You are here

John August's Blog

Subscribe to John August's Blog feed
A ton of useful information about screenwriting.
Updated: 18 min 34 sec ago

The Addams Family

Tue, 05/23/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John look at The Addams Family — not just the 1991 film and its sequel, but the property itself to see what lessons we can learn when adapting for the big screen.

We also answer listener questions on what makes a scene work and writing pilots based on existing IP.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 300: From Writer to Writer-Director — Transcript

Mon, 05/22/2017 - 08:55

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 300 of Scriptnotes.

Craig: Whoa.

John: A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. 300 Craig. That’s just amazing.

Craig: I mean, we sort of blew it because we had that big live show that ended up being 299, but in a way that’s us, isn’t it? We’re not numerologists.

John: We’re not. I actually had some big plans for the 300th episode, which I talked you through, and it was going to be so much work that it did not end up happening because other life things interfered. But 300 is still good. And this is a really good 300th episode. Today on the show, we have Chris McQuarrie here to talk about the transition from being an A-list screenwriter to being an A-list writer-director. So, it’s an incredibly relatable episode. I mean, it’s really for all of the A-list screenwriters out there who are thinking about what is my path to being an A-list writer-director. Chris McQuarrie can talk you through that.

Craig: Yeah, our 300th episode is speaking to fewer than 300 people. [laughs] That’s how I look at it. It’s for like about three people.

John: Yean, three, four.

Craig: Four, tops.

John: Depends on the day. But it was actually a great conversation. So, when we get into it you’ll see that it ends up being mostly me and Chris because of just time zone problems. But he gets into some really fascinating stuff about just, you know, he had some peaks and some valleys even after his career sort of got going. And we talk about that. And I think there’s actually a lot of really relatable stuff there about being the person when stuff falls apart. And putting stuff back together. And that’s a valuable lesson.

Craig: Chris is – I was sorry to miss a good chunk of that. Chris is a very good friend of mine and one of the most infuriatingly smart people I know. I feel like I serve a similar role for him in that we make each other crazy, but we’re the sort of people that like making each other crazy, and so hours will go by where we debate absolute nonsense and everybody around us just gets very tired and bored and leaves. And we like that. I just have the greatest respect for his abilities. And he is an excellent articulator of the interior life of the writer. So, I’m looking forward to this discussion as much as perhaps the three or four people to whom this applies are listening, looking forward to it at home.

But he’s terrific. It’s hard to believe that it took us this long. You know what? We’ll have him back on for Episode 600. How about that?

John: That’s a very good idea. So, a lot has actually happened since you and I were on the Skype together. You did a live show which was fantastic. I actually got to listen to that live show as I was on my bus on the way over to meet with Chris. And it was just great. So, thank you again for a great show. Thank you to Dana Fox for filling in for me. But Rian Johnson and Rob McElhenney were terrific. And people asked smart questions, or at least the questions that made it into the edit I heard were smart. So, thank you to everybody and thank you to Hollywood Heart for hosting us there.

Craig: Yes. And by all accounts we did in fact achieve the goal, which was to raise a pretty good amount of money for Hollywood Heart. So we felt really good about that. They were very happy. Dana was wonderful. Just did a great job. I’m going to go ahead and just say if I croak, she gets my gig.

John: All right.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Sounds good. So if there’s Russians out there planning to do things, know that we have a backup in Dana Fox.

Craig: There are Russians out there planning to do things. I just don’t think this one is high up on their list.

John: No, they got a long, long list.

Craig: They got a long list.

John: But listening to that show, it was fascinating because you were recording it on Monday night and while you were recording it at the other side of the hill they were still negotiating the WGA contract. And we did know when that episode was being recorded whether or not we would be on strike or if a deal would be reached. And the deal was reached and huzzah. So, it went past the midnight deadline, but they kept talking, and there is now a deal that is up for vote by the membership.

Craig: Yeah, it’s up for vote by the membership, which means it’s going to be our deal. We’re not going to turn it down. And by all accounts it seems like a pretty good deal. We are actually going to have Chris Keyser, the former president of the Writers Guild and one of the co-chairs of the negotiating committee come on the show. I believe he’s going to come and record with us next week. And he’s going to walk us through it. And he’ll walk us through as much as he can. I mean, ideally he’s going to explain the deal itself to us and how that works. And hopefully he can also give us a little insight in how the actual machinery of the negotiation worked, up to a point. Because of course there are certain things they can’t really talk about, you know, because leverage is a delicate manner. You don’t want to necessarily give away all of your secrets. But I was thrilled with the outcome, certainly.

John: I was thrilled with the outcome, too. And one of the things which hopefully Chris will be able to explain to me, because I have a hard time understanding it as a person who writes mostly for film rather than for TV is there’s a change in the definition of how many weeks of work can be ascribed to an episode. And he will talk us through that, because that has a lot to do with the changing way we’re making television and he’s making one of those shows that is in a changed model. So he’ll hopefully be able to talk us through that as well.

Craig: That’s the most important change, I think. And it has ramifications not only for the way writers are compensated and how much money they make, but also our pension and healthcare. It’s one of those ripple effect changes. So, yeah, we’ll definitely get into that with Chris.

John: Another bit of follow up. Two episodes ago I asked listeners for their advice – what advice would they give to a time traveler whose time machine broke down? You remember this Craig.

Craig: I do.

John: Like you had some basic ideas of stumbling up to a person and asking, hey, what year it is. And seeming like a crazy person. Our listeners, once again, prove themselves to be the best, smartest people in the universe. So, already they started pointed me towards like, you know, OK, here’s how the stars change, so therefore you can figure out based on the shape of the Big Dipper. But they had some more specific things. So I wanted to get into a few of those.

Logan Rap wrote in to say, “If you have your iPhone with you, you can have an offline version of Wikipedia that’s only text but then you have a pretty good sense of history. And that would probably help you out. And, of course, your iPhone would also have a compass. It would help you sort of figure out geography around you.” He also suggested a Wild Edibles app to help you find the 200 edible plants in your area to help you figure out sort of how you could survive. So, if your time machine is broken but you still have a phone, that’s potentially helpful.

Craig: OK. Yeah. I mean, I can see that. Personally, I would mostly be using that offline Wikipedia to find out the most painless way to kill myself. As we already pointed out, my strategy is curl up right away.

John: Yeah. Perhaps they have like a Poisonous Plants app you can download, so you can figure out what is the quickest, most efficient poison plant you can find that would do it for you.

Craig: But that doesn’t – I don’t want any cramping.

John: That’s true. Because poison we’ve learned can be incredibly painful.

Craig: Yeah.

John: You want something quick. Honestly, use the compass to find a cliff and jump off of it.

Craig: But then I got to deal with the whole falling. I don’t think you quite understand how cowardly I am. I don’t think you’ve gotten it through your head yet. I need a beautiful, quiet, lovely sleep that just, yeah. My time travel nap.

John: I get that.

Craig: Oh, you do? You’re like, no, no, I understand exactly how pathetic you are.

John: I think we all want a nice gentle death. But if a nice gentle death doesn’t come, I just feel like the bungee-less bungee jumping would be a pretty good way out. Because I’ve bungee jumped. And bungee is tremendously fun, especially when you don’t die. But if you’re ghost smack at the end. Eh.

Craig: I don’t know. No one really to ask about it is there?

John: No, there really isn’t. Renee wrote in to point out that since the earth is 70% water and it’s only had a breathable atmosphere for a small portion of its existence, the chance of my broken time machine landing me someplace where I would survive even minutes are incredible small. So, that was despairing.

Craig: I like that.

John: But she also had a good suggestion. That if I ended up around humans and I couldn’t figure out who these humans were, a portable DNA testing kit could be really helpful. And so once again if I had something kind of like a medical tricorder, I could probably do some DNA testing to figure out what group of humans I was around. That would help sort of narrow it down.

Craig: It’s stretching the definition of useful, I got to say. I got to say.

John: Yeah. Finally, I want to single out some things that Rich wrote. And so he wanted to point out that for all we know we are surrounded by lost and confused time travelers. So think about how many beggars you’ve seen in your life. How many of them are time travelers? How often have you stopped to give them time travel advice? If not, why not? What could hurt? You could approach that guy and say, hey buddy, today is Friday April 28, 2017. And you’re currently located on the corner of Alameda and Prime in Los Angeles, California, United States of America. I hope that helps you, in case you’re lost. Have a nice day.

Craig: I don’t think Rich has actually seen any beggars in his life.

John: You don’t think that Rich is guessing correctly about sort of how – you don’t think that the US homeless situation is mostly a result of failed time travel.

Craig: It’s the result of failed something. But not – you know, generally speaking homeless people aren’t shy about asking you for things. So, like what year is it – I don’t think they’d have a problem with that.

John: Yeah. I think that’s fair. You know, I think it’s probably a very small subset of the people you see–

Craig: [laughs] Probably.

John: The people you see who seem confused in life are just time travelers. There could also just be shy time travelers who aren’t in the right place, but they just don’t kind of know how to ask. And so I would say even sometimes here in Paris there have been times where like I kind of needed to ask a question, but I have just no vocabulary for how to actually ask that question. So I just let the question go unasked and therefore unanswered.

Craig: Was the question on the order of where am I and what year is this? Or was it more like, where can I find a place that sells Diet Coke? Sorry Coca Light.

John: Oh yeah, Coca Zero is my go-to.

Craig: Coca Zero.

John: Everywhere sells that. But more on the order of, like for instance, I had to call in to make a doctor’s appointment. And that is one of the worst, most frustrating things. It wasn’t actually even a doctor’s appointment. I needed to call to get the doctor on the phone to ask her a question about something. And they didn’t speak English. And it was just beyond my vocabulary level to actually get through that. And a phone call makes it tough, too.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s challenging. So, in some ways aren’t we all shy time travelers at times?

Craig: No. In no ways. [laughs]

John: That was a reach, even for me. But time travel actually played an important role in this next bit.

Craig: Segue Man.

John: With Chris McQuarrie. Because we went through a lot of different times to try to find a way that we could meet up together to all have a conversation. So, me and Chris in person, because Chris is here in Paris shooting Mission: Impossible 6. And you were going to Skype in. And it kept getting moved because their schedule kept changing and they’re shooting French hours. And so a new time was set and you were not there at that time because of this time and math and stuff got changed and you didn’t get the email.

So, Chris and I spoke for most of this time by ourselves, but then you were there for the last part of it. And so people are going to listen to this conversation with me and Chris, but then Craig gets to join in about three-quarters of the way through. And stays with us through our One Cool Things.

Craig: And I emerge in the most Craig way possible.

John: Yeah. You’re just suddenly there.

Craig: Yep.

John: And to make it extra jarring, we only have the backup audio for the last few minutes. So, I honestly don’t know how we’re going to edit it. So, Matthew, have fun. But we’re going to enjoy this conversation with Chris McQuarrie. It was really great and fun to talk about what he was doing and literally he was coming straight from the set of Mission: Impossible 6, so it was fun to see literally what he was doing that day be reflected in the conversation that we had. So, enjoy this.

Chris McQuarrie is a screenwriter whose credits include The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, and Edge of Tomorrow. He’s also written and directed The Way of the Gun, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and the upcoming sixth installment of Mission: Impossible, currently filming in Paris.

Chris McQuarrie: That’s a very good introduction.

John: So, welcome to Paris. How far are you into shooting in Paris right now?

Chris: We are I believe four weeks in.

John: That’s a long time to be shooting in Paris. I’m guessing this is a globe-trotting movie that doesn’t all take place in Paris?

Chris: No, it does not. But I was determined, unlike the last movie, to spend more time in one location. I went back and I looked at the first movie, which started in Prague, and realized that they’re in Prague for the first half of the movie. So, I sort of pulled back a little bit on the globe-trotting. I think in Rogue Nation I think we might have been in six countries in the first ten minutes of the movie.

John: And if you hold to this production schedule, how many countries will you have reached before you’re done shooting this movie?

Chris: We’ll only be in three countries.

John: That’s great. There’s economy there.

Chris: Yes.

John: You’re saving the studio money.

Chris: Sorry, no, that’s not true. We will also be – we’ll be in four countries. There’s a little piece in Germany.

John: So I think I remember speaking to you after your first directing gig. You did Way of the Gun, and I remember a very specific story you told me in a van on the way up to Sundance where you were talking about dealing with a prop guy about the bags of money and how much would those bags of money weigh. Like the reality of that much money.

Chris: Yeah. That was a Benicio del Toro question. Benicio asked me how much does $15 million weigh. Which I had just arbitrarily picked that number. And Benicio was always asking a lot of questions like that. And it was in the middle of a very busy day and I thought, “Who cares?” And he said, “I care. I’m going to have to carry it. So how much does it weigh?” And in the script it was a bag. It was like a suitcase with $15 million in it. So I went to the prop guy, Ian, and I asked him how much does $15 million weigh? He said, “Oh goodness. OK, I’ll come back to you.”

So he came back and he said, “As you have it in the script, $15 million in tens, twenties, and fifties. I’m assuming that it’s even amounts of those three denominations. It would fill 27 printer paper boxes and weigh something like – it was like 1,200 pounds or 1,500 pounds.” It was huge. It was a van full of money. And I said, oh god, we can’t do that. So, how about thousand dollar bills? And he said, “I knew you’d ask me that. They don’t make thousand dollar bills anymore.”

John: They don’t.

Chris: There was a time when they made them. And, in fact, they’re so rare, they’re worth more than a thousand dollars. And I said, OK, how about hundreds. And he picked up this huge duffel bag, like something you would go skiing with and said, “Each one of these contains $5 million in hundreds. And I suggest you reduce the amount to $5 million and we just make it the one big bag.” And I said, no, I got a better idea, let’s make it – let’s keep it $15 million and then let Ryan and Benicio figure out how to carry it. And that revolutionized the sequence at the end of the movie when obviously the sequence became all about two guys, three bags of money, and every time you get shot in the arm it costs you $5 million because you can’t carry the money.

John: That’s why I wanted you on the podcast today. Because it’s that difference between what you wrote as the screenwriter and what you actually encountered as a director. You had one thing in your head as you were writing that scene and you wrote a number in there, the $15 million was a fascinating number. But it wasn’t important to you as you were writing that like what does that actually look like, because that’s a director’s problem.

Chris: Yes.

John: And then once you became the director, you had to really dig in on what that was going to be like. And you found an interesting answer because of that problem the screenwriter had given you.

Chris: Yes. And I still do that quite a lot. I still run into things where you just sort of cavalierly throw something out there and then the rubber hits the road and you realize, oh, that doesn’t work at all. Or even things that we very carefully plan. Right now, this chase scene that we’re shooting in this movie. We went and picked all these fabulous locations. And planned this whole chase scene. You previs everything out. And then you put Tom Cruise in the location in a car and he drives through so fast, the location is gone in like ten seconds. And so we’ve learned over the course of shooting this sequence when we get to a location we say, “Well the plan is not going to work, because if we do what we plan we’re just going to blow through here. So we have to kind of think of ways to…” But instead of slowing Tom down, we figure out more creative ways to shoot it.

John: So this is in your – coming back to a Mission: Impossible film. So you actually had a sense of what it was going to be like the first time. As you came back to write this movie, did your writing change because you had gone through the process of directing one of these beforehand?

Chris: Absolutely. Well, my process changed over the course of three of them. Because I did a rewrite on Ghost Protocol. But my rewrite was an onset rewrite. I came in about ten weeks into a 17-week show. And they had a lot of the action, but the story – it was things like that. Things that had been presented and now suddenly reality was hitting that stuff and it just wasn’t gelling. So when I came to the second – the second time I came in, when I came in on Rogue Nation, I said let’s take all the lessons we learned from that movie, let’s have somebody else write a screenplay and I’ll come in and fix it. And Mission: Impossible kind of has a mind of its own.

That script just blew up as soon as we started making small changes to it. It completely fell apart and we had to then write a whole new script. On this movie, I swore I wouldn’t start a movie without a finished screenplay. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. But, one of the things I learned from that movie, I developed a much more acute sense of what you were going to cut out of the movie. You start to feel a sense of this – I like this scene, but I can easily cut it out of the movie, so I probably should because I definitely will.

And Rebecca Ferguson’s character is back in this movie and her introduction in the movie was originally this page of dialogue when Ethan runs into her at this event. I also am working with a new cinematographer. And we kept talking about shooting things in longer takes, oners, less editing. And I realized that the scene that I had written for the two of them forced me to cut back and forth. And I was very frustrated in the last movie that every time people started talking, it eventually – the movie just stopped and turned into–

John: Coverage.

Chris: Shot of – just coverage. Just coverage, coverage, coverage. And I thought how do I get out of that. I want the camera to feel lighter. I just want the scenes to feel lighter. So, I realized this scene between Tom and Rebecca was going to just drag me down into coverage. So I started taking away the lines of the scene that weren’t necessary. And one by one I cut away every line until there was nothing left in the scene. And what happens now is Rebecca just bumps into Tom. Tom sees Rebecca. Rebecca sees Tom. And they have this whole moment. There’s a whole story between the two of them and there’s another person standing there. And she can’t say what she wants to say. He can’t say – and they just behave the scene.

And it was really liberating. So we’ve gone in and done a lot of that. We’ve just sort of chipped away.

John: That type of change that you’re talking about, is that a change that happens to Chris McQuarrie screenwriter who is there sort of watching the scene in rehearsals? Or at what point? Or was it still the conversation with your cinematographer that you realized I’m just not – as you’re talking through the scenes, like wow, I can’t actually shoot this scene I want to do. So, I’m going to send this back to the screenwriter and get a revision? Where in the process did that kind of change happen?

Chris: That happened from the conversation I had with Rob Hardy, I said I want to do a very different Mission: Impossible. The franchise relies on a different director every time. That’s what it’s sort of become known for. And so I want to maintain that, even though I’m coming back. And to that end, I’m going to defer to you on certain things. And Rob said, OK. I said, so how do you like to shoot? He said, “Well, I tend to shoot pretty much on a 35 and a 50mm lens. Everything.” Which terrified me, because I tend to start at 75mm. And so 30 and 50 I reserve for very specific things. He shoots everything. He covers scenes in it.

What was really interesting was on our second day we were shooting this car chase and we were into the hood mounts on the car chase. And Rob pulled out the 100mm lens. And the 135. And he was sort of shocked to find himself compelled to do it.

John: Because we don’t have people who necessarily are going to know the differences between these – the long focal length and the short thing. So, the shorter the lens, that feeling of being very close in their space, in a way, but it’s also the longer lens flattens things, makes people look better. There’s reasons for both type of lens.

Chris: If you look at a Tony Scott or a Michael Bay film, they’re all shot on long lens. If you look at a Sidney Lumet film, it’s all shot on wide lens. A wide lens, like a 50mm, is sort of like the human eye. And a 135 is a very long, very sexy lens that really blurs out the background and makes you very, very present. And, of course, you have to get very far back from somebody just to shoot them in a close up. It’s a very intimate lens.

John: It’s the real version of the iPhone 7 Portrait Mode, where it’s blurring out the background for you.

Chris: That’s exactly right. Well, actually, Portrait Mode in the iPhone 7 is like a 75mm lens. That’s kind of the effect that it gives you. What Rob and I have been doing is – he’s pushing me into wider lenses and the movie is pushing him into longer lenses. And both of our styles, we were determined to come to this with a specific style. And the movie and the action have just said, no, you’re going to do this. But it makes you more aware when you’re writing a scene. If I get into coverage, I’m going to have to start using the 75, because it just makes a nice close up. But if I don’t include a lot of dialogue in that scene, if there’s just behavior, then you actually want a wider lens. And suddenly your movie looks different from the last movie you shot.

So that’s what we’ve been kind of doing is I’ve been taking away the writing, the explicit writing in my storytelling. Again, I was determined to have – in Rogue Nation, in the middle of the movie, there’s a huge data dump. You know, they’ve had all these misadventures and now in the middle of the movie you have to explain why everything that has happened up to now is happening. I was determined not to do that this time. There’s no getting away from it. It’s right on page 60, characters start explaining why were you there and why did you do this and who are you loyal to. But we found ways to do them more elegantly, shorter scenes, to have a little more fun with it.

John: Now, if you were just the director or just the screenwriter, there’d be a conversation between the two of you, but there’s just you. So who else do you have these conversations with as you’re trying to figure out the narrative lenses through which you’re going to make these choices? I mean, who are the other people?

Chris: Well, obviously Rob Hardy, cinematographer, and first and foremost Tom. And Tom has a very distinct sense of what Mission is. He has a very distinct sense of what Mission isn’t. And Tom communicates in emotional terms. He’s not a guy who comes in and says, no, you have to do this in a Mission: Impossible movie. In fact, the only thing you have to do in a Mission: Impossible movie is Tom has to get a mission somewhere in the beginning of the movie. That trope is kind of the thing that differentiates Mission: Impossible. That’s really his only rule.

John: That’s sort of the contract with the audience you’ve made is that there’s going to be a mission assigned at some point.

Chris: Yes. And we have a really fun one at the beginning of this one which we’re very excited about. And it takes you in a direction that it hasn’t quite gone before. We’re quite excited about that. But then also getting back to your question, the other actors. The way the movie tends to come together, there’s a pretty good idea what the story is and what the screenplay is. And we hire actors with an idea of where their character is going. But what Tom and I like to do is work with the actor and on the set start to say, “Well, I’m feeling more of this from you.” For example, Vanessa Kirby’s character in the story started as one thing, and during our conversations, not even rehearsals, but costume fittings and props and things like that we started to play with is your character this – is this a good character or is this a bad character? Is it a character we like to see being bad, or is it a character we want to see get her comeuppance? And we played with all these different shades of the character until we found just who she was. And then on the first day we shot with her, that all proved to be wrong.

And Vanessa just found this beautiful tone that she played with Tom. And now I know how to write the rest of the movie.

We’re also very fortunate in that as long as we’re in Paris – we’re here for almost seven weeks, I only have three dialogue scenes in Paris. Everything else is action. All of the – the interior action in Paris will be shot in London. And what that allows me to do is play with the characters on a very, very, very minute scale and start to find what the movie looks like and know that, oh, I don’t have to explain what happens in this scene until the end of the summer when I’m in London. So it allowed us to sort of prioritize what did I really need to know in Paris before I left and what does that tie me into. And what we’re always trying to do is leave ourselves as many outs as possible.

John: So while you’re shooting this stuff, you are also cutting. There’s somebody who is getting all this information and cutting. So you have an editor who is working on this and–

Chris: Yes.

John: He or she is giving you some sense of what this movie is looking like and feeling like. Are you going in to watch those cuts of sequences along the way?

Chris: Not at this stage. Eddie Hamilton, who cut the last movie, and who cut both Kingsman movies, really brilliant editor, is in London, because he was finishing up Kingsman as this movie started. He’ll join us in New Zealand and then I’ll be back in London. But he calls me – if there’s something particular that is missing from a scene and he knows we’re still at that location, he’ll call me and say get a close up of this, or this thing was out of focus. But for the most part Eddie just calls and says keep shooting.

John: Great. Go back ten years ago and did you think you’d be directing big blockbuster movies?

Chris: No.

John: You were a writer of big movies and I thought you were at the apex of writing those big blockbuster movies. And I sort of assumed you’d keep doing that. So I was surprised that you ended up wanting to do – wanting to direct them. What was the change?

Chris: Somebody asked me. I think really it was – well, I directed The Way of the Gun in ’99 in the hopes that The Way of the Gun would be a stepping stone that would – I tried to do what Rian Johnson did with his career. I was going to direct the little movie, and then a slightly bigger movie, and a slightly bigger movie until I got to direct the big movie I wanted to direct. And that first movie was not successful. You could even go so far as to call it a tremendous bomb.

I guess it’s not a tremendous bomb only in that it wasn’t a big enough movie to be considered a tremendous bomb. [laughs]

John: Absolutely. I have one of those, too.

Chris: Yeah. But people really reacted quite angrily to it. No matter what I did over the next seven years to get another movie off the ground, I couldn’t. And I was working on two fronts. I was working as a rewrite guy and I was writing my own stuff, trying to get it made as a director, and was getting nowhere.

And it wasn’t until Valkyrie when I let go of something that was mine to direct and opted to be the producer on that movie. And as a producer, I learned so much more about both writing and directing then I ever did writing and directing my own movie.

John: Talk about the difference. Because when you’re doing Way of the Gun, you had the responsibilities for everything. So we talked about the bag of money. You’re dealing with all the department heads. You’re making those thousand choices a day, which always sort of terrified me about directing. But what was it about producing a big movie like Valkyrie, because it is just a fundamentally different beast for making a smaller movie like Way of the Gun? What was the change in Valkyrie?

Chris: Well, yes, the size and scope of the movie and also dealing with Tom Cruise, who at the time I did not know, and couldn’t safely assume anything about him. And so my intention was to take a producing credit for having put the movie together. But not actually go make the movie. I really didn’t want to do it. And Paula Wagner, who was still with Tom at the time, was running United Artists, which was the studio making the movie. Paula took me out to lunch to tell me they were making the movie and said, “Now, I understand you’re producing the film.” My intention was to say, “Well, yes…”

John: But you’re really going to do that.

Chris: Yeah. But no, I’m not… – And I sensed immediately how I answered that question would have a profound effect on my career. And instead of saying no, I said, “I am now.” And she said, “Good, because I’ve been on set with Tom for the last 25 years. This is the first time I won’t be able to be on set with him. So I want you to be there as Tom’s guy. I need somebody to be there day to day with Tom.”

And so I found myself very suddenly thrust into this position, which I had never anticipated. And Tom quite graciously took me under his wing. And he understood that my relationship with Bryan Singer was such that I could communicate with Bryan more effectively and probably with more force than Tom could. It allowed Tom to have a very comfortable relationship with Bryan. He never had to push Bryan. All he had to do was create with Bryan. And then he would come to me and say, “Hey, here’s what I think we should be doing.” So Tom and I worked together very well on that movie. And that sort of translated into the next thing, and the next thing.

The next job was we worked on a draft of The Tourist together, which is how I ended up on that movie. He dropped out of The Tourist and then called me up to Ghost Protocol. And he called me up to Ghost Protocol after reading Jack Reacher, which was not something to which he was originally attached.

John: And Jack Reacher was a project you adapted from the book originally?

Chris: Yeah. Don Granger, who was also at UA, and who had been at Cruise-Wagner before that, he’s at Skydance now. Don Granger saw the writing on the wall. Saw that UA was not going to be a going concern. And he said I’ve got this series of books at Cruise-Wagner and I think this is the best prospect at getting a franchise made. So, he offered me the movie and I said I’ll do it on the condition that the studio offers me the movie to direct. I’m not going to ask for permission to direct movies anymore. I’ve been doing it for ten years and getting nowhere. And they did. So I handed Tom that script to read as the producer. And he called me the next day and said, “Script is great. I need you to get on a plane and come up to Vancouver right now. We’re working on Mission: Impossible and I need your help.”

So now I was thrust into a very big movie, bigger than Valkyrie, and it was a movie that more than halfway through the show was in a critical state of confusion as to what the story was. And having worked on Valkyrie and having had that crash course in moviemaking, I now understood, OK, here are the resources I have. Here are the scenes that have been shot. Here are the scenes that haven’t been shot. Here’s the sets they haven’t built. Here’s the sets they haven’t struck. Here are the roles that they haven’t cast yet.

And so I had to make a puzzle out of things you had and things you didn’t have yet. And I could only reshoot what I still had sets for. Like sets they hadn’t torn down. And it gave me this sort of creative puzzle to solve. My first six days of my one week on the movie – I was originally only supposed to go for a week – my first six days were just meeting with department heads and saying, OK, well these are the sets you still have. Can I get rid of this set? Can I move these resources somewhere else if I have this idea? Is there something you can build? And so that really gave me, without ever having to stop and think about how daunting the task was, it gave me this fundamental grassroots understanding of how those big movies functioned. So that when it came my time to do it, I had a slightly better – I had a better understanding of the allocation of resources. And it’s very interesting that that career trajectory is the exception and not the rule. For me to have made an $8.5 million movie, didn’t make another movie for 12 years. That was a $60 million movie. With Valkyrie in the middle, which was like $70 million. But I wasn’t directing. And that the budgets continued to get bigger over time, now what you have is a guy directs a $5 million. The studio says, “Hey, that movie cost $5 million, made $60 million. Let’s give him $100 million and he’ll make a billion.”

That’s a very, very, very hard turn for a lot of filmmakers to make. And now I have another career, which is coming on to those movies and supporting that director and saying, OK, so now you’re making your big movie, here’s what’s important. Because what happens with a lot of those guys is they haven’t gone through the trial by fire where they realize there’s only so much reinventing the wheel can take. They’re still coming at it like an indie filmmaker, but somebody has given them $200 million and a giant franchise. They don’t really want to believe that they’re making mass entertainment and they struggle against that. And I’ve seen two kinds of filmmakers in that. There are the filmmakers who very quickly listen to reason and adapt and survive. And then there are the ones who just their movies get taken away from them.

John: Yeah. We can think of the ones whose movies got taken away, or the really bad scenarios there.

Chris: Yeah.

John: So, if you are coming in to be a director whisperer on a project, at what point is there a realization that there’s going to be a problem? Like are they bringing you in right when that person is hired on to say like this person is going to be a consigliere to you? Or it’s like something has gone horribly awry and now let’s get Chris McQuarrie there to help?

Chris: There’s a sweet spot I call 4-in and 4-out. If you’re four weeks out from shooting, or four weeks into shooting, you’re in this zone where you’re so freaked out you’ll do anything the doctor says. If you’re any deeper into production, you kind of get entrenched and you get blinders on and you’re afraid to change anything. And if you’re too far out, you’re afraid to change anything because you think, oh, it’s too daunting a task. And there was one movie in particular that’s coming out. I’m very interested to see it. I won’t say its name. I begged the director not to go in the direction he was going. Because I really did believe in the material and I thought it was wonderful. And there was one specific plot element that completely degraded the main character of the film. And I said if you just take this thing away, your movie will become really powerful.

But there was a visual idea. Either it was clearly an obsession with this particular idea, and there was a refusal to recognize that this very idea that gives you one visual aspect of the movie is going to tear the movie down. And he said, “Well, it’s just too much work.” And I said, “You’ve got nine months. You don’t realize how many times you can reinvent this movie.” And more importantly, because of the movies I’d worked on, I come into a movie like that and say, “I’m not going to change anything about your movie. I’m not going to change the sets. I’m not going to introduce new characters. I’m going to take the resources you have and kind of reconfigure your movie to give it a more emotional journey.” Because that’s really all I care about.

It took me a long time to learn that. I was an information guy. And it was what I was telling the audience. I was a writer who was all about dialogue. And I’ve since learned about emotional drag. That’s my catchphrase.

John: That 4 weeks in/4 weeks out thing is really interesting because you look at these filmmakers who are coming from – like you and I on our first movies, like those were four weeks, you’re almost done with your movie on a $5 movie.

Chris: Yeah.

John: And so it’s a very different thing. But you know we’ve both also been involved with these movies that just shoot for forever. And you and I both have helped out on those movies where you come in where the train is already running, but generally if we’re coming in as a screenwriter we’re just there to fix sort of the visible screenwriting problems. And so we’re not doing the thing of what you’re talking about with Mission: Impossible where you actually had to sort of talk to all the department heads and really get their buy-in.

A couple times we’ve had guests on the show, Drew Goddard, or Damon Lindelof recently, who talked about the big opportunity, the thing that changed everything was coming into a project that was in crisis. It was, you know, the TV show that was going down, that didn’t have any more scripts. In this case it was a movie that was sort of swirling around. And that’s also been true in my career. It’s the editing rooms where they couldn’t find the movie that I could come back in and actually really help.

Chris: Yes.

John: And those are the moments. And if you haven’t had both the courage to step up when those things happen, but also the education to sort of know what are the right questions to ask, you know, how to push for the best thing. It can be really daunting. And if I were that filmmaker that you’re coming in to help, I would be scared to ask for help. Because that’s an admission of failure. That’s an admission that someone made a mistake in hiring me to do this job.

Chris: Yes. It’s the moment in Terminator when he says, “Come with me if you want to live.” You walk in and you say to that director, “Here’s what’s happening on your movie and here’s what’s going to happen.”

There was one director in particular, his movie is in trouble, he was four weeks in. There was going to be a big change. The script was going to be gutted. There was a lot of panic. And I said, “Can I just go in and talk to him for half an hour before you guys all come in so that he doesn’t feel like I’m the studio hatchet man?” And I have had that happen, too. I have had studios try to sort of manipulate that. They try to position me as being the hatchet man and I won’t do it. I’ll go to bat for the director every time.

So I walked in and I told him here’s what’s going to happen. They’re going to come in and they’re going to say these are the things we want in the movie. And a lot of them are ideas that I have suggested for how to fix your movie. I’m going to strongly urge you to say, “I’ve heard everything that Chris has suggested. I don’t like any of it. I don’t think any of it works. But if you think that’s what the movie needs, I look forward to seeing how it turns out.” I said, what you will then do is you will put the responsibility that has been placed on you onto the producers. And the producers will feel that you are working to make their movie. The studio will feel that you’re working to serve what they ultimately need served. And he didn’t do it.

And we had another meeting and half an hour before I went in and said, “Now remember, just say this, and the pressure will come off of you.” And he didn’t do it again. And eventually everything he was afraid would manifest itself manifested itself. And I don’t even think by the time he was through the process he even recognized that his movie had sort of been taken over. His worst nightmare sort of happened. That was the other thing. When you’re talking about working on those movies on those – those movies that are falling apart, you have an emotional detachment that you wouldn’t have if it was your own story.

John: Absolutely.

Chris: You’re able to come into it and say, “Well, there’s a clarity that I have on everybody else’s movies that I will never have on my own movie.” I’m dying right now in the middle of Mission: Impossible, trying to figure out the turn on page 70. I know what happens in Act Three. I just can’t – know what’s supposed to happen, but I can’t quite figure out how to get there. If it wasn’t my movie, I would parachute in and just be like, oh, you just have to do this, and you know, and it’s just so much easier when it’s not your baby.

John: Can I ask you, a thing that’s happened to me over only the past few years where I will get on something that I will get stuck and I just can’t get past it. And I would never ask for help, but I have started asking for help. And so like just this last week with this book I’m doing, there was this one thing that I couldn’t get to work. And I was like you know who would actually know the answer to this thing, my friend Lisa. She will know the answer to this. And so I just called Lisa and I described the situation. And she absolutely had the answer. Do you call anybody? Do you bring anybody else onto–?

Chris: I call everybody. I’m going to call you right after this. [laughs] I have specific people that I call all the time. And we all kind of get stumped together. Because the problem with something like Mission, the action is dictating the narrative. And I was determined to change that on this movie. And I started with that. I started with more of an emotional story for this character and more of a character arc within it. It’s definitely more of an emotional journey for Ethan Hunt in that movie. But then the action comes in. And the ambitions of that action, so there’s a sequence at the end of the movie which is fabulous. It’s never been done. It’s all photo real. It’s going to be incredible. You then have to create the contrivances for that sequence to happen. And then there’s only a few locations in the world where you can shoot that sequence. So suddenly you find yourself going, well, I have this resource and that resource, and I have to put them in my movie. Why are they in my movie? And now I’ve got to explain that.

So suddenly you find yourself writing. And you know how it is. Especially when you’re writing for studios, you get to a place where you go, god, it would be – I know what I should write. If I didn’t have to turn right here and I could turn left, I’d know where this movie would go. And that is kind of the – that’s the thing you’re always struggling.

John: You’re trying to find a way to finesse it so it feels like it’s a natural turn, that it’s not just – and now we cut to a new sequence, because we all know the directors who would just like, OK, this is my big – on the wall here I have all the different sort of sequences and like find a way to connect them all together. Go. And those are the jobs I despise and ultimately get out of because I don’t want to just be the person who is stringing those things together.

Chris: Oh, it’s soul-sucking work. It really is.

John: It pays well, but it kills you. And you’re always just…

Chris: Yeah.

John: You’re responsible for just creating a trailer for the moments that are happening in front of you. It’s maddening.

Chris: Yes. Well, it’s funny you say that, because that’s another thing that we think about now. That since just before Rogue Nation, the lesson I learned, having had fights with the studio about the marketing of Jack Reacher, my first meeting on Rogue Nation I just went to marketing and said, “Tell me what to do, tell me what you need so that I’m not fighting with you.” And that has evolved for me. So that in this movie, Tom and I have a rule, you give marketing one shot a day. Every day you get a trailer shot. It’s like doesn’t matter–

John: That’s great.

Chris: And you look at it and go, yep, that could be in a trailer. OK, send it away. And then they’re happy. They’re invested in your movie as opposed to you’re fighting them. But we also know that movies like this need lines like, “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.” You know, you just – I don’t know what that means in the context of the rest of the movie. I don’t ever particularly feel that he is a kite in a hurricane in that movie. But the sexiness of that line in a trailer is really effective. And so you develop a sense for where those lines might go in a movie. And we have little placeholders.

There’s a scene between Tom Cruise and Sean Harris in this movie and we have a blank space there were it’s like that’s where we know the villain is going to say something that is going to communicate the story of the movie in that one sound bite. I never really thought that way until this franchise.

John: Well, if you think about people who run TV shows, they have to think about this episode of television that they’re making, but they have to be thinking of the whole series. They have to be thinking of like how am I going to keep this thing on the air. And it sort of sounds like part of what you’re doing is that realization that you’re responsible not only for this two hours of entertainment, but you’re responsible for this giant ship that is going to be sailing through its berth and the success of that. And so it’s not just these two hours of film, it’s everything around it. It’s this universe of marketing around it that you also have to be aware of. And from an early time. You can’t just like make your movie then get involved with the marketing.

Chris: Yes. And what is Mission. It’s the life of whatever this thing is, so that your movie leaves it so that another chapter in the franchise can exist. And I guess that’s where jumping the shark comes in. You know, you worry all the time. Am I taking this in a way that it can’t go? And we had a big conversation about tone. Because Brad Bird really changed the tone of the franchise and Rogue Nation embraced that tone completely. At the beginning of this I said to Tom, “I don’t think we can do that three in a row. I think now it’s going to become cute. I think we need to take it another direction still.” And we did.

But now we find ourselves going, you know, are we going where Bond went where Bond became–

John: Dark and serious.

Chris: Serious. It’s another kind of tone. Which, by the way, has not hurt their bottom line at all. They’ve really found their place. But we can’t go there. We were sort of laughing because we were looking at Rogue Nation and saying, “Well thanks, Bond, for not doing that anymore, so we’ll do it.” Now we’re looking at it and going, “But we can’t keep doing that.” We suddenly hit that same wall and understood why Bond went the way they did. And we’re at this kind of emotional crossroads with the franchise saying well how dramatic can you take Mission? It’s not going to a dark place. It’s going to a more emotionally dramatic place.

John: When we were making Charlie’s Angels, when we started making the second one, I talked to the team and I described it as like I really want to approach this as we made an amazing pilot and now we’re going to make that first episode of the TV show that actually – of the series that really is the series. Where we sort of learned everything from the pilot and now we’re going to make the most amazing one. And we didn’t. Spoiler. It was as much of a trouble and more so than the first one.

But that was sort of the fantasy. You want to be able to make the sort of movie series. Marvel is able to do it remarkably well. DC, yet to see whether they’re going to be able to make a franchise-y series out of the things they’re trying to do. But it’s laudable. You understand why people want to do it.

Chris: Well, DC has a tough road to hoe because they’ve got to do something different than Marvel. Marvel has staked a claim so strongly in a very specific tone. And Marvel has Kevin Feige, who is not a traditional studio head. He’s not a traditional producer. He is a producer of the old school. That’s what producers used to be like in Hollywood. They were the guys who came in and said this is the movie. I guess the closest analogue in something other than comic book movies is somebody like a Scott Rudin who really he owns the material and he is a filmmaker in his own right and has specific control.

Warner Bros has to do something to differentiate itself from that. And what is that? There’s Christopher Nolan’s Batman, but that’s not a universe. That’s one character. Whereas Iron Man and the Marvel universe sort of set the tone for all those other movies. I mean, if you had told me even a year before it came out that Captain America would work as a movie, or that Thor would work as a movie, that I’d find those characters appealing, that I’d actually find Captain America one of the more appealing characters in the Marvel universe. I just would have laughed at you. And we had grown up seeing so many bad attempts inn these really cheesy TV movie ways.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen some of those Captain Marvel movies or–

John: They’re amazing.

Chris: Oh my god. Oh my god. So, it will be very interesting to see how DC defines themselves.

John: So, switching just for our last topic here, we just finished the negotiations for the WGA and so there’s not going to be a strike.

Chris: Thank god.

John: What would have happened if a strike had occurred while you were making this movie? Like what do you do?

Chris: Well, we had an emergency plan in place, assuming that if there was going to be a strike. On the day that the contract ran out, we were hedging our bets and saying there will probably be a ten-day extension. There wasn’t the feeling that it was acrimonious and that a strike was just going to happen that moment. So, I had a friend who is a writer friend of mine who I have worked with on other movies and he was on deck. And if there was an extension, he was ready to get on a plane, fly out, and during that ten days we were going to generate as many pages as we possibly could. And then we figured the lights were going to go out.

John: So you get past your page 70 thing. You just have something you can shoot at page 70.

Chris: You had to have something you could shoot.

John: Our friend Aline Brosh McKenna calls that the Rocky Shoals. It’s that point where the movie is transitioning from sort of one thing before it becomes that third act.

Chris: Yes.

John: And it’s often a challenge in scripts, but it’s often a challenge in cuts. So I sympathize.

Chris: Yeah. It’s funny, on the last one, that wasn’t the problem. On the last one it was how does this movie end. I know the ending of the movie quite vividly. I don’t know – there’s this weird middle bit that’s happening in London. And I know what the last five pages of it are. I know there’s a confrontation that Ethan has at the end of that, which is this scene that I really love. And what happened was when we sensed that the strike was coming, I had all of these action scenes that had been storyboarded and worked out and in many cases prevised, but no one had ever written a page of those sequences.

There was something like 30 pages of material that existed in concept. We were building sets and rigs and all sorts of things. I just didn’t have them in script form. So I had this friend – the storyboard artist called him and said here’s everything we’re doing. And he took that 30 pages off of my docket. He wasn’t creating anything, but he was writing it in script form so that I could more quickly rewrite it. And he wrote this one scene, but not in any way, shape, or form the way I would have shot it, but inspired this idea where I was like, oh my god, I’ve got this really fun idea. So we know what that sequence is now. Or at least we know how that sequence ends. I just don’t know how it begins.

John: One of the things that was a big topic of the WGA negotiations was the move to shorter seasons and sort of how writers were being held for a very long time on these shorter seasons. And their writing fees was being applied against producing fees. But we see also a change happening in features where there are these mini rooms where they are bringing together a bunch of screenwriters, some really high levels, some newbies, and they’re working through a giant property. So they’ll take–

Chris: Transformers.

John: Transformers was an early example of that, where they’ll say, OK, we’re going to spend four weeks and figure out Transformers and generate, you know, a TV series and three movies and we’re going to figure out what this all is. Where do you see yourself fitting into that universe?

Chris: I believe you can create all of the Transformers stuff you want. You can build out the whole universe. You can finish all the screenplays. It goes back to the very beginning of the conversation we were having. When the rubber hits the road, that’s all going to change. They’re going to call you. They’re going to call me. They’re going to call Drew. They’re going to call somebody in at some point and go, “None of this works. It was all great in theory, but we just suddenly…”

An actor drops out. Or the budget changes. And things happen. What I try to impress upon writers going into it now, I believe the future belongs to the writer-producer. That is not to say you have to be named a producer on the movie. But that you need to be able to function on a level where you are – you need to understand editing. You need to understand elements of physical production. The more you understand that, the more valuable you will be to those people. The more you’re selling yourself and not your writing.

Writers right now – and I did it for a long, long time – tend to believe I’m going to write this script and the script is the commodity. It’s not. It’s your ability to write a script that is the commodity. The truth of the matter is, if everybody could write they’d do it. They wouldn’t call us. The fact that the strike was going to happen and had people nervous, if we went on strike, movies just – nobody would write it. It’s a lonely, miserable, very difficult particular skill.

And everybody thinks they can do it. I think the same way everybody feels like playing guitar looks like it would be easy.

John: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, just pick it up. Just strumming.

Chris: Well, yeah, you teach me the basics. You teach me a couple of chords and I’m like, oh, this is very easy. Then show me Van Halen and say do that. And, by the way, do it with two weeks before you’re going on stage. In those writer’s rooms and things like that, this thing with the television seasons that they’re dealing with now. The nature of television is changing and it created a really prickly situation in this atmosphere with the strike.

I can see the studios looking at it and saying, “Well, yeah, now there are only ten episodes. There used to be 22 and now there’s ten. Why should we pay you more if there’s only ten?” And we’re saying, “But wait, you’re taking us off the market for this much time.”

The studio’s argument is going to be, “Go and create your own show.” It’s going to thin the herd out. It’s going to define who those writer-producers are. And I think what it’s going to do is it’s going to shape writer’s opinions of themselves. Writers have been trained to believe that they are simultaneously necessary and totally dependent. That you can’t make a movie without a screenplay, but I can’t get my screenplay made unless you buy it and validate me. And now you’re at a place where you can be more a part of the process.

Here’s the dirty little secret, and it’s something you know better than anybody. A lot of directors don’t know how to direct. They simply don’t know how to do it. They have some specific skill or some specific vision, or a team around them that helped them, but of great many of them don’t really understand the fundamentals of storytelling as much as they understand some specific visual style.

As a writer who understands editing, you will be invaluable to that director. You may not get the glory. You may not get the credit, but if those things aren’t important to you, if being valuable is what’s important to you, you will always work. And that was really the big change for me in my career. I wanted very much to be in control of my own destiny. And by letting go of that control, my destiny has become that much more in my control.

You were asking me at the beginning, you know, how did you – did you ever expect that you would be directing these blockbusters. I very distinctly remember when I was trying to get Valkyrie made, and I thought Valkyrie was going to be a little movie, no one would read it. It didn’t matter who I was or where I came from. They’d hear it’s about the German generals who, and they were done. They didn’t care.

When Bryan Singer attached himself, people were then offering to make it without having to read it. And I had a very painful realization which was I’ll never be at the level to direct the things that I really want to do. Booth and Valkyrie and The Last Mission and things like that. All my history stuff. Because I’m never going to direct X-Men. And X-Men gets you to a level where you can step down to do a Valkyrie. I’m just never going to get there. So I let go of that dream. And in doing that I became a producer on Valkyrie, which led to rewriting Mission: Impossible, which led to Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow. And on Edge of Tomorrow, Tom said, “You should direct the next Mission.”

So I never aimed for that target. I just showed up at work saying how can I help you make your film. How can I help you make your movie better? And not worrying about where the path was taking me. And at the beginning of this process, there was a thing in the press the movie fell apart. The movie was shut down for a while. It was shut down over contract stuff. And when it did, I felt this very strange relief. First, I was freaked out, for a minute. But I remember hanging up the phone. I got the call and I was in New Hampshire at a friend’s house, where we visit them in the summer, and I was in the same room that I had been in ten years to the week when Bryan Singer called and said he wanted to make Valkyrie. And my career took off again.

And I thought to myself, wow, that was – I’ve been working with Tom for ten years. We’ve made nine movies in ten years in some capacity. I’ve worked on nine movies with him. That’s a pretty good run. You can’t take that for granted. That part of your life is over now. Because Tom is going to go off and do something and I’m going to go off and do something else. And who knows when our stars will align again.

And for those two weeks, I was looking at a completely different life for myself. So that when Tom called me back up two weeks later and said, “Hey, we’re back on,” I went, I don’t know. I don’t really know about it. I’m not sure that’s what my future is. I had gone back to London to pack up my apartment. Because I had moved my family back to LA. My girls were in school. Two weeks into school I get the call that we’re back. And he goes, “Let’s go for a walk and we’ll talk about it.” We go walk around Hyde Park. It’s one of the reasons Tom loves London. He can just go out and walk places and everybody is very respectful.

And we talked all about it. And my apprehension and sort of the catharsis I’d been through. And he said, he goes, “Look, you’ll do whatever you want to do. You want to make this movie, make this movie. You don’t want to make it, don’t make it.” He goes, “I’ll always work with you. We’ll work on something else together. This is a go movie. That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t know what else you got going on, but this movie is going.” And that’s a really hard thing to achieve. And he was right. The other stuff that I wanted to do wasn’t immediately happening. Still isn’t happening. So, I got back on the train.

And now when I go to work in the morning, there’s days you get up and you don’t want to go. Don’t want to go to set. You’re not ready to face the material. And that the lesson I’ve learned is the days that I don’t want to go turn out to be the best days. Those are the days where you’re just like, “I don’t know what to shoot, and I don’t know how to do it.” And you find yourself creating this shot. And it builds, and builds, and builds. And you end up just starting with a problem and you walk away from it, just shot by shot, having created one neat little moment in your movie. That’s just a great feeling.

And the fact that these movies afford you the opportunity to do that on such a grand scale is really, really fun.

John: Comparing that to your life as a screenwriter, there are definitely days where you or I, we don’t want to sit down and write that thing. It’s almost always torture to actually get me at the computer.

Chris: Yes.

John: But at least with the director, you have a call time on the sheet. Like someone is going to pick you up and take you there. And then you’re going to be responsible for those decisions. And that’s terrifying and there are definitely days I don’t want to get in the van, but once you’re there, there’s a whole bunch of people there who are there to help you. And there’s at least some plan for what you are supposed to do. There was some assignment you were given. Like this is the thing that is theoretically on the call sheet. So, we got this location, we got these people, it should be something like this. And you can figure it out.

And, you know, some of my favorite days in directing were things had gone horribly wrong, or there’s a rainstorm and it won’t match cut into anything else, but we have to shoot this. It’s the only day on this location. And you just make it work. It’s going back to remembering like, OK, what is this actually supposed to be about. What is here that we can use to do this and how can we sort of make this problem seem like a solution?

Chris: Screenwriting is pushing a rock up a hill. And directing is running downhill with the rock behind you. [laughs] That’s really what it is. It’s going, and it’s going to crush you if you don’t run. But, also, the other night we were – I think this was in our first or second week of shooting. We were at the Grand Palais. We had this big sequence at the Grand Palais. We had all these extras. And extras in France get paid quite a bit of money. So, you had to pick and choose what nights you had a lot of extras. And finally we were shooting outside the Grand Palais. There’s a scene where Tom and Vanessa Kirby and another character come – and Henry Cavill all come running out of the Grand Palais.

And there’s a big event inside. And that night there’s 150 extras. And we put the camera in front of the building and Tom and Vanessa and Henry come walking out and they’re just like three people and 150 extras barely – it’s just deserted. And you came from this big event inside to suddenly – it’s so big. There was nothing you can do.

And the cinematographer loved the building. And he said, “But this is great. This is a great shot of the Grand Palais.” And I said, “But it’s deserted. How do we make 150 people look like a thousand people?” And instead of shooting the outside of the building looking in, we went inside the building and put a long lens on the camera and created a narrow funnel of people. And had the actors rushing through the door with all the extras coming towards you. And it turned into this – the fun of it was we were shooting Mission: Impossible, but we were making an independent film. Where like I only have 150 people. What do I do to make this shot big?

And we had the best time that night. That was like really one of the more fun attacks we had. It was great.

John: So, at the end of our podcast we often do a One Cool Thing where we recommend one thing that people should check out. My One Cool Thing this week is a new tool from Google called AutoDraw, which is actually just madness and wonderful. So, it’s just a sketching program, but you can just freehand draw with the cursor and draw something that looks like a terrible horse and it will provide good line images of a horse, or it will guess basically what you’re trying to draw and give you a much better version of it.

Chris: That sounds crazy.

John: It’s just our modern computers doing smart things. And so it’s just Autodraw.com.

Craig: I’m going to stump AutoDraw. I guarantee you. I’m that bad. I have the drawing skills of a stroke victim. There’s no way. I’m going to try it. I’m going to try it. I’m going to try and draw a horse and I guarantee you it’s going to send back, “We’re you thinking of a transaxle? We’re you thinking of a pill?”

John: It pulls up along the top a bunch of images that sort of could be like what you’re trying to draw, so at least you get a sense of like what it thought you might be trying to draw. Like earlier today I was trying to draw a skeleton, but it kept giving me like lobster people. And it’s like, you know, I could see why they thought I was trying to draw a lobster.

Craig: Yeah, no, for sure. I mean, lobster people are certainly more frequently drawn than skeletons. So that makes sense. I think I’m going to try this and Google is just going to direct me to a site, You May Be Having a Stroke. And that’s useful.

My One Cool Thing this week is a game, a little tiny game. The best games for your phone are the little tiny stupid ones that do one thing. They don’t try and do a whole lot of things. Remember Dots, remember that one? Where you’d make the square with the dots? Did you ever play that?

John: Two Dots, yeah.

Craig: Two Dots. There you go. Two Dots. That was fun because it was incredibly simple. Well, so these folks have come up with a game called Zip Zap. I hate that name. I hate it. But, the game is so brilliant. It’s the simplest thing. You have basically – they’ll show you a couple of little girders. They look like little Lego type girders. And one of them if you tap on the screen – no swiping. Swiping does nothing. If you tap on the screen, you can make one of them contract in a certain way. And the whole point of this is to just move this thing around towards a goal.

It’s so simple. And at first you’re like, this is great, because I’m good at it. And then very quickly you’re like, oh, god, oh no. But it’s all brilliant. The level designs are all brilliant. And it’s the kind of game where you can just – it’s very level-based. I’m on like 3-16 right now. Great time waster. And it’s free.

John: Yay. We like that. I actually made it to the third screen of Zip Zap and gave up because it got to be really maddening. There’s a lot of times where like you’re trying to flip it in a certain way and then you’re going to – it’s like my daughter flipping the water bottle stuff. It just drove me crazy after a while.

Craig: Is your daughter doing the spinner thing? The Fidget Spinner?

John: The Fidget Spinner has not made it to France yet. And thank goodness.

Craig: Yeah. It’s here, buddy.

Chris: The thing I was going to tell you about is the Fidget Cube.

John: Oh, he’s got the Fidget Cube.

Craig: Oh, Fidget Cube. Yeah.

Chris: Somebody had just given me this as a gift. Here is the Fidget Cube.

John: Can I get a picture of you holding the Fidget Cube to prove we were here?

Chris: You can take a picture of me holding the Fidget Cube. Somebody gave this to me on set and I had read about it as–

John: It was a Kickstarter, yeah.

Chris: And like most things on Kickstarter, I go that looks cool. That’ll never get made. And sure enough, it did. Somebody gave this to me on set and it has been with me every day since. And when I’m nervous, which you quite often are on the set, you’re just – time is getting more and more horrible and you’re just getting agitated, I am constantly playing with this thing. And it’s actually quite satisfying. Have you seen one of these?

John: I haven’t seen it in person. But I’ll play it.

Craig: The Fidget Cube, I think wasn’t the initial application for people with ADHD?

John: Yeah. But we all sort of have something.

Chris: Yeah.

Craig: No, no, no, McQuarrie has it. There’s no sort of.

Chris: I don’t know what you would describe what I have as.

Craig: It’s advanced. It’s AADHD.

Chris: But my problem isn’t the hyper activity part. I don’t think you can call me hyper active. I’m actually hyper lazy.

Craig: Yeah. You know what you have? You have Attention Deficit Hypo Active Disorder. So you don’t move around, but you also don’t have an attention span. It’s perfect. Actually that’s a perfect director thing because you sit in your chair, but then you’re like show me something new.

Chris: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

John: I meant to ask you, are you shooting French hours while you’re in Paris?

Chris: We are. Yes. The ten-hour days, you mean?

John: Yeah. Is it as amazing as everyone says?

Craig: Love those.

Chris: Well, we’ve always done it. We did it on the last Mission: Impossible as well. We were in London, but shooting French hours. It’s great. You don’t lose that momentum that you do with breaking for lunch. And an hour is really two hours. You don’t think about it in those terms. The difference is that when the day is done, most days I get in the car and I have real energy all through the day. I get in the car to drive home and I am unconscious before I get back to the hotel. You just feel like you’ve been in combat. You’re just drained.

But then when you wake up again, then it’s very hard to get to sleep. It’s really – it’s quite unusual.

John: But you came from the set right to recording a podcast, so thank you very much for doing that.

Chris: Yeah. But this thing is engaging. Sitting down and talking about ideas and talking about movies and stuff like that, I could stay here till four o’clock in the morning. It’s when I walk out this door, halfway up the steps I’m going to pass out.

John: All right. That’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you an outro, you can send a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also where you can send longer questions. For short questions, I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Are you on Twitter?

Chris: I’m on Twitter.

John: What is your Twitter handle?

Chris: I am @ChrisMcQuarrie on Twitter. And Christopher McQuarrie on Instagram.

John: Fantastic.

Chris: Although I’m not kind of doing all that much on Twitter anymore, because it’s become – I put pictures on there, but Twitter has become a very angry, militant place.

John: Yes.

Chris: Everyone is an activist.

John: Craig goes to war every day.

Chris: Yeah.

Craig: Every day. Every day.

Chris: When you make a comment, you make a joke about the global marketplace and are accused of being a racist, it was time to [unintelligible]. So now I just put pictures on Twitter. And I find that Instagram is a much more–

John: Nice and calm.

Chris: Welcoming place. And I think because it’s not words, it’s images, that’s much more. Anyway.

John: Anyway. We are also on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. But don’t look us up individually because I don’t friend anybody on Facebook.

You can find us on iTunes. Just search for Scriptnotes. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. And that’s also where you find the transcripts. They go up about four days after the episode airs.

You can find all those back episodes at Scriptnotes.net.

Chris McQuarrie, thank you so much for being on the show this week. This was amazing.

Chris: Thank you. And how cool that we’re doing this in Paris?

John: It’s in Paris. I live here.

Chris: Because you live here. Paris is fantastic. You’re an ex-pat.

John: I am an ex-pat for two more months.

Chris: Awesome.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 299: It’s Always Sunny in Star Wars — Transcript

Mon, 05/22/2017 - 08:48

John August: Hey, this is John. So, in today’s episode of Scriptnotes there are enough bad words that you probably don’t want to listen to it in the car with your kids, or at work if you work at some place that doesn’t like to have occasional swearing.

Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.

Dana Fox: I am not John August.

Craig: And this is a live Scriptnotes coming to you from Hollywood, California. Folks, let them know you’re here. To set the stage for you playing the home game, we are in the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood. Big 400-seat theater. The whole thing is sold out. Everyone is here to benefit Hollywood Heart, which is a wonderful charity that helps out kids in need. And this is something that we did last year and we’re doing it this year. Not, you know, I don’t want to go out of my way and say that last year’s show wasn’t great. It was great.

There’s no chance that it’s not going to get better this time. We had David Benioff and Dan Weiss from Game of Thrones.

Dana: That’s nice. That’s good stuff.

Craig: There you go. Yeah, that was good.

Dana: Those guys are good. That one guy is tall.

Craig: Yeah, very tall.

Dana: Weirdly attractive. The other guy I’ve not met yet, but also I believe to be weirdly attractive. I’m just trying to set the stage because it’s not a visual medium.

Craig: This is the sort of stuff I don’t get with John August.

Dana: I’m trying to just—

Craig: Ever. But tonight we have incredible, incredible guests. But first, just to kick things off, I figured we should just catch up a little. You know, John likes to do follow up. I’ll make it easy for you as we go.

Right now, maybe we’re going on strike.

Dana: Oh boy. Yeah.

Craig: Are we going on strike?

Dana: I don’t actually know, but I do know that like a hot minute ago I pressed send on a really not super great script that had to be handed in today before this event. [laughs] So, you’re welcome, America. I hope you enjoy that movie.

Craig: Yeah. Flash ahead to a couple years. When you’re in the movie theater you might go, “Ohh, this was what she was talking about. It’s not that great.”

We’re hopeful that there isn’t going to be a strike. If some of you are writers, and you’re a little tense, don’t worry. We all are. But we’re hopeful.

Dana: If anybody reads anything on their phone, definitely yell it out. Like right as it happens.

Craig: Yeah, like if we’re going on strike, interrupt the show. And if we’re definitely not going on strike, yeah, interrupt the show.

Well, I think we should probably get started with our guests, because we have a busy show. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to talk to our guests and then at the end of the show we’ll open it up to some questions from you guys, as we always do. And then afterwards apparently there is a party that only one-quarter of you may attend. So, just decide amongst yourselves. Who thinks that sounds like a good idea?

Dana: Sorry.

Craig: Yeah, should be fine. Our first guest tonight – my cards are—

Dana: Your cards are amazing, Craig. You’re doing so good. I love this.

Craig: John does everything. You know that, right?

Dana: Oh, you’re doing amazing.

Craig: I feel like I’m doing all right.

Dana: You’re doing great. I love this. Go.

Craig: Because normally I just – normally I get to do what you do. It’s so much more fun, right?

Dana: Keep crushing. You’re doing great.

Craig: Our first guest tonight is the creator, executive producer, writer, and star of a television show that is now the longest running live action comedy in television history.

Dana: Woohoo.

Craig: So, screw you, Leave it to Beaver, or whoever they beat. I’d like to welcome to the show Rob McElhenney.

Rob McElhenney: Is this where you were sitting?

Craig: Yeah, is it nice?

Rob: Yeah, super warm. Are you nervous?

Craig: I’ve done 299 of these. This is our 299th – you’d think that we would have done the 300th like this, right? Not interested in round numbers. Fuck them. Does that answer your question?

Dana: You know, the penultimate episode every television show at the end of the series is always better than the final episode. So in a weird way I feel like this is it.

Craig: This is the one. This is the one.

Dana: This is the Ozymandias, or Rian will tell us how to pronounce it when he comes in.

Craig: It’s a very famous poem. It’s Ozymandias. We all know.

Dana: Clearly not John August. Like living up to not being John August right away.

Craig: Rob, I want to just ask you, how do you even wrap your mind around the fact that you’ve done this show that is the longest running live action comedy in television history. Does it feel that way? I mean, does it feel like you’ve run a triple marathon? Or are you like, no problem, we can keep doing this forever.

Rob: I certainly feel like we could keep doing it forever just because we’re having so much fun with it. And our audience seems to grow every year, which is great.

I will say that even just driving here, as I was driving down Fountain, it all looks exactly the same to me as it did 12 years ago. And I was sort of reflecting on the last decade of my life. And it seems to have gone very quickly. Even though I was obviously in a very different point in my life when I created the show.

Dana: I have a follow up question. Do you have children and do you know their names?

Rob: I do. I have two children. Two boys. And, well, I’ve been lucky enough because my wife is also on the show with me. So, we have – they have their own trailer. They’re not going to be fucked up. They’re fine.

Craig: You still haven’t even mentioned the names. It’s boy 1 and boy 2.

Dana: Boy 1 and Boy 2, super grounded.

Craig: Yeah. Boy and Shorter Boy.

Rob: My wife takes care of the names. The nanny does the schooling. No, I get to spend a tremendous amount of time with them. And, in fact, we kind of got the show down to a system now where our writer’s room is we come in at 10:30 or 11 and we leave by 5 or 5:30, no matter what.

Dana: I always heard that the Modern Family people had a “No Headlights Rule,” which is like they don’t leave if they have to turn their headlights on. And at like two o’clock in the morning when I was making my show, I was always so jealous of that. Do you guys have the “No Headlights Rule?”

Rob: No. Usually we just watch to see when Charlie’s eyes glaze over. And as soon as that happens I’m like, all right, it’s just diminishing returns at this point.

Craig: It seems weirdly seasonal anyway. I don’t like that rule. You know, think about a show like—

Rob: By the way, I’m going to interrupt you for a second, because that’s just kind of fun. I’m going to continue to do that throughout your own show. We’re not the longest running sitcom as of right now. We will be as per our current contract.

Craig: Who do we have to beat?

Rob: Ossie and Harriet.

Craig: Oh yeah. No problem.

Rob: Yeah. We just stepped on My Three Son’s necks, all three of them.

Craig: Nice. Because Ossie and Harriet, they’re all dead.

Rob: Yeah.

Craig: They can’t come back.

Rob: No.

Craig: OK. We’re good.

Dana: It’s got to be a little bittersweet. What is it like to strangle your idols to death?

Craig: He didn’t say they were his idols.

Rob: I was probably born 25 years after that show was canceled.

Craig: I’m kind of curious about, when I first – I remember years and years ago when I first started out, I was talking to somebody who worked in television and they said the key to television is likeability. The characters have to be likeable.

And even then I thought that doesn’t make any – I don’t like many of – the characters that I love on TV seem really grouchy and grumpy. And then Seinfeld came along and defined the notion of a show where everyone was unlikeable, even to the point where in their season finale they all to prison and the show is literally saying these are bad people.

You guys went, nah, nah, nah, we’ll show you bad people. I’m kind of curious, the fact that everyone is sort of sociopathic, I mean, I don’t know if you would agree with that diagnosis, but the fact that they’re all sociopathic, does that kind of – does that kind of help you just generate endless ideas? You don’t seem – like you could go anywhere with these characters.

Rob: Yeah. I mean, the fact that the characters don’t grow, or change, or learn anything ever is helpful because you reset at the end of every episode. So it’s a blank slate.

Craig: That’s tragic actually.

Dana: Like morally bankrupt Finding Dory sort of?

Craig: Right. Yeah.

Rob: That’s how I pitched it.

Dana: Ish.

Craig: Because it just seems like, you know, shows will say, well, the show was kind of going along and then it jumped the shark. You know, but you guys, I think you’ve avoided the shark-jumping because all you do is jump sharks. It’s all you do, every episode you’re jumping some kind of shark.

Rob: Yeah. We jumped shark within the first three minutes of the pilot.

Craig: Exactly. So you’re going to be fine.

Dana: I haven’t watched all 7,000 episodes, but have you guys ever tried to jump the shark by not doing something insane, like having it just be a normal episode of television?

Rob: Yeah, we’ve done a fair amount of just straight episodes. Certainly we do a lot of bottle episodes, where there’s not a lot going on. It’s just all very insular. In fact, we did an episode this season called The Gang Tends Bar. And it’s literally just about us running, operating a drinking establishment.

Dana: Like an actually working bar?

Rob: And one of the characters, it was brought up that this is like the greatest scam in history. We sell something that’s addicting to people for money. We get them addicted. And then they give us money. And we think we came up with that scam. And we’re like who came up with the scam? We’re like, we did when we bought the bar 12 years ago. And really the guys that first started creating alcohol and selling it created that scam.

Craig: Right. This is why you can go forever. Because you can just write an episode where they just tend bar. I mean, there’s really nothing limiting you, I mean, because a lot of shows will say, well, Simpsons did it. That’s the problem. You know, Simpsons, there’s been 4 billion episodes and they’ve done all these high concept.

You guys don’t really do, well, I guess occasionally there’s sort of high concept.

Rob: Yeah, we’ll do musical episodes. We did an episode this year where we turned black for the entire episode. We thought, well—

Craig: How’d that go?

Rob: It was fairly well received, thank you very much. There was a splattering of applause. See?

Craig: Yeah, they’re very accepting.

Rob: Yeah. That’s really the lifeblood of our audience is the smattering of applause across the country. Mostly in metropolitan markets. For the last 15 years.

Craig: It’s kind of amazing. Between the ages of?

Dana: But for real, like dialing in for real, how do you actually keep it feeling fresh after that many episodes? It’s sort of shocking to me that you guys are able to still be that good after that many episodes.

Rob: I think it’s mostly because it’s our faces that are out there. I really do believe that. I think, look, running a show as you guys know is really difficult and time-consuming, and tedious, and it takes a tremendous amount of effort. And also we’ve had the luxury of only doing between 10 and 15 episodes a season. We’ve never done more than 15 episodes a season, which I think helps.

But beyond that, the fact that we know that eventually we have to shoot it and it’s going to be our face that goes out there adds that extra element of let’s not fuck this up in the writer’s room. Let’s get it right. And let’s make sure we continue to have fun.

But also beyond that, we still enjoy it.

Craig: But that’s another interesting challenge that you have that I can’t really think of anybody else that has it quite like you. You create a show, you write a show, you produce a show, you star in the show, you’re married to one of your cast members. Now, over time there are inevitably moments where there’s, I don’t want to say there’s strife or anything, but there’s some conflict, or there’s competing interests, or – how do you–?

Rob: Between me and my wife?

Craig: No, I’m talking about the cast and, you know, normally if you have a problem as a writer with a cast member there’s a producer that you can talk to. Or if you are cast members having an issue with each other, you can go talk to a writer. There’s nowhere to go. You’re always there. How do you manage the blurred roles that you all seem to kind of have on that show?

Rob: We fight quite a bit. And we continue to fight. The truth is that over the years we’ve tried to figure out ways to sort of alleviate some of that conflict. And oftentimes what happens is when we do, the work is garbage. And at the end of the day, we realize that the conflict – the confluence of all of these very strong-willed people is what makes the show great, from the writers, to the performers, even to some of the grips. I mean, we’ve had people with us for 10, 11, 12 seasons. And we got to a point where people are free to add joke pitches.

I mean, I’ve had grips and a teamster actually gave me an idea for an episode. What you have to approach every day with is that it’s all about the work. It’s not about your ego. It’s not about me. It’s about the show being good. And as long as the fights are about the show being good and getting better and not about ego, then that’s going to yield the best result.

Craig: Those are good, clean fights. I mean, those are the kinds of fights that are productive. But it’s still – it is a marriage of a kind, especially with comedy, too. It just seems like, I don’t know, funny people can be tricky. And it’s an interesting thing that you guys have managed to keep that marriage. And it’s been so consistent.

You know, a lot of times these shows will go on, and then one big person leaves and they replace that person. So, you know, it’s not Sam and Diane, it’s Sam and Rebecca. And it kind of keeps going after that. But that really hasn’t happened with you guys.

Rob: Well, we’ve had the luxury of working with Danny, too. So, Danny, who has a – oh, he’s only an icon.

Craig: He’s a television legend, worth a mere smattering.

Rob: And he gave us a tremendous amount of perspective. I mean, you know, he was on one of the great – he played, I think, one of the top five greatest characters in the history of television, on an amazing TV show. His wife was in one of the greatest TV shows of all time. And then they both went on to fabulous careers outside of it. And Danny obviously was a huge movie star. And he would pull us aside and be like, “Look, I promise you, it’s never going to get better than this. Ever. Ever.” And I believe that. I believe it.

And so when you have somebody like Charlie, who over the last four or five years has gone on and done really, really big movies, he comes back and every time he comes back he says, “I don’t want to do that. I want to do this. This is what I want to do. So if I have to sacrifice that for this, I will do that for the rest of my life.”

Craig: That’s great. That’s great. Good for Charlie.

Dana: It’s kind of emotional.

Craig: All right, I have kind of a looking beyond the show question for you, because you know Charlie goes on, he does these things. You, too, I know have interest in doing other things beyond the show. And the nice thing is one doesn’t have to preclude the other. You can do both. But when you think about, I don’t want to say cheating on your show, but maybe doing something else, do you run in the opposite direction from what you’re doing on that show? Because Charlie, you know, he stays in the comedy pocket pretty much. Are you thinking that’s there, I’m going to try something completely different when I branch off?

Rob: Yes. I mean, the project that I’m working on right now couldn’t be any different than – any more different than Sunny. And I think I never saw myself as a sitcom person. I never considered myself funny. I just happened to meet really, really funny people and I was desperate and I was waiting tables and I was like I’ve got to figure out something.

And I wrote this script that was super dark, but when I put it into Charlie’s hands, or into Glenn’s hands, they made it funny. And I realized, oh wow, this could actually be a sitcom. But the truth is I never had any aspirations to get into comedy writing at all.

So when I look for an extension outside of Sunny, I kind of run away from it.

Craig: Wow. Interesting.

Dana: I feel like there are probably people here and who are listening who would love to know just like the trajectory of how you actually made it happen. Because I think people who are as successful as you, it’s like we all sit here and we talk about the career and all the amazing stuff. And most people are out there just going like, “I just wish someone would answer my phone,” or, you know, phone call, or read my script, or whatever it is.

What was the sort of defining moment for you? What was your trajectory to get you where you are right now?

Rob: Well, mostly just desperation. I mean, I was working in every bar and restaurant in NYC. And I was just acting, or I was trying to act, I was auditioning, and not getting any jobs. And complaining about every script that I read, whether I thought that the script was garbage or that I wasn’t getting the job.

So, I was encouraged very aggressively by my agent to stop bitching and to write something myself. I got the Syd Field screenwriting books, which, you know, are—

Craig: Yeah. Page One. Page Three. Yeah.

Rob: And the William Goldman. And I just tried to understand the—

Craig: And just so I figure out if I have to kill you or not, was the first thing that you wrote It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?

Rob: No. No. The first thing—

Dana: You will make it back to your car tonight.

Rob: The first thing I wrote was not a comedy at all. It was really super dark. Really dark. Because that was the time in my life when I was very dark. I wrote the script about a crime that took place in NYC and I wound up giving it to my agent. And he said maybe I could sell this. And we wound up optioning it to a company called Propaganda Films. Remember them?

Craig: They do commercial work, right?

Rob: Yes, or they did. They were shady. Shady people.

Craig: Oh, they were shady?

Rob: Oh yeah. Big time.

Craig: The name is kind of a tip off, isn’t it?

Rob: You’d think so.

Craig: Yeah, like let me tell you all about Propaganda Films.

Rob: They did. I will say though they wound up getting it to Paul Schrader. Paul Schrader, I don’t know if you guys know Paul Schrader.

Craig: Wrote Taxi Driver.

Rob: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. And he signed on to direct it. So, I got to work with Paul for six or eight months rewriting the script.

Craig: That’s kind of cool.

Rob: That was really cool. Really cool. But if you know Paul’s work, the movie got darker and weirder. And darker and weirder. And then by the end, Propaganda was waiting to get paid and they didn’t really pay me anything. And by the end I said, hey Paul, like what’s going on? Are you going to make this movie? He said, “Well, I’m going to go off and do this other movie first, and then I’ll come back.” And then in the meantime Propaganda went bankrupt and the whole thing fell apart.

Craig: I mean, you must have one of these, right? I have one. We all have one of these.

Dana: Everybody has a creepy, sad story like that.

Craig: Yeah. You know like when you get that first moment where you’re like, oh my god, this is it? That company is going out of business in like a week. So your smart move is to short the stock.

Dana: Short the stock, yeah.

Craig: Just short the stock. Like whoever offers you your first gig, short the stock. Make some money.

Dana: But not to sound like a platitude, but I’ve always believed like it actually matters more how you get up from that one. Because like it’s going to happen for sure. And then it’s how do you handle yourself? Do you like cry like a bitch and get really mad about it and never write anything ever again? Or do you just go like, all right, pulling on my pants. I’m going to be a grownup. I’m going to start over.

Rob: I cried like a bitch. And I didn’t write anything for a long time. Because I was like that’s miserable. I mean, who wants to do that.

Craig: That’s a great question.

Rob: Yeah. I don’t even like writing. I hate writing. And if there’s any other writers in here, you guys know that writing is the worst.

Dana: It’s horrible.

Rob: It’s like the dumbest, dumbest job.

Craig: We’ve said it many times.

Dana: It’s like sad, and painful, and thankless.

Craig: The only thing worse than writing—

Rob: No recognition.

Craig: Yeah. The only thing worse than writing is listening to a podcast about writing.

Dana: Yeah.

Rob: It’s so much better to say the words that someone else wrote. And then you get all the money.

Craig: I know. It’s amazing. They even tell you were to stand.

Rob: They do everything for you.

Craig: Everything.

Rob: They just point the camera and you just say the words.

Craig: Somebody dresses you like a child.

Rob: Yeah.

Craig: It’s amazing. I know. But I don’t have the facial symmetry for it. Good job, man. That’s pretty sweet.

Rob: I can’t help it. Anyway, so then I moved out to Los Angeles and I decided to write again, but I just wrote something. And I thought I want to write something very simple so that I don’t have to give it to somebody else. I want to go shoot it myself. And so I shot – I wrote a little short film that was very dark, but I brought it to my friends, Glenn and Charlie, and they thought it was funny.

And so we – and I was like all right.

Craig: Boy, did you dumb fuck your way into a billion dollars?

Dana: Oh yeah, that’s what I was going for. It was funny.

Rob: I just hitched my wagon to those two and just like held on for dear life.

Craig: This just blows my mind. Like you get Charlie and Glenn and Tim Herlihy, a friend of ours, when he was at NYU his roommate was Adam Sandler. I got Ted Cruz. This is unbelievable. Fucking unbelievable. Like, I must have been – you think I’m bad now, I must have been a real piece of shit in a previous life.

Dana: I just want to know, because you know they didn’t match that stuff up just randomly. There was some weird algorithm that thought you and Ted Cruz were like fucking—

Craig: It was like a Saw movie. Let’s just watch a man break down. Let’s do it. Let’s just see it happen and it’ll be fun.

Dana: There were cameras everywhere. You just don’t know.

Craig: Exactly. It was horrendous. So, you know, you’re like, oh yeah, look, I wrote a thing. Let me give it to my talented friends.

Rob: And I just decided I want to make this. I want to learn how to make it. So I didn’t know anything really about filmmaking, but I didn’t know anything about writing. I just got all the books and tried to – obviously I watched as many movies and TV shows as I possibly could over the course of my life.

And so I just went to Best Buy. And I didn’t have any money, but I got one of their credit cards. You know, it was super high interest rate and it was like, “I’ll pay you back.” And I did. I did pay them back.

Craig: You did? You paid them back.

Rob: And I bought a camera, like a prosumer-camera, and then I got Final Cut and learned how to cut. And then we just shot it. And then I cut it together. And it was terrible. Like, terrible, terrible. But I realized it was terrible. And then I rewrote it. We shot it again. That was also terrible. And then we reshot it maybe three or four iterations, and then I realized, oh wait, maybe this isn’t so bad.

Dana: The takeaway is there are no excuses. I mean, people talk all the time about like, well, I could, if I would, if I this, or if I that. It’s like you have an iPhone. Do it. Stop talking about it. Just do it. Because you’re going to suck for a very long time, so you might as well start sucking. Oh god. Sorry honey.

Craig: That’s Sexy Craig’s job. He handles that stuff. We don’t talk about the sucking. It’s true that that is necessary. It’s also true that a lot of people will shoot it, it stinks, they shoot it, it stinks, they shoot it. And then it never does get better. I mean, that’s the fascinating thing. That’s the thing I just wish I could go in time and watch all those little moments where people just go this way or this way. And people that have the potential and are talented, and there are some of them here tonight, who can go either way.

And they just decide to go this way. You know, because the funny thing is most of the people that insist and persist and prevail against all odds actually just never make it because they were never going to make it. It’s funny, like I worry sometimes that the people who can make it get too easily discouraged, because they’re aware. Like you said, “I know it sucks.”

Dana: They’re smart enough to know that it’s not good. Yeah, that’s what I was like.

Craig: What is it, the Dunning-Kruger effect? Is that what it is? I think we have a president who currently…anyway.

Well, that was enlightening. I think we got a pretty good sense of why it is that the show has been going on so long, and it’s because you do have that thing where you marry talent to this endless commitment. It’s really remarkable. I mean, it’s an incredible accomplishment.

Television has been around a long time. And for you to beat those records is unbelievable. And I can only presume, what are we talking about here, another 20, 30? I mean, basically until you die?

Rob: I guess.

Craig: All right. Well, you heard it here. We made news.

Rob: I don’t know. If you keep watching, we’ll keep doing it.

Craig: Keep watching it. He’ll keep doing it. Thank you, Rob.

Rob: Thank you.

Craig: Rian, come on out, buddy. We haven’t talked in a while. Looper was good.

Rian Johnson: Thank you.

Dana: I loved Looper.

Craig: And anything, anything since?

Rian: Well, it’s been slow.

Craig: It’s been slow. It happens.

Rian: It does.

Craig: But you know what?

Dana: I’m sorry. I feel so bad for you.

Craig: Brother Bloom was a little bit of a dip there. You got a little slow. Got a little sluggish. But then you came back. You bounce back. You’ll be fine.

Anyway, thanks for coming, Rian.

Rian: Yeah. Good talk. Good talk.

Craig: Rian Johnson, this is great. I don’t quite know how it’s taken this long. Maybe just because, I don’t – I don’t know. I always feel like, I don’t want to put you on the hot seat or anything.

Rian: I’m getting so nervous right now. I don’t know what’s about to happen.

Craig: But this is why. I don’t want to make you nervous. But Rian and I have been friends for a long time. And, of course, we all know of his story, his legend. Rian wrote and directed Brick, which came out in 2005. And he won the Originality of Vision prize at Sundance, which that year at least that’s accurate. I don’t know if it always is. That year, completely accurate.

Rian: It’s original. That’s like the better word.

Craig: It’s originality. Yeah, we’re not saying it’s good. But we haven’t seen that before. 2008, aforementioned Brothers Bloom which I actually love.

Dana: Bigger applause than Danny DeVito.

Rian: And Ozymandias.

Dana: And…yes.

Craig: And in 2012, I’m sure you all saw Looper. We’ll be having a contest later to see which one of you can explain the plot to me. But it is awesome. Also, Rian has directed some of the best of the Breaking Bad episodes, including Ozymandias. Ozymandias, look upon my works in despair.

And recently Rian has written and directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi. So what happens in it? [laughs]

Rian: Yeah, there’s a Jedi who is…the last in…

Craig: The last, possibly. OK, here’s how I want to start. You really are, when it says originality of vision, I thought that was apt. Because you are unique to me in that no matter original and, well, we’ll see monastic a lot of writers are, at some point along the way, and maybe peppered in throughout, they will work with other people on things. I’m thinking of Scott Frank, for instance. Scott always has time each year to write his own thing. But then he’ll go and he’ll work with James Mangold on Logan, for instance. And he’ll bop around and do things.

Not you. You have always been Rian Johnson Industries, kind of. I write Rian Johnson screenplays and then I direct Rian Johnson movies. And I think that’s part of the reason why there isn’t one every year. You take your time. You’re careful about it.

Then, this happens, and it’s sort of like the absolute opposite of solitude. You have now hundreds of people. And, on top of that, you also have this existing culture behind you and these other movies and characters that have been handed. How did you adapt to that new reality?

Rian: Well, I mean, it’s been so nice having lots of other people and not feeling so lonely. But I should actually back up and say one of the most surprising and nicest things about this whole experience has been how similar it actually felt in terms of the process to the other films.

Craig: Interesting.

Rian: It was really a come up with a story that I care about, write it, and then direct it. And I had my DP, Steve Yedlin, my producer, Ram Bergman, my editor, Bob Ducsay, from Looper. I mean, people I’ve been working with for years. And bizarrely just kind of felt like a – it felt like we were just all making another movie. And creatively, because Disney and Lucas Film were so terrific, also just creatively it felt just like coming up with something I want to make and making it. It’s been weird.

Craig: That’s very good news, I think. Because I think sometimes people will say, well, if somebody makes their own films, they are sort of an auteur for lack of a better word, and then they get involved in some large other thing, maybe their vision gets muddled. But what you’re saying kind of is you actually just did it again.

Rian: Yeah. I mean, yeah, and I think because people who are much more talented than me have done stuff this size, and it can go the other way very easily.

Craig: What do you mean by the other way?

Rian: I mean, it can be a bad experience. And that’s what Ram, my producer and I, before we came into this we waited really carefully, because on the one hand it’s Star Wars. It’s this thing that you love so much. But that also means that if it isn’t a good experience and it goes south, it would be the worst nightmare in the world to be fucking up Star Wars. And to have a miserable experience making the thing you great up loving.

Craig: Well, we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?

Rian: Exactly. I was going to say. Spoiler alert.

Craig: So enjoy this time. This is nice.

Rian: I will just be listening to this podcast on repeat. Huddled in a fetal position behind a Denny’s.

Craig: That’s how I met you.

Rian: In Pomona. Yes. Flashbacks.

Craig: Memories. Dana, what do you have to say about this guy?

Dana: I wrote some stuff down.

Rian: Look at this.

Dana: I brought a pink pen just as like a fuck you to you guys.

Rian: That’s good.

Dana: So, I asked my kids to ask you questions. So, I said I’m going to interview the director of Star Wars tonight. I said what do you want to know. And Charlotte, my two-year-old, said Darth Vader. And Oliver, my four-year-old, said, “That’s not a question. You have to ask something like what’s the new movie about. Tell me the plot.”

So, if you want to elaborate on that. And then I said I don’t think he’s going to be able to say that, so you have to ask something else. And he said, “OK, I want to know why does Daddy’s phone only have some of the Star Wars’ songs on it, but not all of it.”

And then I said I don’t think he knows the answer to that, so you have to ask one more. So he wants to know why Boba Fett was a bounty hunter.

Rian: Ohh.

Craig: Answer the question.

Dana: Let me ask a follow up adult-style question. How did you get over the institutional memory of it enough to actually get in there and start doing it? I mean, I feel like it’s such a coveted brand for, you know, a company, but it’s more so I think we all think it’s our own thing. Like it’s all our favorite thing. So, how did you get over that initial feeling of like how can I touch this perfect thing?

Rian: Yeah. I mean, from the outside just looking at it, that was a really scary thing. And once I kind of started actually working on it, it’s funny, I found that the exact thing you think could be a big burden was actually the main thing that helped the whole process. Because telling any story, and you can look at – this is definitely what Lucas did when he made the original movies, he went out there trusting his own instincts.

And he was out there to tell a story that he cared about and that made sense to him. And at the end of the day it was coming from a really personal place. And so for me, knowing that I had that grounding of from a kid these movies meaning that much to me, and being so deeply ingrained, I kind of – I felt like that kind of gave me permission to trust that and to not freak out about what it means in any kind of bigger sense. And just say, OK, I know why I wanted to be Luke Skywalker when I was a kid. I’m going to believe that that’s a good compass to follow.

And so kind of turning inward like that actually was kind of a lifesaver. And I would think is the only way you could approach something like this and make it, you know, kind of mean anything to you I guess.

Dana: Is it weird if I cry during this Q&A? That’s like really beautiful.

Craig: John has never cried.

Rian: In life?

Craig: Ever.

Rian: No.

Dana: That’s the only thing I can bring to the table.

Craig: When John was born he didn’t cry. He just came on out and—

Rian: Just clipped himself off.

Craig: Exactly. Yep. And then plugged himself in. Yeah.

Dana: Have you always trusted though that gut instinct that like your point of view mattered and meant something? Because I think for me my trajectory was going from a person who was just trying to survive and get a paycheck and have a job to someone who felt like, well, maybe my specific perspective on this is interesting. And I should follow it. Did you always have that? Or when did you get that?

Rian: Well, I never was like good or smart enough to like get industry work before I made my first movie really. Basically I wrote Brick right out of college. And essentially just like tried to get it made through my 20s. I didn’t make it until I was 30. But the whole time I was trying and it kept almost getting there and falling apart.

But I was working some really wonderful jobs. I worked at a preschool for deaf kids for a while. I worked at the Disney Channel producing promos for like Bear in the Big Blue House. Like really good jobs, but nothing that was like I’m making money doing what I, you know, what my sights are set on.

So, when I started doing it, it was starting with this thing that was this really personal thing. And then was very, very lucky and able to just kind of keep doing that, I guess.

Craig: But there’s something about you, though, that a lot of people start out, they have a dream of what they want to do. They can’t quite get there. They’re making promos for Blue’s Clues.

Rian: Bear in the Big Blue House.

Craig: I’m sorry, the what now? The Bear?

Rian: Bear in the Big Blue House.

Craig: Oh, I remember him. Oh yeah.

Rian: Great shows. Henson. Anyway, go ahead.

Craig: Yeah, it was. It was good. So, you’re working on Blue’s Clues and you get this big break to make your movie and I think for a lot of people at that moment when someone turns to them and says, “But…” there are a couple of things you need to do that maybe don’t feel right to you. In that moment you say, oh OK, I don’t want to go back to the Bear in the Big Blue House. I want to keep moving forward here.

You’ve always struck me as somebody who would just say, well, then no. I’ll just go back to the Blue House.

Rian: It’s not like I had written something that had huge commercial value and somebody was going to say, “If you let us do this, we’ll make you a billion.” You know? Brick is such a weird movie. You can imagine how weird it was on the page. And with a first-time director, like it’s not like there were a ton of things like that that you’re talking about. But there were a lot of times that I would show it to different people who were producers or knew somebody somewhere or something, had that tantalizing like, you know, oh, maybe if I follow this. And they would say, “Yeah, if it’s just not set in high school, maybe then we’ll do it.”

Craig: I remember – can I tell a Looper story? Can I tell a story about seeing Looper? You had a few of us come to see Looper. I don’t know if you recall.

Rian: Oh, I recall the screening. We call you guys now the Wrecking Crew.

Craig: Well, we all liked it. I mean, you should have—

Rian: Did you, though?

Craig: You should have seen the Game of Thrones pilot. That was a wrecking crew. There was just blood everywhere. No, it was good. It was good. It was a little long. It was the usual stuff, right?

But I do remember that there was, and there was a bunch of us there, and a lot of good writers. I mean, I think Scott Frank was there. And I think Ted Griffin was there. And maybe John Gatins, too. And there was – you guys have seen Looper? Great. If you haven’t seen Looper, you don’t get to go to the party. And just like that, we solved the attendance problem.

So there’s a moment where Bruce Willis has a choice about whether or not to kill a child because that child may or may not grow up to become a terrible, despotic mass murderer. And he chooses to kill the child. And it turns out, wrong kid.

And there was a debate, I remember, in the room. And I remember specifically thinking, ugh, I don’t know, but I think so. It’s ballsy as hell. It’s brave. I don’t know. And I remember you just watched this whole thing. And at some point I remember thinking he doesn’t give a good sweet goddamn what any of us think about this. Not one bit. He’s made up his mind.

And that, in a weird way, is precious in our business to have an instinct and to adhere to it, even when a lot of people might say, “Whoa, that’s a little cray-cray.”

Rian: Yes, but, I guess. Yes, but you still need to – like for instance I was listening to you guys and I was really tuned into the fact that – like and this was actually very, very interesting. Because Looper, I had worked with some great, very famous actors before, but nobody who is like the type of star that Bruce Willis is. And a big fear going into it from the page to the screen was are we going to lose – is his character going to totally lose the audience when he shoots the kid? They’ll disconnect from the movie and say I don’t care what happens, I’m not invested anymore.

And so I was actually very tuned in and listening to every conversation I could listen to about—

Craig: Maybe it’s just your face looks like you—

Rian: That’s very possible. But, I mean, the fascinating thing is we found out it takes a lot to turn an audience against Bruce Willis. It takes more than shooting a child in the face. He shoots a child, an innocent child in the face. And like we talked to people afterwards saying like, “Yeah, but we figured he must have had a reason for doing it.” It was a very useful lesson actually.

Craig: Absolutely terrifying, actually.

Rian: Steve Buscemi in that part might not have been the—

Craig: No, no, that’s it. Boo. Walk out. Burn the theater down.

Dana: I think all of America must be like me, because I just see him and I’m like, “Dad?” Like he’s just everybody dad. So we’re like, I guess I forgive him. Maybe he’ll be a nice guy next time. Don’t worry, my dad doesn’t listen to podcasts.

Craig: [laughs] I don’t think anyone’s does. So, here’s something that I think people here will – it’s a nice warming thought. That if you are trying to break into the business, you’re trying to get into Hollywood as a writer or filmmaker, everyone really is Rian Johnson in 1997, right? Everyone has a script. Everyone has some sort of lack of visibility about what’s ahead of them.

But what do you tell folks who come here? I mean, how to approach their own path when they are being beset on all sides by advice and–?

Rian: Well, it was actually listening, Rob, listening to you guys talk. You said exactly what I feel like I most often respond to with that which is – and this was my experience, too, which is I think if you put energy into how do I break into the industry, how do I get an agent, how do I – it’s putting the cart before the horse. I think that ultimately first and foremost practicing. Shooting it. And then reshooting it. And reshooting it. And rewriting. And just getting, working on yourself and getting better. But just doing it.

Like getting a camera. Getting whatever camera you can get your hands on. And making stuff. And then getting out there however you can. I really, it sounds naïve a little bit when you say it, but I actually think practically that’s the industry – you can’t say the industry will be the path to your door, but I think that’s the best way to find your career is just to do what you do and get it out there however you can I think.

Craig: Substance.

Rian: I really believe double down on substance. And that ultimately is, you know, what everybody is looking for so hard out there. Everybody wants something that’s interesting and good, I think. I hear a laugh.

Craig: That guy is like, “I own Disney.”

Rian: I may be totally skewed on this and wrong, but I feel like that’s – end up coming down on that, you know?

Dana: I was just going to say, do think that Brick would get made now?

Rian: Yes, if someone made it. Yeah. I mean.

Craig: That was kind of Yoda-like.

Rian: It didn’t get made then until they made it.

Dana: And how did you truly not give up after like ten years of trying on the same thing? How did you know your thing was worth something, and not that it was not, you know, people are slamming the door in your face for a reason? Like you pushed past that.

Rian: Well, I mean, I’m sure everyone here has a similar thing where it’s not like – you’re not always boldly up on the horse going forward. You do end up sobbing and crying. You do end up needing a weighted blanket occasionally to comfort you. But I don’t know, so it’s not a steady process, but I think ultimately like me if you’re dumb enough and have little enough talents outside of this industry, you have no other options really and have to just keep blindly moving forward, I think.

No, you just keep doing what you do, I think.

Craig: That’s accurate. I don’t think you’re good at anything else.

Rian: Yeah.

Craig: I have a question for you. Because you’ve always written what you’ve directed, and you’ve always directed what you’ve written, is there a director you’d like to write a script for? And conversely is there a writer whose work you would love to direct?

It’s one of those fanciful, rhetorical, imaginary questions.

Rian: Well, I mean, there are so many directors that I love, but writing, like you said, writing sucks, writing is terrible. I hate writing.

Craig: Welcome to Scriptnotes.

Rian: I feel like directing is the fun thing. No, writing – you love writing—

Craig: If I go through the pain of writing, then I want to direct it?

Rian: Exactly. Yeah. If you go through all that work, then why wouldn’t you get to make the film?

Craig: Interesting. Directing seems so hard to me.

Rian: No, it’s so easy.

Craig: Because you’ve got to wake up.

Rian: It’s so easy.

Craig: Every day you have to wake up. And all the questions. These glasses or these glasses? This tie or that tie?

Rian: Those glasses. That tie.

Craig: Oh, wow.

Rian: What was hard about that?

Craig: Film School with Rian Johnson. OK, I have one last question for you. Not to bum everybody out, but Carrie Fisher was not only our first princess and wonderful actor and a huge part of our culture, but she was a great, great screenwriter. And when she passed away, John and I talked about that. She was one of us.

And so I just thought I would invite you to share any thoughts you had about Carrie, because you were probably the last director she worked with, right?

Rian: Yeah. That’s how we connected as writers. And that was just an instant thing. The very first time I met her, I ended up just spending hours at her house. And she was like, “Tropic of Cancer. I’ve got it here somewhere.” And we ended up, even after she read the script, you know, that was kind of our bonding experience. Sitting together for hours, going through all the different lines.

Anyway, she had a brilliant mind. And I really loved her, man. I’m very, very, very sad she’s not around to give me a piece of mind – give me a piece of her mind about the movie when she sees it. She’s wonderful. I’m happy that we have a wonderful, beautiful performance from her in the film. And I’m just really happy and grateful I got to meet her and have her in my life, even briefly.

Craig: Fantastic answer. Thank you, Rian. Maybe we could open it up to some questions and answers for Rob, and for Rian, and for Dana.

Dana: Please, let’s not be weird about it, guys.

Craig: We have some microphones we can hand around.

Audience Member: The Last Jedi has what I think is one of the best posters ever. Was there any point where you send it back and send this poster sucked? What level of involvement did you have with it?

Rian: Well, no, they – I had little to nothing to – I had nothing to do with it, really. So I can agree with you and say it’s a gorgeous poster without being an asshole.

And really the way it worked, I walked into a room just with like 40 posters on the walls of all of these different ideas. And it was me and Kathy Kennedy and some other folks. And we all – it was like magnets. Our eyes just, whoop, right to that one.

Then there were just a couple tweaks to it, but really right off the bat they just made this. I agree, I think it’s a stunner. I’m glad you like it.

Audience Member: My question is for Rob. You mentioned that it took a lot of encouraging from I think you said your agent to get you to finally write something. And I was wondering what finally got you to do it, or now when you don’t want to write, or when it’s hard, because like you said it kind of sucks, what gets you to finally do it? What helps?

Rob: Desperation. I mean, because the truth is I hate it. If I didn’t make that clear. I hate it. It’s the worst. It’s the worst. The worst. And I wasn’t working. I was working in a restaurant. And I just got sick of it. So I started writing. And now I do it for money. And when there’s a deadline and I have to do it because we’re shooting. You know, and the truth is when I’m really – when we get into it and things are happening and things are moving forward, there’s not a greater feeling in the world, because as you know if you’re a writer, staring at a blank page or a blank computer screen is the absolute worst, but when you fill it up and when you read it back through, and you truly believe in your heart. And you know that it’s good, you created that.

And it’s the only art form in our industry where you create something from whole cloth. And what can be more satisfying than that? So I still fucking hate it, but I derive an incredible amount of pleasure from a finished project.

Dana: Yeah, and also a little practical advice, too. Just like take your pajamas off. Because if you don’t look like you’re at a job, you won’t feel like you’re at a job. And if you don’t have real pressure, create fake pressure that you actually are so fucked up you start believing in. Because if there are no deadlines and if you don’t have to do it to get paid, and if none of that stuff is there and you’re just in a vacuum going what should I do, it’s all just this wonderful blank page.

The last strike we had, I was like, oh, this is going to be amazing. I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write this spec that’s inside me. I did not write one word. Because there were no constraints. Nobody was saying like it has to be a little bit of this, and do your best job making it that. So just create fake constraints on yourself.

And even if that is doing an It’s Always Sunny spec so that you don’t feel the pressure of I have to have my voice figured out. Just figure out how to write a good scene the way that that show writes a good scene. And study their show, you know, study a bunch of their episodes and try to do your best at that. And that will just get you in the muscle of it.

Craig: Got any advice for the blocked or the reticent?

Rian: No. I think that it’s, I don’t know, it sucks. There’s no cure for it. Except I find literally just switching and thinking about something else for a while or if you don’t have the luxury of doing that, yeah, then staring at the wallpaper until it starts peeling off. And I’m just going to describe the rest of Barton Fink right now in detail. This is going to take two hours, but it’ll be worth it.

Craig: That is very Swedish. He’s our little Swede. I’m a big fan of the shower. I don’t know for whatever reason. Taking a long shower lets me kind of imagine. I don’t like writing—

Rob: How environmentally responsible of you.

Dana: There’s a drought in California, Craig.

Rob: The worst drought in the history of our state. Oh, you just take your long showers.

Dana: Craig created the drought.

Rob: Because the world needs more of your movies.

Craig: More, exactly. They’re not even – it’s not even water. It’s hand to blood. It’s awesome.

Audience Member: Excuse me. I lost my voice last weekend, so I have to growl like Batman. Batman wants to know, it’s for all four of you, is there one pilot or one movie that you wish you had written or directed?

Craig: Oh my god, just one?

Rob: Man, I watch Mad Men, and I’ve watched that series through twice. And then started a third time. And I’m just fascinated by that show on every level. Insofar as it is not a subject matter that interests me at all. There’s not much that actually happens. There’s no hook. On paper, having not read the scripts, I just mean in terms of like a one-line pitch, it seems boring as all hell.

And yet I was riveted more watching that show than almost certainly Game of Thrones. I’m going to tear them apart.

Craig: I mean, I like the show. I just don’t like them.

Rob: I actually hate them. I happen to love Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad, and I was riveted watching all those shows, but I’m inherently interested in watching a chemistry teacher turn into Scarface. I’m inherently interested in watching dragons going and kick ass. I’m not inherently interested in watching a bunch of guys smoke cigarettes and drink whisky and talk about marketing.

And yet I was thoroughly riveted at every moment of every episode. And humbled by the fact that there was a person and/or people out there that were able to do that with the writing.

Craig: What about you, Rian?

Rian: Paper Moon is the – I love a lot of movies, but if there’s one movie that I watch and I feel like, god, this feels so close to everything I love. It’s Paper Moon.

But what Rob said, I mean, I think – like I just saw Certain Women, the Kelly Reichardt movie, recently and it’s – like I find myself fascinated by things that are so outside of my skill set. And it’s a similar thing where it’s such a gentle, such a – you know, such an observational film and yet you’re riveted every single second. More so than in most Hollywood blockbusters. And that’s magical to me, because I don’t know how it’s done.

So, yeah, that’s, yeah, similar.

Craig: What about you, Dana?

Dana: Don’t patronize me. Nobody cares. No, because Rob said – I’m kidding. I’m sitting next to Rian. Because Rob already said Mad Men, I would have to say The West Wing, because I’m in love with shows that are about people having a work family and loving their work so much that they have these relationships that are not sexual at all, but that are like deeply loving. And I find that fascinating. That’s what I loved about Mad Men is I was so obsessed with the Peggy Olson/Dan Draper characters, because they had this beautiful love affair that was totally platonic.

And because they loved their work. Craig, what do you think?

Rian: Nobody cares.

Craig: I’m going to say Toy Story. And I’m going to say Toy Story because it was, I think – maybe it was the first time that the technology of storytelling finally perfected narrative. It was just perfect. There was nothing there that was wrong. Everything was right. Everything worked. Everything fit together beautifully. And Pixar has done it over and over and over.

But I remember seeing Toy Story and thinking that’s a flawless thing. Even if it’s not, you know, I know it’s not Taxi Driver, but it’s a flawless thing. Who wouldn’t want to have that, to be able to say I did that? That would be remarkable.

Dana: And I have kids, so I can tell you that if you’ve watched it 147,000 times, it doesn’t get boring.

Craig: There’s no mistakes.

Dana: It’s perfect. It’s amazing.

Craig: There’s just not one mistake. It’s just a remarkable thing.

Audience Member: Hey guys. Myself, like many in this room, I’ve written a lot of screenplays, gotten attachments, or good notes, or lots of nice things, and all these breadcrumbs of hope that have never led to a sale or a film necessarily getting made. So, I guess I’m just asking the four of you, since clearly you’ve seen success and know what you’re doing, what are some enduring qualities that we all need or should hone in on and strap in for, because I know that even once you get a sale, or you get something made, it’s not like your problems go away.

So, can you maybe talk about some of those qualities?

Rob: Qualities in a script? Or qualities—

Craig: I think he means in him.

Audience Member: Oh, I’m sorry. Just as a writer/producer, just person living and working in this city?

Craig: Well, I’ll tell you one thing that you’re going to run into, people are going to read your work and then they’re going to say things about it. And they’re not, even if you’re working for them, and they’re paying you, or they’ve purchased it already, they will say things like, “That just doesn’t work.” And it will feel terrible. It will feel much worse than you think it will feel.

It never stops feeling terrible in a weird way. It’s a strange thing to have that, you know, I always think like if actors dealt with what writers deal with, it would just be one take after another of, “Nah, that’s not, no.”

Rob: We do. It’s called auditioning.

Craig: Oh, yeah, there is that. That’s to get the job. We also do that. It’s called pitching. But you are going to have to learn in those moments to put that pain second, because where a lot of young writers, new writers go wrong is they cannot handle that emotional dissonance. It’s hard. And they become either defensive or discombobulated.

And in the end people have choices of who they want to work with. And you don’t want to be unpleasant. And it’s not our fault, it just happens. It’s human. But I think having some kind of emotional resilience is a really important thing.

Dana: And congratulations on having breadcrumbs. I mean, that’s more than most people have. So, keep going, dude.

Rob: Certainly resolve is something that Craig was just talking about, but I think it’s also just a lack of cynicism. And Mazin is like one of the most cynical people I’ve ever met to comedic effect, but the truth is he wakes up every day – I believe this is true. You can correct me if I’m wrong. But you still have a sense of wonder and joy of the fact that you are living your dream.

And I think you have to remind yourself of that every single day. Whether you’re getting paid for it or not. Because you could be working, you know, on a roof somewhere laying grout. You know, you’re not.

Craig: Flashing.

Rob: Flashing?

Craig: You could be flashing a roof.

Rob: Sure. Whatever profession Craig was headed down.

Craig: Flashing. On a roof.

Rob: Sure.

Craig: Yeah. It’s the stuff that goes—

Dana: Around the thing. It plugs the holes.

Craig: Nah. It’s more like, some of you know what I’m talking about. Some of you have spent time on a roof like I have.

Rob: Anyway, it’s really easy to get cynical. And to get hardened. And to become so angry at the world or at the industry or, you know, whatever – whoever you need to blame. But the truth is that if you wake up and what you love to do is write, or what you love to do is make films, you can do that right now.

And you are doing it already. And I think that takes a certain sense of innocence and maybe naïve joy and sense of wonder. And if you lose that – and even the most hardened, I’m pointing to Craig, of professionals, I still think keeps that.

Craig: Oh, this is, you know, a lot of these people I assume have been listening to the show for a long time. You start to realize that I’m – John is actually the hard one. I’m a mush. I really am. And I am endlessly amused and fascinated by what we do.

When you do get to walk onto a sound stage, every single time I walk on a sound stage I get excited. Every single time. And when I see dailies, and when I see things like movie posters, I get excited. And when, I don’t know, when it becomes real, even storyboards get me excited. And the truth is what no one can ever take away from us is we get that time on our own where we’re completely in control of it. And in those moments, you should feel nothing but passion for it.

I mean, you guys all seem to hate writing. I love it. And I love it even when it’s hard. I love it because it’s just, I don’t know, it seems like the most wonderful mode of living. I think if you just stayed in there, obviously it would be bad. They would find you days later. But that’s, you know, that is so much preferable to me than I don’t know what are the other options. Like heroin, I guess? Just something to make everything else go away?

Dana: And more practical advice. If you have to have a job, like most people do when they’re trying to get into the business, you have to like pay the bills. Give your good hours to your writing. And don’t tell John August, because I was actually John August’s assistant. I’m sure he won’t listen to this. Wah. Sorry John.

But I used to wake up. I worked for John, and I would get to his house at like 9:30. And I used to wake up at 4:30 in the morning so I could write before I got to work. So, then I was like answering his phone like, [slurring] “This is John August’s office.” And I did nap a lot. He did see me napping a lot.

So, you can’t always do that. But if you can do that, I would recommend not saying to yourself like, oh, I’m going to do my writing when I get home from work in like the two shitty hours where I’m exhausted at the end of every day, because that’s like saying you’re going to become a surgeon in your spare time, you know, on your lunch break or whatever. That’s not doable.

Craig: All right. I think we’ve got time for one more.

Audience Member: I have a question for Dana. I’m sorry that it’s probably the question you get a lot. Do you feel like you had to work harder breaking in as a woman? And what advice do you have for young women screenwriters.

Craig: Let me answer that for Dana.

Dana: No, no, no, Craig, you don’t understand. I’m going to answer it, and then you’re going to tell me why I’m wrong. You’re going to explain it to me later why I’m wrong.

First of all, no, I don’t think I had to work harder because I was a woman. I think I just had to work really, really, really hard because this business is really hard. And anyone who wants to do it has to work really hard.

You know, there have been times where I think being a woman is not awesome. For example, you’re getting ready to pitch something and you have to go get a blow out and that takes a fucking hour. And no guy has to do that. And then you’ve got to worry about your outfit, because you’re like do you think he’s the kind of guy who likes tits or doesn’t like tits? And does he hate his ex-wife, or does he love his wife? Like I don’t know. Do I remind him of his daughter, or his wife, or you know, it’s like, ugh. So that’s a fucking drag.

Craig: Did you know that was going on? I didn’t know that was going on.

Dana: I mean, you have to think about it. So, you know, there’s that.

What I will say is that there was a certain point at which I stopped tap dancing and like pretending that it was every guy’s idea. Because I did a lot of that for a long time. Like I would plant things in guy’s heads and then they would say it back to me. And I’d be like, “Oh my god, you’re so smart.” But that got kind of exhausting. So I stopped doing it. And I think my advice would be just like work harder than – it’s the same advice I would have for me which is like work harder than everyone else. I was always wherever I had to be before everyone else. And I always stayed later than everybody else. And I always treated every single meeting and every single interaction I had with anyone like it was an audition to get invited back into the room the next day.

And no matter how much success I’ve had, I still feel like that. Every single day I treat my job like I’m the luckiest person on earth that someone is paying me to do it. And I better just leave everything on the field, or not on the field. How does sports work?

Do you want to leave it on the field? Or do you want to take it off the field?

Craig: Do they like tits? Do they not like tits?

Dana: Do they like the boobs? Do they not like the boobs?

Craig: It’s basically the same question.

Dana: It’s very complicated.

Oh, and one thing that was hard was when I started running my own TV show, and I was the boss of like guys who are a lot older than me. That was weird. So, you know, you do have to deal with that kind of stuff. But I’m sure you guys have had your version of that. You look like a 12-year-old. You probably still have that. Like a hot 12-year-old.

Rob: I leave my boobs on every field I go to.

Craig: I think that pretty much covers it. And that’s our show.

As always, Scriptnotes is produced by Godwin Itai Jabangwe. Godwin. And it is edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also wrote our awesome, fantastic intro. Matthew.

If you have questions, you know where to find us. For short questions, you can reach us on Twitter. I am @clmazin and John is @johnaugust. For longer questions, such as the ones that were posed here, you want to email those to ask@johnaugust.com.

Show notes for this episode will be at johnaugust.com. Transcripts go up four days after. With that, I want to thank so, so much my cohost, Dana Fox. The amazing Rian Johnson. The incredible Rob McElhenney. John Gatins, and all the folks at Hollywood Heart, it was such a pleasure. Thank you guys for coming out and supporting this great cause.

Thank you very much.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

From Writer to Writer-Director

Tue, 05/16/2017 - 08:03

Chris McQuarrie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, VALKYRIE) joins us to talk through how he went from writing giant movies to directing them.

We talk about the pitfalls directors face as they move from indie features to tentpoles, and the advice he gives them. Chris is currently, and conveniently, in Paris directing the next Mission: Impossible.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 298: How Characters Move — Transcript

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 11:28

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 298 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at how characters move and how screenwriters can use character movement to their benefit. Then it’s another round of Three Page Challenge where we take a look at reader’s submissions and diagnosis what’s working and what could be improved. So, this is usually the spot where we have follow up, but there’s not really a lot of follow up. I mean, we’re in this weird place because we’re recording this on a Thursday, so all of our listeners are way ahead of us. They’re living in the future and we are far back in the past. So, by the time people are listening to this, we’ll have more insight into what’s happening with the WGA negotiation. The live show at the ArcLight will have already happened.

Craig: That’s right.

John: So whatever Craig said about me I don’t know yet, but you as listeners might possibly know if you were one of the 400 people in that theater.

Craig: Right. Like they may know as they’re listening to us have this discussion that you and I aren’t talking anymore. Like that’s it. They heard it. This is the last camaraderie we’ll ever have. By the way, the last time we had this whole you all are living in the future discussion, it was because of the presidential election.

John: Yeah, oh great. That turned out really well. So, that’s a good omen.

Craig: How do we get back to the past somehow?

John: Yeah. Some time travel would be good. I actually did a post about time travel today for the blog. I rarely write on the blog, but I did a post about time travel because I was working on a project a couple years ago for a studio and it never happened. I never actually fully wrote the whole thing. It fell apart for other reasons. But, in that time travel movie, it was – you’re traveling back and forth in time, but you’re always physically in the same place. And so you’d be in Los Angeles but it would be, you know, 20,000 years ago. But, that’s as much of a cheat as anything is. And so my sort of thing that keeps me up at night sometimes is if I were to travel back in time, and the time machine broke, or I was sort of set back in time like how Kyle Reese would be in the Terminator and landed someplace in the past, how would I know where I was and when I was if I didn’t have any of my stuff to tell me that.

Craig: Right.

John: And so I speculated a little bit in the blog post, but I really asked people to contribute their own thoughts for the best ways to figure out where and when you are if your time machine breaks down. And people have already had some good suggestions. That was just this morning and people had some good thoughts.

But, Craig, you’re a smart person. What would you do? How would you figure out when and where you are?

Craig: I suppose I would just follow what movies and television have told me to do, which is to either grab the nearest newspaper or ask somebody, “What year is it?”

John: Yeah. You seem like a crazy person then. In my head, I was always thinking back to there’s no one else around, or if there are people around, it is like a primitive civilization.

Craig: Oh.

John: So like I can’t just go up to a person. I could go up to a person, but they wouldn’t speak my language most likely. So how would I–

Craig: You don’t.

John: Figure that stuff out?

Craig: No idea. None.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, stars? I wouldn’t know.

John: So, apparently stars are useful because I don’t know if it’s the Big Dipper or Little Dipper, but you can actually chart to see where you are at in periods of tens of thousands of years based on what the Dipper looks like.

Craig: If you knew that–

John: If you knew that. Yeah. You got to know a lot. So, in my post I said like a biologist would be able to look around and see what was nearby. And then Nima, my friend, who is a biologist actually said like, “Well, that’s ridiculous. Because biologists don’t necessarily know what the ecology is of a place.” So it’s an ecologist rather than a biologist I needed.

Craig: Yeah. And even then, ecological periods are incredibly long. So, you might be able to say, “Well, I’m clearly between 8000 and 4000 BC. Well that’s not very useful.

John: Yeah. If there were trilobites running around then I would know that I’m back in a time, but I wouldn’t know where I am in that time.

Craig: You’d know you’re screwed. That’s the deal. You’re screwed.

John: You know who are really smart people? Are our listeners. So, if you have a good suggestion for me on how I can figure out when and where I am if my time machine breaks, I would welcome that.

Craig: You know what I’m going to do, what I always do in these hypothetical situations when I’m faced with very difficult odds and a challenging circumstance like arriving back in time at some unknown time and place, I just immediately give up. I curl up into a ball and I pray for death. Pray for the sweet release of death.

John: Yeah. You protect your internal organs from the predators coming after you.

Craig: Or just let them take me.

John: Or just let them take you. Yeah. Just jump off the cliff. Find a cliff that you can fall off of it.

Craig: Find a cliff. Leap. That’s it. Not realizing that five minutes later they would have picked me up. They would have found me. Or that I didn’t even go back in time.

John: They were looking for you the whole time.

Craig: Yeah. I didn’t go back in time at all. I was just having a mild stroke.

John: Yeah. It’s like the ending of The Mist where you think everything is at its absolute worst and then if you’d waited another 30 seconds everything would have been fine.

Craig: Oh, you wait – that by the way is a theory I’ve heard from people regarding our prior strikes. [laughs] We just needed to strike one more day and we would have gotten everything.

John: Everything you want.

Craig: Everything. I don’t know about that. Oh, dear.

John: I’m realizing at this moment we actually do have one piece of follow-up. In last week’s episode, we talked about – we did a bunch of follow up. And at the very end I said that if we were a podcast that had music, this would be the place where we played the music to close out the follow up. And so Jonathan Mann, a very talented composer, created a piece of music just for wrapping up follow up.

Craig: I know.

John: So, let’s take a listen.

Craig: [music plays] Well that sounds exciting. I think that will be fun. I’ve had enough of follow up. I think follow up is done. Follow up is done. [music ends]

John: Follow up is done. And now let’s get to our first topic. So, this is something Craig proposed. So, kick it off.

Craig: Well, I was thinking about this because I was watching something and there was a character who was so physical and was doing so much physically. And it occurred to me that one of the things that you and I like to do when we talk about crafty issues is pull out little things that maybe writers don’t think about as tools in their toolbox. We’re so textual and I think for a lot of people we tend to focus down on action and dialogue. And you and I have talked about the importance of place. And we’ve talked about the importance of sound. And we’ve talked about the importance of transitions. And nonverbal communication.

John: And hair styles. And wardrobe.

Craig: And hair and wardrobe. All these things are part of our palate. But when I don’t think we’ve talked about is physicality itself. Have you ever taken an acting class?

John: I’ve taken no acting classes.

Craig: I took an acting class when I was in college. And it was really instructive. And I took it because I was trying to write and I thought if I want to write things for actors I should probably have some sense of what the hell they go through. And the thing that surprised me the most about class number one was the fact that we spent the first ten minutes stretching, breathing. These are things that every actor is like, yeah, dumb-dumb, that’s what we do. Our bodies are an enormous part of our instrument.

And the first acting assignment we had, and I will never forget this, because it was mean and it was cruel. And it was exactly the kind of lesson you don’t forget. Our teacher said, “OK, first acting assignment, each of you, you’re going to sit in the chair and what I’d like you to do is perform sitting in a chair. And you have one minute to do whatever you’d like to perform sitting in a chair.” And each person, including myself, performed some sort of remarkable little mini drama while sitting in the chair.

Waiting nervously for somebody. Shooting up drugs. Crying. Remembering something terrible. Yeah. And then when we were done she goes, “OK, now it’s my turn.” And she sat in the chair and she sat there, believably, for a minute. And we were all like, gulp, because that’s a huge part of what you do.

And I never forgot that. So, I thought today we would talk about how we as writers can employ this and think about this while we’re writing. Whether it’s something we’re calling out specifically as we’re writing, or whether it’s something that we’re using to inform what we’re having our characters say as opposed to not say and so forth.

Do you do a lot of thinking about this sort of thing when you write?

John: I would say in general as I’m sort of looping through the scene, sort of in the pre-writing process where I’m seeing what the scene is like, that’s where I’m sort of doing the blocking for characters and figuring out where they are and sort of what they’re generally doing in the scene. And so some characters are not – they’re not running around. They’re standing there. They’re sitting there. I’m placing them within the mental set I’ve built for them. And because of where I’ve placed them, that will inform their choices definitely.

But I would say in general I don’t think a lot about this consciously. And so when you proposed the topic, I went back and sort of retroactively looked at the choices I have made in different movies and some of those were really helpful choices. So, I’m eager to sort of have the discussion about thinking through what character movements could be and when it’s helpful to call them out. Because I think a lot of time I’ve seen them in my head, but I haven’t bothered to describe them on the page.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s normal, because the truth is it’s not always something that is necessary. I will always be necessary for each individual actor to make a choice about their own physicality. And I’m talking about everything – how they stand, how they sit, how they walk, how they move through a space, all of that. But in key moments, it’s important for us to think about it. And you can kind of break these things down into two large categories. One is situational and one is I’ll say constitutional.

So, you think about a character like – you watched Breaking Bad, I presume.

John: I did not watch Breaking Bad. I’ve seen episodes, but I did not watch it as a whole series.

Craig: All right. Have you ever seen Giancarlo Esposito’s character, Gus Fring? Have you ever seen any of those?

John: Absolutely. And I perceive him to be a very active and physical character, even when he – if he’s listening to you, I think it’s a very active listening.

Craig: Right. So, he – that character – that actor, and the writers together have made a choice that this person is going to exercise total control over his physical self. He stands rigid. His posture when he sits is always perfect, to the point where it’s almost unnatural. When he talks to you, he tends to put his hands flat on the surface, palms down, evenly spaced. It’s a remarkable series of choices but it says so much about who he is, which is an intense control freak to the nth degree.

That is a kind of constitutional decision. This is who this guy is. But then there are these moments characters can respond to something and then how they respond physically can sometimes tell you so much. So, I guess, first we could about just motion. How actors are moving through a space and what it means for us as writers. These are simple things like how fast are they going, or how deliberate are they. Are they in control of their physical self at that moment? Are they clumsy or are they graceful?

They can also indicate things to us, I mean, the physicality of a character can indicate things. For instance, like I mentioned, posture. But there are also things like strength, general strength and weakness. You can tell when, and these are questions that actors will ask. And if they ask a writer, it’s good for you to know. Is this person weak? Are they physically weak? What does that mean for them? Do they have a disability? Sometimes a slight limp does this remarkable thing.

We know, for instance, watching No Country for Old Men, and you see Anton Chigurh, and that–

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Odd limp. It’s the strangest thing. And it’s so important. So important to his character. 99% of writers will not really go there. But they should. It doesn’t mean you always want to do something like that, because it can quickly tilt into affectation. But when you’re creating a monster and then giving him a slight imperfection like that that almost harkens back to Frankenstein or something, it can be really interesting.

John: Absolutely. And I think if you’re calling this kind of detail out on each character, it loses its unique quality for the characters it’s actually important for.

Craig: Right.

John: And it can also feel like you’re setting something up that you don’t mean to be setting up. So you have to be really mindful of it, but for I think Anton Chigurh is a great example of a character whose menace is amplified by this perceived weakness.

Craig: Precisely. And there are also little behavioral ticks that all people have. If you – you know, we sometimes say if you want to learn dialogue, I mean, I do think there’s a certain innate talent for that. It’s a little musical. But we’ll say, listen to people right? And sometimes we’ll suggest record two people having a conversation, with their knowledge, of course. And then just listen to the rhythms and see how that works.

Similarly, just watch people with the sound off in your head. Watch their bodies. Watch what they do. Watch how they fidget. Do they bite their fingernails? Do they chew gum? Do they pull on their pants? What are those things that they do? Those little things sometimes tell us so much and the audience tends to enjoy learning these things, like little detectives who are spying on somebody. Because we’re watching a character on screen and while they’re talking they’re nervously fiddling with their shirttail. They feel – the audience feels a satisfaction. It’s a voyeuristic satisfaction. They know that that character isn’t really aware of it. Right? That’s what kind of an unconscious habit is.

So, we’re kind of titillated by the fact that we’re learning something about them that they don’t necessarily want us to know.

John: Absolutely. Well, I think what you’re talking about is you’re giving them a specific differentiation from all the other characters in the world. We often talk about that first moment where you introduce a character. So, they get their uppercase because it’s the first time they’re showing up in the script. And you can sometimes cheat a little bit and like give an extra line of description that isn’t really necessarily filmable, but it helps sort of anchor for the reader who that character is.

But sometimes a movement is a fantastic way, really what one of these constitutional movements, is a great way to sort of anchor that for the reader. Because you’re giving them something specific about, you know, in the case of the Breaking Bad character, how precise and measured he is. And sort of how he sits so ramrod straight.

That’s useful. And it’s a thing that actually can help inform the actor. Help the director understand the character’s role in the thing. But it helps the reader see that character in his or her head.

Craig: It also starts to help you as the writer cast. Even if that’s not the cast that you end up with, in your mind you’re saying this character has this kind of physicality. Who fits that? You know, I remember in that acting class I told you about in college, at the end of the semester we had to partner up with one other person in the class and perform a scene. And she assigned the scenes and the characters. And I got True West, which this other guy, and I was the hard ass brother. I was the tough brother.

John: All right.

Craig: Because she said, and you know, it’s so funny, she said, and she’s right, and this is why I’m not a good actor and why I can’t do it well, because I’m in my own head too much. She said, “You have this physicality you will not access, and I want you to access your own body. I want you to get in this guy’s face. I want you to intimidate him. I want you to be scary.” Which I don’t feel, in my head, but I have the kind of physicality – it’s not like I’m a super heavy built guy, but if I were a bad person I have the kind of body that helps that out. You know? Got some broad shoulders and sort of barrel-chesty.

And so as you’re thinking about the physicality of these characters, you also then start to think well who could play this and who does this physicality match up to? And a lot of times where that takes you, and this to me is maybe the most important aspect that I think about routinely is this kind of relational physicality. Two people are in a space, how is their physical presence impacting each other?

John: Classically, if you ever take a class in negotiations or sort of like interpersonal communication where you’re trying to convince somebody of something, there’s that process of mirroring where you sort of do back what they’re doing to you and then like you can sort of change the dynamic. Even like those sort of gross things about how to pick up women, they’re all about the interplay of space between you and the other person. And so how you put those two characters in the scene and how you sort of suggest that they’re going to be moving in the scene really will influence the dynamic.

If a character is approaching the other character, that can be read as they’re entering their space for a positive reason or they’re trying to control that person. And you have to make those decisions.

And just even that line of dialogue or the parenthetical honestly, like approaching, changes the read of that next line of dialogue.

Craig: Absolutely. And similarly you have a choice of how to respond. In this way you can have a fight without ever throwing a punch. Someone can lean in – you know, sometimes instead of saying he gets it – like I will read in scripts, “He gets in his face, or he gets in his comfort zone.” But to me that’s not very specific. I mean, if somebody, you know, juts his head in, these are things that people do to get into your space without just weirdly walking close to you and specific. And then how does the other person respond? Because if they don’t flinch, that tells me a lot, too. And then the other person maybe starts their – their performance starts to fall apart. Their performance of being strong.

And there are all these body language things that people just do traditionally and I think it’s good to think of about those things as well, even if you don’t spell them out. If in your mind your character is arms crossed and eyes down, it will affect how you have them say things.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: So, in that sense it’s not always necessary to spell it out, but you should be thinking about it.

John: Well, the general rule for sort of everything we’re talking about in scene description for the scenes that we’re writing is you have to know what all the things are and be very judicious about the things you’re actually saying because screenwriting is an art of economy. So, you’re not saying 90% of what you know about the scene. You’re only saying that 10% that’s actually crucial for the understanding of the intention behind the dialogue and the intention behind the actions, the crucial actions that they’re taking in the scene.

So, you know, the scene may really not be about sort of where those two characters are or sort of like how they are physically interacting, but if it’s helpful for the reader to understand the intention and for the actors to understand the intention, you’ll make the choice about like, OK, I’m going to be very specific here. And, again, there’s always that worry like, oh, I’m directing from the page. Well, sometimes you’re actually just directing the reader’s attention to what’s important in the scene. Moments that might be lost if you hadn’t actually called them out.

Craig: Absolutely. And if you think about the comparison to dialogue as music, that there’s that rhythm and melody and the rests and the notes, then the equivalent comparison for physical motion is dancing. And I do think about these things like little dances at times. And that doesn’t mean to say that they have to be arch. But how people are leaning and moving back and coming together, whether it’s out of intimacy, or threat, or fear, frightened people are the most wonderful dancers in movies. It’s so much fun to watch them.

I remember another Coen Brothers example, Miller’s Crossing. What’s his name, The Schmatta, that’s what the character’s name is? When he’s begging for his life. “Look into your heart.” He’s so folded over and pathetic. It’s like they took his bones out or something. It’s really amazing to watch what servility looks like, and fear, and it’s similarly I’m always impressed by truly scary people in movies. Not fake, fighter, corny ones, but those live wires that are dangerous like Begbie in Trainspotting. I mean, Begbie, the character, what, he weighs like 120 pounds maybe. And he’s, what, 5’8”? And he’s absolutely terrifying because it looks like electricity is in him. And he leads from his, in surprising ways, like explosively from his neck. You know? And that’s amazing to me. It’s such a wonderful dance to watch.

John: Well, that idea of dance, I think, is a crucial reason why – and I’m curious what your take is on this, because I almost never have characters sitting down. I think it’s because of the dance aspect of that. So, even in situations where in the real world they might be sitting down, I’ll almost always put them up on their feet. And so now that I’ve said that, people will watch movies and TV shows and they’ll recognize like, oh, you know what, it’s really kind of weird how rarely people sit in movies and TV shows. But it’s because you want people on their feet. People pay more attention to people who are standing up. And it’s a strange thing. But if people are standing up then anything can happen. If people are sitting down, less can happen.

And the transition from being seated to standing up is a big change. And so you can do that, but you’re also sort of taking up time to do that.

Conversely, I think one of the reasons why people are often standing is then when you have somebody sit down, it really does change the dynamic. And sitting down can be a major power move to sort of say like, no, no, we’re not going to hurry. I’m going to sit down.

Or, like Hannibal Lecter, you have a character who is mostly sitting down and he’s eerily calm, which is, again, a powerful position.

Craig: Actually, I was thinking of him as standing. That’s interesting.

John: Well, sometimes he’s standing, leaning against the wall, but I think in a lot of those conversations he’s seated in the chair opposite Clarice.

Craig: Oh, is that right? Well, yeah, because the first time we meet him, not only is he standing in a Gus Fring ramrod way, but he’s floating in the middle of the space. By the way, as good of a time as any way to say rest in peace, Jonathan Demme. It’s very sad that he passed away.

John: 100%. Yeah.

Craig: But also an amazing example of what body control and defining a character by body movement is. But I agree with you, sitting is a fascinating choice. And this is where you know you’re talking to screenwriters, because anybody else would just say, what, they’re sitting, who cares. So to me sitting is always about negotiation, or intimacy. Or exhaustion, literally exhaustion. But when people are sitting across from each other, I think that there’s either a negotiation going on, which I think is very typical. We think of that as across the table, or an intimacy where two people are kind of together and sharing something quietly that is in a so-called safe space I guess is how I would put it.

But when one person is sitting and one person is standing, that’s always fascinating to me, too. Because then there are times when the seated person is the one in charge. Then there are times where the seated person is the one in trouble. And you’ll see that dynamic quite a bit.

John: I think back to Star Trek, and you look at the bridge of Star Trek and its different incarnations, and obviously the caption has his seat and in the Next Generation there were seats next to him, but it always – you could tell the actors never really wanted to sit there. They always wanted to be up. And even from the initial Star Trek, they found a reason for why Spock had to be standing to look into that little monitor thing. There’s no reason why that monitor thing couldn’t be like seat accessible, but I think they wanted him standing up because if he was sitting down he was sitting down. And the characters who were sitting down were kind of less important.

There’s a reason why Spock was standing, because he was the second most important person on the bridge and Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura, they were sitting down. And while we love them, they were not the driving force in the scene.

Craig: Yeah. When people are standing, there is a chance that one of them will attack the other one. Physically. Or there is a chance that one of them is going to kiss the other one, physically. And so that is exciting. There is – you’re absolutely right about that. And it is good advice I think to ask yourself, because I fall, and we all fall into this trap, ask yourself do they need to be sitting here? And if they don’t, what would be going on if they were standing? Because you also don’t want them to just stand dead, you know. And then this leads you down the path of what other kind of discussion could occur.

And this is the challenge of the screenwriting. I always feel like writing a script is a little bit like those old school printers that had to run through a color, then come back and do another color on top to get to the final colors, you know. So they’d do one color at a time. And oftentimes I feel like there’s only so many layers we can do at once. But, it’s a good exercise to go back through on a rewrite and ask yourself why are they sitting, should they be sitting, and how are they sitting, and if they’re not sitting and they’re standing, what can I do with their bodies? What can I think about with their bodies?

The more you give your actors to do physically, the more they will be able to be real. I don’t know how else to put it.

John: That’s absolutely true. All right, I think that’s a great discussion on some movement. Some physicality. So, if you have suggestions about physicality or movement, write in with those ideas.

Before we go, one last actually really concrete example I can think of, from The Crown, so the Netflix series, The Crown, a big sort of plot point is that Churchill doesn’t want to sit down. Churchill always wants to be standing to give his information to the Queen. And she makes him sit down at one point. And it is a very clear sort of power move. When I’m telling you what you have to do, and making you sit down, I’m taking away your agency. And it’s a really interesting moment.

Craig: Yeah. You know, we go through this – I mean, you and I, we’re getting older. Every now and then you tweak a little muscle or something. Even just being aware, body conscious, we are conscious of our own bodies. Ow. You know, if you have a scene where someone sits down and they just wince a little bit, that’s interesting. I’m already interested. They seem real.

John: Even as we’re recording this, I think you are sitting in your chair in Los Angeles. I am standing at my desk in Paris. It’s the difference between us.

Craig: That’s right. I am incredibly lazy. [laughs] So lazy. Slouched over. Basically I’m Charlie Kaufman’s character in Adaptation. I am. I’m just like – my posture – I’m the opposite of Gus Fring. I’m basically a comma.

John: I am some other Nicolas Cage character in some other movie.

Craig: Let’s go with The Bad Lieutenant. And…? Three Page Challenge time.

John: Perfect. So I just reached back and picked up my iPad to talk through our Three Page Challenges. So, as always, when we do a Three Page Challenge, we’ve invited listeners to write in with the first three pages of their script. So they have gone to johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out, they have read a little form. They have attached a PDF and said that it’s OK for us to talk about these on the air. And, in fact, if you would like to read along with us, we strongly recommend it. So, in the show notes for this show, or just go to johnaugust.com, you can download the PDFs and see what we are seeing, what we actually have in front of us.

So, if you feel like pausing the episode and downloading them, it really is good because we’re going to talk specifically this week about very specific things on the page that could be looked at for a rewrite.

And we also love to have a wonderful not us person to read aloud the descriptions. So, if you’re listening to this in your car you have a sense of what we’re talking about. So, we’ve had Jeff Probst, we’ve had Elizabeth Banks. This week–

Craig: So good.

John: We went international. And so it is Rebel Wilson who is going to be reading our summaries.

Craig: Oh yeah. Rebel.

John: Rebel. So, she was so generous. We tweeted at her last night and she did it right away. And she’s just the best. So, if you would like to hear more Rebel Wilson, she was on a previous episode. We’ll have a link in the show notes. She was actually on two episodes. So we had a normal clean episode, then we did a special dirty episode which is in the premium feed for subscribers. And the premium episode, if I recall correctly, involves a hat and diarrhea.

Craig: Yeah. Of course it does. Of course it does. By the way, now, so we’ve had Elizabeth Banks, Banksy, and we have Rebel, I feel like we should just keep rolling through the Pitch Perfect cast, you know?

John: 100%.

Craig: I think that’s the only people that we should have doing these, other than Jeff Probst. We should just have Pitch – we should get Anna Kendrick. And we should roll through.

John: Done.

Craig: All right.

John: All right, let’s do our very first of these. And Rebel Wilson, if you will please introduce our first script so we can discuss it.

Rebel Wilson: OK. Hey guys, it’s Rebel Wilson here. OK, first up we have Alice by Ted Wilkes. Oh, I feel like the person at the table read that reads out all the stage directions. We open in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant where a toad and a cat are hard at work. We are in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland reimagined as a sprawling metropolis with a Victorian twist. A perp races through the kitchen, chased by Rabbit White, aka, the white rabbit, now a hard-nosed bail bondsman.

In voiceover, Rabbit tells us why the perps always run, even though they know it’s pointless. Then, in the alley, Rabbit catches the perp as he’s about to climb over a fence. He cuffs him. As Rabbit muses on how things have changed in Wonderland, the perp reveals that he knows where she is, the one Rabbit is hung up on. Enraged, Rabbit knocks the perp out. At the WPD, Harry Mad Hatter Harrington, balding and fat, watches Rabbit. He confronts Rabbit about smoking inside the station and warns him about beating up suspects. And with that, that’s the bottom of page three.

John: And thank you Rebel Wilson. Craig, do you want to start us off?

Craig: Sure. So, this was a little challenging for me. There’s a choice that’s made here. And I understand it. There are times when you want to – your action description wants to be a character in and of itself. And there are times when you want to impart things to the reader quickly and efficiently so they kind of get it.

So, here we start in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, and then we’re already a little meta because Ted Wilkes says, “Because that’s where chases always take place.” I haven’t seen a chase yet, but I guess I’m going to, which I don’t really love. Let the chase unfold. Let me actually watch the movie. But he says, “However, there’s something different about this one. We’re in Wonderland. The place where Lewis Carroll’s novella was set. However, it’s years after the hallucinations of Alice Liddell which gave birth to that narrative. Turns out that the place is actually a sprawling noir metropolis (with a Victorian twist) when you put the book down.”

Now you’re just pitching me the movie.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And that’s not what screenplays do. So much of what we want when we read a screenplay is to discover. And I understand at some point you may need to clarify. First, just lay it on me. And then let me discover it. And I think that choice is kind of infecting even the way the scene is working, because we have a film noir voiceover from the Rabbit who is clearly basically a film noir detective. Or in this case bail bondsman, which we know because he tells us in the action. “The white rabbit from the stories became a hard-nosed bail bondsman.” Again, before he’s even said a word. So we’re pitching. He has some voiceover and then they start to run.

And understand what’s going on here. And we see a lot of these in Hollywood. I mean, Travis Beecham wrote a spec called Killing on Carnival Row which was sort of like fairy creature world, you know, noir gumshoe. So this is Alice in Wonderland noir gumshoe. It’s a very similar sort of thing. But it seems to me that I kind of need to get one thing at once, like maybe just give me the white rabbit. And I think it’s Alice in Wonderland and he’s checking his thing, because he’s going to be late. And then he looks up and he sees somebody running by. And then he runs out after them, chases them down, catches them, and knocks their teeth out, which is a very similar thing to what’s happening here.

And then I discover, oh my god, Wonderland is not the way I remember it. But it seemed like I was getting too much before it happened. So, by the time I was done, and this is sort of just a global problem with these three pages, by the time I got to the end of the third page, I thought to myself I don’t need to see this movie. I think I get it.

John: Yeah, I felt like I got it, too. And I had a lot of the same objections you did in terms of it didn’t feel like it was presenting itself fairly. It didn’t feel like it was actually a screenplay. It felt more like a pitch document for the idea rather than the thing itself.

The idea of like combining two different genres together to make your own unique thing, that’s great. I have no issues with it. And, you know, an Alice in Wonderland noir drama, I’m fine with that. I think my concern is that it didn’t seem particularly interested in being a noir genre. I didn’t sense that this actually cared about the chase. It was just – the chase was just there to set up stuff. And I didn’t feel invested in the action, partly because let’s see, so we’re talking, you know, in the kitchen there’s a toad washing pots by the sink, and a cat is cutting onions in the corner.

But then we have this Perp, 40s, races through the kitchen. We never get any description of what the perp is. Is he human? I don’t know.

Craig: Right.

John: So, it wasn’t – yeah, I don’t think – if Ted had an answer for it, he wasn’t giving me the answer because it didn’t seem like it was important to him. And so I didn’t know whether to invest my attention on any one detail of all this.

So, the voiceover from the Rabbit, it feels like gumshoe voiceover, but it didn’t feel like specific to this world of a gumshoe voiceover. It felt like it could have been in a different movie and it could have been in a different movie. And that’s where the gears started to not fit very well for me. Is that we visually see that he is the White Rabbit, but nothing he’s actually saying or doing feels like Lewis Carroll’s world at all.

Craig: Yeah. You know, if you want to start with that classic noir vibe, and again, this is my theory of do one thing at once, so show me some dirty streets and some fog and the camera is moving through. And a dog is barking and there’s sounds of clatter and garbage cans. And we hear a voiceover. And the voiceover, I’m just reading from Ted’s pages here. The voiceover, we don’t see anyone. We just hear someone say, “They always run. They know that it’s pointless… I always get them. It’s just something to do with the nervous system. You see a threat coming your way and your feet start turning in the direction of the nearest exit…”

And now we move through a window and we arrive at an ashtray and a glass of scotch. And we hear, “… It’s the amygdala. The place where our brain gets all its emotional signals from. Once it kicks in, it just takes over and no matter what you were just thinking about, you’re not in control anymore.” And then a hand reaches in, takes a cigarette. And then you hear, “And that’s where I come in,” or something.

And then we reveal it’s a rabbit. You see, somehow or another we need one thing at a time. I’m also thinking about, I love Men in Black. Boy, that’s another movie we should deep dive into. And Men in Black, one of the things that I love the most, when I knew I was going to have a great time in that movie more than anything was after the chase scene where Will Smith chases down this purse snatcher. And the guy–

John: They race up through the Guggenheim and–

Craig: Right. And then that guy is doing things that you couldn’t really do. And then his eyelids do this weird blinking thing, like there’s eyelids inside of his eyelids. And then he jumps. And later Will Smith is saying, “Yeah, his eyelids were doing this weird thing.” And the cops are like, “You’re out of your mind.” And then in comes Tommy Lee Jones and he says, “They weren’t eyelids. They were gills. He was out of breath.”

And you go, whoa. This is cool. Right? Like he knows stuff. And they’re taking it seriously. They live in this world. It’s not cute. It’s not meta. It’s real to them.

This all felt like it was – it had that glaze of a pitch. There was like a weird meta thing sitting on it, so that I wasn’t really in a movie. I was just more getting hit with a lot of flash.

John: Yep. I agree with you. Let’s take a look at the words on the page and see if there’s things that screenwriters in general can look at here and learn from. So, a thing which bugs me a lot and I suspect bugs you, too, is when scene headers go more than one line. And so here we see, this is bottom of page one, EXT. DARK ALLEY, BEHIND THE CHINESE RESTAURANT, WONDERLAND – NIGHT, and the night breaks over to the next line. Don’t do that. I’ve never had a good outcome with multiline scene headers. Find a way to shrink that down. EXT. DARK ALLEY – NIGHT. Done.

Like I know we’re in Wonderland. You don’t have to keep calling it out every time.

Craig: Right.

John: If you’re going to keep the same Chinese restaurant kitchen opening, I would have gotten rid of the first scene header all together, because he’s repeating it in the second line. So, it just says, “It’s the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant because that’s where chases always take place.” That line bugs me less if I didn’t just see it in the scene header.

Craig: Yep.

John: A general thing, but in screenplays, two dashes are the sort of punctuation dash. So one dash by itself just looks like a minus. This was inconsistent. So that would be helpful.

He’s got a voice like gravel in a mixing bowl. Sure. That worked for me. I could hear what that sounds like.

Craig: And it’s a little cheesy, but true to noir. That’s kind of how they talk.

John: That’s why I liked it. Bottom of page one, “Chiaroscuro light fills the alley as two shadows run up the wall, just about visible through the thick fog circling around the place.” Really close, just a little too long. So, you can get the Chiaroscuro and the fog, great, and the shadows running up the wall, but then it just went on too long.

But in general, I felt the noir vibe there. Great. Just little less would have helped me there.

Page two, there’s a semicolon that’s not really a semicolon. “The Perp CLATTERS against it; then tries to climb as fast as he can.”

Craig: Right. That should be a comma. Or take out the then.

John: And I share you concern with we are told that he’s a bail bondsman, but nothing we actually see him do really sells that idea. And so it looks like he’s just a cop arresting him. And even when we got to the station, I was really confused sort of what his relationship was with everybody there. It took me three times on the third page to really understand like, oh no, he doesn’t work there. He’s just returning this guy who ran away. So that was confusing to me as well.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. There is a disconcerting spelling error on the bottom of page two. “A rye smile from the Perp.” You want to say W-R-Y there. Not rye as in the drink. And the reason it’s a little disconcerting is because, look, mistakes happen, but I like it when my writers read. And it just – you don’t want to shake anyone’s confidence. You never want somebody to look at that and go, oh, this guy is just not well-read. Because I’m sure Ted is well-read. This is probably just a think-o instead of a typo. But you got to check these things. It’s really important. And that’s something a spell checker is not going to catch, obviously.

John: Top of page three, “Rabbit tees off on the Perp’s face.” I didn’t know what that meant. Did it mean slug him?

Craig: Yeah.

John: What does tees off mean?

Craig: Tees off means take a big swing at basically. Like a golf club. I was a little more confused by, “I’ll have a vowel please.” I didn’t quite get the joke there. Because the perp–

John: He’s got a vowel.

Craig: Yeah, well, the perp, the rabbit has caught him and the perp says, “I know where she is.” And the rabbit says, “What did you say?” And the perp says, “You’re the one they keep talking about. Hung up on that girl. What’s her name?” Now, that’s just not real. It’s forced exposition. It’s forced drama. That’s not the sort of thing that you would just calmly toss out. What is he trying to achieve exactly in this moment? He’s trying to get away from a guy? What is he doing? It seemed ill-motivated.

Then the perp says, “…A…”

And then the action says, “I’ll have a vowel please,” in italics. “Rabbit tees off on the perp’s face. Goodnight, Scumbag.”

I mean I understand the vowel, like I guess it’s a Wheel of Fortune thing. But what? I didn’t quite – I was confused.

John: Yeah. It didn’t work for me either. Let’s talk about this as a concept in general, because I got confused about the tone and sort of who the target audience was for this. Because it felt like a – I think there’s some F-words in there. I didn’t know who this movie was aimed at. And it could be OK to not necessarily have a perfect audience, but if this landed at my desk and I was a studio executive, I wouldn’t know what I was supposed to be doing with this. Because I wouldn’t know is this to our children’s division, or is this to – it felt expensive, but adult.

I didn’t know sort of who this was aimed at.

Craig: Yeah. This would really function best as a sample. Once you have a talking rabbit, any producer or reader or executive is immediately going to think, well, this is going to be expensive. And it will be. Well, if it’s going to be expensive then that means a lot of people have to come see it. This doesn’t seem – I mean, the whole gimmick here is we’re going to take something with an enormously wide appeal, the classic Alice in Wonderland story, and narrow it down, which is fine to be niche and cool. Just no one is going to spend the money to make it.

But, you know, OK, so maybe it’s mostly just for the writing, but then the writing has really got to be just wonderful.

John: Got to be great.

Craig: Yeah, it’s got to be great. And let’s take a look at the very last bit here between the Hatter and the Rabbit. And I get a little confused here because the Mad Hatter is a police officer. And I thought, OK, the Rabbit chasing somebody has a general connection to the traditional role of the Rabbit, because I assume partly here what we want to do is see, oh, there’s a dotted line – even if it’s thin – between the character we know and the character that’s being presented to us.

So the Rabbit runs a lot in Alice in Wonderland. And here he is running again. OK. It’s just a different kind of running. Interesting. But the Mad Hatter is not a cop in Alice in Wonderland. There’s nothing he does that’s cop like. And yet here he is. So, I start to wonder what exactly is the connection to Alice in Wonderland other than the names and maybe some of the clothing. Makes me a little worried.

John: It makes me worried, too. Have I ever talked about this on the podcast, that Go was originally an Alice in Wonderland story.

Craig: Oh, that’s interesting. No.

John: Yeah, so Go was originally conceived to be an Alice in Wonderland story. And so the yellow Miata which hits Ronna was supposed to be a white Volkswagen Rabbit. And so there was a bunch of things that if you kind of squint you can see that like, oh, this is a thing I was trying to do. But along the writing of it I was like, you know what, I’m trying to force people into these roles and they don’t naturally want to be in these roles. And so I gave up on that as a concept and the movie is much better for that.

I did feel like, you know, in this case the writer is trying to force these people into these zones. Granted, it’s only three pages, so maybe it does make more sense later on, but I share your concern that Hatter doesn’t feel like he any relationship to the Hatter I know from the stories.

Craig: Yeah. And like I said, you feel like, well, at some point he’s going to be talking to the caterpillar. And then there’s going to be the Queen. And, you know, Alice in Wonderland is not really something that hasn’t been imagined or reimagined I should say thoroughly many times before. It has. Many times before. So, that makes me just think, hmm, the gimmick may be a little played out here. This may feel a little, well, you just don’t want to feel like it’s homework to go through it.

So, I think that there’s some conceptual issues here and some character issues. But the most important thing I would say, Ted, is let’s just give you the benefit of the doubt. This works out great from here on. You really have to think about how you’re introducing us to the world. And how you’re introducing the audience. It can’t feel like a pitch. It will just never, ever work that way.

John: I agree. But you know who knows something about pitches? That would be Rebel Wilson. So let’s turn back to Rebel to talk us into our next Three Page Challenge.

Rebel: The second Three Page Challenge is called Black Leather Jackets by Gerald Decker. Nighttime in Arkansas. A man who looks like fat Elvis jumps off a semi and goes inside an Astro Burger. A character called Rambling Man, the only other customer in the restaurant, pops some pills and downs them with coffee. Elvis orders a Fatty Fat, a chocolate shake, and some fries. Rambling Man approaches Elvis and offers him a lift.

In the truck, Rambling Man asks Elvis on why he chose to be fat Elvis rather than one of the other incarnations. Before Elvis can answer, though, a ball of light shoots past and disappears over the horizon. The truck suddenly stalls and rolls to a stop. The two men exit.

The ball of light reappears and now lands in the middle of the road. It’s a saucer-shaped craft. Rambling Man laments how no one is going to believe him and how no one will believe Elvis either. The craft then opens up and three Nwabalans are, again, I don’t know whether I’m saying that correctly. Nwabalans. OK. I’m guessing kind of like alien creatures exit on Harley Davidsons. The lead alien reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small silver object. He tells Elvis he’s a sight for sore eyes. Elvis then says, “Why, thank you. Thank you very much.”

That was not a bad Elvis impersonation when I’ve never done one before. All right, OK, and then that’s the end of page three.

John: All right. So, this is by Gerald Decker and this is written in a way that’s different than a lot of the Three Page Challenges we look at, so I’m excited to see this.

So, most screenplays you read are going to have INT/EXT as scene headers, but you will come across some scripts that are sort of written in a continuous voice. Basically it’s just one continuous flow. And the slug lines or sort of scene header thing is just, you know, a general indication of when we’re inside and when we’re outside. Ultimately, if these movies go into production they get scene headers like everything else and it works out fine. But this one is written sort of like just one continuous flow.

And so it’s an interesting thing to look at if you are curious what that looks like on the page.

Craig: And it works for me. You know.

John: It works for me. Yeah. So, this one starts, “ONE NIGHT OUTSIDE THE ASTRO BURGER ON ROUTE 64 IN ARKANSAS,” which is essentially the scene header. “A semi drives away, leaving a man who looks suspiciously like ELVIS at the restaurant. This first paragraph brings up one of my biggest frustrations with how this was written is that there were just a lot of run-on sentences that I think hurt the read. It was actually harder to sort of get through and figure out what was really going on the sentences kept going on a lot.

But the flow of getting in from place to place, that actually worked kind of fine for me, despite the sort of strange style.

My overall general take on this is that I was certainly surprised by the things that were happening in the first three pages, but I didn’t have a tremendous amount of confidence that this was going to be a movie that I was excited to keep seeing. Because it was going through a lot of tropes really quickly. And I wasn’t convinced that I was going to be taken on a better journey than things I’ve seen before.

Craig: Yeah. So, what we’re talking about here is three pages in which Fat Elvis, who we presume is Fake Fat Elvis, turns out to be – it seems – real Fat Elvis. And real Fat Elvis does in fact have awareness and knowledge of aliens. And we’re meeting the aliens now. So, sort of a National Enquirer pastiche into a movie. And that can work. I feel like we’ve seen similar kinds of things. The territory of all of the crazy stories about Elvis are really true is something that has been mined. But I will say that Gerald has written something that is consistent.

The tone feels consistent. Which that is an indication that you can write. And something like this, the tone is very specific. And I felt at home with it the whole way through. It’s odd. But it’s odd in its own way. And it stays odd in its own way. And I could see it. I could see every single thing that happened, which I really liked.

When that happens, it’s so much easier to forgive things like, OK, you’ve capitalized the word Chewing in chewing gum in a parenthetical when you don’t start those things with capitalizations. You know, stuff like that. There were little mistakes like when they’re in the truck Ramblin, who is the name of the truck driver, Rambling Man, who is giving Elvis a ride says, “As Ramblin sings along, Elvis eats his Fatty Fat Burger and his skinny fries. RAMBLIN (Shouting over the music) So tell me.” Well, is he singing or is he shouting?

So, there are these things like this. And, you know, that’s fine. But I could see all of it, which I really enjoyed. When you look at page three, you’ll see that there’s actually an overdose of something that I generally love. I like to use white space on a page and I really like to break up my action lines. Sometimes the best way to get across a vibe, a feeling, a mood is to not write paragraphs of action, but single lines.

However, if you do it too much, then you start to get a little bored visually. I think you could probably combine lines like, “The three lights stop in a line, one next to the other. Behind the lights are three Harley-Davidson motorcycles. On top of the motorcycles are three dark FIGURES.” That could be one paragraph, right?

But, you know, I mean, the last line put a smile on my face. And I thought to myself, well, I don’t know where this goes, I think there’s a possibility that this script becomes something like a Buckaroo Banzai which is amazing and specific and bizarre. And it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t give a damn whether you like it or not, or understand it or not, because it understands itself. I love things like that.

Or maybe this sort of never gets there. But, there is real promise here and there’s an interesting love of – and an evident love of language. Elvis is drinking a shake that’s called a Fatty Fat while he eats Skinny Fries. It’s just fun. I mean, I feel like Gerald is in control of his pages here.

So, by and large I thought there was a lot of promising – there was promising execution if maybe the topic itself wasn’t the freshest thing.

John: I agree with you. A few moments of dialogue did not click for me. So I wanted to call them out. So, I’ll start at the end. On page three, Ramblin says, “You ready for this?” “I was born ready.” I did not understand this at all. I didn’t understand why Ramblin wasn’t freaking out more. This is where I think the character underwriting was hurting it. Because I just had no sense of who Ramblin was in this moment.

On page two, Ramblin says, “You see that?” Ramblin’s voice fades away as the ball light reappears. The line was too short to fade away. So, I think it called for a longer line. There’s more stuff happening. So, give us that longer line. Give us something that can actually fade away. Give us a dot-dot-dot to come out of it.

This is personal choice, but on page one Elvis looks over the menu selections. Yeah, give me a Fatty Fat. One of the chocolate shakes and some home fries. Waitress says, “We just have Skinny Fries.” It always kind of annoys me when a character speaks who hasn’t been called out yet. And so there was, you know, if he’s looking over the menu selection as the waitress sort of leans on the counter or taps on her pad, you know, let us see her first. Because then I think stuff is going to work out better. We understand sort of the scene around him as he’s talking to her.

I didn’t understand why Ramblin was giving him a lift. That seems like an obvious thing, but the timing of it all felt really weird. Like, did his fries come? Did they not come? Why is Ramblin giving him a lift?

Craig: Yep.

John: So, all these things are helpful. The last thing I want to single out, and this is because a copy editing thing that Arlo Finch made me think of it. So bottom of page three, it says, “It is not human. This is a NWABALAN. His skin is deep blue, his eyes are huge.” And so it an “its” or is it a “his?” And so once you give even a non-human character a gender, stick with it, and don’t be switching back and forth.

Craig: Right. I think those are all very, very valid observations and Gerald would be wise to take all of those suggestions. Check also, you know, little things. Put periods at the end of sentences. The sound of the Allman Brothers’ Rambling Man plays, period. You know, if you don’t want to – I don’t care if you underline or italicize song names. All that stuff. None of that stuff matters.

John: An example of the Allman Brothers’ Rambling Man plays, that’s his running on sentence. So the Allman Brothers’ Rambling Man plays inside the cab at a deafening volume. So, that’s his style. And so, you know, his scene header is still a part of the same sentence.

Craig: Oh, I see. So, it’s inside the cab, at a deafening volume. OK. Yeah, so in cases like that, I like to do a dash-dash to let me know.

John: I agree.

Craig: And then a dash-dash back in. So, plays, dash-dash, then inside the cab, then dash-dash, at a deafening volume. Just to help connect people.

But that’s again, that’s not going to sink you one way or the other. Like I didn’t care that you were capitalizing the parenthetical. None of that stuff really matters. I mean, you know. I mean, fistful is not two words. It’s one word. Stuff like that. I don’t know. Whatever.

But I will say that when I meant it’s consistent at least to itself that this style of no INT/EXT and a kind of flowing, informal moving around felt quirky in the same way as the characters and the dialogue. It all felt very quirky.

John: Agreed.

Craig: So, you know, in that sense there’s an intelligence behind this which I think is important. I don’t know how it turns out. I hope it turns out well for Gerald’s sake. There is a mind at work here.

John: All right. Let’s go back one last time to Rebel Wilson to set up our third and final Three Page Challenge.

Rebel: Now the third Three Page Challenge here is called Thicker than Blood by Phillip Rogers. As a ’69 Mustang drives through the desert, Vince Sutter voiceovers complaining about how heroes in movies are always running off into the sunset without an explanation what happens to them afterwards. Vince we see is in rough shape, missing a finger. His passenger, a sharply dressed man named Kim is spooning a duffel bag in the backseat.

Banging comes from the trunk. At the side of the road, Vince opens the trunk to reveal a pissed-off and bound Nick. Nick was scared someone would kill him. After making him promise not to freak out, Vince tells Nick they stole $5 million from Cheung. Nick freaks out. Vince shuts Nick back into the trunk, declaring he’s not ready to come out just yet. They’re headed for the border. Vince says there is no plan B.

Kim suggests they stop and work on plan B, but Vince is worried that Nick’s girlfriend will soon realize he’s missing. Kim then tells Vince to not worry about the girlfriend. He took care of it. And that’s the end of the third page. All right, thanks guys. Thanks for letting me read this. It was fun. OK, bye.

Craig: Bye.

John: Oh, bye.

Craig: Bye. God, she’s the best.

John: The best. Craig, start us off with Thicker than Blood.

Craig: Well, we have another voiceover beginner here. Now, I must admit that when I started it, every orifice puckered as I sensed the arrival of a Stuart Special, or perhaps a Jabangwe Jump. Is that what we call them?

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: The Jabangwe Jump?

John: I don’t think that is the situation.

Craig: It didn’t happen, so I was really thrilled about that. But then also kind of wondering why the hell I needed the voiceover at all. I’m not sure what it was giving us here.

Here’s the thing about these voiceovers. When you start with a voiceover. Voiceover is pompous. Now, sometimes pomposity is exactly called for, because you’re telling some sort of serious tale. So Lord of the Rings has this wonderful, I mean, Galadriel deserves pomposity. She’s the Queen of the Elves and she’s telling you a tale.

That’s not really what’s going on here. And the tone of it doesn’t have the kind of zippy devil-may-care feeling of say Ray Liotta’s voiceover in Goodfellas which is ping-ponging against lots of fun things and these wonderful images. Instead, it’s very ponderous. Very serious. Very philosophical. And then we get what is essentially a scene we’ve seen many times before. There’s a guy in a trunk. There was nothing particularly special about any of this. It all felt very generic to me. We have two characters in the car, Vince and Kim. Kim is a man. And Kim is asleep while Vince does his voiceover.

And they’re driving. And then there’s a banging from the trunk, which again, Goodfellas, and many, many other movies.

John: And Go.

Craig: And Go. And circa 1990-something. We’re now in 2017. Says, “BANGING comes from the trunk. Vince’s eyes dart to the rear view mirror. Kim shifts awake.” Kim: Sleeping beauty must have finally woke up.

No. That’s not what you do when you wake up. You don’t wake up and immediately speak a scripted line like that. That’s not human. That should be something either Vince says after Kim wakes himself up, but then I would be confused about who he is talking about. Or, Kim should wake up and just go, “Ahh,” right, because he’s hearing the banging and realizes why he’s just been woken up.

That’s such an alarm bell to me, because it means you’re not really writing people, you’re writing lines.

John: You know, I think I took this in a very different way, because I enjoyed this much more than you did. And I took the voiceover as sort of hanging a lantern on that this sort of a very classic scene. This is the moment we’ve seen in a lot of these stories before. And the Vince character was sort of aware that we’ve seen this scene in things before.

And so, you know, this is generally the kind of moment that happens later in the story, but we’re sort of starting here. And we’re going to be filling in sort of what got us to this point. I thought there was a kind of meta quality to it that didn’t come through for you. And I think we’re just seeing different movies here kind of.

Craig: Well, I understand. Here’s my problem. What he’s saying is in his voiceover, I don’t like it when movies end off with the good guys just riding off into the sunset. Essentially what happens to them next? We’re just supposed to assume everyone lives happily ever after.

Then the banging from the trunk. And the scene is there’s somebody in the trunk who is screaming and we know that Vince is hurt and the guy in the trunk is screaming. The guy is Nick. Nick had been taped. His mouth is taped. He’s freaking out. They’ve killed somebody. And they put the tape back on.

This doesn’t feel victorious at all. It doesn’t feel like the scene he just told us he doesn’t like to see. So, it doesn’t seem like they’re taking off on that at all. There was a clash there, so I just – I didn’t feel it.

John: I get that. The three pages end on a discussion between Kim and Vince. And right now it’s all done OS, sort of like as the car is driving away. I had real questions about whether it can sustain that long of an OS.

Craig: It can’t. The answer is it cannot. No. Nothing can.

John: You would shoot this on camera and then make a decision down the road where it juts out the car. But I actually liked the play between Kim and Vince here. So let’s just read this last couple lines here. I’ll be Kim. Kim says, “I really think there should be a plan B. What if we stop for a drink and come up with a plan B? Or– just– stop for a drink anyway?”

Craig: Can’t. The girlfriend’s gonna realize he’s gone soon.

John: Don’t worry about the girlfriend. I took care of it.

Craig: What d’you mean you took care of it?

John: I took care of it.

Craig: KIM! WHAT DID YOU DO?!?!

John: So, that was at least intriguing enough to me to make it clear that I had assumed that Vince was the person in control of the whole scene, because he was the person who had all the information. He was the person who was missing a finger, who was driving the car. So that got me curious enough that I’m going to read another ten pages of this script.

Now, am I going to love it? Is it going to set my world on fire? I don’t know. But all this felt confident and competent enough that I was really curious to read what was going to happen next.

Craig: Interesting. Yeah, you see, to me everything that I’ve seen and heard tells me we’re in the middle of a story, not at the end, which is why I was struggling with the voiceover.

And probably why you really can’t do what he says you’re going to do, because it’s not the end of their – the good guys aren’t just riding off into the sunset because they haven’t won because they’re still in the middle of something. Someone has been killed. Someone is in their trunk. One guy has been hurt. They need to come up with a plan B. They have a goal which is to cross the border, but they don’t know if they can do it or not. That just does not feel reflective.

But here’s the thing that I would love to see. If Kim is in control, I don’t actually know who is in control. It seems to me like this is more of a kind of Hangover vibe where it’s just buddies. But if they’ve killed someone, maybe one of them is a little more dangerous sounding than the other. They both just have that kind of bro patter going on here, which is fine. But one you have one guy basically implying I killed her, then that’s not a bro. That’s a killer.

So, am I supposed to be rooting for this guy? I have so many questions and I wanted it to be more specific and I wanted the characters to be drawn better. It’s well laid out. Believe me, it’s well laid out. Phillip did a good job of that. I think this VO should be tweaked, personally, or eliminated. And I think just whatever you can do to avoid what I would just call generic “we’re in trouble, bro” patter.

John: Yeah. I get that. But I’m curious sort of what happened on page four and page five. And where that’s going to go. Because I like that even by page three my assumptions about sort of what the power dynamic was was proven incorrect. So, that was exciting to me. But I will say, I agree with you that of the three of these things we read, this is the most classically put on the page. It looks the most like a normal screenplay.

Craig: Right.

John: And reads well. There’s very little here that I could object to. It’s Courier Prime. It looks beautiful. The italics look so nice.

Craig: [laughs] You know, take note, people. If you want to butter this guy up, Courier Prime.

Hey, I have a question for you. What do you – I have since abandoned the CONT’D for character lines. Do you still use it?

John: I use CONT’D, so we’re describing when a line of action interrupts – the next person speaking is the same character who spoke before. That’s what you’re describing?

Craig: Exactly.

John: So like Tom, intermediary line, and then Tom again. I still do the CONT’D in most situations. Because I won’t – I hate when Final Draft automatically does it, which is why we don’t do it in Highland. But I only will do it if I’m typing it myself. Because the automatic version is terrible because sometimes you have like three paragraphs in between, but then it’s a CONT’D? That’s ridiculous.

Craig: Right.

John: So I will do it if it’s like a line or two and it’s really one continuous thought and I’m using that intermediary line basically like a parenthetical. The reason why I find the CONT’D helpful is that sometimes literally as an actor is reading it they just won’t connect the dot, like, oh, I’m still talking. It just helps them see that. And I think the actor in the reader’s head, it just makes it clear that it’s the same character talking the whole time through.

So I still do use it.

Craig: Yeah. I can see that. I’ve basically just chucked it because I just got tired of looking at it. And, I don’t know, it just seemed a little archaic. In here it’s fine that it’s being used here by Phillip. However, when you get into off-screen stuff, for it to then be also attached to the off-screen, that just looks ugly. Kim (OS) (CONT’D). It’s not even continued because he’s not even on camera. I don’t know. That’s a picky thing, but it seems like Phillip is into formatting because he’s done a nice job here, so.

John: It is. So, I used to do cont’d as lower case. And I gave up on that. I really liked how lower case looked. It was like sort of less pushy. But I’ve given up on that, too.

I was going to say on Ted’s script, the first one we looked at, had or doesn’t have a CONT’D, and I found it jarring. Because I kept expecting – here’s what it is. Is if there’s two characters in a scene and they’re talking to each other, and the one character talks twice in a row, I will still put the dialogue in the other character’s mouth, because I’m not really looking for who is talking.

Craig: Oh, that’s interesting.

John: And so that’s where I think it’s really useful to do that.

Craig: Well, I’m screwing up there. But you know, I’ve planted my flag and I don’t like change.

John: But you are a single spacer now, aren’t you? Or are you a double spacer?

Craig: Oh yeah. No, no, I’ve been a single spacer for well over a decade now, sir.

John: Very, very nice.

All right. Those are our Three Page Challenges. So, thank you again to all three of our entrants here, people who wrote in with their three pages. And thank you to everybody else who has written in with three pages that we haven’t gotten to yet. Mostly thank you to Godwin Jabangwe, our producer, who has to read through all of them and pick ones that he thinks are going to be interesting for us to look at. So, again, you can read these PDFs. Just go to the links in the show notes, or at johnaugust.com.

If you want to submit your own three pages, it can be a feature script. It can be a pilot. Hell, I’ll probably even take a play if you want to send us three pages of a play. Send it in. You attach a PDF to the little button and send that through to us. And we’ll take a look at those in the future. But mostly thank you to Rebel Wilson. You’re the best.

Craig: She is the best.

John: I’m imagining hugging her right now.

Craig: Bye!

John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?

Craig: I do. My One Cool Thing is a very tiny, tiny thing. And it’s only for people with mustachios, John.

John: Never me.

Craig: It is the Kent Saw Cut Handmade Mustachio Comb.

John: Wow.

Craig: I know. I think it’s the 81T model. Yeah. I can’t explain how good it feels to comb your mustache. [laughs] It is the stupidest thing. I feel like – I’m doing it right now. I feel like some, I don’t know, like Poirot. Like look at me, I’m combing my mustache. But it feels really good.

John: So, Craig, I haven’t seen you for eight months now. So, you’ve shaved the whole beard and now it’s just a very long handle bar mustache?

Craig: No, no, no. I still have the beard. But the mustache is connected to the beard. I mean, the mustache is – you still have the sections of mustache, of beard rather.

John: But what happens if you use the comb on the beard part, rather than mustache part? Does it all fall apart?

Craig: It gets stuck. Gets stuck. Yeah. Because the mustache hair is very different than the other beard hair.

John: All right.

Craig: Have you – you’ve never – can you even grow a beard?

John: I can grow stubble, but nothing that you really want to – nothing that anybody wants to see.

Craig: No, and Mike doesn’t look like he can grow a beard.

John: Oh, he can grow a beard like tomorrow.

Craig: No way. Really?

John: Yeah. But he hates it.

Craig: Oh, well you know what, I get it, because it itches like crazy for a while, but then it stops and then it’s great. So anyway, there you go. For those of you with mustachios or perhaps those of you who aspire to a mustachio, the Handmade Kent.

John: Great. So, if we were a podcast that took ads, then that could be a podcast sponsor because it’s always like the razors and things.

Craig: I know. By the way, the great thing about this, I made it sound like it’s really expensive, like it’s a $98 mustache comb. I think it costs like five bucks. You can get a 12-pack on Amazon. I think it’s – I don’t know, it’s $0.12.

John: My One Cool Thing is actually a research paper that I read a couple weeks ago and loved and I just thought about it again because of stuff that came up in my life. It is titled A Large-Scale Analysis of Technical Support Scams. It was done by three researchers at Stony Brook University. And it’s interesting because I’ve heard of tech support scams and I’ve read articles about this, but this was actually a scientific research paper where they looked at sort of like how tech support scams worked. And they went to their ethics department to get permission to participate in this study, because they were having to record these conversations without people’s consent. And they just did a deep dive into sort of how tech support scams work.

And generally it’s people visit a website that they shouldn’t visit and it leads them to a page that says like your computer is infected. Contact this number. They call into a “tech support site” that gets these people to download software that then takes over their computer. And then they charge them the money to get free of it.

Craig: Ransomware.

John: It’s Ransomware basically. I first learned about this because it happened to my mother-in-law.

Craig: Of course it did.

John: And it was horrible. And it preys on people who are not tech savvy. And so anyway it’s a really good paper, but I also really like the recommendations they make at the end of this, particularly about ways that browsers like Google Chrome or Safari could really help the situation by just giving people a panic switch. Basically like click this button and it will close all the tabs and wipe everything.

Craig: Right.

John: That would have saved everyone so much time and hassle. So, I recommend people check this out. It was also just fascinating to see sort of what a modern university paper looks like on a tech topic. So I’ll put a link to that in the show notes.

Craig: How great would it be if this paper were a scam?

John: Oh, wouldn’t that be great? Basically clicking the link in the show notes leads you to one of these devastating pages.

Craig: That would be amazing.

John: So my mom is – she’s not great with technology, but she can still do some basic things. And so when we had our weekly Facetime call, she’s like, oh, and can you take a look because something is wrong with my switchboard. I’m like, what switchboard. It’s like, oh, it’s what I use to look stuff up. And so switchboard.com was a site that people used to use to look up things a zillion years ago.

And so–

Craig: Switchboard?

John: Switchboard.com.

Craig: I’m going there right now.

John: If you go to it right now you will see that it comes in with a very scammy-looking like Click Here for a Survey kind of thing.

Craig: Oh, it’s this nonsense. Yeah.

John: Yeah. And so I said, mom, don’t do that. Just Google it. And so I was looking at her browser and right next to the Switchboard, that URL in the bookmarks little bar there was MapQuest. And she still uses MapQuest to like find directions to places.

Craig: Aw, that’s so cute.

John: I’m like, oh, that’s MapQuest.

Craig: Is she, that’s it, like the MapQuest Board of Directors, every day they have a meeting about your mom.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Like how do we retain our customer?

John: Absolutely. Nancy is crucial for our ongoing survival.

Craig: How is her health? [laughs]

John: Indeed. [laughs] They send her flowers every year for her birthday. Because they know all her personal information.

Craig: Of course.

John: They know exactly where she lives because she’s always getting directions from her house to someplace.

Craig: From MapQuest! Oh my god.

John: So anyway she wanted to keep MapQuest, but I got Google Maps on the toolbar right next to that, so she has another modern choice. And I showed her how to use it. And I’m like it’s just so much faster and better.

Craig: Well…yeah.

John: Once again, it’s all time machines. She’s living in a slightly different time period. That’s how I get – if I went back in time, I could check to see, go up to a person and ask, “Hey, how do you get directions to this place?” And if they said like, well, check MapQuest, then I’d know, oh OK, I’m in like–

Craig: It’s 2003.

John: I’m in like early 2000s.

Craig: Right. Exactly. And they’re like, I don’t know, why don’t you look it up on Excite. [laughs] I remember when Excite was the bomb, dude.

John: That was the best. Here, let me load up Netscape Navigator and we’ll take a look at where that stuff is.

Craig: Let me crank that sucker up and get on, jump on AltaVista and let you know what I think.

John: This last week I’ve been playing quite a fair amount of Star Craft, the original Star Craft, which they just made free. Blizzard made it free. And it’s still a really good game. There’s a few things that are annoying, but the basic dynamics of it still work very, very well.

Craig: You know what? I’ve been playing – I’ve been trying to play Zelda, the new one, Breath of the Wild.

John: Yeah. It’s beautiful.

Craig: Here’s the thing. I don’t like it. I don’t know what to do?

John: You don’t like it?

Craig: I don’t know what to do.

John: I’m sorry.

Craig: Like, if there were ever somebody that was supposed to like it, it’s me, because I’ve loved all of the Zelda games. I’ve played them all. And I love big sandbox environments. And I love all of – and I love quest-based adventuring.

John: It’s not working for you.

Craig: It’s tedious. I find it so tedious.

John: But, Craig, you can climb anything.

Craig: Slowly.

John: So slowly.

Craig: And for a short amount of time before your endurance runs out and then you just fall. Also, they have the most insane weapons mechanic in this. Basically every weapon you have, doesn’t matter what it is, doesn’t matter how special it is.

John: It breaks. Yeah.

Craig: Breaks. Like within, I don’t know, two encounters. So, you’re constantly picking up weapons and putting down weapons. I just – and you run around for days and you find nothing. [laughs] I’m so depressed.

John: Except for sadness.

Craig: I’m really depressed by it. I don’t know what to do. I’m supposed to like it, and I don’t.

John: I don’t have the new Nintendo, but Jordan Mechner came over to visit and he had the new Nintendo. And we were so excited to plug it in and play it on the big screen, but it requires more power than a Macintosh USB-C cable can give it. So, we couldn’t actually power it. So we had to play on the little screen. And so I enjoyed my ten minutes of playing on a little screen, but I could see how it would be frustrating. I think many, many weeks ago I talked about how I really wanted my daughter to play Portal 2 and I was bummed that it wasn’t available on PlayStation 4.

I don’t know why I didn’t think that actually available on Steam. So, she’s been playing on her MacBook.

Craig: There you go.

John: And you know what? It’s still a remarkably good game. And the voice acting in that game is just so top-notch.

Craig: Cake is a lie.

John: The cake is delicious. So, you never made it through the part where you got the cake? Oh, you should play that game again. Because the cake, when it actually comes, it’s the best chocolate cake. We were sitting there and I came to the piece of the best – the best chocolate cake.

Craig: Well, yeah, you don’t get chocolate cake in Zelda. But you can make a wide variety of foods which are the only way to restore your health, so you’re cooking a lot. I can’t, I mean–

John: Did you cook at all in Skyrim? I never cooked in Skyrim.

Craig: Not once. See, that’s the thing. It’s taken all the things that actually annoyed me about Skyrim and it’s only those things. And it doesn’t have all the awesome.

And again, I loved the Zelda games. I loved Twilight Princess. I mean, obviously Ocarina of Time. Everybody loves that. But I don’t – meh. Bummed out. I know everyone is going to tell me I’m wrong.

John: All right. That’s our show for this week. As always, it is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Andres Cantor.

If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place to send longer questions. But for short questions, we’re on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We’re on Facebook. You can search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on the iTunes Store, or whatever they’re calling iTunes by the time you’re listening to this. Just search for Scriptnotes. Leave us your review while you’re there, because at least for right now that helps us out a tremendous amount.

You can find the show notes and all the PDFs we talked about today at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts, which I think are now back up to speed. And you can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net, including the two episodes of Rebel Wilson which are definitely must listens.

Craig: Mm. For sure.

John: Craig, have a wonderful time in the past with the live show. I hope it will go/did go very well. And I will talk to you again next week.

Craig: See you soon, John. Bye.

John: See ya. Bye.

Links:

Scriptnotes, Ep 297: Free Agent Franchises — Transcript

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 11:13

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 297 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at the future of James Bond, script-reading robots, and the realities of overhauling a movie in the editing room. But first, we have quite a bit of follow up.

Craig: So much follow up. Let us follow it up. Two weeks ago, Malcolm and I answered a listener question about ellipses in dialogue. And you’d think, John, that that would have gone smoothly. But, no, no.

John: No. There were pauses.

Craig: Yeah. And there was an issue. And the issue was raised by big shot movie director, former Scriptnotes guest, friend of the podcast, friend of me and you, Mari Heller. And this is what she wrote. “I totally disagree with Craig.” John, I’m tempted to just end the follow up there.

John: That basically does it. On any issue, she probably disagrees with you.

Craig: Probably. And I feel like it’s going to happen a lot. But no, she says, “I totally disagree with Craig. Craig said that actors don’t worry about the punctuation of a line and it won’t affect the rhythm of their performance. I just finished working on a movie with two wonderful actors, who had a lot of respect for the script. Often we would get into conversations about how the script was written and where the punctuation was guiding them. They took each clue laid out as a guide and tried, unless we decided to dismiss it, to follow the breadcrumbs that the script gave them.

“What’s more, when I got into the edit I realized the editor was also using the details of the script as a guide in creating her assembly. If a beat were indicated, or it was written that an actor hesitated or trailed off, she went to great lengths to find takes that matched the script. I believe when we write scripts all of our choices, like punctuation and parentheticals should be viewed as clues for our collaborators about the rhythms we intend.”

John: All right, Mari, thank you so much for writing back with us. First off, it sounded like you had a great experience with really dedicated actors and editors. I would say that your experience has not been classically my experience. But, Craig, I’d love to hear what you think.

Craig: I agree. I think this speaks very highly of Mari and her cast and her editor. More often, what I find is that people will come to me – this actually happens all the time – people will come to me and say, “There’s a mistake. There’s a problem.” “What?” “Blah, blah, blah says so and so’s name like they know them, but they haven’t yet met.” “Yes they have.” “No they haven’t.” “Yes, see, here. On this page.” “Oh, you know what? When we did it that day we did it a little differently, so they didn’t meet.” “OK, fine, I understand. However, the script is full of clues.” It’s full of them.

Editors, in particular, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in an editing room and watched something and I’m like, well, why not just do it this way. And they’re like, “Ooh…” and I said, “You know, that’s the way it is in the huge binder next to your keyboard that has this clue book.”

So, the truth is what is Mari is describing is like writer heaven. People are actually paying attention. I guess what you and I were saying about punctuation is given the general state of affairs where people don’t, it’s probably not that much of a thing. But, yeah, ideally it would be.

John: Yeah. So, I do like your description of punctuation and parentheticals being the clues that you are leaving to the next people to touch your thing. And it’s great that she has the ability to not only direct this project, but also hire really smart people who are looking for those clues. So, congratulations once again Mari Heller.

Craig: Yep.

John: Yep. So I was there for the first part of that episode and we addressed a listener questioner about why there was so little non-penetrative sex in movies and TV. Basically where are the handies and blowies? And so while we were having that discussion we left out like one really obvious movie which was Moonlight, which features a very crucial handy there.

Craig: Yeah. It was a mistake.

John: We weren’t thinking clearly. We were recording this late. I was in London. I lost a microphone. But there is an obvious Oscar-winning movie that has a non-penetrative sex moment that the whole story hinges upon.

Craig: It’s an Academy Award-winning handy.

John: Yeah. It’s quite a good one. And just a few days later, like this is always the situation where like the minute you notice something you start to notice it everywhere. So, I was watching an episode from this season of The Americans and Keri Russell’s character receives oral sex in a way that I had not seen certainly on TV before, and it was actually completely on story and on point. So, I would like to once again congratulate The Americans on being a fantastic show. And just put a spotlight on my own ignorance to these acts that are in these shows that I’m just not seeing.

Craig: Yeah, you know, this is probably going to happen, right? We say that something doesn’t happen and then of course it happens. We just didn’t see it. We missed it. Or sometimes we do see it and then we just forget about it. Really, I’m arguing that we just end the podcast. We’re so close to 300. How great would it be if we just ended it at 299 and we’re like, Nah.

John: Yeah. There’s days I definitely think about that. Just going out in a blaze of glory.

Craig: Right. Exactly. 300 podcast episodes is like having 300 wins as a pitcher. That’s a big thing. I think that that gets us into the podcasting Hall of Fame automatically.

John: Yeah. I think it’s sports metaphors all over the place.

Craig: You’re always lost when I do this. It’s wonderful.

In a previous episode, John, we talked about movie clichés for expressing shock or bad news. Zack from New York writes, “I’m proud to say that I splashed water on my face today, possibly for the first time ever. I did not receive bad news or experience something terrifying. But I did take a 20-minute nap on my couch and woke up discombobulated. After staring at the wall for a few minutes, I went into the bathroom and threw water on my face. I think it half-worked. I’m awake enough to write this email, but still sort of discombobulated. However, I’m out of ideas.”

John: What I love about Zack’s email is that it’s so present tense. It’s right about this is the moment I’m experiencing right now. And I like that he thought of us first in that moment.

Craig: Right.

John: So I just want to salute Zack for writing in to ask@johnaugust.com to let us know that he splashed water on his face, which we had singled out as a movie cliché that no one does in actual life, but it seemed to sort of help Zack in this moment. So, again, just like with handies and blowies, we’re often wrong.

Craig: Oh, god, are we ever. Well, what about this whole situation with you and Lindelof?

John: Oh, it’s the worst. So, Damon Lindelof and I talked about the notion of idea debt and we thought like, oh, we’re being clever. But you know who else was clever? Chekhov.

Craig: [laughs] Yeah, he was pretty good–

John: A little writer. A little writer named Chekhov. So, this is what Chekhov wrote in 1888. So, for the record, that was before we recorded the podcast episode.

Craig: Just a little bit, yeah. Just a little before.

John: Chekhov wrote, “Subjects for five big stories and two novels swarm in my head. One of the novels was conceived a long time ago, so that several of the cast of characters have grown old without ever having been put down on paper. There is a regular army of people in my brain begging to be summoned forth, and only waiting for the word to be given. All I have written hither to is trash in comparison with what I would like to write.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s Chekhov.

Craig: I mean, that is succinct. It’s beautifully said. He did really put you to shame there. And Damon. I think the both of you should feel bad.

John: We do feel a little bad. I want to also single out Jason who wrote in with that Chekhov quote to make us feel a little bad. But also I do want to thank everyone on Twitter who said that it was one of the best episodes they’d ever heard of the podcast. So, Craig, at some point–

Craig: I’m going to read it.

John: If you were to listen to it or read it–

Craig: I’m reading it.

John: You might enjoy that episode with Damon Lindelof. Finally, we often do segments about How Would This Be a Movie. So, in Episode 214 we did an episode about the French train bros. These were the three American tourists in 2015 who prevented a terrorist attack.

Craig: We’re calling them bros? [laughs]

John: Well they’re bros. They’re three guys traveling through France. They’re bros.

Craig: I guess. Sure.

John: They prevented a terrorist attack on a train from Brussels to Paris. They overpowered a guy who had an AK-47. So we said like, well, this could be a movie and Clint Eastwood agreed. So this last week it was announced that he is going to be making a movie based on the book The 1517 to Paris: The Trust Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes, which was written by the eponymous American heroes, along with a guy named Jeffrey Stern. The screenplay version is going to be written by Dorothy Blyskal, and from what I looked up it seems like this is going to be her first screenwriting credit. So, congratulations Dorothy. You answered the question How Would This Be a Movie.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s one that people will see. You know, boy, I wish I could be on a Clint Eastwood set. I’ve just heard so many amazing things. You know, just the speed. We’ve all heard the stories. I wish I could see that. I’m not going to be able to.

John: Are you? Is there some sort of secret thing where you actually will be able to see that?

Craig: No, no, never going to be able to there. I’ll just be in my office reading about it. Well, that sounds exciting. I think that will be fun.

John: It will be fun.

Craig: You know what? I’ve had enough of follow up. I think follow up is done.

John: Follow up is done. So, if we were a podcast ahead, like musical interludes, then we would put the music here and then move on to the next thing.

Craig: Follow up is done. Yeah!

John: So the big feature topic which we obviously have to talk about this past week because everyone on Twitter wrote to us about it. And follows ScriptBook. Well, what is ScriptBook? Well, back in Episode 232, so it’s kind of follow up, we talked about ScriptBook and I actually remember this conversation. I remember the setting of this conversation because I was in Australia at the time and we were talking about this sort of ridiculous AI thing that would read through the scripts and figure out how successful this movie would be. Basically it had digested a bunch of screenplays and it was pitched towards financiers to help them figure out is this a movie to be investing your money into.

But this last week, someone else decided to use ScriptBook and it didn’t go as well.

Craig: Yeah. So, Franklin Leonard over at the Black List worked out some sort of deal with the ScriptBook people where he was offering to his customers an opportunity to get their analysis, the ScriptBook analysis of their script, in exchange for $100. And it did not go over well. You know, he put it out there. And seemingly put it out there in good faith. It certainly wasn’t anything he was requiring people to do. If they wanted to use the other parts of his service, which you and I generally quite like.

Boy, it just didn’t go well for him. I mean, certainly both you and I felt that ScriptBook was stupid, and fake, bordering on completely useless. And therein is the problem. Because there’s two ways of looking at it. One way is this is potentially useful for people. And the other way is this is absolutely useless.

If you believe the former, then you can see where, OK, he’s offering a product. You either like it or you don’t. But if you believe the latter, if you believe it’s truly useless, it starts to feel a little bit scammy. Like you’re selling me snake oil. And I personally do believe it is utter snake oil.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And a lot of other people seem to agree as well.

John: Absolutely. So, the minute sort of the word got out about it, you and I were on a long email thread with Franklin about it, but there were also threads on Reddit and there was a lot of sort of hubbub on the Internet about what this was and what it was doing. So, I think we should sort of spoil the punch line here by saying that Franklin has pulled the product, so it is no longer a thing that the Black List is offering, and so we will put a link in the show notes to his original explanation for what the product was and then his email out and sort of his letter about sort of why they were removing it and why he listened to the community and pulled it out of there.

So, I want to talk about two things, which is that question of like is this potentially useful. Like in a perfect world, if this were free, is this a thing you would want to exist in the world? And then the concern of like, well, is this a thing that we feel like screenwriters should be paying $100 for?

Let’s talk about in the perfect world where it’s free, Craig, did you see any value in the product?

Craig: No. None. Well, net zero value. Because where there may be little bits of possible potential usefulness in the free version of this, there’s also potential problems that it causes. And that really was the biggest issue for me. So, you know, some of the stuff you go, well, I guess the AI is saying that my predicted genre is half sport and half drama. It’s a sports-drama, but how did I not know that? Um, there’s a predicted MPAA rating, which again really what it comes down to is it’s telling you everybody knows what G is and everybody knows what R is. So, then somehow tell us if you’re PG or PG-13. Nobody in the world cares about that.

John: Yeah.

Craig: There is stuff about your character likeability. That to me is just dangerous. Because you might think, oh, my character is not likeable enough. Nobody – what – no, that’s not how it works at all.

Predicted target audience. Absolutely useless to you. The marketing department will tell you what the predicted audience is. And then there’s production budget. Potentially useful if you were maybe trying to produce this on your own. Or you were maybe considering to whom you ought to submit the work. And you know, OK, well these people are looking for movies in the $10 to $20 million range. Well, ScriptBook tells me that my script has a 46% chance of being in that range, which ultimately isn’t really very useful either. Because nobody is going to make a budget based on what ScriptBook guesses. They’re going to make a budget by breaking it down and making a budget.

John: Yeah. Exactly. So, in the show notes we’ll link to a file that the Black List put up which was a sample report for Fences, the Academy Award-nominated script from this past year. And so as you look through it, it’s a nicely presented report. It’s three or four pages long. It talks about rating, genre, the Script DNA, character sentiment, character likeability. I had concerns with all of these things for the reasons that Craig laid out.

Where I think this is actually interesting was there’s this grid where it shows movies that this is like. And I think the axes as they’re labeled are really unfortunate. So it says Audience Rating, in this case from 3 to 10. And creativity from 0 to 1. So looking at this you would say that well Fences is more creative than Hope Springs, or Sideways, but it’s less creative than The Iron Lady or The Verdict. And it’s also more creative than Beasts of the Southern Wild, which seems kind of remarkable.

Craig: Ugh.

John: So, that was troubling to me. And yet if I were to take away the lines and the axes and just say like this is a cluster of other movies that feel kind of like this, that I could actually see being somewhat useful. Because I would never think of Fences as being like Milk or like The Iron Lady, but in a way that the people who like Milk would probably also like Fences, or the Iron Lady, that actually seems to make some sense.

So that is reasonable to me. And I was actually a little bit impressed that the AI was able to match these up to some degree. Now, I would love to see it matching Identity Thief and seeing what are the movies around that and see if it actually has a good sense of what that is. I thought that was somewhat interesting. But I don’t think it’s $100 interesting for an aspiring screenwriter. I don’t know what an aspiring screenwriter who is putting a script up on the Black List gets out of knowing that it’s like these things. I don’t see how that’s actionable information.

Craig: It isn’t. And it’s also information that you as a human are layering your own insight upon. Because the truth is we don’t know – you can say, well, Fences is – I guess in a strange way Fences and Milk are somewhat related. Are they? Really? Well, they’re both dramas. They’re both about adults. They both take place in cities. They both have middle-aged men kind of at the center of it. But, are they really? I mean, I guess anybody could just – at that point you could just say any movie with people like that and go, oh, that’s interesting. I guess those movies are sort of like…

Fences and Sideways are nothing alike. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned.

John: But I would say they are both in terms of who they are appealing to, I think they’re actually more common than you might necessarily believe. Though the fact that it recognized that Fences was potentially an award movie seems interesting.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But again, we don’t know. We’re looking at exactly one example. So I don’t know how much to read into this. But I found that at least interesting. I put the T in there for Aline.

Craig: It is vaguely interesting. But anybody who just scrolls through a list of award movies, right, you have Fences. That’s based on a brilliant play. So you’re making an award movie. Just run through a list of award movies then, I guess. I mean, this is not – I don’t understand these metrics. So you have this creativity metric and, well, you could say Fences and Milk are equally creative sort of, I guess whatever that means. But apparently Raging Bull is less creative than Hope Springs. What?

John: I don’t know what that means.

Craig: Wait. The Usual Suspects is less creative than Malibu’s Most Wanted. That’s right. Let me say this again. That’s the Jamie Kennedy movie, I believe, where he’s – isn’t that right – where he plays a rapper?

John: I think it is. Yes. He’s a rapper.

Craig: The Usual Suspects – here are the movies that are less creative than Malibu’s Most Wanted: The Usual Suspects, Cool Hand Luke, Heat, Michael Clayton. [laughs] What? And The Avengers.

John: Yeah. The Avengers and Catwoman down there at the bottom there.

Craig: I’m sorry. Computer, you’re wrong. And Malibu’s Most Wanted shouldn’t be on this. It makes no sense.

John: It should not be on there at all.

Craig: I also don’t understand the vertical axis of Audience Rating. So, how do we have the audience rating exactly for Cool Hand Luke? What audience? I mean, the audience of over 30 years? Or then? Beasts of the Southern Wild less creative than The Blind Side. And, I mean, I don’t understand this.

John: I don’t understand it either. But here’s what I would say zooming way back. I mean, is it clear that there are AI things that can actually find patterns where we wouldn’t see patterns? Absolutely. Do I think this is a case where the kinds of patterns it is finding are going to be useful for the target audience of this service? No, I don’t. I just don’t think that sticking Milk and Fences close to each other on a graph is helping a writer. And a lot of people seem to feel the same way.

So, let’s segue to the scamminess of it all. Because you and I both know and like Franklin. He’s a smart, good guy who is not scammy. And so in our conversations with him, we wanted to sort of make it clear that this felt scammy, but we didn’t think he was scammy. And that we were concerned for him and for the brand because that’s not the way we want to see him out there in the world.

Craig: Well, yeah. And he did the thing that people so rarely, rarely do. He listened.

John: Yep.

Craig: He listened. I mean, Franklin is a humble guy. He’s a business man and he’s an aggressive business man, but he’s not afraid to say, OK, I made a mistake. And in this case what happened was it wasn’t about you or me. We hadn’t talked about his involvement with this on the air prior to his decision that he made to remove it. But he listened to writers on Twitter. He listened to writers on Reddit. Keith Calder, a good producer, who really went after it on Twitter I think made an impression. And he said, “OK, you know what, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t like this. I did. And I thought people would like it and I think some people still could get use out of it. On the other hand, I hear you. So, we’re dumping it.”

And that’s a big boy grown up thing to do. And in today’s world, it is a rare thing. And so–

John: It is. Yeah.

Craig: I had a lot of respect for that. And, you know, again, you and I, we like the other part of what Franklin does, which now that we’ve gotten rid of this thing, that is what Franklin does. We like him. He’s our friend. And I think that his general service is a good one. So, it looks like we’re back to a good situation.

John: Which is a very good thing. All right, next topic is the battle for James Bond. So, this was – I’m going to link to an article from the New York Times by Brooks Barnes. I’m sorry, Craig.

Craig: You know, Brooks Barnes, I had to correct him the other day. He wrote an article about the strike and referred to the long strike of 1998, which did not exist.

John: Did not happen.

Craig: Oh, Brooks.

John: So I can’t verify that all the facts in this article are true, but I will say that in a general sense it raised an interesting issue of what happens when you have a franchise that is essentially a free agent. So, that’s James Bond. When you see a James Bond movie, the opening credits are United Artists, MGM/United Artists. But that’s not actually who releases it. And so for the past four James Bond movies they’ve been released by Sony. But that contract is up. And so now five different companies are competing for the right to make that next James Bond movie. The companies being Warners, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Sony, and Annapurna, which is the little small label that mostly does fancy award movies.

So, that’s kind of an interesting and unusual thing to happen in Hollywood is to have this franchise sort of up for grabs.

Craig: It is. And it’s sort of up for grabs, because the truth is they’re not really going to be making it. What they’re going to be doing is giving MGM/UA the money or a big chunk of the money to make the movie, and then they’re going to be advertising the movie and distributing the movie. And therein is the problem, because when you actually look at the way the deal has been structured, if we’re to believe what Brooks has said here, there’s not that much profit really coming back to you. In huge success, you’ll make a pretty good amount of money. You won’t make as much money as say they’re making off of Get Out, because your profit is capped. It’s seriously capped.

So what he describes as under the previous agreement, and I can’t imagine in a bidding war why the new agreement wouldn’t be even more favorable to the Bond folks than the previous one. But, in the previous one Sony paid half of the production costs. So, you pay half of what it costs to make the movie. That’s just to make the movie. And in return for that, you get one-quarter of certain profits, once costs are recouped. That’s probably the certain costs there for those things may involve taxes and insurance and things like that. And obviously, you know, you’re only getting your share of the ticket price and so forth.

John: It’s also unclear if Sony is releasing this internationally, like what distribution fee do they get to charge for their distribution services. The math behind this can be very, very complicated.

Craig: Extremely. Yeah.

John: So it’s not a matter of the film itself becoming profitable. They’re getting money in at every step of the process.

Craig: Well, they’re putting money in and they’re taking money out all the time. So, you’re right. For instance, they’ll say, well, we’re going to spend $60, $70, $80 million of the total marketing spend. We’re going to be accountable for that. So we’re spending $80 million. But we’re going to charge you $20 million in marketing fees. So it’s always this weird game. But in the end, here’s the truth: all these people want it because it’s kind of a sure thing. And there is the potential for many more movies. We live in an interesting time.

So, you say to a studio, “You have a choice. Roll the dice on a $20 million movie. It will either make $4 million, or it will make $120 million, but there won’t be another one. Or, make this movie. You will make $30 million off of it. And you can do five more of them. And each one will make you $30 million.” They’re going to go for that second deal all day long.

John: Yeah. I think so. And I think it’s as much about the psychology as the actual dollars coming in. So in think about it if you are the head of one of these studios. If you make the Bond movie and it just does OK, no one is going to call you an idiot for making the James Bond movie. It was a safe bet and everyone is going to acknowledge it was a safe bet.

Also, you are keeping the entire machinery of your studio engaged to do it. I mean, one of the weird things about a studio is you have these whole departments that have nothing to do unless you give them a movie to work on. And so a lot of times when studios are in crisis it’s because they actually don’t have a movie. And so they have these huge divisions that have nothing to actually do. So this is a thing to do. It’s a reason to keep all those people employed doing their jobs. Bond is one of those few kind of known brands that whether it’s a fantastic James Bond movie or a just an OK James Bond movie you know you’re going to clear a certain bar with it.

Craig: That’s correct. And you know that you’ll have the right to attach one of your other movies’ trailers to that, because studios can do that where they’re like, OK, if you run this movie you have to at least run our trailer with it. And you know that you’re going to be attracting a certain amount of talent which then if the relationship goes well you might be able to transition into a different movie, filmmakers. You’re keeping people close.

The difference with Bond is the people that control Bond are notoriously protective of it and really they do it. You actually don’t really do anything when, as a studio, other than you sell it and you distribute it. So you’re not really getting much back. It’s an interesting thing that all of these studios are so into it. I mean, it just goes to show you that they make more money and they make it more consistently than we know.

John: Absolutely true.

Craig: Because if they can make consistent money off of this arrangement, and they want to do it again, yeah.

John: Yeah. They’re doing OK.

Craig: They’re doing all right.

John: Let’s look at some of the other reasons why you don’t want to make the Bond movie or why you don’t want to chase it. It has a limited upside. So, you’re capped at sort of how much you can get out of it. Including you’re capped on this movie that you’re making, but down the road if like let’s say you reinvigorate the Bond franchise, well another studio could make the next movie. And it’s like you’ve helped them, but you’re getting nothing for having helped them. So, that’s a concern.

Craig: Yeah.

John: You have limited creative control because the Broccoli family controls it so tightly. Also, you’re weirdly forced to make it. Like, let’s say you get the script and got the director and you’re reading this and you’re like I don’t want to green light this. You have not choice basically. You have to green light this. That’s part of the deal you’re making right now. So these guys are pursuing the rights to Bond, but they’re not looking at a script right now. There is no script right now, I assume. They’re just talking about the idea of making a Bond movie. Maybe with Daniel Craig. Maybe not with Daniel Craig. So, it’s a mystery. And they’re on the hook to make it kind of no matter what happens.

And, finally, there’s an opportunity cost. So, if you’re making the Bond movie, that’s another movie you’re probably not making, either because you don’t have the resources to do it, you know, money wise, or there’s just not a slot in your schedule for another movie right now. Which for some of these studios is probably a good thing, because they’re just looking to do the minimum it takes to sort of keep them in their jobs.

Craig: Well, I think that the – you know, it’s so interesting when you talk to people that run studios, one of the things that I’ve heard from a number of them, and it’s very sad actually is that they never really have any moments of victory and joy because when they make these movies, and this is a perfectly good example, they run a spreadsheet and they go, “Well, we are expected to make between this amount and this amount in terms of profit.” The movie is made. It comes out. It either hits that target or it doesn’t. Maybe it exceeds it somewhat. Usually doesn’t.

So, let’s say they have predicted that the movie is going to be quite a success and it’s going to make them $80 million in profit. Two years later, someone says, “OK, yeah, you did it. Check. You did the thing we asked you to do.” There’s no dancing around. There’s no big “oh my god, it’s a huge hit, wow.” Because that implies that they are all just guessing. They’re not.

Unfortunately what also happens is if you miss that target on the low side, the studio bean counters and overlords will say, “Hmm, well, you’re going to have to make it up on one of these other ones.” So even when you exceed expectations, even that triumph is muted because really somebody is going to say, “Well, all right, you should bank that because one of these other ones might miss.” Either way, by the time we get to see the movies it’s like an afterthought for them, because they’ve already priced it and thought about it. And, in fact, they’re now worried about what’s coming out two years from now. And you never get to enjoy it.

John: I think if you’re a studio executive, maybe you’re trying to build a hand of three different kinds of suits. You want the guaranteed hits, like the things, you know, Fast & the Furious 9. And, yes, there’s already a spreadsheet for how much that is supposed to make, but you want to be able to hit that thing and hopefully exceed it. You want a couple of cards that are just like they could break out. They have low expectations but they have possible of a lot of upside. You want the Get Outs. The things that could become a Get Out.

And, finally, you want a few of those things that could win awards, because if you’re looking at whether you’re going to be able to reup your contract in a few years, I think you want to be able to show all three things. That you’ve done the expected hits, some surprise hits, and you’ve also gotten the studio some awards. And that’s a lot to try to manage.

Craig: Yeah. It is. And I don’t envy them. Honestly, I don’t. I know right now we’re in a bit of a contentious period between writers and the companies, but in terms of the people that I know and I work with, I don’t envy them their jobs. I’m sure they don’t envy me mine. I think everybody that isn’t a screenwriter is horrified by the thought of having to write a screenplay, and I don’t blame them.

But, that’s a difficult gig. And it’s scary. And there’s so much that’s not in your control. That’s the part that’s hardest for me to get my mind around, because you know at the very least we have this wonderful period where we’re in control. And it’s when we’re writing. They never really have that.

John: Yeah. It’s a strange part of their job is they seem to be the decision makers, and yet they don’t have ultimate control of the thing they’re trying to do.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Before we wrap this up, let’s take a look at some other franchises and just look and see where they fall on sort of this matrix, because the James Bond is like one of the most free-agenty kind of things out there. At least in terms of how MGM partners up with a different company every time.

But Terminator strikes me as a similar situation, because that was made by Carolco way back in the day. It keeps I think passing through different sort of financiers who own the rights to it, but it could end up different places.

Craig: It has a home now.

John: OK, where is it now?

Craig: It is at Skydance.

John: OK. Well, Skydance I would sort of count as sort of an MGM type situation where they’re a place with a lot of money, but they are not – they don’t have their own distribution deal.

Craig: Right.

John: They just distribute through somebody.

Craig: Right.

John: But Marvel for a while was sort of like the James Bond situation where they have a bunch of properties and some of them are at Paramount, some were at Fox, some were at Sony. Spider Man was at Sony. Ultimately they all ended up over at Disney, except for the X-Men universe at Fox, and for Spider Man at Sony. But even then they sort of reached back in and sort of reinvested in Spider Man. But for a while they were doing what James Bond was doing. They could move their movies from studio to studio.

Craig: They could. And then they got purchased by Disney. So, once Disney bought them, you can see there is just a general effort now to hold all of that in. And the only ones that are left straggling out there are the X-Men, so you have the X-Men part over at Fox, and you have Spider Man at Sony, which they are now co-producing. I don’t know how long that X-Men – I think the deal with the X-Men is they keep it if they keep making X-Men movies, or something like that. I read something like that.

John: That’s my understanding is like they’ll keep making X-Men movies because that’s how they keep their rights to.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Finally, Star Wars was for a while Lucas Film owned it, so Fox distributed it. But I think Lucas Film really owned the first three prequels that they made, and now of course Disney owns that whole franchise as well. So, again, sort of bringing it in house.

Craig: And Disney has been kind of brilliant about this, you know. They just buy the whole company, you know. So, you can negotiate with MGM/UA about the rights to distribute James Bond movies. But if you really want a James Bond movie, just buy MGM/UA. Right? The problem is that’s all they have. They have that. They have the Bond, right? And Bond is very narrow. It’s a fascinating franchise. I’m a huge Bond fan. I’ve seen them all. But it is a very narrow franchise. There I don’t believe there has ever been a Bond spinoff. The entire point is you have James Bond. And then you have a couple of villains that repeat every now and again. Your Blofelds. But there’s a new woman that comes in each time. She comes in, there’s sex, she leaves. Next movie. You know, you have a character like Felix Leiter who is a CIA buddy. No one has ever gone, you know what, now there’s a Bond universe where we’re going to have a movie just about Q and we’re going to have a movie just about Felix Leiter. I’m sure they brought it up at some point or another. But as far as I can tell, nobody on the Bond side of things seems interested in that. So–

John: I do remember speculation about Halle Berry’s character being spun off from her movie. Jinx, or whatever her name was.

Craig: Yeah.

John: There was talk of that, but none of that ever came to pass. And it does feel, I agree with you though. Like if another person were to come in and buy that whole franchise, if they bought out the Broccolis for some reason, you would see a universe being formed. Because we know a lot about that universe and it feels like there’s something more you could do with that if you had it.

Craig: Yeah, you know like if they had an extended Bond universe, you know the movie I would want to write?

John: Tell me.

Craig: I would want to write the movie of M. Young M.

John: Oh, yeah.

Craig: And how M is a spy and it is WWII. I would do a period piece. And sort of the early days of spying and the creation – the notion of why you create the Double O. There’s a great story to be told about why you decide as a person and as a government we need an agency where certain people are allowed to murder. Not shoot in self-defense, or be a soldier on the battlefield. Just kill someone. That is a fascinating question. Licensed to Kill.

John: Absolutely. I also think you look at some of the classic villains and, yes, they are people who are up to their own – they have their own plans and devices, but like there’s an Elon Musk-y kind of character who is sort of right on the border between a villain and a hero who could be a fascinating centerpiece to a movie. Who ends up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. There’s something great about that kind of character as well.

Craig: And there is really room there. There’s room there. But for now–

John: For now it will be Bond. Our next topic was also suggested by many of our listeners. So, this past week there was a video put out by Nerd Writer on recutting Passengers. Basically proposing the question of what would happen if you did a major cut on the movie Passengers where you sort of limited it to Jennifer Lawrence’s point of view, at least for part of the movie, so she wakes up first. So essentially like she wakes up and Chris Pratt’s character is already walking around the space station. And you and she don’t know that he woke her up deliberately.

And, Craig, I don’t know. Have you seen the movie?

Craig: No. But I know the story of the movie. And so I understand the purpose of this change. I’m not really sure – I mean, it would be different.

John: It would be different.

Craig: I don’t know if the people’s primary objection to that – I mean, no matter how long you delay it, at some point you find out that he woke her up and then you’re asked to believe in their romance. And that seems to be the problematic part for people.

John: Absolutely. So, I think it’s an interesting idea. I enjoyed the movie, but I think my problems with the movie were sort of the problems of they had to work really hard to sort of keep Chris Pratt likeable, even though he was doing an unlikeable thing, and it sort of strained under that weight. So, this would be a way of addressing that. But I don’t want to actually get into so much the creative solution proposed here, and just talk about what would happen and what does happen when you are facing a movie and you have this idea for a massive restructuring after it’s already shot.

So, let’s say that you saw this movie before it came out and you were the studio executive, or you are the producer, or the director, and you say like, “I think I want to try this thing.” How would that actually come to pass and what are the realities of trying to implement a change like this?

Craig: Well, the first thing that has to happen is a general decision about the scope of the work. Because they’ll make a movie, they’ll test the movie, and then they will discuss – let’s just presume it doesn’t go well, OK? So, the question now is what are we talking about here. Do we need a couple more jokes in the movie? Do we need this one scene that would help improve that? Should we fix the ending? Or, do we have something fundamentally huge going on here and we need to do a lot of work? We need to do two weeks of shooting and shoot a lot and recast a couple of parts?

So, first triage.

John: Yeah, and a triage moment only happens if there really is a disastrous test screening. If people really just do not like this movie. And I don’t think that was the case with Passengers. My suspicion was, from people I’ve talked with, the movie tested pretty well and the movie was like pretty well and they were surprised by the reception it got, which wasn’t as strong as they’d hoped.

So, I think you would have to have that bad test screening. The studio panicked. The producer panicked. You have to have a director who is on board with making big changes, or a director you can replace.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Those are the only situations in which you’re able to do big things. But, you’re often doing small things. And so what I will say is that even after a good test screening, you are talking about recuts, reshoots, looking for things that aren’t working, finding your jokes. That happens all the time. And I’ve never worked on a movie that hasn’t had changes based on those early screenings and people’s reactions to them. So, but what’s not common, and you and I have both been in situations where they have done the big recut, that is sort of an emergency all hands on deck. You’re really talking about big brand new ideas. Like, what if we were to rethink how this all works?

Craig: Yeah. And I’ve done that. I’ve done that. And it’s hard. It’s hard because first of all it’s a rare thing for the people who are involved in the creation of the movie up to that point to continue to be involved. So, we have a huge problem here. We’re probably going to need a different director to come in and do this work. And we should bring a different writer in to come in and do this work, otherwise we’re at risk of repeating the same mistakes, plus there’s just a lot of emotions and defensiveness. And it’s understandable. It’s a mess.

So, when I come and do this, I sit – I watch the movie. And then inevitably after that there is a discussion of here are the things we just can’t do. We can’t change this. And we can’t change that. We have this much that we can change. How should we best do it? So, it is a very tricky puzzle. This is very Rubik’s Cubey. Figuring out how to fundamentally change a movie without touching a whole bunch of it. And it’s rarely perfectly successfully. It can make a huge difference. And it does. I mean, you can see it in test scores. They run the movie and they’re like, my god, look at the difference.

And I always think, well yeah, but there’s still something just – this movie is still just not right. It’s alive. Very tough to do.

John: Yeah. When I come into these situations, I always sort of start with like what is actually working. Are there moments of the movie that actually work that sort of suggest the movie it wants to be? And oftentimes it won’t be at the very start of the movie, it’ll be some moment in the middle where like, OK, just for a moment there you kind of found what the movie was. And it’s possible just through cutting and through moving stuff around, you’ll be able to find more of that movie and sort of get us to that place. But in general I find you want to let the movie be one thing rather than the three things.

When a movie is really not working, it’s trying to do too much at once, and it just loses its focus and its tone. It’s just not a consistent experience. So figuring out what that experience should be is really important.

The first Charlie’s Angels was notoriously a very chaotic production. It was chaotic in post as well. But I remember when I came back in on that movie, one of the first things I really worked on was the opening title sequence, which shouldn’t seem that important, but it was really helpful for setting the tone.

Craig: Oh yeah.

John: We’d shot all these scenes, but figuring out what it felt like and sort of what the right kind of goofy was. And so I was sitting with the editors working on do the wipes across and make it feel like the TV show in ways that are fun and right. And once we got that and sort of got that locked, we could sort of step back and say, OK, let’s look at the rest of our scenes and see how we can be a little bit more like that in our style, and that was really helpful.

But ultimately there were reshoots. There were simplifications of logic. They were getting rid of things that didn’t need to be there. Classically, World War Z is a movie that had a much, much bigger ending in its original form. This big assault on Moscow. And the movie did not want to be that. The movie ultimately wanted to be a more intimate movie with Brad Pitt and his family and his own survival. And so that was that whole new third act that Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard had to figure out how to do.

Craig: And Chris McQuarrie.

John: Chris McQuarrie as well. So, it’s a bunch of hands on deck, really smart people. Looking at what’s there. Looking at what was great, which there was a lot that was great in the first two-thirds of World War Z. And finding a way to carry that through to the end, in that case incredibly successfully.

Craig: Yeah, you know, those situations are not – thank god – common. It is more common that what happens is – I did this recently. You watch a movie and everyone says, “Here are the things that we’re kind of getting back from the audience on some spots.” And I’ll say, yes, I had those same reactions myself. So that’s good news. It means everybody is kind of in agreement.

Maybe all we need to do here is add a line. You know, so two people are talking and maybe this person says something that just isn’t quite right. It’s causing confusion. So, let’s just have them record a new line and we’ll just be on the other person’s face. And it’s just one line and suddenly that all makes sense now.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: The disruption of experience through poor logic is so dangerous and happily, typically, easily fixable. My least favorite call is come and make the movie funnier with some lines. That’s not going to work.

John: Yeah, to try to joke it up. And that will never work.

Craig: No.

John: What I think you’re describing though when you’re adding in a loop line to sort of make something clear, is you talk about people being on the ride or off the ride. And it’s like when did they fall off the ride? And they fall off the ride, they fall off the – they stop believing in the movie when enough things just don’t add up for them. When they start getting confused and sort of confused and annoyed and then they just check out. And so if you can keep them from checking out, if you can keep them engaged, and curious about what’s happening next, you’re probably going to keep them at least somewhat of a fan throughout the rest of the movie.

It’s those moments often in a first act, early in the second act, when people kind of give up on your movie. And if you can keep them from giving up, you’re going to be able to make a lot of those things which weren’t working are suddenly going to feel a lot better.

Craig: Exactly. And this is somewhere where a new person coming in is of great help. Because when you’re there from the start and you’re making the movie, you have certain things that you believe. Making a movie is essentially making a million guesses. And you may make almost all the correct guesses, except for two. But, the audience is saying we don’t understand why she’s saying this now but before she said this. And you say, well, it’s because of blah, blah, blah. Right? And somebody else will say, “Well, I didn’t quite get that. I think maybe somebody should say that.” But the people who have been involved, sometimes their feeling is, “But that’s just so on the nose.” Because in their mind it’s in there already. And a new person can say, “It’s kind of not.” And so this is one area where I know it’s going to grate you, because it sounds like it’s on the nose, but for the audience it’s not going to feel – it’s going to actually be interesting, because they’re not getting what you have.

When you do these jobs, you’re actually – this is where being a feature writer feels great, because everybody is, I think, incredibly grateful to the writer who comes in at this point and helps.

John: 100 percent. So, let’s wrap this up by talking – go back to Passengers. And so let’s say this is an alternate history version of all this, where they saw the first cut of Passengers, and it wasn’t working. It was sort of like the final movie. And they said like, “You know what? We have this idea for a wild experiment.” What they would actually do next? And we live in a time of wonderful digital editors, so a lot of what the video suggests trying to do, you could actually just do. You could do that in your non-linear editor. I don’t say Avid anymore, because people yell at me when I say Avid.

You would actually chop it up and if there were things that didn’t make sense, you would put in little cards to explain what would happen in this moment. But it’s a day or two to sort of build that cut of the movie and sort of see what it feels like. And maybe it feels great. It certainly would change a lot of your experience of the movie. And then you would have to get buy-in. And that’s where I think they would have a hard time with this radical rethinking, because suddenly your two big movie stars you’re paying $20 million each, they’re not playing the same characters they signed on to in the movie. And they may love it. They may like it a lot more. But suddenly you’re going to be sending them out there in the world to promote this movie which wasn’t at all what they thought it was going to be. You may have already put out a teaser trailer that promised this romance, but the movie that you’re cutting sort of feels more like a thriller.

That can be a real problem as well. So, it’s not honestly as simple as just like, we’ll make the best movie. Make the most compelling movie. There may be reasons why you can’t do some of the things you want to do.

Craig: That is precisely why I get frustrated with things like this. Because there is an implication that we out here are just smarter than you. You dumb-dumbs couldn’t see, but we can.

Almost always, no offense to the people that make these videos, they are not thinking of something that we haven’t thought of. Almost always, it’s been thought of and tried and didn’t work with audiences, or it’s been thought of and tried and rejected by the very large number of competing powers.

John: Yeah.

Craig: The one thing that people don’t quite understand is it doesn’t matter if something is right. If the movie star, who is going to promote this movie, doesn’t like it. And you may say, “Well, hold on a second. Before we just surrender, can’t we…” And I just want to put my hand up and say, “You’re describing my life. You’re describing my career. That’s half of my job.”

Half of my job is to figure out what to do and get people to agree. The other half is to figure out what to do when the one person who we really need to agree doesn’t agree. Now what do I do? That’s the world we live in. This is collaborative. And some people have an enormous influence on the work.

Sometimes you wish they wouldn’t. But that’s the deal.

John: All right. Enough of recutting movies. Let’s go to our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing, I actually have two. I’m cheating. My first is a newsletter put out by Quinn Emmett, a friend of the show. It’s called Important, Not Important. And it’s just a weekly recap of the things you may have missed in the news, but also sort of other headlines. Sort of a little bit deeper than what you could get on Twitter.

I find it delightful. I’ve been reading it for months. We’ll put a link in the show notes to that.

The other thing I loved this week was this Brazilian artist named Butcher Billy. And what he does is he takes a serious of ‘80s pop songs and he reimagines them as Stephen King book covers. And so if you click through the link in the show notes, you’ll see what I mean. Like Careless Whisper or How Deep is Your Love. There is a Light Never Goes Out. It’s sort of like if you take those titles, they actually can be really good Stephen King books. And so he does the artwork for what that Stephen King book would be. And I just thought they were delightful.

So, I always love sort of reimagining things. I love the unsheets, the sort of make believe posters for movies that we’ve all seen and loved, so I thought this was delightful.

Craig: This is pretty great. I’m looking at it right now. That’s cool. Love the font.

My One Cool Thing is Pinball Arcade. Are you a pinball fan, John?

John: I’m not a big pinball fan. I’ve never been good enough at it to be a big fan, I guess.

Craig: Well, here’s your chance to get good. So, pinball is one of those things that actually they can simulate now brilliantly. So, you know, there’s an app and you can play lots of pinball games. But the cool part is that they’ve gone and licensed and recreated a whole bunch of real pinball games, including maybe the best pinball game ever made. Which was the Addams, Family, the pinball game–

John: I remember the Addams Family pinball. I have played that.

Craig: It’s great. And so it’s based on the movie from the ‘90s, which in and of itself was based on a television show, which itself was based on the cartoons. And it’s fantastic. I play the Addams Family pinball game every day. It’s so much fun.

By the way, John, do you know what?

John: Tell me what.

Craig: The Addams Family would actually be a pretty great movie for us to do a deep dive into. It’s so well done.

John: It’s so, so, so good. I just love The Addams Family. I love the second Addams Family almost more. The whole camp thing is fantastic.

Craig: Amazing. Amazing. In fact, maybe we should do the second Addams Family movie.

John: Maybe we should do Addams Family Vacation. And we sort of know Paul Rudnick on Twitter.

Craig: I know. You know what? We should get Paul Rudnick to come on the show and talk about it. Oh my god, is he brilliant.

John: He’s really good.

Craig: So good.

John: Circling back to the pinball game. I will say that one of the things I do love about real pinball games is they’re hot. The lights are actually hot. They have a warmth to them that I find just delightful. They smell a certain way. They have a heat. That is a good thing about real pinball machines.

So, I’m sure they cannot duplicate this quite as well digitally, but still.

Craig: They can’t. There’s actually a very interesting – so they’ve had pinball simulators for years and years and years. But the Addams Family only recently, because the rights situation was a nightmare. The game – they had to get clearances from the Addams’ estate. They had to get clearances from Paramount, which made the movie. They had to get clearances from Raul Julia’s estate and from Anjelica Huston. And from – just literally everybody whose voice was in it.

Then they had to go get clearances for the music that was in it. And they wanted to do everything correctly, you know. And they did. Finally they did. So now you can play it.

John: Fantastic.

All right, so I will not get to see you at the next Scriptnotes, because you are doing a live show. So you are doing a live show this coming Monday. This episode is out on a Tuesday. On this next Monday, you are recording a live show in Hollywood at the ArcLight. I’m so incredibly jealous for you to hang out with Dana Fox, and Rian Johnson.

Craig: A guy named Rian. Well, we have Rob McElhenney who is good.

John: Oh yeah. He’s good.

Craig: And then we have Rian Johnson who is whatever.

John: Just whatever. Delightful.

Craig: They can’t all be winners.

John: He’s a talented photographer.

Craig: [laughs] He’s a good photographer. So, those of you who are still looking for tickets, we have a few left. So, this is – I think it’s a 400-seat auditorium and we’re getting pretty close to 400 at this point. So you better rush.

If you go to HollywoodHeart.org/upcoming, then you can buy tickets. The event is May 1 at 7:30pm in Hollywood at the ArcLight. This is all for charity. Hollywood Heart is a wonderful charity that our friend John Gatins is very involved in. Oscar-nominated John Gatins. And the price of the ticket is $35. And we apologize if that seems a little steep, but again it goes entirely to Hollywood Heart.

Once again, I make nothing.

John: Yep. I don’t even make anything on this one.

Craig: Even you. [laughs]

John: Even I make nothing on this.

Craig: God, you’re so rich.

John: That’s our show for this week. So, as always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Big thanks to both these guys because we recorded late this week and they killed themselves to get this out. So, thank you guys.

Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. But for short questions, on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

We’re on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes.

Craig, I think the word iTunes is going to go away. I think we’re going to stop saying iTunes.

Craig: Why?

John: Because I think they’re actually going to get rid of iTunes as a concept completely. My prediction is WWC, they’ll say like Goodbye iTunes. Because they actually got rid of iTunes Podcast and now it says Apple Podcasts. I think they’re just going to call it, I don’t know, Apple–

Craig: What are they going to call it?

John: Something else.

Craig: Whoa. Weird.

John: Whoa. But if you’re on iTunes, or whatever they call it next, just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net.

Craig, thank you for a fun show. Have a great show on Monday. I will look forward to good reports.

Craig: Thank you, sir. We’ll do our best.

John: Cool. Thanks.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

The two kinds of title pages

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 02:00

This past week, I found myself proofreading the typeset version of my book. That’s when I made an amazing discovery that many readers probably already realize:

Books have two title pages.

The first title page has only the title of the book. The second title page has the title plus the author’s name, along with the publisher’s logo.

Like most things that seem oddly wasteful at first glance, there’s actually a good reason for the two pages. I dig into the history and terminology over at the Arlo Finch blog:

And now I’m kind of obsessed, grabbing every book on the shelf to check. It’s that classic case of once you notice something, it’s ubiquitous—at least in American hardcover novels.

I’ll be doing a follow-up post looking at the information on the back of the title page, from publisher data to ISBN.

Lying builds character

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 01:45

Chris Csont looks how a little deception makes heroes feel more genuine:

As the audience, we have an important advantage over the other people in a character’s world: We can see a character when they think nobody’s watching.

When we see the contradiction between a character’s presented self and their internal self, it helps to make a fictional person feel dimensional and real. We relate to that feeling of having a part of yourself cordoned off from the rest of the world, and we also recognize the discomfort of having that barrier breached.

It’s a great piece with lots of examples.

It’s Always Sunny in Star Wars

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 08:03

Craig and guest host Dana Fox welcome Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) to the live show at the Arclight. The four discuss breaking into Hollywood, handling rejection and sticking to your vision as a writer/director.

We also answer audience questions on motivation and holding onto hope.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

How Characters Move

Tue, 05/02/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John take on a new round of Three Page Challenges. There’s a fat “Elvis,” a bounty hunter White Rabbit, and a guy locked in the trunk of a speeding Mustang.

We also look at how characters move, and how screenwriters can use character movement to their benefit.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Advice for Lost Time Travelers

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 01:43

A few years ago, I worked on a Big Studio Movie that involved time travel. This particular project never made it off the launch pad, but it started me thinking about an admittedly minor issue with the genre:

How do time travelers know where and when they are?

For travelers with functional time machines, there is presumably some device onboard to calculate geographic and temporal location. Easy enough.

But what if the time machine breaks in transit? Or what if, like Kyle Reese in The Terminator, the voyager arrives in the past with no gear whatsoever?

Here’s the basic question that keeps me up some nights:

If I were deposited somewhere on Earth, somewhere in time, how could I figure out where and when I was?

Ask someone

Assuming there is a human civilization nearby, this seems like the obvious choice.

Odds are I wouldn’t speak their language, but I suspect that observing them would give me a general indication about where I was (Europe versus Asia versus Central America) and when (Paleolithic versus Iron Age). I’d want to be careful making assumptions based on ethnicity, since humans have moved around the globe a lot.

On the off chance I wasn’t immediately killed as an outsider, I’d eventually learn their language well enough to ask more detailed questions that could narrow things down further:

  • Which way is the ocean?
  • What other cultures have you encountered?
  • What’s the most impressive landmark, natural or otherwise, you can take me to?
Available clues

If there were no one else around, I’d have a much harder time even getting started figuring things out. But I wonder how much of that is my own ignorance.

Certainly, a competent biologist would be able to study the nearby plants and animals to get a sense of which ecosystem — and possibly what time period — she found herself in.

Ditto for a paleontologist.

An experienced geographer or geologist would likely look for things I’d never considered, such as minerals in the soil or weather patterns.

A great astronomer might be able to use stars to figure stuff out. (My hunch is that celestial observation could help you determine where or when, but not both.)

An archeologist could likely glean useful information from abandoned settlements, even if the humans themselves weren’t around.

In general, these are situations where scientists have a considerable leg up on screenwriters, both because of the knowledge in their heads and their ability to apply the scientific method.

Phone a friend

Let’s say that through movie magic, I have a radio that lets me communicate with a trusted confidant in 2017. We’ll call her Trish.

Like a lost tourist, I might rely on Trish to Google things for me, or consult modern experts. Let’s assume she’s very resourceful and persuasive.

  • What would I ask her to do?
  • Who would I want her to call?
  • What might Trish tell me to do on my side to help determine where and when I was?

What’s interesting about Trish is that we all have one: the internet. It’s easy to forget that even ten or twenty years ago, it was much harder to find answers to many of our questions. We think of the internet as being a source of facts and opinions, but one of its most important functions is troubleshooting.

So that’s why I’m writing this blog post: to help solve my imaginary predicament. I’m genuinely curious how people smarter than me would solve this issue. What advice would you give to lost time travelers?

If you have ideas, you can find me on Twitter @johnaugust, or send longer suggestions to ask@johnaugust.com. I’ll share the most interesting and/or helpful ideas submitted.

Free-Agent Franchises

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John investigate the future of the 007 franchise, script-reading robots, and the realities of overhauling a movie in the editing room.

We also look at another How Would This Be a Movie idea turning into reality.

The live show at ArcLight is a week away and tickets are almost sold out. Get yours now!

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 296: Television with Damon Lindelof — Transcript

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 15:20

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig has the week off, but luckily we have someone remarkably qualified to take his spot. Damon Lindelof is the co-creator and showrunner of Lost, a screenwriter and producer of films including Tomorrowland, Prometheus, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. And most immediately the guy behind the HBO series The Leftovers, which began its third and final season this past Sunday. Damon, welcome to Paris.

Damon Lindelof: It is so exciting to be here, looking out the window and seeing the Eiffel Tower. It’s a beautiful sunny day here and a little stressed out about sitting in for Mr. Mazin. I feel like Jerry O’Connell must feel when he’s on Regis & Kelly or whatever it’s called now.

John: That’s a high stress job. I mean, Chris Hardwick seems like a very natural choice to fill in there.

Damon: That’s true.

John: But you have to be very up and present and it’s challenging, but we’re not nearly so demanding of an audience. People are driving in their cars or they’re walking around, so it’s not nearly–

Damon: No pressure.

John: No pressure.

Damon: I understand.

John: Yeah. Kelly, she’s always on at the gym. And the gym, that’s a high pressure environment. But you–

Damon: That’s true.

John: This is nothing. Why are you here in Paris?

Damon: I am here for Series Mania or that’s the American pronunciation. Series Mania.

John: Sure. That sounds right.

Damon: It’s a big TV festival that they have in Paris. And I’m on the jury. So, I’m also premiering the first two episodes of The Leftovers’ third season here in Paris, so that’s going to be tomorrow night at the time of this recording. And so we’re flying in a couple of the actors. So Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston will be here. Max Richter, who does our music. So, the premiere is going to kick off this festival, and then I get to watch a lot of great international television that I’ve never seen before. And sort of Sundance or Telluride where we will award a grand jury prize and a couple of acting prizes, etc.

But, it’s basically just an excuse to eat baguettes and coffee and stare out the window at the Eiffel Tower, which I’m going to do right now.

John: That sounds really good. So, on today’s podcast, I’m not going to ask you any specific questions about Lost or The Leftovers, because I feel like there’s probably 10,000 hours of tape of you talking about those two shows, which are both fantastic. And I’ve seen every episode of both.

Damon: Blah, blah, blah. Yes. Enough.

John: But I do want to talk to you about television, because Craig and I get a lot of questions about television and we really don’t know very much about television, so whenever we have a guest–

Damon: But you watch a lot of television.

John: I watch a ton of television.

Damon: So you know a lot about television.

John: Yeah, but like the making of television is a very different process. And it’s changed a lot even over the last ten years. So, I’ve not had a series on for quite a long time. But just watching you and sort of your career, it has just transformed a lot. I can tell.

So, I want to talk to you about sort of making a series. But also I’ve known you since before you were a television writer, so I sort of want to talk about growing up, becoming a staff writer, and going into showrunning.

Damon: Sure.

John: And maybe answer some questions from listeners that have written in. And then finally I want to talk about sort of the back catalog of ideas, because you’re at a place now where you’re done with The Leftovers and you have to figure out what you’re doing next. And I want to talk about how do you decide whether to do something new or to visit something old. So, we’ll go through all of that today if we can.

Damon: Oh man. OK.

John: It’s a lot.

Damon: What would Mazin do?

John: Mazin would find a way to cut this short and plow through it.

Damon: Joke it up.

John: He would joke it up.

Damon: God love him.

John: He’d bring out another character voice.

Damon: There’s a closet door behind you and I know that Mazin is going to pop out of it at any moment. And harangue me, which is just the way I want it to happen.

John: Sounds good. Let’s go back to sort of your origin story and how you got started as a writer. Because I think I first met you in ’97 or ’98. You were working–

Damon: I was working as an assistant probably for Toby Jaffe at the Ladd Company. And I think you were working on a project there. But I remember, like I think I had read Go, but before it was made.

John: Yeah.

Damon: And you came out of the Stark program, if memory serves. And I just thought, wow, you were the – not that you aren’t still – but you were the young, hot, you know, scribe. And this was a time where Hollywood Reporter and Variety were not yet really online. And you would buy the trades and there were always talks of sales and deals and etc. And I remember being in awe of you, which I still am, as I mentioned.

So you basically had the job that I wanted, which at the time I think probably in the mid to late ‘90s, a movie writer. A screenwriter.

John: Yeah. For sure. I think at that point I had stopped working as an assistant and Go might have sold. We hadn’t gotten it made yet. And I had a few other assignments. But we had a mutual friend, so a guy who worked at your company was also a Starkie. And so I remember going to lunch–

Damon: Yes. That’s right.

John: I remember going out to lunch and going to the [Cuccaro] on Larchmont.

Damon: Right.

John: And how I first got to know you. And I think I remember, we’ll circle back to old projects at the end, but I remember you pitching me a movie you were writing, a script you were writing, that was about hemophilia.

Damon: Oh yes. What a genius idea that was. Just to contextualize, at that time still in the mid ‘90s, even though we were many years beyond the initial Die Hard, that idea of like when you were pitching movies or selling movies it was Die Hard in a blank. The specs that were selling were the kind of Shane Black, you know, big action concepts. And my idea, which I thought was brilliant at the time, was what if there was a guy who was a severe hemophiliac to the degree where any kind of significant subcutaneous cut would put him in enormous peril. And he was incredibly wealthy, like Bruce Wayne, and had a tremendous amount of resource, but was basically living in this penthouse apartment in New York City, but never left.

And he kind of had a – he was a grown man, but sort of a state of arrested social development because to get cut would basically kill him. And what if we took this guy and threw him into like an incredible action scenario where every single set piece he couldn’t end up like John McClane. Where it’s like just the single cut. So he is having sort of a Rear Window, like borderline stalking relationship with this beautiful woman who lives in the penthouse across from him. And she’s in a relationship with this dude who is like some kind of Russian – some bad guy.

And he is watching her and fantasizes about like what her life is, in a very cute, innocent PG-13/non-stalkery way. Although it is stalking in hindsight. And these toughs basically break into the apartment and kidnap her. And he realizes that he is the only one who witnessed this and must go and rescue her. And hijinks ensue.

John: Hijinks ensue. So, that was a script you wrote?

Damon: Oh, I wrote it.

John: You wrote it. And was it your first script?

Damon: No. I mean, I had probably written like maybe three or four completed screenplays, one of which was a bad Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, kind of like rip-off, like a party comedy, a John Hughes wannabe thing. And then there were a couple like busted action movie ideas. And then I wrote this western called The Perfectionists that was kind of like in the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino ultra-violent comedy western set in Mexico. And that screenplay was the first thing that I wrote that I was like, “Oh, this isn’t the worst thing that I’ve read in my life and I’ll at least let some of my peers read it.” And got some positive feedback from them. And then I submitted it for the Nicholl Fellowship, which is done through the Motion Picture Academy.

At the time they got like maybe 5,000 submissions a year and I started getting letters that I made the first cut, and then the second cut, and the third cut. And it was down to maybe 50 scripts out of those 5,000. And I was like, oh, this is good. I have to choice to make, which is the next letter may say I’m no longer in the running, and that will be incredibly demoralizing and I’ll decide that I’m a terrible writer again. Or, I can just take all of this positivity and make a move.

And so I sent out an email to everyone I knew and at that point I’d just been watching a tremendous amount of television and I started to have some peers who were working in television. And it felt like my skill set would be much better suited to TV because I love collaborating. And I heard about this thing called a writer’s room, as opposed to the way that you know feature writing works, which is there’s no collaboration fundamentally. There’s collaboration between you and the producer and the studio, but those three entities are very rarely in the room at the same time. You’re getting mixed messages. And then if a draft doesn’t come in exactly the way they want it, they fire you and replace you, versus the way that it made much more sense to me and more fun is to basically take four or five talented people and put them all in a room together. And everyone is basically coming up with ideas and supporting one another and challenging ideas that aren’t working, et cetera.

That was only happening in TV. And a friend of mine, Julie Plec, who was running Kevin Williamson’s company at the time as an executive, and now Julie runs – she’s a showrunner. She’s been running The Vampire Diaries which just ended and The Originals, which is the spinoff of that show. But she emailed me back instantly and said, “Kevin just had a show picked up.” This was after Dawson’s Creek. “It’s going to be on ABC. But you need to start – could you start on Monday?” And this was on a Thursday. So, I quit my job. Ladd told me, both encouragingly and discouragingly, “You can always come back.”

John: Yes.

Damon: “I’ll be here when things don’t work out.” And I took the writer’s assistant job on Wasteland. And that was in the 98/99 season, so that was 19 years ago. I’ll be a professional television writer for 20 years next year.

John: That’s crazy. So, I remember Wasteland, because I was doing a competing show.

Damon: Really? Very few do.

John: I was doing a competing show. I was doing D.C. which was the WB show. Your show was like young twenty-somethings in New York, mine was young twenty-somethings in Washington, D.C.

Damon: Right.

John: Yours lasted like 13 episodes. Mine lasted three.

Damon: No, only two episodes of Wasteland aired.

John: Oh, fantastic. So, I may have beaten you.

Damon: We made 13.

John: Yes, absolutely.

Damon: And D.C. had a – you know, the premise of Wasteland was Friends as a drama series with no comedy. Like, it was just twenty-somethings having existential crises. But at least D.C. they were in pop–

John: Yeah, there was some kind of reason.

Damon: There was a franchise.

John: Mine was supposed to be like post-Felicity. So it was supposed to be fun. But it was not a good show. Have you gone back and watched any of those early things that you wrote? Because I’ve not gone back to watch DC at all.

Damon: Oh my god. No, I have not. But I think I probably should, just to–

John: Might be sobering.

Damon: Some sort of learning, yeah. I could use some sobering.

John: So, you start as a writer’s assistant. And were you able to write an episode during your time as a writer’s assistant? Was that an actual writing job?

Damon: What ended up happening on that show, because Kevin Williamson was the de facto showrunner, except he had just handed off Dawson’s Creek to Greg Berlanti who was like a one – I think he was like 24 or 25.

John: Absolutely.

Damon: Running basically Dawson’s Creek.

John: And he still seems like a boy wonder.

Damon: Amazing.

John: The man does not age.

Damon: I mean, how prolific and incredible his shows are. Kevin was also directing this movie called Teaching Mrs. Tingle, for New Line, so he was not around for the early days of Wasteland. He would just basically buzz in for an hour or two a day and the room would pitch him ideas. But he was not able based on his other projects to take the reins.

And what ended up happening over the course of just about six weeks is that the showrunner quit, a number of other writers were fired, and by the end of six weeks it was the staff writers and the story editor and very junior level writers and me. And there was no material beyond the fifth episode. And we were about to go into production on it. And I was like I’m just going to write a spec Wasteland, just on my own. And I did that over the course of two days and handed it off to the staff writers and said, “If this is worth anything, rewrite it, put your names on it, but at least we’ll all be employed for another week or two.” And they went into their office and closed the door and I was feeling really anxious and the door remained closed for 45 minutes. And I was like I’ve made a huge mistake. I’ve overstepped my bounds.

And then Kevin, he was a friendly guy, but he’d never – I didn’t even know that he knew that I really existed. And he walked right up to my desk, which was in the kind of bullpen. And he said, “Are you Damon?” And I said, “Uh, yeah.” And he said, “Did you write an episode of the show?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Do you have an agent?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “You better get one.”

John: That’s great.

Damon: And he went into his office and then moments later Jim and Andy, who were the staff writers, they came out and they were like, “We really liked the script. We called Kevin.” I was like, yeah, he just…

So, you know, it was off to the races from there. So, I ended up writing on three or four of the 13 episodes of Wasteland that were produced, but again only two aired before it was canceled. So, that’s how I got my WGA status and my representation and all that stuff was on that show.

John: I want to connect a few dots back earlier. So, Julie Plec was the person who brought you in to do this.

Damon: Right.

John: How did you get to know Julie Plec?

Damon: I’m sure it still exists today, but there was just – there was like an assistant circuit of the assistants from agencies, studios, and production companies would have like these mixers, you know, on Thursday nights. And we would just go and basically network with each other and get drunk and make out and make friends. And so everybody started as PAs and then became assistants and then people started getting development jobs. And so I had known Julie, circling back to Jerry O’Connell, he and I were really good friends at NYU. He did Scream 2.

John: Which was Kevin Williamson.

Damon: For Kevin. And then that’s how I met Julie through that group.

John: So you didn’t show up in Los Angeles with any network of anybody? You just started working and built it out from there?

Damon: Literally knew nobody. Came out here with my roommate from college in ’94 and we wagon-trained from – he lived in – I came from New Jersey to Chicago. He lived in Michigan. And the two of us, his name is Erik Baiers, he is a big mucky muck at Universal now. He and I drove out and like basically just rented an apartment. And answered ads in the trades. Went to Kinkos and faxed our resumes in. And got internships and then just parlayed that into assistant jobs.

John: So, what I like about your story in terms of both leaving the Ladd Company and writing the script for Wasteland is you didn’t ask permission, you just sort of did it, and very politely waited for the next step to happen. You sort of put yourself into positions where you could become lucky by going out for that job, letting people read your script, by letting people read the spec you wrote which you decided to do. That’s a common thread as I’ve talked to a lot of writers who have progressed up is that they didn’t sit around waiting for someone to tell them that they could do something. They just did the thing and sorted it out as it happened.

Damon: Yeah. I mean, I think that it didn’t occur to me at the time that – it wasn’t like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Sort of like moxie play. Like in my brain at the time that it was happening it felt like it was a survival play. But there was also this other ingredient in what you’re talking about. Because I agree with what you’re saying. And I feel that there is commonality. But the missing ingredient, other than luck and let’s just say, you know, that you have some fundamental talents or experience, because a lot of people in that situation, you know, it does have to be on the page, or you do have to be able to speak articulately about story, but desperation also happens to be part – usually part of the story. And so I can guarantee you that had Wasteland been a successful show, like on the scale of Dawson’s, that I never would have made that move.

Like, I would have gone through the entire first season doing my job, the job that they hired me to do as writer’s assistant, but it wasn’t like, ooh, I see an opportunity, I’m going to grab it. It really was dark days. The show is going to go down. You know, they’re going to shut us down. We don’t have scripts. Like, I have nothing to lose.

John: Absolutely.

Damon: And it felt like a very low risk play.

John: Yeah. I had a good conversation with Drew Goddard and we were talking about sort of his first–

Damon: Hack.

John: Hack.

Damon: Hack. Oh my god. The worst.

John: A charming hack. He was talking about his first TV experience and it was with Joss Whedon. A similar kind of situation where like–

Damon: Haven’t heard of him.

John: You know, the show was really having a crisis and they were lacking an episode. And so he just happened to be the person who was nearby and just started up the conversation and became the idea between takes. And he wrote it. And as I was talking through the whole conversation with him, you see that at sort of every step along the way Drew just worked harder. And also just like he was the guy who did stay up all night to do the thing so it could sort of save the day.

Damon: Yeah. And you know I’m a big believer in when we hire writer’s assistants on shows that I’m running, I’m hiring writers. So, the de facto rule is that the writer’s assistant does not speak in the room, because their job is to basically synthesize everything that everyone else is saying. And if they’re thinking about pitching their own ideas, they’re not really listening. That’s the thinking. That said, there are moments in the room and out of the room, like when the room isn’t actually up and running, for the writer’s assistants to pitch. And because there is this – I don’t want to say it’s a political – it’s more of like sort of a social dynamic thing. It’s like you want to hire people who figure out like – who see their moment and take it.

And it’s very hazily defined. Like, you know when it’s too soon. And you know when it’s too late. And it’s hard to do it when it’s just right. But the thing is, you know, what I would say to all writer’s assistants or anybody in that position, you know, the first thing that you say better be great because if that first thing that you pitch is not great, then the second thing that you pitch has to be exponentially greater than that thing.

So, just bide your time, but essentially you have to jump into the Double Dutch jump rope at some point. That is an expectation. And certainly on The Leftovers over the course of the three years we promoted both of our writer’s assistants, both our writer’s assistant on season one, Nick, and our writer’s assistant on season two, Haley, because both of them demonstrated they were able to do the job of writer’s assistant incredibly well, but they also found those moments to demonstrate that they were writers.

John: So, when I was doing D.C., my first TV show, I had to put together a staff. I never was a staff writer, and suddenly having to assemble a writing team. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have any real good sense of what I needed. So, now that you’ve done this a couple of times, what are you looking for as you’re putting together a writing staff, from writer’s assistant all the way up to the people who are going to help really run the show with you?

Damon: Well, almost everything that I learned I learned from Carlton Cuse. He’s been a mentor and continues to be a mentor to me on so many levels. But, following Wasteland, which was not the most functional staff in terms of the way that it was assembled at first, although consisting of amazing writers, I went on to Nash Bridges in its sixth season. Sixth and final season. So it was this well-oiled machine. But something happened at the end of season five where essentially there are just moments in television shows where the entire staff basically goes off to do other things, and it happens simultaneously just because they’re at the end of their three-year deals or whatever.

So, at the end of season five, Shawn Ryan, who basically wrote a spec called The Farm, because he wanted people to think that he could do more than just Nash Bridges, that ended up being like FX’s first drama, The Shield, and one of the greatest television shows of all time. And Glen Mazzara, they both left at the end of season five. So, Carlton basically reconstituted the entire staff because with the exception of he and John Worth and one other writer, Reid Steiner, there were five new hires. Because I think that he realized that Glen and Shawn were so powerful in the room that let’s just kind of do a complete and total overhaul. And I was one of those writers.

And so the first thing that you do is you read samples. And it’s not a zero sum game in terms of this person is a good writer, or this person is a bad writer. Like you have to be able to assess how are they with dialogue, how are they with character, how are they with plot, how are they with humor. How are they with pace? And nobody is going to check all those boxes. And the key is to basically not have redundancies. So, don’t meet with three people who are really great at dialogue because certainly in the sixth season of that show the voice of the show is already clearly defined. And so you have to be a good writer, but it’s a lot more technical.

John: So, you were the person being staffed, so you weren’t reading other people’s things for Nash Bridges.

Damon: That’s correct.

John: So why do you think they hired you for Nash Bridges?

Damon: Carlton said he read two of my samples. I wrote a one-act play about time travel and a spec Sopranos. And he read those two pieces of material and met with me. And in the meeting, he was like, “Tell me what’s your story. Where do you come from? What do your parents do?” He didn’t really seem interested at all in what I had to say about Nash Bridges. He was more interested in who I was as an individual. And I think that was the other component which is try to build a room that comes from a different place than you do, and looks at the world in a different way than you do. But then in the overlapping Venn diagram you’re all going to meet at the show, so there has to be some common language.

But I was very candid with him in saying, “Here’s the thing. Nash Bridges is on Friday nights at 9 o’clock. I’m out, like partying. But the episodes that I’ve seen, and I love Miami Vice, I’m a huge Don Johnson fan. I love Cheech. I really think this is a great show. And I think that I could write for it.” But that was like 5% of an hour-long interview.

And to go back to your initial question, so you read somebody’s sample. That gets them in the room. But the intangible is you sit down with them for an hour or 90 minutes if the interview is going particularly well, and you just have to ask yourself could I hang out with this person in a room for nine to ten hours a day and enjoy hanging out with them? And that’s just a gut instinct. And there are some amazing writers, incredible on the page, who I just had very awkward stilted interviews with. We just didn’t click. Like, that’s just as much on me as it is on them. And I ended up not hiring them because of that.

And then each writer you hire you have to basically think about them now existing in that room as you start to build the room around them. And I don’t say this just because it is the politically correct thing to do, but having real diversity in a writers’ room, particularly on gender lines. I mean, I think that the industry has a huge way to go in terms of finding writers of color in general. The agencies are just – their rosters are very anemic when it comes to that. But in terms of men and women, there’s more of an equal balance. And so just start from a de facto place of the room has to be 50/50 because if it’s just eight guys in a room, it’s not going to be good for the show.

John: So, you’re making the decisions about who you want to bring on, but there’s also other voices saying, “How about this person? How about this person?” So there’s a studio talking to you, there’s a network talking to you.

Damon: Sure. Right.

John: There’s a bunch of agents talking to you.

Damon: Yes.

John: How, as a showrunner, do you sort through all that? And when do you decide to read a person’s script or not read a script? Is there a first vetting process is somebody helping you go through that pile first?

Damon: That’s a great question. I mean, I think that probably the loudest voice in that mix is the network. When they’re staffing a show, either shows have just gone done, or they have overall deals with talent, probably less so now than before. Or someone that they’ve been monitoring and they’re huge fans of. So, you know, if HBO when we were putting The Leftovers together, Michael Ellenberg was basically our point exec on that. He had like seven people that he felt would be good on the show and that I should read. They came from a whole spectrum of they were playwrights, some of them were novelists. Very few of them had any actual television experience before because I think the thinking was like let’s put people in this room who haven’t done it before because maybe they’ll come up with more outside-the-box ideas.

So that’s first and foremost if the network says you’ve got to meet with these people, or I think that you would like – you have to do it, just on general principle. And chances are you’re not wasting your time by doing that. And then level two is Warner Bros., the studio, is producing The Leftovers. They also had talent that their executives had been developing. And I think that they have immaculate taste over Warner Bros. So, I met with those people.

And then my agents. So I’m represented by CAA. I’ve had a relationship there for 15 years. And so my agent is not going to waste my time sending me – they know me better than anybody else. Just as a person versus as a writer. And what I’ll try to say to them is just send me like your three or four best. I know that you’ve got a lot of clients to service, but your three or four best. And then the other agencies will send one or two as well.

And in the hiring process, I’ll probably generate a stack of between 30 to 50 scripts of writing samples. And I will read pretty religiously like the first 15 pages of every script. If something is like particularly spectacular, I’ll actually finish it, because I’m just like oh my god, like I just want to see how things turn out. But for the most part, within 15 pages or so I can kind of determine whether or not it’s going to be a match.

John: So, you’re putting together this staff for a writer’s room, but I feel like you have sort of different qualifications for writing on something like Leftovers, which correct me if I’m wrong – I think Leftovers you wrote all the episodes before you started shooting. Is that correct?

Damon: It is incorrect.

John: It is incorrect. So, on the first seasons of Leftovers, how far were you in to the writing before you started filming?

Damon: I think that we had three scripts completed and had broken the fourth episode and maybe an outline on it. And potentially had some sense of what the fifth episode would be. That’s beyond the pilot. So, HBO still pilots shows. And so Tom and I wrote the pilot together. We produced the pilot. And Toto edited the pilot. And then HBO said we will pick this up to series. So that was in the can.

So, I really only think we had two scripts when we went into production.

John: That’s much more like a traditional broadcast situation. We’ve talked to the Game of Thrones guys, and like they have to write the whole thing ahead of time because they’re block scheduling things that it’s impossible to sort of do that show any other way. But I guess going back to staffing, so you need to find people who can work well in the room, but you also are looking for some people who have the experience of actually producing television so that they can do that functional job of like going to set and looking at a cut. You have to find people who have some skills beyond just throwing words around on the page.

Damon: For sure. And that’s why there are staff writers are story editors and the expectation on them because they’re newbies is it’s primarily a writing job, but then once you get to the producing levels you do expect some producing acumen.

On Lost and The Leftovers, we migrated to a philosophy where the writers did not go to the set. And I know a lot of television shows do send the writers to the set, and that’s wonderful. But the model of both those shows was we had incredibly strong producing directors. In the case of Lost, Jack Bender. In the case of The Leftovers, Mimi Leder. And so the idea of having a writer on set felt like to do what. You know, to basically protect their material?

So the writers are always available. They would be involved in the tone. Calls with the directors, which are key. And very heavily involved in the prep phase. But all of which can happen by phone and did. And we had writer-producers, Kath Lingenfelter, and Jacqui Hoyt in season one, who never visited the set, but had incredible – like were totally producing their episodes and the whole series writ large. Gave notes on cuts. Watched dailies. All that stuff.

So, I think that that thinking not just migrated from eliminating the redundancy of nobody should be on set who doesn’t have a clear cut job, but the other issue was I’m just a very room-heavy showrunner. There are other showrunners who float in and out of the room and I want to be in the writer’s room six to eight hours a day. That’s my favorite part of the job. That collaboration. The kicking the tires. We beat out every story with a great degree of specificity.

If you send a writer off to set, and they’re going to be there through prep, on a show like The Leftovers, they’re gone for four weeks. And so the idea of losing a valuable player is like the equivalent of the designated hitter in baseball, where it’s like they only get one at bat every three innings. But you don’t get to use them in the field. And so I just kind of felt like I wanted the writers in the room. Not the best way to do it, but the best way for me.

John: So let’s talk about being in the room versus when writers leave the room. So you have your writing team assembled. You’re breaking an episode. So let’s say you’re on episode four of the first season of Leftovers. Is that process going up on the whiteboard? What is the process for breaking an episode of a show like that?

Damon: So by the time you get to episode four, you’ve already got some sense of what you want to happen in episode four because you’ve got some sense of hopefully what episode ten is going to be, and what it is you’re moving towards. You’ve learned things from the first three episodes. But essentially, episode three is off the board and is being written and exists in draft form. And you erase all the boards and you’re looking at these big white boards. And you start – we usually would do at least two, sometimes three days of blue-skying. Which is kind of anything can happen in this episode. Let’s talk about what we want to be happening thematically. What do we want to have happen between certain character relationships? In the storytelling mechanism do we want to focus on just one story, or are we doing three stories? So there’s a lot of experimentation and sort of fumbling around.

Until you basically land on what I would say is like the big idea. And in the case of the fourth episode of The Leftovers of season one, somebody pitched, you know, what if the baby Jesus gets stolen from the nativity scene. It’s just a prank. I was like, oh, that’s cool. It has thematic resonance for the idea of the show. It could be a little bit fun and silly. And we’re getting to talk about religion without talking about religion. And it’s something that our chief of police isn’t going to want to deal with because he’s got more important things to be dealing with, like the fact that his wife has joined a cult. But I was just like, OK, so that’s going to be the organizing principle.

And so then you start saying like, what are the beats of that story? And then someone pitched like, oh, it would be really cool to watch that baby being made like in a doll factory. And see the mold being poured. And then it being put on the assembly line. And then having its eyes painted and put in a box. And then the box ends up on a shelf in Target. And then a woman buys the baby and then she dresses it up. And then the whole end of that idea, she puts it in the manger.

And so we’ve just basically shone you how Jesus Christ is made in the real world. And everybody goes like, oh, that’s awesome. That’s a great idea. And then that’s how it’s going to start. And then you try to figure out the corresponding bookend, which is what’s the end of this episode going to be? In the case of episode four, it’s interesting that you just threw that out arbitrarily, which is that’s the episode that I think had the most problems in the first season because we broke an entire story, an entire what we would call a B story, which we stopped doing towards the end of season one, and we started doing much more interconnected singular point of view stories, but we did a story with Kevin’s son and Laurie’s son, Tom, and this girl Christine as they joined this commune of barefoot people who are like these kind of hedonist hippies.

We shot the whole thing, and it was an utter disaster. And we scrapped it. It’s the only thing we ever shot for the show that didn’t air. And then basically re-broke it. And in the process of re-breaking it, we came up with a new ending for the Baby Jesus story which incorporated Matt Jamison, who we had now seen dailies for episode three and we saw what Eccleston was doing. And we were like, oh, we have to – like the payoff for the Baby Jesus story has to be a scene between Kevin and Matt, which didn’t exist in the original draft.

So, the show starts telling you what it wants to do. But, the story-breaking process is what’s the first scene, what’s the last scene, and now let’s just fill in everything that happens. What do you have to do to earn the last scene?

John: So this is all going up on a big whiteboard?

Damon: Yep.

John: And then ultimately whose job is it to transfer what’s on the whiteboard to a document that everyone else can look at?

Damon: The writer’s assistant.

John: OK.

Damon: So one of the low level writers, a staff writer or a story editor, is putting stuff up on the board. So for the blue-sky phase, once we land on something that we like, you just write a sentence. Like baby doll made in Tijuana. And then like last one is Kevin throws baby out window. And it’s literally just those sentences. And after two days, you look and you have about 20 of those sentences up on the board and then you’re ready to go into the next phase, which I think is what I would call the story-breaking phase, where you just go scene-by-scene and you start to pitch specific dialogue, character dynamics, etc.

And so it’s usually for an episode of The Leftovers, wire-to-wire, like a two-week process I think from the beginning of blue-skying until an episode comes off the board. But when it comes off the board, by then all five whiteboards are filled in super mega detail. And then off of that the writer will go to outline.

John: Great. So the writer goes to outline, so you assign one of the writers who is in the room, like this is your episode. And does that writer know ahead of time that this is going to be his or her episode?

Damon: Yeah. In the first season less so. I mean, usually you try to do it hierarchically, so the more experienced writer-producers get the first scripts. I told everyone when I was hiring them I’m going to be co-writing every episode of The Leftovers with you, so that we can develop and find the tone of the show together. Because I think that that’s going to help me learn how to write the show, but also it will put you in a position to be more successful. And also will generate material, the scripts a lot more quickly, if we’re co-writing them. And everybody was down with that.

So, we just had a rotation. But I co-wrote all the episodes in the first season, say for one, which was episode eight.

John: So it’s gone from this detailed five whiteboards to a document, an outline that everyone can look at?

Damon: Right.

John: And off of that outline, are there notes or changes? Like does the studio see this?

Damon: Yes.

John: Network sees this? OK.

Damon: The outline is the first that the studio and the network catch wind of what it is we want to do. They would give notes. Very good notes. Points of clarification. Our outlines were very detailed, like they were 20 to 30 page documents. Because more importantly, because the scripts were sort of the last thing to come, and we always had the scripts in time for prep, which is a week before the – a week to ten days before the episode shoots. But usually like right up against it.

But, we would also – production would have the outlines. And that – they’d have that like a month ahead of time, and that was really important because they’d know what all the locations were.

John: Absolutely.

Damon: What the cast asks were going to be. They could start to build a schedule and more importantly a budget off of the detail of those outlines. But then particularly in the first season of the show, the notes would sometimes detonate outlines. And I would come back to the room and say we just got blown up. And sometimes you get a note that blows you up and you immediately resist it just because you know how much work it’s going to create for you, but you know that it’s right. And other times a note is potentially explosive, but you feel like it is wrong and you can scrap it out.

We were getting many more good notes than bad notes. I can’t think of any bad notes that we got in the first season. So, the outline is basically the first test. And it’s a little bit like the Congress and the Senate. Like if the bill makes it out of outline, you’re going to have a lot less problems when it crosses the President’s desk. So, we wanted to generate – we didn’t want there to be any surprises in script.

John: Yeah. So from the five whiteboards, how long does it take to make an outline? Is that just a day to write that out?

Damon: No, because the outline is a piece of writing. So, it’s not – the writer’s assistant has taken what’s off the board and generated notes, but now the writer has to actually write it and create all the things that a writer does. So, it could take like a week from it coming off the board before the writer generates that outline. Because, again, like I said, it’s a pretty lengthy document. And because I would be chugging along on the next episode, that writer would basically generate that outline pretty much independently of me and then I would notes them or rewrite it. But I was much more involved in writing the scripts than the outlines for sure.

John: Great. So once you have an outline that everyone has signed off on, or signed off on enough–

Damon: Sometimes they say, “We’ll see. We’ll see how it works in the script,” which you know like oh my god that note isn’t going to go away.

John: How long is it taking you guys to go from the outline to the script?

Damon: That’s fast. I mean, that takes just almost the same amount of time that it takes to go from board to outline. Maybe just a week. And, again, because there’s two of us, we would just divvy it up.

John: You just pick scenes and do it?

Damon: In the case of the first season, there’d be like the Kevin story and a Jill story and a Laurie story, so you just say like, Kath, you take the Laurie story and I will take the Keven story. Then we started doing episodes like episode three which was just a Matt Jamison story, which I co-wrote with Jacqui. In that case I would be like these are the scenes that I feel like I have a beat on. And she would take the scenes that she felt she had a beat on. And then we would basically exchange notes to each other and then I would do a conformity pass.

John: So you’ve divvied up the scenes between the two of you, but in the outline stage is it so clear sort of how a scene is going to begin and end? Because I can just imagine if you have a scene that’s butting up against the scene that she’s writing, you want to have a natural transition between the two of you. Do you just not worry about it until you are assembling the whole thing together? Or are you asking her sort of like what the first thing is there? Or is that already in the outline basically how you’re going to start that next scene?

Damon: That’s a great question. I mean, for the first season of a show, as you’re determining what its rhythms are, I think that you’re asking the pivotal question which is how do the transitions feel. How to you carry water from one scene to another? And I think that we learned that essentially we would have a higher degree of success if I took the first 25 pages and the other writer took the last 25 so that you could build your own internal rhythm versus writing patchwork, alternating scenes, for exactly the reason that you specify which is I think that the outline sometimes did indicate here’s the first moment in the scene, but maybe not the first line of dialogue or you would find a different blow, a different out for the scene.

And writing The Leftovers was a much different experience for me than writing Lost at a number of levels, but just in terms of construction Lost had commercials. And so every seven pages of a Lost script had to have–

John: You had to start over, yeah.

Damon: Bum, bum, bum. Like, you know.

John: But you also have the joy of coming in with new energy. And being able to sort of open up the curtain again.

Damon: So you could just separate by act. You know, you’d basically say like, OK, Eddie and Adam, you guys take acts two and three and five. And I’ll write the teaser. That’s how you could divvy and you knew like you were just all building into the commercial. Whereas I think writing a pay cable drama, or even a show like Mad Men that has commercials, but those commercials in Mad Men were always like, what? It’s not meant to be watched with commercials. It’s meant to be experienced as a single one-hour movie or whatever it is you want to call it.

John: Cool. Let’s tackle some questions, and then I’ll get back to some of my own questions. These are things that listeners have written in. Sam writes, “I co-wrote a pilot script a few years ago, which went out to almost every major studio network. One of the major studios loved it and put a deal in motion to buy and develop the pilot. A few days later, the deal fell apart when it went to business affairs because a production company attachment we had that the studio did not want. Their attachment deal has now expired. And we have full control of the project again. But the development people that wanted the show are no longer at the studio and we’re starting from scratch. We still love the show and believe in it.

“Are agents and basically everyone else is telling us that once a project goes around once, it is old news and no one wants to look at it again. So they don’t want to take it out again. In your experience, is that true? Do we have any shot of reviving this?

Damon: The answer is yes and yes. So, yes, our industry does for some reason have a bias towards anything that is rehashed or old news. Or when they think about the narrative of a project, they want to be able to say this thing started with my enthusiasm for it versus somebody else was enthusiastic about it once and now I picked up something someone else rejected. Which to me is like a great narrative. But I do think that the reality is when I think about a question like this, I think it’s all in the hands of the representatives, which is like nobody knows that this event happened other than you and your rep and the development executives who are no longer involved.

And so unless your agent discloses that this happened with this material three to four years ago, there’s nothing that should prohibit them from presenting it as new, especially because you control it now. So–

John: Well, he does say though it did go out and everybody read it.

Damon: Oh they did?

John: Yeah.

Damon: So he’s saying people were enthusiastic about it at one point, but are no longer enthusiastic because it happened years ago.

John: Yeah.

Damon: To be completely candid, that sounds like a polite pass to me. I mean, I think that strong material, if available, people will snap it up. And another Sam, Sam Esmail, who had no prior showrunning experience and is now on the short list of the greatest auteurs working in television today, you know, he wrote Mr. Robot as a movie, then repurposed it as a television show. And nobody is decrying the fact that it’s the same material in a slightly different format. But–

John: Wasn’t Mad Men also like an old script that he dusted off?

Damon: My understanding is that Matt wrote Mad Men while he was on Becker, and the Mad Men sample is what got him the job on The Sopranos. And that David Chase loved the Mad Men pilot and wanted to produce it, but HBO passed. And so he took it to AMC. And everybody scoffed because AMC, what’s that, and now 11,000 Emmys later. But he had that material for quite some time.

So, you know, I think that great material is evergreen and I would suggest moving on to the next thing.

John: I would suggest moving on to the next thing, too. A thing that I find really weird about TV and tell me if you find this to be true as well. I have friends who staff on shows and when they’re going to move from one show to another show, they need to write a new pilot to represent themselves. And it seems crazy, because I feel like if you’ve written a really good show, especially written on a really good show, that should show your talent. But, no, the agents want a fresh thing that they can send out for staffing, which seems crazy to me.

Damon: It does seem crazy to me, too. But I also sort of feel like television writing, and probably any kind of screenwriting, is like the singularity now where the rate at which TV writing is changing and shifting is happening so fast that a piece of material that someone wrote two years ago doesn’t feel of the now because it’s – when you wrote it, you weren’t aware that Stranger Things existed. You weren’t aware that Transparent existed. And so this idea of like a piece of material kind of has to push the buttons that like all this zeitgeist-y shows are pushing and sort of demonstrate kind of like some awareness.

I mean, I remember I wrote a Sopranos spec, and that’s not the same as writing an original pilot. Tony’s mom was in it. And then she died. Nancy Marchand died. And so I was basically like, well, who cares. I mean, it’s still something that I wrote. It’s still The Sopranos. But people would read it and be like, “This doesn’t feel like The Sopranos anymore because the character is dead.” And I think like writ large that idea of pilots have to kind of be of the now. They have to kind of feel like they have that sort of energy. But, I don’t know. I mean, I think a great piece of writing is a great piece of writing. And agents, it is their job to put you in the best possible position to get work. And so if they’re not seeing the best result from your old sample, or they just want you basically exercise that muscle again, etc., or I would venture to guess they’re trying to trick you into writing something that’s so good somebody wants to buy it as a TV show and that it’s not a sample.

I mean, I’ve read some samples, some pilot samples recently where I was like this should be a show this is so good. Like why would I hire this person to be on The Leftovers? This should be a show.

John: Cool. Lou writes, “I wrote a spec pilot based on a friend’s idea. He asked me to do it. The story in the pilot is from his real life experience. What would be the appropriate way to write credits on the title page? To clarify, we are not writing this script for anybody other than ourselves at this point.”

Damon: Sure. I don’t know what the Writers Guild response to that is, but Lou is the one who is writing it, so it would basically say the name of the – The Adventures of John August by Lou whatever your last name is. And then I put Inspired by the life of John August. Or based upon the memoirs.

John: Yeah.

Damon: So, you know, I’d solidify the fact that you are the only author of this material, but it is based on the life of your friend.

John: That seems fair to me, too. Again, this isn’t sort of the WGA credit. But when there’s an underlying source behind things, it’s important to acknowledge that on the cover page just so – it’s the morally right thing to do, but it’s also just – it’s going out there in the world and it’s based on someone’s real experience.

Damon: Completely agree.

John: Richard writes, “I’m writing a pilot that contains a mystery surrounding a certain symbol.” This feels very much up your alley. “That symbol is both the opening and closing image of the episode and it carries great importance. Since screenwriting is a highly visual enterprise, I would like to show the symbol in the script rather than just describe it, which would be tedious and devoid of impact. I’ve encountered the opinion that inserting pictures into a script exposes a hack and my screenwriting software does not even include such a feature. What are your thoughts about including a symbol in the script?”

Damon: Wow, that’s a great question because I agree with everything that you just said. Now the reality is because it is the first image of the script, normally I would basically say is there a way for the symbol to be the last image of the script. Because you don’t want to send that hack flag up–

John: On page one.

Damon: On page one. But if your writing is great and the story is great, then you can put it on page 50 and no one will think you’re a hack because they’re completely and totally into the storytelling. I agree that that sends like a real – having illustrations of any kind or symbols is, you know, is immediately sort of you have to find a way to describe the thing without showing it.

John: Yeah.

Damon: I can’t even – I will say this, though. Based on this question I’m like, ugh, what is this symbol?

John: What is it?

Damon: Like–

John: My instinct would be to do it on a page between the title page and the first page of actual script. And so if there was an intermediary page that just had the symbol and didn’t even necessarily explain why that page was there, but then when you sort of read through it you get like, oh, that was what that thing was.

Damon: Got it.

John: But having it break in the flow of the text, that’s where it feels hack to me. That’s where I get really nervous about doing that.

Damon: Right. And the other thing is if you can’t describe it in simple – there has to be a way, even if the symbol feels like it’s complicated to describe, you know, you or I could describe Prince’s symbol in a sentence, which is like it’s kind of like the symbol for male or female but with some artistic flourishes, without saying it’s got arrows on the end of each – you know, you don’t have to be overly descriptive.

John: Yeah. I agree with you there. Rian Johnson’s script for Looper has one image in it, which describes like one thing sort of late in the script, but it’s not on page one, and he’s also Rian Johnson.

Damon: Correct.

John: And so that’s a difference between his situation and Richard’s situation.

Damon: Yeah. I think that once you’ve established yourself, then symbol it up.

John: Yep.

Damon: Go symbol crazy.

John: So, you’re wrapping up The Leftovers, and all the episodes are shot now. They’re all edited now.

Damon: Yep. It’s as done as done gets.

John: That’s great. So, a thing we were talking about before we started recording is that while you were doing Lost you kept getting hit with two questions. And I want to sort of address those two questions that everyone always asked you about the show and what effect they could have. So what are the two questions?

Damon: I could do like a psychic act where I can say if you were watching Lost, I want you to close your eyes right now and think of what is the one question, especially in terms of process. Forgetting about polar bears and all that fun stuff. Like what you would ask. And I will predict that it will be one of two questions.

The first question is were you making it up as you went along. And certainly as we were writing the show that was in the present tense, are you making it up as you go along? So that’s question number one. And when someone asks you a question like that, they’re not curious. There’s an answer that they want. Because who in the history of the world has been asked that question and you want the answer to be, “Uh, yeah, I’m just making it up as I go along, man. I’m just winging it. I’m President Trump. I’m just like tweeting and figuring things out as I go. This is a tough job.”

You want people to have a plan for sure. So that’s the correct answer is we are absolutely not making it up as we go along. There is a roadmap. There is a bible. All of these things exist. That’s the appropriate answer.

Question number two. How much influence does the audience/fandom have on the outcome of the show? We’re really engaged. We have theories. We go to fan events. We’re on Reddit and Twitter talking about and theorizing about the show. Do you read that stuff and does it influence you? And the answer to that question, the desired answer is, yes, you as an audience have a tremendous influence on the show and the outcome of the show. We’re listening to the things that you don’t like and we’re course-correcting and we’re listening to the things that you like and we’re doing more of that.

And yet there doesn’t seem to be an awareness that these two ideas are paradoxical.

John: Absolutely. They’re completely antithetical. Like something can’t be predetermined and be, you know, have free will based on what the audience wants.

Damon: That’s a very Rousseau/Locke way of putting it. That those are the philosophers, not the crazy French women and the guy in the wheelchair. But, yes, if there is a plan, the audience has no effect whatsoever on its outcome. And if you’re always listening to what the audience tells you, then you have to be winging it. So, how do you thread the needle?

John: And so when you’re doing a show like Lost, which had 24 episodes in its longest season.

Damon: Yeah, 25 hours with Season 1.

John: It was crazy. And so on a show like that, you are writing the show while you’re filming the show. It’s an ongoing process, so you can actually see sort of what’s working in broadcast and change things.

Damon: Correct.

John: But with shorter seasons, that’s much less likely to happen. So, even on the first season of The Leftovers, had any of the episodes aired by the time you were producing the final episodes?

Damon: Oh, for sure. I mean, we produced the pilot in the summer. You know, in July. And then it got picked up. And then we went into production on the series I think the following January or February in New York. I think we were still in production when the episodes started airing.

John: But if somebody watched the first episode or the second episode or the third episode and they said like, oh, I really want it to be more like this, there wasn’t much of an opportunity for that to happen.

Damon: No.

John: Because it was–

Damon: All of the material was already generated. I mean, where the space exists is between seasons. So, certainly between the second and third season of The Leftovers had certain things that we did, like big swings – we did an episode called International Assassin that takes place in a – I’ll just say a different reality than the rest of the show. Had the audience rejected that idea instead of embraced it, that would have affected the storytelling in season three for sure.

In fact, you know, one of the big storylines of the third season, I’m not going to spoil anything here, but if you’ve watched any of the trailers or the promos for the coming season, you know, the idea that Kevin, our main character, died and came back to life is a major story thread. And I think had that not worked out in the second season, we would have just pretended that it had never happened.

John: So, this comes up, this idea of like is it all prefigured out or not prefigured out. Two recent series sort of brought this home to me, which were Stranger Things and Westworld. So, Stranger Things is a Netflix show. It all dumped at once. And so you knew from the start that nothing you thought about the show was going to change the show, because the show was done. Because you could see that all of the episodes were there, ready for you to watch.

Versus Westworld as I was watching it week by week, and I love the creators and I’m so happy with the show, but I detected a lot of fan annoyance about how slow things were moving. There was a frustration that was building from fans based on how the storytelling was reeling out which I don’t think would have happened had it been all dumped at once.

Damon: Oh for sure. It’s the – did you get me a bike? It’s a bike, right, for Christmas paradigm where your kid basically asks you for something for Christmas and it’s the big gift. And your kid knows that you love them. So, yeah, chances are they’ve got the bike. But they’re not getting it until Christmas. And so all they’ll basically say is whether they believe in Santa or not, another spoiler alert, you know, am I getting a bike? Am I? Am I getting a bike? Did you get me a bike? Am I getting a bike? And I think that there is a certain level of anticlimax and frustration, but your job as a parent is to basically preserve that moment on Christmas morning when they get the bike. And I think Jonah and Lisa have spoken pretty candidly about the idea that they didn’t expect Reddit to reach certain conclusions that fast–

John: Absolutely.

Damon: But the reality is when you can hive-mind a solution it only takes one person to figure it out before something catches on. And so if there’s millions and millions of people watching something like they are in Westworld, they’ll figure it out. And then I think the other thing that’s sort of worth talking about per both those shows and what you’re saying is there’s a time investment. And so what’s interesting is your time investment in watching Stranger Things and Westworld is exactly the same. You invest ten hours in watching those television shows. But in Westworld–

John: But they’re ten very different hours.

Damon: You actually feel like you’ve invested 100 hours because you’re counting the hours in between the weeks that you are discussing, debating, you know, doing the deep dive on, talking about the men in black. How far in the future are we? Are we on a different planet? All that stuff. That time and energy you also count as your investment. And so the more time you invest, the more possibility for frustration there is.

John: Absolutely.

Damon: Unfairly, I believe.

John: I agree that it’s unfair, but it has to be something that’s on your head as you’re thinking about going forward. So, right now Leftovers is finishing up and you need to be thinking of what you want to do down the road. And I don’t know if you’re thinking about TV at all, but you have to be thinking about anything you do in TV now is going to be a decision of like is this a show that should all be watched at once, or are we going to try to do this sort of week by week basis. What’s your feeling?

Damon: Here’s what’s interesting. The answer is both. Because, so for me the “have your cake and eat it, too” scenario is you roll it out week by week, so for that portion of the audience, that’s how they watched Big Little Lies. You had to wait until Sunday night in order to watch it. And now it’s over and the finale was widely adored, including by myself, and so the people who didn’t want to take the risk that it wouldn’t turn out well or not to invest in it yet, they’re now going to binge it.

So, the way that the show lives on is always going to be in a binge model. Is always going to be in a you can watch all the episodes at your own leisure. But for this one period of time when you’re first rolling it out, as Dickens did with Great Expectations, you know, I mean, we all read Great Expectations as a novel, but when Dickens put it out it was serialized. So, why not have your cake and eat it, too, and do it both ways. Because I want to engage in shows. Like I wish that Stranger Things dolled it out. You know, because as much as I loved it, when it was over I was like, oh, that – I did it too fast. I wished that I could have been part of the community. Instead I watched this thing for three days and now we’re all talking about the entire series. But I wanted to speculate as to what Barb’s fate was, as opposed to I’m now exactly 90 minutes away from determining Barb’s fate.

John: Well, but in order for this cake and eat it, too–

Damon: #Barb.

John: Barb. You have to have an end. And so in the case of Lost, it was 100 episodes you did?

Damon: 121.

John: 121. And so it was so many episodes out in the future. And so I know you asked for a stop date at a certain point so you could plan for it, but someone who wasn’t sure whether they were going to commit to the show, they had to decide am I going to wait four years for it to finish. So something like The Leftovers, each season is very discrete. Like you can sort of watch seasons – well, you really can’t – it’s hard to sort of come into season two and for it to make a lot of sense.

Damon: Although I’ve heard.

John: People do it.

Damon: I’ve heard anecdotally some people are like just start with season two, and they’re a little confused at first, but it’s fine.

John: It’s fine. But the advantage to Big Little Lies or Stranger Things is that you know that it’s only ten episodes, and so you’re not going to have to wait that long to start watching it if you–

Damon: I think Big Little Lies is like seven episodes or something like that. Yeah. No, you know, the thing that I always say is people want to know how thick the book is before they buy the book. So, it’s sort of like it’s why Sorcerer’s Stone is of a certain thickness and Order of the Phoenix is of a – because it’s like by then J.K. Rowling is basically like I got you. So, these are going to be as thick as I want.

But I think if the first book was as thick as Order of the Phoenix, that certainly would give me pause. And so but television, almost until recently you don’t know how thick the book is. And so even Game of Thrones, you know, when HBO started airing it you knew before you watched the pilot of Game of Thrones, and I had read the first three of George’s books at that point, I knew that I was like signing up for the long haul. Like, oh my god, is this going to be ten years of my life if the show works? And I’m down with that. But that’s an intimidating commitment to make. It’s daunting.

And so I really feel like Ryan Murphy and Noah Hawley are at the apex of the newest trend in television which is the serialized anthology. The way that every season of Fargo feels like it is self-contained but part of a larger, sprawling narrative. And they are interconnected in terms of how they move around in time. So, a massacre that was alluded to in season one is actually dramatized in season two. But season two doesn’t feel like a prequel, even though it’s chronologically taking – it feels just as important. And then they connect with the movie Fargo, so the money that Steve Buscemi basically hid and was unresolved in the movie is actually found in season one in Fargo in the Oliver Platt storyline, etc.

But there’s a larger – it’s not just, oh, here’s another season of Fargo. There is a sense of serialization in there. And then Ryan, of course, who with American Horror Story he’ll have actors basically play different characters, but there is also a sense of some meta interconnectedness. And I think that’s a new storytelling form, which is very exciting.

John: But, I mean, I will push back a little bit on Noah Hawley. Legion, which I thought was a terrific pilot and a really interesting show, it felt like it was designed for streaming, yet it came every week.

Damon: Oh, interesting.

John: And so I have a suspicion that the show plays much better if you actually just watch the episodes straight through. But with the week in between you lose the connective tissue. You just can’t actually kind of remember what happened week to week. It’s such a complicated show that without seeing it sort of back to back to back, a week between things have sort of destroyed the momentum.

Damon: I had an entirely different reaction to Legion which was that I loved having the anticipation of the next episode, but I also felt like that show was teaching me how to watch it. And you’re probably right in terms of there’s an intricacy in terms of storytelling and plot and figuring out who is Lenny, and is Lenny is a guy. Who’s the shadow king? Like all of those things. But, for me it was in the way that Twin Peaks was, it was more about a mood. And it’s sort of broadcasting at a different frequency. And so I feel like the penultimate episode of Legion, and again not to spoil it if you haven’t seen it yet, or something like that, like dropped into the middle of a binge, and then suddenly that episode would end and you just have – there’s just this amazing – they do this thing with Bolero and then it’s black and white and you’re in a silent movie. And there’s major revelations and this animated thing on a chalk – it’s just like the idea of that episode ending and then immediately going I’m now watching the finale, versus I need to just take some time with that one, I don’t know. I appreciated–

John: I can the arguments both ways. I felt like my experience of understanding what actually happened over the course of the season would make a lot more sense if I had watched it all together as one thing than just spread out the way it was spread out.

Damon: Yeah, I mean, I think that one thing that sounds super pretentious/precious is that the showrunners of these shows, the storytellers of these shows, should start prescribing the way that they want their shows to be watched. And the audience can choose to ignore them. Like for me, I’d be like, “Noah, what do you want me to do?” And I just assume Noah wants me to watch them every Tuesday night, the week that they’re on, because that’s the way that he’s – Noah Hawley, if he wanted to, he could do the show on Netflix. I mean, maybe he’s in an overall deal at FX or whatever, but like I do want to have a stronger sense of how the people making it feel like it should be watched, even if they’re wrong.

John: Yeah. J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter, her initial recommendation was that it’s designed to be like one book a year. And so it’s meant to be you grow up with the kids. And so the later books are more advanced because you’re supposed to be a more advanced person reading them.

Damon: For sure.

John: It moves from middle-grade fiction into YA.

Damon: And we’re reading Half-Blood Prince right now with Van, my son, who is ten years old, and we started Sorcerer’s Stone I think when he was six.

John: Yeah, that’s just right.

Damon: We’re a little bit faster than once a year, but there was no way that we finished Order of the Phoenix and he wasn’t like, next. At that point he was like, “Let’s get to it.” But you do appreciate how brilliantly she recaps the previous book, because when you and read them the beginning of episode six where they’re dealing with the British PM, having to like basically be apprised of the fact that Cornelius Fudge has been replaced by Rufus Scrimgeour, and then all the things that happen in between books. I remember when I picked up Half-Blood Prince I was like, oh man, it’s been a while since I read Order of the Phoenix. How am I going to remember what happened?

John: And there’s a previously on…

Damon: And she just did it so brilliantly. Oh my god. She’s the best. The best. And you’ve seen–

John: I saw the play.

Damon: You saw it.

John: Yeah, it’s good. The play is really good.

The last thing I want to get to is this idea of idea debt. And so this was some articles I sent to you. The first one I read was by Jessica Abel. And she had a conversation with Kazu Kibuishi where she’s talking about this sense of the old projects that were sort of always lingering behind. So this is what she actually wrote.

“Let me tell you about Forest Lords.

Forest Lords is a series of ten fantasy novels, each a 1000-page brick, about the epic adventures of Greenleaf Barksley, elf proletarian, and his journeys to attain the Golden Leaf and save his homeland from the scourge of the Curse of the Titaness Denox.

The thing is, none of this series exists—not even Forest Lords Volume One: The Elven Soul. There are binders and binders of “lore.” There are a hell of a lot of character designs (that look suspiciously similar to Elfquest characters). There is the vivid, lively picture the putative author has in his head of how it’s going to feel to write a fantasy series that has everyone panting for the next book or movie or TV show.*

But there is no book. There is only Idea Debt.”

Damon: Yes.

John: So, this felt really familiar to me.

Damon: Yeah. It felt really familiar to me, too. And I had the same smile on my face as I read the article that you have on your face as you read aloud that part. Look, I think that world-building is super exciting. And I think that this idea of a broad and expansive universe and saying that this thing is epic in scope, it’s a saga, is a wonderful thing. But the grounds of creative storytelling are littered with the corpses of these elven warriors. And I think that ultimately my takeaway from reading that article and the others is that that’s the fun part, this world-building. The hard part is actually just writing the first one. And the more worlds you’re building, the less storytelling you’re doing. Because it’s sort of like the world-building is easy.

John: Yeah.

Damon: But what’s getting me into the world, like if you just basically think about like how much time did George R. R. Martin spend building the world of Westeros before he actually started typing chapter one, and now there’s dire wolves. Well, chapter one is kind of our introduction to the White Walkers. But now basically dire wolves pups are being presented to all the Stark kids and Jon Snow. And I guess that there wasn’t a lot of lag time between the idea to do Game of Thrones and the writing of that chapter. And then he started building his world along the way.

And I think that this idea debt is basically prohibiting people from actually working.

John: Yeah. I think people approach it with these weird expectations where they think they need to build George R. R. Martin’s world for Game of Thrones, or they need to build the Potter-verse for J.K. Rowling’s universe, without remembering like, oh no, you actually have to write the book first.

Damon: Sure.

John: And that the universe doesn’t come before the actual text comes. But I think the reason why people want to do that world-building is because there’s no risk. You can’t fail at the world-building because there’s no actual product. But the minute you actually start to write something, it could suck. And that’s the fear. And so you put it off because you’re worried about it.

Damon: I couldn’t agree more. And I also feel like the thing that the world-building is devoid of is the fundamental thing that we attach ourselves to in story, which is the characters and the emotions. And if you read George Lucas’s original treatment for Star Wars, you know, whatever, when it’s Luke Star-Killer and it’s, you know, the Wills and all that stuff, is like it’s all that stuff. It’s all that world-building stuff, but it’s lacking the moment on Tatooine, looking out at the twin suns. It’s certainly – he had to write Star Wars to learn that Vader was Luke’s father. Like, that was not in the world-building part.

And so you have to – I know that there’s a lot of debate, and I don’t even know if J.K. Rowling has spoken about this or been asked this, but it seems to me that had she known about Horcruxes prior to when they were revealed in the books that she could have used that word once or twice casually by Azkaban. And the fact that she didn’t leads me to believe that it was an idea – the story was telling her what to tell, because you have to listen to the show. You have to listen to the story. And all the time that you’re not writing it, it’s not telling you what it wants to be.

John: Absolutely. The sense of what it wants to be and what it doesn’t want to be, the second part of this idea that like all of those things that you have sort of abandoned along the way, those ideas that sort of got half-developed that you’ve never actually done anything with.

And there’s a guy named John Sexton who has a good piece I’ll also link to in the show notes talking about all those things that you’re sort of dragging with you from apartment to apartment, project to project. Those things you always meant to write that you’ve never actually written. And I found myself nodding a lot as he was going through his list, because I have all those things, like someday I’ll get back to that stuff.

Damon: Right.

John: And I’ll never get back to those things.

Damon: Right. If it sits in your storage unit for like a couple of years, there’s a reason for that. It wants to stay there. But I would say that certain things that are tickling you or get you excited as a writer, they will work their way into – like for example, I always wanted to do a show about time travel. And then I suddenly realized, hey, Lost is that show. Like there is not time travel embedded in the pilot of lost, but J.J. and I tried to do everything that we could to open up all possibilities in the pilot so that if we wanted to get to time travel, we could.

And I always wanted to set a show in the ‘70s, and I was like, well, we’ve got time travel now. So Lost is that show, too. And I’ve always wanted to do like a pirate show. Well, Lost could be that show, too. .

So, if you basically find the canvas that can accommodate all those disparate ideas and you can kind of cram them in there, it’s amazing how resilient television storytelling can be, particularly in this day and age. Where the audience will sort of let you go. And the idea that Noah Hawley is like maybe he – I haven’t heard him talk extensively about Legion yet, but he’s a colleague and I’m a huge fan of his, but the idea that Noah Hawley had always wanted to do a super hero show and it ends up being Legion, you know, is sort of like he seems much more interested in other genre elements than the super hero genre, but there are some things that are distinctly super hero-ish in there that he doesn’t seem particularly interested in.

John: Yeah.

Damon: And that makes the show all the more fascinating that it’s like, oh, like this is an X-Men show. Like it can be this, too? Oh, that’s cool.

John: Yeah. Circling back to this sense of the world-building and sort of knowing everything that’s out there before you get started, you know, we were talking about J.K. Rowling, whether she knew Horcruxes, but like you guys didn’t know everything that Lost could be when you were writing the pilot for Lost. You guys were just writing the pilot to make the most compelling pilot possible. And sort of to stake out a giant circle of possibility around you.

But if you had actually had to go into it with a plan for like this is the six seasons. This is how it’s all going to work. This is how these two things connect. There’s no way you could have done it. You had to discover it by doing it.

Damon: Yeah. You’re back to do you have a bible. You know, and even the bible was written, you know, I mean I guess there are people out there who believe that the Bible was written by God and then dictated to man, but even the Bible was written one verse at a time, one story at a time. And in the pragmatic reality of storytelling, that’s the only way that you can do it because J.J. and I had ten weeks to basically write and produce and deliver a two-hour movie. That was the two-hour pilot. And the idea that we also in our spare time were able to get together and say like, hey, let’s talk about what season three of Lost might look like. It just didn’t exist.

It’s also hubris. I mean, I think that I always say to studios and networks who are saying like we need a bible or we need to know what season two is, I understand that concern. You’re investing in this thing. You want to know that we have some sense of where we’re going. But, the job – my job right now is to just make one great hour of this thing, not just the pilot. And then episode two has to be – that’s the real pilot of a television show is episode two. But if you make three bad episodes in a row, the audience is out. And it really doesn’t matter if you’ve got a great idea for what season two could be. You should have been more focused on what episode four was.

And so I’m a big believer in look at the episode right in front of you and do everything that you can to make it great. Have some sense of where you want to take things, but then there has to be a discovery process along the way.

John: Cool. Let’s go to our One Cool Things.

Damon: I discovered the show called Occupied on Netflix. It was recommended by a friend. And I don’t know when it was made, but I have a feeling it was made in the last two years. And it’s about a silk glove invasion of Norway by Russia. It’s kind of I guess got 24 and Homeland baked into its blood. But what’s sort of fascinating about it is I didn’t know anything about Norway. And I’ve always had this idealized version of what it is to be Scandinavian. And this is kind of the nightmare scenario. The storytelling set up is that each episode is a month. It doesn’t take place over a month, but is titled like April, May, June. So they jump 30 days between the ending of and the beginning of episodes, so part of the fun is like, hey, what happened in between these episodes. There’s a little bit of catching up. But essentially over the course of the first season you see what it looks like for a country to be invaded by another country. And particularly in terms of what’s happening in the world right now, it’s the most like V, which is a show–

John: Oh, I loved V.

Damon: I loved.

John: Oh my god. I loved V.

Damon: Of anything that I’ve seen in the last two decades, but it’s sort of like what if V happened in the real world. And I’m not saying that the Russians eat guinea pigs. I’m not saying they don’t. I’m not saying they could.

John: They peel off their skin, it is reptilian underneath.

Damon: But the Russians are–

John: Who is the Diana of the show? Is there a person–?

Damon: Yeah, there is a Diana.

John: Fantastic.

Damon: You know, it’s a Russian woman who is essentially – she’s very charismatic. Like the Russians are not just straight up bad guys in it. That’s what’s really interesting about it, too. I would say like the Norwegian Prime Minister is not being presented as this incredibly noble and flawless individual. Lots of different shades in it. And also there’s a lot of English. It makes you, again, hate yourself as an American because every Norwegian and every Russian speaks fluent English. So when they’re talking to each other they speak in English. When the Norwegians are speaking to each other they’re speaking in Norwegian. But you’re like, oh, like all these people are all multi-lingual and here I am like I can order like a burrito and I feel proud of myself.

John: I always feel bad on The Americans, because there are times where I’m sort of half paying attention. Like it could be the radio play, where you can sort of hear the discussion, but then they’ll switch into the Russian section and you have to–

Damon: You got to watch.

John: You got to watch close, because it’s going to be something about the food supply.

My One Cool Thing is also a series. Fits in really well with this idea of recycling your old ideas. It’s called City Girl. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. It’s a romantic comedy done by Parenthood’s Sarah Ramos. And she wrote it in 2003 when she was 12 years old, but it tells the story of this 28-year-old boutique owner and she has this weird affair with her allergist, like her migraine doctor.

But basically, this writer, she found her old script and shot it the way – she didn’t change it. She didn’t update it. She actually just shot it the way she wrote it when she was 12 years old.

Damon: Oh my god.

John: And so it’s like this weird misunderstanding of sort of like what a 28-year-old is like, and what the motivations are.

Damon: Oh, that’s great. They just shot it as is?

John: They just shot it as is.

Damon: Where is it?

John: It’s a series of like web shorts. And so I’ll put a link in the show notes to that. But it’s really–

Damon: Oh, that sounds fascinating.

John: Brilliantly done.

Damon: Can I do one more tiny one?

John: Please.

Damon: Which is the writer and personality John Hodgman, who is a genius, super amazing. He wrote a pilot that you just reminded me of. They did a live reading of the pilot, because it never got produced. But the premise was that it’s his – it’s a coming of age story of him as like a 13-year-old boy, but it’s played by John Hodgman as an adult. He’s the only adult on the show, so all the other kids are played by actual 13 year olds, including his love interest, who is also a 13-year-old.

It’s amazing. And they did this live reading of it that is listenable. I think they did it as a podcast. It’s amazing. It’s so good.

John: Cool. We’ll find a link for that in the show notes as well.

Damon: Do it.

John: That’s our show for this week. Our show, as always, is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. 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 ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered. On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Damon is not on Twitter at all.

Damon: I’m off Twitter.

John: He’s fully off Twitter.

Damon: Craig can keep his day job, because this is big boots to fill.

John: Yes. You can find us on Facebook, just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. That’s also where you can find us on iTunes. While you’re there, leave us a comment. That’s always helpful.

You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. There’s apps for both Android and for iOS. You can listen to all those back episodes.

At johnaugust.com you’ll find transcripts and links to all the show notes. So, Godwin gets the transcripts up about four days after the episode airs. This one might take a little bit longer because it was a longer episode. But, Damon, thank you so much for coming to Paris and being on the show.

Damon: It’s so weird, because we live so close to each other in Los Angeles, and you made me come to–

John: Yeah, I made you fly all the way here to do this.

Damon: But it was worth it.

John: Yeah. Cool. Good luck. Bye.

Damon: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 295: The Return of Malcolm — Transcript

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 15:02

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 295 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the program Malcolm Spellman returns to help us answer a bunch of listener questions, including the most important one of all – what’s Malcolm up to.

Craig: Oh, he’s not going to know the answer to that. I’ll fill that in for him.

John: All right. So, I sound a little bit strange because I just flew from Rome to London. I made it here, but my microphone did not. My bag got lost, and so I’m on a pair of really crappy white iPhone headphones. So, Craig and Malcolm are going to take most of this episode by themselves. So, through the magic of editing I’m going to be here for the intro and for the outro, but it’s going to be the Craig and Malcolm show. So I am as excited as the listeners are to hear what Malcolm is going to say.

Craig: Everybody hang on to your seat. And I guess we should probably mention that when Malcolm is on the show, the chance of us not having the explicit rating is zero. So, folks who are listening in the car with children be aware that we will be using adult language in today’s program.

John: I think it’s a very strong bet. Some follow up. First off, the tickets for the live show on May 1 are now up for sale. You can go and find them at HollywoodHeart.org. That is Monday May 1, 7:30pm to 9:15pm, at ArcLight Hollywood. That’s Rian Johnson. That’s Dana Fox. That’s Rob McElhenney. It’s going to be amazing, so you guys should go see that. I will look forward to hearing it myself.

Craig: Yeah. It’s for charity. Hollywood Heart is a terrific charity that our friend, John Gatins, is involved in. And of all the live shows that we’ve done, this may be the most impressive guest lineup we’ve ever had. First of all, just Rian alone. Star Wars, people. Star Wars. But with Dana, and then you throw on Rob McElhenney, creator and star of Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which now is like the longest running sitcom in television history.

John: That’s remarkable.

Craig: That’s amazing. It’s amazing. So that’s our lineup. And it’s like the tickets are not that expensive. And it goes to charity. So, if there’s even any left, jump on them.

John: Sounds good. Next up, one of our very first episodes of How Would This be a Movie was the Hatton Garden Job. So if you don’t remember that, that was a bunch of British bank robbers who carried off a very complicated bank robbery where they broke in through walls. It was a bunch of old geezers. And we figured, you know what, someone is going to try to make this into a movie. The first movie version of Hatton Garden Job is actually coming out. April 14. The writing credits are Ray Bogdanovich, Dean Lines, and Ronnie Thompson, who also directed. Reviews seem pretty good so far, so hey, there’s already one of these movies out there in the world. So, I think it’s our first movie that we successfully made out of the Scriptnotes podcast.

Craig: Shouldn’t we have some sort of thing that we could put on a movie like the way the ASPCA puts stuff on No Animals Were Harmed. Like this gets the Scriptnotes Seal of Prediction, or something?

John: Well, I think it needed a little special laurel around it that says Scriptnotes. Yeah.

Craig: Win. [laughs]

John: As inspired by Scriptnotes. As discussed on Scriptnotes. Win, yes.

Craig: Win.

John: Win. That was a reference to last week’s episode where we talked about the Beverly Hills Screenplay Competition. We had another listener write in. This was Guy Poland who wrote in. He says, “I, too, was a winner in said contest. A three-time winner, thank you very much. I won gold for comedy, a silver for a thriller, and I was a finalist for comedy for Meeting Mr. Gimbel.” So, let’s pause here to say why did you enter this competition three times? You won three times, I guess. But wow.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, after the first time when your life didn’t change, maybe save the entry fee.

John: Well, I guess he submitted for all three of these things simultaneously. So, he put three different scripts in in three different categories.

Craig: Oh, OK. Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: All right.

John: But it’s like $30 a pop, I’m sure. So he writes that “I, too, emailed to ask about prize money. I was not afforded a response and didn’t push the issue because I knew it was all bullshit. They did, however, send me three nice winner certificates in a PDF format that I can print out, frame, and hang on my wall. Note that they misspelled Comedy on the certificates and had to redo it. No prize money or coupons whatsoever. Certainly not $200.”

Craig: Hold on a second. This poor guy didn’t even get the coupon to the non-existent software. And I love this. You enter a contest and the contest said on their webpage, Malcolm, they say, “$20,000 in prize money and stuff, or whatever, in prizes.” Nobody gets anything. And I love that when you win the contest you have to email them, “So, can I get the prize?” And they’re like, “Um, no.” And then you go, “OK.” And then they send you PDFs of a certificate that the best part is they couldn’t even mail them a real certificate. They sent him PDFs that he had to print out himself. My god.

John: No, he writes there was another option. So they also gave him the option of receiving a winner’s trophy, “Which I would have the pleasure of paying for at the modest price of $150, plus $20 shipping.”

Craig: [laughs]

John: Now, the point of a screenplay competition is, of course, to get interest from the industry. It says he got zero read requests as a result of winning these three things. Let’s see, “Oh, a bonus fuck up for you. At some point the competition staff mixed up some of the winning scripts with the wrong writer. Put another way, the scripts were posted on their site, but the corresponding writer was wrong. They finally got that straightened out.”

Craig: Oh, well that’s good. They’re on top of it then over there at the Beverly Hills Screenplay Competition which appears, from what we’ve heard, to be the worst screenplay competition in the world. And that’s saying something because pretty much all of them are horrendous. This one, though, wow.

Malcolm Spellman: It’s the Russian version.

Craig: It’s the Russian Screenplay Competition. They’re just mining your data. Amazing. Amazing.

John: So, we get to hear Malcolm Spellman in the background, but Malcolm I want you to lean a little closer to the microphone and tell us what you’re up to, because I have not seen you in nearly a year. But listeners haven’t seen you even kind of for longer than that. Last we talked with you, you were on Empire. I honestly don’t know what you’re doing at this moment. Fill us in a little bit on what’s happening in the Malcolm Spellman universe.

Malcolm: It’s a big point of transition for me right now. So, I did three years on Empire, which was awesome. And learned a ton. Probably learned more in that three years than the entire 13 years leading up to that I was in screenwriting. And I’m moving on now, but amicably. And I am enjoying Hollywood with some heat for the first time since I first broke in.

Craig: Since your fumbled heat.

Malcolm: Since my fumbled heat. And it’s very, very interesting to see the difference in temperature when I walk into the room. And it feels like I am now in a position where maybe some shit can happen. You know what I’m saying? We’ll see.

Craig: All right. That’s a pretty good position.

John: And what is the shit that’s happening? Are you doing TV shows? Are you doing movies? Where’s your focus right now?

Malcolm: I’m doing a pilot with a buddy of mine at Hulu. And I have a couple of things. I’m overseeing a couple of writers on a pilot also. And I have a feature I’m writing for Warner Bros. And I think there’s a couple things pending. I’ve got a lot going on, John. It’s popping.

John: That’s fantastic. And you’ve also promised that if Craig kills me for some reason, you’ll investigate my death and avenge me if it turns out to be Craig. I have your word on air right now?

Malcolm: I’m not that good investigating, but I’m definitely good at avenging, so it gets to that part.

Craig: If you believe him, because maybe I already hired him and he’s just doing his job right now making you think that.

John: Man, Craig Mazin, you’re really, really good.

Malcolm: He’s Russian.

John: So, I’m going to leave you guys to talk through, we have a bunch of questions here that listeners have written in with.

Craig: Did you just call me racist?

Malcolm: No, I called you Russian. But that’s the same thing. That’s absolutely the same thing.

Craig: [laughs]

Malcolm: In Russia, you spell Racist – Russian.

Craig: It’s the same word. It’s like the Eskimos have 50 words for snow and Russians have one word for racist. Russian. All right. Sorry about that, John. We’re having fun over here.

John: Which is really good. So, I’m going to bow out for the bulk of this episode, but I left you a bunch of really nicely organized questions.

Craig: You did. You did.

John: In the outline. So I look forward to hearing your answers to a bunch of these questions. You know what? I got to stay for at least this first one because it has some good vocabulary. So I’m going to stay for this first one, and then I’m going to bail, then let you answer some more questions. This was a question we got from Blake. He says, “Why do so many shows, no matter the network or targeted age group, seem to act as if no sexual acts exist that don’t involve full penetration and the possibility of pregnancy. Basically, where are the hand jobs and blow jobs? There are a number of shows that talk about sex in a fairly frank manner, but they’re almost all judgmental and fearful. And most willingly ignore or underplay sexual activities that are less likely to involve a pregnancy.”

So, Malcolm, you come from a show that was a big Fox show. Were there blow jobs and hand jobs on Empire? I didn’t see. So tell me.

Malcolm: They fuck. I got to think, and there’s a good amount of gay sex.

Craig: But the specific question here is why is it only just fucking. Why in television shows and movies do people not just sit there and watch somebody getting a hand job?

Malcolm: Man, I got to imagine it’s because no one cares about – I mean, grown-ups don’t care about hand jobs.

Craig: I’m so with you on this.

Malcolm: Grown-ups don’t – I mean, you’re not making TV for kids – listen, if there’s a hand job or a blow job and it’s not for kids, and if it’s a grown-up, they want fucking or further.

Craig: Yeah, it just feels like kind of funny to me. Watching somebody get a hand job is funny because it’s so lazy.

John: So, a couple of perspectives I have on this. So, first off, in the Showtime pilot for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she gives the guy a hand job in the pilot. And it becomes a very funny plot point. And I agree it is sort of funny, because she’s trying to interrogate him while giving him a hand job. And they actually play the fact that her hand is on his dick.

My theory is that it’s very hard to hide a penis. Like, if you’re showing sex, then you’re not sort of seeing the penis. But if you’re showing a blow job or a hand job, it’s sort of hard to hide it. And that may be part of the reason why we’re not seeing them so often in television.

Craig: Well, but you can fake it. You could do it in such a way where you weren’t seeing a dick, but the thing is it is funny. It’s just so – and I think that just a natural thing – there’s like a weird narrative short hand. If I see somebody getting a blow job in a movie, I don’t like them. I feel like they’ve done something wrong. And if I see somebody getting a hand job in a movie, I feel like they’re lazy and inattentive.

I don’t know why. Because in real life, of course, blow jobs and hand jobs mean neither of those things. Most of the time I would hope that they’re just mutually happy. I don’t know. Maybe it’s boring to watch?

Malcolm: There was a blow job on Billions last weekend.

Craig: Oh yeah. And how did it come off, so to speak?

Malcolm: Someone was fucking up.

Craig: They were fucking up.

Malcolm: Yeah, the dude was not supposed to be getting a blow job.

Craig: Exactly.

Malcolm: And he was getting one.

Craig: See? There’s like this thing where if you’re getting a blow job in a movie or a television show, you’re a villain. [laughs]

Malcolm: [laughs] Sucking dick is for bad guys.

Craig: No, sucking dick is for good guys. Getting your dick sucked is for bad guys.

Malcolm: So, wait, if it’s two dudes–

Craig: If it’s two dudes, then the guy that’s blowing the other guy is like a good guy who is probably getting taken advantage of or there’s a misunderstanding.

Malcolm: You’re right.

Craig: Something is going wrong. He’s being paid–

Malcolm: That’s so fucking right.

Craig: There’s so many things, right? And the guy getting one is just a bad dude.

Malcolm: It’s true. You just cracked the code. Even as you’re saying it as a joke, it’s fucking true.

Craig: It’s just true. John, do you agree that I’ve cracked the code?

John: I think you may have cracked a trope. I don’t think it’s anything we should aspire to. I think the underlying question here that Blake is writing is in real life people are having sex in ways that are just not depicted on screen. There was an HBO show called Tell Me You Love Me which was sort of notorious for like they had a lot of sex in it and they actually showed penises. And so like Adam Scott was in that show and so he had this fake penis that you saw a lot. And so he would be getting blow jobs and you would see his fake penis getting a blow job. And it was weird just because you’re not used to seeing that part of the body.

Even a show like Girls on HBO, there’s a lot of sex in there, and you see like a lot of anatomy, but you don’t see dicks, really. And it’s a strange thing even in that show where like they talk about everything, but you’re not seeing that specific part of the action.

Craig: You know, I think sometimes we forget that sex, like all human behavior, comes in varying degrees of interesting illustration. I mean, like a lot of people eat lunch by hunching over their desk and shoveling it into their mouth as fast as they can. It’s really weird.

Malcolm: That’s me.

Craig: Like Malcolm. But we don’t really show that in movies and TV, unless we’re trying to make a joke of it. Because even though it’s completely normal and expected, it’s just not – I don’t know, we just don’t like watching it so much.

John: That’s true. I don’t know why. All right. I’m going to jump out for a bit and let you guys answer questions about martial arts, about managers, about parentheticals in dialogue. So, those are all going to be great things. Then I’m going to circle back and come to you when it comes time for One Cool Things and our outros.

Craig: All right. So, now it’s just down to you and me. So let’s answer some questions here. We’re going to blow through as many of these that we can in the time that we have. I’m just going to tee them up and you’re going to answer them as best you can.

Malcolm: OK.

Craig: All right. So we’ve already heard from Blake and we already discussed blow jobs and hand jobs. How could we possibly top that? We can’t. But, we do have something from Alan, South Carolina. And Alan wants to know, “When writing a spec feature or series that would rely heavily on specific types of martial arts, like Kung-Fu, Highlander, Badlands, etc., how can the writer convey this emphasis without assuming the mantle of the fight choreographer or bogging the story down in specific fight details that would likely be ignored anyway?”

Malcolm: It’s a dance. It’s definitely good to flavor a script, especially if you have expertise in it, because I know one of the things – like when I was first coming up as a writer, I used to love reading action scripts where someone had done enough research that like, oh, this dude knows his guns. Or this dude knows the physics of what’s happening to play out here. So, if you can quickly reference why – naming a specific martial art is important to the scene, meaning this, like this form of martial arts specialize in weapons, so this dude is going to be picking up every single thing in the room. Then you ain’t getting bogged down in it, but you understand that a different dynamic is at play and you’re getting a different set piece.

Craig: Yeah. That to me right there is the key. I don’t think I particularly care about where on the body you’re striking somebody unless it’s sort of a signature move or something like that. And I think it’s probably boring to sit and read, you know, “Reverse kick, then rib punch, then…he ducks the leg and then turns around.” It’s really about the character moments, right? Every fight has a choice or two in it. Something that means something dramatically. Getting up off the ground when you think you don’t have enough left in you, but you do anyway. Doing the thing you were taught to do that you weren’t able to do before but now you can.

Whatever it is, those choice points are what matters. Technically speaking, if there’s something like whatever the heart of the particular martial art is, show it. Yeah, makes total sense. You know, if you’re like sword master, do sword stuff. So, early Steven Seagal, like before Steven Seagal went crazy.

Malcolm: Before he got fatter.

Craig: Right. But in the early days, the three word days, where it was like Above the Law, and Out for Justice, and whatever there was. You know, the typical Steven Seagal scene is he would walk into a pool hall full of thugs, and he would beat them all up using the things that were there, like his moves were you can’t punch me because I slap your hands out in the air and then I pick up a pool ball and I hit you with it. And then I pick up a cue stick and I hit you with it. And I use the environment. Those are the important things.

Malcolm: I think like also if you’re facing off with a martial art form you’ve never seen before, then that’s going to evoke a feeling in your lead character. You know what I’m saying? Like oh my god, this dude is using the crane technique. I have no counter for this. And it’s not just about no counter. It’s how it makes me feel. All of a sudden my confidence is bleeding out.

Craig: Character. As always. So, I would say, Alan, the key there is to think about character. If it’s something that is a specific fiddly thing that a fight choreographer can change without impacting the character or the scene, then perhaps it’s not the most important thing to put in the pages. All right, next up, Sasha writes, “Up until–,” oh, you’re going to like this one.

Malcolm: Oh shit.

Craig: You ready? “Up until about three hours ago,” now I don’t know exactly when Sasha was writing this, but let’s just say recently, “up until about three hours ago I was working with an extremely unprofessional and volatile manager. I never signed a contract as I always had a bad feeling about him. Today, after he threatened to assault my writing partner…”

Malcolm: [laughs]

Craig: “…I sent him a very calm email explaining why we should no longer work together. Duh, the dude repeatedly used the phrase, ‘I’m going to punch him in the fucking face.’” That’s the manager to her writing partner. “The manager is now firing off a series of missives demanding commissions on projects that have yet to sell. He wrote, ‘As is customary in our business,’” we’re going to be challenging that in a second, “’if a job or a sale on one of these projects happens in the next 12 months, I am entitled to a commission on it for the life of the deal.’”

Sasha continues, “I’m guessing he’s just peacocking, trying to scare me into submission, but is there any validity to his claim?”

Malcolm: No, but also how the fuck do people meet these kind of people? Like, I think more importantly fuck that manager and he can’t do shit to you. And don’t ever – when you do sell something, you will have a lawyer and then he’ll deal with that manager. So that’s the answer to that.

But I do think like, you know, on the board or whatever, I’ve been hearing more and more stories about writers of various levels, some who are pretty high level, dealing with slightly abusive or reps that take you on. And I think for writers who are coming up, you have to have a sense of destiny or you’re going to – there’s no way – I know a ton of fucking up-and-coming writers who haven’t made it yet who would not be dealing with a manager like that for one fucking minute.

Craig: Yeah.

Malcolm: And that’s because they believe they’re going to make it, and therefore it allows them to actually behave in a way that will get them to a proper manager more quickly, because they ain’t wasting a minute with a motherfucker like that. You can’t.

Craig: It’s pretty crazy, right? Well, let’s talk about the legal stuff for a second. Malcolm is right. What he said here is complete bullshit. In fact, I got to tell you, Sasha, that if your manager has done anything to violate the Talent Agency Act, which would include for instance procuring you work or attempting to procure you work, then not only do you not have to pay him for the rest of your life now that he’s fired, on anything you make, but you could file a grievance against him with the Labor Commissioner of the State of California and actually get him to cough up money that you have paid to him. Which I’m sure he wouldn’t want.

I strongly recommend that if you do not have an attorney now, you get one. And that you have the attorney state to that person in no uncertain terms, “Fuck off. You’re getting nothing.” The rules on how managers work in the State of California, I believe a lawyer once told me that it’s called On the Wheel, Off the Wheel. So, the deal is that unlike agents who earn 10% for the deals they negotiate, and who collect that money even if you fire them the day after they close the deal, they collect the 10%. Because their 10% is based on what they negotiated.

But managers really are service employees. You are paying them while they service you as a manager. They’re on the wheel. When you fire them, they’re off the wheel. They are not, even though they collect commissions, they are not entitled to the money that keeps coming out. The idea is that the commission is simply paying them for the work they’re doing while they are your manager, and not one minute after.

Malcolm: But also, you know what, that dude is threatening to hit people. Call the fucking police. You know, if you got time, make him pay. You know what I’m saying? He shouldn’t be doing that.

Craig: All right. So then let’s talk about this other issue, which is how writers deal with abusive people. And first of all, why? Why are there so many abusive people? Look, I think every business has abusive people. Every business has bullies. But, in Hollywood I think there are certain kinds of predators who understand that artists – and I’m talking about writers, and directors, and actors – come out here because they’re looking for validation. They’re looking for love. And they take advantage of it. And I think it’s in their interest to make us feel afraid. And most importantly, it’s in their interest to make us feel like we need them. And so, you know, it’s an abusive spouse situation when it gets like that.

You actually don’t need any single agent or manager or lawyer. You need an agent. You need a lawyer. Maybe you feel you need a manager. But there is no specific individual one that is going to change your life or make a huge difference. Your work will. Your work got you this manager, your work will get you another manager. If you’re listening, and anybody in your professional life is treating you in any kind of abusive way, get out. And they get nothing. Ooh, that felt good.

All right, let’s move on to Seth. Seth says, “In addition to being a writer, I’m also a voiceover director, and I find that when I write dialogue I lean heavily on the use of ellipses and other punctuation to create specific rhythms and flow. Do you think that’s micromanaging the actor’s potential performance? How much use of punctuation to control the flow of dialogue is reasonable?”

Malcolm: I am just starting to wean myself off that. So, he probably is micromanaging, but it’s also something you learn over time. Like I use less parenthesis than I used to. I like some ellipses though. I do. I do. It really is an effective tool.

Craig: It’s the best.

Malcolm: You know what I’m saying? So, yeah, he’s probably micromanaging a little bit and you will as you write become more and more confident in the fact that your readers, especially if you’re fucking with pros, are going to know – they’ve done this a million times. They know how it shown be flown. You know what I’m saying? And you start to wean yourself off of it. I’m almost done with exclamation points. Not quite. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: Yeah, I use those pretty rarely.

Malcolm: You know who killed me on that?

Craig: McQuarrie?

Malcolm: Yes. Worst thing ever.

Craig: He’s the devil.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Craig: McQuarrie is too obsessive about exclamation points. But you get a couple per episode, you know.

Malcolm: His quote was every time you use an exclamation point it’s an admission of failure. [laughs]

Craig: That’s a little strong. Look, I used ellipses all the time. I use dashes all the time. When I do, I like to take a moment to stop and go, do I need it? It’s always more elegant without. Of course. But I think that Seth’s focus on micromanaging the actor’s potential performance is off the mark. Actors don’t give a damn about any of that stuff. They remember the lines and then they start acting. It’s not like they sit there and go, “Oh god, there’s a dash-dash, I got to respect that.” They don’t. They perform it how they perform it. And the director works with them and it becomes – it’s entirely about the reader. It’s about the reader getting the scene and feeling the pace and feeling a trail-off.

See, the dot-dot-dot at the end of a line isn’t anything an actor is supposed to perform anyway. It’s the way almost every sentence ends. I just did it.

Malcolm: You did.

Craig: Right? Very few sentences end with a period.

Malcolm: Mine do. I make people uncomfortable with that shit.

Craig: OK. Maybe you do. But most people kind of – there’s an invitation to continue the conversation. So I think people worry too much about this stuff. I wouldn’t be too concerned about it. I do think that if a reader is saying I got distracted or thrown off by the mass of punctuation and other stuff, take that seriously because that’s who you’re trying to put a movie inside of. You know? Inception.

Jeff in San Jose, California writes, “In Episode 134…” You remember, Malc, right? Episode 134?

Malcolm: Yeah, I listen to all you guys’ podcasts.

Craig: “Craig takes umbrage with Oscar winners who neglect to thank their writers in their acceptance speeches.” Fact. “To paraphrase Craig, without the screenplay nobody working on a movie can even begin to do their job and all Oscar winners should thank their writer first.” It’s true. “My question is do you have any sense of how many writers who win the Oscar thank the other writers, if any, who worked on the screenplay but did not receive credit?”

Damn, Jeff has got a pretty good – this is a nice shot here.

Malcolm: It’s getting weird.

Craig: But it’s a good shot. I like it. “I don’t recall any Oscar-winning writer actually saying during the ceremony, ‘I’d like to thank Jane Doe for her uncredited writing on my screenplay.’ Then again, perhaps those uncredited writers are among the names rattled off during the winner’s speech.”

All right. So, Jeff is calling us out on the mat a little bit here. You got an opinion on this?

Malcolm: Well, for starters, Jeff’s got to understand 90% of writers think they wrote everything, so they wouldn’t be – in their mind whatever is on there is all them. You know what I’m saying? So, they can’t go through that. On top of that, I would imagine it could get weird legally if you start naming people, like if people ain’t getting credit on a movie, you know what I’m saying?

Craig: I don’t think there’s a legal problem. If you were trying to erase somebody’s name, maybe then, you know, there would be an issue.

Malcolm: OK, well maybe not legal for a lawsuit, but I don’t think that the graciousness of doing that actually would have the effect you think it would be.

Craig: I agree.

Malcolm: Because you’re calling in ghosts and shit who didn’t make it past the threshold of an arbitration that had nothing to do with any of you guys. And you’re giving them credit. You know, that’s weird. You know what I’m saying? But mostly all writers think they wrote everything, so why would they do it?

Craig: I think that’s a huge part of it. I mean, if you have credit on a movie and somebody else did not receive it, then they couldn’t have done that much. And, no, you’re probably thinking to yourself this Oscar belongs to me. I’m the one that got the credit. I did all the work. And maybe that’s true. The other thing is that I’m not sure other writers would necessarily want that. If I worked on a movie for a couple of weeks quietly like that. I suppose if somebody thanked me I would feel really nice about it, but the studios would hate it.

Malcolm: Right.

Craig: The press people would hate it. The people representing the movie would hate it, because all you’re doing now is calling into question the illusion. And it is an illusion that a person did everything. Right? So when directors get up there to – you know, a film by blah-blah-blah, what a joke, right? But that’s movie magic that they’re using to sell stuff. So I think the studios would hate it. That’s probably why I’m guessing.

Malcolm: But mostly it’s because the writer who is up there believes he did it all.

Craig: I think that’s probably the lion’s share of it, too. Greg writes, “What if the first three pages don’t grab you? Are there movies that went on to be successful that due to complexity or weirdness or something else didn’t grab the agent/director/studio/or producer in a compelling way in the first three pages if there was something still that made it worth reading just a little further?”

Malcolm: Yeah. This whole culture that’s happening online and like sometimes a professional writer or a big time producer or director will tell you you got to grab them the first three pages. And that is a good thing to do. And they’re not thinking that they just made that statement that they’re going off to work on a script that deliberately meanders for 20 or 30 pages and then takes off. They don’t even realize that off that statement, a bunch of novice screenwriters are thinking you always have to do this.

And you absolutely don’t. Yes, it’s good to grab someone in the first three pages, but the other thing is usually within three pages you know if a motherfucker can write. That’s really what’s happening.

Craig: Right.

Malcolm: And so that’s the next threshold. And if you can promise that you’re going to go somewhere, then you don’t have to grab someone because you’re promising. You know what I’m saying? You’re saying, hey, in these first three pages it’s very clear that this writer has a handle on what’s going on and is leading me somewhere and wants me to be kind of a little bit mundane or whatever. You know?

Craig: I could not agree more. In fact, I think the problem is what people think the word “grab” means. I think they think it means everything has to explode on page one, and then on page two the planet collides into another planet, and on page three you find out that your dad is really your mother. That’s just plot. I am not grabbed by that ever. I’m grabbed by that intangible thing.

I can read three pages where nobody says a word and nothing is happening and yet while I’m reading it I think I’m in the hands of somebody. They’re doing something. I’m fascinated by this. I want to keep – I’m grabbed.

So, that’s the problem. When they hear the first three pages got to grab you, they think, oh my god, let’s just get out the clowns juggling, the chainsaws, and people on fire and all. No. No, no. It means just write something that makes me want to keep reading. That’s it. And usually, at least for me, the thing that makes me want to keep reading is it’s good. I can’t define it any better than that.

Malcolm: Right.

Craig: It’s good. There are plenty of movies where, I mean, god, can you imagine sitting down and reading the first three pages of Unforgiven, which is one of the best screenplays ever written. And I’m pretty sure it starts with a guy just feeding pigs while his kids watch, and then he can’t get on a horse. And he’s old and he’s tired. And there’s a grave there. Right? Zzzz.

Except it’s written so beautifully. And you wouldn’t know from the first few pages what’s coming.

All right, let’s get to our next question. Heather from Agora Hills wonders, “If I have a specific scene from an old movie that I would like to play alongside the end credits, how do I write it? Do I put it in before Fade Out and before The End, or in between those two? The only examples I’ve been able to find simply state Roll or Over Credits, then whatever it is the writer wants to show. They didn’t write Fade Out or The End at all.”

This feels like a question we can just solve right here permanently. This feels like it has an answer.

Malcolm: Give it.

Craig: My answer is you get to the end of the movie, you want to do stuff over credits, you can say Fade Out if you want to Fade Out, or Cut to Black, and then you write Roll Credits, and then you describe whatever the hell you want. And then instead of saying the end just write End Credits. And you’re done.

Malcolm: Yes.

Craig: All right. We’ve answered that. Heather, that’s the answer. That’s literally the answer. Damon writes, “I’m currently working on a sci-fi spec and I’m getting into some complicated storytelling territory. It’s not a time travel movie, but I can compare it to that kind of created world with lots of moving parts, difficult to understand science, and multiple timelines. Some of these elements won’t show up in the film, but I need to understand them to make sure I have all of my bases covered in the final story. Do you have any suggestions or tools for keeping complicated details in order as you figure out how the story will play out?”

Malcolm, any suggestions for Damon?

Malcolm: I will say that in general being complicated and messy is probably my biggest weakness as a writer. And I advise people to bat that shit down and get it to where you can express it verbally very, very cleanly.

I saw a movie, I’m going to go ahead and name the filmmaker. There are films in which when you start doing world-building if your rules aren’t neat and tidy, you have to constantly keep resetting the rules and explaining a new rule. Right?

Craig: Yeah.

Malcolm: And that can become exhausting.

Craig: It is. Well, it’s exhausting because you feel like all they’re doing is constantly moving the goal posts. Why should I believe anything you’re telling me when ten minutes later you’re going to say, oh, but only if blah-blah-blah?

Malcolm: Yep. And M. Night did it in that movie there’s a pool in it. You couldn’t see the people.

Craig: Lady in the Water.

Malcolm: Yeah. And it’s like, so, rules and world-building really need to be reduced to what is active and matters, because honestly one of the things I learned about sci-fi writing in general – you may know this already – but this was a revelation to me. In general, when you pick – like let’s say you’re writing something that’s set in the future or whatever, right, where there is some sci-fi dynamic. Usually there is one thing that is different about the world than that is kind of the main thing you’re exploring.

So, if you look at Minority Report, it is this is how crime is solved in the future. And yeah, they’ve got flying cars and shit, but that’s the main thing, and that’s what you keep coming back to. And when you’re just doing a world in general, which I’ve seen, I have a buddy who has a history, he does this a lot, right? And it’s not one thing you’re investigating. It just becomes a sprawling mass – it’s like a comic book.

Craig: Well, it’s a comic book or maybe it’s, you know, a very involved miniseries. But, yeah, I mean, if you look at Star Wars, other than the space ships and things, what’s the thing, the force. That’s the thing.

Malcolm: Inception you’re entering the brain. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: Exactly. So, I would say tools-wise, Damon, I’m not sure what to recommend here. I know a lot of people like this program, Scrivener, because it apparently lets you organize all sorts of things and then tag them back and forth together and connect them to a screenplay. I’ve never used it. My main tool is a corkboard. Corkboard and index cards.

Malcolm: So unsexy.

Craig: Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s like you get the work done by getting the work done. So, you write everything down, you put it up on the board. Things that are related, you connect them together. And what ends up happening over time is you just know it. You just know your world. You know what’s going on, especially because you’re inventing it. But the complicated things and the feedback, I know that Rian Johnson when he was writing Looper was really careful about that. And he had very carefully worked out diagrams so he understood. So anybody asked him a question, he has an answer for it. So, I think maybe the tool is your brain and the suggestion is work hard, which you’re going to have to because it does sound kind of complicated.

We’ll do one more. What do you say, one more?

Malcolm: Yeah.

Craig: We’ll done one more.

Malcolm: One more.

Craig: Lucas, he’s going to give us our last one of the day. Lucas writes, “I just finished a revision on a screenplay and here’s the thing. The screenplay has no dialogue. It’s something like the first half hour of There Will Be Blood.” Love that movie.

Malcolm: All-timer.

Craig: All-timer. “Do you have any advice or experience on restricting yourselves this way? Do you have any specific things you do when trying to tell the story visually? Any general advice on telling a story like this?”

There’s a couple of things, I mean, WALL-E comes to mind, that very long extended no dialogue section. And our forefathers who started screenwriting, they didn’t have dialogue, right? They weren’t talkies. So they had to write almost everything like that and then just little cards of dialogue.

When you’re writing extended sequences with no dialogue, are there some tricks? Some tips?

Malcolm: Be efficient. You know what I’m saying? Because you’re asking a lot. And that will actually probably help you clarify whatever the purpose is in any given scene. And I think personally, I don’t know, this still feels like something that would drive some screenwriters crazy. I think it’s OK to cheat. I’m not someone who believes in never do anything that you can’t film or whatever, especially if you’re doing something like this. You might have to write a sentence that lets the audience know what they need to be expecting moving forward through this scene. You know what I’m saying? Like in this scene Tom is about to confront his inner most fear. Because you ain’t got no dialogue. You know what I’m saying?

In this scene Tom is going to – like you can cheat like that, I think. Especially in a situation like this.

Craig: I agree, but I’d do a little differently, and I don’t think it’s cheating at all, in that what I think is if there’s not going to be dialogue, but I want the audience to understand what the character is thinking, then I am OK with writing their dialogue in italics in action. So, they look at something and it’s like we’re reading their minds kind of. But we know it’s not going to be spoken. But I get it. I know that an actor can perform that face.

Malcolm: Right.

Craig: And I know that that face is something the audience can perceive. So to me, that’s all right. That’s completely all right. The cheating that drives me the craziest is when people introduce characters and tell us about their life story when all I’m doing is looking at them sitting at a bar and nothing else, so that’s cheating. But this is different, right?

So, if you have a character, he turns the corner, and he sees a man holding a gun to his brother’s head. And so let’s say our character here is Charlie. Charlie stops, stares. And then I might put in parenthesis, (Please don’t, please). He can act that. Charlie can act that. So, I try and think a lot about that, because it can become very technical and it can get boring, I think, for people reading.

You know, when people read scripts, I think a lot of them just read the dialogue.

Malcolm: Damn right.

Craig: And so I perversely then spend so much time thinking about the not dialogue, because I want them to read it. So I try and make the not dialogue entertaining, and interesting, and fun, because if they’re not reading it, then they’re just getting the dialogue and they’re not seeing the movie.

You know, I think we’ll hold back a couple of these other questions for next time. I think we got a good show in.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Craig: You know, they don’t all have to be two hours long.

Malcolm: Nah, they don’t, Craig.

Craig: No. They don’t.

Malcolm: It’s OK.

Craig: Yeah. Like if you and I did this show together, let’s say we killed John.

Malcolm: Uh-huh.

Craig: Keep talking.

Malcolm: No, I understand exactly what you’re saying.

Craig: I think the show would be – it would run 45 minutes, right? That’s not the end of the world.

Malcolm: It would run hot, too, though.

Craig: It would run hot. See, that’s the thing. The 45 minutes would be fiery.

Malcolm: Right.

Craig: Fiery. People would talk.

Malcolm: Right. There’d be occasional falling outs between us in the show.

Craig: Yeah, and when we say occasional we mean every single episode something would go wrong. Well, with that being our last question, I think we should probably go to One Cool Things.

All right, so let’s bring John back to wrap our show up now that we’ve answered those questions expertly. Mr. August?

John: Pleasure to be back. My One Cool Thing this week is Patrick Lenton’s story of the Dog in Skyrim. So, this is actually a Twitter thread he did a year ago, and someone put it back up in Twitter this last week. And I just remember how much I loved it. So, it’s this guy who’s playing Skyrim and he basically tells this long story of how in Skyrim he’s sort of adopted this dog. And the dog was just an incredible drain on his life, because he was always so worried about the dog dying that he had to sort of do all these things to try to keep the dog alive. And to like build a house where he could have a family and have an orphan who could adopt the dog so the dog wouldn’t be killed.

And it just reminded me so much of playing Skyrim, but also it felt very much like how life actually is, is that you end up becoming attached to this one thing and then you sort of focus all of your energy on saving this one thing, even if it’s not your real goal. So you end up not fighting dragons. You end up sort of worrying about mining ore and saving this virtual dog who you don’t really care about, but you just don’t want to see die. So, that was a great recap of the experience of trying to save a dog in Skyrim but also sort of go through your life.

Craig: Yeah. I play Skyrim, of course, and I play every Bethesda game. Fallout 4. And one of the first things I do when I play those games is I just make a choice. No companions. Don’t want them. Don’t want them near me. Don’t want to care about them. Don’t want to bring them with me. I got that dog in Fallout and I immediately sent it home. Just stay at home.

Malcolm: That’s fucked.

Craig: Everybody that was like can I walk around with you, no you can’t. Yes you can until I get the quest that that unlocks, and then I’m sending you home. [laughs]

Malcolm: That is awful.

John: So, I’m playing Skyrim right now, so I’m playing the up-res version of it and really enjoying it. So, I do have like one companion I go through and I did kill my first companion and I felt just horrible about it. This guy who I am playing with now seems really sturdy, but I’m not going to be upset if he dies. But I’m definitely not adopting any orphans. I don’t care about my little house and breeze home. I’m trying not to play that. I’m actually just playing the quest.

Craig: Yeah, of course. I can’t remember, I know in Fallout 4 you can fall in love and sleep with your companions, but I don’t think you can do that in Skyrim.

John: You sort of can. There are companions that you can marry and companions you can’t marry, but I married the first time and I completely lost interest in the game once I got married.

Craig: Just like life.

Malcolm: Just like life.

Craig: Just drains the color out of everything, doesn’t it? It’s amazing.

John: [laughs] Why are there no blow jobs in Skyrim? That’s the real question.

Craig: Why are there no blow jobs? I almost had the first gay sex of my life in Fallout 4. Almost. I came close.

Malcolm: And you ended up having it in real life. You were like, fuck it, didn’t happen in Fallout 4, so I decided to in real life.

Craig: Yeah, I was like, exactly, like that guy turned me down, so I got to get Grindr. No, I came close. I came close. But what can I say? I got to be me. I ended up sleeping with the newspaper editor lady. I don’t know. She had a way about her. But I got close. I got close, John. I’m getting there.

John: Cool.

Craig: Give me time. All right, my One Cool Thing is a super short One Cool Thing, but it’s also videogame based. Every year San Diego Studios puts out MLB The Show for the Sony PlayStation platform. And this year they are up to MLB The Show 17. MLB The Show series is fascinating because of the weird way that licensing worked for a long time with Major League Baseball. They had given their exclusive rights to I think Electronic Arts and the only way that you could get the rights to baseball player’s names and likenesses is if you made a game for your specific platform, but you couldn’t cross platform games.

So, the Electronic Arts game was not very good, but MLB The Show is spectacular and it’s just getting better and better. And the reason that it’s my One Cool Thing this year is because this version of the game does this – there was something that was making me crazy about this game for so long, but I understood it was hard. Baseballs have stitches on them. That’s why you can throw curveballs and sliders. You can make them do things. But similarly when you hit a baseball really hard, it will not travel in a straight line. It will curve. It will bend. Sometimes it almost seems like it takes off in the air mid-air because of top spin and air pressure. All this stuff.

And, of course, in videogames it’s hard to do. Well, this year they nailed it. It just looks so good. When you hit a baseball coming off the bat it just bends and it drops and it hangs. It does all the things that baseballs do. So, I love that. Love this game. If you’re a baseball fan, like I am, and the season has begun, MLB The Show 17 for Sony PlayStation 4. Highly recommend.

Malcolm, do you have a One Cool Thing?

Malcolm: I do. I thought of it. My One Cool Thing is Fantastic Negrito is opening up–

John: I knew it.

Malcolm: He’s opening up for an artist named Sturgill Simpson. And it’s a big deal to us. We wanted to get on tour with him for a while. When you bring up other musicians, it’s very hard to find people who, for Negrito anyway, are like, oh yeah, I’ve been watching that guy. You know what I’m saying? I’m into his shit. And what Sturgill represents, and the fact that Negrito already knew about him, and that we tried to get on his tour before, it’s a big deal for us because it represents something. Like it’s not about this is an established artist so much as this feels like a connection in the trajectory of this dude’s career that is meaningful. Like I said, it represents something. So, that’s a cool thing. He’s opening up for Sturgill all over the country.

Craig: Well, pretty much everything this guy is doing is working these days. So, I have to assume that’s going to work, too.

John: That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced, as always, by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Jeff Bayson. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones Craig and Malcolm tackled today. For short questions, though, I’m on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Malcom is @malcolmspellman.

Malcolm: Yep.

John: We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes podcast. You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there leave us a comment or a review. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts.

And you can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net. You can listen to them through the apps you can find on your applicable app store.

So, Malcolm, thank you so much for being on the show this week. You were fantastic as always.

Malcolm: Thank you for having me this week.

John: And Craig and I will be back next week. Hopefully my microphone will be back and I can join for an entire episode. But until then, have a great week.

Craig: Thanks John.

John: Thanks guys. Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 294: Getting the Details Wrong — Transcript

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 14:48

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 294 of Scriptnotes. A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. And, Craig, there’s exciting news. So, we had talked about a live show with Rian Johnson. It got postponed but it’s now back on the calendar.

Craig: It’s back on the calendar. Right now I believe we are looking at May 1. I think it’s going to be at the ArcLight in Hollywood and Rian will be there as will Rob McElhenney, the creator and star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, an excellent show and an excellent guy. Dana Fox will be filling in, playing the role of John August. So, between Dana, and Rian, and Rob, we’ve got quite a lineup. Rian, of course, has directed a small film which will be coming out in December. And tickets, not yet on sale, but maybe. So we’ll have a link once we get them.

John: Yeah. We’re not going to string you along with promises of a live show and never deliver. We will eventually have this live show. I will be seething with jealousy that you guys get to be in a room together and I will not be. And the ArcLight feels like a great home for it. We’ve talked about the ArcLight as a venue before. We’re often across the street at the LA Film School, but actual ArcLight seems great.

When you have Rian Johnson there, please recall the anecdote of Rian Johnson when he was doing Looper, he actually came into an audience screening of Looper and he had dressed up as an ArcLight employee and did the standard greetings and welcome. And like, you know, turn off your cell phones. And did that for a screening of his own movie, which I thought was just delightful and very Rian Johnson.

Craig: Did he let anyone know that he was Rian Johnson?

John: Apparently he got recognized a ways into his spiel.

Craig: Damn.

John: That’s just great.

Craig: That is pretty great.

John: So I would love to do that at some point.

Craig: All right.

John: Today on the podcast, we’ll be discussing chess, bad news, baseball, god, and screenwriting competitions. It’s a hodgepodge episode, Craig.

Craig: Really? Because to me those always get discussed together.

John: What’s weird is a lot of the things do go together, like bad news and baseball obviously is great. Baseball and god, I can see there’s–

Craig: Totally.

John: Like Aaron Sorkin would talk about the connections between these different ideas, but it’s just a lot of things.

Craig: Aaron Sorkin was in the news recently.

John: He was in the news recently. What was he talking about? Oh, he was talking – yeah. I felt kind of bad for Aaron Sorkin.

Craig: I did, too. I did, too.

John: I saw it as a Twitter storm outrage, but it felt like he was quoted a little bit out of context. Like he sort of sarcastically answered back to a question and then probably said something more, but we saw his little snippet of it and it sounded like he had no idea what was going on.

Craig: Well, I’m not sure it was sarcastic. So, for those of you who are wondering what the hell we’re talking about, the Writers Guild Foundation had their annual festival. I participated in it, in fact, with Derek Haas. We had a very nice discussion with some folks. One of the main acts, as it were, was a discussion with Aaron Sorkin. And during it the topic of diversity and underrepresentation of minority writers of all sorts of types in Hollywood came up. And he seemingly was shocked that – I think what he was shocked about specifically was the idea that white male, or white straight male directors for instance, are perceived as getting free passes or opportunities that perhaps they haven’t quite earned, whereas other writers who aren’t that norm, so to speak, would not. And he seemed flabbergasted by this.

And said, “Well, OK, now that I know, what can I do to help?” And there was some outrage of the sort of, “Really? That’s classic white privilege for you to not know this.” And, you know, so I was actually talking with one of the organizers of the festival about it afterwards and he said, “You know, in the room his comments were received quite well overall and that people were actually quite heartened by his concern and his desire to do what he could do about that.”

When you just take it as an isolated comment and you put it on Twitter, it does sound oblivious. And I – the truth is it is oblivious, but oblivion is certainly not as bad as awareness and lack of care. It’s a weird time we live in where people maybe are late to understand that there’s a certain kind of injustice, express a dissatisfaction with that injustice, and express a desire to do what they can to correct that injustice. And that is seen as a failure.

John: Yeah. I can definitely sympathize with the it felt one way in the room and it felt a very different way when looking at a transcript, because we make a podcast that has transcripts and every once in a while something will come up that will become an outrage because of what was in the transcripts, which never was an outrage when we were actually speaking it. And so when I saw those comments out of context, I assumed it was just the snippets around things rather than the actual meat there. I do share your frustration that sometimes we become outraged by the person who is trying to be an ally but sort of bumbles it a little bit, rather than the person who is actually trying to do harm.

That’s the nature of the world that we’re in.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, I’m not suggesting that we give people extra credit for ham-fisted or late-to-the-party attempts to be good people. I don’t think people deserve credit for that. Frankly, I don’t think you should get credit for doing what you’re supposed to do anyway. I just don’t think they should be torn down. And certainly, look, I had a crazy experience as you may recall a few years ago when we did a live podcast and sort of the same deal. In the room there was absolutely no problem whatsoever. Not one comment was made at all. It was only afterward, when somebody pulled it out of a transcript, somebody who had not been there, that it took on a life of its own.

So, you know, these things do happen. So, I did feel somewhat bad for him. I didn’t think that he quite deserved the grief. I don’t think he deserves credit, but I don’t think he deserves grief. Well, see, that was an unplanned topic.

John: It was an unplanned topic, but you know what, I think it actually ties in very well to our planned topics, because I think it raises the issue of benefit of the doubt. And I think many of the things we’re talking about tonight really do speak to benefit of the doubt and whether giving benefit of the doubt could make some of these things that seem outrageous a little bit more understandable.

Craig: Can I give you a compliment? I want to give you a compliment. I think that one of the essential aspects of intelligence is the ability to find connections that are not necessarily obvious in things that would otherwise be viewed as disparate. That is an overlooked aspect of intelligence. And you are absolutely right and that was very, very smart.

John: Oh, great. So–

Craig: You’re smart.

John: Thank you. Let’s see if it bears fruit in the actual discussion.

Craig: Yes, so now don’t be stupid.

John: The follow up. Let’s start with a really simple, simple question. This was raised on Twitter a week or two ago. And you and I both tried to deal with it on Twitter, but let’s talk it out here. A question that came from Matt Schlicter who says, “Does an atheist/agnostic capitalize the G in god in a script? I.e. when a character says, ‘Thank god.’”

So, you and I answered this question in different ways. So, Craig, talk about your answer. I’ll talk about my answer. And see if we can come to a common ground.

Craig: Yes. So I am an atheist. Generally speaking, I do not capitalize the word “god” unless I am referring to god in the specific religious sense. So, if I have somebody say, “Oh my god, or oh god, or goddammit,” or any of those things–

John: Or god bless.

Craig: Or god bless. I don’t capitalize the G. If I have somebody saying something like, “Do you believe in God? Or when I pray to God,” then I would capitalize because that person is – I presume that character is religious and believes in God and is also speaking specifically to God.

John: Yes. So, I generally do capitalize, and so I would do it in Thank God and other things, but I’m not sure I’m entirely consistent. So I could do some sort of grep search through all of my old files and see whether I’m capitalizing that G or not.

Craig: Grep search. Nerd.

John: Yeah. Nerd.

Craig: UNIX.

John: But I have not actually done that kind of search. But in general I do capitalize it. My rationale for it is that God is sort of a character. Like I would capitalize Zeus. And so therefore I’m capitalizing God. And that I generally think of God as being the God of Abraham. And so I’m referring to a specific character and therefore I would refer that character, the capital name.

That’s not entirely reasonable. And I think your distinction between like would the character saying that word capitalize it or not is a reasonable thing to do. It’s just sort of a choice to not capitalize it, so I’m sort of not making that choice. And it’s just simpler for me to capitalize it in most cases.

Craig: I don’t think it really matters, unless you’re submitting a script to a faith-based producer.

John: Then you should capitalize Thank God.

Craig: Probably capitalize it and also take out the abortion stuff, and your gay characters, and your Jews.

John: There are faith-based producers who are happy with the gays.

Craig: Really?

John: Yeah. I’m sure there are.

Craig: Wait a second. You went from “there are” to “I’m sure there are.”

John: Indeed. I’m gradually backtracking down there. But I have certainty that there is some faith-based producer who would be offended by a lower case G but not be offended by Gays in the script.

Craig: Yeah. You know what? You’re probably right.

John: Mark Burnett. Mark Burnett is a religious person. But I also think he’s probably not an anti-gay person. Guessing.

Craig: Hopefully not. But yeah, I think that generally speaking it doesn’t really matter one way or another. It would be glaring to me if I saw the lower case G and it was a priest and he was saying, “You need to come to God to understand God,” and that was all lower case. I would just think was this person’s shift key broken? But, if I see someone say, “Oh my god,” and it’s – frankly I find the capital G in oh my God to be too religious. It’s weird. Because in my mind when people say that they’re not talking about actual God. It’s simply a phrase. So it’s personal choice.

John: It is personal choice. I would also say like in the words like goddammit, like that feels really weird to sort of capitalize the G in that, so I’m probably not consistent at all in my things. It’s just when it’s the single word by itself I tend to capitalize it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Let’s get to less controversial topics. This is an email that came in from Jason Kessler, a listener. He says that, “Every once and a while the topic of screenwriting contests comes up and whether or not they’re useful. I thought it might be helpful to share my experience with you.”

Craig: I’m sure this is going to go great. I’m sure he’s had a wonderful experience and nothing went wrong.

John: OK. “The Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest has 13 different categories—“

Craig: And we’re off.

John: “The Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest…” – sirens are going off right now.

Craig: I mean, red flags on top of sirens. Yeah. Yikes.

John: Let’s pause here, because Beverly Hills and moviemaking really don’t have a lot to do with each other. I mean, it’s like while the talent agencies are in Beverly Hills, I guess, it’s not like, you know, oh, let’s go to Beverly Hills and make movies. No, you go to Beverly Hills to see tourists buy expensive jewelry.

Craig: No, for sure. First of all, CAA isn’t even in Beverly Hills anymore. And second of all, Beverly Hills isn’t even Beverly Hills. Because that’s just like back from 90210 days where everyone was like, Ooh-ah, Beverly Hills. Yeah, Beverly Hills is fine and everything, but most of Beverly Hills is just, you know, it’s the flats. It’s a bunch of houses and stuff. The Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest just screams of fakeness.

John: It does. So, this contest though has “13 different categories, each with a gold, silver, and bronze winner. And then one overall grand prize winner. The website advertises the competition as having “over $20,000 in prizes and awards.” So Jason writes, “My Silicon Valley spec script was the gold winner of the TV Existing Series competition this year.” So, congratulations to Jason.

Craig: Well done.

John: Because you wrote a good episode of Silicon Valley, which is a fantastic show. So, hooray for him. “As a winner, I was informed that my one and only prize for winning the gold in the category was a coupon code for a free copy of the Scrivener Screenwriting Software…”

Craig: [laughs]

John: “…that is hardly worth more than the entry fee to the contest.”

Craig: What was the entry fee to the contest, by the way? Do we know?

John: $30.

Craig: Oh my god.

John: “So unless the grand prize winner got a check for $20,000, I find their claim of over $20,000 in prizes and awards to be very questionable.”

So, if I were Jason I would be a little bit frustrated that, you know, I won the gold and I’m getting a coupon code.

Craig: Well, yeah. I mean, this is the worst lottery of all time. This is right up there with buying scratchers. You enter a contest for $30, you pay them $30, and if you are one of the top winners, right, because there’s 13 different categories, each has one gold winner. So, if you are one of the 13 best, I’m excluding the grand prize winner which I doubt did get $20,000, you get something that’s worth $20 more than you paid in? This is the worst.

John: So, fortunately Jason is not just the kind of person who writes into us. He actually wrote to the competition people themselves to sort of ask a question and complain.

Craig: Atta boy.

John: So, this is the first update we got. So, Godwin, our producer, has been on the email chain with him quite a lot. So we have some follow up here.

So he says, “I pointed out to them that their website says the gold winners will receive a copy of Imagination Pro 4 software and they asked for my mailing address and said they would send it to me.” So, Imagination Pro 4, I kind of–

Craig: What is that?

John: I kind of recognize this. I think it’s basically like brain-mapping software.

Craig: Oh Christ.

John: It’s outlining kind of stuff. I don’t know anybody who uses it.

Craig: No.

John: It’s a useless software that exists.

Craig: Useless.

John: He says though that, “Now if you check the same webpage about the prizes, they’ve edited to remove that part of the Imagination Pro 4 software,” so he’s guessing that they won’t be sending it to the other gold winners.

Craig: [laughs] Because he got their one copy? By the way, I love a contest where you win something, then you write to them and you’re like, hey, I didn’t get all the stuff I was supposed to win, and they’re like, “Oh, OK, would you like it?”

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah. I guess I would like it. OK. Well, no one else gets it anymore. What the hell?

John: There’s more. “So the contest wrote to me last night and offered to send me the cash value of the Imagination Pro Software instead of the actual software if that’s what I prefer. I said yes, even though I don’t know what the software is and can’t really find it online to check out what the retail value should be. They said they’d send the cash via PayPal. The whole thing is pretty weird.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: So yeah. I’d say that’s pretty weird.

Craig: It’s pretty weird.

John: PayPal. I mean, it’s potentially money.

Craig: Right. No, so they have gone through the rigorous process required to achieve a PayPal account. So, good on you, Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest.

John: Well, I’m sure they had the PayPal account because they had to take the $30 entry fee.

Craig: That’s right. There you go. So out of their massive pool of cash that they’ve suckered out of people, they said, “Oh you know, we actually,” I feel like they were like, “We don’t actually have any Imagination Pro copies here. And we got to go buy one and then we got to send it to this guy. Can we just give him the money instead? It will be faster.”

John: It will be faster.

Craig: And I love that he was like, “I can’t even find this software online for sale to see what it costs.” [laughs] This is amazing. By the way, also, can I just say the worst title of software in history is Imagination Pro 4. What about Imagination is Pro 4 Software supposed to do for me? How is software supposed to enhance my imagination? Oh my god, I want to kick this contest in the nards.

John: Well, I mean, it’s a big step up from Imagination Pro 3. Because that was–

Craig: That actually made your imagination worse?

John: Yeah. It was soul-crippling.

Craig: It took your imagination away. It made life gray.

John: [laughs] Indeed. It was like the Dementors from Harry Potter just like flew in and sort of sucked your soul out a little bit.

Craig: [laughs] Oh my god. And that’s for the Pro version.

John: It was a bug really, but they fixed it. They mostly fixed it.

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

John: It’s much better. So finally there is some resolution here. So often just like we’re going to kick this around and never know what happens, here’s actually what happened. Jason finishes up that, “All in all I ended up with $200 cash, a free copy of Scrivener Software, and the ability to tell my friends and network that I won a screenplay contest, all for an entry fee of $20. So I definitely made out ahead in the end.”

OK.

Craig: Yeah. He won. I mean, it’s kind of crazy that you’re like, “OK, after winning, and a bunch of communication, I did actually do better than what it cost me to enter.” I mean, that’s – that shouldn’t really be a struggle, right?

John: Obviously there was a lot of follow up here. “My takeaway advice to all screenwriters when it comes to choosing contests, rule out any contest that doesn’t explicitly state what the exact prizes are for each winner. And be aware that a claim of X dollars in prizes does not mean cash. It might mean free software or ambiguous ‘promotion’ to their network and [industry meanings] they can assign and inflate a dollar value when making the claim about the overall value of prizes.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yes. He says, “I didn’t get any inquiries from managers or producers. But I can also confirm that in the end they did send me $200 cash and it cleared my account. So my final call on them is if they continue to make ambiguous $20,000 claim in prizes without specifying exactly what prizes go to each winner, then I would recommend avoiding this contest.”

Craig: Uh…

John: He’s under-learned the lesson here.

Craig: Yeah. He’s the most patient, accepting person I’ve ever met in my life. I would go bananas at this point. So first of all, let’s expand our definition of the contests that we should avoid. It is not merely the ones that claim absurd inflated amounts of prizes that include self-assigned values to ambiguous nonsense. How about just about all of them? Just about all of them are worthless. When you win the gold prize in a screenplay contest and zero people in the business seem to be interested, and the contest has failed to deliver any real actionable result to you, then it is worthless. You don’t need Scrivener, by the way. I don’t use Scrivener. You certainly don’t need Imagination Pro 4. And this is a bad way of turning $30 into $200.

Generally speaking you won’t – you meaning collectively you – will not be the gold prize winner. Just avoid these things.

John: Yeah. So let’s take a step back and look at screenplay competitions overall, because we’ve talked about them in previous shows. Our basic advice is that the Nicholl Fellowship, if you win the Nicholl Fellowship, you are a finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship, that’s awesome. That’s aces. That is really a thing that matters, because people will actually notice that and say like, oh, I will read your script. That is a fantastic thing.

Craig: Right.

John: To some degree, Austin can be helpful or not helpful. There’s really a mixture of opinions on sort of what degree Austin is going to help your career. But don’t try to go to Austin saying like, “I’m going to win a prize.” Winning a prize, like a cash value prize, that shouldn’t be the point. Your point should be to start a career. And so whether you got a $200 piece of software or $200 thing from PayPal, you don’t want $200. You want a career. And so if you’re entering a competition with the hopes of getting your career going, enter one of the ones that could actually have an impact on your career. Because the Beverly Hills Screenplay Competition or any of these other ones with like $20,000 in prizes – that’s not going to start your career.

Craig: Not at all. And while it may be tempting to think that if you’ve completed a screenplay there’s some upside to monetizing it through contests, this is not a very good money-making scheme. Each one of these places charges a submission fee. You’re not going to win most of them. And so this is a bad way of making money. It’s also not a lot of money to begin with.

John: Nope.

Craig: Beyond that, I question why these exist. I understand why the Nicholl exists. It is run – managed and run by – the Motion Picture Academy. The people that–

John: The Oscar folks.

Craig: The Oscar folks. Right? That’s quite legitimate. And everybody certainly pays attention to what they have to say. Many of the people in our business who are important and successful are members of the Academy, including. But not me. [laughs] That will never happen.

John: One day, Craig.

Craig: I don’t think so. But that aside, why are these people running a contest? They can’t seem to deliver anything in terms of industry contacts. They can’t seem to deliver even what they promise in terms of “prizes.” So what are they in it for? And at that point I think a reasonable question is are they in it for the money? Is this a for-profit contest? If it’s not for profit, is part of the expense of their not-for-profit paying salaries to the people that run it? I don’t understand why this exists. And I would not participate in it.

John: Let’s circle back to our umbrella theme for today. Benefit of the doubt. So, if we want to give the Beverly Hills Screenplay Competition benefit of the doubt, I could imagine a scenario in which they incorporated with the idea of let’s be a screenwriting competition that makes a difference, that helps young writers, that exposes writers to new talent. Maybe they actually had a relationship with one or two managers and they think like, oh, this is a thing we can do and we will charge a minimal fee of $30 to pay readers because you’ve got to pay readers, because you’re going to get a bunch of stuff being sent in. So it could have been done with the best of intentions, but the best of intentions does not lead to a good outcome in this scenario.

So, I don’t want to ascribe any negative necessarily motivations behind the people of this competition, but I don’t think it is serving screenwriters well to exist.

Craig: No. I don’t either. And I’m looking at their website and I don’t see anything that states that they are non-profit or not-for-profit. I don’t even see anything explaining who runs it. There’s not a lot of transparency here. It appears to me that it is a scheme. It’s a promotional scheme where they collect fees and they offset their costs through sponsorships. And the fees go in their pockets, I guess. I don’t – I could be wrong. But I don’t see anything that indicates otherwise.

John: Yeah. The two sponsors listed are Sellingyourscreenplay.com. Hmm.

Craig: Hmm.

John: And Scrivener. And Scrivener did provide the coupon codes for this, so I don’t know, but I’m not seeing a lot of excitement there. Also their logo sort of looks like a red Christmas tree.

Craig: Oh my god, their logo! First of all, they have two things going on on their page. They have the worst logo in history. And then underneath their big banner it says, “Over $20,000 in prizes and awards,” which somebody possibly could class action lawsuit, “Introductions to producers, develop execs, and agents,” or not. “Exclusive benefits from leading industry partners,” which I presume includes the before-mentioned Imagination Pro 4. “Script analysis from professional judges.” Fine. And then in the middle of that, you know the double laurel thing that you see that all film festivals have?

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Oh, I won, you know, Cannes, the double laurel. Well, they have the double laurel and in between it it says, “Win.” Win. [laughs] So if you want, let’s say you submitted your script and the movie got made and it went to Cannes and it won the Palme d’Or. Then on the poster it could say that, you know, with the Palme d’Or double laurel. And next to it it could also say, “Win.”

John: Win.

Craig: Win. This is the dumbest. I don’t like it and they should be ashamed.

John: I think that’s fair. Even with benefit of the doubt, I think we’re not going to encourage anyone to enter the Beverly Hills Screenplay Competition or really any kind of screenplay competition.

Let’s move on to one of our bigger topics, which general category of getting things wrong. So on a previous episode we talked about the importance of trying to do the research to make sure you were doing things properly in a medical show, or with the law. We pointed out our frustrations when writers and filmed entertainment falls back on tropes that are not even accurate. And so we were encouraging people to do the research to get things right.

Robert Lee writes, “I’m currently writing a script in which chess plays a major role. A lot of drama and conflict will come from the game itself. Would it be suitable or possible to put diagrams of the chess moves into the script?” I will answer for both of us. The answer is no.

Craig: [laughs]

John: Putting diagrams into your script in general is not going to make sense. Craig, I think, in previous times has said it would be great to include a picture for something to show what something is going to be like. But in general, no. And I think the chess diagram will just annoy people. And the third time I see a chess diagram, I am throwing the script across the room if it’s a printed script. But I don’t really print anything anymore, so I would probably close the PDF reader on my iPad and play some Heart Stone if I saw another chess diagram.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, even in a world in which script software and the industry together have evolved to a place where people want to see visuals and imagery in screenplays, you still wouldn’t put diagrams of chess moves into a script for one simple reason: people that don’t play chess have no idea what the hell they mean. It doesn’t mean a damn thing. 99% of the people reading your screenplay, Robert, will not be chess experts. They won’t even be chess dilettantes. They will not know how to read the diagram. And even if they do know how to read it, like I’m terrible at chess. I know what chess diagrams are and I know roughly what they mean. I still wouldn’t know what the significance of the particular moves are. It’s just absolutely no. It is no.

John: We’re saying that most people reading the script are not going to be chess experts or chess aficionados to the degree that they will understand that, and yet there are experts out there. And so I’m going to put a link in the show notes to this great article by Cara Giaimo who is writing for Atlas Obscura called Why Chess Fans Hate the Movies. And she goes through and explains why chess in movies is so often so wrong and how it drives people who actually know what chess is like absolutely crazy.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So some of the things that she points out are no one actually like knocks over the king in a checkmate situation. A lot of times you’ll see the pieces on the board in actually impossible positions. And so you see it from episodes of The Office. You see it From Russia With Love, The Shawshank Redemption, Ace Ventura, When Nature Calls, which is I think really pushing for an example.

If you’re a person who knows chess and can look at a board and recognize that there’s a mistake, that’s going to frustrate you. And so after we talk about our next topic, let’s go into sort of why some of those things happen and maybe how you can try to avoid those, but also how you can provide some benefit of the doubt to those filmmakers for why they make such horrible mistakes.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there are levels of these things. And in part they are related to the kind of movie and story you’re telling. If you’re making a movie that is not about chess at all but there happens to be some incidental moment where people are playing chess, you know, certain things are understandable. The knocking over of the king is not something that chess players do, but we’re all accustomed to it. If you’re making a movie about chess specifically, that becomes a little trickier. I happen to love Searching for Bobby Fisher. I’m sure that Cara Giaimo has issues with it. Certainly there is the knocking over of the king repeatedly. But what I would say to people like Ms. Giaimo is we can’t afford to limit our concern to chess players. We have to think about the general audience and we have to explain and dramatize things.

And it is generally speaking better storytelling to do something visually than to just have somebody say, “Oh, OK, well, good game.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because we in the audience won’t necessarily know what happened. So, for instance, she cites an example in Season 5 of The Office there is an episode where Jim has both of his bishops on white squares, an impossible orientation in that particular game, in any game. I think in chess one bishop is on a black, one bishop is on a white, they can only move diagonally so they can never change colors. That’s reasonable. Nobody should really make that mistake.

But, the other stuff, meh.

John: Yes. And yet having been on sets I can totally imagine how that mistake came to be. Or even that was a plot point that somehow just got dropped out of the edit. So, I’m sympathetic to sort of how these things happen. But let’s go to an example that’s actually more writing oriented. This came from David in San Diego who writes in, “In addition to being a Scriptnotes listener, I’m a fan of baseball. Recently my favorite baseball podcast, Effectively Wild, played a clip from an episode of Chicago Justice, an NBC legal drama produced by, among others, your friend Derek Haas. The show’s lead character, Peter Stone, is a former Major League baseball pitcher turned district attorney. In the clip, Peter attempts to impart some wisdom to a younger colleague by telling her an anecdote from his baseball days. The point of this story is that Peter felt personally responsible for losing a game rather than blaming it on a teammate’s error.”

Let’s actually take a listen to this little snippet from the show.

Female Voice: That was the best redirect I have ever seen.

Male Voice: In your three years of practice?

Female Voice: Seriously. It was Atticus Finch. Tom Cruise kicking the crap out of Nicholson.

Male Voice: What if Kaleelah had adult onset diabetes? What if she said the deputy had two fingers raised? Hmm?

Female Voice: Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.

Male Voice: I was naked out there.

Female Voice: I know I screwed up, Peter. I should have asked if she wore a—

Male Voice: Forget it. Forget it. You know I played baseball, right? I pitched. It was Cubs/Sox, 2007, bottom of the 9th, we’re up one. I throw the sinker and it’s an easy grounder to third. A sure double play. Until my third baseman boots it. And just like that we lose. Now, the entire north side of Chicago, they blame the third baseman. But the only person I blamed was myself. See, if had thrown the splitter, the batter would have popped it up to right and we would have won.

John: So David continues, “The problem is that for a baseball fan the anecdote makes no sense. In his anecdote, Peter did exactly what a pitcher is supposed to do and his teammate simply screwed up. And the details, such as the type of pitch he should have thrown, are all wrong. The character could have just as easily told a story that got the baseball details right while accomplishing the same goals for the scene.

“My questions are, A, how does this happen? B, is it unreasonable to expect a network drama to get these kind of details right? And, C, given that baseball is integral to the lead character’s backstory, why wouldn’t the writers have called on someone to fix these type of questions when they came up?”

So, Craig, what do we say in this scenario about this one anecdote that doesn’t ring true to a person who actually knows what baseball is? Because I’ll be completely honest – I have no idea what he’s saying. He could just be talking random nonsense words and it makes as much sense to me. It’s like, you know, Sheldon on Big Bang Theory talking about quantum mechanics. I’m more likely to understand the quantum mechanics.

Craig: Well, that’s actually part of the problem, I think, with the anecdote there. But I think that David in San Diego makes a perfectly justifiable point here on one level. The anecdote makes no sense. He’s saying I really should have had him pop up and so I should have thrown him the splitter. Splitters are the most groundball-inducing pitch you can throw. So, that makes no sense. If he wanted the guy to pop up, he would have said, “I should have thrown him an elevated fastball.” So, it’s incorrect. It’s just flat out wrong.

Oh, and we should add, by the way, Derek is associated with Chicago Justice, but he actually doesn’t write on Chicago Justice or supervise the writing of Chicago Justice. So I don’t want Derek to get folded into this.

John: Yeah. We did email him about this. And he’s like, “I really don’t know anything about that episode.”

Craig: Exactly.

John: We completely excused him from any discussion of this. But, I think it’s interesting to talk about why this has happened, or how does this kind of situation happen. And I can imagine the scene in abstract. Let’s say like me, a person who doesn’t know anything about baseball, is tasked with writing this scene. And the purpose of this moment is to clarify that this guy sees an analogous situation in his previous career where he made a choice that was the wrong choice, or that he escaped blamed when he really should have gotten blamed for a scenario.

And so me not knowing the baseball of this all, I would seek out an example of what that might be like in baseball terms and attempt to write it. And then find somebody honestly who could tell me that I was wrong in the situation. And so it’s surprising to me that this made it all the way through to air, but I don’t the specific scenarios on like how it got to be in the show.

Craig: The point is that sometimes the wrong person gets blamed. That was a bad example. It was a bad example because as, again, David points out correctly the wrong person didn’t get blamed. Any time a player in the field commits an error, it’s their fault. An error by definition in baseball is a play that is not made that could otherwise be made with reasonable effort.

So, that doesn’t make sense. And also then the follow up about what pitch he should have thrown doesn’t make sense. Why does this happen? It happens because usually there isn’t anyone in the group other than the person writing it who feels or who has additional expertise to say that actually doesn’t make sense. Sometimes there are arguments about these things and the people who are correct lose the argument. I mean, television writing staffs are notoriously regimented and there’s a certain hierarchy.

I, like you, tend to want to confirm and reach out on all of these things. But I want to point out here that there is another level to this, which is if the audience gets the dramatic point, and the audience generally isn’t easily understandable as authorities or fans of the topic you’re discussing, in the end does it matter that much? No.

Look, I always strive to be correct in these things. Always. And we should. Believe me, I’m not excusing mistakes. However, other than David, I don’t believe there has been an outcry from the very large, millions and millions of people large, audience of Chicago Justice. So that tells me that, well, it looks like maybe they got away with this one because the dramatic point was understood. And in the end that is what matters. But, I agree with you that in general we should reach out and check on these things. We don’t want to get caught with our pants down.

And in today’s world where there are a million blogs and Twitter ready to call you on every mistake, it seems like a little extra care is probably called for.

John: Yeah. So, I want to look at both this chess example and the baseball example and the experts in both these scenarios are frustrated by what they’re seeing portrayed on screen. And I can imagine a doctor, a lawyer, a police detective, a military person shaking their damn heads as they’re like, “What are you complaining about?”

Craig: Right.

John: Because every single time they turn on the TV they’re seeing things reflected back that are not the actual experiences of being any of those jobs.

Craig: Right.

John: And so there are shortcuts being taken in all those things for the sake of expediency in television. And so while we are always pushing for authenticity and for getting the details right, there are just things that in every medical show that are not sort of the way it would actually be done. There are things in every police show that are not done that way. We’ve compressed time. We’ve simplified things. We’ve merged jobs. I’ve never seen Chicago Justice, but I would guarantee you that there are unlikely things that happen in every week’s episodes on a legal basis just because that’s how legal basis legal shows work.

And so if you look at like a Law & Order, you know, we kind of forget that like, oh you know what, they’ve compressed out two years’ worth of time for an episode.

Craig: The boring time.

John: Exactly. So I have sympathy for the chess fans and for the baseball fans, but also I want them to broaden their sympathies to everybody else who sees their real world not being portrayed accurately on screen.

Craig: I think that’s fair. I mean, the one thing I would caution writers is if you know you’re doing something for narrative expedience or dramatic expedience, that’s one thing. Actually you could have taken no more time and crafted an anecdote there that would have been baseball logical. And so that’s an avoidable mistake. The incorrectness, it does not accrue to your benefit in any way. Whereas various legal inaccuracies do accrue to your narrative benefit, because they compress time or make things more exciting. Knocking over the king accrues to your narrative dramatic benefit. This one just seems like a mistake.

So, if you can avoid it, avoid it.

John: Yeah. Let’s take a look at why some of these mistakes happen, or why these situations happen. I think the biggest one by far is simplification for clarity, which is both the knocking over the king, it is the compressing of time, it is the characters explaining some part of what they’re trying to do to a character who would not need to know that explanation. It’s characters doing something in the course of their job in a different way than they we would do it in real life. Just that action makes sense for an audience who has no familiarity with that. And that’s a thing that’s going to happen and your challenge as a writer is to do that in the most natural way that doesn’t feel gross or forced, but you have to make sure it makes sense to a person who doesn’t know what the heck that person’s job really is.

Craig: Yeah. For sure. I mean, just the fact that we’re telling the story the way we tell it, we are required to cheat. Sometimes we’ll make shows that are set in another country and people there are speaking accented English. They don’t speak accented English. They speak their own language. It’s just that we didn’t want to deal with the subtitles the whole time, so we have to cheat things. We have to cheat time and space all the time.

And so I’m not a huge fan of the gaffe squad type people. You know, the other thing that happens sometimes is people will catch the mistake. For instance, the aforementioned bishops, two bishops on white squares. By take two, somebody is probably rushing over and going, “Um, the bishops are in the wrong spot.” And the director is like, “What? No one cares, dude. Now our continuity is going to be all screwed up because the bishop is going to be moving back and forth between shots. Let’s just keep going. It’s not that important. Let five nerds complain about it, but I just don’t want my piece hopping back and forth now in between shots.” And that’s legitimate.

John: 100%.

Craig: That is a reasonable decision to make.

John: Yeah. Sometimes you’ll see characters are supposed to be heading west, but based on where the sun is in the sky there’s no way they’re headed west. That’s just moviemaking guys. There’s really nothing more you can do about that. It’s the schedule of when you shot. It’s when the light looked best. It’s when you had those actors.

Again, there’s also genre conventions. And so we have a genre convention where even though you shouldn’t hear sound in space, we hear sound in space. You know what? There’s movies that will be very adamant about not doing that, and it feels weird, but great, go for it when you want to do it.

We also have a genre convention of warp drives. You know what? It’s certainly not possible the way we show it in movies and TV shows. But without warp drives, it would just be incredibly tedious and you wouldn’t have the Star Trek Enterprise. So therefore we have warp drives.

Craig: Yeah. We love seeing the streaky star line things. I don’t think that’s how it works. But then you know again it’s not real anyway. I mean, certainly when you’re getting into science fiction, that’s a whole other discussion of how accurate to science do you want to be, because you’re walking a very strange line there. You don’t want to simply have no rules, because then it feels like you’re just cheating. On the other hand, you have to change some things that are true because we’re not supposed to be able to go faster than the speed of light and we want to. It’s fiction.

John: Yep. It’s magic.

Craig: Yeah. Magic.

John: Your point about characters speaking with an accent when they should be speaking their own language, a thing that has always struck me is in movies set in the past like everyone speaks British English, and even if they’re cultures that shouldn’t be speaking the same language they can speak to each other. And it’s just because we don’t want to stick anybody in subtitles. And I just get it. There’s a reason why you’re doing that. And like you could choose to put a lot of subtitles in there. And Game of Thrones I think impressively decided there would be a common language and then like everybody else would speak different languages and that was just a thing they were going to choose to do.

But they could have made a choice to not do that, and that would have been I think equally defendable.

Craig: For sure. And even in Game of Thrones, you’ll notice that when they have scenes where people are speaking say–

John: Dothraki.

Craig: Dothraki, right? Or Essosian, I don’t know what that one is called. Valyrian. That they will have very few scenes where that is the only language being spoken. It occurs. Those scenes tend to be short. Typically there are translators going on, because you have various characters who don’t speak that. And so we are getting the advantage of that. Yeah, but they do short scenes.

The problem with – and we have to just account for this – is let’s say you were writing a movie, you were hired to write a Game of Thrones movie after the season concludes. And the movie takes places in Essos. Well, you can’t have an entire movie where everyone is just speaking that, because it’s annoying after a while. It’s like give me a break. And there is a natural disconnect that occurs, not in short bursts, but over time a natural disconnect that occurs between us and characters who are not speaking a language we understand. It is inevitable.

John: It’s true. So let’s wrap this up again with our benefit of the doubt umbrella over things. I think we are both urging sharp-eyed viewers to give the writers and filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t deliberately ignorant. They weren’t trying to undermine the authenticity of things. Just something got messed up along the way, or it wasn’t the high enough priority either – in the writing it’s harder to defend – but on the day it couldn’t be the top priority to get that bishop on the right square. And, sorry, that’s a thing that’s going to happen. The priority was getting the story told and making sure you were focusing on the things they wanted you to focus on. So, I definitely am mindful of how frustrating it can be to see things portrayed incorrectly on screen. That’s why we always urge people to try to be accurate and specific.

But I think you have to take a breath when you see things that aren’t accurate.

Craig: Yeah. Do the best you can, but don’t be trapped by purity.

John: Cool. Craig, this next topic is yours. You put this on the outline. It’s about bad news.

Craig: Yeah. This kind of was inspired by a fun Twitter thread. Adam Sternbergh. @sternbergh started a thread in response to a post by Gary Ross. I guess the Gary Ross, I think.

John: I hope it’s the Gary Ross.

Craig: I don’t know. Who wrote, “Note to filmmakers. People don’t actually stare at the receiver after they get disturbing news.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: And this created a long list of responses of people coming up with things like that, which kind of, you know, again, falls into the category of faking stuff. And so some of the examples that came up are – beyond staring at the phone receiver – entering – I love this one – entering an apartment or house, pressing back up against the wall, closing eyes. [laughs]

John: It’s so specific and so true.

Craig: It’s so true. People do that in movies all the time. They walk inside. They close the door. And then they just press their back up against the wall and close their eyes. Covering your mouth with your hand. People do that in movies–

John: I actually do that sometimes, though.

Craig: Really?

John: I did it instinctively just now doing this. That sort of gasp.

Craig: You’re so dramatic.

John: So dramatic.

Craig: Splashing water on face.

John: That drives me crazy.

Craig: Have you ever splashed water on your face to change your emotional state? [laughs]

John: I have not. Although I feel like maybe it was in this thread or it was another conversation with Aline Brosh McKenna. She said like, “Oh, yeah, of course I do that.”

Craig: Really?

John: Just like I put my hand over my mouth, she splashes water on her face. Or, I’m completely misremembering and Aline I apologize if I misremembered something we talked about.

Craig: But we can agree that nobody in real life ever walks into their house, closes the door, and backs up against the wall. That’s just–

John: Like I can’t believe I just got through that. Yeah.

Craig: Like oh my god. Never. Never.

John: No.

Craig: So what do we do about these moments? I mean, we want to convey this sensation to people in the audience that this character is feeling overwhelmed or is absorbing this terrible news. But on the other hand, you know, maybe we want to try and do it in some interesting new ways.

John: So, let’s talk about some options here. So the first is just kind of to find a way to articulate what is actually going on inside. Find the new way to demonstrate that thing and try to be accurate to what you might actually do in that scenario. I don’t shut the door and lean back against it and close my eyes, but I might drop the keys on the console, or I might rest myself a little bit. I just shake off that experience that just happened.

Craig: Yeah. I think you’re asking the right question which is what do we actually do. And then of course out of the various things that we actually do, we want to try and pick one that the audience will be able to pick up on. Because I suspect that most times this is entirely internal for people and so there is no way for the audience to see it. But one way that we can show these things dramatically is by watching the person attempt to not absorb it. And then it hits them.

So, they receive this bad news. They’re struggling with it. But they soldier on bravely as if it weren’t bothering them at all. Usually by just going about their normal activities, the mundane. And then something finally breaks through and it comes out. And there’s this very famous moment from the ‘70s sitcom Good Times. Florida is the mother. Her husband has died. And everybody is very upset about this. But she’s just sort of soldiering through. And she’s in the kitchen. She’s alone. She’s just moving a glass dish from one place to another and then she finally just lifts it up and throws it on the ground and smashes it. And she goes, “Damn, damn, damn!” Which is freaking awesome. And we’ll have a clip in the show notes for that moment if you haven’t heard it.

It’s spectacular and it felt very real. I think it actually was quite shocking to audiences at the time, because you know in the ‘70s sitcoms were still rooted in the stagey. You know, we were not that far removed from the early days of I Love Lucy where television was kind of a represented stage vaudeville kind of format. And everything was very carefully curated. That was very raw.

Now, it’s 40 years later and we’re a little more progressed down the line, so that would probably in and of itself now seem hokey today. But at the time it was sort of shocking. And the kernel of the theory there is a good creative kernel to think about.

John: A similar story I heard last night from Andrew Lippa, the composer for Big Fish who I got to see in London last night, and he was talking about going through a really emotional moment, but he was sort of ignoring the emotional moment. And he dropped the remote control for his TV on the floor and the battery shot out and the dog freaked out, like ah what’s going on. And so Andrew was laughing because the dog was freaking out and he’s trying to gather the batteries. But the actual physical process of laughing became like sobbing. And the physical experience of shaking that way shook out the actual tears and became a big emotional moment. And that I think is the equivalent of a damn, damn, damn in real life.

And that’s the kind of thing I’d love to see characters encounter in our stories. That’s a thing that is such catnip for an actor because it’s getting to really get to some primal physical feelings under there.

Craig: Yeah. And in a moment like that, the advantage to doing that as a writer as opposed to very quickly and short-handedly having somebody press their back up against the wall is when they press their back up against the wall we go, “Oh yeah, they’re upset.” When somebody starts laughing at something absurd like that and then that turns into tears, we’ll cry, because it’s jumping up on us in a real way in the way it’s jumped up on them. And that is where the alchemy happens.

So, that’s really the point. It’s not – I never think that the point of avoiding tropes is to seem original. The point of avoiding tropes is they’re not working as effectively as they should.

John: Yeah. So we talked about the big reaction, but like the small reaction, the under-reaction can be just as powerful. It requires more work in the scene setting to make sure that we actually understand what’s going on there. That we can actually read what the character is doing. But the character who is sitting very silently and small in the frame, or we’re in a close-up of that character can also be a great way of showing the impact of the moment we just encountered.

Craig: Yeah. This also truer to life. But in this case what you’re going to do is take advantage of the internality of these kinds of moments. So one example that I think about often is the scene in Unfaithful where Diane Lane is on the subway, or the train, and she’s coming back home from just having had an affair. And the camera is just looking at her. And the whole world is zipping by through the window of the train. But she’s just sitting there. And she’s thinking about what just happened. And we’re watching her be excited and she’s pleased and she feels loved and attractive. But then the guilt comes in. And you watch all of it happening quietly, just on her face.

The story is telling us that this is – keep watching. Just watch this person. And that is interesting. That is a moment that feels real. It requires an excellent actor, which Diane Lane certainly is. It requires a patient, secure director who does not feel the need to get in the way of the performance. Sometimes all you need for a moment like that is a locked down camera. Sometimes a little bit of a push. In that case, also, you can play some editing tricks. You can just jump cut around. So you can see, OK, what we’re watching here is a long train ride and this is occurring.

But it is truer and I think it feels more for us when we see it unfold in that way. You just have to know as a writer you’re instructing everybody this will be quiet and it will take time.

John: Yeah. I can think of several moments in Michael Clayton that do that kind of thing. So the last shot I recall with George Clooney is the equivalent version of that, where he’s like in a car and we’re tracking with him. But you see Tilda Swinton, who is just remarkable as well. There are moments where you’re able to see her reacting to things. And there’s bigger moments, there’s smaller moments, but it’s not the scale, it’s not leaning back against the wall. It’s really taking the hit for that emotion that just happened. And finding the moment that she can actually expose what’s going on there.

Craig: Yeah. Keeping them accountable to the news they’ve just heard or the thing that they’ve just done.

John: A thing which I see in movies but I also feel is true, I just know this from my own life, is that when I get devastating news I sit down. There’s something that actually – like gravity gets a little stronger and I just feel like I need to sit down to make sure I don’t fall down. And so being on the phone and then sitting while you’re still talking on the phone is a thing that I find myself doing often, sometimes because it helps me focus. But also just because I need to make sure that I’m safe while this happening.

And so if a character can’t sit down, they will lean against things. They will find ways to support themselves while they are getting burdened by the news they just encountered.

Craig: Yeah. And in those moments, too, sometimes – and this is why my most hated fake rule/bad advice for screenwriters is don’t direct on the page. The camera in those moments is meant to be us. And the camera is telling us are we meant to be sympathizing with this person or are we perhaps meant to be standing in judgment of them?

In the cast of say Diane Lane on the train, we’re clearly meant to sympathize or empathize. We’re meant to be in her mind and to experience this collision of contradictory feelings all at once. Sometimes in a case where, for instance, somebody sits down. The camera may slowly start to back away from them, as if to say they’ve done something wrong. They have to be alone now. We have to leave them in their little private hell. Because what they’ve done is bad. And I think about these things all the time. And it’s important, I think, for writers to think about the camera in this way.

This is an essential part of storytelling. And we fail ourselves and our readers. And then, by the way, the director, and the actors, and everybody if we don’t think about stuff like that. Because if I just write on the page, “John sits down,” OK. Now if I write, “John sits down. We slowly move back and away from him, out through the doorway, out through the door, until he’s barely there.” That implies – even if that’s not what the director does, they understand the point.

John: For sure. I think the other thing we need to look at from our writing perspective is are we better serving this story moment by letting another character provide the reaction for us? Or another character investigate the reaction. So let’s say we have the character is receiving bad news on the phone. If there’s another character in that scene who can be listening, can be watching, can be trying to read what’s going on. We will naturally sort of be doing the same process with the spectator character.

So, an example at the start of Big Fish, Billy Crudup is in Paris. He receives word that his father is in the hospital. And it’s because Josephine, the wife, is there to watch them that we know what the actual content of the other side of the phone call must be. We know sort of how serious this is.

So, look at whether this is sort of the opposite of the character closing the door and sliding against it. There’s another character watching and through that other character watching and reacting we can see what’s really going on and the extent of that bad news.

Craig: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, there’s all sorts of ways to approach this. If there’s any general advice to give, it’s that you at least start from a place where you’re going to be honest to how this would really work.

John: Yep.

Craig: And then think about how that is specific to the character that you have and the moment that you have. And then think about where your camera should be. Is it with them or is it away from them? And is it moving, is it not moving? What is their reaction? How slowly or quickly does it evolve? Does it surprise us or does it just dribble out? Think about all those things and then try and do it true.

And if you can, I guarantee you it will be more effective than the splashing the water on the face, because at this point so many people have splashed water on their face it doesn’t mean a damn thing anymore.

John: Yeah. It’s a thing that people do in movies.

Craig: It’s a thing people do in movies.

John: Yep. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is the video to All This Time by Jonathan Coulton. It’s just terrific. And so the song is great, but the video takes the form of a text-based adventure game, sort of like Zork, and it’s so incredibly well done.

Craig: All right, I’m in.

John: Yeah. It’s very smartly done. Jonathan Coulton also did the Still Alive from Portal, which also has the feeling of this. But this is really pushing it to the next level. It’s one of those rare videos where you have to do a lot of reading, but it’s worth a hundred percent of your attention for those few minutes. So I strongly recommend All This Time by Jonathan Coulton.

Craig: Did you play the Infocom games when you were young–

John: I did, yeah. I loved them.

Craig: Kids today. Now, you know, you can play all the Infocom games for free. I think there’s a website that just has them. And I was reminded how terribly frustrating they were. They actually were horrendously designed games in the sense that they were not fun. But they were so – I don’t know – they were just very important to me when I was a kid to go through them.

I mean, the most brutal of them, that was famously brutal of them, was Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I don’t know if you ever played that one.

John: I don’t think I played deep into it. But I remember playing before we even had our personal computer, my dad had a terminal which was the kind that had like the [unintelligible] things you could attach. And so there was an online version of that that I could play. And I think I might have even played Zork way back in the day, which was on an equivalent BBS system. And they really were remarkable things.

But once I started playing like Ultima or the things that had some graphical component I never went back to those original just text-based games.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, they were so frustrating. OK. Well, my One Cool Thing is a website called Every Noise At Once. We’ll put a link in the show notes, but it’s pretty easy to remember. Everynoise.com. And then when you get there you will see these folks have put up this massive Ngram style plot. Well, Ngram isn’t right. That’s the Google thing, right?

It’s more like a word cloud, like a keyword cloud kind of plot of literally every kind of music noise that has been made in culture. It is massive. And it’s got everything. There are things on there I did not know existed. You know, some things I knew existed but I never listened to, or there are things like, OK, there’s 20 different kinds of trance music. I wasn’t aware of all the different sub-genres. Then there are things like [Schrempf] or something. Some crazy German format where it’s just repetitive industrial noises. All the way down to Gregorian chants and Islamic religious singing. And it’s just got everything. It’s fascinating.

You could spend hours just looking through it. It’s something else. They have like Norwegian Christmas music. It’s insane. So, check it out. It’s a lot of fun. Every Noise At Once.

John: I accidentally clicked Kirtan, which I don’t know what it is, and now it starts playing. So it’s a good thing to–

Craig: It’s pretty wild, right?

John: Experimentation there. Yeah, it’s neat. Cool. That’s our show this week.

Our show, as always, is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Ben Singer. If you have an outro you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions, like the ones we talk about on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Also search for Scriptnotes Podcast to find us on iTunes.

You can leave a review for us, which is lovely. You can also download the apps which are currently the only way to get to our back catalog of nearly 300 episodes. Actually more than 300 episodes because there’s bonus episodes with people like Aline and Rachel Bloom and all sorts of good folks.

You will find the show notes for this episode and all previous episodes at johnaugust.com. It’s also where you can leave reviews of previous episodes. Go to johnaugust.com/guide. And you’ve left so many great reviews on your favorite episodes, which are terrific. So, in the next couple weeks we’ll figure out what form we’re going to put these recommendations in, be it a book, be it some other sort of web tool for people finding their best episodes.

So, if you’re new to the show, we can point you to the episodes that are most worthy of exploring. And, if you are interested in coming to the live show that we talked about at the top of the hour, go to Hollywoodheart.org. That’s where they’re going to be putting up the tickets. We’ll also have a link on Twitter once there is a link. So we’re excited to see everybody there for that. We’re excited to be at the ArcLight.

Craig, thanks so much.

Craig: Thank you, John.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Television with Damon Lindelof

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 08:03

John sits down with Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) for a bonus-length discussion of all things TV.

We focus on getting that first job, breaking story, and how writing rooms work. We also answer listener questions ranging from knowing when to let a pilot script die, to crediting original ideas.

Finally, we talk about the notion of Idea Debt, and how to say goodbye to projects you’ll never complete.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

We’re voting yes. But.

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 10:50

In this special mini-episode, John and Craig talk through the upcoming WGA strike authorization vote — what it actually means, and why they’re both voting yes.

Voting begins Tuesday in person, and Wednesday online.

We also discuss how strike authorization votes are a strange bit of negotiation theater, which Craig in particular would like to see end.

Links:

You can download the episode here.

The Return of Malcolm

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 08:03

Malcolm Spellman returns to help us answer a bunch of listener questions, including the most important one: what’s Malcolm up to? (Warning! Adult language.)

Along the way, topics include sex on screen, bad managers, and thanking the writer.

Tickets for the live show are now sale! Visit Hollywood Heart to get yours.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

On not reading reviews

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 02:40

Amanda Peet has a terrific piece in the NY Times about why she doesn’t read reviews, and how strange it feels when rest of the world knows something you don’t:

The morning after we opened, nobody called me. When I talked to my mom, she sounded like a cheerful acquaintance who isn’t sure if she’s allowed to know about your terminal cancer diagnosis. My agent said he was coming down with something and had to get off the phone. As I made my way to the theater, every newsstand I passed was a test of my resolve. I felt like a reformed gambler who had been air dropped onto the Vegas strip.

I don’t read reviews either, but I’ve made a compromise: my husband reads them and gives me the gist.

At least for me, this strikes a helpful balance where I’m not paralyzed by the actual criticism or the imagined criticism.

Scriptnotes, Ep 293: Underground Railroad of Love — Transcript

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 12:18

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 293 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie, where we take a look at three stories in the news and figure out how we might convince a director like say Jordan Peele to attach himself to the project. Craig, have you seen Get Out yet?

Craig: Get out.

John: Get out. I’m guessing you’ve not seen it yet, because you don’t see a lot of movies.

Craig: I haven’t, but I’m going to because everybody loves it and everybody says it’s great. And I’m sure it is great. I’m sure it’s awesome. And I’m a huge fan of Key & Peele. And I know this is different. So, yes I’m going to see it. Haven’t seen it yet. Not ashamed.

John: You should not be ashamed. But you should see it. And I’m looking forward to seeing it whenever I get a chance to see it. It’s not here in Paris yet. But hopefully it will come here sooner, because it has been so successful. And I’m so happy for that.

But I do think that Jordan Peele could get nearly any movie to happen. Like he has so much heat at this moment that the world is his oyster.

Craig: Yeah. You know, you might be right. The list of directors in features is incredibly short. And all of them work. All of them. There is currently as we all know a push for diversity among the cadre of feature film directors, which is blindingly white and blindingly male. And so I can’t think for even a second that you’re not exactly right. I would imagine that he’s on the top of every list. And apparently well earned. But not yet willing to confirm that on my own behalf because I haven’t seen the movie.

John: Yeah. But I trust that everyone in America is correct and it’s a phenomenal movie, so I look forward to seeing it. But let us talk not about a movie that already exists but movies that could exist. It is our segue to How Would This Be a Movie, one of our favorite features to do. This week we needed a special to really help us out here.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So I’m very happy to introduce a writer who has done several of these true life adaptations. Irene Turner is a novelist and screenwriter of An American Crime. Her new film is The Most Hated Woman in America, which just debuted at South by Southwest. Welcome Irene.

Irene Turner: Hi guys. Thanks for having me on. I have seen Get Out.

Craig: Get Out.

Irene: All right. And I’m out. I did love it, so there you go.

Craig: All right.

Irene: And I don’t even go to horror films.

Craig: Well, I’ve heard it’s not really a horror film. It’s more like a – well, like old school thriller.

Irene: Old school thriller. And the end – and you’re cringing in your seat and wanting to run. And I enjoyed it. But no spoilers.

Craig: Got it. Got it.

John: Zero spoilers. So, you are just back from South by Southwest. You’re back from Austin. And like literally just last night landed. So thank you for coming to do this. But tell us about this movie because I think as long as I’ve known you you’ve been working on this movie. So this is the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist, who is kidnapped. But what is your journey on this movie? How did you come to write this movie?

Irene: It’s been a minute on this one. And I guess we started – the idea got brought to us by our producers, Max Handelman and Elizabeth Banks. And neither Tommy O’Haver nor I, who is the director and also my writing partner, had heard of her.

Craig: You hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Banks?

Irene: Well, Elizabeth Banks we had heard of. But Madalyn Murray O’Hair we had not heard of. And in fact nobody under the age of about 70 had heard of her.

Craig: Except of course for me.

Irene: Well, except for Craig Mazin.

Craig: I’m sort of an MMOH fan.

Irene: Well then there you go. But Madalyn was once really well known for fighting to get forced prayer out of public schools in Baltimore, Maryland. And it went all the way to the Supreme Court with it. And after that formed an organization called American Atheist. And kind of fighting atheist causes and fighting for First Amendment rights, which are near and dear to my heart.

And the great thing about her as making a movie about her is that she was conflicted, complicated, opinionated, got in her own way. And had problematic relationships with her family. So, oh boy, strong character. Fun.

Craig: Yeah. It seems to me. I mean, one of the things we talk about all the time when we go through these How Would This Be a Movie is we see the facts of some complications, circumstantial drama, and then we are inevitably asking, OK, but what about the people. Where is the people stuff? And she was a fascinating person and kind of a little bit of a monster.

Irene: She was a big bit of a monster. She got in her own way. She had problematic relationships with her kids. She smothered them and pushed them. And her one son, Billy Murray, Jr. actually, ended up being an alcoholic and had other issues and finally found god.

Craig: Oh man.

Irene: Yeah. And at this point is still alive and is fighting to get prayer back in public schools.

Craig: Wow.

Irene: But she was so difficult. She ended up having sometimes hiring felons to work for her at her atheist organization. They didn’t pay very well. And she felt like she could just judge character and it would be fine. Kind of difficult.

Craig: And how did that work out for her?

Irene: Not real well. See the movie.

Craig: And this movie, this is a Netflix film, correct?

Irene: Yeah. One of the reasons it took so long to make is that Netflix as a streaming organization making original movies didn’t exist when we started writing it. And so Netflix, I think, fills a really important niche to get independent small films out there. It’s not really a big studio movie. Mm, murdered atheist that nobody remembers except Craig Mazin.

Craig: Franchise!

Irene: Mm-hmm. But where’s the sequel potential? So just getting to make those kind of niche films. And Netflix has a lot of other kind of films as well. But I think they’ve been really a force in the indie world for making sure that what otherwise might be a festival film and two theaters in New York and LA, at best, gets out there.

John: So, talk to us about, so Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman came to you with this idea. Was it just the idea? Was it a specific book? What were you working off of when you sat down to start writing this movie?

Irene: We had thought about using a book and then that morphed into there’s so many different points of view about her and what she wrote, what other people wrote about her. And we ended up, it’s actually original. We sources. We used her diary. We used books about her. She did a lot of press.

Craig: She did talk a lot, didn’t she?

Irene: She talked a lot. I appreciate that. Because, yeah, she lived in an era where Johnny Carson would invite people to get on the Tonight Show and talk about atheism in America. So her opinions on things are well known and so we kind of gathered from lots of sources to try and discover what made her tick. You know, what she wanted in life. How she got where she was. What, you know.

Craig: So, when you go through all these sources, because I’m dealing with this right now on this miniseries I’m doing. It’s based on true events, and so true people. Did you have any sort of legal guidance about what you could and couldn’t use without having say rights to an estate or rights to this or that?

Irene: Well, the basic principle is having multiple sources for facts that are in the public sphere. The great thing about Madalyn is she did give so many interviews and she’s been written about so much that nothing is only coming from one source. If you’re only coming from one source on something, then you can’t use it without getting the rights to that source.

Craig: That’s interesting.

Irene: That’s the basic answer.

Craig: OK. Fair enough.

John: Were there any concerns about libel or sort of the public rights of the people who are still involved? So you say that her son is still alive. So was there any sort of zone of safety around that character to make sure you weren’t doing anything with that character that the person could come after you for?

Irene: Yeah. With him, yes, we had to be very, very careful, because we don’t have his life rights. And we had to use sources from the time period and what he said or did to newspapers. Fortunately, he did a lot of speaking tours and things like that, which were reported on. But you know with the characters who are no longer living, you can’t libel the dead, and so that makes the standard much easier to deal with.

Craig: Can you slander them?

Irene: Only if you want to.

Craig: Because I know so many dead people I want to say wrong things about.

Irene: You can get sued by family members of dead people who are saying that you’re libeling their family legacy and things. And it can kind of get tricky. On An American Crime we had a 90-year-old lawyer who pretty much hated the film. I mean, and it’s a child abuse film and there are children abusing other children. Very difficult subject matter. Some of them are alive, although most of the living ones had taken assumed names in the interim. So just tricky. And he just didn’t think we should be discussing the subject at all, in my humble opinion. And so 90% of the dialogue in that film is from court transcripts. And he actually made us adjust a scene where a 12-year-old boy who has been abusing another girl, we have him teasing a dog. And we had to cut that back because there was no evidence that this character had been teasing a dog in this way.

Craig: Oh, well.

Irene: It’s a standard.

Craig: And is that 90-year-old lawyer still available? Because he sounds great. Or has he since moved on?

Irene: I don’t know. And I’m trying to forget him because I got stuck at the last minute with annotating everything and anything. And it was not easy.

Craig: Well, you know what? Maybe we’re free to slander him at this point. You know, if he’s, you know.

Irene: Dead? Yeah.

John: So your movie, people can see it starting on March 24 on Netflix, correct?

Irene: March 24 on Netflix. Yes. Worldwide day-and-date. Which is crazy to me. You want to see Melissa Leo in Spanish, Italian, French, go to it.

Craig: That’s so great. And she is, from what I hear – I mean, obviously I haven’t seen it yet because it’s not out – but I hear that she, as per usual, is spectacular in this role.

Irene: She is Melissa Leo-ing all over the Melissa Leo and she is great. If you don’t like Melissa Leo, don’t watch this film because she dominates it in a really great way. Like there’s a fabulous supporting cast and things like that, but the center of it is Madalyn. So, and she is–

Craig: The Most Hated Woman in America. So that’s Netflix. March 24. Melissa Leo. Josh Lucas. Adam Scott. Pretty great cast you go there. Directed by your writing partner, Tommy O’Haver.

Irene: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Well fantastic. Congratulations. But I feel like we should use you here because you’re obviously good at this. Because what we like to do is find these articles and try and figure out how would they be a movie. And you’re kind of an expert at that. So would you be willing to help us with this?

Irene: I would love to.

Craig: Well–

John: Very good.

Craig: John, we’ve got ourselves a partner.

John: We got a partner here. So, our first story is The New Underground Railroad. It’s a New Yorker article by Jake Halpern. So it’s centered around a safe house in Buffalo, New York, where asylum seekers from around the world prepare to flee the United States for Canada. So, it’s based around this New Yorker article, but I actually first encountered this as part of a Trumpcast episode, Slate’s Trumpcast, where Halpern did an interview with Virginia Heffernan and it was a really great piece. And so if you are a podcast person, which you probably are because you’re listening to this podcast, I would actually go to the podcast first because it’s really great and it gets much more into Halpern’s reporting of the story which I find is also fascinating.

So, guys, how are we going to start digging into this story because there’s a lot here? So, we’re looking at this house, basically this old abandoned schoolhouse called Vive, which is founded by these nuns, and it’s been a safe house for asylum seekers since 1984. We have the different asylum seekers who are coming through here. We have Halpern himself. Where do we want to start with the idea of this as a movie?

Craig: Irene, what do you think?

Irene: Hahaha, I knew you were going to make me start.

Craig: Of course.

Irene: I mean, it’s a great setting for a movie. And there’s the potential for great characters. And what intrigues me about it, and it’s the sort of thing I would have enjoyed doing, is it’s a spin on all the kind of movies where people are trying to get into the United States. And so the spin on people, A, trying to get out. People undergoing great hardships to both get here and then to get to Canada.

And also these individuals’ stories, there’s so many of them. I mean, the problem for me would be like picking the right stories of the right refugees and also avoiding the trap of going in, you know, kind of from the American protagonist. That you want to make sure that you’ve got a variety of voices in there. Kind of picking the characters and picking the separate journeys. The other problem that just struck me right away was make sure you haven’t set yourself up for a play. Because this sanctuary is so isolated and contained and just kind of know where you’re going to be able to break out of it and see parts of the – you know, like the containment. Make sure you’re not writing a play.

Craig: That is absolutely the thing that jumped out at me as well. I was very concerned with the insularity of it and the internal nature of it, because it really is in this one small house in a terrible neighborhood. A neighborhood that’s so bad that they warn everybody, “Don’t leave the house.” They even describe it sort of quasi-prison like in a sense, even though they’re willingly there. But it is cramped and it is small. And they are using this really to funnel people, as you said, sort of in and then out. So it seems to me if I were approaching this material, I would probably start by saying this is not going to be a movie about this house. This house is going to be one part of a movie that is about being a refugee and your relationship to the United States and your relationship to the world and the struggles that you have.

And I guess I would probably call Stephen Gaghan up and just say, “Hey Stephen, remember doing Traffic? Do you remember doing Syriana? Can you do that again, but about immigration?” Because it just seems like this is in his wheelhouse to gather disparate stories – a government official, a fleeing person, a nun, a border patrol. Telling all sides of this story so that all of the proverbial blind men feeling the elephant, we get the whole elephant. It just feels like I would want to Gaghan this up.

John: Yeah. I definitely was thinking of Syriana and I was also thinking of Babel, where you have these separate stories being told in different parts of the world. And basically you’re setting up these characters who are all going to cross through this nexus and then try to find their way into Canada through different means. And so let’s talk about who some of these characters are. I’m going to pick out three, but there’s more who are in the world of the story.

The first we meet is Tita. She’s an Eritrean woman. She’s trying to reunite with her family who are already in Canada. She has a husband who she got married to at a previous refugee situation. So she was able to make it out of Africa, I think to somewhere in Europe, then to Brazil, then to Mexico. Then she crossed the border and she made her way to Buffalo, New York. So she has this huge journey, paying this trafficker $15,000 to get her to this place.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And still not quite sure if she’s going to be able to get back to her husband and her young son who doesn’t really necessarily remember her. So she’s got an amazing story.

Craig: And she’s sort of married. But the marriage is a religious marriage and it’s not a government-recognized marriage, so there’s – actually one of the things about that story that really jumped out at me was how important paperwork suddenly becomes. And in just now your life is in limbo because of papers.

Irene: Papers define who you are. It defines your personhood. It makes you either a person or a non-person, or someone who can go places or can’t. And we’re not used to that for those of us who are not refugees or whose families have been in this country for a long time. That being defined by a piece of paper says what and who you are.

Craig: That part of it I found fascinating.

John: Absolutely. So another character who we follow through this, and I think Halpern has the most direct relationship with, is Fernando. He’s the young Columbian man fleeing gang violence. So he’s made his way to Vive and he’s trying to find his way across. And so this is where we get into a strange part of the immigration law here. Whatever country, either US or Canada, that you enter into first, that has to be the place where you’re supposed to be seeking asylum. And so if he were just to cross the border and try to get asylum in Canada, they would just send him right back. And so there’s a loophole though: if he can cross further into Canada and go to not a place on the border, but deeper in, he can seek asylum.

So he’s trying to find a way to get across from New York into Canada and get deep enough in that he can go to a place and sort of try to document himself there.

Here we have a young man fleeing gang violence. He’s the most action-adventure things that are happening in the New York/American section of the story.

Irene: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Because there’s that tension in his journey. How far is he going to get? I mean, he really needs to get – it’s not just step over a line and then freedom. You’re outside of the Eastern Bloc. You’re over the Berlin Wall, and then it’s done, in the ‘70s, or things like that. And he’s also got the most tenuous situation in terms of he’s not coming from a war-torn country. In a sense it’s a gang-torn country and he’s seeking asylum for those kind of reasons. And those are more difficult.

And so, yes, his journey is very fraught. And the physicality of that. That gets you outside that box.

John: Absolutely. What I liked about it is like if you follow Tita’s journey, it’s like a long journey. There’s a lot of little speedbumps along the way. But his is the most like an action movie, where he literally is going into a dark field and not sure what’s on the far side. And it’s that panic of getting lost and falling in a river and nearly freezing to death. He has the most sort of movie adventure beats. It’s also nice that that probably happened late in the story when you’ve already gotten to this place of comparable safety.

Craig: There’s something inherently ironic, which we’re always looking for. Somebody is escaping violence and the escape from violence is putting them in a situation where they might die.

John: Yep.

Craig: And that’s what we’re afraid of in the back of our head. That the narrative is leading us to that Twilight Zone ending. And so we’re so, so hopeful we don’t get that.

Irene: Yes. The stakes are very, very high for all of them and especially him.

John: So the last characters I’ll single out are the two Mohammeds. They’ve come from Afghanistan. They are both soldiers. They’re here in the US for training. And so they have a day off where they go to Washington, DC. They don’t get back on the bus. Instead they’ve hooked up with an Afghan family who has gotten them up to this haven in Buffalo, New York. And that’s where they’re trying to make the crossover into Canada. They are the only of the stories that we’re singling out here where they were not successful and they are ultimately sent back to Afghanistan.

So they were trying to get out of Afghanistan because they were going to be assigned to watch over the poppy fields and they felt like they were going to die if they went back to Afghanistan. So, they felt their life was in huge danger if they go back. And ultimately they are sent back. So I think we learned the least about them in the story, but I liked that they were coming in a very different way than the other two characters.

Irene: Also, John, I think their story is good and maybe if you were diving further into this you might find another one that’s good as well. But you have to show the refugees that don’t make it. That get turned back. It can’t just be the feel good story of the ones that got through, because that’s not the real situation, and you kind of have a duty to make sure that you’re showing the heartbreak and the sadness as well.

Craig: Yeah. This one, I think the value was that there is failure at the end of it, but probably would want a little something else going on here. I would want a parent who had lost a child. Or I would want someone falling in love with another person. They don’t even speak the same language, but they’re two refugees who have both lost people they love, and now they’re in this little house and they fall in love. And then one of them gets to move on, and one of them has to go back.

So, I want something a little bit more. The nature of their story, I mean, obviously in a true-life sense is tragic. But in a narrative sense, didn’t – I would probably veer away from the specificity of it, because I’m not sure I would get enough drama that I would want. Or a different kind of drama.

Irene: Yeah. I was fascinated and the article didn’t go into them as much, but their residence – they tried to make private rooms for the people who just had been there forever. And who couldn’t move. And that’s hard to show cinematically. But as a small thread of a larger picture, there’s a residence there and I would try and show it.

John: So let’s talk about what the characters might be in this movie. So, there’s obviously the people who are running the organization. So it was originally created by nuns. It’s no longer really run by nuns. And some of the people who are working there are former refugees who have been through the system or are there for one reason or another. Also, a question of whether Halpern himself becomes a character in the story. Because especially in the podcast I listened to, he’s a very big character in the Fernando story. And there’s a really interesting line of like as a journalist does he cross over or not cross over in terms of like giving advice to this kid who is trying to make it across. And he has the normal human and kind of paternal feelings of like I don’t want this kid to die out in the woods. And yet as a journalist he needs to step back and sort of like report the story and not create the story.

So, he’s a potentially interesting character, but also potentially troubling for the sort of white savior aspect of this character in this movie. What did you guys think?

Craig: Well, on that front I actually never really find the crusading journalist character particularly, well, let’s not call them crusading journalist, but the protective journalist character, it just feels like a false struggle. Because I don’t have that problem in my life because I’m not a journalist. So it’s something that’s very specific. It’s a very specific ethical problem for journalists. I’m not sure I would love to watch that unfold on screen.

If I’m watching a border patrol guy who catches him and has to bring him back, and then catches him again and brings him back, and then the third time he thinks he’s going to go out there again and he might die tonight because of X, Y, or Z, what should I do. That I find compelling. And it’s not about savoir. It’s just about two people on the opposite side of a fight discovering this shared humanity. I would probably go in that direction more than the journalist direction.

Irene: Yeah it’s not The Year of Living Dangerously, or you know, films where journalists are going into hot spots and trying to bring back a story that people need to hear. In that sense it’s not that you couldn’t have him as a minor character, but I think it would be a mistake to make him kind of the eyes of the audience character, or the protagonist, or starting the story on him starting this story. I think it would be problematic.

John: I agree. So let’s talk about this as a movie. And so where do we see a movie like this happening? Like what are the scenarios in which this kind of movie could exist?

Craig: Netflix. Amazon.

Irene: We love us some Netflix.

Craig: It’s not a studio film.

John: Oh, I think it is a studio movie. I think this to me feels like the studio’s Oscar movie. So this to me feels like an A24, it feels like we’re going to go for it and we’re going to push. And I think because it’s timely, because it does have the possibility of some really big visuals, because you’re going to a lot of different environments, so you get to go to Africa, you get to go to Afghanistan, you go to Mexico. So I just feel like you’re going to be able to find the filmmaker, probably the international filmmaker, who is the right person for this. And I think you’re going to be able to do something great.

Irene: Cast-dependent. You better right that script so well that that name cast comes in kind of brings it up to an Oscar-bait movie.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, even A24, you’re still talking about an independent financed film. But it would have to be – yeah, so I mean a studio could pick it up and release it, but I totally agree with Irene. This is where you need somebody like Matt Damon for Syriana, or you need, well, all of the people that you had in Traffic. Quite a collection of actors.

Irene: An Idris Elba. You know, kind of a cast that combines on that kind of level where they’re really making interesting choices and give actors meaty roles.

Craig: Right. Like Emily Blunt is in Sicario. I’m not sure you can get Sicario made without Emily Blunt. So, I think that that’s correct. And this, by the way, this is part of the problem that writers run into when they’re trying to avoid the white savior problem, and then what happens is a lot times the foreign sales people, because in independent films the independent film financiers aren’t going to do it unless they can presale the film overseas. And the foreign sales entities are saying, “Well we need one of the following list of stars. And they have to be the star.” And they’re all white. And now what do you do? This is where it gets insidious. This is a movie that has to be pretty carefully – so I guess what I’m saying is I don’t see it as a mainstream studio developed project.

I think it would be independent and then released.

John: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a version of this where it’s sort of like a Plan B, Brad Pitt, you know, like 12 Years a Slave is an example of a movie that you’re able to make because, yes, he can play one part in it, but like it just has enough high class people around it that people are going to – a studio will roll the dice and spend the money they need to spend on making this movie. And, yes, it’s very execution dependent, but in good execution you’ve made a movie that could do really well.

Craig: Yeah. There is a movie to be made about immigration and the state of being a refugee in the world today. I don’t know if the halfway house is where I would begin. I guess I would put it that way. I think it’s a little bottleneck-y for me.

John: Cool. All right, let’s get on to our next story. This is called You May Want to Marry My Husband. It is by Amy Krouse Rosenthal writing for the New York Times Modern Love section. So Rosenthal, who at the time of writing the article was dying from cancer, makes the pitch for potential suitors about why her husband is such a catch. So it’s her writing about her husband and how great he is. And how much she’ll miss him, yet also ladies pay attention. This is a guy you want to keep on your list. Where do we start with this kind of movie? Who wants to take this off?

Irene: Well, this is so outside the kind of movie that I might write. The problem with this is, and I’m guessing it has been optioned because it got so much buzz, and the author has since passed away. The article itself is sort of a jumping off point. There’s so many questions I have. Is it about their relationship? The article makes me want to read her memoir and read more, actually more about her husband to see if there’s – like what’s the story?

We’ve kind of seen the movies, like is it Step Mom with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon, where Susan Sarandon is dying and Julia Roberts is going to kind of mother her kids and things. Is it the husband’s story after the author of the article has passed away, has died? It’s really – I looked at it and I went, wow, I’m glad nobody offered me a lot of money to adapt this because it’s got like a thousand directions you could go. And I’m not sure what the right one would be.

Craig: Well, it’s very sad, obviously, and it’s very sweet. Amy Krouse Rosenthal is an excellent writer. You can see that she’s just in total command of her art. And here she is. Actually the first line says, “I’ve been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers (what has it been now, five weeks without real food?) have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains.”

Well, I disagree. That’s a pretty amazing sentence. And she wrote this on March 3. She died ten days later. It is a beautiful thing and it is the scariest kind of thing to try and turn into a movie because the potential for what snopes.com calls Glurge is extraordinarily high here.

John: Define Glurge for us here.

Irene: Yes please.

Craig: Glurge is, they apply it generally to things that you might see passed around on Facebook and so forth. They are incredibly sentimental, sweet, sappy, tear-jerky stories about dying children or puppies who are missing a leg. Or a grandmother that reunites with her long-lost twin. And it’s so – it’s glurge. It’s overtly whip out your Kleenex time and cry.

So, when you’re talking about a woman penning a letter to America saying, “Won’t one of you marry my husband because I love him very, very much and I’m about to die,” I’m already going, OK, this is very–

Irene: It’s saved by her prose, but the movie doesn’t have her prose.

Craig: It doesn’t. The movie doesn’t have her voice. Now, you could theoretically create a sense where she’s over the movie like a Ghost, obviously you don’t see her, but you hear her.

Irene: But like Ghost. Not the thriller-ish, but yeah.

Craig: The way that Kevin Spacey is doing the voiceover in American Beauty and as it turns out he’s dead the whole time. You can hear this voice. But even so, again, the potential for glurge is high. And as a writer, I would not take this job on because specifically I feel like she did what she had to do. She wrote this article. Those were her words. That was her feeling. She did it beautifully. Who needs me to come along and turn it into fake drama? It just seems gross.

So out of respect, frankly, even though I could come up with all sorts of easy, cheapo ways to do this, I wouldn’t. I just wouldn’t.

John: I’m not that scared about the glurge. Yes, there’s a lot to be avoided, but I think there’s a lot to sort of lean into here as well. So, yes, we have to be mindful that part of what makes this article so effective is her voice is just so terrific. And we won’t have that literary voice in the movie. But I think you do have a generosity of spirit, a sense of what is special about these two people’s relationship. And to be able to see that is a good thing.

And so while the headline, which she probably didn’t write the headline because they rarely write their own headlines, the headline by itself feels like a great – obviously a great Facebook title, but it’s also a good title for a movie in general. But I think the movie itself may want to be that story of tracking their relationship and sort of like what do you do with that relationship when you know it’s going to end. It’s sort of what happens to a marriage as the kids move out and you have all these plans. And the plans are taken away from you because of this diagnosis.

And we’ve seen the bad version of that so many times. But a really good version of that, a James L. Brooks version of that could be something remarkable. And so I think that’s the opportunity here. How do you take a tragedy and find some good in it? And that’s what she was able to do in her piece. And I think that’s the challenge for anyone trying to take this story and move it to the big screen is finding what is the fresh, engaging way to deal with this thing that could be so horrible. And I think that’s the opportunity.

That’s why I think there is a reason to be thinking about this as a movie.

Irene: The thing is it made me want to read her memoir to learn more about her as a person because the article is so much obviously about him and what she wants to leave for him. And that’s how I kind of discover whether I think there was more of a movie in it than this thing right here. Yeah, it scares me. It’s way outside what I generally do and I – ooh.

Craig: Yeah. You know what? I can like to write sentimentally at times. I just feel like – almost feel like this story has put its thumb on the scale so heavily that it doesn’t need me. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s like it doesn’t need me. I would be working really hard to say look at this fresh interesting take on this very sad and yet beautiful thing this woman did. And I just don’t think we need it. This is why I shouldn’t be running a studio, because I’m sure every studio would be like, “Yeah, of course we’re going to make this.”

Irene: And it would turn into a Nicholas Sparks movie.

Craig: Well, yeah, that’s the thing. It would.

Irene: And I can’t write Nicholas Sparks movies. But I couldn’t write, you know, the version that I would want to write, that would be tough.

Craig: See, if somebody came to me and said, “Look, we want you to write a movie and we have an idea. And the idea is a woman is dying and she writes a letter to America saying you should marry my husband.” I would say, oh, that’s an amazing idea. I know how to write that movie. And I could see all sorts of fascinating ways to approach it. Not the least of which is tracking this man as these women appear to him because it worked. But he’s so broken and yet so alone and lost and ashamed to think that maybe he would—

There’s a whole exploration of grief and recovery and finding new love. But because it’s real, I don’t want to do it. It feels creepy.

John: Craig, is it because it’s real or is it because it’s successful? Like if you had come across this thing and it was not a giant popular article, would you be as scared of it? I don’t think you would be. I have to believe that it’s because this is a big thing out there, and so there’s a giant spotlight on her and this one thing. But if it was just a little thing that only you knew about, you wouldn’t be so worried about it.

Craig: No, I wouldn’t. But that’s the point. It’s that there wouldn’t be a thumb on the scale. Because this is so well known, and because she did a brilliant job of achieving her goal here, I’m just kind of using it. It’s like I’m using her pain and her beauty and her brilliance to get you to cry in a movie theater and fork over $12 and buy some popcorn. It just doesn’t feel right.

John: Yeah. So I go back to Big Fish. And so I read Big Fish when it was a book. And Daniel Wallace wrote a great book. And it’s really a lot of stories about him and his dad, but I was able to take that and say like, OK, I can’t really use those directly, but it’s a way for me to talk about the things that I want to talk about and incorporate what I knew sort of about that whole world and that emotional terrain. And so I feel like, yes, her story is going to be the jumping off point, but I think there’s great material to explore and great intra-emotional material to explore given this framework.

Craig: But Big Fish is fiction.

John: But it’s not entirely fiction, though. I mean, yes, it’s fantastical, but the emotional stuff underneath it.

Craig: Oh, sure, sure, but it’s different.

John: No, but I’m saying Daniel’s relationship with his father, that is the story of Big Fish. And so I was taking a lot of his own personal stuff and mucking around with it. But that’s the nature of what adaptation is.

Craig: Yes, but–

Irene: The tricky thing with this article is it’s her voice as the voice of the article, and yet if we’re speaking in screenwriter terms, she’s the character who is dying and do you then write a film – you know if it’s an idea as Craig said, then do you write the film about the guy in recovery trying to navigate this post-Amy world? Then that’s something I can kind of see, and yet her voice is so strong that you don’t want to negate that. So then do you write the film that leads up to that? Or do you do double stands?

It scares me. I admit it. Raising hand.

John: Yeah. I get why it’s scary. Before we finish this up, I do want to circle back to the Nicholas Sparks of it all. Because I think we’re using Nicholas Sparks as a shorthand for sort of like the bad version of this kind of movie. And just like we sometimes we’ll throw Katherine Heigl for like the bad version of romantic comedies. But we can’t be paralyzed about a whole genre just because there’s bad versions out there that we’re afraid we’re going to trip into. Like there’s bad versions of sort of every genre. I just think there’s potentially a great version of this movie. We shouldn’t be afraid of writing the great version of this movie.

Craig: I agree with you. Look, and the truth is I like The Notebook. My issue with Nicholas Sparks’ movies is that there have been so many of them. And they aren’t different enough that over time I feel like I don’t need see them. I saw The Notebook. It was very sweet.

The problem with the Sparks-ing of a story like this isn’t that Nicholas Sparks’ movies are inherently bad. Not at all. It’s that this is real. And it is public. And we have all seen it. And it was specifically intended to be real and public and personal. And none of the Nicholas Sparks stories are real at all. They’re just made up – they’re made up glurge. But they’re oftentimes well done glurge.

Irene: Some of them are really great and some of it have become a little bit of a factory.

Craig: Right. Exactly. This to me – look, you’re going to make all the money on this.

Irene: Yeah.

Craig: But Irene and I will be here like, yeah, but you know what, we kept it real.

John: You kept it real. So, our third and final topic for today is about Prenda. And so this is the movie that you’ve not ever seen before. So, I originally put in the outline this article by Nate Anderson who is writing for Ars Technica about Prenda, but it’s actually so obscure and so far at the end of this story that I think honestly the Wikipedia article is a better place to start your adventures in Prenda.

So, in the early 2010s, a Chicago-based law firm named Prenda Law went after porn downloaders for copyright infringement. And so this is from a different Ars Technica article by Joe Mullen. “The basic scheme worked like this. Prenda Law, or one of several attorneys who worked for the law firm, would file a copyright lawsuit over illegal downloads against a ‘John Doe’ defendant they knew only by an IP address. They would then use the discovery process to find out the subscriber name from various ISPs around the country. Once they got it, they’d send out letters and phone calls demanding a settlement payment, typically around $4,000, warning the defendant that if they didn’t pay quickly they would face public allegations over downloading porn.”

Craig: These guys were so brilliant. What an amazing plot. So they’re like, OK, so they’re sitting at home and they go, you know how the Recording Industry Association of America, they send out these letters to people they occasionally catch file-sharing songs, and then they jack them up for a grand or two. We can do that. Oh yeah, we could, but we don’t actually have stuff we own. Well, let’s make some stuff. Let’s make porn and then let’s put it out there ourselves, then let’s watch it, make sure somebody downloads it “illegally.” Then we’ll send them a letter and they’ll totally pay up, because if they don’t everybody is going to find out because we’re going to file a court case that they were watching our screwed up porn.

It’s genius. And it almost worked.

Irene: It’s genius. It’s evil. It’s hilarious in a certain sense. And you would totally want to see these guys get caught.

Craig: I would totally see this. And I should add that I have a personal friend, a great guy named Ken White, who is a criminal defense attorney. He used to be a federal prosecutor. And he is also the primary author at the website Popehat, which is a pretty popular blog that talks about legal issues about rights.

Irene: It’s a great blog.

Craig: It’s terrific. Freedom of speech, and so on and so forth. And he has been all over Prenda since the start. He was one of the big – the early investigators of their whole – because somebody basically forwarded him one of the takedown letters that Prenda had sent. And he smelled a rat from the start. I mean, this feels like a Coen Brothers scheme, doesn’t it?

John: It does. So I think it’s great that you brought up the Coen Brothers, because I was really having hard time figuring out what are we actually seeing on screen and who are we following. Because they’re so despicable. So ultimately they claim to have raked in about $15 million, or at some points they have claimed $15 million. There’s reasons to doubt that because there’s reasons to doubt everything they’ve ever said.

So in a 2013 civil ruling, they were found to have undertaken vexatious litigation, misrepresentation, calculated deception, professional misconduct, and to have shown moral turpitude.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So I think Coen Brothers, Craig, is a really interesting way to go into that, because it allows it to be like nasty and fun at the same time. Because I was worried it was just going to be nasty. And I don’t want to just see a nasty movie.

Craig: No, I think it’s hysterical this thing. I mean, look, you’ve got these guys, Paul Hansmeier and John Steele. Right off the bat, those names are amazing, right? And it does feel like Fargo. Like you’re watching weasels turning on each other. These guys, if you read all about this, I mean, they were inventing fake people and there was some guy that they said worked for them and he literally didn’t work for them, but he knew them vaguely. And they were just using his address.

They just get deeper and deeper, and what’s so beautiful about Paul Hansmeier and John Steele as far as I can tell, because I never met these two people, they’re actually not that smart. They’re just ambitious as hell. And watching them get hoisted by their own petard over and over is so incredibly satisfying. So, I just think I would approach this from the black comedy perspective. What about you, Irene?

Irene: Absolutely. I mean, everybody likes to see evil lawyers go down. I mean, seriously, it’s almost a trope, and it’s fun every time. And their machinations are so ridiculous. And so all of it, it’s funny. I don’t know if you guys have seen I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, which won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance – now streaming on Netflix.

Craig: There you go.

Irene: Oh, I hope Netflix is listening. I love you guys. But yeah, that’s also kind of a Blood Simple-esque story with Melanie Lynskey–

Craig: I got to watch it, because I love Melanie Lynskey.

John: We all love Melanie.

Irene: If you love her, you should see it. It’s an indie – it’s good.

Craig: Done. Sold.

Irene: But everyone says, oh, you have to have a sympathetic character to follow and we all know that that’s insane. And I mean I keep writing about difficult people and, you know, people who are tough to love and problematic situations and complications are fun and interesting. They make better films. And even these guys, just the joy of watching these guys go down would be just great to write.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, you’ll get a natural good guy in the lawyer that’s pursuing, but it’s that Texas, Murdering Texas Chainsaw.

Irene: Cheerleader.

Craig: The Cheerleader Mom. It’s just watching these petty creepy people who are just greedy little monsters. And they just aren’t anywhere near as smart as they think they are. And just watching the walls close in on them is delicious.

John: So, how do we see this though? Is this Fargo on the big screen, or is this Fargo on the small screen? Is this better as a movie, or is this better as a TV show or as a season of a TV show? How do we do this?

Craig: Again, it’s casting-dependent entirely. But I could see this absolutely being on the big screen. It’s not going to be some big summer movie, but if you’ve got the right people and you had a great trailer where you really were laughing – and obviously make this for a price, right? So, like the way John Lee made The Founder or something like that. You make this for $20 million and you cast two terrific. You know, you cast Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as Hansmeier and Steele, or whoever. You know, McConaughey and whatever. And you just have fun with it. Yeah, I think you could do just fine.

I mean, keep the expectations low. But it seems like it would be entertaining as hell.

Irene: I think you could do the $5 million Get Out version of it, too. You know, kind of the – it feels more like a film because I’m not sure there’s enough substance in there to go ten episodes in terms of twists and back and forth. I mean, it would depend on who I was pitching to.

Craig: Yeah.

Irene: Maybe I could find a TV series if I thought I could get a job doing one, but I think I would probably aim for a film version.

John: I could also see like Seth Rogan and sort of his folks, Jonah Hill. I could see a version of that that uses those kind of people in there, because that’s sort of the new batch of people we have who do this kind of comedy. And they could do a great job. So, I can see the big screen version of it. But I can also imagine a small screen version of this working.

Irene: Actors love playing larger-than-life assholes.

Craig: They do.

John: Yeah.

Craig: No question. So do I, by the way. I don’t know if people have noticed.

John: We’ve heard the voices, Craig.

Craig: I have so many different voices.

John: Ugh, so many. So at the end of these we like to figure out which of these How Would This Be a Movie will actually become movies. And our batting average has been remarkably good. So, usually if we’ve singled something out, like someone is going to make that as a movie, within a few weeks someone has optioned the rights to that. So, of these three, which do we think are the most likely to become actual movies?

Craig: Well, unfortunately I think if the estate of Amy Krouse Rosenthal or Amy herself prior to her passing agreed to sell the film rights to her New York Times essay, that will certainly be bought and somebody will attempt to make it. I don’t think they should, but fine. And I think that’s probably it. I don’t really imagine that we’re going to see a Prenda movie. Maybe on cable. I think it would be great, but unless somebody like the Coen Brothers comes along, I just don’t think it’s going to happen. And I have to say I don’t think the Underground Railroad is a movie.

Irene: I would love to see the Underground Railroad get made. It’s just in the realistic look at what does get made, it’s tough. I mean, I feel like the Prenda stuff, I mean, you’d have to go in with attachments and pitch it with attachments. Or spec it or things like that. It would really need to start with more things worked out than are in an article right now.

Craig: And what about the You Want to Marry My Husband?

Irene: It’s got so much reach and so widespread that it feels like unless the estate, or you know her husband, unless they’re so wrapped up in her passing away, which is so recent, it just feels like it’s inevitably going to get made because those kind of cultural events like that tend to.

Craig: Unless they don’t agree to sell the rights.

Irene: Yeah. They may not. It may not be what he wants to do. So, or what she wanted to do.

Craig: What do you think, John?

John: So, I actually think the most likely movie to get made is the Underground Railroad. I think we will see an announcement about rights on this within the next two months. I think someone will try to make this movie.

Irene: I hope you’re right.

Craig: Yeah, sure.

John: I agree with you that the You Should Marry My Husband is either – it’s all a question of whether they agree to sell the rights to this or not. And I can see good arguments both ways. I didn’t think there was any chance of the Prenda movie, but you guys actually completely convinced me that there is a movie here. Because I was not seeing the black comedy part of it. And that makes it delightful.

So, if the Prenda movie happens, I think it will be because we helped frame some borders on that. And I think we deserve our 1% take on that.

Craig: Get a little taste.

John: A little taste. Just a little off the top there. It’s time for our One Cool Things. So, Craig, why don’t you start?

Craig: Well, my One Cool Thing is super easy this week. It’s obvious, how could it not be, a new podcast. I know, hold on a second. Everyone is going, “Wait, wait, wait, wait. You don’t listen to podcasts.” And that’s true. I don’t. Except when this happens. New podcast called You Had Us At Hello, cohosted by Tess Morris, our beloved Tess, and Billy Mernit. And I believe it’s going to be a limited run podcast, but it’s basically the two of them discussing romantic comedies, the writing of, producing of romantic comedies. Why they love the ones they love.

Tess Morris, as most of you know, friend of our show. Screenwriter of the most excellent Man Up. And Billy Mernit wrote a book called Writing the Romantic Comedy, which was highly influential for Tess. Billy also works in the story department at Universal where he reads every script that everybody writes over there and puts all the notes down on paper for all of us. So, including a lot of my work. And so I am grateful to Billy and his whole crew over there. So, I’m definitely going to listen to this. And I think we might even have – a little sampler for people?

John: We do. So at the end of our show, after our outro, you can hear about ten minutes of this first episode that they did. What I love so much about it is it’s completely Tess. And so you can hear the teacups and the china. And you can hear the dogs barking in the background. And it feels like two good friends sitting around a table, talking about their favorite subject which is romantic comedies. So, congratulations Tess.

Craig: You know the only thing that could possibly make it better?

John: Oh, no. It would make it much, much worse, Craig.

Craig: No, I don’t think it would, John.

John: I thought you were going to do Sexy Craig. The Bane is actually probably much worse in this.

Craig: Is that tea? Are you drinking tea, Billy?

John: Irene, do you have a One Cool Thing to save us?

Irene: You know what? Watch I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore. I really liked it. And Melanie Lynskey is great. And I’ve loved her since Heavenly Creatures. And if you don’t want to watch that on Netflix, watch Heavenly Creatures.

Craig: You know I have the biggest crush on Melanie Lynskey. I mean, I’m friends with her husband, so I can’t–

Irene: You can’t do anything about it?

Craig: Or, I don’t know, are they married? Jason Ritter. Greatest guy. Yeah, no, no, no. It’s a platonic crush.

Irene: Don’t we all carry just like a little flame for Melanie Lynskey? Just like a teeny bit?

John: We all do. 100%.

Craig: And literally the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. She’s the greatest. You can’t even believe.

Irene: I am so happy to hear that. Because there are some actors I don’t want to hear that they’re terrible in real life.

Craig: I know. Well, like I want her to be my mom.

John: Aw.

Craig: Yeah, she’s amazing. So I’m going to totally watch that.

John: That’s good. My One Cool Thing this week is two apps, but it’s really more kind of a concept. It’s called Couch to 5K. It’s this idea that if you’re a person who does not run, but you want to learn how to run, that’s sort of the couch part of it. Like you’ve been sitting on a couch for a long time. You can get up to running a 5K race pretty easily. It just takes a couple weeks of training. And basically every other day you’re sort of building up a little bit more, a little bit more. So you have the app that’s sort of talking you through when you’re walking and when you’re running, and it gets you up to running a 5K.

So, I did the 5K version of this when I was back in LA. I’ve done the 10K version of it here in Paris. And so I can now run a 10K, which is sort of remarkable. Because I’m not a person who ever was sort of born to run. But it’s been great. So, I’ll put links to these two apps in the show notes.

But there’s actually a lot of other apps, so while I like these apps, you should try some other ones because they all work a little bit differently. But they’re all gradually up to running a full 10K.

Craig: Wonderful. Good. Will keep you alive.

John: That is our show for this week. So, as always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Victor Krause. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also a place where you can send questions. For short questions, I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Irene, you’re on Twitter?

Irene: I am. @renila.

John: Fantastic.

Craig: I should follow you. Do I follow you?

Irene: I don’t know that you do.

Craig: I’m gonna. Doing it right now.

John: It’s so interesting to hear you pronounce it, because I would pronounce it Renila. But it’s like Irena LA. So, yeah, it makes much more sense.

Irene: Everybody does. It came from like an old online dating handle, Renila, from like 10 years ago. And so it’s short, so it became my Twitter handle.

Craig: Following.

John: Following. We are on Facebook. You can search for Scriptnotes podcast. Find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Leave us a review. We’ll love you for it. We might even read it aloud. Also, while you’re on iTunes, you can download the Scriptnotes app. There’s an equivalent Android app. That’s right now the only way to get to all of the back episodes of the show. So we have 292 previous episodes, plus bonus episodes.

Craig: So many.

John: You go, you subscribe to those. It’s $2 a month. Show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We’ll try to get those up a couple days after. But in the show notes you’ll find links to Irene’s movie, which is on Netflix, so you can watch that.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: And all the things we talked about, including the articles. And, Irene, it was so great to have you on the show. Thank you so much for coming in.

Irene: I love you, John. I love you, Craig.

Craig: We love you, too. And congratulations on your movie.

Irene: Thank you so much. It’s good to get things made.

Craig: Isn’t it?

John: It’s the best.

Irene: It is so good. Ah.

Craig: All right.

John: See you guys.

Craig: See you next week, John.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Pages