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Updated: 2 hours 18 min ago

Scriptnotes, Ep 341: Knowing vs. Discovering — Transcript

Wed, 03/21/2018 - 12:00

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

Today on the podcast we will try to answer the question how much do you need to know before you start writing. We’ll also discuss when to take a note and when to stand your ground.

Craig: Ooh, I like that one.

John: Stand your ground! But first we have some follow up. In our recent How Would This Be a Movie segment we looked at a Bloomberg story about debt collectors. And listener Joe wrote in who said, “The writer of the article, Zeke, is a buddy of mine from back in high school in Boston. He’s very excited that Hollywood people are talking about his story. And here’s the devastating news: Zeke Faux is actually pronounced Zeke Fox. I know. I’m sorry.”

Craig: Uh, it’s not. You mean, I think what listener Joe means is that Zeke Faux is actually mispronounced as Zeke Fox. I mean, that’s Faux. It’s F-A-U-X. It’s a word.

John: It is a word. It’s a French word. But he pronounces it Fox.

Craig: That’s fine. I mean, he can pronounce it Fox.

John: Like Guy Fawkes Day sort of pronounces it.

Craig: Right. But what he should do is go with Faux.

John: Yeah. So I sympathize with Zeke because I had an unpronounceable last name, which I ended up changing. But we pronounced my last name Misey, everyone else in the world pronounced it Mease, because that’s sort of how it looks. It should have been pronounced My-za in German. There was no winning. So Zeke has chosen his cool looking name, but he’s going to pronounce it Fox. I get it.

Craig: Yeah, listen, it’s cool. Whatever – I mean, it’s his name. But I’m just saying if you’re trying to be a super hero or villain, Zeke Faux is just cool.

John: It’s a cool name.

Craig: You know who loves that name?

John: Who loves that name?

Craig: Cool Craig.

John: Ah, Cool Craig. Oh, welcome back Cool Craig. Cool Craig, like are you a cousin of that other guy who doesn’t show up anymore?

Craig: Oh no, he shows up man.

John: All right.

Craig: Yeah. Cool Craig is actually a very close cousin of Whole Foods Craig. Whole Foods Craig cares more about you.

John: That’s good. I think the thing about Sexy Craig is there’s nothing wrong with Sexy Craig as long has everyone consents to Sexy Craig’s appearance in the podcast. And sometimes I don’t consent to it.

Craig: Sexy Craig weirdly is just learning about consent. Sexy Craig – he’s into it. Believe me, he gets that the world has changed and probably isn’t as hospitable to guys like Sexy Craig as it used to be. But, no, he’s learning about it. He’s into it. But he’s evolving.

John: That’s good. It’s crucial that this fictitious persona evolve along with all of the characters out there. So many characters in stories that I love are really problematic looked at through a modern lens. And that’s just a thing we have to accept.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly.

John: Do you want to take the next one about MoviePass?

Craig: I do. I do. Here we go. So, Brian in Winchester, Virginia writes, “An interesting situation arose this weekend with Red Sparrow.” That’s the Jennifer Lawrence film that’s out right now. “The regular 2D screenings of the film were not available on the MoviePass app. Each listing was grayed out just as the premium screenings of other films are, even in theaters that accept MoviePass. The scuttlebutt is that the distributor wouldn’t sponsor or pay for MoviePass to promote the film. Users have been getting direct emails to see certain films with their subscription. So MoviePass flexed their might and leveraged its users by preventing us from seeing the film on the opening night/weekend, likely impacting the box office.

“I’ve enjoyed MoviePass. I see more films and save money, but we are getting direct promotional emails to see certain films. It seems like a very slippery slope to use us subscribers as leverage against distributors. Both are options that could drive the value of the program down.”

Well, John, oh boy, here we go.

John: Yeah. This does seem like a slippery slope. And not even a slope. A thing just happened. The classic scheme of this would be you’d have a person who comes in and says like, “You know, it’s a really nice movie you’ve got here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: This doesn’t feel great. Now, we’ll zoom back out and say like there are people who influence the outcomes of opening weekends and movies all the time. And there’s always the sort of quid pro quo where you’re doing publicity with people and stuff like this, but this feels like a very kind of direct transactional thing. And they’re coming to us and saying like, “Hey, would you like us to promote your movie?” And if you say no then they will sort of unpromote your movie. And that doesn’t feel good.

Craig: Yeah, you can now see what they’re doing. Right? The classic Internet truism is “If you are not paying for the product you are the product.” And in this case it appears that the subscriber base for MoviePass is the product. So MoviePass very cannily is monetizing this by advertising movies to their base and, yes, it appears that if you – it may not even be as much as, “OK, well if you don’t advertise with us then we’re not going to let our people see your movies.” It may also just be these people are advertising with us and they’re in direct competition with you. So part of our deal with them is we’re sending our hordes to them. This is sort of the Groupon model of things.

If they push this a little too hard and a little too quickly, which I think they are, I could definitely see a situation where studios – and this is where they have to be careful about not running afoul of antitrust – but I could see them all just going, “This service is not in our long term best interests. Let’s stop advertising with it.”

John: Yeah. No, it’s a really interesting situation. Now, I didn’t do any research on this, but I know in the past there have been controversies over things like radio stations that will have their annual holiday Christmas concerts. And there’s that sense of like if you are a band who is asked to play that and you don’t play that, you will not get radio play on that station. They’ll cease to promote you.

That is a form of a distributor coming in and saying to the artist if you do not basically pay us by your free performance we will not support you. That kind of thing happens in Hollywood all the time where if you don’t do Entertainment Tonight they’re not going to talk about your movie. There’s always that kind of situation. This just feels much more obvious of an impasse between these two powerful parties.

Craig: And I think also that if MoviePass pursues this method, at some point their patrons will become frustrated. I mean, I don’t think it was in the user agreement – I mean, it is, of course – but it wasn’t certainly out front that you would get to see all of the movies you could see in a month, except for the ones that they don’t want you to see because it’s not good for the MoviePass company. That’s not attractive.

John: I agree. I agree. So Netflix in its heyday when it was still sending out DVDs, there were limitations. They wouldn’t always have every movie available. There was sort of some built-in shortages there, but this was an artificial scarcity that they were just creating here and that is the thing that is going to make people less happy than they would otherwise be.

Craig: You know, a movie like Red Sparrow, I mean, come on. This movie – these are the movies we need to be helping. And I haven’t seen Red Sparrow. I don’t even know what Red Sparrow is about. All I know is that Red Sparrow is not a $100 million or $500 million budgeted massive brightly colored explosion festival. And therefore it would be nice – and it stars a movie star. And it’s not a little tiny, tiny like little indie-indie movie.

Right? It’s the sort of movie that Hollywood used to make a lot of. They’re frightened to death of making them. And now MoviePass is going to choke the life out of it. I mean, that’s just wrong.

John: I agree. All right, continuing our follow up. Last week we talked about the plan or lack of a plan in Return of the Jedi. Sian Griffiths wrote in to point out that maybe the worst thing about that opening sequence wasn’t Luke’s plan, but the metal bikini. So I’m going to link to her blog post she did which was a really good analysis of sort of how in that third movie of Star Wars, the initial trilogy, so much of what we had learned to love about Leia kind of becomes undone because the Leia character is suddenly sexualized. A quote from the article is, “The ultimate crime of the metal bikini is that it turned Leia from being a force of personality into merely a body.”

Craig: Yeah, you know, I don’t know quite what to think about these things because I’m so easily swayed. I am very much a weathervane on these things, right? So I read something like this and I go, yep, yep, yep. And then I’ll see some other article where women talk about how they thought it was the most body positive thing and they love to cosplay as her in the bikini. And it’s a huge part of their – and I’m like, OK, yep, yep. You know what, I don’t know. I’m defaulting to my hands up. I don’t know.

John: Yeah. I don’t know either about Wonder Woman and her outfit versus Captain Marvel who has a non-sexualized outfit. I don’t know. I mean, I want women to be able to own and present their sexuality as a powerful part of their force. But I don’t want them to be limited to it. So, I don’t know what the right answer is.

Craig: Women disagree about things the way that men disagree about things, which makes sense because they’re human beings. When women are disagreeing about things that have to do with women, I have learned to shut my mouth. And just listen. You know, I’ll let them hash it out.

John: All right. We also had several listeners who wrote in with their own theories about what was possibly happening. We could get into this, but I don’t know that it’s really going to serve anybody to get into the more elaborate theories of why people were doing what they were doing other than to say you can make anything kind of make sense, but what we’re actually seeing on screen right now doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you stop to think about it.

Craig: No. I mean, people can torture some sort of bizarre bendy pipe cleaner explanation for this, but in general good storytelling observes Occam’s razor. Even if it’s not an explanation that you could have predicted, it’s a surprise, in the post-analysis of it you should be able to say that’s a very elegant thing that happened there. The more complicated and twisty and bendy it is, the more of a – well, just a screenwriting artifact it is to allow the writer or the filmmakers to achieve moments they wanted to achieve separate and apart from a compelling storyline or character motivation.

John: Absolutely. That actually is a perfect segue into our first main topic which is sort of knowing versus discovering. And sort of what you’re describing in terms of tortured logic to get you to a certain place. That can often come about because a writer has a plan for how things are going to fit together and that plan may not be the most natural way of getting about it.

So, this all sprung from a conversation I’m having this week and the people who are inviting me to have this conversation threw out this question, which was how much does a screenwriter need to know before he or she sits down to write a scene, which I thought was a great question and we haven’t really talked about that. We’ve talked about writing a scene, but we haven’t talked about what you really need to know beforehand. And so my first instinct of course was to make a checklist.

So, I’m going to read through this checklist, and then we’re going to throw away the checklist. And I wanted to read through sort of like what might be on that checklist.

So, you might ask, “Well, who is in this scene. What should those characters want? What are they hiding? What is the central conflict? Where does the scene take place? What just happened before this? What’s going to happen next? What’s the first image we see in the scene? What’s the first line? What absolutely has to occur in this scene in order for it to make sense and for it to move the story forward? And, finally, how does this scene change the direction of the story?”

So, these are 10, 11 points that might be on a checklist as you’re sitting down to write a scene. And I made this checklist and quickly realized almost every scene I’ve written I couldn’t answer all these questions and I think that’s good. I think if you did have the answers to all these questions you’d sort of be paralyzed. And I’m curious what your thoughts are on this checklist.

Craig: Well, it’s a good list. I think all of these are valid and I would – I guess in maybe a slightly more vague way some of the questions I ask myself are what’s the point of this scene. Why do I want this in the movie? And how will the scene be entertaining? Because I’m constantly terrified by being boring. And so those are two big things that hang over my head.

I actually try – I do try and answer as many of these questions as I can before I start writing the scene. And then I give myself permission, and I don’t even have to do it, it just sort of happens that as I’m writing things begin to occur. So I feel much more comfortable and targeted when I have a plan and I have a lot of answers.

And I think simply because I feel comfortable when I begin to do the writing other stuff starts to happen. But it happens within the context of an understanding about some hard answers. Even if part of the thing that results is a deviation from the plan.

John: Yeah. So you and I have never written on classic TV shows where there’s a room and as a room you’re breaking the story. So you’re breaking the big beats and you’re breaking the smaller beats. You’re breaking it down to scenes and often you’re breaking down sort of what happens in the scene. And there’s something wonderful about that because you have the ability to have a bunch of different brains working through something and sometimes you can come up with something really great.

Where I wonder if I would be incredibly frustrated is when I get that big document and then have to write the actual scenes that become the screenplay, or the teleplay, the kind of weird paralysis I’d feel that I was locked into the scene is going to happen the way that we broke it in the room. You’re going to have to follow these beats.

Because I have a very hard time writing a scene if I know exactly what’s going to happen in the scene. Like I have a hard time making that scene feel spontaneous and feel like the characters are making their own choices in the moment versus the scene making the choices. It’s the difference between character-driven versus plot-driven. And we always think about character-driven as like the whole movie is character-driven. The sense that these characters have a big someday wish that they are setting out on a quest to sort of get to that someday wish. They’re facing these challenges. They’re changed by the journey. That’s what movies are.

Craig: Right.

John: But I think within the context of a scene that same thing kind of happens where characters come into it with a certain goal, a certain ambition, and by their own actions they’ve changed things. And you want to feel that they are making choices within the moment, line by line, what they’re saying, what they’re doing, how they’re reacting that is causing the effect of the change of the scene.

If I came in with this sort of master plan document for exactly what’s going to happen in the scene and how we’re going to get through the scene, I don’t know if I could do that very well.

Craig: I do a master plan. And I have the opposite emotional requirement. I find it hard to write a scene if I don’t know how it begins and how it ends and roughly all these things that are supposed to happen in it. But what I find is that what I really need to know when I’m writing a scene is – it’s a bit like, OK, I’m about to throw some characters into a lake. I need to know why I’m throwing them into the lake. I also need to know that at the end of the scene they’re going to emerge from the lake at this point on the shore for this reason. So, then I feel good. I’m like, great, I know why I’m throwing them in. I know what’s going to happen when they plunge down. I have a general sense of how they’re going to struggle to get back up to the surface. But from that point to the point I know must occur at the end, let’s see. Let’s see how it goes.

John: That’s I think what I’m describing. It’s that you just talked about your goals for this scene. Basically you as the writer, the sort of meta like what is the intention of the scene. Why does this scene need to be in the movie? What is the thing that’s going to happen to it? But the characters in that scene, they shouldn’t know where it’s going to go. They shouldn’t know what’s going to happen. And to the degree that we sense that they do know what’s going to happen or where it’s going to go, we’re bored.

Craig: That’s right.

John: It has lost all of its spark or magic.

Another analogy I’d have for it is sort of like a road trip. And so you can think of a movie as being like a big road trip and you can sort of pick where the destinations are going to be on that road trip. So we’re driving from LA to New York. Are we going to take a straight route there? Are we going to stop in Houston? Are we going to stop in Bozeman, Montana? Is it going to be on a time clock like we’re in a hurry, or is it just whenever we get there that it’s going to be that? That’s the scope of the movie feels that way.

But, an individual scene isn’t like a road trip in that way. It’s more like an errand. Like you’re going out to do something. You have a very specific goal. Like you have to stop at the drug store and pick up this thing.

And within the course of that scene you could just have them go in the drug store, pick up that thing, and pay for it and leave. But you can also do so much more. And if you let the characters, give them some space to breathe and sort of make their own choices you can find a much more interesting way to make that scene work than just the functional version of it. It’s like, OK, well that scene works because they picked up the thing that they needed to pick up. Those tend to be the least interesting versions of those scenes.

Craig: I agree. And this is why so much of the fun part of writing for me is the part where I try and see as much as I can in the space of the scene. So, if I have a scene that is designed to serve a plot purpose and also a character purpose, and I know what those are. And then I’m imagining the moment and trying to make it real. And so I have two characters that are in this pharmacy and they have to go pick up medicine, because that’s the errand as you say. I’m literally using an errand to describe the errand. And one of them is eating a Snickers bar. He has bought a Snickers bar and he’s eating it. And his friend is at the counter and she’s waiting for the pills to come out. And they’re having a conversation. And I know that the point of the conversation is they disagree about something. Well, there’s no way in the world that in my master plan I would have said and this guy should be eating a Snickers bar.

That’s just something that I kind of fill in. But now that I know that he’s eating the Snickers bar, at some point I want her to slap it right out of his mouth. Because that’s exciting. And that’ll just happen. There’s no plan for that, right? So you start to like use the stuff in your environment. The only way to surprise people is to surprise yourself. And to have characters surprise each other. Life is surprising, particularly the parts of life that we find fascinating which we’re supposed to be presenting in movies.

So, there is this kind of need to plan so that your scene isn’t this rambling, shaggy dog, pointless mush, which we see a lot of from early writers. These like long runs of rambly dialogue going nowhere because they think that’s what’s real. But, then within your disciplined moment you’re just playing in this very real world. And then if you know, “Well, my purpose here is for him to realize that she is no longer going to take his crap, well now the Snickers bar is the way I’m going to do it.” And I could have never foreseen that.

John: Absolutely. So, what you described with sometimes beginning writers, or other writers who they seem to become in love with their characters’ voices, but they don’t actually have them doing anything interesting, is these characters just sort of keep wandering down these blind alleys. That it’s not moving the actual story forward. So, the individual scenes might be really funny, but they don’t add up to anything. Or even within the course of scenes there’s not really a shape to them. They’re sort of just in this moment. And a lot of times you’ll notice this in scripts where you go through a whole sequence and you realize like they basically just have been talking or doing the same thing for like ten pages. Nothing has actually progressed. And if I were to take these ten pages out we’d still be in the same moment.

So, that kind of planning problem can definitely happen. I guess you can’t let this process of discovery just lead you away from where you’re actually trying to get to. And if your whole scene became about the chocolate bar and slapping things, and then became a huge slapping fight inside this, and they got arrested, and they got taken away, well, that probably wasn’t what the scene needed to accomplish.

Craig: Right.

John: And so it does go back to that initial question of like what absolutely needs to happen in this scene? Because the scene happened, this next scene is possible. Well, what is that next scene in general? Or how is it leading us to the next thing? And I have seen many cases where people get seduced by really interesting things that happen in the moment and they get led astray. And I face that in real life all the time. Like there will be times where a scene will take me in a really interesting way and I will decide like, OK, you know what, I was going to go there, now I’m going to go here. I think I can get myself back over there. Most of the time I can, but sometimes I will have to just chuck a scene that I really do like because it really wasn’t getting me where I wanted to go. It was a really interesting character scene that couldn’t actually contribute to what it needed to contribute to the story at that point.

Craig: Oh yeah. Happens all the time. You have fun when you’re writing and sometimes you have fun in a way where you go, “Wonderful.” And sometimes you have fun in a way and go, “Yeah, no, I got to delete all that.”

Anybody that is concerned about efficiency should not be a writer. It is not an efficient process. If it’s efficient you’re doing it wrong, I’m pretty sure.

John: I was reading this blogger recently who talked about how every night he makes a plan for the next day and he has his day scheduled out to like ten minute increments. It’s called hyper scheduling. And I could, A, never do that. But I do feel that sometimes aspiring writers are attempting that in their screenplays. And probably because they’re read too many screenwriting books they see like this big macro thing, like this is what structure is, and this is what happens in a scene. Or they read some book that tells them every scene needs to flip from positive to negative, and then negative to positive. And there’s a whole way things have to happen.

And so they get incredibly granular in figuring out like, “OK, what’s going to happen in this scene before I write it.” They keep trying to optimize this unwritten thing.

So I think there’s a real danger to over-knowing. And it’s you sort of preclude new discoveries. You preclude new possibilities because you’re so determined to hit these beats that you’ve already set out for yourself. And sometimes it goes back to even like character backstory. Like a lot of times before writers will start writing a script they’ll do these elaborate bios for their characters about where they come from and how many brothers they have and what their favorite cereal is. And I’ve never found that helpful for me because if I know those details part of me wants to use it in some way which is almost never going to be helpful. And by locking down those details I’ve taken away my ability to be surprised by something that happens in the moment.

Like if I knew that Lucky Charms was his favorite cereal that’s probably not going to help me. But, how you made that decision might preclude some other interesting decision down the road. So people obsess about that stuff which is just kind of so often busy work I find.

Craig: Yeah, look, everybody has a certain amount of busy work they do to comfort themselves as they prepare to do this thing that often is miserable to do. I would say this: if you are having success – and creative success is I guess the most important thing there. I mean, the rest of it hopefully is following along. And your method is to backstory the hell out of your characters because that’s how you do sort of your running jump, your running start. That’s your running start. I’m with you. I don’t really find those things to be particularly important. And generally speaking when I get to a moment where I think, oh you know what, it would be good to know what her attitude is about blankety-blank, then I start to go back and fill those little bits of the map in.

But I don’t feel a great need to do any of that stuff myself. And I think that new writers are trying to exert control over a very scary process. Who wouldn’t? I mean, we are trained to exert control over circumstances in order to achieve results. And when you try and control things like screenplays you end up with very dead things. There is a kind of madness that is required along with this remarkable sobriety. You kind of have to have both going on at the same time or you’ll either have this very wooden thing or just a rambly, bizarro mess.

John: Yeah. I think there’s essentially a great compromise we tend to make. Because you want your characters to be free to do what they need to do, to explore themselves. And you also need to get them to go to the places where you need them to go. And so I think the bargain we make is that the characters can sort of move however they want to move, but we are the ones who are going to lay down the road for them.

So, they can go anywhere they want, but these are the roads. And so you’re ultimately going to get them to where they need to go, but exactly how quickly they’re going to do that. They still have a feeling of control, even though you are the one behind the scenes who is sort of mastering everything. And I think that speaks to also why when people do these elaborate backstories sometimes they’re describing a character who is still. They’re describing a character who is like in a museum. But the characters we see in stories are in motion. And so if you’re so focused on where the character came from and all these things, it’s like this frozen in time snapshot of who that character is. But in a movie you’re always seeing them in motion. And so be looking for what’s changing. Be looking for what’s challenging them. Try to do the work to figure out what that character is like when they’re moving and talking and curious and frightened, not just who they were when they were ten years old.

Craig: Yep. I agree with that. I think that the more you lock yourself in on that stuff the less you are concentrating on how that stuff is no longer who this character is supposed to be. And that’s what your movie is about. It’s about taking somebody from A to B. And so much of what the beginning is is establishing what you believe the audience needs to know. So, there’s the question what do we need to know to begin writing a scene and then there’s this other question which I’m asking all the time, which I suppose informs the first question: what does the audience need to know coming out of this scene?

And too much information is bad. It’s not only boring, but it starts to reduce a sense of wonder and mystery and participation. There’s that notion of active viewing. That you are leaning in because you know you have to pay attention. And it’s interesting and also things will be left out that you’re going to have to fill in for yourself.

So, another question I suppose we could put on our long list is what does the audience need to know before you start writing your scene. Because I think about that all the time.

John: Yeah. The weird things about a screenplay versus a book is that as a screenwriter we are sort of the proxy for the audience. We are sitting in the seat watching the story unfold on a big screen in front of us. So when we say we see/we hear, we’re saying that as the audience. Like this is what we’re experiencing. And so we’re always trying to remember what the audience knows, what the audience expects, what the audience is looking for. Because, if we don’t have a sense of what this story looks like from the audience’s point of view, we’ve lost.

Craig: 100%.

John: All right. Let’s switch point of views to the screenwriter who is taking notes from somebody. Notes from a producer. Notes from a director. Notes from a studio executive. Craig, can you talk us through and answer definitively when should you take the note and when should you stand your ground?

Craig: I don’t know! I’ve been struggling with this my whole life. I did a talk about this at one of these creative salons that we had here in Los Angeles a while back. John, I assume you’ve read Le Petit Prince, The Little Prince, of course.

John: Of course.

Craig: So, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, wonderful book, but it opens with something that even as a child confused me and concerned me. So in the beginning of the book he says when I was a kid I used to draw. And I drew things – the idea was I drew a snake that had eaten an elephant. And so the snake – the elephant obviously is inside the snake so you can’t see the elephant in the snake – but he’s drawn a snake that has eaten an elephant and the shape when he shows it to adults he says, “Look what I drew.” And they would always say, “Oh, what a nice hat.”

But he knew that in fact it was not a hat. That’s the boring interpretation of it. And that in fact it’s an elephant inside a snake. And now he is a grownup and he’s crash landed in the desert and he meets the Little Prince who is the embodiment of innocence and child-like wonder. And he shows him his picture and the Little Prince says, “Oh, what a nice snake that has eaten an elephant.” And you’re like, ooh, finally, somebody gets it.

And as a kid I remember thinking, “But it looks like a hat?”

John: It does look like a hat.

Craig: It’s not fair. You’re not being fair. And that in fact that is a reasonable note that it looks like a hat. But I’ve always been a bit envious of people – and you and I, we know all sorts of writers and directors. And there is a certain sub-segment of our community that has absolutely no problem saying “What I’ve done here is an elephant inside a snake and if you don’t see it that’s your problem. I’m not changing it. I’m right. I have this bedrock faith in my instincts.“

When we go through this medium, this collaborative process, we are constantly getting input from people. And sometimes we think they’re right and sometimes we think they’re wrong. But the big question that I have, and I struggle with all the time, and maybe we can help people as they struggle with it is how do I know when I’m right and how do I know when I’m wrong. Because if you go too far one way or the other you end up either as a pushover or as this arrogant person. Or you could be this brave person, or you could be this weak person. And I struggle with it all the time.

How do you deal with it?

John: You know, I think a couple strategies I might employ at different times. One is just try to figure out consensus. So, if one person has the note, well, that could just be their opinion. If nine people have the note, then, OK, there’s something about that. There’s something that is hitting a lot of people a certain way and I need to really pay attention.

Another strategy might be to look back at my original intentions. Like what was I trying to do here and would taking this note change my intentions. Would taking this note bring me closer to my intentions? When I’m doing that sort of internal audit, I might also ask why am I reacting this way to that note. Is it because I’m afraid that they’re right, which is sometimes is the case. I might be afraid that they’re right and it’s going to be a lot of work, or I won’t even know how to implement that note. That might be something that I’m struggling with as I’m hearing that note.

But sometimes at the end of this assessment I’ll just decide, you know what, they’re wrong. And then I have to figure out like are they wrong enough that it’s worth sort of planting my foot and saying no I will not/I shall not budge. Or do I need to find a way to change something that addresses their concern without sort of implementing their solution if their solution is bad. I don’t know if any of these things are familiar to you.

Craig: No, they all are. And I’ve thought a lot about this. I think that there are certainly these moments where we get input and we have an emotional response. And that muddies the waters. And I’m almost saying let’s take that out of the equation. Let’s jump ahead. It’s two or three days later. You’ve calmed down. And now you can soberly look at this comment and even now you’re wondering “Am I right or am I wrong that they are right or they are wrong?”

And it’s not just about I’m right/they’re wrong. Sometimes I worry when I’m thinking they’re right and I’m wrong. And I worry about this because when we examine ourselves honestly what we will see is a lot of irrationality and a lot of cognitive errors. We change our minds, for instance, all the time. Sometimes our response to something is colored entirely by the fact that it is our first encounter with that thing.

Then the second or third encounter is a much different experience. So I’m wondering is my problem that I’ve seen it too many times? Is my problem that I just heard this note for the first time? I’m always sort of digging into this to try and figure out if I’m causing harm or not.

And over time I’ve come to the following conclusions, which are not super-duper helpful, but how could they be given the conundrum here. Conclusion number one is that there is no perfect way to do this. I will absolutely make mistakes. There are going to be times where I say no and I should have said yes. And there are going to be times where I say yes and I should have said no.

Conclusion number two: When I am particularly ambiguous or confused about whether or not I should be saying yes or no, that in and of itself is an indication of a problem. And so there’s a problem underneath all of this. Because even if there are times where I feel 100% confident and it turns out later I should not have been, generally speaking in those times my batting average is pretty high. Whether, again, sometimes I feel 100% confident that what somebody has just told me to change is exactly the right thing to do. But that happens because the writing around that spot is generally in the place it should be. And here’s a change that makes sense.

I get wishy-washy when the ground is not as firm under my feet as it should be.

John: Absolutely on all three points. And I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve had the emotional response. I’ve stepped back. I’ve taken a look at it. I can look at it in terms of the work, the words on the page, the plan for making a movie. Obviously the screenplays we’re writing, especially if we’re not going into production quite yet, is just a plan for something that has not been built yet. And so sometimes we have difference of opinions on like well what should we build. And so it’s not a question of like is this the right way to do this thing. It’s like “Is this even the kind of thing we want to build?” And so those difference of opinions, like you have to sort of wrestle through those all the time.

Where it gets harder, and honestly I’ll say that half the notes I face tend to be in the second category, where I feel like the note is not actually about the work. The note is about something else. The note is about that other movie that opened last weekend. That note is about some other sort of defensive posture that this producer, this studio executive, this director is taking that has actually nothing to do with the work in front of them.

Those are sometimes the most frustrating notes because I have to then ask myself is it worth trying to implement this note if I will not ruin things because this is apparently something they feel they need to address in order for this project to move forward.

Sometimes you do those notes and sometimes you don’t do those notes. And I’ve been burned both ways where I’ve stomped my food and said, no, I’m absolutely not doing that. This is a ridiculous note. This is not helpful. And sometimes I’ve even said, “I can see why you’re saying that, but this is not the right thing. This is not the movie I signed on to write.” And I’ve left the project.

There have been other times where I’ve stayed on the project, and I’ve written those notes and it didn’t matter anyway. Because they were going to go in a different direction down the road. And so we’ve both been through situations where you’ve killed yourself for six months to sort of fine tune this thing and that line of dialogue on page 32 which you went back and forth over for three weeks and there was all this discussion. That scene is not in the movie anymore and they’ve completely changed how that whole thing works.

That’s the frustration, and the decisions that we have to go through, whether we’re taking a note or not taking a note. Because there’s a cost. There’s a cost to taking that note in terms of your time, in terms of your sort of pride in the work. You want to be the person who gets hired by that producer, by that studio again, because you are collaborative, but you also don’t want to just be a typist. Because that gets to be the real frustration.

Craig: Yeah. I think you’ve hit on something really interesting here. Because most of the time when I’m feeling ambiguous and wishy-washy and doing my whole Hamlet routine it’s because someone has given me a note that they believe in. And anytime someone gives me a note that they believe in I have a natural instinct to give it credence or at least give it a fair shake.

But there is this other thing that happens. And I know that we have some executives and producers that listen to us and if you are an assistant and you’re looking ahead, you’re on that track to be a producer or an executive listen well. Listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.

You know how one of the most common notes that you guys give us is, “Um, this writing here didn’t feel quite organic.” So, in Hollywood people use the word organic to basically mean natural, elegant, realistic, flowing, it doesn’t bump you is another term they’ll use. In other words, it seems nice and smooth and connected and integrated. It doesn’t feel artificial or inorganic. Well, there are inorganic, artificial, synthetic notes. And we know it when we’re getting them every single time. You guys think we don’t. You guys think that we can’t tell the difference between notes that you believe in because they have to do with this true creative feeling you have. And notes you’re giving us because of synthetic stuff. Like we want to hit a certain audience, an older audience, a younger audience, a whiter audience, a blacker audience. We are concerned about how this will play in China. We don’t know if we can get this on the schedule unless the budget is this. There is an actor that wants to do this movie here, and if we give them this one then they’ll do this one. There’s a million of those things.

And when you guys give us notes in order to help you achieve something inorganic – the marketing department thinks that blah, blah, blah. We know it every time. And it would be great if you would just say, “Here’s something that we are trying to accomplish that is separate and apart from just pure creativity.” Just be honest about it and own it. We’re not dumb. We’re not children. If you say, “Listen, we have a problem. We need to keep this budget under blank, which means we have to shoot it over here. And right now we’re concerned that we’re not going to be able to do it that way. So, we have suggestions that will help us get there. And you may not like them, but at least you’ll know why we’re giving them to you. We’re certainly not giving them to you because we think they’re brilliant creative ideas.”

It would go over so much better with us. And we would feel so less, I think, agitated. And then you see we would have I think much more mental capacity to handle the actual creative notes that are honest and organic.

So, to sum, if you are a producer or an executive or an assistant who wants to be a producer or an executive, be aware that we know when you are giving us synthetic notes. Give us synthetic notes and acknowledge they’re synthetic notes. It will really help all of us.

John: I really agree. And I can envision the document sort of being broken into two parts. Like these are the notes that are actually about the script itself and moments in the story that we feel could be better. Opportunities that we think aren’t being paid off. Moments where we are were genuinely confused. Great. Love all of that.

A second part of the note saying like these are things that we need to talk about because we don’t have this in the budget, because this is too similar to this other movie that we’re concerned about. That there’s some other extraneous forces that we need to be looking at here. Great. I get that, too.

Rarely do I see that in notes. And so instead when I get notes, when I get like official printed notes, is a paragraph that says, “We’re so excited. This has so much great possibility. It’s going to be an exciting movie, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. That said, here are our notes.” And then they go on for like seven pages. And they’ll be broken into little sub-heads about things. And they can be better written or worse written, but invariably there’s going to be contradictions. And sometimes the contradictions are called out. They hang a lantern on it like, “We’ll we said we want to see more of this character, we’re concerned that it not distract from the hero.” Basically they’re asking for – I want to see the hat and the elephant in the snake simultaneously.

Craig: Yes.

John: They’re asking for impossible things.

Craig: It’s what Lindsay Doran calls “a close-up with feet.”

John: Absolutely. That’s the best term for it. And those are maddening. So sometimes you’ll get to go in and you’ll sit down with the executive or with the producer and you’ll talk through them. And you can describe honestly like this is what I get, this is what I don’t get. Is there a plan for going ahead?

Another thing I will say that early on as I started out as a writer I loved the notes, because they’re notes. People have read my script. I will do whatever you tell me to do because I want to – not only do I want to please the teacher, I’m terrified I don’t really know what I’m doing so therefore I will just do your notes because you’ve made movies before. And I’ve not made movies. And that’s not a great scenario either.

Craig: No. No it’s not.

John: Again, you always have to be able to think about notes in terms of the context of like what the ultimate product is going to be. And that ultimate product is going to be both a movie you’re seeing on the screen, but also a movie that gets made. And so sometimes you’re balancing what this movie could be in this perfect form on the screen versus this movie actually existing. And it’s a delicate thing and you don’t quite know which side to push on.

Craig: Yeah. I wish that I could teach a class at every studio on how to effectively give notes to screenwriters. Not because I’m trying to help screenwriters, but because I’m trying to help them. I mean, their goal is to influence the work. The way that they do it, generally speaking, it’s not very – there’s a low batting average as far as I’m concerned. First of all the document, the notes document, is generally something I think we can all dismiss. Because I think even internally they’re dismissing it. Part of the reason why is that document is the result of some kind of political brokering process. There are multiple parties at a studio that are at multiple hierarchy levels. And they are all sort of throwing their opinions in. So you can have a situation where one person just keeps harping on something and everyone is like, “Well, none of us agree but that person is slightly above us. Let’s give them that one.”

John: Yeah. Let’s put it in the document even though it doesn’t match any of the other notes in the document.

Craig: Correct. Well, we don’t know that. And, furthermore, you won’t tell us that, understandably. Right? So, that document starts to get silly. Also, that document often gets really granular because just like I think rookie screenwriters try and exert too much control over the process. That’s what I think a lot of newer producers and executives do. They’re trying to control this thing that ultimately cannot by being really granular. Like when you get into these page notes it’s laughable. Page notes literally ignore how movies are made. But there I think is a process that’s incredibly useful, that I find incredibly useful, and that’s the one where we get rid of all the formalities, and I and the producers and the executives just have essentially a therapy session for the screenplay.

We just talk.

And we just listen.

And we see where it is that we really are caring. And we don’t worry so much about trying to treat this thing like it’s a broken radio that just needs a few extra diodes and maybe a piece of wire here. It’s this living, breathing thing. It’s a story about human beings. So let’s just have a therapy session about it. And more often than not, just like in real therapy, the stuff that people were saying is what they wanted isn’t really what they wanted. And then you get to the meat of it. And then you can actually make things better.

John: Yeah, you could. Craig that was probably a very dangerous thing for you to wish because you say you wish we could just like go and teach a class to all the studios about how to give notes. That feels like a thing we could actually do.

Craig: Oh, OK, I’ll do it. I mean, if they are willing to actually sit there and listen to me. Because I actually like good notes, I just want to tell them how to do it better so that they don’t end up with either frustrated, angry, miserable, demotivated, or confused writers.

John: That’s totally a doable thing. Don’t you think? It’s totally a doable thing.

Craig: Well, you know, it’s really up to them, isn’t it?

John: Yes.

Craig: Standing offer, folks.

John: All right. Let’s wrap this up and go to our new segment which we call–

Craig: John’s WGA Corner.

John: So today in the Corner, if you are a WGA member you got an email from the WGA that’s talking about the AMBA. You probably never heard of this term before. I hadn’t. But it’s essentially the Agency Minimum Basic Agreement. It is an agreement between the WGA and all of the agencies. And there’s discussion about what the future of that agreement should be. And there are some meetings coming up. So you should go to one of these meetings because it’s actually really important.

So the two that are coming up in the future are March 14 at 7pm at the Sheraton Universal and then Tuesday March 20, 7pm, at the Beverly Hilton. So in the email you go there’s information about how you RSVP for these meetings. But it’s really good if you go. I’m going to be at the one that’s on Saturday, so it will have already passed by the time this episode comes out. But it’s really good. And there’s good information about what’s happening and what the decisions are ahead.

Craig: It’s the new hotness in the Guild. So the old hotness was getting grouchy with the studios. The new hotness is getting grouchy with the agencies. So let’s see where this all goes.

You know, I remain, John, as you know endlessly skeptical of these things, but you know the last negotiations with the companies I thought really shook out some great things. Wouldn’t have done it necessarily the way it was done, but I can’t argue with the results. And so I guess I’m kind of hoping for the same thing here. I’m not sure if I kind of get how this going. But then again me getting how something is going isn’t necessarily the criterion which matters. How about that?

John: Indeed. So if you are in the Craig Mazin camp and are not quite sure what to think of it, these meetings are a good place to start. So, we’ll be telling you more then. If you don’t get to one of these meetings, the only thing I would tell you is that most writers who are represented by agencies have never signed agency papers. Have you ever signed papers for any of your agents?

Craig: Never.

John: Never. Like 1% of WGA members sign papers with their agencies. If your agency is suddenly like this week or next week says, “Hey, we need you to sign a contract with the agency,” don’t do that. That’s probably not a great idea.

And also I’d be curious if they are asking you to do that. So just email me at to let me know that, because I’m curious whether that’s going to start happening. Because we could envision a scenario in which a lot of agencies try to make their clients sign longer term agreements with agencies, which would be very unusual.

Craig: It would be. And my guess is that the larger agencies really aren’t going to go through the pain and weird awkwardness of asking their big money earners to sign these contracts because it looks weak. And if your client doesn’t want to be there, they’re leaving. It’s just not worth it. It’s not good for you. The worst possible thing in the world for an agency like CAA or UTA or WME would be to have a high profile client that hates them, doesn’t want to be there, and the agency won’t let them go. I mean, that’s just – that would be a nightmare.

John: Yeah. That would not be good. But other writers might not be in the situation where they can so easily feel like they can leave and so if this does happen, if you get this email or call from your agent, I’m just curious about that. So, just drop me a note at

Craig: I feel like the managers may have people signing things.

John: I think it’s more common with managers.

Craig: I’m not a big manager fan as you know.

John: Yeah. At some point we will have the manager conversation. Most of these writers who I’ve met at these screenwriter meetings have managers.

Craig: I know.

John: And it’s incredible common.

Craig: I hate it.

John: And most of them if you ask them why they have a manager they say it’s so their agent will work harder for them.

Craig: The whole – it’s just – oh man. It’s sort of like, what’s the best way I could think of this? Like if there’s a limited supply of positions. Every single artist requires an agent. So that’s one-to-one. I mean, it’s not really one-to-one because an agent, you have lots and lots. But for every writer, they can only have one agent. They can’t employ two agents or three agents, right? So this business just invented a new term. Here, now you can have two agents, because we just name this one a manager.

Well, why don’t we just have a third one now called a talent coordinator? And that will be your third agent. So I have an agent, a manager, and a talent coordinator. What else can we get in there? I mean, you obviously have a lawyer who does a very specific job. And maybe there’s a fourth thing that we can do so that more and more people can take our money.

John: That would be good. I will say that as I’ve been talking to different screenwriters at lunches and various things, people tend to like their entertainment attorneys who take a 5% commission or charge an hourly fee, and who are – I don’t know. They’re just responsible folks. And at some point I just want to give our entertainment attorneys a big hug because they’ve worked very hard for both me and for you.

Craig: Oh, listen, that’s the biggest scam of all. Is that you’ve got agents taking 10%. You’ve got managers taking 10%. Plus managers producing and getting backend fees. The lawyers are doing almost everything. The lawyers aren’t just writing up these long form contracts. They’re also negotiating the terms.

You know, typically the agent is really saying, “OK, this person wants to talk to you about doing this job. Great. Let’s talk about what the big number is that you’ll get paid. Great. Lawyer, literally do everything else.” Everything. That means it’s the big number, and how the bonuses break out, and blah, blah, and the options and the so-and-sos. The lawyers do so much more and they get half. And believe me, they know. They know they’re getting screwed. But, you know, they’re still doing pretty well.

John: But they’re not getting that big backend money.

Craig: No. Well, in that sense they’re like screenwriters.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Screenwriters just traditionally in features they’re like you guys don’t get first dollar gross, but dopey director Jim who has done four mediocre films, but he’s a director, he can get that. Why? Why? It makes no sense.

John: Agreed. Yeah. The only thing that makes sense are One Cool Things. Talk us through your One Cool Thing.

Craig: Segue Man! My One Cool Thing this week is a sequel, John.

John: You like the sequels.

Craig: I do. I like the sequels. So, there was a game a while ago that I think we probably had on as a One Cool Thing called Alto’s Adventure.

John: It’s so good.

Craig: Yeah, great little free runner for iOS and probably for that other platform that neither of us care about. And you play a guy skiing down a mountain, or a girl. Actually, you’ve got a guy, a girl, and then a big guy and a big – no, it was actually just one girl. She was the one I liked the most. I liked playing her the most because she had the tightest spin. I like a nice spinning.

So, anyway, love that game. Played it to death. Well, they have a sequel out called Alto’s Odyssey. And instead of you being in the snow, now you’re in a desert. And you’re sandboarding. So it’s a very different environment. But I thought like, OK, you know, so you changed snow to sand, and the graphics are a little updated. Cool, but what else?

They’ve come up with so many other things in this that are so much fun that build beautifully on the platform that was there. Just really very clever. And it’s such a fine line between not enough and too much. And they got it just right I thought. So, the only thing that bothers me is I downloaded it on my iPad. And then I went to my phone because I’ve got it like OK if you do it here it shows up there. And on my phone it wasn’t there.

And they’re going to charge me again. So there are those certain apps where they charge you separately. Because the iPad version I guess is slightly different than the iPhone version.

John: Yeah, sorry.

Craig: Is that a thing?

John: It’s a thing, yeah. So you can have combined bundles where it’s one bundle that can install on either iOS device, but they also have separate iPad versus iPhone versions. It’s the developer’s choice.

Craig: Yeah I don’t like that so much. So that was annoying to me. But, you know, listen, I can pay the $4, or the $5. It’s $5, I think. So, anyway, fun game. Alto’s Odyssey. Check it out.

John: And I did play through the most recent Room, per your recommendation, and it really was terrific. And so no spoilers, it’s basically all inside a creepy Victorian dollhouse and it was delightful.

Craig: It was delightful. I don’t know I would say, I mean delightful, the ending is disturbing.

John: Yeah, but they’re all disturbing endings.

Craig: I know. I love it. I’m so sad that it’s going to be another like two years. John, where is Elder Scrolls 6? What’s going on?

John: I don’t know what’s going on.

Craig: Do you realize Skyrim came out in 2011?

John: Yeah, so last year in France I started playing the up-res version of it, and it’s still just a terrific game. Like the same basic mechanics. It was still just great. But, yeah, I think they’re ready for a new one.

Craig: Yeah, like come on. Come on!

John: My One Cool Thing is simply a song and a video. It is by a band called Superorganism. The song is called “Everybody Wants to Be Famous.” It’s just good. Someone recommended it on Twitter. I listened to it. I’m like, you know what, that’s a really good song. I liked it. And it reminded me a little bit of Rachel Bloom’s version of the Scriptnotes theme where she sings When I Will Be Famous. And this is a whole song that is basically that same vibe.

So, we’re going to play this as our outro this week. So that is the music you hear underneath me as I’m speaking.

Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Wow.

John: If you have an outro or a question for us, you can write in to That’s also the place to send me notice that your agent has started asking you to sign a contract, because I’ll be curious if that happens.

We’re on Facebook. You can search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us at Apple Podcasts. Just look for Scriptnotes. While you’re there you can leave us a review. People leave lovely reviews, so thank you for that.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts, going back all the way to Episode One.

You can hear all the back episodes at It’s $2 a month for all those back episodes. Or we have some of the USB drives that have the first 300 episodes. Those are for sale at

Craig, on Twitter, is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. And have a really good week.

Craig: You too, John. See you soon.

John: Bye.

Craig: Bye.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Getting Paid for It

Tue, 03/20/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig delve into the business of screenwriting from money to managers to medical plans.

We answer listener questions about collecting unemployment, registering as a corporation, firing a rep, quitting your day job and handling the anxiety that comes with such an uncertain career path.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 340: What’s the Plan, Anyway? — Transcript

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 17:34

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: Episode 340.

Craig: Sexy Craig.

John: Specificity.

Craig: Umbrage.

John: Segue Man.

Craig: Don’t you die on me.

John: That’s why they call it a One Cool Thing.

Today on the podcast it’s another round of the Three Page Challenge where we look at the pages that listeners have sent in and tell them what’s working and what’s not working. We also have some follow up. We have a deep dive into the plan behind Return of the Jedi.

Craig: If one can call it that.

John: Yeah. But I think we’ll actually be able to talk about plans in general, especially opening plans of movies. Because I think it’s sort of a special case.

So that is our episode for today. But first we have some follow up. Wyatt from Florida wrote in, “On Episode 80 of Scriptnotes, Craig Mazin said that it takes four hours to drive from Miami to Atlanta which is a grossly inaccurate statement. To give some context, he was talking about how in Stolen Identity it was mostly filmed in Georgia, making for a less breathtaking road trip than he desired. But, still, I find this to be upsetting as a resident of Florida. Google says this trip takes about 10 hours with a car, which will probably be more like 14 hours after you’ve stopped several times to keep your brain from exploding.

“While I agree that the trip from Miami to Atlanta is not an interesting drive, quite the opposite, it does take a very long time. I think it’s understandable that I would take a certain amount of umbrage with this claim.”

Craig Mazin, how do you answer Wyatt from Florida?

Craig: Well, I think I was using a little bit of poetic license there, Wyatt. If you’re going to do a road trip movie, probably you should limit your units to days. How many days will this road trip be? Will it be one of those weeklong road trips? Is it a three-day road trip? A one-day road trip is not a road trip. That’s just a long drive for the day. So, yes, the trip does take about 10 hours in the car. That’s true. You are absolutely correct that visually speaking the trip from Miami to Atlanta is a festival of flat unchanging landscape.

But the sentence here that I’m going to seize on, Wyatt, is, “But, still, I found this to be upsetting as a resident of Florida.” I think you have other things to be upset about right now, Wyatt, as a resident of Florida. I can think of like 20-hundred things that as a resident of Florida you should probably be worried about. But that said, you’re right. And, yes, tip of the cap.

John: Yes. We want to be an accurate podcast. I mean, we have a whole staff of fact checkers behind the scenes, but even they will let some things slide through. So that’s why we rely on our listeners to keep us honest and keep us – we don’t want any fake news in this podcast. We want this to be a completely accurate podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. So, Wyatt, thank you.

Craig: I kind of imagine Wyatt was listening to Episode 80. He was like loving the podcast, right? He’s just totally gorged on one through 79. And here he is on 80, he’s just humming along. And then he hears me say this and he turns white. Like white as a ghost. Then he rips his headphones off, finds a baseball bat, and just destroys his computer in a rage and then finally calms down, breathes, breathes, breathes. Gets out his phone and is like, “OK, I got to fix this. I got to make this right.” And then he sends this email.

So, I hope that’s not what happened. But if it did, I get it, Wyatt. I also get angry.

John: So Wyatt is listening to Episode 80 of Scriptnotes, so quite a long ways back. So either he’s listening to where all the back episodes are, or he has the 300-episode USB drive. So I could envision that maybe he pulled the USB drive out from his device and broke it in half, because his faith had been shattered.

Although his email does go on to say, “Love your show. Hope to send in a Three Page Challenge soon.”

Craig: Yeah, no, I think he calmed down. In my scenario he got a hold of himself. I get it.

John: You get it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. A thing that caused umbrage on Twitter this week was a tweet by–

Craig: That’s weird. That never happens on Twitter.

John: This is actually an article by Mike Ryan from Uproxx. And I first saw it as a tweet, but then I clicked through the article. We’ll link to the article. Mike Ryan was talking with his friends about Return of the Jedi. And they happened to be discussing the opening of Return of the Jedi, which if you’ve not seen it for a while involves a plan – well, a bunch of actions that are taken to free Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, which was he had been sold off at the end of Empire Strikes Back. And Mike and his friends were wondering, wait, what was the original plan before everything went south.

Craig, can you talk us through either what does happen in the movie or what might have been behind what was happening in the movie?

Craig: Well, I can try. So, this is a movie that we all know really, really well, generally speaking. So you’d think that we would have noticed this collectively many, many times before. This is a movie I’ve seen, I don’t know, probably 20 times since it came out in the early ‘80s. And then the question that he asked here, “If Luke’s plan to rescue Han from Jabba had worked perfectly, what would that plan have been?”

All right, well, great question. So here’s what happens roughly in this opening sequence. This rather long opening segment of Return of the Jedi. First, we know that Jabba the Hutt has Han Solo. He’s got him frozen in carbonite. So he is a prisoner. He’s like a decoration in Jabba’s palace.

We see that Luke has started his plan by sending in C-3PO and R2-D2. R2-D2 plays a little message that basically is like, hey, I know you’ve got Han. Let’s bargain for him and I’m giving you these droids kind of as a show of goodwill. And Jabba is like, great, I’ll take your droids and I’m not bargaining with you at all.

OK. So now the droids are there. We also reveal that Lando Calrissian is working in Jabba’s palace kind of clandestinely. Right? He’s incognito, disguised as one of the guards. We’re not sure what he’s doing exactly, but we know that he’s a good guy and he must have a plan, too.

Then, next, Princess Leia arrives. We don’t know it’s her at first because this little bounty hunter with a mask comes in. You know, who talks like that. And the bounty hunter is bringing Jabba another prisoner, Chewbacca. And the bounty hunter, you know, is bargaining for money and then Jabba makes a deal. And now Jabba has captured Chewie.

Later on that night, the bounty hunter is revealed to be Princess Leia. She tries to rescue Han Solo. And they are caught really easily by Jabba the Hutt who now enslaves Leia and makes her wear the crazy metal special bikini.

John: The iconic bikini.

Craig: The iconic bikini. At this point, at long last, Luke – the Jedi – shows up, does a quick Jedi mind-trick on some of the pig-faced guards. I know they have names. Whatever. And then he shows up and he basically tries to Jedi mind-trick Jabba and Jabba is like, no, that’s not going to work, hits a button, and Luke falls through the floor, lands in a pit, and has to face a big monster. I know it also has a name. I think that one is called the Rancor. And he beats the Rancor, but you can tell he was not at all planning on falling into the pit and having to face that thing, because he almost dies. But he doesn’t. He beats the Rancor. And then Jabba is like, “OK, fine. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to throw you all into the Sarlacc pit, which is terrible.”

And during the Sarlacc pit execution scene Luke gets everybody to sort of work together to kill Jabba and rescue Han and save everybody and off they go. That’s how that all works. At no point until this gentleman, this mind-blowing Mike Ryan, mentioned that that makes no damn sense did it ever occur to me that that makes no damn sense.

John: Yep. And here’s my theory about why you never worried about it. Is because I think we give special dispensation to opening sequences in movies, where we see a plan that’s already in the middle of action. For whatever reason we don’t go too deep into thinking about, wait, how did this all come to be? What are they exactly trying to do? What are the next steps? Because we’re enjoying it. So as long as we’re buying it moment by moment we’re like, oh “OK, well this is the next thing that’s happening.” We’re always curious like well what’s going to happen next.

Because most plans in movies, most heists if you think about like in Ocean’s 11 or any sort of big thing that has a plan, we’ve seen the characters make the plan. And there might have been certain details omitted, but we know what the general steps are supposed to be and so then when things go wrong we know that they went wrong because we saw all this.

But with opening sequences like this we don’t see any of that planning. And so we’re just assuming that they have some kind of plan. And as long as they seem to be behaving competently we just don’t kind of question it. So think back to any James Bond movie you’ve seen, they almost always start with some kind of big stunt sequence. It never really kind of makes sense how he got into that situation or why there’s a nubile young woman waiting for him at the end of it, but it’s James Bond so you just kind of go with it. And it’s interesting how for 20+ years we’ve just gone with it for Return of the Jedi.

Craig: Well, I’ll push back a little.

John: Sure.

Craig: So, for James Bond, those opening sequences are clearly picked up in media res, right? So we are in the middle of a plan and we don’t need to therefore know how he got into that place. What we’re excited to see is how he gets out of it. And each James Bond movie, with a few notable half exceptions, stand alone as their own stories. They are not sequels to prior movies.

Now, in this case, we don’t start in media res. We begin with a plan. So at this point in the beginning of the movie Jabba the Hutt only has one prisoner, which we know he got at the end of Empire Strikes Back. He doesn’t possess Chewbacca. He doesn’t possess R2-D2, or C-3PO, or Leia, or Luke, or Lando. And so we’re starting in the beginning, and Luke kind of just wings it. And then everybody seems to be winging it independently of each other. And I have to say even though I didn’t notice that this plan made no sense, now that I look at it and I see that it makes no sense it explains something to me about my own reaction and relationship with that movie, which is I don’t like it as much as the other two.

And one of the reasons I think I don’t like it as much as the other two is because that long opening sequence felt a little – character-wise it was always missing something for me. So, in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, there’s a scene where Lando Calrissian sells out his friends to Darth Varder. And we can tell that Lando is conflicted because he’s trying to protect his own place, but you know, what are you going to do and he’s selling out a friend and he feels guilty. And all of that is good character stuff. There’s no character stuff in the beginning of this movie. Nobody is doing anything from character. Jabba just happens to be able to resist Jedi mind tricks. Luke doesn’t really seem like a very good Jedi, nor does he seem to have an interesting plan. It seems all a little light. And, yeah, you know, it’s not great. And I’m not sure that there is any way to logically explain the rationality behind his plan.

First of all, for this to make sense at all, Luke cannot know what Leia is doing. Right? Because what she’s doing has literally nothing to do with what he has done.

John: Yes. That is true. And if you look through this original article we’re going to link to, there are some alternative theories laid out about what we might be missing. What the original plan could have been that could have gotten us there, including the possibility that these people are actually kind of working independently. That like Leia had her own plan. And Luke had his own plan. They were essentially acting independently and really had no sense of what was going on.

But here’s where I will push back against you. You said like, well, this isn’t in media res. Clearly this is in media res to a large degree because Lando is somehow there. So he’s already part of something. He’s already in the middle of some thing is happening. Luke has already hidden his light saber inside R2-D2. So there was some thought of putting that thing in where he could get to it later on. But the question of like do they anticipate they were going to end up in the Sarlacc pit together at some point?

Craig: No.

John: That seems like an impossible stretch.

Craig: It’s crazy, yeah. No, that’s crazy. And also, you’re right, Lando is definitely in media res, but how? And why? What’s he been doing that whole time? What was his purpose there at any given point? And why would Luke hide his light saber in the droid? What’s the point? Just show up and start swinging it and kill people. I don’t get it.

John: The only thing I can sort of be happy about is that I know David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have just announced they’re going to be doing the three Star Wars movies. Apparently they’re all about how we got to this moment at the beginning of Jedi. That’s really–

Craig: I would watch it.

John: That’s where they’re going to spend $300 million to fill in this missing detail of how Luke got to this point.

Craig: I would love to do a kind of weird gritty – like a $10 million movie that’s just a gritty film about how Salacious Crumb came to end up sitting on Jabba’s lap like that. But like where he comes from, the whole Crumb family.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: And just living on the streets and hard times. Drugs. Drugs. And, you know, prostitution. And just like — he’s seen it all.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And he’s lost his mind. He’s just lot it.

John: Yeah, but I mean maybe it’s not that bad of a gig for Salacious Crumb to be there, because you know he’s got – he has interesting people. I mean, he’s surrounded by interesting people all the time.

Craig: And he loves to laugh.

John: Yeah. And there’s lots of opportunity for comedy, which is a – he’s sort of like a Dobby the House Elf but in the Star Wars universe.

Craig: But I think he’s hiding an enormous amount of pain. I mean, that’s the story I want to see is sort of like what are you running from, man.

John: Yeah. Well I think the stories where you can take the villain and really re-contextualize him as an anti-hero and ultimately a protagonist, those are the most rewarding. So, again, I think that’s why – I mean, David and D.B. have told us secretly that this is really what their whole mission is. Is to fill in this crucial bit of logic behind this important piece of Star Wars canon.

So let’s try to generalize back out. This idea of opening sequences and plans where you don’t know what the characters are planning but the ones that work and the ones that don’t work. I’m thinking back to Pitch Perfect 3. And Pitch Perfect 3 opens with a sequence on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and suddenly Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick are there and they are trying to save the rest of the Bellas from something.

It’s absurd, but it also gets to play in with our expectations of like what kind of movie this is. You know, it’s Charlie’s Angels. It’s deliberately sort of nuts. And ultimately we’re going to come around to see that moment again.

So, it was crazy when we first see it in the movie. It’s crazy how it actually happens in the movie. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s fine for that kind of movie.

Other genres have much higher expectations of like these pieces all have to fit together.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, in comedy yes we do have a little bit more leeway on these things and they usually are not quite so complicated. But I can’t disagree with you. We have a grace period at the beginning of the film. People are more accepting and maybe you can get away with a few things that you wouldn’t be able to get away with later. But, there is a kind of weird hidden cost.

Nobody, you know, with rare exception people don’t have access to their – whatever the underpinnings are of their response to a story. There’s always going to be some weird impact that these things have on some people. And until I read this I didn’t realize that this was part of my – you know, it’s not that I don’t like it. I do. I just – I’m not a huge fan of that whole sequence. And I think now this is why. Because it just kept like – at one point he describes it, it’s becoming sort of like bad comedy. Because the plan is: droids show up, Jabba takes them. Chewie shows up. Jabba takes him. Leia shows up. Jabba takes her. Luke shows up. Jabba takes him. It’s just like what is this clown car being taken – and they definitely were not doing the whole “Don’t you understand I wanted to get arrested.” None of them wanted to get captured. Clearly.

Clearly. So it just became, I don’t know. I don’t know, Mike Ryan has really opened my eyes. And, you know, F-d up my head.

John: Yep. Now Craig, I know I have had experiences as a screenwriter where, over the course of development and then production, things that were simple and logical became much less simple and much less logical. And it’s maybe worth discussing sort of how these things happen. And we don’t know how it happened with the case of Star Wars. We don’t know whether this was the initial vision as written down in the script and this is what they shot, or if just a bunch of ideas all got thrown together and this is the result of a bunch of competing ideas being thrown together.

But in my experience when stuff doesn’t make sense, it wasn’t because the screenwriter said like, “I want to make the least sensible version of the sequence possible.” It was that people with strong opinions came in with specific agendas and someone had to find a way to match these specific agendas. So sometimes it was actor agendas. It was a studio saying we need more of this character, or could we shoot new stuff so this character is actually part of the sequence that they weren’t originally part of. Could we get rid of that scene that actually explains why they’re here and what they’re doing?

There are a lot of reasons why sequences which should make sense don’t end up making a lot of sense in final movies. Are there any other factors you’ve encountered over your years of working on movies?

Craig: Yeah. I consider logic to be a very dangerous weapon in the hands of certain people. And what happens is everyone is looking at a script and somebody might say, oh you know what, there’s a problem here. I don’t quite understand this. Or this doesn’t make sense. Or this maybe feels contradictory. And a good writer will attempt to solve problems from a place of character and simplicity and elegance. But a lot of other people, what they have is logic. They just have hard cold logic. And they will begin to add things to fix it. They are “helping it.”

So when you’re watching a movie and somebody suddenly just starts saying some stuff because apparently you need to hear it so that something makes sense, it’s rarely a screenwriter. It is typically a producer or a studio executive or somebody well-meaning who is attempting to solve a problem by just pouring logic ketchup all over it. But that is not good storytelling. It’s just fixing a problem. We don’t come to movies to see that. So I worry about that when that happens.

John: Yeah. And I would say in some ways the Star Wars situation is the opposite of that where no one is talking about what they’re actually trying to do. And so therefore it’s completely opaque. And it almost feels like there was a mandate of like all these characters need to be involved in this thing. Just introduce them separately. They can’t sort of be coming in as a block, except for C-3PO and R2-D2 because we always love to see them together. And everybody has to have heroic moments. And it is actually one of the challenges of supporting a large ensemble cast is finding things for each of those characters to individually do. And sometimes you end up with these kinds of sequences which are a little bit mish-moshy.

Craig: No question.

John: Any of these movies that we talk about that have sort of large ensemble casts – Charlie’s Angels, the Pitch Perfect movies – you want each of those characters to have their little moment of shine and spotlight. You want to get to them as quickly as you can. But in doing so you end up sometimes creating kind of Frankenstein sequences.

Craig: Without a doubt. I think that’s a really good point. There’s also a demand of sequels, because you’re not sort of meeting these fresh characters. I mean, Jabba is sort of a fresh character. But we’re not meeting fresh heroes like we do with say Lando or something like that in the second movie. So in sequels it’s basically, OK, everybody knows these people already. Give them stuff to do. What you don’t get to do are these quiet, like look how we meet Han Solo in Star Wars. He’s sitting at a table, chitchatting about his ship. And then another guy comes along and he has a chitchat with him and then he shoots him.

Well, by the time we get to the third movie, when people make their entrances they’re dressed up as bounty hunters and threatening to blow you up. And then they’re saving the one that they love. And he’s blind. And then another guy comes out and goes, “Ha-ha, I knew you were there and now you’re going to wear a bikini.” And you’re like, wait, this is what sequels do to you. And believe me, I’ve written enough of them. They are very, very difficult to write because all of the tools of surprise and freshness and introduction are gone. It’s tough.

John: It’s tough.

Craig: Yeah.

John: The lesson we’ve learned. So I guess the takeaway we could give to our screenwriter friends is if you are hired to write the third movie in a giant franchise that’s sort of world-changing, be careful with your story logic.

Craig: Yeah. But also you could say the other lesson is don’t worry about it. That movie did pretty well.

John: No one will notice your story plot holes for another 20 years.

Craig: It’s literally another 20 years. And then two nerds will talk about it on a podcast. But even then you’ll be all right.

John: You’ll be just fine.

Craig: We should do some Three Page Challenges right?

John: We should absolutely.

Craig: It’s been so long.

John: It’s been a very long time. So I think the last time we did this was the Austin Three Page Challenges.

Craig: Oh my. Whoa. That’s like a half a year has gone by.

John: Maybe so. Or I could be forgetting another one, but anyway we have three great new entries that Megan has picked. So the general theme she decided for this one was point of view. So characters who have either limited point of view or sort of different point of views that are uncharacteristic of other movies. So we’ll start with Pudgy by Jay Emcee.

We’ll have all of these Three Page Challenges linked in the show notes, so you can read the PDFs along with us, but here’s a summary in case you’re driving in the car:

A 10-year-old named Pudge observes his neighborhood from his stoop. He plays a CD in is well-worn portable CD player and starts nodding along to the gritty East Coast hip hop. Phat Boy, who appears next to him in Timberland boots, died jeans, and a gold chain raps along like it’s his music because it is his music. The two sit side-by-side on the stoop in the freezing cold, pouring rain, and blazing heat.

Fat Boy’s outfit never changes. Pudge makes sandwiches for himself and Phat Boy, though Phat Boy has more sophisticated taste than the ingredients left by Pudge’s mom than the fridge can accommodate. Craig, get us started on Pudgy.

Craig: Well, I generally liked this. Just to start, I don’t know if there’s a reason why our writer Jay Emcee has not told us what city we’re in. It seems like it’s New York. If I see brownstones and I’m hearing East Coast hip hop then I’m feeling like it’s New York, but I’d love to know. Just helps.

And I like the way we revealed his imaginary friend, right? So this is sort of like Hip Hop Harvey. We have a character who sees an imaginary person that nobody else sees because he’s not real. And I liked the way that this guy was introduced. This is a smart way to introduce somebody. You have a fact. He’s not real. Well, there are a lot of uncreative, boring ways to show that, like I’m sitting there and he’s rapping and then I cut to somebody else’s POV and there’s nobody else there except for this little kid named Pudge. And then we go, “OK, we get it. That guy is not real.” And what I like is that he didn’t do that.

Instead, what he did was he showed time passing, and because Phat Boy never has to change his clothes, never gets wet in the rain, never gets hot in the heat, our suspicion, which I think we will all have from the jump that Phat Boy is not real is confirmed. That’s a creative way of doing this. So I really liked that.

And there’s an interesting promise of a story here. And I liked that there was a kind of well-worn relationship between the two of them. I think sometimes people will create a kind of internal relationship that you would have say with an imaginary friend, somebody who lives in your head. And once those two characters start talking it’s like, wait, have you guys met each other because you’ve lived with each other your entire lives. There should be a complete, total, easy intimacy between you two. And that’s exactly what you see here.

I don’t quite get what’s happening on page three in terms of the food. I was a little thrown by that because Phat Boy seems to fill a role which is to be the kind of musical hip hop star that maybe Pudge wants to be, but Phat Boy also has really specific and quite extensive dialogue about how picky he is about food. If that’s meant to just be kind of flavor and sort of fun flavor, I don’t know if we need basically six-eighths of a page or whatever it is, three-quarters of a page to deal with that. I would probably limit that and get quickly to what we want to know which is what is Phat Boy doing for Pudge. Why does he exist for Pudge?

John: I agree. So I think “aioli” is a funny word. It’s used a little bit strangely here. Aioli is mostly a mayonnaise kind of situation rather than a mustard situation and it’s confusing that we haven’t gotten to the mayonnaise situation when he starts complaining about the aioli. So there’s some sequencing issues on page three that don’t really track for me. But I mostly agree with you. By page three I got it and I’m ready to sort of know what kind of movie I’m headed in for. Because at this point you’ve established this is a really good Hip Hop Harvey kind of situation, but I have a hunch that it’s not just about the two of them and their relationship. There’s going to be a third thing and I’m curious what that third thing is going to be. What does Pudge want? And he hasn’t really expressed anything that he wants.

We sort of get his situation. Now we know what his normal situation is. What is the change that’s going to come? What is the thing that he’s yearning for that’s going to take him on this two-hour journey? So, but I really liked the writing. I agree with you that the way we’re introducing Phat Boy and sort of going through the time passage is really well done. The observations of the other people on the other brownstones are really smart. It’s a little central casting, but it also feel specific to the thing he’s trying to do.

A moment that didn’t quite work for me is on page one he opens up his CD player and takes a look at the disc so we can see it. And then he closes it and plays it again. Like, well, you wouldn’t do that. And so maybe we need to find a way to introduce the name of Phat Boy without doing this. Or maybe he’s sitting down at the start of this and he’s putting in his headphones and we see the disc spin up or something. But it felt weird to really make a big show of opening it, looking at the label, and starting it again.

Craig: I had the same feeling, too. That was the one bit of clunky exposition and you don’t need it because you can just see it spinning inside or you can just see that he’s written Phat Boy, Money Hungry on his sneakers because that’s his thing, or whatever it is. Like there’s ways – I mean, kids write the names of their favorite artists all over things. There’s other ways to do it. And, by the way, he’s rapping. I mean, rap stars have been known to announce themselves in their songs. So, you know, that’s OK too. I think he could do that. So, yeah, that felt a little kind of, yeah, like ‘80s TV.

John: Yep. Because I’m a person obsessed about fonts, I’m going to talk about the fonts for a second. So this script is written in Courier Prime, which is the typeface I commissioned. It looks beautiful. It is delightful. But there’s other fonts used in here, too. So on page one where it says Phat Boy, Money Hungry that is in a bold type face, like it’s some sort of Sans-Serif bold. On page two there’s a note from his mom says, “Fresh cold cuts in the drawer. No music after 8pm. Xoxo, Ma.” Some people get really annoyed by this. For me, it’s fine. You’re trying to break something out as the thing you’re going to be reading on the screen and so to stick it in a different font for me is kind of fine. It doesn’t feel too cheaty for me. But I’m curious what you think, Craig.

Craig: I have no problem with it whatsoever. In general, I’m so bored with reading scripts that the one thing that blows my mind is this notion that people who read scripts are desperate for absolute violent conformity. That there must be always one Courier and this…and I’m just thinking oh my god if my job were to read scripts all day I would be desperate for one little blob of some other font there every now and again just to wake me the F up. So I have no problem. As long as it’s purposeful, and here it was, cool.

John: Cool. Last note on the title page. It just Pudgy, Written by Jay Emcee. That’s all fantastic. If I were to be turning in these three pages to somebody or showing them in the world, I might stick a date on them just so I could show when I wrote it. I would also put an email address just so if somebody loved them they could reach me. Because with a name like Jay Emcee, which doesn’t even feel like your real name, no one is going to be able to track you down otherwise. And so it’s good work. So, make sure that people can find you to tell you that it’s good work.

Craig: Yeah. I liked it. Good job, Jay.

John: Cool. Do you want to take the next one?

Craig: Yeah, what should we do? Which one do you think I should do?

John: Do you want to do Trucker?

Craig: Yeah, man, I’ll do Trucker. I’ll do it. Sure. Trucker, written by Erno van der Merwe. That’s a pretty Dutch name right there. Merwe. That’s a great name. Anyway, Trucker. So, here’s the story with this:

Sarah, 13 and tiny, observes a butterfly as Baron, 40s, packs up a truck. They prepare to drive off, but Sarah sensing that something is off asks if everything is OK. Baron offers a reassuring smile. As they drive, Sarah points out that they haven’t taken a vacation in a while and she pitches a beach in the Caribbean that she’s seen in a magazine. She shows him the picture and it does look lovely. She’s flipping through the magazine when Baron shouts at her to get down. She scrambles down to the floor of the truck’s cockpit. They are approaching a police checkpoint. An officer shines her flashlight in as she inspects the truck. It’s tense. Finally, she waves Baron on.

Good summary there, Megan. I like that.

John: Yes.

Craig: So, John, kick us off with Erno van der Merwe’s Trucker.

John: All right, so if you’re looking at the PDF of this you’ll notice that Erwin has chosen to sort of keep all the lines on the left hand margin. So they’re not paragraphs, they’re just single lines. That’s a style. It doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think it especially works for this script and we’ll talk about why.

I had a bigger problem with, actually, descriptions overall. And so I don’t know if English is Erno’s first language. I don’t know where Erno is from. It’s not the US because there’s definitely British choices in here. But the overall choice of words didn’t help serve the story especially well. So, start with the truck. First line, “SARAH is lying on top of a truck’s bonnet.” So, bonnet, the hood. This is the hood of the car. We know this is a British word. But, wait, what kind of truck is this? Because when I saw this I’m like, oh, it’s like a pickup truck, it’s something like that. But, no, it’s a big truck. And so if it’s a full big truck, how are you lying on the top of a big semi-truck? I just had a hard time envisioning what kind of truck this was.

Later on, you know, halfway down page one we are INT. COCKPIT – LATE AFTERNOON. I don’t think they call that a cockpit in British English either.

Craig: No.

John: That is the cab of the truck. Or just say INT. TRUCK because we know that we are in the part of the truck that you can sit in, the cabin. But don’t call it a cockpit because suddenly I’m in space, or I’m in a jet. So, when I see words that aren’t the actual words for things it just makes me lose a little faith in the writer and the writing. And so pick those right words because in screenwriting you have so few words. They really all have to be the right words.

A few other small things. Second line, “An orange sun is lighting up her face.” An orange sun? There’s two orange suns? The orange sun. Orange sunlight. Sunlight is lighting up her face. Just giving us an orange sun, are we looking at the sun or are we looking at her face. And there’s a whole subject predicate thing that happens when you have sentences this short that we focus on, “Wait, what are we actually looking at here.” And by line two I was losing a little bit of faith.

Craig, talk me through what you’re experiencing.

Craig: Well, yes, so we definitely do have a non-native English speaker, or American English speaker at the very least. You know this from the very first scene header, EXT. PETROL STATION. So, petrol is what they call gasoline in the UK. And bonnet is a UK term as well. And in general I’m OK – look, I just had to go through this process with every single page of Chernobyl putting in Briticisms and taking out Americanisms just because everybody is UK or European on the crew and in the cast. So, you can write flashlight, but they call it a torch and, you know, why just not make it easier for them. Call it a torch, you know.

So, I sympathize and I’m not going to go after Erno so much on that stuff. I also really weirdly love this format. It is its own weird format. I don’t know if Erno is doing this because he’s just cool and doesn’t like to follow instructions. Or if he’s doing it because he doesn’t know. Either way, it was kind of cool.

I agree with you that there were some descriptive problems. There was some confusions. I do need to know what kind of truck we’re dealing with. It appeared to me that what we were talking about was a semi, like the kind of truck–

John: Tractor trailer.

Craig: Yeah. Tractor Trailer. That hauls a big thing. I don’t know how the hell she would get up on the hood or bonnet of that truck. They are way up there. And I don’t think she could just hop on down easily either. She jumps off the bonnet. She jumps off that bonnet, she’s dropping a good six feet I think. So, yeah, I need to know what kind of truck we’re dealing with. But I really liked the back and forth between these two. I’m curious, this is good mystery as opposed to confusion. I don’t know what their relationship is. I don’t think they’re father and daughter. It seems to me more like a situation where he is taking her somewhere where she can be safe. That maybe somebody is looking for her. I just got that feeling.

So I liked the way that they went back and forth. I liked how much more she talked than he did, which felt very real to me. I got so much of her personality just from the way she kind of pushed him and kidded around with him a bit. She seems like she’s almost in charge, and then he gets in charge because here come the police. That was all really good. So I actually think there’s some really good character work here. There’s some good back and forth. It kept me going.

In general, Erno, you know, if you can sort of pull back a little bit on some of the fancier descriptions, because they do distract a little bit from the nice spare nature of your characters and their dialogue. For instance, “The truck roars to life and shoots out a ball of smoke. They drive off towards the sunset into the night. Slowly disappearing over the glazed horizon.” I get it. And I know exactly what you’re seeing. But, when you read it like that, it starts to sort of mush over into Bad Poetryville. Especially from your formatting.

So, I would maybe get a little – just pull back a little bit on some of that stuff. But I kind of loved it. I did.

John: OK, so I did not love it. And for me it fell apart in the character work really. I thought all of the scene description lines where he’s trying to do essentially the parentheticals about what’s going on between the characters, it was too much and it didn’t really work. So, if we took those all out and just had what was just in dialogue I could track it better, but I still wouldn’t love it. So, let’s just hear just the dialogue. Sarah says, “You know, we haven’t taken a vacation in a while.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. We’re always so busy. We need to relax every now and then.” “Look doesn’t that seem really cool?” “It looks nice.” “Ah-huh. It says it’s in the Caribbean. We should go.”

So, if I had that all together as one piece, I would be fine with it because I get what’s happening in there. I get sort of what she’s trying to do. He’s kind of engaged but not fully engaged in it. But instead in the actual what we have on page two is, “Baron knows what she’s trying to do. Always trying to be the optimistic one. He decides to entertain her.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Yes! She has his attention. Now it’s easy.”

“Yeah. We’re always so busy. You need to relax every now and then.”

“She sits up on her knees and turns her back. Shuffles in the back of the truck and pulls out a pile of magazines. Falls back into her seat and gives him a bright smile. Baron shakes his head. He is slowly loosening up. She takes the top magazine and opens it up to its centerfold. Holding it in front of her face she shows it to Baron.”

All of that action that he’s describing along the way is getting in the way of understanding what the real dynamics are between these two people which was done perfectly well in the dialogue. So, that’s my frustration with the character work in here. It’s making it seem like a whole bunch of stuff has happened when really nothing has happened and just dialogue in a screenplay can do that work for you.

Craig: I can’t disagree with that. I think it’s also exacerbated by the format because what would be three lines of action are seven lines of action when you present it this way. And that’s a long bit of page real estate to cover to get to the next line. And I agree. I think just pulling back on these descriptions would help a lot. But I could see his face and I could see her face. And I could see the place and I could see what she was kind of needling him on.

I’m kind of forgiving a bunch of that, but I will say Erno that don’t rely on people forgiving you anything. Maybe I’m just in a weirdly good mood today.

John: A generous mood. Then on page three, so this is the first real action of the piece which is like they’re slowing down because of the roadside check ahead. Here’s where Erno’s style is getting in his way a bit here. Because breaking it down into single sentences can work for moments of tension and sort of give you a sense of shot by shot by shot by shot. But by not putting any white space in here and just stacking the lines it is a real temptation to give up. And when you see a big block of text like that you’re like “I don’t know what to do with that.” That’s why poetry is broken into stanzas. You’ve got to give us a little space here so we will actually follow and see what’s important and what the changes are as we’re going through this.

Craig: Can’t argue with that either.

John: Cool. All right, Erno thank you for sending in your pages. Next up we have an untitled script by Sarah Paradise:

Lou Abern, a woman in her 30s, is getting viciously beaten by Keenan, who is also in her 30s. Both women are beautiful, tough, and fighting like they mean it in a glamorous LA nightclub. Onlookers heckle and cheer. Keenan grabs Lou by the collar and drags her across the bar top, sending all the glasses to the floor in chards.

Mitch shouts for them to stop from behind the bar. After a vicious bout of wrestling, Keenan emerges victorious. Lou exits to the alleyway and stretches her sore shoulder. Keenan playfully scolds her for giving her a small cut on the face. Lou counters that it’s not like she has a photoshoot tomorrow. Keenan mentions a movie that she’s working on that they need a stunt woman. Lou says she has retired from stunts but Keenan says she wasn’t asking.

Mitch pays them for their performance, but it was less than they agreed on. He scolds them for not avoiding the bar top like he told them. Glassware is expensive.

Craig, what did you think?

Craig: OK, so the generosity is over. I have many issues. Issue number one, we meet Lou Abern who is blonde and we meet Keenan who gets one name for some reason who is black. And they are women in a bar and they are having a crazy fight. Like a full-on punch you in the face fight, throw you over bars, smash into glassware. They land on a booth. They jump on booths, grabbing each other. At one point one of them slams headfirst into the end of a bar.

And this is not on a movie set. This is in an actual bar. And people are going crazy. And they’re shouting drink orders because apparently in the world of this movie people only order drinks at bars when two other people are fighting, when in reality when two people are fighting in a bar everybody backs the hell away because it’s dangerous.

Regardless of that, the next scene we see them and it’s like, “Oh, get it? They’re stuntwomen and they are putting this on kind of like professional wrestling to fool people into thinking there is a fight because according to this script that’s what gets people to buy drinks.” By the way, this has never happened in any bar in the world. And despite the fact that they have been punched in the face and had their heads smashed and fallen, it’s no problem. Keenan actually runs out and is like, “Wee!”

And they have kind of banter. So, which is it? Am I supposed to watch this fight and go “Oh my god this is a crazy fight. I understand that everybody is screaming for a reason. It’s a wild fight.” Or, is it just fake? Because when I watch professional wrestling I know it’s not a real fight. Everybody in the crowd knows it’s not a real fight. People don’t just punch each other in the face over and over and not fall down or bleed. And that’s what’s happening here.

The page two and three is a long discussion that feels mostly quippy and fake. I don’t know anything about Lou. I don’t anything about her. I don’t know where she’s from. I don’t know how she thinks. The way she talks is not particularly different than the way Keenan talks. I don’t know anything about Keenan. I just know that the two of them are stuntwomen who do this scam that isn’t real. And then Mitch is like central casting jerky sleaze ball. Like, “Sorry ladies, you broke a bunch of glass.” This all felt fake to me.

So top to bottom, I would say this to the writer. This is decently structured. You have a good sense of shape. You know how to begin, middle, and end a scene. You get pace. You have all these things working for you that a lot of people don’t. Like a lot of the stuff that’s in between the words. Where you’re going wrong is just simply believability. You have created unbelievable – and I see this so many times. You come up with what you think is a good idea and then you just start jamming this non-reality into words using the skill that you clearly have to do so.

So, I don’t believe the reality of this. I don’t believe the premise. I don’t believe that that’s the discussion they would have. I don’t believe the guy in the bar. I just didn’t believe any of it.

John: I liked this so, so, so much more than you did. I thought this first page was delightful. And I – and this is just people read things different ways – I read this as a crazy knock down roadside bar brawl that I have not seen two women ever have before. It seemed over the top, but kind of delightfully over the top. When they smashed the glassware on the bar I’m like, “Oh, that’s so cheesy, we’ve seen that so many times.” But then I was delighted to know that it was all faked. I guess I started reading this thinking like, OK, well this isn’t probably real. This is not actually the way it should go. And when you read it with that intention it’s like, “Oh yeah, I can see sort of kind of why they’re doing it.” Does the whole thing make sense? I don’t think we have enough information to know the degree to which the audience, the bar patrons, know that this is real or know that this is not real. I think it would be more fun if midway through this fight we sense that the people were there for the show. That this is a thing that they do. Because I would go to see that. If I could see two really good stunt people having a staged brawl in a public space that could be great. If I knew they weren’t really fighting that could be really, really cool.

So, I think it would sell drinks. I think there would be a reason why you would go to that fight, that bar to see that kind of fight.

The dialogue afterwards is not fantastic, but it’s getting us out of that setup and we’re trying to establish who Lou is and sort of what her background is. I don’t think it’s great. And I think we need to have more spin on Lou to know sort of what it is she tries to want. All we’re getting out of this right now is that she does not want to be a stunt woman anymore. And that doesn’t really seem to track with the brawl we just saw.

Craig: No. And also if this were in some skanky roadside bar somewhere I guess maybe. This is in a Los Angeles nightclub. You can’t get a Los Angeles nightclub to probably allow people to dance on a table, much less sponsor brawls that break glass. The liability problem is insane.

John: Well, but it’s fake glass.

Craig: Fake?

John: I took this whole – yes.

Craig: It’s not fake.

John: Well, I chose to believe that the things they were doing were stunt person kinds of things that they could survive. The sort of things that stunt people could do and so that stuff was deliberately staged, but some of the stuff that they broke was stuff they weren’t supposed to be breaking.

But I would say I totally believe that an LA nightclub would do it just because they want to get desperate attention. There was a bar on Santa Monica that used to have like Cirque du Soleil acrobats on Friday and Saturday nights who do the stuff like true acrobatic stuff above the crowd.

Craig: Sure.

John: That was really cool. This is not that different than Cirque du Soleil acrobatics in a bar.

Craig: It is massively different.

John: I don’t think so at all.

Craig: I can’t think of something more different. Here’s the thing, for me at least, if people believe that this is a real fight then a bunch of them are going to call the police. If they don’t believe–

John: So where on page one does it say that the crowd believes this is real? I see, “The crowd REACTS riotously to this while MITCH,” so they’re shouting, they’re cheering.

Craig: Here’s what I see. I see she’s punched in the face. That means it is real. You don’t get actually punched in the face in movies. They fake punch. She’s punched in the face. That’s a real fight. In fact, if you’re faking a fight and you punch somebody in the face it has now crossed over into a real fight. But, also, you’ve got drunk men heckling them. She crashes into – she gets kicked in the stomach. Again, real.

John: See, I guess I don’t understand why you believe that this fight has to be real, because we’ve seen good fake fighting a lot of times.

Craig: Because he’s selling it – or he or she – they’re selling it as real. I’m looking through this thing and I’m like so she gets her head slammed into the end of the bar and falls to the ground. Defeated, she rolls over and looks at the ceiling, breathing hard. That’s not from anyone’s POV. That’s meant to see like – that’s that shot at the end of a fight when someone is like, “Ow, that hurt. I lost.” And there’s broken glass, which is not fake glass. It’s real because at the end he says, “I’ll go bankrupt buying glassware.” Also, stunt people don’t smash into real glasses because they’d cut themselves and die.

None of this makes sense to me. I don’t get it at all. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I just think if I saw a trailer for this movie I would be like, “Fake, not going.”

John: All right. That’s fine. I think there is an interesting idea here. I don’t think that pages two and three work especially well. But let’s go back to the actual writing on the page. I thought if this were meant to be a real fight, so take out the fact that it’s in a bar, just the action of two people having a knock-down, drag-out fight, it was pretty good writing. I never jumped out of the action writing.

Craig: Totally.

John: And that’s a hard thing because this first page is nothing but action. There’s no dialogue at all. And it got me all the way through the page and that’s a hard thing to do on a page one. So I want to give her props for that.

Craig: 100%. In fact, I liked page one so much that when page two showed up I got super angry because I thought that it was just undermining something that was good. Like I agree with you. I’m watching these two women in an LA nightclub having a drag-out, vicious physical battle, and they’re not like two 21 year olds with long hair and high heels who are kind of, you know, having that fight that we see on YouTube or World Star. This is like – like they could kill each other. These are two tough women going at it and I love that. And I was like who is this lady and what is her problem and how did she end up here. And then I get to the second page and I’m like, “Oh, never mind.”

John: Never mind.

Craig: This is baloney. It’s all baloney.

John: All right, I guess we both agree that page one is really good. We disagree on whether pages two and three deny the premise that this could ever be a real thing.

Craig: Welcome to real life, author of this script. This is how it goes. And here’s the good news. It doesn’t matter who doesn’t like it. It only matters who does like it. So, in this case, you would succeed, at least if John and I were in the business of buying screenplays.

John: Which we are not.

Craig: God no. What a silly business.

John: It is. I got asked to participate in an article that was being written about the death of the spec script market. And I was like I don’t know that it’s dead. I don’t know anything. I don’t try to sell spec scripts, so I’m the worst person to ask for it.

Craig: Yeah. Spec script market, well it’s like this new phase of the spec script market where there’s no longer a spec script market. It’s a spec project market where people will go around – Rawson just did this.

John: Of course.

Craig: Where you come up with an idea, you find an actor that’s meaningful for studios. You find a director or you are also the director. And then you go studio to studio and say here’s our package. It’s what Stephen Gaghan did with Dr. Doolittle and it’s what Rawson just did with the Rock, with Dwayne, on – what is it, a skyscraper movie?

John: That’s the one he already shot. So the next one is called Red Notice, I think. So.

Craig: Yeah. So it was a huge, huge deal. And so you go and you go to like five studios. Five studios used to all read a script on a Saturday and then get into a bidding war on a Sunday. Now, you go around to every movie studio on Monday and Tuesday and with just a meeting and a presentation and they’re bidding on something where there is no script yet on Wednesday. Fascinating. But it is akin to the same kind of market.

John: It is. It’s just a different kind of thing. And there have always been spec scripts that went out with talent attached. This is sort of a super version of that.

Craig: Yeah. I will say this much, and not good news for everybody listening. The barrier to entry for this version of a spec market is way higher. Way higher. It’s rough.

John: It’s tough.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Let’s wrap up our Three Page Challenge by thanking our three entrants to the Three Page Challenge. If you have a Three Page Challenge you would like to send in to us, just go to It’s all spelled out there. And in there you’ll find the instructions for what we’re looking for, how to attach a PDF. You’ll sign a little thing that says it’s OK for us to talk about your three pages on the air. And we might look through it.

So, Megan reads everything that comes in. So, send in your three pages if you have three pages you think we should discuss on a future episode of Scriptnotes.

All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is also font related. It’s called What the Font? And I may have talked about this years ago, but the app sort of stopped working and now it’s working again, so let me describe what it is.

So often I’ll be out in the world and I’ll see a type face and wonder what is that type face. Like I kind of recognize it but I want to know specifically what it is. So I pull up my phone, I open What the Font? It has a little camera. I click, take a photo of it. It scans it and tells me what typeface that is. It is a thing that is delightful for me. So I think if you are a type nerd like I am you will enjoy this.

There’s a web version of it, so if you’re just finding stuff on the web you can make a screenshot and do it through. But mostly I use the camera on my phone to do it, and it’s great. It’s so very useful. It’s put out by the people who sell a lot of typefaces so that’s really the business model behind it is they’re trying to sell you these typefaces that you identify. But it’s really good, so I recommend it. What the Font?

Craig: You know, nothing is as saucy as a font-based joke. What the Font?

John: What the Font?

Craig: So fonty. That is the most John August thing I can imagine. Here is the most Craig Mazin thing I can imagine. My One Cool Thing this week is Weird Al Yankovic’s Hamilton Polka. He has done a very bizarre kind of overture style summary of the show Hamilton by the great Lin-Manual Miranda. But he has done it in polka style. It is disturbing. It is weird. I love it. And you can enjoy it too, for free, on the YouTube.

John: Nice. That’s actually interesting. I mean, YouTube feels like the right place for Weird Al Yankovic to live. I mean, I have always perceived him as being a comedy and really kind of video person. And so YouTube feels like a very good fit for him.

Craig: Weird Al Yankovic, his career is fascinating. He has had this remarkable longevity. You know, a lot of these – you would think, like “Oh well, it’s a novelty act. It will come and go.” When you were a kid did you ever listen to Dr. Demento?

John: I was just about to ask about Dr. Demento. Of course I did.

Craig: Yeah. So Dr. Demento for the vast majority of you who are too young to know what the hell we’re talking about. Like, OK, first of all there used to be a thing called radio. And then you would tune into a station. And on some random night in your town, whatever your local weirdo station was, Dr. Demento would come on. It was a nationally syndicated radio program. And it was just this fun, old, kind of dorky nerdy guy who curated novelty records. And novelty records and comedy songs have been around forever. But you can’t really point to any one act other than Weird Al Yankovic that lasted beyond maybe two songs.

I mean, most of them it was like, “Well, there’s the guy who sang One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater. And there’s the guy who did Monster Mash. And there’s the guy who did, you know, whatever it was, like Fish Heads. And here’s Weird Al Yankovic with two decades and multiple albums.” And it’s remarkable. He’s just unstoppable. I love it.

John: So we will put a link in the show notes to Dr. Demento, the Wikipedia article. I am finding out that Dr. Demento is still alive. He is 76 years old. His real name is Barret Eugene Hansen. I don’t think we would have a Weird Al Yankovic without his radio program.

Craig: No.

John: Oh radio. It was nice.

Craig: You know what? This is amazing. Dr. Demento you’re saying is 76 years old now?

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because he seemed like he was 76 when I was listening to him when I was 12. He’s always been 76.

John: Craig, I assume you are not watching The Crown on Netflix.

Craig: Well, I watched a bunch of the first season because it was part of my general Jared Harris deep dive. And I really enjoyed it. I thought it was really, really good. I loved – particularly it was an episode about his portrait being made. Churchill’s portrait being made, which I thought was fascinating. But, no, I haven’t gotten around to the second season. I’m scared because I suddenly realized, “Oh god, The Crown will never stop because, you know, they’ve got many decades to go.”

John: Yeah. They’re jumping ahead quite quickly. But the second season is fantastic. The reason why I ask is because I’m looking up that he’s 76 years old. I was watching an episode last night that was largely about Philip, and Philip is 96 years old. I had no idea he was still – I mean, I knew he was alive, I just didn’t have a sense that like he’s 96 years old and still a person in public life. That’s kind of amazing.

I intend to be a person who is 96 years old and still in public life. That’s my goal.

Craig: Well, you know, there’s a possibility that right around before we croak they’ll come up with a way to just keep us alive forever.

John: Whether we’ll hit that magic spot right now. I think our kids probably will.

Craig: Yeah. If they want it. If they want it, you know? Yeah, I mean, who needs it.

John: Who needs it?

Craig: Ugh, enough already.

John: That’s our depressing way of ending this episode of Scriptnotes. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Matthew also did our intro/outro. If you have an intro or an outro, or really more an outro, you can send us a link at That’s also the place where you can send questions or follow up like the follow up we answered today.

You can find us on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. Leave a review there if you can.

All seven episodes of Launch are now up and available. That series is basically done, so I’m really happy with how it turned out. If you are person who doesn’t like to listen to series until they’re done, well, now it’s done, so you can hear it all together.

Craig: Great.

John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at If you have a Three Page Challenge you want to send in it’s, all spelled out.

You can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at or on the USB drives we sell at

Craig: You sell them.

John: Well, I guess Shopify technically sells them, but they exist in the world.

Craig: Mm-hmmm.

John: Mm-hmmm. Craig, have a great week.

Craig: You too, John. See you soon.

John: Thanks. Bye.


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Knowing vs. Discovering

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig consider how much a writer should know before going into a scene, looking at the perks and pitfalls of planning and letting oneself discover.

We also discuss taking notes from producers and executives. When should you stand your ground? When should you accommodate? What if it’s an excellent drawing of an elephant that’s been eaten by a snake?


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 339: Mostly Terrible People — Transcript

Tue, 03/06/2018 - 11:30

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

Today on the program it’s one of our favorite features, How Would This Be a Movie, where we take complicated real life situations and boil them down to two hours of filmed big screen entertainment. The only way we know how to process life.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Can I just stop for a second and say Episode 339 – we almost have a year of podcasts.

John: Very true. You could listen to a podcast a day, which would be a way to spend your life. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to spend your life. But an hour with John and Craig every day. And actually if you counted all the bonus episodes I bet we’re super, super close to a full year.

Craig: We are. We’re probably super close. I’m just quickly doing the math in my head. This means we’ve been doing the podcast for roughly seven years, or 52 years.

John: Yes.

Craig: It’s one of those, right?

John: One of those two. Math is hard for us. But it’s one of those two choices. It’s been a good, long time. But it’s a been a good, fun time. A few weeks ago we aired an old episode because you and I were both traveling and people said like, “Huh, the sound quality wasn’t so good.” And you know what? You’re right. The sound quality wasn’t so good. Expectations have increased.

Craig: Well, you know, technology and all the rest of it. We’ve gotten better at those little bits and bobs. But even so, I’ve got to say – you know what it is? I’ll tell you, John. You and I, we’re the marrying type. So, when we started this podcast it’s like we got married.

John: Yeah. Absolutely true.

Craig: We don’t get – our heads don’t get turned.

John: Not a bit. So I’ll say that on an early episode I said like, “You and I, Craig, we’re not really friends. We’re not talking outside of this podcast.” And I could sense that you were really crushed by that. And, fair. And then I think we’ve become much better friends. We weren’t even playing D&D together when we started this podcast. That’s how long it’s been.

Craig: Which seems impossible. I’m crushed when anyone says that we’re – well, you know, we’re not really friends. And I think to myself, but why?

John: But why aren’t we friends?

Craig: I’m delightful. [laughs] I don’t understand what the problem is. No, I think we are friends. It’s true. I mean, it takes roughly 339 hour-long recorded conversations to really get to know you. But approximately one or two to get to know me.

John: And I always feel gross when I drop the word friend with somebody who is not really a friend. So I was on Chris Hardwick’s show a few weeks ago. It was a delightful conversation. You should listen to it because it was a really good time. And he’s on episode like 900 of his show.

Craig: Oh god.

John: But when they first proposed this, I was like, “Oh yeah Chris and I have been friends for years.” And then I realized like are we actually friends? No, we’re people who know each other well and when we recognize each other we’ll say hi and catch up. But it’s not like we’re hanging out every weekend. And so it was weird that I would ascribe Chris Hardwick as being a friend and not you back then.

So, I apologize.

Craig: Yeah, well no apology necessary. I think the word friend has been absolutely shredded to bits by the modern age, and particularly Facebook, which as it turns out is not this vaguely annoying thing. It turns out to be a bit of a melanoma on the skin of society.

I used to think like, ugh, Facebook is just annoying because it has distorted what it means to be a friend or to have a friend. And everybody is now engaging in this strange narcissistic display. No, it turns out Facebook is much, much worse.

John: But, Craig, they’re going to fix it all because they’re tweaking the algorithms.

Craig: Oh yes. Of course.

John: So all those problems of the past, they’re going to go away.

Craig: Is there a more annoying Facebook post than the, “Dear friends, they’re fixing the algorithm. If you wish to keep hearing…” No. No. Don’t talk to me.

John: Do not do that.

Craig: No.

John: Facebook should only be about cute photos of babies and dogs. That’s all I want to see.

Craig: Pretty much. Anytime someone is like just respond so I know that you’re still listening to me. Mm-mm. Mm-mm.

John: Don’t do it. But on the topic of responding so that people know that you’re listening, Sundance Episodic Filmmakers Lab, which is actually like TV lab. We’ve talked about this before. It’s a really good program and they asked us to hype it up again so that they can get more great entries. The Episodic Story Lab is really, really great. And so it’s people who are doing television series, but also things that are kind of like television series. They put together showrunners and TV staff writers and people who are aiming for that kind of job together in a room up at the top of the mountains and they make great TV the same way they’ve been able to make great indie films.

So there’s going to be a link in the show notes to the application process for the Episodic Story Lab. Definitely consider if you’re considering writing TV. And if you are a writer headed towards this industry why aren’t you considering TV? So it feels like a good thing to consider applying for. I think the technical deadline for applying has passed, but they are still reading stuff realistically. So, get your stuff in there. Get into the Episodic Story Lab.

Craig: Yeah. Just a fine organization and we keep seeing great people graduating from that program and doing great, great things. So, seems like a no-brainer to me. Yeah.

John: All right. Let’s get to some follow up. Craig, will you take the first one here?

Craig: Yeah. We’ve got Steve in Los Angeles who writes in, “I’m a regular Scriptnotes listener and years ago I attended a Q&A with you at USC. Someone asked,” is he talking to both of us or just you?

John: I think it’s probably just me. We’ll see.

Craig: Just you. Because who is you? I mean, I’ve done Q&As at USC, but you’ve probably done more.

John: I’ve done more.

Craig: Your name is on a room there.

John: I got a name on a room.

Craig: Yep. “Someone asked you the proverbial question how do I break in as a writer.” That is not a proverbial question.

John: Yeah. What is a proverbial question? Let’s discuss proverbial questions. Is it an unanswerable fundamental question?

Craig: I don’t even know if there are proverbial questions as opposed to proverbial examples or the proverbial complaint or the proverbial – but a typical question, or the often asked question, but proverbial, I don’t know. Because proverbs aren’t in the form of questions.

John: No they’re not. They’re just sort of statements. [Unintelligible].

Craig: Yeah, I would say someone asked you the hackneyed question, “How do I break in as a writer? You answered that selling a spec screenplay is like winning the lottery. The best way to win is to buy as many tickets as possible. I took your advice to heart and my writing partner and I worked hard to stack the odds in our favor. There have been countless rejections over the years, but last week after writing 17 spec scripts we won.

“Our sci-fi spec, Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers, sold to Warner Bros. I wanted to reach out and say thank you. Your advice motivated me to keep buying lottery tickets.”


John: Wow. Well congratulations, Steve, and to your writing partner. It’s awesome that you sold your spec. It’s awesome that you wrote 17 scripts. And I think it’s good for people to hear that it’s not about writing a script, or writing two scripts. It’s often about writing a whole bunch of scripts.

You know, Jonathan Stokes, who has become a friend, he is a middle grade fiction writer but he’s also a screenwriter. He works a lot in both. And it took him a long time to get his first purchase or his first spec sale, but then he ended up selling a bunch and he basically had this big old trunk full of scripts and he kind of sold them off one by one. So I’m curious whether that’s going to happen for Steve.

Craig: It’s a very common thing when people are interested in your work and hiring you for them to say what do you have in your drawer. So, Steve and his writing partner have another I guess 16 scripts in their drawer. But another thing to point out here, if we extend the analogy of the lottery ticket, unlike normal lottery tickets in which your odds remain the same, i.e. horrendous, in spec screenwriting with every script you write I think your odds get just a little bit better, because you theoretically at least are getting a little bit better each time.

John: Yeah. In the next episode of Launch, which I guess came out the same day as this episode of Scriptnotes, which is crazy, the final episode of Launch actually we talked to Tomi Adeyemi who has a book that comes out next week and her book is going to be huge. And sort of like Steve’s situation though, it wasn’t her first book. It wasn’t even really her second book. It was a bunch of stuff before this. And so she’ll seem like an overnight success, but there was a lot of work behind that overnight success-ness. So I would definitely tune in for her story in the next episode of Launch as well.

Craig: Yeah, there is the proverbial overnight success – proverbial used correctly there. And typically people will say, “Yes, my overnight success came over the course of 4,000 nights.” We just don’t see all that other stuff. What we see is the result. We see the outcome. So don’t get fooled by outcomes, folks.

Take a lot at the process. Steve has shun a light upon it.

John: Indeed. Winston in Los Angeles writes, “I recently wrote to you about my creative paralysis and I want to thank you for the advice you gave me on the podcast. It was affirming and encouraging. And now I’m happy to report that a production company has since agreed to produce my passion project. Of course, this is very exciting and I’m now in the process of attaching a showrunner before we take the project to the market. I’ll be having my first meeting with a potential showrunner very soon. And this writer on paper seems to be a great fit for me and my project.

“My question to you, John and Craig, is how should I approach and handle this meeting?”

So Winston is talking about a situation where he has written something and they’re going to partner him up with an experienced showrunner to go out to market. Like this is a person who would sort of godfather the project and sort of be the backstop to guarantee to the studio and to the network that this is really a show that can happen. And Winston who doesn’t have experience running a show will have somebody who does have experience running the show.

So, Craig, if you are meeting up with a potential creative partner for the first time what do you recommend you do?

Craig: Well this one is a tricky dance. I’ve never had this meeting, but I’ve definitely talked to people who have, from both sides. And so I think if you are aware of the potential pitfalls from both sides you’ll probably be well served.

So the showrunner is someone who has experience doing a lot of the things that Winston you may not have experience doing. Some of those are very managerial tasks. Managing human resources, as the corporates say. We are going to be hiring writers. We are going to be assigning writers things. We’re going to be figuring out our budgets. We’re going to be firing writers. We’re going to be hiring writing assistants. We’re going to be promoting writing assistants. We’re going to be dealing with notes from the studio. We’re going to be dealing with notes from the network. We have postproduction schedules to hit. We have staff to hire. We have staff to fire. We have crew to hire. Crew to fire.

We have directors to deal with. On and on and on. Oh, and let’s not forget the actors who occasionally will tromp into a trailer and complain about their characters or ask for more money or ask for more lines. All of this stuff is business-y stuff. So, I think Winston you should just be aware that when you’re speaking with the showrunner that there is a certain amount of experience they have that’s valuable to you, as opposed to going into that meeting and thinking, “So, nobody trust me because I’m new but they should trust me because I’m great. And so they’re just sticking somebody on here to be my babysitter.” That is not at all the case.

However, also then from the other side of things, for the showrunner, I think it’s important for a good showrunner to realize that somebody new to the business has created something that is unique and worthy of attention and thus has created a job for the showrunner.

John: Yep.

Craig: And that’s really valuable. So, the more the two of you can learn to trust and love each other, and the more the two of you can recognize what the other brings to the relationship that is irreplaceable, the better off it will be. If you feel like the showrunner is dismissive or disinterested or imperious then I think it’s fair for you to say I don’t want them.

John: Yeah. You got to trust your gut instinct there. And if the first meeting does not go well, I doubt that the third meeting and the 17th meeting will go well. In many ways I would recommend that this not be a meeting. If there’s a way you can have this first encounter not be in someone’s office talking over stuff, I think you’re going to be better off. Because so much of this relationship is going to be kind of a relationship, a mutual trust in that we’re trying to make the same thing. So if you can find some neutral happy spot to have some coffee in and chat that could be great. Where it doesn’t feel like you’re in an office environment necessarily, where you can just talk about overall visions, overall strategies. Where challenges could come up. What some of the opportunities are. Talk about your vision for what is going to happen over the course of the season.

You know, you are the person who wrote this thing that got this all started. And they are going to be the person hopefully who is going to help you carry this all the way through to the end. So, if you can find a neutral place to talk through the story that way that will be great.

A dynamic I don’t think you want to see is where they are suddenly kind of in charge of everything and you are their employee. That’s not going to be healthy either. So, you got to find some place where there’s a good balance that you’re trying to work together to make something rather than you are working for them.

Craig: 100%. And it’s good to be able to point to examples of the kinds of working relationships you admire and desire so that there isn’t any of those weird fussy moments where – you know, I was just talking to somebody today, a journalist, and she’s doing an article about our casting director on Chernobyl who is also the casting director of Game of Thrones, Nina Gold, and the journalist asked me this interesting question about how it works with hierarchies where everyone is sort of together in a room. You’ve got your executive producers. You’ve got your director. You’ve got your casting directors. And there’s a difference of opinion. How does hierarchy come into play?

And I had never really thought about the question before, but it did seem to me that in cases where things are working well, like for instance on our show now happily, it doesn’t. That hierarchy is irrelevant. What matters is general trust and faith and another person’s instincts, respect for another person’s feelings and opinions. Respect and belief in your own feelings and opinions. And a general appreciation for passion. Both strong negative and strong positive. And then things get hashed out.

Rather than situations where rank suddenly becomes very important. I find those to be diminishing and dispiriting and I think sometimes what happens is showrunners can take over a show and then you realize, “Oh, they’re a general and I’m some sort of weird lieutenant colonel that no one is saluting or carrying about because they don’t have to because the showrunner is ranked higher.” That’s a bummer.

John: Yeah. You’re sort of the founder, but they’re the CEO who got installed above the founder. That sort of thing does happen. I haven’t had a lot of like long term creative partnerships, but the longest I’ve had has been with Andrew Lippa on Big Fish. And a thing that Andrew and I figured out very quickly is that we’re not always going to agree on everything. But publically, when we’re in front of other people, we are in 100% agreement. And we will never disagree with each other in front of other people. And that may be a dynamic you find with this showrunner is that you can close a door and work through all the stuff you need to work through, but when you’re in the room with a network, when you’re in the room with the studio you are one united front.

And if you’re not one united front, they will find ways to pit you against each other, not because they’re trying to bring the show down, but they’re just trying to get their views heard and understood. So, the degree to which you can talk about how to be united in your vision publically, even when you are still figuring out privately what that vision should be. That’s got to be a goal.

Craig: And I would even carry that through to writing rooms.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: And to casts. Basically, you guys form your own little mafia and you don’t take sides against the family in public. Because you need to be a little mafia. You need to protect each other. Making television shows and movies is a process that is both necessary to make creative dreams realized and also it is a process that is corrosive to creative dreams. And the only thing that will protect you from the corrosive aspect is a mafia-like you and me. You and me, buddy, no matter what, back to back.

And if we have a fight, let’s fight behind closed doors. But when we come out, our ranks our closed. And it’s us against the world. And then everybody will follow along.

John: Yeah. That’s the goal.

All right, our last bit of follow up is a slightly different piece of follow up. So we’ve talked about MoviePass several times on the show. So MoviePass is a service. You subscribe for a monthly fee. I think it’s now $10 a month. And with that you can see unlimited movies basically. Or a movie a day.

We originally questioned well how is this possible. This is a way to lose a lot of money for a company called MoviePass.

Craig: Right.

John: And then people wrote and said, “Oh, you know, I think there actually is maybe a viable business plan here.” And then when we were doing our live show in Hollywood, a guy came up afterwards named John who said, “Oh, you were talking about MoviePass. I’m a MoviePass user. I’ve seen a movie every day on MoviePass.” And like well that’s crazy and great. And would you please write in and tell us about your experience. So, he did. And so here is his testimony of his experience using MoviePass.

And I thought I would just play it in total because if we were to get him on the phone and talk to him about it he’d be answering exactly the same stuff. So, here is John Parker talking about his experience with MoviePass.

John Parker: Hey John and Crag. John Paul Parker here. I’m a MoviePass subscriber and I just want to let you know that the service is not a scam. It actually works as advertised. I received my MoviePass card on January 5, 2017. And since receiving my card I have seen a new film in the theater every day. I’ve literally not missed a single day at the theater since getting my card.

Living in Santa Monica there are major multiplex chains like AMC, and also smaller art house shops like the Laemmle Theaters all around me, so I have yet to run out of a new film to watch each day.

The greatest thing about MoviePass is not how many films you get to see, it’s how many really good smaller budget independent films you will see and support. Films like Maude, Tragedy Girls, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, and Landline are all films I went into completely blind and absolutely loved them. If it wasn’t for this service it is very unlikely I would have dished out the cash to see these films in the theaters unless someone strongly recommended one of them to me.

While the service is not perfect due to its nearly impossible to reach customer service when there are issues, or the inability to get seats early, for what you’re paying for it’s really hard to complain. When I got my card in early 2017 the plan was $500 for the year. It’s now dropped down to $120 per year. Seeing the amount of movies that I have has added up to roughly $5,000 for this year. So I’m definitely getting my money’s worth.

Originally it seemed like MoviePass’s business model was to hope that people wouldn’t use the service as much as the monthly plan is actually worth. Kind of like a gym. But now that the price has dropped down to $10 a month my guess is that what they’re trying to do is just acquire enough customers so that they can use their members to leverage them against the studios and theaters.

The App Store says that they have over 500,000 downloadable users. If that number rises to say 5 million users and each one of their customers sees at least one film a month at an average of $10 a ticket, then you’re looking at $50 million of US box office sales a month that they control.

I hope this information helped you out. All the best to you.

John: John Parker that was amazing. Thank you very much for writing in with that. And I should say that Megan McDonnell, our producer, she also uses MoviePass and she’s had a pretty good experience with it. So, I guess I’m wrong. Or I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how long MoviePass is going to last. I don’t know what it’s going to become. But for me to have dismissed it out of hand was incorrect I think.

Craig: Yeah. So certainly someone like John is rare. I don’t think a lot of people can – even have the time or the freedom – to see a movie a day like he does. But the deal, just to refresh my memory, is MoviePass is reimbursing the theater and therefore the studio for the cost of the ticket?

John: Essentially what happens is through the app you go in, you say I’m going to see this movie at this theater. And basically it’s GPS bound so that you’re literally at the theater. You’re clicking the button. It’s activating. It’s putting that money on your special MoviePass credit card. You’re using that MoviePass credit card to buy the ticket. So that is the transaction that’s happening.

So from the theater’s perspective, it’s essentially invisible.

Craig: It’s the same. It’s the same thing. Right. So, listen, we kind of went through this last time where it seemed like maybe what MoviePass was doing, and John is getting to this as well in his comment, they’re building a database of information and customers that could theoretically then be leveraged. Which is frightening, a little bit. I get frightened by – what’s the thing? If you’re not paying for something, then you are the product?

That worries me somewhat. But for now I guess, you know, go John Parker, go.

John: Yeah. I like that it has challenged himself to see a movie every day. He’s seeing a lot of movies he wouldn’t have otherwise seen. So that’s great and that’s fantastic.

I know there’s also been some challenges where certain theaters in Los Angeles and other markets are no longer on MoviePass and that was an unpleasant surprise to some folks. But I’m curious about new models. I would love for it to actually help the theatrical experience to get more people into theaters on a regular basis, because I think big screen entertainment is something worth fighting for.

So, I want it to help big screens and not hurt big screens. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to end up three or five years from now. But we’ll see. Because after all this podcast is going to go on for the next 20 years. So we’ll go through all of these cycles and see what it is. And we won’t believe what we were saying way back in 2018 about MoviePass.

Craig: Well, I mean, look at what we were saying in 2016 before things changed.

John: Indeed.

Craig: Long sigh. Long sigh.

John: Imagine that different world we lived in way back when.

Craig: Yep.

John: All right. It’s time for one of our favorite features. This is How Would This Be a Movie. Listeners send in articles from the news on Twitter to us, @johnaugust and @clmazin. They say, “Hey, this is like a How Would This Be a Movie.” And usually they’re correct. And so I hit the little fave button. Or if I really like it I save it to my pin board and we gather them all up. And occasionally we go through and take a look at these stories and ask, well, how would they be a movie?

So, we have five different articles that were suggested in. Many of these were by multiple listeners. So we will tackle them and see which of these stories might really be well-suited for the big screen.

Craig: Right. Or maybe amend that slightly to big screen or Netflix screen, you know, like perhaps an Amazon movie or a Netflix movie, but a feature film.

John: A feature. And sometimes we should say we’ll go through a story and say, you know what, it’s really a TV idea. It’s really a TV series idea.

Craig: Right.

John: And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with television.

Craig: Not at all, says the guy who’s writing television right now. So, I agree.

John: We are not big screen chauvinists. We just know more about big screen stuff.

The first article is by Zeke Faux for Bloomberg, which is just what an amazing name.

Craig: Right? Like Zeke Faux? Faux. That can’t be real. That has to be faux. It’s just crazy. That’s crazy. I mean, it would be like meeting somebody whose last name was “False.”

John: Yes. The headline of the article is Millions Are Hounded For Debts They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back With a Vengeance. One of our listeners said, “There’s an intriguing criminal network and a great, great persistent protagonist, but also a lot of dramatic action based around spreadsheets and phone calls. Shruggy face.”

I love shruggy guy built out of punctuation.

Craig: Shruggy guy is the best. You know who introduced me to shruggy guy?

John: Who?

Craig: Stuart Friedel.

John: That feels completely Stuart Friedel. Stuart Friedel, our former producer.

Craig: Yeah. He actually is the human shruggy face guy. Occasionally you can just imagine Stuart going, “What? What are you going to do?”

John: Our story follows Andrew Therrien. I guess I’m pronouncing his name right. He is a normal person with a normal job. Gets a phone call from a bill collector about a bill he does not owe. And a second phone call. And a threat to rape his wife. And other violence from these bill collectors. And most people would be frightened, annoyed. Andrew, it almost feels like one of those death wish things where you cross the wrong person.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And he goes on a mission to track down who this person was who is harassing him. But really what the whole industry was like of these people who are trying to collect debts, especially these really basically fake debts. And so this is a long dark slide I would say I would describe this article. Craig, did you feel a sense of a movie in here?

Craig: I did. I did. I don’t think it’s necessarily something that’s going to park in cinemas, as they say, but it could be an excellent feature on a Netflix or an Amazon or something like that. And here’s why. There is some general kind of interest in a new sort of villain and a new sort of scam. There’s a great tradition in movies of the little guy fighting back against a shadowy network of bad, bad people. I remember seeing that George C. Scott movie Hardcore, which was really gut-wrenching. But you could feel it. It was like there was a decent person trying to fight this thing that was so much bigger and just so much dirtier than he was. And how was he ever going to possibly win?

And so I like that. That’s good old traditional stuff. And there is an interesting onion-like method to this where you keep peeling layers and finding more and more stuff underneath. And finding people that are oddly sympathetic. And in fact in one point one of the middle men that was handling some of these fake phantom loans ends up killing himself because he’s so miserable about what’s happened and his life has fallen apart because of it.

But the reason that I think this actually could be really interesting to watch and unique is that there’s this fascinating notion of extreme people colliding. So you’ve got – and in the center of this onion there is a bad guy. The bad guy is named Joel Tucker, I believe. Joel Tucker kind of sits on top of this empire of awfulness. And he’s the one that has put all this in motion and he’s the one that has to be stopped.

And Joel Tucker, his scheme impacted millions of people. And if you impact millions of people the odds are you’re going to run into that one-in-a-million guy. And to me that’s sort of already the movie poster. You know? If you hurt a million people, you’re eventually going to hurt that one-in-a-million guy. And the one-in-a-million guy is our hero.

And our hero simply doesn’t care. It’s like, “Oh my god, I found the man who will not stop. His life is designed to find someone like me at any cost.” And he does. I love that.

John: In many cases that type of character is the villain. It is the unstoppable killer. It is the Terminator. It is the Freddy or the Jason who just keeps popping back up and is just relentless. And so it’s nice to see the relentless hero for a change, because looking through this guy’s basic makeup it’s not that he classically has the great story or the arc where he was this mild-mannered thing and then someone killed his wife. It’s not that.

It’s just like something was going to piss him off and this was the thing that pissed him off. And once he got pissed off you just don’t stop.

When I first started reading this I thought like, “Oh, there’s an interesting story to be made overall about this predatory bill collecting, about payday loans, about this whole industry that preys upon people who are just between checks on things.” And so you could do the Adam McKay version, The Big Short version, where you’re really looking at it as an overall industry. But in some ways I don’t think it’s as rewarding as the one that focuses on a single person.

We often cite Erin Brockovich as that story of the one person who stands up against a system. And this guy feels like that person standing up against the system.

Craig: Yeah. This is a little bit like an Average Joe version of John Wick. Now, movies like John Wick are fun and they’re very similar to Taken and Taken is very similar to other movies before it where there is somebody who is an established dangerous person that other people in the world of danger know about and respect. And then somebody mistakenly comes along and screws with them. And then we just have the visceral fun of watching a guy on God mode, basically playing a videogame level, you know. I mean, Old Boy and all that stuff. It’s basically just videogames on God mode.

But this is different because nobody knows who this guy is. And, in fact, it’s almost like this man was waiting for this moment. That his life had been just about being on pause until such a moment that his super power could be required. And his super power is to never stop until he gets the right guy on the phone, and gets that right guy to admit what he’s done, and bring him to justice.

It is the strangest story. And it’s fascinating.

John: Well, because usually he would have some sort of structure backing him. So either he’s a journalist who is doing this for a newspaper article. Erin Brockovich, she is working for a law firm who is investigating this. But this was just – he was personally offended. And personally wronged. And that is what starts him on his quest, which is very relatable but also just unusual for this kind of story because he doesn’t have the backing of a greater thing behind him.

Craig: Right. That’s why I love it. In fact, there’s no evidence in his life as far as this article indicates that he would have even had the capacity for this. This man’s job – Andrew Therrien, his job was salesman for a promotions company. And then later in the article they talk about what he specifically did as salesman for a promotion company. He was promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. That is not a dangerous man. That’s also not a man who becomes obsessive about avenging this harassing phone call for $700.

Just to be clear, it started with a request for $700. And this guy went bananas. And I love that. I just think that’s so cool. And this is the kind of movie where if you got somebody like let’s say Leonardo DiCaprio to just become sort of bizarrely fascinated by this nut as I am, and he’s like a good nut, then you actually would get that in the movie theater. Because it’s like, “Oh my god, he will not stop. This is awesome.” I love that.

John: Here’s also why I think you might make the movie version of this is the situation he finds himself in general is relatable. So, I’m not behind on debts but maybe once a year I’ll get that call from a bill collector who is after somebody who used to work for me, or like they’re trying to collect the debt on the sister-in-law of someone who used to work for me. Basically they’re casting out the widest net possible to see if they can put pressure on somebody for some bogus debt. And it is horrible and I hate these people when they call and I let them know how much I hate them when they call.

And so we all have that experience either directly or by one step away and so I think we can relate emotionally to what that experience is like. It’s just like we are the people who wouldn’t snap, and he is the person who snaps.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, this guy bucks the trend. If the world feels like all of the chips are stacked against you, and here is a guy who just walks into a poker game with no chips. And just doesn’t stop until he wins. It’s fascinating. That part of it to me is remarkable. And I think it’s one great actor away from being a thing. But you need that great actor.

John: Well, and a script, too.

Craig: Oh, yes, of course.

John: We always forget somebody has to write the script. Another potentially great role is in Worst Roommate Ever. Do you want to set us up for that?

Craig: Sure. Worst Roommate Ever. This has been going around and around. And I got sent this because a lot of people were like, “See, you didn’t have the worst roommate ever.” I don’t know. I think I still did. I think Ted Cruz was worse than this guy, even though this guy turns out to be a murderer. But in his own way, Ted, I believe – you can make an argument he’s complicit in murder. Side thing. We have to get to our – we owe people the – you know, every now and then we do the Scriptnotes side show. And I think gun control. We may need to do the gun control one. We had promised at some point.

John: I think we need to. I think we had promised that, so we should dig into that.

Craig: We’ll get to it. OK. So, this story is about a man who, again, a bit of a one-in-a-million kind of guy. And here’s what he would do. He would look for people who were advertising sublets, like I need somebody to help split the rent with me. I’ve got a spare room so you’ll pay a little rent and you can move in. And he would move in. And he was a 60ish kind of guy. And for a few months he would be just the best. He would be the best roommate. A gentleman. A kind man. He would pay on time. And then things would start to get bad.

And he would become sort of a nightmare tenant. And what he was doing as it turned out was trying to get people to sue him. This is where this one goes so weird. His whole thing was essentially to create conflict for conflict’s sake. He wasn’t really trying to steal people’s homes from them. He wasn’t trying to extort money from them really. He just liked getting into fights. A little bit like the Joker. Just chaos for chaos sake. So he’s like Roommate Joker.

But eventually it gets much, much worse. I mean, he clearly had serious mental problems and eventually he does end up killing his own brother and goes to prison. And when he is in prison he commits suicide. So he’s not around to torment people anymore. But it is a remarkable story of somebody that would go from rent share to rent share with only one motivation: to enter into a chaotic relationship.

John: The article we’re talking about is written by William Brennan. It is in New York Magazine. And what I found so fascinating about him as a villain, it reminded me a lot of the villain in Dirty John. So if you listened to that podcast or read the newspaper series, where superficially charming or charming enough, and sympathetic to the degree that he’d moved to town because of a sick family member and he needed to be closer to the hospital or he’d just been displaced by some natural storm. He showed up with a cat and a dog who he seemed to care for a lot.

So, you felt sympathy for him. And it’s a very classic technique where when you do a favor for somebody you feel extra indebted to them. And so he was doing a favor by moving into the apartment and helping to pay your rent. But, you know, in you doing a favor for him by taking him in you felt this bond. And then he clearly is – Craig, I mean, you’re the psychologist, but like a psychopath? Sociopath?

Craig: I don’t know.

John: To some basic degree he did not seem to – maybe he understood people’s misery and trauma but he liked to inflict it. He seemed to just really get off on just twisting the knife in there.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And he went to law school and was apparently a brilliant law student. Failed the bar and never took it again. So, he had this legal background that he could use. But not necessarily use particularly well. He may have perceived himself as the victim in all of these stories. It’s not quite clear. But he’s not a person you should ever let into your home.

Craig: No. He’s not. And so there’s a – you probably saw that movie Pacific Heights. It’s a couple decades old now at least. Michael Keaton is essentially in a similar situation. A couple is looking to rent out some space in their home and Michael Keaton shows up and he seems perfect. And then he never wants to leave. And then he becomes a nightmare. And then it becomes a thriller and stabby and so forth.

The reason why I think this is not a movie is actually because the nature of this bad guy is puzzling. I don’t mind watching puzzling heroes because I’m meant to empathize with them, so I will learn about how they are and maybe even aspire to be a bit like them. But this guy’s problem is so strange. His reasons are so strange that they feel a bit arbitrary. And in real life that happens all the time and it’s a very, very scary thing. In movies, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating if we feel that our villain is purely arbitrary.

And even in a movie like Dark Knight where we are meant to think, at least for a while, that the Joker is arbitrary and loves chaos, he has a point he’s trying to make about the nature of humanity to Batman. This guy has no point. He just likes getting into fights. And that strikes me as just a profound personality disorder. It is bizarre. And there is no explanation for it, nor do I find it particularly satisfying. I don’t want to hate him because I don’t understand him. I feel bad for everybody involved. And then he dies in the end and there’s no real sense of tragedy. The person that he kills, his own brother, there’s not much of a narrative story between those two either. I just don’t think this is a movie.

John: Yeah. I don’t think it’s necessarily a movie either. But I think it’s an interesting example of the Blank from Hell genre, which we went through a whole bunch of those. It’s the Nanny from Hell. It’s the Roommate from Hell. It is–

Craig: The Adopted Daughter from Hell.

John: The Assistant from Hell. That sense of like you’ve invited this person into your life and then this person becomes someone incredibly dangerous to you and to your sense of normalcy. And that happens in real life. We all have experiences where somebody who you thought would be cool ends up not being cool and being kind of a nightmare. And so to take it to the nth degree is really interesting.

But I think you hit a crucial distinction is that when a hero is complicated and it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly how their head is working we kind of lean into it because, all right, I’m going to try to sort this out. When a villain is doing that, particularly a villain who wouldn’t necessarily have full storytelling power, we’re like, yeah, I don’t get it. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Even movies that are, I think, have really great things to them can be frustrating because of that opacity. I really liked I, Tonya, but at the end of the day I have a hard time saying what I believe about Tonya Harding or Jeff Gillooly or actually a lot of the people involved in that story because I don’t think we can really even know. And I don’t think the filmmakers can definitively tell us what was going on inside their heads. And that is frustrating on a narrative level.

Craig: Yeah. There is a difference between moral ambiguity and I’ll call it motivational ambiguity. I don’t mind wondering at the end of a film if someone is good or bad, because the truth is usually we are both. It’s a very human thing to be morally complicated. And those are interesting endings to movies when you are left discussing with your friends and loved ones afterward what do you think about that character and can you understand why they did what they did. I think we see the villain in Black Panther, Killmonger, is a great example of someone who is morally complicated. And at the end of the movie you can have great discussions about where he came from and why he did what he did.

But motivational ambiguity is frustrating. Why he did what he did, crystal clear. Whether it was wrong or not, that’s a different story. But actually motivated him, no question. He tells you. And when we don’t quite know why people are doing things from a simple motivational point of view it does get frustrating.

John: Yeah. So a writer who chose to adapt this story would have to make some fundamental choices like he’s doing this because of X. You’re going to have to pin something down which may not be really true or based on reality, but you’re going to have to give the audience some clear framework for why he’s doing this, or I think you’re going to end up with a very frustrating movie. Or more likely a movie that doesn’t get made because the notes are like, “I don’t get why he does this. It’s a pass from us.”

Craig: Yeah. And also pretty good litmus test for whether you should adapt something or not. If you have to invent the beating heart of the thing, what are you adapting it for? I mean, the whole point of these things is that you find something that gets you excited in it. That is inherent to it and honest to it. You can then, you know, paint outside the lines and invent, but there is a connection to something true. If the thing that you are ultimately connected to in a story like this is your invented reason for why this guy does stuff, then what do you need this for?

John: Yep. All right, let’s go to another story with a complicated hero, or villain. A character at the very center of the story who we’re not quite sure why she’s doing what she’s doing. So this story is Teen Girl Posed For 8 Years As Married Man To Write About Baseball And Harass Women. This story we’re reading is from Lindsey Adler who is writing for Deadspin.

So it tells the story of baseball fan turned writer Becca Schultz who for eight years was pretending to be a man writing about baseball. She started this persona when she was 13 years old and it was revealed much later that she was in fact a woman ,but she wasn’t just writing about baseball. She was harassing women online and doing some things which are kind of despicable. And it’s very hard to say exactly why.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, well, she tries to explain it. And the explanation starts, well, the way you would expect which is “I wanted to be a valid heard voice in a man’s world. And I was not a man, nor was I even an adult. And so I took upon the mantel of an adult man to be heard.” And that’s a fascinating thing and it’s an interesting commentary on our society.

It’s also – you could look at her performance as an adult man as a horrendous critique of adult men, because she went ahead and did the things that adult men so often do, which is harass women, make them feel bad, pressure them sexually, get them to do things they didn’t want to do sexually, berate them. Except as she says, you know, at some point it wasn’t intentional like an act. She says it slowly led her down a path to some things that she was very uncomfortable doing but didn’t even realize were happening. And then she was in too deep. And I think what ends up going on is people like this create relationships that matter to them.

Everybody, myself, everybody has had a relationship with somebody – even if it’s brief – on the Internet. It doesn’t have to be sexual. It could be a combative relationship. It could be anything. Where you realize I’m in a relationship with this person, for better or for worse. And it’s doing something for me, because I keep coming back to it. And it is a fascinating sort of example of how human relations can become quicksand when you remove accountability. But that in and of itself doesn’t feel like a particularly new or fresh observation to make cinematically.

John: Yeah. So at the heart of this is the concept of catfishing. And so this is catfishing where you’re not going into this proposing a relationship where you’re like presenting yourself in a relationship as a person you’re not. We’ve seen tons of stories of that. And I don’t know if there’s been a great movie version of that, or at least a great sort of big screen movie version of that. This one is weird because of the addition of baseball. And the sense that she was just a teenager when she was starting to do this.

But, I mean, teenager-hood is the time when you are trying on personalities anyway. So to try on an adult male personality online, and then carry it through to making up a fake wife and fake kids and then have these online relationships with these women who believe that you are a man – yeah, you can see sort of how it happens. I have a hard time understanding or envisioning how you would make this a movie in the sense of like whose perspective are we in.

Craig: Right.

John: Because if we’re just seeing her go through all these steps it’s hard to really picture what are we seeing onscreen. This is the kind of thing where I feel like you need the internal voice of the main character who is doing this. And so it feels like a book rather than a movie. I just don’t know how you make sense of this character without having real introspection.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. I understand her. And it is a very juvenile kind of thing that she did. And it was a – I can empathize with the desire for intimacy, even when intimacy goes wrong and turns abusive. I understand essentially what was going on. It doesn’t puzzle me. I just don’t think that there’s anything larger to learn. So it doesn’t need to be represented as a movie, I don’t think. I hope she gets help.

John: Yeah. I hope she gets help, too. And I think if there’s a story to be told out of this, or something that’s not quite this story but this general area of a story, it feels to me like a book. It can weirdly be like a stage musical where you can have the ability to sing the song of who you are inside. Or do double casting where you are the same people. She is both herself and the person she is presenting herself. Those are compelling ways to do this. I just have a harder time seeing this as a piece of visual entertainment up on a screen.

Craig: Yeah. I think actually a musical is a pretty good idea.

John: Yeah. I will always fall back on a musical. But yes.

Craig: Well, I mean, isn’t Dear Evan Hansen is kind of in this world, right, of a kid who tells a lie and can’t get out of it.

John: That’s true.

Craig: So, yeah, anytime you are dealing with a very internal, complicated, ugly, greasy, yet beautiful and sad and lovely mush of human emotions, I hear a song.

John: I hear a song.

All right. Our next story is from The New Yorker. It is a piece by Rachel Aviv entitled What Does It Mean? “When Jahi McMath was declared brain-dead by the hospital, her family disagreed. Her case challenges the very nature of existence.”

So, Craig, you are our resident almost-doctor. What did you make of this story? And do you want to talk us through the framework here? So essentially a young woman goes in for a tonsillectomy. Something goes wrong. She ends up in a coma. And beyond a coma she ends up brain-dead. The family does not believe that. And essentially keeps her or her corpse, you’ve got to decide where you stand with whether she is alive or not, for years it seems now. And she’s still in this state in their apartment. And I guess it makes you question are they right, are they wrong. Who are the heroes and who are the villains in the story?

Craig: This is a classic bioethical conundrum tale here. This girl had – at least it’s suggested – may have had a physical condition where her corroded artery was really close to her pharynx and when that happens that can raise, as the article points out, potentially raise the risk of hemorrhaging. It does appear, in fact, that she was hemorrhaging. And ultimately that led to her heart stopping, a loss of oxygen to the brain. The heart eventually restarts but the brain appears to be dead.

So, you have these situations where Patti [sic] Schiavo was sort of the one everybody knew about. Someone whose brain shows no provable activity on an electroencephalograph. But the rest of the body can be kept alive with a ventilator and all the rest of that. And so the heart keeps beating and so on and so forth. And you’re on a feeding tube, etc.

So, what do we have here? And this is where it gets mushy because this article kind of paints everybody out weirdly to be a villain. That’s how I felt. Like the doctors all felt a little too callous about it and a little too dismissive and a little too, “Ugh, whatever, it’s a vegetable, she’s dead.” And there’s implications that race was a factor.

The family seems to be reading a bit much into some of the body movements that occur with their daughter. Which, you know, sometimes it could be a real thing. I mean, there’s locked-in syndrome and all the rest of it. But it still doesn’t look like she’s alive. I mean, they do bring a doctor in from Cuba who insists that she’s alive. But it’s a little upsetting. And there’s this other strange thing that’s happened. So they talk about the Jahi McMath shadow effect. A rise in the number of families, many of them ethnic or racial minorities, going to court to prevent hospitals from unplugging their loved ones from ventilators. The notion there being white doctors are telling us our kids are dead when they’re not really dead, because they’re racist and don’t care, or care less. And we’re going to fight back.

I don’t believe that that is the case. I don’t.

John: I don’t believe that is the case either. Here’s my real worry about this as a movie is I could see this being made as a movie and in the movie version of this the family are heroes and the doctors are bad guys and she clearly is still alive and this is Lorenzo’s Oil and she probably wakes up at the end. You bend it just enough to see like, “Look, they persevered. They believed when no one else believed and look at where we are right now.” And that version of the story doesn’t tell about all the loss and of the costs that happened because of the decision to keep believing that she’s alive when everyone says she’s dead. The costs to the rest of the family. The costs to the medical system. The costs to other people who didn’t get help because this money and time and resources were being spent on this situation.

So, I get so nervous about this because I can’t envision a movie version of this story that doesn’t have this family as the heroes in it.

Craig: Yeah. You’re right. I mean, you don’t want to do a story where the point is these people are delusional and need to let their kid go. I mean, you could, and generally speaking the way you would do that is by having a disagreement between family members so it didn’t feel like there was some outsider coming in just yelling at them until they finally said, “Oh you’re right. What are we doing?” And then they bury their kid.

But this is not something that really is part of the common human experience.

John: Well, I say it is part of the common human experience in like that faith in miracles. That faith in like, no, no, we just have to keep believing longer and then we will – all our faith will pay off. I mean, that’s ultimately what this is is that if we believe hard enough and long enough we will be proven correct. And that is a common experience, whether it has to do with death or not death. And every one of us is also going to face end of life decisions. We’re going to face those choices of like do we start hospice or do we do some other great intervention on behalf of an elderly parent. Like we all do face this. This is just the more extreme version of it.

Craig: Yeah. It’s tough when it’s a kid because the whole point of a child is that they’re supposed to live. You know, if there’s someone who is 85 and then the doctors are like “Brain-dead,” you’re like, “No, grandma is still alive.” Well, it’s grandma. What are you going to do? So, I understand the misery of it. And my heart goes out to anybody that has to suffer from this. But I think that we have yet to really come to grips with accepting the notion that we die and that people die. And there is also, look, if you believe religiously then you’re just going to keep these people alive because you believe in a soul and neuroscience doesn’t. Neuroscience believes in electricity.

John: Yeah. But you’re going to keep these people alive even though they’re being kept alive by artificial means that were not sort of part of your cultural tradition before this moment. So, that’s the weird thing, too. It’s only going to, in many ways these kind of decisions are only going to get harder as we get better and better at keeping more and more people, their bodies functioning even after what we had decided was death has occurred. That’s an interesting thing, too.

Also I should have said the other big cost of this is, of course, organ donation which is the one thing that can actually save people’s lives.

Craig: Yeah. That’s the part that’s so rough because it’s impossible to say how you would handle something like this, but I’d like to think the way I would handle it would be to let my loved one go and then save as many lives with their organs as I could. And certainly, oh my god, if it’s me – I mean, if I get a bad headache, go ahead and harvest my organs. [laughs]

John: There’s a story this past week, I’ll try to find a link to it, about the actor Jon-Erik Hexum. So he was–

Craig: Oh yeah.

John: He was a star who was on this show called Cover Up. He was like a big hunky model guy. And he was messing around with a prop gun and fired a blank that lodged a piece of paper into his head and he died. What I hadn’t heard about the rest of that story is like they donated all of his organs, because it was the perfect death because everything was in ideal condition. And so parts of him are still alive in so many different people, which I think is just an amazing legacy to carry on.

Craig: I knew him from Voyagers. He traveled through time. No question. That was a joke that did not work and he died. But, yeah, you save all these lives. And I think that’s wonderful. I would love to do that. But, you know, is this a movie? No.

John: No. It is not a movie. It is an interesting story to talk about at a dinner party when you want to depress some people, but it is not a movie. What will not depress them is our final opportunity. A Carnival Cruise Descends into Anarchy. There’s many stories about this one, but it’s Avi Selk writing for the Washington Post is the one we’ll link to.

Essentially on a Carnival Cruise ship, apparently one family that had like 12 or 24 people just created this tremendous chaos. And there’s video of just these brawls happening. Passengers were scared for their safety on the boat. They were like locking themselves through the cabin. We laugh because it’s absurd. I’m sure it was terrible for the people involved. I feel like there’s a movie space here, or at least there’s an episode of a TV show here, because that is sort of like one of my fears. Because it’s awful when you have people on a flight who are misbehaving. Like that’s terrible. But on a boat where you’re there for a week and these people are always around. It’s that sense of like a small village in the middle of the ocean. There’s something really interesting and fun to do there.

Craig: Yeah. There’s some broad comedy to be done about a cruise. I mean, they’re Australians. They’re like a family of Bogans basically. That’s a word that we learned from Rebel. Yeah, there’s something. I mean, I don’t know. What bums me out is this is the one that probably most studio executives would be like, “Get me that Carnival Cruise thing. Get me the rights to that.” Because it just feels like, you know, it will be that movie. So I don’t even want to help them. I don’t want to help them.

John: It’s like Murder on the Orient Express but like funny and on a boat.

Craig: Exactly. Yeah. That’s what they’ll say.

John: And could we make it less snowy, and funnier, and could some people be in bikinis. And could we put Seth Rogan in it?

Craig: You’re helping them. Stop helping them.

John: That’s a movie.

Craig: Stop it.

John: [laughs] Yep.

Craig: No help.

John: All right. So, of the How Would This Be a Movies that we talked through, I think it’s clear that the debt collector one is probably the most compelling movie of this batch.

Craig: Yes. For me. But the most likely to be made is the Carnival Cruise descends into anarchy.

John: I think you’re probably right. Here’s what I’ll say. The Carnival Cruise, you do not have to buy the rights to that Carnival Cruise. There’s really nothing especially great or remarkable about the scenario there. The general sense of like what if you had Animal House but on a cruise ship. That’s a free idea. Free idea for anyone in Hollywood to run off with.

Craig: And begin…type…type…type.

John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. I have two One Cool Things. My first is Portal Bridge Connector. So, Craig, you’ve played Portal. You’ve played the amazing videogame Portal.

Craig: The cake is alive.

John: The cake is alive. The cake is delicious. Portal Bridge Connector combines all the fun of Portal along with the Bridge Connector games where you’re trying to move a vehicle from one side of the screen to the other side of the screen by building a physics enabled bridge. It’s really ingenious. I’m playing the version for the Mac and I’m sure there’s other versions, too. But it does all the fun stuff about bridge things with all the warped sense of humor of Portal. It’s very, very clever so I recommend you waste a lot of your time on Portal Bridge Connector.

Craig: OK.

John: My second one is a great podcast by The Onion called A Very Fatal Murder. It is a parody of true crime podcasts. It is ingenious. It is so, so good. So I don’t want to say too much and spoil it for you, but the episodes are really short. So, download the whole season. You can burn through it in a little over an hour. But it just so nails all the tropes to the degree to which you won’t be able to listen to other true crime podcasts because you’ll recognize, oh yeah, that’s a trope. It’s just ingenious.

Craig: See, now I’ll listen. And you don’t have to worry about me not listening to other true crime podcasts, because that wasn’t going to happen anyway. But I do find that whole thing pretty up its own butt. And so I love the idea that they’re taking the piss, as the Brits say. Because it is all very kind of formalized.

You know, this is my problem with podcasts.

John: Now that you’ve listened to three podcasts–

Craig: These things keep popping up, even in the three I listen to. There’s like – have you ever seen the video that someone did about YouTube voice?

John: I haven’t seen that. I should find it.

Craig: So, YouTube voice is this thing. People who do YouTube videos where they’re talking about whatever the hell interests them, they all speak somewhat similarly. And they also edit their sentences so that there’s never any breaths. And in fact a lot of times purposefully clip off the ends of words. It’s so strange.

John: Yeah. That editing style is really annoying. It’s really clear when you see it.

Craig: There’s also podcast voice. And I don’t like it. [laughs] I don’t like podcast voice. And you know what? Neither one of us have podcast voice. Although I will say that in Launch you kind of have podcast voice. You have podcast voice in Launch.

John: I do have more podcast voice. And so in the later episodes where it is just more just chatting because I’m literally just in a hotel room and I’m exhausted, I’m a little less podcast voice-y later on. But finding my right voice was hard. And we threw out the entire first episode and rerecorded it because I was too podcast voice-y. It really felt weird and forced.

But it’s the difference between me spontaneously talking like I’m doing right now and reading off a script. And I have to read off a script because I have to be able to make these points and connect these dots in ways.

Craig: Well sure.

John: That I wouldn’t have to just speaking.

Craig: There’s this cadence that we are familiar with for instance on news broadcasts. The local reporter, “I’m standing here where just minutes ago,” and then in England it’s very much – there’s a wonderful, again, a person did a video where someone is just saying garbage but in the intonation of a British news reporter. And you realize how formalized that is. And it’s becoming formalized for podcasts, too. But you know who does a great job of not doing podcast voice, even though it’s an incredibly scripted show? Karina Longworth.

John: Yeah. I would agree. I would say part of it is that when you actually just talk to Karina in a normal setting that’s her real voice.

Craig: That’s right.

John: But it fits really naturally. Her normal speaking voice is a little bit not like how other people would speak.

Craig: Her voice is authentic there. You don’t get a sense that she’s doing the podcast voice. Like for instance Leon Neyfakh, and I really, really enjoyed the Slow Burn podcast, so I hope he doesn’t take this as some sort of terrible insult, but he’s got massive podcast voice. And I actually want to say to him, you know what, you don’t need the podcast voice.

John: Well as the expert in podcasts, I feel like you should step in there. Having listened to so many podcasts, you are the person to–

Craig: I’ve listened to ones of them. Ones and ones of podcasts.

John: Tell us about your One Cool Thing.

Craig: Super-duper late to the party here, but I went on a binge and watched The Good Place. And I love that show so freaking much, written in part by my cousin, Megan Amram. So sorry that I’m so late to the show. But I hope you guys are watching it. If you’re not, watch it. There have been two seasons so far. Each season has I think ten episodes. So, very manageable. The cast is so, so good. I mean, the writing is amazing and the cast is great. Jameela Jamil – do you watch the show? Or have you watched the show?

John: So I’ve watched every episode and I watched the first season twice because I went back and watched it to sort of see what really happened. And I watched it with my daughter who is 12 and she loves it as well.

Craig: Yeah. Jessie, my 13-year-old, thrilled. Jameela Jamil may be the prettiest person in the world. Just like – I’m doing the thing where I’m fanning my face because she’s the hottest person alive. And hysterically funny on that show. William Jackson Harper plays Chidi and I want to be his friend so much because he’s basically like every nerd friend I ever had in college where we would sit and talk about Nietzsche and nonsense like that. And just loved it. And even like earlier in the episode I said Leap of Faith and in my mind I hear Chidi saying, “Well actually you know Kierkegaard, really it was better translated as a leap into faith.” It’s just so great.

Kristen Bell, the greatest, has always been the greatest. She’s first ballot Hall of Famer. And then Manny Jacinto is the latest in this wonderful television tradition of impossibly stupid people. I want to do a history of the impossibly stupid person on TV. You know, like Woody Harrelson on Cheers was one of the early ones I remember seeing. Like that’s not possible to be that stupid. And then Homer, of course, one of the great impossible. And then Manny Jacinto is even dumber than all of them.

And then lastly I just want to point out that on The Good Place they do diversity properly. You don’t get a sense that the show is diverse because a social justice warrior was whacking them on the knuckles with a ruler saying, “Come on. Fulfill the quotas.” It’s diverse because the show is about humans who are dying and going to the afterlife. And if you just go by the odds, I looked this up. If you by the odds, and you’re just going to randomly scoop up ten people that just died on our planet, the odds are that out of those ten people two of them will be Chinese. Not Asian. Chinese. Two of them. Two of them will be Indian. Two of them will be of predominately African descent. So we’re now up to six people. We’ve got two Chinese people, two Indian people, two people of predominately African descent.

There’s probably going to be one more non-Chinese, non-subcontinental Asian, so we’re talking about Indonesian or Filipino or Thai or Vietnamese, or Japanese, or Korean. So now that’s seven people.

We’ve got three people left. Divide them roughly up between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white people. That’s basically the world. If anything, they’re a little skimpy on the Chinese people. Other than that, they’re really good about being appropriately representational of the world.

And also there’s one person from America, which I loved. You know, it’s great. Because there’s not that many Americans.

John: You left off one person who is fantastic in the show who is Ted Danson who anchors it in way that is just so remarkable. And is clearly having a fantastic time doing it, but also has a weirdly difficult role that he just nails. It is just an incredibly ingenious show. Megan Amram’s puns are worth it. It’s the show where you actually do pause to look at all the signs that they’re constantly changing out. Drew Goddard directed the pilot and it’s hard to imagine that he had such a vision for what that show is going to be so early on. The writing across the board is fantastic. So, hooray.

Craig: Yeah, it’s just so good and so smart. And it’s legitimately laugh out loud. I cannot wait for the next season.

John: Cool. That is our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you send questions and follow up and feedback-y things.

If you have a short thing, on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. That’s where you can send us articles for us to consider for How Would This Be a Movie.

We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. Leave us a review while you’re there. That is lovely if you do that.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at It’s also where you’ll find transcripts for this and all the back episodes. You can find the most recent 20 episodes or so are on iTunes, but the whole back catalog is at It is $2 a month for all the back episodes. There’s also some USB drives with the first 300 episodes available at

Craig, thanks for a fun exploration of How Would These Be Movies.

Craig: John, it was a great show. And 339, ooh, 340. We’re coming up on 340. So excited.

John: Oh, it’s going to be good. All right, have a great week.

Craig: See you next time.

John: Bye.


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What’s the Plan, Anyway?

Tue, 03/06/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig speculate what Luke Skywalker’s plan might have been in the opening of Return of the Jedi. They consider heroes’ plans generally, the allowance we grant as an audience for opening sequences and the foul taste of “logic ketchup.”

We then engage in a long-awaited Three Page Challenge, focusing on scripts that play with point of view.


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Mostly Terrible People

Tue, 02/27/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig evaluate another set of exceptional news stories for their fitness for the big screen in this week’s How Would This Be a Movie?

We consider stories about counterfeit debt collectors, the worst roommate ever (beside’s Craig college roommate), the girl who posed as a grown man online and began exhibiting genuine symptoms of toxic masculinity, a family that fights to preserve their daughter after she’s been declared brain dead, and a cruise ship that descends into anarchy.

We also follow up on the mystery of MoviePass with a listener that has seen a new film each day for months. Did we judge this model too quickly?


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Scriptnotes, Ep 338: We’re Back, Baby — Transcript

Mon, 02/26/2018 - 12:33

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 338 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast we will tackle the massive backlog of listener questions that have piled up while we’ve been away, including the Oscars for Best Screenplay, songs in musicals, nuclear war, characters’ last names, and incorporating ad-libs into a script.

Craig: That’s serious. But I think we can do it because we have the original flavor right now. Me and you, buddy.

John: Oh, I’m so happy to back recording a podcast. It is delightful. When I saw this on my calendar it helped me get through the day to know that we were finally back doing this. So, thank you to our listeners for your patience while we cobbled together other episodes while we were out on the road. I was doing Arlo Finch book tour. You were overseas prepping for your show. But now we’re back. Well, not back. I’m in Milwaukee. But we’re still back on the air.

Craig: Now, you’re in Milwaukee because you’re still on your book tour?

John: Yes. So by the time this episode comes out I will be back in Los Angeles, but after two weeks of traveling from LA to San Francisco to Denver to Dallas to New York to Philadelphia to New Jersey to Chicago to Milwaukee, I will now have returned to Los Angeles.

Craig: Wow. That is bananas.

John: 3,000 different students I met. And a lot of other Scriptnotes listeners I met at live events different places. And some Launch listeners, too. It has been great. It has been exhausting the way you think a multi-city tour would be exhausting. And I have learned so much. It’s been really cool.

Craig: Well that’s great. Excellent.

John: Yeah. Nice. So I think it’s time to introduce a brand new branded segment which is John’s WGA Corner.

This is the segment in which I talk through small issues that are only applicable to WGA members, and I try to plow through it quickly so it doesn’t distract from the rest of the show. If you are a WGA member, you are going to get a bunch of emails in the next few weeks. They will be emails talking about sexual harassment, screenwriter issues, other industry issues. I would urge you to not ignore these emails and to come to meetings if you are invited to meetings because there’s some big stuff a-brewing. And we want to make sure we hear from you basically what you do and how you respond will determine the next couple years of the WGA. So, I would just urge you to pay attention to those WGA emails as they come in. Don’t just ignore them because they actually really matter a lot these next couple of months.

The second thing. Writers have asked me about how does the WGA know that I am a diverse writer, that I am African American or that I am Latino or that I am a gay writer. And I didn’t really know. And it turns out you tell them yourself. And so if you are a member of the WGA I would urge you to go to and click on the little tab that says Update My Diversity Attributes. And when you do that you see what the WGA knows about you and what your background is. And maybe you filled some stuff out when you joined the WGA, but maybe you didn’t. Like, the WGA had no idea that I was gay, which seems crazy.

So, you click the little boxes. And there’s also – this is kind of cool – a little tab that says “Publish” for each of these attributes. And why you might choose “Publish” is that way if an employer is calling and saying I really need a female Vietnamese writer for this project, they can call the WGA and say like who do you have who is a female and Vietnamese. And the WGA can give them names. But only if you click “Publish.” So, I’d urge you to update those attributes in your profile.

Craig: I think that’s a great idea. And, listen, I think it’s fair to assuage perhaps fears. Because people understand that there is – the reason that we are now so concerned about diversity and self-identification is because the business has operated in a way consistent with racism. How is that for diplomatic, right? OK.

So, you might think, well, I don’t know if I want to do that because then they’ll be like, nope, I don’t want to hire her because she says she’s African American. I think right now, just my theory, that there is a net positive. There is goodwill. There is a real desire to improve and get better. And I think there is a net positive to self-identification in any of these areas.

And for those of you who think is there some sort of net negative if you’re a straight white male, I don’t think so. I ticked off the boxes for me. Straight white male, over the age of 40. I got a little something.

John: I had to tick that, too. So we’re diverse in the sense that we’re older writers now. How does that feel Craig?

Craig: It feels good.

John: You’ve lived this long.

Craig: I’ve lived this long. And I don’t mind that. I actually think that 40 feels really young for diverse age reasons. I think they need to bump that number up.

John: I think there is a 50 and a 60. So, we got space to grow.

Craig: Good. Good. Well, 50 is coming.

John: All right, end of the WGA Corner. Let’s get to some follow up. Alan writes in about Episode 332. He asks, “What does Craig mean by ‘using a lot of whitespace on a suspenseful section of a script?’ Does this mean less talking and more action description or the opposite? Could he give an example?”

Craig: OK. So whitespace is the portions of the page where there is no ink. Less talking and more action description? No. The answer is less talking and less action description. The answer is less of everything.

So, by suspenseful release and using lots of whitespace what I mean to say is you write a line that says “The box opens.” And then just do, if you want, do three carriage returns. Shift return to not get into the next element. Shift return. Shift return. Shift return. “And now we see it.” Shift return, shift return, shift return. “It’s alive.”

You know what I mean? So everything just gets quieter on the page and more intense and really focused to give it massive emphasis. We’re implying that time in the movie slows down. And we’re using text on a page to simulate that feeling.

Now, you don’t have to go quite as overboard as I just suggested. But, what you don’t want to do is hit your main revelation and go on an eight-line verbose description of it. That would undercut the emotional value of what I’m supposed to feel there.

John: 100% agree. So, I think when we talked about this the original time you don’t want to overdo this. Like this thing where you’re putting a lot of white space on the page gets annoying if you’re making this a technique all the time. But in general you want some sense of space on the page. And you want more sense of space on the page when you’re really zooming in on something. Sometimes I’ll even do the thing where here’s an action line. The next action line right below it is shorter. Then shorter. Then shorter. Then shorter. It gets down to a single word.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s a technique. You’re literally funneling down to an idea. That can work. Don’t do that twice in a script. Do it once. But if it’s appropriate, do it. And just, again, remember that the screenplay is meant to evoke the feeling of watching the movie. So think about what the movie is going to feel like. How can you achieve the same ends on the page?

Craig: Correct. And sometimes another thing that I will do to imply this feeling, and I think it is part of the white space, is if someone is trying to convey something silently that is very significant in the story and emotional or important, for instance, I’m going to sacrifice myself for you John, which I would.

John: Great. Thank you so much, Craig.

Craig: I like that you’re like, “Oh great.”

John: I applaud that choice. Let me get back to you about whether I’d kill myself for you, but I really want to thank you for that. It’s like when someone says I love you and you’re like thank you.

Craig: Great.

John: That’s terrific.

Craig: That’s terrific. So I’m planning on sacrificing myself for you, and you are shocked and you’re terrified, and you want to stop me but I’ve already made the decision. What I may do – and I’ve done this sort of thing in a script – is Craig looks at John. And then I’ll just underneath in action, but in italics, it’s OK. And then a next line. It’s OK. And then the next line, it’s OK.

So, it’s like I get it. We’re watching that moment. And it’s not just one it’s OK and then I die. It’s a moment of back and forth, a connection, a silent conversation that’s boiled down to two words: it’s OK. And we feel these things more. We allow ourselves essentially on the page to be a little poetic. You’re absolutely right – you don’t want to do this throughout a screenplay. It would become exhausting. But every movie should have one or two moments that are poetic, unless it’s Scary Movie 4. So in a normal movie, where you’re looking for that moment, when you get there do it. Do it on the page.

John: Do it on the page. And I think it’s also fascinating how often you’ve written that scene where you’re saying that it’s OK that you’re going to die for me. I think the fact that you write so much John and Craig into your scripts I think is great.

Craig: I mean, almost every script I die for you. It’s really tragic.

John: I had the opportunity to go on Brian Koppelman’s show, which was tremendously fun, and good to talk about, and would Brian Koppelman die for you? I don’t know. We’ll have to ask him.

Craig: I think Brian would, actually. I’ve always said the thing about Brian is not only – if I called Brian and I said I need the shirt off your back, not only would he give it to me, he would fly here and give it to me. That’s Brian. He really is that good of a guy. But, you know, for the two of us, I understand it’s a one-way street. Basically what I’m doing is I’m reinforcing the anti-trope of that tragic straight guy that keeps dying for his gay friend. [laughs] You know, that thing we’ve never seen in movies.

John: Indeed.

Craig: That’s all I do.

John: I like it. Well, as we talk through tropes, let’s get to our next question. This is a question from our listener Becki, back to Episode 333. She recorded her question, so let’s take a listen to it.

Becki: Last week you answered a question about Act One structure. And John you mentioned how musicals kind of spell out the structure through the songs. So for act one there’s the welcome to the world song and the I Want song. Could you guys expand on that and list out the other type songs that tell the rest of the story? Thanks.

John: Becki, thank you so much for inviting us to talk about musicals for several long minutes. Craig, kick it off for us.

Craig: Even though we hate talking about musicals. So–

John: Oh my god. Musicals are the worst.

Craig: Musicals are incredibly instructive to us because, as John has pointed out many, many times, the best songs in musicals are ones that combine a moment and an interior feeling with an advancement of plot.

So, we have talked before about the I Want song, which is obviously really translatable to screenplays. But there are lots of other ones. For instance, there’s a kind of song called an Argument Song, which is typically a duet, as you might imagine, although occasionally people can have an argument with themselves. And in an argument song two characters kind of face off and have an argument. And the argument can be an explanation of the conflict between them. It can also sort of be the beginning of a flirtation between them. But what it’s doing is it’s defining a relationship that is not yet resolved within song.

So for instance “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” or “Sue Me” from Guys and Dolls, or “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma, which is two characters basically trying to convince the other person that they should stop acting like they’re in love with the other person, even though they’re both in love with each other. Very sort of typical thing.

John: So that’s a classic musical trope. But we see equivalent kind of things happen in some of our movies. Like romantic comedies, even if they’re not musicals, will have this kind of song in it where the two characters are having the argument that is progressing the story forward but they’re actually kind of on the same side.

Craig: Yeah. And so there’s the we’re having a fight, we’re yelling at each other and breaking up, and then there’s also the kind of well you know that flirtatious argument. And so songs can present that very well.

There’s also just real nuts and bolts plot stuff. There are good scheme songs where a villain or a hero outlines a very clear plan of what they’re going to do. So, for instance, in Sweeney Todd there’s the song “A Little Priest” where Mrs. Lovett outlines very clearly with Sweeney Todd what they intend to do which is get people into the shop, murder them, and then cook them into pies.

John: Obviously. I mean, why wouldn’t you do that?

Craig: Why wouldn’t you?

John: It’s just laying out a clear logical plan for cannibalism and profit.

Craig: Yeah. And in a sense “A Little Priest” or a song like “I Want the Good Times Back” from the Broadway version of A Little Mermaid, and “I Want the Good Times Back” is an amazing song, these songs are the musical theater equivalent of the scene in an action movie where the team leader pulls up a hologram of the building that you’re going to enter and starts showing you – or like in Star Wars where they’re like “This exhaust shaft leads to the reactor.” It’s kind of the same thing. It’s sort of laying out the plan.

John: Great. So, you’re discussing the scheme as being something that either a hero or a villain could do, but there’s also basically the hero laying out their vision of the world. Like how things work from the villain’s point of view. So, you brought up The Little Mermaid. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a fantastic song that lays out the universe as seen by Ursula. And this is how things go. And that she is the benefactor of all these poor people.

So, classically a villain will get a song early on in the story which basically lays out their I Want as well. Sometimes it’s disguised a bit, like they may be lying in the I Want song, but it’s the story from their point of view.

Craig: Yeah. And you could sort of call that a Philosophy Song. And in movies we come across these characters who lay out a particular worldview which is fascinating hopefully and helps explain their actions. There are these moments in movies where a character finally in a moment of breaking down – this is a classic sort of low point kind of moment – that character expresses some profound remorse and sense of personal failure. This is a moment of honesty and of regret and it is a moment that needs to happen before they can finally unburden themselves of their pain and rise to attest and become a better person.

And these songs occur in musicals all the time. They’re songs of what could have been if only. They’re songs of regret. “On My Own,” from Les Mis. “Memory” from Cats. “Send in the Clowns.” These are all songs where people stop and basically deliver a heavy sigh of reflection on their life.

John: Yep. So the non-musical movie equivalent of this tends to be that moment where the character stops and either looks in through the window as that happy life is happening over there and they don’t have that. They might be expressing this to another character. Even a character who is not part of the main story, like that taxi driver who actually hears the story about what’s happened. It’s some ability to externalize this internal feeling.

And you have to think about all songs in musicals as externalizations of things that would normally be internal thought processes.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, in a romantic comedy you have just lost the guy. And you’re walking down the street. And you’re remembering what it was like. And now we’re into a montage where we see the stuff that happened in the movie before. This is in Annie Hall. So suddenly Woody Allen, I know it’s a little problematic now but let’s just go with it for cinema’s sake, is remembering having fun with Diane Keaton and the lobsters and the pot. That’s the equivalent of this song. It’s a reflection back. A remorseful reflection back.

And then the most famous category of a Broadway show tune is the 11 o’clock number. John, talk us through the 11 o’clocker.

John: This is the moment which is the pinnacle, it is the great sort of breakthrough. It happens very late in the story. Classically I think it’s called the 11 o’clock number because it’s near the end of the show. Like if the show starts at eight, this would be at 11 o’clock back when the shows were longer. This is the sort of centerpiece moment where the character is breaking through. So this is “Rose’s Turn.” This is “Being Alive.” This is a character finally achieving an internal breakthrough in their experience. Is that fair?

Craig: That is fair. And in movies we tend to see these things not so much in the framework of talking, but rather a character finally standing up and saying I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m going to fight. And I’m getting right back in there. And this is something that musicals do with song, but they do it in a way where you understand this character at the beginning of this song is this person and at the end of the song is who they’re supposed to be.

And sometimes it’s sort of a sad downward thing, like for instance “Rose’s Turn” which is tragic. But that notion of a transformation or sometimes a collapse. That is something that we do all the time in movies. And it’s actually as I think about this and I talk this through, Becki, you know what’s interesting is a lot of the equivalents to these songs in movies are kind of montage-y things. I never really thought of that before, but there’s a rough equivalent.

John: When Oprah Winfrey’s character finally stands up at the end of The Color Purple, is that an 11 o’clock moment in your head?

Craig: Yeah. I think it is. I think it is. And I actually haven’t seen – I’m not familiar with the musical Color Purple, but I bet there’s a big 11 o’clock number right around that moment.

John: Yeah. That would feel right.

The other type of song I want to bring up is the sidekick song. Musicals very often have sidekicks, basically humorous sidekicks who do a thing and they do a bit. Oftentimes that song is a slightly different style. It can be a little bit more like a wink, like an acknowledgment that we’re in a musical and that these two characters are singing this rat-a-tat song.

Often these sidekick songs exist in part so that the lead actors can take a break, make a costume change, do something else. Or there could be a giant set change happening behind the scenes. We literally have our sidekicks way up front. The curtain is closed behind them and we’re changing the set behind them. But sometimes these songs are just delightful and they just give you a different sense of the world, the characters, what’s going on.

So, I think of Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King. Other things where these minor characters get to sing for themselves for just a moment.

Craig: Yeah. And “Hakuna Matata” is a great example of that philosophy song we were talking about earlier. You know, again, in the movie versions what you find is those songs always have some greater purpose. They are integral to the storyline. Whereas on stage you will get things like for instance in Shrek the Musical, which I am obsessed with, there’s ‘The Travel Song,” which is Shrek and Donkey walking. And it very much does feel like a – OK, behind the curtain we’re switching around. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do here, so let’s just do a quick song about traveling along and our relationship roughly.

You tend to not see those things in movies. There are certain stage-specific songs that happen and stage musicals generally are much longer than typical films. So, there are some areas where it’s not necessarily a direct line. But hopefully, Becki, by talking about our favorite topic–

John: Ha-ha.

Craig: Thank you for letting us indulge. We have helped somehow.

John: Yeah, Craig, I’ve got to say it felt really good just to be able to geek out about musicals with you for – it’s been a month since we’ve done this.

Craig: I know. This and D&D. Why don’t we just do a musical and D&D podcast? You know what I mean?

John: Enough of the screenwriting stuff.

Craig: Enough.

John: We should focus on what we actually genuinely love.

Craig: Yeah. Like what brings us joy.

John: What brings us joy. Craig, would you like to take our next bit of follow up?

Craig: Yes. This is from Steve regarding Episode 332. He says he enjoyed Episode 332 – Wait For It – “and your analysis of suspense and film, specifically the victory lap.

“I totally agree with John’s endorsement of how important it is to give the hero a moment to enjoy overcoming a challenge before moving onto the next challenge. My favorite of this is in Back to the Future. Marty McFly spends all of act two trying to get his parents to fall in love. He finally succeeds at the high school dance by getting them to kiss. Once he achieves that, thereby ensuring that he will be born, he still has to get back to 1985. He should immediately drive over to the clock tower and lightning storm because he has a literal clock to beat. If he misses the lightning bolt he’ll be stuck in the past.

“Instead, the writers give Marty a victory lap. A full scene of him on guitar practically inventing rock-n-roll. What I love about this lap is it serves two purposes. One, it gives Marty and the audience a chance to celebrate and catch their breath before the next big suspense scene. Two, it pays off Marty’s act one dream of playing in the high school band. He fails the audition in 1985 but gets a second chance in 1955.”

John: I agree with Steve. So, follow up doesn’t have to technically be a question. This wasn’t a question. It was just pointing out another example of victory laps but also setups and payoffs. And that moment only works because we set it up as a thing that could happen that we wanted to see happen. We weren’t sure how it was going to happen. And this is how he does it.

And I think Steve is right. That if we followed real story logic, yes, the character should just get onto the next thing. But emotional logic says we need to stay there for a beat and actually revel in what’s been achieved.

Craig: And this is another good example of that all-important need of irony. We talk about this all the time. If you have a character that’s failing an audition for a crummy band in the beginning of the movie, the most ironic outcome for him would be to literally invent rock-n-roll by the end of the movie. So it’s smart. There’s just a smart coming full circle.

But think about how unsatisfying it would have been if there wasn’t that victory lap. It’s just kiss, great, I got to go. It would feel a bit breathless at that point. And there are times when you want to feel breathless. And then there are times when you want to just enjoy the victory.

So, very good analysis there from Steve.

John: Great. Next up, Mark. “In Episode 334 you guys took a question about if you should use the real brand or Twitter or a made up knockoff version in a screenplay. You guys stated that you like to see the actual brand used in films and TV. However, in a previous episode someone asked about using a late night talk show host in your script and you guys said you hated to see real news anchors/show hosts in movies. They seem like very similar concepts. Basically to you use real-life brands and not in your screenplay. So, why the difference in opinion on the two questions?”

Craig: Well, this one is pretty clear to me. There’s a huge difference between objects and people. I don’t believe human beings who are real when they’re put in situations that clearly aren’t real. There’s a disconnection there. But objects – well we see objects all the time in movies. It’s not like I question whether or not a car in a movie is actually a car. Right?

So, people are driving a Cadillac in a movie and, yes, because that’s fine. But when you tell that’s the David Letterman show in the movie and a fake character is talking to the real David Letterman there’s a disconnect. So there you go. That’s the difference for me.

John: That’s the difference for me, too. I think where you fall into this murky gray line is are we creating a fake news network for this person to be on? Yes, then I’m seeing – where I should be a seeing a CNN logo then I’m seeing something else. But I try to write around those situations so I wouldn’t necessarily need to see the brand of whatever the news network is. I try to sort of keep news anchors and that kind of stuff out of my scripts as much as possible anyway.

Just the degree to which you cannot be using real people or having to create a fake network to make this all work, that to me is great. Unless the whole premise of the thing is like that you are at a news network. I say then you actually build a news network.

Craig: Right.

John: Because that’s a fundamental premise thing that you’re doing. You’re creating a whole news network for this. You’re doing Broadcast News where this is not NBC, CBS, or ABC. This is some other network. We are fine with that because that’s a fundamental premise you’re establishing.

Craig: What was the magazine called in Devil Wears Prada?

John: Exactly. I don’t remember, but I believed it. I saw what kind of magazine it was and that’s what mattered.

Craig: You knew it was supposed to be, what is it, Cosmopolitan? Is that what it was supposed to be?

John: I don’t know. Aline is going to be so upset with us.

Craig: I know. What was it supposed to be? I don’t know. But, you know, it was supposed to be one of those, and it was its own thing because obviously it needed to be its own thing. But you believed it because you understood what the point was.

John: Yep. Do you want to take our last bit of follow up?

Craig: This is the best question. This is a bummer. So Nick from Los Angeles, Re: 334 Worst Case Scenarios, one of my favorite episodes. He writes, “What if there were,” now he didn’t write that. He said, “What if there was–?” But, Nick, let’s talk about the subjunctive for a second Nick. Nick, if we use if then we need to go into the subjunctive.

John: Yes. Subjunctive is an important mood. And we don’t use it very often in English, but this is a case where really you do need the subjunctive. There are situations like if he was at the store at that time then that was crucial. Like there are situations where you could use was. This is a were situation.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a were situation. So you don’t want to say what if there was a. You want to say what if there were “a cataclysmic event that only affected,” oh Nick also misspelled affected. “Only affected the City of Los Angeles. For example, North Korea attacks the City of LA. The US retaliates and neutralizes North Korea. The US wins but LA is wiped off the map Hiroshima style.” OK.

“This is simplistic, I know, but stay with me,” says Nick. “What becomes of the American film industry if everyone in LA is dead? Would the NYC branches of Hollywood companies – studios, agencies, unions, etc. – and production heavy places like Atlanta be able to carry the torch of the entire film and television industry? How much of our business is dependent on this town and the people who live in it?”

Ooh, so a grim but interesting–

John: I think it’s a grim but very fascinating question. So, here’s what I will say. If Los Angeles were obliterated in a nuclear strike the biggest concern, of course, would not be, “Oh no, our film and our television.” The world would be profoundly different if this thing had happened. So, we have to acknowledge that we’re in a different universe when LA gets wiped off the map.

All that said, thinking about it just from our film and our television, I suspect it would recover surprisingly quickly. And it would recover because there are people in New York who write movies and who write television. There are folks in Atlanta. There are folks in Austin. There are other folks who could make this stuff. And eventually it would find its way back onto the air. We’d be making movies again. We’d be bringing in movies from overseas. It would eventually get back to something resembling what we currently have.

A nuclear strike would be horrible, but it would not be – understatement of the year. [laughs] It would be obviously tremendously devastating, but I think within five years you’d be back to something that resembled what we currently have.

Craig: Wow.

John: Craig, what do you think?

Craig: I’m less optimistic than you are about that. I mean, yes, inevitably, eventually things return. But, I think the biggest issue is not so much for instance – like Atlanta is a very production-heavy place, but it’s a production-heavy place in the sense of the personnel are crew. You can’t start without the writing. And I would be worried about how many writers would be dead. Now, I’m not just saying that because I’m a fussy writer chauvinist. But ultimately all the content comes from writers.

So, pretty much most of your big shows that you love, all those people are gone. All the people behind those people are gone. When you work in movies, the people who work in this business are always looking for good people to write stuff and they’re always complaining that they can’t find them. And that’s in Los Angeles where there are 1,000 people per block who want to do this. You eliminate all the people that do do it and all that institutional wisdom, all that stuff is gone and out the door. It’s going to take a long time. I think it’s going to take a long time to replace a lost generation of talent like that.

And, yes, for better or worse, most of it is located in Los Angeles.

John: Yeah. I do think you would import talent from overseas. I think you would take things that are sort of adjacent to what we’re doing and bring it into our broadcast networks and other places. It would be different. It would be different for a while. But, five years from now will be different regardless. So, there are so many hypotheticals on top of hypotheticals.

The only thing I can say with certainty is that “were” was the correct form of “to be” in that sentence.

Craig: No question.

John: No question.

Craig: I mean, no question.

John: All right. That was all just follow up. Now we have actual brand new questions.

Craig: Yes.

John: We’re going to start with Ash from Adelaide, Australia. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a question from Adelaide, but I’m excited to answer Ash’s question.

Craig: Go for it.

John: “I’ve always been curious how is the Academy Award for the two screenplays categories voted on.” That again is not grammatical. How are the Academy Awards for the two screenplays voted on. So the two categories are Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay.

Craig: Right.

John: Ash asks, “In that I mean is everyone voting based on the script alone, or are they voting based on the final film?” Craig, talk us through this.

Craig: [laughs] You bastard. You bloody bastard. Well, one of us is a member of the Academy and sits on the committee that deals with these rules and things and the other one of us could not even work at the event as a caterer. So, I think you should answer this question.

John: I will answer the question. The rules are that you are voting based on which you believe is the best screenplay. And there’s not requirement that you’ve actually read all the screenplays. That said, I would say over the last ten years it has gotten incredibly better about making sure that those scripts actually go out for the nominated films. And so of the ten nominated films I probably have received screenplays for a lot of them either as PDFs or as like physical printed bound copies.

Every screenplay that we’ve gotten online is also available right now in Weekend Read so everyone can download the scripts and read those scripts. That said, I will vote for Best Screenplay on some scripts that I have not read. I think it is great to have the ability to read the scripts because sometimes a script is vastly different than the movie. In some ways I feel like I’m voting for Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay based on, “Well, you know what, that was probably a good script and the director didn’t mess it up so I guess that was a good script.” Because you don’t honestly know exactly what was in the script, even when you get the script handed to you. Well, is that reflecting what the intention was of the script going into it, or is this more reflecting what the final film is? Has it basically been sort of reverse engineered from the final screenplay? You don’t know.

So, as I vote for these awards for the WGA awards and the Academy Awards I’m basing it on sort of in my experience as a screenwriter and knowing what it takes to go from the page to the screen what do I suspect the screenwriter’s contribution was to that film that was terrific. And that is honestly how I’m basing my vote.

Craig, as you’re voting on these awards, like WGA awards, what are you doing? Are you reading the scripts?

Craig: I don’t really vote on those things. I just don’t understand the whole thing. The whole awarding thing for this, I just don’t understand it. [laughs] I just don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it. I mean, it’s not that I would ever be not grateful if I got an award for something, but I just – it’s not – like I know people get really excited about it. I’ve never quite gotten it. It’s just not in my – I love what I love. I don’t know how else to put it. I love what I love.

You know, and usually when I look at the lists of like, “Well, here are the five things you’re allowed to vote on for best movie I think well the movie I loved the most isn’t here.”

John: Yeah. I get that.

Craig: So what’s the point?

John: I will say that I take nominations very seriously in the sense of like as a person who gets to nominate movies I take that really seriously because I want sometimes to call out well these five movies are fantastic. And they’re fantastic because the writing is really good. And so I want to commend those movies.

I love for a great movie to win the awards, too, but I think the nominations are incredibly important. I’ve not been nominated for an Academy Award. I got nominated for a BAFTA. That was great. But the whole award season stuff is crazy and exhausting. And as crazy and exhausting as it is to read about it and watch it, it’s like 15 times more exhausting to be in the middle of it. And you end up spending months of your life just going to different lunches and sitting around with different reporters to talk about your movie for the 15,000th time.

The only really good thing I got out of it is I got to talk to some other really great filmmakers and hang out with them because we were always doing the same panels together. So, if it gets some filmmakers together working that’s great.

A thing I think people would not understand is they always say like these movies are pitted against each other. The experience on the ground isn’t really being pitted against each other because you’re hanging out with these other nominees all the time. And they’re mostly great. And so that is a nice thing that comes out of award season is you get to hang out with other really talented filmmakers who are making something good, who made something good and are hopefully making good things in the future.

So, that’s a nice part of it. But, back to Ash’s question. We get the screenplays. There’s no requirement to have read them. We are voting based on our guesses in terms of what we think is probably the best movie based on the writing.

Craig: All right. Our next question is from Tommy Lastname. We’ve gotten a question from Tommy Lastname before.

John: Yeah. He’s going to be big. I mean, with a name like Tommy Lastname you’re destined for greatness.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s not too many Tommy Lastnames out there.

John: No.

Craig: Tommy Lastname from LA writes, “A little background. I’ve been given a chance to write something for money. Not much money, but the producers have a movie coming out this year that I expect will do well and I feel I’m taking a chance on them as much as they’re taking a chance on me. My problem is that I feel like the script is not living up to the kind of work I’m used to writing.

“Frankly, I think it might be a bad script and I have a due date coming up. Is there any advice either of you can offer on the subject of turning a less than stellar situation like this around? I would like the ability to reach out to them in the future and possibly work on other things that are more in my wheelhouse, but I’m afraid a bad script might burn this bridge.”


John: Uh-oh. Craig, start us off with some advice for Tommy Lastname. Like, do you turn in the bad script? Do you email these producers to say these are the problems I’m having? What should Tommy do?

Craig: Well, I don’t know anything about the situation other than what he’s told us. So I don’t know if he took this job because he just needed money. It sounds like it since he describes it as a chance to write something for money. That means, my guess, that he did this because he needs cash and so – and this happens. You don’t always get to write the things you want to write. The problem is when you are writing something, he describes it as out of his wheelhouse, but maybe we could also just describe it as something that he normally would never, ever write. The odds of you doing your best work are fairly slim.

In fact, let’s just go out on a limb here and say it’s not possible to do your best work or to live up to the kind of work you’re used to writing because you would never write this. In that sense I think Tommy you have to make peace with what you actually are writing. And you have to acknowledge that you may not be necessarily aware of whether or not this is or is not good because this isn’t something that you normally deal with. Your ability to judge it may be a little off.

That said, if there is anyone that you can have a discussion about this with, a producer, I think it’s fair for you to sit down and say, “Listen, I have some questions of things I’m not necessarily in love with and I just wanted to bounce some thoughts off of you and see if you had any ideas just to keep going and be able to revise as I go.” And see if maybe just talking it through might help you solve a few of the problems.

But, if there is an overall problem of, “Ooh, I may have been miscast in this part,” that’s not going to change from anything and you will face the music one way or another. It’s not a question of a bad script burning this bridge. It’s a question of you may not supposed to be writing this movie.

John: Yeah. I like your metaphor of being miscast. I would say that there’s a step before you turn it in that could be really helpful. So continuing with this miscast metaphor, let’s say you got cast in this part and you’re like I just don’t know if I can do this.

A thing you might try is to actually attempt the performance for somebody who is not the director, who is not the producer, and see like does this make sense at all. Like, am I being a crazy person? Should I try to get out of this? So you would actually – you perform the scene for some actor friends of yours to see like does this make any sense. And the equivalent for you would be as a writer is show some people what you’re writing. Show some people who actually this kind of is in their wheelhouse. And does this make sense? Is this actually bad? Because it’s entirely possible that you just don’t know whether it’s good or it’s bad. And you may be feeling it’s bad because as Craig said it’s just not your taste. It’s not your kind of movie.

If it really isn’t working then I think you have the conversation with the producers about this is what I’m doing and this is where we’re at.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But what I will say is that sometimes writing outside of your wheelhouse, writing a thing you’re not comfortable about writing, you’re doing this for the money. You’re doing this for the job, for the chance to do this. But part of doing the job is learning how to write for people. And this is something you’re getting out of this is basically “How do I do what I know how to do, which is to tell a story with words on a page, for somebody else.”

And this might be one of your very first jobs doing that. If the project isn’t great, if your writing isn’t the best it could possibly be, you’re at least learning how to do this part of the job. And that is an incredibly important part of everything you’re going to be doing for hopefully the next 30 years of your career. So suffering through this and figuring out how to make the best of a not great situation is a really valuable lesson you’re having a chance to learn right now.

Craig: Yeah. The one thing you don’t want to do is quit.

John: Yep. Just don’t quit.

Craig: No. Don’t quit. Get yourself through it. There is some pain ahead, but you get through it and you learn from it and, you know, helps you identify this particular bugaboo the next time it’s coming at you.

John: Cool. Our next question comes from Casey and Casey sent in some audio so let’s take a listen.

Casey: Yo. Hey, kiddo, I got to ask a question to Scriptnotes. Can you let me just do that? Yo. Robot John, Sexy Craig, my writing partner and I have a feature script we’re super stoked about with an eye on hopefully someday directing it, co-directing it. That is not happening anytime soon. So the next step for us, we plan on heisting the Whiplash blueprint and writing a short based on the feature script, making sure that short is something we’re confident that we can self-fund and produce on our own.

We’ve got a little bit of experience doing that, so we just need to figure out what that short script is. So any suggestions as to how best condense, abbreviate, or otherwise shortify a feature screenplay? The goal, of course, is not to just pick our favorite scene and shoot it. We want the short to standalone as a narrative and also tease the feature and the bigger arcs of our favorite characters.

So, what is a lonely, miserable writer clinging to his fading dreams to do?

John: So, what Casey is talking about is this idea where you have a plan for making a feature script so you make a little short film first as sort of a proof of concept in many ways. This is the world, the universe, the characters. And someone who sees the short, which wins awards, and then you get the money to make your feature script.

That’s actually a viable model. And you go to Sundance Film Festival every year, there will be a couple of shorts which get acclaim. Those filmmakers will go off and make the feature versions of those shorts and sometimes they’re terrific. So what Casey is describing isn’t just Whiplash. There are other films you can point to that had this as a template.

Craig: Yes. And I think – I mean, it’s a very good question. And I think the best advice I could offer you, Casey, is to think of your short film as a film. So, you have a feature film script and you’re right to say, OK, I don’t want to just lift my favorite scene, but there might be a temptation to say why don’t I just take the beginning of this scene and stick it onto the end of that one. Or, you know, and you don’t want to do that.

You want to be cinematic. I mean, short films tend to be very evocative and you can be a little more lyrical about things. You may be able, for instance, to take a scene where your character is saying something really heartfelt and beautiful and you show some other things from the movie and you play around with time a little bit.

You have to be a little inventive and the purpose of it is to give people a sense that you guys know what you’re doing. Not to advertise the movie you want to make, but rather to say we’ve made a film that – forget this other thing. It’s as if we always intended to make this short film. It is in and of itself for itself. And then if you really like it, guess what, we have a feature-length movie that is in the same world with the same characters as this.

John: Craig is exactly right on this topic. So, do not shoot this as a trailer for your feature. Shoot this as one complete thought, one full idea, one short film. Ideally, someone should see your short and say like, “Hey, have you ever thought about making that into a feature?” And you just say like, you know what, we’ve thought about that. But don’t pitch this as like here’s a short version of our feature. That’s not what you want to do. You’ve got to make the absolute best short film that you can do.

And it’s worth studying really good short films to see how they work, because they tend to be really one idea. Craig says lyrical, I’d say they’re asking one question and the character is answering that one question and we get out. And they don’t have the same expectations of hitting all those beats. Sometimes they can be really short and it’s just like it’s following almost in real time through one thing.

But ideally you’re setting up a fascinating world, an interesting character, a simple conflict that you’re going to get through in the course of that thing. So that’s why you’re not going to introduce all your characters from your feature. You’re going to introduce probably your hero and one supporting person. And sequences or scenes might not even be in your movie. Think about it like you might take that character and wind them back a few months. Or look at a sequence in the middle of your story and how could you do it simpler with different characters or different obstacles to get the feeling of that. But don’t just try to copy and paste out moments from your script to do it because you’re unlikely to get what you really want.

Craig: Exactly. You want to start a new file. You know what I mean? Like on your computer, whatever program you use, start a new file. And I think you have to at least be somewhat inquisitive about your feature script and ask what is the ultimate purpose of this movie. Where is the beating heart of this thing? What is an image or a moment that gets me? That is meaningful.

Maybe start there as an inspiration. But begin a new document. I think you will be so much freer at that moment. You will feel so much freer. And you will be able to design something that was always meant to be short.

John: Agreed. Another way to think about it is imagine that your screenplay is like the novel and now you’re making a short film based on that novel. You wouldn’t take things directly. You would take a characteristic of it and use that. Don’t use that whole document. That’s not how you should start.

All right, Craig, let’s do one more question then. Do you want to take Nate?

Craig: Yeah, this is a little quickie. Nate writes, “Do we need last names?” Not us, you know, in life, but in our scripts. “Somewhere way back in my junior college screenwriting classes I seem to recall being told to always give both first and last names for any character who has dialogue. I know we hate rules, but is there a rule on this?”


John: Oh, Nate, your junior college writing class steered you wrong. So here is what I would say about last names in scripts. Last names are useful to signal sometimes that a character is important enough that they need a first name and a last name. Last names can be useful in making a character more specific. It gives us a clue to their ethnic background, some other characteristic of that person. But, no, you can have characters with dialogue in your script who do not have last names. It’s fine. You can have characters in your script who sort of only have last names. That’s fine, too. There is no hard and fast rule about this. It should be what works best for your script and your story.

Craig: I feel like we could sell a little buzzer and we would sell it at cost, you know, because obviously I make too much money on this show. And people in junior college screenwriting classes could just hit the buzzer when their professor delivered a rule. This would be a great example of a silly rule. So, Nate, John is absolutely correct. And, you know, look, there are certain things like – let’s say you’re writing a show about a team, teammates, right. Like cheerleaders. Baseball players. Cops in a precinct. Generally speaking they kind of do the whole last name thing, you know. And that’s normal. And that’s what you would do. And, yeah, you don’t need last names. You don’t need first names.

You could call people by colors.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Tarantino did it.

John: And we’ve talked about a lot of times where characters are just identified by their job, like Clerk. And so these are characters with dialogue but especially if they’re only showing up in one scene it’s kind of better not to give them a real name because once a character has an actual real name you’re signaling to the audience this person is crucial. You have to pay attention to them. Whereas if you call them Clerk or Hairdresser, we know subconsciously it’s OK. We don’t have to focus on them so much.

Craig: Yeah. I feel like if it was good enough for Beckett to just say Vladimir and Estragon, then it’s probably good enough for us, right? You don’t need last names.

John: Yeah, again, Craig quoting the Beckett rule.

Craig: [laughs] The good old Beckett rule.

John: Ding.

Craig: Ding.

John: It is time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an article I read this week. It is “The Bittersweet Beauty of Adam Rippon” by Richard Lawson writing for Vanity Fair. It is a great article. It’s about Adam Rippon the figure skater, but it’s not really about him. It’s about the sort of the experience of watching this openly gay figure skater out there in the world and Richard Lawson thinking back to his own childhood and how much he loved figure skating, and a friend of his, and their relationship, and finding out later on that that guy was gay, too. It’s really great. I won’t spoil stuff in it, but I thought it very much captured this really unique and interesting moment that happened this past week and things going forward.

And so these last two weeks I’ve been talking to so many school kids and some schools I’ve been talking to seventh graders and like well that’s clearly the gay kid. Like that is the gay kid. And it’s the gay kid in ways that I think when Craig and I were going through school you wouldn’t want to point and say like that’s the gay kid, but I think these kids are out. And that is so interesting and so fascinating. And so Richard Lawson’s article made me think of that as well as sort of my own youth. I thought it was just a great synthesis of this really interesting time that we’re at right now.

Craig: It is. And you’re absolutely right that kids are out now, which is really encouraging and lovely. I read this article, too, before you had listed it here. And I agree it was really, really well done. And from my point of view as coming from the outside of being straight, one of the things that I never really thought about but I thought this article did a really good job of pointing out was the value of the outness itself. Because, you know, growing up and even into my 20s and 30s and stuff, to me figure skating always seemed like, well, there were a lot of gay figure skaters.

So when they were talking about Adam Rippon I was like, really, he’s the first kind of one? Because, you know, Brian Boitano, what about Brian Boitano? What about Rudy Galindo? What about Johnny Weir for god’s sakes? Well they weren’t out. And it’s one thing to say, “Well Brian Boitano, he’s probably gay, right?” But it’s another thing for him to say, “That’s right. I am.”

It’s different. And I thought that was a really interesting point to make and why Adam Rippon is – I can see really important compared to say just somebody who else who is probably gay but isn’t saying it. That not saying it thing is a symptom of something bad, I think, in the world. And so it was great to see.

John: So these last two weeks I’ve been talking to all of these school kids, and at the end of my presentation we open for questions. And so they’re asking about the book. They’re asking about movies. Sometimes the questions just go far afield. And so this one boy raised his hand and he goes, “Are you married?” And so I said, “I am married. And my daughter is 12 and she really loves middle grade fiction.” And I transferred out of it so quickly.

And I had that moment of hesitation like do I out myself. Because in general in real life I will proactively out myself to just sort of make it clear that there’s a gay person out there in the world. But I hesitated and I didn’t say anything because these are fourth graders and it was a giant crowd. We were in like the cafetorium and there’s like a hundred kids. And I just knew it was going to be the moment where like, “Oh, it’s going to be about that now. Like that is going to be the headline that sort of comes home from this.” And I didn’t want that to happen.

At the same time, I felt bad ending myself there. So, it’s never easy. I sort of assume that I’m always out, but of course you’re never always out to everybody.

Craig: No, that’s absolutely true. And I immediately empathize with that situation as you’re describing it because I can do all the math in my head in the same way and you just think, “Well, you know, now there’s going to be a bunch of murmuring.” [laughs] Especially in fourth grade. Just some murmuring might happen.

Whereas if you were in a high school setting, no problem. Today, zero problem.

John: Easily. So, yeah, you’re always making choices. So, that was the choice I made there and I still feel kind of weird about it.

Craig: I get it. I get it. Sometimes life does sort of put those moments at you and – I mean, at least I don’t think in that moment you didn’t compromise who you were. I don’t think that happened.

John: Yeah. But it was sort of a lie of omission. And I’m always mindful of when I’m doing that.

Craig: Yeah. Listen, I’ve had moments in my past where I’ve compromised myself and I feel terrible about it where someone has said something – they didn’t know I was Jewish. And someone said something about Jewish people in front of me and I didn’t say anything. I mean, it was when I was a kid. But because I was kind of paralyzed and embarrassed and didn’t know what to do.

And, you know, there’s that thing we’re more terrified of offending people than we are of being hurt ourselves. And I think about it to this very day.

John: Yeah. What you’re describing is that same symptom of like a person is choking and they will run out of a room because they don’t want to embarrass or inconvenience people where they need to actually get the attention and become the center of attention. So, in many ways I think I’m applauding Adam Rippon for letting himself be the center of attention on this moment.

Craig: I completely agree. Good on him.

Well, I have a far less interesting but so satisfying One Cool Thing. And, of course, how could it not be The Room: Old Sins. This is the fourth Room game for iOS.

John: So excited for you.

Craig: Did you play it?

John: I haven’t played it yet. But when I saw that it was out I was like well that is clearly Craig’s One Cool Thing. There is no question that that’s going to happen.

Craig: Look, slam dunk. And I have a bunch saved up. So I’ll actually have some One Cool Things for a while. But The Room: Old Sins was terrific. It was beautifully done, as always, and I liked also they kind of changed it up a bit in the way that they did things. But overall just as always brilliantly done. I think it’s Fireproof. Fireproof Games.

John: Yeah. Yeah.

Craig: Wonderful stuff. I hope that they continue to make The Room games forever.

John: We will all hope that. And I hope we get to make our show forever. It’s nice to be back doing this with you. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Matthew Chilelli. If you have an outro you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you can ask questions like the ones we answered today.

On Twitter, short questions are great. So Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get podcasts. Leave us some ratings. Leave us some reviews. Those are very, very helpful. And thank you to everybody who left reviews and ratings on Launch. I guess I haven’t talked to Craig since we did the first episode, but I hit number eight on the charts which was nuts.

Craig: That’s amazing.

John: So thank you to all the listeners who clicked over to Launch and I’ve gotten some great feedback on that so thank you so much for that.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. We get those up a few days after the show goes up. We’re trying to find a way to get the transcripts for Launch up as well, because transcripts are very helpful and they help people find stuff in there. Also, people who can’t listen to the show can read them, which is always good.

You can find the back episodes of this show at It’s $2 a month for all the back episodes. You can also get the USB drives that have the first 300 episodes if you’d like to have them on a small USB drive. Just in case LA is hit by a nuclear device and you will have to carry on the tradition wherever you have your USB drive.

Craig: Yeah. That’s the most important thing. [laughs]

John: That is the most important thing. You’re making a show about Chernobyl. I mean, who knows how much screenwriting knowledge was lost in the disaster of Chernobyl.

Craig: I do. And the answer is none.

John: [laughs] OK. That’s fine. If any place is going to have a nuclear disaster and not affect the film industry, it’s Chernobyl, except now does impact the film and television industry because you get to make a TV show about it.

Craig: Good point. Good point.

John: I’m all optimism now.

Craig: I love it.

John: Thanks Craig.

Craig: Thanks John.

John: All right. See you.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 337: The One with Stephen Schiff — Transcript

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 10:37

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. I’m the host of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig is either in Lithuania or somewhere in Los Angeles. He’s hidden away someplace, but I’m here in New York City. I’m at a bookstore on Prince Street called McNally Jackson. And this is a special little mini episode and we have a very special guest.

Our special guest is Stephen Schiff. He is the executive producer, or an executive producer, on The Americans, one of my very favorite TV shows. I’ve seen every episode.

Stephen Schiff: Yay.

John: I have so many questions for you. So we’re going to talk about TV. We’re going to talk about writing characters on an ongoing basis. We’re going to talk about writing in general. And then I’m going to sign a bunch of copies of Arlo Finch, which has nothing to do with any of that. So, Stephen Schiff, welcome.

Stephen: Thank you. Thank you.

John: So, Stephen, I saw the entire run of The Americans just last year. I had not seen it as it was coming out. We streamed the entire thing through Apple TV while we were living in Paris. And it was amazing. If people have not seen it – show of hands out here, who has seen The Americans? OK, it is an incredible show.

Stephen: Yay. Thank you.

John: And it’s remarkably well done. What I want to ask you about is we’re living with this family for so long. You’re living with this family for so long. And when I was watching the first season I was asking myself how can they sustain this premise. This premise of like this is a family that is living undercover. Those secrets are eventually going to come out. They’re living across the street from an FBI agent. That’s eventually going to be – it was sort of like this Chekhov’s gun, literally kind of Chekhov’s gun right across the street. And yet–

Stephen: Guns.

John: Guns pointed in every direction. And they’re still not going off. Well, they’re going off in ways we don’t expect. So what is it like living with the Jennings family for so many years?

Stephen: I’ve strangely been thinking about this recently because the years have accumulated, and I’ve sort of been thinking this show which I’m so deeply involved in and have been living for all these years, and you know, it starts from so many weird premises. The engine of it is so absurd, right? The absurdities are these people who really can pass as Americans. The show sort of began to have its inspiration with this gang of spies that were arrested by the FBI in an operation called Operation Ghost Stories in 2010. People think of them as illegals like our illegals, but no, they had Russian accents. They would not have appeared to be Americans. These people appear to be Americans. So that’s the first thing that’s – I mean, they speak perfect American English. They live perfect American lives seamlessly.

And so if you were to pitch that to me I’d say, oh yeah right. And then what happens when an FBI agent moves in next door. Oh yeah, great. This is the most ridiculous thing ever so far. And finally on top of that they wear hundreds of disguises all of which work.

John: Yeah.

Stephen: So, it’s like, really? And yet I think we have managed somehow to put aside all of that – to suspend disbelief enough so that you can have watching this show what I hope is a profound experience.

John: Well let’s talk about that. The progress from a pitch. So, even though it was based on some real things that happened and even though there was some underlying material or things that you’ve worked on before, it is essentially a pitch. You’re going in there saying I have this idea about a family that seems like an American family but they’re actually Russian spies. And what?

So you pitch this story, but there’s so much more to figure out after that point about, like, what is the show really about. And so when you guys are in the writing room, what is the show really about? Because clearly you’re talking about, you know, there’s the international issues. There’s the issues of what secrets you keep from your family. What secrets you keep from your spouse. You’re looking at the struggle of being a parent and not knowing what your kids are doing.

Is there a big list on the whiteboard of like these are themes, these are the interesting questions we’re asking? Or is it just internalized at this point?

Stephen: Well, of course, by this point it is internalized. But really your question is perfectly germane in that it’s a spy thing, but it’s also a story about a family. And maybe I shouldn’t even say also. Maybe it’s first and foremost a family drama that happens to be about a family that kills people and has hunting traps and is actually working against America. But we are always constantly aware of basically sort of having a family in a test tube. And you subject the test tube to these extraordinary conditions and yet what you’re seeing is still a family. And subjecting the family to those conditions reveals things about all of our families, we like to think and hope.

And, you know, to the degree that we are spies – all of us spies within our own lives. You know, the show addresses that and speaks to what the complications might be and might feel like. At the same time, we’re completely tethered to the facts of our premise. And so weapons must be used and concealments opened. And people pursued. And danger is skirted.

John: I want to dig into something you just said there. We are all spies within our own lives. So, I hear two things packed into that. That sense of as spies we are always concealing something that we don’t want other people to find out about us. And at the same time we’re always trying to scrape away and find information about the people around us. We’re always fundamentally distrusting the folks around us. Are there other layers to that that I’m not catching in terms of spies in our own lives?

Stephen: No, I think that’s part of it, but also another thing about a spy is that a spy has a cover. And maybe many covers as our spies do. And you’re presenting that cover to the world. And maybe we are all – we all have a cover. And we are all sort of presenting our cover. And I think something that we really try to feel in our show is what’s it like to be inside the cover. What’s it like – for instance, I did an episode two seasons ago I think it was, maybe three, in which the idea of the sexual operations that they undergo was explored a little bit. And Philip was remembering his training, his sex training. And yet he was doing it in the family master bedroom next to his wife. And they were exploring – these people are not very psychologically sophisticated. They are not – I mean, he’s gotten into EST now but they’re not analysans and they’re not people who understand that kind of language or wish to address things in that kind of way, in the way that we might be more used to in western drama.

But they do have questions. And they do want to find out things about themselves to a certain degree. And they’re trying to figure out how do I do this. How do I get into these situations where I’m in bed with someone pretending to, you know, love them or have a relationship with them and make love to them and I’m completely false in every respect?

And then how do I take that and shed it and go into my life and perform the same actions but from someplace that if I can’t find any sincerity I’m going to be lost.

John: Well that’s the same question that writers often ask in terms of their ability to create a completely fictitious world and make it feel real, but also your actors are doing that on a daily basis. They are like how am I supposed to be in love with this other actor while the cameras are rolling and not be in love with this person when the cameras stop rolling.

Stephen: Completely right. Exactly.

John: So I wanted to take another step back and look at this idea that everyone has a cover. That all characters have covers. And so in a show like The Americans that’s really clear. That’s the premise of the show that they’re always under cover. But all characters, everything that we’ve ever written, has a cover. They have a façade they’re putting out. There’s a real thing that’s underneath it. And that’s often the source of conflict within a scene or conflict within a character. We see the journey of them coming to terms with their façade and who they really are.

What have you learned in writing these characters and writing Philip and Elizabeth for The Americans that you think you can apply to characters who are not literally spies but have to present themselves a certain way? Are there any lessons we can take from that split?

Stephen: When I’m watching our actors – our actors are just the loveliest people to work with. That’s not always the case in television or movies as you well know. But they’re just wonderful lovely people. The man who plays Philip, who of course has an American accent, is Welsh but doesn’t talk like that at all. Keri Russell who plays his wife Elizabeth is this bubbly, funny, bright, sweet, and then she turns into a murderer and a scary person. And they both do that instantaneously. They’re not method-y in the least.

It is rather like what the show is about. They are spies on our show. They’re spies on our show in so many different ways. We all are doing that. I guess, you know, are there lessons that I can articulate that I draw from this that I can sort of bring into my own life and our lives and say I have learned that this is the way to do it and this is not? Not really. But watching this process and exploring this process over and over and over again and seeing what lies are, what their nature is, what they do, the damage they do, the reasons we tell them. You know, that’s something that we all deal with our lives every single day. And we all need to confront and face.

And we don’t because no one wants to say, “oh, I’m lying.” And no one wants to confront the liarness in yourself. You know, we have a TV show to do that with. But in a way it still requires an act of courage to bring that into your life and to confront it and admit to it.

John: Well, with Philip and Elizabeth you have professional liars. They’ve been trained in how to do this for a long time. And while we see the struggle sometimes, it’s not particularly hard for them. It has a long-term damage to them, but it’s not hard for them to flip that switch.

What’s so fascinating to see is the characters who are amateur liars, who are beginner liars. So, you see Paige trying to tell a lie. You see Nina trying to figure out, navigate those worlds where–

Stephen: She’s pretty good at it.

John: Yeah, but she gets better at it. And then you have Martha who, oh my god, Martha. We just love Martha so much. She’s not equipped for it. And that – watching the tension of someone trying to play a game that they’ve not played before. It’s like – it’s as if the NFL is happening and they’re suddenly on the field and they have to run with the ball.

Stephen: So what’s the difference – one difference is that for most of our series, and not entirely for all the characters, but for Philip and Elizabeth the lies are justifiable. The lies are subsumed to a greater cause. And the greater cause whether we think it’s worth subsuming anything to or not is to them a powerful overarching reason to lie no matter what. And you see them going through this. And you see the edges of a kind of agony. Maybe not the center of an agony that you or I might feel going through such a thing. But what they’re looking for to bolster themselves is the cause.

And they have the cause. And then maybe you see in Philip’s case especially a fraying of that belief in the cause. And you see what that does to him. And then he has to turn to other things. Elizabeth can always go back to that cause. In our lives, though, going back to your question, we are always creating causes that are higher causes that are worth lying for. Easy for anyone to say, well, I didn’t want to tell her that she looked fat in that dress. That’s a higher cause for us to lie in the service of. And I think most of us would agree that that’s OK. But that’s what we’re always doing. We’re justifying. We’re trying to find the cause.

It’s very interesting again as a thought experiment, which this whole show is, to look at what happens when you have this rock hard completely mistaken – because I think we all agree that the Soviet Union was not a wonderful place – cause with which to justify all the damage you do all the time.

John: So, with Philip and Elizabeth they’re the center of our show and most of the action circles around them. I think what I was surprised to see in the show, and it’s particularly as seasons go on, is how point of view changes, or the degree to which you stop limiting POVs so clearly. In early seasons, POV was limited to the Jennings family, sometimes their handlers were allowed to have scenes by themselves, and then Stan Beeman across the street which could take us into the FBI. But over time you decided to let other characters run with the ball basically. We can go off with Oleg and to see Oleg’s family for extended periods of time. What are those decisions like and what is the negotiations when you’re figuring out internally like do we let this character drive scenes without one of our other leads in it?

Stephen: I think this is something that happens with most TV shows. That you discover as the audience is discovering that you feel differently about the characters from the way you thought you were going to feel when you were first writing and pitching and all that. That almost always is an expansion. So for instance, Martha was a character who was kind of a joke in the first season. We came in and we looked at Martha and looked at Martha and we were loving Martha. We had a wonderful, wonderful actress, Alison Wright, playing her. And we thought, you know, we thought of her as a plain Jane who was just going to be duped and ruined. And now we began to say wait a sec, wait a sec, it’s not only our duty but our pleasure to go inside this person.

Well, then we had to give her a point of view. And, you know, Oleg was someone who completely changed. He was kind of like this sort of gad about playboy wearing no socks and listening to American music. And he became I think a somewhat profound person, a haunted person, a person really torn between all of the loyalties and all of the moral decisions that he has to make. That’s just more interesting.

John: It’s more interesting, but it’s also – I think there’s an assumption out in popular culture that all those decisions have to be made before that character shows up on screen. Basically there had to be a plan right from the very start. What I hear you saying is that in the case of Martha and in the case of Oleg you created these characters with one intention and then you saw what was possible and you changed the trajectory of where they were going to go based on what you saw. Is that accurate? Is that fair?

Stephen: Yes. I think that is fair. I mean, I think you see shows where you look at the characters sort of a couple seasons down the line and you say wait a sec, wait a sec, this is not the same character. You know, and that can be – I mean, I look at a show like Downton Abbey where all the bad guys became good guys and I went with it. I was like, “OK, I hated this guy, now I love this guy. It’s hard to remember hating this guy.”

John: The Thomas problem, yeah.

Stephen: The Thomas problem as it is known in the business. And we do the same thing, I hope, in a quieter way. Our characters I don’t think contradict who they were, but certainly they’re much more alive and explored and present and multidimensional than they were. It’s a little like what happens in a writer’s room in a way. You come into a writer’s room and you have an idea. And it starts bouncing around and it starts bouncing around. And you and I are people who have done movies. Movies we’re all alone really. And we bounce things off producers and what not, but basically we’re all alone. And we in a way have to grow our own.

In this world of television and in this world of a multi-season series, they grow on their own without you to a certain degree. They start – you know, you always hear from any kind of writer, playwrights, novelists, anyone, the characters tell me what to do.

I don’t know to what degree that’s really true or to what degree that’s a metaphor, but it’s about as true as it gets when you’re doing a TV show because other people are seeing the characters differently and you’re bouncing off of that. And ideas come in and they might seem like not the right idea but they spark something and pretty soon – I mean, I think probably people here will remember a memorable tooth-pulling in our show. And that began as such a different thing. It just began as there was this action scene in which her tooth was hurt, what do we do about it? And then we turned it into this thing because it starts to grow and it’s not just one person growing it. It’s all this people growing it.

Our characters are like that, too. The actors bring something. The other writers bring something. The time brings something. The story demands something else. Our interests change. And so it’s an organic process.

John: So the TV show right now is on cable with commercial breaks. How do you think that show would be different if it were done for premium, for Netflix, for Amazon, for something streaming? Do you think you would make the same show? And to which degree are you writing towards act breaks? Because it feels like those act breaks matter in your writing.

Stephen: We do write towards act breaks, but we are being streamed.

John: Yeah, I watched it entirely streaming.

Stephen: You watched it streaming. I mean, how many people here watch it streamed? Two. OK. So not a large number, but yeah, basically we don’t make that differentiation. But we do use act breaks because they’re kind of fun to use. An act break is a place where you come to an emotional plateau. We don’t do the traditional network broadcast act break of “Oh my god bite your fingers through the commercials.” We sometimes will just come to a place where we’ve gone up a set of stairs and we’re on the landing and we’re catching our breath and we’re looking around and saying, “OK, where are we going from here?”

John: A character decision moment or resolution of an action that clearly the nature of the story is going to have to be different after that action has happened, but not the classic sort of like, oh no, there’s somebody outside the door. You’re not doing that kind of act break on your show.

Stephen: That’s right. And the nature might not be any different from how it changes after any other scene in the middle of an act, for instance, but there is a feeling of what we call an act out. Act out is the last scene before you’re done with that act. And so on our show we have a teaser and four acts. So it’s a five act show. And there’s a teaser out, act one out, act two out, etc. And there’s a feeling about it. There’s a nimbus around it. There’s a kind of – it either has the glow of an act out or it doesn’t have the glow of an act out. And it’s not something that’s defined by any set of rules. It’s defined by our shared feeling about it.

John: Can I make a guess that one of your internal rules for an act out is it can’t be a scene where people are speaking Russian? Is that actually true? Because your show has more than sort of any show on broadcast has a lot of people with subtitles. Where you can sort of – the degree to which we all watch TV sometimes, you’re checking something on the phone, but you’re listening to it. But then it gets to a Russian scene and you’re like, ugh, I have to do some reading. I have to really stare at the screen to do it.

My question for you is there’s quite a bit of Russian, and especially this last season I felt like I heard a lot and there’s Oleg. My hunch is that you will not go – an act out scene can’t be a Russian scene. Is that true or is that not true?

Stephen: That is as far as I know not true. I would have to go back and look, but it’s not something we carry around with us or consciously do.

Just something interesting about our Russian, because with very, very, very, very tiny exceptions all of our Russian speaking is done by native Russian speakers, people who really speak it.

John: My husband speaks Russian.

Stephen: Oh, is he a native Russian speaker?

John: He’s not. He learned Russian. But he would point out, I think in the first season he heard when people were trying to speak Russian and they’re not really Russian people.

Stephen: We’ve completely not done that for the last – and our translator is a woman named Masha Gessen, who just won the National Book Award, so she’s the most overqualified TV translator in the history of television.

And then we have translators on set. We have the actors sort of giving their views on the Russian they’re to speak because they’re native Russian speakers. And we also have an expert in Russia who is also looking at our translation. So all of that is a very careful process. But, of course, we write it in English.

And the way we write it in English is a little bit special only in that we try to make it so completely colloquial. We try to make it as conversational. So no one is ever saying, you know, “Yes my liege,” kind of dialogue. It’s as un-stiff as anything on our show, because we want it – for one thing that translates directly into the subtitles. And for another thing that’s the mood we want. We want it to be conversational every day Russian. But Russian remains to me a very mysterious language. And to all of us who write the show it’s this vast distant thing that we know we’ll never quite conquer.

John: So I think you just answered a question that I had which is when a character is speaking Russian in the script, what we see in subtitles is what you have in the script, not necessarily a direct translation of what those actors are saying?

Stephen: Yes, that’s right.

John: OK. Very, very cool. So it’s not a surprise to you and your editors don’t have to worry about like is that really the thing that goes at this moment.

Stephen: Well, we vet that, of course. We have basically three levels of vetting that and we want it to be true and we want it to be real. But we basically – we’ve written that dialogue. And so we’re not rewriting it because it’s turned into Russian in between. Also at our table reads, by the way, when all of our actors are there we sit there reading the script and the Russian-speaking actors have Russian to read. And so we’re sitting there, and some of these scenes as you’ve mentioned are long, and so we’re reading English, English, English, English, and then suddenly someone is speaking Russian for a couple pages. And we’re like, uh, are we done with that page yet?

John: That’s nice. Because it’s still English in the script, but they’re just–

Stephen: It’s English in the script, but they already have the translation. And they’re doing it and we want them to do it the way it’s going to be because that will give us a better idea of how it flows.

John: Talking about the table read process is one of my last questions. So you have the script for the episode that’s about to shoot, but you’re probably doing that table read while you’re – is it on a lunch break while you’re shooting?

Stephen: It’s on lunch break for the, yeah.

John: And so those actors have gotten the script but they haven’t had a lot of time to prepare. But this is a chance for everyone to sit around a table, speak it all aloud, hear what the whole thing is. What do you get out of a table read?

Stephen: I hear what’s not quite there. By the time we get to a table read we’re very much there. We’ve gone through many stages of – I mean, it is a script. So we’ve gone through all the stages that precede the script: beat sheets, outlines, the whiteboard before that, all that stuff. And then we’ve gone through many iterations of the script itself that have been brought to bear by the prep process, by preparation process. So we do location scouts. And that will change some things.

We bring in the director, because the directors are not there when we’re writing, and the directors come in basically for a couple weeks, do a show, and leave. So we have meetings with them. We hear what their questions are. We talk about what we feel the scenes mean. We go through it all that way. And sometimes the director will say, well wait, I was reading this and I didn’t get that at all, or that didn’t make sense to me, or this… So we change it that way.

By the time we have the table read, all that has been gone through. Plus props, you know, we can’t get this prop. We’ve got to do this. Everything like that. And then finally you just hear. Is it working? Does it sound the way people talk? Does it sound the way our characters talk? Does it hit the emotional notes that we’re trying to hit? And then we make little adjustments, but they’re usually quite small by then.

And we don’t – and above all, I mean, because I’ve heard about this happening at table reads, we’re not judging performance. We’re not saying, “Oh, that guy gave a funny read. Let’s fire them.” You know, we’re not doing that at all. And I think that’s an awful thing to do.

John: For a table read like this, do you bring in day players for that table read?

Stephen: Yes, if we can, when we can. Sometimes they’re not even cast by then, but sometimes they are.

John: Very good. What season are we coming up on?

Stephen: We’re coming up on sixth and last.

John: The sixth and final season starts at the end of March.

Stephen: March 28.

John: I’m very, very excited to see it. But I’ll have to watch it week by week, which is just going to kill me.

Stephen: It’s so painful.

John: It is so – how dare you do this to us. So, usually on Scriptnotes we do a One Cool Thing, and so even though Craig is not here, let’s do our One Cool Things. And you have a very One Cool Thing.

Stephen: I have a One Cool Thing that has really helped me. I discovered it when I was first starting work on the show, and I don’t remember how I discovered it. And I’d be interested to remember, but I don’t. And it’s called the Google Ngram Viewer. Do you know what the Google Ngram Viewer is? Right, nobody knows what this is.

Go to And what that is is a compilation that they have put together. So, one of the things that’s very important to me on the show and one of the things that’s very important to all of us on the show is that we avoid anachronism. And we want to – and I’m a stickler. I’m a crazy stickler. Everything I watch on TV I’m turning to my wife and saying, “They wouldn’t have said that in 1403.” And I’m very annoying that way. And I’m annoying on our show that way.

But I’ve got to check myself, too, because there are a lot of things that ring funny in my ear. And when they do, I go to the Google Ngram Viewer. Here’s what you can do with this. You plug in words and you plug in a range of dates, and it can go back to the 19th Century, but it goes up to – I think the latest it goes up to is 2010. You can plug in I think up to three words. And then you do all your parameters and you hit Search A Lot of Books I think is what the button says.

And it goes through all the books that are in the Google book app or whatever it is. And finds the occurrence of those words. And it graphs them.

And so if I think that reference to John August is too early, we wouldn’t be talking about John August until much later. We weren’t talking about him at all in 1983.

John: I’m a time-traveler you’ll find out.

Stephen: Oh, OK. Well I haven’t done it yet, but I’ll do it when I get home. You put John August in the Google Ngram Viewer and you see that it’s way down here in 1983, and then in 1994 it goes up there and you say, OK, we can’t be doing these John August references in 1983.

So, for anyone who has any interest in writing of any kind like this, it’s a really invaluable tool. And it’s free.

John: It’s free in the sense that all Google things are free.

Stephen: Meaning we’re paying for it every second of our lives.

John: Here is what – so it’s not just for historical things though. Here is where I use Google Ngram Viewer, and it’s so incredibly helpful. So, for Arlo Finch, I was going back and forth with the copy editor on certain words. And one of the choices was kneeled versus knelt. And I’m like, “Oh, they’re both words that are in the dictionary. Both are in use. But which one is more common and which one is on the upswing and which one is on the downswing?”

So Google Ngram Viewer can show you the trajectory of words.

Stephen: Nice.

John: And you can see that things like knelt is going away and kneeled is coming up. So, Arlo Finch kneeled rather than knelt because of Google Ngram Viewer. So it’s very, very helpful.

Stephen: Yes!

John: My One Cool Thing is – so we’re in a bookstore, and it’s bookstore staff picks, which are a very, very good thing. And so the book I’m specifically going to recommend is Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From. And I only know about this book because three days and a lifetime ago I was in San Francisco doing an event just like this and beforehand I was talking with one of the clerks about like talk me through what happens with staff picks.

And so she was talking about why she picked the books that were on the shelf that had her little tag on them. She described it and like this book sounds incredible. And so I would not have known about it except for an actual human being in a small, independent bookstore pointing me to it.

Megan Hunter’s book, The End We Start From, it’s written in this really spare style, and I’ll show it to you. The sentences – they’re just tiny little sentences and it feels almost more like a poem. I’ll read something.

“This is how it comes to be, H with his complicated knowledge again, untying ropes. Packing supplies. Making ready.“

The story actually follows some sort of global apocalypse and flood but it’s told from the point of view of this woman who has a newborn baby and basically kind of what happens next. It’s brilliantly done and it sort of feels like The Road if it was from a young mother’s point of view. Really well done. So I’d just encourage people to check out this book, but also while we’re here in a bookstore look at those staff picks. Read what they’re recommending, because those are smart people who like books. So, bookstore clerks and recommendations, that’s my One Cool Thing for this week.

Stephen: Very cool.

John: Very cool. Now is the time where we can do some questions from the audience. So this can be about The Americans, this can be about Arlo Finch, it can be about Scriptnotes. It can be about anything that we might be able to talk about. Who has a question? In the back I see.

I’m just going to repeat the question so everyone can hear it so we also have it on tape. Your question is how are you dealing with the fact that we know that they’re fighting a losing cause the whole time through in The Americans. Is that something you guys talk about as you’re plotting things out?

Stephen: We don’t, because that has hung over our heads from the beginning, and we know it as what we sleep with and live with and eat with. It does form an irony that arches over the show.

The other thing I hear behind your question and you could just say, “No, I don’t mean that all,” is the way – because we’re a period show, and I think it’s interesting to talk about period shows in general and you handle that. How you handle the artifacts. How you handle the references. And sometimes we’ve handled the references very, very directly and blatantly. I wrote an episode called The Magic of David Copperfield 5, the Statue of Liberty Disappears, which was the title of a TV show that we showed a piece of in the show.

In a case like that, we’re referring very directly and people can get all sort of warm and gooey and nostalgic about “Oh yeah I remember that, oh my god, I was there that night. I was on the couch with my parents.” Whatever it was.

I’ll give you an example though of the kind of thing we try not to do, because this just happened. Our new season, it’s not revealing anything that hasn’t been revealed to say, jumps three years and will take place in 1987. And we have a moment when Elizabeth is spying on someone and she’s in a hotel. And I had her in this scene reading a magazine. When it came time to figure out what the magazine was, and I looked at the timing and I went, “Oh, it should be Vanity Fair because I personally was a writer for Vanity Fair at the time. And it should be December because it’s taking place in December. It can be the December issue of Vanity Fair. I did the cover story of the December issue of Vanity Fair on Bette Midler.” And so we arranged everything. We were getting ready for it. We had a disguise that we call the Vanity Fair disguise to this day.

And then we got a copy of the cover, and in the corner there was a banner referring to an article inside and it was, of course, Trump. And then we said, oh, we can’t use this.

Now, a lot of shows, I think, or some people would have said, “Oh, great. That will be so cool because everybody will be…” That’s exactly what we don’t do and never do and avoid doing. And that’s part of our – that’s our taste. That’s the flavor of the show. You didn’t ask that question, but you got that answer.

John: Question right here sir. So a question about whether we would ever consider doing Scriptnotes as a book. And we’ve talked about it a couple of times. People have come to us with the idea of doing it. The closest we’ve come is we’ve taken all of the transcripts and asked our listeners to figure out which are the key episodes, like if you’re catching up on stuff right now. And so people have done recommendations. So at you can download the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide, which basically highlights the best episodes of those.

We might end up packaging together those transcripts in some sort of form, but neither Craig nor I really have the bandwidth or the interest in sort of doing a physical book-book. And part of it is just because we have a bristling reaction against sort of like books on screenwriting.

Stephen: Me too.

John: Yeah. So I don’t think there’s going to be a Scriptnotes book per se, but now that I have said that aloud it will inevitably happen. So I will anti-manifest that.

Stephen: On our show we always say there are no joke pitches. Because every time someone throws out a pitch as a joke we wind up using it.

John: Yeah. Right here.

Audience Member: Hi, this is more of a craft question and I think it can apply to novel writing as well as screenwriting for both TV and features. Just sort of asking about the process of that first draft and whether that be a book or a pilot or something of the like. I guess in my own experience and I feel like this is alluded to in the show that rewriting and refining can be more satisfying than that first pass, but how do you both as writers like just get through that first hurdle of that first thing and like getting to the end for the first time and not – like I just feel like it can be so difficult to just shuffle through it for the first time. What does that look like for you guys?

John: Well, there’s always that conflict between just get it done and perfectionism. And perfectionism can be this trap where you just never actually make enough progress in something to actually get through it. And so you have to recognize that you can try your very best, but there’s going to be things you’re going to be rewriting and not be afraid to write this thing right now knowing that you’re going to have to go back and do it again.

I’ll say that when I’m writing a script for myself that doesn’t have a timeline or when I’m writing a book which had a timeline but not the same kind of timeline, I had to always just hold myself to I have to generate this amount of material. I have to sort of keep moving forward or else I’m never going to get done.

But I’m curious with you, because you have a real schedule and a timeline. You can’t be precious about this draft. Like this draft is going to take an extra two weeks for you to write, the whole train goes off the rails. So, what is that first draft like for you when it’s your script?

Stephen: Well, I have so many answers to that question, because my process is so different working on this TV show from the way it is when I’m writing a movie, for instance. I’ve worked on the TV show, we’ve gone through a group process and we’ve gone through beat sheets and more beat sheets. And we’ve gone through unblended and blended, because we have all these storylines. And we can follow individually and then they have to blend to make an episode. And we cut off the episode in different places and see how that works. And then we do outlines.

And the outlines are much more detailed and can vary a lot in how detailed they are. And so by the time you go to what we’re calling for this little thought experiment, a first draft, it doesn’t feel like my experience of a first draft at all.

John: So let’s say this is a script you’re going to write. How long is the document that you have before you start writing that script? Is it a ten-page outline?

Stephen: You mean for the show?

John: For your show.

Stephen: Well, everything about our show is a little odd that way because you always hear that, for instance, an hour-long TV is an hour’s worth of pages. Our scripts are now down to 40 pages or fewer. Very short. And sometimes a lot of scenes, sometimes not very many scenes. So that’s not a good measure of anything particularly. What I would say is that as we’ve learned our own show, we do a lot of freedoms within it. There’s going to be a scene, for instance, in one of our episodes this year that takes up an entire act, something like eight or nine pages, something we wouldn’t have considered doing because we weren’t brave enough four years ago. But now we know our people. We have the latitude to do that.

On the other hand, when I’m writing a movie script my process is completely different. And I am kind of perfectionistic. And I find myself going inside it every day and sort of going back, almost back to the beginning sometimes and going right through and then inching ahead a little bit, and then going back again. Because I need the sound of the story and the characters deep inside me before I can even make another utterance. So it’s like waves as the tide comes in. If the tide is not coming in, if it’s going out, you’re in trouble.

John: So that’s a classic thing writers describe where like the first thing they’ll do in the morning is rewrite the pages from the day before and it gets them back in the flow of things. And with screenplays, screenplays are short enough that you can kind of do that. It doesn’t take that long to sort of read through and do this.

What I realized with Arlo Finch is that the book is just so long, if I went back to chapter one every day to start working I would actually start writing again at 6pm. There’s so many words. And so for that I would write each chapter as a separate file and I don’t go back. And if I can’t remember the name of a character I’ll just bracket it and come back to it later on, so I couldn’t let myself keep getting sucked back into the past of it all.

Stephen: One thing that people describe to me very often is they do a vomit draft. It’s coming out, I don’t care how it looks, blah, blah, blah. I find that impossible. I don’t even know what that is.

John: And it’s a really bad term for it, too. Grant Faulkner, who does National Novel Writing Month, you know, that is a whole process where you’re trying to generate 1,667 words per day. But even he won’t say vomit draft because it just implies it should be shitty. It should be as good as you can make it realistically while constantly moving forward.

Another question?

I see a gentleman carrying a baby.

Stephen: The question was do we use consultants and experts and whether we ever have to stop ourselves from revealing something real. And the answer is yes we use a phalanx of consultants and experts and people who are – in fact, we have one guy named Keith Milton who is one of the founders of the Spy Museum in Washington and has the most formidable, maybe the largest collection of spy paraphernalia in the world and has written many books, including – I’m sure there are books here – including this beautiful illustrated book about spy stuff. And it has pictures from his collection.

And when you see – a couple seasons ago, for instance, I wrote a scene in which Elizabeth is about to kill a Pakistani diplomat. And he’s swimming in a hotel swimming pool. And he’s swimming alone as he does every night and this beautiful woman, Elizabeth, slips in and starts swimming. And she has something wrapped in a towel. And that something is a cyanide gun. And the cyanide gun mixes cyanide with some vapor to form cyanide gas. And then she can push him under the water and when he comes up for a gulp she can shoot the cyanide gun. Well, that cyanide gun is a real KGB cyanide gun provided to us by Keith Milton.

So we do have these consultants. We also have, however, the peculiar situation that our show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, was in the CIA. So he knows a lot of stuff and he has to, by agreement with the CIA, vet the stuff through the CIA so that we know that we’re not endangering national security.

At the same time, that means we have his fountain of knowledge which is extraordinary. And we’ve always had this thing that we call the spy card, which is we can imagine Joe holding up the spy card, meaning “I was a spy.” What that means is we might come up with the most incredible, wonderful idea for a storyline. Oh my god, then this happens, then this happens, then he does this. And if Joe goes like that, it means OK but actually that wouldn’t happen in the real world of spying as he experienced.

So that’s very helpful to us and helps make our show very, very realistic.

John: We talked at the start about suspension of disbelief. And so you get a couple of those in any project that you’re doing. And the suspension of disbelief in your show is the wigs and the makeup. That somehow they are remarkably talented and fast at being able to do wigs and makeup. But there’s not a lot of other cheating in your show which I think is why it feels real and genuine while the stakes feel real. Basically this could all happen except for how good their makeup is.

Stephen: I think that’s exactly the point. I think those four things that I mentioned at the start of our broadcast are our four cheats. And once you say, all right, I’ll give you that, then you’re inside the show and everything else is very real. As real as we can possibly make it. And double-checked and back-stopped and everything else.

John: Cool. Another question?

Stephen: The question was is it hard to be a writer on a TV show in New York and do we have to pull from LA, or go to LA, or get writers from LA. You know, New York is full of really, really, really great writers. And I think it’s time that our industry realized that and discovered that. We need many, many, many more writer’s rooms in New York. We need tax breaks for writer’s rooms in New York, which we’ve been trying to get through the Writers Guild of America. But it’s been very hard with our legislature. I can’t figure out why because it would be so good economically for the city and for the state in every way.

New York is teeming with writers. What it’s not teeming with is people who have been in a lot of other writer’s rooms because they haven’t been in a lot of other writer’s rooms. I’ve been in this business of writing scripts, mostly for movies, but recently for TV since the late ‘80s living in New York. Never moving, never having to move.

I’m not saying that’s an easy path and that everybody can get along that way. But I really think there’s no innate reason that we can’t have writer’s rooms in New York, and certainly we have the talent.

John: Great. One or two more questions. That’s a great question. So the question is to what degree do you wrestle with the fact that you’re going to be compared to other things and do you make choices based on knowing that you’re going to be compared to those things. Yes. I think you do make some choices. I often talk about expectations. And so there’s expectations of genre. There’s expectations of kind, basically like it’s this kind of show. It’s a procedural, it’s this. And if there aren’t a lot of examples about them that can hold you to the most notable example of that thing.

And so most people from middle grade fiction, they’ve heard of Harry Potter. They might have heard of Percy Jackson, but anything that’s kind of like that they’re going to compare it to that.

Your show, there aren’t great comps for it. I bet when they were first looking at this show, I think like Third Rock from the Sun in a weird way is a comparison because it’s this family living with a secret they don’t want to have exposed.

Stephen: I had not thought of that.

John: You know, we’ve had other spy shows, but never from that perspective. So, are there any things with The Americans or the other stuff you’ve written where you’re dealing with – and you’ve done sequels, too – where you’re dealing with comparisons to other examples that are out there?

Stephen: I think it is a great question because we live in an age of such an explosion of storytelling, of widely-available, publically-available storytelling. And you’re going to see stuff addressed over, and over, and over again. It’s very hard to come up with new stuff. It’s hard to come up with a new pitch. And I did a movie that came out last year called American Assassin that was basically a straight ahead action movie. And how many zillions of action scenes have there been?

One thing that we look at all the time, and I’m sure you look at it in your work, we all do: is this unexpected? Or is this the expected thing? And you’re dying to eliminate that which is expected. And yet keep it real. I mean, one way to eliminate that which is expected is to go way over the top. I think in the last Fast and Furious movie there was a chase between a car and a submarine. And that was like, “OK, that I have never seen before. It was very, very cool.” But we can’t have that in The Americans or we couldn’t have that in my movie.

So it’s a big – it’s a constant factor. It really is. There’s no two ways.

John: Yeah. And you’re always asking yourself am I making this choice because it’s the right choice for this story, or am I making this choice so I just don’t get compared to something else? And sometimes you’ll see movies doing things that are just – they’re not making probably the correct choice. They’re making the choice that makes them feel cool or new or original, but it’s the expected thing.

Stephen: Yeah. I have a semi-answer to it that just occurs to me as a possible approach which is when you’re in that bind and when you’re asking that question, return to character. Because you can have a situation that’s the same in many, many, many different – I mean, how many secret CIA organizations have there been out there? I’ve definitely written that. American Assassin was that. And others were that. And they’re going to be bound to be in certain of the same situations over and over again. And there’s going to be someone following them and they’re going to turn the tables on them. How do you make that new?

In some ways you can’t make that part of it new. You can’t make the outline of it new. The pitch of it new. Maybe not even the weapons or the circumstances. But if you think about your characters and go what’s my guy feeling? What would he do? What would he pick up around him? What would he do with his clothes? What would he do because last night he had a bad experience with this? Whatever it is, you can begin to find your way out and back into some kind of originality.

John: Great. That was the most Craig answer ever, so I think we’re going to leave it there. That was a really great answer. Our show, Scriptnotes, is produced by Megan McDonnell who is fantastic. Our music is done by Matthew Chilelli. He also did all the music for Launch, the podcast, and he is remarkable as well.

I’m @johnaugust on Twitter. Are you on Twitter?

Stephen: No.

John: No. He’s not on Twitter. Don’t ask him any questions about The Americans, but do tune in to see the Americans on FX starting–

Stephen: March 28th at, what is it, 10? Whenever you recorded it.

John: Whenever your DVR finds it. Stephen Schiff, thank you so, so much for coming on the show.

Stephen: Thank you. I had a great time. Thank you.


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We’re Back, Baby

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig reunite to answer our backlog of listener questions.

We follow up on what it means to utilize white space on a page, the conventions of musical numbers, the value of a victory lap, and what the hypothetical destruction of Los Angeles would mean for the industry.

We also answer listener questions on the rules of awards voting, what to consider when writing a proof-of-concept short for a feature, and what to do when a deadline approaches and the script just isn’t good.


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You can download the episode here.

The One with Stephen Schiff

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 08:03

John is joined by The Americans’ executive producer Stephen Schiff at a live Scriptnotes taping in New York! They discuss grounding an outrageous premise in character, suspension of disbelief, premium act breaks, and writing for a foreign language.

We also answer audience questions about New York writers rooms, expert consultants, expecting comparisons, first drafts, and how to write a period piece when history is full of spoilers.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 336: Call Me by Your Name — Transcript

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 14:44

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Aline Brosh McKenna: My name is Aline Brosh McKenna.

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

A couple of years ago we sat down with the writer and director of Frozen, Jennifer Lee, because you and I were genuinely obsessed with that movie. And luckily this year we are obsessed with a new movie.

Aline: Obsessed!

John: It is called Call Me by Your Name.

Aline: It’s not at all like Frozen. Or is it?

John: In some ways maybe it is. Like who is the Hans of this? Who is the Anna? And who is the Elsa?

Aline: Yeah, well there’s no bad guys in this movie. It’s one of the things I love about it.

John: Yeah, it’s very good. So, is obsessed fair to characterize us? Because I’ve seen the movie, I’ve read the book, I’ve answered questions in forums about like what I think certain things mean, or–

Aline: I’ve seen it twice. I’ve read the book. I’ve listened to the audio book. And I read the screenplay. Did you read the screenplay?

John: I didn’t read the screenplay?

Aline: The screenplay is wonderful.

John: So we’re going to talk about all that stuff and we have with us Peter Spears who is a producer on Call Me by Your Name. Peter Spears, welcome to the program.

Peter Spears: Thank you. Glad to be here.

John: Peter Spears, I’ve known you for 20 plus years.

Peter: I love that it’s my name, my whole name together. Peter Spears.

John: Yeah. I’m John August. That’s Aline Brosh McKenna.

Peter: And Cher.

Aline: Yeah.

John: Yeah. Peter, I’ve known you for a super long time and I didn’t know you were making this movie until Sundance, I think, that it came out that you had made this movie. I was immediately so excited for you and for this movie because it seems fantastic. What is the backstory of how you first came upon this project?

Peter: Well, about ten years ago, the book came out in 2007 and I had read an advanced copy of it. I forget how I got that copy. Somebody thought I would like it. And did indeed – sort of was blown away by the book and so much of it spoke sort of specifically to me and having been, you know, about that age at that time and being Jewish and gay and all of that was – and a Europhile and just all those sorts of things.

Another producer on this project, Howard Rosenman, had also read it and Howard and I went out to the book agent and threw our hat in the ring to want to make the movie.

Aline: Were a lot of people vying for it?

Peter: Well, yeah, as I said that, too, it’s like I threw our hat in the ring and there weren’t a lot of other hats, truth be told. There was one other hat and it’s an interesting part of the story and I’ll tell you about that. They were already sort of down the road talking with someone else about it. But I think most people didn’t think this was a movie. You know, they loved the book and almost immediately when the book came out it was heralded as sort of an important work of gay literature and compared with Thomas Mann and–

John: And Maurice.

Peter: And Maurice. And…oh, I’m spacing on…A Boy’s Life, Edmund White, I think. And several other people. So that was great. But also from the New York Times Book Review and lots of other reviews, the book also seemed to almost immediately resonate with audiences beyond just a gay audience.

So, we were ultimately successful in prevailing to get the rights for that.

John: I’m going to stop you there. So, let’s go back to you read an early copy. Were you reading a manuscript? Were you reading a galley?

Peter: No, I think it was one of those kind of half-published but sort of not really a full on book version. So it wasn’t that.

Aline: Galley.

Peter: It was a galley I guess. But then – or advanced reader copy?

Aline: But it was bound. I know what it looks like.

John: So you read this book and you say well this is fantastic. At what point did you make the decision like, OK, I’m going to try to pursue the rights on this book?

Peter: Just like immediately. Like immediately. I never had – you knew me for many years as an actor and then I was a writer and had also directed both a short and an independent feature. So, and in those capacities you do produce a bit. But I never sort of said “I’m going to produce a movie and see this from start to finish and do this.” And I just knew that I was going to want to do this.

Aline: Now let me ask you. If I had stopped you and Howard right when you got the rights to the book and said what’s the movie you imagine – so this is ten years ago. Who were you picturing being in it or starring in it? What was your comp? What did you point to people to say, “Yes, it’s a very internal book,” because it’s almost like an extended monologue in a way?

Peter: Well, you know, I think truth be told we almost immediately knew that the movie was going to probably be in the tradition of a Merchant Ivory film, of something like that. I mean–

Aline: But it’s not period. So that’s interesting.

John: But it is period.

Aline: I mean, it is period. But it’s not–

Peter: It’s the 1980s.

Aline: But it’s not corsets.

Peter: Right. That’s true. But I think we’ve come to understand that when you say something is like a Merchant Ivory-style piece, there’s an idea that it’s a beautiful adaptation of a book that has the best of production values and actors and writing. And in the case of Merchant Ivory movies, they always seem to deal with a sort of sexuality, but a buttoned up sexuality. You know, a Henry Jamesian sort of way. Maurice, less so. And, in fact, I don’t know if you’ve seen Maurice recently, but it’s kind of remarkably–

John: It’s really sexy.

Peter: Sexy and current in ways. I kind of remembered it more as being more – a little stuffy. And it’s not at all, which is interesting because I believe Jim Ivory had a much bigger hand in that script, in that screenplay, as opposed to Ruth who did a lot more of the other screenplays that he worked on.

So, with that in mind, almost immediately reached out to Jim Ivory who lives near me in Upstate, New York. And we had gotten to know, became friendly with, Ismail had already passed away. And Jim had already read the book and loved the book.

And so we had gone to Jim and asked if he would come on board as an executive producer, lend his name, and that sort of hallmark to the project as we started to put the pieces together.

Aline: And at this point he was a very young man of 70, correct?

Peter: Yes. Well, truth, right, I think this next month he turns 90.

Aline: Oh, so he was 80?

Peter: He was 80, yeah. And loved the book.

John: Let’s back up here for a sec. So you’ve read the book. Howard Rosenman has also read the book and loved it. And so you say let’s team up, let’s go in and try to get the rights to this book?

Peter: Yes. And he had known the book agent for a while. As younger people they had kind of come of age during that time. So, we then went back to her, Lynn Nesbit is the book agent, André’s book agent. And had that conversation with her and prevailed ultimately by putting together how we might make the movie and what we might do.

John: So, this how you might make the movie, is this a written thing you’re sending in? Are you getting on the phone with André?

Peter: There was a conversation with André, but mostly it was through the agent. And I think just a – the other person who they were in conversation with who was just someone that I think would have certainly, probably, who knows, make a great movie or whatever, but it’s like you give your resume or something. It’s the idea of how we were pitching. How we wanted to make the movie and what we wanted to do ultimately prevailed.

Aline: Were you saying we’re going to take it to this studio, or this actor? Like what was in your mind the first step once you had the rights?

Peter: Yeah, I don’t think, you know, I mean, at the time back then there were other actors who sort of came to mind. There was a different, you know, we had an idea of a person who we’d already spoken with who, again, I don’t need to talk about whatever, but there was a – in the pitch of that there was the name of a screenwriter who was attached at the time. That screenwriter ultimately got another job after we got the rights and wasn’t able to continue with the project. But we then went out to – and by that point we then had the rights. But we had the rights in a stepped way where you have option periods. So we had however many options that we could pick up. And then when you were done with your options you needed to go back to them and sort of show if you wanted to extend it what have you done. Do we like the energy of what we’ve been doing?

And then there was finally at a certain amount of time there was a moment where you’re now out of options and you have to literally buy the book rights forever, or are you going to just let it go. And so the problem for our project was that it was a movie that certainly had to come together in the development process, so we had a writer-director who we went to and said, “Would you come on board and do this?”

The interesting part of this story is that that writer-director had unbeknownst to us been one of the people who had also originally been looking to do that. So the symbiosis of like, “Oh my gosh, this makes such good sense.” So we hadn’t known that at the time that had been who the other person was.

So we tried to make the movie that way. And that writer-director–

John: How many years ago was that?

Peter: So that would be for the first several years. So, if we’ve been doing this for ten years that was the first few years. And wrote a beautiful version of the script. And, you know, as the vagaries of this happened we were able to – we just ultimately didn’t prevail in trying to get all the pieces together, the Rubik’s Cube of how you do this movie. You know, a talent had to be attached to get a certain amount of money. But we went on location scouting to Italy, knew what our budget was.

But the problem also was that we could only make the movie one time a year. You could only make it in the summer in Italy. So we had for many a time we had the pieces together in sort of this Jenga tower, but then you pull one of the pieces out because an actor all of the sudden says, “Hey, I got a bigger paying job. I have to go do this or whatever.” And with most movies you can push and say, “OK, well we’ll do it in the fall, we’ll do it in the winter.” But our whole house of cards collapsed.

Aline: And did you have that – because when you’re involved with indie movies there’s this strange thing that happens where it’s like the foreign sales people say, “If you have this actor you’ll get this exact dollar amount, but if you have this actor you get this exact dollar amount.”

Peter: It’s crazy the math.

Aline: And you’re like it’s not based on any real thing. It’s based on some numbers and calculus—

Peter: It’s something, an algorithm they’ve got of some sort.

Aline: It changes – it’s so changeable.

Peter: Daily.

Aline: It changes daily. What people don’t quite understand is you think the studio system is star-driven, the independent film business is star-driven.

Peter: Completely.

Aline: It’s just different stars. And so you end up sort of contorting yourself in strange ways because you’re like I guess this 42-year-old guy can play a 17-year-old. We’ll just do a little tweak to the rewrite. And it’s really hard to stick to your guns when they’re saying, “This person will get you an extra million dollars,” or whatever it is, to say, “No, it needs to be made this certain way with this right person.” It’s harder than people think.

Peter: Well, it’s that. So you have the math of the actors involved. And then you have the financiers themselves who are saying things like, “Yes, it’s a beautiful script, but the stakes don’t seem to be high enough. Could the stakes be higher?” This classic sort of like 101 script development from a book, but you know – and of course our answer was the stakes are the stakes of the heart. I don’t know how much higher they could be. And they’re like, “Well, but could there be more jeopardy? Or could the mother be more evil? Can we make the mother more evil? There don’t seem to be any obstacles really for them.” And so we’re sort of like well that’s kind of the point.

So, we just then had to come to the difficult decision often when that money might have been there that maybe these aren’t the right people to go forward.

Aline: Got it. So you had a certain script for a while, and then when did you switch to Jim’s script?

Peter: So, a few years in, about three years of trying to put that version together, we were unsuccessful and needed to make a change of some sort because we had sort of explored all the options that we could, and that’s a heartbreaking moment to have to sort of change directions and have that difficult conversation with your collaborator who is also a good friend and besides just being a professional relationship. But very graciously and was given the blessing to say understood and do what you need to do.

So, about that point – there were a couple other directors that we spoke with and were kind of quasi attached for a little while and for different periods who both went on to go do bigger studio films. So by that point then, five years ago or so, we then said to – had the idea that Jim Ivory and Luca together might come together to kind of co-direct.

Aline: Jim had the maturity. Was now 85. So he’d grown up a bit.

Peter: Yes, exactly. And so said – thought wouldn’t that be interesting. Certainly Luca being a student of so many different important directors whose work inform so many wonderful auteurs, you know, was a student of his and knew him somewhat socially. But the idea was then that Jim and Luca together would do this, sort of a co-directing paradigm if you will.

And Jim was game for that and thought that sounded interesting and great. But Jim said, “You know, if I’m going to do that I really need to work from my own script.” And so Jim sat down then and began to write longhand a version of the script. And Luca would travel to New York and Jim would travel to Italy. And they would collaborate and work in that way that like how – you know, they both what they envision for the script and what they wanted for a movie.

That came together and was done and finished in somewhat short order. And then we began the process of trying to put that movie together now and going out to new financiers and new talent. And about that time we met Timothy and–

Aline: Can we just back up a second? So, Luca said that he was producing it for a while. He wasn’t going to direct it.

Peter: That’s right.

Aline: And the thing that really touched me was he said, “I wanted to do it,” it turned out at some point that he needed to be the director to get it made. And he said “I wanted to do this for Peter and Howard.”

Peter: Oh, that’s sweet.

Aline: And I thought that was very sweet.

Peter: Yes. Well he had come onboard. We had known Luca socially through his relationship with my husband Brian Swardstrom who is Tilda Swinton’s agent, besides also Timothy’s agent. So we knew Luca. And Luca was interested in – had read the book in its Italian translation. Loved the book. So very early on we had gone to Luca because he has a production company in Italy and said would you come onboard. Would you help us figure out how you make this movie in Italy?

So he came onboard really at first as an adviser, then executive producer, and then was really a producer with us almost – even from those early recces, location scoutings we did in Italy, you know, it was with Luca and through Luca’s company that we did all of that. So, Luca was one of the early parts of this in the DNA of this as well, which is interesting then how – you know, so I think there’s a lot of organic-ness to that.

John: So I think you’re referring to there’s an episode of The Business where Luca talks through the whole backstory on sort of how he came onboard and sort of the ageism that kicks in with people being nervous about James Ivory.

Peter: Well, that’s right. Exactly. So at this moment, at this juncture, after we have this sort of new version of the script and trying to put this together, it’s the difficulty of going back to financiers and people like that and stuff who just didn’t quite – I don’t know if it’s like when directors are brothers or family members or something, co-directors are, people understand it better. But we couldn’t get traction in that way that we had hoped we would from people to make that version of the movie. And so at the same time we – Luca had also been – A Bigger Splash had opened and was done now, or whatever. So kind of concurrently with that, at the same time people were saying, well, we like the project, we don’t know about this co-directing thing, whatever. We would make the movie though if Luca was directing this movie.

Then we had, again, the conversation with Jim and to explain where we were with this. And Jim, got his blessing to say go and make the movie and do that. So that we did, and then timing wise Luca’s schedule also opened in a way that he could do this. And I think, if I’m not mistaken, he was going to do Suspiria first, and then potentially this one, but then Suspiria had to push for reasons unknown to me or unremembered. And he then was able – had this window to do this.

Aline: And who stepped up with the money?

Peter: So we ended up finding the money through very interesting, kind of with the help from a global world effort. Memento, Emilie Georges’ company out of France, and that became then a European coproduction between Italy and France, which allowed us to access a lot of soft monies in Europe and she famously works with – who is the Iranian director, the Persian director who is A Separation and – and she works with a lot of auteur directors where she’s very auteur-driven. And that’s really kind of the theme of her company and her involvement with the movie. So she wanted to be involved with Luca.

John: Was the French money at all behind the extra French that got put into the movie? I mean, the French doesn’t exist in the book, and there’s a lot of French in the movie. Is that related?

Peter: It is related. It is related in ways that we, as part of that coproduction deal, the French – we had French crew members. We had French casting. And Timmy is actually part French. And also just – which worked so well for us because it helped, even though in the book it’s just an Italian-American, the fact that like Timmy had grown up with this idea of a bicultural identity, and going in and out of languages and everything so easily.

Aline: So when did the French come into the script?

Peter: That time that Memento came onboard, I think we just – yes. I mean, there wasn’t much more other than just they’re going to speak French in some places, but there wasn’t like a French storyline or anything like that that happens. It’s just a fact that he is now instead of being an Italian-American family, they’re a French-Italian-American family, which is very organic to–

John: Yeah. It fits really well with the rest of the movie.

Aline: It’s hard to imagine it without it now.

Peter: Yes. Exactly. And I love the way they kind of go in and out – you know, in German, too, these languages, and stuff like that. So they came onboard as well as RT Features from Brazil. And they’ve been involved in a lot of great movies as well. And so these were really producing partners. Financiers and producing partners who were interested – there just weren’t those sorts of – we didn’t get these notes from them. This is the movie they wanted to make. This is the story they wanted to tell. And with Luca at the helm, this is the film they wanted to help be a part of.

And when you get those right partners ultimately after years of struggling with trying to put the round peg in square holes and all the different ways, and you feel so tempted to make those Faustian deals, it just all of a sudden – it just came together.

John: Also, my guess is that with Luca at the helm they could see, even as talent was being assembled, they knew he could get a cast. They knew he could pull in actors of a certain caliber and size. They could envision the movie they were going to get out of him in a way they couldn’t otherwise.

Peter: Yes. That is absolutely true. Especially right on the heels of A Bigger Splash, which had been to such acclaim, and had been a little bit of time since I Am Love, but certainly the memory of I Am Love for the whole film community was so intense. They were able to connect dots in ways that had been difficult before. And especially with a movie that was not readily understandable, even if the book was beloved, so many people still thought I don’t know that I understand how this is a movie. It’s so interior. There’s so much narration. How do we get out of that?

And, in fact, in a draft of the film we still kept always wondering and tinkering with the idea like does there need to be narration.

Aline: Voiceover.

Peter: Should there be voiceover? It’s so often, I know there’s so many schools of thought about narration and whether it’s good or not, and certainly like when it’s good it’s great like in movies like Notes on a Scandal or something. And I’m sure on this podcast you guys must talk about narration a lot and all that stuff. But I think for Luca ultimately there was the ability in post if you needed to. See what you needed and do it. But once the film was all cut, you know, and Luca very strongly, he just wanted it to be – narration made somehow the story wasn’t in the present and he wanted the immediacy of feeling like it was happening right then.

And then he always had this sense that the music would be a sort of narration. And, in fact, when he reaches out to Sufjan Stevens to contribute, A, can we use Futile Devices which was his introduction to Sufjan’s music, and would you write a new song for us. And Sufjan had never wanted to be a part of movies and had been asked many times to be in movies. And Luca and he chatted about the script and the book and Sufjan read all that and Sufjan then said, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.” And in fact sent two songs and both ended up being used.

So, I think once that music was laid in and was there, it acts as a sort of narration. It is a sort of–

Aline: Well I’m curious. This is my main kind of craft question about it. I feel a first-personness in the movie. I feel a first person in the movie that’s different from the first person of the book.

John: I agree.

Aline: And the book is this very sexually outspoken, frank kid whose desires are palpable to him from pretty much the first second. And so you’re with him in kind of a different way. And I feel like with the movie he’s a lot more opaque, right? You’re not inside his mind in exactly the same way, because he doesn’t have a confidante. He doesn’t have—

Peter: Right, he’s not writing in a journal every day.

Aline: But I felt a very strong other first person experience, even though it was different from the book if that makes sense. I felt a very palpable sense that someone had lived these experiences and so that was what drove me to read the book because the movie felt so first person and then when you read the book there is another strong sense of first person, but they’re slightly different kids in a way. And I’m curious where is that located? Is it partly in the specificity of the movie or in Timothy’s performance? And then that’s also why I read the screenplay. And obviously the kid in the movie is more like the kid in the screenplay. But even in the screenplay there’s a little bit more of a sense of the character from the book.

They’re all a little bit different in a way.

Peter: Right. Well, I think you have to factor in the variable of the artist responsible at each of those moments. You know, in the book it’s just André. And in so many ways, if you know André there’s lots of, you know, so much of André is Elio. So much of André is Oliver. So much of André is the father. But it’s always going – it’s just André.

And so – and I guess what we bring to it ourselves as the reader, right? That’s the other part of that equation. But then when we see the movie now you’ve got the mercurial sort of alchemy of what the actor and director bring to it. You know, for a moment, just like we met Timothy about four years ago, almost immediately about the time that Luca and Jim started working together, and knew immediately – we met no one else. Like that was it. It was him. He’d really done not much of anything. But he was so Elio. You know, my husband had met him – he represents Damien Lewis and he went to visit Homeland on the set where Timmy was working. And he called me from the set and said, “I think I met Elio today.”

So, he’s going to bring that to the equation. And then combined with his director, with what Luca. And the two of them working in tandem just created this movie Elio which is like – you know, you just couldn’t – so you see the screenplay, so you get the idea of the screenplay and what’s there in the screenplay, and you still don’t see it yet until all of a sudden you’re seeing the movie and now you’ve got the movie Elio. And that’s sort of the amazingness of, well, you guys know, of the collaborative nature of moviemaking of just how much more is going to be created by the right combination of the artists coming together I think.

John: We always talk about externalizing internal things. So we’ve talked about adaptations a lot and Aline and both have written a lot of adaptations. And in a book characters can do anything. You can get inside a character’s head. In looking back to Call Me by Your Name, in the book we are in Elio’s point of view, but it’s an older Elio. So he’s thinking back to this time. He’s thinking back to what it was like to be in this sort of fever dream where he was in lust with this guy but wasn’t sure whether to approach him or not to approach him. And he was sort of like hanging in this beautiful agony.

And that works so well in the book because we’re sort of used to books being told in the past. And it sounds like Luca wanted the story to only exist in the present. So this was not a nostalgic look back to an earlier time. This is what it was like to be really in that moment and for him not to know what was going to happen next.

Aline: But I don’t want to skip over Jim in between the book and Luca because when I read that screenplay that is a master storyteller who understands concision. And when you read the book there’s like I don’t know how you resist the little girl. That is catnip for 99% of writers because she’s such a convenient device for the sadness, the longing, the sick little girl. She’s just dangling out there to be used. And I thought that that adaptation is – that screenplay is one of the masterpieces of going into the overstuffed closet that all books are, no matter how slender they are.

Peter: Editing. Editing. Editing.

Aline: You know, there’s that whole section, the dinner in Rome. It’s a huge section of the book. Because the movie is a pas de deux, right, the movie is the two of them really. And I think if you had included all of those other perspectives you would have lost–

John: Completely.

Aline: That specialness of these two individuals. And it would have gotten diluted.

Peter: Well keep in mind the script is written not just by a screenwriter, which is not to minimize–

Aline: In conversation with Luca.

Peter: But my point being, even that screenwriter is a director. So, you know, and a world renowned famous director. So they know already – they’re already thinking. Obviously in conversation together–

Aline: He’s ten steps ahead. And that’s why if anybody – is the screenplay available online somewhere?

Peter: I think it is to the WGA.

Aline: Can you please post it?

John: It’s not as available as it should be. So after this we’re going to try to get it.

Aline: Please. Because it’s only about 88 pages or something like that. And it is exactly – I think it’s such a great, great screenplay for aspiring screenwriters to read because it is a document for production. It is a movie in a screenplay format. It is not riddled with “look at my writing, look at this moment.”

Peter: No. It’s a blueprint of how are we going to put this movie together. And it is taking everything that the master James Ivory has learned in 80+ years. And knowing at the time he was writing, thinking he would also be directing and ultimately editing and stuff. So he already, like you said is ten steps ahead or whatever. In conversation with this other amazing director who is sort of famous for all the sorts of – the visceralness of life’s experience, you know. So the attention to the tiniest moments of things.

Aline: I mean, everyone needs to stop and go watch Luca’s movies, because they’re – I mean, they’re beyond exquisite. They’re just exquisite.

John: Let’s talk about some of the things that got left out, but also some things that are in the movie that are not part of the book which surprised me as well. So, Aline just referred to there is a sick girl who lives next door who is going to die—

Peter: In the book.

Aline: Vimini.

John: Oliver befriends her and that becomes a recurring thing. It’s not a huge part of it, but it sort of rhymes throughout the rest of the book. And it pays off at the end. Gone from the movie. Does not exist in the movie at all. There’s also an author who has a book who comes to this little small town to visit and then later on we meet up with him in Rome.

So in the movie version of the story the two guys go to another Italian town.

Peter: Bergamo.

John: Bergamo. And they do some hiking and stuff like that. In the book version they go to Rome. And they go to this big book party and it’s a huge chunk of the last third of the book is this book party and it’s all about Elio having a vision for sort of what his life is going to be and sort of the excitement of cosmopolitan. And it’s fantastic. It would not have worked in the movie at all because suddenly this other character who you don’t really care about becomes an important third part. There’s all these new women involved.

Aline: It loses the intimacy.

Peter: So, I can speak specifically to – obviously we changed the location of the movie from the book is to Northern Italy. So going into Rome became–

Aline: Not an option.

Peter: Not an option. And also just a production nightmare for as little a movie we were making. So they’re going to Bergamo. But that scene with that guy talking around that table is something a book does really well. But it is so not cinematic. It just isn’t to have this character arrive at this point and to take up that much time or whatever. And though – and you’re absolutely right in saying well what is indicative in the book is that experience of how much they love each other and how deep their feelings are for each other.

So, Luca decides well what is a way visually I can show that. So Luca’s idea was, it’s referenced earlier in the movie, oh that spring that they’re in, the source of which is up in the mountains up there. So he’s like I want to take you to the source of that spring and show you this water fall, this massive waterfall.

Aline: But now you’re in a brilliant metaphor ultimately.

Peter: And now this waterfall, when they stop and look, this is the depth of my feeling for you. This is how much I feel for you. So that’s just visual. That’s visual storytelling versus–

Aline: But you know, so few people would have been like, well, Millie Robert Brown, or what’s her name, Millie Bobby Brown is going to play the little girl. Can she do an Italian accent? And Anthony Hopkins will play the author. And there would just be such a tendency to stuff it.

Peter: I just also think the little girl who is sick and dying again adds this level of – you know, he didn’t want to tell that story. I mean, I think the idea is to remove those sorts of moments. You know, someone just interestingly told me they had seen it a second time and how much – as much as they loved it the first time they really loved it even more the second time, because the first time they felt this sort of sense of – almost of dread or suspense in their stomach the whole time. Just waiting for when is this bad thing going to happen that we’re sort of used to in these sorts of queer romances.

And so he has the bloody nose moment, or the bruise moment, or when they’re dancing in public. And they were – and those moments don’t come. It doesn’t happen. So, I think, too, the sense that like there’s the little girl who is sick and dying or something, too, I think there was just like let’s just be for once in a romance between these two characters.

Aline: I have two questions based on that. One is, and I’ve been dying to ask somebody this, and I think I know the answer, but when the dad is saying I had things like that–

John: Does mom know?

Aline: Well, does mom know I kind of get?

John: I want to ask you about–

Aline: Does mom know. I felt like he’s saying she may not know the specifics, but she kind of does know. And then later in the movie it’s clear that she does. And also, anyway, my point being is dad’s saying “I almost was with men,” or “I almost had a great love and I didn’t have the nerve to go for it.” Or is it either, or is it both, or is it up to the viewer? What’s he saying?

Peter: Well, it’s always up to the viewer, right? So that’s the answer to that. I can only tell you what I think and then we can debate it here.

Aline: Yeah. Tell me what you think.

Peter: And I just had this conversation with David Ansen a few days ago about this very thing. And he enlightened me in a way that having seen it now as many times as I’ve seen it, and read it a billion times, and everything, he had a new take on it which might be what you’re thinking, I’m sensing John.

So I think he’s saying, to me I think he’s saying “I almost had specifically the kind of relationship you almost had. I didn’t do it.” And I don’t think it’s like, it doesn’t become an indictment of his marriage or his wife.

Aline: Meaning with a man. Meaning with an older man. Or just a man.

Peter: With a man. Yeah. And so I think that, yes—

Aline: I think the book thinks that. The book kind of says that. That it was a man.

Peter: Right. So I think the idea is that yes, but some people say well does that mean his marriage is a sham or whatever. It’s like, no, I think there’s much more of a fluidity to sexuality to use a term that’s used a lot.

David Ansen went on to ask did I think that the end of that scene was that comment about, “Does mom know?” meaning does mom know about me Elio is asking, when in fact David felt it meant Elio is asking does mom know about you. And so he’s saying, “No, I don’t think so.” And in all the years it never occurred to me that that might also be what’s happening.

John: That was exactly my question for you. So, there’s the question does mom know. And in the book it’s really clear that Elio is asking about himself. In the movie it makes more sense for the question to be about the dad. I want to talk about the mom.

Peter: We see so much more of the mom.

John: We see so much more of the mom. She’s so much more of a character. Also the girlfriend is a much better character, a bigger character.

Peter: Yeah. André is so happy about the way the movie depicts women in a more fleshed out way and finds them more sort of present. And so, yes, Amira who plays the mother, I mean, it’s a really unheralded–

Aline: Yeah. OK. So let’s finish talking about this part. Because I almost thought in a way because he’s a professor, he’s talking about these sculptures and they’re sort of like this Hellenistic thing happening, I kind of felt like he was saying I almost had a relationship like the Greek ideal of men who – there’s something about the classical sculpture of it in a way that he was talking about this sort of like elevated connection that you can have with someone who is in some fundamental way the same as you.

Peter: Yeah.

Aline: And I think that’s what’s really very much in the book which is they’re the same person. There’s this intimacy and sameness that you can get from a same sex relationship that is different and he’s saying it’s almost like that platonic ideal of that–

Peter: Well, which is where we get the title of the book from. It’s such a sameness that like Call Me by Your Name—

Aline: Right. They’re fusing.

Peter: They’re fusing. Right.

Aline: But I read it, as a straight girl I read it as a love so wonderful, you had something great and I could have had that I didn’t. I think the fact that you can also read it the other way—

Peter: I think it’s super important though, you’re absolutely right, but I think it’s super important to know that in no way is the father saying that what he has with his wife is less than. I think it’s also. I think it’s great. I think their relationship is amazing. I think the mother probably – frankly, the mother when you look at the David Ansen/John August way of looking at it, like that comment does mom know and he says, “I don’t know.” I think the answer to that is he’s probably just like – they’ve just talked about it a lot. It’s a lot that they’ve talked about and in lots of ways I think he’s giving both of them a bit of a break to not sort of say mom knows all this too and you’ve got to process all that know. I think that the answer probably is – I mean, especially the way Amira plays it. The mother knows it. The mother gets it. She’s been married to this guy. She knows the life that they have.

Aline: And she says why don’t they go on vacation together.

John: Yes.

Peter: I mean, yes, some people thought like well she has no idea the extent to what they might be doing on vacation, but maybe she does.

Aline: And that brings me to the other question. Something that I just want to talk about because I think it’s so important. So, I was talking to some people about it, some younger people who felt that the movie contains a certain amount of privilege. And I thought they meant because they’re rich people, and they’re fabulous, and they’re whatever. But what they were talking about was the fact that this child happens to have accepting parents and gee isn’t that a fantasy that in 1983 you would have these parents that are so accepting.

And I have to say it makes my blood boil that, you know, he’s not rich. He doesn’t have these parents because he’s rich or because he’s privileged, but because he’s lucky. And the fact that if you depict any sort “minority community” that they have to suffer and that there has to be a price enacted. And the boldness from a narrative standpoint of this movie is that no one opposes them but themselves. And that is, to me, the political act of that movie is to say our love stories matter because of what they say about my relationship with another person and not because I have to confront these obstacles that you are requiring me to have because I speak to this group. And I feel like it’s very unfair to expect movies like this to always have the tragedy and the obstacles and people dying and being ripped apart and evil parents.

And John and I have talked about this before. I want those fairy tales for people who live other kinds of lives. And I don’t think the movie plays it for fantasy. He just has kind parents. Some gay people have kind parents, and it’s not because they’re rich. They could be poor. He just has an understanding set of parents. And I feel like there is an arrogance in saying that that community needs to have these kind of clichéd obstacles in front of it.

Peter: Right. Well, it’s all we’ve had. I mean, it’s the only kind of movies that have broken through really. You know, I mean, Brokeback Mountain. Even Moonlight to some degree, right?

John: Philadelphia.

Peter: Philadelphia. These are the movies. And this is what we were schooled.

Aline: And they’re wonderful. And that’s great.

Peter: And they’re wonderful. So how lovely now maybe to be at this new threshold where this story can also be told. And this year, golly, this year was sort of a golden year for “queer cinema,” but like there was lots of great movies from Beats per Minute and God’s Own Country. And so like one movie now doesn’t have to carry this load of everything.

Aline: But please don’t tell people what stories they are allowed to tell.

Peter: Well, yes. We all must tell – there’s room for us all to tell our stories. And we all should tell our stories. And the truth of the matter is, getting back to the book, and getting back to André and stuff like that, like people may think this is a fantasy or whatever, but like I said from the very beginning, these characters are drawn in many ways from a real life experience. André writes a lot about his father. And in his newest book his father is very present in the new book also. And as well as in his nonfiction writing. You know, he famously wrote a book Out of Egypt about being Jewish refugees expelled from Alexandria, Egypt when he was a young man.

And so you get a sense the more you know André and the more you read his work and whatever, these people aren’t completely borne out of thin air. I think he had parents that were very much like this. And I think he is a parent who is very much like this.

So, it’s not completely fiction.

John: We talked about sort of platonic ideal and the degree to which the movie is looking at this idea of two people can be sort of the same thing, that actually sort of gets back to the issue of there’s no villain in the story. It’s actually kind of a classic protagonist/antagonist thing. Elio changes because Oliver shows up. And Oliver changes because Elio is there. And sort of going back and forth on this dance.

And I can imagine during the whole development process and trying to set stuff up people kept looking for the villain, the one who would come in. Because we’re so used to that antagonist being the bad guy. And when I first started watching the movie I was surprised at what a jerk Oliver was, because I had a really hard time understanding what his motivations were.

Peter: And you hadn’t read the book yet?

John: I hadn’t read the book yet. And then as the movie goes along it reveals itself. You see like, oh, I can understand why he’s being the jerk he’s being. It’s a self-protection mechanism that’s there. Defense things. And I was about to understand Elio’s point of view, because we’re sort of grounded with him pretty much the whole thing. Are there any scenes in which Elio is not part of the scene? I think it’s almost entirely his POV.

Aline: Well, there’s the scene where the mom comes in and looks at the ravioli and she talks to Mafalda.

Peter: And he’s gone upstairs with a peach.

Aline: It’s not a lot.

John: So basically we’re almost locked on POV for him. So he’s classically our protagonist. But you really do see him change over the course of it. And even without a voiceover you can see the internal machinations happening.

Aline: But there isn’t zero, right, because Oliver is like let’s stop now before we do something that we’re ashamed of. They’re not in a fantasy land, and especially in the book. I mean, they’re not in a fantasy land where it’s like—

Peter: No, he’s careful when he wants to kiss. He says if I could kiss you I would when they’re in the alleyway of the street and stuff.

Aline: So that was another thing I want to ask you, because another thing that people have said to me about the movie is like, “Well, he’s 17. Can he really consent? He’s so young.” He does look very young. It’s not like you went the other – you didn’t cast an Elio who looked older and an Oliver who looked younger. He very much looks 17 and Armie very much looks older than him.

When that comes up, what I would say is one of the reasons I love this movie is that there are so few movies about how horny you are when you’re a teenager. I can’t stand how chaste teen movies are. I mean, he’s so sexually and romantically obsessed, but there’s no time in your life when you take crazy risks because you’re so horny. And I find that movies about teen sexually are so unrealistically like people are just kissing and – you know, you’ve done crazy things in library parking lots because you – and so I love that about it.

But there are definitely people who are saying he’s awfully young. The guy is older. Especially in the climate that we’re in. How have you–?

Peter: I mean, I think the movie is the answer to that. I think Anthony Lane said it best in his review of the book which was just like how wonderful in this challenging time we are to see a movie that celebrates the joy of consensual love. And the whole movie is about – I mean, there’s 17,000 moments where each person is checking in with the other person to make sure they’re OK and fine. And the parents are consenting. I mean, literally all this conversation we’re having about everything else is important, important, important conversation to be having, but also good to remember the joy of our love and some fun in something like that.

Aline: There is a moment in the book that I was surprised by where he – the first time after they sleep together he’s very ashamed and almost repulsed by him.

Peter: Well that happens in the movie, too. When he gets up at the thing and he gets up–

Aline: It’s a little light. It’s light. It’s a little bit less—

Peter: Yeah, but he says are we just not going to talk about this anymore. They go out in the thing and he’s like are we going to do this thing now where this is awkward. He’s like, “No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine.” But, yes, there’s the thing in the book is the ghost of the grandfather sitting in the room and sort of watching this moment and everything. So, yes, I think there’s a little more shame, internalized shame in the book that Elio might struggle with than you find in the movie.

Aline: But to me it was like when you’re a teenager and you first start to express yourself that way, you know, the animalness of it is weird. It doesn’t matter what kind of sex you’re having. It’s like, “Oh my god, I took my clothes off and I did these things. How am I capable of that?” I don’t think it was necessarily – I didn’t take it in the book as necessarily related to the gayness of it.

Peter: Yeah, I think everyone talks obviously about the peach scene and it’s sort of famous or whatever you know now. And it was anyway in the book, too. And you’ve probably all heard Luca talk about, you know, making sure it actually worked. And Timmy did as well. And that is even possible. And everyone is excited. It’s probably happening all over the world right now that everybody is like, “Hey, that actually does work.”

Aline: Peaches are being – are not giving their consent.

Peter: Right. Exactly. So, I think for me and even sort of more, every time I see the movie, a scene that sort of rings even more sensual and remarkable in that “Oh my gosh the things – like you said, the things we have done in our lives,” is the scene where he has the swimsuit over his head. And it’s just–

John: It’s so potentially embarrassing, yet in the staging and in the performance it feels completely authentic.

Aline: Yeah, but we’re animals. When you’re sexually obsessed with someone—

John: So you’re cringing for him, and yet you totally understand his–

Aline: You’re going to smell their—

Peter: The essence of them, right?

Aline: It’s so relatable.

Peter: And you don’t even realize you’re doing it and all of a sudden the noise startles you of somebody coming in. And you’re like, oh my god, how did that moment just happen. And then it just kind of keeps progressing.

Aline: Well, I wanted to say the thing that I found so moving and that locked me into the movie in the beginning is how challenging it is that – so my best friend growing up was a gay man. And I remember how hard it was a teenager to just try and figure out if a boy liked me. And do you like me at all? Are you thinking about this with me at all? How challenging it is.

But to have the overlay of that be not just like do you like me, but like are you open to this. That’s the thing that I found so moving was that there’s just a further step you have to decode, which is like not just “Are you interested in me, but is—“

Peter: So, look, I absolutely agree with you. I think I love that the movie has been embraced and I love the universality of the fact that people are realizing love is love. And first love is this sort of thing that we all share. And that’s been fantastic. But I am also very proud of the fact of the specificity of the queer love aspect of this. And I do believe that this is in lots of ways a love letter to and for my/our brothers and sisters for whom the closet stole – for the magic of first love and the beauty of first love.

Because we did not – because it’s all those things you said. And we did not have this. And we’ll never have it. And we’ve had – I mean, we’ve had our own firsts. We’ve fallen in love for the first time, but it wasn’t like the way it seems to be for the rest of the world.

Aline: Yes. And my friend who I grew up with, that’s what he was robbed – he was robbed of that. And the fact that it took place in ’83 when he and I were that age, it was such a moving idea of what he could have had that was taken away from him. And the fact that they’re able to say I am like you in so many important ways, in the ways that you do when you’re falling in love that first way. Look at all the ways in which we are similar. And you find that first profound connection to someone. It’s so amazing to have that out there.

Peter: And so many straight people have come to me and said, “I’m progressive. My politics are right and everything. I did – I still did not understand that the way my gay friends’ relationship, and love, and connection and first love was was the exact same as mine. I believed in their rights. I believed in the fact that everyone is equal and everyone should have the same rights, but I still thought it was other. And I can see now that – this movie showed me that it’s not other. I got it in a way I just never understood it before.”

Aline: Yeah. And to me it’s not only – I feel like I’d already gotten that, but the movingness of how much courage it takes to say to someone, “Are we the same,” you know, “Is this the kind of love that you also want?” It takes so much courage when you’re a kid to do that. And that’s what I think is so moving about their connection with each other makes them brave enough to go past these things. And it just takes a lot of courage to love somebody and to say the things they want to say. And the fact that it took place in an era where so many people didn’t get to have that experience to me made it extra moving.

Peter: Yeah. And you know what’s on the horizon, too. I mean, you know what’s about to come. And a friend of mine, Ira Sachs, a filmmaker, said, “I just kept thinking through the whole movie that, oh my god, these guys have no idea what’s about to come.” Meaning obviously the AIDS epidemic and stuff like that.

So, you know, that there’s just a lot – the deck is really stacked against them in so many ways. And for this one idyllic Greek – the Greek idea of ideal moment, they experience this thing. That when you read the book you realize will haunt them, be a part of them for the rest of their lives. Even despite the paths of both, you know, because in the book we might say the end of the book jumps forward many years.

Aline: Yes. Several, several times.

Peter: Several times. And their paths cross again a few times. And you see how this summer informed for both of them many more years of their life going forward and stuff. So, and again, that’s what a book can do so well as well.

John: So let’s wrap this up by time traveling back ten years to you’ve just read this book and you have this like well I’m going to get the rights to this book. I’m going to make this into a movie. The movie you had in your head at that point, in what ways does it resemble the movie you have and in what ways is it different? Did you think you were probably stopping at the place where the movie stopped? What was the shape of that movie and how does it resemble this movie, or how is it different?

Peter: Well, the movie is much more cinematic, much more visual than I thought. All I had was the book then and I’m not a director of the caliber of Luca and Jim, people who would have known that a book is a book but a movie is something very different. So I think it was much more literary, the idea in my head.

But also because I had made a promise to André that in giving us the rights to the book that he’d be proud of that. And I felt that responsibility. And the responsibility to people who already loved – I mean, so many more people love it now. And for the first time it just was on the New York Times Bestseller List, the paperback version. André’s first time ever, even though the book has been out for ten years.

So, you know, but there still was a sense that people loved the book. And so I had this sort of pressure to kind of deliver that. But in my mind I thought maybe the way you delivered it was by being so very true to the book and be much more literary in that way. So the fact that it isn’t ultimately, that it found its own right way and its own path in a way, but also that André loves and that people love and people still feel is of spirit of the book, but in its own way as its own thing.

You know, David Ansen was just also saying, he’s like, “Gosh, so often, always almost it just feels like adaptations are less than and not something more than.”

Aline: Right. But I think that question, what that points to is like a great producer doesn’t need to know sort of what visually it’s going to look like, or what every exact moment is. What a great producer is is the loamy soil and the support for a filmmaker to put their vision, to grow their vision in. And I think that a lot of producers are anxious or insecure and they want to – they have opinions about things which they don’t need to.

You had the spirit of the story and what was important about the story. And you fought to protect that. And in the end of the day that’s really what matters. Not you picking the DP. You know, it’s this understanding this is what matters in this book and this is what I will fight to the death to change, and if it’s not Rome it’s another small city. And if they’re speaking French, that’s OK.

It’s understanding what are the OK things to change and what are the things that are stalwart, “No, mom is not going to be a villain. No, dad is not going to” – you know, those are never going to change.

John: Those are the essential DNA of the story.

Aline: That’s what a good producer does.

Peter: Well, thank you for saying that. I think that that’s probably very right. I think, you know, you look at a movie like Dunkirk which is great and wonderful but a very different kind of movie and I can only imagine what those producers had to deal with with that. And the director in making a movie like that. But, you know, by comparison Call Me by Your Name is like, you know, it can be just as difficult to make a little soufflé. And to balance all that and to do all that. And to also get out of the way of the chef who is doing that.

And I think since the time the book came out, almost there’s been something blessed about the spirit of the book, of the story, of Elio and Oliver’s connection. And everybody who read the book, who read the script, who came to the movie from around the world. Like our producers were a global team of people and our DP was Thai and the actors from all these countries. All came because they were moved by the story. And everyone really brought their best and then some to the collaborative nature of making this movie.

John: Great. Peter Spears, congratulations on Call Me by Your Name. Thank you very much for coming in and talking to us about it and answering our questions.

Peter: Thanks guys. This was super fun. I’ll make another movie so I can come back and talk to you guys.

Aline: Oh, I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled.

John: Awesome. Thanks.

Aline: That’s a good reason.

John: Hey, this is John. So, last week we had a preview for Launch, my new series about making a book. As you’re listening to this, Episode 3 should be out. In it we talk about the edit process, the cover, the audiobook. If you’re a grammar nerd or a font nerd you’ll especially enjoy this one.

So, next week my book Arlo Finch comes out, which is crazy. It’s available anywhere books are sold in North America. So if you’d like to check it out, if you’d like to buy it, that would be awesome.

If you’d like to meet me, I will be out on tour as well. You can find out where I’ll be by going to I’ll have special guests in a lot of cities. It should be really fun. I look forward to seeing you.

This show, Scriptnotes, is produced by Megan McDonnell and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Hunter Christensen. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place to send questions like the ones we answer on the show, or questions about Launch, or the book. There will be a special episode of Launch where we’ll just do Q&A. So, send in those questions.

If you want to reach us on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. Aline is @alinebmckenna. And Peter Spears is @pjspears.

We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. On Apple Podcasts, look for Scriptnotes, or look for Launch. Click to subscribe. And also leave us a review. That helps a lot. Especially a brand new show like Launch.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also the place where you can find transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.

And you can find all the back episodes at or the first 300 episodes on the Scriptnotes USB drive at Thanks.


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You can download the episode here.

Arlo Finch in the Bookstores of America (and Canada)

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 10:39

My first novel, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, comes out today in stores throughout North America.

I’d love you to, well, buy it. People buying books makes future books possible.

It’s available at massive online stores, national chains and your local indie bookstore.

Arlo Finch is middle-grade fantasy fiction. That’s the broad category that includes Harry Potter, Stranger Things and Star Wars. If that’s not your speed, you may have a son or daughter or nephew who would dig it.

How old does a kid need to be for Arlo? All kids are different, but eight seems a good general guideline. The audiobook might be a good option for younger sorts.

But if you’d like to help me out, there are a few other things you can do.

  1. Review it on Goodreads and Amazon.
  2. Recommend it to parents, teachers and librarians. They’re the ones who put books into kids’ hands.
  3. Post about on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

And if you’re in a bookstore in the next few weeks, find it on the shelf and take a peek inside. During my visit to the printing plant, I put special stickers in five books. I’m eager to learn where they turn up, so if you find one, let me know!

If you’re not listening to the Launch podcast, the first four episodes are now up. Today’s is my favorite so far.

I hope you dig the book. I’m really proud of it, and hope to be able to make more of them. Your help can make that dream possible. Thanks!

The Next 117 Pages

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig talk about everything that comes after the oft-discussed First Three Pages, speculating on the kinds of issues they’d spot if they were looking at full scripts.

They also answer listener questions on topics ranging from proper spacing protocol to novelists rewriting their screenplay adaptations.

This episode originally aired on November 27, 2012.


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You can download the episode here.

Call Me by Your Name

Tue, 01/30/2018 - 08:03

John and Aline welcome Peter Spears, producer of Call Me by Your Name, to discuss how the film came to be, from optioning the novel through its long development and multiple roadblocks.

Through the lens of Call Me by Your Name, we discuss the difficulties of preproduction for an indie film, the process of securing book rights, the opportunities that adaptation presents, and what this movie means in the Hollywood landscape.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 335: Introducing Launch — Transcript

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 17:04

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

Today on the podcast, it’s a whole other podcast. Yeah, I have spent the last two years recording interviews for a brand new series that begins today. So we’ll have an excerpt from that. Excerpt? I don’t know. It’s kind of a trailer, but it’s like a featurette. Craig, what is a featurette? Do they still exist?

Craig: I don’t know. I’ve never known what a featurette is. Most of the time when they add the suffix “ette” to something I’m confused. Other than cigarette, I know what that is. And moist towelette. Other than that I get very confused. Even novellas confuse me. When does it stop being a novel and become a novella? I don’t know.

John: That’s a question I could answer on my podcast.

Craig: Yeah, you could. But my question for you is I’m not fired or anything right?

John: Oh my god, no.

Craig: Our show is still a show, right?

John: Yes. This is a bonus. This is an extra thing I’m doing.

Craig: Oh.

John: Why don’t I tell you what it’s about? It’s a show called launch. It follows the process of making a book, from idea, to writing it, to selling it, to printing it, to seeing it in stores. So the series is only six episodes long, the first two of which drop today. So, this is the first chance to sort of get into it.

You listened to I guess the full first episode?

Craig: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s why I was a little concerned, because I listened to the whole thing and I thought this sounds like a – you know, I don’t listen to podcasts. We’ve established this.

John: No. It was a big ask for me to have you listen to this.

Craig: Correct. So right off the bat I felt quite Christ-like in this. But, you know, I have heard like clips of podcasts before, you know? And I did listen to the Slow Burn podcast. That was like a whole big new thing for me.

And so when I listened to the first episode of Launch, it struck me that it sounded a lot like a podcast. Whereas our show, I don’t think we sound like a podcast. I think we just do our show. We just talk. But that show sounded like a podcast and it was even sort of meta. I mean, when people listen to it they’ll realize that you’re aware that it sounds like podcast. But I thought, wow, what a crazy way for you to tell me that you were firing me off of our own show.

John: [laughs]

Craig: If you just stopped doing our show and just started doing that.

John: So, Craig, Scriptnotes is a gabfest style show, where it’s two people chatting. And so it’s done almost in real time. So, Launch is the other kind of podcast, or one of the other kinds of podcasts. It’s much more like a Startup or a Planet Money in that there’s a bunch of clips and there’s narration and I have to be able to put sentences together in a meaningful way. It’s all written. I’ve done so much writing for this show that it’s been crazy but good to do.

And we go through multiple drafts, and so we do table reads. It’s really different. Aline Brosh McKenna of Scriptnotes fame, she helped us out a lot. She listened to an early cut and gave me some really good feedback. So I went back and rerecorded some stuff just based on her notes.

Craig: Well, it did remind me of a little bit of Karina’s show, too, because it is written and it is crafted, but it was funny because I know you so well and I know your podcast voice so well and I’m fascinated – because I have a feeling like a lot of people that listen to this show are going to listen to it not necessarily because they’re Scriptnotes people, because they are interested in the writing of books and novels, which is what this is so much about. But I think probably you’ll have some decent crossover. And I’m fascinated to hear what they think about the other you. It’s like this other you. It’s really interesting. It’s more professional. [laughs]

John: Well, it’s more professional, but it’s also a whole different kind of podcast in that like there’s ad reads, there’s sponsors, there’s all that kind of stuff. There’s act breaks. So I have to sell stuff on the show as well. And that was exciting to do. But there’s also just other sort of infrastructure.

So, people will recognize some familiar names. So, Megan McDonnell, who is the Scriptnotes producer, she’s also one of the producers on this. But there’s also four other producers on the show.

Craig: Whoa.

John: There’s a mixer. Matthew Chilelli did some original music for us, which was awesome. So, Matthew is great.

Craig: Awesome.

John: So you’ll recognize some of those things, but it’s also just really different. It’s a much bigger circus to make this kind of show and I’ve learned a ton.

Craig: Wow. Great.

John: So the clip we’re going to have today is from Episode One. This is the episode in which I sort of have the first idea for doing this book and sort of how it all begins. It goes up through the part where I get an agent. This is me talking about how to get an agent, which is just really weird. I had to go out and get myself an agent. So it’s that whole part of the process.

Episode Two, which is also out today, is selling the book and then the writing, getting into the edit, and really the shadow of Harry Potter, which is so odd to be writing a kid’s book because Harry Potter looms over everything. So, Episode Two gets into that.

Craig: Well, I really enjoyed Episode One. And I enjoyed it so much that I actually will listen to Episode Two. Now, mostly – just slow your roll for a second – because mostly what I’m hoping for are a couple more moments like the kinds I got in Episode One where evidence of your let’s just say organic origin story emerge. Because as you know, most of you was obviously built/assembled in a room at the Foxconn Plant in Guangzhou.

But your mother appears in this and your brother appears. I didn’t even know you had a brother.

John: I have a brother. It’s sort of retcon that John has a brother now. But, yes, my brother appears into it.

Craig: It’s a retcon. You retconned a brother.

John: In later episodes my daughter is in it, my husband is in it. Like everyone–

Craig: Well, I know them. But like your brother shows up and the crazy thing is – so first of all I’m listening to your mom and I’m like, yeah, but I guess if I had to imagine what John August’s mom would sound like that’s pretty much right on. And then your brother came on and I’m like who is this guy? This doesn’t sound like John at all. You guys couldn’t sound more different. It was fascinating.

John: Yeah. So it has been really interesting to sort of go and do the introspection that is so part and parcel for this kind of show, because it’s really about the questions and decisions along the way of trying to make this book.

The first episode is very sort of let’s get inside John’s head and sort of how I got lost in the woods. And there’s some stuff there that’s a little more personal than I would ever get on our normal show. But down the road it’s also just a chance to sort of break out of the normal bubble of just two people talking. So, Episode Three I get to sit down with the cover artist. I talk to the guy who is doing the audio book for Arlo Finch, which is so cool. He’s awesome.

I get into some fights and some squabbles. We get into some grammar battles. And then in Episode Four I go to the printing plant in Virginia to actually see the book being printed. And that was so amazing. That was my chocolate factory moment where I got to see how it all is actually done. And that is one of the top ten experiences of my life was getting to see the book being printed and how that all works.

Craig: That’s so cool. I am a personal fan, bordering on obsessive fan, of any – I guess what do they call them, the how was it made series.

John: Yes.

Craig: And they have millions of these that you can just watch for free on YouTube through the magic of copyright infringement, but regardless like probably every other day I’ll go how do they make staples. How do they make pills? Pills are one of my favorites. Like how do they make pills? Oh my god, it’s fascinating.

Anyway, any time I watch those or somebody talks about doing something like you’re doing, which is to go to this massive center where books are made, physically, in my mind I always hear that [hums]. And when we were kids there would be a little soundtrack and some sort of wah-wah pedal playing as the pages got churned out of the big conveyor belt. I have a rich inner life, John, is what I’m saying. Rich.

John: Well, at least there’s a musical accompaniment to your life.

Craig: Oh, for sure.

John: Which is crucial. Absolutely.

Craig: Oh yeah.

John: The how things are made video that I loved so much recently was how rubber bands are made, which is a surprisingly mechanical manual process. Like you’d think like, oh, it’s just a machine that makes rubber bands. It’s not at all. There’s literally a guy who is taking like this rubber tube out of this vat and sliding it onto this sort of big tube and it goes through this vulcanizing process. And it’s just really surprisingly manual. And you’d think like, “It’s a rubber band. How can that be a manual process?”

Craig: I know. Some of it is so bizarre. Some of it is really, really bizarre. But it is all oddly beautiful. I assume you took some video, right?

John: So, I was limited in sort of how many photos and videos I could take because there’s trade secrets. This is the biggest publishing plant in the world. And so it was very cool for me to get to go inside and I got to take pictures of my book, like when my book was on a line, but I couldn’t take any pictures involving people, or process beyond a certain point.

But, I could interview everybody. And so everyone was so cool. One of my favorite moments you’ll hear in Episode Four is I’m with the guy who is literally printing the book. So, there’s three stages to book printing. There’s the printing the signatures, which are the 16-page little segments. There’s making the case. And then there’s putting the book into the case.

But this is a guy who is responsible for printing the signatures. And he was awesome. And I interview him and I say like, hey, so you must really love books. He’s like, “No, I hate them. I can’t go into a bookstore. I hate the smell.” And it’s like talking to a grip about movies. It’s like – they’re completely involved in the process of making this thing, but not always the end result.

Craig: Right. Like for instance I’m sure the same thing could be said about someone who say every week does a podcast and then does not want to listen to podcasts ever.

John: Indeed. You are basically that lineman who is looking at the signatures as they come off.

Craig: I have always been that lineman.

John: Oh, nice. So, what’s also weird about this podcast is the first four episodes come out before the book comes out. Basically Episode Four drops the day the book comes out. And the last two episodes, we’re not quite sure what they’re going to be. So, it will be following me on the road. It will be sort of seeing what happens.

And so while I’m out on the road you can come see me on tour. Again, has all my dates. But we’ll be some live shows that are kind of half Scriptnotes/kind of half Launch shows. I’ll be talking to Grant Faulkner who is one of our favorite guests recently this past year and some other cool people in other cool cities about books, and writing, and stuff in general.

So that will be part of it. I know there will also be a Q&A episode, so if after listening to this or future episodes you have questions about Launch or the book, or all that process, just send them into the usual place,, and there will be a special Q&A episode somewhere down the road.

Craig: That sounds great. And I guess part of the deal of this, well, let me just back up for a second. The fact that it’s only six episodes makes me happy, right? Because you know me, I like to know that things end. I can’t just listen to a podcast forever the way that people listen to this one, which is insane. So, I mean, I really, truly don’t know why anyone does it.

So, I love that it ends, but what I find fascinating about the promise of this is that you say in this first episode, as people will hear, that part of the show is what’s going to actually happen with the book in terms of success. Is it going to be a big hit? Is it going to be a flop? What’s going to happen? You don’t know. So I guess that the idea here is that between Episode Four and Episode Five the book happens. And then you kind of say here’s the result, which is either way kind of weirdly – I feel like you win, because you’re going to get a great episode out of it.

John: Absolutely. So either I’ll have a successful book, or I’ll have a flop of a book, and interesting things to talk about on a podcast. In a weird way making this podcast for the last two years has given me an excuse for asking all the questions I wanted to ask. And it would be too weird for me to ask if I wasn’t asking them for a podcast. So, I talked to a lot of writers about success, but also about failure and about what was great and what was bad. And I interjected myself into parts of the process where an author wouldn’t usually be there, but I could ask because I’m doing a podcast. It’s not for me, it’s for the listeners of the world.

Craig: Exactly. But I think it’s really – there’s a wonderful sense of introspection about Episode One and a fascinating meta look at the whole thing. The whole way you approached it I thought was really smart and I’m fascinated to see what happens. I mean, of course I root for the book’s success, but I don’t want it to be too successful, because then at some point you’re going to be like, “I’m sorry dude, but me and Amy Tan, we’re hanging later. It’s going to be me and the Tanster.”

John: Yeah. There’s no Joy Luck Craig.

Craig: Nah. There’s no Joy Luck Craig. And what am I going to do? Like if Chernobyl is a big hit–?

John: Oh my god. Well, you have plans to dump me immediately, right? You and Brian Koppelman are going to skate off?

Craig: Well, first of all, never in a million years. No, and I will tell him that to his face. Never. In a million years. I love Brian, but never in a million years. No, I think I would just end up with some guy who works in the physics department at USC, which is cool for me, but no one is going to listen to it.

John: Well, here’s the thing though, Craig, you would have no idea if anybody was listening or if your podcast was even available. So you might just weekly show up and have a conversation with somebody thinking that it’s a podcast, but really it’s just you and the physicist talking about stuff which wouldn’t be so bad.

Craig: I feel like you just told me that that’s what’s been happening with Scriptnotes. [laughs]

John: This whole time.

Craig: Oh. My. God. You’re right.

John: So, if you as a listener would like to help me out, there’s two things you could do that would really be amazing. First is to subscribe to the show, Launch, because that drops today. And when people subscribe on the day it drops that actually helps a lot in terms of the ecosystem, the Apple of everything. So, you can find it just anywhere you get podcasts. It’s Launch. Or there’s a URL you can follow which is

Second thing, because this is a brand new podcast there are no ratings, there are no reviews. So if you’re there and you’d like to leave us a review, a rating, those things are awesome and they are very genuinely helpful, especially for a brand new show. Or tweet about it or Facebook about it. Or if you have a friend who you think might enjoy it, tell them, or just take their phone and subscribe on their phone to the show because why not. That’s what friends are for is to subscribe people to podcasts that they didn’t necessarily choose themselves.

Craig: Yeah, you know, honestly people should do it even if only to pay you back a little for the good service that you have done all these years. I mean, granted, you also take an enormous amount of money from them that I don’t see.

John: Yes, in the form of t-shirts and USB drives.

Craig: That’s right. And USB drives. Exactly. And whatever other merchandise you sell that you don’t tell me about. I get it. But, yeah, listen, we have never asked for anything. That’s the god’s honest truth. And most of the time we don’t have to because you and I make our careers largely writing popular entertainment that is marketed and sold by multibillion international conglomerates, so we really don’t need – it would be grotesque I think for us to ask for assistance in those circumstances. But this is different. This is your book. I feel like any new author with any new book is an underdog. And by the way, I’ll be coming at people for Chernobyl also because that isn’t a mass entertainment sort of thing. It’s going to need some love. So people should, I think, I’m saying to people – you wouldn’t – but I’m saying you guys should do it to help John out at the very least.

Plus, also, it’s a good podcast. I got to say.

John: Thank you.

Craig: I mean, and I know podcasts. I listen to literally ones of them.

John: [laughs] All right. So, let’s take a listen to the first episode of Launch.


John: Hi. My name is John August.

If you Google me, you’ll see I’m mostly a screenwriter. I wrote Big Fish and bunch of other movies.

Two years ago, I started writing a novel. It was something I’d never done before, and knew almost nothing about.

At the same time, I began recording interviews with authors and agents and publishers and everybody remotely connected to the book I was writing. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with all these interviews, but I had questions, and I figured I might as well get the answers on tape.

Now, my book is coming out.

Two weeks from today, you’ll be able to buy it in stores.

This podcast is about how that book got there. How I wrote it, how I sold it, and how publishing works— not just as a business, but literally how books are printed and shipped. We’ll be talking about success and failure, school librarians, book tours, typefaces, and how the shadow of Harry Potter looms over everything.

As I’m recording this, I know how it all begins, but I don’t know how it ends. Will my book get good reviews? Will it sell? Did I make the right choices along the way?

You’ll find out when I do.

From Wondery, this is Launch, a podcast about making new things.

I’ve never made this kind of podcast — the kind with audio clips and music and ads.

For the last six years, I’ve hosted a weekly podcast about screenwriting called Scriptnotes.

One of the recurring bits is that my co-host Craig hates podcasts.

Craig: As you know, I listen to exactly zero podcasts. Even this one.

John: Me? I love podcasts. All kinds. I currently subscribe to 65 of them.

One of my favorites of the last few years is called StartUp. You’ve probably heard it. It tells the story of Alex Blumberg as he struggles to establish a new company. Week by week, you can hear it grow, and change.

The basic format is that Alex talks directly to you and tells you what’s going on. Sort of like I’m doing now.

When you go back and listen to it a second time, you realize there’s also some sophisticated techniques he’s using. For example:

David Kramer: This will be probably the biggest and most long term of all your projects.

John: That’s my agent, David Kramer.

David Kramer: So, you just have to make that decision for yourself of how you see the next several years of your life.

John: See that? I’m Foreshadowing that there’s a big choice I’m going to have to make. A life-changing decision. And I’m going to have to make it by the end of the episode.

One of my other favorite shows is called Planet Money. They did a series called the Story of a T-shirt, where they tracked the process of making a t-shirt from growing cotton to delivery. I love stuff like that. Process.

So let’s go back to the beginning of this whole adventure. Let’s see how it all started.

ominous drone

John: If you listen to a bunch of podcasts, you start to notice some tropes.

Like whenever you hear this kind of drone, you know something bad is about to happen. Especially if there’s an out-of-tune music box playing.

add music box

John: And then the narrator says something like:

On June 19th, 1977, a young boy went missing in the mountains of Colorado.

His family was camping in the Roosevelt National Forest along the Middle Saint Vrain Creek. It was hot that afternoon. Still, average lows for June dipped into the 30s. A boy in shorts and a t-shirt was at risk for hypothermia, particularly if he got wet.

The more immediate concern was bears. Black bears were frequently sighted in the area, attracted by an easy meal from the campground trash containers.

Bears are foragers; they rarely attack adults. But a six-year-old boy alone in the woods might not fair as well.

The boy’s father — Hank — and his eleven-year-old son — Bill — went searching for the boy.

The mother — Nancy — and her mother — Helen — stayed back at the campsite. They yelled the boy’s name until their voices went hoarse.

This is the story of what happened to that boy in the woods.

music out

John: I should explain here: That six-year-old boy is me. I didn’t get killed or abducted. It’s not that kind of podcast, remember?

This story about getting lost in the woods is actually really important for understanding why I decided to write this book. It pretty much explains why I am the way I am.

Here’s how my mom remembers that day.

Nancy Meise: We were up in Camp Dick, which is a forest service campground. We’d gone up probably on a Friday night. We had had lunch, and your grandmother and I were sitting chatting and you and your dad, and your brother Bill, had, were going to go exploring around, so you left.

Pretty soon, you know pretty soon, I can’t tell you exactly how long it was, but here come your dad and your brother, but no you. And I said, “Where’s John?” And John wasn’t there. I probably got a little bit teary eyed, like, “Where’s my kid?”

John: Here’s my brother Bill:

Bill Meise: Mom started calling for you. And Mom was kinda freakin’ out, like “John John, where are you?”

Nancy Meise: So finally, your dad and Bill decided they would go back out and look. And it seemed like it took forever. I was a smoker back then. I’m sure I lit a cigarette, you know, and probably smoked it down to the nub.

Bill Meise: You know, she was scared. She didn’t know where you were. You know, it’s the forest, you know. You know, you don’t know what kind of animals might be out there.

John: To my family, this is the tale of How John Got Lost in the Woods.

But the truth is, I wasn’t really lost.

This is what happened:

See, I’d found this trail, and I was curious where it went. So I followed it. There was a little creek, and I made my way across on the rocks.

I wasn’t actually that far away.

John on tape: I also remember hearing you and not going back. Does that sound like me?

Nancy Meise: YES. (laughs) If truth be told, yes. I mean, because if you were busily involved in something, mom could wait.

John: I could hear their voices calling for me..

But there was another voice — this inner voice — that was louder. More insistent. It was urging me to keep going a little farther. To see what was around the next bend. So I kept walking.

That’s when it happened.

I can’t tell you what it was, exactly. The air felt sparkly. The trees were vibrating.

I had this feeling of awe, like I’d wandered into some ancient mystical site. I was six years old, and everything felt electric.

I don’t know how long I stayed there, or why I left. But eventually, I turned around and walked back.

Nancy Meise: And here you come. Back. And you know, then I really cried. Because I was just so glad to see you.

John: Something happened that day in the woods. I don’t know what it was, but I have the echo of a memory. This sense of wonder.

I’ve been chasing it all my life.

Maybe you feel it too — that notion that there’s something hidden just out of sight. Just around the bend.

All I know is, I see a trail and I want to take it. I’m still that boy in the woods.

Let’s fast forward 38 years.

[storm sounds]

John: This is when I first spot the trail that leads me to write this book.

It’s October 30th, 2015. I’m in a hotel room in Austin, Texas.

It’s 9:57 a.m. and a massive storm is raging outside. I press my phone against the window to take a video, because it feels like a movie. Winds are howling. Lightning fills the sky. On a nearby building I can see this American flag. It’s whipping so fast I think it might tear off.

It’s been like this for days. The airport is shut down because the traffic control tower is flooded.

I mention the storm because it explains why I didn’t leave the room much that weekend. If the weather had been better, I would have explored the city, or had beers with friends.

Everything would be different.

I wouldn’t be telling you this story.

skype calling

I’m in Austin for the film festival, but there’s one work phone call I need to make.

Kenneth Oppel: Hello?

John on tape: Hey, Kenneth. It’s John August.

John: His name is Kenneth Oppel. He’s a novelist. He’s written this book called The Nest. It’s about a boy who discovers that magical insects are planning to steal his baby brother.

Some producers sent it to me because they think it might be a movie. That’s most of what I do as a screenwriter, by the way. I adapt books into movies.

John on tape: First off, is it okay if I record this?

Kenneth Oppel: Yeah, yeah. Fine.

John on tape: When I first read your book, it seemed really creepy for what I had originally been pitched as a kid’s book. I guess I was confused about what were the rules of a book that is designed to be read by young readers. Do you get that question a lot?

Kenneth Oppel: All the time. I mean, I just came back from a week book tour in Italy, and talked to a lot of adult audiences, who had very profound ethical and philosophical questions about the book and responded to it in ways that I was glad to hear about, because there’s a lot of subtext to the book.

Sometimes I was asked, “Is it too scary for kids?” To my way of thinking, I think kids read stories in an altogether different way than adults do. Kids are used to a diet, from their very earliest stories, of peril and death and monsters. From Grimm all the way to Beatrix Potter, even. There’s some bunnies get eaten and skinned and put in pies. People get locked in dungeons and towers. So I think kids accept this sort of landscape as much more normal, and it’s often the parents, with much more life experience, who read these stories and are actually horrified.

John: I think he’s right. Think back to the books we read as kids. So many of them are really dark. Hansel and Gretl? We all remember the end — the kids pushing the witch into the oven — but it starts with a father abandoning his children in the woods.

That’s like Stephen King dark.

John on tape: What do you say when people ask what genre of books you write, who the audience is for most of your books?

Kenneth Oppel: Well, in the current publishing market, middle grade is usually defined as a book for roughly nine to 12 year olds. I constantly resist these definitions. I like writing books that I thought had a, you know, you could read them if you’re a good reader at eight, or you could read them if you’re 14. So I never really thought so much in terms of the middle grade, like what is that? I just wanted to write a good story.

John: This was the first time I’d heard of “middle grade.” You’re going to hear that term a lot. It doesn’t mean junior high; it’s younger than that.

Kenneth Oppel: To me, the middle grade is [00:09:00] sort of the golden age of reading, as a child. You never love a book as much as the books you loved when you were that age, sort of eight to 12. It’s sort of that sweet spot for kids. A lot of kids, after 12, they’re sort of dropping away.

That’s why I love that age group. It’s still such a great time of life, it’s still so full of curiosity and wonder and potential. It’s not cynical yet. The possibilities are still huge.

John: In most middle grade titles, the hero is roughly the same age as the reader. Think Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson. The reader can easily imagine being in the hero’s shoes.

Kenneth Oppel:There’s lots of famous adult books with child protagonists, but for me, the difference between an adult book and a middle grade book, even if they had a child protagonist, is that there’s no gloss, there’s no editorializing, there’s no retrospective commentary on what that kid is doing. With a middle grade book, it’s all present-tense.

This kid is having this incredibly intense and stressful experience he’s really not equipped to have. Then he finds all this inner strength, and becomes a warrior and defeats this monster, really on his own.

John: There’s sort of a template for middle grade fiction. You start with an ordinary kid. But then he discovers something extraordinary — that the world is different than he assumed. He goes on a journey, and the journey changes him.

Basically, a kid goes into the woods. Something happens. And he’s changed by it.

Kenneth and I talk for about forty-five minutes. I don’t tell him, but by the end of the conversation, I have a new plan.


John: And that is the teaser or featurette or whatever we’re calling this little excerpt from the first episode. If you would like to hear the rest of the first episode, and the second episode, they are available right now. So just Launch. Just check out wherever you get your podcasts. Look for Launch. It’s the little yellow logo. It’s me. And just subscribe. That would be really, really great and helpful. I hope you enjoy it.

Craig: I think they’re going to enjoy it. Can I sneak ahead? Can you just give me all of them to listen to?

John: I would love to give you all six episodes. There are exactly two episodes that are ready right now. Literally the paint is barely dry as we were putting these out. But I can give you a sneak preview of Episode Three, which is a Google Doc on my screen right now that I need to finish writing tonight because we start recording it tomorrow.

Craig: You know what? Hold off. Hold off. But I’m going to subscribe for sure so that you have – and I’m not going to give you a rating because I think people would be like, “Oh, look, Craig Mazin likes John August’s podcast. It’s just not going to hold a lot of water.”

John: Yeah. You can give me stars, but without giving me like the named review. That’s fine, too.

Craig: It’s going to be weird if there’s only one thing there and it’s like two stars. Two stars is the worst stars, by the way. Two stars is the worst. One star you’re like, OK, whoever left the one star is a crank. Two stars has been thought about. [laughs] If you get two, that’s the worse. Yeah, so no, you get five. Is it five? Is that the maximum you can give?

John: Five is the most stars you can give.

Craig: Well, that’s what you deserve.

John: Thank you, Craig.

Craig: I’m going to give you five.

John: All right. Some scheduling notes. Craig is headed off to Lithuania I think is your next stop.

Craig: It’s going to be Lithuania, London, Lithuania, London. Yes. That’s what it’s going to be. Back and forth.

John: I will be headed off on the Arlo Finch book tour, so again if you want to see me just go to and you will see where I am if I’m coming to a city near you.

But we have a bunch of stuff that’s already recorded and it’s really good, so I don’t want to spoil it for you, but we’ve got some good stuff coming to you, and then we’ll be back live before you know it.

So, Craig, thank you for listening to it. It actually does mean a lot, because I know you don’t like to listen to podcasts, so thank you for listening to this one.

Craig: Yeah. I think maybe I actually do like listening to podcasts. Now I’m starting to get a little concerned because I’ve only listened to two. Well, no, three. I’ve listened to three. I’ve listened to Karina’s, and I like it.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I’ve listened to Slow Burn. I like it.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And I’ve listened to yours and I like it.

John: Oh damn, what if you’re a podcast person?

Craig: Yeah, but you know then I’ve listened to Koppelman’s and I don’t love it.

John: Oh, come on.

Craig: I know. I’m just kidding. I just like doing it because it’s so much fun.

John: Because you know it annoys him.

Craig: Because it makes him crazy.

John: So, guys, thank you all very, very much. Our producer is Megan McDonnell. She’s awesome. She also did Launch. Matthew Chilelli edited this episode. And rather than outro I will just leave you with a plea to please subscribe. Subscribe to Launch and pass it along to your friends if you dig it. Thanks.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

I made another podcast

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 03:00

Today, I’m launching a new podcast series about the journey of making a book, from initial idea to bookstore shelves.

There’s a teaser for it in the new Scriptnotes that’s up this morning. But if you’re not a regular listener, I didn’t want you to miss the news.

The backstory: Two years ago, I decided to write my own novel. It turns out, I didn’t know much about how books are actually made. So I began recording interviews with everyone involved in the process.

The result is Launch.

Behind-the-scenes of making a book

Over the course of six episodes, we’ll be following how my first novel, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, was written, sold, edited and printed. We’ll visit Colorado forests and Virginia printing plants, talking to the people responsible for every decision along the way: editors, agents, artists and booksellers.

Plus a ton of great authors, without whom I would be very lost.

As I’m writing this blog post, I know how it all started, but how will it end? You’ll find out when I do. That’s part of what’s exciting about this podcast. There’s no way to know how this will all turn out.

Please take a listen and subscribe. The first two episodes are available today on Apple Podcasts and everywhere you like to listen.

And if you like the show, a rating and review would help a lot.

I’ll be answering questions in a later episode, so if you have one, just use the normal email:

In February, I’ll be traveling on a two-week book tour, with live events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, New York and Chicago. If you’d like to say hi, you can find the full schedule here.

And don’t worry. Launch isn’t replacing Scriptnotes. Craig and I will keep doing the show every Tuesday like always.

But really: Please subscribe. I think you’ll like it.

Introducing Launch

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 02:03

John and Craig introduce Launch, John’s new podcast about making a book. Over the course of six episodes, the series tracks the process of writing and shipping a novel, from idea to printing.

The first two episodes are available today, with new episodes coming each Tuesday.

Not to worry — Scriptnotes isn’t going anywhere. We’ll have new episodes on Tuesdays as well.

Subscribe to Launch today:


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 334: Worst Case Scenarios — Transcript

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 16:11

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 334 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Our last few episodes have been about craft, but today we’re going to be talking about the profession of screenwriting, specifically what if it goes away and there are no more screenwriters.

Craig: Yay.

John: We’ll look at worst case scenarios and put odds on them happening. We’ll also answer listener questions about optioning books and working with actors.

Craig: Hmm, great. This is a good topic. I always like contemplating my own doom.

John: I find it very therapeutic and really kind of calming to think about the worst things because then everything else seems OK.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. We just float. We all float down here.

John: Let’s do some follow up first. Luisa in Cliffside, New Jersey, but she was originally from Rio, Brazil, writes, “I really enjoyed your talk about suspense but I wanted to ask a question. Usually when I’m teaching or thinking about my own writing I think of suspense in terms of curiosity about something that will happen in the future. But when it’s curiosity about a past event that’s unclear or unknown, I consider it a mystery. So, a whodunit for example would cause a mystery. The expectation of discovering who did it might be suspenseful, but the whodunit itself, that would be a mystery.”

Craig: Well, Luisa, I think you’re correct. I don’t detect a question in there.

John: I guess that’s true.

Craig: But as a statement–

John: As an observation.

Craig: Yeah, as an observation you’re right on. I mean, it’s hard for anything in the past to be suspenseful because it’s happened. When you’re at a sporting event and you’re waiting to see how the last minute goes and who is going to win, that’s suspenseful.

John: Yeah.

Craig: If you’re watching television and the game has already happened, it’s probably a little less suspenseful.

John: Yeah. I’ll go back to the French. So, suspendre, it’s hanging above you. It’s literally hanging above. That’s what the word means. But if it’s already on the floor, then you can ask why did it fall on the floor. That is the mystery.

Craig: Yep. Agreed.

John: Do you want to take Aldo’s question?

Craig: I do. Aldo, “In Episode 324 during your How Would This Be a Movie segment you have a discussion centered in a NBC News Video about female firefighters from the California Department of Corrections. Craig states…”

This better be my actual words.

John: Check the transcripts.

Craig: “’I believe that by the time this episode airs this will have already been optioned to be developed into a movie.’ Can you please elaborate a bit about optioning? I guess if a writer would like to develop a screenplay based on the NBC News Video, using that as the source material, then the writer would option the story from NBC News or Matt Toder, the video producer for NBC News. But if a writer would like to develop a screenplay about female firefighters from the California Department of Corrections, is there really anything to be optioned?”

John, what do you think?

John: This is a fair question. So, let’s say you watch that video and say like, “Yes, yes, this is what I want to do,” and there is unique stuff about the women who are interviewed in this video, sort of how it’s all set up, that I feel like this is the piece of material that I want to option, you would then go to see who controls the rights to it. It could be NBC News. It could be Matt Toder if it was done as a freelance kind of thing and he retained some rights. But you would go and you would investigate to see who has the rights to this in order to exploit it in a different medium.

But, your instinct is correct. If you just want to make a movie about inmate female firefighters, you could just do your own research and do it by yourself without purchasing any underlying rights.

The reason why some producers might go and get that video, even if they didn’t need it, is it sort of puts a flag in that saying like I’m making this thing. Clear away from other people trying to make inmate female firefighter movies because I own the rights to this thing.

Craig: Yeah. Keep in mind, Aldo, that public facts are not ownable, so when people report on things that becomes part of the public record. Anything that any of the women said in that news story is public record. And you can use it. The fact that they are firefighters and that they’re in prison. Literally any information that this news report puts out on the air now belongs to the world.

However, in a case like this, if you wanted to be specific about it, let’s say you want to write a movie about the female firefighters but you actually also really want to use two of the actual women featured in that news story, I would actually argue you don’t want to go to NBC News because they don’t own anything that you don’t already have in a sense. Because they’ve put it out there in the world. It’s news.

What you want to do is get the life rights of those two women. Because the beauty of life rights is it gives you access to all of the information about their lives, all of the stories that aren’t in that news report, and that would be pretty useful I would think if you wanted to make a movie about those specific women.

John: I agree. An example of the kind of thing that would happen is like last month I was approached with the rights to this radio story. So it was a segment of a popular radio show and producers had optioned the rights to this episode. And it seems weird to option the rights to this episode, but when I listened to it it’s like, OK, I get why they’re trying to do that because it was a very unique story and how they were telling the story was really informing how you would do the movie version of it.

So, even though the reporting on people who existed in the real world and all the reporting I guess could be considered public record, it’s out there in the world, the way it was put together would be key to how you would do this as a movie, which is why they had gotten the rights to that story.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s certain narrative things that do hold copyright. So, facts, available. Narrative structure, copyrightable. I mean, to an extent. To an extent.

John: But, you know, classically like Rolling Stone articles always used to get optioned to be made into movies. And sometimes they were made into movies. So like, Perfect, the aerobics movie, that was a Rolling Stone article I believe.

Craig: That’s right. Well, you know, one of the things about those articles is – for instance, Rolling Stone articles, and you’ll see this too with Vanity Fair articles, long form articles actually contain an enormous amount of research, quotes, many stories. So when you option that article it’s almost like you’re sweeping up a whole bunch of let’s call them sub-life rights. You know have the rights to all of the life that has been reported inside of it.

John: Yeah. And that can be very, very useful. Even if you’re going to fictionalize those characters or do other stuff, you are controlling a big block of stuff that could be useful material for your movie. And I will go back to the point that a lot of times producers are doing it just so they can try to claim an area of the world and say like, “No, no, I’m making this movie so everyone else back away.”

Craig: Yeah. That’s right.

John: All right, let’s get to our feature topic which was thought up about ten minutes ago, but I think it could be an interesting discussion. So, as we talk about people who are aspiring to be screenwriters or our lives as screenwriters, we talk about sort of my running for the WGA, we have a vested interest in the profession of screenwriting. It’s been very good to me and to Craig. I want to think about what if it all went away. And sort of what are the scenarios in which it could all go away.

This comes kind of from a business exercise which I did with my own company here making software where you pretend that like let’s say two years from now this project we’re working on or this whole company goes out of business, like basically it fails. If it were to fail, what are the things that would have happened that brought us to failure? And by thinking through those scenarios that brought you to failure, you might think about what things you should be doing now to make changes that won’t lead you there.

Craig: That’s smart.

John: So, let’s think about that in terms of screenwriting. If screenwriting is not a viable job, a professional job, five years, ten years, 20 years from now, what will have changed?

Craig: OK. All right. Well, I have some thoughts on that.

John: All right. And I guess we should think of some parameters first, because it’s very broad what I’m saying. I don’t know if we want to limit it to US screenwriting. I don’t know if we want to limit it to screenwriting that is able to pay you as a full-time job, so that your only job is to be a professional screenwriter. Are we talking about screenwriting only for big screens as we currently think about them? I don’t know that we need to nail these down, but as we talk through these scenarios we might want to actually discuss what kind of parameters we’re putting on them.

Craig: Well, what if we say we’re talking about screenwriting as we know it dying. So that means a general accepted range of income and a certain kind of method of employment. And it all goes away and is replaced by something else.

John: Yes. So, I mean, the biggest scenarios are scenarios in which the world is vastly changed because of something catastrophic. So the meteor hits us, there’s a zombie outbreak, there’s no film industry because making movies is such a low priority on the hierarchy of needs of things to do. So, you know, if it’s Walking Dead, you’re probably not making movies. Even Michael Bay is not making a movie during Walking Dead times.

Craig: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that at that point everyone can take a break and put their spec away, because, yeah, they have to run.

John: Yeah, I guess so. Even like LA people in coffee shops right now, they’re just not going to finish. They’re going to get stuck like last week’s guy who was at the end of the first act and really having a hard time getting to the second act. He’s going to be stuck there for a long time.

Craig: Feel like actually a lot of writers would be thrilled to see the meteor streaking towards us, just “OK, either I’m a working writer and I had a deadline and now it’s not a problem,” or “I’m an aspiring writer and I’m really tired of banging my head against the wall and I have to write yet another spec. Oh, thank god, here comes the meteor.”

John: You know, I will say in my own professional life there have been times where a movie has fallen apart and I’ve just been hooray. I’m just like so glad to be liberated from the process. Yes, you want to see movies get made, but also sometimes they’re just horrible and you’re just like, wow, to be done with it is great.

Craig: Oh. Yeah. For sure. You know that whole psychological thing of people being, what is it, fear of failure leads to fear of success and that’s for a good reason. Actually doing something and making a movie is just nothing but enormous risk. Emotional risk and personal risk. And it can all go wrong. And, man, think about how much easier it is to say I wrote a brilliant screenplay and Hollywood just couldn’t get it together. And so it’s just one of those screenplays that will never see the light of day, but it’s just one of those that people talk about.

So you’re forever a genius. You are a genius stuck in amber like a little bug. But once that movie is made, yeah, OK genius, here we go. [laughs]

John: When I see writers who are fixated on like the one project that never got made, or they’re still trying to get that one thing to have happen, I think they are kind of stuck in that loop where this is the thing, or I would have been a successful writer if it hadn’t been for this one producer screwing me over. They can happily sort of get trapped in those things. And I think sometimes they welcome the meteor because it provides a convenient excuse for why things never worked their way.

Craig: No question. You know, and I get it. I get it. It’s a really, really hard thing to do and sometimes we just need that little bit of dignity, because we feel ashamed if we quit. And so we’re looking for that dignity. And, yes, there are times, by the way, when this business is terribly unfair to people. We’ve been reading about a lot of them lately. And a wrong is done. A true wrong. Like people say I was screwed over and pushed out of the business. This does happen. We know that.

Now, no one is ever permanently pushed out of anything. You can fight your way back in one presumes. But it’s hard. And it’s harder than it needs to be. It’s unfair. It’s unjust. And I think in certain circumstances people, they get exhausted and they don’t want to and, all right, well, you know–

John: That’s OK, too.

Craig: Yeah, it is.

John: So, I think there’s a second scenario which is not a nuclear strike, or a meteor, or a plague, but like an economic collapse. And so I guess we should talk about like how big of an economic collapse would have to happen before the film industry goes under.

If you think back, granted the film industry was in its infancy during the Great Depression, but there were still movies. And even in those darkest times we were still able to make films. Craig, what’s your thought about how bad would finances have to be before we stopped making films?

Craig: Um, very bad. And kind of hard to imagine, because people’s desires for content seems inversely related to their general happiness. When things are bad, that’s the brilliance of the entertainment business. They seek entertainment and diversion more, and more, and more. And regardless of our complaints about the cable bill, or the Netflix subscription cost, or going to the movie theater, it’s still a fairly efficient and economical way for a family to entertain itself. And it is essentially what our culture is.

You know, particularly American culture is a culture of televised and filmed entertainment.

John: Yeah. So I guess I would wonder whether people would be willing to sort of substitute cheaper forms of entertainment, like television, like the stuff they can get for free, and like going out to the movies, even at a lower price point, because in an economic collapse I would assume that some prices would collapse down again, but you know, I do wonder at what point it gets so bad that people don’t go out to the movies.

Again, I get back to like going out to the movies is one of the cheapest sort of social activities we still have left in America. So, some version of that I got to feel is going to stick around.

Craig: I agree. There seems to be something in humans. They want to congregate. And even in desperate economic times they want to congregate together. And, yeah, in a total flat-out depression, movie ticket prices would go down and popcorn prices would go down. Of course. Everything adjusts.

Certainly I hope it doesn’t happen. And there’s no question that it would impact the movie business, but I don’t think it would destroy movies or television because we kind of have evidence that it doesn’t.

John: Yep. We do. All right, so let’s imagine that there are still movies, but maybe we’re not writing them. So let’s think about who is writing these movies. Obviously an easy choice would be writers who just not living in the US. We want to make our parameters for like you and me are no longer screenwriters. And the North Americans writing movies are no longer writing these.

You know, there’s people around the world who are writers and who are writing movies. Do they farm out? Do they ship those jobs overseas, Craig?

Craig: No. No more than they currently do. I mean, the truth is that any movie studio, any television entity can hire any writer they want anywhere in the world. They are free to do so. And they currently choose to generally speaking hire Americans and Brits.

John: Now, it’s worth noting that people in other countries, they have writers guilds, but they’re not the same as our Writers Guild. You will know better than me sort of what the requirements are on a US WGA signatory when they hire an international writer. Do they have to obey any of the same Writers Guild minimums/contractual things?

Craig: If they are employing that writer here. So, it actually is a question of geography. If they hire a French writer, but they bring the French writer here to the United States to be on set working and writing, then they have to be covered by a WGA agreement. But if they hire a French writer to write something in France, no. Not only do they not have to have them be WGA, I don’t think they can. I don’t think they’re allowed to be. I think that our contract only covers US employees because of federal labor law and all the rest of it.

So, it’s sort of defined by where you are, where you’re doing the job.

Similarly, if you go overseas and write and movie in France, you may not be employed by a WGA signatory because you’re writing it physically there. Obviously if you start a project here, and then you go over there, it’s covered. Once you start it, it’s covered. But, you know, I think that the – and I remember when we went on strike there was like rumors that studios were going to put writers on planes, stick them in hotels in London, and have them start writing movies, which didn’t happen. But I don’t think that globalization is necessarily the thing that’s going to undo us.

John: It’s true that China will become a bigger film market, an even bigger film market in the years ahead. And so I don’t know whether we’ve reached the tipping point where their box office is bigger than our box office. Right now, the movies that are made in China for China are not traveling to the US and to Europe the same way they are traveling throughout China and maybe Asia. But, some of those movies are going to break out. So there are going to be some movies that are entirely made in China, with Chinese money, with Chinese screenwriters that will become incredibly successful.

I don’t know that that’s going to replace our work in any meaningful way soon.

Craig: No. I don’t think so. China has become a large film producer. Yes, you’re right, most of the movies that they make locally are for China the way that most movies that India makes are for India. But, China has had some notable successes. I mean, you look at guys like Stephen Chow with Kung-Fu Hustle, and Ang Lee coming up with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There are examples where these movies crossover and become global phenomena.

John: So, let me propose a new scenario. There are still movies, there are still things being shown on a big screen, yet the way they are shot – they’re essentially animation. So, animation takes over. What we used to think of as live action becomes predominantly animated. So essentially we see movies but they’re all basically Pixar movies and they’re photorealistic Pixar movies. That is work that is written but is not written by our kind of writers. I mean, they are in many cases – most cases animation writers are not covered by the same kinds of contracts.

Craig, is that a scenario you can imagine where there is a fight over what kinds of movies are coming on screen and whether those have to be written by us under our live action contracts or that they are really essentially animated films?

Craig: Yeah. That fight is coming no matter what. Now, I don’t think that we will ever be in a situation where moves are exclusively made in that manner because at some point we need new human beings to become fascinated with. Even if we leave the age of the movie star behind, we want to find people that get us excited again. Movies are endlessly renewing in this way.

If we switched over today to an all photorealistic/CGI model, well, I hope you like Tom Hanks because that’s all you’re getting from now until the end of time, right? So we need new. That said, yes, there are absolutely going to be situations where animation essentially has become akin to a totally controllable live action.

When that happens there’s going to be a fight. And the fight will have one of two outcomes I think. Either the WGA will somehow manage to establish that it actually has jurisdiction over photorealistic animation, which is an interesting argument and it’s possible. The other possibility is that the animation guild says, “No, it turns out that we do.” At which point if there’s a lot of that kind of work then suddenly you have a whole lot of WGA screenwriters becoming members of the animation guild. And at that point they become voting members of the animation guild and then you have a big fight on your hands.

It will get messy. If the companies are smart when they get to that crossroads, they will avoid a senseless battle. But they might also see an opportunity to crush us.

John: Yeah. It will be interesting to see what happens. I think we should explain that right now most of the photorealistic movies that you’ve seen have been written under a WGA contract. And some of that is just because of the filmmakers involved. Like Justin Marks’ Jungle Book. That was a WGA movie. It had a live action character in it. It had like a real human in it, which I think is part of the reason why it’s very safe to define, but I believe that the Lion King movie which is being done photorealistic is also a WGA movie.

I don’t know that to be true. But, we’re not the only union with a dog in this fight. There are actors who are doing these movies, at least right now, whose performance is being captured. And so those actors are working under a SAG contract.

Craig: Right.

John: And we are working under a WGA contract. The cameras are different. The filming mechanism is different. But it’s still very much like making a live action movie in that part of it.

Craig: Yeah. And I think that this is an area where all three guilds, the DGA, SAG, AFTRA, and the Writers Guild will join together. What choice do we have? We have to join together, when that comes, and say this is ours. We own this.

And, you know, I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy, but I don’t think that that form of filmmaking will ever completely replace standard filmmaking.

John: Standard filmmaking is comparatively really cheap. And so if you want to make a movie like Lady Bird, which is fantastic, you’re going to probably use real actors there. You don’t get a huge benefit out of using animation to do that.

Craig: No. It’s painstakingly slow. Just having someone blink takes either a blink or days.

John: Yes. So, last sort of big scenario I want to lay out there is what if screenplays are still written to some degree but they are not written by human beings? That some AI algorithm is generating screenplays and whether that is exactly what’s being filmed, or created through a computer process, or those scripts are being written and handed off to someone to polish and make them sound better. That a lot of the writing of screenplays gets handed off to AI.

So, I have a blog post that I still have not really ever published about it. I think you read an early version of it. I do wonder at what point AI will replace screenwriters. And so let’s chat about that.

Craig: Well, I don’t think it ever will. Again, for the same reason that even as we recycle a million things over and over with our, whatever they say, seven fundamental narratives, that we crave certain kinds of new. And we crave a certain kind of surprise and shock that is specifically crafted for surprise and shock. And I think that AI – I’m just guessing here – will never get better than mediocre. Mediocre would be amazing, by the way. I mean, the fact that a computer could be a mediocre writer would be kind of amazing.

I think that I could definitely see a future where AI or a couple of AIs are in a writer’s room. I could see them offering suggestions for storylines that might surprise you because they’re odd and they’re AI and they can do it really quickly. I can also see a situation where people would be like, “All right, we have to solve this problem. We need them to be here, but they’re over here, so we need to solve that logic problem. Hey, you know, Jim-bot, any ideas?” Well, and then, you know, by scanning through a billion possibilities Jim-bot offers you three or four and you’re like, “Oh, one of those is pretty good, but let’s now humanize it.” I could see that. Yeah.

John: I could see that as well. I think I am a little bit more, I don’t know if it’s optimistic or pessimistic, that AI algorithms and other sort of developments will be able to through iteration and just technologies we don’t really fully understand yet, sort of the black boxes that are able to do these amazing things, is going to come up with some things that are really fascinating. And so there will be some work that is created by an AI. It will be a movie that will come out and then right as it is coming out, or right after it premieres at Sundance it will be revealed like, “Oh, actually a computer wrote this.” And that will be part of the story behind it. And that will be an interesting tipping point the degree to which AI-assisted or AI-influenced movies are a thing that is existing in our world and displaces some of us fleshy writers doing our jobs.

I think the other stronger possibility is that these AIs will create something that is just wholly new. That isn’t like what you or I would do, but is fascinating because it’s just so different.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And I think that is actually a bigger danger in a way to the future of screenwriting and the future of movies is they’ll come up with something that is just really incredible, that is immersive and just mind-blowing so that you don’t want to go to the movies because what you can experience is so much cooler than movies that why would you go to the movies.

Craig: It’s possible. I also think that if AI comes up with something really cool like that, people will immediately be trying to make money off of it by doing their own versions of it. I also wonder sometimes, just as a purely theoretical question, if it’s impossible ultimately for humans to create a true human mimicking AI because we don’t have access to our own brains. We only have access to the function of our brains, if that makes sense.

John: Yes.

Craig: So there is always that weird separation between what we teach it to do and what’s actually working to create the experience of our consciousness and all the rest of it. So I wonder if there’s just a fly in the ointment there that can never be overcome and that’s the thing that keeps AI from becoming us. It’s like asking a microscope to look at itself. It just doesn’t work.

We’ll see. Either way – listen – either way, you and I die.

John: Yes. One of the guarantees here. Well, actually I’m not going to take that as a guarantee. I think if I were ten years, maybe 20 years younger there’s a stronger possibility that I would not die. That essentially who I consider to be myself might continue on in some virtual form. I’m not so optimistic that’s going to happen in my lifetime, but for daughter, I think there’s a good chance that a lot of who she is would not die when her body dies.

Craig: [sighs] Whoa.

John: Whoa. How are you feeling about that, Craig? Would you – given the choice, would you want your consciousness to live on after your body has ceased to function?

Craig: No question. I have a lot of puzzling to do.

John: Yeah. There’s so many crossword puzzles. And honestly with better hardware you could just do more, you could do more at once. It would be amazing.

Craig: Fun. Yeah. It’s just fun.

John: So, last scenario I want to raise is, you know, in some ways one of the most realistic of the scenarios, but I’m curious what you think about it, the WGA ceases to exist for some reason and we can talk about some of the reasons why. It could be this animation sort of surpasses us. Some sort of huge change in how labor law works in the US.

Craig: Collusion with Russia? Something like that.

John: Yes. Just basically the nature that the WGA is a monopoly that is negotiating with oligopolies. And basically oligopolies become so powerful that the WGA monopoly is no longer enough to sort of stop it. What does screenwriting look like if the WGA goes away?

Craig: Terrible. One thing we can count on with our friends at the companies is a certain inescapable short-sidedness, like greedy children let loose in a candy store. They will gorge themselves until they puke and they will do the same with writing. If they can, they will exploit writers and content creators to the extent that nobody wants to do it anymore. They will. It’s just inevitable.

When you look at – I think this is all business in general. When it is unrestrained you get these busts and booms. It’s that cycle. They can’t help it. So, from a long-term point of view you’d say we have to treat these people well or else they’ll leave and not be here and then we’ll be out of product. And that’s true. But right now I personally can get a promotion if I deliver product at half the price. And so it begins.

John: It’s the creative version of the tragedy of the commons, where it benefits each individual person to be greedy and not think about the future, but by not thinking about the future they create this problem.

Craig: It’s also true for us. As writers, we’re humans. If you remove our commons, right, which is the sort of enforced commons of our union, and you just send us out into the workplace where there’s 20 jobs this year for four million people, it’s a race to the bottom. It’s just a very, very fast race to the bottom. And people will screw each other over to get whatever work they can just thinking, “Well look, I understand this is going to damage my profession and it’s going to make it harder for other people, including me, to get a decent living, but right now I need to pay my rent, so yes, I’ll work for minimum wage.” Well, there you go. It’s over.

John: Yesterday I heard a term I had never heard before, then it was described to me and I was horrified. Have you heard the term “virtual roundtable?”

Craig: God no.

John: So, the writer was describing it to me. And basically they said like, “We’re going to put together a virtual roundtable on this project.” What it means is you’re not going to be physically in the same room with the other writers. Basically we’re sending out the script to a bunch of writers and we’re asking each of them to do a punch-up on it. And then we’ll sort of assemble what people did. Which is troubling on some levels, but the amount of money they were paying for that virtual roundtable for basically a free comedy polish on the whole thing was like about $2,000.

Craig: That is not acceptable for our contract. That is a violation of the MBA. And I hope that you referred this to our legal department. It is a violation.

John: It is a giant violation. And by making up that term and sort of combining it with a thing which is a real thing, which is a roundtable, it makes it seem like it’s legit, but it’s not legit.

Craig: I have already made an argument, as you probably are aware, to our general counsel at the Writers Guild that the way studios currently do non-virtual roundtables but actual in person roundtables is a violation of the MBA and that we have all been systematically underpaid for those for like decades. And now they’re figuring out a way to make it even worse.

John: Yeah. So it’s on the agenda, Craig. You will hear more about this in the months ahead. I can’t tell you to relax. It’s not possible for Craig to relax. But know that that is a thing that will be – it’s on that agenda.

Craig: I mean, my god.

John: My god. Let’s go back through our worst case scenarios and try to apply a percentage to each of them. So let’s go back to a world ending or sort of civilization destroying instant that makes it so we’re no longer screenwriters.

Craig: Well, a couple years ago I would have said 0.001%, but now I’m going to put it at 2%. [laughs]

John: Yeah, I’m between 2% and 5% of some sort of giant catastrophe. An economic collapse that makes it impossible to make movies?

Craig: That makes it impossible to make movies? I mean, we’re due for a nice, big sock in the jaw, but I would say that’s pretty low. I’m going to go with 5%.

John: Yeah. I’m going to go even a little bit lower because I feel like the economic collapse would have to be so massive.

Craig: You’re right.

John: I think a plague is more likely than the kind of economic collapse that stops all movies.

Craig: I think you’re right. I’ll knock that down to a percent. A point.

John: Movies are written, but they’re written by international screenwriters?

Craig: No. Zero percent.

John: I’m going to give it still more like the 5%. I think there might be some way in which that happens. AI writes our movies?

Craig: 1%. Very low. Very low numbers.

John: That’s low. I would say that AI takes a certain chunk out of the screenwriter’s life, or basically the number of screenwriters becomes lessened because of it.

Craig: OK, well that’s different. Then I would go up to – and of course, what’s our timeframe for that?

John: Let’s say in 20 years.

Craig: Oh, 20 years? Yeah, 1%.

John: Something else replaces movies. Basically we stop making movies because something else is cooler.

Craig: Question mark percent. I mean, because I don’t know what – that could be anything really.

John: Yeah. I’m basically describing magic.

Craig: Right.

John: The WGA falls apart. The WGA ceases to exist?

Craig: Sadly, that is one of the more likely scenarios. It is not a likely scenario, but I would put that at 4%.

John: I think that’s about right. In 20 years, I think I would be nervous that it would happen. I might even go a little bit higher because I can imagine if organized labor really goes under just even greater attack, I could see that falling apart.

Craig: Yep.

John: All these percentages are still pretty low. I think if you’re an aspiring writer listening to this podcast, we’re not telling you to give up. I think you should still try to do it.

Craig: Yeah. Generally speaking, your problem isn’t any of the things we’ve said. Your problem is the fact that there are fewer of these jobs than there are in the NFL.

John: Indeed. A person with a problem is Dean in Sydney, Australia.

Craig: Segue Man.

John: He sent in his question as an audio clip, so let’s take a listen.

Dean: My question is actors. Do you ever find that actors come up to you and go, “Hey, so what’s that about? Help me out with that.” If so, awesome. If not, why not? And how do you approach actors as a writer?

John: So, Craig, how do you approach an actor as a writer? And I take it, yes, actors do sometimes come up. Sometimes you have things you would like to say to an actor. What is the dance there?

Craig: Well, in television it’s no dance, right? So, you’re running your show, you’re in charge, you sit and you talk to the actors all the time. And that’s fine. You know, you want to respect a certain relationship between the director and the actor so that while they are actually shooting there is a – we’ll call it a simplification of voices. Because acting is hard enough. When you have two different people telling you two different things on top of each other, it can be confusing. Actors are trained to respond to one person giving them a point of view about their performance.

And, you know, then at times there may be a pause and a discussion and that’s different.

Now, in features, it should work the way I just said it works in television. It doesn’t. In part because directors have created a – I would just argue an artificial culture of dominance over performance and talking to actors.

There are times when I think the actors are desperate to talk to the writers, and vice versa, but there is this strange religious thing that you’re not allowed to, and it’s offensive, and the director will lose their minds, and ban you from the set because how dare you. Which really speaks to how remarkably insecure some directors are. Again, there is a great reason to filter all immediate input about a performance through the director to keep things clear and understandable for actors. But aside from the performance, when we’re talking about in between days and we’re talking about before shooting and rehearsals and all that, the writer wrote it. It makes sense for the writer and the actor to have a discussion about what it means.

But in features, directors feel this need to be the sole god of interpretation, which is why I think a lot of movies are just stinky.

John: Yeah. I agree with you that it should be different in features than it is. I think you have to be mindful of just the way it is and find the best ways to influence the process.

So, this last year as we were doing Big Fish in London, we started rehearsals and one of the things that was the best part of the process for me is we pulled the actors aside in little small rooms and I sit with me, and the actors, and the director, and we’d read through the scenes and we’d talk about them and then we’d read through them again. And that was really my chance to influence what they were doing. Because it was in front of the director, but it was really about the text. And we could really focus on what the intentions were, what some of the options and choices were. We could really look at that. And after that process, if actors came back with a question we could refer back to that previous meeting where we all sat down and it was clear that these are the cool things we can all talk about and it was good.

Then when we’re actually in the room rehearsing, if I had something I needed to change about an actor’s performance, I would go through the director so it was clear that like this is something I want to see, but I’m not trying to do his job, and I’m not trying to insert myself.

Occasionally on movies I’ve had that same experience. On Go, we would sit in little small rooms and just talk through stuff and figure out how we were doing things. And on that movie I ended up becoming incredibly involved in sort of performance because Doug is literally holding the camera on his shoulder and so we’d shoot something and if I needed to change something, or if I saw something happening in front of the camera, I would have to tell Doug who was standing there right with the actors with the camera on his shoulder. So I would tell Doug and Doug would say, “Oh yeah, yeah, what he said.” And then we’d keep going.

That’s ideal and it’s really rare. Most cases when I see something and I need to give a note, it’s this weird dance of suggesting to the director and then hoping that he or she passes that note along to the actor.

Craig: Exactly. And, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time on sets and by and large I’ve had great relationships with directors. And that’s how I do it. I’m there at the monitor and I choose my points. There’s a certain talent to it, Dean, and, well, wrong word. It’s not a talent. There is a craft to it that you can learn. So, you learn, and here, I’ll make it easy for everybody listening. You can skip a lot of mistakes just like this.

The first take or two, let the director just direct. Eight times out of ten the thing that you see, they see too. When you’re directing an actor you are building a performance a lot of the time. So, you get something and then you have a bunch of things in your head. OK, I need that to go faster. They’re saying this word wrong. They don’t understand what that line means. And I need a pause here and here. And then I need them to look and respond without saying a word. That’s a lot.

You cannot tell – some actors you actually tell all that too and they’re like machines. Most you can’t. Most you’re going to go, “Great, awesome. Let’s do it again. Let’s just go a little faster. We’re feeling it. We’re getting into it, right.”

The director has the plan. A lot of times writers who are new to sets sit there and go, “Oh, no, no that’s not all right. That was terrible.” And it was. But calm down. Because “that was terrible” is not great direction. So give the director a chance. Then, when you notice that the director seems to have locked in on a thing and you are still concerned about something, it’s OK at that point to kind of saddle up and go, “Here’s one thing to think about. What if…or do you think that…?” And they’ll go, “Oh, OK.”

Now, sometimes they’ll say, “No, no, no.” Sometimes they’ll be annoyed that you’re talking to them. Sometimes they’ll be, “Oh yeah, good idea.” You never know what you’re going to get. Directing is hard. And then one thing I’ve learned over time is to not take the director’s mood particularly personally. Because they have to swallow all of their misery, anger, frustration, and impatience so as to not show it to the actors. Because actors will presume it’s about them and then it’s messing up their performance.

So everybody else gets the worst of them. Right? And that’s, you know, and I get that. But you figure out a way to kind of deal with them, just as they’re figuring out a way to deal with the actors. And now everyone is taking care of themselves, but you’ve given the director a chance. And then you should be OK. Especially, by the way, if your comments are actually helpful.

You make four or five annoying, stupid suggestions in a row, no one is going to listen to you.

John: Absolutely. Acting is hard. Directing is hard. And you as the writer have this ideal performance in your head, because you wrote the scene. So you saw it a certain way in your head and a lot of the process as you’re watching it is like, OK, this is different than what I saw, but does this accomplish the same things? If it doesn’t, then yes, you speak up. And you speak up after they’ve had a little chance to get into it.

If you do notice that words are being messed up or a thing I sometimes notice is they’ve changed the tense on a verb and I know that it’s not going to cut right with the other thing. They’ve locked into a bad pattern. This is your chance to talk to the script supervisor. So the scripty is there to remind actors what the actual lines are and to sort of get them back on track with that. And she can be your incredible ally in getting the words that should actually be there there.

Again, don’t mess with it if it’s just slightly different words and doesn’t really matter. But if it does matter, or if it’s really changing the meaning, or changing an important plot point, yes, you need to step up there.

I remember on my first movie, on Go, there was a point where I went off to the restrooms, but I still on my comm text — on my headphones. And I heard the scene being performed. And I realized like, oh shit, they’ve changed the tenses here. When they try to turn it around to shoot the other side of that it is not going to match at all. So I scrambled back in there and got them to take one more take with the actual right proper verbs there, because otherwise I just knew we were going to be in the editing room and we were going to be cutting around this thing that they shouldn’t have had to cut around.

Craig: Yeah. Or looping in a line, which nobody ever wants to do. I mean, we have – this is why directors frustrate me. They make it hard for us to do our job on the set. And they should make it easy for us to do our job. I understand their fear and concern about writers essentially wrestling away everyone’s job and the difficult task of making something to hold it to some imaginary movie in their heads. But most of us are smart enough to know that’s not really what we do. And just let us help because we’re actually very good at understanding how our scripts work.

John: All right. Do you want to take Matthew’s question?

Craig: Sure. We’ve got Matthew here. He says, “I’m an author of four novels, first with Doubleday, and now Macmillan, and I have a couple more on the way in 2018. All four of my published works are currently optioned for film by a variety of entities – production companies, producers, and a writer. My first novel has been optioned at least four times by four different entities, but to date nothing has happened. Scripts have been written. Well-known actors and directors have been attached at various times. I get paid a small but not insignificant amount of money every one to two years as the options are renewed or expired and then get picked up by someone else. But I’m wondering: will this ever happen? Can you give me some insight from your side of the table? How often does an optioned novel end up on the big screen? Why is this process so fraught and uncertain?”

That’s a great question, Matthew.

“My agent says to just keep writing my books, which I have. And actually written a couple screenplays now for my film agent. But I’ve gotten to the point that I just tell my friends I’ve stopped thinking about the possibility of a movie a long time ago.”

Oh, that’s a tale of woe, John. What do you think?

John: It’s not really a tale of woe. It’s a tale of reality. And I think Matthew has hit on it. Most books that get optioned don’t get made into movies. Most scripts that get written don’t get made into movies. And when I see authors being so excited about the film rights sold, or it’s going to be a movie, I’m happy for them, but I also want to pull them aside and let them know that like if it gets made into a movie, that’s winning the lottery. That so rarely happens.

Because I’m usually the person who gets sent these kinds of books. And I’ll read the book and say like, “Yes, this is a great book. I just don’t see this actually happening as a movie in our environment.” And I’ll be honest with the producers about that.

But other times, like Big Fish, it happens. And so you just don’t know. And you have so little control over it, Matthew. That’s the remarkable thing. As the author you control everything. And every word and every comma. Movies seem like they’re made by magic. Like other people just go off and run and 200 people are off making your movie. Except most times they don’t get made. They get optioned, they pay someone to write a script. That script sits on a shelf and it doesn’t happen.

Craig: Yeah I actually think you’ve come up with the best possible method here, Matthew, which is to stop thinking about the possibility of a movie, because this is our world, too. I mean, we’re the ones who get hired to write these things. And I understand from a logical point of view you say, listen, you’ve paid me money to adapt this into a movie. Adapt it into a movie! Why would you pay me money to not adapt it into a movie?

Well, there is an appetite for material. And that appetite is greatest when the costs are the lowest. And then it narrows as the potential costs become higher. So, the option amount, there’s a low barrier of entry there. That’s a dollar and a dream. It’s a lottery ticket, right?

OK, I’m not suggesting that you optioned your books for a dollar, of course, but I’m saying – let’s say you’ve optioned your book for $500,000. Well, for a studio it’s actually not that much. So now the sky is the limit. Let’s see who we can get with this great book. Let’s see if we can get the big star, the big director, the big writer. And then, you know, maybe you do get one of those things. And then you start to try.

And you get a script. And you get a director. And you get a producer. But at some point when you’re really close, someone is going to come up with a budget. Well, now the decision is not $500,000, or a million or two for a writer. The decision is $50 million, $80 million. Really it’s more like $150 million because of marketing and all the rest. This is the problem. And so you should stop thinking about it. You should take the money, spend that money, save that money, do with it what you will. Don’t think about it. This is the proverbial watched pot. Turn away and it will either boil or not.

John: The other thing you have to keep in mind is that even if the movie gets made, that may not be a good thing. In the process of doing Arlo Finch, I got to talk to a lot of authors whose books were optioned and in some cases were made. And it wasn’t always a great experience. In some cases the movies were really bad. And so it’s a frustrating experience as an author to have made something that you truly love but there’s another version out there that you don’t love. And that is a strange thing that can happen to you as well.

So, I don’t have any advice for Matthew other than to I guess be happy that in the movies not getting made at least not a bad version is out there of something that he worked on. It would be so incredibly dispiriting to see these characters you love and this world you’ve built made into something that does not resemble at all your hopes and your ambitions. That’s not good for anybody.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. Always look on the bright side there, Matthew.

John: All right. Last question is Scott from Scotland.

Craig: Oh, of course.

John: Of course. He asks, “Is it OK to use Twitter and so on as part of a plot? Or are there circumstances where it’s necessary to create a fictional brand that mimics an actual existing site?”

Craig: Well, like always, Scott, it depends on what you’re doing. You can certainly mention Twitter casually and a character can say I tweeted about it, and I saw it on Twitter, and so forth. If you want to show a screen with Twitter on it, you’re going to have to deal with Twitter. Because now you’re using their design and their logo and their technology as part of your movie. By and large what happens in production is either the platform is so essential to the concept of the movie that the studio makes a deal and works it out so that they can actually use that. Or they come up with their own fake version of it.

John: The fake version is always terrible. I hate the fake version.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And I will say that I used to work in clearance at Universal so when you saw things that were trademarks on screen, I was the person who had to call and get the legal clearance to show that thing on screen. I had to get the clearances for Reality Bites a zillion years ago.

A lot of places now I think are just saying kind of screw it. It’s the real world. We’re not going to worry so much about clearing all that stuff. I don’t know what has informed them that they feel like that’s a choice they can make. But I like that they make it. Movies don’t feel real to me. I’m aware that I’m watching a movie when I see a fake version of Twitter or Facebook or anything else in there.

I understand why it still happens, but it always annoys me when I see it.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there are ways to create things that are close enough that you don’t even notice that they’re not the real thing. You know, you want to show a Facebook page. You can design a page that looks a whole lot like Facebook, but it’s slightly different, and just don’t show the top of it where the logo would be. Now it looks like Facebook and everybody gets it. So, there are all sorts of cheap knockoff things like that.

By and large though, it’s a risky thing to write a movie like that. I mean, you can say, “Look, we’re writing a script. It’s called Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Well, you’re going to need White Castle. [laughs] You’re going to need them to play ball. There is now way around it, right? Otherwise it’s going to be Harold and Kumar Go to Burger Prince, and that’s not going to be any good.

But, Scott from Scotland, good news, it doesn’t really matter right now. I’m guessing that you are just trying to get some attention and some love for the work you’re doing, so write the movie you want to write. You’re free here. You are unfettered. John and I have to deal with this crap all day long. You don’t. So, why? Why burden yourself with it? Just presume that if somebody falls in love with this script, they will let you know how to work around it. And if truly the whole thing is like, oh my god, if only we could do this but we can’t, well, they’ll have other work for you. That’s just the way it goes.

John: So this is all a matter of public record. You can Google this. But I originally set up the rights to RJ Palacio’s book Wonder. And I loved her book and as we were pitching at places and describing it, one of the things which was always in the back of my mind is, “Wow, when I actually get around to adapting this we’re going to have to talk about some of the things that are in the book and are fine in the book but are going to be real challenges when we put them on screen, such as Star Wars.” Chewbacca is in it. There’s a lot of Star Wars throughout the whole thing.

Craig: Right.

John: There’s Minecraft in it. They perform scenes from the play Our Town. There was just a lot of stuff in there that like, man, that is going to be a complicated clearance situation and we should be thinking about alts.

I did not end up writing that movie for other reasons. But I finally saw the movie and they cleared all of it. They used Star Wars. They used Our Town. There’s specific music things that are in there that I would have thought would have been challenging to clear, but they did it because they felt it was important enough to make it be in the movie. I have no idea what the deals were behind that, but they were able to make it happen.

Craig: Then you also have things like the – there’s a song You’re Making Things Up Again, Arnold in Book of Mormon. And in that you’ll see he’s referencing Yoda, Darth Vader, characters from Lord of the Rings. And they just do generic versions of it. So it’s sort of Yoda, but it’s not Yoda. And this way they don’t have to pay anybody. But we all get it. We all get the joke, you know.

John: And because they’re living in a world of parody and sort of heightened things it’s much easier for that to play there.

Craig: Correct.

John: But like fake Chewbacca for Wonder would have been really, really weird.

Craig: That would have not – fake Chewbacca in general, it’s like who can even tell it’s Chewbacca at that point?

John: I know. Then it’s just a rug.

Craig: It’s just a rug. It’s a bear.

John: It’s a bear with a haircut.

Craig: Yeah. Bear with a haircut.

John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is the USS Callister episode of Black Mirror from the new season of Black Mirror. It’s written by Charlie Brooker and William Bridges. I thought it was terrific. And I think Black Mirror is a great series anyway, but what I really liked about this episode and why I think it’s so useful for writers to take a look at it is it does very interesting things with our assumptions about who is the protagonist and who is the villain. You know, characters who you think like, oh, is that a love interest or a principal character? There are characters quite early on that you’re like that’s going to be the bad guy of this one-hour of entertainment, and you are surprised by sort of how stuff plays out.

So, I just thought it was a really terrific episode, but also a really great exercise in understanding audience’s expectations, manipulating them, and also sort of trusting that they’ll go with you. And that you can have characters do some really surprising things if you’ve set the groundwork of your world really well.

Craig: Yeah. That’s the – I think that’s part of the freedom of the format of television. There’s an understanding like you can pause, you can get up, you can walk around, you can come back. So we’ve all lowered the stakes of “Oh my god this must be awesome every second and I must be comfortable every second.” Movies are more and more designed to have like, you know the way like big potato chip companies obsess over mouth feel and stuff like that.

Movies are not designed to just like, ah, no objections ever. Television kind of doesn’t care if you’re there or not, which I love.

John: Which can be great. Gone Girl is another example of a movie that is so confidently made that they’re able to do things about the hero/villain relationship that is surprising and different. So, I always want to sort of single out and celebrate the ones that take those big swings and connect.

Craig: I hear that. Hear that, yo.

All right, so my One Cool Thing this week is a human being by the name of Megan Ganz. She is writer who worked on Community, Modern Family, It’s Always Sunny, Last Man on Earth. That’s a whole lot of funny in one resume.

But why she is my One Cool Thing this week is because she spoke out publicly about a difficult time she had working on Community with Dan Harmon, the creator/showrunner of that show. And essentially implied that he had created a sexually hostile environment. That she had experienced harassment by him and it was very upsetting and difficult for her.

And what ensued interestingly enough was this very long, very heartfelt apology from Dan Harmon. But that’s I think where a lot of people stop. I think people go, wow, Dan Harmon, good job for apologizing.

But, you know, my whole thing is a good apology just gets you back to zero. Right? I mean, you’ve gone negative by doing a bad thing. The perfect apology, the best apology ever possible just gets you back to zero. Apologies in and of themselves are not good works.

But here is what is a good work. Megan Ganz, after listening to his apology, forgave him. And I thought that was just remarkable. You know, he did a bad thing. He did a series of bad things. And in fact by her talking about it, I also learned more about how pernicious this kind of thing is. Because we tend to think of it as the simplest example. Someone grabs your butt. They grab a boob. They say a weird thing to you. They show you their whatever. And it’s, blech. But actually there’s this other kind of just relentless, creepy kind of thing that’s like a slow drip. And it turns sour. And it crosses the line into professional stuff. And you become mistreated and you doubt yourself. And the whole thing is just – it was fascinating to hear how it all went down and it was very upsetting. And all the more reason that I thought her forgiveness of him, which she earned, and she made a decision about, was impressive. And I think forgiving somebody on your own terms is a sign of character.

Doesn’t mean that you have to every time. But I was really impressed. I thought that she handled herself bravely to start with and bravely to finish with. And so I want to concentrate on her and say well done Megan Ganz. You have led by example. I think you’re great.

John: Yeah. I’ve followed Megan on Twitter for a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever met her in real life. And I didn’t know any of this backstory. But knowing this backstory makes me appreciate her very, very funny tweets in a whole new light. So, I agree with you. I think we need to commend what she was able to do here.

Craig: Yeah. Really, really very uplifting. It moved me. It really did.

John: Great. Our show is produced by our own Megan, Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Andrew Roninson. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered today.

On Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

You can find us on Facebook or Apple Podcasts or pretty much anywhere you type the word Scriptnotes you’ll find some version of us there. Wherever you find us, leave us a review. Leave us a comment. It helps other people find us.

You can find all of the back episodes of the show at It’s $2 a month. We also have USB drives where you can get the first 300 episodes. In both places you’ll find all of the bonus episodes as well where we do extra things that were never in the main feed.

You will find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the transcript. It goes up within the week usually of an episode coming out.

Craig, thank you for a fun episode.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: I hope we didn’t destroy screenwriting in talking about it.

Craig: Oh, that would be kind of cool.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Sort of like opening the Schrödinger’s cat box. Oh, you killed it.

John: I killed it.

Craig: I knew you would.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 333: The End of the Beginning — Transcript

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 09:31

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 333 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast we’re going to be taking a listener question about getting through the first act to look at the bigger issues of how we get our scripts on the right track to begin with. Then we’ll be looking at the role of writing and writers in creating VR, AR, and other immersive experiences.

Craig, you are in Seattle. How is that as an immersive experience?

Craig: Seattle is a great city. I really like it up here. It is verdant, as we like to say. It’s got that kind of – well, I’d guess you’d say a big city vibe but little city kind of vibe at the same time. It reminds me a little bit in that way of Boston or San Francisco. You kind of have the best of both worlds. Super educated. Very progressive town. Honestly, it just feels like a lot of LA to me, except colder, wetter. The time is the same. You know, you don’t have the time change problem.

So, it’s nice. We’re up here just for a few days. My son is taking a look at some potential colleges and things like that. And, you know, just chilling.

John: Cool. We are trying to figure out a date for us to come up to see Seattle and talk to screenwriters up there. Maybe this summer? It’s all really depending on really kind of Craig, because Craig’s schedule is crazy, because he’s making a giant TV show for HBO.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But we’d love to come up there. So if we have dates, we will share them as soon as we know.

Craig: As soon as we know.

John: Last week you were absolutely correct. You diagnosed me over the air with a sinus infection. That is in fact correct.

Craig: Nailed it.

John: I’m on my heavy antibiotics. I feel much better. I don’t really sound better, but people will suffer through my nasally voice for one more week hopefully and then I’ll be better.

Craig: And what did they lob at you?

John: It is not a Z-Pack because it had been going on long enough that they put me on a different antibiotic. I also have some Mucinex, I have two different kinds of Mucinex to take.

Craig: Sure.

John: My saline nasal spray. I have other stuff for kind of emergencies. But I really do feel quite a bit better. I was able to fly yesterday without my ears exploding, so I was very happy with the progress so far.

Craig: It’s amazing how quickly the antibiotics will turn around an infection like that. And let’s just all pray that we don’t ultimately succumb to bacteria that don’t care about our antibiotics. It’s a real thing. Because, you know, the problem with sinus infections, there are very few blood vessels running through there, so you have to actually bomb your system with a pretty sizable amount of antibiotics just to reach those little nooks and crannies up there. It’s atrocious.

And, also, the clearest evidence we have, I believe, that there is no intelligent design of human beings, the sinuses are absurd. They’re so dumb.

John: Yeah. Hopefully they’ll be restored to full functionality soon enough and we’ll be good. My question is would our voices be the same? Our voices would not be the same without our sinuses. So we have to credit some of our wonderful resonant human voices to the bizarre structure of our sinuses.

Craig: I don’t know. I guess a little bit. But, I mean, you’ve got a big hole that runs from your nose down to the back of your throat. That’s why we can breathe through our nose. But the sinuses that are in our cheeks and our foreheads, I don’t know if they’re doing that much for resonance. But, yeah, I’ll give you this. Maybe we wouldn’t have – maybe we wouldn’t have Barbra without the sinuses.

John: Yep. All right, let’s do some follow-up. Man, this is going back so, so far. Why don’t you try Richard’s question here.

Craig: OK. This is from Richard. “I’m writing as a long-time listener with an update to a question I asked all the way back in Episode 3. That’s right, not a typo, Episode 3 from 2011. How simple life seemed back then, right?” An aside, yes. Right. It did.

John: Yes.

Craig: It did. Oh, 2011, how we miss you. Richard goes on, “Back then I asked as a prospective parent what it’s like raising a child while trying to break in as a screenwriter. You both gave some great perspective about how it’s tough but doable. Well, I wanted to let you know that last year, 2017, I was admitted into the WGA having written two freelance episodes of TV, but better yet my daughter turned five.” Awesome.

“Somehow, through perseverance, discipline, luck, moxie, and a very, very patient wife I was able to become a writer and a parent in these past six years. I’m now preparing to go out for staffing season this year and transition to a fulltime TV writer. I find you both inspirations as writers and people. Your podcast has given me an education and a sense of hope.”

Holy cajole, thank you, Richard.

John: That’s very nice. What a lovely way to start 2018 with a follow-up from six years ago. So, congratulations on being a parent. Congratulations on being a paid writer, a working writer who is now a member of the WGA.

Some clarification for people who don’t know, freelance episodes of TV series are – a lot of US TV shows are written by staff. And so the staff is assembled and they put together the whole season of television. There are also freelance episodes. And there are requirements that change and it’s all complicated, but some episodes of network TV shows are intended to be farmed out to somebody who is not a member of the staff, or for other reasons they’ll bring on an outside person to write an episode of a TV series. That sounds like what happened to Richard and that’s fantastic for Richard.

So something else he wrote attracted the attention of the showrunner, or other decision maker there, and said like, “You know what, let’s give that guy a script.” And Richard apparently did well enough to do it twice last season and now he is a paid writer writing under a WGA contract, which is fantastic.

Craig: That is. It used to be, I think, a lot of these freelance jobs existed. As I recall friends telling me, they sort of disappeared, but not completely. And so it’s good to see that Richard got that. And really cool to see that, Richard, our podcast is older than your child. I like that.

John: Yeah. It’s nice to see.

Craig: You know, your kid will always be younger than our show. Thanks for listening for all this time and we’re glad we have helped.

John, we’ve got some more follow-up from Laurie.

John: Laurie from Episode 331 writes, “Why are you so adamantly against work-for-hire? Are you saying that non-WGA screenwriters should turn down paid ghostwriting gigs? If the price is right, and the client insists on such terms, that is the alternative is no work and no money, what’s the downside for the writer?”

Craig, what is the downside?

Craig: Well, I don’t think, Laurie, that we’re adamantly against work-for-hire in the essence of it, because John and I both work in that capacity all day long, work-for-hire for studios.

What we’re concerned about, and yes, we are saying non-WGA screenwriters should turn down paid ghostwriting gigs. What we’re concerned about and what the downside is is not the downside for you individually in the moment, although there is one, but rather the collective downside for all of us. Because you’re essentially pushing down the nature of the work around us. Anytime somebody shows up and works for less than minimum wage, for instance, they are harming all minimum wage workers. I think we can all agree on that.

Well, in our business of professional television and movie writing, we have minimum wages. We also have some other protections that are minimum protections like our credit protections. When other people show up and work for less and under conditions where they don’t get credit, or paid properly for their work, or residuals, they essentially put pressure on the rest of the world. Not only do they make their lives worse in that moment, but they make other people’s lives worse.

Yes, in that moment you will get paid as opposed to not being paid, possibly, although I would argue you could take a stand. But what are you essentially doing is mortgaging your future to make a little bit of money right now. And you’re also harming everybody else’s.

So, the downside is not so much for the writer. The downside is for writers. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, Laurie, to say that writers who are hired with money to write things should be able to write, if they so choose, under their own name. They should receive credit for the work they do and they should be compensated fairly. To me, that is not being adamantly against something, it is being reasonably for something.

John: Absolutely. So work-for-hire is common across all industries. So it’s not just writers, there’s artists, there’s other folks who work-for-hire. And we are really working-for-hire when studios employ us to work on screenplays. But they’re hiring us under very specific circumstances and conditions because of the union that we have. And if you talk to people in other industries, or writers who are doing the kinds of things that aren’t covered by the WGA contract, they would love to have some of the protections and some of the guarantees that we have. And so I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that there are writers who are working on movie stuff that is not covered and for other reasons maybe can’t be covered because of the weird esoteric conditions, but the aspiration should be to get that work covered and get that work paid fairly and those writers treated fairly. Do screenwriting on feature projects or television projects that could be covered under a contract because you are not just hurting yourself, you’re hurting everybody else who could be doing that work.

Craig: Hallelujah.

John: All right. Let’s move on to our marquee topic of the day. This is a question that came in from Dr. Cakey, and he sent audio, so we’re going to listen to Dr. Cakey’s question.

Craig: All right.

Dr. Cakey: To give some context for my unfortunately long question, I write almost constantly, either actually writing pages or more in the notes phase. But despite that, I almost always fizzle out very early on to the point that I finish less than one, even the messiest rough draft, per year. If you have a magical solution to that, I’m certainly open. But otherwise I think a place, or the place that stymies me, the place where I lose my way is what’s in the three-act structure term’s the second half of the first act. That is the incident has incited, the ball has been kicked, but its flight hasn’t yet stabilized.

The transitional period between what the story is going to be about, you know, crystallizing, and the protagonist actually doing that story. The period between Luke Skywalker seeing Leia’s message and him in the Millennium Falcon shooting TIE Fighters, and getting between those two points.

Because this is a period in the story rather than a point in it, I feel like that’s why it’s difficult to talk about, or why I haven’t seen people talking about it. And it’s also why it’s something I can’t find when I outline. So if you have advice about this space between inciting the story and beginning it, I’d appreciate it.

John: So an interesting topic and one we’ve never specifically dug into in these first 332 episodes. So, let’s talk a little bit about what we mean by the first act, because anyone who has picked up a book on screenwriting has probably heard the descriptions of what a first act, a second act, and a third act is. But just so we’re all talking about the same things. First act is the beginning of your movie. It’s usually the first quarter to a third of your movie. You’re meeting the characters. You’re setting up the world. You’re setting up the situation.

In the very classic sort of screenwriting book, the end of the first act is this big pivotal turn where everything is different. It’s the Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Then you go into the second act which is sort of your biggest act. It can sort of be twice the size of your first and your third acts. That’s where the meat of your story is happening. The end of your second act is the moment of final crisis, the big worst-of-the-worst kind of twist. And then you get to your third act and the movie wraps itself up.

So, what he is describing, Dr. Cakey, is that moment after you’ve sort of first set things up, that inciting incident has happened, the fuse has been kind of lit, but before the character has really fully undertaken this journey. And that seems to be where he’s struggling.

Craig: Yeah. Well, I tend to think about these things entirely in terms of character. And in terms of the psychology of the character. Because you and I, when we’re doing this, we are in full control. The character isn’t. The character is as close to a real person as we can fashion. But we, as the writers, well we’re in perfect control. So everything we’re doing is intentional.

When I think about the character in the beginning of the story, this is a person who has achieved some ability to survive in the world a certain way. And then you, the writer, have upended things. People call this the inciting incident, and so on and so forth. And that’s, I think, what Dr. Cakey – which I really want to believe is his real name and that he’s a real doctor – Dr. Cakey is describing as the first half of the first act, right.

So, here’s the person. He’s living his life, she’s living her life, and then boom, a thing happens. Everything is rattled up. So, then he knows, Dr. Cakey does, that when we are in our second act some journey of a kind, whether it’s metaphoric or literal, is going to be undertaken. But what happens in between the point of the big shakeup and the going on that journey, the crossing of a threshold?

And to me a lot of times what that section is about, Doctor, is a character resisting and a character contemplating and considering, a character planning, trying to get out of, and then making some sort of bargain with the universe or fate. Characters are I think always on page 15 trying to get back to page 1. And between page 15 and whatever you want to call it, page 30, and please don’t hold me to those page numbers. You know how we are about these sort of things. The character is attempting to wriggle around it. They are meeting people and they are learning things that make it harder for them to wriggle around it, but in short they’re bargaining a bit.

I mean, Luke essentially is, I mean, in Star Wars he’s going to go return the droid and then this guy says, “Kid, come with me and fight the,” and he says, “Nah, that’s not for me. I’ve got to wriggle out of it. You know what? Let me just do one more harvest and then maybe.” He’s bargaining.

And then he goes back and he sees that his aunt and uncle have been murdered. There’s nothing more for him now and so our second act begins. But the second part of the first act for a lot of characters, whether it’s an animated character like Shrek, or a person like Luke Skywalker, or even in romantic comedies, you’re talking about–

John: So the decision that the Bill Pullman character is just fine. Like, you know, I don’t need to go off on the better one, I can stay with Pullman.

Craig: There you go. Exactly. And so really what – I think what I find helpful, because I think it’s real. It’s not like any of these things were written down by a monk in the 1500s and we just have to follow them blindly. These conventions occur because they mimic in some satisfying way what we know to be true. In your life, Dr. Cakey, if a big boulder comes rolling through and changes things, you are not immediately going to leap into a journey or an action. You are going to spend a little bit of time trying to undo what just happened, trying to make sense of what just happened, trying to excuse it, get out of it, return to where you where, and then once that becomes impossible then you start to think, OK, maybe I can do this, or this if I talk to this person and this person. To me, that’s kind of what it’s about.

John: So, what you’re describing is very true and very emotionally accurate to what it would be like to be in those circumstances. It’s also a very classic mythic structure, though. You’re talking about the denial of the call to adventure, which is a very classic sort of moment that heroes go on a classic hero’s journey/quest.

They won’t always have the denial. Like sometimes it won’t be a bad situation that’s forced them into that thing. They actually finally are able to voice that thing that they’ve wanted.

So, you’re talking about something outside coming in and disrupting their life. Sometimes it’s the character’s own want that finally gets expressed. Like this is the thing I want more than anything else, but they’re afraid to sort of fully grapple with it. So that’s another moment you’re going to see in these sort of we’ll say 15 pages, but really after you’ve sort of introduced the character, before they’ve really fully taken on their journey.

But as important as it is to understand this from the character’s perspective, you also have to understand it from the audience’s perspective. The first act is really how you’re teaching the audience how to watch you’re movie. And so in that initial set piece, the initial opening, you’re talking about the world, you’re talking about the characters, the tone, the voice. You’re giving them a sense of what’s important and what’s not important. But it’s after that section, it’s this period that we’re talking about, where you’re really kind of describing the path ahead for that character. What the kinds of things the movie will be doing over the next 90 minutes. And so you’re kind of cordoning off the sections that the character won’t go down, that the story won’t go down, so the audience sitting there in the theater watching it has some sense of what they’re in for.

You’re basically laying out the contract with the audience, like if you give me your attention I will make it worth your while. These are the kinds of things you can expect to see happen. And these are the questions I’m going to set up that I promise I will answer for you over the course of this next 90 minutes if you give me your full attention.

When movies don’t work, when TV shows don’t work, it’s often because that contract wasn’t well written, or was broken essentially by the end of the movie.

Craig: Well that’s exactly right. You are not only offering the audience a chance to crawl into your little world and thus give them an orientation tour of it, but you are also establishing a connection with them in terms of your responsibility to them. This portion of the movie is where you get to assure the audience that you’re going to be taking care of them by letting them inside your hero’s mind or thought process in some small way.

Even if the character is thrilled by the boulder that has rolled in, I’m going to go out on a limb and say generally speaking she may want to immediately get in the car and go on that exciting road trip because of what just happened on page 15, but A, she’s not going to want to go on that road trip for the right reason. Something is going to ultimately change with her, so I want to know, I want to get in her mind. I want you to show me her mind so I understand that she has something to learn. That she is not a complete character at this point. And then I want her to, I don’t know, say goodbye to some people. I want her to quit her job. I want her to pack, purchase clothing. I want to see a preparation.

Really, this area is to get ready. All of us, we get to get ready.

John: You’re assembling the team. You are figuring out what the path is ahead for you.

Going back to Star Wars, you know, it’s crucial that Luke not only deny the call to adventure, but he goes back and the family is dead. So, we call this burning down the house. You’re essentially making it impossible for them to get back to the life they had on page one through circumstances. Ideally, it’s circumstances that the character themselves have done and not some external force, but it also works if it’s an external force.

But something has changed and you basically said of all the stories this character could go on, the story the character is going to go on for this movie, for this two-hours of time is this story. This is the road ahead for this character. And that’s a crucial thing you’re doing in this period at the end of the first act.

Craig: Yeah. I actually don’t necessarily mind if a movie burns the house down, or does something like that in order to force a character to do something as long as I have seen that character refuse to do it prior. Because that does set up a certain tension which is to say, oh OK, now you’re doing it but you didn’t want to. You had to. And eventually you’re going to need to want to. You’re going to need to make this right choice when you can go back to a house.

And that’s a good expectation, but this is all stuff that you are setting up in motion here. You know, you think about the first half of your first act, Dr. Cakey, as who is this person and what is their problem. You can look at the second half of the first act as a little bit of an indication of what the ending of the movie is going to be. Because the motions that they’re going through here should be both in denial of that ending, but also in a sense predicting it.

John: So let’s talk about if you’re having problems in this period, what are some things to be looking for? I would start with do you really know what your character wants? And when I say wants, I mean both macro level like what is the overall hope, dream, ambition of the character, but what does the character want moment by moment? It goes back to what Craig was saying about trying to find a way to get back to page one. They probably want to retreat to a place of safety. How do you juggle the very immediate wants, the sort of scene by scene wants, with this bigger sort of emotional want?

Can you hear what the character’s song would be if this was a musical, because this is classically the moment where you’ve already had the “welcome to the world” song. This is the “I Want” song. Well, what is that character’s song? And if they could sing it, what would they be singing? Because that would probably tell you where they’re emotionally at as they’re trying to head into the second act.

Second I’d say have you picked a story that’s interesting to you, or just a character or situation that’s interesting to you? Because maybe it’s a fundamental thing about the nature of the story you’ve chosen, because if you’re not actually that intrigued by the journey, by where they start and where they’re going to, but you really love this character, or you really love this world, or this situation, that may be your problem and that may be why you’re struggling to get through this part of the first act and really only finishing a script in a year is you’re trying to force yourself to be interested in something that’s not fundamentally that interesting to you.

Craig: I think also, Doc, if I may, sorry, I think I’m coming down with John’s whatever sinus infection, I think you need to take a step back and start watching some movies that you love that you think you know. And watch them specifically for this. Write down everything that happens in every scene until the first act is over, and then think about what connected you to the second part of that, what you call the first act. Think about it. Really think about what grabbed you and what meant something to you and then ask how that might apply, not the details, but the spirit, how that might apply to what you’re doing.

John: The thing I want to stress is we’re talking about first act and second act that like it’s a really natural clear distinction between the two.

Craig: No.

John: And a lot of times in the movies that I’ve worked on, I would disagree on sort of where the first act is and where the second act. I think it can be kind of arbitrary and honestly invisible. When a movie is working really well you sort of cross over that boundary and you don’t really notice that you’ve crossed over it.

Like, you might check in with a character later on and realize like, oh yeah, they’re in a very different place than they were 20 pages ago, but it wasn’t right on a certain page break where like, oh, suddenly now the curtain closed and now we’re open to act two. It doesn’t often feel that way. So, looking through some of my movies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a very, very obvious act break where we’re outside the factory, then we’re inside the factory. It’s a very different movie and things happen completely differently inside and outside.

But Go really doesn’t have that same kind of break, even though there’s three sections to it they’re all following different stories. Basically each one of those little stories has its three-act structure, its beginning, its middle, and its end.

Big Fish kind of has a first act and a second act, but I would have a hard time pointing at one specific scene that says like, oh, that’s the start of the second act. You know, it’s two characters on two different journeys and you’re following them. And if I’m doing my job correctly, scene by scene, you’re intrigued enough that you’re not really noticing that the landscape underneath your feet has changed.

Craig: Sometimes I find myself in a room where a producer and executive are discussing the first act or the second act, and one of them say, “And the first act, you know, I think ends here.” And then the other one will say, “No, I think the first act ends here.” And they’ll start arguing about it. And I will tolerate it, briefly, but eventually I will say you all understand there’s no – the curtain stays open the whole movie. No one cares. Why are we talking about this? Just talk about the movie. Talk about the story.

A proper movie has one act. Beginning, middle, end. That’s it. I don’t get all hung up on this act stuff. I really don’t. And, by the way, I think partly because there are other kinds of entertainment I’ve come to enjoy very much, like say musicals, that are two acts. But, you know, you could also take any two-act musical, ignore the fact that there’s a break in the middle so people can pee basically, and then re-divide that into three if you’d like. Or five. Or seven. You know.

John: So both stage musicals and classic broadcast television, they have act breaks because they literally have breaks where they stop the action and go to the next thing. And because they have that mechanical divide, you write them in a very specific way so that you have an intriguing question at the end of an act and then you come into the next act to sort of answer that question.

So, with Big Fish I had to figure out how to both resolve the action and have a big moment, but leave an open question so that the audience has something to talk about over the break and is eager to see that question resolved. In TV, we look at what Aline does with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, they have to really plan for what those act breaks are. And once you get used to that form of writing for television, with act breaks, it becomes an incredibly useful structuring tool to figure out how you – those become the moments in which you story sort of hangs. You figure out those act breaks first a lot of times and then write to those act breaks. And it’s powerful when you can do it.

When we had our live show and we had Julie Plec talking about the one thing she wishes she could kill, or the lump of coal, it was the six-act structure which is imposed on some broadcast shows now where the acts become so short that like you’re just scrambling to get any meaningful piece of entertainment in between those last commercial breaks.

Craig: Yeah, you know, in the writing of Chernobyl I’ve never thought about acts, but not even once. Each episode is an episode. That’s what it is. It’s an episode. Inside of the 60 pages I couldn’t even begin to tell you where there’s acts. It’s just not relevant.

John: Yeah. And as we were talking about Game of Thrones and sort of the challenges of that first pilot episode and making it work right, they really weren’t act problems that you were describing. It was audience understanding of what characters were going for. It was audience’s understanding of the world and, yes, those are first act issues because you’re trying to establish things, but they’re really the whole piece issues.

Craig: Oh yeah. They had problems at the end of the show when people were showing up and I would say, “Well who’s that?” And I watch Game of Thrones religiously. I couldn’t tell you where an act occurs in any given Game of Thrones episode. Nor could I tell you where an act occurs in any given episode of Breaking Bad or any TV – any episodic TV show, like a 60-minute show. There’s no first, second, third to me. It’s really more about just breaks. It’s different.

In movies, there is this sense of dramatic motion, like “And now the second act is over and the third act begins. Well, the third act seems to be starting a little late.” And I always just giggle. I’m like, is the movie the right length? Then let’s just call to five pages earlier the third – who cares? What are you talking about?

If the movie is the right length and it’s paced properly, I don’t know what any of this jargon means. So hopefully we’ve helped Dr. Cakey without over hammering on the orthodoxy of this act stuff.

John: Yeah. So I want to try to square this circle here by saying I think it’s fine to talk about acts while acknowledging that they don’t really exist. What’s useful about talking about acts is we recognize that in most feature films with a central protagonist there’s a journey that happens because these stories happen to a character just once. Like there’s a once in a lifetime thing that is happening to this character that you’re going to kind of naturally flow along a certain path. And one of those paths is going to be leaving this comfortable place and going on a journey.

And not necessarily a literal journey, but some sort of change is going to happen to this character. And in that process of change there are turning points. I think it’s fine to talk about all those things without getting too hung up on “It’s this act, it’s that act, we’re on this page, or that page.” And where I feel the danger is is that somebody at some point read a bunch of scripts and watched a bunch of movies and realized like, oh, it’s happening at this page counts and at this minutes. And that must be how movies work. And they mistook the measurement of the thing for the thing itself.

Craig: Yeah. People watch movies and then they confuse symptoms for causes. And they will advise people. You see it all the time. “Well, in the middle of your movie this thing must happen.” OK. Why? “Because it does all the time.” Well, yes, but why? “Just do it. All movies have it.” OK. Well how am I supposed to do it if I don’t know why it’s there? And why did all the people who did it before me who didn’t have you telling them to do it, why did they do it?

And so these are the things that interest me. I’m never concerned about the act effect, which is why I actually like this question because he’s really asking why. Why do these things happen? Yeah.

John: So, back in Episode 100 someone asked in the audience, basically I have these two ideas, which one should I write. And I said write the one with the best ending because that’s the one you’re going to finish. I think my advice for Dr. Cakey is as you’re auditioning ideas to write, for you specifically I would say write the one that has the most interesting section of what we’re talking about. Pick the one next to write that has a really fascinating change from the normal world into the – we’ll call it second act – into that journey of like where things are going. Write the one that has a really intriguing moment of that character having to decide to go on that journey, because that’s the one that’s going to probably work best in that section. And it may work best overall for what you’re struggling with.

Craig: I’m down with that.

John: Let’s go to Nicole in Rome. She writes in with an audio question as well.

Craig: Let’s listen.

Nicole: Hi John. Hi Craig. My name is Nicole Mosely. I’m listening to your podcast from Rome in Italy. And I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you.

I have a question regarding new formats of storytelling that became possible in the last years. I’m talking about virtual reality, 360 film, and augmented reality. I’d like to know what you guys think about it. Is this the future of filmmaking? Or is it just to hype something that is already dead before it hits the mainstream?

And the thing that would interest me even more is how does it affect storytelling? For example, how do you actually get the viewer to look at what is important and convey story and meaning when it’s no longer you, the screenwriter, but actually the viewer who decides what he’s going to look at? What does all of this mean for dramaturgy like the three-act structure? Does it still apply as it does in non-linear movies, or does it work in a completely different way?

And is that still storytelling? Or would it serve for journalism, education, gaming, and other experiences? Also, the moment we talk about full immersion and the viewer being inside the story, what role does he take on? Is he the protagonist? Or is he a fly on the wall?

I know those are so many questions, but I’d really like to know what your take on all of this is. Thank you.

John: It was one of those epic questions that sort of keeps on going. But they’re all related and I think they’re all fair questions to ask.

Craig: Yeah.

John: From my perspective, I don’t think AR/VR/Immersive storytelling/360 movies, I don’t think they’re the future of cinema. I don’t think they’re the future of moviemaking. But I think they are in our future. I think they are important art forms that need to be talked about in their own way and to try to just say that all movies are going to become them I think is really naïve.

I think they have as much to do with video gaming as they do with traditional movies. I think you have to sort of look at what is the best way to tell a story in those new mediums and not necessarily try to apply everything we’ve learned from TV or from film. Just let them be their own thing.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. Well, first of all, Nicole, these are really, really good questions. And I don’t blame you for being a combination of skeptical and also possibly hopeful. I mean, it’s always exciting when these things come along. And then, of course, scary as well. What is it going to mean for all of us?

I think the first thing to understand, at least from my point of view, is that virtual reality/360 film, and augmented reality is – well, let’s leave augmented reality aside. Let’s just talk about VR/360. That already exists. They’re called videogames. The only difference that we’re seeing now is the delivery method which now straps to your head, so you’ve eliminated the space between yourself and the television. So, visually the experience is different. But storytelling-wise it’s the same. You control your point of view in a 360 up and down way the way you do in say Skyrim.

The storytelling that occurs in that format, well, there’s lots of ways of doing it. One way is the kind of it’s open and you discover things as you go. One way is sort of a combination of that, but you are also kind of on rails, so when you attach yourself to a certain story point you follow that little quest and you’re kind of on rails with it. Or you have choices between things to follow. That exists. And I think that when John says games, I think he’s right that this feels more about games to me than movies.

Movies and books and television shows are entirely passive experiences for the audience. They have always been so, with rare exception, and I don’t see any reason why that’s going to go away. That experience is actually the fundamental narrative experience. To read a book. To watch a play. To see a movie. To listen to a song. And we will always come up with other ways to have that experience, but the fundamental experience will always be there. No new technology has gotten rid of the technologies before it. None.

I don’t think there are any story type of technologies that have just simply been eliminated. We just accrue more of them, which I find fascinating.

There are some examples of things that are happening. One of the people that we want to talk to is Ed Solomon who has put together this crazy thing with I think Soderbergh, right?

John: Yeah, exactly. Mosaic.

Craig: Yeah, Mosaic, which is very much a kind of, OK, choose your own adventure style parallel storyline. Everything all adds up. Lots of different points. And it will end differently depending on what you’re doing. But, of course, no matter how complex you make these things, and we will talk to Ed about it, it comes down to, well, it’s written right? It’s written.

So, yes, these things are kinds of storytelling. They are all sorts of storytelling. And just as there are simple children’s books you can read and then these very complicated children’s books that aren’t really for children but more like for adults that involve moving back and around and turning things upside down.

Did you ever read – there’s just all these multimedia things and ways to do storytelling. And so I guess I’m going to say, Nicole, all of it is going to happen. None of it is going to eliminate anything else. That’s my crazy point of view. It will accumulate, but it will not eliminate.

John: Absolutely. I think the question that’s sort of underlying what Nicole is asking is how do you write it. How will we figure out how to write it? And we’re still grappling with that. I think we’re still grappling with how to write certain kinds of videogames. Like videogame writing has improved dramatically, but it’s a very different kind of writing than what we’re used to. Because usually when we’re talking about a book, we’re talking about a play, we’re talking about a movie, it’s one shot straight through. And we know exactly what we’re going to be looking at. We can direct the viewer’s attention completely.

But in a videogame you may not have that option because the character could do a thousand different things. It’s a forking branching paths, and so you have to plan your writing for all the different scenarios they could come across.

A similar thing happens with immersive theater. So, Sleep No More, New York, or I went to Safe House 77 here in Los Angeles, and those are situations where parts of it are clearly written and controlled and there’s a whole plan for this is going to happen at this moment. There’s a timeline in which things happen. But you can’t know for sure that a certain person in that audience was looking where you wanted them to look, or was interacting the way you wanted them to interact. You can direct your actors to do certain things, but the audience can change that as well. They have to be able to sometimes improvise based on what’s happening in the space. So every time is different.

So that’s still playwriting to some degree, but it’s also a different thing. And I think to try to force it to become the future of something, or to be like something else, is limiting its potential.

I would say when you’re grappling with AR/VR/360/some new storytelling mechanism/an alternative reality game, always great to take lessons from what other things have done before it, but you really are walking into uncharted lands. And enjoy that uncharted landness. I think it’s important to be able to not limit yourself because the movie version of it would have done this. Well, you’re not making a movie. You’re making something else. What is going to be the cool experience? What is going to be the thing that people will take with them?

And one of Nicole’s great questions is are you a spectator or a participant as a viewer? Are you changing the story? Are you making the story move around? Or are you a fly on the wall? Both can work, but that’s a fundamental choice you’re going to have to make early on in any of these projects is to what degree are you participating in the story versus watching.

Jordan Mechner who did Prince of Persia, he really describes his games as being like you are the hero of the game. You have to think about every action being you are the protagonist doing it. So, if you’re watching people have a scene around you that is a failure. You have to be driving the scenes that you’re in.

Craig: Yeah. A lot of it reminds me of magic in the sense that you are implying a certain amount of choice to the audience that they don’t have. Pick a card, any card. I know what card you’re picking. Or it doesn’t matter what card you’re picking. You’re going to think that it’s this card. This is what craft is all about, right? So, when we do these things, I think videogames do it all the time, they make you think that you’re making a million choices. They make you think that you are somehow going to change the ending of something. But sooner or later the debt comes to be owed.

And the debt is to story. It’s to narrative. Mass Effect had a little bit of a problem when they arrived at the end of their trilogy of a billion user choices only to realize, “Uh, we have to give an ending. And the ending has to cover at least an enormous amount of these possible choices. So, let’s go with three of them,” and everybody went bananas.

And I understood why they went bananas, because the game had promised a certain kind of something it could not deliver. I played it. I played them. They made you feel like the choices you made mattered and you had many, many multiple choices. But in the end really they were kind of squishing you towards two poles, which were manageable narratively. And then some other things that occurred, which were managed narratively, but you know, it comes down to decision tree. No game, no piece of art can offer you a decision tree that is as complex as just walking down the street to the 7-11 is in real life. Because there is an end, right? The show ends, therefore work backwards from that.

So, I think, Nicole, no matter what happens it’s our brains that will always be the sticking point. That’s sort of the log jam. We have to deal with our brains. And people’s brains do require a certain kind of firm narrative to cling to one way or the other.

John: Circling back to Dr. Cakey’s question, I feel like this is also a case of the contract you’re making with the viewer, the participant, whatever you want to call the person who is experiencing the art that you’re making. It’s quite early on, the first few minutes, you are going to be establishing these are the kinds of things that can happen. These are going to be your responsibilities. These are going to be my responsibilities. Together we’re going to make this all work. And in a film or television show, it’s one kind of contract. In an immersive theater piece or in AR/VR, something that’s 360, it’s a different kind of contract. But it has to be there and you have to recognize that whether you’re explicitly stating it or just sort of implying it, people are going to have expectations about where you’re going. And so as long as you’re going in a place that meets their expectations and hopefully surpasses their expectations you’ll have a good experience.

Where it’s just confusing, or I just don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking at, that’s where these projects tend to fall apart.

Craig: Yep. 100%.

John: Cool. Do you want to take Melissa’s question?

Craig: Yeah, Melissa in Eugene, Oregon, not too far from where I am now, asks, “I’m writing because last year I made it to the semifinal round of the Nicholl Fellowship,” congrats Melissa, “and ended up getting some inquiries from managers and producers based on that. The majority of people that reached out asked for the whole script, but two people asked for a writing sample.

“Is there an industry standard as to what a writing sample should consist of? The first ten pages? Any ten pages? The first act? Or is this generally up to the individual writer? Any advice you can give would be appreciated.”

John, what do you make of this?

John: Great. I don’t really know what to make of it because I’ve never been asked to send in a writing sample that wasn’t the whole thing. Because honestly I feel like you can send the whole script and if they just didn’t finish the script that’s up to them. We talk to a lot of people who read scripts for a living, who are staffing, and they stop whenever they stop, or they skim through stuff. We had these agents on for the last Three Page Challenge and they said like, “Yeah, we’ll start reading and then when we get bored we’ll skim.”

If they’re asking for a sample, it makes it sound clear that they don’t want the whole script, I would send them ten pages. And ten pages doesn’t feel like a lot and I think if you’re sending ten pages, I’d send them the first ten pages I should stress. And that’s not a lot. If they like the ten pages they can always ask for more. Craig, what’s your instinct?

Craig: I wouldn’t do that. Because here’s the thing. You have gotten inquiries, Melissa, from managers and producers based on making it to the semifinal round. The majority of people will ask for the whole script. That implies to me they haven’t read it. Two people asked for a writing sample, I wonder if that means we’ve read your script that was in the semifinal round. Can you please send more?

No matter what, I would never send anything less than a complete script. Because like John said, especially now in the age of PDFs where we’re not creating extra weight on their desk, they can read as much as they want. The script is a writing sample, top to bottom. If you send ten pages and they love it, the problem is they may go, “Great. I’ll ask her for the rest of those later,” but then a couple days go by and something happens and they’ve forgotten. But a script is a script. So, I would just send the whole script every time. If they ask for a writing sample and you’re not sure if they’ve read your Nicholl script, send the Nicholl script and something else.

If you don’t have another script, just resend the Nicholl script and say this is what I have so far.

John: Yeah. I think you are right and I’m going to sort of retract my previous advice. I guess I really can’t make a strong case for the ten pages. I think I may have been thinking about writing packet submissions, which are for a very specific kind of thing, and the WGA has been addressing abuses in that world.

The other thing I’ll say is it’s not even that we’re shipping big chunks of paper around, or even attaching PDFS. If you stick a link on there saying here are some things I’ve written that you may enjoy, then you’re sending two of those things and they’re basically just Dropbox links they’re going to open or not open.

Craig: Right.

John: Great. You’re really creating very little burden for them to do it. Just make sure you’re steering them to the thing you think is your best work, the thing that is going to best showcase what you’re able to bring.

Craig: That’s exactly right. You know what? Every now and then, John, I feel like we actually answer a question.

John: Oh, that’s so nice.

Craig: A lot of times, you know, listen, I’m not dissuading people from writing in. We do our best. Some of these questions you people ask are not answerable. You realize that. We do our best. But every now and then I feel like we nail it. And we’re definitely going to nail this next one. Definitely.

John: All right. Let’s bring in our next and our last one. It’s the last one in our list here. It’s from Will in Toronto. He writes, “How feasible is adapting a novel into a screenplay? Does the red tape of IP and rights make an adaptation virtually unreasonable to focus on or even impossible? I came across a novel in the past few months that would serve as a brilliant screenplay, but should I give it my undivided time and effort if it’s going to be ultimately denied?”

So, this is a very fundamental question but also a naïve question and I think a question that we can frame out for Will here in this discussion. Yes, a lot of books are adapted into movies. And sometimes those books are optioned by studios or producers who say like, “Hey, let us borrow the rights to your book and we may make a movie out of it. We’ll pay you a small amount of money. We’ll pay you more money if we make it. We’re going to hire a writer to work on this.”

That happens. That’s a lot of what I do is adapting books into movies. Individual writers can also option books. So, you, Will, in Toronto, if there’s a book that you love that you thought could be a movie and you felt like you could convince that author to sign over the rights, to option those rights to you, you could option those rights from that author and do it.

I’m sure on previous episodes we’ve talked about optioning stuff, about adapting other work. But I think you are fundamentally asking is this a thing you should be thinking about doing. I don’t think it’s the first script you should write is an adaptation. I think you need to learn how to write screenplays first. And I think you need to write one or two screenplays that are just yours, that are just entirely your things that you own every piece of.

And then if you want to circle back around to that book to adapt, go for it. Craig, what do you think?

Craig: I think you did it. I think you nailed it, John. I predicted that this question would get answered firmly and completely and you did it. I have nothing to add except this tiny piece of information. When John says, “Hey Will, maybe you could find this author and option the rights yourself.” That is absolutely true. And it may cost you a dollar. It may cost you nothing. Right?

It depends on who the author and the book is. If no one is asking them about their book, it’s an obscure book, or there wasn’t any interest. You’re the only person interested. What does it cost them to say, “All right, well you know what, give me ten bucks and you have a year to set this up somewhere, at which point somebody will have to purchase the rights to this book, but you have the exclusive right to go ahead and create a screenplay based on it and go and try and sell it.”

John: Yeah. Back in the day, when I was a young screenwriter, there was a book that I really wanted to option. And the only way to figure out how to get to the author was to call the sub-rights department of the publisher. So let’s say it was Macmillan, you would find the number for Macmillan in New York. You’d call the operator at the Macmillan switchboard and ask for sub-rights. And you get to someone in sub-rights and say I’m looking for the film rights for this book. And they would look up in some sort of catalog and then they would tell you who the person was. Or later on you’d email or you’d fax something through and they’d fax you back information.

Now with the Internet, you find the author, you find the author’s Twitter thing, and you ask them. You find an email address for them and you email them directly. The few times that I’ve optioned the rights to books myself, I just figured out who the author was and how to reach them and started the process myself.

Craig: That sounds exactly like the way to go. Will, we’ve done it. We’ve answered your question. I feel really good about it.

John: I feel great about it.

All right, it’s time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Bathe in my Milk. Craig, have you clicked this link yet?

Craig: No.

John: Click the link. Clink the link, Craig.

Craig: OK.

John: Now, please describe what you see.

Craig: OK. So I see a photo. Oh, all right. So, it’s a photo of a bathroom. It’s a bad bathroom. Peeling wallpaper. An elderly white woman is standing in a shabby white nightgown, cleaning products at her feet. There is a torn tassel rope and then a standalone tube. There is an African American man also about her age I would say sitting in the tub and the tub has apparently got milk in it. But maybe just soapy water.

And then her head is casting a shadow against the window. It’s not good. Should I keep scrolling?

John: Keep scrolling.

Craig: Oh god. OK. So now she has repositioned herself on the other side of the room and now there is a younger Asian man in the same tub. Nothing else has changed except a plunger has appeared in the cleaning – oh god. What is the story here? What is happening? Every single photo is the same except that there is a different man in her tub of weird, creepy, milky water.

Oh, there’s a big boy at the end. He’s big.

John: Yeah. He barely fits into the tub.

Craig: Yes he does. Oof. Yikes.

John: All right. So, Craig, tell me your theory. What the hell is going on here?

Craig: OK. Well, theory number one, this is a very, very low rent spa. This is a spa that costs $0.14.

Now, I think this is some kind of art project. I can’t imagine it’s anything else. The bathroom doesn’t – it’s – what could possibly be happening here? Oh my god, there’s one picture where she’s outside looking in through the window. Did you see that one?

John: [laughs] I saw that one, too.

Craig: That’s horrifying. So in one of the pictures she’s not even in the room. She’s outside of the room looking. Yeah, this is just a weird art project.

John: All right. So now you can click through to the New York Post thing which shows the actual flyer this all comes from. So it’s a flyer that’s mounted onto a telephone post. It says Bathe in my Milk. It has one of the photos there. It says Bathe in my Milk. Offer open to men only. Soy, almond, or traditional. Use my sponge. I will watch you. And then it has a link to the

Craig: So what the hell is it? It is a prank. Should we tell people?

John: It’s a prank, yet it is a meme. It is a creation, this guy Alan Wagner, and his friend Sydney Marquez helped him build it. He’s a guy who just does these things. They’re kind of art projects. They’re just like sort of little bits of cultural stuff that go out there. And this is an especially effective one, I thought. I just thought it was delightful.

Craig: Yeah, this is great. I like this line. He says, “Nobody seems to be enjoying it, and yet they are partaking in it.” That’s a great description of what these people are like. Yeah.

John: So I’m going to put up a link to the New York Post article which goes into sort of the backstory of it. So, Alan Wagner is a USC film school grad. I suspect he might be a listener, so Alan if you’re listening, hello.

Craig: Well done.

John: And basically he built that bathroom set in his garage. He just did it for the giggles. It looks like all those actors are from Craigslist. I just thought it was a nice example of just making something for the hell of making it. And a wonderfully creepy sort of disturbing thing to float out there in the world.

Craig: Yeah. It’s got a bit of the Saw bathroom kind of going on in this. It’s creepy.

John: It does. Yeah.

Craig: Very creepy.

John: It also reminded me a little bit of escape rooms. You can sort of imagine that there’s some escape room that’s kind of like this bathroom. That is just so disturbing.

Craig: Yeah. There will be a Bathe in my Milk Escape Room. Well, god —

John: Top that.

Craig: I won’t. I will go right underneath that with the most mundane One Cool Thing ever, but you know I’ve got this Apple Pencil. I don’t use it. It’s just there. I have it. I don’t know what to do with it. And finally I just thought, you know, I had to go somewhere and just jot down some notes and I didn’t want to bring my laptop. So I brought my iPad. I just said, screw it, I’m just going to do the pencil, the Apple Pencil note thing. I’m just going to plunge in. I’m not going to read instructions about anything. I looked to see there’s two apps that people use. There’s Notability and then there’s another one. I can’t remember what it’s called.

And I just flipped a coin, went for Notability. And you know what? It’s actually not bad. I don’t know if this is a One Cool Thing as much as a one begrudgingly, yeah, it actually works pretty well. I guess the nicest part of it, the part that made me happiest was I’m writing these notes down and it just automatically puts an image of the notes that I’ve taken on my computer when I’m at home via the magic of Dropbox of iCloud or whatever. But, you know, yeah, it’s OK. I mean, it’s not Bathe in my Milk, but it does the trick.

I’m not like fully into it. I’m OK with it.

John: Yeah. I don’t use my pencil for very much, but when I do need to go through a script and do some markup on it, I find it’s actually really good. So, even doing Three Page Challenges, I will find I usually use my Apple Pencil for that. So I’m looking at the PDF. I use a PDF Expert for that. And then I use the little pen function on that and circle things, highlight things, mark things. And it’s quite good for that.

And I agree that the iCloud aspect of it is incredibly important because then when I’m on my computer and we’re recording an episode I can pull up that same PDF with all of my markup in it and sort of see what I wanted to talk about.

So, I do use my pencil some. I think the pencil is remarkable. I just don’t have as much use for it as I’d hoped I would.

Craig: I’m there with you. Look, this is a better method for me than what I normally do, and what I normally have done, which is to just write notes on a regular piece of paper and then take a picture of that with my phone so in case I lose the note I have an image of it. But that’s sort of dopey.

The one thing I wish they could do differently is I don’t like that the Apple Pencil makes a little click when it contacts the glass of your iPad. I wish that there was no click. Because there’s something about graphite on paper, you know don’t get a click. You know what I mean?

John: I don’t hear that click. Are you sure you have the nib screwed all the way in?

Craig: No, it’s not a click-click. It’s more just – it feels hard. There’s no give, basically, right? There’s a little bit of give to paper and a little bit of give to graphite, because the graphite is wearing away as you’re drawing, right? And the paper is wearing away as you’re writing and drawing. But there’s nothing – it’s a fully inelastic collision between the nib of the Apple Pencil and the service of the iPad. And I wish it was slightly – I wish there was just a touch of give.

John: I get it. I get it. My wish for the Apple Pencil 2.0 or whatever is some stylists in the past have had a thing where you flip it over, and it’s like an eraser on the other side.

Craig: Ooh.

John: I keep trying to do that and to try to erase and instead you have to click the little erase thing and that’s just frustrating. There are also great apps out there that are doing innovative things where you’re touching with your finger while you’re using the thing. And you watch people do it and it’s amazing and it’s magic. I just don’t have a need for those things right now.

Craig: Also, I don’t have any talent with anything that involves dexterity and some sort of fine art instrument like a pencil, a crayon, a marker. I’m a disaster.

John: Yeah. I’m good at craft. I’m good at wrapping up things and that stuff.

Craig: You are.

John: But I’m not good with the little fine motor skill stuff whatsoever.

Craig: I’m also bad at craft.

John: I remember during the strike you were so impressed with my duct-taping abilities as we were duct-taping signs.

Craig: I still think about it. Yeah, we had this job of like, so, you know, these picket signs are made of two posters that are stapled together over a stick. Not even a stick. Like a slat.

John: It’s like a yard stick.

Craig: Yeah, like a yard stick. It’s a piece of crap piece of wood. And if you were to just walk around holding it your hands would be shredded with these terrible splinters from these things. So you have to duct tape them so that people can walk around and hold them without shredding their skin. And so John and I spent an hour at the Writers Guild one morning in 2007, I guess it was.

John: I guess.

Craig: Duct-taping these things. And my method, you know, just because again I don’t understand craft. I just figured, you know, I’m just going to start winding duct tape around this thing. And eventually I’ll stop. And then John’s method, everything was at a perfect slant. Each layer overlapped the other layer perfectly, so it just looked professional.

John: I’m a professional picket sign maker.

Craig: Yeah, it was really good. So I tried to do it like you were doing it, but I wasn’t as good.

John: Yeah. No, I really love that. I love that kind of stuff. I love wrapping presents. There’s something really calming about that. Like me and Martha Stewart, we love to wrap presents. Love it. Love it.

Craig: I still can’t do it. I’m almost a 47-year-old man, and when I have to wrap a gift I go to Melissa and I just say can you please wrap this for me. Because I don’t know how to do it. [laughs]

John: I kind of feel bad for my daughter because I will still wrap gifts that she’s giving out for presents for people and like I’m denying her the ability to actually learn how to do it, but I just love it so much that I always want to do it.

Craig: You know what I do? My one crafty thing is tiling out large D&D maps and then taping them back together.

John: That’s quite a skill. I’m not good at that. So nicely done.

Craig: That I rock. I knew that somehow this would come around in my favor. I just didn’t know how it would happen. So exciting. This is why VR struggles because you could never predict that.

John: No. They would never know that like Craig’s ability to tile things is crucial.

Craig: It’s going to be the ending. Like who could have seen that that was the ending? Our show is produced by… [laughs]

John: This Sunday, Craig, we get to play the next installment of Storm Kings Thunder. I could not be more excited.

Craig: Oh I know. I mean, it’s all I want to do every day.

John: Our adventuring party is headed into some place along the spine of the world and we have a giant who is a friend, so it’s going to be great.

Craig: It’s going to be great. And there will be blood.

John: There will be blood.

Craig: There will be blood.

John: Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth.

If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered. We love it when you record your audio with your question because it just makes it easier, because that way we don’t have to read your question. And also we get to hear the voices of our people. We get to hear your accents. The way you pronounce words in Canadian and/or Italian accents is fascinating for us.

But short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes or really any place you get podcasts. Leave us a review. That’s always so lovely. It helps people find us.

The show notes for this episode and all episodes are at That’s also where you find the transcripts. They go up within a week of the episode airing. And for all the back episodes you need to go to It is $2 a month for all the back episodes and the special episodes. We are crucially close to having 3,000 paid subscribers, which is remarkable.

Craig: Whoa.

John: So if you are the person who pushes us over, I will be eternally thankful, because that would just be kind of cool.

Craig: I won’t care because it means nothing for me. [laughs]

John: It means nothing for Craig.

Craig: Nothing.

John: Other than something else for him to complain about.

Craig: Ooh. Yay.

John: That’s a gift that keeps giving.

Craig: Come on people. Help me out here. One away.

John: We also have some of the Scriptnotes USB drives in the store. So that’s That has the first 300 episodes of the show in one handy little package.

Craig, thank you for a fun show.

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

John: Bye.


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