have a new fight with them about a new client, right?

Peter: It’s wild and crazy. Yes. It’s bizarre. You know, I would say to any writer who is able to do it, the best thing that you can give your agent, the greatest gift, is the power to walk away. If you are willing to say, “No, I just won’t do it for this price,” then your agent can go crazy on the lawyer and know that you’re not going to fire them if they aren’t able to make that deal. That is when it becomes very fun.

Craig: You know, my agent knows – he knows I want to walk away from everything. I don’t want to do anything. So, he has the best gift in the world. You know, any time I say, OK, let’s go make a deal. And he’s like, “All right, but this is what I’m going to ask for.” I’m like, no, no, no. Just understand, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do anything. I want to retire. So, go, armed with that.

And, you know, the truth is that attitude, you technically could have that attitude at any point in your career. It just occurred to me later that I should have it. But what’s to stop you, right?

Peter: You could, but for some younger writers, they need rent money. So, for them making a deal is important.

Craig: They’re going to get it anyway. I mean, you guys know. I mean, my point is you’re not going to let – if you know it’s right for your client, you’re not going to let them walk away. If you know you have a really good deal for the right project for them, then you’ll sit them down and say, “Hey, dumb-dumb, do this.” I presume.

Peter: 100%. I mean, I’m in the business of representing the best voices, the greatest artists, people that should be creating movies and television. And if the person that I’m negotiating with doesn’t recognize or respect that, then I have no interest in doing business with them, or putting my client in business with them. That’s not what’s good for my client. And if that becomes a deal breaker for me and Christina, then so bet it. They’re undervaluing themselves in the marketplace, and that’s not acceptable.

John: Last two questions, both come from trends in television, and I’m curious whether they exist in features and whether you’ve seen them in features. So first off, over the last few years staffing of junior levels in TV, diversity has become much more important. You see a lot more efforts to hire diverse writers at the starting level. Do you see efforts to hire diverse writers for features at those starting levels?

Peter: You do, but nearly as clearly defined as they are in television. I mean, in television they will specifically call covering agents for diverse writers. And diversity means a number of different things, but they are very explicit about it. In features, they will say, “We’d love it if a woman wrote this movie.” Or, “We’d love to have a writer or director of this particular background.” But, no, there’s nothing as clearly defined as it is in television at all.

John: Peter, you’re African American. Do people come to you looking for African American writers or minority writers? Does that happen at all?

Peter: All the time. Yes. Yes.

Craig: Because you guys all know each other? [laughs]

Peter: I’m the resident expert on African American writers at UTA, and WME, at CAA, everywhere.

Craig: Everywhere. It’s amazing.

Peter: Literally everywhere. We all know each other. We all represent – yeah, I know everyone.

John: Good stuff. My other question about TV practices that are hope are not going to ever come over to features, in TV a lot of times they’ll say like, “Oh, you’re a great young writer. Unfortunately we only have one spot and there’s two writers, so we’re going to partner you up and paper team you, pretend you’re a team.” Is there paper-teaming happening in features? Have you ever seen that happen?

Peter: I have seen it happen. It happens pretty rarely, though. That sort of forced marriage is strange and unnatural and doesn’t tend to happen.

The craziest thing is I once saw it happen across agencies.

Craig: Whoa.

Peter: So imagine trying to make a deal with a lit agent from another agency, you’re both advocating for your client. You don’t necessarily know that they’re worth the same. It would be like if I paired you, Craig, with a baby writer, and said, “OK, we want to ask for this much together as a team.” Well, then how do you split it?

Craig: I take everything.

Peter: It becomes very, very tricky.

Craig: I get all of it. That’s not tricky. That person should be thrilled. Thrilled.

Peter: It’s a gift.

Craig: I’m literally giving them the gift of my knowledge.

Peter: That’s the key to Hollywood, really. That’s what you should tell everyone that’s listening. They should just pair with one of the two of you.

Craig: [laughs] Exactly.

John: We have one listener question that I thought was actually much more appropriate for you. So, this is actually an audio question, so we’ll listen to the audio.

Question: Hey John and Craig. What’s the viability of making short films in the current climate as a means to break in to the industry?

Peter: I honestly think short films are pretty outdated in terms of a way to break into the film industry. They work if you want to be a director. In terms of being a writer, no one signs people off of getting their short film made. It’s just not a thing. It works for directors or writer-directors who are transitioning to bigger movies, and only to the extent that your short serves as a proof of concept of a larger movie.

So, if your short is the first chapter of a movie, that’s fantastic. That’s something that people can see, they get a sense of what you want to do with it. And there’s sort of an obvious next step to where the project goes.

If your short sort of lives in a bubble and doesn’t serve as part of a larger hole, doesn’t really help.

John: Gotcha. Cool. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a new podcast, it’s actually the second season of an old podcast, but it was in Australia, now it’s in the US. It’s called Science Vs. It is hosted by Wendy Zuckerman. And what she does is she takes a look at issues in the news, or just general topics, and really looks at them scientifically, sort of to really break down like what’s actually going on behind the scenes and what’s actually true and what’s not actually true.

So, the three episodes I listened to so far, one was on attachment parenting, one was on fracking. She did a two-part episode on guns. And they’re all just terrific. They’re really well-produced. So, if you’re looking for another podcast, I would recommend Science Vs. by Wendy Zuckerman.

Craig: Hmm, that sounds like I might actually like that. The only issue is, of course, it’s a podcast.

John: Craig doesn’t listen to podcasts.

Craig: Why would I? Why does anyone? I don’t understand it.

Peter: People with long commutes.

Craig: I guess, though, it’s the thing. I don’t have a long commute. [laughs] So, my One Cool Thing is maybe the dumbest of all of them, but so I already did one beard related One Cool Thing, because Peter, you don’t know this, but I’m a possessor of a one-year-old beard now. And I’m bald. I mean, I’m not fully full bad, but I’m fairly bald. So I don’t have to worry about like hair stuff. But now I kind of do, which is weird.

Anyway, found this awesome stuff, also Australian, by the way, called Uppercut. And it’s like a beard good that keeps your beard kind of tight, so it’s not flying off your face. And it smells like coconut. Yeah!

Peter: I didn’t even know that was an issue for people with beards, but I guess. I mean, you have hair like everyone else.

Craig: Well yeah, like if it gets frizzy, then you look like a bedraggled sea captain. You know? So you want to keep it natty and everything. And also beards are super dry and this stuff kind of makes it not so crispy.

Peter: Well, that’s interesting because, as John pointed out, I am an African American male, and so my hair is very short. So I almost never think about my hair. I don’t invest in hair products. I don’t really gels or anything. It’s never something that I’m really conscious of. And I also don’t have a beard.

Craig: Well, look, by the way, keep it that way. But I got to tell you, the joy of not having to give a damn about hair stuff is one of the – now that I have to give a slight, slight damn, it’s one of the great joys of life.

Peter: Consider me blessed.

John: Peter, do you have One Cool Thing to share with us?

Peter: Yeah. So my One Cool Thing is a book that I read over my vacation which is called Dynasty: The Rise and the Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. The book came out last fall and I read an amazing review of it, which is sort of how I got into it. You know, as agents, while we read scripts all the time, I do try and read for pleasure, because I do want to have informed conversation and I’m just curious about a lot of things. This book is – it’s sort of the latest history on the House of Caesar from Julius Caesar through Caligula. And as you look at the first five Caesars, what you realize is that the Roman Republic wasn’t as republican as it seems, or as it claims to be.

The characters are larger than life. I mean, it reads like a Game of Thrones episode, except minus the dragons, and with more prostitution. So, the book is fantastic.

Craig: Even more prostitution than the actual Game of Thrones, which is prostitution-heavy?

Peter: Oh, very much so. I mean, there was an emperor who used to take all of the young senators’ children basically to an island and make them prostitute to each other for his pleasure.

Craig: Well, we’ve had Denny Hastert. We’ve had a few. We’ve had a few of those guys.

Peter: So, yes, that’s my One Cool Thing.

John: Very, very cool. All right, that was show for this week. As always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe, and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Roman Mittermayr. If you have an outro for us, you can send it to us at That’s also where you send questions like the one we answered before.

You can find show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. Godwin gets them up about four days after the episode reads, so you’ll be able to read all about what Peter said.

You can find all of the back episodes of the show at and on the Scriptnotes USB drive which you can get at the store, the store.

For short questions, I’m on Twitter, @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Peter Dodd, do you use Twitter? You don’t want people reaching out on Twitter.

Peter: No, no, no. Not Twitter.

John: Not Twitter.

Peter: I don’t know anyone who uses Twitter anymore. I feel like it’s dead, by the way.

John: Oh my god, we’re on Twitter all the time.

Craig: That’s the most agent thing of all time.

Peter: Maybe it’s just me.

Craig: I don’t use it, so now it’s dead. Classic.

Peter: It doesn’t exist.

John: Peter Dodd, you were a fantastic guest. Thank you very much for being on the show with us this week.

Peter: Thanks guys. Happy to be here.

John: All right. Thanks.

Craig: Thank you.


You can download the episode here.